Thursday, June 29, 2017

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Summertime is awesome for a myriad of reasons, but one of the things I love the most about it is that we can both cook and eat outside! Only this time, it is Paul who does the heavy lifting and plans the main meal. I'm in charge of making a salad and concocting some type of dessert but that is so much easier when the main course is taken care of.

Paul has been on a roll in terms of his barbecuing this summer. In May, he made the most perfect baby back ribs that I've ever tasted. They were so tender, had the perfect amount of seasoning, and were paired with a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce. The kids devoured their meals and never once complained. I also loved the fact that Paul had made about 8 pounds of ribs in one go so that the meat fed us for three days - and the kids looked forward to eating them every single night. Lucy, in particular, has proven to be quite the little carnivore. She would climb into her high chair, attempt to place her bib around her own neck, and demand: "I eat ribs!"

The other day, Lucy and I took Peyton for a short little walk around the block. At one point, the smell of a charcoal grill began to permeate the air. Lucy stopped and sniffed the air in an exaggerated fashion, her lips curled up duck-style.

"I smell, Mommy!" she said, continuing to sniff around.
"What do you smell, Lucy?" I asked her.
"I smell..." she paused and sniffed the air some more, "I smell daddy cooking!"

I think that story just about made Paul's day.

Paul has been riding his rib success high this summer and made another batch this past weekend. Of course, none of us were complaining. I began to worry when the forecast predicted rain for Sunday after Paul had already lit his grill in preparation for his ribs. I shouldn't have doubted Paul's dedication to his craft. When the rain began to pour, Paul was out there with his umbrella carefully protecting his grill from cooling down too much. That's dedication.

He's adorable.

The ribs survived the rain and were wonderful. We celebrated by enjoying our feast in our garage. We had our table and chairs set up out there still from the garage sale and the kids had the great idea to eat out there since we can't eat on the deck currently as it is still under construction. It was actually kind of fun, albeit a bit white trash.

A delicious meal deserves an equally amazing finale and I can't imagine a more fitting one than Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp. Everyone should have a recipe for fruit crisp in their recipe arsenal - one that is tried and true and quite possibly even memorized so that a batch can be made up at a moment's notice. I love how this dessert is so ridiculously easy to toss together but yet when served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream your guests will praise your handiwork as if you labored for hours. I have no idea where I got this recipe originally, probably from an old Taste of Home magazine, but it has been used by us for years and years. I like a heavy amount of topping in our crisp but if you prefer a little less, you can always halve it while keeping the fruit proportions the same. It will still be incredible. I promise.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

1 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups sliced fresh strawberries
4-5 cups diced rhubarb
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup rolled oats

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix white sugar, 3 tablespoons flour, strawberries, and rhubarb. Place the mixture in a 9x13 inch baking dish.

Mix 1 1/2 cups flour, brown sugar, butter, and oats until crumbly. I use my fingers to rub the butter and topping together, but you can also use a pastry blender.  Crumble on top of the rhubarb and strawberry mixture.

Bake for 45 minutes or until the topping is lightly browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Birthday Cake Cookies

A few weeks ago, when Matthew heard that we were planning on having a small garage sale along with the rest of our neighborhood association, he got the grand idea to hold a bake sale simultaneously as a way to earn money for a new bike. The poor kid loves to ride but had far outgrown his first bike with 16-inch wheels. He had been begging us to purchase him a new bike but we told him that he either had to wait until Christmas or figure out a way to earn the bike on his own. So, the bake sale was his enterprising way of trying to fund his new set of wheels. When I first heard the idea, I inwardly groaned. I knew that "Matthew's bake sale" would really translate into a lot of extra work for me. But, I agreed to help him with it and planned pretty much our entire week around baking and prepping for our sale.

First, I sat Matthew and Emma (who really wanted to help her big brother) down and had them come up with the types of cookies they wanted to sell. Matthew, the creative one, came up with chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin. Emma wanted a birthday cake cookie with sprinkles and white chocolate. I added a blueberry cookie (my personal favorite) and white chocolate macadamia nut. With our flavors chosen, we gathered ingredients and spent the next several days baking batch after batch of cookies. I ended up baking several batches by myself after the kids had gone to sleep because it was easier and quicker that way. However, Matthew and Emma made the oatmeal raisin cookies 100% by themselves - other than putting the trays in and out of the oven.

Matthew was really enthusiastic about helping at first, but after we had made about six batches of cookies he was pretty sick of the project. I had to keep reminding him of the entire reason we were up to our elbows in butter and sugar - his new bike! Emma just wanted to eat all the cookies. After making the birthday cake cookies (which were fantastic), I made the mistake of letting Emma sample from the batch. Soon enough, she was trying to sneak additional cookies. When I told her she couldn't eat any more, she looked at me with complete bewilderment: "Why??"

Because we have to sell these!!

In the end, we made 150 quarter pound cookies (I weighed each dough ball to ensure even size). Friday afternoon, Matthew bagged all the cookies for me in ziplocs while I decorated each top with a cute label. I also quickly made up a chalkboard menu for the sale using Photoshop and Paul had it printed by a local copy shop. Saturday morning, we all got up early and arranged our bake sale table in addition to all of our junk for the garage sale. We had people walking up and perusing about an hour before the sale officially started! But thankfully, we were ready.

The garage sale was a decent success. We had a lot of people come look. But the cookie sale was smashing! We were nearly completely sold out by noon. We had people stop by, buy a single cookie, and then walk up the road while unwrapping it only to come hurrying back after eating it to buy five more. I had a couple people stop by in their car and ask what we did to make the cookies so delicious.  One older gentleman came back an hour after buying an oatmeal raisin cookie to ask if he could buy all the rest we had. Unfortunately, we had sold out of that type by then and he was outwardly crushed.

"That was the best cookie I've had in my entire life!" he said.

In addition, several people wanted my number and a couple families hired me to make the treats for birthday parties in July. It was all so incredibly flattering!

Emma was a great little saleswoman. She wore a cute little skirt and her purple Colorado baseball cap and was not shy at all about tapping people on the shoulder and asking them: "Would you like to buy one of our delicious cookies?" In addition, she also tried to sell lemonade, water, and a few other drinks but only succeeded in pawning off a handful.

Matthew started off the day tired and grumpy but gained a little momentum after making his first sale. However, he made enough money for his bike within the first hour and that knowledge made his interest plummet. He kept asking me if he could go visit his friend around the corner or complaining that he was too hot or begging to eat a cookie. Eventually, I ended up just letting him walk over to his friend's house for a quick visit because he was acting more as a distraction at that point (and most of the cookies were gone).

Paul was so impressed with the success of the bake sale that he made me promise that we would ditch the garage sale next year and just sell cookies (we made 80% of our money off the cookies). He also has some grand ideas of possibly grilling meat (like ribs) to sell to passing garage-salers as well. We will see!

The recipe I am sharing today was for the most popular cookie among little tykes at our sale - Birthday Cake Cookies! While trying to come up with a way to emulate the flavor of cake batter in my cookie, I had the brilliant idea to substitute a portion of the flour with boxed cake mix. After a quick google search, I found that my "brilliant" idea was in fact not so original. Many people had done this to achieve the same result I desired. In my search, I found this recipe from Sally's Baking Addiction that I decided to use (because I didn't have time for a test batch), tweaking just a bit to suit my purposes. The results were exactly what I had in mind! The kids absolutely loved these cookies. One little boy told me that on a scale of 1 to 10, my birthday cookies were 1,000,000. I'll take it!

Birthday Cake Cookies
barely adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction

1 and 1/4 cup (160g) all-purpose flour
1 and 1/4 cup (190g) dry yellow or vanilla boxed cake mix
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt2
3/4 cup (1.5 sticks or 170g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (100g) packed light brown sugar
1 egg, at room temperature
1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (180g) white chocolate chips
1/2 cup (80g) sprinkles

In a large bowl, sift together flour, cake mix, and baking soda. Set aside.

Using a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream the softened butter and both sugars together on medium speed until smooth. Add the egg and mix on high until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Add the vanilla and beat on high until combined. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and mix on low-medium speed until just combined. Add the white chocolate and sprinkles. Mix on low until evenly dispersed.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate dough for at least 2 hours, or up to 3-4 days. This step is mandatory. The dough is fairly sticky, so chilling the dough is required in order to avoid the cookies from spreading too much. If you chill longer than 2 hours, make sure you roll the cookie dough into balls after the 2 hour mark. Place dough balls on a plate, cover tightly, and store in the refrigerator until ready to bake. You may also freeze the balls at this point for up to 3 months. (Then bake as directed adding 1 minute to the bake time without thawing.)

Once dough has been chilled, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Scoop rounded balls of the cold dough onto an ungreased baking sheet - I weighed my dough into 4 oz portions. Shape your cookie dough balls to be "taller" than they are wide. Make sure to keep dough chilled when working in batches.

Bake the cookies for 15-18 minutes or until edges are slightly browned (please note that this baking time is only if you are making gigantic quarter pound cookies like me! Reduce the time if you are making smaller cookies!). The top will still appear very soft but will set as it cools.

Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 4 minutes and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Happy Birthday Lucia Therese!

This post is much belated because Lucy's birthday was actually last month but things have been busy so I say "better late than never." Am I right?

Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. My baby girl is now two years old. No longer a baby! It is amazing how the remaining "babyish" things about her have slowly disappeared since the moment she woke up as a full-grown toddler. She used to require being rocked to sleep at night before being gently laid in her crib. Now, I can barely keep her contained since she has figured out both how to climb out of her crib and how to open her door. The last few nights, I have found her raiding my makeup drawer or trying to apply Paul's deodorant under her own little armpits.

The first time she learned to climb out, I had put her in her bed completely asleep. I tucked her in tightly, checked to make sure the other two were sleeping soundly, and then took the dog out for a walk. Paul was also outside finishing up mowing the lawn. Sometime between me leaving and Paul coming back inside, Lucy had woken up, figured out how to scale her crib, and headed to our bathroom to apply a little mascara. She dabbed a thick amount all around her eyelids and also got a big blob of it stuck in her hair. Then, she responsibly put the lid back on the mascara and put it back in my makeup bag. Then she decided she was hungry and headed downstairs. Now, we had gone strawberry picking earlier that day and I was working on washing and prepping the strawberries for freezing. There was a large bowl of them sitting on the counter and Lucy spied them, climbed up on a chair, and sat there eating strawberries to her hearts content. This is where Paul found her when he came back inside.

"Lucy, what are you doing up?" he asked her. Lucy just batted her eyelashes at him, showing off her handiwork.

She is quite the rascal but that is what I love about her. I simply adore her - her sense of humor, her stubbornness, her love of dancing and music, her adventurous nature. She fits right into this loud and crazy family of mine and I am so blessed that God gave her to us! Her kisses melt my heart, she squeezes so tight when she hugs that it nearly takes my breath away, and she loves nothing better than curling up in my lap to read a story. I will never tire of listening to her sing and dance to her favorite songs - particularly "Beauty and the Beast." Still trying to capture that on video. It's so adorable.

Lucy was very, very into her birthday this year. On the day she turned two, she slept in so she missed seeing her Dad leave for work. However, when she did finally awake, we served her favorite breakfast (yogurt) with a candle upright in the bowl. Not normally a morning person, she immediately perked up when we sang The Birthday Song to her - twice.

During the day, I just made sure to pay extra attention to her and hug her as often as I could. We danced and sang and watched a couple of her favorite Elmo's World episodes. I took her to the park in the late morning to meet with some friends and she loved that. We lunched at Panera and she ate her favorite Asiago Cheese bagel. I love this age because they take joy in everything. Lucy is also so very polite and always says when I surprise her with something delightful, "Thank you, Mommy!"

For dinner, we ate pizza because Lucy would eat that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if we let her. Of course, we had chocolate-chocolate cake for dessert along with generous scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Opening presents is such a hoot with a toddler. They struggle so much to rip open the boxes yet soldier onward despite the difficulties. Lucy was especially adamant about not accepting help from her more-than-willing siblings. She knew they were her gifts and she was going to open them! We got her some of the Llama Llama books to add to her collection (they are her favorite) as well as a toy talking bird and a bird cage to match the one Emma also received for her birthday. The girls have since played with them together many, many times. Lucy also received a purse and a couple musical books from her grandparents.

Matthew very sweetly spent his recess time at school making a gift for Lucy. He made her paper flower and then wrote a book for her. The book featured the flower and was all about the life cycle of a typical plant. The subject matter probably was a bit over Lucy's head, but she gleefully paged through the entire book and thanked Matthew for it earnestly. It pleased him so much.

She loved each and every gift she received. Have I mentioned how much I love this age?

The best part of the whole day was singing The Birthday Song to Lucy as often as possible. She loves that song so much and has been looking forward to it being her birthday ever since Matthew turned seven back in January. Each time we sang it, she would sway back and forth and chime in where she could while grinning from ear to ear, the happiest little girl in the world. When it came time for her to blow out her candles, she would blow just one of the three out and then stop and clap for herself before proceeding to blow out the next ones. It was adorable. Why can't she stay this little always?

Mommy and Daddy love you so much, Lucia, and we are so blessed to be your parents! We do apologize for giving you a name that everyone seems to mispronounce. We're also sorry that you share names with the Rottweiler down the street. But it fits you so well and I can't imagine my life without my little Lucy. Our hope is that even as you grow that you remain as sweet and as dear as you are today. Happy Birthday, Chunkles!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Perfect Teriyaki Meatballs

Matthew and I have a little tradition during the school year when he gets out early or has an in-service day of going out to lunch at a tiny little Chinese restaurant near our home. While he wrinkles his nose at rice, Matthew loves pretty much any Chinese prepared meat dish, particularly Sweet-and-Sour Chicken, General Tso's, or any stir-fry featuring broccoli, his favorite veggie. We will take our food home and then Matthew will proceed to completely polish off a gigantic plateful of sweet, sticky, fried goodness. He begs for me to make Chinese several times during the week and is always eager for an opportunity to use his new chopsticks we purchased for him in NYC Chinatown.

Both Matthew and my sister Sophie were the inspiration behind an Asian-inspired spaghetti-and-meatballs dinner I have made a couple times for the family this year. While Sophie was visiting, we were debating what to make for dinner and she pulled out some ground beef from the fridge and suggested meatballs. We went through a couple of old cookbooks and found an easy recipe for teriyaki meatballs in a Taste of Home cookbook that utilized powdered spices and canned ingredients I already had in the pantry. I made a side of these amazing Chinese spaghetti noodles and we had a meal that we were all "oohing" and "aaahing" over. Sophie and I looked forward to eating the leftovers in the days that followed because we made about 60 meatballs to feed us and three tiny children. But we didn't mind one bit because it was amazing.

However, while I adored the noodles, I felt the meatballs could have been better. They didn't have a super punch of flavor and were a bit on the sweet side. They also included canned pineapple which, while delicious, was kind of distracting from the overall meal. After doing a bit of research, I found a recipe for teriyaki meatballs that was amped up with the addition of fresh ginger, chopped cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and fresh cilantro. This was sounding more like the kind of meatball I was searching for,

So, I made a batch the other day and once again paired them with these Chinese noodles because, frankly between you and me, I'm a bit obsessed with them. This time, Paul was home to eat with us and I knew for sure he would enjoy this hearty meal. The meatballs are a fantastic option for a weeknight meal because I could work on them a little at a time throughout the morning and then chill them until I was ready to bake them right before dinnertime. While they baked, I assembled the noodles and steamed broccoli and dinner went off quite smoothly.

The meatballs were incredible - this was finally the flavor I had been searching for. I especially enjoyed the addition of the mushroom - they added so much additional flavor and texture! They paired great with the noodles and left everyone feeling happy and full. The meatball recipe is a keeper!

For a different spin on spaghetti and meatballs, give this meal a try!

Perfect Teriyaki Meatballs
from Cook's Country February/March 2016

For the Meatballs:
6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and chopped coarse
1 1/2 cups chopped green cabbage
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and Pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 pound ground beef, chicken, or pork
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
4 scallions, minced
3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

For the Sauce:
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 cup mirin
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
2 scallions, green parts only, sliced thin on the bias
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, optional

Adjust oven rack to the upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray evenly with vegetable oil spray. Combine the mushrooms and cabbage in a food processor and pulse until chopped into 1/4-inch pieces, about 5 pulses.

Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the mushroom mixture and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer to large bowl.

For the sauce, wipe the now-empty skillet clean with paper towels. Whisk cornstarch and vinegar in small bowl until combined; set aside. Bring mirin, water, soy sauce, and sugar to boil over high heat. Whisk in cornstarch slurry, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until thickened, about 1 minutes. Remove pan from heat; transfer 3 tablespoons sauce to mushroom mixture. Let mushroom mixture cool completely, about 15 minutes. Cover skillet and set remaining sauce aside.

Add chicken, panko, scallions, cilantro, egg, sesame oil, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper to cooled mushroom mixture and mix with your hands until thoroughly combined. Divide chicken mixture into 40 portions, about 1 tablespoon each. Roll between your wet hands to form 1 1/4 inch balls and space evenly on prepared sheet in 8 rows of 5. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.

Uncover sheet and bake until meatballs are firm and bottoms are lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through cooking. Rewarm sauce over medium-low heat. Add meatballs to skillet and toss to coat with sauce. Transfer meatballs and sauce to serving dish and sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds. Serve.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Vegetable Pasta Toss

The kids have been keeping me so busy lately that I have been very neglectful of this blog. It has become more and more difficult to actually find a moment to gather my thoughts and type something out on a daily or even weekly basis! Throw in editing photos and I am in way over my head! I used to have a clear time of day where I had an hour or two to myself where I could finish a few chores and then enjoy a few quiet moments to read or blog but I have found that time disappearing as of late thanks to the lack of napping. Not to mention, I think my kids are among the loudest human beings on the planet. When Matthew speaks it sounds to me as if he is shouting and Emma delights in shrieking/screaming when she is both happy and upset. A typical day consists of breakfast, a walk outside with the dog, basic chores and tidying up, followed by some gym time. We then come home for lunch, the older two have "school time" while I attempt to put Lucy down for a nap, and then it's prepping for dinner. Life is busy!

As a family, we have already enjoyed a few fun experiences this summer, just little moments that made a big impact on the children. The two that come to mind immediately both involve nature. While out looking at the turtle pond at the state park near our home, we were informed by a park ranger that some of the researchers were in the process of banding birds not to far from where we were. We headed over there and the children had a front row seat watching the ecologists capture, weigh, type, and band a half dozen birds. Each year, they track the migration pattern of several different species of birds that come through our area. These birds are monitored for life, providing valuable information on their activity during their lifespan. We were told that some of the birds migrate as far as South America only to come right back here in the springtime. Amazing! The kids were mesmerized the whole time but the best part came when it was time to release the birds back into the wild. Each kid, including Lucy, was given the opportunity to hold a bird cupped in their hands and then, when prompted, opening their hands and allowing the bird to once again spread its wings and fly high and away. It was a very neat moment for the kids.

As a funny side note, the ecologists were very good about explaining what they were doing to the children. Matthew, the child who never runs out of question, spent most of his time grilling the scientsts about the various birds they were capturing. At one point, he asked if they had caught any Blue Jays. They responded that they had not and then proceeded to tell Matthew that Blue Jays were very social and tended to travel in flocks and that you can normally hear them "flying overhead."

Matthew wrinkled his nose and then responded slowly, "Actually....those are geese."

Paul and I couldn't stop laughing for we too had never, ever heard a flock of Blue Jays flying overhead but those geese are everywhere.

The second family encounter with nature involved a giant snapping turtle that I spotted while Paul and I were driving back into our neighborhood. It was huge and just casually moving down the sidewalk. I didn't want it to wander into the street and get hit by a car, so I convinced Paul to let me rescue it. He was not too excited about this idea, especially when the giant turtle started hissing and lunging at us with its surprisingly long and flexible neck. While Paul distracted the furious reptile, I grabbed it using the back "handles" under its shell and we shoved it into a paper grocery bag. While we finished our drive home, we could hear it angrily rustling around the back trying to chew its way through the bag. Paul was convinced it was going to attack the upholstery next.

When we got home, we placed it into a large plastic bin along with some water and a chopped up apple. It continued to hiss and snap at us. We all piled into the car, picked up Matthew from school, and then headed down to a well-known turtle pond on the peninsula not too far from our home. Along the way, we did not tell Matthew what we were doing. It was only when we parked, unloaded our mysterious bin from the car, and allowed Matthew to remove the top to see what was inside that he discovered the true purpose of our mission. We dragged the bin to the water's edge and then set it on its side. Our turtle friend got the hint and immediately walked out of his prison and slowly made his way into the water. He paused for just a second, blinking and looking about at his new surroundings, before gracefully swimming deeper and deeper into the lake. On a distant log not too far from where we were standing were about 25 other turtle friends waiting to greet him. He had plenty of company.

If you made it through this long post, the promised recipe is here at the end! And it's a good one! I am in love with all the fresh, straight-from-the-farm, local produce that is available this time of year. This Summer Vegetable Pasta dish is a great way to use all of that beautiful, colorful produce. It's loaded with zucchini, tomatoes, asparagus, peas and fresh basil. The zucchini is actually cooked down a bit and then tossed with the hot pasta where it almost becomes part of the sauce. It's super tasty, light, and perfect for lazy dinners out on the porch or deck. Plus, it's such a pretty dish to look at!

Summer Vegetable Pasta Toss
from Cook's Country May/June 2017

6 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 small garlic cloves, 1 minced and 4 sliced thin
1 pound spaghetti
1 zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut on bias into 1-inch lengths
1 cup frozen peas, thawe
1/4 cup minced fresh chives
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for serving
2 tablespoons torn fresh mint leaves

Toss tomatoes, 1 tablespoon oil, minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper together in a bowl. Set aside.

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon of salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain pasta and return to pot.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until shimmering. Add zucchini, pepper flakes, sliced garlic, an 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, covered, until zucchini softens and breaks down, about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add asparagus, peas and 3/4 cup water and bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Cover and cook until asparagus is crisp tender, about 2 minutes.

Add vegetable mixture, chives, lemon juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons oil to pasta and toss to combine. Transfer to serving bowl, sprinkle with Pecorino, and drizzle with extra oil. Spoon tomatoes and their juices over top and sprinkle with mint. Serve, passing extra Pecorino at the table.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

NYC Eats

While we were in NYC, one of my top priorities was visiting all the bakeries whose cookbooks are in my collection in order to pay homage and try a few of their classic treats for myself to see if my baking measures up at all to the real deal. Thus, the only real planned food we had in NYC was the few bakeries I had listed out for us to see and everything else was pretty much on a whim. We basically ate when we wanted to but made sure to just keep everything simple, inexpensive, and in-line with typical New York tourist fare. Below is a complete list of everywhere we ate (and drank) something as well as my detailed review of the experience. We certainly did not go hungry during our visit!

Shake Shack
691 8th Avenue, Midtown/Theater District

We hadn't eaten a true dinner before we made our way into the city, but as we were walking towards Times Square at 11:00 PM and I spied the glowing, neon sign of this iconic spot for burger lovers, I knew exactly where I wanted to feast. We stood in line for maybe 10 minutes and decided to order a single Shackburger with pickles (mine), a SmokeShack with bacon and cherry peppers (his), and a coffee milkshake to share. The atmosphere was upbeat, hip, and overall pleasant and the workers all seemed to be happy and eager to banter with silly tourists like ourselves. Most of the seating was taken, but they had a couple bar tables where you could stand and after sitting for hours and hours in both the car and the train, neither of us had a problem with standing. Our food came after another 10 minute wait and we scarfed down the burgers. They were simply fantastic - fresh ingredients, the perfect proportion of sauce (and that shake sauce is dynamite!), and I was in love with the potato bun squeezing all that meat, cheese, and vegetables together. Excellent, excellent, excellent burgers. Beats Five Guys by a long shot. Paul's only critique was that he wished that the burgers had a little char on the outside rather than being simply steamed on the griddle. We both agreed that the milkshake, while delicious and well-made, was fairly forgettable next to the burgers. I let Paul drink most of it. Overall, a great first meal in NYC.

831 3rd Avenue, Midtown

I was super excited to try New York bagels during our visit and researched the heck out of all the various bagel shops and Ess-a-Bagel continually came up as a local favorite. We got there bright and early and the line was still out the door. We waited for maybe 30 minutes to order food, longer by far than any other wait at every other place we dined. The wait was pure torture because the yeasty smell of bread baking was so intoxicating and the mouthwatering display of various cream cheese spreads, thinly sliced smoked fish, and other bagel toppings only intensified my hunger. When it was finally our turn to order, we both chose the Bagel with Lox sandwich with capers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and chive cream cheese because neither of us can resist smoked salmon and it's kind of a New York classic. I got mine on a plain bagel while Paul chose an "everything" Bagel. The sandwiches actually took a while to make because the bagel artists definitely took the time and the care to ensure that each order was satisfactory. It was well worth the wait - this was probably my favorite thing we ate during our trip. Salty, chewy, creamy, crunchy - this sandwich had everything going for it. I loved the bagel - so chewy and dense with an excellent malt flavor. We ate in pure silence because we wanted to savor each and every bite. I was stuffed to the gills after finally finishing that glorious bagel and wasn't hungry for the majority of the day. If you are in the NYC area and craving bagels, I would definitely recommend this place!

Birch Coffee
750 Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side

While winding through Central Park, we suddenly started to crave a pick-me-up and then wandered just a bit into the Upper West Side in search of this popular coffee house. The shop had a nice interior that was open and airy and there was plenty of seating. I ordered a Mocha Latte and Paul ordered a Vanilla Latte. Great coffee, great espresso. I loved that my mocha was not overly sweet like most of Starbucks lattes end up being. Definitely gave us the kick we needed to keep on touring.

Milk Bar
561 Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side

Note: I have pictures from Milk Bar somewhere between our three phones but for some reason can't find them. I'll post them on here once I do!

I adore Christina Tosi's cakes, cookies, and other creations that have helped her build her Milk Bar empire. Milk Bar has several locations around NYC and Brooklyn, but since we were already in the Upper West Side and not too far from this location, we headed to this small, unassuming bakery. It was fairly deserted when we walked in and I have to say that I was quite disappointed with how few offerings were in the bakery cases. There was a wide selection of cookies, a couple sad-looking slices of Crack Pie, but only one layer cake (the birthday cake) was on display and it didn't even look all that neatly put together as it was listing a bit to one side. Overall, I was unimpressed. But, since we were there, we picked up a couple cookies - a Blueberry Cream Cookie (mine) and a Chocolate Marshmallow Cornflake Cookie (Paul's). As much as we were unimpressed with the bakery itself, the cookies were fantastic. That blueberry cookie was a revelation and I vowed to try making them soon after getting home. Paul's Marshmallow Cornflake cookie was also good in flavor, but I wasn't a huge fan of the texture of the cornflakes. Paul like it a lot though, so that's what counts!

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street, Upper West Side

This charming little Upper West Side bakery is located is ensconced in the basement of a residential building and bakes up some of the best cookies in NYC. They are famous for huge, big-as-your-face cookies that are always warm from the oven! At four dollars a piece, the cookies are expensive but you have to keep in mind that they are quite huge so you're really getting four regular cookies for that price! We ordered a single cookie to share, the chocolate chip walnut, and had every intention of saving it for later but it was so warm and smelled so inviting that we wolfed the entire thing down before we were a block away. Amazing. I wish we had ordered more!

Magnolia Bakery
200 Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side

What a charming little place this was! Serving up cakes, pastries, cookies, and desserts along with coffee and tea, I was familiar with Magnolia from their cookbook and their Banana Pudding is one of my favorite easy desserts to make! I have never made it for Paul because he has an aversion to all things pudding so I typically reserve that recipe for times where I know other dessert options will be available for him. However, once we were at Magnolia, I wanted to try the Banana Pudding from the source and Paul actually agreed to "just have a bite." Well, even he couldn't stop eating it. Smooth, creamy, rich yet surprisingly light, it was way better than the one I've made for some reason. Maybe it was because we were enjoying it on site? I also enjoyed wandering over to the section of the bakery where you could watch workers decorate layer cakes for special events. I picked up quite a few piping techniques while watching them work. It was a very, very neat experience!

Nom Wah Tea Parlor
13 Doyers Street, Chinatown

This small eatery located in a tucked away alley in Chinatown serves up some of the best dim sum in the area. The smells of the various dumplings, shu mai, and pork buns leaving the kitchen were intoxicating and made me hungry even though I'm sure I actually wasn't! The only thing I really wanted to try was the BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu) but we also ordered a five additional varieties of dumplings to try. I wanted to be adventurous and try the chicken feet but Paul wouldn't let me. The place was busy but the ordering process was really quick and fairly effortless given how few people were actually speaking fluent english. The dumplings came fast but not all at once, giving us time to finish one plate before moving on to the next. When everything arrive, I had no idea which dumpling was which but everything was delicious! However, everything paled in comparison to the pork buns which were HUGE and insanely delicious - a slightly sweet, sticky dough folded around a sweet pork filling. I wanted to eat about 15 more of those and was sad we only ordered one apiece! During our time dining here, it became even more glaringly obvious to me how terrible I am at eating with chopstix. The dumplings were quite large and very, very slippery and I basically made a mess of my plate trying to pick them up with those two tiny sticks! And there were no forks in the entire establishment so I was stuck with hacking my way through the meal. I'm sure I provided ample entertainment for the staff because I definitely seemed to be the only one struggling in the entire restaurant.

Bravo Pizza
360 7th Avenue, Midtown/Garment District

Our taste of New York style pizza was not a pleasant one. Granted, it was very, very late - around 12:30 AM I believe and this was pretty much one of the only places still open that looked somewhat clean. However, the pizza was overly greasy, the sauce was too sweet, and everything was incredibly overwhelming. I also ordered a salad on the side because after all the sugar and salt I had consumed that day, my body was craving something plant-based. I thought everything was quite expensive for the quality. I would not recommend this place.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters
18 West 29th Street, Chelsea

This is where we grabbed coffee early Sunday morning. A cute little coffee shop located in the basement of the Ace hotel, I enjoyed petting the numerous numbers of little dogs who came to the shop with their owners while out for their morning walk. The coffee, while still delicious and smooth, was a little on the weak side for our tastes. I felt like our lattes were infused with a single shot of a espresso rather than two. I enjoyed the coffee at Birch more.

Laduree Patisserie
864 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side

Paul and I have been longtime lovers of macarons. So, it was a no-brainer when I read about my friend Diana's most recent trip to NYC on her blog (in search of tips before our trip) and she mentioned purchasing macarons from this cute little patisserie that we were going to head there in search of those delicate little cookies as well. Luckily for us, Laduree has two locations - one in SoHo and another on the Upper East Side just two blocks away from the Frick Collection. It was the perfect place to stop in for a snack after perusing all that beautiful art. Since we were starving, we ended up purchasing a walnut croissant and a selection of six macarons - passion fruit, coffee, cherry almond, pistachio, blackberry, and strawberry cream. Everything was a bit pricey - the macarons were about two dollars a piece and they are tiny ones! The croissant was another four dollars but it was quite large, certainly enough for us to share. The croissant was absolutely heavenly - a sweet and nutty filling hidden inside beautifully flakey, buttery dough. I instantly regretted having to share it with Paul when I took my first bite. The macarons on the other hand, while very good, were not the best I have had. The flavor of the fillings were very bright in flavor but I felt as if the cookie itself was off a bit in texture. The best macarons we have ever had came from a tiny little french bakery in Ithaca, NY and we are still in search of ones that live up to those!

Breads Bakery
18 East 16th Street, Union Square

Based on another recommendation from Diana, we headed to Breads bakery in search of chocolate babka. I had read in a Serious Eats article about Breads' unique take on the tradtional chocolate babka. They utilize a laminated dough over the traditional enriched, egg-heavy bread of most bakeries as well as a nutella-based filling. I wanted to try this unconventional take on the babka so we headed there for a loaf to bring home with us. While we were waiting in line, Paul also spied an almond cookie with strawberry filling that looked appealing, so we purchased one of those as well. Paul ate the cookie at Union Square Park before we continued heading into the Lower East Side and you would not believe how much he raved about it. He still claims that that cookie was the single best thing he ate in NYC. I have no comment on that cookie since he gobbled it down without sharing. The babka, however, was divine. I enjoyed a slice for breakfast as we were driving home the next morning but then the majority of the rest of the loaf was demolished by Matthew. He literally sat at the counter and helped himself to the entire thing. I told him he could have a slice (singular) and then headed outside to pick up after the dog. When I came back inside, I found only a small end piece remained from the entire loaf and Matthew sitting there licking chocolate from his fingers and declaring that snack one of the best of his life. Pretty high recommendation coming from him!

Katz's Delicatessen
205 East Houston Street, East Village

Paul and I knew that we wanted to sample some type of traditional New York deli while we were in the area and we figured that there was probably no better place than the famous Katz's Delicatessen. I expected crowds for I was sure that this was a tourist hot spot, but I was completely unprepared for the utter commotion that was ordering at Katz's. First, they have a bouncer type set up at the door where a beefy, stern man hands you a ticket and orders you firmly, "Don't lose this or we'll never ever let you out!" Once we got our tickets and squeezed our way inside, we found that you could either wait for one of the limited dine-in tables in the way back where a waiter will take your order and bring you your meal directly to your table, or you could go to one of seven ordering stations and wait in line there for your turn. We were told that there was a long wait for the waiter option, so we found our way to what Paul thought was the shorter of the seven lines and stood there for nearly an hour. I was quite claustraphobic in this setting because there were people squeezing their way in and out, balancing trays piled high with sandwiches, coleslaw, and matzo ball soup, and nobody was particularly friendly. I began to stress about how, once we got our food, we would ever find a table because there seemed to be literally 400 people scrambling to eat in there. However, I needn't have worried, for when it finally came time for us to order, our "meat carver" was so pleasant and jolly that he made me finally relax. He gave us samples of the corned beef with mustard and then we ended up ordering a Pastrami Sandwich on Rye to split along with extra pickles. As soon as we turned around with our tray to find a table, one opened up right in front of us and we immediately grabbed it. Luckily, it ended up being the table where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal shared a meal while filming When Harry Met Sally which, being a huge fan of that movie, was a stupid-special moment for me. And our sandwich - piled high with hot, freshly sliced pastrami with a generous smear of mustard on thinly sliced rye - was incredible. It was so large, that I could not imagine eating a whole sandwich on my own! I could barely finish the half I had! My only complaint was, as a pickle fanatic, I found their pickles a little off-putting. The sour pickles had a strange, allspice after taste to them and I really did not enjoy the slightly mushy texture of the sweeter pickles. After our meal, I enjoyed perusing the back wall of the restaurant and seeing all of the many, many pictures of various celebrities and political heroes who have paid a visit to the restaurant. It was really impressive! Despite the pickle disappointment and the massive crowd of fellow sandwich-seekers, our experience at Katz's was an extremely pleasant one!

Baked NYC
279 Church Street, Tribeca

You have probably heard me mention the Baked cookbook on more than one occasion on this blog. Their brownies were a revelation for me and their creative, not-too-sweet layer cakes have been among the finest desserts to come out of my kitchen. Naturally, I just had to visit one of their many locations across the city and, since we were wandering around Soho/Tribeca area, we went to their location in that area which, I believe, is one of their newer spots. The atmosphere was akin to that of a hipster coffee shop and Paul was thrilled to find that they did serve coffee drinks there along with a wide variety of desserts and cake, many which I recognized from their famous cookbooks. When we arrived, they were actually in the middle of their "Cake Happy Hour" where you may purchase a slice of cake for half off. Naturally, we jumped on that and ordered a slice of the Malted Chocolate Cake along with a glass of milk (for Paul) and a Nitro cold brew coffee. The cake was everything I knew to expect from a Baked cake - not too sweet, slightly salty, with a light crumb. I loved the malted flavor and was very happy to try a cake that I had not yet baked from their cookbook. The bubbly nitro coffee was fantastic - probably the best coffee we had during our entire time in NYC. On top of it, the staff was so fun and friendly. I highly recommend this place!

The Lobster Place
75 9th Avenue, Chelsea (Inside The Chelsea Market)

Amid the overall crowded and underwhelming Chelsea Market, we were so glad to find this gem of a seafood market. An amazing variety of fresh seafood lined the room, large tanks in the back held live lobsters freshly caught from Maine, and several centrally located bar arrangements featured sushi chefs crafting fresh sashimi to order, boiling lobster for some incredible-looking fresh lobster rolls, or shucking clams and oysters to be served on the half shell. We immediately pulled up to the oyster bar and ordered a variety of the sweetest oysters to try. It was quite the experience watching the shucking and preparation process of the various platters, one I will never forget! And when our oysters came, they were among the best I have ever had. So refreshing! If seafood is your thing, this place is really worth the visit!

Whole Foods Market
1095 6th Avenue, Midtown

So tired were we from all of our touring, that we decided to take it easy on our last day and had a lame picnic-style dinner on our bed in the hotel room. We picked up a bottle of wine, some cheese, and a loaf of bread as big of your head at Whole Foods. I also visited the fresh food bar and dumped a bunch of arugula in the bottom of a to-go box and topped it with a variety of the various prepared salads they were featuring. While certainly an anticlimactic way to end our weekend of touring, it was pretty perfect given the circumstances and was actually really, incredibly delicious!

Until next time NYC!