Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Crazy Days

I can't believe that a month has gone by between blog posts!  I thought my PTA duties would lighten up a little once we got past the beginning of school, but I was wrong. Really, really wrong.  So, as much I actually like the stuff I'm doing as PTA secretary, it is taking a lot of my free time, which means a little less time to tackle anything complicated for meals. I know, however, that I'm not the only one who is busy, with kids, with work, with STUFF.  Life happens, and keeps happening, but that's no excuse to slap some spaghettios in a bowl and call it dinner (not that I am judging -- I have a couple of cans of it in my pantry, too, but I just call it lunch or a snack for the kids).

My mom, a single mother of three who worked as a nurse, is a great cook, but when we were kids, she didn't have time to do fancy stuff, either.  I distinctly remember her 3-day soups.  She would make a big pot of soup, put it in the fridge, and that's what we would eat for three days.  It was especially useful when we were in high school and coming home at different times.  Whenever we needed to eat, we would just heat up some of that soup!

What do I do when I know a crazy week is coming up?  Riffing off of my mom's three day soup idea, I make a big pot of chili! It's super-versatile.  The first night, you have the chili straight up with all the fixin's: cheese, onions, sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt), cilantro.

Now, you could just freeze the rest and take it out for some other night when you're pressed for time.  I, however, used it another night that same week to make chili-mac, which is spaghetti topped with chili.  I got this idea from a summer I spent in Cincinnatti, a city known for its unique chili (they add cinnamon to it) and how they eat it. They have several different ways to enjoy chili: straight up in a bowl, two-way (with spaghetti), three-way (chili, spaghetti, and cheese), four-way (chili, spaghetti, cheese, and onions) or five-way (chili, spaghetti, cheese, onions, and beans), although, of course, my chili always has beans in it anyway. :-)  Any way you order it, though, it's delicious!  Chili is truly one of my "desert island" foods. I could seriously eat it every day.

There are other ways to use your pot of chili, besides just eating it.  Top it with cornbread batter and made a kind of tamale pie. Here's a recipe from Martha Stewart, but I just use the Jiffy mix in a box when I'm pressed for time.
Cornbread-and-Chili Pie

Another thing you could do with your chili is top a baked potato with it, or a cheese quesadilla (yum!) or make loaded nachos if the chili isn't too soupy. I feel a little like Pvt. Benjamin Buford 'Bubba' Blue from Forrest Gump, but you get the picture!

All of that from one pot of chili!

What are your go-to tips and tricks to get you through an especially crazy week?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Best Pesto You've Ever Tasted (and Vegan, too!)

We are on our last leg of summer in Virginia, and it's time to gather up any remaining basil left in the garden.  There are so many things you can do to preserve it.  Dry it.  Puree it with some olive oil, put it in ice cube trays, freeze and then use later to flavor soups, stews, pasta sauce.  Or you could make pesto.

My favorite pesto recipe comes from a Sicilian cookbook I got years ago.  The reason it's my favorite is that it adds avocado for an amazing creaminess and richness that blows regular pesto away.  Seriously.  This time, I did a little experimenting and found that you don't even need to add parmesan cheese to it and it's still delicious! You will be tempted to skip the step of soaking the nuts. Don't. I switched that up, too, to make it go a little quicker. I also added a little lemon juice to help keep the bright green color and add a little zing.

This recipe makes quite a bit (about 2 cups) and it's so flavorful you don't need to use a ton for the flavor to come through.  The night I made it, I roasted some veggies (fennel, tomatoes and leeks) and tossed it with some pasta, but I still had some left over.  I spread it on sandwiches (turkey is a great pairing) and crackers (livens up a cup of soup).  It will keep in the fridge for about a week, but it might turn a little brown, given the avocado. Still tastes amazing, though!

Avocado Pesto

 1/2 cup almonds
1/2 cup walnuts
1 avocado (I used 1/3, because that's all I had, but it turned out fine)
3 cloves garlic
2 cups fresh basil (loosely packed - and you can use some of the soft stems, but be sure to discard any hard, woody stems)
1/3 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup warm water (I use a little of the pasta water before I drain the pasta)

Boil about 2 cups of water (I used an electric kettle and set it to the "tea" setting, which gets it to 175 degrees F), let cool slightly (about 5 minutes), then pour over the almonds and walnuts and set aside.  Peel and pit the avocado.  Peel and chop the garlic. Put avocado, garlic, basil leaves, marjoram, lemon juice, olive oil and salt in the food processor.  Drain the nuts (they should have soaked at least 10 minutes), discard water.  Put the nuts in the food processor. Put the top on the processor and chop everything together, stopping to scrape down the sides of the processor bowl a couple of times.  When everything is chopped very fine, start adding the warm (pasta) water, a little at a time, through the feed tube.  Start with 1/3 cup, then if you need to add more to get a smooth sauce, then add a little more at a time.  This will not be a runny sauce. It will be a little more like a loose paste.

Toss with pasta, use it as a topping for fish or veggies.  Keeps in the refrigerator for about a week.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sweet-n-Spicy Marinade: Saying Goodbye to Summer

Even though it's officially the last day of summer, we are hanging on to the last remnants of the season here in Northern Virginia, where it could reach the upper 80's today.  We've had some great weather the past week.  Luckily, my friends' gardens are still producing, and I am fortunate that they are generous, because it gives me a chance to use ingredients I wouldn't normally buy. For example, one of them gave me a couple of habaneros. I have never used them before, but I knew they were hot - they have heat, but still have a light, citrus-y flavor.  I thought a sweet and spicy marinade might be good.  I added honey and a little water to keep the heat from getting to be too much, and a little smoked paprika for depth.  I think it's a great combination of heat and sweet.

This marinade was good with chicken (marinated for about 3 hours), but I think it would taste great on shrimp, too.  Maybe even tilapia for fish tacos.  Be careful when marinating seafood, because the acid from the lime will start to cook the fish/shrimp, ceviche-style.

Another note: I would recommend grilling or broiling over pan-frying, just because the honey in the marinade will start to burn on the pan before the meat is done.  Here is a gnarly picture of the pan as I was cooking the chicken:

The chicken itself didn't burn (it tasted awesome) but when the marinade hit the heat, that honey made it really dark.

Sweet-n-Spicy Marinade


1 habanero pepper (could use jalapeno if that's what you have)
1 lime
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp honey
1/4 cup water
1/2 bunch of cilantro, stems and leaves, rinsed
1/2 cup olive oil
(you could also add a little soy sauce or salt, if you like)

Cut the pepper in half and remove seeds and ribs inside the pepper (most of the heat of the pepper is held in the ribs, secondarily the seeds).  Drop pepper halves into a blender.  Cut lime into quarters, squeeze juice into blender, then toss the rest of the lime in.  Peel and coarsely chop garlic, add to the blender, along with honey, water, oil and cilantro.  Cover blender and puree all ingredients until nearly smooth (there should still be small bits, and that's okay).  Pour marinade over protein of choice.  I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs, but shrimp or tilapia would be good (no more than 20 minutes -- the lime juice will start cooking the meat - kind of like ceviche).  Pork would also work. Marinate pork or chicken for about an hour, but a little longer isn't going to hurt, either.

The family liked this one -- even my younger son, who is usually sensitive to spicy stuff.  The flavor of this is not punch-you-in-the-face spicy. It's subtle and light and doesn't linger on your tongue too long.  Hope you like it!

Friday, September 12, 2014

An Ode to the End of Summer - Eating through Minnesota

I can't believe that I haven't posted in over a month! Sorry, friend! It has been an incredibly busy August and, so far, September. To be honest, I don't have a recipe to post, BUT, I do want to wax nostalgic about the end of summer.  If I am going to be entirely truthful about this blog entry's title, we sort of ate our way through the Twin Cities, not all of Minnesota. But even so, we had some incredible food!

Our family flew back to Minnesota at the end of August to visit family and had a great time. I will not, however, leave town for 10 days just before the beginning of school ever again.  We missed orientation for my 7th grader (who is starting in a brand new school) and Open House for my 4th grader.  We missed getting schedules and meeting teachers.  I missed some PTA responsibilities as well.  And for all the wonderful memories we made during our trip, for our family's sanity, we will make sure that we are home for all those "pre-school" activities.

Now, back to our fun trip!  Of course, there was lots of food, and one of my favorite food places is the Minnesota State Fair.  Lots of planning, reading, and list making happened before we even set foot on the fairgrounds.  Local newspapers wrote articles and reviews about the new food offerings this year, and I read all of them voraciously (in every sense of the word).  :-)  Of course, the best-laid plans often go awry, and, while I didn't really fail in my food tasting, I didn't get to all the places I wanted (it's a big fair).  For those who aren't familiar with a big, mid-western state fair, I feel a little sorry for you.  There are rides, there's a midway, livestock, crop art, free stuff (yard sticks, pens, re-useable grocery bags, silly hats), and, of course FOOD.  It's awesome!  It is also a big deal, and people plan vacation days around it.  I have never encountered anything like it here on the East Coast. I don't think Virginia even has a state fair, and to be honest, the one time I went to the Loudoun County fair, it was a huge disappointment, so we never went back.

 Anyway, when we go to the fair, we try to start early, before the crowds get too crazy.  That's okay, though, because it means we can start out with one of our favorite fair foods: mini donuts.

I have also been curious about the "cronut," and French Meadow Bakery has a version that you don't have to wait an hour in line for, but they call theirs a "dough-sant":

It was really good, but not better than a Krispy Kreme straight from the fryer.  Just sayin'.  Next up, and new to the fair this year, was the corn and blue cheese fritters with chimichurri sauce.  Oh. My. Gawd. But those were good!  To be honest, they were my favorite food items of the day, and it reminded me how good chimichurri sauce is with just about everything.  I resolve to make it more often.

Next up was something new from Famous Dave's: Korean pork with kimchi pickles. I had been really excited about this one, and was glad that they actually had it available when I got to their location at 9:30am.  Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations.  The pork was okay, but the kimchi pickles tasted like they took some bread & butter pickles, added some shredded carrots and sriracha sauce and called it a day.  Disappointing.  Plus, the price they were charging for that portion was not worth it, imho.

Now that it was nearly 10,  and we were already full (I didn't get pictures of it, but my parents and husband each had a beer with french fries, too), it was time to hit the midway.  Now, I get riding the rides, which many of us enjoyed, but I don't get the allure of the midway games.  You know, knock the blocks off the stand with a bean bag, or shoot a water gun to get your "horse" to cross the finish line first (okay, I actually like that one), or shoot a basket and win a prize. By the time you actually win something, you've spent $30 for a stuffed banana that cost probably less than a dollar to make.  I don't get it.  But my husband and kids love it, so there you go.  And who can resist riding up on super-high swings?

 I love that picture! I am amazed that I got that with my camera phone.  The colors are fantastic.  It was a beautiful day!

Another fun thing about the fair are the livestock barns, where you can see horses, chickens, and pigs. We never miss the pigs and hogs, because they are cute (even the ginormous one) and you get an awesome hat:

The Minnesota State Fair also means $1 all-you-can-drink milk.  I am lactose intolerant, so I passed on this, but it's a pretty popular booth.

And finally, you have to eat some sort of food item on a stick.  While you can get meatloaf on a stick or walleye on a stick, we went a little more traditional and got a frozen banana, freshly-dipped in chocolate.  It was pretty delicious! I think Max agrees.

 Of course, there is a lot more going on during our trip besides the state fair.  My cousin's husband had opened a restaurant last year, and I had been itching to try it.  Cook is a breakfast and lunch place serving mostly American food with a few Korean specialties thrown in and has gotten a lot of great press.  It is entirely deserved.  The food is fabulous! Pictured is their enormous cinnamon roll, and you can see a bit of the Korean pancake in the background. We also had the breakfast burrito, which was delicious, too. I had their short ribs eggs benedict and absolutely loved it (the hollandaise sauce was amazing)!  My big regret of the trip was that we didn't get back there for lunch (I wanted the walleye sandwich and the bi bim bop).  Next time, Charles and Tiffany!

Another new place that was introduced to me by my brother was Lolo in Stillwater (where I grew up).  We got there too late for any food (sadly, I will have to try their bacon jam, brie and arugula crostini and their chicken skins another time), but their cocktails were fabulous! I had the "Q is for Cucumber" with cucumber, elderflower, lemonade, and ginger and my sister-in-law loves their lemon-thyme daquiri. Just as good as the cocktails was the service, with friendly bartenders who were happy to talk with their customers. It was a great place to have a drink!


Another highlight of the trip was a dinner out with dear friends to Travail Kitchen and Amusements.  This was a place like no other.  Serious food served in a definitely non-serious atmosphere. They don't take reservations, but if you are lucky, you can score a "chef's table" (we were one of the lucky ones), which is really just a prep area they cleared with bar stools set around it (there were literally mixers and containers under our table). 

 This was our super fancy ice bucket and some of the magic ingredients (located just off of my left elbow):

 This un-fancy setting definitely contrasts with the food, which is fancy, yet approachable.  They don't have a menu. Instead, you pay for a tasting menu ($110 per couple the night we were there), which includes about 8 courses. However, there are so many added snacks and amuse-bouches that we stopped keeping track.  It seemed like they just kept bringing out plate after plate. This particular course was a study in corn (popped, pudding, creamed) with an exquisite meat that was the love child between bacon and prime rib.  Seriously. So. Freaking. Good.

 We were served frozen sorbet bits on a spoon (nearly froze my tongue), had to catch a piece of speck with our mouths that was dangled in front of us on a fishing hook, had to walk through the kitchen collecting parts of one dish, and had another course served on a 4-foot plank in the middle of our table:

Dessert (pictured below) was another number of items, beautifully plated and presented, with chocolate, macarons, tarts, and just yummy little bites and flavors to explore. I can't remember all the dishes that were served, and it was really loud, so I didn't even know all of what we were eating, but it was all amazing (except for the chocolate that was filled with sweet corn pudding -- that was not my favorite)!   Travail is definitely fun, and a little weird, and I can't wait to go back!

So if you find yourself in the Twin Cities area, needing a place to eat, give any of these places a try.  You will not be disappointed.

While, as I wrote before, we came back and had to jump straight in to back-to-school craziness, it was great to get away to visit family and friends. And it is always great to eat good food.  :-)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Simple Salad -- When It's Too Hot To Cook

I know I've posted about it before, but here in Virginia it can get too hot to even think about turning on the stove or oven.  On those nights, I like to do a salad, but it has to be filling enough for my husband and pre-teen (I can't believe I have one of those already!) so they don't feel like they need to eat again an hour later, so making sure there is protein is key. Also, the kale and beans serve to really fill you up!

Here is a salad that hits all the right notes:

Trendy superfood (kale) -- check
Protein (tuna) -- check
Fiber (veggies and beans) -- check
Flavor (Dijon dressing and roasted red pepper) -- check

It's chewy, crunchy, creamy, and tangy, hitting even more of the tastes and textures that make eating enjoyable.  Also, to take a little of the chew and (sometimes) bitterness out of the kale, I have a little trick that you might find useful.  After ripping it into bite-sized pieces, I massage a little olive oil into the leaves and let it sit on the counter at room temperature for a few minutes.  It changes the texture just enough to make the leaves a little more tender -- no heat involved!

The tuna and the Dijon dressing reminds me of my student days when I studies in the South of France, so I will call it:

Provencal Tuna Salad

1 bunch kale
1/4 cup olive oil plus 2 Tbsp olive oil, divided

2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

1 can canellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 jar (6.7 oz) good quality tuna packed in olive oil (I got mine at the Fresh Market)
1 stalk celery, chopped into a small dice
1 roasted red pepper, chopped into a small dice

First, clean and pull the leafy part of the kale off the the stalk, discard the stalks (or save them -- I keep a bag in the freezer and put kale stalks, carrot peels, celery ends and such to make vegetable stock once the bag is full). Tear the kale leaves into bite-sized pieces, put in a large mixing bowl and drizzle with 2 Tbsp olive oil.  Using your hands (cooking can get messy, my friends), rub the olive oil on to the leaves, kind of like giving the kale a massage. I'm not kidding.  After the oil has been (more or less) evenly distributed on the kale leaves, set the bowl aside while you put together the rest of the salad.

In a separate, medium-sized bowl, put the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, Dijon mustard and vinegar. Using a fork, whisk the dressing ingredients together until completely combined.  Taste, then add salt and/or pepper to your liking.

[TIP: for a general vinaigrette, the oil to acid ratio is about 3:1, but you can also adjust that ratio to your liking as well -- start with three parts oil to one part vinegar, combine and taste. If it's too acid or sharp tasting, add more oil.  If it's too oily, add a little more acid, which can be vinegar, lemon juice, etc.]

Then, just dump the rest of the ingredients (beans, tuna, chopped celery, chopped bell pepper) into the dressing and carefully combine.

To serve, put some kale in a bowl, then top with some of the tuna-bean mixture:

This makes 4-6 servings, depending on how hungry your family is.  I had enough kale left over to make kale chips and have some of the tuna-bean mixture for lunch the next day.  :-) Let me tell you, that even my picky eater liked some of this (he ate the tuna-bean mixture, but didn't like the red bell pepper). He probably would have eaten it if I had used raw bell pepper...and my oldest, who eats almost anything, ate all of his kale first.  I almost cried, I was so proud!

Which brings me to my next point -- this is a really flexible dish.  If you don't have roasted red bell pepper, then don't use it. Sub in an extra stalk of celery, or a raw bell pepper, red onion, whatever.  If you can't find tuna fillets packed in oil (I used Tonnino brand), then use regular tuna, but add a little bit more seasoning (herbes de provence would be good, or oregano). It's your salad; these are just guidelines.  Have fun with it!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bonus Post: Family Meal

So, in my previous post about my birthday dinner at VOLT, I mentioned how I wanted to go back, and even try Chef Voltaggio's Family Meal restaurant.  Little did I know that I would try it sooner than I anticipated!  The kids stayed a couple of days with their grandparents, and we decided to meet at Family Meal, which is halfway between our house and theirs, for brunch.  I am so glad we did!  

Much more laid-back than VOLT, Family Meal, is more of an upscale diner experience (it is housed in a former car dealership) and definitely family-friendly.

Just a small part of their breakfast menu...Next time, someone MUST get the cinnamon toast waffles.  We saw them bring out plates of them and they looked amazing!

Clockwise from left: breakfast burrito, chicken pot pie fritters, hoe cakes with pimiento cheese and maple bacon jam, bourbon sticky bun with walnut pralines.

I loved the sticky bun!  The walnut pralines were delicious and the caramel sauce was outstanding, but what really make it was the pastry itself -- fresh, flaky, and tender with just the right amount of chewy. The breakfast burrito was also outstanding, with a really fresh-tasting smooth salsa-y sauce that they call "ranchero."  I also really enjoyed the hoecakes, but the balance was all off.  In my opinion, there was way too much pimiento cheese (which is very rich), and it overpowered the taste of the hoecakes and the bacon jam.  Unfortunately, because of this, it is hard to say much about the bacon jam, because I couldn't really taste it.  I have made bacon jam before and love it (I use Martha Stewart's recipe, if you want to try it yourself), but in this dish it was completely lost, which was disappointing, because I think bacon with the pimiento cheese is a fantastic flavor combination. Oh! And the chicken pot pie fritters were also a hit! My husband and son liked them a lot.

I didn't take a picture of it, but my son got the Ranchero pork loin with fried eggs on top. It was amazing! The pork was flavorful with that ranchero sauce (the same that is used with the breakfast burrito), shredded into a sort of hash, and the yolks from the eggs made a yummy sauce that brought everything together.  Also, order the home fries. You will not be sorry!

Even the kids were asking when we could come back, because there were so many things we wanted to try (next up: their biscuits and gravy! And cinnamon toast waffles!).  Luckily for us, they are planning on opening another Family Meal closer to us at One Loudoun in Ashburn, VA. I doubt, however, we will be able to wait until October to eat there again!

A night at VOLT

I normally am not one to make a big deal out of my birthday, preferring to leave all that party hooplah to the kids.  This year, though, we splurged and went to VOLT, a restaurant I've been wanting to go to for a while now. Brian Voltaggio, who was the runner up on Bravo's Master Chef one season,  is the chef who opened the restaurant, and I had been hearing that it was amazing, so I really wanted to see for myself.

Our meal was really memorable, not least of which was because of the company, two dear friends who accompanied us on this food adventure.  Surprising textures, combinations, and a little food "magic" (or science, whatever you want to believe) left an impression on all of us!

Me and my lovely husband.  I loved the tiled "EAT" on the wall.  Don't mind if I do!

The first thing to come out of the kitchen (besides the home made breadsticks, which were delicious) was this little bite of macaron.  But not any macaron.  This was a liver macaron, with a foie gras filling and cherry puree on top.  To be honest, I thought the cherry flavor got completely lost amongst the strong liver flavor, but the macaron was surprising in its lightness and crisp texture.  Intrigued (because liver is so fatty and normally when making macarons you need to keep all fat out, otherwise you deflate the egg whites and the cookie becomes chewy), I asked one of the staff for some insight, and a little molecular gastronomy was involved to dry out the liver before it was added to the egg whites.  It was surprising and delicious!

You have to take a leap of faith when ordering at VOLT. The menu items (at least on the a la carte side) really just listed ingredients/flavor combinations rather than tell you exactly what you are getting. For example, my first course was listed on the menu as "English peas, crabmeat, buttermilk."  It came out as a soup.  My husband's first course (listed first as "smoked beets with yellow fin tuna and tonnato), came out as these perfect red cubes (see the top of the picture to the left), which I thought at first were the smoked beets.  No, that was the tuna, with just a couple of small pieces of the beets.  So leave any preconceived notions and assumptions at the door, because the chefs at VOLT are going to mess you a little bit.  But in a good way.  All of the food was delicious!  And my pictures do not do any of this justice, because I was trying to be "covert" with my picture-taking, just using my phone, but totally geeking out over the food anyway. 

Even the breads were fabulous!  Our choices were cheddar-chive buttermilk biscuits, a sourdough roll, and a whole grain brioche (if I understand our server correctly, the grain used to make the brioche was left over from the beer brewing process, giving it a unique flavor).  Being a fancy restaurant, they did not leave a bread basket on the table, but served you your choice from a basket they carried with them to the table.  Probably a good thing, because I would have inhaled every one of those sourdough rolls!!

Next came our pasta course.  I had this really interesting carrot pasta (pasta with carrot puree as a sauce) with a coffee foam. Jonathan's was a lobster raviolo (yup, just one), with a pea foam, asparagus and greens.  Maybe it's just me, but I really don't understand the whole "foam" trend.  I think it just makes a weak sauce, but maybe I'm not sophisticated enough to appreciate it. The winner for the night though (and I don't have a picture of this, unfortunately) was the chard agnolotti (kind of like a raviolo in that it is a filled pasta) with applewood bacon. It was fantastic!

The main courses deserve their own photos!

On the right is halibut with white asparagus and rhubarb, and on the left is black bass with roasted cauliflower and a cauliflower slaw that was outstanding!

My entree was lobster with preserved meyer lemon (those are the little dots of yellow), pickled onion and broccoli.  I know the descriptions do not do any of this justice (similar to my photos, alas), but I was hoping to just use the on-line menu.  Our fourth companion had a delicious soft shell crab with rice. Unfortunately, the on-line menu is slightly different than our menu choices for the night.  I'm sure they put that up online just to give people an idea of the food, not the exact food choices for the night they will be there.  Bottom line, my interest in eating the food, trumped my interest in taking notes on exactly what the menu described.  Sorry, dear readers.

As a surprise, the staff brought out a little ball of gelato with an orange coating the made it taste like a creamsicle. With a candle.  :-)  We also ordered coffee and espresso.  The coffee comes in cute French presses for each diner.  Personally, I would hate to be the one who has to clean all of those, because I hate cleaning our French press...but I digress.

Dessert was another revelation!  The top plate was coconut, blood orange and yogurt, but (and I suspect more molecular magic was going on here), the coconut was almost like a light, freeze-dried coconut cream, that had a surprising powdery texture, but combined beautifully with the yogurt underneath. The bottom plate holds what was listed on the menu as "Chocolate, sesame, caramel."  I kid you not.  As I mentioned before, you have to take a little leap of faith at VOLT, but you will be rewarded.  This one was a white chocolate custard, with caramel sauce and a sesame tuile.  Soooo delicious!

We also noted how each food item was served on a different type of plate. Not sure if that was because each dish's presentation was different or what, but it was kind of cool.

Finally, at the end of our meal while we were waiting for our bill, the kitchen gave us these little treats:

From left to right, they are: a chocolate truffle, a financier, pomegranate fruit gelee, and a wee macaron (this one was sweet), with a chocolate ganache filling.  To be honest, if I had known they were bringing those out, I might not have ordered dessert, which is probably why they keep it a secret.  :-)

Not only that, but they gave us little cinnamon cakes to take home!

Thanks to VOLT and its staff for such a lovely, exciting and surprising dinner.  I hope to make it back there, as well as try another Brian Voltaggio enterprise, Family Meal, which is opening a location near us really soon.  I can't wait!!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

5-minute Lunch - No Kidding!

I love being home for the summer with the kids, but lunchtime can be a chore, ammiright? My kids could eat peanut butter and jelly every day, but I get bored with sandwiches and salads seem to take so long with washing and chopping, so I was trying to think about something quick and filling but didn't take tons of prep work.  Plus, it's hot, so avoiding turning on the stove or oven is a plus, so I came up with this:

Marna's 5 minute Lunch

1/2 avocado
2 radishes
one mini-cucumber (or half of an English cucumber)
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

You want it to be a little chunky, so don't worry about getting small pieces making them exactly the same size. Just chop up the avocado, radishes and cucumber like this:

Then drizzle with a little olive oil (you shouldn't need more than 2 tsp, if you prefer to measure) and a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt and a little pepper. Toss it together and there you have it!  Simple, refreshing, filling -- just what I need for lunch in the summer.  You can switch things up, too. No radish? Use tomato.  Leftover green beans from last night's dinner? Throw those in, too.  Fresh herbs to use up? Use 'em!  Just don't get too carried away, though, since the main point of this is simple and easy.  :-)

What do you like to make for lunch when it's hot out?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Travel log: Boston's North End

So last week we drove up to Boston because my oldest nephew had graduated from high school, and the family was gathering to celebrate. For the record, I don't even need a reason to visit Boston.  Or my nephews, of course. It's a great city!

The drive from Virginia to Boston is not the funnest thing in the world, but we make it manageable. Usually we get up at the butt-crack of dawn and head out, driving about 3 hours before we stop for breakfast at Cracker Barrel.  I love me some Cracker Barrel.  Who doesn't love a place where you can get a good meal, play checkers, and buy Abbot and Costello and Three Stooges DVDs for the drive in one stop?  We usually spend about an hour there.  Love it!

We also stop for lunch somewhere along the way. This time we stopped at a place called Rein's Deli in Vernon, CT.  Y'all.  If you like deli food (and who doesn't love it??), you MUST stop here.  The sandwiches are big:

That is just the regular. You can get a "fresser" which means it's double-stuffed.  The meat was really, really good.  Pictured here is the corned beef "Rachel." It's like a Reuben, but instead of sauerkraut, it has cole slaw. Also pictured are their fries and pickles. I personally preferred the double-sour pickles, although the rest of my family liked the regular pickles (pictured), which are not as salty.

Even though our main reason to go to Boston was family-related, we managed to carve some time out to do a little sight-seeing.  Initially, the plan was to take a duck tour, but turns out you have to buy tickets really early.  We got downtown around 11:30 and they were all sold out for the day. WTF? So, if you want to do a duck tour in Boston, be sure to buy your tickets ahead of time.  Our Plan B was to spend time in the New England Aquarium, but again we were foiled by our lack of pre-planning. It was a beautiful day, so A LOT of people were out and about, which meant they were also out and about at the aquarium, so we settled with a harbor walk, then headed toward the North End.

One of the cool harbor tour boats available around the Boston Harbor.

See? It was a gorgeous day! We consoled our youngest with an ice cream cone from Emack & Bolio's right at the harbor.  The ice cream was really good - at least good enough to make a nine-year old happy enough to hoof it to the North End for an afternoon of history, pastries and pizza.

First up was Paul Revere's House:

But then we needed sustenance, so off to Modern Pastry we went.  The hardest part of the day, I think, was trying to decide which pastries to buy.  In the end, this is what we got:

Chocolate Mousse Cake, a cream puff, sfogliatelle (sfogliatella?) and two cannoli.  I am happy to report that everything was delicious and I'm sorry I didn't save you anything. Well, not super sorry, because it was delicious.  But you can't go wrong if you head to Modern Pastry.  Apparently, there is a bit of a rivalry in the North End between Modern Pastry and Mike's Pastry, but unfortunately, I had already stretched the limits of my family's patience for anything pastry-related, so I'll have to save that one for the next trip.  But, as you wander around the North End, you will come upon random bakeries, and groceries.  I fell in love with this little Italian grocery with beautiful breads:

Next up, though, was some more history.  The Old North Church. You know, "One if by land, two if by see."  In all the times we'd been to Boston, I had never been in here, so I was excited.  We were fortunate that this was not that crowded:

Right next to the church is a chocolatier (Captain Jackson's Historic Chocolate Shop) and a colonial printmaker. I'm always in when it comes to chocolate.  At the chocolate shop, we learned how colonists prepared it (usually as a drink), plus we got to taste some (spoiler alert: it was delicious).

Next door is the Printing Offices of Edes & Gill. The boys got to print their own copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was really interesting and the gentleman who worked the press was extremely engaging.

One last North End site: the narrowest house in Boston. It's  only nine feet wide and you have to enter it through a narrow alley. I believe it is privately-owned, so we didn't get to see inside, unfortunately.

Completely exhausted, the boys were ready for some pizza.  As we were walking, trying to figure out where to eat, we asked a man carrying a pizza box where he got his.  He said "Ernesto's. It's the best pizza."  Then we took a look at his shirt, which carried a logo for Boston Pizza Tours. (side note: who even knew you could get a tour of pizzas in Boston? The only thing better? A beer tour. Guess what? They have those, too!)

I guess he would know, then.  Ha! Ernesto's it is!  The pizza WAS delicious:

We got the tomato and basil, cheese, and a Hawaiian. By the way, the two pieces on each plate is "one slice" according to Ernesto.  Who am I to argue?

If you are in Boston, I encourage to take a couple of hours to walk around the North End, especially on a nice day.  Even if it's not, you can hole up in a pastry shop taste-testing.  It's got history, food and architecture all in one compact spot.  What's not to like?  :-)