Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What I Ate (and Will Eat) Wednesday

As I mentioned in this post (and this one), last night we made Chicken Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce.  It was so good and so easy I just had to share it with you.  Normally I think of pumpkin as a fall or winter vegetable but in this recipe it becomes more of a mole sauce (without the work!) which would taste great any time of year!

Warning: if you have a cat that is anything like Woods and loves chicken, be prepared for lots of meowing and leg rubbing while you shred the chicken.  I don't think Woods stopped talking for the entire 15 minutes it took me to shred the chicken even after I gave him a few pieces in the living room (where he gets all treats in a vain attempt to keep him from begging).  It was so funny; I really wish we would have gotten the whole thing on video!

Chicken Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce, taken from Martha Stewart's Kitchen Everyday Food cookbook

1/2 roast chicken, skin removed and meat shredded
6 scallions, thinly sliced
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 jalapeno chile, quartered--remove ribs and sees for less heat if desired.  I removed them because I am not a big fan of super spicy things but with the amount of pumpkin in the sauce, you could leave some or all of the ribs and seeds in.  We missed the heat!
1 teaspoon chili powder
8 corn tortillas (6 inch)
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated sharp white Cheddar cheese

Kitchen Supplies:
Medium mixing bowl
Blender or food processor
Cutting board
2 quart baking dish
Sheet tray

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the chicken and scallions.  Season generously with salt and pepper; set aside.

In a blender, puree the pumpkin, garlic, jalapeno, chili powder, 2 1/2 cups water, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper until smooth.  Hold the top down firmly with one hand as the blender will be quite full.  Pour 1 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 2 quart baking dish (square or rectangle).

Lay the tortillas on a work surface; mound the chicken mixture on half of each tortilla, dividing evenly.  Roll up each tortilla in a tight log; place seam side down over the sauce in the baking dish.  My logs didn't stay together very well but the pumpkin sauce and cheese cover all sorts of things.

Pour the remaining sauce on top; sprinkle with the cheese.  Place the dish on a baking sheet; bake until the cheese is golden and the sauce is bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes.  Ours took 30 minutes to get really bubbly and golden brown.  Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves: 4

According to the cookbook, this dish can be made up to 8 hours ahead of time.  Simply prepare as described above, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to bake.  Be sure to add a few minutes to the cooking time to account for the chilled dish.

This recipe was everything a weeknight dinner should be (in my book at least): quick, simple, cheap and tasty.  We will definitely be making this again soon.  As is our tradition, we had leftovers of this yummy dinner for lunch today, hence the What I Ate part of the post.

Now for the What I Will Eat part.  In yesterday's post, I mentioned that meal plans should be flexible.  Tonight's dinner is a perfect example of that.  We were planning on making shrimp and egg-knot soup tonight but J emailed me earlier today that he wanted to do something fun tonight.  All of the ingredients for the soup were freezer and pantry items that could keep for another week so we quickly devised a plan: 

Dinner at this local-food restaurant (which came recommended courtesy of Slow Food St. Louis) followed by a free night of jazz music at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.  We will have an appetizer and dinner at Brasserie before we feast on homemade chocolate and cheese danishes and wine at the Botanical Gardens.

Want to know the very best part?  This whole night will be free!  You see, we are having dinner on my parents thanks to a generous anniversary gift they sent our way that has been burning a hole in our pockets sitting in our account for a while now.   THANKS MOM AND DAD!  The concert is free.  We had a bottle of Charles Shaw Pinot Grigio in our fridge and ingredients for the danishes in the pantry and freezer.  So we might have to pay for parking in the Central West End but I think I can handle that.  I can't wait!

What have you eaten this Wednesday?  What will you eat for dinner?  In my family, we always talk about what we are going to eat for our next meal while we are eating our current one, which goes a long way in explaining my love of meal planning and talking about food.  Happy Wednesday everyone!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How To: Meal Plan

Since I share our weekly menus almost every week here on the blog (lately I've been sharing them on the blog's Facebook page), I thought I'd give you a behind-the-scenes look at the process and my "system" that allows me to generate interesting and tasty meals for around 60-70 dollars a week.

Our meal plan begins at the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings.  Farmer's Markets are a great way to support community farmers and purchase pesticide-free produce without spending a lot of money!  We usually spend between $10-12 dollars a week for four to five fruits and vegetables that we will incorporate into our meals that week.  For example, this week our haul included asparagus, cucumber, green onions and green beans all for $8.  The week before that was green peas, zucchini and yellow squash, radishes and beets for around $13.  We could spend WAY more at the Farmer's Market every week (and usually I really want to!) but with one income to speak of at the moment, we try to keep our costs as low as possible.

Produce from a few weeks ago: dill, strawberries, kale and local bacon
Once I get home, I pull out my new favorite cookbook which was my first anniversary (paper) present from J: Williams-Sonoma's Cooking from the Farmers' Market.  The cookbook is filled with gorgeous, art-quality photos of all types of produce in addition to delicious recipes, tips for buying the ripest produce and how to store almost any produce you could buy at the market.  Then I grab a blank piece of paper and start researching.

I begin by writing down the produce I've purchased that week as well as notes about storing it and how long it will last before it goes bad.  This week my produce section reads something like this (all of this information can be found in the cookbook):

Asparagus--cut 1 inch off stalks and store upright in refrigerator using a container with shallow layer of water for up to four days.  Asparagus is best if eaten soon after harvest however.
Cucumber--wrap in paper towel and store in plastic bag in fridge for up to 5 days
Green onions--store in plastic bag in fridge for up two weeks
Green beans--wrap in paper towel and store in plastic bag (open to prevent mold) for up to 3 days

Next I write out each day of the week for the menu (usually it's Saturday-Thursday with dinner out or pizza on Friday nights) and next to each day I write when produce will go bad/be at its peak.  For this week, that meant eating the asparagus as soon as possible (Sunday night) and the green beans soon after that (Monday).  I hate throwing away spoiled food, especially from the Farmer's Market, and this helps me make sure we use everything before it starts to turn.

Once I start looking for recipes, I pull out at least five cookbooks, sometimes more, and pull up my Pinterest "Recipes to Make" board for inspiration.  I also take a mental (and sometimes physical) inventory of what we have in the pantry, fridge and freezer before I start looking for recipes.  This week my inventory of must-use items included a whole chicken for roasting, corn tortillas from our Carne Asada dinner last week, and some frozen shrimp.

Often times, one recipe leads me to another, as was the case with Sunday and Tuesday nights' recipes.  Last week over lunch, I saw a delicious recipe for Lemon-stuffed Roast Chicken on Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics.  I knew that would be how I would use up the whole chicken.  I also knew from experience there would be leftovers and thought chicken enchiladas might be a good way to use up the chicken and corn tortillas.  After comparing recipes in several cookbooks, I found a recipe that required minimal additional ingredients and looked tasty.  Enter Chicken Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce courtesy of Martha Stewart's Kitchen's Food Everyday Cookbook.  Once I find a recipe and add it to the menu, I use the other side of the paper (waste not, want not) for my shopping list.  I continue with my researching until all the days are filled, trying to reuse ingredients and leftovers in whatever way I can.  If I am going to make a substitution, for example using red onions and garlic instead of shallots or macaroni instead of cavatappi, I also note this next to the recipe along with the cookbook source and page number.  That way I'm not looking in indexes trying to find recipes when it comes time to cook!

This week the menu portion of our meal plan looks something like this:

I tend to write our menu in pencil so I can erase and move dinners around as necessary while I plan
It is a bit difficult to read the menu there, especially since I wrote it in pencil, so I have replicated the contents for you below for easier reading:

Saturday                                                                                    Sunday-asparagus
Beet Risotto                                                                               Lemon Roast Chicken (Ina)
                                                                                                   Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic-      
                                                                                                   Shallot Butter (Cooking Light pg.
                                                                                                   289)--use red onion to substitute shallot
                                                                                                   *save 1/2 chicken for Tuesday dinner*

Monday-green beans                                                                 Tuesday
Pasta with Peso, Potatoes & Green Beans--use macaroni       Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce
(p. 158 Food Everyday cookbook)                                            (Food Everyday p. 279)
                                                                                                   South American Garlic Rice
                                                                                                   (see recipe book)
Shrimp and Egg-Knot soup (Soup Bible pg. 241)

Once I've completed my shopping list, I head to the grocery store and Trader Joe's to buy groceries for the week.  Because J and I eat mostly leftovers and the occasional sandwich for lunch every day, I only need to buy ingredients for the recipes and a few staples like bread, yogurt and milk.  Here are our receipt totals for this week (including alcohol): $20.41 at Trader Joe's and $30.86 at Dierberg's (our local grocery store) plus the $8 I spent at the Farmer's Market on Saturday.

When I return home, our meal plan is then put on the fridge so that J and I can both see at a glance what we are having for dinner that week.

I wish our fridge looked like this.  So organized, clean and tidy!

We occasionally deviate from the meal plan (I've found that they have to be flexible or it just won't work long term) but usually we are pretty good about staying on track.   We also try to have at least one meatless meal a week to cut costs (and because it's tasty).  If we are having meat later in the week, I freeze it immediately and then thaw it the night before so that the food doesn't spoil by the time we go to eat it.  Some weeks I try to schedule our meat-free dinners on Wednesdays and Thursdays to avoid this step completely!

This system really works for us for the following reasons:
  1. We waste way less food
  2. We spend less money by avoiding nights where we would go out for dinner because we just don't feel like going to the grocery store and cooking
  3. We save gas money by not stopping by the store several times a week
  4. We really use all of our various cookbooks
  5. We have fun in the kitchen and never have to utter the words " What are we going to make for dinner" that is, unless one of us forgets and has to consult the fridge!
In looking at this list, I realized that our system is pretty green friendly if you think about it.  Less food waste = less garbage that ends up in a landfill.  Less gas consumption = less pollution.  Less going out = more money to spend on organic and local foods.  A win-win if you ask me!

Do you meal-plan?  Or perhaps you have a system of your own regarding laundry, cleaning, home repair scheduling or something else I haven't thought of and listed here?  I am loving systems that make life easier and would love to hear your ideas!

Monday, June 27, 2011

A French Sunday Night Dinner

Every Sunday night J and I try to make a special meal together for just the two of us where we sit down, talk and really savor our food together.

I've written about this before but growing up, we always had dinner as a family on Sunday nights.  As a doctor, my dad didn't always make it home in time for dinner during the week and for us kids, Friday and Saturday nights were filled with friends and sleepovers and later when we were teenagers, football games, movies and work.  Sunday night was a time we were all home and my dad would whip up another fabulous creation in the kitchen or on the grill.   I love that we are carrying on that tradition with our little family!

This Sunday we had a delicious and organic French-inspired meal that I would like to share with you all.

Lemon-stuffed Roast Chicken with Croutons and Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic-Shallot Butter.

Way back in February, I bought two organic whole roasting chickens at Whole Foods during a sale (At $1.69 a pound, I wish I would have bought even more!).  We ate one that Friday and froze the other to use at a later date.  With the big move coming up in just over a month (yikes!), that date was last night.  Using an easy-peasy recipe I saw on Barefoot Contessa last week, we made delicious and tender roast chicken.

Lemon-stuffed Roast Chicken with Croutons, borrowed from Barefoot Contessa's Ina Garten

1 four to five pound organic roasting chicken
1 large onion, sliced--we used red onion because that is what we had on hand
Olive oil
Kosher salt
2 lemons, quartered
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
6 cups bread cubes cut to 3/4" thick or the equivalent of one baguette--if you are making this dish for two people, which we were, you will need half of a baguette or three cups of bread cubes

Kitchen Supplies:
Large oven-proof pan for roasting
Paper towels
Kitchen twine
Small saucepan for melting butter
Pastry brush
Large skillet for croutons
Paring knife
Carving knife and fork

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Take the giblets out of the chicken's cavity and wash inside and out.  Remove any excess fat and leftover pin feathers (mine had a few that came right out with a paring knife).  In the roasting pan, toss the onion with a little olive oil to coat then place the bird on top of the onions.  Sprinkle the inside cavity with salt and pepper and place the quartered lemons inside.  Pat the outside of the bird dry with paper towels (this will help get the skin nice and crispy), brush it with the melted butter and season with additional salt and pepper.  Tie the legs together with kitchen twine and cut little slits in the "armpits" of the bird before tucking the wing tips into them so that they do not brown.

Roast for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours until the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and the thigh.  My bird took about 1 hour 20 minutes this time!  Cover with foil and let rest at room temperature for fifteen minutes.

While the chicken rests, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high to high heat.  Add croutons and immediately turn down the heat to medium-low.  This will allow the bread cubes to become golden and crispy rather than soggy!  Saute the bread cubes, stirring frequently for 8 to 10 minutes.  When golden brown, toss with salt and pepper and place in the bottom of a serving platter.  Carve the chicken (J did the honors for us) and place over the bed of croutons before pouring the pan juices over the platter.

We only served half of the chicken--the other half will be turned into a spicy Pumpkin Chicken Enchiladas tomorrow!
On Saturday, I got up early and headed to the Farmer's Market a bit earlier than I usually get there (I arrived at 8:30 and usually do not make it over until 9:30 or 10:00).  I was rewarded with thin and crisp asparagus (one of three bundles left!) which we roasted along with the chicken.  According to my new favorite cookbook and anniversary gift, Williams-Sonoma's Cooking from the Farmer's Market, trimmed asparagus can be stored in a shallow cup of water for up to three days but it is best when eaten shortly after purchase which we did after eating risotto with roasted beets the night before (look for more about the cookbook and the recipe in a future post!).  As good as the chicken was (and it was delicious!), I think the asparagus stole the show!

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic-Shallot Butter, adapted from The Best of Cooking Light Cookbook

3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots--we used 3 tablespoons of finely chopped red onion and 1 clove of chopped garlic instead because it is what we had on hand
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme--we used 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme instead
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 bunch of local asparagus spears fresh from the Farmer's Market

Kitchen Supplies:
Small sauce pan or ramekin (if using microwave) to melt the butter
Mixing bowl
Glass baking dish
Cooking Spray
Aluminum foil

Combine shallots, butter, vinegar, thyme, salt and rind; stirring well with a whisk.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Snap off tough ends of the asparagus.  Arrange asparagus in a single layer in a pan coated with cooking spray.  Cover with foil; bake at 450 degrees for 5 minutes.  Uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes or until asparagus is crisp-tender.  Pour butter mixture over asparagus; toss gently to coat.  Serve immediately.

Serves: 4 or in our case, 2

We paired the dinner with a glass of red wine which only added to the French bistro vibe we had going on with the food.  The food was so delicious that we ate all of the asparagus and croutons and had to restrain ourselves from devouring the chicken (since we knew we needed half of it for dinner later this week.)  This chicken recipe will definitely become part of our repertoire!

What was your favorite meal this weekend?  Do you have a night set aside each week for a family dinner like we do?  Anything delicious planned for this week?  Do tell!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Visit: Hannibal MO; Part Three or Going Home

I apologize it's taken me a few days to finish this series.  I took a break from blogging this weekend to start packing (eek!), finish reading a great book, stroll around the Farmer's Market, cook some great meals, wash and put away 9 loads of laundry and spend time with J and friends.  Anyway, here is the end of our anniversary trip (read part one and part two here) and a DIY project I completed with some mementos from our trip!

After listening to some great local music (including two very talented harmonica players), we headed back to Lulabelle's for a good night sleep.  We had seen (and heard) our mystery guest earlier that day but figured he would be long retired and in bed by the time we ourselves hit the sack.

Who is this mystery guest?  Well, you saw him in this photo earlier.

Meet Mr. Train.

Much to our chagrin, Mr. Train went by every hour or so throughout the night, whistling loudly as he came through, letting his presence be known to all.  The B & B did let us know on their website that there were train tracks nearby ("Most of our customers understand that trains are an integral part of the Mississippi River experience, since tracks run right along the river...However, after a glass of wine and a jacuzzi bath, most people don't mind.") and even left out some earplugs for our convenience but we figured with a few glasses of wine and a long day, we would sleep right through it.

Not really.  We tried sleeping without earplugs at first because they can be a bit uncomfortable but after an hour or two, we caved and put them in.  They did a better job of drowning out the horns but we still found ourselves waking up every few hours when the earplugs would slip out.  We gave up sleeping woke up for good around 5:30 and watched the sunrise over the river from our bed.  That part was really neat.  Not sleeping through the night, not so much.  We did have a good laugh about it though before heading to breakfast!

After a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs and pancakes, we checked out of our room and headed to the Mark Twain Museum for a few hours before hitting the road. 

Us in front of Mark Twain's boyhood home
 The museum itself was a complex of building consisting of a visitor's center, art gallery, Mark Twain's childhood home, Tom Blankenship's home (Mark Twain's boyhood friend who inspired the character Huckleberry Finn), the general store and his father's law office. 

Because the museum is not owned by the State or Federal Parks system and therefore relies on private donations and admission fees to keep it up and running, some of the exhibits were more accessible than others (Becky Thatcher's house for example was completely closed for renovation) and others were in need of some repair and updating.  However, it was very interesting to learn about Mark Twain's early life and see some of the places that inspired the novels.   All weekend J and I both remarked that we needed to go back and reread The Adventures of Tom Sawyer again after everything we had read and seen!

We drove back that afternoon pretty tired but after a small lunch, a nap and dinner at a local restaurant we were finally feeling like ourselves again by Sunday night.  Our night with Mr. Train was definitely one for the memory books!

And speaking of memory books, last week I created a little keepsake from our anniversary trip that I wanted to share with you all.  I had picked up some little glass jars from Hobby Lobby last fall with the idea that I would fill each of them with mementos from each of the years we have dated (I've saved movie stubs, wristbands, corks, and so forth over the years).  Alas, many of the mementos are back in California as a result of my move out there after graduation so the jars sat empty in my basement for months until I came up with a new idea.  Why not fill each of them with items from vacations we take together instead? 

Here's what I filled our Hannibal glass jar with:

Now I can't wait for us to go on more vacations so that I can fill more of these cute little guys with stuff!  We are already planning to visit Mackinac Island and Toronto sometime next year (these destinations will be a lot closer to us once we move).  I only wish I would have thought of this sooner (like when we went on our honeymoon to San Francisco and Napa Valley last year)!

Do you save things like ticket stubs and wine corks?  Do you buy souvenirs when you go on trips?  If so, how do you display them? 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Visit: Hannibal MO; Part Two or Our Afternoon

After visiting the lighthouse, we got into the car and drove the few miles to the outskirts of Hannibal to visit the Mark Twain Cave.  The cave is actually part of a cave complex with two cave systems, Mark Twain Cave and Cameron Cave.  The Mark Twain Cave was discovered in 1821 and Cameron Cave in 1925, making them the oldest and youngest show (or tour-guided) caves in Missouri respectively.  Visitors can tour one or both of the caves and we opted for the Mark Twain Cave tour because
a) it was shorter (55 minutes versus 1 hour 30 minutes which given the fact we arrived at 4:30 would make for a later night out for us early birds)
b) it was cheaper
c) there was no wait (we would have had to wait until the 5:00 tour for Cameron Cave).

During the tour, our tour guide shared with us a little history of the cave and later, parts of the story of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the time Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher got lost in the cave.  Mark Twain is said to have modeled the caves in his stories after the Mark Twain Cave that he would have explored himself as a child.

The original entrance, found in 1820 by a boy and his dog
This photo shows the ash years and years of flame powered lanterns have left on the stone.
One of the more narrower passageways in the cave
Prior to becoming a National Natural Monument,  people wrote or otherwise carved their names into the cave walls.
In the late 1800s a local resident was married here.  Since then there have been six marriages in the cave.
After our tour, we headed over to the wine tasting room on the property to try some local wines.  While on the way, we stopped to whitewash some fences for good ole Tom Sawyer.

For 3.95 a person, we each tried six wines and got to keep the glasses.  Pretty good deal, huh?  We tried their dry wines and were pleasantly surprised with their quality--sometimes with wines, local isn't always better (at least when it comes to sweet Missouri wines) :)  So much so that we bought a bottle home as a souvenir!

After we finished our tasting, we stopped by Lover's Leap on the way back to the hotel.  Many towns have spots like this where two star-crossed lovers (in this story two native Americans from warring tribes) took their lives rather than be separated.  It provided great views of downtown Hannibal and the river.

The legend
River view complete with riverboat

Once back in our room, we dressed for dinner and opened the bottle of champagne we had brought with us, a graduation gift to J from his former boss in Omaha who now lives in Napa Valley.   It was delicious!

In my research last week I had found a local restaurant I really wanted to try called LaBinnah Bistro.  I wrote down the address of the Bed and Breakfast whose owners managed the bistro and who hosted the information about the restaurant on their site.  It turned out that wasn't its actual location.  When I googled the bistro on my phone, we also found the address of an old mansion in Hannibal listed.  We drove up there only to find that the bistro had moved to a new location further down the hill.  We finally found the correct address (after three tries) and went inside for dinner!

The food did not disappoint.  The chef there tried to use as many fresh and local ingredients as possible in his dishes and it showed in the taste and quality of the food.

Our appetizer: Pesto topped with tomatoes, white onions and Parmesan cheese served over poppy seed baguette
My dinner: Shrimp Istanbul with golden raisins and a sweet and spicy sauce
J's dinner: African Peri-Peri (pork with a spicy African glaze)
After dinner we headed back to Java Jive (where we had gotten coffee earlier that day) for open mike night.  We listened to local musicians play for an hour or so before heading back to finish our champagne and sleep.  Little did we know we would have a frequent, uninvited visitor who would keep us awake most of the night!

To learn who this guest was, come back tomorrow for the third and final installment of our anniversary trip recap!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Visit: Hannibal MO; Part One or Our Arrival

As I mentioned in this post, J and I enjoyed a little weekend getaway in Hannibal, MO to celebrate our first anniversary.  And boy was it fun!  I originally was going to share all of the details and all of the photos in one post but there are too many words and too many photos to share in just one post so I'll be splitting them up into three parts (arrival, afternoon and morning) and posting it all over the next several days!

We began the morning by filling up on delicious iced coffee from our good friend JDP at Cafe Rationale.  Afterwards, we headed back to the house so J could get a few hours of bar exam studying in before hitting the road.  I finished reading The Princess of Nowhere, a quick read I had checked out from the library days before (check back tomorrow for a review!), and got done the chores necessary for our trip: packing, putting out extra food and water for Woods, cleaning his litter box, cleaning out the fridge of anything that would go bad while we were gone and taking out the trash.  After a quick but delicious lunch, we hit the road.

Pictured: Smoked Gouda, turkey and cranberry apple chutney sandwich with Caesar salad
I drove on the way there so J could get a few more hours of studying in for the weekend which was fine with me because I had the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way to sing along with!  We arrived in Hannibal just after two o'clock and promptly checked into our Bed and Breakfast.

We stayed at Lulabelle's Bed and Breakfast which was a bordello in the early 1900s run by a madam from Chicago in its former life.  According to the B & B's promotional materials, the building was one of few that was designed and built specifically for its purpose.

See that grey and yellow box peaking up over the hill there on the left.  That would be a train and a foreshadowing of things to come!
We stayed in the Purple Passion room (all of the rooms have very suggestive names to go with the theme) which was quaint and perfect for our needs.  In our room at least (I don't know about the others) visitors had taken to signing and dating bars of soap or wine corks and leaving them behind as a souvenir.  The bars of soap were literally all over the room and it was fun to read them and the occasions for which people had stayed there to celebrate (engagements, honeymoons, anniversaries).

After we checked in and got settled into our room (including having an ice bucket brought to the room for some champagne we brought along), we decided to explore Main street a little bit before heading to the Mark Twain Caves nearby.  We first stopped by Java Jive which billed itself as the first coffee shop west of the Mississippi (get it?) for some coffee.  We got a cappuccino (for J) and  an iced Chai latte (for me) to go and walked up and down Main street looking in the little shops and generally getting a feel for the area.

When we turned to head back to our room, we saw a white lighthouse at the far end of the street.  I had read about the Mark Twain Lighthouse online--like in Springfield with Lincoln, almost everything in the town had Mark Twain's name attached to it even if it was built after he lived/died.  Our favorites were the Mark Twain soda dispensers and the restaurant that promised Mark Twain Fried Chicken.  We decided a lighthouse in Missouri was worth seeing and wanted to get a closer look.  On our way up there, we came across this lovely bronze statue of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Halfway up the long flights of stairs was a lookout area that we learned used to be the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge.

Built as part of the New Deal in 1936 and demolished in 2001, the Mark Twain Bridge was a major go-between over the Mississippi River.  Now it is a great place to look out over the river and take in the sites.

Ironically, due to some large overgrown trees in the area, the views from the bridge were better than they were from the lighthouse itself.  The lighthouse's tower itself was padlocked shut, which might have something to do with the lackluster views.  There was also no explanation anywhere of why the lighthouse was built or even what year it was constructed.  Tourism fail!

Lots of green make for a somewhat obscured view of the river
On our way back down, we came upon a house nestled in the hillside there with two lovely orange tabby cats.  They were very sweet and could have been Woods' long lost siblings!

The one in the back looks especially like Woods!
After our little walk around town, we got in the car and headed to the Mark Twain Caves for some cave-exploring and wine tasting, which is where the tale from our weekend getaway will pick up tomorrow! 

In the meantime, have you ever played tourist in a nearby city?  Any summer trips on the horizon?  Where to?  I'd love to hear all about it!

Guest Post and Weekend Update

We're back after a very relaxing and wonderful weekend away!  Okay we've been back since Sunday night but little things like sleep and work have gotten in the way of blog posting!  I am in the process of sorting through and uploading all the pictures from this weekend so I can share them with you all.  I hope to have them up later this afternoon. 

A snapshot of downtown Hannibal
In the meantime, head on over to Miss Alana's Miscellany where I've shared some tips we've learned over this past year.  I cannot believe it has already been that long!

Do you think I could still get by calling us newlyweds as we enter year 2?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Weekend Getaway and a Big Announcement

This weekend marks our first wedding anniversary and to celebrate we are hitting the road!  We have been talking about taking a trip for a while now but we finally hammered out all the details this week which has created a fun, spontaneous air around the weekend.

The cool mustang we got to drive around in on our wedding day.  House pictured: site of our wedding reception
Leading up to it, we had a few criteria that needed to be met for our trip:
  1. Cost: With J studying for the bar, only one income (mine) to speak of and some major changes on the horizon (more on that in a minute), it needed to be a relatively inexpensive trip.
  2. Location: Must be within driving distance.  See number 1.  Plane tickets this time of year are notoriously expensive. 
  3. Distance: Even though we are driving, with the high price of gas we knew the destination couldn't be too far away in order to keep costs low.
  4. New: Must be a place neither of us have been to before.  We love exploring new cities together!
  5. B & B's: We really wanted to stay at a Bed and Breakfast while we were there.  I love them and find them extremely romantic and much more personal than a standard hotel room!
With these criteria in mind, we narrowed it down to 3 finalists: Sainte Genevieve, Hermann (Missouri wine country), and Hannibal, MO.  Sainte Genevieve is having a French Heritage Festival this weekend, which may explain why all the B & B's in the area were booked on Saturday night (the night we were hoping to stay).  Hermann's B & B's were all more than we were looking to spend for a night (average was around 140 dollars a night) which, combined with wine tasting fees, would be pretty pricey for a two day trip.

Enter Hannibal.  Only two hours and four minutes away from St. Louis, we were able to find a charming B & B for only $90.00 a night! With lots to do including visiting Mark Twain Caves, Mark Twain's Boyhood Home and Museum, a cute downtown area and a few wineries nearby, I know we will have a great time and I can't wait to share all of our photos and experiences with you next week!

Okay so this is Disneyland's version of a steam boat, but you get the idea!  Image via weheartit
Oh, and about that big announcement? 

J and I are moving.  

In less than two months.
To South Bend, IN.  

Home of my beloved Fighting Irish and my sister 

(although she will be studying in Rome next year.) 

Image via weheartit
J was offered a great job for a year and we are very excited/a tiny bit nervous about this next stage in our lives!  I will of course take you all along for the ride as well as we start new jobs, explore a new city, make new friends, take in a football game or two, and decorate a new apartment.  There are great things on the horizon so stay tuned :)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What I'm Grilling Wednesday and RWW

As I mentioned in this post, my dad bought us a grill for a belated house warming gift during graduation weekend.  J and I have used the grill several times since then and I'd like to share some of the recipes (and meals) we've had using the grill.

J getting the grill ready
First up was a meal we made last Thursday and it is perfect for the heatwave we've been having: Mint Marinated Grilled Shrimp with Tabbouleh Salad.  I got to cook with an ingredient I'd never worked with before (bulgur) and there is so much mint in the dish, it literally gave me the chills while I was preparing it.  How's that for free air conditioning?

Mint Marinated Grilled Shrimp with Tabbouleh Salad, as seen on Boy Meets Grill by Bobby Flay

For the tabbouleh salad:
1/2 cup medium or coarsely cracked bulgur--I found it in the bulk bins at our local grocery store (Dierberg's)
1 1/2 cups boiling water
3/4 cup baby arugula leaves
2 large green onions, thinly sliced 
3 tablespoons finely chopped mint leaves, plus fresh mint leaves for garnish
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice--if it is a juicy one, this is about half a lemon
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly ground pepper

For the grilled shrimp:
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (the other half of your juicy lemon)
3 tablespoons fresh mint
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound of shrimp (20 to 24 size) shelled and deveined

Kitchen Supplies:
Wooden or metal skewers--if using wooden skewers (which we did) you will need to soak them for at least 12 hours (we soaked them for 24 hours) to prevent them from burning on the grill
Large glass bowl
Medium glass bowl
Small glass bowl
Plastic wrap
Blender or food processor
Grill or grill pan
Fine mesh strainer, for draining bulgur 

Place bulgur in a large bowl and pour boiling water overCover with plastic wrap and let stand until bulgur is tender, about 90 minutes.

 Drain off any excess liquid and stir in the arugula, green onions and mint. 

Whisk together lemon juice, garlic, and oil and season with salt and pepper.  Pour the mixture over the bulgur and season with salt and pepper. 

Meanwhile, combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, mint, canola oil and pepper in a blender and blend until smooth.  Place shrimp in a bowl and pour marinade over, stirring to coat thoroughly.  Marinate for 10 minutes.  Heat grill to high heat (ours took about 15 minutes to warm up) and thread shrimp onto skewers.

Here's a tip I read in the latest Real Simple magazine that helped tremendously with the actual grilling of the shrimp.  Instead of sticking one skewer through the center of each shrimp, use two skewers to thread the sides of it.  This will produce a much flatter surface and plane for grilling and will prevent shrimp from sticking as much or falling through the grill plate.  Here is a picture of what I mean.

Season shrimp with salt and grill for 1 to 2 minutes a side or until slightly charred and just cooked through.

Serves: 4

Our grilling tray--2 beers, skewered shrimp on the bottom, two plates and some pineapple

As you can see from the photo, we also grilled some pineapple for a delicious side dish.  We like to season our pineapple with a little chili pepper at the end for some extra kick!

Our next grilling menu is what we had last night (and the leftovers of which I will be eating today, which is how WIAW ties in).  As I alluded to in this post, we were going to have chorizo brats and grilled avocado for dinner last night.  If you have a grill or a grill pan, you must try grilling avocados.  It is just too delicious and easy not too!

Grilled Avocado with Fresh Pico de Gallo sauce, modified from a recipe from our friend HHD

For the avocados:
2 ripe avocados
Half of a lime, juiced
Drizzle of olive oil

For the Pico de Gallo:
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/2 of a yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Half of a bunch of cilantro, stems removed
1 lime, juiced
Dash of red pepper flakes

Kitchen Supplies:
Cutting board
Sharp knife
Medium glass bowl
Food processor or blender

Place ingredients for the Pico de Gallo sauce in a food processor and blend until the sauce has the desired consistency--I like my Pico to be mostly smooth but not sauce-like, if that makes sense.  Set aside.

Heat grill to medium-medium high.  Cut avocados in half lengthwise and remove pits.   Squeeze lime juice over each half before drizzling each with a little olive oil.  When you get to the grill, pour out excess lime-olive oil juices (so they don't splatter when you place them on the grill) and place flesh side down on the grill.  Let cook for about 5-6 minutes until char lines appear.  Remove and spoon a little of the Pico de Gallo into the hole of the avocado, topping with sour cream or Greek yogurt if desired.  Devour with a spoon.  No chips required!

I may or may not have taken a bite of this avocado before taking a picture.  Sorry!
Which brings us to the RWW (Remember When Wednesday) part of the post.  Grilling to me will always remind me of this old girl, our first dog Amber.

This photo is from the last Christmas we had Amber circa 2005
She was born in Missouri and we adopted her when we lived here for two years when I was in first and second grade.  We originally had adopted her sister, Mallory, from a rescue group at a local Petsmart or Petsco, so named because her mom was an Alaskan Malamute.  Sadly Mallory developed some sort of illness a few days after we brought her home and passed away.  Luckily Amber had yet to be adopted and we were able to bring her home with us.  Bringing her home may have involved a long hour drive into rural Missouri where she was living in a farmhouse bathroom, but that's a different story.

The reason I bring up Amber today is that she was an ever-present part of grilling in our house.  As soon as the lid on the grill went up, she was there laying in front of it the entire time we cooked out there just in case any scraps fell off.  If we had steaks or other meat that could be given to her safely with her food, we would always give her and our other dog Rojo a little extra treat in their bowls that night.  I think that might have been the real motivation behind laying by the grill--to remind us she was there and that she expected some treats!

She was so diligent about laying in front of the grill that once when my dad had the lid up (because he had spray painted it black to combat some fading and rust and it was drying) she sat there for days waiting for some food to come her way.  We finally figured out what she was doing out there in the grass and quickly closed the lid (and gave her some treats)!  When J and I grilled this week, we didn't have a dog at our side while we were cooking but we did have a vocal cat who lectured us about coming in and out of the apartment so much while we were cooking.  What is that saying, the more things change, the more things stay the same?

What are you eating this Wednesday?  Do you have a grill or grill pan?  If so, what is your favorite thing to grill?  We are always looking for new grilling ideas!