Thursday, October 29, 2009

Four courses, five beers, sensible price tag

I have eaten many meals (and slugged back quite a few beers) at Cambridge Common in my day, but Monday night was the first beer dinner I've ever attended. Cambridge Common holds their popular beer pairing events at least once a month, and trust me when I say, it’s worth trying out. On Monday, the brewery featured was Clipper City out of Maryland, the same guys who made brew pubs legal in their native state. The folks at Clipper City pride themselves on integrating traditional brewing conditions with modern techniques. The beer dinners at Cambridge Common always feature a specific local brewery, and are set up family-style; yup, you sit right at the table with other beer snobs, foodies, people from the featured brewery, and the owners of Cambridge Common themselves. Suzanne Scholow and Kate Baker are the masterminds behind this comfortable downtown eatery with over 30 beers on tap at a time. Baker pairs the food for these events with the beer, and after tasting just the first course, you’d think she attained a master’s in the trade. For an appetizer, we enjoyed Maryland crab cakes with chipotle aioli, paired with a Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale Cask as well as its un-cask'd counterpart. The pairing was good, but I found the significant difference between the cask and the ale the most interesting. Next was a salad of tomatoes, romano cheese, and arugula, which provided a needed pepper-y flavor, and which was cut nicely with the subtle, sweet Uber Pils it was paired with.

For an entrée, I opted for the pumpkin ravioli with the Imperial Pumpkin Ale, which was a little too much nutmeg and sugar for me in one dish. However, the ravioli had a needed savory touch with red peppers, which paired much better with the other entrée’s beer – the Oxford Organic Amber. The other entrée, cranberry apple stuffed pork loin, just happened to taste better with the pumpkin beer, too.

Dessert, however, I am still dreaming about. Chocolate crème brulee with a Below Decks Barleywine (2007). The barleywine had well-rounded tones of cherry flavor, which paired perfectly with the otherwise-too-sweet crème brulee.

Tickets for the beer dinners are about $50, but for four courses and five or six beers, you’re getting a deal. Next month: Magic Hat’s bringing their brews on 11/10. I suggest you be there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Making a pit stop in Portsmouth

I spent last Sunday enjoying the fall weather the best to my ability with a bike ride, an outdoor concert at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, and enjoying some seasonal brews. I love the town of Portsmouth: it's quiant, and filled with locally-run specialty shops and niche restaurants, all with a view of the water. After getting slightly lost on the way to my brother's band's concert, my boyfriend and I decided to stay on the Seacoast for a little while longer, and thus made a pit stop at the Portsmouth Brewery. I had never been to this particular brew pub before, but always heard rave reviews - and now I see why. The restaurant is comfortable, yet eclectic, and was bustling with families and younger groups of friends on this Sunday evening. I slowly sipped a hoppy Bottle Rocket IPA, and we eventually shared an appetizer of hummus & baba ganoosh ($7.95). I've had hummus just about everywhere that serves it, but this spread was fantastic. Served with huge, grilled roasted red peppers, onions, and zucchini, as well as fresh pita points for scooping, this dish was healthy and light, yet surprisingly filling. As a bonus, the hummus even had a few whole chickpeas mixed in for some added texture. Next time I go, I'm trying The Beauty ($7.25) - grilled tempeh with gouda and honey mustard on a scallion roll.

Where's your favorite place to chow on the Seacoast?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Changing the taste of stir fry

I have a love/hate relationship with stir fry. Tradtionally, stir fry is made with a lot of veggies and a little meat, cooked in a wok with peanut oil (versus olive oil or butter), and served over rice. I've had some pretty bland stir frys in my lifetime, so the dish as a whole is usually not that appealing to me. However, I am trying to change that - slowly. Because of the great deal I found at the supermarket earlier this week, I decided to give the entree another whirl, but with my own (inexpensive) twists. For starters, I bought choice round boneless stewing beef for $2.15 (the other varieties of beef surrounding it were in the $3 to $5 range). I then cooked the beef and veggies with olive oil instead of peanut, and enjoyed some instant mashed potatoes on the side instead of rice, for two reasons: one, I didn't have any rice in the house, and two, because it was bitter cold outside and I was in the mood for some comfort food. Below is the recipe for my latest go at stir fry. Did I mention I cooked this in under 20 minutes, too?

Simple Beef Stir Fry
Yields: 2 servings

-1 package choice round boneless stewing beef
-1 1/2 cups of Hannaford Stir Fry Mix (peppers & onions)
-1 tbsp olive oil
-1 tsp crushed red pepper (optional)
-1 tbsp jarred minced garlic
-Red wine of your choice (I used a Porto Tawny)
-Salt and pepper to taste

Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a saute pan or wok. Add beef, and season with salt and pepper. Cook meat for 4-7 minutes, depending on how rare you like it. Add garlic, and a small pour of red wine (1 tbsp or so - helps create a sauce). Cook off wine for 1 minute, then add veggies and crushed red pepper. Cook for another two minutes, and serve over mashed potatoes (or rice). Enjoy!

Friday, October 23, 2009

A lunch splurge that was worth the wait

For me, easy-to-make lunches are a necessity during the work week, so when I splurge on a more "gourmet" sandwich, it better be good. Luckily for Boston King Cafe in Andover, their sandwiches are good, although prepare to wait 10 minutes for one, as they're made to order. I stopped into the breakfast-to-dinner cafe yesterday for one of their Four Corner Ham & Cheese sandwiches ($6.80), and although this dish was anything but gourmet, it was satisfying and (I guess) worth the wait. Made with just the right amount of black forest ham, provolone cheese, house mustard, lettuce, and tomato on thick cut multigrain bread, this was one dressed up ham and cheese. My only gripe? The bread was toasted, while the meat and cheese were still cold. I would have killed for some melted cheese and ham heated in the skillet.

What's your favorite place to splurge on lunch during the week?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Best deal I found this week

It's amazing what kind of deals you find when you take the time to compare prices at the grocery store. Brand names, organic labels, and "specialty" products are always overpriced, when you can get basically the same product in another aisle for much, much less. Case in point: last night, I wanted stir fry, and the fresh, pre-cut veggies in the produce aisle at Hannaford ranged from $3 to $4 for about two servings. In the frozen aisle? A much larger bag of still-fresh chopped peppers and onions was a mere $1.89 - for five servings. In the mix are yellow, red, and green peppers in addition to onions, and the peppers were perfectly crunchy and sweet. Needless to say, I was impressed. Behold, the best deal I found this week (recipe to come later):

Monday, October 19, 2009

The underestimated orzo

Orzo is one pasta I’ve wrongly underestimated. I used to think, “What, besides soup, could I possibly make with pasta that looks and feels like rice?” Well, after Market Basket offered orzo at the smallest price in the pasta aisle, I made do with the rice-shaped pasta – and now there’s no turning back. Orzo is extremely versatile, and I always have random leftover veggies, meats and cheeses in my fridge that need to be used up in new, delicious ways. Orzo allows me to use up these ingredients, while not having to eat the same dinner three nights in a row. Below is one such orzo dish I made with jarred kalamata olives, feta cheese, and tomatoes – a light, healthy meal that made use of still-fresh produce and sale-priced orzo. Mangia!

Out-of-the-fridge Orzo

Yields: 1

-1/3 cup dry orzo

-4 jarred kalamata olives, chopped

-1/8 cup crumbled feta cheese

-2 tbsp olive oil

-1/2 plum tomato, diced

-1 tbsp. jarred minced garlic

-Dried parsley

-Italian seasoning

-Crushed red pepper (for heat)

-Salt and black pepper

Directions: Boil 1 quart of water, with salt. Add orzo, and let cook for 5-7 minutes, or until al dente. In a separate sauce pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil. Throw in tomato, and add salt, black pepper, red pepper, parsley and Italian seasoning (amount to your taste preference/tolerance). When tomatoes are near mushy, add garlic. Cook for 30 more seconds, then add orzo, and toss with the remaining tbsp. of olive oil. Sprinkle in feta cheese, and serve with an extra dusting of parsley.

Blogger’s note: I include the serving size of the pasta (and will in past/future recipes), because I am a stickler for serving sizes. Paying attention to a packaged product’s recommended single serving not only keeps my weight in check, but also my wallet – by eating only a serving size of orzo, for example, I get the full eight servings out of the box, versus half that.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Home, and already planning my next meal

After a week of traveling for work, I'm beat - the time change, contracting the common cold, and working my socks off at the CAPPS Conference. Traveling also makes it difficult to eat regular meals at "normal" times, and I never seem to get the right amount of nutrients while on the road. However, now that I'm home and have the time to cook this week, planning my meals for the week to come is - sadly - really exciting. For tonight, thankfully I froze my leftover vegetarian chili earlier this week. I'm plopping that baby on the stove to simmer, and diving in.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Keeping your stomach (and wallet) full while traveling

I'm taking a short hiatus from the Boston scene to dedicate this post to eating on a budget while traveling. I'm currently in Los Angeles, CA until tomorrow for the CAPPS Conference for my full-time job at Effective Student Marketing in Andover. My coworker and I are staying at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza - one high class hotel! So high class, that their three restaurants make visitors pay 18 bucks for an ordinary tuna sandwich. When I say ordinary, the only "fancy" thing about this overpriced dish is that the tuna is served on ciabatta bread. Although my co-worker and I are here on business, our company is small, and it's a gosh darn recession - we don't feel right eating $18 mediocre sandwiches for three days. Apparently, our fellow exhibitors at the conference agree, and willingly gave us tips on cheaper eats within walking distance from the wallet-emptying hotel. Last night, after we did our networking duties at CAPPS, we walked over to one such recommendation: The Pink Taco. Located in LA's Westfield outdoor mall, The Pink Taco was a rock 'n' roll, tattoo shop-inspired Mexican joint, crowded with hungry (and thirsty) twenty-somethings. Their food menu was limited and simple, and their margarita offerings were also slim, yet innovative. My coworker ordered the pumpkin spice margarita, which was suprisingly delicious, and tasted just like pumpkin pie, but with tequila. Can I get an amen? To make the bill even smaller, we split an appetizer of mini tacos with steak and avocado,  as well as an entree of a stuffed poblano pepper. While neither dish was outstanding, they were fairly tasty, spicy, and filling...not to mention affordable. Splitting a few entrees for dinner and having a margarita each ended up costing us less than the two sandwiches we had at the Hyatt for lunch.

What corners do you cut when traveling on a budget?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Breakin' in the crock pot with vegetarian chili

My other half is a vegetarian, so I made the most of my day off yesterday by making some vegetarian chili. I rarely use my crock pot, so this winter, I plan to use it a lot more often – and today I broke it in for the season. My apartment was fragrant with the smells of chili powder, smoky cumin, onions, and tomatoes bubbling away in the pot on the counter. And putting it all together took less than 20 minutes! Another bonus: this recipe is cheaper than most of the other chili recipes in my repertoire, thanks to the fact that I didn’t have to buy any meat. Below is my recipe for this chunky, spicy, lacto ovo-friendly chili. Dig in!

Easy & Spicy Vegetarian Chili

Yields: 4-5 servings

-16 oz. can of kidney beans, drained
-2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
-1 medium yellow onion, chopped
-1 red pepper, cut into chunks (for thicker, chunkier chili)
-1 jalapeno, with seeds, diced
-1 tbsp. minced garlic
-1/4 tsp. cilantro
-1/2 tsp. cumin
-1 tsp. chili powder
-1/2-1 tsp. crushed red pepper (for extra heat)
-6-7 splashes of Tabasco sauce
-1 tsp. each of salt and pepper

Pour all ingredients into medium/large crock pot. Cook on low for 6-8 hours. Spoon into bowl and sprinkle with cheese (I prefer Heluva Good! Monterey Jack with Jalapeno). Serve with multigrain tortilla chips and enjoy!

*Tip: use an extra can of beans or some scambled meatless hamburger to make this chili even chunkier. It was a little runny and could have used the extra "sponge" to soak up the excess liquid from the tomatoes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Buffalo: it's what's for dinner

I recently tried the buffalo burger ($9.50) at Bison County BBQ in Waltham, and was pleasantly surprised at how moist and flavorful the meat was. The menu boasts that buffalo has less cholesterol than chicken or turkey (my go-to meat for homemade burgers, usually), and my sister always makes her chili with buffalo meat because it tends to be cheaper than beef at the supermarket. Although I have yet to cook with buffalo in my own kitchen, I was more than happy to give the lesser-used chow a try at this establishment that is known for their meat. I was also happy to discover that the buffalo was a lot less greasy than beef would be, avoiding the dreaded grease waterfall that tends to pour out with every bite of a regular hamburger. The joint was casual and crowded on the Friday night that I visited, and their French fries were exceptionally crispy and full of real potato flavor. My friends ordered Bison County's Boneless Fire Wings ($7.95), that were supposed to be their spiciest, yet, unfortunately, lacked a lot of heat. I left satisfied, however, being able to wash down my burger with a few ice cold drafts of Shipyard's Pumpkinhead Ale, in the company of good friends.

Have you cooked with buffalo meat before? What are some successful ways you've prepared it, in addition to burgers and chili?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What did Guy Fieri eat?

I'm interviewing Food Network's bleached blond star Guy Fieri next week, to advance his upcoming appearance at Lowell Memorial Auditorium in November. This milestone interview (for a foodie like myself) got me thinking: where did Guy eat/what meals did he prepare when he was on a budget? The California native has only been a "star" for almost three years, and started his career at the age of ten selling soft pretzels from a bicycle cart entitled "The Awesome Pretzel." Fieri washed dishes and sold pretzels until he had enough money to study abroad in France, where he learned to appreciate international cuisine - and the rest is history.

So how did he save all that money at such a young age? What do you think he cooked, and where do you think he ate before becoming a Food Network star? 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Organic and inexpensive pub grub at Piccadilly

I just had lunch at the Piccadilly Pub in North Reading. I went in skeptical, and left brutally beaten with the fact that I'd been proven wrong. Piccadilly is one local chain that offers the whole package: cheap grub, quality food, solid customer service. I wouldn't recommend bringing someone here on a first date (or any date in the first few months of courting), but the casual atmosphere makes you just want to sip a brew, gorge on some simple American food, and revel in light conversation. Since I was on my lunch break, I opted for lemon water - not beer - and ordered the Organic Malibu Garden Burger ($7.99) with a side of mixed veggies. The vegetables obviously came out of a can, but were flavored so well, I ate every last bite - and wished I had more. The veggie burger was also one of the best I've had in a while, chocked full of organic broccoli, corn, carrots, peppers, water chestnuts and onions, covered in melted Swiss cheese, and sandwiched between moist-and-cheesy focaccia bread. The burger also had fresh tomato and lettuce for a garnish. Downright delicious. Personally, I believe the word "organic" means nothing but "expensive," but when it's inexpensive, I jump on the chance to eat anything organic. Piccadilly offered me that chance today.

What's your favorite restaurant that offers simple, delicious pub grub?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Gourmet's demise results in delicious baked Brie

With today's unfortunate fold of Gourmet magazine, a comforting dinner and some wine was in order - without overdoing it. My roommate and I decided to make some homemade pizza with store bought crust (with the sauce included!) and leftover fresh mozzarella and broccoli. For an appetizer, we made homemade baked Brie with apple slices on the side. Hello, comfort food! We fell in love with baked Brie at the British Beer Company in Framingham last year, but now that we know how to make it at home, this could be dangerous. Below is the recipe for this inexpensive, warm treat, right in time for the colder weather.

Baked Brie
Yields: 4 servings (or more...or less)

-1 Hannaford (or store brand) frozen pie crust, defrosted
-1 Presidente cut & wrap Brie wedge
-1 apple (optional)

Cut the brie into 1-inch thick pieces, and cover half of the pie crust with the cheese. Fold over empty half of pie crust to cover the cheese, and pinch ends of pie crust together to hold closed. Bake at 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and cheese is starting to bubble. Enjoy with apple slices (and wine).

What's your favorite comfort food this time of year?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Darwin's sandwiches are worth the weekend splurge

There is nothing better than going out for breakfast on the weekends, but on a rainy day like today, there's nothing better than sleeping in and cooking a delicious breakfast for two. In an effort to save some money, I've been making a lot more meals at home, but normally I love going to Darwin's in Cambridge on the weekends for their amazing sandwiches and strong iced coffees. Darwin's is known for their sandwiches, and has plenty of options for vegetarians and omnivores alike. Plus, everything I've ever eaten there (which is a lot) is always full of fresh ingredients, and their iced coffee is probably the best I've had to date. A lot of the times I order one of their pre-made sandwiches of the day (like their black bean veggie burger with avocado, sprouts, and tomato on focaccia bread), but one of my favorite made-to-order sandwiches is The Hovey ($6.85). The Hovey is made with eggs cooked over medium and topped with bacon, avocado, and cheddar cheese, on your choice of bread (I usually go for the focaccia or ciabatta). In addition to sandwiches, Darwin's also has amazing, freshly made baked goods like homemade cookies, muffins, and pastries. The small cafe is always packed on a late weekend morning, but the staff is usually friendly and organized, so you're not waiting for 30 minutes for just one sandwich. Their prices are also pretty reasonable, although a little more expensive for breakfast-on-the-go. I usually spend between $7 and $10 for a sandwich and large iced coffee, but sometimes, quality food is worth the extra dollar (especially on the weekends).

What's your favorite place to splurge on a weekend breakfast?