Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hey, Macaroni

I love macaroni and cheese. I love it in almost any form. For a long time, my favorite m&c was - embarrassingly enough - Velveeta Shells and Cheese. Seriously - I would eat that fake cheese right off a spoon, I thought it was so delicious.

At some point, I finally got wise to the fact that REAL cheese has better flavor. I've been playing with homemade mac & cheese recipes for a couple years now - some have been quite bland, some have been very onion-y, some haven't been quite creamy enough while others have been a bit too soupy for my taste. None have really been bad - in fact some have been quite good, just not exactly what I was looking for at the time.

I happened to see a mac & cheese recipe last week when I was flipping through Wine Spectator. I also happened to be craving comfort food in a major way (it's FALL, people!) so I decided to give it a whirl.

The recipe was basic, but it was delicious. Noe and I agreed this has been the best recipe I have used for mac & cheese so far.

First, I got my dry ingredients ready (using my new Le Creuset pinch bowls from Gray Goose Cookery - aren't they cute?) The dry (and ok, one wet) ingredients were salt and pepper; flour, red pepper flakes, and mustard.

Then, I chopped up an onion and grated a TON of cheese. Seriously - my arm got tired. If I hadn't cooked enough to know that freshly grated, quality cheddar tastes much better than the Kraft cheese-in-a-bag, I would have taken the easy way out. I cooked the onion up with some butter, being careful NOT to brown it.

Then I sprinkled the flour in with the onion, poured in some milk, and stirred until it thickened. Once it was the proper consistency, I took it off the heat, dumped in all my grated cheddar, the mustard, pepper flakes, and salt and pepper, and stirred until smooth.


While all this was happening, I had been bringing a pot of salted water to a boil and cooking up half a box of cavatappi (hey, it was what I had in the cupboard). When the pasta was cooked to just a little less done than I'd want to eat it, I drained it and stirred it in to the cheese mixture.


I finished up by grating a whole mess of parmesan over the top and throwing it in the oven for about half an hour at 400 degrees.


We ate it immediately when it came out:  

This was so basic, but so good: it was not too onion-y, and the pepper flakes added just enough flavor without really giving any noticeable heat. We ate it with a green salad and some dry, mineral-y white wine, but the recipe offered several variations to go with different white wines (like leaving out the pepper flakes and swapping some of the cheddar for mozz to pair with a round, more buttery chardonnay). If you're looking for a good, basic comfort food recipe - nothing fancy, but tasty - I suggest tracking this one down and trying it out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thursdays with Inuk, part two

A couple pictures of me with my buddy, Inuk. I am still doing whale enrichment on Thursday mornings at the aquarium and can not imagine giving it up. As if the whales weren't cool enough, I have the best partner, Marliese. She and I have a blast playing with these guys - plus, she takes the best pictures!

Monday, September 21, 2009

French Finish

Even though Noe and I had been on the Vineyard all weekend, then sat on a very cold ferry, then rode in a car for two hours, then looked at some piglets at Fred and Julia's house, I still felt ambitious enough to tackle a Julia Child recipe for dinner on Sunday night. Granted, it was not a super-complicated or very lengthy recipe - it was simply "pan broiled steak" (although the term "pan broiled" makes no sense to me; I thought broiling was done under, well, a BROILER) with a red wine and butter sauce. I decided to make this not because it looked easy, but more because I was sort of craving red meat after a weekend of delicious sushi and fried seafood.

Bifteck Saute Marchand de Vins -
Fancy French for "beef cooked in a pan and sauced with red wine."
(Sorry about the shadow on the page.)

I bought a couple sirloin steaks at the grocery store (I know, I know - I am not supposed to shop at the supermarche - but convenience sometimes wins) and uncorked a bottle of Little Penguin Shiraz that had been sitting on my kitchen wine rack for awhile (cheap and Australian, yes, but also rated as a great bargain by Wine Spectator), poured a glass, and set to work.

The first thing I did was chop up the shallot and parsley I would need later in the recipe. I swear, onions and shallots get worse for me with every chop. This was one shallot and I was literally  IN TEARS.

Chopped shallot and parsley for use in the pan sauce

I threw some  butter and oil in a pan and heated it to what I assumed was hot enough (Julia had said that when the foam from the butter subsides, the pan is hot enough. I had to use my judgment as to when the foam had sufficiently subsided). At that point, the meat went into the pan and was cooked for about four minutes on each side, giving it a nice sear.

Steaks in a pan, seared on one side

Once the steaks were seared to medium-rare perfection (the little droplets of blood appeared on the surface, just like Julia said they would!) I set them aside, poured the fat from the pan into the fat jar (you know, the jar you keep under the sink for bacon drippings), then put the pan back on the heat and cooked up the shallot for a minute or two. Then came the wine.

Shallots, wine, and meat drippings - what's NOT to like?

I boiled the wine down to an "almost syrup-like" consistency. Then - this is the good part - I took the pan off heat, and - one spoonful at a time - stirred in four tablespoons of butter (I TOLD you it was good). Once the butter was stirred in and the sauce thickened, I threw in the parsley and we were ready to go.

Sauce - YUM.

All that  was left was to spoon the sauce over the steaks, add our sides (Noe made rice - surprise, surprise), pour a glass of wine, and enjoy.

The steaks were cooked perfectly - a nice sear on the outside and a great pink-to-red gradient on the inside. As for the sauce, it was good - buttery and rich - but Noe and I both actually thought it lacked depth. Noe thought I should have added a handful of garlic (but my personal rule is not to modify Julia until I try it the way she wrote it); I felt like I should have used a really meaty wine (like a big California cab) rather than a $7 Shiraz. There was nothing WRONG with it; we were both just looking for a little more.

Overall, I think this was a success - I liked the cooking method and Julia has several sauce and flavored butter options that I am definitely anxious to try. And I hope I haven't discouraged anyone from trying this one - Noe and I are just a little too accustomed to my normal heavy hand with garlic - for someone with all their taste buds still in tact, this has ample flavor to please.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Vineyard Weekend

Noe and I just got back from another weekend adventure (I know, September's been a bit obnoxious, hasn't it?) - this time, we were out on Martha's Vineyard for our second annual Vineyard Weekend with our Connecticut friends. I blogged about our last Vineyard Weekend in August 2008 - this one was pretty different, but equally great.

John, Noe, Sarah and Chad on the 8:00 Island Queen-
better late than never, right?

We were missing Kevin Lester this year, since he is in the midst of a two-year stint in England. Doyle wasn't able to make it, either. But we had out new friend, Jason, and he fit in just fine with me, Noe, John, Katie, Amanda, Mini Deal, Chad, and Sarah.

We didn't have as much time this year - a bunch of us had to put in time at our jobs on Friday - so our first group got out around 5:00 and the rest of us followed on the 8:00 boat. It was a more laid-back trip: more porch sitting, no beach time (it was pretty cold); more casual drinks in the living room, no dance parties. Laid-back does not mean lacking, however - I think the relaxing weekend was exactly what most of us needed.

The boys play home run derby - with a wiffle ball.

Hillrest (Katie's house) was just as fantastic as it was when I first saw it. We are all so lucky to have a friend like Katie who is willing to share something so wonderful with us. Thanks are in order for Katie's parents - Fred and Julia - as well: they encourage her to share the house and have no problems with the idea of 8-10 of their daughter's friends taking over their house for a weekend (plus, they let us see piglets when we park the car at their house in North Stonington!)

In short, I am just as in love with the Vineyard as I was when I first saw it. Here are some pictures from the weekend:

Noe and I at dinner at the Lookout Tavern

Trifecta drinking rose on the porch

Tivoli Day street sale

Mocha Mott's coffee: it really IS good coffee

Superfecta reunited! The weekend was too short.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Noe and I just returned from a weekend in Michigan. Our original reason for going was my ten year high school reunion combined with finding some very cheap flights, but we ended up getting much more bang for our buck: Chet and Lorraine - our very good friends and former neighbors that moved to England when we moved to Connecticut - ended up coming through Michigan the week before we arrived and ended their stay in Ypsilanti with us. AND some of my mom's relatives that live up north and in Indiana were in town, along with my Uncle Jim. So Noe and I ended up attending multiple reunions of sorts.

Not only did I get to see all my favorite people, but I got to go to most of my favorite places. Being a whirlwind weekend, we kept it pretty casual. On Friday night after we landed (in Detroit via North Carolina - but that's another story) we headed immediately to Sticks/Aubree's to meet up with Chet, Lorraine, and our good friends Jen, Becky, Steve, and Rose, along with my sister Kristen (all of whom still live in Michigan).

Becky, Noe, Jen and me at Sticks

While Sticks is mostly known for lots of pool tables and great beer specials, they also have pretty good food. Lorraine and I were seriously craving some Aubree's pizza and feta bread. Aubree's has always had great pizzas (just the right ratio of crust, sauce, and cheese) with creative and delicious topping combinations. And as if the feta bread weren't enough, some genius invented spinach and feta pizza rolls - all that spinach and cheese stuffed into a garlicky, buttery crust. YUM.

Lorraine and Noe

With all the laughter and conversation, the night passed by quickly. It was 2:00 AM before we knew it. We parted reluctantly, but Noe, Jen and I were able to catch Chet and Lorraine for breakfast at the Bomber on Saturday morning before sending them back across the pond.

The Bomber, an Ypsi institution, is known mostly for the ginormous "Bomber Breakfast" (thanks, Food Network), a glutton's delight. However, if 27 sausage patties (OK, it's really more like seven) AREN'T your cup of tea, the Bomber has plenty of basic, hearty diner fare available, including some very good omelettes. I went for the Greek with feta, tomatoes, and olives (among other things) while Noe chose the Bomber omelette with ham, sausage, bacon, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and American cheese. To add to the Bomber's charm, it's located on a most rundown section of Michigan Avenue and has model airplanes hanging from the ceiling and WWII paraphernalia on the walls.

The Bomber's less-than-glamorous Michigan Ave location

Saturday night brought reunion night - and for me, Noe, Sophie, and Anthony, a great homemade dinner at Jess and Josh's apartment. I should have taken some photos of the interior, because Jess can seriously work wonders when given permission to paint and put holes in a wall. She can also work wonders with a pork tenderloin and a spice cabinet. When I do pork tenderloin, it is usually on the grill, rubbed down with herbs de Provence and basted in garlic oil. Jess kept the herbs de Provence but added several other spices - including just the slightest bit of chili pepper for an extremely subtle kick - and roasted the meat in the oven. The result? Delicious. The drink? There was only one choice for celebrating 14 years of friendship - Champagne.

She and I could have some killer dinner parties:
Jessica's roast pork tenderloin

Rosemary potatoes and stir-fried broccoli

We hit the reunion for awhile and enjoyed catching up with everyone. In the internet age, there aren't exactly many surprises, but it is always nice to see people in person.

Jess and I at the reunion

We finished the night off with a stop at Rose's, where her Mad Men party was still in full swing. Having come from the reunion, we were unfortunately not in costume (Rose and her buddies looked AMAZING), but still enjoyed vodka tonics and gin and tonics and a Neil Diamond/ABBA dance party in the living room of Rose's period-appropriate house.

Sunday was our last full day in the mitten. During the morning we hung out with Uncle Jim (he was staying with my parents as well) and then went to see Gran and Grandpa. Noe and I hit downtown A2 for a bit (I even bought some junk at Middle Earth, just like I was 19!) then headed to the family party at what is quite possibly my favorite restaurant in the world, Sidetrack.

Kris and Noe at Sidetrack

Sidetrack is a bar. It has a great, laid-back bar atmosphere and lots of great beers on tap (including that elusive Michigan favorite, Oberon). However, they also have GREAT food. I am obsessed with their burgers, but I've had salads, sandwiches, and more, and they have always been fresh and delicious.

But let's get back to that burger.

A Sidetrack burger is a beautiful thing. Half a pound of fresh-ground, hand-rolled beef cooked to order and topped with more or less whatever you could imagine. My toppings of choice? Bleu cheese, bacon, and grilled onions - nothing else. Medium rare.

The best meal in the world. Period.

I swear, if I ever by some misfortune find myself on death row putting in my order for a last meal, it's going to be a Sidetrack burger and a draft Oberon.

We had a low-key Sunday night with a campfire and some of Sophie's black bottom cupcakes (chocolate and cream cheese goodness - Soph, you must send the recipe). It was fun, but bittersweet as we knew we had to leave again the next morning.

I have a good life in Connecticut, but weekends like this make me realize just how much I truly do miss my Michigan (and England) friends - and my Michigan food. Hang in there, Michiganders - hopefully we'll be back again soon!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Captain, my captain

I occasionally tell people that the first thing I learned to like about New England was the hot lobster roll. This usually gets a chuckle or two. I'm not saying it to be funny, however. I'm deadly serious when it comes to the local delicacy.

I'm a seafood fan in general; a shellfish fan in particular. I love shrimp, clams, scallops, and lobster. I do NOT love mussels, but this has more to do with working 3+ years of Earle happy hours (cheap-ass grad students, ugh) than it does with the food itself.

I think seafood in almost any form is delicious: raw, grilled, sauteed...yet there is something exceptionally glorious about fried seafood, preferably bought from a sea side stand. Needless to say, there weren't many sea side clam shacks in Michigan, but I had NO trouble finding any when we moved to Connecticut.

We knew about a few places in Mystic (we had seen them when we came here for house-hunting trips) and we live down the street from Fred's Shanty, which served my fried clam craving well for a few months. Noe had eaten at Abbott's in Noank, which is supposed to be pretty famous. But our mutual favorite, hands down, is Captain Scott's.

Photo from by Cliff Stehle

We never knew Captain Scott's Lobster Dock existed, and we may never have found it if not for Amanda and Kevin. They took us there for lunch one late spring day last year, and we've been addicted to it ever since.

Captain Scott's is located between the downtown and residential sections of New London, by Crocker's Boat Yard. To get there, you turn down a weird little side street near the boatyard and an office park and drive straight toward what appears to be a dead end. At the last second (before you drive over the railroad tracks), you hang a left, and all of a sudden you're on an idyllic little inlet, looking at the boats, the train, and the buildings of New London, all from strange new angles.

The usual gamut of fried deliciousness is available - clam strips and whole belly clams, scallops, fish and chips, fish sandwiches, and fritters. However, Captain Scott's also specializes in fresh lobster, offering full dinners with corn and potatoes as well as that New England legend, the hot lobster roll. Naturally, I had to order one.

A hot lobster roll is, quite simply, hot lobster meat drizzled with butter and stuffed into a hot dog roll.

Why do I call it a hot dog roll and not a hot dog bun, you ask? It turns out that in New England you have two options when it comes to hot dog receptacles. There is the bun, which us midwesterners are familiar with: open on one side. The hot dog roll (right; photo from is split open on the top. It toasts up much better than a bun and is better for holding in lobster meat (it would all just spill out the sides of a bun).

Lobster, butter and bread may not sound like the most exciting combination, but it is heavenly. Captain Scott's really piles the meat on - giant chunks of tail and claw spilling out of the roll. The lobster is extremely fresh and has that ever-so-slight briny sweetness. Anything but butter would be overwhelming to the delicate flavor, but the hot, melted butter just enhances it perfectly.

Trust me, this thing is heaven on a roll. I have never tasted any sandwich as delicious as a fresh hot lobster roll.

Calamari, fried shrimp, lobster roll. Photo by me.

Captain Scott's fried food is great, too - they have the nice, thick batter on their fish and chips, and everything is appropriately crispy. Their lobster dinners are really reasonably priced, usually coming in around $20.00. They are open seasonally (all seating is outdoors) and are BYOB (I recommend picking up some a nice, minerally white wine and chilling out at a picnic table on a sunny afternoon). They also have a fresh seafood market, from which I have purchased high-quality, fresh-caught scallops that have made a delicious meal.

It may take a little work to find, but Captain Scott's is worth the effort if you like simple but high-quality seafood. And if you, like me, have never experienced a lobster roll, please try one. This sandwich changed my mind entirely about east coast living - no exaggeration.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Something fishy

Oh, man. It's a good thing Noe and I got in a few hours of tennis today because I once again turned to Julia Child for dinner. We all know that Julia LOVES butter...and cream, and cheese. Tonight's poached fish might sound healthy at first, until you hear what I poached it IN and what I did to it after said poaching.

The master recipe

I had some flounder fillets (sole would have been more Julia but was, alas, not available) on hand, so I used that for this recipe. I followed Julia's master recipe for poaching fish in white wine (take three guesses which white wine I used). Because I did not have any fish stock, I tried her tip for a substitute: 3/4 cup of white wine combined with 1/4 cup of clam juice. I buttered a dish, sprinkled some minced green onion on the bottom, seasoned the fish with salt and pepper and laid it in the dish, covered it with another tablespoon or so of green onion, dotted it with some cut-up butter and then submerged it in the white wine/clam juice mixture and enough water to cover the fillets.

The fillets before the liquid

I brought this whole mess to barely a simmer, then threw it in the oven (350 degrees) covered with a piece of buttered parchment paper. I kept it there for about eleven minutes, removing it when the fish could be sliced with a fork (but before it was dry and really flaky).

I fished (ha ha) the fillets out of the dish with a slotted spoon and put them on a plate. I then poured the poaching liquid into a saucepan and brought it up to a boil. I boiled it until it had reduced to a cup or so, then took it off the heat. I used a whisk to beat in a paste I had made out of flour and softened (NOT melted) butter, then put it back on the heat, beat in half a cup of cream, and boiled it up again. I taste-tested it and seasoned it up with salt and pepper.

When the sauce was of a thickness where it coated a spoon, I took it off the heat. I put the fillets back in the original dish, poured the sauce over them, sprinkled everything with about a quarter cup of grated Gruyere (the recipe said Swiss; close enough, right?) and some more cut-up butter pieces (of course) and threw it under the broiler for three minutes.

Coming out from the broiler

YUM. The sauce was awesome - creamy but not cheesy with an excellent seafood-y flavor (you know the flavor I mean - like the flavor in really good chowder or real seafood stuffing). The fish was moist from the poaching and subtly infused with wine and onion (I am sure it would have been better if I could have gotten super fresh fish, but I had supermarket fish for this one). The butter and cream added an element of richness but this dish did not really taste heavy (although it was pretty filling). I served it with broccoli (I wanted green beans but the broccoli really needed to be used) and baguette (though of course Noe made rice).


Both of my Julia seafood recipes have been awesome. I'm really looking forward to trying some of the beef and pork recipes. I saw several stews that make me wish for cold weather. If you can get your hands on a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking - and get over the fear of butter in mass quantities - I promise you, the time spent making one of these recipes is worth it.

Mansions of Glory

Yesterday we headed into Newport, RI with my mom and dad to tour some of the historic mansions. Newport was a favorite summer retreat of the Gilded Age millionaires such as the Vanderbilts and the Astors. These "summer houses" look like museums - recessed ceilings, moldings and marble everywhere, gold leaf and platinum on the walls...they have to be seen to be believed. France - Versailles in particular - was pretty popular with this set: lots of busts of Louis XIV; reliefs of Marie Antionette. Even more amazing than the decor is that in some cases the families that built these mansions only spent 1-3 summers there before succumbing to poor health or perhaps bigger mansions by way of divorce.

Photography was not permitted inside, but here are some exterior photos of the Breakers, Rosecliff, and Marble House.

I think Noe and I need some statuary at our house

I sort of feel like we should be marching in a circle
singing "Doe, a Deer"
at Rosecliff

Marble House exterior

Chilling in the backyard at the Breakers

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Grand Slam

Noe and I watch a lot of tennis, as you may have gathered from previous posts about attending tennis tournaments in Indianapolis and Newport. This year, we decided that being so close to New York provided too great an opportunity to pass up: we made the decision to attend our first major, the U.S. Open.

We took the Metro-North from New Haven into Grand Central and then hopped on the subway to get to Queens (FYI - the parts of Queens you see from the subway windows do NOT look like "The King of Queens"). We could see the silhouette of Arthur Ashe stadium as the train pulled in - wow.

The Billie Jean King Tennis Center is the most beautiful sports venue I have ever seen. The grounds are meticulously landscaped and extremely clean. Noe and I kind of stood stupidly and stared for awhile before deciding where to head first.

We chose to get in the line to go into the grandstand (the smallest of the three stadiums). We were rewarded for our patient waiting when we walked into the small stadium and on the court was none other than Gael Monfils, one of our favorite up-and-coming French players. Monfils is incredibly athletic and is known for leaping and diving all over the court. He also slides a lot. Naturally, this style of play is particularly effective on clay, but Monfils manages to employ it on a hard court as well. We could hear his sneakers squealing before we even entered the stands.

Monfils running for a shorter shot

After Mofils sewed up his victory over Jermey Chardy, we headed to our nosebleed seats in Arthur Ashe (the big stadium). We had thought about just buying grounds passes but figured if we were going to our first major we should try to see someone really big. Neither of us imagined we would actually see our current favorite, Rafael Nadal. But sure enough, thanks to the luck of the draw, that is exactly who ended up playing the afternoon headliner on Wednesday. And before him, Venus Williams. So we ended up with an excellent double bill, totally worth the money. Actually, had Noe and I known it was going to be Nadal, we would have shelled out the bigger bucks to sit closer.

After the Nadal match ended, we wandered the grounds for awhile. We explored the food and beverage options (the Open has all kinds of food, from sushi to seafood to pasta to crepes; and tennis attracts high-end booze sponsors like Grey Goose, who had beverage carts set up every five feet), then we checked out the wall of champions. We perused the outer courts for awhile, catching Robbie Ginepri's win.

We were headed back to the grandstand to watch some of Lleyton Hewitt's match when we noticed a small crowd gathering. We followed, and found ourselves about three feet away from John and Patrick McEnroe, who were doing some commentary for one of the TV broadcasts. (The guys behind us were debating whether or not to yell "Jimmy Connors rules!"; they ultimately decided on NOT.)

We watched Hewitt grind out the first set with Chela, then sadly gave up our seats to catch the subway and head back to CT. The sadness of leaving the Open was slightly dampened when I found the Grand Central Market still open and was able to make a Murray's run, but we still spent the train ride back wishing we could have stayed.

The U.S. Open is the best sporting event I have ever attended. The grounds are nice, you can see high-quality play up close, and tennis fans are great - they like the big names, but if an underdog starts making a good run, they rally behind him or her. There are about a million different languages being spoken all around and every chair umpire has a different accent. If we stay in CT, I definitely plan to attend this event in the future.