29 September 2016

Around Connecticut: Litchfield Hills Farm-Fresh Outdoor Market

I started visiting the Litchfield Hills Farm-Fresh Outdoor Market in August and it has quickly become my go-to farmers market. It's easy to get to, provides ample parking, and has just about everything I could want to buy. Also, it puts me conveniently close to Bantam Bread and several yummy vineyards. Yes, Bantam Bread is a regular at the market, but I like the whole grain spelt (so deliciously sour) and that's found at the shop, not the market. Also, Wave Hill Breads is usually on hand with their unforgettable caramelized garlic bread and their shop is a zillion-million miles from me, so ... Wave Hill at the market, Bantam at the shop.

Free "sample" carrot, cucumbers, fiery pickles, lemon curd,
garlic loaf, & a "normal" loaf for The Husband.

Beautiful peppers (for stuffing!), crunchy cucumbers, sweet strawberries,
& the World's Best Blackberries.

Hillhome's Texas Pickles are sweet-HOT & my new favorite pickle.
Go through a jar every 2 weeks.

The Litchfield Hills Farm-Fresh Outdoor Market runs Saturdays through late October, when it then goes on hiatus until reopening as an indoor winter market.

Litchfield Hills Farm-Fresh Market
Center School parking lot
Woodruff Lane, Litchfield
Saturday 10-1
June-October

28 September 2016

27 September 2016

A Hankering for Cake; Or, a Cake Emergency Is Averted & there is rejoicing

I was experiencing a powerful hankering for cake, but didn't have the energy to commit to baking a full-size scratch cake, and then remembered the Duncan Hines Perfect Size Red Velvet Crush Heart-Shaped Cake mix kit I'd picked up on clearance just after Valentine's Day last year and put away for a "cake emergency." (What? You don't have cake emergencies? Get on with you!)

These Perfect Size cake mix kits are really quite a clever gimmick. In each kit, there's a bag of glaze or frosting mix, a bag of cake mix, and a twee little baking pan. You just add a bit of egg, butter, water, and milk and *ta-da* you're off to the races. Each cake serves 2-4 people, depending on appetite, and we did manage 4 servings from this heart-shaped one.

Threw on some red confetti sprinkles to make it look less homely. Did not succeed.

What did this red velvet cake taste like? Like a light, mildly chocolate sponge. The glaze was also only mildly chocolate-y, but quite sweet. Happily, the unsweetened whipped cream I served with this cake helped to balance out the sweetness of the glaze and we scarfed it down with big cups of tea. A quarter of the cake per person (or one ventricle, as The Husband called it) was the perfect sized serving -- cravings were assuaged without leaving anyone feeling uncomfy around the waistband.

Would I buy this cake mix kit again? Not the red velvet (the heart-shaped kit was a limited edition, but there's an all-season round version available), no, but I wouldn't mind trying the Perfect Size Strawberries and Crème cake mix kit (garnished with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, obviously).

26 September 2016

Cooking With Spiced Pantry: México


Celebrating the cuisine of México with July's Spiced Pantry box! Yes, I know it's September. I'm still a little behind from the summer's busyness.

Spiced Pantry is a monthly food subscription box featuring a different cuisine each month. Every box includes four ingredients (custom spice blends, grains, legumes, etc), an information card introducing that month's cuisine and ingredients, and the recipes to make with them. Recipes usually serve 4-6 people so, if you are small household like mine, either expect leftovers or be prepared to halve the recipes.

Subscribers can chose between the standard or vegetarian plan. While I selected the standard plan, several of the meat-based recipes I've received include easy modifications to make them vegetarian, anyway. As with many subscription plans, it renews automatically every month until cancelled.

Ingredients in July's Spiced Pantry box:
  1. Al Pastor Spice Blend
  2. Ancho Chile Powder
  3. Dried Guajillo Chile
  4. Masa Harina

Recipes in July's Spiced Pantry box:
  1. Al Pastor Tacos (Tacos Al Pastor)
  2. Elote (Grilled Corn)
  3. Enchiladas Rojas
  4. Tortillas
  5. (Bonus Recipe) Mexican Hot Chocolate

Enchiladas Rojas

These enchiladas were quite a lot of fun to make! I did cheat and use the meat of a rotisserie chicken, rather than poach a pound of boneless breasts, and doubt anyone could have told the difference. The recipe came with a black bean option and, next time, I think I'd use a combination of beans and chicken for extra flavor and texture.

I'd never cooked with dried peppers before and the whole experience was very interesting. Happily, the recipe's instructions were clear and, by following them as written, I ended up with a sauce I was quite proud of. While the sauce tasted quite spicy licked from a spoon, the overall dish was only mildly spicy -- by which I mean we could feel a gentle bloom of heat at the back of our throats and a very slight tingling on the lips.

Read about my other Spiced Pantry experiences.

22 September 2016

Nature Guides to Your Backyard

A year or so ago, a friend moved to a more rural part of Connecticut and, ever since, has been very "What's this bird?" and "Do you know what this plant is?" and so I thought I'd talk about two of my favorite nature guides I use to identify "weird shit" I find in my yard or neighborhood, because we didn't all grow up in nature-knowledgeable families or do scouting.


Birds of Connecticut Field Guide is my go-to book for bird identification. I recommend it whenever I hear someone is looking for a good, local bird book and I've even bought copies to give as gifts. It's a small book, perfect for carrying in your handbag or coat pocket, with lots of full color photographs identifying 120 of the most common birds to live in or visit Connecticut. The book groups birds by color -- "birds that are mostly brown" for example. Skim through the section until you find a picture of the bird you're looking for. Every entry for every bird is accompanied by a little map of Connecticut, showing where you are likely to find that bird in the state as well as dietary information, descriptions of nesting habits, etc. But, really, it's the photos that make this book. I see a lot of "birds that are mostly brown" in my area and many are similar-looking, but the Birds of Connecticut Field Guide has made their individual identities clear to me.

Birds of Connecticut Field Guide by Stan Tekiela (Adventure Publications, 2000)


I love the National Audubon Society Regional Guide to New England because it handily identifies such a variety of things -- birds, trees, insects, etc -- that I am likely to encounter in my part of the country, removing a need for multiple guidebooks. The photos are very good and, plant-wise, I've never had a problem mapping what I see in the woods or yard to what is depicted in the book. The descriptions, while explanatory, are succinct so sometimes I do require supplementary information in the form of a library book or journal article. I don't usually carry this book with me when I go out -- it's a bit larger than the Birds of Connecticut Field Guide and does not fit so nicely in my coat pocket, but I tend to take a lot of photos with my cellphone of whatever looks interesting and the guide helps me identify the plants/trees/insects when I get home.

National Audubon Society Regional Guide to New England (Knopf, 1998)

19 September 2016

Easy Roasted Figs


Figs aren't a fruit I think about often. And I buy them so infrequently there's always a brief moment of panic when I get them home -- what am I going to do with these (ruinously expensive) dusky fruits? Frequently, I take the easy way out and throw them on a bed of baby greens with fig balsamic vinegar, olive oil, walnuts, and goat cheese for an elegant work lunch.

However, grocery shopping the other day, I was struck with a sudden, intense need for roasted figs. Warm, rich, luscious figs dripping juices. And that crunch of seed amongst the softness ... ohhh. And it turns out it's so flippin' easy to roast figs. Fancy as they may seem, they are seriously easy-peasy.


Easy Roasted Figs

Yield: 6 figs (approx. 3 servings)

Ingredients

  • 6 ripe figs
  • Honey, as desired
  • Cinnamon, as desired

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350&degF.
  2. Wash and dry the figs. Cut a cross into each fig going most, but not all, of the way through the fig. Give each fig a little squeeze so they open up like a tulip.
  3. Place the figs on a baking tray lined with foil or parchment for easy cleanup.
  4. Drizzle the figs with honey and sprinkle with honey.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes or until soft.
  6. Either eat immediately or allow to cool, cover, and refrigerate until needed.


I've been using these roasted figs to top my morning bowl of Nature's Path Organic "Flax Plus" instant hot oatmeal and it's really yummy. Just warm them gently in the microwave and plop them on top of the oatmeal. Also good warmed and then smashed onto a piece of spelt toast.

In addition to tasting nice, fresh figs are quite good for you by being a good source of potassium and dietary fiber, as well as low in calorie ... which is a great excuse to buy more of them!

15 September 2016

Improv Challenge: Sausage & Mustard

It's time for September's Improv Cooking Challenge! The ingredients were sausage and mustard and, for all my excited talk of mustard greens on Facebook, I weenied (heh) out and stuck with the condiment ...


When my parents downsized to their "retirement" home a few years ago, I assumed custody of a number of Mom's cookbooks, including two fabulously funky Campbell's Soup cookbooks, Cooking with Soup: 608 Skillet Dishes, Casseroles, Stews, Sauces, Gravies, Dips, Soup Mates and Garnishes and More-For-The-Money Main Dishes. They're loaded with "creative" ways to use tinned soup and frankfurters and sausage crop up unexpectedly in more than one recipe. While it was a toss up between "Frankfurter Skillet Barbecue" and "Southwest Frankfurters" (it's the corn that makes it "Southwest," I guess), I went with "Frankfurter Skillet Barbecue" because "Southwest Frankfurters'" use of relish ... scared me a little. (I'll still try it one of these days, of course).


I did make a few alterations to the original recipe -- I used four Hillshire Farm Polska Kielbasa Links instead of frankfurters and cut them open so they were hinged like a book before browning. I used Gulden's Spicy Brown Mustard as the "prepared mustard" and sriracha instead of Tabasco. I served this dish on slices of hot, buttery toast as if it were a riff on beans on toast, because I simply had a hard time visualizing how else to serve it. On more rice, maybe? Certainly, not on the suggested frankfurter buns ... that just sounded like a disaster waiting to leap down someone's shirtfront. No, this is a definite knife-and-fork dish.


And, bless it, it may look like the dog's breakfast, but it tastes good. Surprisingly good. If you like tomato-based baked beans, I think this might very well be something you would enjoy. It's tomato-y and tangy with just a hint of molasses and heat. If you want it spicier, simply add more sriracha or use spicy frankfurters/kielbasa links. Personally, we enjoyed it just as it was and it's something that will serve well in the deep, dark winter as a quick and comforting supper.


For anyone new to my blog, Improv Cooking Challenge is a monthly blog hop where two ingredients are assigned, participants must make a new-to-their-blog recipe using both ingredients, and publish a blog post about it on the third Thursday of the month. If you think that sounds like fun, click on the Improv Cooking Challenge logo below.

improv cooking challenge logo (aqua rolling pin, spatula, fork, whisk suspended from rack)



14 September 2016

12 September 2016

Taste of Home: Taste the Seasons Goodie Box: Summer 2016

I swear it is not my intention to fill this blog with subscription box reviews! That said, I want to talk about the Taste of Home Taste the Seasons: Summer Goodie Box I received in July.


Taste the Seasons is a quarterly seasonal kitchen subscription box curated by Taste of Home featuring themed recipes, kitchen tools and gadgets, ingredients, special coupons/discounts, and access to TOH's online Cooking School. You can buy an individual box for $34.95 or subscribe to the whole year for $29.95 each. Taste of Home values each box at $75 to $90 so it sounds like a good deal either way. Subscription options automatically renew quarterly until cancelled and canceling requires a call to Customer Care. If you have food allergies, you'll want to talk to Customer Care, anyway, before you commit to a box or boxes.

Here's what I found in the Summer box:
  1. Access code for free online access to 2 Cooking School courses
  2. American flag cupcake/cake picks
  3. Betty Crocker-branded silicone basting brush
  4. Great Flavors' Steak, Chop, & Broil seasoning blend
  5. June/July issue of Country Woman
  6. June/July issue of Simple & Delicious
  7. OXO Good Grips 3-in-1 Avocado Slicer
  8. Several TOH "Most Requested" seasonal recipe cards
  9. Taste of Home Frosty Treats & More cookbook (2015)
  10. True Citrus sampler pack (7 sticks; 1 of each flavor) & coupons
  11. Watermelon slice & flip-flop cookie cutters

While I'm kind-of "meh" about the cookie cutters and flag picks -- I'm a drop cookie kind of gal and the flag picks just look cheap -- I was pleased with everything else in the box and thought it was, overall, good value (even if not quite the value TOH suggests). The cookbook, recipe cards, and magazines are full of delicious-sounding recipes and I've quite dog-eared my issue of Simple & Delicious.


Of the recipe cards, I have made the "Sweet Tea Barbecued Chicken" and the "Steak 'n' Potato Kabobs." Both recipes worked out well and the kabob recipe gave me an opportunity to try the Steak, Chop, & Broil seasoning blend -- a gluten-free blend of coarse salt, black pepper, dill seed, garlic, onion, red bell peppers, herbs and spices appropriate for steaks, burgers, pork, lamb and chicken -- and the silicone basting brush. (Yes, I already own a silicone brush, but it sees so much use that an extra was welcome).


Of everything in the box, however, the OXO 3-in-1 Avocado Slicer is my particular favorite. While it looks a bit like a prop from a low-budget science fiction show, it's surprisingly effective and I've murdered so many avocados since acquiring it. Definitely not something I would ever have bought myself (it's a definite clutter-up-your-drawers-unitasker), but I'm pleased to have it.

While I do think Taste of Home has over-valued the physical contents of the box -- my calculations brought it in at around $70 (not including the regular cost of Cooking School courses) -- it's still worth more than I paid and is full of things that pleased me. Overall, I enjoyed the Summer Taste the Seasons Goodie Box and look forward to seeing what the autumn brings!

Read about my other experiences with Taste the Seasons.

08 September 2016

Around Connecticut: Hosmer Mountain Soda Shack

The Husband gave up caffeine about six months ago and now drinks nothing but caffeine-free or decaffeinated products. While Barry's makes a decaf black tea blend that still brews a proper strong cuppa, soda's been a bit of a problem. (Yes, yes, we shouldn't be drinking soda ... blahblahblah ... don't care). So, I thought, why not take him to Hosmer Mountain Soda Shack, that paradise of retro pop, and let him run amok?


Aside from Cola Blue, Cola Red, Sarsaparilla and Red Lightning energy drink (which tastes like pomegranate creme soda and I would drink all the time if it weren't an energy drink), none of Hosmer's sodas contain caffeine. If soda, caffeinated or no, isn't your thing, try the flavored seltzers or the spring water.

Hosmer makes over 30 different flavors including "old-fashioned" sodas like cream soda, sarsaparilla, birch beer, root beer, and ginger beer -- which Hosmer describes as "dangerous" because it's sooo spicy, warming, and delicious -- as well as the traditional colas and manymany fruity flavors. The Husband seems quite fond of the pineapple and peach sodas whereas I am, obviously, all about the ginger beer.

All Hosmer products are sold in glass bottles (12 oz and/or 28 oz depending on variety), so you need to save the empties to return if you want your deposit back. Don't simply toss them, willy-nilly, into the household recycling bin ... as we have done, more than once.


I strongly recommend filling a 24-pack with a little bit of everything your first time, and then keeping a list on the fridge of what you've drunk and whether it's worth repeating or, a month or so down the road, you'll find yourself standing in front of cases of Orange Dry trying to remember whether you liked it or had even purchased it that last time 'round. As an added incentive to buy more soda (do we need one?), Hosmer offers a "buy ten cases get one free" tally card ...

Visiting the Manchester store reminds me of going with my mom to the old Hostess thrift store (outlet) in Norwich -- that same sort of utilitarian-yet-hospitable "our stuff is so awesome we don't need to be fancy" vibe. The staff is friendly and perfectly willing to answer any questions, but seem also just as happy to leave you alone browse. (And there are hard decisions before you ... how many sodas? which kinds?)


Hosmer Mountain Soda has two locations in Connecticut, the one we've visited at 15 Spencer Street in Manchester and another at one at 217 Mountain Street in Willimantic. The Manchester store is closer to home, but I'm sure we'll manage to get to the Willimantic store one of these days, too.

07 September 2016

Wordless Wednesday: Little Dude

Little Dude lounges upon his well-cushioned throne.

01 September 2016

Reigns; or, Death: Gotta Catch 'Em All

I've been playing Reigns -- "swipe your royal fingers either left or right to impose your will upon the kingdom" -- lately. Like, a lot. There have been many kings. And many, many gruesome deaths. I think one king actually died of old age? And two were deposed but still died peacefully with their names well remembered? But the rest ...


Apparently, there are 26 ways to die in Reigns and, clearly, my goal is to attain them all. And it doesn't look like that will be hard. What's hard is being a successful (ie "not dead yet") king. You have to keep the Church, the People, the Army, and the Bank all in careful balance, never letting any one become too powerful or too weak ... because that leads to death and never accomplishing the 40 Royal Deeds the game has set out for you.

Oh, yes, the games has objectives! Other than dying. Like arranging a bestial marriage. Or talking to the vase. It's 1549 in my game, I've suffered 14 unique deaths, and accomplished 28 objectives. That makes me sound rather successful, except I've been trying to discover a new world and lose a limb for the past five kings. It's very disheartening. And yet also absurdly fun.

Reigns is not a strategy game. Or, if it is, I haven't stumbled upon one better than simply trying my best to keep the four pillars of my kingdom stable. Oh, I've tried playing Reigns very cleverly -- carefully weighing the possible pros and cons of each of each swipe -- only to see my king go up in flames after a handful of years. And I've even played rashly -- always swiping right, for example -- and created a king who managed to rule for decades before being eaten by his dogs.

TL;DR, Reigns: You'll want to play it.