Archive for February, 2011

It’s Friday evening, and I feel like posting something light and frivolous.  So here are a few things that have made me smile or ooh and ahh this week:

Absolutely adorable penguin cookies:
Learn how to make them at Diamonds for Dessert They are purple from purple sweet potato powder. How funky and cool is that?

A kitchen tool that just makes my day:

Seriously? I don’t think it gets any cuter than that. Then again, I have a thing for hedgehogs. I used to have one as a pet. If you want the grater version, you can get it at ModCloth.com

My current favorite American Idol contestant:

(If you just want to hear the performance, start around 0:55.) Holy. Crap. That is Casey Abrams. His voice is delicious, and he has exquisite control. He’s also totally charming. I LOVE that he performed with the stand-up bass. I have to say, I thought I was done with Idol, but Casey is just one of several ridiculously talented singers this season. And, surprising as it may be, I am finding the new judges refreshing, especially JLo. Go figure.

Prince William and his bride-to-be:

I know it’s a little bizarre that people obsess over royal, or other celebrity, weddings, but I admit I am just a bit fascinated by the upcoming big British wedding. But I don’t think anyone can deny that they are a cute couple. And what I love about this photo is that they seem genuinely happy together. That sort of glimpse at a real connection between two people living very unusual lives pulls me in. I see it often in photos of the Obamas. Also, Kate Middleton has done an impressive job of finding a balance between royal propriety and modern style. I am quite curious to see what her wedding dress will look like.

Speaking of clothes, how freaking cute is Hailee Steinfeld?!? She’s either got the best stylist out there, or at 14 she is a fashion prodigy. I haven’t seen her in a dud outfit yet, and she’s knocked it out of the park a number of times. I am eager to see how she looks on Oscar night.

Last, but certainly not least, my favorite local restaurant, Ten Tables, has a “Winter Warmer Special” on Thursdays in the bar. You get their gourmet mac & cheese and a glass of wine for $15, and the mac & cheese is divine. It comes in a little cast iron pan, which makes some of the cheese golden brown and crusty. Yum!


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Last winter, when my family came to visit here in Boston, we toured the Sam Adams brewery, and this year, when we gathered at my parents’ home in St. Louis (where my brothers and I were all born), we decided to take a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery.  My family is not as into beer as that might make us seem.  In fact, though my brothers and father enjoy beer, my mom and I aren’t really beer drinkers at all.  However, we are curious folks who enjoy learning how things work and how they are made.  Plus we all like learning about history and looking at cool architecture.  Plus, I wanted to see the Clydesdales.  So, after a nice lunch at Sage, which is right around the corner from the brewery, we checked in for our tour.

First we got to see the Clydesdales and their beautiful stable.  You’d think that with all the Budweiser commercials featuring the Clydesdale team over the years, I might have realized there are strict criteria for the Clydesdale team.  All the horses have to brown with four white stockings, a white blaze, and black mane and tail, and they weigh between 2000 and 2300 pounds.  The Budweiser Clydesdales made their first public appearance in 1933, pulling a beer wagon, to celebrate the repeal of prohibition.  Today there are six teams, or hitches, of Clydesdales that travel the world for appearances and parades and appear in commercials, of course.

Only a few of the Clydesdales are kept at the brewery in St. Louis, but those that are have an impressive home.  The circular stable was built in 1885 and has ornate chandeliers, stained glass windows, and stalls with intricate iron decorations.

One of the  impressive things about the Anheuser-Busch tour was seeing the scale of the brewing complex, and that is one of the big differences between the Sam Adams tour and the A-B one.  While the Sam Adams tour took place in one building, the A-B tour ranged over the equivalent of several blocks and included a number of different buildings.

Our first beer related tour stop was in the beechwood aging plant.  Huge tanks hold the beer and the wood, which, if memory serves, increases the surface area for the yeast in the brew to form bubbles.  Apparently workers have to enter the tanks sometimes, presumably to clean them or change the wood, which requires a permit and a warning sign that amused me.

We also got to visit the Brew House, where we learned that Budweiser is brewed with rice to set it apart from other beers.  The inside of the Brew House is really striking, and you can tell it was built with more then functionality in mind.

Those several story tall chandeliers were designed to look like hops plants, and they are really beautiful.

The Anheuser-Busch “A” and eagle logo that you can see at the bottom of the chandelier is absolutely everywhere on the brewery campus, on the sidewalk grates around trees, part of wrought iron fences, in stained glass, etc.  Back when I was a kid and first visited the brewery, you even got little pretzels in the shape of the logo in the tasting room.

In addition to the Anheuser-Busch logo, there are other company icons you can spot around the complex.

During Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch survived by creating a number of products to sell, in addition to a non-alcoholic version of Budweiser.  The company sold yeast, malt powder, truck bodies, and a grape soda syrup called Grape Bouquet.  They also made ice cream and used the elephant as its emblem.

That’s Renard the Fox, who was featured in advertising for Bevo, another non-alcoholic malt beverage that A-B marketed during prohibition.

After hearing about the Budweiser brewing process, we passed some other nifty, old buildings en route to the bottling plant.

The last stop on the tour was the bottling facility, which is topped with the big, Budweiser neon sign in the picture at the top of the post.  The bottling plant has some serious contrasts.  The lobby has lovely, turn of the century decorative tile work, featuring Renard the Fox again.

Further in, though, the bottling and canning happens in a high-tech, automated process that churns out thousands of cans and bottles of beer each minute.

After that, you get to take a trolley back to the “hospitality center” where the tour begins and those who like beer get two free glasses of beer in the tasting room.  Whether you like beer or not, though, I think the brewery is worth visiting for the historical information and architectural eye candy, especially since the basic, roughly two hour tour is free.  There’s a pricey Beermaster Tour available, too, but I think the free tour should be enough for most people.

Maybe next year when we get together my family will branch out and tour a winery or distillery.

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For the past couple of weeks I have been swamped at work and then on vacation visiting family.  Hence the lack of posting here.  I even had a couple of things I wanted to share before heading out on my trip, but just didn’t get to it.  The next few days should make up for my absence, though, as I have some cool stuff to post from my travels.  First, though, I wanted to give you guys a glimpse into my weekends this winter.

Either Saturday or Sunday of just about every weekend, I walk to my absolute favorite bakery, Canto 6. I cannot rave enough about the place.  They have good coffee and divine pastries.  My go-to is the sweet roll, which you see above.  It is flaky, sweet, and buttery, with a lovely crunch from the pecans.  Yum!  Sometimes I change it up, though, and I have loved everything I have tried, from pear and brie puff pastries to raspberry pinwheels to ham, onion, and bleu cheese biscuits.  One of these days I will get around to trying one of their yummy-sounding sandwiches.  It’s a tiny place, which only has 3 tables, but I can usually snag a spot to drink my coffee, eat my decadent pastry, and read.

On the weekend in question, I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife.   As I often do, I picked up this book at a thrift store based on the synopsis on the back.  When I grabbed it, I was intrigued by the description of a novel about a marriage that includes a Presidency, but I didn’t realize the book is based on a real President and first lady.  Certainly, not all of the details are biographical, but once I realized the inspiration, it was clear that most of the plot follows real life events.  It was interesting to read this author’s take on what always seemed to me a bit of an odd couple pairing.  The story is told from the perspective of the wife, and sometimes there is too much of her inner monologue for my taste, but it was fascinating to get a glimpse of that it might be like to marry an ambitious man and get swept into a far more public and political life than you’d like.

Anyway, that particular day was sunny and comparatively warm (above freezing at least), so after enjoying my book and breakfast, I decided to take a meandering walk on my way home.  I live in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and its streets are peppered with gorgeous Victorian houses.

Walking amid all that snow was a bit of a challenge in places where the sidewalks hadn’t been cleared well, but it was so nice to be out and about after all the miserable weather we’ve had this winter.  And the sun, which felt lovely and warm, lit up the intricate architectural details beautifully.

Of course, not all of the buildings have been so wonderfully restored.

Maybe someday that house will get some love and fulfill its potential to be gorgeous and stately.


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Tortilla soup

I often tell folks that I am not a soup person, but that’s not really true.  Fact is, I like my food hearty, so while I often enjoy soup as part of a meal, soup for dinner doesn’t really do it for me.  I love soup with grilled cheese (side question: did anyone else grow up in a family that paired grilled cheese with chicken noodle soup, instead of tomato?) or as part of a multi-course dinner, but even though it can be filling, I generally don’t find it satisfying in and of itself.   It’s a shame really, since soup is easy to make, infinitely adaptable, warming (which I certainly need with yet another winter storm having hit this week), freezable, etc.  This tortilla soup is either the exception that proves the rule, or my gateway food to true soup appreciation.  I have loved tortilla soup since I waited tables to help make ends meet while teaching preschool.  I worked at a Houlihan’s restaurant, and if I didn’t have time to grab dinner between teaching and serving, I’d tide myself over with a bit of the tortilla soup that was on the restaurant’s menu, and somehow I never got sick of it.  This weekend with corn tortillas and veggies that needed to be used, an excess of black beans in the pantry, and no end to this brutal Boston winter in sight, I decided to give the south-of-the-border-style soup a try.

I’ve clearly gained confidence as a cook, because I didn’t even consult any existing recipes before tackling the soup.  And it turned out really well!  My version is vegetarian (well, except that I used chicken stock, since I had an open carton in the fridge) and packed with veggies and black beans, which helps make it satisfying for soup skeptics, like me.

Before I launch into the process, I have a question for you all.  When it comes to food blogs, do you prefer step by step photos, one or two pics with a recipe, or some combination?  I am working on getting better photos when I cook, so don’t answer based on my pitiful attempts, please.  I may invest in a better camera or try out different lighting, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time working on photos if they aren’t pleasant or helpful.  Aren’t you guys lucky to be reading in the infant stages of my blog??

Okay, here goes:

For the base of the soup, I used the traditional mirepoix combination of onion, carrots, and celery and also chopped up a red pepper that was a losing its crunch in the fridge. Green pepper would be a great addition to this mix, and you could leave out the carrot and/or celery if you wanted to stick to peppers and onions, but I think there’s a reason that those aromatics are classic soup additions, as this soup turned out really flavorful without tasting like carrot or celery.

I heated about a tablespoon of oil in a big pot and threw in all the chopped veggies and a bit of kosher salt. You could hold off on the salt, but I find that adding a little early on in the cooking process really helps with flavor. Just don’t go overboard, since the stock, canned tomatoes, and beans that get added later tend to be high in sodium. I cooked the veggies over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions were getting soft and translucent.

Next, the garlic and spices went in. I cheat and use crushed garlic from a jar – bulbs of garlic seem to always dry out or sprout on me, and the jarred stuff just saves some time. For spices, I used a mix of cumin, crushed red pepper, cayenne, and epazote (a spice I picked up at Penzey’s that is really tasty in bean dishes.

I let the garlic and spices cook with the veggies for a couple of minutes, then added a can of black beans (drained and rinsed), some frozen corn, and a small can of diced green chiles. The last step was adding some stock (use veggie, of course, if you want the soup to be vegetarian, but I used chicken stock) and a big can of whole tomatoes, along with the juice. I broke up the tomatoes with my hands before adding them to the pot, but you could use diced tomatoes instead, if you wanted.

As the soup simmered (it was basically done at this point, but simmering reduced the liquid a bit and helped the flavors come together), I made some crispy tortilla strips from stale leftover corn tortillas.  This was ridiculously easy.  I cut the stack of tortillas in half and then into strips in the other direction.  Then it was just a matter of laying them out on a foil-lined baking sheet, spraying them with canola oil spray, sprinkling them with kosher salt, and baking at 400 degrees until they were crispy and golden brown.

I didn’t even spray both sides of the strips with oil, so they were way lower fat than regular tortilla chips and still tasty enough that I have been snacking on the extras all week. I didn’t time them in the oven, so I can’t give you a cook time – oops.  I’d guess it took around 10 minutes, maybe.

Finally, I ladled some soup into a bowl, topped with a handful of tortilla strips and some grated cheddar cheese.  It was at once comforting enough for winter but tasted sort of summery, and this soup is substantial enough that I didn’t even want bread or a salad or a sandwich to fill out the meal.

This recipe makes a lot of soup.  I ended up with over 2 quarts after eating a big bowl for dinner.  So, you should be able to get 6-8 servings per batch.

Tortilla Soup

1 Tbsp olive oil                                                            2 cups corn (frozen, canned, or fresh)

1 large onion, diced                                                    1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 ribs celery, chopped                                                1 4oz. can diced green chiles

3 medium carrots, diced                                           2 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1 bell pepper, seeded and diced                               1 28oz. can whole tomatoes

pinch salt                                                                      shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese

1 tsp crushed garlic or 2-3 cloves, minced           For Corn Tortilla Strips:

1 tsp cumin                                                                  6-12 corn tortillas

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper                                            non-stick cooking spray

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper                                     kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees for tortilla strips.  Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, peppers, and a pinch of salt and cook until onions are translucent, stirring occasionally.   Stir in garlic and spices and cook until fragrant.  Add corn, black beans, chiles, and stock.  Break up tomatoes with hands or kitchen shears and add to pot along with their liquid.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let soup simmer at least 10 minutes.

For tortilla strips, stack tortillas and cut in half, then in strips.  Arrange strips in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with foil.  Spray with cooking spray and sprinkle with salt.  Bake until crisp and golden.

Serve soup topped with shredded cheese and tortilla strips.


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