Friday, September 30, 2011

Part 2 - Eating Our Way Through Boston; Fall Foliage Tour and Little Italy

Thursday was an all day "fall foliage" bus tour that started in Boston and took us to a state park in north central Massachussetts and ended up at a fruit farm in southern New Hampshire. There wasn't as much color to see this early in the season, but that was the price we paid for booking around the Red Sox rather than our actual anniversary in early October. It was still beautful nonetheless. Here is one of the better photos:
Our first stop was at a little place near Groton, MA called Johnson's Dairy Bar.
It's too bad this wasn't our lunch stop, because they were serving up some fried clams in paper bags with a bit of the grease soaking through that smelled absolutely divine. This was just a quick 15 minute stop though, so I settled for a scoop of their homemade pumpkin ice cream. If you love pumpkin pie, just imagine how good the first bite of the season tastes, then multiply that by about 1000. Just the right amount of spice packed into a scoop of creamy, frozen goodness. My straight-as-an-arrow-steady-as-a-rock husband had vanilla. It was a delicious vanilla beany vanilla, but vanilla just the same. They must have had at least 30 flavors to choose from, but the pumpkin definitely rocked.
We piled back into the bus and headed north through the beautiful tree-lined back roads into southern New Hampshire and a town called Rindge. This was our lunch stop, a rustic little restaurant called J.P. Stephens Tavern. When we first boarded the bus that morning, we were handed a menu:
Take note of the background photo on that menu - it's the farm we will visit later in the day. The bus driver came around and took our orders before he even started up the bus, then he called ahead so they would have everything ready for us. He makes that same trip several times a week during the season, so he was on a first name basis with everyone up there. We were running a little late on the tour, so we didn't arrive for lunch until close to 1:30. At first glance, the place doesn't look very exciting:
That's my husband Brad, and Francis the bus driver/tour guide in the parking lot. They had been chatting after lunch. The inside of the restaurant was a lot better, I loved the stained glass windows.
There were 18 of us on the bus, which was fun because it was a pretty diverse group. There were people from Israel, England and Scotland, and also folks from Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. When we arrived we were welcomed by Lisa, the owner. It was formerly known as Lily on the Pond, but she bought it several years back and named it after her two sons. Sadly, our driver told us she recently lost one of them in a car accident. They had a private room all set up for us, and our meal started off with a small glass of apple cider and a basket of warm breads which included some delicious applesauce bread. We were served an incredible amount of food, and the price of $14.50 included tax and tip. Brad had the roast beef, it looked perfectly cooked and probably didn't need the gravy:
My Apple Brandy Walnut Chicken was delicious, even though the sauce looked a little funky at first glance:
I actually think I would have liked it better without the walnuts though. I was a big fan of the green beans, they were pretty and perfectly cooked. Our dessert was a peach/apple crisp topped with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Small as in a 1-1/2 inch melon ball sized scoop.
I felt a little guilty having ice cream again since I had just had some at 10 o'clock in the morning, but what the heck - I was on vacation! The whole dessert was the perfect sized serving, not too much after such a big meal. The "crisp" was more chewy than crisp, but it was tasty anyway. We boarded the bus again and headed to another small town, Hollis, New Hampshire.

Our last stop of the day was at the Brookdale Fruit Farm. It had been raining off and on all day and had just stopped when we arrived at the farm. I love how everything looks so washed clean and fresh after a rain, the colors seemed to pop even more than if the sun were shining.
I loved this place, it was absolutely beautiful! We shopped inside and came away with jams, maple syrup, apple cider donuts - I can't wait to try the MacIntosh Apple Jelly I bought. They had homemade breads, muffins, salsas, pies, honey, fresh veggies and of course, lots and lots of apples and pumpkins.
The rain started up again as soon as we boarded the bus to head back to Boston, but all in all it was a really fun day. After all the walking we had done the day before in Boston on the Freedom Trail, and then walking to and from Fenway Park, it felt really good to relax on a big, comfortable bus and just enjoy the day.

Our last outing was on Friday. We had missed seeing some of the places on the Freedom Trail either because of the rain or just didn't have time, so we decided to take on Boston public transportation. With the help of a map and the Sheraton concierge, we braved the subway and found it to be not only a cheap way to get around the city, but it was also easy and pretty fast. Our first stop was back to the North End neighborhood, where we walked through Paul Revere's house and the Old North Church. The North End is also known as "Little Italy", and just about every other business is an Italian restaurant. We stopped and looked at many of them, read their menus, and found that we really weren't in the mood for a sit-down-white-tablecloth type of place. The next place we saw was called simply "Express". It looked like more of a fast food place but in a nice open setting with no windows. Our clue that this was our place was the guy behind the counter in the white t-shirt and apron. I took this picture from across the street:
A nice, casual place that seemed to be a popular spot for the locals.
I chose a sub called the Panino. If I had known how big it was I might have reconsidered, but Brad helped me eat it. We ordered at the front counter and then they called our name when our food was ready, so there was no need for tipping. Another plus was that they made everything right there. That gorgeous, homemade roll had proscuitto, tomatoes, homemade fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil. What more could you ask for?
Is that not a thing of beauty? The bread was chewy in a good way, and everything was so fresh and good. Did you notice the cheap paper plates this was served on? It's a good thing we had trays available because there's no way that plate would have held that beast of a sandwich. Brad had a big slice of pizza, and with drinks I'm pretty sure we got out of there for less than $20. This was definitely a great way to end the week! My husband is already talking about going back to Boston someday... and I know there are many, many more yummy posibilities waiting for us when we do.

Vacation and Eating Our Way Through Boston - Part 1

We've been planning and looking forward to this trip since earlier this year, and then all of a sudden in the blink of an eye it's over. Last week we spent 5 days in Boston to celebrate our 30th anniversary... my hubby likes to joke that he adds 10 years for "wind chill", but yep - we've been married 30 years. I was hoping to talk him into going to Hawaii, but he's not a fan of long flights so he put the smackdown on that pretty quick. I loved Boston when I was there about 8 years ago, and he loves history, so it seemed like a pretty good compromise - and we had a great time. He's already talking about going back. Our actual anniversary is October 9, which would have been perfect for the fall foliage bus trip I booked for us, but he really wanted to plan the trip around a Red Sox game, so we looked at their schedule and planned accordingly. Half of the planning went into all of the different restaurants we wanted to try, so I guess you could say one of the best things about vacation is eating - so this will be about a few of the places we visited while we were there.

We wanted to get as much as possible out of the first day of our trip, so we boarded a plane in Omaha at 6:45 a.m. and arrived in Boston around 1:30 p.m. We had a very brief layover at Ronald Reagan National in D.C., but it was great because we were able to catch a glimpse of the Washington Monument and the dome of the Capitol, and then we flew right over the Pentagon. I've never been to D.C., so I was really in awe getting to see our national landmarks even if it was only for a few seconds. I was able to snap this photo out of the window of the plane:
That's not edible though, so on to the FOOD! We made a quick run through McDonald's at about 4:30 a.m., so the only other thing we had eaten were those airline cookies and pretzels, so by the time we got our luggage and caught a cab to our hotel, we were starving. We stayed at the Sheraton in Boston, which is connected to the Prudential Center - which is connected to the Prudential Center Mall, which means numerous restaurants and a big food court. We wanted something quick, so we ventured down to the food court. My husband found a burger place that looked good, but I was holding out for something I couldn't get back home, so I headed over to Boston Chowda. They got my attention with their giant photo of a lobster roll. I got the small one with a cup of clam chowder. Go back and look for my "Lobster Salad... Not!" post from earlier this year, and you'll see that this is exactly what I had in mind when I destroyed those $3.99 frozen little beasts.
Huge chunks of lobster on top of what looked like a mini loaf of bread. The roll was soft and warm, and the lettuce gave it just enough crunch. Yum! The chowder was good as well, with a nice amount of clams and not too many potatoes. The small lobster roll/chowder/drink combo cost me about $17.00, which seems a bit high for fast food, but normal fast food isn't lobster! After lunch we ended up napping for a few hours in our 29th floor hotel room. We had a corner room with amazing views of the city, and the beds felt like heaven!

That evening we headed back to the mall for dinner at Legal Seafood. I ordered the crab cakes, which came with a small salad of arugula on the plate. I completely forgot to take a picture of it, but I can tell you that while the crab cakes were very good, I prefer the ones at Bonefish Grill. I didn't care for the salad either. I'm not a fan of arugula, don't like the bitterness of it - and it had golden raisins in it, which just seemed wrong, so I picked them out. Hubby had Boston Cream Pie for dessert because 1) it's his favorite, I had just gotten him one for his birthday cake, and 2) we were in Boston so it seemed like the right thing to do. This was a pretty unique looking version of it though.
There was a very thin layer of cake on the bottom, and a thin layer of chocolate ganache on top, and the rest was cool, creamy custard. The whole thing rested on the edge of a pool of chocolate syrup. I had never seen it done where the custard filling was the star of the dish, but it looked beautiful. I had the chocolate layer cake which was good, but nothing special. We went back there for dinner later in the week and this time we both had the Boston Cream Pie. Delicious!

On the second visit I ordered the fried haddock because hubby had it the first time and I was jealous because it looked way better than my crab cakes. Instead of fries and coleslaw, I had mine with zucchini and a baked potato. This time I remembered to shoot a quick pic, but not before I had smeared sour cream all over my potato:
Our dinners ran us about $60 total, but that was cheap because we not only ordered dinners under $30, but we didn't order wine or lobster. The haddock was about $21 and my crab cakes were about $28. The desserts were all $6.95, and on the first night they were donating all the proceeds from the Boston Cream Pie to a charity. Even more reason to indulge!

The next day we ate breakfast at the hotel, which consisted of a buffet containing the usual breakfast items. We figured if we had a decent breakfast we wouldn't need much for lunch since we planned to spend the day on a trolley tour of the city. Unfortunately, it rained all day and we finally just gave up, but the deal was for a second day free so we were able to hop back on the next day when the weather was better.

It was so nice to have the mall there and have access to all the restaurants without having to go outside. We decided to try a place called Five Napkin Burger. The place was pretty cozy with low lights and a candle on each table. The menu had a pretty good variety of appetizers, and you could have your burger made from ground beef, turkey, veggies, lamb, or even Ahi tuna. I tried the "5 Napkin Burger", which was a 10 oz. beef patty topped with Gruyere cheese, caramelized onions, and rosemary aioli on a big old white bun.
The fries came in a cute little dish rather than piled on the plate. It makes me a little nervous when they asked how I wanted my burger cooked because I thought having a partially rare burger wasn't the safest thing these days, so I went with medium because I also don't like it overcooked. I still think this was a bit more rare than it should have been.
At any rate, it was a unique and delicious burger, and I ended up removing part of the bun because it was so huge. The table next to us had ordered a plate of hot wings, and the smell was getting to me - but in a good way because I've been craving hot wings ever since.

Our next big food outing was the next day in Fenway Park at a Red Sox game. I won't get into it much here because what can you say about a hot dog in the ball park other than there's nothing else like it. It's amazing how good a plain old hot dog tastes when you're sitting on the first base line, watching the lights change in the Citgo sign while someone hits a home run over the Green Monster...almost heaven!

That was just the first half of the week! I'll stop here and continue on with part 2 where we board the big tour bus and head out in search of some early fall color.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Quick One: Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

Well, I'm back. I never expected to let this much time go by before posting something new, but sometimes real life just says no. I won't go into the grizzly details of what has kept me away, but lets just say I am feeling much better now! I've still been collecting new recipes and even trying a few, so I'm going to start here with a really quick and easy one - Buttermilk Ranch Dressing.

I have yet to run into anyone who doesn't love ranch dressing. We love it on our salads, and we dip almost everything in it - veggies, fries, chicken strips, wings... seriously, when was the last time you had "bar food" and didn't have something that just screamed for a side of ranch? Except for desserts, there isn't much that doesn't taste better with ranch dressing.

Ranch dressing is actually about as old as I am, it was served at a dude ranch that opened in 1954 near Santa Barbara, California called... betcha can't guess... Hidden Valley Ranch. I can attest to the fact that 1954 was simply a magical year because I was also born in 1954. Need I say more? Anyway, the owner served his own concoction of buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream, yogurt, onion, garlic and a bunch of other unknown seasonings. It was so popular they started bottling and selling it to guests, and it took off from there to become the best selling salad dressing in the U.S.

When I think of salads in general, what I really want is to have fresh, crisp, healthy ingredients. You can have a bowl of plain, iceberg lettuce - yes, boring I know - but if it's fresh, it's not only beautiful, but it tastes wonderful - and to douse that pretty, fresh salad with something out of a bottle filled with chemicals and preservatives is really almost criminal. So, in my quest to get away from processed foods, I went on a search for a good homemade ranch dressing recipe. If you do a Google search for "ranch dressing recipe", you will find a long list of options to pick from. I looked them all over and chose the one from (under American Food) called Classic Ranch Dressing Recipe by John Mitzewich. It's easy, it's delicious, and the best part is that you can pronounce everything you put in it.

Here's what you'll need:

1 cup mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman's/Best Foods brand, but for the love of all that is holy, no Miracle Whip!)
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme (I threw in a little extra fresh thyme since I had it in my herb garden)
1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley.

If you don't want to mess with fresh herbs, Litehouse makes a great freeze dried parsley that you can find in the produce section at Target - thanks to my friend Georganne for that tip!

All you do is combine everything in a bowl and whisk it into submission. Cover it up and throw it in the fridge for a couple of hours to thicken up and mesh the flavors before serving. This will make about a pint of thick, delicious, creamy goodness, so I like to store mine in a pint canning jar for easy pouring. You could also change this up by blending in a small avocado or a little bit of thick, spicy salsa just for something different. Go wild and enjoy!