Friday, July 29, 2011

Nashville Noshing: Cabana Restaurant

As much as I would love to live on sugar, sometimes a girl just needs 'real' food - and after a sugary breakfast at the Pancake Pantry and an even sweeter 'lunch' at Gigi's Cupcakes (and perhaps a couple of Matt's sinfully delicious double chocolate chip cookies!), the girls and I were pretty enthusiastic about dinner. Victoria put her Nashville knowledge to work and chose a venue just down the street from our morning's pancake indulgence; serving 'Casual Southern Comfort Cuisine,' Cabana Restaurant in Hillsboro Village was a great choice (unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera so all photos are courtesy of the Cabana website).

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nashville Noshing: Gigi's Cupcakes

Those who think cupcakes have had their moment certainly haven't been to Gigi's Cupcakes in Nashville. The shop is dedicated to all things cupcake and they do their job well; their creations are some of the most beautiful I've seen - so much so, that I've actually considered framing the full-color menu I brought home for this write up!

According to their website, the company was started in Nashville, in 2008, and now has over 36 locations in 16 states - that's good news for cupcake lovers and great news for non-Nashville residents! The exterior of the original Nashville location is small and unassuming, but inside it's a cupcake craver's paradise, transformed by sugary smells, a pastel palette, and pastry cases filled with row upon row of beautifully-iced cupcakes. Indeed, it's the icing that's the major draw at Gigi's - light, pretty, towering and, mercifully, not too sweet. Sara promised a 1:1 ratio of icing to cupcake, and Gigi's certainly delivered!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Matt's Double Chocolate Chip Cookies (SECRET RECIPE!)

There are still a few posts to go in my Nashville series, but it wouldn't be complete without at least one recipe - and since I showed up for our girly weekend bearing these dark, handsome treats, they're the perfect choice. Rich, fudgy, chewy, and indulgent, these gorgeous double chocolate cookies have a secret - they were baked by Matt, according to his super-secret and fool-proof recipe (which I will now share)!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nashville Noshing: The Pancake Pantry

If you ask a group of Nashville residents about the best place to grab a mid-morning bite, chances are good that at least one will mention the Pancake Pantry. This specialized eatery is currently celebrating 50 years of serving up their breakfast namesake - plenty of time to cultivate their reputation as a Nashville institution, and they've clearly done a great job of this: a Google search for the restaurant turned up more than 819 reviews!

Yep, that's a mountain of whipped cream - and they still serve it that way!

Given the name, it's no surprise that their pancakes are the big attraction here - the menu boasts 23 varieties complete with a lengthy list of toppings, syrups and condiments - but they also serve sandwiches, soups, salads, and other breakfast fare. The restaurant is large, airy and simply furnished, with huge windows looking out onto the street and a host of small, closely-packed tables to cater to the daily rush of customers. As an unabashed lover of pancakes for breakfast, lunch or dinner, I was thrilled when Sara Beth and Victoria suggested this as our first stop for the weekend.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Of Bachelorettes, Birthdays and Bacon!

Boy, do I have a special treat for you all this week! Last weekend, I got to spend some time with three lovely ladies as we ate, walked and talked our way around Nashville. The occasion that brought us together was a bachelorette weekend for my dear friend, Sara Beth, though we also got to celebrate a birthday (Happy Birthday, Christi!) and form some new friendships!

The Girls (a.k.a. My Assistant Bloggers and Expert Tasting Panel!)
I've known Sara Beth longer than almost anyone outside my own family, so it was great to get to catch up with her and celebrate as she begins this exciting new chapter in her life. Although she's from Indiana, she's familiar with Nashville and since her maid of honor, Victoria, is a Nashville resident, the city was a great choice for our girly weekend. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, or catching up, but we also made time to visit a few local hotspots - which was an amazing way to experience more of Nashville's dining scene and to expand this blog's horizons with some fresh opinions and a few extra sets of tastebuds! Over the next couple of posts, I'll be sharing our views and opinions of a couple Nashville eateries, but for today, I'll leave you with a rundown of the weekend's appetizing agenda. Hopefully this will serve to whet your appetite for the more detailed descriptions to come.

We started out with an awesome brunch at the Pancake Pantry, in Hillsboro Village, followed by a stroll through Centennial Park (where we stumbled upon not one, but two weddings and an engagement photo shoot - how lucky!). Then we topped up our blood sugar levels at Gigi's Cupcakes (and by topped up, I mean a good way, of course) and capped out the night with a fabulous dinner at Cabana, another Hillsboro Village location. Sunday lunch was a generous spread at Demos' in downtown Nashville. I'm pretty sure I nursed a comfortable food coma for several days after visiting these delicious destinations, but now I'm excited to share my finds with all of you - even the non-Nashville readers should tune in for some appetizing photos  (taken with my ancient point-and-shoot, unfortunately) and some pithy opinions from my tasting assistants!

P.S. Okay, so the bacon part of this post title was a bit of a teaser, but I promise there will be bacon in an upcoming Nashville post - I guess all fans of smoky, meaty goodness will just have to keep reading!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Bite: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Jennifer 8. Lee)

Did you know that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings and Wendys combined? I came across this little tidbit in a recent episode of 'Who Knew?', a five-days-weekly news roundup produced by Yahoo! News. Yes, it's true, I'm addicted to Who Knew? (if you haven't seen it, you should - it may not be 'real' news, but it will make you endlessly popular at party trivia games) , but I'm also addicted to Chinese food. It's easily my favorite ethnic food, and Matt knows that if we're ever looking for a place to eat, I'm going to suggest Chinese.

Of course, if my more well-traveled friends and family are to be believed, the Chinese food we eat here in the United States has very little in common with what's on the plates of millions of people across China. Chop suey, for example, is a wholly American creation, and everyone's favorite General Tso's Chicken is only very loosely based on a dish from Hunan Province. Even the ubiquitous fortune cookie is not what it seems - it hit the mainstream in California and is thought to be based on a Japanese confection.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

100th Post and my first Giveaway!!!

*This giveaway is now closed*

This is my 100th post and, to celebrate, I'm hosting my first giveaway! I'm thrilled to finally have the chance to give something away - even though it may not be tickets to Rome or a sparkling new Kitchen Aid mixer. This blog doesn't really have a budget, or any sponsors, so I went out this week and purchased a fun little gift for one of you to use at your next dinner party - Janet Fletcher's Cheese Tasting Party Kit!

I fell in love with this handsome little kit the moment I saw it and knew it would make a perfect gift for one of my readers. It's food and travel-related, and promises a fun and exciting new dining experience  - one of the things I'm always pursuing as I write The Traveling Spoon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bacon Garlic Shrimp

Ever have one of those days when you have absolutely no idea what you're going to make for dinner? You dig around in the refrigerator for a few moments, dash about in the kitchen for a half hour or so and then, suddenly, you've just thrown together something amazing? Well, that's exactly how this recipe came about. Those of you who are geniuses in the kitchen might have this experience on a regular basis, but it's still rare enough for me to be really exciting!

I knew I wanted seafood and that we had a few strips of bacon to use up, but the rest was just sheer luck and a bit of magic from the Flavor Bible. Unfortunately, when I'm cooking 'just for us,' I rarely measure or write anything down, so my recipes are always full of arcane terms like 'a pinch,' 'a smattering,' or 'to taste.' Thankfully, I think this recipe will be quite forgiving. It's one of those dishes that is simple enough to pull together on a weeknight, but luxurious enough to make you dearly wish for a weekend and a glass of wine. Delicious!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Planning a Family Vacation - on a budget!

I put together a few of these tips for a Yahoo article but I thought I'd pass them on to all of you, since there are still a few weeks of summer vacation left. Matt and I chose not to take an official vacation this year in favor of a few smaller trips (Josh's wedding in Alabama, a visit to my Mum in NY, my recent Nashville weekend, and another trip to see his parents in South Carolina next week). This has not only been a little easier on our vacation budget, but has also given us the opportunity to see friends and family and to experience even more parts of the United States. It's been a win-win situation and definitely a plan I'd recommend. Of course, everyone's vacation ideals are different, so read on and see if any of these ideas appeal to you and your family!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Red Hot Cinnamon Imperial Shortbread

Mmmm...Red Hots. Their spicy cinnamon flavor takes me right back to my childhood, sneaking handfuls of the tiny heart-shaped treats at my Grandma's, buying 5-cent Atomic Fireballs from the gas station down the road, or munching on chewy Hot Tamales at the movie theater. These candies always appeared around Valentine's Day, and this year was no exception.

I bought a bag with the idea of doing something interesting with them - and then we promptly moved across the country and I forgot all about them, until now. You see, my Grandma recently had a bad fall and she's now in the hospital with a broken hip. In addition to sending up lots of prayers, I also thought I'd send her some cookies, and an old-fashioned sweet packed with nostalgic cinnamon goodness seemed like just the thing to send.

This cookie is technically a shortbread (lots of butter, no leavening, no eggs) but its texture is almost candy like - probably because of all the little melted cinnamon hearts. The key to the flavor is making your own 'Red Hot Cinnamon Powdered Sugar,' which isn't nearly as complicated or time-consuming as it may sound. For this recipe, just blitz 2/3 cup granulated sugar with a tablespoon or two of Red Hots in a blender until fine and powdery. You can use the leftovers to dust the cookies or save for topping hot chocolate, brownies, ice cream, or oatmeal. Delicious!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lonely Planet: Unpacking Pre-Flight Rituals

Getting some help packing for Spain - sadly, the little guy (a gift from Matt!) had to stay behind

I read an interesting article earlier this week on the subject of pre-flight rituals and the role they play in our travel plans. The article came from Lonely Planet (surprise, surprise), and discussed the results of a poll they'd posted a few weeks ago. The poll turned up some interesting and unexpected results (apparently one traveler always indulges in a good old American cheeseburger before leaving the U.S., while another watches Fern Gully to guarantee safe travels) and a few more common choices (9% of those surveyed like to touch the plane before boarding, while 7% never take off without their good luck charm), but what surprised me the most was the realization that I don't have a single travel ritual. Not one. In all my years of flying, I don't think I've ever approached a flight the same way twice!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's Better than Free Books?

It's no secret that I love books. When our movers delivered our goods just a few weeks ago, they remarked that they'd never seen someone with so little furniture and so many books! I guess it's all about priorities, right? I've been accumulating books for years (my first real job was shop-girl in a second hand bookstore in England) and love them all - old ones, new ones, fat ones, skinny ones...and especially free ones.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Tale of Rhubarb Pie: Troyer's Dutch Heritage Restaurant, Bellville, OH

Over the 4th of July weekend, Matt and I visited a wonderful little slice of Amish pie paradise called Troyer's Dutch Heritage in Bellville, Ohio. We stopped on the way to my Mum's in western New York, and loaded our car with enough pie and cookies to cause a sugar coma, even making a second stop to stock up on the return trip home. I've never seen cookies, bars, breads and pies in such glorious abundance as graced their shelves.  If I had enough money (and lots of oversized clothing), I'd have bought at least one of everything. Just wandering through their gift shop and bakery is an indulgent experience - and it all started with an innocent little craving for Strawberry Rhubarb pie...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Bite: The Flavor Bible (Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg)

When I started this blog, I promised 'Good Eats, Good Reads and Great Destinations.' Our time in Europe and our recent trip out West has made it easy to deliver on the destinations and I feel like I've shared a few good recipes and restaurants, but it's been brought to my attention that I have yet to share a single good read. Well, that's a great shame because there are so many good ones to recommend. Indeed, with such a wealth of choices, it's hard to even know where to begin!

"The Flavor Bible is as useful to anyone who cooks asa Thesaurus is to anyone who writes" - Karen Page

My first selection isn't really so much a book to curl up and drink tea with (though you certainly could - and I periodically do!) as it is an excellent reference volume for the kitchen. The Flavor Bible labels itself the "Essential guide to culinary creativity, based on the wisdom of America's most imaginative chefs" and is, in essence, an intensive course on ingredients and their interactions, with a few personal interviews from chefs and some tips on technique. Have you ever wished you could combine ingredients with flair and abandon? Ever dreamed about effortlessly concocting that perfect combination of savory and spice? The Flavor Bible puts these skills at the fingertips of even the most inexperienced home cook.

The real heart of the book is the alphabetical index of flavors and ingredients; each element is listed with other complimentary foods or flavors, called 'affinities' as well as information as to the season and taste of the ingredient in question. So, if I look up 'salmon,' our dinner for tonight, I would discover that it pairs well with apple, horesradish and rosemary - as well as a host of other things - and lends itself to being baked, braised, broiled, grilled, marinated, panfried, poached, roasted, sauteed, steamed, seared and eaten raw.

In my experience, the Flavor Bible is at its most useful when I'm innovating, have brought home some strange ingredient or other, or am trying to use up ingredients I have left at home. Often, I'll consult the book just before I'm about to put together an unlikely pairing or when I'm looking for ways to spice up some of our old favorite recipes. One evening, for example, I had a spare mango in the kitchen. I looked it up and discovered that its flavor is enhanced by vinegar and basil and that it pairs well with tuna - voilla! balsamic-basil-and-mango salsa over tuna steaks for dinner!

The book details all the usual combinations (ham with asparagus. chives with eggs, nutmeg with cream, etc.) but is also a wealth of unusual and unexpected pairings. Did you know, for example, that the flavor of blueberries is intensified by cinnamon, or that bay leaves will punch up the pumpkin flavor in your soups and baked goods? In some cases, the book also warns of possible flavor clashes, as in the case of coffee and lavender, or oysters and tarragon. The Flavor Bible is full of such fascinating and useful tidbits.

Even if you're not not an innovator in the kitchen, or you've been blessed with an instinct for food combining, the Flavor Bible is a useful guide. Thumbing through it's pages provides a fascinating look at the science and chemistry behind the things we eat, as well as a small glimpse into the minds of some successful chefs. For those interested in finding out more, there's an excellent little video on the book's Amazon page, as well as a large batch of customer reviews - you can add my endorsement to the list!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Oreo Stuffed Oatmeal Cookies: One Cookie Dough, Three Ways

For the past few months, Oreo stuffed cookies have been making their rounds of the blog world. I believe they started at Picky Palate, but there have been countless reincarnations since - and here's one more! Of course, I had to make my own changes - using oatmeal dough instead of chocolate chip and substituting mini Oreos for the regular-sized version - which is why you should still give this version a try, even if you've already had a ride on the stuffed-cookie bandwagon.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Oatmeal Peanut Butter Cranberry Cookies: One Cookie, Three Ways

I hope you enjoyed those delicious Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies as much as I did, because here's where we take them to the next level! I've already mentioned my love for the Cranberry-Butterscotch version, but this variation will give those rich goodies a run for their money.

I have mixed feelings about adding peanut butter to cookies because I think the flavor often dominates all the other notes and nuances of a recipe. This is fine in a pure peanut butter cookie, but add this nut butter to chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies and you lose all the rich butter, caramel or spice flavors normally involved . Well, thankfully that's not the case here, because we're not just adding peanut butter - we're adding Reese's Pieces! Coupled with dried cranberries and oatmeal, they make these cookies something else entirely - a little bit like the tasty love-child of health-food granola, trail mix, and Monster Cookies. Delicious!

Again, I'm using the Quaker Oats base recipe, but with a few changes; I like to push the brown sugar flavor in this version and cut back a bit on the cinnamon. Other than that, they're exactly like their 'classic' cranberry cousins - but the flavor couldn't be more different! Don't make yourself choose between them - make them both!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies: One Cookie, Three Ways

Matt's heart may belong to Chocolate Chip Cookies, but I've always been partial to the wholesome, spiciness of a good, chewy Oatmeal Cookie. I can take or leave the raisin variety, but throw in some cranberries and you have the makings of one of my favorite cookies in the whole world. In fact, the only thing better is to add a few butterscotch chips!

When I was living in southern Arizona, I caught word of a magical little place called the Cookie Cabin, situated high above the cactus line, atop Tucson's Mt Lemmon. Located in the mountaintop community of Summerhaven, this little chalet-style eatery is famous for serving plate-sized cookies and thin crust pizzas.  I'd been wanting to visit long before I heard that their most popular offering was a divinely rich and gooey oatmeal, coconut and butterscotch cookie, but when I learned that this confection was called the 'Rachel' cookie, I knew I was destined to make the trip!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Peach Park, Clanton, Alabama

Our recent whirlwind trip to Auburn may have only left us time for a bit of BBQ, but we did make one important stop on our way home - at the Peach Park in Clanton, AL. This little roadside oasis was strongly recommended to us, and I'm not one to turn down a recommendation, especially when peach pie and homemade ice cream are involved.

The Peach Park is a giant complex offering much more than fleshy stone fruits and their assorted products. A large part of the warehouse-like structure is devoted to bushels of fuzzy peaches and endless rows of preserves in glass jars, but there's also a BBQ bar, appropriately named the 'Peach Pit,' a wide selection of homemade ice creams and baked goods, a shop stocked with Peach Park and Alabama souvenirs, and a front porch complete with rocking chairs.

We'd been generously fed by our hosts before leaving Auburn so, since we were only making a brief stop, we decided to content ourselves with a small serving of something sweet. I was momentarily swayed by a crust-rich peach cobbler keeping warm behind the counter, but when I saw a handwritten sign advertising Peach Cheesecake ice cream I knew I had to try it - deliciously creamy, with real chunks of peach and cheesecake. Matt chose a scoop of Snickers which was also tasty, if incredibly un-peachy!

The place was crowded on that warm, Sunday afternoon - there wasn't a rocking chair to spare so we ate inside, which gave me the opportunity to look around a bit and snap a few photos. I enjoyed wandering through the shop and ended up purchasing a tin of golden syrup for future baking. It's a key ingredient in many British sweets and one not often stocked in U.S. stores, so I was excited to find a large amount at a good price.

In general, the prices at the Peach Park aren't extraordinarily cheap, but they're competitive with other similar places we've visited in South Carolina and Tennessee. After a bit of online research, I've discovered that peach shortcake and peach cobbler are their signature offerings, so if you're passing through central Alabama and get a sudden craving for sticky-sweet and peachy desserts, or just want a rest in a good old-fashioned rocking chair, the Peach Park just might be the perfect place to stop.

Peach Park on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Salted Caramel Popcorn

Okay, so it may not Red-White-and-Blue and it's definitely a day late, but here is my favorite 4th of July recipe for this year!

Salted caramel has been a trend in the food-blogging world for the past couple of years, but my mom was churning out huge batches of this golden goodness long before that irresistible sweet-and-salty combo became so popular. She'd serve heaping bowls of this wonderful treat during movie nights with friends in England and, in a country famous for stodgy puddings and spongy tea cakes, my friends worshipped her All-American chocolate chip cookies and this rich, sticky-sweet popcorn. She wrote the recipe on the back of a notecard many years ago, and that little card still survives, tacked to the inside of her spice cupboard.

It had been years since I'd tasted it, but I was home for the weekend and feeling nostalgic, and suddenly I had cravings for our old favorite snack. I consulted the door of the cupboard, gathered my ingredients and, in minutes, had filled the house with the equally tantalizing smells of fresh popcorn and warm sugar.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mike and Ed's Bar-B-Q, Auburn, AL

Matt and I are in western New York for the holiday weekend, so while we're busy celebrating, visiting and eating with family and friends, you can enjoy a recap of our adventures on the road from last weekend. Of course, I hope you've got plenty of visiting, celebrating and eating of your own to be getting on with! I love browsing blogs for great holiday ideas but when the actual time comes, I'd much rather be out enjoying the sunshine!

That being said, here's a recap of last week's trip, to Auburn, Alabama, for the wedding of a good college friend. It was a whirlwind visit - we left at 4am on Saturday and were back in our own beds on Sunday night - but there was enough time to visit with friends, enjoy a bit of Alabama sunshine and check out a few local eateries.

We would have been remiss had we not made time in our trip 'down South' to enjoy a bit of barbecue. I always look for local hotspots when we're eating on the road and Mike and Ed's Bar-B-Q, in downtown Auburn, boasted a college crowd and a packed parking lot that convinced me it would be a good choice. It's a no-frills restaurant, but sometimes that's just what you need - especially when it comes to barbecue.

As you'd expect, the menu is pretty meat-heavy; they offer BBQ chicken, ribs, pork, buffalo wings and breaded chicken strips. Even the 'Lite Special' is a Chef Salad with your choice of two meats (BBQ Pork, Smoked Turkey or Fried Chicken Strips, in case you're curious)! They serve tooth-achingly sweet tea out of a 40 gallon trash can, and offer an array of sides - from Brunswick Stew and cole slaw, to 'Curley' fries and corn-on-the-cob.

Ignoring their vaguely disconcerting mascot (an adorable, anthropomorphic pig in a bow tie and chef's toque) I ordered the shredded pork plate and Matt, never a great fan of BBQ, chose a chicken finger platter with fries and cole slaw. Both entrees were served with a few fluffy slices of generic white bread (which we didn't eat) and Matt's chicken fingers came with 'special dipping sauce'. For the BBQ, I had a choice of three sauces - mild, hot or hickory - and chose the latter, based on a recommendation from our server.

The shredded pork was tender and smoky, and the hickory sauce delightfully tangy and slightly sweet - just the way I like it. I was skeptical about Matt's choice (chicken tenders from a BBQ joint?) but the meat was incredibly moist, and the breading crisp and not too greasy. It's peppery flavor distinguished it from the usual breaded chicken but, to be honest, the star of the whole meal was the 'special dipping sauce.' I've always wished for a palate sensitive enough to ferret out ingredients from a single taste, but sadly I gave up after detecting only mayonnaise, pepper, garlic powder, and possibly Tabasco (there were hints of vinegar and mustard, but I couldn't be sure). I spilled a bit on our menu by accident and joked with Matt that I would have to bring it home for analysis!

Note the sample of 'special' sauce on the top of the menu
I usually like my tea piping hot and unsweetened, but Matt has been trying to convert me ever since we met and I have to admit that their sweet tea was delicious and refreshing. It probably has enough sugar to double as dessert, but if you're still craving something sweet you could order their Homemade Peanut Butter Pie, a brownie, or a slice of their Key Lime, Lemon Icebox or Pecan Pies - all southern favorites that sound delicious but, thanks to our hefty portions, went untasted.

Overall, Mike and Ed's offers good value (their regular pork sandwich is less than $3) and a lot of flavor.  You can tell they're a college-supported establishment - they offer tailgating specials, advertise fraternity and sorority package deals, and almost every other patron was decked out in Auburn gear - but they also cater private events. There are a few local franchises, so you're not limited to Auburn if you're craving hickory smoked meats. For those outside Alabama, they also do smoked hams and turkey breast to order - but they don't have a website so tracking these down might be a little tricky.

Since we're not local, I can't speak to the quality of other BBQ joints in the area, but I'd recommend Mike and Ed's on the strength of our experience. I've heard good things about their ribs and stews and, if you go, don't be afraid to try the chicken - their 'special dipping sauce' is divine!

Mike & Ed's Barbeque on Urbanspoon