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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chincoteague Dining Revisited

Years ago I made a detailed post about dining in my most favorite vacation spot, Chincoteague Island, Virginia.  Chincoteague is truly a special and magical spot.  You have never seen such pristine, untouched beaches as you see on Assateague.  There is wildlife everywhere you look (it's a bird nerd's paradise).  The locals are friendly - so much so that we consider many of them to be friends after returning for so many years.  All of this is besides that special herd of wild ponies that are part of the annual round up who inspired books and movies.

The only problem I have with Chincoteague (if you can call it a problem) is the food.  Chincoteague is an island - in other words it is surrounded by water.  Water means seafood, and Chincoteague is well known for its blue crabs (it's just over the Maryland border after all) and its salty oysters.  It's also not known as a hotspot for fine dining.  What is a picky eater and seafood hater to do?

I always find something to eat at every type of restaurant.  Some places satisfy me more than others.  For this post I will revisit some old favorites who might have missed being photographed the last time and also show off some new kids on the block.  For years I never did another review of Chincoteague restaurants because the restaurants never changed.  Lately some new places have moved in.  They deserve a little attention.

So let me recap some of the food I ate last week.  Come along with me on a culinary journey of the most beautiful place in the world.

The day I arrive in Chincoteague I always have to stop for lunch at my favorite lunch spot The Sea Star Cafe.
They used to be on Main Street overlooking the bay, but moved to this charming little building on one of the many inland creeks.  The seating area is lovely, but I never wanted to sit there because it seemed like a haven for mosquitoes.

Sea Star is strictly a lunch place.  It serves all kinds of interesting sandwiches and at least one soup of the day each day.  Everything is very fresh, including the breads.  This is one of the few places on Chincoteague where vegetarians aren't wringing their hands wondering what they can eat.  They also have some fun beverages like flavored fresh iced teas and homemade lemonade.
 
The only drawback is that they don't have much staff.  One person takes the orders and money and another person makes the food and sends it out.  The wait is worth it though.  If you're from NY and used to everything happening fast, Chincoteague can be a little frustrating no matter where you go, but you learn to just accept it and get used to it.
 
We took our sandwiches back to our sunny waterside hotel lobby to eat away from the heat and the skeeters.  I enjoyed a smoked turkey and brie sandwich with a side of gazpacho and a big glass of blueberry iced tea.
 
 
Sea Star isn't the only lunch place in town though.  This year we had a new little gem to explore: Poseidon's Pantry.
 
Chincoteague isn't a completely backward town.  It has its share of decent food shops and specialty foods.  Poseidon's Pantry tops them all.  I saw stuff in there I don't even see often at home let alone in Chincoteague.  Their deli case had two kinds of pate`, chorizo, and some various imported cheeses.  They have a whole wall of bacon-flavored foods. 
 
 
 Their motto is "Eat Healthy...Or Not."  They can rival Sea Star for their vegetarian sandwiches, or you can put bacon on just about anything.

This sandwich is called a Green and Red.  It has spinach, roasted pepper, tomato, pesto, and goat cheese - delicious.  The next time I went I took the "not" route and had a "frenchie" sandwich that consisted of roast beef, caramelized onions, and gruyere. 
 
For years Chincoteague never seemed to have new restaurants, but there seems to be a bit of a Renaissance.  Recently the new Chincoteague Diner opened on the Island.
 
 
 
This building once housed the Sea Shell Cafe, one of the few new places that have opened since I began going there.  I reviewed it in my last Chincoteague post.  I thought it tried hard, but it failed to deliver.  I thought that they had a lot of potential and could be really good.  Sadly, they never lived up to their potential.  The food never improved (even a new chef couldn't save it) and the service was terrible.  I never ate there again, but my family did and they had nothing positive to report.  The online reviews were just as bad.  They finally went out of business and the Chincoteague Diner took over.
 
 

 
I love this little pony rug you see on the floor when you walk in.

If the old Sea Shell was an attempt at fine dining in Chincoteague, the new diner was put in that building to be the polar opposite.  This cozy and homey little building doesn't serve any sort of fancy food.  It's diner food, plain and simple.

I had chicken fried steak for my dinner.  It's not easy to get chicken fried steak in my neck of the woods, so I always have it when I can get it.  This is the best chicken fried steak I ever had.  (Eat your heart out Pioneer Woman.) 

They asked if I wanted the same gravy on my mashed potatoes.  I said to just put the same gravy over everything.  I'm not above having two kinds of gravy on my plate though.

 Diners are meant for breakfast, right?  Kevin had an omelet.  He asked for turkey sausage on the side, but the chef got confused and put it in his omelet.  Then the server corrected him and said the sausage was supposed to be on the side.  So Kevin ended up with double sausage.


For dessert we returned to my beloved Island Creamery.  Yes, I reviewed it in my last Chincoteague post, but it deserves all of the love and attention I can give it. 

Java Jolt.  Coffee ice cream with brownie chunks and chocolate espresso beans.
 
One place I had to return to was Woody's Beach Barbecue (If you click on this link, be prepared for the music).  I love this place.  Just like with the Island Creamery, it was reviewed previously, but I need to give it as much love as possible.  It's mostly a takeout place with a few picnic tables, but even if you don't eat there, you want to spend lots of time hanging out there.
 
It's an authentic barbecue joint.  They have the big smoker.
 


Note the sign above the concession.  Decoy carving is a popular art form on Chincoteague and for many years there was a large museum dedicated to the craft on the island.  It closed a few years ago and recently the entire inventory (millions of dollars worth) was auctioned off.  It appears that Woody's bought a piece of the action.  It's not terribly clear, but the sign is a remnant of the museum and says, "Refuge Waterfowl Museum" on it.


 
 
Pulled pork and homemade sauce, baked beans, cole slaw, and their amazing fried corn nuggets, eaten on the waterfront hotel patio at sunset.  Also barbecued chicken. 
 


 
The next day was Pony Swim day.  That meant getting up well before sunrise and meeting our boat at 4:30 to take us to the swim site.  Our wonderful captain, Captain Barry, always lubricates the long wait with fresh mimosas.  He squeezes the juice right on board.
 
 
Barry makes us breakfast too.  We get bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches that he cooks on a little grill.  He thinks of everything.
 


We needed some of that booze and grease to ease into the day.  That bright sunshine you see in these photos very suddenly and unexpectedly gave way to horrible storm clouds just as the tide went slack and the ponies were ready to be sent over.  It was too late to send them back.  Those poor ponies had a tough morning.


The next night we met up with the whole family for a family dinner at Etta's Channel Side restaurant.  It is in a beautiful location on the east side of the island overlooking Assateague Channel and Assateague Island.  Lucky people get to watch the Pony Swim from there.  It has a great view, but I had a hard time taking a photo from their screened porch where we ate that night.  I just have the front view.



It's a steak.  It wasn't the best steak I ever had, but it was cooked to my liking.  I wanted the pork chops, but they were "out" of pork chops.  They are often "out" of certain items on the menu at Etta's.  It's not much of a landlubber's restaurant.

I was way more excited about dessert.  This was a delicious caramel cream puff.  Since I knew I had to behave myself and follow my diet somewhat this week, I made Kevin share it with me.  He wasn't happy about that.  I never gave him a chance to order anything.  I just told the server, "We're sharing the caramel cream puff." 


Our final night was at Bill's Seafood.  Again this was a family dinner.  I did review this in my last post, but I never took pictures, so I thought I'd revisit it in the blog.

This place doesn't look like much on the outside.  Over the years it has improved in the interiors both décor-wise and food-wise.  In the old days the décor was quite plain and they served only beer and cheap individual bottles of Sutter Home wine.  They decorated the place a little nicer over the years and added a full bar.  Most New Yorkers wouldn't call it fine dining, but it's downright elegant by Chincoteague standards.

Pomegranate martini.  I love that they added a full bar.

I seem to order this dish every time I come here.  It's a pork shank with barbecue sauce.  It's served atop the world's most sinful mashed potatoes.  They are filled with ham bits and cheddar cheese.  It's impossible to finish this in one night, but it's worth making the effort.  It's so good!


Kevin was adamant that he wanted his own dessert that night.  No sharing allowed!  When he saw this piece of cake in front of him, he changed his tune.  It was huge.  He shared it not only with me, but with the entire table.  I don't think the seven of us were able to finish it either.


We packed up and went home the next day.  Nothing makes me sadder than leaving Chincoteague.  It is one of my favorite places in the world.  I gained five pounds that week, but it was totally worth it.  I'm doing my best to detox now.  My coach wanted me to do a vegan challenge for a day.  I did it too, but my vegan recipe, though it tasted good, wasn't really TERP-worthy enough to post.  I do hope to have some new recipes up soon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sweetest, Stickiest, Gooiest Brownies Ever!

Looking at the topics of this post and my last one, I realize that anyone who knows me only by reading this blog must wonder how I can possibly say I'm on a special diet and nutrition program this year.  Considering I'm not exactly posting low-calorie, vegetable-laden recipes lately, one would think I'm not very committed.

I promise I do create more than just desserts in the kitchen.  It's just that in recent weeks my most interesting, TERP-worthy recipes have been desserts.  I swear I am only making these butter-soaked desserts for other people and only when you see them on the blog.

So yes, today's dessert is for other people.  For someone who was so unpopular that in her younger years that even her imaginary friends excluded her, I seem to be invited to a fair number of parties lately.  Parties mean a chance for me to bake something, and have the fun and tasty experience of baking something, then sharing it with others so I don't eat it all and get fat.  Win-win situation, no?

The last party I attended I made a lemon cake, because it seemed more summer-appropriate.  Even though we're even deeper into summer now and summer berries are in every market, I'm just too big of a chocolate fiend to not want to make a chocolate dessert at some time.  Seeing as I'm such a chocolate lover, I will always gravitate toward a good brownie.  I haven't made brownies in quite some time.  I am in the mood for a good brownie variation.

Here is what I came up with.


This is a caramel-cinnamon-pecan brownie.  My intention was to make a caramel swirl brownie, but my caramel sauce was just not sturdy enough to hold a shape.  Instead I got some chocolatey, caramel-drenched, gooey, sticky, super-sweet concoction, relieved by the crunch of nuts.

I didn't say it was a bad thing. 

The recipe is a bit time-consuming because you have to make the cinnamon-caramel sauce, and toast the nuts as well as make the brownies.  You can certainly can take a shortcut and warm some jarred sauce with a cinnamon stick (or just sprinkle in some ground cinnamon).  If you make your own caramel sauce, you will have some leftover for your ice cream - or to pour some extra over your brownie.  Better yet, make a brownie-caramel sundae.

The recipe officially doesn't have chocolate chips in it, but I will confess I had about a quarter of a bag of chips in the cabinet and decided to throw them in there.

Cinnamon-Caramel Pecan Brownies

For the sauce

Ingredients
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 6 Tbl butter
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1/2 tsp salt
 For the brownies

Ingredients
  • 1 cup pecan pieces
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolat4
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup flour 
  • 1/2 cup caramel sauce
Make sauce.  In a small saucepan over medium heat, gently heat sugar with cinnamon stick.  Stir gently as sugar starts to melt.   Keep cooking, swirling the pan as needed until the sugar is a deep amber color and starts to smoke a bit.  Add the butter.  Remove from heat and stir in the cream.  Pour into a jar and allow to cool.  You don't have to remove the cinnamon stick.

Toast pecans.  Heat oven to 225 degrees.  Toss the pecans with 1 tsp cinnamon and scatter on a baking sheet.  Toast about 15 minutes.

Raise oven temperature to 350 degrees.  Spray the bottom of an 8" square pan with baking spray and line with parchment, leaving an overhang on the sides, and spray that too.

Melt chocolate and butter together in a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water.  You can also put them in a microwave-safe bowl and melt them in the microwave on half power, putting them in for about 30 seconds and then checking them every 30 seconds.  Remove your chocolate from the heat when there are just a few small chunks remaining.  Stir until everything is melted and smooth.

Beat sugar into chocolate-butter mixture using a whisk.  Then add your eggs one at a time.  Add vanilla and salt.  Mix in your flour.  It's a good idea to trade your whisk for a sturdy spoon when you add the flour or you will have half your batter stuck in your whisk.  Stir in your pecans.

Spread batter in a prepard pan. Pour caramel sauce over the stop.  You can swirl your knife though it a bit.  This won't swirl the caramel, but it will help it settle in more.

Bake for 35 minutes or until the brownies are set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out fairly clean with just a crumb or two on it.  Watch this carefully.  I have a wacky oven.  You may need to bake your brownies for less time.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dipping a Toe in the Red Wine Spaghetti Craze

What is it about red wine spaghetti recipes these days?  I'm seeing them everywhere. 

The first recipe I think of when I think of red wine spaghetti is not a pleasant memory.  I keep thinking of that joke of an Iron Chef America battle between Cordon Bleu-graduate-and-former high-end caterer-turned-TV-host, Giada DeLaurentis and former-food-retail-clerk-turned-TV-Host Rachael Ray.  The two women, Ray especially, did little more than act as assistants to two high-end chefs, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali.  In fact, Ray hardly cooked anything at all herself except for the dish where she cooked spaghetti in red wine.  I will admit it didn't look like the worst thing she has ever cooked (it wasn't a 20-ingredient burger after all), but knowing my rather visceral dislike of Rachael Ray, I can't say I was scrambling to find a copy of the recipe.  I was too angry that Rachael Ray had won a battle that had clearly been fought by Mario Batali.*   I never thought to cook red wine spaghetti myself.

So one day in the recent past I was browsing my good blog buddy Sue's blog, which I never miss.  She had a post about Giada DeLaurentis cooking a red wine spaghetti dish.  I found a certain irony in that since a red wine spaghetti dish was instrumental in her embarassing defeat in ICA.  I had to admit, I was intrigued.  Why do we flavor the liquid we cook our pasta in with only salt?  What about the time I used the cooking liquid from boiling vegetables in my pasta dish?  What about noodle soup? We cook risotto in wine and stock.  Couldn't one see cooking pasta in red wine as simply a way to eliminate the bother of making a sauce? 

Apparently many people agree with this.  Since the day I saw that post it seems the internet has exploded with red wine spaghetti recipes.  I kept running into blog posts about them.  In fact, while looking for some ideas for lemon cake recipes for my last post, I found a recipe for red wine spaghetti on the same blog where I found a lemon cake recipe.  (I wish I had bookmarked that blog since it was awesome and I forgot the name of it and I would like to give the blogger some credit.)  I decided it was time to try it.  I had an unused bottle of red wine in the pantry that was still left over from my mother's birthday party over a month ago.  I could use it all at once.

I had to come up with some ways to make my pasta more interesting and different from all of the other recipes on the internet.  To make it into a more healthful and well-rounded meal, I added some fresh arugula and chopped tomatoes to the final dish.  I also added salt, red pepper flakes, and bay leaves to the wine. 


I made turkey meatballs to provide some protein for the meal.  These were spiced with cinnamon, onion, garlic, and smoked paprika. 


I know this must sound absolutely blasphemous, but I don't want to eat farmer's market arugula anymore.  It's just too bitter.  I like my arugula from the supermarket - mild and mellow.  Had I used a milder arugula, I would have liked this dish better.  While the flavors were rather strong, I do think this was a decent dish and fun to play with.

Note I used brown rice pasta and almond flour instead of bread crumbs in the meatballs.  If you aren't cooking for anyone with possible gluten intolerance, feel free to switch up the ingredients. 

I also bake my meatballs all the way through.  I just find it quicker and easier that way.  I probably should have finished them off in the wine, but I knew I would have to take them out before add the spaghetti (they would break apart once I started stirring the spaghetti in) and I didn't want to bother.

Red Wine Pasta Short (dis)Order Cook Style with Spiced Meatballs

Meatballs

Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (or bread crumbs)
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 package ground turkey (or beef if you prefer)
  • Grated pecorino for serving
Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix together almond flour, garlic, onion, cinnamon, paprika and salt.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Add egg and turkey and carefully mix by hand.  Roll into small balls.  Place on cookie sheet and bake about 20 minutes. 

Pasta

Ingredients
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1 bottle strong red wine
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 small bunch arugula, coasrsely chopped
  • 3 medium ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a handful of salt.  Add the pasta to the water and cook four minutes.

Bring the wine, bay leaves, and red pepper flakes to a boil in another pot.  Once the spaghetti has cooked in the water, drain it and add it to the boiling wine.  Cook 4 minutes more or until properly al dente. 

Toss the arugula and tomatoes into the pot with the spaghetti.  Stir well until the vegetables begin to wilt.

Serve topped with meatballs and pecorino.


*If you are a Rachael Ray fan, or Giada DeLaurentis hater, please spare me the diatribes about Giada's smile, head size, breast size, and Italian accent. I also don't want to hear your homages to Rachael Ray (who totally spells Rachel wrong) and how "real" she is.   Totally irrelevant to this post and will be deleted.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Perfect Summer Party Cake

I'll always be known among my friends and family as the one who always brings dessert to the party.  I suppose that's why halfway through my yearlong diet program, I'm not losing nearly as many pounds and inches as I had hoped to by now.  What can I say?  When I make a dessert, it's "go big or go home."  I could make some kind of reduced-calorie approximation of my favorite desserts, but they wouldn't taste nearly as good.  I'd rather make something delicious baked with real butter and sugar, then share it with friends.

I am working on some program-compliant desserts for more casual, everyday consumption.  I will one day do a post on them, but I just never get around to getting the recipes properly made and posted.

When it comes to desserts it's not secret I'm a chocolate gal.  To me chocolate is two of the four food groups (yes, two).  Even so, my craving brain sometimes goes on a different trajectory and I want something that isn't chocolate.  Often my craving brain finds itself longing for lemons.  I love lemon pound cakes and buttery lemon bars and there are times when I just have to have them.  I never know when the lemon mood will strike.  For example, when I was tasting cakes for my wedding, I tried a very tasty lemon cake, which I rejected as a possible wedding cake because I really wanted one of the chocolate ones.  Had I gone to that tasting a week later, it's possible I would have served lemon cake at my wedding.  

I was tossing around a few ideas for what to make for a party this weekend.  I had some recipes I wanted to play with.  My traditional side wanted to do something rich and chocolatey.  My non-traditional side was once again thinking lemons.  Although chocolate is my go-to flavor for both baking and eating, there are times when nothing but lemon cake will do.  I think this time around it was Cathy who posted this gorgeous lemon cake that put me in the lemon cake mood.

Besides, the last time I had been to a party with this particular group I made a big, Nutella-filled chocolate cake.  While everyone admired it, hardly anyone ate it.  Sometimes after eating a lot of party food, big chocolate cakes are a little excessive.

I wasn't sure what kind of lemon dessert to make.  I could make traditional lemon bars.  I could also make a lemon pound cake.  I spent some time searching the internet for the perfect recipe.  Oddly enough, it was neither bars nor pound cake that ended up grabbing my attention.

This time of year, single-layer, buttery cakes filled with seasonal fruit are very popular.  I made one once with cherries for my own birthday a couple years ago.  I have similar cakes with blueberries or other berries as well.  I had a bright idea to make a cake like this flavored with lemons and topped with strawberries since strawberries are in season.

I ended up using raspberries instead because I couldn't get to the farmer's market for strawberries.  I soaked them in limoncello while I prepared the cake.  The limoncello was one of the inspirations I found online.


Another trick I learned online was to mix the sugar in the batter with lemon zest.  I blended them together really well.


The rest of the cake was standard cake-baking steps.  Cream your butter and sugar.  Add your eggs.  Add your flour and bake.


It was a very pretty cake that had a bright refreshing flavor.  It wasn't terribly moist.  I could have used a few minutes less in the oven.  I also think a tad more lemon would have been good.  Still, this cake was nearly all gone by the time I left the party.  I think you should definitely make it for your next summer party.

Raspberry Lemon Cake

Ingredients
  • 1 pint raspberries
  • 2 Tbl limoncello
  • 2 Sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • Powdered sugar to sprinkle over the top
Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease and flour a springform pan (or use flour cooking spray).

Combine raspberries and limoncello in a small bowl.  Set aside.

In another bowl sift together flour and baking powder.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together lemon zest and sugar.  Make sure the zest is well distributed throughout.

Using a mixer on low, cream the butter into the sugar until fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, adding the next one when the previous one is mixed in.  Add lemon juice.  Fold in the flour and baking powder mixture. 

Pour batter into prepared pan.  Drain raspberries and gently press them into the top of the cake.

Bake for 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. 

Sprinkle the top of the cooled cake with sifted powdered sugar.