Monday, August 31, 2009

Meal Plan Mini-Post

Hi everyone!

Just wanted to keep you up to date on what's on the menu for this goes!

Monday: leftover sauerbraten (it was delicious...again!)
Tuesday: Baked Cajun Lemon Salmon, broccoli, angel hair pasta w/ parmesan cheese
Wednesday: HG Grandmother's Sunday Roast pork chops ( the slow cooker!), baked potato, salad
Thursday: Picnic Chicken (remember this one? see "Goin' on a picnic, leavin' right away" for the recipe), rice pilaf, broccoli (broccoli is my favorite veggie...can you tell?)
Friday: Leftovers!

I'm starting to think Friday might be designated leftover day, that way, if we decide to go out to eat instead it won't mess things up too much. Tuesdays are also going to be a good candidate for leftovers starting Sept. 8th when I begin cake decorating classes on Tuesday evenings! Can't wait!

Did this week's meal plan leave you uninspired? Suggest something for next week! Can be a specific recipe or something more general that I can prepare and share a recipe of my own (i.e. Lauren, I want a tilapia recipe! or Lauren, I want Mexican!)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Danke Schoen Sauerbraten

Yep, that about sums up tonight's dinner: Danke schoen! (That's "thank you" in German in case you didn't know)
Thank you to Trapper's Grill in Hermann, MO for initially giving me the idea to make sauerbraten. You see, a mere 2 months ago, I had never even heard of sauerbraten...then my husband and I took a little trip out to Hermann, MO for our second anniversary and happened upon this restaurant, and sauerbraten. I remember I had one of the nightly specials: tortellini with shrimp and some sort of German sausage. It was fantastic! Then I had a taste of the dinner Tom was ooo'ing and ah'ing over...and instantly fell in love! I knew I had to at least make an attempt to copy this treat my husband enjoyed so much.

Sauerbraten in plain English is German pot roast. Let me tell you I have never tasted, or cooked, pot roast like this! All in all, it wasn't that hard to do, just took a lot of time. From the marinating to the actual cooking process, to making the gravy that accompanies the melt-in-your-mouth pot roast, it all just took time.

I can't decide what is the most important part of making sauerbraten. I think if you changed or skimped on any of the steps, it just wouldn't be the same. My next danke schoen goes out to Christie Hurd of Edible Antics who provided the delicious recipe I used to make my sauerbraten.

First came the marinating...soooo glad we got those Cardinal's tickets last week. Not only did they give us a much-needed evening off from working on our new deck, it allowed the sauerbraten to marinate for the proper amount of time. You see, we are again starting with a fairly tough cut of meat, bottom round roast or rump roast. This means we need to find ways to make it tender. Slow, long cooking definitely helps....and thanks to the Germans, marinating in red wine vinegar does too! Christie recommended 3 days but 3 days meant I had to cook on Thursday, which was a day off from cooking last week, so I did a little more research and found that many recipes recommended 5, 6, or even 10 days marinating. Now I don't know about 10 days....that seems a bit excessive to me. I went with 5 1/2. :) Here's the recipe for the marinade along with a pic of the roast hangin out for a soak. Be sure you turn your roast every couple of days (at least once) to expose all of the meat to the marinade. Oh yes, and Christie recommends a 3.25 lb roast.

1 T. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
4 whole cloves
8 peppercorns
2 bay leaves (discard these before you make the gravy at the very end...NOT edible!)
2 medium onions, sliced (I forgot the onions and remembering my pledge not to make a million trips to the store, I improvised and used onion flake, generously)
1 medium carrot, sliced
1/2 c. celery, chopped
1 c. red wine vinegar
4 cups cold water

Combine all marinade ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Pour over roast in a shallow dish (I used a 9 x 13 glass casserole dish) and cover tightly with foil. Again, don't forget to turn the meat after a couple days!

When your roast has marinated for several days, you're ready to cook! About 3 1/2 hours before you want to eat, remove meat from marinade and pat dry with paper towels, reserving marinade. Then brown the roast in a large pot that has a lid (you don't need the lid yet but you will soon!) with 3 Tbls. olive oil. When you have browned both sides well, remove meat and set aside. To drippings in the pot add 1/4 c. flour and 1 Tbls. sugar. Use a whisk to create a roux, or paste, with the drippings. Now you are ready to pour the marinade into the pot and, using that whisk again, incorporate the roux into the marinade. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, add the roast, cover and cook for 3 hours. I turned my roast at the half-way point. At 3 hours, the roast should be fork tender...if it's not quite there yet, let it go a little longer. Mine was more than ready at this point!
At this point, remove your meat from the pot and let rest for a moment. Now's the time to finish off the gravy! Skim out the bay leaves and as much fat off the top as you can. Now increase the heat to bring it to a boil. Add 10 crushed gingersnap cookies, yes, that's right, cookies! Continue simmering and stirring until cookies are dissolved, about 10 minutes. The gravy will also begin to thicken at this time.
While this is happening, go ahead and slice your meat, about 1/2 inch slices will do. Mine was so tender in some areas that it simply fell apart! When the gravy is ready, pour some over the top of the sliced meat and reserve the rest in a gravy boat to serve at the table.
Mashed potatoes were an obvious partner for this meal. A little extra gravy over the top really did the trick! Lucky for us, there are LOTS of leftovers! (You know how I like the leftovers!) :) We will be enjoying sauerbraten again later this week...and perhaps for lunch one day too!
Be on the lookout for this week's meal plan tomorrow...I've definitely learned my lesson from last week's plan!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ask Lauren Part Deux

Hello again!

I realize this next "question" wasn't really a question but rather a comment made on my first meal planning post on 8/ comes to us from Karin (Thanks Karin!!) who follows my Leftovers ramblings. :)

Karin said something very interesting that got me thinking: "At best, I'll plan one meal, buy all the ingredients, make that one meal and then whatever was leftover from the ingredients will go bad in my fridge. I think that's one of the biggest challenges of meal planning - making sure that if you buy a perishable food item, it all gets used before it goes bad but yet still keeping your meals varied."

Lucky for Karin, and thanks to the Landlocked Bride--Brit, I found a solution! Brit suggested and I am instantly in love with this website! Can't wait to check it out soon! Like Karin, I often end up tossing out perishable items I find at the back of my crisper drawer (who knows what's back there right now) or tucked in a corner of the fridge behind the salad dressing. Now, with you can enter in as many things as you want to that are currently in your refrigerator or pantry and they can come up with a recipe for you to use them in!

Here's an example:

I entered chicken breast, butter, flour, and eggs and it came up with 199 recipes! The nice thing is it starts with recipes that you have ALL ingredients for, then moves to recipes that would require one more ingredient, then two more, and so on. The possibilities seem endless! There is also a box below where you enter your available ingredients that acts as a sort of word cloud and suggests other ingredients that you might have that would give you even MORE recipes! There are even tabs to help you sort recipes into starters, entrees, and desserts. All this is available to you without signing up for an account! There is an account option but I haven't even begun to explore what that all adds to the experience so there is surely more to come on this topic. :)

Another site like this I discovered is It's deceptive at first! Make sure you click "use detailed kitchen" to get a much more extensive list than what initially appears on the main page. This gives you tons of options that might help spark your memory as to what's in your fridge or pantry. Simply check off ingredients you know you have and it will suggest recipes. When I typed in the same ingredients into this website (chicken, eggs, flour, butter) I unfortunately did not get any recipes that I had 100% of the ingredients for. No worries, it tells me how many I am missing, along with how long it takes to make it and the calories in the dish! WOW! All this in the quick view before even clicking into the it!

Do you have any other tricks to using up perishable items in your fridge?

Meal planning gone awry...

That's right, we're only on day 3 of our meal plan and we're already off course! Haha! I am learning quickly that flexibility must be taken into account as we were offered some great tickets to the St. Louis Cardinal's game for this evening! (Thanks Mom and Dad!) I love Cardinal's baseball almost as much as I love cooking. :) AND it means I can get ballpark nachos...yumm!

Even beyond the baseball game tonight, I realized that even more thought needs to go into the types of meals and portions that each one makes. Most recipes can be easily scaled down to feed just Tom and me with little or no leftovers but the meals I made Monday and Tuesday both produced a ridiculous amount of leftovers that I'm just not sure what to do with! We're slowly making a dent by taking them to work for lunch but I worry that I may have overdone it a bit. Next time, I'll try to plan only one meal to have massive amounts of leftovers!

What does this all mean for my meal plan? Well, it means that the Sauerbraten is going to be pushed off a few days, which is actually a good thing! I won't go into too much detail right now (I'll add a post all about it once we eat it) but Sauerbraten is best when allowed to marinate for at least 3 days and mine has only been marinating since Monday evening. You can read a little more about Sauerbraten on wikipedia if you'd like to get your mouth watering for more to come later this week!

In the meantime, I'm just beginning to think about next week's menu...any suggestions???

Monday, August 24, 2009

Meal Planning

Well hello again! I'm glad you came back for another visit (or your first!) because what we're talking about today is new to me and maybe it's new to you too! Some of my coworkers do it and swear by it so I'm willing to give it a try.

Meal planning is never something I have done well. When I make a trip to the grocery store, I typically have a small list, either on paper or in my head, and then just grab things that sound good and try to make meals out of them later in the week. What ends up happening is I thaw some meat from the freezer, then decide what to make with it while I'm at work, don't know if I have the right ingredients so I stop at the store on my way home and pick them up, then repeat the whole process the next day. Inevitably I end up at the grocery store 3-4 times each week, sometimes even more. I also tend to end up with more than I went in for each trip and my grocery bill really starts to add up. Does this sound like you?

Frankly, I'm tired of it (and I'm sure you are too!) so let's do something about it! I'm making myself a promise to try meal planning for at least one month. This means I'll pre-plan what we are going to eat for dinner each week, buy only what I need, and stick to it! I'm going to track it on a calendar (one week at a time) and try to get a variety of meals each month and then when I'm stumped later on, I can look back at past months and see what sounds good. Another goal in my meal planning: one trip to the grocery store per week. A second trip can be made if there's an absolute necessity but I'm hoping to get more time at home cooking and a lower grocery bill each week through this process!

So, what's on this week's menu?? I've even gotten a little creative...

Monday: Homemade Gourmet (HG) Tex Mex Skillet Meal (first time having this!)
Tuesday: HG Cheesy Tortilla Chicken Pasta (haven't had this in almost a year but it's amazing!)
Wednesday: Sauerbraten (first time making this German treat...surely there will be a post about it later this week so be sure to check back!)
Thursday: We're eating out!
Friday: We're eating leftovers!

I think this is a pretty easy way to start my first week of meal planning. Thursday was previously decided on so I'll stick with it. ;) Weekends are "anything goes" at our house. Never know if we'll stay in or go out on Saturdays and Sundays are usually family night at my mom's so I think I'll exclude those days from the plan for now.

Let's see how it goes...I'm hoping I have just discovered an answer to my grocery store grumbles. :)

Do you meal plan? If so, I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Ask Lauren"

Well folks, I've started getting requests for specific recipes and tips for making things so I have decided to turn it into a periodic "segment" (if you will) for the blog. Happy birthday "Ask Lauren!" This first go around comes from my friend, Natalie. (Thanks Nat!)

Natalie asks: I wanted to check and see if you had a good recipe for spinach artichoke dip or just artichoke dip?

I'm glad you asked, Natalie. ;) I actually do have a terrific recipe for spinach artichoke dip that comes from my husband's family. It has a bit of a kick so if that's not really your thing, use mild rotel tomatoes and omit the cayenne pepper. If you really like a kick, adjust the rotel heat and amount of cayenne pepper to fit your taste!

Spinach Artichoke Dip

1-10oz. box chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1-14oz. can artichokes, chopped
1-8oz. bar cream cheese, softened
1 cup real mayo
2 cups parmesan cheese plus a little extra to top dip
1-10oz. can rotel tomatoes
garlic powder, to taste (I use 2-3 shakes)
cayenne pepper, to taste (I use 2-3 shakes)

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and transfer to an oven safe dish. Shake additional parmesan cheese over top. Bake in a 375 degree oven until bubbly and starting to brown on top, about 20-30 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips, triscuits or other crackers, or crusty bread. My favorite? Panera's Asiago Cheese Demi Loaf.....yumm!

This is a super easy dip that had ALWAYS been a crowd pleaser for me. I always get lots of compliments and questions about what's in it that makes it so different (that would be the rotel and cayenne pepper, by the way). Another fun trick to transform this delicious dip into poppable appetizers is to mix it up and then spoon it into mini phyllo shells and bake until bubbly and brown on top (turn oven down to 350 degrees if baking this way). Delicious!

Keep the questions coming! If I don't know the answer or don't have a recipe to meet your needs I will research and go to my "test kitchen" (ironically also my regular kitchen) and get one for you!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Great deals this week...

Finally got a chance to sit down with the grocery ads this afternoon in between the first day of school and working on the deck this evening. (way too much excitement around my house)

I think this week I'll run through each of the ads one by one.

Let's start with Dierbergs, shall we?

First off, Dierbergs is advertising a 15 hour sale for TOMORROW!! From 7am to 10pm they are running special deals on lots of stuff...some of my personal favorites: Johnsonville Brats (19.76 oz pkg.) for just $2.99, Fresh Express Iceberg Garden bagged lettuce for $0.98/bag, Ocean Market tilapia 16 oz. pkg. for $3.49, and lots of cheese and lunch meat at the deli at $3 off per pound! WOW!!! I'm debating getting there at 6:30, filling my cart, checking out at 7, running the groceries back home, then heading to work! Oh and don't miss out on Woodbridge Wines by Robert Mondavi for just $4.99 per bottle (limit 48 bottles...HA!)!! There's lots of other great stuff in the rest of the ad but I think this 15 hour sale is just about the best thing since sliced bread. :)

Schnucks doesn't have anything quite as exciting as the 15 hour sale but they do have boneless skinless chicken breasts (fresh or frozen) for $1.89/lb. this week! Time to stock up to get ready for slow cooker cooking this fall! (more on that in a later post) Also notable are General Mills cereals (think Cheerios, Trix, etc) for $2.50/box, 16 oz. pkgs. of Schnucks brand bacon for $2.99, and buy one get one free Fresh Express complete salads. One thing I thought was interesting is that they have California peaches advertised for $1.99/lb. in the ad but if you go to the store (I was there this afternoon) they have Eckert's peaches for $0.98/lb.! I stocked back up since we finally finished all the ones we got when we picked our own and am ready for some baking!

Rounding out the group is Shop 'n Save! Right away I noticed that they have to 16 oz. tubs of Prairie Farms sour cream on sale 10 for $10. Schnucks often does the 8oz. tubs at this price but I got a little excited to see the 16 oz. tubs for $1...who doesn't love sour cream?! Shop 'n Save shredded cheeses are also on sale for $1.38/bag, beef chuck roast is $1.97/lb., and they, too, have Fresh Express complete salads 2 for $4 (remember Schnucks has them BOGO with one being $3.99). And oooooo, lobster tails $3.99 each! Might have to serve up a little surf 'n turf dinner for my hubby early next week to thank him for all his hard work on our deck so far. :)

So there you have it folks...hope this helps you as you head out to the grocery store!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I scream, you scream...

...we all scream for ICE CREAM CAKE!!!

I just had to share a super easy ice cream cake recipe with you. The general idea for this creation came from my dear friend, Katie. Everything Katie makes is delicious so I always get excited when she shares recipes with me! Her ice cream cake follows the same general idea as this one but I simplified one of the layers when I made it this time and it was faster, easier, and just as delicious! The fun thing about ice cream cake is that you can make it in any size pan (8x8, 9x9, 9x13...whatever) so ingredients don't really get definite amounts, just buy what you think you need for your particular pan size (plus a little extra...remember, leftovers are a good thing!) and go to town! Layers can be as thick or thin as you want them to be....and get creative with it! If your family really likes nuts, add a layer! If you like caramel, add a layer or substitute it for the fugde layer. The options really are endless. As long as you have something to make the crust, ice cream, and at least one more delicious layer, you have an ice cream cake! :)

Easy Ice Cream Cake

You will need: sandwich cookies, butter, vanilla ice cream (or any flavor you like), hot fudge ice cream topping, cool whip, and mini chocolate chips.

Crush any flavor sandwich cookies (I like generic oreos with the fudge centers the best) and press them into the bottom of the pan. You want enough cookie crumbs to make about a 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch crust. Melt 1/2 stick of butter (for 8x8 or 9x9 pan...whole stick for anything bigger) or margarine in the microwave and pour over the crumbs. Mix butter and crumbs and then press back into the pan. Put pan with crust in the freezer to set the first layer. Take vanilla ice cream out of the freezer to soften while crust freezes. Wait about 15 minutes. Remove crust from freezer, spread softened ice cream over crust and return to freezer. Wait 15 minutes. Remove from freezer and pour an entire jar of hot fudge ice cream topping (8x8 or 9x9 pan...more for a bigger pan) over ice cream and spead evenly. Return to freezer for about 15 minutes and allow cool whip to thaw on counter for these 15 minutes. Remove from freezer and top with cool whip and mini chocolate chips. Return to freezer until ready to serve.

Do you have a favorite ice cream treat? I'd love to hear from you if you do!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ultimate Happy Hour

Hello readers! I need your help. I am on the quest to discover the best place for happy hour in the St. Louis area and I need you to make suggestions! Some things to consider...

1. Location: the more centralized, the better.
2. Price: Cheap food and drinks are what happy hour is all about, right?
3. Time: Convenient timing is almost as important as price. If it's only available from 3pm-5pm it's probably not gonna work for most working folks.
4. Nightly availability: Weekdays only? Weekends included?
5. Menu options: The more options, both food and drink, the better. Is the food any good?
6. Seating availability: Small establishments often fill-up quickly, making it hard to get in. Inside? Outside? Bar area only?

Feel free to nominate your favorite place in this post's comments area directly below! If I pick your location as the winner, I'll give you a prize! (Not sure what that prize is yet...I'll make it something good.) Good luck!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My beefs with the grocery stores...

So the ads were supposed to come yesterday....I'm missing my Schnucks ad. *sigh* I'm also ticked that I had the pork steak yesterday. I got mine for $2.19/lb. at Schnucks yesterday and Dierbergs is advertising them for $1.59/lb. starting today. Time to stock up! However, Dierbergs is also advertising the end of "homegrown" season. What's that all about? Everybody knows we still have several weeks of delicious homegrown produce to look forward to.

Speaking of produce, I also noticed that Shop 'N Save is advertising peaches for $0.98/lb. I'd take a good look at them before you stock up. At that price, it really could go either way. They could be the best, freshest peaches you have ever had or they could be way over ripe and not that great. Haven't decided if I'm gonna risk it yet, though my friend Brit, StL baking examiner extraordinaire, posted a tempting new peach recipe yesterday that I'm dying to try.

Something else to note in the Shop 'N Save ad...they are having a "meat extravaganza" this week. I had to chuckle at this at first but then I noticed they have 3lb. bags of boneless skinless chicken breasts, huge packages of brats, and 2lb. packages of tilapia filets all advertised for $5. And that's just the beginning....I may be making a trip to Shop 'N Save afterall. AND if I brave the crowds on Thursday I can take advantage of their $10 off a $50 grocery purchase (check exclusions before you get too excited)....they call this "coupon Thursday" but then they say there is no coupon necessary. I'm confused. Maybe I'll bring the ad with me just in case.

One last grocery ad chuckle for the week: On the back of the Dierbergs ad I noticed this quote from Greg Dierberg, "Big, super juicy and super easy to peel...your kids are going to love these Minneolas. And the flavor-wow!-it's quite possibly one of the best oranges or tangerines I've ever tasted." Why was I chuckling? Well, first I thought it was funny that he couldn't seem to decide if it was more an orange or a tangerine so I figured I'd look it up real quick to learn more about this hybrid fruit. Apparently Mr. Dierberg needed to do a little research too since the Minneola is actually a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine. Close, but not quite. Yes, a version of a Tangelo (cross between a grapefruit, tangerine, and an orange) but this is a very specific type that does not include the orange cross. Maybe I need to start a new feature on the blog: "Ask Lauren" and Gregory here can be my first client.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to wait patiently for my Schnucks ad. Maybe it will turn up in the mail today...

Monday, August 10, 2009

mmmmmm...pork steaks.....

**A very special thanks and shout out to my friend Paul for suggesting pork steaks. My blog, my stomach, and my husband thank you!!**

So one of my first big posts was about pork but I can't believe I failed to mention pork steaks. *sigh* What was I thinking? Pork steaks are a St. Louis favorite; if you've ever had one, you understand why. Now one thing to know about pork steaks is that they are a pretty fatty cut of meat. I know this sometimes scares people away in the grocery store when they see how much fat runs throughout this particular cut of pork. What's important to know, however, is that this amount of fat is necessary because the area this cut comes from on the pig tends to be a bit on the tough side. Gross you say? No, no...the trick is to cook your pork steak over lower heat for a longer period of time which causes the fat to melt away and actually tenderize the steak. Delicious, I say. :)

So tonight, I didn't quite have as much time as I would like for a nice thick pork steak, so I picked up a thin cut (bone-in) and took a little different approach to the traditional pork steak. Below, I use the same recipe for the sauce but give you two ways to cook your pork steak. If you are using a nice thick (1-1 1/4 in thick) pork steak go with the low and slow method and DO NOT trim the excess fat from the outside! (just trust me on this one, k?) Working with a thin cut like I was? Go with the basting method and feel free to trim just a touch off the outside since you won't be cooking it quite as long, giving the fat the time it needs to dissolve.

Here's the recipe for the sauce...I found this variation on but using just straight up bbq sauce is perfectly acceptable as well. ;)

Pork Steak Sauce

1/2 cup of your favorite bbq sauce
1/3 cup honey
1 Tbls. Worstershire sauce
1 tsp. garlic salt
1/2 tsp. prepared mustard
(if you're going with low and slow you might want to double...or more...the recipe depending on how many steaks you are cooking so there is plenty to simmer in)

Low 'N Slow Cooking

Over low heat (gas or charcoal) cook your pork steak for 8-10 minutes per side. This should finish off the actual cooking of the meat. Place pork steaks into a pan filled with the bbq sauce you just mixed up and let em simmer in there for as long as you can stand to wait for them. ;) If the sauce starts to get too thick for your liking, poor a little beer in the pan.

Basting Style

Over low heat, cook your thin cut pork steak for about 6 minutes per side. Continue cooking for an additional 5 minutes while turning and basting every minute or so to get it nice and carmelized and saucy. You can still use this method on a thicker cut pork steak, just be sure to increase the initial cooking time to cook it all the way through.

Typically I prefer the low 'n slow style of bbq'ing but tonight the basting style was a better match for us. The pork steaks were terrific and we loved the sauce! Grilled up some yellow squash, mushrooms, and red and green peppers with a little evoo and pepper in the grill pan and made a little salad. Ah, perfection. We will definitely be making this dinner again before the end of summer.....

Have any kitchen inquiries? Send them my way! I'd be happy to try to shed some light or share a favorite recipe I have!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mini Bonus Post!!

Just made some more homemade chips and seasoned them with Homemade Gourmet Southwest Seasoning for the first time....delicious! Must admit they totally stunk up the house with Southwest deliciousness but they taste awesome! Don't worry, I'm baking Homemade Gourmet Chocolate Chunk Cookies to take care of the stink. ;)

Oh and Tom just pointed out that we had the ultimate "leftover" day. Leftover picnic chicken and pasta salad for lunch then leftover tomato sauce for dinner! (did have to boil more of that tomato basil pasta but that was no biggie.)

Hope you're having a terrific food weekend too! :)

The Vine Wine Bar and Bistro (in review)

After a week's worth of cooking I was ready for a night out so yesterday I spent part of the day researching online and using my iTouch's Urbanspoon app. to find somewhere new to go out for a bite. I stumbled across this little restaurant nestled amongst the cobblestone streets lined with rows of shops, restaurants, and bars that make up Main Street in St. Charles. The Vine looked like it had everything I was looking for: tasty menu, wine, and outdoor seating (remember how I said I love to be outside?). I figured it couldn't hurt to give it a try.

The Vine

We arrived just after 6 on a Friday expecting a big crowd but saw just two tables on the front patio taken and upon entering, just two taken on the inside as well. We were greeted by some very friendly members of the staff who informed us that there would be live music on the back patio in about an hour if we were interested in sitting out back. Wait? TWO patios?! This is my heaven. :) Not that either was very large but we chose to sit in the front this time to do a little people watching on Main Street. By the time we left, both patios were full, btw.

After being seated, we took a look at the wine list. It's not the longest wine list I've ever seen but it certainly had plenty to choose from. Tom decided to go with the Jed Steele's Shooting Star Zinfandel (a terrific choice, despite the name) and after much debate between a Cab and a Chard, the Tangley Oaks Chardonnay won its place in my glass. Wines by the bottle and wine flights were also available...I plan on sampling the flight of reds the next time we go!

The menu was small but had decent variety. Everything from pork chops to tuna steaks to pasta is available. Tom chose the Salmon Pecan with sundried tomato cous cous while I went with the Vegetable Risotto. The salmon was cooked to perfection with the pecan crust toasted beautifully and laid out on a bed of cous cous and asparagus. The shaved parmesan on the top of the vegetable risotto really "topped it off" nicely. It both looked and tasted amazing. I would definitely order either again though next time I think I have my eye on that tuna steak. I can't believe I almost forgot to mention the bread! While waiting for our dinners, our server, Bri, brought us the most amazing bread fresh out of the oven. It was covered in parmesan cheese (added after baking) and had pepper and parmesan dipping oil on the plate it came out on so some had already soaked into the bread. Wow...I'm gonna have to try this at home with the new Homemade Gourmet Garlic Parmesan Bread Dippin' Mix or the Italian Red Pepper Bread Dippin' Mix. (Yes, another shameless plug for my home really do have to try these, though!)

Also while we waited, Tom and I discussed what makes a great restaurant. We decided it's a combination of 5 things: setting, ambiance, service, food, and drink. With these in mind, I thought I would set up a little ranking scale to use whenever I review a restaurant on here. I'm a big fan of likert scales so I think I'll use that. So, on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being unacceptable, 2 being poor, 3 being average, 4 being above average, and 5 being outstanding (maybe I'll come up with more clever descriptors in a later post...suggestions??) here's how I rate The Vine.

Setting: 4.5--Main Street St. Charles has a unique charm that I really love but there tends to be a fair amount of biker traffic, which can be a bit annoying when you're trying to enjoy a conversation. I think if we had sat on the back patio this wouldn't have been a problem.
Ambiance: 4--A very laid back atmosphere lends to the casual, yet still slightly upscale feel of this wine bar/bistro. (Tom said he would have ranked it a 4.5)
Service: 4.5--Everyone was extremely friendly and courteous. Our server checked back at the right time everytime and service was quick!
Food: 4--The only thing keeping the food from ranking higher was the prices. There were a few more reasonable items but most were $20+ which is typically a little bit more than I want to spend unless it's a special occasion.
Drink: 5--Not only was there good selection but the prices were actually good too for a wine bar. Glasses from $5.50-$8, flights around $14, plenty of bottles in the $20-$30 range...just the way I like it!

All in all, a great place for a romantic date or an evening out with good friends. Nothing like good company to add to good food and drink, I always say.

ANyone have any suggestions on where we should go next?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

La cena era deliziosa....

....supposedly that means "the meal was delicious" in Italian. Thanks WikiAnswers!

Whether that's right or not, it very accurately describes the meal my husband and I just ate. Ever since we got married my husband has wanted to grow herbs and tomatoes. And everytime he asked, I wasn't really interested...until this summer. We bought one tomato plant from a local nursery, Sherwood's Forest, along with basil, mint, and rosemary plants. We also picked up a few bell pepper plants at Soulard Farmer's Market but those are still growing and maturing so we haven't gotten to enjoy them yet. Anyway, for the most part the tomatoes have ripened one-by-one and we have sliced them for sandwiches or diced them to put on tacos or shared them with our parents.

Twice now, however, several of them have ripened at once, giving me the idea to try to make tomato sauce from scratch. The first time I did extensive research on the topic and combined two or three different recipes and produced a very small batch (we only had 7 or 8 small tomatoes that time around) of quite tasty tomato sauce. This time, 15 tomatoes of varying size came ripe all at once (I pureed these...see recipe below), I purchased 2 more large homegrown tomatoes from Schnucks (I diced these...see recipe below), and decided to go for it and use what I learned from making the sauce the first time along with what I wanted to add, to create my very own recipe. Here it is, in all its's time consuming so be ready to set aside an afternoon but note that the bulk of the time it's just simmering so you can get plenty of other things done around the house while the aroma wafts around. :)

Lauren's Garden Vegetable Tomato Sauce

10-12 medium ripe tomatoes
1 carrot, sliced
1 small zucchini, sliced
1 small yellow squash, sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
8 oz. mushrooms, chopped
2 Tbls. evoo
2 Tbls. butter (or margarine)
1 Tbls. minced garlic
1/2 c. chopped onion
1/4 c. fresh basil, chopped
1/2 tsp. Italian Seasoning
2 stalks celery
1--6oz. can tomato paste
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. oregano

1. In a large stock pot, boil enough water to submerge all of your tomatoes at once. Have ready a large bowl of ice water. When water boils, add tomatoes. Using a slotted spoon, remove tomatoes from boiling water when skin splits and place in ice water bath to cool. (note: some tomatoes will split almost instantaneously while others will take a couple minutes. I usually end up with a rogue tomato that just won't split so I just drop it in the ice water bath and use a sharp knife to puncture the skin before peeling.) Peel tomatoes and squeeze to remove seeds. Dice 2 tomatoes and set aside. Dice remaining tomatoes and place in blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

2. In a large stock pot, combine evoo, butter, onion, garlic, carrot, zucchini, squash, peppers, and mushrooms and saute over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add tomato puree, diced tomatoes, basil, Italian seasoning, and celery stalks (might have to cut them in half to make them fit). Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer 2 hours.
Here's what it looked like before it simmered but after all ingredients had been added.

3. After 2 hours, you have a choice to chunky do you like your sauce?
Here it is at the 2 hour mark. I like mine pseudo-chunky so I put a cup or so in the food processor and gave it a whirl. It's ready for 2 more hours of simmering!

a. Super Chunky: Stir in tomato paste, pepper, and oregano, cover, and simmer for an additional 2 hours.

b. Pseudo-Chunky: Scoop out a cup or so of sauce and blend until smooth in blender or food processor. Return to pot; stir in tomato paste, pepper, and oregano, cover, and simmer for an additional 2 hours.

c. Smooth: Remove celery stalks and pour all sauce into blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Return to pot and put celery stalks back in; stir in tomato paste, pepper, and oregano, cover, and simmer for an additional 2 hours.

4. Discard celery stalks (they have probably disintigrated a little bit so you may have to go on a celery hunt) and serve over your favorite pasta!

Tom and I purchased some tomato basil Amish pasta from the Eckert's store when we were there peach picking a few weeks ago and I decided to use it tonight with the sauce...wowee...another delicious choice! Had some three cheese Italian rolls and a nice salad too. Great dinner tonight! Best part about it, I was able to make a bigger batch of sauce than last time so we have leftovers!!!

So what have we learned from this experience? Next year I will be purchasing more than one tomato plant! :)

No ants at our picnic...

As a follow up to yesterday's blog, I must say that last night's picnic was a huge success. We decided to scrap the dill dip (and looking back, that was a good choice cause we were all stuffed) but everything else was prepared, packed, and devoured! I'd like to review the menu briefly for you to give a few tips on preparation of the items, things I might change, and things I wouldn't dare alter!
Let's start with the chicken, shall we? It was amazing! I know I asked for picnic chicken recipes at the end of yesterday's post and I guess I'd still try others but wow, this chicken was just perfect. Who know instant potato flakes made good chicken breading? (I used Idahoan brand, btw) Added bonus to making this chicken: when you take it off the pan to pack and chill, it leaves behind some of the potato breading--which has now soaked up some of the butter and juice and kind of turned into crispy, seasoned potatoes. Instead of just washing the pan, I opted for a fork and ate up all that seasoned potato deliciousness before I washed. The chicken was a big hit with everyone, even my husband who had never had cold chicken and admittedly wasn't sure what he thought about eating it that way. I think he may have even taken a leftover piece for lunch today. One slight variation in the recipe I used: I have California Style onion powder which already contains some parsley so I cut back on the parsley the recipe called for just a bit. Other than that, I wouldn't change a thing!! Chicken buying tip: if you're just cooking for two and aren't wanting leftovers (though I think you'd be crazy to not want leftovers) try buying your chicken straight from the meat/butcher counter so you get just the pieces you want. I bought my chicken at Schnucks and got the pre-packaged "Pick of the Chick" which included three breasts, three thighs, and three legs (strange looking chicken, eh?), all bone-in. It fed 4 people well with two breasts leftover! Take a peek!

Next I made the potato chips. While it wasn't too difficult to slice the potatoes thinly, it would have been much easier with a mandoline. I think I'll be in the market for one of those pretty soon. I particularly liked this mandoline I found on Amazon. Anyway, homemade chips can be tricky, as a colleague of mine, Tracy, pointed out. Slice them too thin, they stick to the pan. Slice them too thick, they are impossible to get crispy. My solution: slice them thin but put a layer of heavy duty aluminum foil on the pan before you bake. Also, make sure they are good and crispy before you try to remove them from the foil. This way, most of the starchy liquid has baked out and they release from the foil a lot easier. You also have to keep in mind that they aren't all going to bake at the same rate so it's ok to check on them periodically and remove the ones that are done cooking and put the rest back in the oven to continue crisping. Lastly, how you season is totally up to you. I chose seasoned salt but you might want to try sea salt, California Style onion powder, parmesan cheese, or a Homemade Gourmet seasoning mix. (perhaps Southwest Seasoning or Chicken Enchilada Soup) Sorry this picture isn't as good. I'd take another but there weren't any leftovers of these!!

The peaches were ripe and delicious. A nice sweet flavor to contrast the saltiness of the chips and chicken. Those, too, were pretty much annihilated. Tom and I will have to make a trip back to Eckert's to get some more. I'm pretty sure Lorings are ready for picking...maybe Crest Havens too!

Homemade Gourmet Mediterranean Pasta Salad was almost as big a hit as the chicken, with everyone (including myself) going back for seconds. I decided to stick with the basic recipe (there are optional add ins listed on the package but I didn't have any in the house so I skipped it). It was the easiest thing I made, too. Just boil the noodles and add a 1/2 cup mayo or evoo (extra vigin olive oil) and 2 Tbls. red wine or balsalmic vinegar to the seasoning packets. Chill. Enjoy. How can you not love that simplicity? Take a looksie at the finished product...

Time for dessert! We took a short hiatus after dinner but it wasn't long before the menfolk decided it was time for dessert. The ultimate brownies definitely delivered on the name. They were super fudgy; so much so that I had a really hard time getting them out of the pan. Regardless, I would absolutely make these again! One thing we may have missed out on was that 10 minutes you are supposed to spend beating the egg, sugar, and vanilla mixture. I don't have a stand mixer, just a handheld one, so standing there beating three ingredients for 10 minutes just wasn't happening. I'd say I gave it a good 2.5-3 minutes before giving up but I can only imagine what they would have been like had I toughed it out, or had a proper mixer.

So there you have it folks...the picnic dinner of champions! Hope you get a chance to enjoy it with your friends and family before summer is through!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Goin' on a picnic, leavin' right away...

...if it doesn't rain we'll stay all day! (one of my favorite kid's songs!)

I love to be outside just about as much as I love to be in the kitchen so when the opportunity rises for me to bring kitchen creations outside I'm on cloud 9. Tonight is such a night. This evening marks the final free summer concert at the Missouri Botanical Gardens here in St. Louis and I plan to be in attendance. This past Wednesday we went with friends and I toted along a few slices of that delicious peach pie I blogged about last week. This time around I plan on bringing an entire spread. Before I get started on a menu, however, there are some things to consider.

First and foremost we must keep food safety in mind. I expect a few rogue ants or mosquitos at my picnic (that's what repellant and citronella candles are for) but post-picnic stomach bugs are unwelcome. Check out this article on having a "No-Risk Picnic" to learn the best ways to pack all your picnic favorites safely! I heart, by the way.

Next, what to pack it all in? There are so many cute options out there these days: picnic baskets, picnic backpacks, coolers...the possibilities are endless! You might want to consider this packing checklist from Real Simple when selecting yours. Whatever you choose, make sure it is well insulated and has enough room (but not too much) for all of your delicious goodies and plenty of ice packs. A full cooler actually keeps contents chilled better than a loosely packed one with lots of room to spare, so be sure to choose one that is the right size for your picnic.

Ok now we are ready for the menu. In the past, I have tended to take the easy way out. Pick up a few pre-made sandwiches at Schnucks, a bag of chips, maybe some cookies, a few beverages and voila! a picnic. Definitely gets the job done, especially if you are pressed for time, but if you have some time, planning out and preparing a menu can be very rewarding. Here's what I chose for tonight's spread:

Homemade Gourmet Mock Spinach Dip with rye bread dippers
Picnic chicken
Sliced fresh peaches (yes I'm still working on the ones we picked at Eckert's)
Homemade Gourmet Mediterranean Pasta Salad
Potato Chips (Bring a bag if that's easier for you or try this recipe to make your own!)
Ultimate Brownies

Maybe Erin and Bob will bring the wine.... :)

Do you have a favorite recipe for picnic chicken? The above recipe is new to me but sounded interesting so I thought I'd give it a try. If you have a tried and true favorite, I'd love to hear about it!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The other white meat...

Sorry to start the blog and then leave everyone hanging for an extended weekend but I spent the past 4 days sharing some delicious food and memories with my family!

As many of us prepare for the "back-to-school season" I thought I'd scour the grocery ads that had filled up my mailbox while I was gone for deals on some delicious summertime yummies. Now pork is a meat that is easy to enjoy year-round in the oven or slow cooker, but there's nothing like pulling a slab of ribs or a perfectly marinated pork tenderloin off the grill. I was pleased to see that all three stores have similar pricing this week on this global favorite so you're sure to get a good deal no matter where you shop! Pork fun fact: Did you know that the United States is third in pork consumption with the European Union coming in #2 and China leading the drove?? What a bunch of oinkers!

Ribs: a summertime staple. This is not an entree I "pig out" on often, which makes them that much more special. Dierbergs has them advertised for $2.99/lb., Shop 'N Save $2.97/lb., Schnucks $2.99/lb. And remember last Thursday's post? It's still peach season....try this recipe out on your ribs for something a little different from the traditional bbq flavor!

Pork Tenderloin: Now this was a hard one to find! Only Schnucks is advertising pork tenderloin prices this week but at $2.99/lb I'll definitely be picking some up! I've had pork tenderloin prepared dozens of ways but here are two of my favorite tenderloin recipes!

Tangy Tejano Pork Tenderloin (Homemade Gourmet)

5 lbs. pork tenderloin (unless you're shopping at Sam's Club you'll probably need 2 tenderloins)
4 Tbls. Homemade Gourmet Chicken Enchilada Soup Mix
2 cups orange juice
1 - 4oz. can diced green chilies, undrained

Place all ingredients together in a gallon-sized ziploc bag and smoosh ingredients to combine. Allow to marinate 2 hours or more in the refrigerator. Discard marinade and grill at medium high heat until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.
Click here to view nutrition facts and other cooking options!

Sesame Honey Pork Tenderloin

***I used this recipe as a base idea and changed ingredients according to what I had available in my fridge and pantry the day I made it and it still turned out amazing! Here I provide the actual recipe along with changes I made in the process. Enjoy it either way!

2 pork tenderloins, trimmed of fat (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 cup beer
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons sesame seeds **I omitted this...seems like a sin since it was in the title but I didn't have them that day and didn't miss them on the finished product!
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard **I used plain yellow mustard.
4 cloves garlic, minced **I used minced garlic from a jar...2 Tbls.
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons fresh rosemary **In the recipe they say the rosemary is optional (they use it as a topper/garnish on the finished product) but I decided to put it in with the marinade instead and really think it made the most flavor impact and would highly recommend including it!

Combine beer, honey, sesame seeds, mustard, garlic and pepper (**and rosemary if you are following my changes). Stir until the honey is combined. Place pork tenderloin in a large resealable bag. Pour marinade over top. Turn to coat. Refrigerator for 6 to 24 hours. Preheat grill. Place tenderloins over medium hot fire and grill for about 20 to 25 minutes or until done (165 degrees). Baste with marinade about half way through cooking time. When tenderloins are done, remove from grill and carve against the grain into thin slices. Serve with rosemary on top.

Enjoy "the other white meat" at your dinner table this week and I promise your family will thank you for it!