Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Matt Turns 30 - Beer Tasting BBQ

This weekend marked Matt's 30th birthday celebration. And a celebration it was! We don't often do a whole lot for his birthday since it always falls on Memorial Day, but the big 3-0 is a big deal so I wanted to throw him a party. I've been planning it for about a month now, so it was great to finally see it all come together.

If you've been reading for a while, I'm sure you've noticed by now that Matt is a big fan of craft beer. I wanted to surprise him with a beer tasting at home, so after a little research I found Mike from New Jersey Craft Beer, and he was more than happy to come host the event for us. Matt was so surprised when he came home to this!

I had originally set everything up outside, but just before the guests arrived it started to drizzle (and then downpour), so we had to move everything inside. I was bummed because it was so picturesque outside, but what can you do. We had about 20 of Matt's beer-loving friends for the tasting, so we had just enough room to squeeze everyone into our sunroom. I also had just enough glasses for everyone; plastic will work but can alter the taste of the beer, so pint and tulip glasses are best when you're drinking good beer.

While we were waiting for Matt to arrive, people sipped on white peach and red wine apple sangria and picked out their place cards.

And once the birthday boy arrived, it was time to taste some beers! Mike and his assistant Heather poured beers for us and explained each one as we went along. They were very knowledgeable, so the tasting was both informative and a lot of fun. We had 8 beers on the tasting list, which was actually plenty since it took us about two hours to get all the way through them, and many of the beers were anywhere from 7 - 11% alcohol. Whew!

Mike's personality was really easy going and fun, which was awesome; it made for a really relaxing afternoon rather than a formal one. He was also really helpful in coming up with the beer list; I gave him some ideas and let him know the kinds of beers Matt enjoys, but he took it from there. He also had us drink the beers in a nice progression, the same way you would drink white to red in a wine tasting, which allowed us to start out easy and work our way to the stronger beers.

During the tasting I served unsalted oyster crackers and pieces of torn French bread as palate cleansers since it's important not to kill your palate with really flavorful things as you're tasting. About halfway through the tasting, though, we were all ready for a little snack and leg stretch so we took a short intermission. We gulped citrus water and nibbled on garlicky white bean dip with homemade crostini, and our friend Terry's homemade shrimp ceviche - which went unpictured because it was inhaled so fast. That stuff was amazing and so refreshing!

After a short break we resumed the tasting and finished off the list. It was a great time and we all enjoyed it - it was fun to do something a little different, and I'll definitely be staying in touch with Mike for more events like these!


The tasting took about 2 hours, and after it concluded a bunch of our other friends and family came over for an afternoon/evening BBQ. Since the tasting included quite eclectic beers, people who aren't beer fans opted to just come for the party afterward. 

By this point most of us were starving, so we put out a big spread of grilled meats, grilled shrimp with pineapple salsa, penne vodka, mac & cheese, potato salad, corn, tomato & arugula salad, and a million other things. Matt's mom cooked a bunch for the party, which was a huge help! Some our friends also brought stuff to share, which was great. One of the favorite dishes I made was a Greek-style couscous salad with veggies, balsamic, feta cheese and toasted walnuts I got from Everyone loved it!

For dessert, I made Matt a toasted coconut tres leches birthday cake, which also got devoured. This cake took a while to make, but everyone liked it, especially Matt, so it was worth it. I'll be sharing the recipe at some point!

I also made a S'mores Buffet with all different kinds of chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows. I got the idea from Pinterest and loved it!

The party was a great time. We played horseshoes, ran around with the kiddies and built a fire for the end of the night. I love our group of friends and we always have so much fun with them. Some of our friends that we don't get to see often were also able to come even though it was a holiday weekend, so Matt was really surprised and excited to see them.

Happy birthday Matt, I love you!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sweet Summertime

It's summertime baby! Memorial Day weekend is in full swing, and it's been a good one so far.

Festivities in our house actually started Thursday evening since it was Matt's birthday. It was another weeknight birthday, so we celebrated at home with some lobster ravioli and a glass of pinot.

And yes that's a side of peas you see up there. Peas don't make an appearance often in this house since I feel like they're a fake vegetable, but Matt was the birthday boy and he called the shots. If he had to have a veggie with dinner, it was going to be peas! We finished things off by splitting another Crumbs cupcake, this time the "Elvis" flavor. That'd be a vanilla cupcake filled with banana cream and topped with peanut butter. Mmmm.

On Friday my office closed early for the holiday weekend, so I got home when the sun was still high and Matt and I were both in the mood to kick off the weekend with a cocktail. We decided to join a bunch of his coworkers for their annual Memorial Day tradition of meeting at the Tiki Bar, an outdoor bar and grill near his work. I actually waitressed there when I was in college, but it has changed a lot since then - for the better! The weather was perfect and it was so nice to sit on the water, relax and enjoy some live music. 

We brought Riker with us of course, and everyone was loving him. He was quite the little charmer. ;-)

I had a Sam Adams Summer to start, which was pure summer in a glass.

Matt and I also split an order of calamari with marinara.

It was a great way to welcome the summer! After we got home and put Riker to bed, neither Matt or I were very hungry since we nibbled on snacks at Tiki Bar, so we opted to skip dinner (unprecedented!) and sit outside at the fire pit instead. We put on a little Dave Matthews and Matt smoked a cigar while we chatted the night away. I honestly couldn't have asked for a better Friday evening. It was fantastic!


This morning we woke up early, had breakfast and got started on a bunch of household chores. We're having a BBQ at our house tomorrow for Matt's birthday, so we needed to get the yard in order and run some errands to make sure everything was all set for the party. By noon, it was 90 degrees and we were ready for a break. Bring on the pool!

Matt's parents put in a pool toward the end of last summer, so you can bet we'll be spending many of our weekends over there. We both love going to the beach, but sometimes it's easier to just hang by the pool since it requires a lot less packing, especially now that we have Riker. Speaking of whom, he loved his first experience in the water!

After a dip in the pool, Matt's mom made us all lunch on the grill. I had a veggie burger while they all had barbecued chicken. We also had grilled potatoes, salad, and grilled vegetables. Everything was really tasty.

For dessert we had enormous strawberries, which were as sweet as they could possibly be. Super ripe strawberries just say summer to me.

We came back home around 6:00 and have spent the last few hours getting stuff done around the house. I forgot how much work it is to have a party! It'll all be worth it tomorrow though. :) And with that, I'm off to spend the rest of the night baking a coconut tres leches cake...hopefully it'll taste as good as it sounds!

Hope you're having a great holiday weekend!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cajun Crab Cakes with Spicy Greek Yogurt

When I was in New Orleans last weekend I picked up some goodies to take home, including some Cajun spice and hot sauce. The hot sauce got confiscated by airport security unfortunately (my own fault for not checking my bag), but the Slap Ya Mama spice rub made it home safely. I love that name, it cracks me up.

This stuff is spiiiiicy, and was put to very good use in some homemade crab cakes. Of course you can use any spice blend you like in the crab cakes, or just use a pinch of cayenne pepper, or leave the spice out altogether if you're not a lover of spicy food. I'm a huge fan of crab cakes and love them any which way, but it was nice to add some heat for a change of pace.

These crab cakes are filled with onions, red peppers and celery so they have a nice bite to them. They are also really crispy, even though they aren't fried in oil. The trick is coating them with panko breadcrumbs, which provide crunch, and cooking them in a cast iron skillet if you have one.

My sister bought Matt a cast iron skillet for Christmas last year, and it's now one of the most-used kitchen tools we have. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got on without one! If you don't yet have one in your collection of frying pans, it's really worth the investment.

In the meantime, you can obviously make these in a regular pan, but make sure it's a nonstick pan or the breadcrumbs might burn without the use of oil.

I'm not really into tartar sauce but I do love my condiments, so I wanted a little sauce on these. The combination of the creamy texture, tart flavor and cool temperature of the Greek yogurt made it the perfect complement.


Matt ended up eating his crab cakes on a bun as a sandwich, but I ate mine as-is with a side of broccoli and a crunchy dill pickle.

I ate all the veggies first so I could just enjoy the crab cakes on their own. ;-) I literally scraped every last bit of crabmeat and stray breadcrumbs off my plate and had to contain myself from getting seconds. Dinner perfection!

Cajun Crab Cakes with Spicy Greek Yogurt

Serves 4

Ingredients - Crab Cakes
1 lb. lump crabmeat
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 red pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. spicy yellow mustard
Juice from 1 1/2 limes
1 - 2 Tbsp. Cajun spice (adjust seasoning to your liking and the heat level of the spice blend) 
1 egg, whisked
Salt & pepper to taste
1/2 cup low-fat mayonnaise
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs, plus 1/2 cup for dredging

Ingredients - Yogurt Sauce
1/2 cup plain, nonfat Greek yogurt
Juice and zest from half a lime
1 tsp. Cajun spice (optional)

In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat and add the onions, red peppers, celery, garlic and salt & pepper. Sweat the veggies until they become tender and the onions are translucent. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the mayo, mustard, lime juice, Cajun seasoning, egg and additional salt & pepper. Add the crabmeat, cooked veggies and breadcrumbs. Mix well.

Form the crab mixture into small patties and coat in panko breadcrumbs and more salt & pepper (if desired). Refrigerate 1 - 2 hours until set.

Spray a large cast iron skillet with cooking spray and heat over medium heat. Cook the crab cakes for several minutes on each side, until golden brown and hot in the center. (Alternative: Sear the crab cakes on the stove, then transfer the cast iron skillet to the oven and finish them at 375 degrees for about 5-8 minutes.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lemon Blueberry Pancakes with Lemon Ricotta and Balsamic

Breakfast for dinner, all grown up!

That would be a stack of blueberry pancakes topped with lemon ricotta and a generous drizzle of blueberry balsamic vinegar. Also known as dinner last night. :)

A few months ago during our day trip to New Hope, PA, Matt and I spotted a vinegar shop while wandering around town and just about died. They had every flavor thinkable, including an amazing blueberry flavored balsamic.

It's sweet, but not sickly sweet. It's a 10-year aged balsamic so is really thick (and you know how I feel about aged balsamic) and has a true fresh blueberry flavor. It's so good you can literally just eat it with a spoon. Most of the time we drizzle it on salads with fruit and nuts, but to be honest the first time I saw it, I thought pancakes. You can eat balsamic vinegar on strawberries, so why not pancakes?

Ok, I digress. You definitely don't need blueberry balsamic vinegar to enjoy these pancakes. They are juuuust fine with regular old maple syrup. Alternatively, you could take regular balsamic vinegar and cook it on the stovetop until it reduces down to a thick syrup. That would be really good too.

The batter is really simple, just a mixture of wet and dry ingredients that you let sit for a little while on the counter.

Then cook 'em up on a griddle until they're golden. Traditionally you're supposed to cook pancakes in butter so they get crispy edges, but I think they're perfectly tasty cooked with cooking spray.

While the pancakes are cooking, stir together some ricotta cheese with fresh lemon juice and lemon zest. Blueberries and lemon are a classic combination that I use a lot. The flavors taste so fresh and clean and the lemon really brightens up the berries.

Then just stack everything up!

We ate our 'cakes alongside some Morningstar veggie sausages, so the plate ended up being a great combination of sweet yet savory, warm yet fresh. They are the perfect rainy day breakfast/dinner!

Lemon Blueberry Pancakes with Lemon Ricotta 
& Blueberry Balsamic

Serves 4
Pancake recipe adapted from The Joy of Cooking's "Pancakes & Griddle Cakes"

Ingredients - Pancakes
1 1/2 cups flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 3/4 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups skim milk
2 1/2 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen

Ingredients - Lemon Ricotta
1 cup part-skim ricotta
Zest and juice of half a large lemon

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, butter, eggs, vanilla and lemon juice. Pour the wet mixture into the dry, and stir together quickly; do not overbeat. Batter will be lumpy. Add blueberries and gently stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine ricotta, lemon juice and lemon zest, and set aside.

Heat a griddle to 350 degrees (or use a skillet over medium heat). Once hot, spoon batter onto griddle using a 1/4 cup measure (each pancake should be 1/4 cup batter). When the pancakes start to bubble, flip over and cook for an additional 2 minutes.

Top cooked pancakes with a dollop of lemon ricotta and drizzle with blueberry balsamic vinegar, a balsamic reduction, or maple syrup.

Citrus Salmon and Baby Playdates

Today marks the end of my lovely 4-day mini vacation. I'm so glad I took the extra day off work yesterday to spend some time with Riker and get caught up around the house (and on sleep!) before jumping back into the work week.

It also felt good to start eating healthy, veggie-packed meals again after being away. When I got home from the airport Sunday night, I was in the mood for a giant salad for dinner since I'd eaten so many rich foods all weekend, so while I fed the baby Matt started chopping vegetables for a citrus salmon salad.

The salad was packed with romaine lettuce, red, yellow and orange peppers, celery, broccoli and chopped oranges. We topped our salads with citrus seared salmon (which we crusted with orange zest and salt & pepper), then tossed the whole thing with a homemade citrus vinaigrette. Talk about a refreshing summer salad! 

I ended up eating the same thing for lunch again yesterday, but with a smaller piece of salmon and the addition of a few wasabi almonds and crumbled blue cheese. I was on quite the veggie kick, so I also chopped up the rest of the celery and red, yellow & orange peppers to snack on today.

So colorful!

I was actually stuck at home most of the day yesterday because Matt accidentally took my keys with him to work, but when he got home in the afternoon we finally got a chance to go to my friend Heather's house for a little playdate, and so I could finally meet her new baby, Avery. She couldn't have visitors when she was first born, and I was sick all last week and didn't want to spread my germs around her, so I've been waiting anxiously to see her.

She is so unbelievably tiny! She was only 5 pounds, 3 oz. when she born two weeks ago, and she's still a little peanut. Her newborn clothes were swimming on her, and she looked like a little doll. A sweet, snuggly little doll. :)

Heather's other daughter, Delia is almost 2 and she's the cutest. She talks up a storm now and likes to hold the babies. I held Avery and Delia held Riker. ;-) Next to Avery, though, Riker looks like a giant!

It's hard to believe there are now three kids among us. Heather and I were roommates in college (and Matt her husband Kevin were also roommates and have been best friends since they were little kids), so it's funny to think back about our college days and early 20s and compare them to where we are now. It's been really fun to move into this next chapter of life all together. 

We got back home around dinnertime, and it was pouring rain and chilly out so we had one thing on our minds - breakfast for dinner! More on that later. ;-)

Time to get my work on!