Monday, October 31, 2011

Culinary Smackdown - Winter Squash

Jen over at Our Good Food Life is hostessing this month's culinary Smackdown.  You can find challenge details on her blog. 

So for this challenge, I wanted to go the soup route for a couple of reasons.  First, I was thinking of a butternut squash and champagne soup I had about 15 years ago at a local restaurant and winery - the Renault Winery in Hammonton, NJ.  This soup was so amazing that I remember it 15 years later.  Alas, they have changed the restaurant since then and don't have the amazing meals they once served.  And after perusing the recipe sites, I was unable to find anything that resembled this soup.  I had to give it up.

Second, I wanted something on the sweet side, so I found this recipe at - Butternut and Acorn Squash Soup.  I read a bunch of the reviews and made some changes accordingly.  This is what I ended up with:

Butternut and Acorn Squash Soup


• 1 butternut squash, halved and seeded
• 1 acorn squash, halved and seeded
• 3 tablespoons butter
• 1/4 cup chopped sweet onion
• 1 quart chicken broth
• 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
• 1/2 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• ground cinnamon to taste (optional)
• fresh parsley, for garnish


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Spray PAM on the cut side of the squash halves and place cut side down in a baking dish. Bake 45 minutes, or until tender. Remove from heat, and cool slightly. Scoop the pulp from the skins. Discard skins.

2. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onion until tender.

3. In a blender or food processor, blend the squash pulp, onion, broth, brown sugar, cream cheese, pepper, and cinnamon until smooth. This may be done in several batches.

4. Transfer the soup to a pot over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through. Garnish with parsley, and serve warm.

My starting ingredients in an artsy-fartsy Fall picture on the deck.  The Pudge will be turning that pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern this Halloween Weekend.

Butternut and Acorn Squash from the local Produce Junction.

They were tough to cut, but had great color.

I sprayed the cut side with PAM and roasted them in the oven for almost an hour.

I sauteed the onions and mixed everything in a pot with my immersion blender.  I love this machine.  No more exploding blenders of death.

Lastly, I wanted soup for a chilly Saturday afternoon - BLOCK PARTY!  Last year, one of my neighbors decided to revive the decades-gone block party tradition of our cul-de-sac street.  And she decided that a spring and fall party was in order.  Out of 15 houses on the street, we had 10 families participate (plus 2 that no longer live on the street).

Here is my soup in all it's crock-potted glory with a chopped parsley garnish.

Here the fractured-finger Mrs is ladling the creamy goodness in what could be called our block soup kitchen.

MMMMMM - soupy goodness!

One neighbor made these "lady fingers".  They were a little dry but cool to look at.  The kids liked them (too much nose picking going on though).

We had a Guess the  Weight of the Pumpkin Contest.  In what turned out to be the big controversey of the night, the winning number weight was 38 pounds, followed by a correction by the neighbors husband to 28 pounds (I told you 28 pounds when I weighed it!).  So 28 pounds took the pumpkin and 38 pounds took a consolation decoration, which the Mrs won.

There was also pumpkin painting for the kids.

Followed by marshmallow roasting in a fire pit in the center of the cul-de-sac.  Probably not the smartest thing to do with all the leaves around, but we had been drinking and it seemed right at the time.

Anyway, the soup was a huge hit.  Sweet (but not too), creamy and hot.  You could also taste the onion and cinnamon in the background.  I had at least five people ask for the recipe (which I promptly emailed the next day).  If I were to make it again, I might add a little bourbon to the onion saute step because I think that would add nice flavor.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hiatus Report - Part 3

Local radio station WMGK hosted their inaugural Brew Fest on the Battleship USS New Jersey at the Camden Waterfront on 17 September - and I was there.  So was my sister L and my longtime friend Mo.  Every June, the Craft Brewers of New Jersey have an annual New Jersey Craft Beer Festival on the New Jersey.  Mo, L and I have been there before and had fully intended to go this year.  L and I even bought the tickets and I had a pass from the Mrs to go.  Until she told me that The Boy's graduation party was that day.  So L and I gave our tickets away, but Mo went. 

Anyway, when WMGK decided to have their own Brew Fest on the New Jersey, we were all over that.  The New Jersey is one of  the most decorated ships in US Navy History.  And it's been a museum on the Camden Waterfront since 2001.  This ship is huge.  You can't really appreciate that until you go below decks and start walking the myriad of passageways.  You can do a self guided tour of the ship as part of your admission to the Brew Fest, but they won't give you your tasting glass until after your done.  They don't want drunks walking the ship because you will get hurt.

The festival itself is set up under tents on the fantail. They also had a classic rock band playing. Good size crowd too. I'd say at any given time there were 200 - 300 people in there.

And then there was the beer.  Unibroue was one of the better ones (there were over 50 different ones to choose from).  They came all the way from Canada and had a La Fin du Monde which was very good.  Another beer of note was Weyerbacher's  Merry Monks, a Belgian style Abby Tripel that the 3 of us agreed was the best we had all day.

I also enjoyed Magic Hat's Number 9 and Hex beers too.  Our bowling league's theme for team names this year is beer and Magic Hat is our team name, so it's dear to my heart.

It was an overcast and windy day on the river, which the sail boats liked.

We camped out near the stern when the crowds got too intense.  From here we could easily get to the Unibroue, Flying Fish (a local favorite) and Woodchuck's Hard Cider.

Here's L and Mo discussing God knows what.

Here's Me and L hamming it up for a local photographer from who's site I lifted this picture.

This picture of Mo too.

All in all a nice day.  We probably sampled about 15 beers (all we had was beer in teeny-weeny little glasses ala Richie Cunningham from Happy Days - anybody?).  Some interesting cloud formations that day too.  Here's a parting shot of the ship's ensign flying in the wind from the flagstaff and what was left of my Merry Monks Ale.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hiatus Report - Part 1.1

The other week I posted about the Mrs' and my trip to Grounds for Sculpture for our anniversary. I got a lot of good comments on the photos and decided to post a few more of what I liked.

The Mrs is a Monet fan and some of these sculptures were reminiscent of his work.  The couple and the boats are all part of the sculpture.

She really liked this one with all of the poppy plants on the hill.

Some of the landscaping was sculpture like.  I thought this pathway was cool. 

This was some kind of sea monster in one of the ponds.

This one was set in a thick grove of trees and bamboo.

The above sculpture was surrounded by these silhouettes in the bamboo for a pretty creepy affect. 

This is a sculpture of a table by the lake.

Another neat sculpture - that I talked too for a couple of minutes.

This was kind of a Stone Henge thing.  The Mrs liked the floating lilies.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hiatus Report - Part 2

Turns out, right here in Philadelphia, we have the “Number 1 Haunted House in the U.S.” as rated by AOL City Guide (does anyone still use AOL?). And they are correct.  Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary is without a doubt, the best haunted house I've ever been in.  I took the boys last year and The Pudge wanted to go again this year with a buddy of his who had never been there before.  The Boy is away at college, so he wasn't part of this.  The Pudge's buddy, Birch (I made that up to protect the innocent) is in Boy Scouts too.  But more importantly, his uncle (with whom he lives) runs a major, neighborhood haunted house in his backyard every year.  So The Pudge and I felt it appropriate that we take Birch with us.  The two of them will be part of the uncle's haunted house again this year, so I don't have to take them out trick-or-treating anymore. 

The uncle starts constructing his haunted house in August, and he really does a good job.  He's an English teacher and a published author of horror novels (go figure) although I have not read any of them.  He has never been to the penitentiary and I had hoped he would join us, but he had his own project to finish.

A note about Birch. I was a little concerned taking him to this because he came from a broken home and has some minor psychological problems. The Pudge has been friends with him since he transferred to his elementary school in 3rd grade. His uncle assured me he'd be okay. And he was, but I had that in the back of my mind the whole time we were there.

Anyway, the Penitentiary, opened in 1829 is massive.  Surrounded by 30 foot stone walls and covering 11 acres, this place is huge.  Al Capone did his first stint in prison here in 1929 - 8 months for carrying a concealed weapon.  It was abandoned in the early 1970s and fell in to disrepair .  It was opened again in 1988 as a historic landmark for tours and for the Terror Behind the Walls tour in 1991. 

I decided to go last Sunday night (02 October) because it's less expensive and presumably less crowded.  Street parking is tough because the prison is surrounded by row-house neighborhoods.  We got there around 7:30PM and found parking about 5 blocks away.  The ticket line wasn't too long and neither was the line to get in.  I was able to pass Birch off as a 12 year old for a half price ticket (yeah, the boy scout in me wasn't too proud of that, but they made money on us at the concession stand).  He's actually about 4 months older than the Pudge but very small.  I think his mother had some drug problems while she was pregnant - but I digress.

Part of the adventure is waiting in line.  They have dozens of actors in Hollywood quality special effects make-up that walk the lines and scare the crap out of people not paying attention to them.  They will even crawl up the middle of lines and sneak up on unsuspecting people (women mostly) - you hear screams every couple of minutes. 

Once you're in the prison, you go through different sections such as the infirmary and the prison block.  The place is run down and gives it that "Munsters" look, but completely safe.  There are actors everywhere, jumping out, making noise and opening doors and windows.  It's mostly dark or eerily lit, fog machines everywhere and a lot of other surprises.  It takes the better part of an hour to get through everything and is not for the easily scared or claustrophobic (The Mrs - she never goes to stuff like this). 

About half way through, we saw a couple of security people (non-costumed) talking to a teenage girl who was totally freaked out.  She did the rest of the tour with her head pressed into her mother's shoulder.  At the end, we had drinks and funnel cake.  While eating, we watched the actors sneak up on people in the concession area (who thought the show was over).  That was fun to watch.  We even saw one guy sneak up on an actor, who was sneaking up on an unsuspecting patron.  The actor bowed to the guy after he had been frightened. That was really funny.

It was probably around 9:30PM when we left, and going out we noticed the line was huge.  When we got there, I would say there was maybe 50 people in the ticket line.  When we left, there had to be 500 people in line.  After 9:00PM is half price for students, and there are several colleges in the area.  I'm glad I wasn't part of that.  All in all a good time was had by the three of us. Unfortunately, they don't allow pictures, so I have a few "borrowed" ones so you can get a feel for the place.  We'll probably go again next year.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hiatus Report - Part 1

Well. I finally made my work deadline and dealt with all of the other scheduling problems over the last few weeks so now I can finally start catching up on my blogging.  Although this weekend (14 - 16 October) we'll be doing the 3 1/2 hour drive to The Boy's College for Family Weekend, so I'll be out of pocket for a few days.  Next week things should be back to "normal".

You know, after The Boy left for college I thought life and schedule would get easier.  I was wrong.  Turns out The Pudge and his schedule is really taking up a lot of my time.  And the Mrs' job has her working a lot of late nights, so I'm sort of a single parent.  Now that I've taken my work deadline out of the equation (I was working a lot of 12 hour days and weekends), things are getting better.

A few good things that happened during this time were the Mrs and my anniversary, my brother's 50th birthday party, Beer Festival on the USS New Jersey and a really good haunted prison.  I fit all of these things into a schedule that includes CCD classes (Catholic Sunday school), guitar lessons, boy scouts and soccer.  And I started going to the gym twice a week (I didn't realize how much I missed that).  I'm really tired.

Anyway, I'll start off with the anniversary dinner and talk about the other things in subsequent posts.  Those of you who watched Top Chef Season 7 may remember that the winning chef, Kevin Sbraga, was a chef at a restaurant called Rats in Hamilton, NJ (just north of Trenton).  I had never heard of the restaurant or the surrounding park - Grounds for Sculpture.  And I've lived in NJ all my life! 

I did some research and made some reservations (2 months in advance for a Sunday dinner).  It was an easy 45 minute drive.  It was an overcast day and we weren't really sure what to expect.  We had a 6:45PM reservation and we arrived at about 4:00PM.  We checked in the restaurant with the hostess and she said that because we had dinner reservations, admission to the grounds was 1/2 price - nice.  She also said 2 hours was enough time to tour the grounds and we were welcome to buy a drink and take it with us - nice again.  So while the Mrs waited at the entrance to the grounds, I purchased our tickets and got us each a glass of Bordeaux Blend Chateau La Grange Clinet 2006 - and it was excellent.  I didn't tell her I was getting us drinks and she was pleasantly surprised.

Here's what we saw:

This was part of the courtyard entrance to the restaurant. That's a sculpture.

Here is what we saw at the entrance to the pathways on the grounds. This was cool.
The gardens and sculptures (some 240 works) were beautiful. They ranged from the classical sculptures...

To the weird.  I looked at this one for a couple of minutes.  I couldn't look away.

Here's me with a pile of scrap metal.  I didn't say I liked them all.

This is the back end of the restaurant. 

The Mrs took over a hundred pictures (that's why she's not in many and they look so good).  I just wanted to give you a taste of the grounds. 

Dinner was good but not as good as I had expected.  The restaurant itself looks like the interior of a rustic, French peasant house with eclectic artwork everywhere.  We were seated in a 2nd story loft area where we could look down on the lower dining room and had a view of the foggy pond at the rear (see picture above).  We started with appetizers of Traditional Onion Soup off the menu for the Mrs and an Heirloom Tomato Terrine (special) for me. Both were good. They also had a choice of several breads. I had an herb bread that was excellent and I don't recall what the Mrs had, but she liked it. My entree was a Halibut brandade cannelloni, local spinach, saffron - vanilla shellfish broth, Maya shrimp complement (menu), which was very good. The Mrs had the Magret duck breast miso grilled local eggplant, duck confit summer roll, plum sauce (menu). It was way too rare for her (or my) taste and the plum sauce was meh.   For dessert, we split a very decadent bread pudding (special) that we both enjoyed a lot.  Total bill with 2 drinks each and tip was about $130 - not too bad.

Overall this was a great experience.  The Mrs really enjoyed it (I scored major points - I think) and she wants to definitely go again.  Maybe in the Spring.  The dinner itself was good but not what I would consider Top Chef caliber, but the service was exceptional. In all fairness to Kevin Sbraga, he left the restaurant about a year ago and there is a new chef running it.  Chef Sbraga is suppose to be opening a new restaurant in center city Philadelphia sometime this fall, so I hope to check that out. 

More "Hiatus" posts to come - maybe.