Friday, November 26, 2010

And the best dish of the night goes to...

The last thing you probably want to think about right now is making your favorite Thanksgiving recipes again.  But I feel the need to conclude our meal with some lessons learned.  I make a lot of the same dishes from year to year so I try to incrementally make them and the overall celebration better every year.

Yesterday I tried one new recipe; something that used an old favorite of my husband's (corn) but in a more interesting way.  I made corn pudding from a recipe I found online.  It was fine but nothing special enough to repeat.  Do you have a corn recipe you love?  Please drop me a line in the comments.

The best side dish of the night award goes to the Sweet Potato Souffle.  Don't let the name "souffle" intimidate you.  This recipe was one my mother picked up over the years and she passed it along to me.  There's nothing complicated about it and when made right, it's heavenly.

I've made it the last 3 years in a row and it didn't turn out right.  I thought it was because I always cooked the souffle at my turkey cooking temperature of 325 but that wasn't the problem.  At long last this year I finally got it right and it was worth the wait.  I attribute my mishaps the last few years to being too insistent that I could make an organic version of my mom's version.  Given the canned sweet potato options at my disposal, that was just not possible.   As soon as I reverted to using the conventional ingredients, it magically worked out exactly as it should.

Sweet Potato Souffle

1 50 oz. can Princella sweet potatoes, drained
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
6 tablespoons butter, softened
Beat together until smooth.  Pour into a souffle dish and bake for 1 hour in a 350 degree oven (I cook my turkey at 325 but for that hour I crank it up to 350.  Try to minimize your turkey basting and temperature fluctuations from opening the oven door for that hour.  The souffle needs to be left still at a constant heat in order to set up.) 

For the topping:
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 chopped pecans
1 cup corn flakes, crushed
Melt butter and brown sugar and pour over the potatoes.
Sprinkle nuts and cornflakes on top and bake an additional 30 minutes.

There are a couple of other takeaways from the meal.  Next year I'll remember to send out the tablecloth to be steam pressed.  The only tool that my well equipped kitchen still needs is a carving knife so I will certainly buy one of those before next year's meal.  And of course, we will once again welcome family and friends to join us for laughs and conversation that make the food secondary.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Windows vs. Mac: A Long Term Review of the 21.5" iMac

Around this time every year I seem to be thinking about buying a new computer.  For us, for a family member, or just generally kicking around the state of the personal computer industry and what makes sense for consumer purchases.  On one hand, most people are familiar with Microsoft's Windows operating system.  On the other hand, people are having positive experiences with their iPhones and other Apple devices and they're wondering: Is the grass greener on the other side?  In my experience it depends.  But our experience as a family with a 21.5" iMac for the past year has been almost uniformly positive and I do recommend it as a family computing solution.

The first thing that always drives me to consider a Mac is the simple and understandable manner in which they market their products.  Each of their computers has a unique use model it's intended for, and once you decide which of their products you want they make it very easy to decide which specific model to get.  Contrast this with the shopping experience at which seems to get more complicated every time I look and it makes buying a Mac a pleasure.

Consider the convenience of being able to get your computer serviced at nearby Apple Store locations.  You can check wait times and set appointments online so you don't waste time waiting in line.  The few times I've had products in for service they've either resolved the issue or replaced it on the spot.  Even in situations where the device was significantly out of warranty.  Macs may be a little more expensive than comparably equipped PCs but service like this makes it worth it.

You've got to be careful when you wade into a conversation like this because for many it's nearly a religious debate.  Have a problem with a Mac?  You must be doing something wrong.  Have a problem with a PC?  You should be using a Mac instead.  The smug somewhat-insecure confidence some Mac users exude is interesting to contrast on the mobile side of things.  It feels to me like iPhone users have the quiet confidence PC users have: They're perfectly happy with the technology and they don't feel the need to argue about it.

Every Situation is Unique

When deciding whether you're ready to take the leap from PC to Mac I think you should take stock of the programs you run on the machine on a daily basis.  For me that was FireFox, an E-mail client, and TweetDeck.  There has been some movement in this area in the past few years that make PC vs. Mac less relevant than it was in the past.

First, E-mail services have increasingly adopted free open standards like IMAP (Google's Gmail provides free IMAP access) and Apple products have increasingly supported Microsoft Exchange.  Checking E-mail web-based or not has become easier.

Second, more applications have become web-based - like Facebook.  There's no Facebook client for Windows or PC so interacting with Facebook is exactly the same experience on a Mac as it is on a PC.  Further, programs like TweetDeck are written on Adobe Air so there's no lag between when new releases are available on Mac as they are on PC.  These are changes in the last few years that make Macs a lot more like PCs.

Third, Microsoft Office documents have become less ubiquitous - perhaps because different versions of Office seem to have trouble interacting with each other.  That said they do make Office for Mac, and it's nice to have on occasion.  On our first Mac we never bought it, but it does comes in handy.  For personal use you can buy it for around $99 off Amazon: Microsoft Office for Mac Home and Student 2011 - Single License. Also, you may also want to check whether your employer has a Microsoft Home Use Program deal which could save you quite a bit.

Fourth, I don't use the digital camera software that comes with cameras any more.  On the PC I use Picasa to import and on the Mac I use iPhoto to import.  On either you just stick the SD card into the computer and that's it.  Therefore, there's no worrying about the Mac version of the camera software being inferior to the PC - because you probably won't use it anyway. 

A word about mobile devices, from two different perspectives...

With mobile devices everyone expects to be able to check on the things they care about from whatever kind of device they want to.  This too has made Macs better equipped to interact with other systems - or maybe I as a user has become more adept at connecting our Mac to things I want to connect it to.  For example - on our previous Mac I checked all of our E-mail via web pages.  But when I saw how easy it was to connect my iPhone to all of the E-mail inboxes I want to keep up to date on I realized how easy it was to check E-mail with the free Mac Mail application.

Another angle to consider mobile devices is in terms of how important it is to you that your family computer be a laptop?  You get a lot more computing horsepower for the dollar if you buy a desktop computer.  That's a true statement in the PC world and in the Mac world.  The cheapest iMac is meaningfully more powerfully equipped than the cheapest MacBook so if you're going to have your computer sitting in the same spot most of the time an iMac is probably a better call than a MacBook. 

The Dreaded Flash Issue

iPhones and iPads notoriously do not run Flash based videos and games.  These applications run on the Mac but they've been a weak spot in my experience.  On some of the entry-level Mac laptops, Flash applications run a little slowly compared to iMacs.  To see the difference in performance go to your local Apple store and try playing this web-based gam on it.  Notice whether the car speeds along without any lag or not.  The first thing you'll notice when you try to play it on a Mac is that it won't work because you need to install an Adobe Shockwave plug-in.  You'll need to get someone at the Apple store to log in with the administrative password to install Shockwave, and you'll need to restart FireFox after installing Shockwave.  But if you can get through that you'll notice the game is speedy on the iMac and not so speedy on the MacBook Air or even the 13" MacBook Pro.  And we all know computers tend to get slower as they get older so that's not a good place to start.

Maybe you or your kids don't play many Flash-based games on the machine.  But inevitably you'll encounter some errors where certain web pages don't render correctly in certain web browsers.  This is absolutely no different than it is on a PC and in some cases it's worse because the plug-in hasn't been coded for a Mac yet.  When this happens you're "stuck" for longer on a Mac than a PC because the user base isn't as large:
Strengths and Weaknesses

But instances like this are somewhat rare.  The Mac operating system, and the iMac specifically have their strengths:
  • The aesthetics of the all-in-one design feels two generations ahead of competing products from PC manufacturers.
  • No wires.  I finished setting up our new iMac Christmas morning in less than 10 minutes including unboxing, positioning, booting, establishing an Internet connection, and registering the machine.  The only wire to connect is to power.  Everything else is wireless including the keyboard, mouse, and Internet connection.  The Internet connection is 802.11n so it has a strong signal from far reaches of the house whereas prior generations of wireless connections tended to be too flaky to rely on going wireless long-term.
  • The machine multi-tasks brilliantly.  Our entry-level $1,199 regularly has 3 users logged in with multiple applications open under each user and dozens of tabs open in each web browser.  Our old iBook didn't tolerate this very well even with maxed out RAM.  The iMac handles this brilliantly.
  • Reliably goes to sleep and wakes up non-groggy.  I wish I could say the same for my PC (or our kids for that matter).  We rarely reboot our iMac and it beautifully and reliably switches between users and goes to sleep.
Overall cons of the iMac and of Macs in general:
  • I occasionally feel like the computer is trying to be too smart for its own good.  Say for example you receive a photo as an attachment to an E-mail you're viewing in web-based mail.  And say that E-mail is rotated 90 degrees.  How do you reliably repair that rotation issue so that you can post that image in a blog entry?  When you preview it you see a different rotation than if you save it to disk and view it in iPhoto.  And where does your web browser put stuff when you "save" something?  It frequently feels like things are a bit unnatural in this area.  I'd probably get the hang of it if I spent the majority of my time on the machine but if I get confused with it I have a feeling others would be downright confounded by it so I think it's worth mentioning.
  • The wireless keyboard and mouse are slick.  But they sometimes go off in the weeds and fail to communicate with the computer.  I don't know of any ways to "goose" the mouse to get it to reconnect with the machine but I wish I did because it occasionally forces a reboot especially when the kids have dropped it on the hardwood floor and the batteries have come flying out.

In general, I think the Mac OS is better suited to a desktop computer with a large amount of usable desktop resolution than it is to a laptop.  I say that because one of the first things you'll notice about a Mac coming from the PC world is that there's no "maximize" button on windows.  The OS is set up to have a kind of drag and drop world where you interact between multiple applications rather that "right-click copy"/"right-click paste" or "click and hit the delete key".  I mention this as a reason why I've been happier with Mac OS on the iMac desktop than on the iBook desktop.

Buy one on Amazon:

Last year we bought our iMac online on Black Friday.  They're running the same promotion this year.  Check it out here.

What do you think?  Is it time to switch to a Mac?  Or are they quirky, over-priced, and not worth it?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Margaritas Offers Sit Down Family Friendly Mexican Food to the Boston Area

I was pumped when I heard Margaritas would be opening in Framingham. Finally - a high quality family-friendly sit down, chips & salsa, and Corona beer kind of Mexican restaurant in the western suburbs of Boston!  Although there are a fair number of burrito joints around, and seemingly a surge of viable fish tacos outlets, there still aren't enough good, clean Mexican restaurants in the area.  We had a chance to visit the recently opened Margaritas location in Framingham and I'm pleased to report the restaurant delivers the goods.

The first thing I noticed as we arrived shortly after 11am on a Sunday (our typical routine for scouting out area Mexican restaurants with our kids) was how substantially they renovated the exterior.  It looks like a brand new restaurant and there's not the slightest remaining hint that this location was once a quirky Cuban seafood restaurant.  The tile roof, Mexican tile artwork, and wooden accents had me thinking I was in another part of the country where Mexican restaurants are more common:
We were greeted at the door and promptly seated by a friendly host and hostess.  The restaurant was empty when we arrived yet nearly full when we left.  The bar area looks festive - definitely a good spot to hit for happy hour or after a long day battling nearby Shopper's World.
But we were with the kiddies, as were most of the other people at the restaurant.  The only remaining visual clue I noted from the former inhabitant was the unique arching walls that separated the dining room from the bar.  They've been covered up with faux brick and Mexican tile, and the first impression is impressive.  It's clear they've put some money into the build out of this location which I was told is the largest of their 22 locations in New England.  I've got to think renovating a building to achieve this aesthetic takes work in New England.  A lot of the materials have to be imported, but I think the effort is worth it as it makes the dining experience more immersive and memorable.
I thought there were a lot of employees roaming around the restaurant and a number of them had "Training Team" embroidered on their shirts.  They opened less than a week ago.  One of the managers who stopped by during our visit was in town to help get the location off the ground.  As a restaurant group they're clearly at the point where they're getting this down to a system.  As a point of comparisons to other regional chains there are more than twice as many Margarita's locations as Piccadilly Pub restaurants at this point, and there are over one hundred 99 Restaurants.

Our friendly waitress - perhaps new on the job - greeted us and took our drink order.  Though they have an extensive bar menu, plentiful amounts of the aforementioned Corona beer, and margaritas the restaurant is named for, we opted for tap water.  The kids menu includes a soft drink and dessert for just $4.99.  There was some ambiguity whether kids beverages other than soft drinks were included in the kids meals (they got chocolate milk and lemonade) so we asked and our waitress said there'd be no additional charge.  We got their orders going right away while we perused the menu.

I know the suspense must be killing you so let's get right to a review of the all-important chips and salsa.  In my opinion they were good, but not great.  The chips were light and warm but could have been a little fresher.  I sensed a slight staleness that made me wonder whether they may have been around for a while.  The salsa was good/very good.  I liked the consistency but sensed a little more vinegar than I'd like.  I mentioned this to the manager who stopped by to chat and he said there wasn't any vinegar in their salsa.  He said it was probably the diced cherry peppers I was picking up on - an interesting inclusion.  Pro Tip: The salsa was quite spicy and if you like salsa more on the mild side ask for the Salsa Fresca.  I understand it's milder and a little drier in consistency.

The menu (click HERE to see their various menus on their website) offers a mix of traditional Mexican dishes and some items and ingredients you won't find in most Mexican restaurants like buffalo chicken, french fries, and burgers.  I didn't mind seeing these options on the menu because they had my favorites like Burritos, Chimichangas and Chile Rellenos.

One thing I wasn't fond of at other Margaritas locations in the past was the lack of a lunch menu.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this location offers lunch specials until 3 pm! (Their website lists this "all new lunch menu" as being only available at their Lexington location as of this writing).  I like to see chimichangas and burritos with rice and beans in the $7.95 to $9.95 range, however I couldn't find quite what I was looking for on the lunch menu and ended up ordering my benchmark favorite Chicken Chimichanga for $13.29:

The Chimichanga delivered in a big way.  The key thing I'm looking for is that the outside of the tortilla be just a little crispy but it needs to be soft and moist on the inside.  I'm also looking for the Chimichanga to retain its roundness (like a cylinder) rather than being flattened out (like a rectangle) as it unfortunately sometimes does at some restaurants.  They cover theirs with red enchilada sauce and melted cheese and include sour cream and guacamole at no extra charge.  They absolutely nailed it.  Best Chimichanga I've had in New England by a mile.  The accompanying rice, beans and lettuce rounded out the offering and made it a value even at $13.29.  Very well done.

Deanna got a Baja Shrimp Grilled Burrito for $8.99.  It was a pressed burrito sort of affair, and she chose the Mexican Slaw as her side.  She enjoyed it but thought it was a little spicy:

The kids seemed to enjoy their meals, devouring the Kids' Chicken Quesadilla (the chicken triggering a $1.49 upcharge) and to a lesser extent, the Kids' Fajitas.  The ice cream treat was above average and included a generous helping of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, M&Ms and a cone in a cup.  Strange how they're always hungry for that kind of stuff.

Total for 2 adults and 2 kids with tip: $42.12.  Not bad for a sit down restaurant.

We enjoyed our meal at Margaritas and we'll definitely be back.  The clean, upbeat, family-friendly atmosphere, superb entrees, and convenient location make it an ideal spot to grab a bite to eat.

Highly Recommended: 4/5 Stars

Further Reading: The Best Mexican Restaurants Near Boston

Check 'em Out:
725 Cochituate Rd (near Home Depot where Naked Fish used to be)
Framingham, MA
22 locations in New England

Have you been to Margaritas?  If so what did you think?  If not, what are some of your favorite sit-down chips & salsa restaurants in the Boston area?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Restaurant Review: Ty's Pies Delivery

They estimated 35-45 minutes, but took about an hour for two soggy pizzas from Ty's Pies to arrive Friday night.  The box says they make their dough and sauce fresh every day but somehow the puffy crusted result was reminiscent of Domino's.

We ordered two large pizzas - a Veggie and a Hawaiian.  The total with tip was in the mid-$30s.  The toppings on the Veggie were dominated by large stalks of broccoli.  I thought the Hawaiian lacked flavor and the pineapple chunks were too big.  I didn't think either pizza was very good.

I don't think we'll order from Ty's Pies again.  The pizza wasn't very good for my tastes, it took longer than I'd like, and I thought it was a little pricey.

Not recommended: 2/5 Stars

Further Reading: Why is the CPK in Wellesley Struggling?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Not Your Typical Pilgrim's Thanksgiving

For many, Thanksgiving means pulling out the traditional all-American food favorites.  In my house though, meals often have a little Italian spice to them (not unlike the person who prepares them.)  Before the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and other sides, I love to offer my guests a "taste of the pasta."  A primi piatti sets the tone for what's truly American: taking the cultures we came from and meshing them with this wonderful and rich melting pot we live in.  And so, I offer you my recipe for Butternut Squash Lasagna.  This recipe was adapted from a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis so don't confuse it with an authentic recipe from Grandma.  I lightened up Giada's version and substituted whole wheat lasagna to make it a bit healthier.  It may be labor intensive, but I promise this dish won't disappoint you or your guests.  And, leftover lasagna will make the day after Thanksgiving a little bit easier.  

1 tablespoon olive oil 
1 (1 1/2 to 2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper 
1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups lowfat milk
Pinch nutmeg
3/4 cup (lightly packed) fresh basil leaves
12 cooked whole wheat lasagna noodles
2 1/2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the squash and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour the water into the skillet and then cover and simmer over medium heat until the squash is tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly and then transfer the squash to a food processor. Season the squash puree, to taste, with more salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Melt the butter in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the nutmeg. Cool slightly. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender*. Add the basil and blend until smooth. Return the basil sauce to the sauce in the pan and stir to blend. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.

Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.
Lightly butter a 13 by 9 by 2-inch glass baking dish. Spread 3/4 cup of the sauce over the prepared baking dish. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the squash puree over the noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese. Drizzle 1/2 cup of sauce over the noodles. Repeat layering 3 more times.

Tightly cover the baking dish with foil and bake the lasagna for 40 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses over the lasagna. Continue baking uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, 15 minutes longer. Let the lasagna stand for 15 minutes before serving.

*When blending hot liquids: Remove liquid from the heat and allow it to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tradition in the Kitchen

All year round I work hard to feed my family healthy, nutritious meals.  Around the holidays I relax the rules and pull out all the family favorites.  This year my younger sister won't be spending Thanksgiving with us so she's visiting for Veteran's Day weekend instead.  It was the perfect opportunity to make an early batch of her Thanksgiving favorite.  It's a baked bar recipe that is both sweet and tart and makes a wonderful accompaniment to a cup of coffee any time of day.  I'm not a baker but even I can whip these delicious bites up so they're a winner every time.  And, if all the butter in them starts to get me down, I think about all the antioxidants in those locally grown cranberries!

Cranberry Squares
In a bowl mix and spread on the bottom of a 13x9 baking pan:
2 cups of whole cranberries (wash and drain them but allow them to be a little bit wet so the sugar sticks to them)
½ cup of sugar
½ cup of nuts (walnuts, whatever you have)  If you want to make the version my sister likes, you better leave the nuts out.

In another bowl mix:
1 ½ cups of melted and cooled butter (yes, that’s right, 3 whole sticks)
2 cups of flour
2 cups of sugar
4 beaten eggs
1 teaspoon of vanilla

Mix above ingredients and spread on top of the cranberries.  Bake at 325-350 degrees for 1 hour.


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