Monday, October 31, 2011

Albany, NY: Capitol Hauntings Tour

Halloween weekend started out with a snow storm; yup, that's our Halloween wind sock with a backdrop of snow. There were only a few inches in Albany (which had melted off the driveway by the time we woke up the next morning), but things are apparently a mess downstate, where the foot of snow on all the leaf-filled trees mean tens of thousands of people without power and lots of downed power lines. It's way too early for this.

We hid inside, drank cider, and carved our pumpkins.

As our pre-Great Pumpkin viewing/pizza eating Halloween finale, we went to the capitol for one of OGS's free Capitol Hauntings tours, which they offer every October (but reservations fill up fast).

The tour lasted just over an hour and we started by taking this gorgeous senate elevator up to the fourth floor of the capitol building. We heard about a local fruit vendor who committed suicide by jumping down a staircase and a night watchman who died in the 1911 fire.

We went into the Assembly Chamber and heard about the murals by William Morris Hunt, which were painted on the original sandstone, close to the vaulted ceiling...only that ceiling began to crumble and the murals were covered by the replacement flat ceiling. I'd be a pretty angry ghost if someone covered my masterpiece only ten years later (and are now in a state beyond repair).

Yeah, and I found this really beautiful library sign. I can't even imagine anything this beautiful at my own library (we won't even compare elevators).

Ok, I can't compare staircases either. This is the Great Western Staircase (otherwise known as the Million Dollar Staircase), which I failed to get even one decent photo of, but it absolutely gorgeous. I could have spent the entire hour examining the different carvings. Our tour guide even pointed out a the secret devil carving, but my camera didn't want to cooperate.

We didn't hear any ghost stories about the stairs (or I got distracted taking photos), but this was the only place that I started picking up orbs on my photos. So, here are some of the orbs...think of them what you will. I think it's interesting that they all seem to have one larger orb and one smaller one.

So, there you have it. Our tour guide was great and it was a very fun way to spend Halloween. It's so interesting to hear about "ghosts" in the historical context of the building (as opposed to a haunted house "boo" type of ghost). There are several free tours of the building daily, with a focus on the art and architecture, that I would really like to go back for next time I have some time off during the week.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Valatie, NY and Sausage Stuffed Squash

We finally got out to Harvest Spirits Distillery in Valatie, NY this weekend. They are known locally for making their own vodka from apples grown on their farm; in addition to the Core Vodka, they also sell Applejack, pear brandy, and grappa, all made from ingredients grown either on their farm or neighboring farms. Next year, they should also have peach schnapps, which they decided to make with left over peaches from this year's harvest.

Tastings are $1 each (free if you buy something) and I was disappointed to discover that the Applejack was a bit too strong for my taste (and absolutely killed Mr. D., who is girly drinks all the way), opting to buy a "large" Core Vodka for $35. In a very unnecessarily nerdy way, I can't wait to substitute it for (most of) the ice water next time I make crust for an apple pie.

The distillery is a part of Golden Harvest Farms, where we stopped for apple cider donuts (which I'm pretty sure I liked more than Indian Ladder!), cider, and some squash. I didn't see any pumpkins for sale, so this sparked a panicked trek through the Capital Region searching for pumpkins, which we eventually found at a farm shop less than a mile from the house.

We picked up a large acorn squash and adapted this recipe for sausage stuffed squash from AllRecipes.

Sausage Stuffed Squash

- 1 large or 2 medium sized acorn squash
- 1 lb. pork sausage (I used sweet Italian)
- 1/2 c. finely chopped celery
- 1/2 c. finely chopped carrots
- 1/2 c. finely chopped onion
- 1 medium sized sweet baking apple, peeled and chopped into small pieces
- shredded cheese (I used mild cheddar)
- 1/3 c. sour cream
- maple syrup, to taste

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Cut your squash in half and remove the seeds/guts. Place facing down in a small dutch oven or cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes, until the squash is tender (uncovered, if you are using the dutch oven).

2. Meanwhile, crumble the sausage in a skillet and add the carrots, celery, and onion, cooking until the sausage is no longer pink. Remove from heat, drain.

3. In a separate dish, mix together the sour cream and maple syrup. Add to the sausage mixture and stir in your apple.

4. Remove squash from the oven, turn over, place in a small baking dish (so that they won't move around too much), and fill with your stuffing (I continued to use my dutch oven). Add some shredded cheese on top (I used one small hand full each), cover, and return to the oven for 30 minutes.

Note: This is a fairly sausage-heavy stuffing; if I made it again, I would either halve the sausage or double the vegetables (you could also add bread crumbs). I also think I'd sprinkle a little paprika on top of the stuffing before adding the cheese.

I don't think the squash itself would make very good leftovers, so once you've stuffed your squash, you can bake the additional stuffing in ramekins and it would probably be good with eggs and toast the next morning.

The original recipe includes instructions for microwaving instead of baking. I would consider microwaving the squash in place of the original 45 minutes in the oven, but I'd still try to finish in the oven, especially if you are including the apple.

The squash was incredibly filling and I served it with some warm spiced cider. Mr. D. was 100% skeptical about the squash, but would up eating the entire thing and says I should make it again. Success!

I've got a sausage and lentil stew (adapted from the A Year of Slow Cooking Blog) going in the crock pot today and have hopefully made enough to keep us in stewey good sausage-fests for a few days of lunches.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Catskills, NY: Hunter Mountain Oktoberfest and Kaaterskill Falls

Last week was, basically, the last nice summer weather weekend and we decided to spend it outdoors. Hunter Mountain was holding a free admission Oktoberfest, so we decided to check on the foliage and the beer.

The place was packed. There were some vendors inside, though we weren't feeling very much like shopping (or being indoors), Warwick native Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra were playing (me: "who?" Mr. D.: "!?!?! They are like the most famous polka band EVER." me: "..."), there was some delicious food to be had (even though the brat line was too long to even think about standing on), several Spaten varieties were on tap, and we got to watch some brave souls stomp grapes. That, of course, led me to think about the actual drinkability of foot-stomped grapes and unpleasant things like foot fungus.

The chair lift was open for $10/adult (protip: checking in on Foursquare saved $2/person) and it was a beautiful, perfect day for a trip up the mountain. There is apparently a zipline for brave people (hint: we are not brave) and you can get off at the top of the mountain to get married or hike a four mile trail to the fire tower.

A lot of the leaves were already off the trees, but the remaining colors were very nice and probably would have been at peak this weekend had it not been raining for the past two days. The trees are all probably naked now.

Kaaterskill Falls isn't far from Hunter Mountain and since I've been meaning to check it out for years, it seemed like the perfect day to go.

There is easy parking right on Route 23A, though it's a very popular spot and we got lucky enough to grab a spot right as someone was leaving. After a quick walk down 23A, we got to the bottom of Bastion Falls, which was quite pretty in its own rite.

From there, one can take a .5 mile hike up to the main attraction - Kaaterskill Falls, which is 260 feet tall and drops in two tiers. The trail is well maintained (and full of people) and not terribly difficult, though I'd recommend proper footwear since it is a little steep, there are lots of roots, and the rocks can be a bit slippery and wet (there were plenty of people doing it in flip flops, to each his own).

The trail officially ends here, but there used to be a trail leading all the way to the top of the falls...and we saw plenty of people climbing up anyway. This eroded former trail is where people get into trouble and it seems like every year people fall and die. In fact, Mr. D.'s first reaction to my Kaaterskill Falls plan was "Isn't that were everyone falls and dies?" Could we have climbed up? Probably. People were letting their young children do it. Did I want to risk falling 260 feet to my death (or, with my luck, injuries that would leave me a vegetable)? No.

It's a short hike (only a mile round trip), so if you're planning a day trip, it may be worth checking out North South Lake if you'd like to spend more of your day hiking. Maybe we'll get there next summer.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Casola Dining Room

I have been dying to visit the Casola Dining Room, Schenectady County Community College's educational dining room, for ages; since they only serve dinner Monday-Wednesday (and lunch Tuesday-Friday) and I work downstate, I've never been able to make their 7:00 or 7:30pm seatings. Things finally came together on Monday, partially because of my day off for Columbus Day and partially because they have finally opened up a few tables on Open Table.

Here's how it works: For $22/person ($16 for lunch), you get a three course meal with soft drinks, tea, and coffee included ($3 corkage fee if you bring your own wine, which most of the other diners did). Students are not permitted to accept gratuities and I was told that they "prefer" you not leave a gratuity for that exact reason (though, if you do, the money is put into a general fund to support the culinary program). Each week they have a themed menu and you are offered three choices for each course.

The campus is very small; once you find the main parking lot (which you can't miss), there is a section of visitor parking available and the dining room is located in Elston Hall, which you also can't miss if you park in that lot. The stark hospital-like corridors of Elston Hall disappear once you enter the dining room, where you'd never guess you were sitting inside the same building.

Our menu's theme was "autumn harvest," with a focus on New York state foods.

I chose the potato leek soup with roasted red peppers and fennel and found it to be absolutely delicious. Mr. D promised to share and went for the Hudson Valley Duck Trio - foie gras and sweetbread terrine, homemade duck prosciutto, and duck rillettes. He took this opportunity to relish in the wonder of foie gras and complain a little about how much he didn't like it the last time we ordered it (at Les Halles in NYC). So, another hit all around.

I played it safe with my entree, going for an herb roasted chicken breast paired with braised bitter greens and potatoes. Mr. D. was, once again, the more adventurous one and decided to order the rabbit ragout (local rabbit with vegetables and pasta). Again, hits all around. I sucked up my "how can you eat a fluffy bunny" phobia and tried a small piece, but still wouldn't have been able to order the entree myself. I fail at my foodie aspirations. Everything was delicious, though the pasta was a bit more al dente than Mr. D. likes (but he likes it disgustingly mushy).

I opted for the local artisan cheese selection (served with pears poached in red wine and flat bread), which was good, but I really wish that our server had taken a second to tell me what the three different cheeses were. I've recently come to the conclusion that I need to learn more about cheese (and don't get the opportunity too often because Mr. D. will only eat mild, boring cheeses), so it would have been helpful to identify those that I liked better. One of these days, I'll convince someone to have a wine and cheese party with me; just you wait and see. Mr. D. chose a rhubarb infused cheesecake, which was also very good.

I'd highly, highly recommend visiting the Casola Dining Room if you ever get the chance (and the reservation). The price is perfect, the staff is awesome, and the only thing to keep in mind is that your servers are students and probably will not be perfect - they're learning. I hope that they will move more and more tables to OpenTable and can't wait for the next time that school is in session and I've got a day off.