14 January 2011

Tomato Bisque

Veggies for Tomato Bisque
This recipe originally had lots of basil and pesto involved, but when I tried the soup without all those things (the second time around), I liked it much better. It tasted more like tomatoes, which I liked better. If I want pesto, I'll make it. Sigh.

Tomato Bisque (adapted from bhg.com)
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 T butter
3 1/2 c tomato juice
1 15 oz can vegetable broth
1 - 15 oz can tomatoes, diced
1 T dried basil
2 T dried oregano
1 t freshly-ground black pepper
8 ozs. whipping cream

Bisque simmering
In a large pot, cook celery, carrots, onion and garlic in butter until veg are tender but not brown. I tend to use low-med heat and cover which helps prevent browning, but watch carefully and stir often. Add tomato juice, broth, un-drained tomatoes, dried basil and oregano, and pepper. Bring to boil; reduce to simmer.
Simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes or until slightly thickened. Use immersion blender until mixture is smooth-ish - if the veg are cooked tender, it's okay if there are still some texture to the soup. Stir in whipping cream and heat through.
Serve with french bread or panini for dinner. Very good winter time soup. Make on the weekend to serve during the week. It gets better over time.

Tomato Bisque


13 January 2011

Being Jane Mystery Reading Challenge 2011

Another challenge -- yeah! This year, Laurel Ann of Austenprose is hosting a challenge that is perfect for me - mystery + Jane Austen. I'm a huge fan of mysteries from some of the oldest such as Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone to some of the most recent including anything by PD James or Colin Dexter (Insp. Morse, sigh). While I am fully involved in the Sense & Sensibility Bicentenary challenge for this year, I will take it a little easier on this challenge and sign up for the Neophyte level (1-4 books). And since this is a total new author to me, I plan on reading the following, in order:

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (1996)
Jane and the Man of the Cloth (1997)
Jane and the Wandering Eye (1998)
Jane and the Genius of the Place (1999)

I'm looking forward to reading Stephanie Barron's series since I've heard great things about her writing, it's a long running series that's still in the works (Jane and the Canterbury Tale comes out this year 2011), and will provide me the opportunity to do something I really enjoy - read novels in the order in which they were written and enjoy the development of the author and recurring characters. 

Snickerdoodles with Brickle

Snickerdoodles cooling
I've made Snickerdoodles a few time and always like this recipe - they bake out thin and crisp and are a favorite at our house. I've seen versions of Snickerdoodles and while some ingredients change, most of the basic recipes are very similar, with the only real change in the ratios is typically the amount of granulated sugar in the cookie and the ratio of sugar to cinnamon in the mix in which you roll the cookie dough.
Snickerdoodles ready for the oven

I read a recipe for Snickerdoodles at Cookie Madness last week that added on my, and MotH's, favorite ingredients and one that you don't see too terribly often in cookie recipes - or at least not often, enough for me - Heath Bits o'Brickle. Simple add an 8 oz. bag to your Snickerdoodle recipe and you're off. These are great cookies and went, over very well at home and at the office.

Snickerdoddles with Brickle
Yield: 5 dozen (or so)
2-3/4 c all-purpose flour
2 t cream of tartar
1 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1-1/2 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla extract
1-1/3 cups (8-oz. pkg.) Heath Bits 'O Brickle Toffee Bits (from an idea from Cookie Madness)

1/4 c granulated sugar
2 t cinnamon

Cookie Jar
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Stir together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
Cream together butter, shortening and 1-1/2 cups sugar in large bowl until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time; beat thoroughly. Add vanilla. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture, beating until well blended. Stir in toffee bits.
Stir together remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Shape dough into 1-1/4-inch balls; roll in sugar-cinnamon mixture. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until lightly browned around edges. Cool slightly; remove from cookie sheet to wire rack. Cookies will be puffed when removed but will flatten when cool. Cool completely. About 5 dozen cookies.

12 January 2011

Spinach and Mushroom Quiche

Finished Quiches
I've been making spinach quiche since roughly 1987 - dear lord am I that old - ugh. Either way, the recipe that originated it has long since disappeared, but the reason I started with it and the reason I probably won't change the filling is - the distinct limitation of eggs. I can't stand the idea of so many eggs in a quiche. I want it to be more dense, and not too eggy. It should be acknowledged that I'm not a fan of eggs in many forms. I can handle eggs salad sandwiches (w/lots of fresh ground black pepper and watercress) probably once a year and occasionally (maybe 3 times per year), I enjoy cooking off some hot breakfast sausage and mixing in some beaten eggs to make a stove top "fritta-ish" thing for breakfast served with toast and grape (or apple) jelly.
This quiche freezes well after baking. All you do is let it thaw in the fridge and then reheat in the microwave oven (just not too long). The one thing I want to do is come up with a better crust.
I've been lazy and used 9" frozen pie crusts and even with blind baking, they are really boring and I can just sort of take it or leave it. I saw a crust that Cook's Country used for their Onion and Bacon tart, that I think I will try, but not on a work night, so I'm using refrigerator pie crusts which if handled correctly can be decent. 

Filling (makes two quiches)
2 - 10oz packages of frozen chopped spinach
12 oz mozzarella, grated (or mixture of any cheeses)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 can evaporated milk

Veggies ready for crust

2 - refrigerator pie crusts (for 8 - 9" pie plates)

If frozen, defrost pie crusts in refrigerator overnight. Spray pie plate or tart pan with cooking spray. Roll out pie crust into pie plate or tart pan with removable bottom, pat lightly into bottom and crimp any extra for the sides. Spray foil lightly with cooking spray and arrange spray-side down in chilled pie shell. Top with pie weights (or dried beans, or rice - heck even heavy pasta like rigatoni works well). Bake until surface (esp. the center) of dough dry, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove foil/weights and bake until crust just begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Make filling. Thaw spinach and drain very well. Beat eggs, mix with milk and cheese. Add spinach to cheese mixture. Add mixture to cooled crust and bake 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.
Modifications: To add some different flavors, add sliced and sauteed mushrooms and scallions to the spinach mixture. Make sure the veg are sauteed until there is no water left in the pan. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar while cooking down. Serve with a light salad.
Sliced Spinach & Mushroom Quiche

Eggs Benedict

Delicious, home made Eggs Benedict
I recently read a blog post that was partially about not ordering Eggs Benedict at restaurants* which is something I never would consider since I don't care for eggs, but I know the MotH and the Boy both love Eggs Benedict, and I highly suspect that the Boy would eat almost anything if it had Hollandaise sauce on it. I made my first Eggs Benedict on January 1, 2009. I wanted to start the year off right, both culinarily and for the guys in the house and to see if I could actually make Hollandaise sauce from scratch - not that I had ever tried to make it any other way for that matter. 
Suffice it to say, I made Eggs Benedict three weekends out of the four that month and continued to make it until the weather got too warm to eat that much for breakfast. It helps that I found an dummy-proof recipe from Cook's Country. I can still see the cover of the magazine - it had a half cut grapefruit on the cover (Feb. 2009)

I don't know that you need a recipe for Eggs Benedict per se, but I did learn some things about timing and how to make this work. The poached eggs can be done four at a time, the muffins can be toasted under the broiler and then the Canadian bacon added and heated through (Note: Cook's Country says you can toast muffins and warm bacon up to 20 minutes ahead and reheat in a 200 degree oven before serving) I make the Hollandaise sauce first and let it sit over the warm water of the make-shift double boiler while I toast the muffins, bacon, and cook the eggs. The MotH and the Boy both like fried eggs (w/runny yolks), so I don't poach much anymore, but the timing is the same.
Lovely, toasty English muffins

Cook's Country recommends Bays English Muffins which are found in the refrigerator section. I prefer the original flavor as we're not huge fans of sourdough flavor. They toast up very nice, have a great crunch and lots of holes for Hollandaise to get trapped in. They are also very inexpensive - 6 muffins for $2.59.

While Eggs Benedict, in and of itself may not need a recipe, Hollandaise Sauce does. This is a half recipe based on the Cook's Country recipe (you should join for the yearly fee - it's worth it for just this recipe alone!). You will need an instant thermometer to check the temperature (we all want to be safe).
6 T unsalted butter, softened
3 large egg yolks
1/4 boiling water
2 t fresh lemon juice
pinch of cayenne pepper

Starting Hollandaise
Whisk butter and egg yolks in large heatproof bowl over med saucepan with about 1/2" of simmering water. Don't let the bowl touch the water. Slowly add boiling water, whisk constantly until mixture
thickens and reaches 160 degrees. Add lemon/cayenne off heat. Season 

to taste with salt and serve. 
You may wonder why there is a photo of  Two Pigs Farm Maple Syrup. 1. It's amazing, I order one bottle every year. It is not cheap, but it is beyond incredible. Again, I highly recommend it. 2. I don't like eggs, as mentioned before. So instead of Eggs Benedict with the boys, I have an English muffin smeared with Hollandaise sauce and a side of hot breakfast sausage. One of my favorite things with sausage, besides grape jelly or mustard, is maple syrup. So that is why I have a photo of my favorite maple syrup of all time here. 

If you're wondering; I don't get anything, nor would I accept anything for any items recommended. It's just what I like. Everyone has their own opinion.
* This was a well written article from a chef's point of view and highly enlightening about how food is put together in restaurants - yes, a little scary. It also would make me try to disuade any dining companion from ordering Eggs Benedict at a restaurant. Jared (One Hungry Chef) goes on with sourdough recipe for English Muffins to which I would never aspire - mostly because sourdough anything does not have huge fans in our house. That said, please read this post and poke around the blog. I find it a fun read and very informative.

11 January 2011

Downton Abbey Episode I (The Gossip Edition)

Summary: "It's 1912, and life in the Edwardian country house of Downton Abbey is idyllic and bustling for the Crawley family, aided by their cadre of servants. Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American heiress wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) along with Robert's mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) have lived largely uncomplicated lives.
But the sinking of the Titanic hits home in an unexpected and dramatic way — Lord Grantham's heir, James Crawley, and his son Patrick have perished. It's personally agonizing (momentarily) for daughter Mary who was supposed to marry Patrick. On a grander scale, suddenly all the predictable succession plans have gone terribly awry, and unheard of questions now loom large — Who will be the new heir to the earldom? And what will happen to this distinguished estate, now in jeopardy? Mary's grief is short lived as she sets her sights on another suitor, the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox). 
As the drama unfolds among the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, changes are happening amidst the servants as well. John Bates (Brendan Coyle) has arrived as a new valet for Robert, but he has a pronounced limp, potentially making him unfit to perform his duties. Also, Bates seems to have some previous link to Robert, and a murky past. And, someone else in the servant's quarters is darkly entangled with the fortunes of the family he serves.
Despite much angling and consternation, the course of action emerges — a new heir presumptive will soon arrive at Downton. As Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the heir presumptive, and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) arrive, the emotions of the onlookers range from anxiety to outright antagonism. But in crisis there may be opportunity, and Matthew is considered as a suitor for Mary. Yet, nothing is quite as
it seems in the changing landscape and shifting fortunes of Downton Abbey."
Summary from
PBS: Masterpiece Classics

Comments (spoilers):

Downton Abbey - Episode 1 (the gossip edition)
Daisy, scullery maid
MotH beings the episode trying to decipher the Morse code being sent across to towns all over England following the wreck of the Titanic. That must have been devastating to so many families.
Just some thoughts on Episode 1 (the gossip edition). It must be great fun to film in such locations. I bet the insurance is expensive and I can see the curators of the site or volunteers watching over every little piece of furniture. I must not be into the story yet if these are the things that are coming to my mind. The levels of the servants is interesting to try and sort out. Thankfully, I've read enough history and historical fiction to be able to make heads-and-tails of who is who and who reports to whom, who reports to the family and it will be interesting to follow who allies themselves with each other, both the servants and the family.
The time period for Episode 1 (c.1912-1913) is really a time of flux. There are automobiles, but there are still horse-drawn carts. There is electricity, but not every one trusts it yet. Servants still iron the paper to set the ink, but mail comes more than once a day and the telegraph provides quick information of important events.
There is a good bit of humor in Downton Abbey (at least so far). I've already taken a liking to Daisy, the scullery maid. She's the bottom rung of the ladder and is so innocent and wants so much to do a good job. That said, she is often the point of a joke - such as, "You're trying to build a fine, not invent one." That made me laugh.
Robert, Earl of Grantham
The first appearance of Robert, Earl of Grantham, shows him with a lovely yellow Labrador Retreiever. Such a small gesture as including the dog coming down stairs with him tells you a good deal about Robert. He's a country gentleman (in addition to being Earl), he's likely a hunter, and his dog stays with him in the house. As Robert is seated at breakfast he hears about the sinking of the Titanic and realizes that his heir and spare are aboard and likely dead. It also sinks in that while Mr. Carson says that the women and children would be saved, Robert knows that's only the women and children of first class, but what about the "poor devils below decks." Another illustration that he is a decent caring man. So why is Bates' limp such a big deal? I'm not sure I understand yet but I guess we'll get more details.
Violet, Dowager Countess
Characters are starting to be introduced. Initial thoughts: Mary (eldest daughter) is a hateful creature and it's probably Patrick's good fortune that he ended up in the cold Atlantic rather than married to the cold Mary. Violet (Dowager Countess) - now, she's a piece of work. I'm going to like her - no matter what. I can't imagine anyone else in the role.
Bates, obviously, knows the Earl from their days in the Boer Wars, but there are not a lot of details forthcoming.
I find it interesting how much gossips takes place between the family and servants and they almost seem divided into camps. I find that rather surprising. Was that typical? It does not seem likely, but perhaps it's a well kept secret.
O'Brien, Lady's maid
O'Brien, the priggish Lady's maid trips Bates in front of the the visiting Duke of Crowborough. The Duke is there to dangle for Mary thinking that the entail will be broken (he can have her for all I'm concerned), but I want Bates to beat O'Brien with his cane -- hateful hateful creature.
Primegeniture is a huge character in this story. It impacts so many things and the lives of so many people. Violet and Cora both want to break the entail so Mary can inherit. Cora's (American) money is bound into the estate and all of this was done by Robert's father. While there is plenty of criticism to go around for the entail, not one yet blames the late Earl for this situation. Striving to keep the estate together is of primary importance to Robert.
Thomas, first footman
Time to speak about good-for-nothing Thomas, first footman (and general tool). He thinks he's above his station. He connived his way into the life of the Duke of Crowborough in a sexual way when he thought that would advance him and he resents Mr. Bates for taking his place when he was temporary valet to the Earl. He constantly insinuates that Mr. Bates does not pull his weight and that Mr. Bates makes Mr. Carson look bad - something that Carson appears to believe. He's sides with O'Brien (they deserve each other) in trying to cause trouble. Another one I can't wait to see get their come-uppance. 

Anna, head housemaid
In contrast, Anna, head housemaid, is a hard worker, good at her job, and sweet tempered. She is so kind to Bates and not afraid to smart off to O'Brien so I'm looking forward to seeing her character progress.

Now to one of my, so far, favorite hateful characters - Lady Edith. She's not nice and I like her because she's not shy about taking it straight to Lady Mary - she's nosy, resentful and I think, going to be lots of fun.
Mr. Bates, valet

So Bates is being let go by the Earl. It just isn't working due to Mr. Bates inability to help in certain areas that a valet usually did assist (serving at table, carrying luggage, etc.) and Thomas makes sure Mr. Carson knows it. Mr. Bates is truly upset and so is Anna - who is just so nice to Mr. Bates. Mr. Bates accepts the Earl's decision and leaves receiving the Earl's best of luck and Mr. Bates returns, "Good luck to you my lord." What does that mean? Mr. Bates seems so kind, contentious, and is a good valet, but that one comment makes the Earl change his mind and makes Bates stay. Why? What don't we know?
Matthew & Isobel Crawley
Cora, Countess of Grantham
We are also introduced to the next heir, Matthew Crawley and his mother Isobel Crawley. He's not please with this change, but his mother appears to be. She has good sense and excellent manners. He's independent, speaks his mind, and is the 20th centry that is to come, where Robert is the 19th century that was. Can I say that there will either be a cat fight between Violet and Isobel or they will end up as friends, of a sort. Either way, could be interesting. I enjoy that Isobel Crawley really understands her son. That he "pretends to be nicer that the rest of us." He retorts, "Perhaps, I am." And he may well be, but then again, this kind of environment can make you mercenary. When Matthew Crawley tells the butler that his job is silly for a grown man, it is painful but illustrative of his 20th century notions and his value for what he perceives as real work.
I'll close on one telling scene: Cora is trying to tell Lady Mary not to eliminate Matthew Crawley because while she wants the entail broken, she cannot guarantee it. Mary calls Cora, her mother, an American*, like it's an insult. Mary has a lot to learn.
If the entire episode can be encapulated in only one question  it is asked by Violet... "What is a weekend?"
My over all feel for the episode is one of beauty, but also of deception and gossip.

*No wonder this was popular in the UK.

NPR had a great interview with Julian Fellows - NPR Interview with Julian Fellows

Sense & Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge (2011) - Even More thoughts on The Three Weissmanns of Westport

Why is this book so much more bothersome than Sense & Sensibility? Is it because it's set in the 21st century? Is it because the sisters are closer to my age (though I am younger than Annie and Miranda) than Elinor and Marianne?  Or is it because the Boy is going to college soon? Is it because even though the sisters "talk" to each other, and I use that term loosely, about what's going on in their lives, it still does not seem to help? That's a big 21st century pet peeve of mine about Miss Austen's stories. Why don't they talk to each other? The MotH always asks that when we watch one of the movies based on Miss Austen's books, "Why don't they talk to each other?" I have no good answer except that it just wasn't done then, but even when it is (as in this book), it still doesn't seem to satisfy me much. Men can still be stupid jerks. At least that is where I am with the story now -- hopefully, it will change. There are redeeming male characters, but right now Cousin Lou and Roberts are it... This book is great as a stand alone novel -- you need know nothing about Jane Austen or Sense & Sensibility, but it certainly is interesting if you do.

10 January 2011

Key Lime Pie

Beautiful Key Limes
I was fortunate to find some key limes at the store recently and I can't resist buying them. Last year, I was able to purchase locally-grown key limes, but the farmers market that sold them has changed hands and I'm not over-thrilled. That said, I asked our office expert in key lime pie for his (yes, his) recipe and he gave it to me from memory (scary)..
Key Lime Pie
These are simple ingredients and there are few of them which is my favorite kind of recipe. This is just proof that it doesn't take a lot of ingredients to make something that is really a great expression of the ingredients, individually or as a whole. I am a bit concerned about the tartness of the pie - Key limes vs. Persian limes, but we'll just have to give it to try and see if the balance is there or not.*
Seems like a lot of lime juice at first, but it eventually works into the condensed milk/egg yolks mixture. Just make sure you don't slop it around like I did and end up with it on your kakhi pants too.

Key Lime Pie
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Key Lime Pie Crust Ingredients
9" pan – spray with non-stick (I used a pyrex glass pie pan)
9 full Honey graham crackers – broken, not crushed. Pieces should be no larger than about ¼" but variation in size and shape is entertaining to the palette (typical C).
5 tbs melted butter
2 tbs granulated sugar

Mix together, spread in pan, bake for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool while you make the filling.

½ cup + 2 Tbs fresh squeezed lime juice. Varies depending on the
tartness of the limes
1 can (14oz) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks (whites saved for divinity when the humidity cooperates) 

Blend ingredients thoroughly. Pour into crust, bake for 15 minutes. Remove and let cool. Then chill in refrigerator (between 4 and 8 hours depending on the coldness).
Key Lime Pie Filling Ingredients**
Pretty damn easy when you get right down to it. Thanks C!

* Well, it's tart, but in a good way - ie. not too much so but it is not cloyingly sweet (that is WAY worse than being too tart). I'm pleased. I need to try this recipe with Persian limes to see what the difference is and if they are a decent substitutes for Key limes.
** Excepting egg whites that will be used as mentioned above.

Downton Abbey - Let's get started

Okay - I didn't watch the first episode last night when it came out. But I will tonight. By the time I got out of the kitchen, it was late and I was tired. Besides this gives me something nice to watch on a
Monday evening after work. Summaries and Comments on each episode to follow.

Robert, Earl of Grantham – Hugh Bonneville
Cora, Countess of Grantham – Elizabeth McGovern
Lady Mary Crawley – Michelle Dockery
Lady Edith Crawley – Laura Carmichael
Lady Sybil Crawley – Jessica Brown-Findlay
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham – Maggie Smith
Isobel Crawley – Penelope Wilton
Matthew Crawley – Dan Stevens
Lady Rosamund Painswick – Samantha Bond
Duke of Crowborough – Charlie Cox
Sir Anthony Strallan – Robert Bathurst
The Honourable, Evelyn Napier – Brendan Patrick
David Robb – Dr. Clarkson

Mr. Carson – Jim Carter
Mrs. Hughes – Phyllis Logan
John Bates – Brendan Coyle
Mrs. Patmore – Lesley Nicol
O'Brien – Siobhan Finneran
Anna Smith – Joanne Froggatt
William Mason – Thomas Howes
Thomas – Rob James-Collier
Gwen Dawson – Rose Leslie
Daisy – Sophie McShera
Molesley – Kevin Doyle
Tom Branson – Allen Leech

Vanilla Taffy

Vanilla Taffy Ingredients
Some how cooking for Christmas and New Year's passed me by, but now it seems, I'm finally in the mood to get off my backside and get in the kitchen. I've been checking the humidity for a couple of reasons - 1. Vanilla Taffy (or crack as it is known in our house) and 2. Divinity. I have never made it before, but there is a first time for everything. Today the weather is in the mid-forties and tonight should but just a smidge above freezing and it's clear-ish right now -- hopefully that will last so I can make Taffy and burn both of my hands in the process. I have already purchase a new candy thermometer (which I desperately needed since my old one is just about impossible to read) and I'm finally in the mood for molten sugar, vanilla, butter and my silpat.
Yes, it looks like crack.
Ah, homemade candy in the winter - there isn't much better.
Current weather: Inside: 68 degrees, 43% humidity; Outside: 44 degrees, 52% humidity

1 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
3/4 c. light corn syrup
1/2 t. cream of tartar
1 T. butter
2 t. vanilla

Different pulls - more opaque = more air.
Place sugar, corn syrup, water and cream of tartar in sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Cook without stirring until the mixture reaches 266 degrees (I'm not kidding about the temp).
Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla - it will bubble up. Pour onto greased cookie sheet or cookie sheet lined with a silpat mat. When cool enough to handle, but still (really) warm enough to be flexible, pull bits of taffy until opaque. Twist into long cord and let sit until hardened. Once hardened, break into small (1" or so) pieces. Wrap pieces in wax paper and store in a cool, dry place.

Burnt hand - not fun, but worth it.

09 January 2011

Sense & Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge (2011) - More thoughts on The Three Weissmanns of Westport

So is meeting your Willoughby similar to Napoleon facing his Waterloo?
It sure seems that way... no matter what story you read it in. If it's (he's) too good to be true, is it likely that it (he) is? All evidence seems to point that way. Have we all, or will we all meet our Willoughby? Thankfully, my story has turned out happier than I deserve and I don't mind gloating over it. 
The Three Weismmanns of Westport is very well written, so honest, it is just painful, but in an oddly good way - if that makes any sense at all. Which it probably doesn't.

Best Winter Time Investment ... ever.

The MotH and I like to sit outside after work and have a beer or two, discuss the day, or not. Plan for the weekend (usually) and general just enjoy being outside, watching for birds, and giving the dogs some exercise before we go in for the evening. 
Let me say this is not always conducive to making dinner, but the MotH does not seem to mind those evenings, but there are a few things that work really well for evenings like this - take out and left overs come to mind or weekend cooking which is often how I spend a Sunday (like today). 
$ well spent
Either way, one thing that has helped our outside time this year was a small investment that makes it tolerable for me to be out in the winter even if it brings on the indignation of those with a real winter: Our propane heater.  I love this thing. I suppose we'll only need it for 4 or so months, but it has already proven itself invaluable (at least to me). 

Dead Presidents well spent.