Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Foodiness

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31-recipe challenge Day 22 (the final day!): Beef Pho and Chocolate chip cookie Bailey’s milkshake

This is it, the LAST day of my 31-recipe challenge! It officially took me 22 days to cook 31 30 recipes. And I’m exhausted. Later this week I’ll put together a recap post that looks over everything I made last month and what I took away from it, much like I did at the halfway point.

And, to go out with a bang (well, a shake), I FINALLY nailed a dessert!

It seems as long as a stove isn’t involved, I can make a dessert. (Ironic, really, since I can cook but can’t really bake…Cookies! I can make cookies.)

But I want to go out on a high note, so I’m going to save the shake for last and start with my last-night-of-the-challenge dinner: Beef Pho from Zen Can Cook. The broth was easy enough to make, if not pricey–star anise, cinnamon sticks and fennel seeds don’t come cheap, and I couldn’t even find a black cardamom pod–but they impart a really exotic, interesting flavor. It did make my place smell preeetty weird the first night, though.

beef pho

The only slightly “off” thing about this dish was the beef itself–I used a top round to make the broth, and despite the fact that it literally sat in liquid all night, it was pretty dry when I took it out and sliced it up. It came back to life a bit once the slices were re-added to the heated broth, but it wasn’t the tender, juicy meat I was expecting. It was actually the low point of the dish.

Otherwise, though, the pho was quite tasty–lots of fresh herbs, peppers and rice noodles in the warm, beefy broth. Much like the soba, this was a total comfort food. I wish I had this around when I was sick.

I had to make a couple of slight substitutions based on what was available. I couldn’t find any Thai basil, so I subbed in regular basil even though there’s a flavor difference. It was better than nothing. I also used a regular green long hot (seeds scraped out) in place of a Thai bird chili, which my local grocery store also didn’t sell.

Nonetheless, the flavor was still bright and vibrant, and I highly recommend this. It seems so much more complicated than it really is. Once the broth’s made, it’s really just cooking the noodles and slicing up some veggies, herbs and beef. Done and done. My only recommendation? I used only one cut of meat in my broth, because it was available and exactly the amount I needed. I would recommend mixing it up, and next time, I’d use oxtail. I almost went with it this time but opted not to. I think it would add even more depth and meatiness to the broth.

But now, for what we’ve all been waiting for…dessert!

Let’s just put this out there: Chocolate chip cookie Bailey’s milkshakes. You can screw this up nine ways to Sunday, and it would still taste fantastic. Because you can’t go wrong with chocolate chip cookies, Bailey’s and coffee ice cream.

milkshake

And, it’s a cinch! Add ice cream, Bailey’s, cookies and ice to a blender, blend, drink. If you actually do screw that up nine ways to Sunday, I might worry.

But in all seriousness, this tastes as fantastic (and fantastically bad for you!) as it sounds. (It was hard to even get a decent picture…Kevin was way too excited and impatient to drink this to wait for a photo.)

Now, I could’ve gone ahead and really pulled out all the stops and baked my own cookies to put in the milkshake (and that had been my original plan), but time became an issue, so I bought a few chewy, yummy cookies from the Wegman’s bakery department. And, frankly, they were probably more delicious than whatever I would have baked. So win-win.

And there you have it. Thirty recipes in 22 days, all capped off with the ultimate of nightcaps. It was a whirlwind month, and now, because I’m me, I’m jumping into another whirlwind month, but this time because of rehearsals. (What can I say? I thrive when I’m busy.)

Hopefully in a couple of weeks I’ll regain the strength to lift a pot or light a stove. Until then, I’m reveling in the beauty that is takeout (sushi!) and leftovers.

31-Recipe Challenge Day 8: Banana Bread Oatmeal and Snow

As I mentioned yesterday, it snowed here over the weekend. I woke up Saturday to a blanket of white…that was plowed right up and over my car. The upside of moving from a house to an apartment is the lack of a driveway and walkway to shovel. The downside is I now park on the street and the snowplows plow our cars right in. So I did still have to spend Saturday morning clearing off and shoveling out some cars. And it was crazy windy, so I ended up looking more like I had jumped in the snow than shoveled it. (Have I mentioned I’m not a big fan of snow?)

But the upside to shoveling snow is getting to come inside after and warm up with some hot oatmeal and cocoa. So I made myself a hearty post-snow breakfast of banana bread oatmeal, courtesy of My Fat Heart.

Banana bread oatmeal and cocoa

I’ll be up front: I’m weird about banana. I like them, I eat them, I excitedly pair them with peanut butter. But banana bread? Banana chips? Most other banana-flavored or banana-inclusive things? No thanks. I’m picky about where my bananas can make an appearance. (Get your minds out of the gutter! No? Just me? Dammit.) So naturally, I was little worried to try out an oatmeal recipe that calls for mashed banana out of fear that I would not be in a banana mood when I decided to make this recipe. (I was. It’s all good.)

Actually, I like the idea of adding mashed banana to oatmeal to add sweetness and moisture. But for me, this oatmeal wasn’t a hit. It seized up before I got to eat it, making it unappealingly chewy, thick and sticky. In hindsight, I probably could have remedied this by just adding some more hot milk to it and stirring it in. Oh well. (Also, I used dairy skim milk, not almond milk like the original recipe states. I wonder now if the almond milk’s thickness would have helped the texture.)

(To be fair, though, the oatmeal may very well have started to solidify as I took shot after shot trying to get a decent, shadow-free photo. Eating this immediately after cooking, sans photo shoot, would probably have resulted in a much better oatmeal experience.)

One other thing–this had way too much cinnamon for me. Next time, I’d probably skip it in the topping and just sprinkle with brown sugar. (I also only had dark brown sugar on hand, not light, which has a more intense flavor and may have highlighted the cinnamon spice even more.)

Bottom line? I’ll try it again, no photo shoot, no extra cinnamon, maybe extra milk. And for the love of God, NOT with McCann’s steel cut oats. I tried it that way the first time in place of rolled oats (because I love my Irish oatmeal), but the ratios were not right and it cooked right onto the bottom of the pot. That was a fun cleanup.)

Therefore, if you do try this recipe (and please do! Just don’t take a thousand photos in front of a cold window first), FOLLOW IT! She knows what she’s talking about. Don’t be me.

Banana bread oatmeal and mocha on windowsill

And then snuggle up with a steamy bowl of oats and a big ol’ mug of cocoa, coffee, tea or some combination thereof. Happy snow day!

 

WIAW: Summer Weekend Eats

Phew! It’s been a very writing-intensive couple of days for me. Between banking articles for work and banking posts for the blog while I’m on vacation, my fingers have been getting quite the typing workout!

So thank goodness What I Ate Wednesday is photo-diary format! (Not that I WON’T write cause, hey, I’m a writer, but at least I get a little bit of a break!)

Now, this month’s WIAW theme is “Summer staples.” (Thanks Jen!) I think a couple of my eats below (see mango, ice cream and shandy) DEFINITELY qualify as summer staples!

I will let you know, though: these are technically weekend eats from two weekends ago, not this past weekend. I got so busy last week (Wednesday in particular) with vacation errands, work and details (like making centerpieces) for my dad’s wedding that I didn’t get a chance to post my summer weekend eats, so I’m sharing them with you all this week!

Saturday:

Breakfast:  McCann’s Irish oatmeal with a teaspoonful of strawberry Chobani and a chopped peach, topped with ground cinnamon and ginger. Mmmm. It was actually kind of a late breakfast, and I ate while watching this really cool guy place second in his prelim heat with Nikki. She was significantly less interested than I was.

[side note]: Is everyone else as sad as I am that the Olympics are over??

Lunch/snack: A cut-up mango and the rest of the strawberry Chobani from breakfast.

Dinner: This one’s got a little bit of story. Kevin and I had decided to cook a good dinner that night, since we were both off and had the time. Then, about 10 minutes after I watched Pistorius race, my power went out for, like, 4-5 hours. So that sort of killed the cooking dinner plan–neither of us wanted to cook in a place with no AC, plus it’s much harder to ignite the stove and we were trying to keep the fridge closed as much as possible. So we decided to go out to dinner.

A few days earlier, I had been cleaning out my room and came across an Olive Garden gift card I got for Christmas. It seemed like a good a time as any to use it.

Is Olive Garden the pinnacle of Italian cuisine? Not in the least. Is it particularly healthy? Not really. Is it fairly quick and cheap and relatively tasty? Yup, especially with a gift card.

So, to Olive Garden we went. We split salad, bread sticks and bruschetta and then I got the shrimp mezzaluna: sautéed shrimp with half-moon shaped cheese ravioli. What you see above are the leftovers, since I didn’t take pictures in the restaurant. And you know what? It was actually pretty good. (I’m soooo gonna get flamed for that.)

Sunday:

Breakfast: Blueberry Chobani with the last of my Bear Naked Fit Triple Berry Crunch granola and a Rook iced coffee at my desk. (Yeah, sometimes I have to work weekends…the life of a Web admin.)

Lunch: Vanilla ice cream at the beach. Seriously. I popped over to the boardwalk after work (I know you’re jealous, it’s ok). I planned on stopping at this Korean taco stand that opened there this summer and is supposed to be really tasty, but it was 90 bajillion degrees and there was a “new” ice cream shop. I say “new” because it was really just a new location for a shop the next town down the boardwalk that’s pretty famous for its ice cream. So of course I had to stop in. And I was feeling like some simple, good, pure ice cream, so I got vanilla, which is pretty uncharacteristic for me. (My usual orders typically involve cookie dough, gummy bears and/or chocolate.) And it was damn tasty ice cream.

Dinner: Possibly my new favorite summer beer, Saranac Shandy (seriously, this stuff’s possibly even better than Leinenkugel’s Shandy, my long-time summer favorite) with some suspiciously brown Pad See Yu.

I felt really sick from the stuff a few hours later, so it doesn’t deserve a picture. (I sometimes react negatively to large amounts of MSG.)

Well, that’s it! I’m focusing my energy on vacation now, because when I leave my office in the next five minutes, I’m officially on vacation! And I’m going to DISNEY WORLD tomorrow! I’m entirely too excited.

OH…before I go–Happy 100th birthday to the one and only Julia Child! Bon apetit!

I couldn’t think of a title for this post. OR, The food’s more important than the title anyway, so here’s a post about smoothies.

We all have those snacks and meals that we keep coming back to again and again because they’re basically perfect.  My latest greatest go-to is a smoothie.  Well, all kinds of smoothies, really. They’re versatile, quick, healthy and filling.  Really, it’s a perfect snack, breakfast or light meal.

You can put pretty much anything your heart desires into a smoothie, but I have some basics that I always keep on hand–frozen bananas, frozen berries and plain Greek yogurt. (Vanilla or fruit-flavored works too, so does regular yogurt.  I’ll use whatever I have at the time, but I try to keep some plain Greek yogurt around when I can.)

Fresh fruit’s great, but it’s hard to find year-round.  Plus, frozen fruit eliminates the need to add ice to your smoothie, which streamlines the process (it’s all about efficiency, people!)  I like using frozen bananas especially, because they give an icy, creamy texture to smoothies.  I keep my freezer stocked whenever I buy bananas–inevitably, I never finish the bunch before they start to turn, so when it looks like they’re starting to go bad, I cut them up and freeze them in plastic bags. I also do this with leftover banana halves after I use them in cereal, oatmeal, etc. if I don’t want to finish them.

I’ve been so busy lately, running from work to rehearsal with little time for dinner in between.  So smoothies have become even more of a go-to for me lately. I whip one up and get some protein, carbs, fiber and vitamins all in one! Plus, it’s light enough that I can go dance and not feel weighed down.

You’d think I’d get sick of the same thing all the time, but that could only happen if I had the same thing all the time. Smoothies are so versatile, I mix it up each time. Two of my favorites: a chocolate power shake and a pb & j smoothie.

I use my bullet blender to make smoothies, which makes it even quicker! (And means less clean-up! Just one cup.)

Both of these use a base of plain Greek yogurt and frozen bananas. For the chocolate power shake, brew 6-8 oz. of strong coffee and let it cool (you can add ice to speed this along.) To the Greek yogurt and bananas, add about a tablespoon of chocolate syrup (Hershey’s and Fox’s U-bet are my favorites), a tablespoon or two of natural almond butter (I use Trader Joes’ brand) and the cooled coffee.  Blend until smooth.

You get a great mix of protein from the yogurt and the almond butter, sugar and carbs from the chocolate and caffeine from the coffee.  This is the kind of smoothie I make when I need a real pick-me-up after a long day of work or before a grueling rehearsal or workout. The almond butter-chocolate-coffee combo may sound a little weird at first, but it’s sort of like an amaretto coffee. The almond butter actually has a very light flavor and doesn’t come through very strongly through the chocolate and the coffee.

The pb & j smoothie really tastes just like peanut butter and jelly! Start again with the Greek yogurt and banana base.  Add whatever fresh or frozen berries you like–my favorite are blueberries and strawberries. Add one to two tablespoons of natural peanut butter (again, I use TJ’s. I go for salted, but unsalted would work well, too) and blend with skim milk until smooth.

Antioxidants, vitamins and protein, and it tastes like childhood! With the protein from the yogurt and peanut butter, the fiber from the fruit and a little natural fat, this smoothie can really keep you satisfied for quite a while.

The best part about making smoothies at home? It’s so quick, easy and cheap! It saves a whole lot of money over going to those smoothie shops in the mall, plus you have complete control over what you put in it. Vegan? Try silken tofu and almond or soy milk. Or just fruit–frozen bananas puree into a soft-serve like consistency. Let your mind wander!

All this writing about smoothies has really gotten me craving one now.  I think there’s a nice fruit smoothie in my future! (Sometimes just a straight yogurt, fruit, juice combo is perfect, too!) Or maybe a bit of extra nut butter protein to power me through a late rehearsal tonight. I’ll never get sick of these things.

Brunch at Porta

I wrote a post in late February praising Porta Pizza in Asbury Park, but I mentioned that they did much more than just dinner–including weekend brunch.  Well, keeping true to my promise, I checked out their brunch on a cold, drizzly, early Spring Saturday, and I wasn’t disappointed!

I met up with a friend of mine, Carolyn, for what seems to be becoming our semi-monthly (or six-monthly, as the case may be) meetup. And as much as I’ve been waiting to try brunch at Porta, funnily enough, it was her suggestion. (Great minds think alike, I suppose.)  So, this past weekend, we headed to Asbury Park in the rain and the cold to meet up for what turned out to be a spectacular brunch.

Porta serves brunch every Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  Not wanting to be late to the party, Carolyn and I arrived just after 11:30.  I was expecting the place to be packed, but maybe because it’s still relatively unknown, or maybe because the weather was exceptionally atrocious, we were the only two people in the restaurant. People began to trickle in once we were settled in with our cappuccinos, but we seemed to constitute the entire “early” crowd. (By the way–good, big, inviting cappuccinos–and this is coming from someone who can make a cappuccino!)

Porta’s brunch menu is unique and varied, with a mix of their usuals and brunch-only options. They offer sweet and savory, breakfast and lunch, ranging from pizza and salads to french toast and fritattas.

We agreed that the best and only way to do this brunch was to try multiple things and share them.

Luckily, we have similar palates so this did not prove too much of a challenge. We started with a house-cured salmon appetizer with crostinis, marscapone cheese and chervil.

As you can see, I couldn't wait long enough to get a picture before I dug in.

I’m a Jewish girl, New Jersey-born and raised. Lox and cream cheese is pretty much a staple in my life, and I will try almost any and all variations on it. (Lox–smoked, cured salmon–is one of the only seafood I actually like. That, shrimp and fried calamari.)

This one was so good I’m afraid I’ll never be able to eat a regular bagel with lox and cream cheese again.  My first thought when the plate arrived was, “I wish they gave us some lemon to squeeze over the fish.” But as soon as I tasted it, I realized it was already there. The salmon was finished with lemon, olive oil and garlic, and the spicy-citrusy taste was bright and abundant. With the smooth, luscious marscapone and crispy-chewey crosinis, I was in a Jewish-Italian heaven.  I could have ordered three plates of that alone and been perfectly content.

Well, almost…we also ordered lemon-ricotta pancakes which were the lightest, fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever seen. As Carolyn put it, “much more cake than pan.” They were served over ricotta cheese with a vanilla brown butter syrup and macerated plums.  I didn’t expect a big punch of lemon, since in a pancake or similar baked good, the lemon flavor is typically subtle and underlying. But these pancakes packed a lemon punch! The lemon flavor was intense, but not fake, and most definitely a pleasant surprise for a lemon-lover like me.  And, I need to find out how to make such fluffy pancakes.

It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!!!

We had decided we were also going to try their butternut squash pizza, which neither of us had ever seen on the dinner menu, and sounded like quite the savory-sweet experience.  When the waitress informed us they were all out, Carolyn and I looked at each other like sad children for a moment before settling on the roasted tomato fritatta with smoked mozzarella instead.

As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of cooked tomatoes, but they weren’t overpoweringly sweet in this dish.  The arugula served over the fritatta helped too, I’m sure, as did the homemade focaccia that came on the side.  We sat close to the pizza ovens that are out in the open, and I watched the chef make our focaccia bread–the smell was intoxicating to this starving girl, and it looked so yummy! The fritatta was tasty, but ended up overshadowed by the salmon and the pancakes–it’s the only dish we didn’t finish. (Really, we were just too full–and too focused on our pancakes.)

Fritatta with that wonderful-smelling focaccia that made me so hungry!

So, that’s two down for Porta, and I would recommend their brunch to anyone.  I actually really want to take my mom since a lot of their brunch options are seemingly gluten-free, like the fritattas and other egg-inclusive dishes (braised Beluga lentils with quail eggs, for instance.) Even the salmon appetizer–the crostinis tasted great, but they’re really just a vessel for carrying the cheese and the salmon.  They’re not a necessity.  Carolyn ate some of the leftover salmon and cheese once the bread ran out and she agreed, she didn’t miss them.

OK, so next up, I guess I will have to check out Porta’s nightlife.  Or gluten-free pizza Tuesdays.  Or spaghetti and meatballs Sundays. Or… the list goes on.  All I know is I want to go back to Porta over and over again.

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