Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Foodiness

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31-Recipe Challenge: Day 4–Butternut Squash and Kale Salad

I kept it simple on Monday. Coming off my marathon-cooking weekend and a late night thanks to the Super Bowl, I hadn’t done any extra shopping and was feeling pretty low-key. Luckily, I had planned ahead on my last shopping trip and picked up extra kale, butternut squash and almonds for the week ahead. All I needed was some cheese and I had everything on hand to recreate Northern Spy’s Kale Salad (recipe courtesy of Food52).

Kale and squash salad 1

I sent my wonderful and adoring boyfriend out for some cheese to complete this meal, and although he could not find the Cabot Clothbound cheddar that Kristen of Food52 so vehemently praised, he did come back with some Kerry Gold two-year aged Irish “distinctively sharp” cheddar. And I wasn’t complaining. That’s some knock-your-socks-off good cheese. If it’s possible for a cheddar to taste like a Parmesan, this does. Kevin, you hit this one out of the park. Good work.

This recipe calls for oven-roasted butternut squash, and, unlike Sunday’s undercooked squash disaster, this time it roasted up nice and sweet and soft. Mix into chopped kale and almonds, add the cheddar and shaved pecorino, dress with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper and dig in. It’s crunchy-chewy, salty-sweet, oily-acidic. It’s perfect. This was one of the best kale salads I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some good kale salads. I get why Northern Spy keeps it on their menu. Serve with anything, or on its own. We ate it with leftovers from the weekend.

And although the squash takes about 30-40 minutes to roast, this is otherwise a super-speedy lunch or dinner, and simple. Chopping and roasting the squash is the brunt of the prep work.

This one’s a clear winner in my book, and a nice break after a day of heavy eats. Also goes to show sometimes simple is best. Thank goodness I needed to leave to walk the dog, or poor Kevin may not have gotten any of this salad. I couldn’t stop eating it. I wasn’t even hungry anymore and I still found myself digging in.

Seriously, I’m still thinking about this salad. And drooling. Over SALAD. Yeah, that happened.

Kale and squash salad 2

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31-Recipe Challenge: Day 2 — Veggie Style!

Something pretty amazing happened on Saturday, aka Day 2 of my 31-recipe challenge: I got the carnivore (well, omnivore) to go herbivore and LIKE IT!

That’s right, I got my meat-loving man to eat a vegetarian meal and admit that not only did he like it, but he would eat it again! *cue happy dance #2 for the weekend*

Only two days into this thing, and I’m already seeing some pretty amazing things happen.

Sweet potato taco 1

I’m sure you’re wondering what the magic recipe was that turned this T-Rex into a Brontosaurus. Well, it was two! It was these Asian-fusion sweet potato tacos from Love and Lemons and this winter kale salad from A Tasty Love Story.

The sweet potato tacos with avocado involved several steps, but none were terribly complicated. If anything, I became more a victim of my apartment-sized kitchen’s lack of prep space more than anything else. Basically: make glaze, chop veggies, glaze veggies, roast veggies, prep toppings, eat. Said toppings include goodies like sliced avocado, cilantro, sprouts, toasted pepitas and scallions.

However, this dish almost wasn’t quite the same due to my own trepidations. As I stood in Wegmans on Friday staring at the refrigerator shelf that housed those few sad containers of miso paste, I, well, freaked out. Thirteen ounces?? Seven dollars?? I only need two tablespoons! What am I going to do with 13 ounces? Seven dollars is WAY too much for something I’m only going to use a tiny bit of! Once! Alas, then Kevin said (via text) those magical three words that somehow made such a seemingly outlandish purchase alright: “We’ll make soup.” Ah, ok, we’ll make soup. Yes, we’ll make soup.

And so there you have it. I bought miso paste, a very key ingredient for what ended up being a fairly brilliant miso-maple glaze, and sometime in the near-ish future (i.e., after February), I will make miso soup. A lot of miso soup. And probably more sweet potatoes.

Sweet potato taco 2

Oh! P.S. sidenote…fresh toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) smell pretty darn good. But not as good as toasted balsamic-honey almonds. (I’ll get to that in a moment, stick around.) Also, can we take a moment to appreciate and applaud my lovely hand model? (The aforementioned T-Rex.)

Extra sidenote…the recipe includes a fresh, bright, somehow summery coconut-cilantro sauce to top the tacos (yum!) You can optionally add Sriracha and sugar to this sauce; I added neither. It didn’t need it. (And as I admitted on Day 1, I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to bringing the heat.) But really, if you know me at all or have read my blog even a little, you probably know by now that anything that combines avocado, lime and cilantro is A-OK in my book.

But that was not all! Oh no! There was that beautiful winter salad of pomegranate, kale and apple to attend to.

Somehow, despite the fact that the five pomegranates left in the produce section seemed truly sad, and I settled for the least bad of them, I ended up with some really lovely, delicious pomegranate jewels. Seriously, I should’ve taken a picture of them, because they looked semi-precious.

This salad is fun and fast, and plays with flavors in an interesting way. It also calls for shredded kale, rather than big leaves, so I stuffed torn leaves into my Magic Bullet (in small batches), and whizzed it with the chopping blade for a hot second. It was like kale confetti. (I don’t want that coming out of my pinata, though.)

The most involved part of the salad were the aforementioned balsamic-glazed almonds. Basically, toast raw almonds, add balsamic vinegar and honey, and stir to coat over the stovetop. Then they harden up and get deliciously glossy and sticky. And I have leftovers sitting in a bag at home. I call it the base to the world’s best trail mix. (Oh yes, they are that good. Seriously, go home and make these! They take, like, five minutes and it’s like a way more sophisticated version of those yummy-smelling glazed nuts stands at the mall.)

Pomegranate, apple, kale salad

Toss kale, pomegranate arils, thinly sliced apples and glazed almonds with a quick homemade vinaigrette and enjoy! Just don’t make too much dressing and then hand it off to someone else and let them finish the salad. They won’t realize you’ve made more dressing than necessary and they WILL just dump it all on. Then it will taste like balsamic with a little salad. Not that that happened, of course. (Totally happened.)

Still, it was clear these flavors were meant to be. And boy was it pretty! It was like a winter season fashion show–jewel tones everywhere!

And after sitting down with a heaping sweet potato taco and a big, colorful bowl of kale salad, Kevin declared the meal a winner and even admitted he’d eat it for a meal again (without meat.) Of course, even after three tacos and the majority of the salad, he still finished off a bag of popcorn at the movies that night, so *maybe* I should take that with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I declare it a victory.

Of course, my cooking for the weekend was hardly done. After all, Kevin hosted a Super Bowl party on Sunday, and yours truly was, effectively, the caterer. Cue the marathon cooking day that was my Sunday (more to come…)

Am I the only person in the world who can’t make kale chips?

It’s no secret that I don’t bake. I’m just not good at it. I mean, last Christmas I had a pretty successful cookie-making run, but that was not without help. (In the form of both human and Kitchenaid stand mixer.) But overall, I’m not a baker. I can cook on the stove top, but once that oven turns on, it’s hit or miss for me.

Which is probably why, even though everyone and their mother are making kale chips, I managed to burn them.

Yup. Not even five minutes in the oven and I burned ’em. Just in case anyone needed further proof that I can’t bake.

Now, here’s where you, my lovely readers, come in. I’m going to tell you what I did, and hopefully someone out there will be able to tell me where I went wrong. Because seriously, if kale chips are so hot right now, there must be a reason, and I want in on the secret, dammit!

I am not going to return to burying myself in a bag of potato chips. I will make successful, tasty kale chips!

So, here’s how it went down:

I took roughly half to 3/4 of a bunch of kale, cut off the stems and tore the leaves (leaving the center stems behind.) I laid them out on paper-towel lined baking sheets to dry and covered with more paper towels. After they dried, I tossed them with olive oil, salt and black pepper, then laid them back out on the baking sheets (sans paper towels), sprinkled with a little more salt and pepper, and into the oven they went (Preheated to 375F.) One sheet was on the middle rack, one on the top rack. Five minutes in, both racks were starting to burn.

Before:

After:

Womp.

I was all excited about these, too. When I went to Sickle’s Market with Kevin a couple weeks ago, I saw a big, green bunch of kale sitting there, and I had to have it. I have had kale chips on my radar for quite some time, since they’re popping up on just about every healthy eating blog. I was super-stoked to get such a yummy-looking bunch of kale and share my own chip recipe with you all. (If I was successful, I was even going to try my hand at kale chip nachos!)

Alas…this happened. Though it may be a lot funnier than if I had succeeded, it still bums me out. Plus, my house reeked of burnt kale. The night before a showing. That wasn’t so good.

So, tell me…where did I go wrong??

So. Much. Produce.

My fridge has been lacking in the produce lately, so I was very glad when I had a half day at work last week and Kevin and I could hit the farmer’s markets. He only needed to get corn for dinner that night, but I walked away with a far more impressive haul:

We made our rounds. We started at Sickle’s Market, a part garden center, part farmer’s market and part general store. It’s a year-round place, with the majority of the produce and groceries indoors, but the quality and selection is more akin to a good farmer’s market than a supermarket.

Anyway, everywhere I turned I found something else I had to have. It’s a miracle I only walked away with what I did.

I ended up walking away with a bunch of kale (meant to make kale chips, but that didn’t go quite as planned–more on that later), five nectarines, a quart of Jersey-fresh blueberries and half a watermelon. There was also an almond croissant in there that didn’t make it through the car ride home. (Don’t judge.)

We also hit a small, local produce stand, Trader Joe’s and Wegman’s, where I grabbed a couple of avocados so I could make more of this before leaving on vacation.

Over the weekend, I also got a goody bag of home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers from a friend of mine. She’s been growing them in her yard and had more than she knew what to do with, so I gladly volunteered to take some of that pesky produce off her hands. Then I realized I don’t know what to do with five tomatoes and four cucumbers either. So I’ve been eating a lot of tomato, mozzarella and basil salad and drinking tons of cucumber-lemon water. I’m not complaining.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Kevin did get the fresh Jersey corn he was looking for–and it was delicious! It was so sweet it didn’t even need butter. Just boiled with some salt, and I could’ve eaten all six ears! Also, I forgot how much fun it can be to shuck corn. (I can’t believe I just said that.)

Speaking of vacation, (I spoke of it somewhere, I’m sure…) I’m getting pretty stoked to go to Disney World in two days! (Yup, I’m a child. Whatever. Happiest place on Earth, man.) Anyway, I’ve been compiling a list of certain things I want to try to do while I’m down there this time around. It’s a little lopsided though:

Yup, my Things I want to eat list is far longer than my Things I want to do list, especially since some of the things I want to do a really food-related anyway. Really, though, is anyone even surprised? I’ll be lucky if they’re not rolling me out of the parks. The saddest part is there is literally, like, one healthy thing on that food list, and that’s the AK egg roll stand (really!) because I want to go there for their veggie spring rolls, Asian noodle salad and fruit salad.

What? I’m on vacation. Don’t judge.

Well, not quite yet. Right now, I’m still at work, eating avocado-black bean salsa and wishing I was already in sunny Florida. (New Jersey’s a bit cloudy today…)

Expect some fun, Disney-themed posts in the coming weeks!

Porta Patens Esto. Nulli Claudatur Honesto. “Be the door always open. Be it not closed to any honest person.”

First off, I’d like to apologize for the lag in posting. The last couple of weeks have been utterly crazy for me; I started up working full-time again, but didn’t quit my old job, plus I’m in the rehearsal process for a show that opens in three weeks. So I’m working 6-7 days a week and going to rehearsal, which unfortunately leaves little time to cook or enjoy a nice meal out.

But Monday I had a half day at work, so Kevin and I took the opportunity–and free time–to go out for a nice, sit-down meal. He and I have this little thing we do where we try to go to a new restaurant every month. Monday was our February opportunity though, admittedly, we cheated on this one a bit. We chose to go to Porta in Asbury Park, N.J. It was brand new to him, but I had been there. Just once. And not for dinner. I just went there after work late one night with a friend and we split a pizza and a carafe of their house red wine (more on that later.) So really, I hadn’t experienced Porta to its fullest, so it was still fair.


Porta is a pizzeria by name, but it is so much more than that once you step inside its wide white doors. The building looks like a converted garage, complete with three large bay doors on one end that open up to their patio and outdoor bar (dubbed “Porta National Park”) in the warmer seasons. Inside, Porta is arranged family-style, with large picnic-style tables rather than traditional individual seats. The back wall is lined with antiqued wooden doors, and in clear view sit their wood-fired pizza ovens, imported from Italy, with the open prep and cooking space. Porta also has a large bar, complete with a great wine list and varied beer options. (“Porta” is Italian for “door,” hence the door theme.)

By night, Porta becomes a bar and nightclub complete with a DJ, live music and dancing. But by day (well, Monday evening), it had a unique, modern-classic feel, pumping standards through the sound system rather than Top 40 dance beats. It mixed sophistication with a backyard feel.

But enough of that. Really, this is about the food. And the food is no less unique than the space itself. While the menu is small by normal standards, its anything but boring. Mostly appetizers and pizza with a few pasta options, Porta keeps it simple while keeping it special.

For appetizers, we ordered two salads to share: The Winter Caprazy and the Cavolo Nero. The Winter Caprazy is exactly what it sounds like: a seasonal take on the classic Caprese salad. This one included slow roasted tomatoes, black garlic and fresh oregano.

Full disclosure: I’ve never had black garlic or fresh oregano (only dried.) I’ve been missing out. Black garlic, while it looks a bit scary, is a sweeter, richer cousin to what we know. And fresh oregano blows the dried stuff out of the water. Upon eating it, I got that distinctive bite and slight hit to the sinuses that confirmed I was indeed eating oregano, but the flavor was so much milder and fresher than its spice rack counterpart. Where has this been all my life? Needless to say, everything worked together pretty well, with the roasted tomatoes imparting a sweeter, heartier flavor than the raw version. I don’t love roasted tomatoes, but this definitely made a pretty good winter version of one of my favorite classic Italian salads.

However, I don’t think the Winter Caprazy can hold a candle in creativity next to the Cavolo Nero. Tuscan kale, shaved sunchoke and watermelon radish with garlic crostini and parmigiano reggiano in a lemon-garlic dressing. This was my first introduction to kale, and what a way to start! This definitely makes me want to eat kale more often. My only complaint about this salad would be that the toppings (sunchoke, watermelon radish, garlic croutons) were a bit too scarce. As good as the kale was, it was a bit boring without the accouterments and we left some on the plate once we finished everything else. But it was delicious. I love radishes, so this was a treat to me, especially with how beautiful shaved watermelon radishes are.

Sliced watermelon radish. Photo via SmartSeeds

I need to find some watermelon radishes and use them in everything I make. Everything. They taste great, and they’re gorgeous! (New goal.)

Moving on…

Kevin, being the pizza-lover that he is, obviously could not resist the major part of Porta’s menu: the pizza. He ordered an Italian Stallion with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Gorgonzola, sweet Italian sausage and long hots. (I could insert a joke here about him being an Italian stallion, but I’ll pass for his sake.)

As much as he loves pizza, Kevin hates blue cheese, but he bit the bullet and tried it on this pizza. And he didn’t hate it. Overall, he thought the pizza tasted great, but the generous drizzle of olive oil (and probably the grease from the sausage) made it a little soggy for his liking. He boxed half up to take home and said he’ll try to crisp it up in the oven before eating the leftovers.

I was in a pasta kind of mood that night, so I went ahead and ordered off their small, but not limited pasta menu. I went a little off the beaten path with a wild boar ragu with rosemary papardelle, rosemary, sage, red wine and parmigiano reggiano. If you hadn’t told me this was wild boar, I wouldn’t have known. But I’m so glad I tried it. It’s, unsurprisingly, very similar to pork, but a bit heartier and beefier. Sort of like a delicious pork-beef hybrid all stewed up and served over pasta.

Oh right, the pasta. Between the rosemary papardelle and the rosemary in the sauce, I expected a double whammy of in-your-face rosemary. But instead, it was subtle and underlying and I had to really look for it at times. Still, I ate almost the whole thing. Hearty, warm and inviting. It almost made me forget it was nearly 60 degrees that afternoon.

Pizza; Photo via http://www.pizzaporta.com/

Not the Italian Stallion, but another one of Porta'a pizzas. Photo courtesy of Porta Pizza.

And of course, what better to complement a great meal than some house red wine? Porta has a nice Italian wine list, but the standout is their house-made red and white wines, which can be ordered by the glass or the carafe. I’ve been here twice and only ever had one wine–the house red, a Cabernet. I thought about switching it up at dinner, but I figured, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Next time I’ll have to try their house white and eventually branch out to their other wine selections.

Kevin went a more traditionally American route–pizza and beer. Porta seems like the kind of place that would have tons of local and craft beers on hand, but most of their beer list is surprisingly generic. They have a few crafts, including three varieties of Six Point. Kevin had the “Bengali Tiger,” which he said was very pine-y with a citrus finish. He equated it to Pine Sol at one point, which I assumed was a bad thing, but he seemed to enjoy it. I picked up on the pineyness but not as much on the citrus. However, the back of the can did quote William Blake’s “The Tyger.” (Plus one for Six Point.)

Porta’s minimalistic atmosphere and inspired take on locally-sourced ingredients may be far too hip and trendy for some, but I actually found it a relaxing and enjoyable Monday evening. Is Porta a bit hipster? Yes. Are the food, drinks and service worth it despite that? Absolutely. It’s nestled on an obscure little corner of Asbury Park, right between the bustling downtown and the boardwalk and offers a casual retreat that’s still leaps beyond traditional pizzeria fare. So, if you’re looking for an original, quality meal in a quaint, casual environment, head for Porta.

Porta also runs several specials throughout the week, like gluten-free pizza every Tuesday and a 4-course family dinner every Sunday night. They weekend brunch every Saturday and Sunday and, of course, the club/bar scene at night.

I’ll have to check out the nightlife sometime and see if it lives up to the weekday fare. Come summertime I’ll have to give this another go too, of course.

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