Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Foodiness

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31-recipe challenge Day 20: Butterscotch pudding and Liebster Blog Award

Before we get started, I’d like to note that it is February 28, and it is the final day of my 31-recipe challenge, and my final day of cooking. I have a few more posts to get out to be all caught up, but this is it. I want it on record that I HAVE made all 31 (well, 30) recipes in the 28 days of February. In the words of Top Chef, at the end of today it’s “knives down, hands up.” Done-zo.

But until then…

I was so excited to make this pudding. Butterscotch pudding…are there any two more beautifully paired words in the English language?

Butterscotch pudding, when done right, is one of those things you find yourself daydreaming about, craving at any hour. Basically, it’s heaven in a bowl…

…until I lay my hands on it. I had such high hopes for this one, and it came out, well, a flop. Now, the recipe from Jennifer at Foodess is not to blame; her pudding looked DIVINE. My ineptitude with anything remotely dessert-y is to blame here. It’s a vicious curse, really…a woman with a sweet tooth as voracious as mine can’t make dessert. That’s irony. (I’m 0 for 2 on puddings here; they are clearly not my forte. Remember the bread pudding?)

To be honest, I have no idea where this began going downhill. I followed the recipe exactly (I didn’t even halve it!), and when I put the finished pudding in the fridge, it seemed fine.  But when I went to taste-test hours later, the texture was totally off-putting. It was gritty, grainy and curdled (ugh!).The one good thing, at least, was the flavor. (Thank you very much, Johnnie Walker Black Label. Good scotch=good butterscotch.)

butterscotch puddingIt still looked nice. I can pretend, can’t I?

Sure, I had encountered some curdling through the cooking process, but I didn’t freak…Jenn said that may happen, and if so, just our through a strainer before storing in the fridge. I guess mine wasn’t fine-meshed enough, or the curdling continued during refrigeration. I’m not sure. As for the grittiness…I got nothing. The caramel/butterscotch base (i.e., the molten sugar) was smooth and creamy, not grainy and sugary, so that’s not to blame. I’m out.

My one true disaster actually occurred early on. My successful caramel was actually my second attempt–my first attempt burnt to a crisp and filled my apartment with smoke. My eyes were burning, my dog was whimpering, I was running around half-blinded to open all the windows in the vicinity. At one point, I thought turning on the ceiling fan in the kitchen would help, but instead it just blew the burnt-sugar smoke into the living room, the foyer, the hallway. The dog and I took refuge in the bathroom (the only safe place) until we could breathe and see again. That was tragic, and nearly ruined the saucepan. (Two days of soaking, scrubbing and boiling water later, it’s like new!)

Needless to say, I watched round two like a hawk–at exactly that five-minute mark, off the heat. And it was lovely.

Anyway, let’s move on from this disaster that was (not) butterscotch pudding.

On Tuesday, I received the Liebster Blog Award from Sherry at Cafe Vita! I’m so excited! My little blog finally got noticed, and this is my first-EVER blogging award! The Liebster Blog Award is given to new bloggers that only have about 200 followers. “Liebster” is German for dearest, loveliest or favorite.

liebster-blog-2

There are some rules to accepting this award:
1. Each awarded blogger will post 11 random facts about themselves
2. 11 questions provided by the sender have to be answered
3. 11 new bloggers have to be chosen to which the award will be passed on
Go to their pages, tell them about the award and pass on the link to your post!
So it is kind of a blogger chain mail. This is a nice way to hep promote new blogs and to  get to know the owners.

So here it goes: 11 random facts about me:
1. I graduated Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies and a minor in Spanish.
2. While there, I also seriously considered minoring in dance (and auditioned to).
3. I currently live with my mother and my English Pointer named Nikki, and occasionally my younger sister. Four months ago, we moved out of the house we lived in for 21 years.
4. But, within the next two months, I will be living with my boyfriend Kevin and his/our yellow lab, Mackenzie.
5. I hate mushrooms.
6. I’ve lived in five different towns in New Jersey and one city in Spain (Valencia).
7. I am absolutely terrified of needles and crickets.
8. I’m very short. I’m just barely 5’1″ with shoes on.
9. By day, I work as a writer and web site administrator for a national political and  public opinion polling company.
10. I’ve been a dancer since I was three years old.
11. I dye my hair. I’m a natural brunette, but dye it red.

So now is the time to pass this award along!
I looked through Facebook, Twitter and WordPress to find up-and-coming blogs I enjoy and who’s work I want to promote. I noticed these blogs and would like to pass the award on to them.  This is a vehicle to help you connect with other new bloggers and to mutually encourage one another.  Have fun! (Confession: I may or may not be fudging a bit, since I’m not entirely sure how many followers some of these blogs have.)

Treats and Trinkets (so many sweets! I’ll leave the desserts to her! And she’s a Jersey girl!)
Our Dinner Table (another Jersey girl! You know I love it!)
Down-Home South Jersey (THREE Jersey girls! Clearly NJ is the place for awesome food bloggers!)
Heike Herrling …but it tasted good (such beautiful, creative dishes!)
Crostini and Chianti (is that a blog title or an invitation? Because, yes please!)

These were the 11 questions asked by Sherry at Cafe Vita:
1.  Where do you live NOW? 15 minutes away from my old house, right on the Jersey Shore
2.  What made you decide to blog? I was unhappy with where my life was 13 months ago, and I wanted to do something for me. I had toyed with the idea for a few weeks, so I just decided to jump in and do it.
3.  What was the number one tool that helped you get started? I’m not really sure how to answer that…Wordpress?
4.  Share a blog address that INSPIRED you. The Lean Green Bean. She’s an inspirational health, fitness, food and nutrition blogger. She gets me off my couch! http://www.theleangreenbean.com/
5.   What are your goals for your blog? I hope to reach out to people who share my passion for food, cooking and nutrition and I hope to expand my readership beyond my parents and my really bored friends.
6.  How do you take your photos? Badly! Haha…on an iPhone (I knoooow). I try to set up some good lighting and staging, usually on my well-lit end table in my living room. Then I edit in PicStitch.
7.  How much time do you spend per day/week on your blog or Facebook interactions? That really varies. This month, about an hour a day. Other times, much less.
8.  What do you like most in a blog post from others? Humor, relatability, honesty, personal anecdotes and pretty photos.
9.  What are other hobbies that you have besides blogging? Theater and dance, nutrition, yoga
10. Favorite blog? Peas and Crayons…she nails the factors I mentioned in #8, and sometimes I believe we’re kindred spirits.
11. Favorite ingredient? That’s such a tough call…fresh basil or cilantro or ginger. And red wine. And black pepper. And peas. OK, that was more than one…

Congratulations to all the recipients, it was well deserved! Now, here are my 11 questions for YOU!

1. What’s the best advice you would like to receive from an established blogger?
2. What’s the best advice you would give to a new blogger?
3. What is your favorite cocktail/beverage?
4. Favorite guilty pleasure food?
5. Favorite television show?
6. Why did you start blogging?
7. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you ask?
8. Who’s your main taste tester/critic/support system?
9. What’s your occupation?
10. What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had in the kitchen?
11. It’s almost spring! What’s the thing your most excited about heading into spring?

Now it’s your turn! Copy and paste these questions into a new post and answer them, and then pass along the award to 11 more well-deserving bloggers! Have fun!

And a major thanks again to Sherry from Cafe Vita for passing this award to me!

31-Recipe Challenge: Day 1 — Kicking it off!

Well, folks, the day has finally arrived–I have officially started  my one-month, 31-recipe challenge! Since I’ve been sick for the past week (battling an ear and throat infection punctuated with cold-like symptoms, yay winter), I started off slow, but delicious. My first recipe I tackled for this challenge–sausage and pepper pizza!

Sausage pizza 1

Now, I’m from New Jersey, where sausage and peppers can be found in every corner pizza joint (and you can bet they’ll be good, too!) They’re not usually my first choice, but let me tell you, this pizza rocks. I’m rethinking sausage and peppers now.

One great thing I learned from this recipe: making pizza dough from  scratch is super-easy. Like, crazy, crazy easy. Literally takes five, maybe 10 minutes, not counting the time for it to rise.  I don’t think I’ll be buying pre-made pizza dough anymore, it’s just not worth it.

Let’s take a minute here and let this sink in: I. made. homemade. dough. And it didn’t suck.  The non-baker inside me is freaking out and doing a happy dance! (And possibly a literal happy dance occurred at the time, as well. Not ashamed.)

The pizza got the stamp of approval from my toughest critic, the sausage pizza aficionado, if you will. (AKA…Kevin loved it!)

I *very, very* slightly modified this recipe from Joy the Baker for the pizza.  The main modification I made was using all-purpose flour in place of bread flour in the dough recipe, because, well, I’m not likely to use much bread flour again, so having five pounds of it seemed excessive. Frankly, though, the AP flour worked fine. I also used mild Italian sausage (patties, not links, since there was no casing) instead of spicy, because I have a low heat tolerance and actually wanted to be able to eat my pizza. As it was, I was reaching for the water anytime I took a bit with a little too much red pepper flake on it. (And there wasn’t much.)

Sausage pizza 2

I totally plan on making this one again, and keeping homemade pizza dough on hand in my freezer. It was so quick to make, even on a rushed post-work Friday evening, yet WAY beats any fast-food and even beats great pizza shop sausage pizza. Possibly because even the best Jersey pizza joints don’t usually put fresh bell peppers and arugula on their pizza.

Consensus: Day 1 a success.  The fun continues today with sweet potato tacos with avocado and apple, pomegranate and kale salad. And I’m getting really crazy tomorrow, combining the recipe challenge with a Super Bowl party! Yes, I may have the best-fed Super Bowl guests this side of Baltimore (see what I did there?).

See you soon for Day 2!

Gluten-free cookies that actually taste like…cookies! — The Butterfly Bakery review

Anyone who reads my blog on semi-regular basis knows that my mom is gluten-free by way of Celiac disease. We don’t keep an entirely gluten-free household, but she keeps plenty of gluten-free alternatives for herself, and she’s always looking for new ones to try. (Because, believe it or not, many gluten-free baked goods aren’t so, well, good.) I also often make sure if I’m cooking or preparing food that it’s either entirely gluten-free or easily adaptable for her.

So, needless to say, we were both totally excited when the Butterfly Bakery in Clifton, NJ, contacted me about sampling and reviewing some of their gluten-free baked goods.

Funnily enough, the Butterfly Bakery started out of owner Brenda Isaac’s desire to create tasty baked goods for her dietary-restricted mother. Isaac’s mother was a diabetic, so she started experimenting with sugar-free baked goods in 1998. Fourteen years later, the Butterfly Bakery now has multiple lines that include gluten-free, no sugar added and 100% whole grain.

Naturally, the question on everyone’s mind is…gluten free baked goods? So how do they taste? Well, not half bad! The Butterfly Bakery sent me a package of chocolate chip cookies and a package of blueberry mini muffins to taste. When they arrived, it was clear they did not hold up to shipping well–some of the cookies had started to crumble and a couple of the muffin tops had separated from the base. Otherwise, though, they were in decent shape (as in, not a package of crumbs.)

See? Only the top couple of cookies took the brunt of the damage. (This is how they arrived.)

Luckily, they tasted better than they looked. Of course, as soon as the package arrived, Mom and I dug right in. It was like Celiac Christmas. The cookies actually had a really nice nutty, almondy flavor, though they were nut-free. (Most likely, the flavor came from the brown sugar or the Teff flour in the recipe–more on that in a minute.) I was, admittedly, surprised by how addictive these cookies were! The downside, though, was the texture.  The crumbling in the package was not a one-time fluke. They had a really nice flavor, but they were too messy to eat. We literally stood over the sink as we nibbled on them to catch the crumbs. Perhaps the recipe could benefit from some kind of extra binder, like honey or molasses. Then again, maybe it’s a trade-off for the freshness. (Many packaged gluten-free cookies are more processed; these are pretty much oven-to-door.) And if that’s the case, I can handle that.

Some of the tops were dented, while a couple (like the one down in front) were totally separated. But really, the top’s the best part of the muffin anyway, so it’s kind of like they were doing the dirty work for us!

Fun discovery: the cookies actually benefit from refrigeration. Instead of leaving them out on the counter, we refrigerated them (also instead of just eating the whole batch.) When I ate another one after it had been in the fridge overnight, it held together much better and was much easier (and even tastier!) to eat. So fridge=happy gluten-free cookies. The flavors were more pronounced, and the overall cookie had a better, chewier bite.

I wasn’t quite as enamored with the muffins. They looked just like any other packaged blueberry mini muffins you’d buy at the store (minus the shifting tops), but the texture was a bit more…off. The muffins were grainier and grittier than a regular wheat-based muffin and, like the cookies, fell apart easily. These were more obviously gluten-free. That being said, they were still chewy and sweet and tasted like a blueberry muffin. I wouldn’t buy them over regular muffins, but they’re still a solid option for those who maintain a gluten-free diet. My mom liked them enough to finish off the package while I was on vacation. I have a feeling they became more than a couple breakfasts.

So…their secret to gluten-free baking? They use teff flour, a flour ground from an Ethiopian grain similar to quinoa or millet.  Both the light and dark varieties of teff have a nutty flavor: the white teff has a chestnut-like flavor while the darker teff can have an almost hazelnut-like flavor. (And there we may have some of the nutty flavor in the cookies!)

Teff has 14% more protein than normal wheat flour and is full of other nutrients like potassium, vitamin B, iron, thiamin and calcium. It is also high in fiber and naturally gluten-free.

Both the tub of 13 chocolate chip cookies and the package of 12 mini muffins retail for $5.99 at the Butterfly Bakery web site. You can also buy Butterfly Bakery products in grocery and specialty stores nationwide or on Amazon.com. The coolest part? The Butterfly Bakery has a request form on their site than you can print and fill out to take to your local grocery store’s bakery department to request they carry Butterfly Bakery products!

Now I’m not going to say these are health foods. They are still cookies and muffins (which have an undeserved false “health halo” for what is really an icing-less cupcake.) That being said, for someone with dietary (gluten) restrictions, they’re a great alternative and a way to indulge without having to go for processed or unappetizing substitutes.

I’ll tell you this–they got my mom’s stamp of approval, though she admits it’s been so long since she’s had “real” baked goods that she may not be the best judge. But what’s even better? I couldn’t stop eating those cookies, either! (The muffins? I could take or leave them.) But the cookies definitely get the gluten-free AND the gluten-full (not a word, but now it is!) stamp of approval!

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!

Restaurant Week Chronicles: (the very belated) Part 2

I realize it’s been more than a week since my first Restaurant Week post. And, no, it is no longer Jersey Shore Restaurant Week–I’m belated. But, I capped off my week by going off-the-menu for Restaurant Week at Monticello’s in Red Bank.

Technically, Monticello’s did not participate in Restaurant Week.  However, it was a new restaurant during the course of that week, so I’m going to count it. Also, I needed something to make Part 1 feel complete. (This was supposed to be a three-party series, but we really wanted to go to Tre Amici in Long Branch, but it never worked out–problem after problem! Someone really didn’t want us to go there! Alas, there will be no “Mockingjay” to my “Hunger Games,” and you will have to settle for a duology.)

Anyway, I apologize now because there are no pictures from Monticello’s. Kevin and I went with a big group of friends we did theater with, so between all the catching up there was no time to stop and take photos (well, not of the food anyway.)

Monticello’s is BYOB, which is great and easy on the wallet, considering the menu’s a bit on the pricey side. The best part, though, is that if you bring in a bottle Cabernet, Rioja, Merlot, Zinfandel or Shiraz, they will make it into sangria using their special house recipe. And it is YUMMY! (We brought Shiraz for ours.)

Unfortunately, from a culinary perspective, that was the best part of the meal (aside from the bread, maybe–piping hot and soft!) Otherwise, I’d say the food was okay at best. I’ll be honest, though, I was quite jealous, because while I didn’t enjoy my food much, everyone around me seemed to love theirs. I even sampled a bit of Kevin’s Duck Breast over Papardelle with a rosemary Merlot sauce, and it was superior to mine.

To start, my friend and I split fried calamari. Now, I will preface this with the fact that I am very, very picky about fried calamari. I only recently even started eating it, and I only like it when it is cooked perfectly. Any rubberiness and I’m out. That being said, I found Monticello’s calamari to be tough to chew and a bit rubbery, though the breading and sauce were tasty. (I finished chewing off the breading before I finished the calamari itself though, which was sort of a weird sensation.) My friend, on the other hand, loved it. So, maybe I’m just picky. (Not maybe, I am picky.)

I still had faith in my entrée, though. I was in a simple mood and went for a very basic dish: gnocchi with pesto. I love both of these things, especially a good, bright, herbal pesto.  This pesto wasn’t that. It was creamy (what?) and very garlicky, but had almost none of the fresh bright crispness that I love from pesto. It felt heavy and hot, not cool and light like a pesto should, especially over something as dense as gnocchi. The gnocchi themselves weren’t great, either, and started to feel to mushy as I ate. I couldn’t finish the dish despite the fact that I was still hungry. Not at all what I was expecting.

However, the evening for me (thankfully) was not about the food, but the company. Good friends, good wine and good conversation can make up for even the worst of meals. (Still, a good meal certainly ups the ante!)

I would give Monticello’s another chance, as long as I stay far away from their pesto sauce and fried calamari. Everyone around me raved about their dishes, and they all had larger, heartier entrées. Maybe that’s the secret to Monticello’s–the Chicken Saltimboca over the pasta with sauce. I’d give it another shot, but I’d go in skeptical.

No time for pictures of food, but always time for pictures of friends--our group at Monticello's

 

The Restaurant Week Chronicles, Part 1: Trinity and the Pope

It’s the most wonderful time of year! No, not Christmas–Jersey Shore Restaurant Week!

Seventy restaurants in the shore area are participating this season, offering prix fixe, three-course dinner menus for $20.12 or $30.12.  Needless to say, choosing which one (or ones) to try is a daunting task–I wish it was Restaurant Month!  But, for our first outing, Kevin and I settled on Trinity and the Pope in my favorite town, Asbury Park.

Trinity and the Pope participated in the last Restaurant Week and was high on our list, but we never made it in for dinner. That wasn’t happening again. It’s cuisine is unique to the area–Cajun/creole/New Orleans-inspired. I have very little experience with Cajun cuisine, and though I may have “played it safe” (I don’t like very spicy food), I still found it delicious!

Trinity and the Pope menu

Trinity and the Pope Restaurant Week menu

From the restaurant’s web site:

Trinity and the Pope refers to the common ingredients between the different cuisines of Louisiana: Creole, Cajun and the Nouvelle New Orleans Cuisines.

Trinity is the bell peppers, onions and celery. The Pope is garlic.

And oh yeah, they make quite the tasty combination.  But enough frivolous chatter–I know we all want to get to the food!

To start, I ordered the Wild Mushroom Short Rib Raviolis. Sounds like no big deal, right? It isn’t, until you know my secret: I hate mushrooms. I like the flavor they impart in sauces, but I can’t stand the texture. So typically, I instantly dismiss any menu item with the word “mushroom” prominently displayed in the name, but this one spoke to me. And I’m so glad I listened. I’m not going to lie, there was a big pile of chopped mushrooms left on the plate when I finished, but not all of them. Folks–I ate mushrooms! (And I didn’t hate them!)

As a matter of fact, I loved this appetizer. The raviolis were dressed in a wild mushroom brandy cream sauce that was just so rich and luscious and inviting. The raviolis themselves were filled with yummy, tender pulled short rib. There were only three raviolis in a serving, which made a perfect appetizer portion between the heavier meat and the rich sauce.  But I easily would double (or triple) the order for an entrée.

Wild Mushroom Short Rib Raviolis

Wild Mushroom Short Rib Raviolis

Kevin ordered a little more within his comfort zone–Carolina BBQ Pulled Pork Sliders. (Though let me tell you, I was *this close* to ordering those myself, too.)  I was only allowed one bite (boo!) but it was enough to catch the tanginess of the barbecue sauce with the zest of the chipotle cole slaw. Yum! It was like a sophisticated barbecue.  You know, the knife-and-fork and glassware kind. (No red Solo cups here.)

Carolina BBQ Pulled Pork Sliders

Carolina BBQ Pulled Pork Sliders

We also got a little crazy and did the unthinkable–we ordered something that wasn’t on the Restaurant Week menu. (I know! Crazy!) We wanted a real taste of New Orleans cuisine, so we ordered a side of hush puppies to jazz up our meal. Hush puppies are essentially fried cornbread studded with vegetables–in this case, corn and peppers. Basically, it’s a whole bunch of goodness wrapped up in more goodness and then deep-fried. Oh, and then they top it with their zesty remoulade sauce and I’m left wondering where creole-New Orleans cuisine has been all my life.

Hush puppies

Hush puppies

I went much more classical French for my entrée, though I’m fairly unfamiliar with French cuisine. However, this dish has convinced me that I should start delving my way into French food. I ordered Chicken Thigh Coq au Vin. “Coq au Vin” is French for “rooster with wine” and is a French method of braising chicken with wine, lardons, mushrooms (more of those pesky mushrooms!) and garlic. Typically coq au vin is made with Burgundy wine, but Trinity and the Pope’s version uses Pinot Noir.

The braising creates a rich, bold flavor that makes you forget you’re even eating chicken–both Kevin and my mother, when she tasted my leftovers asked, “This is chicken?” It takes on a much heartier, more robust flavor, almost like pork or even red meat. Braising the meat also keeps it super succulent and juicy–more so than most other chicken I’ve eaten in my life.  I could gush about this chicken all day, but I won’t, because it was served with a creamy, slightly spicy herb risotto and grilled asparagus. I love risotto, and this one was not exception.  I recently saw a recipe for risotto online and it seemed easier and much less intimidating than I originally thought–maybe one of these day I’ll try to make it at home.

Chicken Thigh Coq au Vin with Herb Risotto and Grilled Asparagus

Chicken Thigh Coq au Vin with Herb Risotto and Grilled Asparagus

Kevin had his sights set on their steak dish from the moment we saw the menu–a barbecue balsamic basil-marinated hanger steak topped with crispy shallot truffle compound butter. Again, I was lucky to get even a little taste, but that butter packed some serious flavor! I’m not a huge steak eater, but Kevin cleared his plate. The steak was served over whole-grain mustard smashed Yukon Gold potatoes with broccolini. Despite the mustard in the potatoes, they were strangely sweet. I’m a huge broccolini fan, though, and so is Kevin, so that was a welcome surprise on the plate. (It was supposed to come with grilled asparagus as well, but this opened us up to some veggie-swapping.)

Marinated Hanger Steak with Mustard-smashed potatoes, broccolini and crispy shallot truffle compund butter

Marinated Hanger Steak with Mustard-smashed potatoes, broccolini and crispy shallot truffle compound butter

Like I said, Kevin cleared his plate, but I took a good meal and half’s worth of my entrée home. Mainly because I wanted to save room for dessert–for me, bourbon bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. For Kevin, a chocolate-chip blondie with pistachio ice cream.  The bread pudding was gooey, if not borderline mushy, with a hint of that bourbon kick.  I was so full after the rich meal that I couldn’t finish it off, but the vanilla ice cream was cool light after the heavy meal. The blondie really tasted like a chewy, thick, supersized chocolate-chip cookie. I don’t care for pistachio ice cream, though (or pistachios, for that matter, even though the ice cream tastes nothing like the nut.)

Bourbon Bread Pudding

Bourbon Bread Pudding

Chocolate Chip Blondie

Chocolate Chip Blondie

 

 

Of course, we had to wash it all down. Kevin went all-out for the New Orleans feeling with a Hurricane–fruity, rummy and everything a Hurricane should be.  I broke from the ordinary and ordered the Ginger Lemonade, a cocktail of Citron vodka, fresh lemon, fresh ginger puree and Angostura bitters. I love ginger, especially with lemon, so I was actually wishing for more lemon in this drink.  It was certainly ginger–at times, almost too much so.  Though, even after that big meal, my stomach felt good, so I guess the ginger did some good after all!

Trinity and the Pope was a great kick-off to restaurant week, and I can’t wait to go back to sample some of their regular menu.  They also offer happy hours, live music and other fun things during the week.  In addition to great food and hopefully great entertainment, Trinity and the Pope is housed in an old bank building from 1919 in the heart of downtown Asbury. The brightly colored Mardi-Gras inspired decor juxtaposed with the early 20th century woodwork creates a fun, inviting and unique atmosphere. Really, Trinity and the Pope is just a place you want to be.

Trinity and the Pope is owned by chef and restauranteur Marilyn Schlossbach, who, through her company Kitschens, also owns several other Asbury Park restaurants: Langosta Lounge, Dauphin Grille and Pop’s Garage. She also owns Labrador Lounge in Normandy Beach and Kitschens Catering.

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.

Sometimes life gets in the way

Whoa. I’ll be honest, I knew it had been a while since I’d posted something, I did. but I didn’t realize it had been quite this long–two and a half weeks is quite a gap.

I’d like to explain. You see, I’m coming to the end of what may be the busiest month of my life. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m involved in theater and am currently in production for a cabaret-style show going up TOMORROW NIGHT! (Yikes!) Needless to say, that has encompassed an exorbitant amount of my time lately. One of my best friends from college also got married last weekend, and so wedding preparations and travel also added to my load. The last few weeks have been meticulously organized, with every minute of my days after I leave the office planned out.

Unfortunately, this kind of overload does not leave much time for culinary explorations, or even food shopping for that manner. So, I have been largely subsiding on frozen meals, take out and the occasional vegetarian treat from the cafe down the street from my office. The quantity, overall, as well, has often been minimal.

This feels like a dirty, dark confession from a self-proclaimed foodie and food blogger, but nonetheless, it is life. Sometimes we’ve all been just too swamped to sit down and prepare a delicious healthy meal or savor a wonderfully prepared dinner from our favorite restaurant.

I’ve been trying to get better about making something out of nothing–that is, looking in the fridge and pantry and trying to assemble a meal from what’s there, but it’s been pretty scant–perhaps I just lack the creativity and inspiration to create a fantastic meal out of deli ham, greek yogurt and plums. (Seriously, though, if anyone has suggestions I’d love to hear them! Let’s get creative, folks!)

Now that the weather’s warming up (though that’s a relative statement–it’s been an unseasonably warm winter) I’m getting inspired to expand my culinary repertoire.  I don’t know the first thing about gardening, but I want to grow fresh herbs. And I want to have picnics by the water. And I really can’t wait to bust out the grill again.

But right now I’m just trying to get through opening and closing night, so if that means subsiding on pizza, Kind bars and alcohol for the rest of the weekend, so be it. We all deserve it sometimes, after all.

But this situation has inspired me–what is your biggest gastronomical “sin?” I’ve actually had a double-whammy this month (whoa baby, I’m gonna be in trouble for this one):

  • First, the wedding prep. I borrowed a gorgeous dress from my younger sister for my friend’s wedding. But my sister is skinnier and narrower than me, so the dress just fit. Therefore, I was determined to drop a couple of pounds by the wedding so I could actually have some wiggle room in the dress. (Because, come on, I wanted to EAT! Is there any doubt about that one?) So the last two weeks were focused on a high-water, low-sodium diet culminating in a week where I ate a LOT of celery, yogurt and peanut butter and drank a ton of peppermint tea. Result? The dress fit with room to spare and I admittedly (and probably expectedly) gorged myself at the wedding. (Cocktail hour was mostly great with a few misses, same with the Viennese dessert table. The actual dinner? Barely touched it, didn’t even need it.) Fun note: By the end of the night, I indirectly got the entire bridal party drinking French martinis–and I wasn’t even in the bridal party! Such a trendsetter I am.
  • The second one’s no secret–the aftermath of the wedding diet resulted in me laxing up even a little more than usual on what I eat. I tend to try to stay pretty healthy with obvious and acceptable exceptions here and there. This week wasn’t awful, but more exceptions than I usually make. Plus, living off of frozen and drive-through food isn’t the healthiest, no matter which way you slice it (and definitely the antithesis to my low-sodium kick of the past weeks.)

However, we all do it, and we all recover. When life gives you lemons, sometimes you have no choice but to make really sweet, terrible-for-you lemonade. And you know what? You enjoy it.

**So tell me–what’s your biggest gastronomic offense? Trust me, I’m in no position to judge!**

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.

Today is National Bagel and Lox Day! The Jewish girl that I am (from the New York area, nonetheless), I am loving this food holiday! I think I know what I will have to stop for on the way home today. Happy National Bagel and Lox Day! And thank you to Foodimentary for bringing this holiday to my attention.

Foodimentary - National Food Holidays

Celebrating February 9

Daily Five Food Finds: Bagels

1. The word Bagel is often thought to have derived from the ‘buckle‘ shape it has, but actually it is from a Yiddish word ‘beygl‘ meaning ring or hole.

2. Bagels are one of the few breads that are boiled then baked. creating the sought inside while retaining a crisp exterior.

3. Over a Billion dollars a year are spent on bagels in the US alone.

4. The top selling bagels are Plain(#1), Whole Wheat(#2) and Sesame Seed(#3)

5. Originally bagels were baked and sold by street vendors. They would have been carried around on a long string draped over the sellers’ shoulders. (Link to drawing)

What’s a lox? Lox is thinly sliced smoked salmon

Bagel & Lox are typically bagels with cream cheese, onions,  and smoked salmon. Other variations often include  tomatoes, cucumbers, capers, and/or scrambled eggs

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