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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 17: Red cabbage, onion and walnut tart

I want to preface this post by saying I mean absolutely no disrespect to Mimi from Manger, who’s cabbage, onion and walnut tart I cooked recently. And while it was undoubtedly one of the prettiest things I’ve ever cooked (it’s purple!), it was, well, unsatisfying. That being said, I don’t eat cooked cabbage, like, ever. I’m the person who orders pizza on St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t even like the way it smells. So I should have known that cooking a dish almost entirely composed of the stuff wouldn’t fare too well. Maybe it’s a French thing. I must just not be sophisticated enough to understand.

Cabbage, onion, walnut tart

Kevin ate a whole slice; I made it through a bite and called it a day–luckily we had already had a leftover pot pie. Possibly more balsamic would have made it better; Kevin suggested a balsamic reduction over the whole thing rather than just two tablespoons. I agree that that may have improved it and kind of covered up the cabbage taste.

All that being said, it’s not a bad recipe for cabbage-lovers. It’s just not a great recipe for non-cabbage fans. It’s one of the only two things I’ve made this month that I’ve ended up throwing out almost in its entirety. (See the pumpkin pie bread pudding) But while that was just poorly made (the squash didn’t cook enough, for one), this came out just fine (it was clearly cooked enough and correctly), I just wasn’t a fan. But Mimi’s recipe was good and very quick and easy, so it’s a great vegetarian weekday entrée or side dish.

Cabbage, onion, walnut tart slice

I served it with crème fraîche and parsley, like she suggested, which definitely complements it well. (What? Just cause I didn’t like it doesn’t mean I can’t tell what flavors do and don’t meld.)

*Side note: Mimi, if you’re reading, HOW did you get it to set up so well? As soon as I sliced this, the veggies fell out everywhere, but yours is so lovely and tidy. What’s your secret?

So, in short…fine recipe, not my taste, so didn’t care for it. But it sure looks nice! (Again, I’m a sucker for anything purple, especially food.)

31-recipe challenge Day 9: Gluten-free Eggplant Parmesan

This one’s for my mama.

“Gluten-free” anything often seems daunting to me, but this recipe (from Gluten-Free Girl, natch ) just makes so much sense. Fry the eggplant without breading it first. Duh. (Also makes for a healthier fried eggplant.) This is also vegetarian, though definitely not vegan. So. Much. Cheese. YES!

Eggplant parm 1

*Side note: There are a lot of vegetarian dishes on this list. I don’t hate it. Kevin even got excited about making one tonight. More on that later.*

This was my first deep-frying endeavor, and I only walked away with minor burn marks. Victory! My yoga clothes may have taken a bit more of a beating, though…luckily I was wearing my black hoodie. (Yes, I know, I have an apron, but what good are exercise clothes if they’re not able to take a little oil splatter?)

There’s an irony here: Sunday marked my return to yoga, as I took my first class in ages, courtesy of Groupon. Then I went home and deep-fried a perfectly innocent vegetable. Life’s all about balance, my friends. (How very yogi of me.)

Anyway, this recipe’s pretty great on its own, I just halved it, as per usual. Mainly because I rarely have 4-8 people to feed. This recipe probably would have been even better if 1) my knife skills were better (i.e., actually cutting the eggplant into 1-inch slices, not some 1-inch slices, some 1/2-inch slices and some choppy pieces because the whole slicing thing wasn’t working out so well) and 2) I baked it in a shallower dish. Because I halved the quantity, a 9×13 baking dish seemed way too large for my meager eggplant, so I stacked in all in a small but deep casserole dish instead. It was a little…mushy. One of the two aforementioned things is likely to blame.

Eggplant parm 2

Nonetheless, it tasted good. Fried eggplant, even on its own, is pretty tasty. It made a good cooking snack. (Maybe eggplant chips will be the new “it” thing! Hey, a girl can dream.) My mom gave it a passing grade and especially like the less-common addition of the sautéed peppers and onions for a little flavor and bite. And the cheese. All the cheese. That alone makes up for any perceived imperfections.

Oh, and again my apartment smelled terrific. I really hope I’m making my neighbors jealous.

I suck. Seriously. But I’ll try making it up with a hummus salad.

I suck.  I mean, I really, really, suck.  It’s been almost two weeks and I haven’t written, haven’t cooked, haven’t gone out to a great new restaurant. Rather, I’ve been taking way too long to adapt to a new (albeit, temporary) schedule, since I’ve decided to try my hand at theater again while still working and writing. It’s clearly not going so well. Most of my weekdays involve getting to work by 8, home between 5 and 5:30, then at rehearsal by 7. That leaves me a very small window to eat, change and run whatever necessary errands I have.

There has certainly been one change for the good. For the past 10 months, I’ve been a waitress. When I went back to work, I became a part-time waitress. But even that once-a-week shift typically took up my entire Saturday. Well, I’m no longer a waitress, so, thankfully, my metaphorical plate is a little less full now.

Why is this good news? (Besides the obvious salvaging of my sanity?) Because now I will have at least part, if not all, of my Saturdays free to cook, eat and blog! Because clearly, that needs to be a priority again.

Now that I have a bit more time on my hands, I can devote some more weekly prep time, so hopefully my meals don’t end up being Lean Cuisines, convenience store sandwiches and coffee shop breakfasts. (Seriously, health aside, it’s not good on the wallet. And I’m out a job here.)

All that being said, I’ll make it up to, at least a little bit, right here and now, with a banked “recipe” (if you can even call it that) that I’ve been putting off posting.

It’s such a quick lunch or dinner, a super-healthy salad with an unconventional dressing you’ve probably never thought of: hummus.

Say what?

No, really. This salad was actually inspired by a favorite sandwich of mine. Anyone who’s read this blog or follows me on Twitter or Facebook has heard me mention the Twisted Tree Cafe, a vegetarian/vegan eatery two doors down from my office. This place makes even a meat-eater like me want to go veg. And they have this sandwich that I am just a sucker for called, simply, the hummus sandwich.

It’s pretty much just what it sounds like. Roasted red pepper hummus topped with tons of fresh veggies–spring mix greens, tomato, alfalfa sprouts, onion and avocado all on their homemade bread. Let me tell you, that bread really makes it. That stuff is just the best.

The first time I had this sandwich it totally changed my way of thinking–I had never thought to use hummus as the base of a sandwich before. I’ve used it as a condiment and spread plenty of times, but to actually make it the star of the sandwich? Preposterous! Or so I thought. Crazy in theory, perhaps, but genius in execution.

So, to wrap up a long story, I was craving some of this hummus-y goodness at home one day, but I knew my silly store-bought bread wouldn’t live up, so I wasn’t really feeling a sandwich. But I figured I could get all the key components of this in a salad, and I just went grocery shopping, so I had tons of fresh veggies lying around.

My salad’s not identical to the sandwich, and your salad won’t be identical to mine–I used what I had, and it was delicious.

(On closer inspection of their menu, I see they also offer hummus over their big garden salad. See? Not so crazy after all!)

Hummus Salad

Romaine lettuce leaves, torn or chopped
Bibb lettuce leaves, torn or chopped
Cubed tomato, seeds scooped out
Chopped avocado
Chopped fresh green beans
Chopped celery
Arugula
Chopped flat-leaf parsley
Roasted red pepper hummus (if you make this yourself, awesome! If not, like me, use a store-bought one. I promise I won’t tell.)

Combine all the veggies together in a bowl (after rinsing and drying well, of course) and in place of salad dressing, top with a heaping tablespoon or two of hummus.

That’s it. Really. So fast, so healthy, so yummy! And the hummus offers a great burst of protein that you’ll never get from regular salad dressing. Of course, you don’t have to use roasted red pepper-flavored hummus either. You can use plain hummus, or any flavor you like. I’m thinking sundried tomato, garlic or spinach-artichoke would be fantastic too! (And yes, all of those flavors exist. I highly recommend the spinach-artichoke! Like a way healthier version of the dip! Yum!)

I hope this redeems me at least a little. Now that I have some more time on my hands (and a holiday coming up! Memorial Day!) hopefully I’ll have a slew of new things coming your way.

Cinco de Mayo-style Steak Fajita Bowls and Homemade Guacamole! (UPDATED)

I said I would post this recipe later in the week, and I wasn’t just holding out–I was waiting to make it perfectly opportune for Cinco de Mayo!  If you’re not doing a big Cinco party, that’s no problem; you can still have a fun, Mexican-themed dinner at home!

I’m talking about yummy (and healthy!) steak fajita bowls with homemade guacamole!  To put these bowls together, you’ll need to start with the following:

Steak Fajita Bowls

1-2 cups Rice (I used brown basmati rice, and it’s great stuff! I’m falling in love with bulk bins.) Use as much as you need for the number of people you have–for 2 people, about a cup of dry rice should be good.  You can also use instant rice.
1 sweet bell pepper (any color, but orange was the pick of the day)
Half a red onion
1-2 cloves fresh garlic
2 small skirt steaks
Steak marinade (Now, you can of course make your own marinade, but, in all honesty, I took a shortcut and used a bottled fajita marinade from Wegmans. I did get one with pretty few ingredients, though–the fewer, the better.)
Salsa (Also purchased this, but not jarred–I got a fresh medium-heat salsa from Wegman’s salsa bar)
Manchego cheese, shredded*
1-2 fresh limes
Jalapenos (optional) (I did not use, Kevin did)
Fresh cilantro (optional) I didn’t use any this time, which is a shock for anyone who knows me and my borderline-obsession with cilantro. I’d recommend it.
Homemade guacamole (recipe below)

*Manchego cheese is a firm Spanish sheep’s milk cheese. It’s nutty and one of my all-time favorites.  However, it can be expensive. So, if you want a similar flavor, you can pick up some fresh Pecorino or, for something different but still fitting, you can get any good Mexican-style cheese, like Monterey jack, cheddar or pepper jack if you like a kick.

First things first, get the steaks marinating. I like to out the steaks in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag with the marinade. Seal the bag and mix it around so the meat is evenly covered in the marinade. Place the bag in a dish or other container and put it in the fridge to marinate while you do everything else.

Next, get water boiling for the rice.  Start with a one-to-one ratio of water to rice–watch it as it cooks, you may have to add more water as it goes.

Meanwhile, slice the pepper and half the onion and mince the garlic. Set aside a bit of the onion (about a teaspoon or two) and dice. Once the water boils, add the diced onion and about a teaspoon or less of the garlic. Add the rice and let it cook approximately 30 minutes.  (This varies depending on the type of rice you use–if it has a package, follow package directions.)  Add juice of half a lime into rice and water as it cooks.

While the rice is cooking, prep your cook surface for the steak–I used my George Foreman since my outdoor grill’s not up and running yet. You can cook the steak however you’d like–grill, pan, oven, broil. Just make sure you get the cooktop (or oven) nice and preheated. If using a grill (indoor or out), preheat to about a medium heat.

Go ahead and prepare the guacamole ahead of time (recipe below).

**Make sure you’re checking on the rice! Once it’s cooked through, fluff with a fork and add more lime juice, stir it in. If using cilantro, chop and add a handful into the cooked rice and stir through.

Now it’s time to get that steak on the grill! Take the steak out of the bag, and place on the grill or cooktop. Grill the steak on medium heat for about 3-5 minutes per side (depending on the level of doneness you like.) If using a George Foreman, grill about 5-7 minutes total. Remove from heat and put steaks on a plate. Let it rest for at least 10 minutes. Once rested, slice steak into bite-sized strips.

Get a frying or sautee pan hot on the stove with a little bit of oil. Add the peppers, onions and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Sweat the vegetables in the oil until just tender-crisp. Add some lime juice and sautee with the vegetables. Once they’re tender-crisp, remove from heat.

Now, time to assemble! Start by putting a scoop or two of rice in a bowl. Top with veggies and steak, then add all the fixins’: salsa, guacamole and jalapenos. Shred Manchego cheese over the top and sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Delicioso! Now this is a fiesta!

Homemade Guacamole

I have a few secrets about my guacamole that I will share with you. First off, I use dried spices in my guac–dried garlic and dried onion. I find that the fresh, raw garlic and onion flavor is too strong and offputting in the guacamole and kind of overwhelms everything else. Using those ingredients dried still gives the flavor without being overbearing.

Instead of adding freshly diced tomatoes and other various seasonings, I add a tablespoon or two of prepared salsa (whichever I’m using in my dish.) This way, you get tomato, onion, cilantro jalapenos and whatever other flavors are in the salsa. Using a nice chunky, fresh salsa is best. Sometimes, when using jarred salsas, the flavor is there, but the salsa is very thick and red, and the two colors (red and green) mix to create a sometimes-offputting brownish hue.

Also, I use one spice that seems a little unexpected in a guacamole–just a pinch of lemon pepper. You don’t have to use it, but I love the flavor it adds.

Anyway, you’ll need:

1/2 a fresh avocado (a full avocado if making this for a crowd)
1-2 tbsp prepared salsa
Juice of 1/4 to 1/2 of a lime
Dried garlic
Dried onion powder or dried diced onion
Pinch of lemon pepper seasoning
1-2 tsp Chopped cilantro

To halve an avocado, take a large knife and cut along the middle of the avocado, along the outside. Avocados have a huge pit in the middle, so you have to cut around it. Twist the two halves to separate. Hit the knife into the pit with a bit of force and twist to remove. Scoop the avocado flesh out of the skin and mash with a fork. Add lime juice to soften and keep from oxidizing (turning brown.) Once mashed, add salsa and continue to mix/mash to get the desired consistency. Add spices and mix, tasting as you go. Add any salt and pepper and adjust spices if necessary. Mix in chopped cilantro, add a bit more lime juice and serve.

*To store leftover guacamole or avocado, sprinkle some diced red onion over the top, seal in a bowl with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. The onion helps prevent oxidation and keeps the avocado fresh and green! When you’re ready to serve again, either brush off the onion or mix it into your guac.*

This makes a fun, healthy and oh-so-tasty dinner any night of the week, but it’s especially fun for a Mexican-inspired Cinco de Mayo meal. If you’re really feeling the Cinco spirit, go check out my post on fun margaritas to pair with your meal. Or just pair it with a citrusy, summery beer like I did!

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Ingredients game: Guess that recipe

OK, let’s play a game. Based on the photo below, can you guess what I’m making?

Red onion, tomato, minced garlic, basil

*****************************************************************************************************ANSWER BELOW*****************************************************************************

If you guessed bruschetta, good work!  You win…the knowledge and satisfaction that you know what those four simple ingredients can make!  Sunday night was bruschetta night in my house, since it was simple, quick, tasty and nutritious.  The longest part of this recipe is all the prep–chopping onion, garlic, basil and tomatoes. (Hint: a garlic press really helps cut down on time. Seriously, I’ll never stop espousing the virtues of the garlic press.)  Anyway, once all the prep work’s done, it really takes only a minute or two to put everything together.

Bruschetta

2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded
1 ring chopped red onion (this is a very strong flavor, so feel free to use less–honestly, if it was up to me I would’ve used very little, but Kevin had some say in this too, and he loves red onion)
1-2 teaspoons minced garlic (again, a personal palate thing–I used closer to 2 teaspoons but regretted it later; it ended up being a very strong garlic flavor and overwhelming aftertaste)
Handful chopped fresh basil
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper

Chop tomatoes, onions and basil and transfer into a medium mixing bowl. Mince or press garlic and add to the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and add a generous drizzle of olive oil. Mix to incorporate all the ingredients well. Serve with crostinis. (See below)

If you choose to serve the bruschetta as a traditional appetizer with crostinis, then you need some nice toasty bread.  We bought some pre-sliced saloio bread from the supermarket (this was about speed and convenience–and of course, flavor), which has a nice crusty, Italian bread flavor mixed with a sourdough. Any crusty white bread, thinly sliced, will do. To make the crostinis, arrange a single layer of bread slices on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil. Place under the broiler for one to two minutes on each side or just until golden brown and crispy.

Before broiling: arrange on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil

After broiling, golden brown. Make sure you flip and broil both sides

Pile the bruschetta on the hot, crispy crostini and enjoy! Drizzle with a little more olive oil, if desired.

The finished product--yum! But a bit spicy. (Go easy on the garlic and onion if you're spice-sensitive like me)

UPDATE:  We had leftover bruschetta after dinner, so I mixed it into some brown rice and quinoa and added some chopped rotisserie chicken–instant delicious, healthy lunch for work! (Sometimes I wish I could do a whole post on leftovers!)

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