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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.

Semi-homemade Superbowl

I know this is a few days late (the Superbowl was Sunday, after all), but I had to come right off the fun and pull a double, so here it is now.

This past Sunday, I threw a small Superbowl party for a few of my friends and family. It was a lot of fun, but to spare my sanity I took a semi-homemade approach to the party.Cover of "Bobby Flay's Grill It!"

To start, the menu:

Chipotle-honey glazed chicken wings (courtesy of Bobby Flay’s Grill It!. Recipe to follow.)
Plain baked chicken wings with three sauces: barbecue, sweet Thai chile, chipotle-honey
Homemade pizza
Giants blue margaritas
Snacks and appetizers: veggies and dip; chips, pretzels, salsa; mixed cookies

The first “homemade” part of the night was the chipotle chicken wings. It’s a recipe from Bobby Flay’s Grill It! cookbook that I’ve made before and really, really enjoyed. The original recipe calls for grilled wings, but since it’s February in New Jersey, I baked the wings instead. They were still delicious.

For anyone that doesn’t know, a chipotle pepper is a smoked jalapeño. It’s a bit spicy and quite smoky. You can find them canned in the grocery store in adobo sauce. The recipe calls for pureed chipotles–I used my bullet blender to puree them quickly and with minimal mess. It took about 30 seconds. It also calls for ancho chile powder. An ancho chile is a dried poblano and also takes on a bit of a smoky quality, but it, too is on the milder side of the chile spectrum.

Image courtesy of Clarkson/Potter Publishers and Bobby Flay's "Grill It!"

Courtesy of Clarkson/Potter Publishers and Bobby Flay's "Grill It!"

The recipe also includes a step for trimming and dividing the wings, but I didn’t need to take that step. I used a combination of frozen wings and packaged fresh, divided wings. Both were from Perdue and had no added hormones or chemicals, and both saved me a lot of time!

Chipotle-honey glazed chicken wings with toasted sesame seeds and green onion

1 cup honey
3 tablespoons pureed canned chipotle chiles in adobo
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons ancho chile powder
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil (The recipe called for canola, I used vegetable because I had it on hand)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons Spanish paprika
3 pounds chicken wings
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted (see below)*
Green onions, thinly sliced

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Whisk together the honey, chipotle puree, mustard, 1 tablespoon of the ancho chile powder, 1 teaspoon of salt and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a small bowl. Divide the glaze evenly between two bowls–a small one for brushing the glaze and a large one for tossing the wings later.
3. Stir together the remaining 3 tablespoons of ancho chile powder with the coriander, cumin and paprika in a small bowl.
4. Rinse the chicken wings under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the tips off the wings if necessary and discard (or freeze and use for chicken stock.) Cut each wing into two pieces through the joint, if necessary.
5. Place wings in a large bowl, add the spice rub and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and place wings on a baking sheet in an even layer. Bake at 400 degrees for 10-11 minutes until golden brown. Turn wings over and brush with the small bowl of glaze. Place wings back in oven for 15-20 minutes, brushing with the glaze every few minutes and turning once during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
6. Remove wings from the oven, toss with the remaining glaze and place back on the baking sheet. Turn the oven to broil and broil the wings until glaze caramelizes and the skin is crispy.
7. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and sliced green onions.

*To toast sesame seeds: put a single layer of seeds in a frying or saute pan and toast over medium-low heat, shaking the pan every couple of minutes to prevent burning, until lightly golden brown and fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool completely.

Make ahead: Follow the recipe up through Step 5, then put wings aside or refrigerate. Before serving, reheat wings in the oven at 375 degrees, then broil.

These wings were a hit and cleared off the plate completely. But, I have friends who are somewhat picky eaters, so to accommodate everyone’s taste, I also made plain baked wings (just salt and pepper) with three dipping sauces. I bought bottled barbecue sauce (Jack Daniel’s Master Blend). I put out the remainder of the chipotle-honey sauce, and I whipped together a Thai chile sauce. I used the leftover sweet chile sauce from the last post’s Thai lettuce wraps and added some store-bought sweet chile sauce to fortify it and make it a bit thicker. (Mine was more like a vinaigrette; the added bottled sauce was thicker and more gelatinous, so together they made a good dipping sauce.)

My boyfriend Kevin also made his “famous” pizza, which is a semi-homemade masterpiece. It uses store-bought or pizza shop dough (you can walk into pretty much any pizzeria and ask for their dough. They’ll usually sell it to you for just a few dollars, and if you know it’s a good pizza place, you know you’re getting good dough.), jarred tomato sauce and a store-bought shredded mozzarella mix. Of course, you could certainly make the dough and sauce from scratch and shred your own cheese, but this way is quick and still yummy.

Kevin’s “famous” semi-homemade pizza

1 package store-bought pizza dough or pizzeria dough (I like the stuff in the refrigerated section that comes in the bag, not the frozen or canned ones)
1 jar tomato sauce (this time, we used Ragu 7-herb tomato sauce–the more flavor, the better)
1-2 packages pizza cheese blend (I prefer 4 or more–this one had mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan and Romano)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pat out pizza dough as per instructions on the package and stretch onto a baking sheet. Bake for 2 minutes to par-bake the crust. Remove from oven, spread with sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Add any spice you desire (oregano, garlic, basil, rosemary, Italian spice blend, etc.) Add any toppings you would like, as well (pepperoni, mushrooms, sausage, peppers, the list goes on.) Bake pizza at 375 degrees for 12 to 18 minutes or until you start to smell the spices. Remove from oven and let cool at least five minutes before cutting into slices.

In addition to some store-bought snacks and desserts and plenty of beer, I made one signature cocktail for the game–Giants blue margaritas. (I’m from New Jersey; it’s no secret who we were rooting for.) The blue color can be off-putting, but this recipe uses no food coloring, just orange-flavored blue liquor in place of the usual orange-flavored triple sec, so the taste is very similar. When I usually make margaritas I use pineapple juice as a sweetener, but the yellow juice would have turned the color green, so I had to come up with a clear alternative in the form of lemon-lime soda. It also added a bit of fun effervescence.

Giants blue margaritas

2 parts gold tequila (Jose Cuervo is my go-to)
1 part Blue Curacao
1 part fresh lime juice
1 part lemon-lime soda
1/2 part Rose’s lime juice
Agave syrup to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a pitcher or shake together in a glass and add agave syrup to sweeten to taste. For a large group, my one part was 1 cup. For individual margaritas, one part can equal one or two ounces. In that case, the recipe would call for 2 ounces of tequila, 1 ounce of Blue Curacao, 1 ounce of fresh lime juice, 1 ounce of lemon-lime soda, 1/2 an ounce of Rose’s lime juice and agave to taste.

If you want to make the same margarita but you don’t want it to be blue, simply substitute triple sec for the Blue Curacao.

This was adapted from my usual margarita recipe, which are pineapple-cilantro margaritas, inspired by the flavor profile of pineapple salsa:

Pineapple-cilantro margaritas

2 parts gold tequila
1 part triple sec
1 part fresh lime juice
1 part pineapple juice
Agave syrup to taste
Fresh cilantro

Muddle some fresh cilantro at the bottom of a glass. Mix all other ingredients together in a pitcher or in the glass and pour over the cilantro. (Note: do not add the cilantro directly to the pitcher; add cilantro to each glass individually. As the margaritas sit, the cilantro flavor intensifies, so if you leave the fresh cilantro in the pitcher, it will eventually become over-infused with the cilantro flavor.)

Like I said, this was inspired by the flavor profile of cilantro salsa. I’m not a fan of spicy drinks, though, so I do not add any jalapeños to my margaritas. If you like the heat, though, you can definitely shake a few jalapeño slices into the cocktail for the full pineapple salsa effect.

If you like salt with your margarita, salt glasses as follows: on a small plate or saucer, pour a bit of Rose’s or fresh lime juice, enough to just cover the bottom of the plate. You can also run a small slice of fresh lime along the rim to dampen it. Cover the bottom of another small plate with Kosher salt. Dip the rim of the glass in the lime juice, then in the salt to cover the rim. Pour in your margarita and enjoy!

All in all, the semi-homemade approach to the Superbowl was a success both with my guests and with me. By the time everyone arrived, we had delicious food for them and I was able to fully enjoy myself since everything was done. Made from scratch can be great, but when it comes to entertaining, sometimes it’s more important to have the time to enjoy yourself. The best part is, these recipes are great any day of the week, not just for the Superbowl. Enjoy! (And by the way, congratulations New York Giants!)

Thai-Style Lettuce Wraps: It all started with a jar of peanut butter

A jar of spicy peanut butter, to be exact. My mom bought Kevin a jar of Peanut Butter & Co. “The Heat is On” peanut butter as a stocking stuffer this holiday season, and ever since, I’ve been dying to make some kind of Thai-style peanut butter sauce with it.

Peanut Butter & Co. "The Heat is On" spicy peanut butterBetween the two of us (Kevin and I), we decided to make Thai-style lettuce wraps inspired by the ones at the Cheesecake Factory. (Side note: yes, I know it’s a chain, yes I know most of its menu is terrible for you. Nonetheless, those lettuce wraps are awesome. And Kevin’s favorite.) I found various recipes online for all the components, and made some changes along the way. Inevitably, with that many parts, there were some successes–and some failures. (See: peanut sauce. More on that later.)

As I said, there were several components to this recipe. So, to start, here’s the breakdown:

Boston or bibb lettuce leaves (for the wraps)
Thai-marinated grilled chicken
Spicy peanut sauce
Thai sweet chili sauce
Coconut curry noodles
Marinated cucumbers

Extras:
Chopped green onions
Cilantro
Rainbow salad

For many of these, I used recipes based on the actual lettuce wraps served at the restaurant. The rest I found on other Web sites, and some I tweaked.

First things first, make the marinade for the chicken and let the it sit while you prepare other components.

Thai-marinated grilled chicken

1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts (I used about 1.1 lbs)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cloves garlic, minced (or pressed)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons water
Pour all ingredients (except chicken) into a large shallow dish or large plastic zip-top bag. (I used the bag method.) Add chicken and stir or toss to coat. Set in fridge to marinate for at least 30 minutes.Marinating chickem
To cook, remove chicken from marinade and place on either a grill, grill pan or indoor grill (I used a George Foreman grill.) If you don’t have access to a grill, go ahead and cook in a pan. During cooking, brush or baste with extra marinade. If using a traditional grill or pan, turn chicken halfway through cooking (just a few minutes on each side, depending on thickness of chicken.) If using a George Foreman or some other kind of press, leave in to cook for about 5 minutes, or until completely white inside.
Remove from cooktop and let rest for a few minutes before cutting into small strips.
Cooked chicken
While the chicken marinates, go   ahead and start making the other components of the dish. I made the marinated  cucumbers next so they could sit in the fridge for some time, as well. (Note: This recipe came from the blog “Meemo’s Kitchen” and I followed it exactly as is. And they were delicious! The marinade would actually make a great salad dressing on its own.)
Marinated cucumbers
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon course ground black pepper
1 large cucumber seeded
In a small pan, combine vinegar, sugar, water and salt; cook over medium heat, stirring, until liquid boils and sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Peel or score cucumber, if desired and cut lengthwise into quarters; then cut quarters crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Place in a serving bowl, pour marinade over cucumbers; stir to blend. If made ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.

Cucumber marinade/dressing

Now the chicken and the cucumbers are marinating and its time to move on to the sauces and the noodles. First, the spicy peanut sauce:
I adapted this recipe from two recipes that I combined, and I added the spicy peanut butter in addition to the regular to give it more of a kick. I actually had to make this sauce twice, though, as the first attempt was an utter disaster. (Yes, I see the irony there.) When I first followed the recipe as it read, the sauce became thick and caramel-like and I had to add water and vinegar as it cooked to bring it to a sauce-like consistency. Then the sauce separated and took on a very unpleasant texture, and it was too spicy for my taste. (Originally I used half spicy peanut butter and half regular. If you like heat, you can still try that ratio, but for me it was too much.)
The second time around with the new adapted recipe worked much better, though the sauce still thickened more than I would have liked as it sat and was not nearly as smooth as I expected. By the time we ate, it had only a slightly thinner consistency than regular peanut butter. It tasted great, but we had to spread it on the lettuce rather than drizzle it over. So, this is the adapted recipe I used, but I’m still searching for a better recipe for a smoother, thinner peanut sauce. (If anyone knows of one, please pass it along!) In the meantime, I’ll have to use trial-and-error.

Failed peanut sauce--Take 1

Spicy peanut sauce
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
3/4 tablespoon spicy peanut butter (or 1 full tablespoon to up the spice)
3 1/4 tablespoons regular peanut butter (or 3 to 1)
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over low to medium heat. Continue stirring over heat until mixture is combined and smooth and thoroughly heated through. Remove from heat and transfer to serving bowl.
Of course, if you want this recipe less spicy or don’t have spicy peanut butter on hand (because, really, I know it’s not common to), use 4 tablespoons (or 1/4 cup) regular peanut butter and add spices if desired. Try chili powder or chili oil, garlic, cayenne, paprika, crushed red pepper flakes and/or ginger.

Peanut sauce Take 2--Success!

The second sauce, the sweet chili sauce, was also a tweaked recipe. I couldn’t find any red hot chiles in the produce aisle of my supermarket or any plain red chili paste. So we bought one Serrano chili and one green long hot. Most recipes also call for cornstarch as a thickener to create a more gelatinous texture, but we didn’t use it and created a more vinaigrette-style sauce. We grated down the chiles to create something almost paste-like and so there were no large pieces of chili since the original recipe I worked from called for chili paste.
Thai sweet chili sauce
1 fresh Serrano chili, grated
1 fresh long hot pepper, grated
2 teaspoons minced (or pressed) garlic
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Combine everything except cilantro in a small sauce pan and mix. Once blended, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool and stir in cilantro. Sweet chili sauce
If you want the thickened sauce, add 4 teaspoons of cornstarch to the recipe with everything else in the saucepan. As it cooks down, the cornstarch will thicken the sauce to create more of a dipping sauce than a dressing.
Finally, the last component of the dish is the coconut curry noodles. Again, I adapted this recipe by paring it way down, but it still came out tasty. I made mine with only part of the noodles in the package, but I ended up with way more sauce than noodles and they were a bit over-saturated, so I recommend using the entire package to create a more even noodle-to-sauce ratio.
Coconut curry noodles
1 package flat rice or egg noodles (I used rice noodles)
1 tablespoon minced (or pressed) garlic
1 cup coconut milk + extra for topping
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock (I used vegetable)
1/2 tablespoon to 1 tablespoon curry powder (based on taste)
1/2 tablespoon to 1 tablespoon soy sauce (again based on taste)
1 tablespoon lime juice
Coconut curry noodles
Separate noodles in hot water, as per instructions on the packet. Drain & keep warm. In a medium saucepan, heat the coconut milk on low heat. When it begins to simmer, add in the remaining ingredients. Heat and stir approximately 2 minutes to heat through. Stir in the noodles, drain any excess sauce and serve. If desired, toss with more coconut milk before serving. (I felt it needed more coconut flavor, so I added some more coconut milk and it helped.)
To serve the lettuce wraps, tear full leaves off of a head of Boston lettuce for the wraps and fill with the ingredients however you’d like. Add some bagged rainbow salad (carrot, broccoli, cabbage) or any other vegetables you’d like–bean sprouts, grated carrots and shredded cabbage would work well. Chop plenty of green onions and fresh cilantro for topping.
All in all, it took about two hours from start to finish, including remaking the peanut sauce. It was a lot of work, but so worth it in the end. All of the components of the dish work wonderfully together, and I really believe that is the point. Some of the parts tasted only okay on their own (I kept trying to figure out what the noodles were missing, and the sauces were pretty spicy) but when put together, magic. Crunchy, fresh, spicy, sweet and exotic.

It took all this...

It was a lot of work and time, and I can still see the appeal of going out for Thai food, but it was definitely an experience, and when you consider the amount of leftovers I have (at least one or two more meals’ worth), the time involved doesn’t seem so bad. Also, some of the individual components can make good meals on their own–the marinated chicken would be delicious with just some veggies and rice; the cucumber marinade would make a great dressing. So go ahead and try making some Thai-style food at home. It’s refreshing, delicious and fun!

...to get this. The finished product. Yum!

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