Sunday, November 17, 2013

Food and Wine Tips for Thanksgiving

I, like most Americans, have food traditions for Thanksgiving. I always make my family's traditional sausage-and-onion stuffing (technically "dressing" since we never stuff the bird with it, but we've always called it "stuffing"). I don't think the recipe for this stuffing was ever written down--it's been handed down from my father's mother. Thanksgiving isn't Thanksgiving without it, and woe to the host/ess of a family Thanksgiving celebration who makes it badly or [gasp!] attempts a different stuffing recipe.

I know all of the ingredients by heart, but can't give you the exact portions of each because I've never measured things like the amount of sage, chopped onion, etc. It's always been a matter of eyeballing it according to the amount of stuffing I need to make for the meal that year. So I think I shall try to document the recipe when I make stuffing this year, will share it in the future.

Today I shall share another recipe that I use to prepare our turkey. It's not actually my recipe, though.

My husband and I lived for a few years in Sonora, California. Sonora is north of Yosemite, in the Sierra Foothills. It is also the home of the Diestel Family Turkey Ranch. There is something incredibly satisfying about being able to pick up your Thanksgiving turkey directly from the ranch, especially when we're talking about free-range, organically raised turkeys. They are, by far, the best turkeys we've ever had.

To this day, if we can get our hands on a Diestel turkey for Thanksgiving, we get it. Luckily, Whole Foods Market carries Diestel turkey in Texas, so we drive down to the one in Plano to get one. If you want to see if there is a supplier near you, Diestel provides a finder.

The first time we picked up a turkey from the Diestel ranch, I also picked up one of their pamphlets that provided recommendations for cooking. Included on it was this recipe. Even when I haven't been able to get a Diestel turkey for Thanksgiving, I've used their recipe because it gives me a perfect turkey and perfect gravy, every time. Note that in their recipe for "Old Fashioned Turkey Gravy", they give an "optional" step of pouring a cup of hot white wine over the turkey half way through the roasting process. They really should include this as a mandatory step in the roasting process itself, because it is critical to the gravy. If you follow their instructions, including the wine, all you end up having to do at the end is separate the fat from the rest of the juices in the pan, then thicken it with a flour paste, and you have a wonderful gravy that needs absolutely nothing else added it.

Every good Thanksgiving dinner needs a good wine to go with it. Although you might think you need white wine to go with your white turkey meat, I beg to differ. We've found the best pairing with our Thanksgiving turkey is an Oregon Pinot Noir. If you pick up a Diestel turkey and want to keep with the organic, sustainable farming theme, I recommend a Pinot Noir from Sokol-Blosser.

Have a happy Turkey Day!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Frogg for Brunch

My husband and I are discovering Watters Creek in Allen. Our initial motivation to go there, a couple weeks ago, was to visit the Eddie Bauer store there in search of a jacket that I saw online, but didn't want to order until I tried it on. (Eddie Bauer has closed the stores that used to be in the Stonebriar and Willow Bend malls, so now the nearest is in Watters Creek.)

We got there early on a Sunday, after breakfast but before the shops opened, so we spent some time walking around the area and scoping out the offerings. It's a development similar to The Shops at Legacy, with shops at street level and apartments up above, except with significantly better parking (i.e. more spaces in both outside parking and in parking structures, and the ramps in the parking structures aren't so steep that they endanger the noses of sports cars). On a nice Fall day, it is a great place to visit, walk around, and hang out in the open-air seating available in restaurant patios or the benches along the trails.

On our first visit, we stopped at Frogg Coffee Bar & Creperie and picked up some mochas to take on our walk. In addition to coffee and espresso drinks and a selection of breakfast breads and pastries, they also offer (as their name indicates) a selection of sweet and savory crepes. We didn't partake of any food on that visit, but we scanned their menu and filed away the information for later.

Fast-forward to today, when we decided to go someplace other than our usual haunt for Saturday breakfast. Although it is a bit of a trek from our home, we decided to try Frogg.

Although there were one or two children in the café, Frogg is definitely more of an older-teenager and adult establishment, in both atmosphere and food choices. The brunch menu does not have a lot of choices, but the selection is eclectic enough to provide something for everyone. Since we enjoyed the mochas on our first visit, we each ordered them again, as well as a "Lone Ranger" crepe for each of us.

The modus operandi of Frogg is like other cafés--you order at the counter, get a number, and they bring your drinks and food when they are ready. They have both indoor and outdoor seating, with the outdoor seating overlooking the picturesque creek that runs through the development. Unfortunately the weather was a bit cool with an even cooler breeze today, so we had to sit inside. Although Froggs had a steady stream of customers, they were not overwhelmed and we were able to find a table for two.

I wouldn't exactly call the food and coffee preparation "speedy", but I wouldn't call the wait "excessive", especially given the number of people coming through to either eat or get a drink to go. It was evident from their open kitchen that they have a small staff (not surprising from the size of the café), who were  diligent about getting the orders cooked and delivered to tables, and clearing the vacated tables for the next customers. That being said, this is definitely a place I would recommend for couples and small groups, rather than big family outings.

Our mochas arrived first, with cute little heart and flower designs in the foam.  Our food arrived half-way through the consumption of our mochas. The crepes, with their filling of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and chorizo were substantial, though not so big that we couldn't finish them all. The fresh pico de gallo and spice of the chorizo was just enough to wake up our taste buds. The hollandaise added a nice creaminess to the crepe, and I'm pleased that they didn't drown the crepe in it, as so many restaurants tend to do.

In concept, the fruit on the side was an excellent accompaniment to the crepe because it adds a light, fresh component to the dish. Their kitchen staff needs some lessons in selecting and cutting up melons, however. The pieces were tiny (something you'd expect in a canned fruit cocktail), and while that might have ensured that plenty of fruit fit in the ramekin, the small pieces were almost impossible to stab with a fork because the cantaloupe was very under-ripe and the honeydew wasn't much better. After successfully skewering and eating a couple of pieces, I gave up because the other pieces were jumping away as I tried to stab them and threatened to leap out of the bowl.

Fruit aside, we enjoyed our experience at Frogg. Our crepes were tasty and fulfilled our desire for "something different" than our normal brunch fare. Although their location isn't exactly convenient for us, we will definitely stop in again.

Frogg Coffee Bar & Creperie on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Leftover Mashed Potato Pancakes

My family's Midwestern roots mean that I grew up with comfort foods from that region--along with the belief that Sheboygan bratwursts are the only bratwursts in the US, and petty much anything can be cooked with Campbell's Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup.

One of my all-time favorite comfort foods is potato pancakes, probably because I could never seem to find decent ones anywhere but my mother's kitchen. When I was in college and visited home, and my mom asked what I wanted for dinner, I asked for her potato pancakes. After I left home, I perfected my own version of the recipe.

These are not the thin, anemic, crispy versions you find at restaurants like the Original Pancake House. They are also not latkes, which are made with grated potatoes. These are creamy on the inside, crisp on the outside, similar to croquettes but in pancake form. Because the potatoes are cooked and mashed and mixed with milk/cream (i.e. prepared like the mashed potatoes you would serve for dinner), mashed potato pancakes can be time-intensive to make from scratch, so I like to use leftover mashed potatoes as my starting point. Garlic mashed potatoes work beautifully with these. In fact, the other night, when we stopped at The Keg for dinner I asked (well, maybe it was more like "instructed") my husband to order garlic mashed potatoes for his side (as I was), knowing full well that we would be taking most of the mashed potatoes home for leftovers. Breakfast this morning was mashed potato pancakes, scrambled Egg Beaters with diced Lit'l Smokies sausages, and sliced apples.

Admittedly, the process of cooking these is a bit of an art form, and may require some trial and error to perfect. Cooked at too high of a temperature, they can be undercooked on the inside and burnt on the outside. I also recommend using a non-stick skillet with these, because if you don't have the right amount of oil or cook them incorrectly, they will stick to a standard skillet. Since my Cuisinart non-stick skillet has a copper core in the bottom that retains heat well, I normally just keep my flame on low the entire time. Cooking them ahead of everything else you prepare for your meal is actually a good idea, because keeping them in a warm oven for a while (around 200 to 250 degrees F) will ensure that they are cooked through and not mouth-burning hot on the outside when you serve them. So for this morning's breakfast, I made them first, stuck them in the oven while I prepared my scrambled eggs, and then they were perfect when I was ready to serve.

This makes 4 to 6 4-inch pancakes.

April's Mashed Potato Pancakes

1 1/2 to 2 cups Leftover Mashed Potatoes
1 Egg, or 1/4 Cup Egg Beaters
1 Tablespoon All-Purpose Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Dehydrated Minced Onion
1/2 Teaspoon Chives
1/4 Teaspoon Granulated Garlic (if not using garlic mashed potatoes)
Salt and Pepper to taste

Extra-Light Olive Oil and Butter for cooking

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees F.

Combine all ingredients, except for olive oil and butter, in a small mixing bowl and mix well. In the photos below, notice the difference in consistency between the mashed potatoes, and the prepared batter. The batter is thinner than the mashed potatoes and significantly smoother, but is not something you can pour like a typical flour-based pancake batter.

Mashed Potatoes

Heat about 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil and 1/2 Tablespoon butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, until butter is melted and sizzling.

Spoon batter into the pan using a large soup spoon, spreading the batter so that it is about 1/2 inch thick (it does not need to be uniform in shape or thickness). Do not crowd them in the pan--I usually make them 2 at a time in my 10-inch skillet. Cook for approximately 5 minutes, or until the bottom is a golden brown and the sides lose their glossy sheen--if they appear to be cooking too fast, turn the heat down to low.

Flip pancakes to cook the other side until golden brown (it is normal for the second side to cook 1 to 2 minutes faster than the first). When done, transfer to oven-safe plate and keep in oven while preparing remaining pancakes.

The pancakes tend to absorb oil while cooking, so add additional olive oil and butter to the pan before cooking the next batch. Repeat the process until all cakes are prepared.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Stuffed Jalapeños

When my husband and I moved to Texas, it didn't take long for us to discover that if you are grilling or barbequing (if you live in the South, you know there is a difference--and Southerners will gladly set non-natives straight on that), stuffed jalapeños are a necessity. There are a few variations on the recipe, but there is a common theme of jalapeño, cheese and pork product. The whole jalapeño might be "cored" by taking the stem off and cutting out the seeds from the top, or it might be slit open on the side and the seeds removed that way. Then it's filled with a cheese mixture and wrapped in a strip of bacon. A small sausage might be part of the stuffing too. It can be placed on an aluminum pan on the grill, or there are specialty pans designed just for the purpose of cooking stuffed jalapeños that are filled from the top.

After I discovered the necessity of having a stuffed jalapeño recipe, I started experimenting. Coring a jalapeño or otherwise trying to deseed it while keeping it in one piece is a task I soon grew tired of. Wrapping a jalapeño in bacon and trying to get the pepper and the bacon to cook properly was also a hit-or-miss challenge. Finally, I came up with my own fool-proof recipe. I have had native Texans ask me for this recipe, so I consider it an unqualified success. :-)

Aside from the ease of preparation, my favorite part about this recipe is that it doesn't actually require grilling. I've also adapted this to cooking in an oven (which I actually prefer because oven temperatures are easier to keep even). If you don't use all the stuffing, never fear--it keeps in a sealed container in the refrigerator just fine, though I don't recommend keeping it for more than a week or so. If you run out of jalapeños, the filling also makes an excellent spread for crackers.

Tip: When slicing and seeding jalapeños, I highly recommend using latex gloves to keep the residual "juice" and seeds from the jalapenos off of your hands. That way you can avoid getting the hot stuff on other food, etc. If you accidentally touch your eyes after handling jalapeños, you'll be in a lot of pain.

A semi-sweet wine--especially a Riesling--goes great with these.

April's Stuffed Jalapenos

8 Ounces Whipped Cream Cheese (or regular cream cheese, brought to room temperature so that it's easy to work with)
1 Tablespoon Fresh Basil, chopped
2 Garlic Cloves, minced
1/4 Cup Bella Sun Luci California Sun Dried Tomato Halves, chopped*
1/4 Cup Real Bacon Bits (yes, the kind from a jar works great and makes it easy--just make sure they are real)
1/4 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
1 Green Onion, thinly sliced
12 Large Jalapeños

*Ideally, sun dried tomatoes that are dry, not kept in oil, should be used in this. If all you have are the kind in oil, make sure they are well drained before you put them in. Otherwise you end up with an oily filling.

Mix together all ingredients in a small bowl except the jalapeños, and set aside.

Slice your jalapeños in half, length-wise, and cut the seeds out. I also recommend removing as much of the white membrane as possible, unless you like your jalapeños really spicy. The membrane holds most of the "heat".

Spoon your mixture into the jalapeño halves so that they are level-full. (The stuffing expands while cooking, so you don't need to be generous.) Place your jalapeño halves in a broiler pan--my favorite is a disposable broiler pan with ridges in it, because I can cradle each jalapeño half in the ridges to keep it upright.

Directions for the Oven:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the broiler pan with jalapeño in and cook 10-15 minutes, or until the top is a golden brown. (Smaller jalapeños take less time than larger ones, so just keep your eye on them after 10 minutes.) Remove from oven and allow to cool for a couple minutes before trying to move them to a serving plate. They will be very hot.

Directions for the Grill:
Preheat grill to 400 degrees. Place the broiler pan on the grilling rack and cook over indirect heat, with the cover closed, for 10-15 minutes. If the grill is hotter than 400 degrees, then adjust your cooking time accordingly--they will burn easily. Remove from the grill and allow to cool for a couple minutes before trying to move them to a serving plate. They will be very hot.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Oatmeal Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

I would never call myself a "baker" because I simply enjoy making savory foods more than sweet (which is especially odd considering I have a major sweet tooth). I've always felt like I could be more creative with the savory side of the culinary arts, and it's easier to avert disaster with a sauce than it is with a soufflé. Baking is a more precise, get-it-right-the-first-time-and-you-won't-know-if-you-did-it-right-until-you-pull-it-out-of-the-oven science. I don't like to fail, so if I'm going to do something to relax and enjoy myself, I'm not going to set myself up for disappointment.

Therefore, when it comes to baking, I like to stick with proven recipes I'm comfortable with. My little binder is filled with recipes that my mother passed down to me. Chocolate Chip Cookies. Great-Grandma's Banana Bread. Lemon Love Notes. Oatmeal Cookies. Kitchen-tested and foolproof, the way I like them.

I have house guests coming tomorrow, and decided to bake some cookies to have handy for desserts over the next few days. Trying to keep it on the healthy side, I opted for Oatmeal Cookies (Mom's recipe), substituting sucralose (my sweetener of choice, better known as Splenda) for sugar. While raisins might be a common ingredient in oatmeal cookies, I am not a fan of raisins (aka "humiliated grapes"). So I decided to try dark chocolate chips (aka "the healthy chocolate"). My husband eagerly volunteered to be my test subject for tasting my spin on "healthy cookies", and declared them to be yummy.

Per my mom's recipe, this makes about 5 dozen cookies. However, I tend to make them on the large side, so I come out with closer to 4 dozen. Either way, it makes a lot of cookies. If my coworkers are lucky, there will be leftovers for me to bring into the office. ;-)

April's Oatmeal Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/2 Cup Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening (plus some extra for greasing your cookie sheets)
2 Cups Splenda Brown Sugar Blend
1 Cup Splenda (Granulated)
2 Eggs
1/2 Cup Water
2 Tsp Vanilla Extract
2 Cups Flour
2 Tsp Salt
1 Tsp Baking Soda
6 Cups Uncooked Quaker Quick Oats
10 oz Nestle Toll House Dark Chocolate Morsels

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, mix together the shortening, sugars, eggs, water and vanilla extract. Sift together the flour, salt and baking soda, and add it to the shortening mixture. Mix well. Blend in the oatmeal, then add the chocolate chips and incorporate them as evenly as possible through the batter.

Grease your cookie sheets. (I put about a half teaspoon of Crisco on a paper towel, and smear it evenly on the surface of the cookie sheet for each set of cookies I bake on it.) Measure out a generous tablespoon full of the batter for each cookie and place them on your cookie sheet, spaced about 1-2 inches apart. If you like your cookies moist and chewie, cook for 12 minutes. Cook them 15 minutes if you like them crispier.

Allow the cookies to cool on the cookie sheet for about 5 minutes before you remove the them with a spatula and place them on a wire rack to cool. After they've been allowed to cool for about an hour or so, put them in a cookie jar or another sealed container for storage.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sweet and Skinny Breakfast Beverages

Until my husband and I moved to Texas, it never dawned on us to consider iced beverages to be breakfast fare. OJ? Yes. A nice, steaming cup of coffee or cocoa? Yes. Colas? No.

Here we discovered that Dr. Pepper, Coke and sweet tea are as popular for breakfast with Texas natives as coffee is in any other place outside of the South. It's easy to spot the natives in the morning at work, because they're the ones carrying in a bag of breakfast from Whataburger or Chik-fil-A along with a large cola. Non-natives are the ones carrying hot coffee, regardless of the time of year.

For those who don't know what sweet tea is, I heard it described this way:

"Brew some iced tea. Then add sugar to it until the sugar won't dissolve any more. That's sweet tea."

We tried it once at a local restaurant not long after we moved to Texas, when we decided to go Southern and order hush puppies and sweet tea with our burgers. While I don't think they added quite as much sugar to the tea as the quote above would suggest, I felt like I was going to wake up with a half-dozen cavities in my teeth the next morning. Haven't had it since.

So a tip to my fellow transplants: If you're looking for a sugar rush, try the sweet tea. Maybe just try it once for the experience. But if you are like me and try to keep your sugar intake to a minimum, if a waiter or waitress asks you "Sweet or unsweet?", go for "unsweet" and add sweetener to your own taste.

Have I otherwise embraced cold Texas breakfast drinks? Well, to a point, yes. Now, when the outside temperature climbs in the summertime, I prefer my coffee iced. The Egg and I has a nice iced coffee that I have enjoyed with my Saturday breakfast lately. But I have a diet secret that I'd like to share with the Starbucks fans out there who are trying to lose some weight: The lowest-calorie coffee beverage on the regular Starbucks menu is the Skinny Vanilla Latte. Served hot, a Tall is only 100 calories, and a Grande is 120 calories. An Iced Skinny Vanilla Latte is even better--a Grande is only 80 calories, because of the additional ice. When my husband and I want to stretch our legs and go for a good walk, but the weather outside isn't ideal, we go to the local mall and walk each level several times. Then we stop and pick up an Iced or Regular Skinny Vanilla Latte (depending on if we want a hot or cold beverage) as a diet-friendly treat.

I still miss having a Caramel Macchiato once in a while, but when I'm at a Starbucks it's nice to know I have an option beyond regular coffee that won't pack the pounds back on me.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Evolution of My Tuna Cakes

A common theme in my cooking is to start with a recipe from someone else, and "Aprilize" it. It might look like the original, but only one or two of the original ingredients remain after I've had my way with it. Such is the case of my Tuna Cakes.

Years ago, I started with a perfectly good recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook for "Tuna Patties with Tomato Salsa". Then I streamlined it by using pancake mix instead of torn bread and eggs. Then I removed the marjoram and added cilantro. Sweet corn joined the party. Now, after many years, I have settled on the recipe below.

When I wrote this recipe, I used Krusteaz's Honey Wheat pancake mix. Alas, I was unable to find it in the stores after we moved to Texas, so I now use Baker Mills Kodiak Cakes - Whole Wheat, Oat & Honey Frontier Flapjack and Waffle Mix. [Goodness, could they make the name any longer?] The important thing to note is that you must use a pancake mix that is "just add water". If the normal instructions say you have to add egg, oil, etc., it won't work in this recipe.

These tuna cakes beg for a sauce. A little garnish of shredded cheddar cheese and a homemade or jarred salsa is what I normally serve with this. However, I've also found Braswell's Creamy Cucumber Crab Cake Sauce goes great with it too. So feel free to serve it either way, or try your own favorite. Since these are reminiscent of a crab cake, try whatever you like to have with crab cakes.

This recipe makes approximately 6-8 cakes, which is a nice meal for 2 people, depending on what else you serve with it. I like to serve it with a simple green salad on the side.

April's Tuna Cakes

1 Cup "Just Add Water" Wheat and Honey Pancake Mix
3/4 Cup Water
1 (6.4 ounce) Pouch Starkist Chunk Light Tuna in Water
2/3 Cup Cascadian Farm Organic Frozen Sweet Corn
1 Green Onion, Chopped
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Cilantro
1/4 Teaspoon Lemon Pepper Seasoning
Light Olive Oil for frying
Shredded Cheddar Cheese (optional)
Salsa or Creamy Crab Cake Sauce to taste

Mix together the pancake mix and water in a small mixing bowl (it's OK if there are a few lumps). Add the tuna, corn, green onion, cilantro, and lemon pepper, and mix until it's evenly combined. Don't overwork it.

If you have to cook your cakes in batches, preheat your oven to 250 degrees, and have a small oven-safe pan or skillet standing by to keep the cooked cakes warm.

Heat 1 or 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or griddle over medium heat (the griddle should be nicely preheated before you put the cakes on). Place the batter by large spoonfuls onto the griddle, making them about 2 or 3 inches in diameter. These cakes are going to be thick, so you don't want them to be too large around, or else they won't cook all the way through. At this point, I normally turn the heat down to low, because I don't want them to cook too fast--I'd end up with something crispy on the outside but raw on the inside. You want the cakes to be sizzling in the oil, but not too hard.

When one side is golden brown, flip them and cook the other side. When the second side is cooked, either the finished cakes in the oven to keep warm, or put on your serving plates. If you are cooking in batches, you'll have to add a little more olive oil to your griddle before putting the second batch on--don't let these cakes cook on a dry griddle.

If you are going to serve with cheese, make sure you put the cheese on immediately after you put the cakes on your plates, so it has time to melt a little. Otherwise you can serve it with your desired sauce on top or on the side.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Egg and I

To celebrate our extended Memorial Day weekend (we took today off as well), my husband and I went somewhere new for breakfast today: The Egg and I in Frisco, which just opened this month.

The restaurant is larger than it looks from the outside. Being in a strip mall, the storefront isn't wide, but the space is deep and even has an available private dining room to accommodate group or club meetings. I guess I'd call the décor "country", though it's not quite clear to me what country it is. There are pictures of the Tuscan countryside mixed with new/old signs for food in English, plus some decorative tins, chickens, wrought iron and cheerful wall colors that remind me of rural kitchens from in both Europe and America.

Being a weekday and a workday for most, they weren't very busy when we walked in at 9am, but there was a steady stream of people coming and going. Apparently it is already a popular to-go breakfast place for the local healthcare workers, because I saw several women dressed in scrubs drop in at various times to order their breakfast and carry it away in Styrofoam containers within bags emblazoned with The Egg and I logo.

We were seated promptly and our waiter came to greet us after we'd had a moment to look at the menu--long enough to notice that they have several different types of coffee available. We opted for their signature blend, which was brought to us in a small insulated coffee pot that was left on the table so that we could refresh our cups at-will (a plus in my book). I would call the coffee a good "breakfast blend" and it was (we noticed later) well caffeinated.

The extensive breakfast menu contains many standards but plenty of variations--different benedicts, scrambles, omelets, skillets and hashes, Tex-Mex, pancakes and French toasts. I also like that they had a decent "Smarter Choices" section for those who want low-fat options (though it would have been nice if they posted calorie counts). After much inner debate, I opted for the Huevos Rancheros with salsa (pork green chili is the alternative sauce), while my husband got the Wisconsin Scramble. We were impressed to see that one of the toast options with the scramble was sourdough, an elusive bread in Texas and something transplanted San Francisco Bay Area natives crave, so my husband ordered it and we hoped it passed his test for "real sourdough bread".

Our portions were generous and well prepared. The layers of my Huevos Rancheros were a flour tortilla, refried beans, cheese, eggs (I asked for scrambled), salsa and a dollop of sour cream. I think they were a little too generous with the salsa on my Huevos Rancheros, but it had just the right amount of kick and my meal was very tasty. "Ranch Potatoes" came on the side of both our meals, which appeared to be simply seasoned with salt and parsley. The sourdough toast got an "eh" from my husband--not quite San Francisco sourdough, but it was sourdough non-the-less.

The wait staff at The Egg and I was very attentive and well trained. They seemed a bit overstaffed today, but they might not have known what to expect during the holiday week, and they were probably still training new hires. No complaints here--better to have plenty of staff than not enough, and I'm sure they'll strike the right balance once they know what kind of traffic to expect.

With tax and tip, breakfast cost us just under $27, which is on-par with other restaurants in the area. Based on our first experience, we'll definitely add "The Egg and I" to our list of weekend breakfast options.

The Egg & I Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pho Noodle Soup in the Boonies

In late 2001, my husband and I became economic refugees from Silicon Valley. For a variety of reasons, the first stop in our exodus was Sonora, California. Since my husband and I were both telecommuting at the time, we could pretty much live anywhere as long as we had a good Internet connection. We lived in Sonora for 3 years, later giving up on California entirely and moving to Oregon.

Sonora is just north of Yosemite. If you love nature, trees, mountains, snow in the winter, and hot, dry summers, Sonora is the place for you. The area, in general, makes its money from tourism and retirees. Nearby Murphys is the hub of a small "wine country" that I would recommend any wine lover visit at least once in their lives. We always think off our time in Sonora with nostalgia, missing both the area and the friends we left there.

As much as we loved Sonora, it can easily be described as "the boonies". One of the hazards of living in the boonies is a lack of variety in restaurant selection. We found some good food, but one thing Sonora didn't have was a good Vietnamese restaurant. We missed pho.

Pho (the proper spelling being phở, and pronounced "fa") is a deceptively simple soup of rice noodles, beef and onion. I say "deceptively" because despite its simple appearance, authentic pho takes hours of preparation using ingredients that aren't always available in the boonies. So, in order to have pho in Sonora, I had to learn how to make it at home myself using what I could find at the local grocery store.

I found this recipe and adapted it for the amount of time I had to make dinner and the ingredients I could find (i.e. homemade broth was not a possibility). After much trial and error with substitutes, I came up with a recipe that is a classic "a dashes of this, a sprinkle of that, taste, add a little more of that, repeat" recipe, which was never recorded in print until now. And let me tell you, coming up with a recipe with specific measurements was not as easy as it sounds--it took me several tries to get it tasting just right.

I call this "Cheater's Pho" because I make no representation that this is authentic. In fact, if you are Vietnamese, I advise you to read no further, because you'll probably want to send me hate mail for how "adulterated" this pho is. I try to stay true to the flavors of traditional pho, keeping in mind the Vietnamese cooking philosophy that balances sweet, salty, sour, savory and spice. But beyond that, it's far from the authentic Vietnamese preparation.

The recipe assumes you don't have access to fresh herbs (as was the case for me in the depths of a Sonora winter). If you do, feel free to substitute.

A traditional garnish to add is mung bean sprouts, but lately I've found it difficult to get fresh bean sprouts at the store, so I substitute mushrooms when I can't find them.

If you want a heartier soup, you can increase the amount of beef (up to 3/4 pound) or noodles (up to 7 ounces) without having to adjust the amount of broth. But if you are watching your diet, use the amounts as I have them.

This recipe feeds 2, and requires large bowls to serve it in (we're not talking regular salad or soup bowls here--I actually use 2 serving bowls). While hot tea or other traditional Vietnamese beverages can be served with this, my fellow wineos can serve it with a nice Merlot.

Cheater's Pho

32 ounces Pacific Foods Organic Beef Broth (tip: don't bother with the low-sodium variety--you'll just want to add salt later)
3/4 tsp sugar or splenda
A pinch of black pepper
1/4 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp dry cilantro
1/4 tsp dry parsley
1/8 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp lime juice
1 tsp Thai Kitchen Fish Sauce
1 tsp Kikkoman Rice Vinegar

Soup Components:
5 ounces Thai Kitchen Stir-Fry Rice Noodles (these aren't exactly the correct noodles, but they are the most readily-available substitute that I could find no matter where I've lived, and I don't like how their thin rice noodles turn out)
Thinly sliced yellow onion (about 1/4 of an onion, or as much as desired)
1 green onion, sliced into 1/8" slices
1/2 pound lean beef, thinly sliced (a top round roast or sirloin works well for this, but you can use whatever you have on hand. I recommend slicing it when it's still partially frozen, as that makes it easier to get super-thin slices.)

Garnishes to Serve on the Side:
Mung bean sprouts or thinly sliced mushrooms
Fresh lemon basil leaves
Lime wedges
Sliced jalapeno
Hoisin Sauce
Sriracha Chili Sauce

In a large sauce pan or stock pot, combine all the ingredients for the broth, and heat over medium heat (you eventually want it to come to a boil, but it's OK if it heats slowly--it gives the flavors time to blend).

While your broth is heating, bring a medium pot of water to a boil, and add the rice noodles. Then turn off the heat and allow the noodles to soak for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the noodles and evenly divide between two large soup bowls. It's OK if the noodles are ready ahead of the rest of the soup--when you pour in the broth, it should be hot enough to reheat the noodles.

When the broth comes to a simmer, add the yellow onion. When the broth comes to a boil, add the green onion and beef, and cook for 1-2 minutes. (If the beef cooks too long, it will become tough. You want it to be faintly pink when you serve it, and the hot broth will continue to cook it in the bowls.)

Divide the soup evenly between the two bowls. Garnish and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Keg and the Cayman

My husband is an unabashed car nut. He's also a walking encyclopedia of automobile history. You show him a picture of just one headlight on a car, 99% of the time he can give you the year, make and model. So, needless to say, he loves to see the latest and greatest of any high-performance automobile.

A couple weeks ago, we were invited to Porsche of Plano (formerly Boardwalk Porsche) for the unveiling of the new 2014 Cayman. They love to do these kind of free, invitation-only events for their customers, to keep them coming back for more cars. We'd gone on one of their Sunday drives last year and had a good time, so we decided to try one of their showroom events.

They said they would serve hors d'oeuvres at the event, but it wasn't scheduled to start until 6:30, and we like to eat dinner earlier than that (we're normally off work by 5pm). So we decided to find a bar somewhere between work and the dealership where we could eat a light dinner. After a very quick Google search, I chose The Keg Steakhouse & Bar in Plano. And boy, am I glad I did.

The bar at The Keg is a warm, roomy area with a variety of seating options--at the bar, at a table, in easy chairs arranged to create intimate spaces with small tables for drinks, or (our choice) at a small, oval bar table. The bar is dimly lit with wood and stone decor, making it a great place for after-work relaxation -- and there were several groups of people, young and old, doing just that.

We ordered a couple glasses of Rosemount Estate Shiraz, an order of Mushrooms Neptune, and an order of Prime Rib Sliders to split between us. I have to admit, the Mushrooms Neptune is one of the most clever preparations of stuffed mushrooms I have ever seen. I also wonder why I have never seen anyone else serve it the way they do, because it makes so much sense. The button mushrooms are stuffed with crab and cream cheese, simmered in white wine and (here's the clever part) served in escargot plates. There wasn't a lot of crab in them, but the filling was light and creamy, and they had a nice tang from all the white wine that the mushrooms had soaked up. With 6 to a plate, it was easy to divide these yummy little morsels between us.

The same can't be said for the sliders--with 3 to a plate, we had to cut one in half because neither of us wanted just one. The prime rib in these sliders was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. They are served with a horseradish Dijon sauce on them, with more creamy horseradish on the side along with a heavenly au jus for dipping. Crisp fried onion strings are also served on the side, which you can eat as they are or pile on the slider. The sliders didn't even last long enough for me to get a picture of them.

We left the restaurant so satisfied with our bar menu experience, we will definitely go back for dinner another time.

The Keg Steakhouse & Bar - Plano on Urbanspoon

When we arrived at Porsche of Plano for the Cayman unveiling, we realized that the 6:30 start was not set in stone. We arrived at about that time, but the showroom was already half-filled with people milling around and working their way through the buffet. The showroom had been emptied of all vehicles except for 2 Caymans hiding under covers. A free bar was setup at what is normally the receptionist's counter, and a live band was playing at the other end of the showroom. Similarly, the service "garage" (where people normally pick up and drop off their cars for service) had been emptied and had a Cayman under wraps, as well as another open bar. There were drapes covering all the windows of the showroom, and lights were strategically setup, so it was about as close to a nightclub as you can get with a car showroom.

Waiters walked around with cocktails invented for the event, but my husband and I opted for wine. The buffet had the obligatory cheese, crackers and fruit, but also had salmon and cream cheese pinwheels, shrimp, chicken, and enough other hot and cold hors d'oeuvres that I think we actually could have made a meal of it. While tasty, the food wasn't nearly as good as what we had at The Keg, so I didn't regret stopping there first.

The band was first-rate, playing covers, of course, but they had several good singers so they were able to do justice to several songs from both male and female artists. While many simply people sat/stood and enjoyed the band's performance, the highlight of the evening was when a couple, who I think were in their 70s, decided to tear up the floor when the band played "Mustang Sally". Seeing them dance made me wish, yet again, that I had taken ballroom dancing lessons. They and the band made the whole event worthwhile.

The people watching, in general, was also great. Porsche owners run the gamut of older gentlemen in Hawaiian shirts to 20- and 30-somethings with trophy wives/girlfriends on their arms. There were also plenty of families there, and I don't think I saw a single child misbehave. These were kids who were definitely taught to toe the line, which was very refreshing.

At about 8:30 the Caymans were unveiled after a short promotional video that was projected against one of the walls, with the normal ooohs and aaahs and lots of cell phone pictures after the covers were taken away. We left shortly thereafter, to beat the crowds out of the parking lot.

In the end, while the evening had originally been about the car (which, I will admit, is very attractive), it was more about us getting out on a weeknight and doing something different. And given that everything at the Cayman reveal was free, I really couldn't complain if I wanted to. We had a relaxing evening full amusing people, good wine and good food.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Randy's Not-So-Prime Rib

I have a soft spot for Randy's Steakhouse in Frisco. When my husband and I moved to Texas, our anniversary was just a couple weeks after we moved into our new house. Not knowing the area well, I searched for restaurants online and read reviews, and Randy's was the restaurant we chose for our first "dress-up" meal in Texas.

Randy's is located in an historic house on Main Street in Frisco. They've kept the home-like décor and all the "character" that goes along with an old house, complete with uneven wood floors, narrow staircase, and portraits on the wall. There are several large rooms that serve as separate dining areas, as well as a piano bar.

Randy himself will typically make a couple of appearances during the evening, to roam the dining room in his white chef coat, say hello, and see how everything is going. A couple times Randy has actually called us the day after dining there, to thank us for coming. He's obviously a man who cares about his restaurant. He and his staff also actively promote their weekend specials on Facebook, and they have frequent Wine dinners. In the highly-competitive area they are located in, they do a pretty good job of competing with the big boys.

We enjoyed our first visit enough that we've been to Randy's several times since. The food rarely disappoints, but watch out for the service on a really busy night. We gave up going there for Valentine's day after our last visit on that holiday a couple years ago, when we were seated upstairs (which I think is their "overflow" area), and our waiter basically disappeared half way through our meal. Another waitress had to handle our dessert and bill.

We were invited to Randy's last Friday by some friends at work (another married couple who, like us, work at the same company). Their college-age daughter also joined us, because it was Prime Rib Night at Randy's.

My husband and I arrived a little bit before our friends, so we took it upon ourselves to order the wine for the evening--a nice bottle of  2009 Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon. Our waiter offered to decant it for us, and our friends arrived just as he brought out the wine.

As with most good restaurants, Randy's has some signatures. They provide fresh bread with an awesome compound butter, which I could happily stuff myself with.

While we didn't order appetizers this time, I've had their calamari and shrimp appetizers in the past. Their remoulade dipping sauce is, of course, on the spicy side, so if you don't care for spicy food you should go with their less-spicy alternatives.

For my first course, I normally enjoy Randy's Walnut and Feta Cheese salad, which is served with a nice vinaigrette, but this time I decided to go with The Wedge, just to have something different. The iceberg lettuce was nice and crisp, the dressing was tasty and the cherry tomatoes included on the plate were a nice way to cut the richness, but someone got a little too heavy-handed with the dressing. No amount of cherry tomatoes could help save the lettuce from drowning. I ended up only eating about half of the salad because it was simply too overdressed and rich.

Our waiter was obviously new and a bit timid, but I give him high marks for effort. Our friends (who were similarly watching their diets and trying not to overdo it too much with this rare steak dinner) asked for a special preparation on their green salad--dressed with a little olive oil and lemon juice--and he happily obliged.

All of us, except my husband, ordered the prime rib special. I had been tempted to try the Blackberry Filet because it looked intriguing, but since the prime rib was on special and I hadn't had it at Randy's before, I decided to go for it. My husband got the blue-cheese stuffed filet, which was perfectly cooked and he enjoyed it even if the blue cheese made it a bit rich for our current diet-sensitive tastes. We ordered the side of Garlic Mashed Potatoes to share between us (it was enough for 3), which was another highlight of my meal that I whole-heartedly recommend. It wasn't too rich and it was very well seasoned. Our friends ordered sides of steamed asparagus and broccoli, and seemed to enjoy their prime rib as well.

My prime rib was cut much thinner than I was expecting--I think it was barely 1/2" thick--and it had a significant chunk of fat in it, but that was OK because I probably couldn't have eaten any more than what I was served. I was very disappointed in how it was cooked, though. I had ordered medium doneness. I'm not that picky; if my steak is on the rare side, that's fine. The only time I'll send a steak back is if they give me charcoal. What I got, though, was a steak that had obviously been carved from the middle of the roast and then stuck in an oven or salamander in an attempt to cook it to medium doneness. The problem is, it had originally been far less than medium-rare. Just underneath the slightly-cooked top of my steak, it was raw in the middle. It hadn't even been cooked enough to break down the connective tissue in the middle, so it was difficult to cut. It was a pity, because the outside of the roast was cooked beautifully. The seasoning was downright yummy and the meat was nice and juicy.

Since we were with friends and I didn't want to ruin everyone's evening, I didn't put up a fuss about my steak or my overdressed salad. We all skipped dessert to spare our waistlines, though we have enjoyed the desserts there in the past.

I know that what I've written here is a less-than-stellar review, but Randy's is a Frisco institution that everyone should visit at least once. Decide for yourself if you want to make it a regular haunt. To beat the crowds and get a good parking spot on a weekend, I recommend that you make your reservations sometime between 5pm and 6pm because the place is packed after 6. Our friends also say the wine dinners are great, so we will probably try one of those in the future.

Randy's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Castle Doctrine, and How Duct Tape Saved Lives

I'm deviating from my usual subject matter today, as the return of our barn swallows has inspired me to talk about an event that occurred 5 years ago.

Texas has a "castle doctrine", which essentially means that if someone breaks into your house, you have the right to defend your house with deadly force. So if someone were to break into my house in the middle of the night, I can empty my 38 into them, and the police would simply take the body away, shake my hand, and say good-bye.

The birds of Texas have a similar doctrine. Heck, I think the Texas mockingbird inspired the castle doctrine. Anyone who has gotten too close to a mockingbird nest has experienced firsthand how territorial they are. At our house, we usually have 2-3 resident mockingbirds--one on the South side, one on the North side, and one on the West side. The one on the South side has prime real estate, as they get the best bushes and trees on the property, as well as my vegetable garden. Shortly after we moved in, I named that mockingbird "Mindy", and will typically greet it as it sings in the morning, or whenever we go out into the yard (whether or not the mockingbird is still the original "Mindy", I can't say, but I just keep using the name anyway). The mockingbirds around our house have generally figured out that my husband and I aren't a threat to them, so we have rarely tangled with them--the exception being when Mindy got upset about me taking tomatoes off of my tomato plants. She had been enjoying those lovely fruits as soon as they turned red, despite all my efforts to protect them, and she is one of the reasons I don't bother growing tomatoes any more.

In the end, I'm a bird lover, and even if I wanted to, there is nothing I could do about the resident mockingbird tyrants. As the state bird of Texas, they are protected by law (yep, the mockingbird castle doctrine). I also remember the line from Harper Lee's book "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird", which I think would give any good Christian pause.

Barn swallows are not as aggressive as mockingbirds, but they have a similar castle doctrine and also tend to gravitate towards human habitations. When they move into their home for the Spring and Summer, they will protect it. However, while mockingbirds will actually make contact with your head to protect their nest, barn swallows tend to make low flybys instead, if their scolding doesn't deter you first. They won't do damage, but it's an effective method to get someone to go away.

Apparently the area outside our front door is prime real estate for barn swallows. Every spring--usually between March 15 and April 1--they come back to North Texas and start house shopping. The first year we were here, they built a new nest in our entry area, as the previous owners of our house had obviously knocked down other nests that had been built there in the past. After a good rain storm, the nests get built very quickly because the swallows have plenty of mud to use in their construction. The nice part is that they built the nest so that we can see it from inside our house, and we can watch the little families grow each year.

In 2008, the swallows were re-using a nest built the previous year. They had done a little bit of reinforcement, moved in, and promptly laid 5 eggs (the maximum brood for them). The eggs hatched, and Mama and Papa spent their days feeding their kids.

One Saturday morning in May, as I was getting ready to go to breakfast, my husband (who is always ready first) rushed into our bathroom looking very distressed. The nest had fallen down, and the baby barn swallows in the ruins on our front porch.

After some debate about the best course of action, we got a small box (about the size of their nest) and some grass-like material that I had on hand for filling gift baskets. Two of the babies hadn't survived the fall, but we gathered up the other three and put them into the box. We then got out our tallest ladder, set it up on the porch, and put the box on top of it. The entire time, Mama and Papa were very confused and upset, doing their typical flybys around our heads. After we put the box up, they still didn't know what to do, and were flying around the area trying to figure it all out. We decided to leave the box as it was and go to breakfast, and hopefully Mama and Papa would figure it out and start feeding their babies again.

When we returned from breakfast, the situation hadn't changed. So I went online to get some tips or find a local wildlife rescue who could help. I found the DFW Wildlife Coalition, which had a volunteer hotline. I called and spoke to a very nice lady who said we were on the right track, and she gave me a suggestion: try duct-taping the box into the original nest site.

I can honestly say that duct tape saved lives that day. My husband (who deserves combat pay for his role because he was under constant assault from the very unhappy Mama and Papa) used a prodigious amount of duct tape to secure our box to the side of the house. He also improved the setup by cutting off all but one of the box flaps, so that the remaining one was taped to the wall, and there was a nice edge around the box for the birds to perch on. Within a few hours, Mama and Papa were feeding the nestlings again.

Unfortunately, one of the rescued nestlings didn't survive the night, but the other two did and grew up into adults. After the babies had left the nest, my husband and I debated whether to take it down. Mama and Papa had other ideas, though. They liked the setup so much they laid another set of eggs in the box, and raised four more babies in it.

We took down the box later that Fall, and the following year, a new nest was constructed which is still in use to this day--we have another Mama and Papa Barn Swallow guarding eggs in it now.

I sent the DFW Wildlife Coalition a nice "Thank You" e-mail with the success story and pictures, as well as a donation. They were very appreciative of both, and since they were about to have a "volunteer appreciation day", they wanted to share my story with everyone there because they don't often hear about the ultimate outcomes of their calls. I also gave them my permission to use the story in their newsletter, as I wanted everyone to know how lives could be saved with some compassion, a little ingenuity, and plenty of duct tape.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Flying at an Ungodly Hour Made Easy

My husband and I just made a whirlwind trip to California for his Aunt's memorial service. We took advantage of American Airline's policy on bereavement flights, though apparently the short notice and discounts meant that we were relegated to flights at ungodly hours. The flight going out on Friday was at 7:45am. Not so bad. The flight coming back on Sunday was at 6:00am. Like I said, ungodly.

To make life easier for ourselves, we spent the night at airport hotels the nights before our flights. My husband was actually flying home from a business trip Thursday night, so I went to the Hyatt Regency DFW after work, and he met me there when his flight got in at 7:40pm.

The hotel was a zoo when I checked in, because there was some kind of a SWAT convention going on--lots of military and law enforcement guys running around. Luckily I had done the web check-in, so I just went to the kiosk, scanned a barcode, and it spit out my key cards and a receipt with my room number. I had to wait a couple cycles for a elevator, though, because of the mass of people trying to go up. Normally I would have considered hiking up the stairs, but our room was on the top floor (Number 13--I thought hotel's didn't do 13 floors?), so there was no way I was going to try that. Once on the elevator, we discovered that a couple of the guys and their duffle bags full of gear had to get off because we'd hit the weight limit of the car. Good times.

While wandering around the lobby trying to find the elevators, I had peeked at the menu posted outside of Jacob's Spring Grille, in case I wanted to come back down for dinner. It looked pretty good. Once I got up to my hotel room, though, I decided to stay there for dinner because there was no way I was going to go back down into the testosterone fest in the lobby. The good news was that Jacob's was the restaurant providing the food for room service.

As with all room service, their prices were elevated by all kinds of service fees and gratuity, so I didn't order as much as I wanted to. I just opted for an entrée and beverage. I chose a lovely grilled salmon served with a tomato coulis on top of a mushroom ravioli (this is not a puny piece of pasta--this ravioli took up the entire bottom of the bowl that my food was served in). The ravioli was swimming in a mushroom broth with a little bit of chopped tomato and some asparagus spears. They actually shaved the asparagus. Wow. With a squeeze of lemon on top, it was perfect.

My ice tea was actually a glass of REAL iced tea--not from a bottle--and they also provided a glass of water. I'm sorry I didn't take a picture of it, but I was so hungry that once I got to the presence of mind to think "hey, I need to blog about this" about 2/3rds of the plate was consumed. So you'll have to take my word for it on the presentation of the dinner, which was basically the same as if I'd ordered it in the restaurant. The gentleman who delivered my meal was also very prompt and polite--it was delivered within 30 minutes of my phone call, as promised.

When my husband arrived, he was hungry because he hadn't been able to get much to eat before he got on his flight. So he also opted for room service and ordered the Wedge salad and desserts for both of us. I didn't try his salad, but they provided a good-sized wedge with crumbled bacon and blue cheese on the side, along with cherry tomatoes sliced in half. He had his choice of two dressings--one that appeared to be a balsamic vinaigrette, and the other was ranch. Dessert was balsamic-macerated strawberries served with whipped cream in a edible bowl that seemed like a cross between a brittle and a deep-fried crepe. There was also a scoop of lime sorbet on the side. The strawberries weren't naturally super-sweet (being out of season, I wouldn't have expected anything fabulous) so the dish definitely needed the help of the sweetness from the whipped cream. The sorbet was excellent. We nibbled on the edible bowl a bit, but it was starting to stick in our teeth so we eventually gave up.

As for the rest of our hotel experience at the Hyatt Regency DFW, the room was clean and comfortable enough for the night, and we didn't suffer from any noise that you might expect at the airport. The building appeared to be well insulated, so all I could hear was sort of a "white noise" from the cars and planes--the kind of constant rumble that you can easily tune out and get a good night's sleep.

There was quite a crowd for the airport shuttle in the morning, so the parking attendant called in a second one when people started piling up at the curb. The hotel is across the parking garage from Terminal C, but we were leaving out of D so we waited the 15 minutes for our shuttle to arrive. It was definitely a good thing that we gave ourselves plenty of time to get to our flight. In that respect, we regretted that we hadn't stayed at the Grand Hyatt DFW, because it is attached to Terminal D, but it was more expensive than the Regency. That being said, the Regency was still over $200/night when we priced rooms; with all of my husband's travel, though, he called and used his company's corporate rate so that the expense was easier to swallow.

So if you end up with a similar flight at an ungodly hour, and can find yourself a good deal on a room, it would be well worth it for you to spend the night at the Hyatt Regency DFW, and try Jacob's Spring Grille.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Burrito in a Bowl

As a home cook, I'm a big fan of one-pot meals, or anything I can just mix all together and serve in a bowl. My favorite part of this recipe is that it requires little preparation -- I don't have to get out a knife and cutting board. This is a great recipe if you want something easy, quick and filling. I like to make it when we go camping in our travel trailer, because its ease of preparation makes it great for a small kitchen.

I call this "Burrito in a Bowl" because it was originally inspired by the ingredients in a beef and bean burrito, but it has evolved over time and I guess a more appropriate name now would be "Mexican Casserole" because of the use of the whole wheat fusilli instead of rice. But we still call it "Burrito in a Bowl", so I'm sticking with it.

This recipe lends itself to creative additions--I've been known to add black olives, for example, which makes this a great way to use up that can of olives you opened for another recipe (like a pizza), but you only needed a partial can so you stuck the leftovers in the fridge because you didn't want them to go to waste. ;-) I used to make it entirely with ground beef (no beans), but for the sake of our diet I cut the amount of meat I use and added the pinto beans. If you want to add a bit of crunch, try putting a little bit of shredded cabbage on top before serving.

You might notice in the ingredients that I like to buy organic. You can substitute whatever brands you might have on hand, though. This serves 2 people, and by my calculation, is only 460 calories per serving.

April's Burrito in a Bowl

4 ounces Delallo Whole Wheat Organic Fusilli No. 27
1/2 pound 93% lean ground beef
1/2 cup (130 grams) Full Circle Organic Pinto Beans, drained in a colander and rinsed
1/4 cup Amy's Organic Mild Salsa
Jalapeño sauce to taste (since the other flavors in this recipe are mild, feel free to spice it up)
3/4 cup (85 grams) Cascadian Farm Frozen Organic Sweet Corn
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 Tablespoons Daisy Light Sour Cream
1/4 cup (28 grams) Sargento Shredded Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Fresh or dried cilantro to garnish

Cook fusilli according to package directions.

In a large, non-stick skillet, cook ground beef until it is just done (a little bit of pink showing is OK), stirring frequently. Add the pinto beans, salsa and jalapeño sauce and continue cooking for about 5 minutes.

Add the corn and cook, stirring frequently, until the corn is heated through (another 2-3 minutes).

Turn the heat down low, and add the salt and sour cream, and stir until it's incorporated. You don't want to have it on the heat too long, or the sour cream will start to curdle and look a little "grainy". Stir in the pasta, and then the cheese. Leave on the heat until the cheddar just starts to melt.

Garnish with cilantro and enjoy!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Trendy Tex-Mex at Blue Goose

My husband and I just got back from the Blue Goose Cantina in Frisco, off the DNT. It's been open in that location for a while now, but given the broad availability of Tex-Mex food in our area, we hadn't been inspired to visit until tonight. We wanted to go somewhere new to eat that didn't require dressing up, so I searched for restaurants in Frisco in Urbanspoon, and Blue Goose Cantina came up. Since we'd been meaning to try it, I suggested it for dinner tonight

The place is definitely going for typical Tex-Mex in terms of cuisine, but with offbeat offerings in terms of beverages. When I saw "Marg-a-tini" in the menu, I had to ask what it was. It's nothing more complex than a margarita prepared like a martini (i.e. mixed with ice, but not served with it), but they offer it with unusual-but-trendy flavors such as blood orange (which I got) and pomegranate (which my husband got). The flavor of mine was a bit more tart than your normal margarita, and it was actually a nice break from the typical "brain freeze" blended margarita that I normally favor.

The chips appeared to be made in-house, and the salsa was on the spicy side. It appears they subscribe to the old restaurant trick of serving salty snacks to make customers drink more, because our chips were generously salted.

We both ordered the Brisket Tacos, which is one of their specialties, and got the "a la charra" beans (which are "charro beans" in any other restaurant) instead of refried. Our order arrived very fast. The tacos were served with fresh chopped onions and cilantro. While I normally prefer sautéed onions on my tacos, the fact that they were chopped small helped keep them from overwhelming the other flavors of the taco. A jalapeno sauce was served on the side (which, from the strength, appeared to be almost 100% jalapenos pureed in a blender), so we could add some kick to the tacos as we liked. The brisket was well cooked and juicy, so no complaints there. The rice and charro beans were, well, rice and beans.

The tortillas used in the tacos were made fresh--if I couldn't tell from the taste and texture, it was given away by the fact that they have a small, open "tortilla kitchen" setup where a lady was preparing the tortillas in the middle of the restaurant. Yep, trendy, but in a good way because the texture and flavor of fresh tortillas does improve a taco.

Believe it or not, one noteworthy thing about Blue Goose was the drinking water. Anyone living in Plano or Frisco will know what I'm talking about here: The tap water here is safe to drink, but it generally tastes a little "off". Well, my guess is that Blue Goose has a filter on their tap, because the water didn't have that "off" taste that we usually get in Frisco restaurants. A plus in my book any day.

Along with their trendy food, offbeat drinks, and open tortilla kitchen, and the atmosphere was aiming for people in their 30s and 40s who would normally go for that vibe. They have a bar with several TVs, each on a different sports channel, and loud music that was playing college hits from the 1990s and 2000s through most of our meal, then shifted to 50s and 60s music at the end. There were many families with small children eating around us, and I think I only saw one older couple the entire time we were there. So if you are looking for a quiet dinner, this isn't the place. If you want a place where no one will notice how loud your party is being, this is it.

The price of the food was average-to-above average (our dinners were $12/each), and the drinks were the same -- for some reason, the marg-a-tinis were priced higher than the margaritas (at $10/each), though the waitress didn't indicate that we were getting any premium tequila with them. So unless their usual margaritas are significantly watered-down, since we were basically paying more for a smaller drink, I suspect we were paying extra for the novelty.

So, my ultimate verdict on the Blue Goose Cantina is that the food was good, the service excellent, and the atmosphere lively. Will it become one of our usual haunts? No. They just didn't distinguish themselves enough from the many other Tex-Mex restaurants around to make me think of it as a place I'd love to go back to. But if one of our friends suggested it, I would go back.

Blue Goose Cantina on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 22, 2013

Never Order Fish at a Burger Joint

When I'm at the office, I often go out for lunch. I've scoped-out the healthiest offerings at the restaurants near my office, and I try to stick to them in order to maintain my weight. However, once in a while I feel like throwing caution to the wind and indulging in a burger and fries. When that happens, I go to Gazeebo Burgers in Frisco.

I love me some Gazeebo Burgers. The ol' Number 1 lunch special of a 1/3 pound cheeseburger, fries and a drink is my standard (for $7.99). Yes, the 1/3 pounder is the smaller of the burgers they offer (the other being a 1/2 pound). It's topped with American cheese and placed on a REAL hamburger bun. No wimpy buns here. You have to cut this burger in half in order to eat it.

The Gazeebo Burgers staff provides you with a perfectly cooked Angus burger (Kobe is also available, at a premium) and you are in charge of your condiments. They offer the standards like shredded iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions, as well as salsa, two kinds of pickles, mustard and mayo at their condiment bar. Everything is fresh, and you can build your burger exactly the way you want it--so of course it's going to be good every time. The drinks are self-serve (a standard selection of sodas, plus ice tea and water), and you can grab a to-go cup to refill on your way out.

But the fries are half the reason to go to Gazeebo Burgers. These are real cut fries (skin and all) served with seasoned salt. They are yummy in their own right, but they are absolutely To. Die. For. when you dip them in Ranch Dressing (also available at the condiment bar). These are the type of fries that you can get unexpected, sudden cravings for, and nothing will satisfy you until you have them.

I went to Gazeebo Burgers with a couple coworkers today. For the first time, I didn't order my Number 1. One of my coworkers and I decided to be good Catholics and order their Lenten Special fried fish sandwich. Unfortunately, I wish I had been a sinner today. Yes, it was fried codfish, but someone needs to break it to the chef that fish fillets aren't square. It looked like they fried up one of those frozen Gorton's fish fillets and served it on a hamburger bun. The fish was well cooked and the batter had a satisfying crunch, but the fish and batter was basically tasteless. I ordered it with the optional avocado on top, and I was glad I did because this sandwich needed all the help it could get. The tartar sauce on the side was also a major disappointment. Basically, someone dumped a little pickle relish in mayo and called it tartar sauce. I had to add my own mustard to it to even get it close to what a tartar sauce should taste like. My coworker agreed with me on all counts.

I still love me some Gazeebo Burgers. That will never change, and if anyone asks me what the best burger in town is, I'll send them there with explicit instructions to get a side of ranch with their fries. But, from now on, I'm not straying from my tried-and-true Number 1.

Gazeebo Burgers on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Get a Bagel Fix Without Blowing Your Diet

When my husband travels for business, and it's just me and the cats at home, my cooking gets a bit bi-polar. Either I don't feel like cooking at all (in which case, a frozen meal is on the menu), or I have a fit of creativity and come up with something new. It's safer for me to get creative when I'm cooking for just myself, because if it's a total screw-up, the only person I'm disappointing is myself. If I'm successful, then I make it for my husband when he returns.

Today is one of those rare, Perfect-Spring-Day-on-a-Saturday days in North Texas. Expected high is around 80, and not a cloud in the sky. So the primary thing on my agenda for the day was to get out and putter around the yard--trim some branches here and there, check the state of my seedlings and generally soak up some Vitamin D. With that in mind, I decided to make myself a hearty brunch before I went out.

First order of business was to utilize a bagel. Bagels are a comfort food for me--a favorite from my childhood. Top one with cream cheese and lox, and all is right with the world. Of course, bagels and cream cheese aren't really conducive to keeping one's diet in check, so I now limit myself to whole wheat mini bagels. They are about half the size of regular bagels, and around 100 calories. They are great any time of day when I need a bagel fix.

So I pulled out the bag of mini bagels and then took stock of what's in my fridge. I grabbed Egg Beaters, some low-fat cheese and ham, and voila! Breakfast is served.

This recipe would be good for a breakfast for two, if you serve a little fruit on the side. It was a very filling breakfast for one, and the only reason why I allowed myself to eat it all is that it was brunch (2-meals-in-1) and I knew I'd be burning calories in my garden later. Given how this breakfast is served, I think this would also be good for a buffet brunch, if you need to serve a crowd. Just adjust the measurements in the recipe accordingly.

Tip: The secret to preparing Egg Beaters as scrambled eggs is to add flavor before its cooked. Hence, this recipe calls for a lot of "flavor components".

April's Breakfast on a Mini Bagel

3/4 cup Egg Beaters
1 ounce diced ham
Salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder to taste
28 grams Sargento Shredded Reduced Fat Cheddar Cheese
2 Thomas' 100% Whole Wheat Mini Bagels, split in half
Margarine (I like Smart Balance Omega 3 Buttery Spread)
4 dashes of jalapeno sauce (Tabasco or other pepper sauce will work)
2 cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered
Chives to garnish (optional)

Put a small, non-stick frying pan on the stove over medium-low heat, and pour in the Egg Beaters. Sprinkle salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder on the Egg Beaters. Add diced ham and cook until the Egg Beaters are firm, stirring frequently. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese evenly over top of the eggs, and leave on heat until the cheese has just melted.

While the eggs are cooking, lightly toast your bagel halves in your kitchen toaster. Take them out of the toaster and spread a small amount of margarine onto the cut side of each half, and lay them out on a plate (cut side up).

Spoon the egg mixture on top of each bagel, then top each with a dash of jalapeno sauce and 2 quarters of the cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle a pinch of chives on top and serve.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Weights and Measures

Today's post was supposed to be about my recipe for Vietnamese noodle soup, or "pho". I developed my recipe over 11 years ago, when my husband and I moved to Sonora, which is Spanish for "City Without Pho". After moving there, we began to miss our favorite pho restaurant in Cupertino, so I did some research on ingredients, and invented my own.

As with most of my recipes, I developed my pho recipe without the use of measuring tools. It was all done by sight and taste--a dash here, a splash there until it was just right. So tonight was the first time I have ever created my pho with the use of measuring spoons. Unfortunately, things turned out a little "off". It wasn't bad, but it was definitely not blog-worthy. So I have the measurements from my first attempt written down with some notes, and I'll try again in the near future.

This mishap with measurements inspired me to write a little bit about one of the secrets of our recent weight loss. The most important part of our diet wasn't something we ate; it was the little Cuisinart scale sitting on my kitchen counter.

We were counting calories, and limiting ourselves to 1200 net calories a day (if we exercised, we could get some bonus calories in there). So I had to start paying closer attention to the labels on our food and figuring out just how much of what I could get into a 400 calorie meal. Here are some of the important ones that I committed to memory:

All kinds of meat or fish: 4 ounces/serving
Pasta: 2 ounces (dry)/serving
Low fat cheese: 28 grams/serving

Why am I putting in all of the measurements by weight and not volume? Because non-liquid ingredients leave varying amounts of empty space in a measuring cup. If you are measuring shredded cheese, for example, and pack it into a cup, you're getting more calories than if you pour the cheese into the cup without compressing it. The only way you can get an accurate measurement is to weigh it.

So my little kitchen scale gets a lot of use. Since I cook for two, I shop for meals that only use a half pound of meat--and package with a half pound of beef or pork isn't easy to come by in the supermarket, unless you go to the meat counter and have them cut to order. So I had to get creative. During grilling season, instead of buying cuts of beef like T-bones and New York strips, which are normally served individually and are way more than 4 ounces each (I am living in the land of "Cowboy Cuts", after all), I buy cuts like beef flanks and pork tenderloins, which I can carve after cooking and serve a specific amount that I weigh on my handy-dandy scale, and save the rest for leftovers. For ground beef, I buy 2 pound packages, portion out 8 ounces of beef onto individual sheets of plastic wrap and wrap them up, then put it all into a Ziploc freezer bag for storage in my freezer. When I want a meal, 8 ounces of ground beef is ready to defrost. Chicken is a bit easier, as I aim for packages of 2 breasts that weigh around 1 pound. Then I just cook one chicken breast for our dinner and freeze the other.

Even though we aren't trying to lose weight any more, I still use my kitchen scale way more than I used to. That's because our stomachs adjusted to the smaller portions, and I don't want to start "expanding" them again by eating the way we used to. This way, I can still cook the same things I cooked before our diet (paying less attention to counting calories), but by controlling the portion size my weight on the bathroom scale remains the same.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Where the Grapes Grow

When one is raised in California, there is only one "Wine Country" (the Napa Valley). California wine was always predominant on my family's dinner table. It's some of the best wine in the world, so who needs anything else?

When we moved out of the Bay Area and lived for a time in Sonora, California, my husband and I discovered the wineries around Murphys and Sonora, including Stevenot and Ironstone. So, in addition to the Cabernets and Chardonnays that come out of Napa, Zinfandels, Temperanillos and Ports found their way into our collection. In Oregon, we found Pinots and some interesting whites, Sokol-Blosser being our winery of choice there. (Tip: Sokol-Blosser wines are certified organic.) So you can say that everywhere we went, we managed to find another "Wine Country".

And then there is Texas.

When we learned there was a "Texas Wine Country", I think our first reaction was "yeah, right." How could good wine possibly come out of anywhere outside of the West Coast? And in this climate? Well, there are plenty of wineries popping up all over the Hill Country outside of Austin. While some got started by importing California grapes, once they figured out what grows well, many started planting their own vines and bottling their "domestic" grapes. And they are doing a darn good job of it, too.

Fredericksburg is the center of the Texas wine universe. My husband and I have been down to Fredericksburg on vacation twice now, and our second visit was largely devoted to visiting as many wineries as possible. If wine club membership is an indicator of "favorite wineries", then ours are Grape Creek and Pedernales.

Varietals from drier regions do well here, so you'll find some familiar names on the labels from Texas wineries. But if Texas has signature wines, then I would have to say they are the blends typically called "Sweet Red Wine" or "Texas Table Wine". These aren't nearly as sweet as dessert wines, but they are sweeter than you'll normally find in a red. They go really well with barbecue and the spicy foods that Texans love.

So if you are a California "wino" like me living in Texas and need to get your fix, drive down to Fredericksburg for a week. Or two. Setup a base camp in town, and then get on Highway 290 and work your way from winery-to-winery. There are lots of other things to do in Fredericksburg, but you can spend days just visiting the wineries. Just make sure you try the blends, because those are what you'll want to take home and serve with your steak.

Stay tuned for more tips on wines I enjoy, and suggested pairings. We're expecting our Spring wine club shipments soon, so there will be some drinkin' going on.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Green Tuna and Noodles

As part of my diet during my recent weight loss, I had to find high-flavor, low fat alternatives to cheese sauces. That's when pesto re-entered my cooking repertoire.

Pesto goes well with just about any protein, as well as pasta. If you want to make your own pesto, you can always change-up the traditional basil and pine nut base and use a different herb or nut. A cilantro and pecan pesto goes really well with grilled steaks, for example. (Yep, that's a teaser for a future blog post during the Summer.) I keep a jar of Mezzetta Homemade Style Basil Pesto in my refrigerator for use when I'm not inclined to make my own.

During Lent, the Catholic girl in me is always compelled to do fish for Friday dinner, so this past week I made a tuna noodle casserole. Growing up, tuna noodle casserole meant throwing in a can of Campbell's Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup. For this version I use [you guessed it] pesto as a healthier alternative. I also use Albacore tuna in this recipe instead of the traditional chunk light tuna, as it has a meatier texture that is more like chicken, and I think that works with the pesto better.

As with most of my recipes, this is designed for two people, but it can be easily expanded. Also note that you can use either sun dried or fresh tomatoes in this recipe. I like the fresh tomatoes, but my husband doesn't care for fresh tomatoes in this recipe (it's something about the texture of the tomatoes after they've been heated), so this time around I used finely chopped sun dried tomatoes in order to get some of that tomato flavor without the large pieces. If you use sun dried, make sure you use the kind that is not packed in oil.

My husband selected a Grape Creek 2010 Pinot Grigio from our wine refrigerator for this meal, and it paired nicely with the tuna and herb flavors.

April's Tuna & Noodles with Pesto

4 ounces Ronzoni Healthy Harvest whole grain wide noodles
1 pouch (6.4 oz) Starkist Albacore White Tuna in Water
4 tablespoons (divided) pesto
1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced into 1/4-inch-wide pieces
3 ounces baby portabella mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 ounces Nature Sweet Cherub Tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise, or 1/2 ounce Bella Sun Luci California Sun Dried Tomato Halves, finely chopped
Salt to taste (optional)
Chopped parsley to garnish (fresh or dried parsley will work)

Prepare the noodles according to package directions.

While your noodles are cooking, put 3 tablespoons of pesto into a large, non-stick frying pan or saute pan, and preheat it over medium-low heat. When the oil is ready, add the zucchini and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until it just starts to get tender. Turn the heat down to low. Add the mushrooms, and if you are using sun dried tomatoes, add them as well, and cook for an additional 2 minutes. (If you are using fresh tomatoes, those get added later). Add the tuna and 1 tablespoon of pesto, and carefully stir to combine everything and get it all heated through, about another 2 minutes (try not to break up the tuna too much). Add salt to taste, if desired, and if you're using fresh tomatoes, add them now and just stir them in briefly. (You don't want the tomatoes to cook too much and lose their shape--it's nice if they remain on the firm side, so they are added at the end.)

Stir the noodles into the pan so that they are evenly incorporated with the sauce. Sprinkle a little parsley on top and enjoy!