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!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Dive for Breakfast

No matter where we've lived, my husband and I have maintained a Saturday morning tradition: going out for breakfast. Why not Sunday brunch, like the rest of the world? Well, it's because the rest of the world goes out for Sunday brunch.

A sore subject with us is the lack of good breakfast places in our area, plus the fact that, for some odd reason, most restaurants stop serving breakfast at 10:30am on Saturday. So unless you go somewhere that serves breakfast all day (IHOP or The Original Pancake House), you can't have a leisurely morning.

For a while we were going to the Original Pancake House in Plano, but if we didn't want to have to wait for a table, we had to get there by 8:30. That happens to also be the time that the guy who makes balloon animals in the waiting area arrives, so all the families with small children seem to time their arrival for 9am. So if we decided to sleep in a little, we'd end up having to sit/stand in their overflowing waiting area 20 minutes or more for a table.

We've been to The Dive Bar & Grill in Frisco several times for dinner. It's a nice, semi-casual place with an ecclectic menu and a decent wine list at reasonable prices. Basically it's a place we go to when we want good food but not have to dress up. They used to be owned by the same people who own the 5th Street Patio Cafe, and so they decided to start serving the same breakfast menu at both restaurants. So we tried The Dive for breakfast one day when we felt like having something different.

They serve breakfast/brunch between 9am and 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays only (so they get a gold star for serving breakfast past 10:30 on a Saturday). Although they obviously need to bring in the customers to make money, we like the fact that the restaurant is not overrun with the usual breakfast crowd. We can roll out of bed whenever we like, stroll in and get our usual table and a big mug of their awesome coffee without even asking for it. It's kind of like we've found a secret breakfast club.

The menu is not huge, but it has all the basics and some dishes with a twist. Everything is $8.99 and under, comparable to any other breakfast you'll find in the area, but the flavors go way beyond the conveyor-belt style dishes you get at chain restaurants. The portions are generous, so I can definitely call this a brunch because we are never hungry for lunch after eating there.

Our personal favorite is the Bacon, Egg and Cheese Breakfast Tacos. They come with a side of potatoes and two salsas (one red, one green). The salsas have just the right amount of "kick" to wake up my taste buds. My other favorite is the Bananas Foster French Toast, which was renamed "Preston Road French Toast" when the new owner purchased the restaurant within the past few months. The rum sauce is so yummy that it is hard for me to keep from picking up the plate and licking it clean at the end.

And did I mention the coffee is awesome?

As I mentioned, there is a new owner, so things have been changed up a bit. The menu for all their meals has been streamlined, and they renamed some items to differentiate themselves from the 5th Street Patio Cafe, which is still owned by the same people as before. But the recipes and quality are still the same. They're also redecorating, with new paintings on the walls and different light fixtures.

They used to be open at 8am for breakfast, but recently changed to 9am because of a low turnout during the 8 o'clock hour. My husband and I didn't realize the hours had changed before we arrived for breakfast at 8:15 this morning (going in a little early because I had a 10am haircut appointment), but the manager was there and he was more than happy to let us in and get the coffee brewing, even though his morning wait staff hadn't arrived yet. The cooks were already there prepping for the day, so he got us our breakfast burritos with no significant delay, serving us himself. Anywhere else, we probably would have been left to freeze out on the patio until the official opening time, so kudos to him for understanding what good customer service is and making sure his regulars keep coming back.

As much as I like our little semi-private breakfast club, I know that they aren't likely to keep serving breakfast if they don't have a steady stream of customers--so I would encourage all my local readers to give The Dive a try for breakfast some weekend. You won't be disappointed.

Update Aug. 10, 2013
Some weeks ago, the manager mentioned above left The Dive for other prospects. Although we are disappointed because he insured that our favorite type of Jazz was always playing on the juke box and kept a reserve supply of Splenda behind the bar for us, the food and service at The Dive remained the same. However, today, when we showed up for breakfast, there was a piece of paper taped to the front door informing us that, from this point forward, The Dive will only serve brunch on Sundays. They open at 11am on Saturdays now. Booooo.

The Egg and I is no officially our new breakfast haunt.

The Dive Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon