Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Fajitas de Pollo

So many days, it is so tempting to just pull up a delivery app, place an order, and breathe while we wait for dinner to arrive. After putting baby B to bed, sometimes we're just spent, and the idea of going into the kitchen to make something, even something easy, feels daunting. It's also usually late, like 9:30 or 10 pm, which isn't great for ordering delivery either, but sometimes exhaustion and convenience just win. We're trying to be better about it though by planning ahead more, trying to stay disciplined, finding easier and quicker things to make, and also picking up some ready-to-make/eat products at Costco and Trader Joe's to keep things simple.

One thing we picked up on a recent Costco visit was a package of fajitas de pollo by Del Real. They were $12.99*, which felt like a lot for a single packaged meal when shopping at Costco, but compared to the price of ordering something similar for delivery or the time cost of making it yourself, it really isn't so bad. Note though that it doesn't come with any of the usual restaurant fajita accompaniments, like tortillas or rice or beans or toppings, so tack on another dollar or so for those if you're pricing it out. Inside the box, there's a packet of chicken, one with vegetables, and a third with sauce (which they mark optional in the instructions, probably because it has a fair bit of spice thanks to serrano peppers and chipotle peppers in adobo). You can cook it on the stovetop (the recommended option) or in the microwave, and both take about the same amount of time, around 10 minutes.

* I wrote the majority of this post after we tried the fajitas the first time, and since then, we've made two other visits to Costco, buying three more boxes of fajitas. Part of the reason we picked up two on our last visit though was because they were only $7.97, which is good because less expensive, but bad because the 97 cents plus the star on the price tag meant they were being discontinued. The last visit wasn't at our usual Costco, so we are hoping, hoping, hoping that they are not being discontinued everywhere and only at that Costco.

We weren't sure how we would feel about this ready-to-cook fajita kit, but we were really happy with the results. Sometimes when you get pre-made food like this, it tastes highly processed, but this didn't. This tasted like you made it from scratch in your own kitchen, probably because there isn't a whole lot of excess stuff added in. It's one of those products that passes the "you can recognize and pronounce all the ingredients" test. The chicken is just strips of grilled chicken breast in a marinade that includes pineapple juice, chipotle adobado, orange juice, brown sugar, key lime juice, garlic, and spices, the vegetables (onions and green and red bell peppers) are just seasoned with salt, garlic, and some spices, and the sauce is just roasted tomatoes, serrano peppers, more chipotle adobado, green onions, onions, cilantro, and garlic. Would take some time to put together from scratch at home, but these pre-mixed packets completely worked to deliver the same result. It also didn't taste as buttery or greasy as restaurant fajitas sometimes can.

Comparing the finished product to the picture on the box, it looked pretty similar other than the fact that the box picture had grill marks on the chicken. Not such a big deal in terms of taste. We were pretty impressed by the quality of the product here and would definitely do this again (for as long as Costco's inventory will allow us to!). They don't expire immediately or within a week after purchase either (at least ours didn't), so it's an easy thing to toss into the fridge for a day when you really don't feel like cooking and don't want to spend a lot on yet another delivery order. Del Real also made a carnitas kit that I tried during the Cinco de Mayo sampling, but it wasn't nearly as good as this fajitas kit in my opinion. (Kind of hard to believe they came from the same company, to be honest.) Hoping we can make fajitas for a while!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Chicken Chips

We were on a Whole Foods trip a while back looking at snacks and happened upon something we had never seen before but sounded interesting -- chicken chips. Something like cracklings came to mind, but we weren't really sure how chicken would turn into the somewhat more uniform and traditional looking chips in the package photo. They were supposed to be chicken mixed with tapioca flour and crisped in coconut oil, which sounded good but we weren't sure how they would taste. They weren't cheap snacks, but they were on sale if we remember correctly, so we figured why not give them a try? A pretty much eats anything and has a list that he can count on one hand of foods he really dislikes and won't choose to eat again, so trying new things is usually not an issue from a potential food waste perspective.

We got the barbecue flavor because that's one of my favorite chip flavors, and then promptly added the bag to our pantry where it sat until its recent best by date. We opened it up, noted that the chips were far from uniform in shape, much thinner in texture than we expected (sort of like a really light and airy Lay's potato chip), and then each grabbed a few to try them out. I don't know how to describe exactly what our expressions were, but we did not like these at all. The taste of the barbecue flavoring was fine, and it tasted like the barbecue seasoning on many other chips, but there was something about the chip itself that was a bit off-putting. There was some really funky and weird aftertaste that in taste form reminded me of the smell of a certain cleaning solution that usually makes me want to vomit. I wasn't expecting this at all, because there are so many reviews talking about how delicious these chips are. Is this like the people who think cilantro tastes like soap, and maybe only some of us get the odd aftertaste? Would they taste different or better if we had eaten them earlier? (Maybe they would be fresher, but they really should have lasted until their best by date.) What was wrong with our bag of chips that all the people raving about deliciousness didn't get?

We tried to eat more of the chips so our money wouldn't go to waste. We really did. I made it through three chips before tossing the rest of my handful, and A put in a valiant effort, eating much more than I did, but in the end, we just could not finish it. I don't doubt that some people genuinely like these though based on the reviews, so it may be that it's just not for us. Since it does seem to have a "unique" flavor, perhaps the best option is to try them from a place with a Trader Joe's-like return policy of taking back things you don't like, just in case you're like us and not like all the other reviewers who were very happy with them. I'd love to figure out what about them caused this reaction in us (so we can make smarter snack decisions in the future), but with so many snacks competing for our attention, we're not going to experiment some more.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Gnocchi with Sausage and Spinach

It's been ages since we've made a new recipe from scratch, between the dietary restrictions of pregnancy and my difficulty in moving around the kitchen, and then adjusting to hectic life with a newborn and schedules and exhaustion levels that aren't always conducive to cooking. I'm not saying that we didn't cook at home at all, but I'm not counting easy dishes with interchangeable ingredients like scrambles, pasta, sandwiches, stir-frying vegetables, or throwing things into a simmer sauce, or the Korean braised tofu that we always make. The only other things we've made since the beginning of this calendar year are the scallion pancakes that A made from his mom's recipe. I have to go all the way back to Thanksgiving when I made stuffing to find something I've made from scratch that isn't one of the "usual" dishes, and I don't even know how far back I'd have to go to find an experiment with a new recipe.

My focus now is a little more on recipes that are quick, easy, and nutritious as opposed to more complicated cooking projects, but a dish doesn't need to be difficult or time-consuming to expand my cooking horizons. There were many weeks when I wasn't even meal planning or looking for new recipes, so it felt really good to be back to even thinking about trying new things recently.

I've been cleaning out piles of old magazines recently (way too much clutter at home), and found an easy-sounding recipe in an issue of Real Simple from March 2007. (No, that's not a typo. The magazine was over a decade old.) We were heading to the grocery store over the weekend (don't go nearly as much as we used to since we were typically night shoppers), and gnocchi with sausage and spinach seemed like an easy thing to shop for and make. We already had Italian pork sausage in the freezer, and since we're trying to do a better job of eating the food we have in a timely manner, that made this recipe even more appealing.

The ingredients for the dish were minimal and included:

- 1 17-oz package of shelf-stable gnocchi ($1.69)
- olive oil ($0.25)
- 1 yellow onion ($0.79)
- 1 package of Italian pork sausage, about 1.5 lb, casings removed ($4)
- 1 heaping spoonful of minced garlic ($0.15)
- salt and pepper to taste ($0.05)
- 1 bag of baby spinach ($1.99)
- grated parmesan cheese, about 1/2 cup mixed in plus more to garnish ($0.50) *

* I don't know exactly how much the cheese cost since my parents picked it up for us when they got some groceries after B arrived, but that's about what it would cost with the usual price of parmesan.

Just under $10 for a filling dinner for two was so much better than ordering yet another dinner from Seamless.

The steps for making the dish were pretty simple:

1. Cook gnocchi according to package. In our case, that was boil water, drop in gnocchi, and cook for about 3 minutes. (So quick!) Once gnocchi is cooked, reserve 1/4 cup of cooking liquid and then drain.
2. Heat olive oil over medium heat, and cook onion until soft.
3. Add sausage and crumble while cooking until browned.
4. Add garlic, salt, pepper, and spinach. Cook until spinach is wilted.
5. Add drained gnocchi, reserved cooking liquid, and grated cheese. Toss well.
6. Serve with additional cheese on top.

I really liked this dish, not just because it was simple, and not just because it was the first new thing I'd made in a while. The Italian pork sausage gave the dish so much flavor, like it does in just about everything it's added to, and it was nice to have the spinach to balance out the heavier sausage and gnocchi. The gnocchi soaked up all of the sausage flavor, and the cheese pulled it all together (even though I often forgot to garnish the bowls with more cheese). I think it would probably be better with straight parmesan cheese, but we used a shredded parmigiano reggiano stravecchio because that's what my parents picked up that time, which has a slightly different flavor. Nice and quick, we would definitely make this again.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Striped Garganelli

It's almost the end of January, and neither of us has written up our top 10 food memories from last year (actually not sure either of us has nailed down a top 10 list either), but in order to get back into the practice of writing, we're diving back into our Trader Joe's reviews.

TJ's came out with this striped garganelli pasta, part of their organic Italian artisan pasta line, back in December, featuring pink and white striped tube-shaped pasta for the holidays. We'd had good luck with some other pasta in the artisan line, so we were hoping that these festive-looking shapes would continue the trend. Colored pasta is also just really fun to eat! Here, the pink color came from beet root powder, and the only other ingredients in the pasta were the organic durum wheat semolina (sourced from Puglia, Italy) and water, very simple with nothing unnecessary added.

The package said to boil the pasta for 14-15 minutes, which seemed kind of long for us, so we just tried to cook it until it seemed al dente. (Don't remember exactly how long that was.) Unfortunately, this one seemed to cook unevenly, reminding us of our experience with the winter snowflake pasta, except in this case, the issue was with each individual piece. The folded-over part of the pasta and the rest of the tube shape didn't match in texture the way we were hoping they would, with the folded-over part a little too chewy when the rest was al dente, or the folded-over part being just right with the rest of the piece being too soft, but apparently that was the intention. Reading the TJ's blog after we made it (probably should have checked before), they talked about how the folded-over center would be al dente while the ends would be soft like that was a feature of this pasta shape. Maybe we would have felt differently about the texture if we had had those expectations, but hard to determine in retrospect. It was definitely edible, but not the uniform al dente texture that we were hoping for.

We mixed the pasta with some garlic marinara sauce, meatballs, and mushrooms, and when spooning it into the bowl, you couldn't see the stripes at all. Removing the sauce, they were still there but much lighter and less pink, so if color is important, a non-tomato-based sauce would probably be a better fit. The pink stripes were a nice novelty for the holidays, but just that. The pasta served its purpose as a good vehicle for the sauce, but in the end, it didn't live up to some of the other pasta shapes we've tried before from TJ's.

Buy again? Probably not, since texture is important to us, and we've had better luck with other pasta shapes before.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Our Year in Food: 2018

We've barely posted here this year, but we have a really, really good reason. I know we say that a lot, like every time we come back from vacation or when we were moving or at other busy times, but this time, we've been pretty consumed by quite a large thing - a new addition to our family! As a result, this year has been radically different from previous years when you think about differences in diet and travel, and even just everyday eating and grocery shopping, due to pregnancy and newborn life, and it's also meant that many of our waking hours have been dedicated to something (or someone, rather) other than this blog.

We don't want to stop posting though, and at least for me, writing posts about our memories and experiences uses a part of my brain that doesn't get much use otherwise these days. We have tons to catch up on in the new year, lots of Trader Joe's products we've tried, new cuisines and dishes we've explored, and so much we don't want to forget. But for now, our year in review, a year that really just flew by, and then hopefully we'll be able to pick our top 10 food memories from this year!

The first restaurant meal we ate in 2018: Lunch at Chaan Teng in Hell's Kitchen after a matinee showing of The Last Jedi, dumplings and noodles for me and an interesting-sounding (but not as tasty) General Tso fried chicken and waffle for A. Later in the year, Chaan Teng was no more and instead became the relocated spot for Qi Thai, so that was our last time there.

The first home-cooked meal we ate in 2018: I ended 2017 fairly sick, so we started off the new year with something that would hopefully be restorative -- the garlic and potato soup from 2016's Czech challenge, one of our favorite simple soups.

The last restaurant meal we ate in 2018: Late lunch at Mancini's Wood-Fired Pizza with garlic knots and pizza after signing the documents for our new car. (So many changes this year!) It was one of only a handful of times we've brought baby B out to a restaurant since he's still so small and it's sick season, and it was nice to have a family meal out at the end of the year.

The last home-cooked meal we ate in 2018: Some tortellini from Costco with meatballs from BJ's and sauce from Costco. There just wasn't any time to plan for or make the year-end cooking project that A usually undertakes, but hopefully we can get back to that next year. If you want the last home-cooked meal we made from scratch, that would be the Korean braised tofu that has made appearances on this blog before.

# of different restaurants we tried in 2018 (together and separate): 165. Far lower than past years, but that's to be expected, because, newborn.

Places explored (outside the NYC metro area): Madison, Wisconsin; Bermuda.

This codfish and potatoes breakfast from Bermuda is definitely one of our favorite food memories of the year

Most visited restaurant of 2018 (together): The Gold Lounge at the Fairmont Hamilton in Bermuda, although it feels like this shouldn't really count because we went there multiple times a day -- for breakfast, afternoon tea, early evening hors d'oeuvres, and dessert -- because it was part of our room rate. The two restaurants after that that we visited most frequently were for large family dinners, so I guess we didn't go anywhere that repeatedly during our abridged restaurant exploration year.

Progress on WorldEats challenge: We haven't added any more WorldEats posts this year, so posting is still at 58/196, but we've been to more and explore when we have the opportunity.

Favorite overall meal of 2018: Lunch at Morgan's BBQ. We had a pediatrician appointment in Prospect Heights on our first weekend home with B, and it was a gorgeous, warm day for October. Morgan's had a patio outside, which was perfect for going out for lunch with B since we were avoiding tight, enclosed spaces for a while. It was our first family meal out of the house (and all three of us ate while there!), and it was just such an unexpected treat since we hadn't expected to have our first family meal out for a number of months.

2018 was a year of so many changes, and we're so grateful for everything that we were blessed with this year, especially B. 2019 is sure to be different from this year, but also different from the previous years we blogged about here because we'll be exploring food with a baby. Can't wait to see what the year brings!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Chicken Shu Mai

A quick review for the chicken shu mai at Trader Joe's ($2.99 for 18 dumplings and one soy sauce packet):

We love dumplings, so we were interested in trying these shu mai. The filling ingredients were listed as chicken, onions, carrots, green onions, sesame oil, salt, garlic, ginger, and white pepper, so we thought they would be pretty flavorful, but they were kind of bland. The dipping sauce consisted of soy sauce, sugar, and rice vinegar, so your basic dumpling dipping sauce, and the shu mai absolutely needed it. They gave two heating instructions on the box: pan-frying (which is clearly what they did for the box photo) and steaming in the microwave. Since this was a snack for us, we chose microwave for faster heating (even though it took longer than the box instructions) and easier clean-up, but pan-frying probably would have tasted better. That said, we're still really not sure how much better they would have tasted after pan-frying considering how lacking in flavor the dumpling innards were.

Buy again? Unlikely. There are much better dumplings at TJ's and elsewhere.

Friday, May 25, 2018


One of the things I've always wanted to do was cook from a cookbook cover to cover. (Well, as much as possible considering dietary and kitchen restrictions, some self-imposed.) I imagine this started back when I read Julie & Julia (well before the movie came out), and just thought that was such a great way to learn and challenge yourself. I also love buying cookbooks, and we haven't made 95% of the recipes in the ones on our shelves, so it's sort of a practical mission as well. I'm not disciplined enough or singularly focused enough to want to go page by page on a weekly basis or daily basis, so I imagine any cookbook challenge I do will take a while (and a few may even run simultaneously), but I think it's a good way to use what we have and continually try new things.

We started with the first recipe in the Jerusalem cookbook last year, and now that we're finally getting settled in our new home, it was time to move on to the second - Na'ama's fattoush. I tried to stick closely to the recipe, but there were a couple of things I didn't measure. The ingredients we used were:

- 1 cup whole milk yogurt ($1.25)
- 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp 2% milk ($0.28)
- 2 pitas ($0.70)
- 3 tomatoes ($1.19)
- 4 mini cucumbers ($1.33)
- 6 scallions ($0.52)
- a handful of fresh mint (about 1/2 a package) ($0.85)
- a bunch of fresh parsley ($0.40)
- 5 radishes ($0.50)
- large spoonful of minced garlic ($0.10)
- about 1/4 cup olive oil ($0.30)
- about 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar ($0.10)
- juice of 2 lemons ($0.98)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)
- sumac to garnish ($0.10)

The salad came out to about $8.65 (not helped by the fact that lemons are not cheap right now and I wanted to use real lemon juice because it was a salad), but considering how much it made, it really wasn't a bad total for dinner, even after adding the two panko chicken tenders we ate it with.

The first step had to be done hours in advance (probably 4-5 hours in our case), which was to mix together the yogurt and the milk and then leave it in the fridge. The result was supposed to have bubbles on the top after a few hours, but I don't know if I did it right, because there were bubbles on the top as soon as I was done mixing. The goal was to be like buttermilk, but less sour, but since we don't really ever taste buttermilk on its own, we had no idea whether that was really the case. We used it anyway, since it tasted like yogurt and yogurt dressings are good.

When it was actually time to make dinner, the first thing I did was chop up the pita and pop it in the oven on a dry baking sheet at 350 degrees for a little over 10 minutes. You're supposed to use stale pita in this recipe, but I'm not a big fan of leaving bread out to get stale (bugs...), and we just bought the pita the day before, so this seemed the most efficient way of drying it out.

The next and most time-consuming step was all the vegetable prep: dice tomatoes, dice cucumbers, thinly slice radishes, thinly slice scallions, coarsely chop parsley and mint. The recipe itself actually said to put the pita in first, followed by the yogurt dressing, followed by all the other ingredients, but since we're still working on our kitchen arrangements, we didn't yet have the counter space for that. I wasn't really sure what the difference was, since the pita, yogurt, and vegetables were to go into the bowl in quick succession anyway, so into the bowl went all the vegetables as I chopped, followed by the pita pieces and the yogurt dressing, and then all the other seasoning/dressing ingredients like the olive oil and vinegar.

As we mixed it up, it just seemed to be really heavy on the liquids, definitely more than the stylized photo in the cookbook. That seemed like more vegetables than dressing, and ours seemed like yogurt everywhere in an overwhelming amount. It didn't really look pretty, but when we tasted it, it tasted good so that was fine. Appearance isn't everything. We left it for about 10 minutes for the flavors to meld and hopefully for the dressing to thicken up (it only did a little bit), and then spooned it into bowls with the sumac on top.

The salad was light and refreshing, had a good amount of flavor, and worked well with the chicken we ate it with. While we both liked this salad and thought it was tasty, it probably won't enter our regular rotation. If we're in the mood for a salad of this type, sure, we'd make it again, but it's not going to be top of mind most likely when we're making our meal plans. I think to keep track of what we've made for this cookbook project, it might be helpful to rank what we've made in order by how much we liked it, so right now, here they are:

Jerusalem Cookbook Project Rankings:
1. Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs
2. Na'ama's fattoush

Monday, May 21, 2018

3 Seed Beet Crackers

We picked up these 3 seed beet crackers from Trader Joe's months ago, but only got around to finishing them this month. We love beets, so we were excited to try them (when we finally got around to it after moving). When we first ate them though, our first thought was that we wouldn't have really known they were beet crackers if not for the name, as they just tasted like small tortilla chips.

We were expecting crackers with earthy beet flavors, but that's probably because we didn't read the ingredients that carefully. The first ingredient was white corn, and the crackers also had black sesame seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, and a couple of seasonings. Beets were the third ingredient, but even then it was only beet powder, which we usually see mostly as a coloring. No wonder they tasted a bit like tortilla chips. They weren't bad, but we were expecting something more distinctive since they were supposedly made with beets. They were just good crackers/chips, and worked well with the hummus we ate them with.

Buy again? Maybe, maybe not. We don't really remember how the price lined up against different TJ's (or other) crackers we like, so it would really depend on that more than anything. They're fine, but nothing so unique-tasting that we absolutely have to get them again.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Waffle House

Three years ago today, we were off on our Southern road trip heading for Savannah. When we last wrote about this trip, we had just visited Nando's for the first time, indulging in some delicious grilled chicken before hitting the road and driving for hours. We stopped briefly in Richmond, Virginia to do some sightseeing, but otherwise our next real stop wasn't until Rocky Mount, North Carolina for a late dinner.

Waffle House is a true American institution. They're cheap, they're open all night, they have a lot of choices on the menu, and the food hits the spot. Even though they're now as far north as Pennsylvania and Delaware (still not close enough to us), I pretty much still associate them with the South. So there was no question that on our Savannah road trip, we would try to fit in at least one visit to Waffle House.

My first trip to Waffle House was in college. We were on a road trip to Myrtle Beach and after a long night of driving, we stopped off at Waffle House for breakfast. It was exactly what we needed to refuel for the rest of our drive (although I passed out from food coma shortly thereafter since I drove all night), and I've associated good memories with them ever since. Somehow, even though he had been to the South many more times than I had, A had never stopped at a Waffle House before. I was happy that around the time we chose to stop for dinner in North Carolina, there was a Waffle House right near the interstate. Perfect road trip stop.

We both opted to order off the special $5 meals menu which not only covered your choice of breakfast, lunch, or dinner (from a list of 15), but also included a drink. A opted for coffee to help him stay awake until we got to our stopover in Fayetteville (about 90 minutes further), and I went for a sweet tea-lemonade mix. We were in the South after all.

Since it was A's first time at Waffle House, he chose to go with the double classic waffle. He topped it with butter and syrup. The waffles were creamy and sweet, and the butter and syrup combined to make a really tasty concoction that was salty, sweet, and extra creamy. A had never put butter on his waffles before, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. It was great, but he's thinking that he might only do that while at other Waffle House locations and not a regular basis. The coffee certainly helped him get to the next hotel, but it wasn't anything special. For the most part, it tasted just like regular diner coffee.

I'm not much of a breakfast person (although the sausage, egg, and cheese grits bowl and biscuit were tempting), so I picked the Texas sausage melt which came with hash browns. Each of the Waffle House Texas melts came with meat (sausage patty in this case), double cheese, and grilled onions on Texas toast. This was simple, but so, so good after a long day of driving. This ended up being our only Waffle House visit on our road trip, but it made us really happy. It's definitely a Southern road trip must for us!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

52W Challenge: Salt

This is the last post from the 2017 challenge for the 52 week cooking challenge. In my last post about why I quit, I mentioned I was starting to twist whatever I was making into a theme to check the boxes, and there is probably no better example than this challenge right here. I wrote this back in November when we made the soup, but had been waiting to post it until I finished all the challenges in between, which as you know never happened. This was from Week 41 since I was jumping around, but going forward I'll just note any posts with themes from the challenge with 52W Challenge in the title instead of the week number since I'm no longer following along, officially or unofficially.

The Week 41 challenge was all about salt. The challenge was supposed to be about using salt in cooking, which is something we do all the time but rarely with salt as the focus. They had a bunch of suggestions, like encasing food in salt or doing a brine or curing. I didn't really have any interest in those types of projects at the time I was going to do the challenge, and the only thing I could think of was seasoning some vegetables with onion salt, not exactly much of a "challenge." Since I'm not officially participating, I decided to switch it around. How could I get the flavor of salt without using any actual salt itself?

Around that time, my grandparents had split a giant winter melon that had grown in someone's backyard into three sections, and I had to figure out what to do with a third of a winter melon. (Yes, the winter melon in the photo below is about a third of a single melon.) The easiest thing to do with winter melon is soup, so we decided to make a soup without using salt. Instead, we would use chicken bouillon to make chicken broth and also incorporate some chopped ham.

The soup ingredients were simple: half of the winter melon, a pound of carrots, a bowl of shiitake mushrooms (plus the soaking water), about 3 big scoops of bouillon, that entire ham steak, and a little white pepper, plus some more water to make broth. No salt itself.

The steps for making the soup were:

1. Prep: Soak shiitake mushrooms in warm water for about 20 minutes or until soft, and then remove mushrooms from water but save the water. Squeeze excess water from mushrooms and chop into slices. Peel and chop carrots.

2. Add carrots and mushrooms to large soup pot. Add the mushroom soaking water plus however much water you think you need for soup broth. (Didn't measure, but we ended up removing at least a few ladles full later because we had too much water.) Bring to boil.

3. While waiting for water to boil, prep winter melon. Scoop out seeds and peel, then chop into smaller chunks. Chop up ham.

4. Once water is boiling, add winter melon, bouillon, and ham. Season with white pepper and stir everything together well. Bring back to boil over medium heat, and then lower to simmer. Simmer half-covered for about half an hour.

This was a very simple soup to make, and we based it on the soups that a lot of Chinatown restaurants serve before meals. We didn't plan to eat the entire pot of soup in one night but we did, mostly because it isn't exceptionally filling with just winter melon and carrots and mushrooms in it. It had so much more flavor than we were expecting it to, and it definitely tasted like there was salt added even though there technically wasn't. Probably wasn't what this challenge was intended to be about, but works for me. Would definitely make this again.

Monday, May 7, 2018

196 Weeks

The title of this post when I originally started it was going to be 208 Weeks, because I never had any intention of quitting the 52 week challenge, especially not mid-year. I'm a completionist by nature, and the idea of stopping, even if I was finding some of the challenges more of a chore than fun, in the middle of my fourth year wasn't really on my radar. But with all the craziness happening at the end of last year (getting a new place, doing renovations, trying to start clearing out our pantry, etc), I just never seemed to find the time to fit in some of the challenge meals, and started to find myself really uninspired to make the time. After hopelessly falling weeks behind, I decided to just call it. There was no way I'd finish before 2018 rolled around, and I hadn't even finished all the posts for the ones I did do. I was a little disappointed since I only had 12 weeks to go to make it to 208 (there's that completionist side of me), but 12 weeks is a whole quarter of the year, so it really wouldn't have been a small thing.

Week 22's Thai challenge where I just remade larb because I wanted it and wasn't really inspired at the time to make something new instead

So, why was I increasingly uninspired? A bunch of reasons, and I don't think it was any one thing in particular. Some of the themes were starting to feel a little broad/vague. They could literally be anything, not really much of a challenge. (For example, one of the ones I never got to in 2017 was meal prep. How is that any different from a normal day/week?) Other themes seemed to repeat things from previous years, and sure, I could make something different, but I felt bored. I wasn't inspired by some of the other themes and just couldn't find anything I wanted to make. Eventually, it just felt more like a chore, and I felt like I was trying to manipulate anything into the themes just to check them off, kind of the opposite of the spirit of the challenge.

Week 6's Italian challenge, one of my favorite new recipes of the year

I considered just stopping 2017 since I was so far behind, and starting clean in 2018, but by the time I looked at 2018's themes a few weeks in, I saw a bunch of repeats (like inspired by books, which was 2015, week 10 and hard enough to figure out the first time) or things I didn't really care to do (like new to you, which considering my 1000+ recipe collection could be basically ... anything). My current plan, now that we're finally getting settled in our new place, is to try to use the challenge list for periodic inspiration - maybe do something new, explore some new area, develop some new skill, all the reasons I started doing the challenge in the first place. Basically, skipping themes like "showing off" but maybe checking back in for something like Portuguese or Balkan.

Week 32's salad challenge, which could have been almost anything, but which I used as the start to a new challenge, cooking from the Jerusalem cookbook

At the end of every challenge year, I usually posted a recap of the challenges for the year, so here they are for 2017, the last time I'll do this (at least for now). For the ones I never got around to posting about, I added a photo since I don't think I'll ever get to those posts unless I remake something. And yes, I skipped around. Those aren't typos.

Week 1 - screw-ups revisited (baked mozzarella sticks)
Week 2 - rice (shiitake fried rice)
Week 3 - made healthy (sweet potato shepherd's pie)
Week 4 - chowder (sweet potato chowder)
Week 5 - Tex-Mex (sweet potato Tex-Mex skillet)
Week 6 - Italian (sausage and chestnut pasta)
Week 7 - black and white (oden with black rice)
Week 8 - spice blends (doro wat)
Week 9 - one pot (sausage and vegetable pasta)
Week 10 - Middle East (Iraqi eggs in meat sauce with quinoa salad and rice)
Week 11 - pies (leek, bacon, and cheese tart)
Week 12 - dorm food (ramen)
Week 13 - Escoffier (chicken and green beans with mustard sauce)
Week 14 - Southern (salmon, grits, and collards)
Week 15 - British (baked Scotch eggs)
Week 16 - vacation food (peri peri chicken with peas and cole slaw)
Week 17 - cafeteria food (pepper jack grilled cheese with tots and salad)
Week 18 - stir fry (black bean chicken)
Week 19 - tea (ochazuke)
Week 20 - 5 ingredients or less (bacon, leeks, mushrooms and cheese scramble)
Week 21 - presentation (cloud eggs with roasted potato salad and hash)
Week 22 - Thai (larb gai)
Week 23 - on a stick (chicken satay)
Week 24 - baking (smoked salmon and tots casserole)
Week 25 - California cuisine (braised corn)
Week 26 - berries (tomato salad)
Week 27 - garlic (cheesy garlic bread)
Week 28 - vanilla (banana bread)
Week 29 - dim sum (dumplings)
Week 30 - charcuterie (summer sausage, cheese, and jam board)
Week 31 - inspired by magic (Mexican bean salad)
Week 32 - salad (roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs salad)
Week 33 - midnight snacks (quesadillas)
Week 34 - batter (almond cake)
Week 35 - American Midwest (tot hot dish)
Week 36 - stacked (zucchini pancakes)
Week 37 - tailgating (chicken chili)

Week 40 - Oktoberfest (bratwurst with German-style potatoes and cucumber salad)

Week 41 - salt (winter melon soup)
Week 42 - casseroles (chicken enchiladas with hatch chile cream sauce)

Looking forward to new challenges in the kitchen, from Reddit or elsewhere!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

M's Favorite Food Memories of 2017

Somehow it's already May, and we still haven't posted our favorite food memories from last year. We originally planned to do it by Chinese New Year, and then wanted to finish them before we moved, but things got so busy and so hectic (multiple all-nighters level of busy), much more than we anticipated despite knowing we had 12 years of stuff to move, and we never got to it. A lot of our stuff is still in boxes, and we still don't have a complete living room, but we don't want to neglect this blog forever. So this post is long overdue, but before summer officially kicks off, here are my favorite food memories from 2017. We ate a lot of good food in 2017, both at home in NYC and on our trips to LA, Seattle, and Vancouver. In (sort of) alphabetical order, here are my 10 favorite food memories of 2017.

1. Eatsa (NYC)

I went to Eatsa for the first time early in 2017 (we posted about it) and returned several more times over the course of the year. (It probably would have been many more if I had still worked in a Midtown office.) Eatsa revolutionized the eating scene in two different ways: the ordering process (automat-style from a kiosk/phone app without any human interaction) and making healthy quinoa bowls affordable (pretty much everything was under $10). In the end, the price may be part of what did them in, since quinoa isn't cheap, and they closed all their non-SF stores in October. (The cynical part of me still wonders if all the stores were just a test run for their tech.) I'll always be sad that I can never have another no worry curry (what ended up being my favorite) bowl again, with its tasty quinoa, spaghetti squash, apple-cabbage slaw, pickled onions, red Thai curry sauce, and more, but all the tasty bowls are a happy memory of 2017.

2. Bollo de pescado from Ecuadorian Delights at the Queens International Night Market (NYC)

I love going to the Queens International Night Market (which has already started up for 2018 before I finished this post). In 2017, we made two visits and sampled Burmese, Guyanese, Antiguan, Salvadoran, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Persian, Nigerian, and Filipino cuisine. There really isn't anywhere else in the city where you can do all that in a short period of time and at affordable prices. My favorite thing at the night market last year was the bollo de pescado from Ecuadorian Delights, a green plantain tamale with tuna and peanut sauce wrapped up in banana leaves and topped with pickled onions. It was so delicious, and tasted like something that was just made in someone's home kitchen. We got it on both visits because we liked it so much, meaning we were too full to try their hallaca or corviche, and now I have no idea where to go to get any of those.

3. Corn ice cream taco from Empellon (NYC)

We went to the Midtown Empellon to celebrate my birthday, and one of the desserts that we heard a lot about before our visit was the corn ice cream taco. I figured it would be good, but I wasn't prepared for the explosion of corn flavor in every bite. Corn and ice cream are a great combination, one of my favorites, with some sweetness, saltiness, and savory flavor all in one bite. It wasn't a big dessert, so we were also able to get the avocado dessert and a seasonal apple dessert sampler, but it was probably my favorite dessert of the year.

4. Acai and pitaya bowls from Fruit Wonders (Palm Springs, CA)

Our big trip last year was to California, and we spent a few relaxing days in Palm Springs. It was really hot during the day, and the perfect way to cool down was a visit to Fruit Wonders. We got an açaí bowl the first time and a pitaya bowl the second, and both were really good. Sweet smoothies with granola, hemp seeds, oatmeal, blueberries, bananas, strawberries, kiwi, coconut, and agave. We'd been wanting to try açaí bowls for a while, but this was our first time, and we were hooked thanks to Fruit Wonders.

5. Los Tacos No. 1 (NYC)

Los Tacos No. 1 has been open in Chelsea Market for years, but they finally opened a second location, right near Times Square, last summer. Their tacos are some of the best in the city, and this new location was so much closer to us. We went there a lot since their opening, getting tacos, quesadillas, mulas, and nopal plates topped with (most commonly) pollo asado or adobada. Even with all the new spots in Hell's Kitchen/Midtown West over the past year, its arrival was the most exciting thing that happened for us. One of my few regrets before we moved was that I didn't manage to go there even more.

6. Salmon oshi sushi from Miku (Vancouver, BC)

We had a lot of things on our Vancouver to-try list for our few days there, and one of the must-dos was aburi oshi sushi, a special type of sushi that is not very common around here, pressed and flame-seared. We went to Miku, an expensive restaurant on the downtown waterfront, and sat at the bar for a light meal just so we could try the sushi. The salmon was BC wild sockeye salmon, and it was topped with jalapeño and Miku sauce. This was unlike any other sushi we'd had before. It basically melted in your mouth, and was so full of flavor. Pretty much a perfect bite of sushi, and I still dream about it.

7. The famous chicken for two from The NoMad (NYC)

We went to The Nomad for A's birthday, and we were finally able to try their famous whole-roasted chicken for two. We weren't sure if it would live up to the incredible hype, but it definitely did. They bring the chicken out to you once it's done, but then bring it to the back and plate it. You get a large piece of white meat chicken, so juicy and tender, with foie gras, black truffle, and brioche bread crumbs under the skin, on a plate with potato puree and leeks, and then you get the dark meat in a small bowl like a stew. It was amazing, and its stellar reputation is well-earned.

8. Cheddar garlic roll from Piroshky Piroshky (Seattle, WA)

I'm not big on waiting in line for food, but we waited for Piroshky Piroshky. We had tried their salmon pate piroshky years ago when a relative gave one to us to try, so we got that again along with some other stuff that looked good. While the salmon one was as good as we remembered, what we really loved was the cheddar garlic roll. Layers of perfectly chewy pastry with cheddar cheese, garlic, and scallions, it was a combination of some of my favorite things. We went back again on the day we left to get some more, because it was just that good.

9. Sisig tacos from various spots around NYC

We don't have any Filipino restaurants in our neighborhood (last year or now), so before last year, we only ended up getting Filipino food once in a (very long) while. Last summer, we got some sisig tacos at a street fair, and that ended up kicking off an unplanned summer of Filipino food exploration. We got so much Filipino food last summer, everything from halo halo to sisig bangus to chicken adobo to buko pandan, but of course, more sisig tacos all over the place. They may not be traditional Filipino cuisine, but they're fun to eat and delicious.

10. Sockeye salmon sashimi from Sushi Itoga (Vancouver, BC)

Last but certainly not least, the sockeye salmon sashimi from Sushi Itoga in Vancouver. Sushi Itoga was another one of those must-try things I put on our Vancouver list. It was a small spot where you ordered sushi at the counter, and then they brought it to your table. Even better, it was incredibly affordable. We got six rolls, a plate of sashimi, seaweed salad, and the included miso soup and tea for like US $35. Even better than the price was the quality. That sashimi was so fresh, and it was so soft that it really just melted in our mouths. (I realize I said the same thing about Miku, but it's true.) We went there on our last day in Vancouver, and we were talking about the sashimi the entire way back to Seattle on the train.

There you have it, my favorite food memories of 2017. Somehow it took over four months to put it into words, but it's finally done!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Winter Snowflake Pasta

I love pasta shapes, so when Trader Joe's comes out with a new shaped pasta, it usually ends up in the cart. This winter snowflake pasta appeared near the end of last year and looked like a fun shape that would hold sauce well in all of the little snowflake holes.

The pasta did indeed hold the sauce, but we found that the thickness of the pieces wasn't that uniform. That meant that if you tested one piece and it was al dente, it didn't mean all the rest were equally cooked through. I think if we had realized in advance how different some of them were, we would have probably cooked them on the longer side. They were good, but not as good as some other shapes we've had before.

Buy again? If this were to turn up again, probably not. We didn't like it as much as some others, and I prefer vegetable or whole wheat pasta for health reasons, so probably not.