Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Our Year in Food: 2013

2013 was an interesting food year for us. Some overall themes which made it different from previous years are more home cooking, less delivery and eating out, more trips to the grocery store (summer of the pluots!) and no international adventures. Even though we stayed domestic, we still had lots of food adventures and discoveries. You can check out our favorite food memories of the year in the following posts, but here's our overview of our 2013 in food.

The first restaurant meal we ate in 2013: New Year's Day lunch specials from Room Service, New York. Steamed dumplings, tom yum soup, chicken peanut sauce fried rice, and spaghetti panang curry.

Our Thai lunch specials from Room Service

The first homecooked meal we ate in 2013: A put together this semi-homemade Japanese-style chicken curry and it was delicious and hearty for a winter night.

Box of curry + panko chicken = tasty

The last restaurant meal we ate in 2013: New Year's Eve lunch at Schnipper's with some of our favorites. Green chile turkey burger, mac and joe, and fries.

Schnipper's favorites (some of them)

The last homecooked meal we ate in 2013: A (with a little prep help from M) cooked a delicious New Year's Eve dinner - bistro dijon chicken with an easy winter ratatouille on the side. (Cooking posts to come.)

New Year's Eve dinner

# of different restaurants we tried in 2013 (together and separate): 254. Only a few off from last year, which was a bit surprising considering we've done so much home cooking this year. Maybe we did more snacks or food crawls this year?

Cities explored (outside of NYC metro area): Los Angeles, CA; Lancaster/Palmdale, CA; Philadelphia, PA; Princeton, NJ; Lancaster/Lititz, PA; Harrisburg, PA; Uniontown, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; Gettysburg, PA; Frederick, MD; Portland, OR; Vancouver, WA; Chicago, IL.

# of cookbook projects we did in 2013: Too many to count. With our new emphasis on home cooking, we've tried out a lot of recipes from our cookbook collection and online. It might be time to retire this as a year in review category since it's no longer a monthly thing (or an attempt to do it monthly).

Our first cookbook project of the year (post here)

# of new Shake Shack custards reviewed: 5. Not as many as previous years due to many returning flavors, trying to eat healthier, and honestly just forgetting what day of the week it was until it was too late to try a new flavor.

Most visited restaurant in 2013: New Spring Garden, Brooklyn (8x, thanks to family dinners). Runners-up were Panera (7x, thanks to family meals) and Schnipper's (6x). Kind of crazy that at home the most we've eaten out at a restaurant together is 6 times in one year. We're not really "regulars" anywhere.

Some of the dishes from our most recent Spring Garden dinner

Progress on WorldEats challenge: Canada, Cuba, and Jamaica are done (even if we're still only up to blogging about Cuba). Bahamas skipped due to no Bahamian spots. Haiti is next and we're excited as neither of us have ever had Haitian cuisine before.

2013 blog series that will someday be completed: Los Angeles trip, Philadelphia weekend trip, Chicago weekend trip, PA road trip, Portland Thanksgiving break.

Favorite overall meal of 2013: Our early engageaversary dinner at Empellón Cocina in New York in June. We had the salsa sampler, red snapper ceviche, squid with black mole, roasted bone marrow special, pea tacos, shortrib pastrami tacos, and a special roasted peach dessert. All together, it was one excellent composed meal. (Honorable mentions to our Burmese feast at Rangoon in Philadelphia and our anniversary dinner at Louro here in New York.)

Empellón dishes that we enjoyed

Looking forward to fun eating adventures in 2014!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Kimchi Mac and Cheese

One of the Trader Joe's products that I've really liked this year is their kimchi from the refrigerated section. We've eaten it straight from the package as a side dish. It's also been a fantastic component of kimchi grilled cheese sandwiches. So it seemed only natural that, with an expiring package of kimchi and an expiring box of macaroni and cheese, the next thing I would make would be kimchi mac and cheese.

There are quite a few recipes for kimchi mac and cheese on the internet (although I didn't search for or read any of them until after this dinner), but this time I went the semi-homemade route. I may not be a fan of the semi-homemade TV show on the Food Network, but I do appreciate the value and convenience of semi-homemade cooking. Today I got back on the later side from the grocery store, we were both hungry, and dinner needed to be quick. Mixing the two packages together was so much easier than creating mac and cheese from scratch or making kimchi in advance.

I started by boiling the noodles for the mac and cheese, during which time I chopped up the kimchi into smaller pieces so it would be easier to mix and there would be more to spread around. Then I set up the kimchi in a pan on low heat. Once the macaroni was done and drained, I mixed in about 1/2 cup of milk and the "real cheddar cheese" packet that came in the box. After it was sufficiently mixed, I tossed the kimchi on top, stirred it around (a lot), added some black pepper, and stirred it some more.

The finished kimchi mac and cheese had a really interesting flavor that grew on us the more we ate it. The kimchi was nice and spicy, mixed in with the milder mac and cheese. A few years ago, I never would have thought kimchi and cheese went together, but Korean food really seems to lend itself well to cheese! Mac and cheese, grilled cheese, cheesesteaks, a place in K-town even has dukbokki with cheese...

We topped it with some cilantro, because... why not. I would garnish everything with cilantro if it made sense. It wasn't an essential ingredient for the mac and cheese but it was nice to have some fresh herbs.

We both preferred the kimchi grilled cheese (which has a draft post somewhere in the archive that we'll someday finish) that I made earlier this fall, but the kimchi mac and cheese was quick and tasty. Now what else can I mix kimchi with...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Chipotle Turkey

Au Bon Pain has a special place in my heart, mostly due to nostalgia. I know it's a chain, but we had one on campus in college and I went there a lot when I was avoiding the dining hall (which really wasn't that awful). So many memories of late night visits for chicken caesar wraps which I devoured at midnight while beginning my studying or writing. I didn't exclusively get the chicken caesar wrap (I ate my fair share of Thai chicken sandwiches), but there were a lot of them.

So when I went to ABP to get my free birthday sandwich this year, I faced a dilemma: nostalgia or adventure? Should I get a chicken caesar wrap to try to relive my college days, knowing that this many years later it was unlikely to live up to my memory of it? Or should I try something new that the current me might like more?

Clearly, since this isn't a wrap, I decided to try something new and went for the chipotle turkey sandwich. It came on ciabatta bread and had layers of turkey, chipotle cheddar cheese, roasted tomatoes, avocado and arugula with chipotle mayo.

I really liked this sandwich. It tasted fresh and clean and the ingredients worked well together. I liked the spiciness of the chipotle cheddar cheese and the chipotle mayo, which was balanced by the creamy avocado. I don't think this sandwich was offered 15+ years ago or I would have tried it back then (at least I like to think I would have) and probably added it to the regular ABP rotation.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holiday Doughnuts

I stopped by Doughnut Plant last week to check out their holiday doughnut offerings and was faced with many more choices than I was expecting. I thought maybe they would have a couple of seasonal specials, but they had 5! I decided to get a marzipan star (mostly because it was a star) and the triple chocolate mint, and headed inside.

They were sold out of a bunch of doughnuts that late afternoon, including the marzipan star, so I substituted the star with one that jumped out at me in the display case - the cranberry yeast doughnut.

We really like the yeast doughnuts at Doughnut Plant. They're soft and airy and the glazes on the ones like the cranberry doughnut always taste so natural. The coating on this doughnut was made from actual cranberry and you could taste the freshness. Because it was made from fresh cranberries you could taste both the sweetness and tartness you'd expect from the fruit. We really liked this one and it was probably our favorite of the 2.

The triple chocolate mint doughnut came in cake form, which meant it was much denser.

The outside icing of the doughnut tasted heavily of chocolate and mint, but the flavors were very mild when paired with the cakey donut, and the donut itself tasted like chocolate cake. We were hoping for (and expecting) more mint out of this.

Doughnut Plant makes some of our favorite doughnuts (although, to be fair, we haven't yet tried a lot of the heavy hitters in the NYC doughnut world since DP is so close to us now). Can't wait to see what specials we can get next time!

Chicken Vermicelli

Did you think those other delayed posts were old? Well, this one is from July 2012. Yes, 2012. I still have drafts about lunch from 2012. As you can see from the first paragraph, I was pretty uninspired when I went for this lunch and I remember not being very inspired after it, so I guess that's why it languished for so long. I am on a mission to either delete or post all of the remaining drafts (other than the ones that are waiting to be posted at the right point in a sequence of trip recaps or WorldEats or otherwise) before the new year. We'll see how that goes... In any event, this post is only slightly modified from what was written in July 2012. I really should have posted it earlier.

One day, I was feeling a bit uninspired by the usual lunch choices, so I looked on Seamless for some restaurants with lunch specials, figuring I could get something different from the routine. Most of the lunch specials were at Asian restaurants - sushi, Vietnamese, Thai places.  I decided on Cha Pa's Noodles & Grill in Hell's Kitchen, a place A and I have been to together a number of times.  For the lunch special, you got to pick a dish (from a limited menu), and it came with either salad or a spring roll.  The lunch menu included the banh mi that I've wanted to try (they only have it at lunch and we've only ever gone for dinner), but for some reason, my mind was set on getting a spring roll (which doesn't come with the banh mi) so I got one of the non-sandwich options.

The spring roll (cha gio) was rice paper wrapped around pork, shrimp, taro, wood ear mushrooms, and glass noodles.  It wasn't so crispy by the time I got back to the office with my lunch, but it was still tasty.  I think A and I have gotten them before, and they're pretty good crispy and wrapped in lettuce.

I've realized that, if I don't blog about something, I don't remember it as well.  That would be why this time I thought I was getting the chicken vermicelli noodle bowl (aka bun) for the first time, when in fact I ordered it only a few months earlier when we went there for dinner.  Oops.  According to the menu, the Cha Pa's version of bun consists of rice noodles topped with lettuce, cucumber and mint topped with chicken, and served with pickled daikon, carrots, peanuts and onion flakes.

Once I started eating the chicken bun, I realized that I was having the same thought that I did the last time I got it: it was an overwhelming amount of vermicelli noodles.  If you look at the picture above, what you see in terms of chicken, lettuce, carrots, daikon and cucumbers is what you get.  Underneath is a giant bed of vermicelli noodles.  They were really sticky and kind of dry to eat unless you poured on the entire container of nước chấm (the fish sauce-based sauce on the side with shredded carrots). Although the menu mentioned mint and onion flakes, I didn't get any of that while eating it. The overwhelming taste and texture were just the plain, dry, difficult noodles.

It was good for a hot summer day but a little out of balance between the noodles and everything else.  Some more crunchy vegetables (and better noodles) would have been preferable. Lunch was fine but sadly didn't do much to raise my inspiration level. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rainbow Cookie Cake

Does Costco have this rainbow cookie bar cake nationwide or is this just an NYC/East Coast thing?

First time trying rainbow cookies in cake form

I'm never quite sure what things are local to our area for the holidays. Today at Costco they were sampling this rainbow cookie bar cake, which is pretty much the classic rainbow cookie in a larger cake form. Layers of sponge cake with raspberry and almond paste filling, in the usual rainbow colors, and topped with chocolate ganache. It was rich and creamy, but also light at the same time because of the airy sponge cake. The soft chocolate icing was an interesting contrast to the usual firm chocolate layer in the cookie. In my opinion as a rainbow cookie lover, both work well.

Rainbow cookies from last year's Christmas dessert, in case you're unfamiliar with their greatness

Rainbow cookies are everywhere around here, especially at the holidays. The ones from the local Italian bakeries are still better, but the Costco ones are pretty good. I know this is an Italian-American creation, so I'm not sure how much the rest of the country gets to experience this delicious treat. If anyone is having a big party for Christmas, this cake (or the cookies) should really be a contender for the dessert table.

Bubbling and Squeaking to Failure

Another post that was written over the summer but never posted (this time, July 30th). Why do I keep doing this? This post is pretty much exactly as written in July. Let's see if I can find any other recipe failure draft posts to go along with this one and the onion ring disaster post...

Over the past few months, I've accumulated a lot of recipes in a folder on my laptop. I would love to be able to just look at ingredients and think up full recipes on the fly, but in order to get to that point, it's going to take a lot more practicing and learning first.

We bought some baby kale from Costco over the weekend, so I went searching through my recipe folder for something that used kale. This potato and kale bubble and squeak recipe from Whole Foods sounded simple and looked really tasty.

How the potato and kale bubble and squeak was supposed to look (source)

Unfortunately dinner didn't look like that and was full of mini-disasters. First step was to clean and peel the potatoes, using about 3 large ones. That didn't seem like it would be an issue since we had picked up a 10 pound bag of potatoes from Wegmans on our way back from Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago.

The bag of potatoes had been sitting in a large plastic bag in our living room (first mistake, but no room in our tiny, tiny pantry) and when I picked it up, I was hit in the face with a strong foul odor and noticed that my hand was soaked with brown water. The bag kept dripping dark brown water and it seemed as if some of the potatoes had completely liquified. I don't know how that happened, but in the end, we had only one usable potato from the entire 10 pound bag. What a waste! Luckily I did have one potato in the pantry that I randomly bought at Trader Joe's a month ago, so we had 2 potatoes to use for the bubble and squeak.

I cut the peeled potatoes up into smaller pieces.

And covered them with salted cold water until they boiled, and then simmered them for another 15 minutes.

While the potatoes were on the stove, I got to work on cooking the kale. We've never had this baby kale bag before, but it didn't seem as tough as regular kale.

I cooked the kale in a covered skillet for a few minutes and then let it cook uncovered for awhile, waiting for the water to evaporate, but it never really did, so I ended up just squeezing water out before adding it to the potatoes.

My favorite part - mashing the potatoes (with a little bit of butter and some skim milk added in)!

Once the potatoes were mashed, it was time to add the cooked kale, about 4 finely chopped green onions, and salt and pepper to taste. I added quite a bit of black pepper.

For the next steps, I followed the recipe really closely, but for some reason didn't get the same results as the recipe. In a large skillet over medium heat, you're supposed to add about a tablespoon of canola oil and then spoon the potato mixture into the skillet. Then level the top with a spatula and cook "until golden brown on the bottom" which should be about 8-10 minutes. I did that. I thought it was cooking correctly since the edges were golden brown, but all the brown parts were stuck to the pan. After the 8-10 minutes, you're supposed to flip it over, smooth it over again, and then cook for 8 more minutes. I did the best I could, but the dish turned into "semi-fried mashed potatoes" (or semi-fried colcannon, more accurately). "Flipping" it was like just stirring mashed potatoes because all the browned potato mixture wouldn't flip and I had to scrape it off.

This was how it turned out. Basically, kale mashed potatoes with some fried edges. I like colcannon and mashed potatoes, and the potatoes were tasty, but I really was expecting more of a potato cake type thing based on the Whole Foods recipe picture.

I read more about bubble and squeak after dinner, and it sounds like an easy dish to use up vegetables (or meats) as long as you have potatoes on hand. Adding onions or leeks also sounds like a good idea. I think we'll try it again, but next time I really hope it doesn't stick to the pan. 

In case you forgot what the original looks like, check out this comparison.

Next time, I hope it looks a little more like the recipe. Any suggestions are definitely welcome. Did it need more oil in order to pan-fry correctly? Did it need butter? Should I have made "mini cakes" instead of flattening it into one large cake? Should I have formed them into patties before putting them in the pan? Should I have used a nonstick pan? I would love for this to turn out better and could use some help!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Onion Ring Disaster

I love onion rings. All types. Big thick soft beer battered onion rings. Crispy crunchy thin onion rings. Even Burger King (or McDonald's) onion rings. But what I don't like is deep frying at home. So when I realized we had one yellow onion left at the end of our fridge clean-out, I decided I would try to find a way to make baked onion rings. After some searching, I found a recipe that looked really delicious (here) and my mind was made up. I was going to make my own onion rings.

The recipe seemed fairly straightforward. First, I pulled together the main ingredients for the onion rings - an onion, an egg, panko bread crumbs, flour, milk and spices.

The spice blend was a variation of what was in the recipe - salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder and thyme (we're out of oregano).

As I combined the spices together (I love spices), I was really excited for the onion ring experiment. These were going to be so good!

I chopped up the onion into rings.

I set up my three working bowls - one with flour, one with the batter (flour, egg and milk), and one with the bread crumbs and all the spices. I followed the instructions and dredged and dipped them in each bowl, one after the other. 

And ended up with this.

The two large rings on the right side were the first two onion rings I breaded. They look fairly evenly breaded. The ones in the middle were the last ones I breaded. The bread crumbs and spices are clumpy and barely sticking to the onion where I pressed them on after pulling all the bread crumbs off my fingers. What did I do wrong? I imagined that I would just dredge the onions through bowl 3 and the bread crumbs would just lightly coat them all. I never imagined all that clumping and how difficult it would be to actually get them to stick (to something other than my fingers). The onion rings in the recipe's photo look lovely. All even and crisp and not clumpy. (Also, not red, which is my fault, since instead of "1 teaspoon creole seasoning," I made the recipe for creole seasoning and added it to the bread crumbs. Oops. Failure at reading directions there.) I don't know where I went wrong. Is it because the ratio of bread crumbs to spices was off? Could that really be it? (It took me over 24 hours to realize that was even a possible explanation...)

I managed to get through two of the horizontal onion slices, which made one tray of onion rings, before I just gave up. I popped the tray into the oven for 15 minutes, stuck the rest of the onion "rings" in a skillet with some arbequina olive oil and a similar spice blend as the baked rings, and let them start to caramelize. The onions off the stove were soft, sweet and spiced nicely, unlike my baked onion ring disaster.

I don't doubt that this is a good baked onion ring recipe. It sounded easy and seemed to work for all the other commenters. The spice blend is good (if only I had put in an appropriate amount instead of an entire bowl full of creole seasoning). But I somehow completely screwed it up. They were really salty (that's my fault for not reading the directions correctly on the spices). They did bake nicely and had the right amount of crunchiness. But the breading process took forever, clumped everywhere and just didn't seem to dredge the way it should have. I don't know when I'm going to bake onion rings again, but I just hope they come out better than these.

Candy Cane Truffle

As Godiva rewards members, we get one free truffle every month. Somehow during the entire first year after we signed up for the rewards program we never went to get our monthly truffle, but this year we've been trying to remember to stop by monthly.

We often try seasonal truffles, like the pumpkin one we got back in October. Looking through the truffles this time, the candy cane one jumped out at A and we decided to try it for the holidays.

The truffle was white chocolate on the outside with a creamy pink inside. It was much creamier than we were expecting. Neither of us really thought it tasted like a candy cane though. It was more similar in taste to those red and white peppermint swirl candies than a candy cane. It just wasn't that minty. We probably wouldn't get this again.

We highly recommend membership in Godiva rewards. A free truffle every month? Can't beat that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Tarte d'Alsace

Tarte flambée, an Alsatian specialty that consists of thin dough topped with creme fraiche or cheese, onions and bacon/lardons, holds a special place in our heart. It was one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant where we got engaged, and we get it every time we go there. I saw awhile ago that Trader Joe's had a version of tarte flambée called "Tarte d'Alsace" and definitely wanted to give it a try (once we finally finished all the frozen pizza we already had). I figured it could never live up to a freshly made and freshly baked restaurant version, but hoped it would be good.

Not a specialty of Trader Joe but Maitre Pierre

This Tarte d'Alsace was a variation on the traditional tarte flambée which came with ham and gruyere cheese. Unwrapping the package, it looked fairly similar to the picture on the box except the onions and ham weren't so evenly distributed throughout the pie.

The ham was red, not pink... I don't know why my phone does this in this part of the kitchen

It didn't take long to bake, but unfortunately it got a little stuck to our pan. We managed to save most of it and had a pretty satisfying lunch. The cheese was rich and creamy, the onions had that nice caramelized flavor, and the ham gave it saltiness. It wasn't as crisp or golden, especially on the edges, as it looked in the box photo, but the crust was okay.

One quarter of the pie

Buy Again? Yes, I think we would. It's obviously not as tasty as the fresh ones we can get at the restaurant but it's a lot cheaper ($4.49) and we can keep one in the freezer for when we're craving a bite of tarte flambée. A quick and easy taste of Alsace (and nostalgia).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Baked Langostino Tails with Tomatoes and Feta

We are currently working on cleaning out the refrigerator in preparation for the Christmas holidays, and one thing we needed to use up was the rest of our giant Costco container of expiring crumbled feta cheese. (Haven't made enough omelettes or salads recently, I suppose.) When I read about this Ellie Krieger recipe on the Food Network for baked shrimp with tomatoes and feta, I knew this was the perfect way to finish off the feta cheese. It reminded me of dishes that we had in Athens, so I definitely wanted to give it a try.


We went shopping that day for shrimp and a second can of diced tomatoes, the only ingredients we didn't already have at home. Unfortunately by the time we got to Trader Joe's late on Sunday afternoon (the absolute worst time to ever go to TJ's), so many of the shelves were empty and the store was almost completely out of shrimp. No cooked shrimp, no raw shrimp, no large shrimp, no small shrimp. The only shrimp were in a seafood combo with calamari and scallops, which wouldn't be a great fit with the rest of the recipe (or prepared shrimp like the firecracker shrimp), so we decided to go with the next best alternative we could find - langostino tails. They weren't cheap, but getting shrimp elsewhere would have been even more expensive. The substitution worked out well.

The ingredients I used for this recipe were:

- olive oil for sauteing ($0.10)
- 1 yellow onion ($0.60)
- 5 garlic cloves ($0.10)
- 2 cans of diced tomatoes, 1 seasoned & 1 regular ($2.48)
- a few tbsp of dried parsley ($0.25)
- 1 tbsp of dried dill weed ($0.15)
- 12 oz of langostino tails, cooked and peeled ($11.99)
- salt to taste ($0.05)
- ground pepper to taste ($0.05)
- 1 cup of feta cheese ($3)

The total for the recipe was about $19, a lot more expensive than our homemade dinners usually are, but seafood is pricey. It did make enough for two large dinner portions plus leftovers for one meal. Shrimp (from TJ's anyway) would knock a few dollars off that total, as would getting diced tomatoes on sale, but fresh herbs (what the original recipe called for) would increase the price a little.


My method was a little different from the original recipe since I didn't just pop the skillet into the oven, but I think this worked well.

1.  Heat olive oil in skillet over medium high heat and add onions. Once onions are softened, add garlic. After about a minute, add both cans of tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until tomato juices thicken (approximately 5 minutes).

2.  Remove skillet from heat. Add parsley, dill, salt, pepper and langostino tails (or shrimp). Mix everything together.

3.  Transfer combined mixture to a baking dish.

4.  Sprinkle feta cheese over the top of the dish.

5.   Bake at 425 degrees until everything is cooked and cheese begins to melt.

It's a pretty easy recipe to follow and shouldn't take too long to prep (just chopping onions and garlic). The recipe gives the cook time as 21 minutes, but it took closer to 45 minutes for me, for whatever reason.


We ate this dish with a side of potato wedges, and it was a fantastic dinner. We really loved the flavors of this dish as-is, although we were certainly able to think of several enhancements. One would be a couple pinches of red pepper flakes to add a little zing. The dill gave this a really unique flavor and we might try either more dried dill weed or some fresh dill. But that's about all we could come up with. In the comments on the Food Network site, reviewers made all sorts of other adjustments, but what I really loved about this dish was how much it reminded me of real Greek food (unlike this fish A made once before from a Greek cookbook). The flavor combination was spot-on and we enjoyed it so much that, although we would make small adjustments, we would mostly stick with the recipe itself. Really happy with how this turned out.