Friday, October 31, 2014

Week 44 - Horror Movie Inspired

I had a lot of trouble coming up with a dish for the Week 44 challenge. The theme was horror movie inspired, which on its face doesn't sound any harder than other inspiration weeks like TV show inspired. But I don't watch horror movies and it's pretty hard to be inspired by something you don't know much about. I looked through tons of sites but nothing clicked (other than things I've already made in other challenges this year). Eventually I just decided to forget trying to find inspiration from a particular movie and to instead make mini mummy pizzas like the ones I had found on the Whole Foods site because they're Halloween themed and there must be mummies in some horror movies, even if I haven't watched them. So here are my horror movie mummy pizzas.

Ingredients for mini pizzas

I decided to do 3 English muffins for the pizzas, giving us 3 mini pizzas each, and then make the rest of the bag of kale (since the kale used for the pizzas barely made a dent in the bag) as a side dish. For the pizzas, I used:

- 3 English muffins, cut in half ($0.85)
- pizza sauce ($0.60)
- 1 red pepper, finely chopped ($0.59)
- a few handfuls of kale, finely chopped ($0.20)
- 1.5 pieces of string cheese ($0.45)
- 12 sliced black olives ($0.20)

The pizzas cost about $2.89. For the rest of the kale, I used an onion, a few cloves of garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, so the total for the kale was about $2.89 as well (what are the chances of that happening?), making the total for dinner a very reasonable $5.78.

These look like Christmas to me

Making the mini pizzas was pretty simple. Once the oven hit 400 degrees, I lined a baking sheet with parchment paper and put the cut muffin halves in the oven for about 5-10 minutes to get them a little crispy. After taking them out and letting them cool for a couple of minutes, I added a layer of pizza sauce and the chopped up kale and peppers. 

Mummy pizzas ready to bake

Next was the string cheese to look like "bandages" and the olives for mummy eyes. Then they went back in the oven for 15 minutes for the cheese to melt. Making pizza is pretty easy, which is probably why we do it so often, and these were super healthy with all the kale and peppers on top. (We had extra kale and pepper toppings so we just ate them raw as a "salad" while we waited for everything to cook.)

Looking slightly less mummy-ish but done

The mini pizzas were okay. They were (very) healthy and tasted fine, but they were more cute and amusing to us than anything else with their olive eyes. They reminded us of mummies with googly eyes and that made us laugh. These were certainly festive enough for our Halloween dinner and they worked for a difficult challenge!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Berries Gomega

When I was at Whole Foods last week, I saw that they were having a sale on Odwalla smoothies. $2.50 for a bottle isn't incredibly cheap but considering how expensive juicing is as a hobby (as much as we enjoy making fresh juice at home), it's fairly reasonable. I did a double-take at the high sugar content, but since I needed to rehydrate and regain energy after a fast, the sugar content was bearable (that time).

This smoothie combines juice and puree of 8 different fruits, and according to the bottle, it has the equivalent of juice from 1-1/2 apples, 3/4 orange (those were the 2 juices), 1/3 cup cherrries, 1/4 peach, 1/5 pear, 1/7 mango, 4 blackberries and 1 strawberry (and those were the 6 purees), along with 1500 mg of omega-3. I'm not sure how they measured that, but I'll take their word for it.

It was really, really sweet, but I love sweet smoothies. You could definitely taste that it was all fruit. I liked this, especially for $2.50. If we tried to get that much fruit and combine it into our juicer, it would be really tough getting this much to drink for that amount!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Week 43 - Candied

One of the difficulties with being up to date on the 52 week challenge (since I meal plan the week or weekend before) is that I don't have the luxury of being able to see how other people handled the challenge or the suggestions they put up in the weekly introduction thread. Even if I already have some ideas for a challenge, seeing those can be helpful for refining my choices or clarifying the theme. Usually not a big deal since the themes are often pretty self-explanatory, but I was apparently not spot on with the theme for week 43 - candied.

When I hear candied, what I think about immediately is candied yams. I don't even particularly love them since I find them very sweet, but I knew I wanted to try making them for the challenge. When the introductory thread got posted that Monday, they had changed the name of the theme there from candied to candying, which has an entirely different meaning. They even posted that candying was the "process of coating food in sugar or syrup" and cooking until there was a "hard, sugary shell around the outside." It seemed like most people knew that was what was meant by candied with their candied bacon or candied ginger or candied fruit. Not me. I wasn't going to get a hard, sugary shell around these yams, but it counts for me because I already had my plan, it really did fit the theme before the explanation went up, and I'm not even officially participating anyway, so it doesn't really matter.

I loosely followed this recipe from Simply Recipes for candied yams. To make the dish, I used:

- 2 lbs sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped ($2.06)
- salt ($0.03)
- 2 cups orange juice ($0.75)
- 3/4 cup brown sugar ($0.50)
- 1 tsp ground ginger ($0.05)
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon ($0.05)
- 2 tbsp butter ($0.50)

The total for the yams was a little under $4, which isn't too bad, but that was only one component of our meal (more on that later).

This is a pretty easy recipe. You bring a pot of water to a boil, add the sweet potatoes, and then cook them until they're "no longer crunchy." I think I let them go a little too long so they were really soft, but that was okay with me. When they're about to be done, start the sauce - the juice, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and butter - and bring it to a boil, then add the sweet potatoes.

Once all the sweet potatoes are coated in the sauce, you put the heat on high and let it boil until it has reduced down and has the consistency of syrup. It looked like this for a long time and I was starting to think I would have another recipe execution failure on my hands, but then I let it go for a bit without checking on it, gave it a look, and it was perfectly reduced.

If I was going to make candied yams, then we were going to have a mini Thanksgiving dinner, an idea I loved since I love Thanksgiving dinner. A made his green bean casserole and I heated up some of the new Trader Joe's turkey sausage (more on that here), and together with our candied yams, we had a pretty colorful Thanksgiving plate. (My favorite part of Thanksgiving - stuffing - isn't here, but we already had more than enough food for the night.) It wasn't a cheap dinner, coming in around $17.45 total ($3.94 for the yams, $4.99 for the turkey, and $8.52 for the green bean casserole), but it was tasty. (Technically it was a little less since there was some green bean casserole left over for lunch the next day, but that calculation is too hard to figure out precisely.)

The yams were good, but very, very sweet. There was a nice burst of citrus flavor throughout because of all the orange juice, but the predominant flavor was definitely sweet. Although this was good, and we did enjoy it, I think I'm more inclined to take sweet potatoes and roast them in the oven with some savory spices because I prefer savory. But if making a sweet preparation for yams or sweet potatoes, I definitely think this is a good recipe.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage

Just in time for the heart of the fall season, Trader Joe's has an uncured turkey cranberry apple sausage ($4.99) on the shelves. I think it's new (if it's not, I haven't seen it before), and I was really excited to try it as the turkey part of a mini-Thanksgiving dinner (more on that soon).

The sausage is made up of turkey, sweetened dried cranberries, vinegar, cane sugar, dried apples, salt, celery juice powder, black pepper, dried onions, sage, and thyme. When I tried my first piece, it tasted like a wonderful combination of turkey and stuffing, which was great since I absolutely love stuffing. After some thought, I realized why. It was more accurately like the innards of a Thanksgiving sandwich and we all know how much I love Thanksgiving sandwiches and their awesome combination of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. The sausages also had a perfect level of sage, and we love sage.

Buy Again? Yes. We really liked this. It's a perfect sausage for fall.

Since we're trying to keep this sausage taste test project going, here are the current rankings (based on the ones we've posted about):

1. Turkey cranberry apple sausage
2. Sweet Italian style chicken sausage

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pumpkin Spice Salted Caramels

Trader Joe's is generally overrun with pumpkin everything during the month of October, offering way more products than we can really use up in a timely manner, so I am always thankful when they put a product on the sample counter so we don't have to buy it to try it. On one of our recent trips, they were sampling the dark chocolate pumpkin spice salted caramels. Salted caramel is kind of hit or miss for me, but A doesn't really mind it. I wanted to make sure we would like these if we were going to buy them.

A brought one back for me from the sample counter and I thought it looked really pretty. I popped it in my mouth and looked at A in a combination of horror and disgust. That doesn't happen with a lot of foods, even if I end up not being a fan in the end. It took an incredible amount of willpower to force it down and it left such an unpleasant taste in my mouth. I was so unhappy that I had to eat 2 samples of totchos (tots, bacon, and cheddar - so good) to "wash it out." Thank goodness for totchos.

I don't know what about this candy was so repulsive to me. According to the box, it was a combination of Belgian chocolate, caramel, pumpkin and spices, and Hawaiian red sea salt. The spices were supposed to be clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger, but none of those were listed separately in the ingredients so I guess, with the pumpkin, they're all just considered "natural flavor" (the penultimate ingredient). It's not really clear what part of that or what combination there just didn't taste very good. It was a little too salty, but that couldn't be the only thing that caused the unpleasantness. A also remembers it having a little bit of a Mexican spice taste instead of a pumpkin spice taste, but again, that shouldn't be enough to make it taste so bad to me. Although A didn't hate it like I did, he didn't really care for it either. Some people do seem to like it, but I don't really get it.

Buy? Not a chance (for me), probably not (for A).

Saturday, October 25, 2014


One of our favorite restaurants at Disney World is Boma, which is located at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. We made it to Boma for the first time a couple of visits ago and we loved how different it was from everything else offered at Disney. We decided to take advantage of having a rental car for the first part of our trip by driving out to Boma for our first dinner on our vacation!

Boma is a buffet serving African dishes from a variety of countries, and from the dishes we saw, it looked like they tried to cover all different parts of the continent. Since there wasn't really a set menu for the night and buffets generally make it hard to write about each individual dish, here's a list of the types of dishes that they serve at Boma, some of which we had.

We have pretty limited notes from our buffet dinner and can only really guess at what some of the other items on the plates were. But one thing we both got at the beginning of our meal was mulligatawny soup. We've only really had this before in Indian restaurants, but the internet tells me this might be on the menu to represent cuisine from Mauritius.

Since we don't really remember exactly what we ate on each plate (and there were some other partial plates from the end of the meal that aren't even here), it probably doesn't make sense to go plate by plate, and talk about the flavor of every single item. We doubt we could, 3 years later, even remember which items were our favorites. We just tried so many different things. So here are A's two plates, with curry and meat and salads and other dishes.

M managed to find a list she kept of some of the stuff from her plates, several of which were also things that A got. As a sampling of what was available on the night we went, the dishes included: tabouleh, chickpea and edamame salad, fufu, couscous with raisins, bobotie, Durban spiced chicken, lamb curry, nut-crusted salmon, lavosh, sundried tomato hummus, black olive hummus, white bean hummus, kokonut rice, zaalouk vegetables, chakalaka stewed tomatoes and onions, shrimp couscous, kool slaai (cole slaw), and Ghana tomato salad.

Some of the dishes we got were obviously African to us (like fufu and bobotie), but we can't really vouch for the authenticity of everything since we're not experts in all different African cuisines. Our goal at Boma was to get a tasty buffet meal with interesting dishes, and we did. What was also a nice surprise is that they brought out a special plate for us with some desserts to celebrate our anniversary. Don't remember now what was on that plate, but we were happy to get it.

We've tried to get out to Boma on every Disney trip since we first discovered it, since it's a nice change-up from eating at the parks. After stuffing ourselves with food, we relaxed a bit in the lobby of the lodge, which is quite beautiful. Worth the drive over from our resort!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Week 42 - Native American

I wasn't sure what to make for the Native American week of the challenge. There aren't a ton of resources on what Native Americans ate in my geographic region and none of the recipes I was finding clicked with me. But the theme for the week wasn't only about what Native Americans ate where you live. It was about honoring Native Americans in all of the Americas. Because of that, I decided to go with the natives of Mesoamerica and make pozole (history on Wikipedia here). 

Although a lot of pozole these days is made with pork, I wanted to use chicken. After all, if the history is correct, the meat used in traditional pre-Columbian pozole was human meat, so any meat variation being made today isn't quite the same as what was used in the old days anyway. I decided to go with this recipe on Allrecipes for easy chicken posole and make some adaptations for the ingredients we had and time (e.g., I really didn't want to take even more time during a long recipe to poach or otherwise cook the chicken just to shred it, so I went with canned for convenience and speed).

The ingredient list for this pozole seems long, but it's actually not a very complicated recipe at all. I used:

- 2 tbsp olive oil ($0.40)
- 1 large onion, chopped ($0.70)
- cloves from 1/3 head of garlic, minced ($0.08)
- 2 12.5oz cans of chicken breast, shredded ($4)
- 1 7oz can of chopped green chiles ($0.78)
- 2 quarts of chicken broth (8 cups of water and 3 large spoonfuls of bouillon) ($0.90)
- 1 bay leaf ($0.10)
- 2 15oz cans of white hominy ($2.78)
spices to taste (and/or to preference):
- dried oregano ($0.10)
- salt ($0.05)
- chili powder ($0.10)
- chipotle chili powder ($0.15)
- cumin ($0.08)
- cayenne pepper ($0.03)
- ground coriander ($0.10)
- 1 small white onion, finely chopped ($0.28)
- handful of cilantro leaves, finely chopped ($0.40)
- handful of radishes, thinly sliced ($0.25)
- splash of lime juice ($0.05)

The original recipe had measurements for the spices, but I didn't really measure them out, just used about how much I thought it would need to be well-seasoned and then added some more to taste later on when I added the hominy. The primary spices to use are the chili powders, as those will add a lot of flavor and heat.

The total for the dish came out to approximately $11.33. It would probably have been less if I had just poached the chicken breasts instead of using the cans, but that would have added more time on to the already 2 hour long process. Also, I think I could have gotten cans of hominy cheaper when on sale or in other stores, but I went to our neighborhood market instead of shopping around since we just needed to get it that afternoon. In the end, $11 for dinner for 2 plus leftovers really isn't that bad.

The simple steps for making the pozole were:

1. Heat olive oil in deep skillet over medium high heat. Add onion and later garlic, cooking until softened.
2. Add chicken to skillet and once cooked through, the green chiles.
3. Add chicken broth (water and bouillon), the bay leaf, and all the spices in the ingredient list. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low and cook for 90 minutes. Stir occasionally.
4. Add hominy and additional spices (if needed, to taste) and cook until hominy is tender, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.

That's it. Very, very simple to make. Just takes a lot of time since it simmers for almost 2 hours in total. But during some of that cooking time, you can prepare the garnishes. There was no way I could get a ripe avocado since I only decided to make the pozole the night before, so I just went with some thinly sliced radishes and a combination of finely chopped onion and cilantro (with a splash of lime juice). I made these as soon as I started the soup on its simmering journey, so they got to chill in the fridge for nearly an hour while we waited for everything to finish.

I was a little worried about this dish since I don't have the best track record with flavorful soup (see: Cuban black bean soup and pumpkin chili), but I added a ton of seasonings during the cooking process this time which kept it from being too bland. This was a very healthy soup and also filling due to all of the soft and starchy hominy. I may need to stock up on more hominy because I really liked it in this soup and now want to use it more. Everything actually came together really well, and the only improvement to make would probably be in the garnishes. Next time I'll buy a lime so we can squeeze on some fresh lime juice before eating, and also try to get an avocado in advance so we can have some sliced avocado too. Overall, this was just a really great combination of ingredients, and I would definitely make this again.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Classic Smash

We've mentioned Smashburger here before, our favorite place to grab a quick bite to eat at Terminal C in Newark Airport (a big reason we like that terminal at the moment). We finally have a branch of Smashburger in Manhattan now, which opened earlier this year, but that wasn't going to stop us from visiting them at the airport to get something to eat to kick off our Chicago trip. (Ridiculous mismanagement of security line lengths almost did, but we would prefer not to relive that frustrating experience here.)

Somehow, despite previous visits to Smashburger, we've never actually tried their "Classic Smash." So we decided to remedy that on this visit and also tacked on an order of smashfries. The smashfries are thinly cut regular fries that are seasoned with rosemary, olive oil, and garlic. They're soft and crisp, and the rosemary adds an extra dimension that most fast food fries don't have. We love the flavor of these skinny fries.

As I mentioned, we both got a Classic Smash, which is their standard burger, containing a beef patty on an egg bun with American cheese, smash sauce, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onion.

The Classic Smash is the burger we've had that's come the closest to tasting like Shake Shack's Shack Burger, one of our favorites. The onion is different (white vs red) and the sauce is a little different, but otherwise they were so similar that even the salting of the beef patty seemed to be around the same amount. The Shack Burger is only a smidgen better in our opinion. When you add in the line factor at Shake Shack and the fact that when we've gone to (the non-airport) Smashburger there hasn't been a line, they're pretty much equal options for us.

We were so happy with our Classic Smash burgers that we couldn't stop raving about them the entire way over to Chicago and stopped by our local Smashburger for more burgers only a couple of weeks later (more on those burgers another time). So happy to find another excellent burger to add to our rotation (that doesn't have an hour long line)!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Spicy Chickpea and Lemon

The weather today was gloomy and cold. I also feel like I'm starting to come down with something so guess where I went to lunch today. If you didn't guess Hale and Hearty then you probably don't read much of what I write. The soup I chose today was something that sounded like it was a great remedy for my cold, spicy chickpea and lemon. It is described as "We pair lemon and tomatoes in this spicy vegetable soup, combined with tender chickpeas and orzo for a perfect match."

The base of this soup is a vegetable broth full of celery, onion, kale, scallions, and tomatoes. The chickpeas and orzo add thickness and starch to the soup to make it hearty, and the lemon definitely adds a good citrus note and freshness to the soup. The "spicy" aspect was subtle, but you could certainly feel the heat as you drank more and more.

This soup was everything I was looking for. Overall it was a very warming and comforting soup, perfect for how the weather was outside and how I felt inside.

365 Onion Rings

We finally made it to the Whole Foods in Gowanus this weekend and we wish we had one of these in our neighborhood. The store is huge (over 56,000 square feet), has a gigantic parking lot with solar and wind energy, and made us feel like we were anywhere but a borough of New York City. It felt more like LA than NYC. We spent a long time wandering around the spacious store, looking at all the local products and trying to figure out which ones we didn't have at our closer stores.

I've been feeling snacky a lot these days and everything we had in the apartment was sweet (mostly chocolate), which just isn't what I was craving. So when I saw these onion rings, I had to have them. They're pretty similar to the Trader Joe's Baked Snack-O's, although I think the texture of these was a little bit better and the flavor had a little more onion intensity. I don't recall if the bag sizes are the same, but the Whole Foods version is less than 50 cents more than the Trader Joe's one, so not very different.

Just like the Baked Snack-O's, we finished the entire bag over the course of one day, so we probably shouldn't keep these in the house. It's dangerous. I'm not sure if they even have these at the store I usually go to, but to be honest, I don't spend much time looking at the snacks there. It's probably better if they don't so that I don't get tempted. They're good though, if you're looking for an onion ring snack!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pulled Pork Predicament

I ended up at Wendy's for lunch today, since the lines at Chipotle and Lenny's were way too long and I needed food really quickly after fasting all day for some medical tests. I debated what to get since they no longer had the smoked gouda chicken sandwich I liked last month. Normally in this situation I'd go with some combination of nuggets or chili or salad or chicken sandwiches (my go-to items), but I was really drawn in by the pulled pork sandwich. I'm always tempted by limited edition sandwiches.

I didn't remember much of the Wendy's ads about the sandwich other than the fact that they now offered pulled pork, but I figured it would be your standard pulled pork sandwich - pork, slaw, sauce, bun. A look at the website description confirmed that. According to their official description, this "hickory-smoked BBQ pulled pork" sandwich contains "tender slow-cooked pork, topped with crunchy slaw and your choice of three barbeque sauces - sweet, smoky or spicy. All served on a toasted brioche bun." Yup, sounded like your typical pulled pork sandwich.

A very non-threatening looking pulled pork sandwich

I pulled off the soft bun, excited to take a picture of what was beneath the bread, and then just froze, staring blankly at what lay before me. It was probably my empty stomach causing my brain to work slower, but I saw little pieces of broccoli florets mixed into the slaw. My heart sank because I can't eat broccoli. (Digestive issues, not saying more than that.) Why on earth would they put a broccoli slaw on the sandwich? And if they were going to do it, why would they not say something right up front about it? What part of "crunchy slaw" makes someone think that it's going to be broccoli and not cabbage? If you're going to use broccoli slaw, then just say broccoli slaw in the damn description! I felt so duped. (Let me be clear, this is not a criticism of the store I went to. I put this on the marketing people who wrote the stupid description in the first place.)

Is that broccoli slaw?!?!

In my slow processing, I pondered what parts of the slaw I could possibly eat, since the entire reason I got the pulled pork sandwich and not the pulled pork fries (which I didn't even know they had until I walked in the door - were they even in the ad?) was because I wanted vegetables to offset all the meat. Finally, it occurred to me that I couldn't eat any of it, since it was likely all made of broccoli stem and other broccoli matter. Unlike the promo photo, I didn't see much red cabbage or carrots in there at all. I had to scoop all of it off and pick through all the pork to find any pieces that got mixed in, which meant a fair amount of pork also went into the trash. What a waste of food and money.

I hate wasting food but what else was I going to do with all that slaw?

Thank goodness I had also ordered one of those value size chicken nuggets (a guilty pleasure I often tack on) so I had something to eat while laboring away at the sandwich. The nuggets were fine as always, but the sandwich was a complete disappointment. It wasn't just the slaw, although I can't evaluate the sandwich as a complete product because I couldn't eat the slaw. The pulled pork was fine, but I can't really muster up any excitement about it. Most of the flavor came from the BBQ sauce they added on to it (I went with smoky). The bread, even though it's supposed to be brioche like the smoked gouda chicken, was not very good (and I like brioche). Maybe this isn't as noticeable when you eat it with the slaw, but I got well-acquainted with the bun while eating my empty sandwich and it was kind of crumbly and flavorless and dry. 

Best part of my lunch

I had such buyer's remorse. I should have gone with my initial instinct which was the pulled pork fries, since they don't have any slaw (just onions), with nuggets and chili. (I didn't because that sounded incredibly unhealthy.) My entire walk to the bike station and my entire bike ride down to Chelsea, all I could think about were better uses for my $7 than this meal at Wendy's. A cemita, or a falafel wrap, or a bagel sandwich. Thankfully Trader Joe's (my next stop) was sampling their new quinoa cowboy veggie burgers (which are in the freezer) with cowboy caviar salsa, and it was so good that it (at least temporarily) lifted my spirits and made me forget all about the pulled pork debacle until I got home and had time to write about it. 

So, just a PSA for people who can't eat or don't like broccoli - "crunchy slaw" means broccoli slaw on the pulled pork sandwich and pulled pork cheeseburger at Wendy's. I will keep that in mind any time in the future that Wendy's puts a slaw on anything, and will probably now take a second look at every cole slaw because I can't trust anyone with all this broccoli slaw floating around and masquerading as plain cole slaw. Thanks for the life lesson, Wendy's.


Back to the Luna protein bar reviews ...

The next flavor of Luna protein bars that I found in the box was the chocolate peanut butter. (The best by date on this one was only a week ago, so I consider it to be pretty fresh. I probably should have taken note of these dates when I got the bars, but too late now.) A had tried one of these the other day and wasn't thrilled with it, so between his assessment and my previous dislike of the chocolate chip cookie dough, I had even lower expectations than I did for the lemon vanilla.

I've never really eaten protein bars before, usually sticking to regular nutrition or cereal or granola bars, but A has. When we were in the car the other day, we started discussing them and he mentioned that they often don't taste very good because protein bar makers don't add much, if any, sugar or other additives to the bars to make them taste better. That makes sense and seemed to apply to this bar. Although the not quite pleasing chocolate flavor was similar to the one from the chocolate chip cookie dough, it wasn't as strong, so maybe that's something that intensifies over time (not a good thing). The peanut butter kind of tasted like peanut butter in parts, but for the most part was some sort of non-descript vaguely nutty flavor.

I didn't like this one that much, but it was generally kind of bland, which I prefer to actively disliking the flavor. That puts the rankings at:

2. Chocolate peanut butter

Monday, October 20, 2014

Creamy Tomato with Pasta and Meatballs

So the weather here in NYC has gotten substantially colder since last week, and that usually drives me to want soup. Today there were a couple very intriguing options on the menu, not least of which was one of my all time favorites, Yucatan Chicken, Lime, and Orzo. However, the one that really caught my eye was this creamy tomato with pasta and meatballs. They describe it as "This creamy tomato soup with round pasta O's and mini meatballs will take you back to your childhood but leave a better taste in your mouth!"

Now, that's a pretty tall order since I ate a TON of those tomato sauce, pasta, meatball cans when I was growing up. I used to love the different shaped ones like sharks, TMNT, etc., and it would be really nice to be able to sit back and reminisce on simpler times gone by.

First things first, the neon orange coloration told me that this was more like the shapes without meatballs since those advertised tomato based sauce with cheese added to make it creamier. I was never as much a fan of those as I was with the straight up tomato based sauce with meatballs. I wasn't going to let that cloud my judgment, though, so I started to dig in.

The soup itself is sweet from the tomatoes, but it's definitely cut a bit by the creamy cheese/cream addition. That added a nice, velvety richness to the overall feel of the soup. I'm still always going to be a bigger fan of the more straight up tomato sauce, but this was really good. The pasta was a touch on the mushy side, but there's not a lot you can do about that. The shapes of old tended to have a little more bite, but that's because they were thicker so that they could keep their form. The meatballs were spot on. They had just the right amount of sponge-y bite to them, and you could tell that they were much much better quality meat as opposed to those old cans.

This was a tasty and fun trip down memory lane. It reminded me so much of being off from school in the summer and sitting in front of some cartoons and eating my old lunches. Nostalgia aside, I would definitely get this soup again unless I wanted something a little healthier.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Empellón Al Pastor

It's no secret that we love Empellón, Alex Stupak's collection of Mexican restaurants in New York. Our dinner at Empellón Cocina last year was our favorite overall meal of the year. When we heard that Empellón Al Pastor was coming, serving tacos and other "bar snacks," we were really excited. This weekend we finally got the news we had been waiting for - Empellón Al Pastor was open for business (ahead of their official Monday opening day) - and it was the perfect place to go for Sunday afternoon football.

The spotlight item on the menu at Empellón Al Pastor is of course the tacos al pastor. We decided to get one of those for each of us, and then ordered all of the other tacos on the menu to split, as well as some sides. Everything on the menu (other than a plate of short rib barbacoa that we want to try next time) is $4, making it really easy to figure out what to get. You order at the counter, they give you a number to put at your seat, and then they bring the food over when it's ready (which is quite quick).

The first thing to arrive was a plate of chips and guacamole. The chips were nice and crispy and not overloaded with salt. That was good because the guacamole was a little too salty. The predominant flavors in the guacamole (other than the avocado) were salt and lime, although we did also notice onions, cilantro, and (probably jalapeño) peppers. We did like it, but would have preferred a little less salt. A makes guacamole at home (although he also adds tomatoes), and he likes his version better, so we probably won't get this on future visits unless we're in the mood for guacamole when we get there.

The tacos (all 7 of them) arrived at the same time on 3 plates. Each taco comes with cilantro and onion toppings, as well as the "appropriate" salsa (which they had more of at the counter). The 3 on this plate were:

Potatoes and red chorizo - We make a soy chorizo and potato taco at home on a regular basis, but we figured this one would definitely be better than ours. The chorizo here had a really great flavor from the spices and chile mixed in. It was one of the heavier, denser tacos, but that's not surprising considering that it had potatoes (which also soaked up all the juice and salsa, keeping this one from dripping too much). We liked this.

Mushrooms and pasilla chile - This was our second favorite taco on the menu. The flavor tasted so familiar, but we couldn't quite place it. We're thinking that maybe it reminds us of one of the pasilla chile salsas from the salsa sampler at Empellón Cocina, which would make sense. The mushrooms were juicy and meaty, and the chiles made the flavors here rich and smoky and spicy. This was probably the taco with the most heat, but it wasn't overpowering heat and it was just really good.

Chicken and chipotle - This taco was a bit confusing for us. We were expecting a big hit of heat, smokiness and flavor that you usually get when you use chipotles, but it was very mild. It reminded us a little bit of pulled chicken in BBQ sauce. We did differ on our opinions of the texture though - M found the meat shredded and juicy (enough so that the tortilla disintegrated a little bit since this was one of the last tacos we ate), while A found it a little dry. The flavor was nice, although a little milder than we expected, as we said.

And on this plate, we've got:

Steak and caramelized onions - We generally felt the same about most of the tacos we tried (as far as our preference/ranking) - except for this one. Our opinions completely diverged on this one. M isn't a huge steak fan, mostly because of texture, but she really liked this one. For the pieces she had, the meat was mostly chipped, and the bigger pieces of beef were really tender, much more than she expected. On A's half of the taco, he found that the meat had a bit of an odd gritty texture. Neither of us tasted any caramelized onions though.

Vegetable of the day (peppers and onions with Mexican oregano) - This (vegan) taco was one of the lightest ones in the set, just some sauteed vegetables with spices. We liked it, but we probably wouldn't get this one again, because we make vegetables like this at home. Hopefully there will be a different vegetable special next time that we can try.

And last, but not least, the tacos al pastor - spit roasted pork with pineapple. This was really good, although a bit on the salty side. The meat tasted fresh and had great flavor. Whatever the spices were that were used for the pork, we don't know, but they were really good. The only little downside is that, because it's a pork spit, there can be a little bit of fattiness to the meat.

Both of us were in agreement that this was our favorite of the tacos. Although if you put this head to head with the adobada tacos from Tacos El Gordo in Las Vegas (which are our favorite tacos with pork from a spit, that we will recap someday), we'll probably still choose those. That shouldn't take anything away from these though. They're quite good, and so much closer than a 5 hour plane ride away.

One other note on the tortillas - They're all made (and nixtamalized) in house daily, and we were excited to try them because fresh tortillas are always better. They were a little thinner than we thought they would be. For the most part, they were sturdy enough to hold all the contents, but since all of our tacos came at one time, the ones that were juicy or had lots of salsa (like the chicken) that were on the later end of our dining order, caused the tortillas to disintegrate a little bit. The tortillas themselves didn't have a ton of flavor, but they were good and let their fillings shine.

In addition to the guacamole, we got 2 other sides (or as the menu put it "accoutrement"). We were really excited to try the drunken black beans with al pastor scraps. For both of us, this reminded us of a Mexican-style baked beans with burnt ends. It was really rich and flavorful, and a good choice for a side.

But the biggest revelation of the meal for us, and what turned out to be our favorite thing we ate at Empellón Al Pastor, was the greens with green chorizo. We weren't sure what green chorizo was (luckily Food & Wine had the answer), but we liked it. The greens tasted like collard greens, and they were incredibly tender without being watery or overly stewed. The crumbled chorizo bits were so small that they were reminiscent of bread crumbs. The flavor here was really wonderful, and we could have eaten a giant bowl of this. It was different from any other collard greens prep we've had before and so good. We love collards and we love chorizo, so this was perfect. 

In the days leading up to the opening of Empellón Al Pastor, we heard they were going for the atmosphere of a dive bar that just happens to serve tacos. The walls are covered in graffiti, the bathroom walls are chalkboards you can write or draw on (although unlike most bars, they are really clean), and the entire vibe is really casual. But this felt more like an elegant version of a dive bar with attentive service (people were always going around collecting finished plates) and a really neat and clean space.

We really enjoyed our visit to Empellón Al Pastor. We're a big fan of more casual spots where you don't need a reservation and can just walk in and grab something good to eat on the spur of the moment, and this place is perfect for that. We would definitely return.

Empellón Al Pastor is on the corner of Avenue A and St. Marks.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Trader Joe's Product Reviews

Trader Joe's is probably the grocery store we frequent the most, and we've done a lot of reviews of products we've purchased there. Part of the reason we write the reviews is to remember what we've tried and whether or not we want to buy it again. At this point, we've tried so many things (and written about just some of them) that sometimes we've completely forgotten that we had something and then buy it again. To try to avoid repurchasing stuff we don't like, it seemed like the right time to just make a "master list" of our reviews.

Our favorite TJ's store in the area... Not sure we've ever seen it as empty as it was in the first month of its existence (when we took these photos)

As for the symbols, a + means we really loved it and most likely have already bought it again, so it's one of our favorite items. There's a bunch of them but we like a lot of stuff there! The - means we really disliked something. There aren't as many of those (lukewarm doesn't merit a -), but the ones that do have it are things we really will never buy again (unless dramatically reformulated). Doesn't mean they're absolutely horrible for everyone - different people, different tastes. There are also some things we never reviewed and don't really have much to say about them other than "love" or "hate" so we'll put those here too. This is largely for our own reference, but maybe it'll help some of you out there too!

The Manhattan TJ's with the most space... yet somehow on the worst days that whole area is flooded with people

(last updated 4/24/2017)



Dips and Spreads:
Beet Hummus
- Fat Free Spicy Black Bean Dip
Roasted Garlic Hummus
+ Spicy Hummus Dip
+ Sriracha Hummus
- Tomato and Basil Hummus

Dried Fruit and Nuts:
Freeze Dried Strawberries
Orange Flavored Cranberries

+ Coconut Water
Maple Water
+ Organic Ginger Zinger
Pumpkin Harvest Cold Pressed Juice
Winter Wassail

Frozen Food:
5 Cheese Greek Spiral
+ Aloo Chaat Kati Pouches
Arugula Pizza
+ Beer Battered Sweet Onion Rings (discontinued)
+ Biryani (discontinued)
Chicken and Cheese Tamales
Chicken Breast in Poblano Sauce - Reduced Guilt
Chicken Enchiladas
- Confetti Rice (discontinued)
Creamy Polenta
+ Crispy Green Curry Shrimp Gyoza (discontinued and we are SO sad)
+ Fusilli with Vegetables and Basil Pesto
Garlic Naan
+ Greens, Beans and Grains
+ Hatch Chile Mac and Cheese
+ Japanese Fried Rice
Julienned Root Vegetables
+ Korma Fish Curry
Macaron Variety Box
Mini Greek Spirals with Leeks and Feta
Paneer Masala Naan
+ Pizza al Pollo Asado (discontinued)
+ Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burgers
Ricotta and Spinach Tortellini
Root Vegetable Galette
Rosemary Garlic Monkey Bread
Seafood Paella
Southwest Chicken Quesadillas
Spinach and Kale Bites
+ Spinach and Kale Pie (discontinued; goodbye go-to dinner)
Spizzico di Pizza
+ Sriracha Seafood Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab (updated version)
Sweet Corn Tamales
Sweet Potato Tots
Tarte à l'Oignon
+ Tarte d'Alsace
+ Trader Potato Tots
+ True Belgian Brussels Sprouts
+ Uncured Pepperoni Pizza
+ Uttapam with Coconut Chutney (discontinued)

Cheese section as originally set up ... so long ago since the eggs no longer share space with the cheese

Meat, Fish, and Faux Meat:
+ Irish Bangers
+ Korean Inspired Spicy Chicken Sausage (discontinued, putting a huge hole in our dinner rotation)
+ Silverbrite Keta Salmon
+ Smoked Andouille
+ Soy Chorizo
Soy Ginger Cod
Sweet Italian Style Chicken Sausage
Turkey Sausage with Cranberry and Apricots
Turkey Summer Sausage
+ Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon
Uncured Sliced Corned Beef
+ Uncured Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage

Japanese Style Panko Breadcrumbs
+ Kimchi (has since been reformulated)

Pasta and Grains:
+ 10 Minute Farro
+ Harvest Grains Blend (exactly the same as Golden Jewel)
Italian Tortellini with Pesto Filling
- Spinach Tortellini
+ Vegetable Radiatore

Prepared Foods (Non-Refrigerated):
Pesto alla Genovese
Punjab Eggplant
+ Thai Green Curry Simmer Sauce (has since been reformulated)

Prepared Foods (Refrigerated):
+ Chicken and Green Chile Tamales
Curried White Chicken Deli Salad
+ Five Spice Chicken and Asian Style Rice Noodle Salad

Baby Spinach
+ Butternut Squash
+ Kaleidoscope Chard
Lemony Greens Blend
+ Mini Pearl Grape Tomatoes 
Organic Carrots of Many Colors
+ Organic Whole Carrots
+ Shaved Brussels Sprouts
+ Shredded Green Cabbage
Shishito Peppers
Sorrento Greens
+ Southern Greens

+ Cowboy Caviar
Mild Pico de Gallo
Serrano Salsa Fresca

Grilled Pesto Chicken Wrap
Tarragon Chicken Salad Wrap
Turkey Club Wrap
Turkey Gobbler

Snacks and Crackers:
3 Cheese Wafers
+ Baked Snack-O's
Brioche Toasts
+ Corn Chip Dippers
+ Ghost Pepper Potato Chips
+ Inner Peas
Parsnip Chips
+ Some Enchanted Cracker
+ Sriracha Potato Chips
Sweet and Salty Popcorn Chips

BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Coffee and Garlic
+ French Thyme

+ 2% Plain Greek Yogurt
Apricot and Mango Yogurt
+ Black Raspberry Greek Yogurt
+ Mango Greek Yogurt 
- Peanut Butter and Jelly Greek Yogurt
Pomegranate Greek Yogurt
+ Vanilla Bean Greek Yogurt