Saturday, February 28, 2015

Week 8 - Canned/Preserved

I wasn't very excited about the Week 8 challenge, canned/preserved, when I first saw it. Ever since I started cooking more and reading more food blogs, I've had this fear and aversion to canning. It seemed very technical and also very easy to get wrong, and the last thing I wanted to do was give us botulism. One would think a challenge like this would be the perfect time to get over that, but I really just had no interest in taking the risk involved in canning. On top of that, it's not like we have a surplus of fruit or vegetables lying around. In order to can something, I'd have to go buy it and then preserve it, which just felt so pointless, and also like a potential waste of money, if I didn't get the canning right on the first try. 

So that left me with the "preserved" side of the challenge and thanks to another poster's wonderful suggestion, I decided on fruit leather (aka fruit roll-ups). They did add later that you could just use preserved products (which made me immediately think of the preserved lemon on the new item shelves at Trader Joe's), but by then I had already been thinking about fruit roll-ups for days, so the plan was set.

Making the fruit leather only required a few ingredients:

- 16 oz bag of frozen strawberries, thawed ($1.79)
- 1/4 cup of water ($0)
- agave, to taste ($0.25)
- honey, to taste ($0.15)

Unlike canning and its risk of botulism, the biggest risk with the fruit leather was that I would screw up the technique. Worst case scenarios would be if the leather was overdone and became fruit crisps (still edible) or if the leather just refused to dehydrate and stayed a puree (still edible). The total cost was only about $2.19 and even if I messed it up, it still wouldn't be money down the drain.

The steps for making the fruit leather were:

1. Add strawberries to a pot with 1/4 cup of water and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes.

2. Add agave and honey to sweeten the strawberries, to taste. (I used more agave than honey and at least a couple of tbsp).

3. Move strawberry mixture to a blender and puree.

4. Line a rimmed baking sheet (of appropriate size - I only needed the smallest size in our set of 3 for this amount of strawberries) with parchment paper. (Some recipes say not to use parchment paper because it's hard to peel the fruit leather off. We didn't really encounter that problem at all except for the few sections of the finished product that weren't quite done, more on that later.)

5. Pour puree onto the parchment paper, trying to keep the amount of puree as even as possible on the sheet.

6. Bake at 170 degrees (the lowest our oven would go) until the mixture has dehydrated and the puree no longer comes off when touching it. It should feel a little bit hard and sticky, sort of like a fruit roll-up would be. Rotate the pan at least once during the process. This part took us almost 7 hours.

When it was done, the fruit leather was a beautiful shade of red. (I would love a dress in that hue!) Excuse all the little finger dents in the fruit leather, although I guess from looking at it, you can see how many times I tested it and stuck it back in the oven. I originally checked it after 3 hours, then every hour until about 5-6 hours, then every 20-30 minutes, eagerly anticipating its completion.

The biggest problem was that I guess I didn't spread the mixture as evenly in depth as I thought I had. The ends of the fruit leather had felt like the right texture at least an hour before the middle had dried out enough. Even when I thought it was done, you can see that the outside edges were crisper and the very middle was so "underdone" that it still stuck to the parchment paper in soft puree form. Guess I didn't get that quite right.

I cut up our fruit leather into small rolls for our dessert. The flavor was nice, and it was good to have fruit roll-ups that tasted completely natural and to know everything that was in them. The texture wasn't quite right. It was a little too crispy around the edges, a little too soft in the very middle, but a perfect roll-up texture in between the 2. If only the entire thing had been like that - then these would have been great!

It was a fun experiment to do, even if it took all day and didn't turn out exactly as well as I had hoped. I'm not sure when I'll do this again (since I would have to be home all day to babysit the oven), but it's good to know that I can and what to try to do better next time. Very happy with this as my challenge choice.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Victoria

Earlier this week, Seamless ran one of their special discounts, giving you 15% off any order of $10 or more. I've been using Seamless for almost 10 years now (wow...), and even though I cook a lot more these days, I'm still tempted by Seamless with hundreds of restaurants at your fingertips, especially when they run these discounts. They're evil geniuses though, getting me to spend $12 (post-discount) on lunch when I could eat at home for less than $3 and normally don't buy lunch outside for more than $10. It was cheaper than it usually would be ... but it's still more than I would normally pay. Evil geniuses, I tell you. They know just the right psychological buttons to push.

Anyway, I decided to use the discount on City Sandwich, a Portuguese-inspired sandwich spot in the neighborhood that we've been to a bunch of times and last wrote about during the World Cup challenge. They're on the pricier side for sandwiches, probably due to their quality ingredients, so we don't go that often. Perfect for a coupon deal, right? I figured I would run to the store, buy some groceries, and then swing by and pick up my pre-ordered lunch, quick and easy so I didn't have to miss too much of the Barça game. 

I decided on the "Victoria sandwich combo" in the daily specials section, which came with the Victoria sandwich, a cup of soup, and a bottle of water for $13.50. Again, more than I would usually ever spend on a weekday lunch just for me, but ... discount! In trying to decide what to get, I was especially interested in the combo because it came with a cup of soup, which is normally $4.25. The choices were a tomato and spinach soup or a roasted cabbage and carrot puree soup, which was also prepared with caramelized onions and Italian sausage. It wasn't really a choice for me. With those ingredients in the list, I was always going to choose the cabbage/carrot soup option.

Everything in the soup appeared to be pureed, except for the Italian sausage, which were crumbles instead of slices as I had assumed they would be. The soup was delicious. The combination of the roasted vegetables with the caramelized onions and sausage was great. I would get this soup again. Best part of lunch for me.

The Victoria sandwich usually contains chicken breast, tomato, kale, garlic, sauteed onions, melted mozzarella, and olive oil. When I got there to pick up my order, I signed the receipt and noticed that it said "no kale" under the sandwich. I was a bit confused, as I had never said "no kale," but had only specified "no broccoli" on the order as I do for every Seamless order for food allergy reasons. I was in a rush, so I didn't want to deal with it at the time, and just figured I'd go without the kale if they really left it out.

I imagine that what happened was they saw the no broccoli written down, and out of an abundance of caution, left out the kale since they are very distantly related or are the same color or both vegetables or who knows why. I've had it happen before where a place will call me when they see the note to make sure some other ingredient is okay, and that's fine, but this is the first time I've ever gone somewhere and they've just left out something completely different. I appreciate them taking note of what I wrote, but I wish they had called instead, because I eat a ton of kale and I was really looking forward to having some greens in the meal.

As for the sandwich itself, it was fine, but definitely was missing the earthiness that kale would provide in the sandwich. It made it a little more boring without it, to be honest. I could probably put together something at home with chicken, tomatoes, onions, and mozzarella that would come pretty close in flavor to this, and when I order out, I usually try to get something I definitely can't make at home. The one thing I don't have at home is the amazing bread they always use, and that was no different this time. The bread was still great. The stuff inside was just a little lacking and made me wish I had chosen a different sandwich. The one we had during World Cup was much tastier.

Overall, it was a good (but expensive) lunch and the soup was fantastic. I wonder when the next Seamless discount day will be...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Better Windjammer Lunch

Before we left the Windjammer at breakfast, we wandered around the lunch offerings to see what they had to offer. We weren't really hungry enough to start eating lunch, but at least we could find out what they had to see if we wanted to go back later or eat somewhere else. Most of what was out at that point was the Asian food, which was perfectly fine for us since we love Asian food (and figured the chefs might do better with that anyway, since many of them are from South and Southeast Asia).

We saw biryani, which looked pretty good, as well as an array of Asian vegetable salads, which would be great for counterbalancing all the unhealthy food on board. We spied a chickpea salad, a green bean salad, and other mixed vegetable salads and dishes. We were pretty sure we would return later once lunchtime rolled around for us and we had freed up some stomach space.

A couple of hours later, after resting outside in the ocean air and watching a short DreamWorks performance in the esplanade (they do these mini-shows and this one was a fun one about Kung Fu Panda), we headed back up to the Windjammer for lunch. Of course, we forgot to take a photo of A's plate, but we tried a lot of the same things.

There was biryani, butter chicken, chana chaat (the chickpea salad), and an Asian pesto salad on the plate. I also picked up a carrot raisin salad, ratatouille, chicken shawarma, and a couple of other salads. Most of the food ranged from "just fine" to "pretty good," and the quality seemed to be better than our Windjammer lunch on the first day. Maybe it's because we concentrated more on the Asian food, maybe not. If I remember correctly, my favorite part was the chana chaat, which is completely unsurprising given my love for chickpeas and chickpea salads.

For dessert, I picked up another coconut cookie (my favorite of the cookie varieties), as well as a few desserts from the light and sweet section (supposedly healthier desserts). From there, I got a coconut macaroon (okay, but not great), a vanilla and blueberry roulade (pretty terrible), and a light chocolate chocolate chip loaf (very good and good enough to take extras back to the cabin for snacks).

This is probably a good point to mention that this was the last day I ate cookies from the Windjammer's freshly made cookie bakery. There was nothing wrong with the cookies, other than being a little too crispy for my preference, but I was starting to feel like I had eaten way too many cookies since we would pick them up every time we walked by the bakery. With all the butter and not really healthy stuff in the cookies, they were starting to take their toll. I could feel myself dragging and feel how heavy the cookies were, and I just knew that I would feel so much better if I stopped eating them. So even though the freshly baked cookies were something I was really looking forward to before the cruise, I cut them out cold turkey after day 3 (ironically, day 4, the day I stopped eating the cookies was National Cookie Day). I felt so much better and cleaner inside once I stopped the cookies and I didn't regret it one bit. They weren't bringing me that much joy anyway, as they weren't the soft and chewy cookies I loved, so why would I keep eating something that I only sort of liked?

I honestly have no idea what we did between going to the Windjammer for lunch and our dinner later that night, and it's only been 2 months since we were on the Quantum. (Got to pick up the pace on these recaps!) I guess a lot of the sea days started to blend together. We have no photos of anything other than a soccer match on TV at a bar, so I'm guessing we rested, watched some soccer, and maybe took naps (especially since A wasn't feeling great with the ocean movement). At least our Windjammer lunch this time was much more satisfying than the first time!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Happy National Clam Chowder Day!

I found out yesterday that today was National Clam Chowder Day. I'm a huge fan of clam chowder in all of its varieties, and New England Clam Chowder is my favorite. So, to continue in my trend of getting cream-filled soups I should be avoiding due to illness I went to Hale and Hearty once more for their New England Clam Chowder. It's described as: "Our version of this classic New England style chowder. It is thick and creamy, and loaded with diced potatoes and minced clams. Contains pancetta."

This soup is loaded with clams, potatoes, celery, and spices. It was rich and creamy and would be really soothing if not for all of my congestion issues. I didn't see any bits of pancetta in the soup itself, but I could certainly taste the saltiness and rich fatty flavor. I also opted to get the sourdough instead of the 7-grain bread I always go with. I think that was the right decision because the mild sourness of the sourdough was a great fit for the salty clam chowder. The crusty, crisp exterior was also great paired with the soft interior.

Overall, while this isn't the best clam chowder I've ever had (that was in Sitka, AK), this was a great option to have. Hale and Hearty is also a lot easier for me to get to, and I'm definitely going to get this again.

Even More Windjammer

Day 3 on the Quantum was another day at sea. We were in the Atlantic Ocean at this point, far from any coastlines, and you could definitely feel all the movement on the ship. We were feeling a little bit off, as the moving and rocking in our cabin was worse than any other cruise we had ever been on, and we got up to breakfast even later than the previous day, so once again, the only available option was the Windjammer. We were there so late that they started closing off sections of the buffet to prepare it for the lunch rush while we were still eating.

My buffet plate overlooking the Atlantic Ocean

We were excited to see what new things would be in store for us at the Windjammer breakfast, especially the Asian items, but were a bit disappointed when we saw that almost the entire breakfast spread was exactly the same as the day before. Some of the items that made repeat appearances on our buffet plates were the scrambled eggs with shrimp, the Indian spiced eggs, the Asian-style pan-fried fish, fried rice (which looked a little different from the previous day, but didn't taste any better), sauteed spinach, corned beef hash, pork sausages, and hash brown triangles.

A's breakfast plate

One of the new items that popped up in the Asian section was a smoked mackerel that was pretty good. Near the sauteed spinach, we also spotted some sauteed mushrooms, which were tasty, but sauteed mushrooms are fairly difficult to screw up. But that's all we really found that was new. Even the stuff we didn't usually pick at breakfast buffets all looked the same as the day before. We had been hoping for more variety but we didn't get it.

Some of our favorite Quantum art

We stayed at the Windjammer a little longer for breakfast this time. We were seated in the back section which was much less crowded since people had left (or were sitting in the front for a shorter walk to the food), and it was actually kind of pleasant. It also gave us the opportunity to admire the art in that section of the room in peace, and it was some of our favorite art on the ship. They were works by Alberto Seveso (some of our favorites in the photo above) and we were glad to have the opportunity to appreciate them while people weren't rushing around with coffee and bacon.

Once we finally got up, we were still feeling the effects of the ocean movement (it was a pretty breezy day) so we wandered the ship a little bit until we got to the lower decks and rested outside for a while in the calming fresh ocean air. We knew we'd see the Windjammer soon for lunch!

Cookie Butter Sandwich Cookies

Trader Joe's is practically synonymous with cookie butter. There was a run on cookie butter when it was first introduced that led to a long period of time when it was gone. Once it returned, some stores even put a 2 jar limit on the stuff (not ours, but we've seen it out on the West Coast). Now there are a bunch of varieties of cookie butter - the regular smoothy and creamy kind, crunchy, mixed with chocolate, cookies and cream, even cookie butter ice cream. Last month sometime, M was scanning Instagram looking at Trader Joe's pictures (as always) and saw these cookie butter sandwich cookies. We knew we had to have them, and the rave reviews we read between that time and our next store visit only confirmed that.

The cookie butter sandwich cookies are about 2 inches in diameter, and consist of 2 butter shortbread cookies with creamy cookie butter spread between them. M wasn't a huge fan of the shortbread part on its own, but together with the cookie butter, she thought these formed a perfect sandwich. A really liked the combination as well, but he also liked the cookie portion more than M.

Each box comes with 18 cookies inside, and each sandwich has a good amount of cookie butter in between the shortbread cookies. Because they're so rich (in a good way), M found it difficult to eat more than 2 in a sitting without feeling overloaded (probably a good thing, since each cookie is 90 calories). They make for a really great dessert though.

Buy Again? Yes! We hope Trader Joe's never gets rid of these. They're such wonderful treats.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Shishito Peppers

This month, Trader Joe's debuted a new item in the produce section - shishito peppers! We were pretty excited to see those, since we love getting them in restaurants, and now we could try to make them at home on our own.

So excited to try these out!

The TJ's bag of peppers is 6 ounces and we ended up with 22 peppers in the bag. For $2.29, that's a pretty good deal compared to ordering them out, even at casual spots. For example, when we got them at the fast casual (closed) Satya, it was $3.95 for about half the amount of peppers (and we thought they were pretty overpriced for that number). Even adding in the olive oil and salt to this TJ's bag, the total is under $2.50.

22 rinsed peppers, ready to go

A lot of people toss the peppers into a heavy cast iron skillet with oil and then cook them until they are soft and blistered, at which point they get topped with salt and served. We opted for our grill pan with some olive oil and let them cook until they looked pretty blistered all over. We're not really sure how else people use shishito peppers, as we've only ever had them this way. Once they're grilled/sauteed, they make for a really great snack or side dish. Simple to make, no real prep involved, and even easier to eat.

Peppers blistering away in the grill pan

We love shishito peppers for their unique sweet taste, which Trader Joe's describes (on the bag) as a "grassy pepper flavor with sweet-hot citrus notes." That sounds about right (and is better than I could ever say it myself.) They also say 1 in 10 peppers is actually hot, but out of our 22, we didn't get any hot peppers, so I guess we were lucky. They were all just pretty tasty.

Finished shishito peppers with salt

Buy Again? Yes. Not really sure where else they sell shishito peppers around here so I can't do a good price comparison with other grocery stores, but this seems like a pretty decent price to us. Such an easy side dish and during the week, we're always looking for simple, yet healthy, shortcuts. This definitely works for us!

Curried Cream of Cauliflower and Apple

Hale and Hearty brought out their latest Chef's Series soup, and it's from acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud. His Curried Cream of Cauliflower and Apple is described as "From Master Chef Danielle[sic] Boulud comes this simply sublime curried cauliflower and apple soup. Delicately seasoned with curry and saffron each ingredient shines in this superb velvety soup."

I'm going to have to preface this review by saying that I'm still sick so my taste buds are muted. I probably shouldn't have tried it in my current condition, but I did. That being said, I still got a lot of flavor out of this soup, and I think I owe it to chef to go back when I'm feeling better to try and get all of the nuances he simmered into his soup.

The first thing I noted when I opened my cup of soup was a heavy hit of curry and also the sweetness of cream. My first sip had the same notes. I got a huge hit of spiced curry flavor with a smoother, sweeter finish from the cream. The soup is incredibly rich, and it's so full of flavor. The soup is thickened by the blended cauliflower, and I got late after notes of the cauliflower as I dug further into the soup. I got very mild hints of apple every so often, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I'm having issues tasting everything.

Overall this is a very rich, flavorful soup. I think this is the type of soup that I'd try to avoid due to the cream, but I know I'm going to get it again as soon as I'm healthy so that I can try and catch all of the subtleties built into the soup.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Jamie's Italian

The only specialty restaurant that we visited on the Quantum was Jamie's Italian, an outpost of Jamie Oliver's restaurant, featuring a select group of dishes from their usual menu. As we mentioned before, we don't usually go to any specialty/pay restaurants on a cruise, but we were celebrating a special occasion (the main reason we were on the cruise in the first place) so it was worth the "splurge" this time. At the time we went, the cover charge was $25 per person, which doesn't sound like a lot for a nice dinner until you remember you're already paying for the complimentary restaurants in your (expensive) cruise fare, and we've heard that it's now $30 (lunch, we think, is still $15).

Part of the Jamie's Italian dining room

We were very excited to eat at Jamie's. It was one of the few spots that people on the cruises before us had raved about and everything on the menu sounded absolutely delicious. The hardest part was going to be narrowing the menu down to a manageable amount of dishes. We wanted to try everything, especially since it was going to be our only visit, so we had to make some tough decisions.

Appetizers are generally served family style, and the one thing everyone seemed to order at Jamie's was an appetizer plank. There was one on just about every table, so we got one too. The planks came in meat and vegetable varieties, and after checking with our waiter on food allergies and the ingredients involved, we decided on the vegetable plank. Half of our group wasn't that into cured meats anyway (the meat platter had fennel salami, pistachio mortadella, prosciutto, and schiacciata piccante), so we figured it would be safer to do the vegetable plank since he said none of the allergies would be an issue there.

Half the vegetable plank

The vegetable plank had a bunch of different small dishes and bites, including:

- Grilled seasonal vegetables, which were marinated in an herby olive oil - These were fine, but there was way too much oil in that dish. They were completely soaked in oil, taking away from the flavor of the vegetables themselves a little bit.

- Crunchy carrot and beet salad with lemon and mint - This was fine, but not anything amazing. Very crunchy, especially when compared to the super-soft, dripping with oil, grilled vegetables.

- Mozzarella balls topped with some chilli and mint - The topping here was a bit like pesto and the quality of the mozzarella was good. We liked these, and they were nice and creamy.

- Crostini with eggplant, tomato and pine nuts - This wasn't listed on the menu as being part of the plank, but it was tasty. Very light but a little bit bitter, which seemed strange.

- Pecorino and chilli jam on music bread - Music bread, which there will be more of later, is a really thin, crispy bread, and on the plank, it came topped with a thin slice of pecorino cheese and a dollop of chilli jam. We liked this.

- Pickles and olives - There aren't any photos of this for some unknown reason and M doesn't even remember these being on the table, but she's not a huge fan of olives, so that probably isn't surprising. A really likes pickles and olives, and he remembers them being little gherkins along with the olives. Overall they were all a touch salty.

Other half of the vegetable plank

Although the plank was pretty good, there were a couple of issues with it. First, the portion size. The grilled vegetables and the crunchy salad were fine, but everything else came in pairs, which is tough when you've got a group of more than 2 people. We split all the portions so that everyone could try if they wanted to, but some things, like the crostini, were practically bite-size to begin with, so that was tough.

Second, the waiter had told us that our group could eat everything on the plank after we notified them of our food allergies, but when it arrived, we noticed one person couldn't eat the grilled vegetables due to allergy and another couldn't eat the crunchy salad due to a different allergy, both of which we had told them about. In the second case, they even pointed out the "offending" food when they put the plank on the table. That's great that they let us know that celeriac was in the crunchy salad (since it wasn't on the menu), but before we ordered the plank, they told us there was no type of celery whatsoever involved in the dish. How are we supposed to trust that there would be no allergy-causing ingredients in the other things we ordered? This was the second dinner in a row that we had run into food allergy-related issues and it wasn't making us feel very confident in Royal's procedures or employee training.

The other appetizers our table shared (or attempted to share) were:

Tuscan bean and single estate Italian olive oil bruschetta - "braised beans and creamy mozzarella on grilled ciabatta, drizzled with stunning single estate Italian olive oil." (That's what the menu said about it.)

This was quite good. It was grilled bread topped with a white bean paste, creamy white beans, grated mozzarella, some microgreens, and olive oil. Although this was good, we figured that if we wanted to bring out the blender and buy some quality ingredients, we could probably make this at home. It was simple but done well here.

Crab and avocado bruschetta - ciabatta, crab, and avocado with apple, chilli, mint, and lemon.


Another bruschetta, but different from the white bean one, including the type of toast used as the base. This is another appetizer that we were told everyone would be able to eat, but when it showed up the waiter said it was celeriac even though the menu said apple. It was very confusing and increasingly frustrating. Overall this was okay. The crab was fresh, and the lemon added brightness. The best part about the dish was the avocado mint sauce on the side. It was creamy and herbaceous and really finished off the dish. We liked this but didn't love it, but our opinion was probably a little colored by our frustration over all the allergy issues.

Baked chestnut mushrooms with smoked mozzarella, thyme, and crispy music bread.

A thought this was the best appetizer of the night, and although M isn't sure what her favorite would be, this was definitely a contender for her (mostly due to her love of smoked mozzarella). The mushrooms were nice and buttery, and they paired really well with the smoked mozzarella. The music bread was thin and crispy, but parts of it started to sog a bit due to the mushrooms. Overall, this was a good combination.

Crispy squid with garlic mayo, lemon, and chilli.

This looked pretty good, but there was not much calamari in that dish at all (even though it looks like there is in the photo). M only got 1 piece of calamari, which she remembers as tasting fine, but she didn't really have enough to comment on it besides that. A got a few more pieces, but he also saved most of this for M's father since he couldn't eat many of the other appetizers, thanks to the allergy issues. They were indeed good, but at the end of the day they were still just fried calamari.

Italian bread basket - grissini, focaccia, crispy music bread, and ciabatta, served with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic.

The bread basket was the first appetizer we ordered but the last to arrive. It only came after we asked the waiter for it 3 more times. The staff were all busy, but it was strange that the most basic thing would take so long. The focaccia was fine, but nothing special. The breadsticks were breadsticks. The music bread was the same as it was in the other dishes, although we preferred it with all the flavorful accompaniments in the mushroom appetizer. We don't remember any olive oil or balsamic. This was okay, but not really worth the wait and constant asking.

Sounds like a lot of apps, but really not THAT much food

That seems like a long list of appetizers, but we were actually disappointed that we didn't order more. For one, the portion sizes weren't that huge. We don't know if those are the regular portions or if the waiter took it upon himself to give us half portions of things. He kept trying to get us to order half portions when we ordered (and don't get us wrong, we do appreciate if a server tells us we are ordering way too much), but we declined. So if these were full portions, they were not very big for 4 people to share. Is this Royal's way of trying to save money because of the "low" cover charge where you can order as many dishes as you want without restriction? If so, pretty annoying. One piece of calamari for one person? Please.

On top of that, the food allergies stopped some people from trying everything. We were going to order the arancini margherita (rice balls) but the waiter discouraged us from doing so, because of all the other food we got. But as it turned out, not everyone could eat all that other food because of food allergies, so we probably should have gotten other things that people could eat to make up for all the things they could not (but were previously told they could).

The toughest part of the menu for us to decide on was the pasta section. Everything sounded so amazing, from the truffle tagliatelle to the wild mushroom and smoked mozzarella risotto and the baked lasagne. We eventually picked 3 pastas for the 2 of us to share, and the waiter brought out one of them in a half (small) portion so that our stomachs didn't completely burst before we rolled out of Jamie's. (That, we agreed to, since it was just the 2 of us splitting it, and we mostly just wanted a taste.)

The first pasta (the half portion) was the tagliatelle bolognese which had a sauce of beef and pork ragu with red wine and parmesan.

We love bolognese (we touched on this a little bit in the start of our Brugge recaps) and this one was excellent. The tagliatelle had good texture and the sauce was rich and tasty. We would get this again if we went back.

The crab spaghettini with capers, chilli, fennel, parsley, anchovies, and lemon has already popped up on this blog in A's favorite food memories of 2014 post

This dish was so good and had the best sauce of the 3 pasta dishes we got. There isn't much more to say about this other than that the sauce was absolutely delicious, so rich with crab flavor and real chunks of crab. A great pasta dish.

The last pasta we got was the famous prawn linguine with fried garlicky prawns, fennel, tomatoes, chilli, and rocket. We're not sure why this is famous, but we were intrigued.

This was great. It came with about 4 shrimp, which were perfectly cooked, and was topped with vegetables, including a bunch of fresh arugula (rocket). In addition to the great flavors of the sauce and the ingredients, the linguine itself here was wonderful. The texture was perfectly al dente and it had just the right amount of chewiness to it. As far as the pasta itself, this was our favorite pasta of the night.

After ordering our 3 pastas, we opted not to get a main course, even though we were incredibly tempted by the aubergine parmigiana. M's parents did get one though - the lamb chops scottadito which were "chops grilled under a brick with minty salsa verde, peppery leaves, and polenta chips."

We don't think we tried any of this, but it certainly looked good.

The polenta chips came with rosemary, salt, and parmesan. We were expecting something that looked a little more like fries, long columns of polenta fried up, but these blocks were tasty. A bit heavy and filling, but so tasty. We love polenta.

We were getting pretty full by the time dessert rolled around, but there was no way we weren't going to get dessert. That's one of the problems with paying for specialty restaurants on a cruise, in our opinion. You don't have the luxury of going back any time that you want, unless you're going to fork over another fee, so you feel like you have to try as much as possible because it's your only chance. Maybe that's just how we looked at it, but we definitely wanted to try their desserts.

A picked the tiramisu because he loves tiramisu. (M tried a bite, but isn't a tiramisu fan generally.) This one was described as a "coffee-flavoured trifle with orange mascarpone and chocolate."

A was disappointed with the tiramisu. He was intrigued by the fact that it was more of a layer cake as opposed to what a standard tiramisu is. After some initial bites, though, he missed the standard layer of cream with the espresso soaked lady fingers underneath. This wasn't a bad dessert, but it wasn't amazing.

M's dad chose the epic homemade brownie, which was a "freshly baked warm fudgy brownie with vanilla ice cream and caramelised amaretti popcorn."

This was so rich. M and A each had one bite of it and that was it. It was just so heavy.

M had been interested in the raspberry and chocolate-rippled pavlova, but was way too full for anything but ice cream when it actually came time for dessert. Each order of ice cream came with 3 scoops of ice cream and a choice of 2 toppings.

M picked vanilla ice cream with seasonal fruits (which were a very generous four blueberries) and smashed honeycomb. (The topping she skipped was chocolate sauce.) Although she expected more fruit for 3 scoops of ice cream, the smashed honeycomb far surpassed her expectations. It was crunchy and sticky and sweet, and really the perfect topping for vanilla ice cream. The ice cream itself was good too, but the honeycomb took it to another level.

M's mom went for her usual dessert and got sorbet, raspberry this time, which tasted a bit like a raspberry lemonade or limeade. What was nice about Jamie's was that sorbet was actually on the menu. Unless you asked for a special dessert order at the complimentary restaurants (and you could if you wanted to, but they don't let you know that), there was no section of any dessert menu that just had plain ice cream or sorbet with toppings (at least there wasn't when we were there).

Overall, our meal at Jamie's Italian was good, and we're glad we "splurged" on it. The standout dishes were definitely the pastas, and there were so many more on the menu we wanted to try. If we went back again on a cruise set up like the Quantum, we would probably go there for lunch on a sea day since lunch is cheaper and you can eat just as much food as you would at dinner. It was disappointing that, for the second day in a row, we ran into such issues with food allergies, but we hoped that things on the trip would get better.

Hunan Manor

I've had the opportunity to go to a local Chinese restaurant that's been reviewed well called Hunan Manor a couple of times. They have a really nice lunch special during the week that gives you a soup plus entree with rice. You get a good amount of food for a fairly affordable price. 

For my first go around I got the Mapo Tofu with Hot and Sour soup.

The hot and sour soup is pretty standard for what you'd find in most Chinese restaurants. There's less stuff in the soup as you might normally find, but it's a satisfying soup. It has a good spice kick, and it has just the right amount of sourness to match. The tofu slices and tofu skin absorbed the flavor of the soup well. The only drawback is that I found a gray-ish blob near the bottom of the container and thought a piece of pork fell into my bowl. Instead it was a blob of cornstarch loaded with white pepper. It was a pretty bad experience, but it didn't make the soup bad.

The mapo tofu was tasty. There was a good amount of heat to the dish, and you could really taste the black bean portion of the black bean chili sauce. My only gripe was that it was a touch heavy on the salt. Overall it was a good dish that the rice soaked up nicely. I do prefer M's home cooked version more, though.

For my second lunch I opted for the Prawns with Hot and Spicy sauce and the Wonton Soup. I figured that since I was feeling a bit under the weather the wonton soup might be best.

The broth was nice and rich. You could definitely taste that it was a bone broth base, but I couldn't tell if it was pork or beef bones. The two wontons had a really sticky and doughy texture that wasn't all that appealing, and the pork interior was pretty dry. They completed the broth with scallions and wood ear mushrooms. I'll probably go back to hot and sour soup for my next visit.

There were 5 fairly large prawns with this dish, and as you can see from the picture, the hot and spicy sauce was no lie. There were garlic slices, ginger pieces, and scallions in the sauce along with a ton of sliced up dried red chilis. There was a bit of soy sauce mixed in as well to add a touch of salt. The prawns themselves were battered and fried, but the sauce obviously made the batter soggier. I did like that there wasn't too much salt in this dish as you could really taste the sweetness of the prawns. I tested out eating a couple of the slices of red chili to see what they were like, and they packed a HUGE wallop. Learned my lesson there. Overall this was a tasty dish, but I don't think I'd get it again.

Overall I totally see why Hunan Manor is so well thought of. The food, even for mass produced lunch specials, are very tasty. I can't wait to try the specialty Hunan dishes as time goes on.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Green Curry Shrimp Gyoza

Trader Joe's has another hit on its hands with these crispy green curry shrimp gyoza ($3.99). I was intrigued by them from the moment I saw them, and even though they are on the pricier side for a frozen snack, they were too compelling to leave at the store. We've had them twice now for a light lunch, and they've quickly become one of our favorite products in the frozen aisle.

The box comes with 12 gyoza which have been pre-fried in palm oil and are ready to be popped into the oven. (I would not recommend microwaving them or anything like that because they would not get the crispiness that is so crucial to making these a winner. Use the oven.) They take about 16-17 minutes at 425 degrees to bake (you flip them halfway through), and then they're ready.

The crisp shells are filled with a combination of shrimp, shrimp paste, kale, green curry sauce, carrots, soy sauce, and more. If you've ever had the green curry simmer sauce from Trader Joe's (which is in our fridge but not posted about, of course), there's some similar flavoring inside the gyoza. The best things about the gyoza, in our opinion, are that the sauce, spice, and flavoring are at just the right amount and not overpowering, and that you can actually see, taste, and feel the individual pieces of shrimp and vegetables inside. The filling here hasn't been ground up into some unrecognizable paste. You can actually take out entire chunks of shrimp if you wanted to. That's fantastic and makes these so different from many store-bought gyoza.

I should mention that, back in January, we did try these once as a sample in the store, but it was after I had already purchased the first box of gyoza. They were serving bite-sized portions (maybe half or a third of a piece) along with their private label gyoza dipping sauce. If we had tried these in the store before purchasing, I doubt we would have gotten them. The flavor inside the gyoza just completely clashed with the dipping sauce and they didn't taste very good together at all. I'm sure there's some sauce that would go well with the gyoza, but it's not that one. We like eating them on their own, plain and straight out of the oven, and honestly, they don't need more than that for us. All the flavoring is right there in its own crisp little pocket and it's fantastic as-is.

Buy Again? Yes! Please, Trader Joe's, make this a permanent fixture in the Asian section, right next to the aloo chaat kati pouches.