Monday, August 31, 2015

Great Lakes Road Trip

We haven't posted for a while, but at least this time we have a good reason. We just got back late last night from a weeklong road trip through part of the Great Lakes region, spending most of our time in Chicago visiting family and then some time in Cleveland. While we had a nice time, it feels good to be home.

This photo from Maumee, Ohio is perfect for our trip - our 2 main destinations!

There's so many places we want to tell you about, some of which are updates on spots we never got around to posting about on previous Chicago trips, so we'll add those on to the list of hundreds of recaps we still have to do. Hopefully we'll get these done sooner rather than later, since this time we took notes!

Monday, August 17, 2015


Time is flying by, and the 5 year anniversary of our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium is fast approaching (and with it, our aspirational goal/self-imposed deadline for posting trip recaps). When we last left off, we had eaten a snack in the Grote Markt before heading off on a canal cruise to explore more of Brugge. The canal cruise was great. We took tons of pictures of the interesting architecture and enjoyed exploring the city from the water. Once we got off the boat, we wandered around town a little bit, but mostly we were off to find lunch.

I hadn't been able to find a ton of casual, affordable spots in Brugge when doing restaurant research, so when we were thinking about lunch, we decided to rely on a recommendation from our Rick Steves guidebook. He recommended L'Estaminet as a good spot for light meals. Sounded good to us!

We arrived at L'Estaminet, which seemed to be on the "outskirts" of the old part of town (we always got turned in circles in Brugge, so that's how it felt but don't rely on our descriptions as far as a map goes) next to a nice park. They offered us a table in their "outdoor" seating area, which though outside was also enclosed, so we happily took that. It was nice and bright from the natural daylight, which made us happy because we love to see what we're eating.

We both got a beer with lunch (in Belgium, you have to pay for water in restaurants, so might as well drink beer). A went for the Brugse Zot, the local Brugge beer which they made right in town at a brewery that we were going to visit later in the day. The beer was a Belgian pale ale, and it was crisp and refreshing. It had a subtle sweetness in the first taste and ended on a drier hoppy-er note. I got a Stella Artois. It was fine, better than the Stella in the States because it's "fresher," but that doesn't really need a photo. It's just Stella.

For our lunch dishes, we mostly focused on the section of the menu called "toasts." Since everything started with the word "croque," we figured, based on our basic knowledge of the croque monsieur, that the toasts were probably sandwiches. Sounded good for lunch to us. A chose to get the croque monsieur, which the (current online) menu describes as a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. The sandwich also came with a very robust salad on the side, filled with tomatoes, onions, pickles, corn, and another pickled item that we could only identify as rakkyo. It was a pretty impressive salad.

The sandwich when it came out surprised us with the way it looked. We were expecting more of a traditional croque monsieur, thick bread, covered in bechamel, or at least something that resembled an actual sandwich. This was more like a turnover or a really stuffed pie filled with creamy ham and cheese. That's not to say it was bad. It wasn't. It just wasn't what we thought of as a croque monsieur at all.

Overall the sandwich had a rich, buttery flavor to the bread portion while also being paired with the rich, creamy ham and cheese stuffing. It was a hearty "sandwich" and very filling. It was also very delicious. A bit of crispness from the toasted bread ended up melting into the gooey, salty cheese and ham.

I opted for the croque shoarma. There was no description on the menu when we were there, but the current online menu describes it as a "toasted sandwich with shoarma spice mix of cumin, coriander, garlic, various kinds of pepper, ginger, and cinnamon." Just like with A's toast, we were expecting this to look more like a sandwich, but it looked just like A's. The plates generally were virtually identical except I had an extra sauce on the side (can't remember what it was) and instead of all that rakkyo, had some chopped up red peppers.

This was stuffed with chopped up chicken flavored with all the spices you usually get with shawarma (not used to spelling it shoarma). This many years later it's a little hard to describe each aspect of the flavor in detail, but it was similar to a really good spiced chicken pie (English style) or patty (Jamaican style). The spices were really wonderful. That, I do remember. We liked both of our choices for lunch. They may not have looked like the sandwiches we were expecting, but we were pretty satisfied with them.

There were a few other tables in the outside seating area while we were there, and we noticed that almost every single person was eating spaghetti bolognese. We already noticed the day before the prevalence of spaghetti bolognese in Brugge (although we still weren't sure why), so we decided that we would have to try to come back to get the spaghetti. After all, it had seemed like it might be their specialty since everyone got it and they weren't all tourists, we don't think. (I don't remember reading it in the Rick Steves book back then but he does recommend the hearty spaghetti. Perhaps we did it read it then but just didn't go straight for spaghetti since we had it the night before? Don't remember.) We were pretty happy with our lunch at L'Estaminet and definitely wanted to try to come back the next day!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Week 31 - Represent Your Region

Week 31's theme, represent your region, was all about honoring and spotlighting the food from where you live. I wasn't really sure what to make. New York style cheesecake? Pastrami sandwiches? Black and white cookies? Bagels and lox? Knishes? New York pizza? A Coney Island hot dog? None of those really appealed to me and some I couldn't even make at home, since it's not like we own a brick oven. After thinking about it for a bit and wondering what people come to New York to eat, it hit me - street meat! People come from all over the world and line up at 53rd and 6th for a platter of their famous chicken over rice. That certainly would represent my region.

Street meat from the famous Halal Guys

I remembered that Serious Eats had published Kenji's recipe for halal cart-style chicken and rice with white sauce, and thought that would be a perfect starting place. I've always wondered how close that came to street meat, since it usually seemed to us like there were more seasonings in the chicken from the carts than just lemon, oregano, coriander, and garlic, but we're not expert tasters. What better time to test it out than for this challenge?

The ingredients for the chicken portion (slightly adapted from the original recipe because I wasn't going to go out for fresh oregano just for this) were:

- about 1 lb of chicken thighs ($5.88)
- 2 tbsp lemon juice ($0.20)
- 1 tbsp dried oregano ($0.05)
- 1/2 tsp ground coriander ($0.05)
- 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped ($0.08)
- 1/4 cup olive oil ($0.75)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)
- 1 tbsp canola oil ($0.05)

The chicken was the part of dinner that took the longest to prepare, in part because you had to marinate it in advance. The first thing to do is to make the marinade by combining the lemon juice, oregano, coriander, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Although the instructions said to do this in a blender so that the sauce would be smooth, I really hate dragging out the blender to use for 10 seconds to make a sauce. Our kitchen is really not that big. So I just mixed it together by hand. Maybe it wasn't as smooth, but it was fine.

Anyway, after you make the marinade, you put the chicken in a ziploc bag, add half of the marinade, coat the chicken with it, and then let it marinate in the fridge for a few hours. (I think I did 2 or 3.) The other half of the marinade gets stored in the fridge for later. I should also mention that before I put the chicken in the bag I tried to trim off as much of the fat as I could, since these were really, really fatty chicken thighs. (See all the fat in the photo with the package?)

After the chicken has finished marinating, you pull it out of the bag, pat it dry, add salt and pepper (I usually just do one side and then season the other while the seasoned side is face down in the skillet), and then it's time to cook. The canola oil gets added to the (not non-stick) pan and then the chicken gets browned and cooked through (about 5 minutes per side).

Once the chicken is cooked, it cools for a few minutes, and then you chop it up into small pieces. After that, you put it in a bowl with the other half of the marinade, cover it with plastic wrap, put it in the fridge, and let it sit until everything else is done and just about ready.

Also essential to a chicken and rice platter is the rice. The ingredients I used for the rice portion (again, slightly adapted) were:

- 2 tbsp butter ($0.40)
- about 1 tsp turmeric ($0.05)
- about 1/2 tsp ground cumin ($0.05)
- 1.5 cups Basmati rice ($1.23)
- 2.5 cups water ($0)
- 2 spoonfuls of chicken bouillon ($0.60)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)

Making the rice was pretty easy. You melt the butter, add the turmeric and the cumin for about a minute, add the rice, coat it with the butter sauce, toast it for a few minutes, and then add the chicken broth (water/bouillon in my case). Once it starts to boil, you reduce it to a simmer and cover it and cook it for 15 minutes covered. After that, turn off the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes. It actually came out pretty well in terms of texture with that water to rice ratio and had a nice yellow color from the turmeric.

Besides the chicken and rice, the other components of your usual street meat platter are white sauce, hot sauce, and a side salad. (Of course there are others we love, like Trini Paki Boys, which also give you chickpeas and other things, but this challenge was going to be about the famous street meat platters from the Halal Guys. Places like the Halal Guys also give you pita, but we had enough food already and I didn't feel like buying pita when we really didn't need it.) The only part of those that we made from scratch was the white sauce, for which we used:

- 1/2 cup mayo ($0.54)
- 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt ($1.25)
- 1 tbsp sugar ($0.05)
- 2 tbsp white vinegar ($0.10)
- 1 tsp lemon juice ($0.05)
- 1/2 bunch of parsley, chopped ($0.50)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)

Adding 2/3 of a head of romaine lettuce ($0.55) and 1 Roma tomato ($0.29) to the chicken ($7.11), rice ($2.38) and white sauce ($2.54), the total for our 2 dinner platters was approximately $12.87. (You could probably tack on a few more cents for some Cholula that we used, since we didn't have a harissa-based hot sauce, but that amount is negligible.) The price isn't that different from getting 2 platters from the Halal Guys, and both are filling. I guess the big difference is that with this one, I know exactly what's in everything.

For the sauce, I just had to wash and chop the parsley, and then combine it in a bowl with the mayo, yogurt, sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. It was pretty easy to make. I also chopped up the tomato into smaller slices. I would have chopped the romaine then too but I did that the day before for the BLT salad and then just stored it in the fridge.

Once everything is done, it's time to finish off the chicken. You pull the bowl of chicken out of the fridge and add everything (sauce and all) back into the skillet, cooking until it's done. That part was simple.

The finished product didn't look exactly like the Halal Guys plate, but I wasn't expecting it to. For one, the salad portion was much bigger, but that was purposeful since I really hate going without a decently sized vegetable component for dinner. As for the flavors, as I tasted each individual component to see if any adjustments needed to be made, I wasn't sure if this was going to taste like your traditional street meat platter. The chicken tasted more Italian than anything else (perhaps from the use of the dried oregano?). The rice tasted fine and we love Basmati rice, but I couldn't remember much about the rice from our street meat platter to see if it was the same as we remembered. The white sauce on its own tasted vaguely like the cart's white sauce but also just kind of tasted like a creamy salad dressing.

But when we tried everything together, our opinion completely changed. When you got a bite with rice, chicken, and a good dollop of white sauce all together, it absolutely tasted like cart-style chicken and rice. It's hard to pinpoint the exact parts of each flavor that combined to make us think of street meat, but the flavor was absolutely there. We were pretty pleased with the results of this experiment.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Missing Kimchi

If you work for Trader Joe's or the company that manufactured their kimchi once upon a time or a supplier that might work with them on a future kimchi product, consider this post my personal plea to you (for whatever that's worth) to please, please, please, please, please figure out a way to bring kimchi back to the stores!

I loved this kimchi from Trader Joe's. It was cheap, only about $2 a package. It was convenient, since the majority of my grocery shopping ends up being done at TJ's (or Costco) so I didn't have to make a separate stop for kimchi. It was a good size for 2 people and you didn't have to worry about storing the remainder of an open package. It lasted for a long time in the fridge (the expiration dates were always months away), so just like the soy chorizo, it was great to keep on hand for a "pantry" meal. On top of all that, the flavor was pretty good. We used it in so much - grilled cheese, mac and cheese, plain out of a bowl. Was it as good as some of the restaurant kimchi we've had? No, but for $2 a package, I really wasn't expecting that.

But there was a problem with the product and TJ's discontinued it. I understand why, since I saw it firsthand. The packaging just didn't really agree with the kimchi. While the majority of the packages we got were fine, we did have one (our very last package!) that blew up so much that we thought it was going to explode all over the fridge. I returned that one to the store (this was after it had already been discontinued, so I had already known about that and the reasons why) and luckily it didn't explode on the bike ride down. The feeling I got from the TJ's staff was that this wasn't uncommon.

I heard a rumor that the kimchi had made a brief reappearance on the store shelves this spring, only to be pulled again because the problem had not been rectified. I don't know if that's true, because we never saw it at the store. I know I could just go to the Korean supermarket and buy some (after all, I did make a special trip for the gochujang, so why not for the kimchi?), but it was just so much easier to do it all together, one-stop shopping. I'd love to see more stuff like this at TJ's generally, so maybe someone could bottle it in a jar or some other type of container that won't blow up and explode. It would be nice to see kimchi at the store again.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bento Sushi and Noodles

Sorry, it's been a while since I've posted. Work has been busy, and I've been lazy and slacking at my blogging. Anyway...

I had tried going to a bento place that I had read good reviews on earlier this year, but it didn't have any food left, and it wouldn't have had any seats anyway. Time went on, and I resigned myself to not having a replacement for Wasabi Sushi and Bento. Then one day I was in a wandering mood, and I came across Bento Sushi and Noodles. I've been twice now so I'll go through both of my choices.

The way their bento boxes work is that you pick up one of their pre-made sets. Each box contains a salad and a dumpling, but you get to choose between a california roll, a vegetable roll, or two pieces of salmon nigiri. You then tell them at the register which protein you want, and they prepare the rest for you. First time through I got the chicken curry bento box with the salmon nigiri.

I've had quite a bit of Japanese curry in my day. Go!Go!Curry! was a regular haunt of mine back at my old job. Overall, this was a pretty tasty curry. The vegetables and chicken accented the spiced curry gravy very well, and the entire dish had a solid, comfort-food feeling to it. The salad was fairly standard, containing lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and shaved carrots. The dressing I couldn't quite place, but it was cool and refreshing with just the right touch of creaminess. The dumpling was also a pretty standard pork dumpling. The salmon nigiri was really nice. It's rare that you get nigiri in a fast-foodish style sushi place, and this is decent quality. No, you're not getting top quality amazing sushi, but you still get two good sized pieces.

The second time through I opted to get the unagi.

My first time here I didn't want to get the unagi because I figured it'd be a pretty small piece of eel over the rice. My second time coming I saw someone's order and knew I wanted it. The piece of eel is fairly large, and it's cooked up nicely. I think I might ask for less eel sauce if I get this again because they sort of drowned it. I do like eel sauce, but this much made everything a bit too sticky and sweet. I still do love unagi, though, so I'm sure I'll get this again at some point. I got the same sides so there's no point in rehashing that.

Overall, while you won't be getting the most mind-blowing Japanese food experience, you do get a tasty, solid lunch. It's a good amount of food for not a massive dent in your wallet.

Bento Sushi NYC has multiple locations but I visited the location at 685 3rd Avenue, New York, NY

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ba Xuyen

We really wish we had a place like Ba Xuyen in our neighborhood. A no frills, hole in the wall, banh mi takeout place. It's something that's been severely lacking for the entire time we've lived in our area. We visited Ba Xuyen months ago and were supposed to post about it much earlier, but better late than never when it comes to reliving some really delicious banh mi.

A's review of his banh mi:

My go-to whenever I try a new banh mi joint is to get the classic pork and pate banh mi. I figure if you can't make the classic, standard sandwich, you probably can't make any good sandwich. Ba Xuyen, however, makes an excellent pork and pate banh mi.

It all starts with the bread. Their baguette had just the right amount of crisp/bite on the outside to go with a soft, chewy interior. The cold cuts weren't too salty or processed tasting, and the pate was balanced and full of good mineral flavor. The pickled vegetables were tart but also still crunchy. All of the flavors accented each other perfectly, and the whole sandwich was perfectly balanced.

M's review of her banh mi:

Just like A usually goes for the classic banh mi, I usually opt for the chicken the first time I try a new banh mi place (although sometimes I'm really drawn to the meatball option), so chicken was what I got at Ba Xuyen. The chicken here was different from most of the other banh mi I've had before since it was shredded chicken instead of grilled chicken like some others.

The flavors of the banh mi at Ba Xuyen were great. The chicken was good, and I really liked the refreshing cucumber, cilantro, carrot, and daikon. Just like A said, the bread here was just right, which really rounded out and improved the entire sandwich. Overall, this was just a really good banh mi.

Now that we've been thinking about Ba Xuyen, we could really go for some banh mi... It's too bad there isn't really anything around!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Week 32 - Bacon

If you're looking for an iconic bacon dish, it's hard to do better than a BLT. I considered making a BLT for Week 32's bacon theme, but while looking around for inspiration, I happened upon recipes for a BLT salad, including this one on AllRecipes. A salad sounded perfect, so I used that recipe as a starting point (mostly for the dressing) and went from there.

The ingredients I used for the salad were:

- 1 lb of bacon ($4.49)
- 2-1/3 heads of romaine lettuce ($1.94)
- 4 oz bag of cheese and garlic croutons ($2.99)
- 1 lb of grape tomatoes ($2.49)
- 2 shallots ($0.50)
- 1/3 bunch of scallions ($0.43)
- 3/4 cup mayo ($0.81)
- 1/3 cup milk ($0.10)
- freshly ground black pepper to taste ($0.05)
- garlic powder to taste (at least 1 tbsp) ($0.05)

A salad for $13.85, a possible price for a salad like this at some restaurants, could be a bit expensive, but considering that it was less than $7 per person and we ate a ton of salad, it was actually a pretty decent price. Bacon's not cheap!

Since the entire meal was salad, it was almost entirely prep.

The starring ingredient, bacon, was the only part that actually had to be cooked - fried up and then crumbled. Everything else in the salad was just chopping - the romaine lettuce into thin strips, the tomatoes into quarters, the shallots finely chopped - or crushing, in the case of the croutons.

The dressing was just chopped up scallions, mayo, milk, black pepper, and garlic powder, all mixed together well. It wasn't the thickest dressing because of the milk, but I liked it thinner so that it would mix well with the salad.

Once all the prep was done, all that was left was to mix everything together in the largest mixing bowl we owned. As I said, it made for a gigantic salad (and we ate it all).

All together, the salad was really good, which is part of why we ate so much of it in one night. The flavors all worked really well together, which isn't really a surprise given that the BLT itself is a classic, and this is just a BLT deconstructed into salad form - croutons for the bread, plus the bacon, lettuce, and tomato.

While it was incredibly tasty, this salad couldn't have been that healthy with a pound of bacon, the mayo-based dressing, and an entire bag of croutons. That said, it tasted really refreshing because of all the lettuce and other vegetables, which we absolutely needed after spending the entire weekend eating fried seafood in Connecticut (more on that another time). Although it was a fair amount of prep work, I'd definitely make this salad again. It makes for a great summer dinner.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Week 30 - Freezing

I give up on posting the challenge recaps in order. Here's Week 30...

When the Week 30 challenge came up as freezing, I wondered what I could do for dinner that could possibly qualify. The rules only said you had to create something using a freezing technique, so either a completely frozen dish or something with a frozen element to it would work. The only savory preparation I could think of was to create trays of TV dinners, freeze them, and then microwave them another day, but I really had no desire to do that. So for this challenge, I instead decided to make dessert, fruit and yogurt mini frozen pops, based on this recipe I found on Allrecipes.

I modified the ingredients list slightly and used:

- 16 oz bag of frozen berries
- 1 banana
- 2 cups of vanilla yogurt
- agave to taste, approx 2 tbsp

A very simple list. On top of that, there were 5 mini paper cups and popsicle sticks to make the pops. I'm not going to do a total because this wasn't dinner, so I'm not really trying to figure out if it's cost-effective. If I had to estimate, it would probably be similar in cost to a box of popsicles from the supermarket, but could potentially make more pops.

Making the pops was pretty easy. The first step was to blend the fruit (with any juice or water that was in the bag), yogurt, agave, and banana together until the berries had broken up and everything was mixed together well.

Then I added the fruit and yogurt mixture into our mini cups.

Next up was covering each cup with aluminum foil and adding the popsicle sticks. I used paper cups because we don't own any popsicle trays. I would have made more than 5 pops (or an even number generally), but that was all that would fit in this little tray. Our freezer was pretty full so there wasn't room for a second tray. There was barely room for this one.

Since we couldn't make any more pops than that, the rest of the fruit and yogurt mixture became smoothies that we enjoyed during Sharknado 3. I have no idea proportionally how much of the cost became smoothies, but I'm also not sure it matters because you could just make more pops if you had the space in the freezer.

We let the pops freeze overnight and then tried them for dessert the next day. They were actually pretty good, other than the paper that stuck to the top of the pop from the paper cups on half the pops. If we had a lot of freezer space and a real popsicle tray, I might do this again sometime, but right now, I think I'll stick to some of my favorite store-bought popsicles for a quick and easy treat. It was nice to try though.