Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Week 38 - Mexican

We love Mexican food, so the hardest part about the Week 38 Mexican theme was figuring out what to make. My original plan was to make gorditas and frijoles de la olla, but that would have required visits to a couple different grocery stores and I just wasn't really in the mood. Instead, I decided to make tacos for Taco Tuesday with the soy chorizo we already had in the fridge. Soy chorizo tacos were nothing new, but to step it up for the challenge, I decided to finally try to make tortillas from scratch.

We've had a bag of masa harina in the pantry for a long time, ever since I bought it for some chili recipe who knows how long ago. I had always planned to make pupusas, tortillas, and more with the masa harina, but just never got around to it. I worried a bit that it had gone bad sitting in the pantry, but luckily it still seemed to be okay.

I followed the directions from The Kitchn on making homemade tortillas, which were pretty similar to the ones on the masa package. The first step was mixing the masa harina (I used 1 cup) with some salt, and then hot water (I used 3/4 cup). After kneading it all together, it was supposed to be soft and springy. With those ratios, I didn't have to adjust by adding any extra water or masa. It seemed to be just right. The hardest part was the kneading to begin with since the hot water was really hot (from our hot water heater), and I kept burning my fingertips. Oops.

After the dough is done, you're supposed to cover it and leave it for 30 minutes. So far, so good. The next step was to roll the dough into balls about the size of ping pong balls. Apparently I don't know what size ping pong balls are, because some of these were pretty small and they did not roll out to be very big tortillas at all. Looking at the step by step photos now from The Kitchn, I think theirs were much bigger. Next time. The rolling into a ball step was easy though.

Now for the hardest part - rolling out the tortillas. We didn't have a press or a rolling pin, so I was basically using my hands (and was too lazy to get a can of beans to use). (Reminded me a bit of rolling out the dough for the chocolate vegetable tarts, and no, we still hadn't gotten a rolling pin despite thinking then that we should.) The directions said it would be trickier to get them perfectly round without a press, but I didn't really care if they were round. I guess that's a good thing since most of them turned out looking like a shape I can only describe as Iceland.

A cooked the tortillas in a nonstick skillet (a couple of minutes per side) while I continued making the taco filling and rolling out (or more accurately, flattening) the remaining tortillas. As they finished, we put them on a plate under a wet towel to let them steam. They really didn't look like tortillas with all of their odd shapes.

The taco filling itself was pretty simple - 1 chopped onion, 1 package of Trader Joe's soy chorizo, and 1 can of Rotel. (As an aside, why do they sell cases of Rotel at Costco in North Carolina but not here?! We bought it there and drove it home during our road trip.) We've made this before without the Rotel, and sometimes with a potato added, and it's good every time. The soy chorizo has a pretty strong flavor, which A thought was muted a bit with the Rotel mixed in, but the Rotel added a lot of flavor of its own and also some spice from the chiles. We liked the filling a lot.

The tortillas were pretty small and didn't fit a whole lot of stuff. A's biggest issue with them was that they didn't really fold around the fillings like a tortilla should. I thought the tortillas sort of curled around the filling, but they also split apart more easily than they should have. They weren't great tortillas, but I guess they were okay for a first try. If I'm going to do this more, I think I'm going to need to get a rolling pin. So while they weren't a hugely successful experiment, they weren't a complete failure either, since they worked for what they needed to, they tasted fine, and for the most part, they didn't completely fall apart. I'm glad the challenge pushed me out of my comfort zone to at least try to do this, and hopefully next time will be better!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Week 36 - Signature Dishes

The Week 36 theme, signature dishes, was a bit difficult for me. I haven't been consistently cooking "from scratch" for that long, so I didn't think I really had a signature dish. The challenge, however, didn't require you to make your own signature dish, just a signature dish. After going through this list of signature dishes on Saveur, I decided on baked goat cheese with garden lettuces from Chez Panisse. A has made salad with goat cheese medallions before, but not the same way, so I thought I'd try that one out and find out why it was so special. Lucky for me, The Kitchn had published the recipe for the salad from the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook, so it was pretty easy to make that signature dish.

(Thinking about this in retrospect, I did make a sausage lentil soup the day after I made this challenge meal. I like to make it and didn't get it from a recipe, so maybe that's a signature dish? What makes something a signature dish and not just something you cook? Anyway, not the subject of this post.) 

For the salad, the ingredients I used (modified a little from the original):

- 11 oz goat cheese ($4.99)
- olive oil, about 1 cup plus 2 tbsp ($2.12)
- dried thyme, about 1 tbsp ($0.10)
- dried rosemary, about 1 tbsp ($0.10)
- panko, about 1 cup ($1.50)
- sherry vinegar, about 2 tsp ($0.30)
- salt, to taste ($0.05)
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste ($0.05)
- toasted walnuts, about 1/2 cup, chopped ($1)
- spring greens ($2.40)

The total for the salad was about $12.61. That's not super cheap for a dinner that is completely vegetarian, but sadly goat cheese isn't inexpensive (but it's so delicious!). It would have been even more if I had included the baguette from the recipe, but I didn't feel like going out for fresh bread that afternoon.

Prep for the salad started the night before dinner since the goat cheese had to marinate. I split the goat cheese into 8 (mostly) equal circles, covered them in olive oil, thyme, and rosemary, and stuck the dish in the fridge until an hour before dinner (maybe 17 hours total). Following the recipe instructions, I moved the dish from the fridge to the freezer an hour before we planned to bake the cheese.

After the cheese was out of the freezer, I set the oven for 400 degrees and then went to work at rolling the cheese in the panko. Having the cheese be a little firmer from the freezing made it much easier to roll. Once the pieces were all rolled sufficiently in panko, I put them in the oven and baked them for 8 minutes.

After 8 minutes, I took out the cheese to flip them over. It wasn't really that easy since the cheese wasn't that firm anymore. Some of them were just big (olive) oily blobs of cheese. But I did my best to keep them as together as possible. After that, I stuck them back in the oven for another 8 minutes.

When the time was up, the goat cheese looked pretty good. The panko had browned a bit on some of them, and after letting them sit and cool for a few minutes, the medallions had mostly solidified. At some point in there, I also made the dressing, combining whatever olive oil was left from the marinade, a couple more tablespoons of olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt, and pepper. While the goat cheese was baking, I also toasted and chopped up the walnuts.

Making the salads was pretty straightforward once all the ingredients were done. We loaded the spring greens into the bowls, mixed the greens with the dressing until they were well-coated, and then added the cheese and sprinkled on the walnuts.

Overall, the salad was good, but that's mostly because the greens were fresh and light and crisp, and because baked goat cheese is always good. However, it wasn't really any better than the goat cheese medallions A made previously, which didn't require any marinating, freezing, or advanced preparation. We could probably just mix some of the spices into the panko and then coat them the way we usually do, and get pretty much the same taste results with a lot less work. A found the cheese a little more greasy/oily than the ones we usually have, probably because of all the olive oil it was marinated in.  I'm guessing there must be something about the ones at Chez Panisse that makes them that much better or maybe they were a revelation at the time they were introduced, but to us, these were just pretty standard baked goat cheese medallions. The walnuts and dressing were fine, but neither seemed all that special. There was nothing wrong with this recipe or this salad, and it did make for a tasty, healthy dinner, but I don't think I'll be adapting this into my own signature dish anytime soon.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sriracha Ranch

I've become really good friends with this sriracha ranch dressing ($2.99) from Trader Joe's over the past week, using it in meals three days in a row. Why? An abundance of spring greens from a challenge meal (more on this another time) + a Costco-sized bag of avocados = a lot of salads. Although some people find salads boring, I was pretty excited because it meant I would finally get to break open the dressing that had been sitting around waiting for a few weeks. It was definitely worth the wait.

A lot of people talk about how homemade salad dressings are cheaper and/or healthier and/or tastier, but when it comes to making dressing for a salad, I can get kind of lazy. It'll usually just end up being olive oil and balsamic, and that can get a bit boring. (Or sometimes I just don't bother and throw wasabi tuna salad, or quinoa burgers with salsa, over the greens with nothing else.) It's just too much of a bother making a big batch of dressing when we don't eat salad greens consistently. That's why, to me, sometimes store-bought dressing is worth the price. More interesting ingredients, a tested balance to the flavors, and it's already done and waiting for you once the salad greens are in the bowl.

On the health side, this dressing isn't that terrible for you either. A serving is 2 tablespoons and 80 calories, 8g of fat, and 270mg of sodium. And you don't need much dressing either because it's packed with flavor. The taste is fantastic. It's got a great kick to it from the sriracha, and we appreciated (and were pleasantly surprised) that they didn't go light on the sriracha part for the dressing (like a diluted spicy mayo would have been). That heat is wonderful when added to a (plainer) salad. But while the sriracha element is strong, it also tastes like more than just a creamy hot sauce. You can taste the other seasonings that are added in to round it out as well, stuff like red pepper, garlic, onion, and more. We've only added it to spring greens and avocado so far, but that combination definitely works, and we can imagine it would be good with most salad ingredients. Would also be good for a dip.

Buy Again? Absolutely. Now to just find a reliable and affordable place to get good salad greens when we can't get to Costco (since whoever has been supplying them to Trader Joe's in our area lately has been very hit or miss)...

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Week 28 - Alton Brown

Week 28 was all about Alton Brown. We've watched a lot of Good Eats over the years, but when I tried to think of what to make by Alton Brown, all I could think about was chocolate chip cookies since A has mentioned them from time to time. I wanted to make something for dinner instead so I ended up scanning lists of Alton Brown recipes just looking for one I liked. I found it when I saw this recipe for the best ever green bean casserole. We have green bean casserole from time to time since A makes the traditional one with green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and the French's fried onions. The Alton Brown version made everything from scratch, so I was excited to see how it would turn out.

The ingredients for the casserole were:

for the "fried onions"
- 2 onions, thinly sliced ($1)
- 1/4 cup flour ($0.20)
- 2 tbsp panko ($0.30)
- 1 tsp salt ($0.05)
- nonstick cooking spray ($0.03) 

for the beans and mushroom sauce
- 1 lb green beans ($1.99)
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter ($0.50)
- 10 oz box of mushrooms, chopped ($1.79)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper ($0.03)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced ($0.05)
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg ($0.05)
- 2 tbsp flour ($0.10)
- 1 cup chicken broth ($0.30)
- 1 cup half and half ($0.45)

The original recipe used fresh green beans and freshly ground nutmeg, but in the interests of time, cost, and convenience, I went with frozen green beans and the nutmeg from the spices cabinet. The total cost for the recipe was approximately $6.84. I'm not sure whether that's more or less than the one that A usually makes, but probably about the same if I had to guess.

The first step in making the casserole was to make the onions. After slicing up the onions, you combine them with the flour, panko, and salt in a mixing bowl. I was a bit confused about how the bread crumbs and flour would stick to the onions without something to bind them, like eggs, but that's how Alton wrote it so that's how I did it. Once they were all mixed together, I sprayed the sheet pan with cooking spray, spread out the onions, and baked them at 475 degrees.

I don't remember how long it took for them to get "golden brown" but the recipe said to bake for 30 minutes. I do remember baking them in 5-10 minute intervals and stirring a lot because I didn't want them to burn. (I think I must have read that in some comment or review that I can't find at the moment.) Maybe I baked them for 40 minutes. Not sure, but since every oven is different, I guess I'm not sure it matters. Just check them every so often until they're golden brown. Once the onions were done, I took them out of the oven and set them aside. They actually turned out better than I thought they would, even though they were probably supposed to be a little crispier and golden.

While the onions were baking, we blanched the green beans in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then drained the water and cooled the beans, and then set them aside.

To make the mushroom sauce, you start by melting the butter over medium high heat, then add the mushrooms with some salt and pepper, and cook until they start to release water and soften. After about 5 minutes or so, you add the garlic and nutmeg, cooking for another few minutes. Then the flour and cook for another minute, and then the same for the broth. Once all of those ingredients are in the pan, the heat gets turned down to medium low and you add the half and half, cooking it until it's thicker, about 10 minutes or so. I don't remember how thick it actually got, but the flavors seemed better melded together so I figured it was done.

The recipe called for the entire mushroom mixture to be made in a large cast iron skillet, so that you could just add the green beans and pop it in the oven. I didn't make it that way since, for one, we don't own a cast iron skillet, and just made the sauce in a pan and added everything to a baking pan afterwards.

In the (sprayed) baking pan, I combined the green beans with the mushroom mixture and 1/4 of the onions, and then topped the whole thing with the rest of the onions. It baked at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

The green bean casserole looked really good coming out of the oven. I really liked it. The flavors were good, and it tasted so fresh since it was all made from scratch. The main difference was in the onions since they weren't the crispy fried onions that the traditional one has. I liked these because I felt like they were a bit of a "purer" onion flavor, for lack of a better word, but A preferred the crispy fried onions out of the container. (We have those too but I didn't use them here because Alton doesn't.) I think that really just comes down to personal preference, since both are good. Overall, the green bean casserole was a pretty good choice. Not sure how to determine if it's the "best ever," as there are only so many variations of it, but it was good.

I wasn't sure what to pair with the green bean casserole at first. I knew that it probably wouldn't be enough for dinner (although, in retrospect, it might have been), so I thought about pairing it with some potatoes or something. That was still the plan all the way up until my visit to Trader Joe's when I was trying to decide what size container of half and half to buy, and then it hit me. Maybe I could use some of the half and half to make mashed potatoes. Did Alton ever publish a recipe using half and half in mashed potatoes? Turned out that yes, he had. I stood in the aisles of Trader Joe's in Edgewater, searching online, and then I found this recipe for creamy garlic mashed potatoes. Perfect.

The ingredients for the potatoes were:

- 4 large potatoes ($1.35)
- salt ($0.05)
- 2 cups half and half ($0.90)
- a few cloves of garlic, minced ($0.08)
- about 6 oz of grated parmesan ($1.25)

That came out to about $3.63, mostly because of the parmesan cheese. Potato dishes are so affordable.

The steps start out like any other mashed potatoes. Peel the potatoes, chop into smaller pieces, boil until soft, drain the water, mash the potatoes. While the potatoes are boiling, you make the sauce by combining the half and half with the garlic, heating it until simmering. Once the sauce is done and the potatoes are mashed, the sauce gets added to the potatoes along with the parmesan.

Then you stir the potatoes to combine well, and let it stand for at least 5 minutes to thicken up. I noticed it was much easier to stir these mashed potatoes than it usually is when I use some combination of milk and butter. The half and half made the potatoes much creamier, and I really liked the texture, so much so that when I made a few batches of mashed potatoes for the freezer (I bought 20 pounds of potatoes from Costco, couldn't let them go to waste!), I used up the rest of the half and half for as many batches as I could. The potatoes were good, and they were an appropriate side dish for the green bean casserole, but flavor-wise, we were expecting a little bit more. Between the garlic and the parmesan, we thought we'd taste those in the finished product, but they really were just nice tasting potatoes with little hints of garlic and parmesan. Maybe next time I'll just add more of each.

It's easy to see why Alton Brown has been so popular over the years. He's got so many great recipes and both of the ones we tried here were good. It was an interesting theme and it made for a tasty dinner.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Second Chance Wrapido

Late last year Wrapido (which you might remember from my post about the Chelsea location) opened in Hell's Kitchen. It's in the same storefront where our favorite Colombian/rotisserie spot Farmers used to be, which we remember every time we walk by the entrance, but that wasn't going to stop us from trying Wrapido. A stopped by to pick up dinner one day in the weeks after they opened, but we thought it was just okay and I was disappointed that it wasn't as good as the one in Chelsea. They seemed to have more limited toppings at the time and it just didn't live up to my expectations based on what I remembered from my first visit.

Fast-forward to this summer when I was looking for a healthy and filling lunch after going for a run, and I found myself going back to Wrapido. I was curious to see if they had improved so I got a falafel pita. The guy working there was really nice and very patient as I tried to decide what toppings and sauce to add. In the end, I went with chickpea salad, Israeli salad (tomatoes and cucumbers), onions, and I think beets. It's been some time since I had this for lunch, so I don't remember the fourth topping exactly, but I think it was beets. I went with tzatziki for the sauce on the guy's recommendation.

The falafel pita was good, definitely better than the first time (but still not as good as someplace like Taim). I was glad they had more toppings than they did during our first visit (even if not as many as they used to have (or possibly still have, menu online is unclear) in Chelsea), since back then they only had the basics, like tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, etc. We didn't review it that first time because we were only lukewarm about it and they were new so we figured they were possibly working out the kinks. While I liked the falafel pita, I still think the wrap I got in Chelsea was better, but it's possible that was because the wrap came with more toppings than a pita does. (It's more expensive to get the wrap, but the wrap itself is better than the pita in my opinion.) Now that I know they have a better choice of toppings at our local Wrapido, it might be time to try out a wrap and see how it compares!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Week 25 - Your First Foods

The Week 25 theme of your first foods focused on early food memories. Maybe it was the first thing you learned to cook or the first thing you ate or one of the first food memories you had. I decided to choose lettuce wrap. I remember as a kid my dad used to bring home dinner from Chinatown sometimes, and I absolutely loved when that dinner was from Canton Restaurant. Whenever he ordered from Canton Restaurant, we almost always got lettuce wrap and it was one of my favorite things to eat, one of the first favorites I ever had. Then in junior high school, we had to do some sort of project (I think for Spanish class, but I don't remember the details, just doing it) and I did a video there about how to make it. 

So much of what they made at Canton Restaurant was delicious, but they're no longer around, so I thought I would make this in honor of that early food memory. I wish I had been able to find the video of that recipe, because then I would have made it that way. Since I didn't have it, I just made lettuce wrap on my own from scratch with some input from A on the sauce ratios. We make this every so often at home, always a little bit different, but with the same general flavor profile. I'm not sure how close it came to that first one I had from Canton. Theirs was definitely better, but it's hard to identify the exact flavors when that memory is probably somewhere around 20 years old (or more).

For this lettuce wrap, I used:

- iceberg lettuce for the wrappers
- ground turkey, chopped onion, chopped garlic, rehydrated and chopped shiitake mushrooms, chopped water chestnuts, and chopped scallions for the filling
- a sauce made from 2 parts soy sauce, 2 parts oyster sauce, 1 part shaoxing wine, 1 part agave, and a bit of white pepper
- additional seasonings of salt, white pepper, and 5 spice

(It's been a while, so I don't remember exactly how much of each, but everything is pretty much to taste anyway when it comes to our lettuce wrap.)

Making the lettuce wrap is pretty straightforward as it's just a stir-fry. I cooked the turkey first, then added all the other ingredients, plus seasoning, and eventually the sauce. There was a lot of tasting as everything cooked and melded together, mostly because I wasn't fully happy with it. I know we've had lettuce wrap in the past years that tasted better and this one just wasn't living up to my expectations. I added the 5 spice (in copious amounts) and even more white pepper towards the end hoping that would fix it, and while it improved it, it didn't make it as good as some of the other ones we've had in the past.

Once the filling was done, we piled a little bit into each lettuce leaf and we were done. (A side note on the iceberg lettuce: I was glad I was making this while A was home so he could help me with the prep when it came to the lettuce. I started doing it but pretty quickly realized that on each leaf there was at least 1 (sometimes more) little green spider looking bug. I was getting completely grossed out and we probably wouldn't have eaten until midnight if I had to clean out all the bugs from the lettuce. Thankfully A did that task. Not buying that from TJ's again.) We ate them like lettuce tacos, and they were a bit messy with sauce dripping out, but they were good. We could have added some hoisin sauce, since they do usually give that to you at the restaurants with lettuce wrap, but either we forgot to or wanted to eat it this time without it (don't remember).

I love making lettuce wrap at home. It's a pretty healthy dinner choice and usually pretty tasty. Although this one wasn't as good as some of the ones we've made in the past (it just tasted like it was missing something, but still not sure what), it was still a good dinner. Now I'll just have to keep trying to find that video so I can try that version!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Little Amps Coffee Roasters

Two years ago today, M and I were in Harrisburg, PA on our road trip through the state. Our day started, like pretty much all of our days, with me getting coffee. I did some research, and I found that there was a cool sounding shop called Little Amps Coffee Roasters that served an interesting sounding drink called the Cold Jar. They describe the drink as "espresso shaken with ice and brown sugar, topped with milk". I'm sometimes prone to getting sweet, frozen drinks so that sounded like a fun thing to try.

They serve the drink in a mason jar, thus the name, and it was really tasty. It's one of those drinks where you can't really taste the coffee so I count this a bit more like a treat and not a morning coffee. It served its purpose of infusing me with caffeine, though, so maybe I shouldn't dismiss that aspect. The flavor itself was quite pleasant. The milk and sugar gave it a really creamy, sweet flavor, but as noted, there wasn't much discernible coffee flavor. One of the best things about this drink is that the rim of the mason jar collects some brown sugar, and it gives the drink a little bit of sweet crunch whenever you take a swig. While this wouldn't be my first choice of coffee drinks, I'd certainly consider getting another one of these if we were in the Harrisburg area on a hot day.

Little Amps has two locations. The one we visited was at 133 State Street, Harrisburg, PA 17101

Friday, September 11, 2015


Earlier this summer, I went with some friends for lunch at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. We don't usually go to the MSP location, not because we don't like it, but because the line is always really long, circling around the park at peak times. Although I was really tempted by the special Roadside Burger with caramelized onions, I knew I had to get the ParkBurger. It was introduced this summer after the MSP location reopened post-renovation and has been exclusive to the park location. When would be the next time I would wait in line long enough to get one?

The ParkBurger takes the usual Shake Shack patty and tops it with "cave aged Jasper Hill Farm raw cow's milk cheese sauce and all-natural Niman Ranch applewood smoked bacon." It sounded a bit decadent with bacon and a rich cheese sauce, but I definitely wanted to try it. Unlike the regular ShackBurger which comes with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle (if you order it with everything), I noticed a significant lack of vegetables with this burger. I didn't know if you could add on those toppings for free, but I also didn't try because I wanted to try it as it was intended to be. So instead I got an order of fries. (Potatoes are vegetables, right? Ha.)

The burger looked pretty good when I got it, but the one problem with the way Shake Shack serves their burgers (on their side) is that sometimes the toppings can fall to the bottom. That definitely happened here since it was a cheese sauce and not just melted cheese. The half of the burger that was towards the "top" of the box had a little bit of cheese sauce, but most of it was towards the bottom and/or in the bag. Once I noticed that, I went back up for a fork because there was no way I was letting the cheese sauce go unfinished in the bag, and there was way too much to just scoop up with extra burger bun.

The ParkBurger had good flavor. The Shake Shack patty is one of our favorites and it was topped with some really good bacon. I liked that the cheese sauce was different from the usual burger's cheese, and I did like the taste, but I think the burger suffered a little bit from the cheese not being uniformly distributed and mostly being in the wrapper. The way the cheese melts on the regular ShackBurger is better in that respect, for sure. Overall, I liked the ParkBurger and I'm glad I tried it, but given the choice, I'd still choose the regular ShackBurger instead. Not only is it cheaper, but the balance is more to my taste since it has some vegetable toppings to lighten it up, and not just bacon and cheese. The classic burger wins again!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Our Least Favorite Yogurt

When I went to Trader Joe's last week, it was very pleasant for the first time in a long time. Maybe I had just been going at the exact wrong time all summer, but it was always insanely crowded. I already avoid Sundays and Mondays because of the ridiculous lines and crowds, but things were still crazy on Thursday afternoons which was bizarre. I even heard my first fight this summer (from an aisle over), lots of screaming. But finally, this past visit, it was peaceful and I could shop at my leisure. 

Slowly meandering through the aisles (can really only do this in Chelsea out of the Manhattan stores) and browsing meant I got to pay attention to lots of sections that I never get to because I don't want to deal with pushy or oblivious or IDGAF people just to take a look. One of those was the yogurt section where I noticed this display of peanut butter and jelly Greek yogurt.

I don't remember exactly when we bought this to try, but it was months ago. We had been pretty intrigued by it when I first started seeing the pictures on Instagram, but after we tried it, we wanted nothing to do with it ever again. We thought it was pretty bad. There was some taste that might have been peanut butter, there was a hint of sweetness, but mostly it just had some artificial, not very pleasant flavor. I think I had one spoonful and poor A had to eat the rest of it instead of just his half. He likes PB&J more than I do, but even he thought it was terrible. That's why I was pretty surprised to see this still on the shelf. I knew we weren't the only ones who disliked it after reading some other negative comments online about it after we tried it, but apparently there's enough people out there who like it since it hasn't been discontinued. We disliked it so much that I even considered going back to the store for a refund, but since we ate it all, just decided instead to never buy it again. Someone must like it though. I wish I could understand why!

Buy Again? In case you skipped the rest of the post and just want the quick answer, no, never again.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Han Dynasty

The Women's World Cup ended months ago, so we should probably finish those challenge recaps...

After our Women's World Cup challenge lunch at Northern Tiger, we continued our Chinese eating day with a trip to Philly import Han Dynasty. We had both read so much about how good the restaurant was and had wanted to go for a while (but we hate crowds), so we were really happy to get in without a wait (that's rare). We've had plenty of Sichuan food before so we were pretty excited to taste their take on it.

We did some research while perusing the menu and found the things that most people seemed to like when ordering. It seemed like there was near universal agreement on the 2 appetizers to get (we got both), and after that, a lot of the entrees were more of a personal preference. We started off with dumplings in chili oil (spice level 4) ($6.95). (All the menu items indicate their spice level, which was helpful, but we had no basis to figure out what a 4 or a 6 or an 8 meant in terms of our own tolerance.) These were similar to a lot of dumplings we've eaten from various other Sichuan restaurants, and they did not disappoint. We love these types of dumplings and the chili oil is a perfect accompaniment for the dumpling filling. 

The other widely loved appetizer was the dan dan noodles (spice level 6) ($7.95). We had eaten dan dan noodles before, and we really liked them so we figured we should try their offering if it was so highly touted. We're glad we did. There's something different with how they prepare their noodles. There was a subtle sweetness to the dish that you don't find in most places. The Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil provided the same level of heat we're accustomed to, and the soy sauce and scallions rounded out the dish. That hint of sweetness, though, is what really lingered with us and also what made this such a good dish.

For the entrees, the first one A chose was the dry pepper style chicken (spice level 8), which was described as triple flash fried chicken with long hots and dry chili peppers ($13.95). M was a little wary of what a spice level 8 might be, but figured at least it would be offset by our other entree if it were too spicy. It wasn't. Apparently we can tolerate a spice level 8 at Han Dynasty just fine (although we should note that we did not eat all the chili peppers on the plate, so maybe we didn't actually eat it at spice level 8).

This dish was really good. The spice was intense but in a good (and mostly tolerable) way. We felt our tongues numbing from the Sichuan peppercorns, but weren't unhappy about that. The chicken was fried well and packed with flavor. The pepper, scallion, onion garnish that came on top of the chicken reminded us of the garlic, onion, and pepper garnish that comes on top of the pork chops we usually get at Cantonese family dinners, except a spicy Sichuan version that was so good over rice. Overall, we really liked this and would absolutely eat it again.

The last dish we got was the crispy rice style chicken (spice level 0), which, according to the menu, had a sweet and sour sauce with bamboo shoots, tomatoes, black mushrooms, and pea leaves (what pea leaves?) served on pillows of sizzling crispy rice ($14.95). M wasn't sure what to expect with this one, but it wasn't really what arrived. When she hears crispy rice, she always thinks about the crispy rice (topped with tuna tartare) from Koi, which is more like blocks of stickier rice with crispy outside edges. These were more like dried, crispy blocks of rice which dissolved, broke apart, and gelatinized a little bit once they sat in the sauce for a while. Not at all what she thought it would be, but it was what A imagined. He'd eaten this sort of puffed rice cake thing when he was younger so he knew what to expect.

The flavors of this dish were fine, but nothing special in our opinion. The sweet and sour sauce was okay, it was nice to have vegetables to offset the other dishes, and the flavor was nice, but it just couldn't hold its own against the other entree we had on the table.

We really enjoyed our dinner at Han Dynasty and would definitely go back. We wouldn't get the crispy rice style again, but the other 3 dishes we got were all hits. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Overflowing Onions in Ohio

The Ohio Turnpike has some of the best rest stops we've ever experienced on the interstate. I thought that when I first drove through Ohio over 10 years ago and it's still true today. (To be fair, there are many states neither of us have driven through, but Ohio to me is still the best.) Since it's a toll road, it's not as simple to just get off at any exit for a meal or a break, but they definitely make up for it with the nice rest stops/travel plazas.

Anyway, we stopped for gas at the rest stop in Amherst, Ohio, and I decided to get a snack. Although I briefly considered Popeye's, I was really just looking for a small snack to make it through the next 2 hours or so that it would take to drive to our hotel and check in before dinner. I may have mentioned previously my love for onion rings, and since there was a Burger King in this rest stop, I decided to get some. I ordered a medium and when I got the bag, it looked like this.

That was a pretty full cup of onion rings plus a ton of onion rings in the bigger bag. I wondered if Burger King's fry/ring policy had changed so that they were more like Five Guys after I saw that, but that wasn't the case. The person working there explained that whoever dropped the onion rings put in way more than they should have for a medium order, so they just gave me the rest. That was pretty sweet. Of course, this was the one time I was specifically looking for a small snack to tide us over until dinner, but I'm not going to complain about getting a ton of free rings. I shared them with A, who was originally not planning to eat any, and off we went, eating onion rings while driving through Ohio and then taking in a pretty sunset. So far we hadn't hit any amazing food places on the road trip, but we were still having a good driving day!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Milesburg McDonald's

Driving through most of Pennsylvania on I-80 is pretty boring. There's lots of trees and farmland and hills and clouds, but not much else to look at. Around Milesburg, we decided to stop for lunch. We needed to get some gas and it was about the right time to stop, eat, and stretch our legs. There weren't a ton of options there - a Country Pride at the TA, a Subway in a gas station, and a McDonald's - so we decided on the Golden Arches.

A got a Big Mac combo, I got a Filet-o-Fish, and then we both decided to split a grilled onion and cheddar burger from the value menu. Neither of us had seen this before, although some Googling during lunch told us that it has been on the value menu since early 2013. Huh. I guess we just don't go to McDonald's too much (other than for Minions happy meals). 

The Big Mac was your usual Big Mac, although A noted it had been a while since he had one. The Filet-o-Fish was the same as always. No point in reviewing those as they're pretty standard for McDonald's. They were so ordinary that neither of us even remembered to take pictures of them before diving in. The thing we were most interested in and definitely remembered to photograph was the grilled onion and cheddar burger. 

At first glance, we wondered if this would be just an ordinary burger with cheese and maybe a few onions. We were pleasantly surprised to see a whole bunch of caramelized onions on the burger. When we tried it, we found that the cheese was creamier and tasted better than what usually ends up on the McDonald's cheeseburger, but the best part was those onions. Such a great caramelized flavor. Overall, it was pretty good for a value menu item (or even just a regular McDonald's item). We would get this again if we saw it on the menu.

McDonald's has apparently decided to impart philosophy on its patrons these days with the sayings on their cups. I like them though. At least they're going for a positive, happy perspective on life.

We tried to relax a little bit and have a leisurely lunch before heading back on the road but that McDonald's was absolutely freezing. The other half of the restaurant by the restrooms was more bearable, but we didn't know that until right before we left. Oh well. Anyway, this stop wasn't anything special since it was just a McDonald's, but it did introduce us to a new value menu item that we didn't even know existed before. Caramelized onions just make everything better!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Week 35 - Pizza

I had grand plans for the Week 35 theme, pizza. We were going to be away on our road trip during pizza week, but what I planned to do when we got back was attempt to recreate the pizza al pollo asado that I really like from Trader Joe's. We already had a bag of masa harina that I need to use more of and that would be a creative take on the challenge. Of course, by the time we got back, I was too tired and exhausted from the trip and my ragweed allergies to want to think too much about making that pizza, so I just decided to make a pizza that I hadn't made before and wanted to eat. The challenge is just to make a pizza, no need for it to be spectacular. (I'm not even officially participating anyway!)

For this pizza, I used:

- 1 package of whole wheat pizza dough* ($1.19)
- 1/2 small jar of TJ's pizza sauce ($1)
- 1 lb of sweet Italian pork sausage ($4.49)
- 10 oz box of cremini mushrooms ($1.99)
- 1 onion ($0.50)
- salt and pepper, to taste ($0.03)
- garlic powder, to taste ($0.05)
- 6 oz of shredded quattro formaggio (parmesan, asiago, fontina, provolone) ($2.50)

* Yes, I could have made the dough from scratch for the challenge, but we don't have a ton of counter space. Or a rolling pin. Or a good board to make the dough on. And I was tired. Whatever, I still made a pizza.

The pizza came out to about $11.75. Not really that cheap, but it was filling.

The first step was to prepare the toppings. I chopped up the mushrooms and onions and removed the sausages from their casings. We cooked the sausage first, breaking it up into smaller pieces as it cooked, and then added the mushrooms and onions, letting them saute until there wasn't too much liquid left in the pan.

Once the liquid in the pan started to reduce a little bit, I started setting up the pizza. I sprayed the pan with nonstick spray, added a layer of corn meal, and then began to spread out the dough. Once that was done, it was time to add a layer of pizza sauce and then the toppings (which I drained as I spooned them out because all the liquid wasn't gone, but it was done "enough").

The last thing to add was the cheese, and then we were ready to go. This was the first time I had tried using the quattro formaggio blend on a pizza instead of regular mozzarella, so I was hopeful that it would be good.

I generally follow the instructions on the pizza dough package when it comes to baking, so we baked it at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. I probably left it in there for another minute or so after that just to make sure the cheese was all melted and starting to brown on top. Then we let it sit for a couple of minutes before cutting it up.

Overall the pizza was good, but I was expecting more. I think one of the problems was that the sausage itself wasn't very flavorful. We've bought this sausage in the past and it had lots of spices and flavorings mixed in, but this one was much blander, more like ground meat than sausage. I did add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to it while it was cooking, but most bites, the sausage just didn't live up to what I thought it would be. The quattro formaggio was a good cheese choice though. It added a depth that plain mozzarella (much as we like it) wouldn't have, and covered up for the shortcomings of the meat. While everything together did taste good, it was definitely the cheese that brought it all together and elevated it a bit. So not the most imaginative or creative pizza night, but it was pizza so it counts!