Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Week 43 - Hit for the Cycle

Week 43's theme, hit for the cycle, was a lot of fun. By "hit for the cycle," they meant to pick 4 consecutive weeks from any previous year's challenges. I came up with 3 possible sets of challenges, but the one I immediately clicked with was from 2012 - baking, squash, comfort food, and casseroles. Those seemed pretty easy to work together into a single dish. After a (very) little bit of searching, I found this recipe for a Chilean butternut squash casserole on food.com, and knew I had to try it.

So glad Trader Joe's sells butternut squash by the piece and not by the pound

I've been wanting to branch out and push myself in the challenges a little bit more, so to try something new, I bought a whole butternut squash instead of the more convenient, pre-cut squash that I've bought in the past. For one thing, it was so much cheaper buying it whole. But the other was that I had never worked with it whole, and I wanted to cross that off the list.

The non-squash ingredients for the casserole

I adapted the ingredients a little bit from the original recipe and used:

- 1 large butternut squash ($1.99)
- 1 large onion, chopped ($0.54)
- 5 garlic cloves, minced ($0.10)
- 1 tbsp olive oil ($0.20)
- ground cumin, a few tsp ($0.05)
- chili powder, a few tsp ($0.15)
- cayenne, a few dashes ($0.05)
- salt and pepper to taste ($0.05)
- garlic powder, a few tsp ($0.05)
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped ($0.64)
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped ($0.38)
- 4 eggs, beaten ($1.33)
- 2 cans of corn ($1.78)
- 2 cups of grated sharp cheddar cheese ($2.05)

The cost of the casserole was around $9.36. It was enough food for a filling dinner for both of us, as well as 2 days of lunch for me, so that was pretty cost-efficient. Using the whole butternut squash was probably about half the price of using the pre-cut stuff, so that will definitely be the way to go in the future.

Butternut squash "halved"

The steps for making the casserole (slightly adapted from the original recipe) were:

1. Wash butternut squash and then cut in half. (My halves were a little uneven. Oh well.) Use a spoon to scoop out all the seeds and stringy stuff.

2. Spray a baking pan with cooking spray and place the butternut squash halves cut side down. Bake at 425 degrees until soft. I baked it for 50 minutes, and it seemed soft enough when I was testing it with a fork, but I think next time I'll bake it for at least 60 so it gets even softer and easier to mash.

3. Remove squash from oven when soft, and allow to cool.

Onions, garlic, spices

4. Heat olive oil in pan over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, salt, cumin, chili powder, and cayenne. Saute until onions have started to soften and are translucent.

5. Add red and green peppers, and reduce heat to medium low.

6. Scrape the squash out of its "shell" and into a baking pan that was sprayed with cooking spray. (For some parts of the squash, this was more peeling the skin off the squash than scooping the squash out of the shell.) Mash it up in the baking pan. (While a spoon was helpful, I found mashing and kneading it with my hands was even more effective.)

Squash comfort food casserole, pre-baking

7. Mix the beaten eggs into the mashed squash until all the squash is coated in egg.

8. Add the corn, cheese, and some more cumin, chili powder, and salt. Also add freshly ground black pepper and garlic powder.

9. Add the pepper-onion sauteed mixture, and then stir everything together to mix really well. Try to level out the mixture so that it's the same height throughout the pan. (In the future, I'll add some cheese on the top after this step, before putting it in the oven.)

Finished casserole

10. Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

11. Remove foil and bake for another 20 minutes. Eat!

Not the most attractive dish, but very tasty

This casserole was really good. It reminded me a little bit of a Chilean pastel de choclo (but a vegetarian version) and a little bit of a Paraguayan chipa guazu. It was filling and hearty and 100% comfort food. While the flavor was good, in the future, we would increase the amount of cheese, garlic/garlic powder, and cumin, and also add some cheese to the top of the casserole. We would definitely make this again, especially now that cooler weather is on its way.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Lithuanian Festival of Baltimore

We kicked off our Savannah road trip in Catonsville, Maryland at the Lithuanian Festival of Baltimore. We had never had Lithuanian food before, so when I saw the festival announcement on Chowhound, conveniently scheduled for the day we would be driving from Maryland to North Carolina, we knew we had to stop by. We had no idea what Lithuanian food would be like, and were really excited to try some.

When we got to the festival, we paid our admission fee, and then made a beeline for the back hall where most of the food vendors were. So many things looked good, but we weren't entirely sure what anything was and looked up the dish names on Google to get more info. The first thing we decided to try was cepelinai, which Wikipedia told us was the Lithuanian national dish. Well, if it's their national dish, then we had to try it.

Cepelinai are basically grated potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat and sometimes some cheese, which are then boiled, and served with sour cream sauce and bacon. These were so good. The texture of the potatoes was so interesting. It was different from an actual potato, a little denser and thicker, kind of sticky and gluey. I'm not really sure how else to describe it, but we liked the texture. The filling was tasty, as was the bacon in the sauce. We were pretty happy with these. 

After the cepelinai, we wandered around the festival a little bit looking at the various things for sale and the other food options. Eventually we made our way outside to the armory's parking lot where they had set up a mini beer garden. A is always looking to try beers from other countries, so when he saw a lot of people drinking Utenos, he got one of those. It was pretty much what he was expecting. It was a light-flavored, crisp beer that went down smoothly. It's not his preferred type of beer, but it was definitely refreshing on the warm day.

After exploring the beer options (which I didn't really partake in, as I was driving this part of our road trip), we decided to try one more Lithuanian dish. We were tempted by the potato pancakes, but we can get potato pancakes at home in NYC. They may not be Lithuanian potato pancakes at home, but they're probably relatively similar.

Eventually we decided on kugelis. According to the sign the vendor put up, kugelis is a Lithuanian dish "made with potatoes, bacon, onions, eggs, and seasonings, then baked," and served with a side of sour cream. When we got the plate, it looked like a loaf.

It pretty much was a potato and egg loaf, so it was very filling, very dense, and very rich from the bacon flavor. You could definitely taste the eggs, as parts were very reminiscent in flavor of an omelette. Since we were planning to get lunch in northern Virginia, it might not have been a good idea to get this as our second dish, as it was really heavy, but the flavors were good. Between the two, we liked the cepelinai a little bit more, but both were good. Overall, it was a nice introduction to Lithuanian food. From what we saw, the cuisine seems filled with sausages, potatoes, and bacon. We're okay with that.

In addition to food, one of the highlights of our stop at the festival was getting to watch the Lithuanian traditional dancers. The heavy dishes filled with potato and bacon made a lot more sense after seeing how active the dancers were and how many calories they were burning. Unfortunately for the rest of us though, we were just sitting/standing and watching them, which didn't really help our waistlines. We stayed in Catonsville a little longer than we had planned since the folk dancing was really fun.

We were pretty happy that we got to start off our trip with a cuisine we had never tried before. We're not sure when we'll have Lithuanian food next, as we don't really know of many (if any) options in our area, so we're glad that we were in Baltimore on the right day!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Julienned Root Vegetables

One thing we really love about Trader Joe's is all their options for frozen vegetables. (Now if only they'd bring back the Parisian carrots...) Recently we tried the julienned root vegetables ($3.29 for 16 ounce bag), a combination of lightly seasoned carrots, beets, parsnips, and sweet potatoes.

I was excited for these, since the ingredients made the side dish healthier than a bag of potatoes, but in the end they were just okay. We didn't do much other than just roast them plain to eat on the side of a salmon burger. They didn't have too much flavor (could have definitely used some more seasoning), and they didn't crisp up like fries as much as I thought they would. A found the texture to be a little bit dry, but we both thought that might have been because we had them in the freezer for a while. 

Buy Again? Maybe, so we can find out whether the texture issues we had were due to keeping them in the freezer for too long. We'll probably add some more seasoning though next time.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ilili Box

Remember way back in March when City Kitchen opened and we said we were going to talk about all the places in the food halls? Yeah, me too. So much to catch up on, but better late than never...

A and I each went to a different vendor at City Kitchen to pick up dinner, and then we shared our dishes. The one I chose was Ilili Box, an offshoot of the Lebanese Ilili restaurant in the city. We had never been to the original spot, but we had tried and really liked a sample of their food at a tasting event we went to years ago. We've always thought about going, but hadn't made it there yet, so I thought it might be nice to try out Ilili Box in the meantime. The line wasn't that long, but the service seemed a little bit disorganized. I can give that a pass though since we went when they were still in their first week of service.

The first thing we tried was the Phoenician fries ($2.98, price as of March). According to the menu, these were "skin-on fried potato fries seasoned with salt and sumac served with an Aleppo pepper fresh garlic emulsion." The price and portion size seemed about average as far as food halls go these days. The seasoned fries were tasty, and the dipping sauce was really garlicky in a good way. We really liked these, but that was mostly due to the sumac salt (I love sumac) and the dipping sauce. The fries were just fries, but overall it was a good side dish.

I also chose the pressed chicken sandwich ($7.35 when we got it in March), which contained roasted sumac chicken, garlic whip, and Lebanese pickles in a pita. If you were thinking it was going to be the size of a burrito, or a wrap sandwich from some deli, you'd be wrong. In size and style, it reminded me a little bit of the Turkish tacos from the Pera truck that I tried a few years back, although these were longer in length (as I would hope they would be, as they were also more expensive).

The flavors inside the sandwich were good, and we really liked the combination. The only problem was that the portion size was extremely small for the price. For over $7, we were expecting something more filling in terms of size. Combined with the fries, that was over $10 before tax, but not really a tremendous amount of food. I just checked and it looks like the price of this is now $8.04 according to the City Kitchen site, so I hope they're putting a little more in the sandwich for that price.

Our overall assessment was that the food at Ilili Box was pretty good as far as taste, but it was a bit pricey for what you got in terms of amount (a common theme at food halls). We might try them again sometime (although obviously we haven't made it back in the past 7 months), but it probably won't be part of our regular rotation.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Burger Digs

As we wandered the Islands of Adventure after our Harry Potter extravaganza, we stopped into various places for snacks. I guess with the thousands of steps we were logging, we were hungry a lot, and as I said before, we weren't super stuffed from our lunch. The next place we visited for a snack was the Burger Digs in the Jurassic Park Island.

The place may have been called Burger Digs, but we got some chicken fingers and fries. Nothing too exciting or amazing, just ordinary theme park fast food, but we got to snack on them while hanging out with a dinosaur.

We don't honestly remember too much about this stop, but it was in our photos, so we did go there for a snack. On to the next Island!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hogsmeade Sweet Treats

After stopping into The Three Broomsticks for lunch, we set out to explore Hogsmeade. While there were various rides there, we also wanted to check out the shops. Universal really did a great job installing a large variety of stores, making it really easy for people to spend money on Harry Potter souvenirs (wands, joke items, and more). One of the places we enjoyed wandering around was Honeydukes, which, for those unfamiliar with Harry Potter, is the sweets shop.

Although there are quite a lot of magical candies in Harry Potter, like chocolate frogs that have a life of their own, a lot of the candy at Honeydukes was pretty much the same candy you could get at any candy store. It was just cutely packaged in nice Honeydukes containers.

I did like the way the store was set up, even if the candies weren't that revolutionary for the most part. They really tried to give it a light and whimsical feeling. I especially liked this display, which reminded me a little of a candy buffet/cart at a wedding, but that was mostly because I saw a lot of candy types I liked.

And of course, they had Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans there. We've had a box of those in the past, and for the longest time, we've said that was the one food A would never eat again (since he pretty much just eats everything otherwise). I don't know if they're still made by Jelly Belly, but they were then. They were true to the "every flavor" thing, even including jelly beans with really gross flavors like vomit. Laundry or soap, fine. Vomit, disgusting. Never. Again.

In addition to loose candy, they did try to include packages of a lot of the candy types mentioned in the books/movies which was a nice touch (and probably also helps them increase sales to fans). Too bad for any kids who try them thinking they're actually going to feel the effects of magical candy.

Outside of Honeydukes, most of the shops in Hogsmeade weren't food stores, but focused on all other sorts of magical items and implements. But there were a couple of other food stops in Hogsmeade other than The Three Broomsticks and The Hog's Head (the bar). They had butterbeer and pumpkin juice carts out in the middle of the "town," which made sense, since it was Florida, it was hot, and people really needed to stay hydrated.

We picked up another pumpkin juice at the cart, since, like I said, it was a hot Florida afternoon. We had liked the pumpkin juice we had for lunch, so although it was not cheap, we thought we'd get one more during our visit. This one also had the benefit of coming in a really cute bottle.

We weren't expecting anything amazing food-wise from our visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but it was still a lot of fun. After we got our fill of Hogsmeade, watched some performances, and tried all the rides we wanted to, it was off to another Island of Adventure!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Three Broomsticks

For Harry Potter fans, amazing news broke a few weeks ago. For the first time ever, Warner Bros was hosting a special Christmas dinner event on the studio tour, with the Great Hall decked out just like it was in the movies. We weren't going to be in London in December and the tickets were crazy expensive (and quickly sold out), but it made us think back to the closest we ever got to being at the "real" Hogwarts. That was 4 years ago today, when we journeyed to Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, and set foot in Hogsmeade for the very first time.

It was a sunny and hot Florida afternoon, and it was completely packed. (Who knew that many people took vacations in October? Don't kids have school?) Although the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was located at the far end of the park, we sped through all the other Islands to get there, figuring it would be the most crowded (which it was), and since it was the primary reason we had gone that day. Our first destination was naturally Hogwarts Castle, home to the Forbidden Journey ride. Walking around the castle grounds while snaking through the line was exciting, but the ride itself was quite motion sickness-inducing.

After the ride was over, we were ready for some lunch, both to calm our stomachs and because it was late and we were hungry. When in Hogsmeade, where does one go for lunch? The Three Broomsticks, obviously.

The Three Broomsticks was basically a pub/tavern, but that's what were expecting. Although they did serve some standard American theme park fare (like smoked turkey legs, chicken and ribs), they also made an effort to add in some more English items and things mentioned in the books/movies. You could choose from shepherd's pie, fish and chips, or Cornish pasties, or if you had a large group, could splurge on the Great Feast. I don't know if this is what they really ate at a Great Feast in the English wizarding world, but it just sounded like an American barbecue to me (garden salad, rotisserie chicken, spare ribs, corn on the cob, and roast potatoes). Also, as a side note, considering it was at a popular attraction at a theme park, the prices at The Three Broomsticks for all of this stuff (4 years ago, anyway) were surprisingly reasonable, not much more than you'd pay at a regular restaurant.

We got 2 entrees and 2 drinks to split for lunch. The first was the fish and chips, "fresh North Atlantic cod battered and fried with chips and tartar sauce." This was pretty standard fish and chips. They were okay, but it's kind of hard to screw up fried fish and fries. We have had better fish and chips at plenty of other non-amusement park places, but these were fine.

The other main dish we got was the Cornish pasties with garden salad, "flakey pastry pies filled with ground beef, vegetables, and potatoes, served with a side salad and choice of dressing." The salad was fine, mostly lettuce, but it felt good to have some raw vegetables alongside all the fried food and pasties. The pasties themselves were pretty tasty. The filling was well-seasoned and they felt more English and Harry Potter-like than anything else we ate at lunch.

We don't always order drinks when we go for meals on vacation, but we had to during our visit to The Three Broomsticks since they were drinks that they actually get in the books/movies. The first one we tried was the pumpkin juice, which we quite liked. It was perfect for fall, full of pumpkin spice flavor, along with apple and other fruit flavors. After reading the Universal site, it seems like the primary ingredients are apple juice, pumpkin puree, and apricot puree. (There are some copycat recipes online like this one that I'm very curious to try.)

The other drink we tried was butterbeer. We weren't really sure what the butterbeer would be like. We figured it wouldn't taste like beer since it was non-alcoholic, but would it be like root beer? Something else? Turned out it was frothy like a root beer, with the flavor of cream soda, to take A's description of it. It had a really strong cream soda taste. I'm not a huge fan of cream soda, so I took a sip or 2 of this and then passed on the rest in favor of the pumpkin juice. A likes cream soda, so he liked this, but he wasn't expecting it to just be cream soda since it was called butterbeer.

We enjoyed our meal at The Three Broomsticks. It was a good place to relax after being flung in all directions by that ride at Hogwarts, and gave us the fuel we needed for some Hogsmeade exploring (and other rides) later in the afternoon. It wasn't an exceptionally filling lunch, but it was nice. It's also the closest we've ever gotten to eating in the real wizarding world!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ghost Pepper Potato Chips

I love potato chips. I do my best not to eat them too often in an effort to be healthier, but sometimes I really just feel like eating them. Trader Joe's came out recently with a potato chip that intrigued me as soon as I saw the bag. I'm a big fan of spicy food, and when I saw that they made a ghost pepper laced chip, I knew I had to try them. Trader Joe's describes these as, "Ghost Pepper Potato Chips are seriously spicy chips, but if you’re a lover of all things spicy, these will bring pure joy and bliss rather than pain and suffering. Their spiciness is also balanced by the naturally sweet profile of the potatoes themselves—the chili enhances, rather than overwhelms the potato. Crafted exclusively for Trader Joe’s, these are lattice cut chips, so they really hold to their spicy seasoning."

First thing I noticed when I pulled out my first chip was the lattice cut itself. I'm not sure I've ever seen another potato chip cut in this fashion, but I'm beginning to think they all should be. Think of waffle fries but with much thinner cuts and you've got a good idea of what you're getting. The lattice cutting makes for an interesting texture as it crisps up the exterior while also allowing it to still be somehow softer than regular potato chips. I don't really know how to describe it, but it's almost like crisped up mashed potatoes.

Anyway, aside from the amazing texture of these chips, the flavor is really great. As far as heat goes, I would have hoped for more, but I guess it's not great for product longevity if you destroy the mouth of every consumer that tries it with massive spice. There is also that definite hint of sweetness, and the herbs combine to create a really balanced flavor. These might be my new favorite chips, and I'm going to be really sad when they get taken off the shelves after Halloween.

Buy Again? I definitely would. M liked the flavor and the lattice cut too. Although she's not a big potato chip eater, she would also say yes to this. We'll see if I get a chance to buy another bag before they're gone.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Japonais by Morimoto

During the Chicago portion of our summer road trip, we spent a good portion of our time hanging out with A's family. On one of those nights, we went out for a nice family dinner as a replacement for holiday meals since it's so hard for all of us to get together during that time. The place was Japonais by Morimoto, a place we knew about but had never tried before. We aren't anywhere near up to this in recapping our road trip, but we saw the other day some news that Japonais was closing. Their last day was this weekend, so we figured we would jump ahead a little bit and talk about Japonais as a way of bidding it farewell.

Japonais by Morimoto was in a giant space on Chicago Avenue right by the river. It felt very luxurious, with its plush banquettes, large tables, and wide aisles. The menu was similarly pretty large, with an entire listing of sushi and sashimi, as well as hot entrees, and appetizers of every type. Since A's brother and sister-in-law had been to Japonais before, they picked all the appetizers to share family style and then everyone chose their own entrees. Here's a run-down of what we got.

XO Green Beans, pan fried with house made XO sauce ($8):

We liked these green beans. They were cooked nicely, and the flavor of the XO sauce was good. The thing we liked best about them was the fact that they were a plate of vegetables. After our starch and meat heavy diet the past couple of days of our vacation, it was so nice and it felt really good to eat a good serving of vegetables.

Pork Belly and Black Pepper Ramen Pasta, miso marinated roasted pork belly, homemade ramen pasta, tonkatsu broth ($15):

This dish was interesting. Once we tried it, we thought that it was obviously intended to be one of those fusion-type dishes, mixing pasta with Japanese flavors. The "ramen pasta" was like pieces of rigatoni in shape and texture, which was unexpected. The broth was probably the best part of the dish, with its tonkatsu flavoring and also pancetta in it. The server had warned us that this was a hard dish to share among 6 people, and he was right. It was simple to cut up and/or split the pork belly, but divvying up broth and other fillings, and making sure it was all mixed together well, wasn't that easy.

Brussels Sprouts and Black Sesame Hummus with apple puree, kimchee paste, bacon ($10):

The brussels sprouts came roasted with kimchi paste, and if we remember correctly, some tomatoes and bacon, along with two sides - black sesame hummus (which had an earthy flavor, but not much specifically that tasted like black sesame) and an apple puree (that tasted a lot like ginger). Both sauces matched up well with the roasted brussels sprouts. This dish was solid, and it inspired me to perhaps roast up some brussels sprouts with kimchi and/or gochujang soon.

Rock Shrimp Tempura with spicy gochujang sauce and wasabi aioli ($16):

We've had rock shrimp tempura before at Japanese restaurants, and similar shrimp dishes at other places like the bang bang shrimp from Bonefish Grill. It's really just fried shrimp with sauce, quite simple, but something about it is always just really good. This version of rock shrimp tempura came in a dish separated into 3 sections - shrimp tempura in a wasabi aioli, shrimp tempura in a gochujang sauce (which was closer to the style/sauce we've had before), and celery sticks with a house made ranch dressing. This was a well-executed version of it, and it was nice having 2 sauce flavors to choose from, although we weren't quite sure why the celery and dressing were part of it.

Sweetbread Karaage and Unagi, with balsamic unagi jus, braised daikon, micro arugula ($18):

The best parts of this dish were the daikon and the broth. I'm not sure how to describe the broth flavor, but it was excellent. The daikon was soft, like it had been boiled in the broth, as it had soaked up all the flavor. The eel and sweetbreads, whatever we actually tried of them (since this was another dish the server said would be difficult to share, and he was correct about that), were fine, but nothing really that special. The broth and daikon were great.

Morimoto Style Chirashi, 10-12 different fish and vegetables ($32):

This was the entree A got but I got to try a few bites. If you've never had chirashi before, it's basically a big bowl filled with sushi rice, raw fish, roe, omelet, chopped vegetables (in this case, cucumber), ginger, and wasabi. The fish/seafood was predominantly tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and shrimp. The quality of the fish was excellent, the rice was tasty, and all together, it just tasted really fresh and clean. 

Braised Black Cod with ginger soy reduction ($28):

After a very filling lunch (more on that another time), what I really wanted for my entree was something light and clean. (Seems like both A and I were on the same page about this one.) The braised black cod, which sounded like the miso black cod I've had at Nobu and other restaurants, seemed like the perfect choice, and it was. The fish came with some white scallions on top, along with some sides of sweet soy beans and purple pickled radishes. Some of the bites eaten with the soy beans were a little heavier, but for the most part, it was nice and light. It was a pretty safe choice, as this type of cod is a standard at a lot of Japanese places, but it was a simple, good dish.

Wagyu Fat Garlic Rice ($8):

Since my entree didn't come with any sides and was basically just a piece of fish, I ordered a side of wagyu fat garlic rice to share with A. Japonais had 2 types of fried rice - a duck confit fried rice and this one. This one was apparently newer and it sounded so good, so we picked it. When it came out, it looked pretty basic, but it was so rich and decadent because of the wagyu fat. In addition to the cooked fat (which seemed like meat, but was not), there were garlic chips and some scallions mixed in. Not as healthy as our cod or chirashi, but it was so good. So rich, but so good.

Hello Kitty - coconut doughnuts, vanilla gelato, morello cherry, passion fruit, crispy black rice ($10):

Our sister-in-law loves Hello Kitty, so it was no surprise that she was going to order the dessert named after Hello Kitty, no matter what was in it. When it came out, it didn't really look very much like Hello Kitty. I guess maybe the eyes and nose, but not the rest of it. We got to try a few bites of it after she was done with it, and it was really good. We really liked the coconut doughnuts, and the raspberry and passion fruit sauces were tasty.

Mango Pudding "Palate" - coconut matcha sorbet, sumi meringue, fresh passion fruit ($11):

We ordered the mango pudding "palate" although we're not really sure why it was called a "palate." Anyway, this had a whole bunch of different components to it spread all over the plate, and the passion fruit flavors were really good. Overall, it was a pretty light dessert with good flavors.

Our dinner at Japonais by Morimoto was good, and there were a lot of dishes we liked. Our favorites were probably our entrees with the side of fried rice. The appetizers were good, but the entrees were better. We're glad we were able to try Japonais before they closed.