Monday, November 30, 2015

Sriracha Potato Chips

Back in October, Trader Joe's came out with a seasonal snack called Ghost Pepper Chili Potato Chips. As you can see, I really liked those, especially because of the lattice cutting. So imagine my joy when I came across their new offering, Sriracha Potato Chips, and found that they were also lattice cut.

The chips are described on the site as: "Our Sriracha Lattice Cut Kettle Cooked Potato Chips are fiery with a chili-derived heat and just the right amount of sweetness—a flavor profile heavily inspired by our own Sriracha Sauce. Aside from the unique, spicy-sweet heat, these chips also have a texture that makes them incredible to crunch."

It's true. There's something about kettle cooked, lattice cut potato chips that just hits home with regards to texture and crunch. M isn't a huge fan of "traditional" potato chips, and she found herself wishing aloud that all chips came made in lattice cut style. While I liked these chips, I still think the ghost pepper versions were better. There was just something about the spicy, salty, and sweet flavors that were in that version. However, that's not to say these aren't good. They are indeed quite good. The have the spice and mild sourness that comes from sriracha, and TJ's was really able to capture that distinct flavor while not being overpowering on the heat.

Buy Again? Yes, and we have... twice.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Asian Cashew Chopped Salad

Recently we noticed a new chopped salad kit at Costco, the Asian cashew chopped salad from Taylor Farms ($4.49 here in NYC). As we mentioned way back when when we had a good salad kit from Wegmans, we're not huge fans of a lot of the kits in grocery stores, finding the ingredient choices not very exciting or too reliant on fruit, or not having enough ingredients to justify the kit price. This salad kit seemed to avoid those pitfalls, and was a decent price for the amount of salad in the bag.

The salad's main ingredients were savoy cabbage, green cabbage, carrots, celery, cilantro, cashews, sesame seeds, almonds, wonton strips, and an Asian sesame dressing. The kit came with 2 packets of the dressing, and separated out the nuts, seeds, and wonton strips from the vegetables to keep them from getting soggy. We've been pretty happy with the quality of the vegetables we found, unlike some of the giant bags of kale or spinach we've gotten lately. There were some cilantro leaves that were a bit too wilted, but for the most part, the cilantro was fine, and all the other vegetables seemed to be in good shape.

The salad was also pretty good as far as taste goes. The sesame dressing added flavor without being too salty or overbearing. It was pretty light, which we liked. We used both dressing packets because otherwise there wasn't enough dressing to coat the whole salad. Everything worked well together in this kit, and it was a very fresh and clean (and convenient!) dinner. Hopefully Costco will keep this salad in stock.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Week 47 - Ginger

The theme for Week 47 was ginger. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with ginger. I don't mind it when it's minced or grated or in some other "smaller" form, but large pieces of ginger or ginger candy are usually too strong and overwhelming for me. I usually end up adapting recipes that call for sliced ginger, and do minced ginger instead. That's why I wasn't too worried about the ginger challenge. Whatever recipe I decided to try, I would make it work.

I chose to put together a couple of different recipes that each used ginger as a predominant flavor. The first was this ginger garlic baked salmon recipe that I found on Rasa Malaysia. I stuck fairly closely with the recipe, but made a few adaptations. The ingredients were:

- 2 pieces of salmon ($3)
- 1 piece of ginger, a few inches long, minced (about 1/4 cup) ($0.35)
- 5 garlic cloves, minced ($0.10)
- 1.5 tbsp low sodium soy sauce ($0.15)
- 0.5 tbsp oyster sauce ($0.20)
- 1 tbsp honey ($0.25)
- 0.5 tbsp sesame oil ($0.25)
- a few dashes of white pepper ($0.20)
- pinch of salt ($0.02)

The salmon portion cost approximately $4.50 by my estimation, although I'm not sure of the exact amount since some of this stuff we've had for a while and I don't remember how much they cost. But it's probably something around there, which isn't bad at all for a fish dish.

The process of making the baked salmon is super easy. First, you rub the salmon with ginger and garlic. Then mix all the other ingredients in a bowl and pour over the salmon. I let it marinate in the fridge for about an hour, and then baked it on a foil-lined baking sheet at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. I included all the sauce from the marinade, just spooning all the excess over the salmon before popping it in the oven. I don't know if it was the marinating or the extra sauce or what, but the salmon wasn't dry at all and came out perfectly cooked after 15 minutes.

The other portion of dinner (besides the brown rice) was supposed to be these roasted carrots with scallion-ginger glaze from Mark Bittman's site. We still had a giant bag of Costco carrots in the fridge, and I thought this would be perfect for the challenge. Unfortunately when I pulled the bag of carrots out of the fridge, some dark brown liquid started dripping from it. Despite checking the carrots periodically to make sure they were still firm, I guess they were older than I remembered, and the ends had started turning black and moldy. Gross. I knew I should have chopped up all the carrots earlier when I did the celery and stuck them in the freezer. So, what to do when you plan to make roasted carrots and have no carrots? Mixed vegetables from the freezer. The taste wasn't going to be remotely the same, but at least we could still use the scallion-ginger sauce. For our vegetable side, I used the following ingredients:

- a few cups of mixed vegetables ($1.50)
- 1 bunch of scallions, finely chopped ($0.75)
- 1 piece of ginger (the small one on the bottom of that bag), minced ($0.35)
- about 5 garlic cloves, minced ($0.10)
- salt ($0.05)
- a few tbsp of canola oil ($0.30)

The vegetables cost about $3. Again, that's my best guess, since I didn't measure out the amount of mixed vegetables. Together with the salmon and adding a dollar or so for the brown rice we ate it with, that's not a bad price for dinner for 2 at all.

I put the mixed vegetables (still frozen) in a pan with a little bit of oil and salt, covered it, and then let it cook, stirring every so often until the vegetables were cooked through. While that was going on, I made the sauce. There were essentially 2 steps - (1) prep and combine the garlic, ginger, and scallions in a bowl, and (2) heat the canola oil and then pour over the garlic, ginger, and scallions, and mix it all together into a sauce.

After the vegetables were done, I removed the cover, added some salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and then cooked it a couple more minutes. Then I turned off the heat and poured the scallion-ginger sauce over the whole thing, stirring it all together. For the amount of vegetables I made, maybe I should have heated another tablespoon of oil for the sauce, but it still worked out well with the couple of tablespoons I used.

This dinner was really good, and it was also super healthy. The flavors of the salmon marinade were great, and we wouldn't change a thing when we make it again. As for the vegetables, the sauce probably would have gone better with the roasted carrots, but it was still good in the mixed vegetables. Better than I thought it would turn out. I've learned two things from the carrot issue though. One, chop them up and freeze them within a couple of weeks (or don't buy them in bulk from Costco anymore even if you think you're going to make tons of soup over the following few weeks), and two, always keep the frozen mixed vegetables in the freezer in case of emergency. At least, despite the difficulties, dinner turned out to be delicious!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Week 34 - Indonesian

I'm not really sure where to buy Indonesian ingredients around here. Probably somewhere in Queens, but I didn't know where exactly and didn't have time to go searching for stuff when Indonesian week rolled around. (Sounds like the same issue I had last year during Week 34!) That made choosing what to make for the Indonesian challenge a little bit more difficult, but eventually I decided on nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), a dish we frequently have at Indonesian restaurants and enjoy, using this recipe from as a starting point.

I picked that recipe as a starting point mostly because I had most of the ingredients. The one thing I didn't have, and which I found in lots of Indonesian recipes, was ketjap manis, Indonesian soy sauce. Although I could have substituted dark soy sauce, I decided to go all-in on the challenge and actually try to get the flavor of ketjap manis instead. Based on this ketjap manis recipe on, we made a small batch of sauce to use in the nasi goreng. I don't remember exactly how much we made, or how much we used of what we made (made this months ago), so I'm not going to price out the cost of this dinner in the interests of accuracy. But the ingredients were brown sugar (I didn't have dark brown sugar, just regular brown sugar), water, soy sauce, molasses, minced ginger, ground coriander, and ground black pepper. A helped me out by making the sauce while I tried to tackle a lot of the other prep work.

For our version of nasi goreng, I used:

- 2 cups (uncooked) brown rice
- 2 eggs, beaten
- a few tsp of sesame oil
- a pinch of salt
- 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into smaller pieces
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 1/2 head of garlic, minced
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 tsp ginger, minced
- 1 tbsp dried shrimp paste
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp chili bean sauce (plus more to taste)
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce (plus more to taste)
- 1 tbsp (or so, didn't measure) of ketjap manis (plus more to taste)
- a few green onions, chopped
- 1/2 bunch of cilantro, chopped

The original recipe used shrimp, but I chose to make this just with (white meat) chicken. I also swapped the white rice for brown rice to make it a little bit healthier. I made the rice the night before in the rice cooker and then stuck it in the fridge overnight. I don't always make fried rice with day-old rice like they recommend, but this time, since I knew the challenge meal was coming up, the timing worked out.

I mostly followed along with the recipe for the steps to make the nasi goreng with some help from A so that we could get things done more quickly. First, I combined the egg with sesame oil and salt, and then put them aside. In the wok, we heated up the canola oil, and then added the onions, ginger, shrimp paste, garlic, and black pepper. At this point, you were supposed to squash the shrimp paste while everything was cooking. We certainly tried. This was the first time either of us had ever worked with shrimp paste and judging by the finished product, that stuff didn't break up that well by squashing it in the wok. Is there a better way? Anyone experienced with using shrimp paste have any suggestions for us? I bought it some time ago intending to make Malaysian vegetable dishes, but we didn't open it until we made this. As a side note, it certainly stunk up the pantry afterwards, despite being in 3 layers of bags. (We now have it in 3 layers of bags inside a jar.)

Next we added the chicken and stir-fried it until it was mostly cooked. Then we added the rice and cooked it some more. After a few minutes of stir-frying the rice, we added the chili bean sauce, oyster sauce, and ketjap manis, and kept stir-frying. Last up, we added the egg mixture and stir-fried it into the rice mixture.

If I remember correctly, we tasted it a bit at this point. In addition to not tasting like any nasi goreng we had previously had, it didn't seem especially flavorful as a general matter. I think we added more of the chili bean sauce, oyster sauce, and ketjap manis, but I just don't remember how much. When it was almost time to take the nasi goreng off the heat, we stirred in the chopped scallions and cilantro. We stirred everything around some more and then took it off the heat.

This fried rice was okay, but it didn't taste like the nasi goreng that we had had at Indonesian restaurants before. Maybe this is what nasi goreng tastes like in other parts of Indonesia, but it wasn't what we were expecting. It's also entirely possible that I did something wrong or off in the cooking process or ingredient choices, but if I did, I can't pinpoint the misstep. It's not that the dish was bad. It wasn't. It was fine, but really just tasted like fried rice with funky shrimp paste flavor. I was hoping it would taste like some of the nasi goreng we'd had before so I could replicate that at home, but it looks like I'm going to have to keep searching.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Spicy Black Bean Dip

We were supposed to eat this Trader Joe's fat free spicy black bean dip a long time ago. I bought it intending to eat it with corn chip dippers, but almost every time I bought corn chip dippers, I finished the dippers before I remembered to open the dip. As a result, it sat in our pantry month after month, bag of corn chip dippers after bag of corn chip dippers, and then I realized last week that it was a month past its best by date. Oops.

I was expecting this to taste like some bean dips I've had before - very thick and creamy, kind of like refried beans in a jar. This wasn't like that at all. The sour flavor was quite strong. I don't know if that's because it sat in the pantry for so long or if that's how it's always supposed to be, but that's what we tasted. The ingredients in the dip are black beans, water, tomato paste, onions, distilled vinegar, honey, salt, jalapeƱos, spices, and garlic, so the sour flavor isn't that surprising. The fact that it didn't taste just like refried beans shouldn't have been that surprising either.

The dip was fine, but we didn't love it. Even if we ate it when it was super fresh, just after purchasing, I still don't think it would taste like the refried bean dip I was expecting it to be. Also for something called "spicy black bean dip," we didn't really notice anything spicy about it.

Buy Again? Probably not. It might taste different or a little better if it were fresher, but I'm not sure we liked it enough to give it another try right now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Creole Shrimp and Crab Simmer

Hale and Hearty recently came out with some new dishes they call Simmers. I saw them in a couple of their window ads, but forgot that they had come out whenever I went in to get soup recently. They describe these simmers as "Inspired by our favorite comfort dishes, SIMMERS are chunky, thick, melt-in-your-mouth stews, ladled generously over a pasta or grain base."

Based on their flavor choices, they certainly went after the comfort food aspect, and I'm all for that when the weather gets colder. This time around I opted for the Spicy Creole Crab & Shrimp with Bayou Rice. It's described as "Succulent crab and gulf shrimp simmered in a classic Louisiana base of roux, fresh seasonings, and Tabasco for a kick of heat. Served with Bayou Rice, Chef Bruce’s own red rice made with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and Creole spice."

That definitely sounded tasty, and the picture they put up made it look amazing. They prepare these by first spooning out the grain/carbohydrate component into a bowl and then topping it all with the stew. My first thought when I got the covered bowl was that the bottom seemed too cold. The lady next to me that also got one remarked on the same, and she was told that the grains are cold so that the stew placed on top can warm it up. Seemed odd to me, but if it worked then it worked.

Right off the bat, I noticed that my bowl didn't quite look like the bowl they used to advertise the flavor. Mostly I noticed the distinct lack of shrimp though I did know that a few had been put in. I kept an open mind, though, and mixed everything up to allow the rice to warm up before I ate everything. Flavor-wise it was pretty good. It tasted a bit like their gumbo, and the crab added a bit of sweetness to the stew. The rice itself did warm up nicely, and it all came together quite well. I was a bit disappointed by how little shrimp ended up being in my bowl, but I can live with that as it did taste good.

My only other gripe was the package that came with my bowl. Normally they pack a little package with a spoon, napkin, and salt and pepper when you get soup. However, for this bowl they opted for a fork instead of a spoon. Anyway, that's the last gripe I have. These simmers seem like a good idea, and I do like this initial offering I had. I'll look into trying to the others, and I'll probably also look into getting this one again, too.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Good Sleepless Morning

As we got closer to the British Isles, it was time for breakfast service on our Virgin Atlantic flight. They had mentioned the breakfast boxes and their contents on the dinner menu, so we knew they were coming. We had been hoping to sleep the entire time between dinner and breakfast, but unfortunately for us, there was not much sleep to be had. At least there was good entertainment and a very informative map.

Each breakfast box was the same - raspberry yogurt, a packet of granola, and a small fruit cup with mostly melons and few grapes. (I skipped the melons because of their effect on seasonal allergies.) It was a nice, healthy, nutritious breakfast. So much better than giving out danishes or rubbery eggs or whatever they used to give out on domestic flights back when airlines served food.

After breakfast, we didn't really try to go back to sleep because we were so close to London. We were pretty excited, and the detailed, changing map on Virgin Atlantic's app was such a joy to watch for a geography geek like me. We were almost to London when they came around with another snack - these little rolls of Love Hearts.

Visually, these seemed to us to be a cross between Smarties/Sweet Tarts and Sweethearts. Unfortunately, we didn't like the flavors as much as Smarties or Sweet Tarts. They were a little more sugary and had less tartness to them, which made them a little more like Sweethearts. They also disintegrated in your mouth about as quickly as Sweethearts. We weren't huge fans, but we were happy to have our first UK snack.

Soon after our final snack, we descended out of the sunny blue skies into rainy London, which was blanketed with thick clouds. We were just happy to finally be on the ground. We were completely exhausted, but ready to start our adventure!

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Penguin Surprise

When we read this month's custard calendar at the beginning of the month, we were pretty excited to see what holiday surprise custards were in store. I started poking around on the website last night to see if I could find any hints, and found this article on holiday shakes. Would those be in addition to a fun set of holiday custards or in place of them? We'd have to wait and see.

When you go to look at the custard calendar now, all it gives you is a list of holiday shakes, which are part of a "custard calendar takeover." Well, that's too bad. We were hoping for fun custards to celebrate the season, and instead of a changing lineup of new custards, there are 3 shakes on the lineup for 7 weeks. Kind of disappointing. Is this type of simplification what happens when the company becomes publicly traded?

I'm not a huge shake person, and I don't really go for whipped cream, so I don't see myself getting one of these shakes. I'd really rather have the sugar cookie frozen custard with the red and green sprinkles just as a custard... which is basically the old Christmas cookie custard flavor that we really enjoyed. I wonder if you can still get that in non-shake form. Otherwise, no custard for me for 7 weeks, which is probably better for my waistline. A likes shakes, and chocolate peppermint and Christmas cookie are the types of flavors he would enjoy, but he's not feeling super compelled to go there and get one.

Oh well. Feeling a little misled by the original calendar which promised "unwrapping new holiday flavors" for the custard calendar, not a single holiday set of shakes. Maybe we'll head over, maybe we won't, but the "surprise" is now unveiled. At least this season's penguin ornament is pretty cute.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Virgin Atlantic Dinner

We were pretty excited for our first flight on Virgin Atlantic. We've always had a good experience flying Virgin America domestically, so we were looking forward to our transatlantic flight. From the start, the service was great. We were greeted with blankets, sleep kits, good headphones, and bottles of water. My entertainment system wasn't working (and I was worried I'd be stuck with nothing for the whole flight), but after we alerted them, they checked on it once we were in flight and rebooted it without me even needing to ask again. So far, so good.

Sorry the pictures are all a little bit purple ... That's the Virgin "mood lighting"

At some point, they came around and handed out dinner menus. The menus listed out all the components of dinner and the 3 options for the main course. We liked that because we could look at what was in store, see what the ingredients were (to watch for allergies/intolerances), and decide at our leisure and not in a split second on the spot. Why doesn't everyone do that? Anyway, the 3 options were beef, chicken, and pasta (penne in pesto sauce). A picked the beef, and I picked the chicken. We planned to try at least a bite of each other's entree as usual, so we wanted to make sure we got different things.


Each tray came with a main dish, dessert, and a collection of appetizers/sides - a dinner roll, side salad, and cheese and crackers. (Technically the cheese and crackers were listed in the dessert section of the menu, but we tend to eat those at the start of the meal as appetizers.) The roll was a standard dinner roll, fine but nothing special. The "mixed salad with ranch dressing" came with spring greens, iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, and a tomato. There was also a single packet of ranch dressing that wasn't really enough dressing to give flavor to the entire salad. Overall, the salad was fine, but again, nothing special. The cheese and crackers were fine, but fairly standard stuff. We do like Tillamook cheese so that was nice; seems like it's a common choice on transatlantic flights. Generally, our feeling about these sides were that they were good, solid choices, but nothing to rave about.

Beef in red wine

A got the beef in red wine, which was described on the menu as "tender, juicy slow cooked beef in a classic French sauce," with mashed potatoes and roasted root vegetables. The dish that he got looked like it was divided in thirds. One third was the very tender beef with lots of well-flavored gravy. The second third had creamy mashed potatoes, and the other third had the roasted root vegetables, which looked to us like carrots, parsnips, and potatoes (including purple potatoes). This dish was great. The potatoes and root vegetables were hearty and tasty, the texture of the beef was quite good for airline food, and the gravy was delicious.

Chicken teriyaki

I chose the chicken teriyaki, described on the menu as "delicious chicken pieces coated in a soy, honey, and ginger sauce, with fluffy steamed rice, carrots, and sugar snap peas." I lifted the foil off my dish and found what looked like a single chicken thigh cut into 3 pieces, 3 slices of carrot, and a single sugar snap pea. I thought maybe there was another sugar snap pea hiding under the chicken since the menu specifically said sugar snap peas, but there was not. One single sugar snap pea. I was disappointed with the quantity of vegetables, considering they're really not that expensive and A had gotten so many more vegetables in his beef dish. This dish was pretty much all chicken and rice. The rice was fine - nice and sticky - but I wouldn't call it fluffy. (We make fluffy rice at home.) The chicken was good and I liked the sauce, but there was just not enough sauce for the amount of rice in that dish. I ended up putting the rest of the rice into whatever beef gravy was left after A was done. Flavorwise, the dish was fine and it tasted clean and healthy, but it was a little underwhelming as far as what was actually on the plate. I was expecting more since I had already seen how great A's dish was!


The dessert everyone got was a slice of strawberry swirl cheesecake from Eli's Cheesecake out of Chicago. I'm not a big cheesecake fan, but for whatever reason, strawberry cheesecake is the one type I'm actually okay with. The cheesecake was fine, but we were mostly disappointed because there was no pudding. See, we had forgotten that in England, they use the word "puddings" to mean desserts. So when we saw on the menu "puddings" and "strawberry swirl cheesecake" one on top of the other, we thought there would be pudding and cheesecake. When the tray arrived with no pudding, we were confused until we noticed that pudding looked like a section heading, and then remembered the English meaning of pudding. Oops. Our disappointment wasn't the cheesecake's fault, but our own.

At some point after dinner, they came around and distributed pieces of milk chocolate to close out the meal. That was a nice touch, similar to the piece of chocolate that would come with every Virgin America sandwich. The dinner overall was a fair amount of food considering we were eating after 11 pm. The best part was clearly the beef entree. I had orderer's remorse.

As we settled in after dinner, I read all the parts of the menu that I hadn't read before when checking out the options for dinner. I was particularly interested in this statement on the back (I wonder if I'm the only person reading the back of the menu) about fairly traded ingredients, ethically sourced meat, and sustainable buying. We thought it was pretty cool that an airline as big as Virgin Atlantic could make this type of commitment on some really important environmental issues, and were pretty proud to have chosen an airline that was willing to try in the first place.

After dinner, we attempted to get some sleep. Our bellies were full, we had good music and movies to keep us occupied, and the lights were out, but it was so hard to get comfortable for some reason. I usually have no problem sleeping on planes, but for whatever reason, I don't think I slept more than 15 minutes. A slept a little longer, but still not that much. We may not have been very well-rested when morning came along, but at least we'd had a pretty good dinner!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Week 37 - Mushrooms

My initial plan for the mushrooms theme had been to make grilled portobello mushroom steaks with a mushroom risotto. I decided that almost immediately after hearing the theme, but as the week grew closer, I started to get more and more attracted to the idea of mushroom barley soup. Of course, I had no barley, so I ended up making a mushroom rice soup, but same idea. 

I didn't really follow any specific recipe for this. The ingredients I used (amounts are approximations since I made this weeks ago and didn't get around to writing the post until now) were:

- olive oil to coat saucepan ($0.30)
- 8 carrots, chopped ($1.25)
- 1 bunch of celery, chopped ($1.37)
- 1 onion, chopped ($0.60)
- 1/2 head of garlic, minced ($0.08)
- 2 10-oz boxes of white button mushrooms, sliced ($3.58)
- 6-7 cups of water ($0)
- 3 spoonfuls of chicken bouillon (probably should have used vegetable bouillon to keep the soup vegetarian, but didn't think of it until afterwards) ($1)
- about 1 tbsp of herbs de provence ($0.40)
- about 1 tbsp of thyme ($0.30)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)
- 3/4 package of TJ's brown rice medley (blend of long grain brown rice, black barley, and daikon radish seeds) ($1.49)

The overall cost for the soup was approximately $10.42. That's a pretty good price, considering that it made enough for 2 full meals for us. (I put the second one in the freezer for another day, and we just ate it this past week.)

Making the soup was pretty easy. I started out by coating the pan with olive oil, adding the mirepoix ingredients (carrots, celery, onion) and garlic, and then sauteing it for a bit. Then I added the mushrooms and cooked them for a few more minutes. After that, I added the water, chicken bouillon, herbs de provence, thyme, salt, pepper, and the brown rice medley, brought it to a boil, lowered it to a simmer, and simmered it for about an hour. (I honestly can't remember if I covered it or not. It might have been partially covered.)

The soup was pretty good. I thought the mushroom flavor was going to be a little stronger with that many mushrooms in it, but it was still clearly a mushroom soup. It was simple, clean, healthy, nutritious, and tasty. I might add some more herbs next time, but other than that, I'm not sure I would change anything about it. It was a successful mushrooms challenge!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Smoked Salmon and Leek Soup

After the success of our first Welsh leeks dish, I was pretty excited for our second Welsh challenge meal, since the second one was the dish I had been even more intrigued by when initially scanning the St. David's Day recipe site. It also seemed like it would be a fairly easy recipe to make, so hopefully not another 10pm weeknight meal. For this challenge meal, I went with an adapted version of this recipe for smoked salmon and leek soup.

The ingredients I used for my adapted recipe were:

- 2 tbsp butter ($0.40)
- 16 oz bag of sliced leeks ($1.49)
- 1 bay leaf ($0.10)
- 2 large potatoes ($0.98)
- 4-1/2 cups chicken broth ($1)
- salt and pepper to taste ($0.05)
- 8 oz of smoked salmon ($8.49)
- 1/2 cup of half and half * ($0.60)
- spoonful of potato starch ($0.05)
- small bunch of chives ($2)
- 1/2 box of brioche toasts ($1)

* The original recipe had double cream, but as far as I know, US grocery stores don't carry real British style double cream. Instead, I decided to use half and half, which seemed like a good decision at the time I planned out the recipe, but then didn't seem like such a good idea a few hours before I made it. I started to panic that the half and half was going to curdle in the soup and make the entire thing an inedible mess. After much research, I decided to add it slowly as the last step, and to mix it with potato starch before adding it to the soup. I have no idea if the potato starch kept it from curdling but someone on the internet seemed to think that would work and I was willing to try it, because the worst that could happen (other than curdling) was the soup would just get thicker, which would be totally fine. In the end, there was no curdling, thank goodness.

This was a pretty expensive soup, mostly because of the smoked salmon (which didn't have a price when I picked it up off the shelf, and I thought it would be cheaper than it was). The total came out to about $16.16. That made enough for the two of us for dinner (a filling dinner), and a small bowl of soup for me for lunch the next day (not enough for an entire lunch). Not cheap, but I guess potentially cheaper than it would be to order it out at a restaurant. Still more than I'd like to spend on a single dinner that's just soup.

The steps to make the soup were pretty straightforward, so I thought it would be quick and easy. Easy, maybe, but not quick. The steps were:

1. Prep - thinly slice leeks, peel and dice potatoes, slice salmon, chop chives. (Other than the leeks, I did most of it while cooking, but putting the prep step together anyway.)

2. Melt butter in large pot. Add leeks and bay leaf, and cook for about 10 minutes.

3. Add potatoes and coat with butter.  (I actually added the second tbsp of butter at this point because I didn't feel like I added enough the first time.)

4. Add chicken broth, salt and pepper, bring to boil, lower flame to simmer and cook until potatoes are soft, maybe 15 minutes. (This does not sound like it should take that long, but it took forever to get that to start boiling so I could lower the flame. I even had the cover part on to make it happen faster but it didn't. The heat wasn't super high because I wasn't sure at the time when I was adding the half and half and didn't want it to curdle, but it still shouldn't have taken that long. I think we watched most of a TV show while waiting for the thing to boil and it wasn't even that big of a pot!)

5. Once potatoes are soft (I tested that by crushing them against the side of the pot, which I like to do in soup anyway), remove from heat, add about 2/3 of the smoked salmon, mix in, and season more (I added more pepper). 

6. Mix half and half in a bowl with potato starch. Add and stir into the mixture a little bit at a time until the entire bowl has been added. Serve with a few salmon pieces on top and chives.

The soup was pretty good, but for how long it took and all of my expectations, I was expecting more from it. Unlike the other leeks dish, you could barely taste the leeks here. An entire bag full of leeks, but a very subdued flavor. If I didn't know they were there, I probably wouldn't have even named leeks as an ingredient. I know it wasn't leeks week, but still disappointing. I guess they were just overpowered by the other flavors. You could taste the salmon in the bites that had it, you got the flavoring of the black pepper, the chives were definitely present, and the potatoes gave the soup most of its texture and flavor, but the leeks, not so much. The soup was creamy, but probably would have been creamier, and the other ingredients would have been richer if I had actually used double cream earlier in the process instead of just adding half and half at the end. Oh well. The soup was still good, and I was happy to have more to eat the next day, but I just thought it would be more special.

We ate these brioche toasts with the soup. I was supposed to pick up some crostini at the store but almost forgot, and as I inched down the checkout line, this box of brioche toasts was the closest thing that seemed suitable for the soup. They were basically like small pieces of toast, very crumbly, with buttery and sweet flavors like brioche would have. I liked eating them with the soup (and with other soups/stews), but when I ate them by themselves, they just reminded me of plain dry toast, which I only eat when on the BRAT diet (not a great association for me). A really liked the sweetness and toast flavors here. Buy again? Maybe. A likes them more than I do.

It was a pretty good dinner overall, but considering both the time it took and the final results, I'm not sure I would make this again. The other leeks dish, absolutely, but this one, maybe not. I'm glad I tried it and it was a satisfying dinner, but not the week's best.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Belgian Beer Cafe

We kicked off our London trip with dinner at the airport. We were flying out of Newark's Terminal B, our first time there, which (like Terminal A) has multiple security checkpoints, limiting the meal options dramatically. There was a food court pre-security, but we wanted to make sure we were through security with plenty of time, so that left us with a choice between a Belgian cafe and an English pub, the latter of which also had a takeaway section with some really badly bruised bananas. Since we were en route to London, we chose the Belgian Beer Cafe. No need for an English pub in New Jersey if we were going to visit real English pubs in London.

We knew we were getting dinner on the flight, but that was a few hours later and we hadn't eaten a ton during the day as we rushed around finishing up work and packing and preparing for the trip. We ordered 2 entrees from the Belgian specialties menu to share, and tried not to pick anything too heavy in case the in-flight dinner was filling. Here's what we got.

Croque monsieur ($14): sandwich with Belgian Chimay beer cheese, smoked ham, grilled sourdough, hint of dijon mustard, served with crispy frites.

The croque monsieur was pretty good, but it wasn't what we expected from a croque monsieur. We were expecting something rich and decadent, and covered in cheese and bechamel, but it was basically a ham and cheese panini. The thing that made this taste a little different from any other ham and cheese sandwich was the inclusion of beer cheese, which we had never had in a croque monsieur before. It was heavier and saltier than other cheeses, but didn't really have a very distinctive flavor. The fries were really good though, nice and crispy. The sandwich was fine, but the fries were better.

Sausage plate ($16): Flemish style pork sausage with onions, dijon, gherkins, potato and bacon salad.

The sausage plate arrived with 2 pork sausages, small containers of ketchup and mustard, a couple of gherkins, some spring greens, and a good sized portion of warm potato salad topped with bacon. The pork sausages tasted like pretty generic pork sausages that we could get anywhere else, not a lot of seasonings that we could discern. The gherkins were sweeter than A was expecting. I didn't notice that but mostly just appreciated the freshness. We both agreed that the best part of the plate was the potato salad topped with bacon. The potato salad had a little bit of a mustard flavor. By itself, the salad was good, but the bacon made it even better, and adding some of the greens made it feel really light despite all the potatoes and bacon. Definitely the best part of dinner.

Overall our meal at the Belgian Beer Cafe was fine. If it were anywhere other than the airport, we probably would say that we wouldn't return because it was nothing special, but if we're in that gate area again with such limited options, we might go back.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Vegetarian Black Lentil Soup

Colder weather is returning to NYC which means I get to start going back to Hale and Hearty to be the unofficial taste tester! Today was my opportunity to try the Vegetarian Black Lentil soup. M and I just had some of the most amazing black dal while out in London (that recap is coming later), and while I knew that there was a 99.99% chance this soup wasn't going to be as good, I wanted to try it anyway because I figured the flavors would be different overall. Hale and Hearty states, "This is a thick soup made with exotic black lentils and mild chili peppers."

The soup only had two distinguishable ingredients that I could see, black lentils and onions. Overall there was not a ton of big flavors, but the soup itself was very thick, warm, and comforting. It also had just the right amount of flavor with salt and what was either rosemary or thyme. There was a mild spice kick to the soup that helped contribute to the warmth of the soup. This is definitely a soup I would get again as it's healthy, filling, and good comfort food.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Great Gorgon News

Remember the Gorgon from Otto's Tacos that we previously raved about? We stopped by our neighborhood Otto's Tacos tonight for dinner (I love that we can say that now that there's one in Hell's Kitchen), and the first thing I noticed was this new menu sign.

The Gorgon was no longer a secret, off menu item? And you could get it in chicken, carnitas, mushroom, or shrimp, and not just carne asada? You could get the Gorgon at any time of day and not just during off hours? The crew confirmed it and we were thrilled. Best news of the day.

There was no question in our minds that we were both going to get a Gorgon. A decided on the mushroom (above), and I got the chicken (below). (We've mentioned them in their taco versions before.) We wanted to try something other than the carne asada we had before to see if the other toppings were as good in the Gorgon. They are.

It had been a while since we last got the Gorgon and we had forgotten just how good it was. (We shouldn't have since it was on both of our favorites lists last year, but we did.) That first bite into the puffy masa with mushrooms/chicken, crema, guacamole, onions, cilantro... It was just so good. Now that we can get the Gorgon any time we want and no longer have to strategically plan for them in the middle of the afternoon, we have a feeling there's going to be a lot of them in our future. So happy about this menu change!

Friday, November 6, 2015

November 2015 Custard Calendar

The custard calendar for this month was different from any other month we'd seen before. Instead of laying out a whole month of flavors, the last couple of weeks were reserved for some adorable penguins proclaiming new holiday flavors that were being unwrapped. That seems pretty exciting (even if it's a reminder of just how close the holidays already are). I started talking about the return of Christmas cookie or our favorite chocolate hazelnut, but then A reminded me that it said new flavors. Really curious about what those will be. Hopefully they'll be as good as our favorites.

Anyway, since the last day of Shackenstein came and went while we were still on our way home from London, there were only 2 flavors to ponder on the calendar this month. The first one, this week's flavor, salted maple, is new to us, but other than maple ginger, we haven't ranked any other maple-containing flavor higher than a 5 or a 5.5 so who knows if we would like this one. The other flavor, next week's flavor, grandma's apple pie, has been on the calendar for the past two years in November, but we've missed it every time. We were always interested in trying it, so maybe third time will be the time we finally get it. Can't wait to see what new flavors the penguins bring!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Week 44 - Welsh

When I started doing research for Week 44's Welsh theme, I stumbled across this site on BBC Good Food, which had so many recipes that sounded delicious. I saved a whole bunch of them and found myself exclaiming to A that the Welsh must love leeks, because all these recipes were full of leeks. It was a little later that I realized that it was because it was an entire list of recipes for St. David's Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales whose personal symbol was a leek. Maybe there were other Welsh recipes, but after I found that site, I was pretty much obsessed with making leek-filled recipes, and had taken to calling it leeks week. There were so many recipes I wanted to make but I narrowed it down to two. The first one I made was based on this recipe for leeks with bacon and mushrooms which they recommended serving with a roast, but which I made on the side of our Week 45 English toastie.

The ingredients for the recipe were simple:

- 1 tbsp of butter ($0.20)
- 4 strips of bacon, chopped ($2.25)
- 10 oz cremini mushrooms, chopped ($1.99)
- most of a bag of frozen sliced leeks * ($1.34)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)
- dried thyme ($0.20)

* I would have used the entire bag of leeks, except I put aside a few of them to use for the other half of the meal which was the toastie.

The cost was a little over $6, which seems like a lot for a side, except for the fact that it had a lot of bacon in it. Once we tasted it, it was totally worth the price.

The steps to make the dish were:

1. Prep - chop bacon, chop mushrooms.

2. Melt butter in large pan over medium heat. Add bacon strips and fry for a few minutes, letting some of the fat render.

3. Add mushrooms, leeks (I separated out some of the layers when adding them to the pan), salt, pepper, thyme. Coat everything in the butter/bacon fat.

4. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for about 20-30 minutes. If there's still liquid in the pan, continue simmering with the cover off until it is at a level you like.

This dish was so good. Between the toastie and the leeks, we had such a good dinner. All the flavors melded together so well, and all the vegetables were infused with the richness of the butter, the thyme, and that awesome applewood smoked flavor. The flavor of the leeks really came through too, and since I love leeks, I was pretty happy about that. It was a decadent yet healthy tasting dish, and despite the butter and bacon, it still felt light because the majority of the components were vegetables.

We would definitely make this dish again. They were right - it would go really well as the side to a roast, so I'm seriously considering making it again at Thanksgiving. I'm really glad I had leftovers for breakfast so I could enjoy this for two days instead of one!