Monday, May 31, 2010

Ethnic Picnic – Italian

My friend Erin makes the most unique pasta sauce I’ve ever tasted. It’s smoky and rich and comes with giant meatballs and soft pieces of pulled pork (and every now and then, a hard-boiled egg thrown in for fun – a wonderful surprise for my hard-boiled egg loving husband!). She learned this secret family recipe from her very Italian mother-in-law just weeks before she got married. She only knows how to make it in big batches so she’s generous with giving it away to those less fortunate in the ‘secret family pasta sauce recipe’ arena. And when she texts me and says she has “sauce”, I’m there in a heartbeat to pick it up! I love being able to come home, boil a little pasta, heat up some sauce and have an amazing Italian dinner in a flash. It’s a revelation! (My new favorite phrase, especially in relation to food finds.)

If I’m going out for nice Italian food in Omaha, there are numerous options, some of which I haven’t even exhausted yet. I’m very much looking forward to the day I try Lo Sole Mio. We’ve heard so many good recommendations for that restaurant. And Vivace in the Old Market. But from the ones we have tried, here are my faves:

  1. Carrabba’s – Nothing we’ve had here has disappointed. We were first introduced to the Carrabba’s family in Cincinnati and we’ve been fans ever since. I especially love their Spiedino di Mare. These scallops and jumbo shrimp in a light lemon butter sauce are delicate and delicious. My husband almost always picks one of their marsala dishes; we’re always comparing different restaurant versions of Chicken Marsala, but Carrabba’s delights with so many options – Chicken, Sirloin, Veal and even Pork Chops Marsala on occasion.

  1. Grisanti’s – You’ve heard me declare more than once that I’m not a bread lover. So this next statement should take you by surprise: I LOVE the garlic bread at Grisanti’s! Now, there are a couple reasons why. Garlic bread, in general, does not grieve me the way regular bread does. Due to the added flavors and texture, it usually entices me quite well. But Grisanti’s garlic bread goes above and beyond! They douse this bread in butter, to the point that it is just dripping. But it isn’t soggy. The outside is still nice and crusty. And to finish it off, they serve it with a yummy marinara dipping sauce that I’d like to bottle and sell. A perfect pairing! The other menu item that tempts me every time is their tiramisu. I’ve become a bit of a tiramisu fanatic in the last few years. I’ve tried several versions. And Grisanti’s is perhaps at the top of my list. It’s creamy without being too rich or even soggy (sometimes the lady fingers / cake can become soggy rather than just moist). And the layer of chocolate sauce they place the cake on top of is a perfect addition to the coffee flavor of the dessert. I believe they even add a bit of chocolate sauce on top at times as well but they never overdo it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Ethnic Picnic – Chinese

Chinese cuisine (the American version) was an early love of mine that continues to this day. I remember going to the Iowa State Fair as a child and requesting from my parents that my big treat be a heaping plate of shrimp fried rice! I know - most people want something fried on a stick, but not me. (Maybe my love of shrimp influenced this a bit, too.)

The Chinese restaurant that tops my list at this point is PF Chang’s. I’ve often been heard saying that their shrimp fried rice must have crack in it because it’s so addicting! I really don’t know what their secret ingredient is but I would like to buy stock in it. And it’s one of the most inexpensive items on their menu, which can be a bit pricey at times. It’s also one of their least healthy menu items, since “The Chang’s” (as it’s often referred to endearingly by some in my crew), is pretty health conscious. That’s a step in the right direction for Chinese food in America, since this is one of the premiere MSG cuisines. In any case, my other “must have” when you dine at The Chang’s is their chicken lettuce wraps. Divine! It’s a chicken mixture, but don’t ask me what all is in it. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve had several friends that I’ve introduced to these delightful appetizers, who have exclaimed their amazement over enjoying them so much since they wouldn’t normally eat some of the ingredients separately. So give them a try! It’s all chopped up pretty finely anyway. And these are also not too expensive. My husband actually orders them as his entrée a good portion of the time when we dine there.

A good finish to this exquisite meal is a mini dessert. They have about 8 different mini desserts for $1.99 each, like tiramisu, key lime pie, ice cream sundae and strawberry cheesecake. But if you’re very adventurous, you’ll split the banana spring rolls dessert. It’s so different from any other dessert out there and really tasty. Four pieces of banana, wrapped in spring roll wontons and fried, so they’re warm and gooey, decorate the edges of a plate, with a center display of coconut ice cream, caramel drizzle and fresh berries. Have I caught you drooling or did I scare you away with warm bananas & talk of coconut?! Believe me, if you’re not intimidated by trying new things (or by tropical fruit!), you will be amazed by this dessert. Nothing beats it for me and it leaves you feeling less weighed down than the flourless chocolate cake, which is also delicious, but a bit too rich to finish in one sitting, even if you’re sharing it with someone.

Good, classic Chinese can be found at China Road, though it is rather pricey, in my opinion. You do get quite a bit of food, though. For the cheapskates like me, you can’t beat Imperial Palace Westroads Mall’s food court. A classic since college days! And Ming’s in Papillion is the fastest, cheapest Chinese there is. They don’t take credit or debit cards, though, so be prepared with cash or checks. And I’ve felt the quality in some dishes to be lacking there at times (probably due to the aforementioned “fastest” and “cheapest”), but I’ve really liked others.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ethnic Picnic - Mexican

I’m a big fan of ethnic food. I’ll try just about anything once, and I’ve loved almost all I’ve tried (examples: Indian, Vietnamese, and Croatian!). My favorite foods, with the exception of seafood and a good steak every now & then, are Mexican, Chinese and Italian. Probably in that order these days. And I’m choosy. Especially the Mexican. I know my Mexican cravings started in Cincinnati, which my husband will attest to, much to his dismay. (His idea of good Mexican is Chipotle and we could not disagree more. Mostly because Chipotle puts cilantro in EVERYTHING and I believe I mentioned my aversion to that leaf previously.) So when we moved to Omaha, I was on the hunt for good Mexican food. MY kind of good! I got many recommendations, some of which were okay and some not even close. Finally, FINALLY, I found La Mesa. I know some of you haven’t had the enormously fantastic experiences there that I have. And some of you don’t know that a corn tortilla is far superior to a flour one! Especially in a good chicken enchilada, which is all I will probably ever order at La Mesa. Because it’s that good! A chicken enchilada (or two, if I’m feeling particularly peckish) and a side of rice, with a Coke and a water thrown in, complete the perfect meal. All this comes with salsa & chips, of course. And there’s no limit on those, though you might have a trying time getting the server to actually refill them.

Probably my second favorite Mexican place in Omaha is Azteca. It’s a much different kind of Mexican than La Mesa. Very authentic and very tasty, unusual dishes are the fare. I’ve only ever ordered their house special “Arroz Con Pollo”, which is chicken, sliced onions, peppers and mushrooms in a slightly spicy / tangy, somewhat creamy red sauce, over rice and melted cheese. It’s so good that I don’t want to order anything else! It comes with tortillas you can spoon the chicken mixture into, but I don’t. Too bready! Ha! Azteca also gives you the typical complimentary salsa and chips but they add a surprise of complimentary bean dip (usually not a fan but theirs is delish!), a fresh cabbage salsa and a satisfying dessert at the end of cinnamon tortilla chips with whip cream and raspberry drizzle.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Food Television

"America’s Test Kitchen” is always a favorite cooking show of mine. One episode usually includes a couple cooking portions, where they show you how to make a dish and tell you things about it like what the best kind of onion to use for French Onion soup is (since they’ve tested all kinds). They also test cooking gadgets like garlic presses, cast iron skillets and whisks. They determine the best quality for the best price, which isn’t always the most expensive. And they also test different brands of things like salt, canned tomatoes, cheese, etc. It’s a very accessible show and it’s on PBS. The main guy can be a bit annoying (so I’ve gathered from my husband when he’s forced to watch it with me). But it’s well worth enduring that. And I was so encouraged to learn another good friend of mine is a fan as well. That must mean I’m on the right track, because she’s a fantastic cook!

PBS has actually had several cooking shows that I’ve watched in the past. I know every locale has their own listings, but definitely check them out. Lydia’s Kitchen” was a good one on homemade Italian food that I used to love to watch when we were in Cincinnati since it was listed there on PBS.

For just a short period of time, there was a cooking show on Lifetime called “Cook Yourself Thin”. They would take a person that wanted to lose some weight, learn their favorite foods and then remake them into healthier versions, teaching that person how to make them too. It was interesting, but I’m not sure any of the individuals they selected actually lost much weight. They would go back in 6 weeks and check on them, but they never looked a whole lot different to me. Other than the fact that they let them wear makeup, style their hair and wear cuter clothing! But it was still interesting to me, someone who loves food but also likes to be somewhat health conscious from time to time.

I wish I had The Food Network. But I know that if I did, I would never get away from the TV. So it’s actually probably best for both my wallet and my life that I don’t.

And lastly, I love reality food shows like “Top Chef”, “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares”. I used to watch “Top Chef” with my sister-in-law, Christine, and we loved the food, the constant drama, and the fun challenges and quick fires. Seriously, you should check it out. I haven’t watched it for awhile (due to said lack of full cable), but when a chef can make gourmet food out of popcorn, they deserve to be paid the big bucks! And all those shows just underline my deep resolve to never, never be a chef myself. Too much stress cooking for all those crowds…

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cooking Slump (& Mexican Recipes)

I’ve been in a cooking slump for a couple years now. Mostly I just make whatever is quick and easy and I’ve got a mental list of several meals that I rotate. It’s a rather large list, so it’s not the same thing every week, though I did make a lot of chicken pot pie for a couple weeks awhile back. My husband didn’t complain, though. (The recipe for my chicken pot pie will be coming. Be patient.)

I used to get a monthly cooking magazine, cut out the recipes that I wanted to try, paste them into a binder, and actually refer back to the binder when making my meal and grocery lists, trying new things. (If I left the recipes in the magazine, I found that I would never refer back to it at all.) This hasn’t happened for almost 4 years! I think living with Jake’s mom, not cooking all the time and not having my own stuff out to use kind of got me in a funk. A funk that’s stayed around. We sure have eaten out a lot more in the last 4 years than we used to. But now that we’re cracking down on the budgeting, that’s definitely not happening as much any more, though I am tracking down cheap avenues to do that too.

But I like cooking. At least I used to. And sometimes I still do. But I don’t get as excited about it as much as or as often as I did. I love entertaining and having people over. And even though “words of affirmation” isn’t my “love language” I sure do appreciate my husband’s encouragement about my cooking. And others’ too! I also love, love, love going to cooking equipment stores and watching cooking shows on TV. (More on that topic to come in a later post as well.)

The last time I got really excited about a recipe was when we visited some friends in Clear Lake, Iowa, and I helped make homemade tacos. She fried the shells herself (she used store-bought corn tortillas and fried them in oil – a pretty complicated and time consuming process, as you’ll see below) and we made the seasoning for the beef from scratch as well as the Spanish rice. It was all SO delicious!! I had every intention of coming home and making it again, but that was in February and it hasn’t happened. And the more I think about it, the more I think maybe I could make the meat, but just use store-bought shells.

So I guess the point of this is to have you send me your favorite recipes. Preferably easy and cheap! And if at all possible, send along a picture of the dish as well. (Remember that my husband hates cheese but will eat mozzarella. Now that I’ve said that, you’ll only be able to think of dishes with cheddar or cream cheese! I know from experience.) Hopefully this will get me out of my slump. Slowly but surely.

In the meantime, here are the recipes for the tacos & rice we had in Clear Lake, in case you’re interested.

Beef Taco Meat

2 tsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped small (about 2/3 C)
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 T chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 lb. 90% lean ground beef or leaner
½ C tomato sauce
½ C low-sodium chicken broth
1 tsp brown sugar
2 tsp vinegar, preferably cider vinegar
ground black pepper

Heat oil in medium skillet over medium heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, spices, and ½ tsp salt; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground beef and cook, breaking meat up and scraping pan bottom to prevent scorching, until beef is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce, chicken broth, brown sugar and vinegar; bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently and breaking meat up so that no chunks remain, until liquid has reduced and thickened (mixture should not be completely dry), about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serves 4 (2 tacos each).

Home-Fried Taco Shells

¾ C vegetable oil or canola oil
8 corn tortillas, 6 inches each

Heat oil in 8-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat to 350 degrees, about 5 minutes (oil should bubble when small piece of tortilla is dropped in; tortilla piece should rise to the surface in 2 seconds and be light golden brown in about 1 ½ minutes). Meanwhile, line rimmed baking sheet with double thickness of paper towels. Using tongs to hold tortilla, slip half of the tortilla in hot oil. With metal spatula in other hand, keep half of tortilla submerged in oil. Fry until just set, but not brown, about 30 seconds. Flip tortilla; hold tortilla open about 2 inches while keeping bottom submerged in oil. Fry until golden brown, about 1 ½ min. Flip again and fry other side until golden brown, about 30 seconds. Transfer shell upside down to prepared baking sheet to drain. Repeat with remaining tortillas, adjusting heat as necessary to keep oil between 350 – 375 degrees. Serves 4 (2 tacos each).
**Now you see why I think I’ll just buy mine!!

Mexican Rice

2 ripe tomatoes, cored & quartered
1 medium white onion, quartered
3 medium jalapeno chiles
2 C long grain white rice
1/3 C canola oil
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 C low-sodium chicken broth
1 T tomato paste
1 ½ tsp salt

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Process tomatoes and onion in food processor (or blender) until smooth and thoroughly pureed, about 15 seconds, scraping down bowl if necessary. Transfer mixture to liquid measuring cup; you should have 2 cups (spoon off excess if necessary). Remove ribs and seeds from 2 jalapenos & discard; mince flesh of peppers and set aside. Mince remaining jalapeno, including ribs and seeds; set aside.* Place rice in a large fine-mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water until water runs clear, about 1 ½ minutes. Shake rice vigorously in strainer to remove all excess water. Heat oil in heavy-bottomed ovensafe 12-inch straight-sided sauté pan or Dutch oven with tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat, 1 – 2 minutes. Drop 3 or 4 grains of rice in oil; if grain sizzles, oil is ready. Add rice and fry, stirring frequently, until rice is light golden and translucent, 6-8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add garlic and seeded minced jalapenos; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 ½ minutes. Stir in pureed tomatoes and onion, chicken broth, tomato paste & salt; increase heat to medium-high and bring to boil. Cover pan and transfer to oven; bake until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, 30-35 minutes, stirring well after 15 minutes. Stir in reserved minced jalapeno with seeds. Serve immediately. (You can add ½ C minced fresh cilantro with the minced jalapeno with seeds at the end, but as previously noted in this blog, cilantro is nasty, so I wouldn’t!) Serves 6-8 as a side dish.
*When working with jalapenos, be sure to wear gloves. I think I put plastic zipper bags on my hands since I didn’t have gloves. It was a bit awkward, but it worked in a pinch!

A perfect (& incredibly easy!) dip to go with this meal would be my Black Bean Corn Salsa (that I shamelessly stole from my good friend Kristi Mendenhall):
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
1 can black beans, rinsed & drained
1 firm avocado, cut into chunks
red onion, chopped
Mix all together. Serve with tortilla chips. Enjoy!

And yes, it’s that easy. And yes, it tastes incredible, even though there’s no sauce to it. I don’t understand it. But I love it!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Introducing "Food For Thought"

I’m a food lover. If my husband wants to treat me real nice, he takes me out to dinner at a fun place. The highlight of our recent anniversary trip to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico was that it allowed us the opportunity to try lots of new and exquisite gourmet food (the warm beach and relaxing atmosphere weren’t bad either). I love to try new foods (most of the time – sometimes I really want what I know is good so I won’t be disappointed, especially if I rarely get to have it). In fact, I’m even paid for my services as a taste tester from time to time! Additionally, I love to try new restaurants (same qualifier applies here as with new foods, though).

I love to find something new that’s just amazing and then recommend it to everyone I know! So I’m finally going to put that into good use. In this blog you will find reviews of food and restaurants. This is not a new innovation, obviously. But sometimes, don’t you just want to hear from a real person about real food, both inexpensive and upscale? I want to be that person for you! I love conversing with people about food likes and dislikes and hearing about new restaurants to discover. So feel free to pass along your recommendations for me as well. If you have a delicious recipe or even something you found in the grocery store that you now can’t live without, pass it on. If you love a certain restaurant, don’t stop there – tell me what you love about it and especially the specific dish you’ve found to be so amazing. And I’ll pass along my thoughts after I’ve tried it out.

Note to readers: I do not love bread or cilantro, so know that my opinion on such items will be severely biased!