Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sweet Tea Goodness

I gave up soda.  I know, I know – I’m the Dr. Pepper queen.  But I had a little convo with my doc a few weeks ago and he suggested that if I was serious about losing weight (something he didn’t seem to think I really needed – I LOVE him!!!  But seriously, I do need to lose some; I’m not sure what he was seeing but I’ll be wearing that outfit every other day til I DIE – he also said he thought I had nice hair & that I looked young.  Best. Doctor. EVER) I needed to exercise regularly and cut out soda, snacks, etc.  Portion control is a biggie as well.  And walking my dog doesn’t count as “exercise”.  Apparently I need to get on that honking machine we keep in our basement that’s called an elliptical and do some intervals for 30-45 minutes 3 to 5 times a week.  Yes, sir!

So yeah.  I’ve done some of that, some of the time.  But the thing I have really done is give up soda.  I haven’t touched it for almost 4 weeks.  And I haven’t missed it too much either.  (We had pizza and that was hard.  Because pizza & soda GO together.  I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten pizza without soda in my entire life.  So I made Jake stop & get me a sweet tea, at least.  Because I thought I would puke up the pizza if I had to wash it down with water.  Gross!)  I went cold turkey, just like Jake did this winter.  He feels like if he has even one, he’ll fall off the wagon.  I decided I’m probably the same way.  So we have the occasional Koolaid (though even that has decreased dramatically) and Crystal Light (for him, not so much for me). 

But sweet tea.  Oh, sweet tea goodness!  I almost bought a gallon of it at the store, but then decided that I was probably missing the point of giving up soda if I just replaced it with sweet tea.  So I have sweet tea every now & then, but not as regularly as I was indulging in soda.  My body and my pocketbook thank me.  (Work days were especially hard for me with soda.  Almost as soon as I would sit down at my desk, I would start craving that Dr. Pepper sweetness.  Thankfully, it’s really not been a problem!  This last week I started missing soda more, though.)

Let me rank my fave sweet teas for you:

  1. Famous Dave’s – sweet but not too sweet.  Light & refreshing.  Keep ‘em coming!
  2. Lipton’s PureLeaf sweetened iced tea – sweeter than Dave’s but still not too sweet.  Avoid the “extra sweet” version, though!  (The one I like comes in a glass bottle with a metal lid and has a blue band around the label, pictured below.  I think the glass bottle & metal lid makes it colder & thus, taste better.)
  3. McDonald’s – somewhat too sweet and they always overload the ice, even when I order it with “light ice”, something they have a key for but apparently don’t pay any attention to.  And I think their tea is maybe too strong or bitter sometimes.  But how can you beat $1 large sweet teas in the hot, hot summer?!  (Someone suggested I order it “half cut” –something else they actually have a button for: half sweet / half unsweetened - to cut the sweetness & I tried it.  It was much better but they don’t really mix it well so you end up with really sweet on the bottom & not at all sweet at the top.  Shaking it up yourself helps but if they’ve loaded it with ice, it doesn’t work all that well.)

I’m not a huge fan of flavored sweet teas.  And I’ve never liked “diet” drinks of any kind, though there are some I can stand more than others.  Regular tea is fine, but sweet tea is even better.

Do you like sweet tea?  If so, what’s your favorite?  Have you ever made it yourself?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

One Wild Girls Night Out (but not for the reason you may think) / Ingredient restaurant review

A couple weeks ago one of our friends came into town to visit.  She and her husband were a part of our small group many moons ago.  Back when our small group was a different small group than the current one.  So a couple of us from that group went out to meet said friend (Sarah) for dinner, along with one of Sarah’s old co-workers, who we’d met before as well.  Ingredient restaurant in midtown was chosen for our dining pleasure for a variety of reasons.  First, because this was during the College World Series and far away enough from downtown to avoid the traffic onslaught but still have a fun, urban vibe.  (And free parking!)  Second, because it is decently priced compared to some of the other options in midtown.  And we’d all heard good things about it but never actually gone ourselves. 

Since leaving our small group, Sarah has moved a couple times (her man works for Kiewit, which moves their people around a TON) and had a baby.  Levi is now a year and a half old and busy, busy. Since he'd be joining us, that was a factor as well.

Never having been to Ingredient before, I was unaware that it wasn’t a regular “wait staff” restaurant.  Instead, it’s more like Panera Bread, where you read the menu on the wall, follow the line to order, place your order and sit down with a corresponding number flag to your order number.  (They actually expressly tell you on their signage not to sit down before ordering.  We disobeyed, waiting for everyone to arrive before placing our orders.  But it wasn’t busy enough to cause a ruckus.)  That was a nice surprise, actually.  And with a busy little guy to entertain, it was nice that the setting was a bit more casual. 

Ordering was hard.  They have a LARGE menu, with soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and pizzas.  And everything sounded really good.  I finally settled on a pizza.  The Wild Mushroom Pizza: wild mushrooms, fresh herbs, caramelized onions, alfredo sauce and brie cheese.  It was rich and delicious, though I decided I’m not a huge fan of brie.  It was good that there wasn’t much of that on the pizza. 

Prior to our rendezvous, it had been recommended to us that the One Pacific Place location (where California Pizza Kitchen vacated) was superior to the midtown location in terms of service.  Having never been to either, I didn’t really think it would matter much to me.  And it didn’t.  I wouldn’t say the service was great or bad, just adequate.  The clientele was interesting, though.  Levi kept running around, since he’d been cooped up in a car for 5+ hours that day.  And one man in particular felt a bit creepy to those of us watching.  He seemed all too keen on Levi, talking baby talk to him and waving him over regularly.  We kept a good eye on Levi and all was fine.

And then.  We’d started to notice the dark clouds headed our way from the west.  And one friend decided she might start to head home.  There’d been a brief discussion about the impending thunderstorm warnings earlier in the day, but we dismissed them when the forecasters didn’t seem to be too concerned.  But just as she was starting to get ready to leave, a friend of hers from further out west texted about the storm heading our way.  This friend was already in a shelter situation with her fellow apartment complex dwellers.  And to top it off, the restaurant manager (a young woman about 24 maybe?) came out & made the announcement that a storm was coming and we needed to seek shelter either in their cooler or in the gym across the street.  As we started to head to the gym, she announced that it was too late (literally about 30 seconds after her first announcement) and that we needed to proceed to their cooler.  I made the comment to my group that the “cooler” was actually a freezer and started to put my sweater on.  Others from my group weren’t sure my statement was accurate, until we got to the cooler. 

As we filed in – standing shoulder to shoulder, single file, pushing all the way to the back with meat & other food stacked ceiling on high both sides – our group somehow got a bit separated and other people were intermingled with us.  Apparently an older woman toward the back had a small radio and we were all anxious to hear what storm accounts it held.  Unfortunately, a cooler in the middle of a restaurant during a storm doesn’t get great reception.  Neither do cell phones.  Just an FYI.  'Cuz I'm helpful like that.

The manager announced that if people were more comfortable heading to their cars in the parking garage, they could do so.  Or a room somewhere in the parking garage.  Since one of us – not me – was parked in the attached garage, we decided we’d rather make a break for that than be crowded in the cooler armpit to armpit with strangers for any longer.  The manager wasn’t too keen on us going and told us that if we wanted back in, to just bang on the back door (the door we were exiting) really hard and they’d open up for us.

We got to the car in the garage & decided to move it a bit farther into the interior.  The winds were pretty strong and the sky was quite dark.  And it was raining pretty heavily.  We turned on the car radio and engaged in quite a bit of texting with our storm watcher loved ones.  We sat there for awhile, just reveling in the moment and the experience we’d all just had.  Finally, we all decided we were in the clear.  We ran through the rain to our various cars and headed home. 

I forgot my leftover pizza box on the table in the restaurant. Which was disappointing, but not the end of the world.  I liked the pizza fine, but I'm not sure I'd order it again.  It was so rich that it was on the verge of being too rich.

I will definitely try Ingredient again.  They have fresh food and decent prices.  I am cheap these days, so not having to tip is always a bonus.  They also offer many gluten-free options on their menu, which is a rarity.  Oh, and my baker friend makes their gluten-free sweets.  I have to support that!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Texas Roadhouse: Not Jake’s Kind of Joint

“Texas Roadhouse's hand-cut steaks, fresh-baked bread, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and made-from-scratch sides will keep you smiling. With ice cold beer and legendary margaritas — what more could you ask for?”

I’ll tell you what: the ability to call ahead as advertised and actually be seated in a timely manner without a whole lot of run-around. 

We gathered at Texas Roadhouse for my nephew’s 11th birthday.  His choice, due to the famed ride on a saddle & wearing of a “hat” (a headband with two braids coming off it – for a BOY?!) while being “serenaded” by the surrounding wait staff and other customers.  An 11-year-old’s dream.

But standing around in elbow-room-only waiting areas for half an hour was not anyone's dream.  The fact that my sister-in-law called ahead for her party of 10, but was told only upon arrival that they wouldn’t seat the party until everyone had arrived was not a dream.  The fact that we have a “better late than never” family mentality about punctuality didn’t help.  (I was about 5 minutes late.  My brother was more like 20 minutes late.  My husband strolled in a half hour past, but that was expected due to a prior engagement.  That was actually earlier than I’d anticipated his arrival.)

Finally my sister-in-law had enough of the waiting around endlessly and inquired about the table again.  She didn’t even have to lie about the whole party having arrived - since they didn’t ask - and we were escorted to our table. 

I suppose the one small enchantment to waiting around forever is that the Roadhouse provides you with ample peanuts for your munching consumption.  And you can just throw the shells on the floor.  Which seems to be quite a walking hazard to me – especially for the multitudes of older folks that seemed to be frequenting the joint – but I’m no Department of Sanitation judge. 

Thankfully the servers bring rolls with them as they guide you to your table, so there is no waiting around for bread.  And normally I wouldn’t give two rips about rolls, but these rolls are indeed special.  Soft, chewy & sweet, they are just about the best bread item around.  Not to mention the cinnamon butter that accompanies them.  (Is that melted butter on top of the roll?  Yes.  Does that mean I shouldn’t spread more butter – mixed with delicious cinnamon – on top of the already buttered roll?  NO.)  And our table was doused with baskets of rolls.  Score one for the Roadhouse.

Since one Texas Roadhouse location is not too far down the road from our church (StoneBridge Christian Church – shameless plug!), they often drop off samples of rolls on Sunday mornings, sweetly enticing church goers to their eatery.  Smart, I say!  (It should be noted that the particular location we visited for this birthday bash was the Shadowlake franchise, though.)

When we finally got around to ordering our food, our waitress was abrupt but helpful and available.  That’s pretty much all I ask.  Friendly is nice, but professional works!

I ordered a 6 oz. sirloin ($9.95), cooked medium-well according to their menu’s directions (some pink); I deem this a normal “medium” but it arrived to my specifications so I was happy.  It was small, but probably the perfect portion for my size.  And it was delicious.

Along with the main course came a side salad (decent – chopped hard-boiled eggs was a nice surprise) and loaded sweet potato.  Heaven.  I love this treat.  Like a little pile of Thanksgiving right there on my plate.  See the picture below & tell me if your mouth doesn’t start watering?!  (Note that my potato wasn’t dripping with as much of whatever that is, but it was still darn good and topped with toasted marshmallows.  Ignore the rest of that dish; I just needed a good shot of the sweet potato.)
Jake ordered boneless pork chops, which turned out to be somewhat dry but paired with the accompanying peppercorn sauce were quite edible.  But the best thing by far on his plate was his side order of sautéed mushrooms.  I will never order a side salad again!  (The picture indicates how small a serving you receive, but they were piled fairly high in that small dish and the taste outweighs the size.  I think you can even see the carmelized garlic edges.  Mmm…)

When most of us had finished our food and were sitting around chatting and waiting for the birthday bash to begin, my husband leaned over to me and whispered, “I don’t think this is my kind of place.”  It was at that moment that I noticed the loud country music (and not the classic kind he’s amenable to) and the wait staff line dancing around the corner.  Not his kind of place indeed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Need a Food Processor

I’ve never desired a food processor.  I’ve always thought of them as very optional.  I didn’t want another piece of kitchen equipment I just stored but rarely, if ever, used.  I didn’t even get a blender until after about 7 years of marriage.  And that was just because I desired to make my own homemade Orange Julius beverages.  (Hats off to Stacy Hatten for that recipe!  Not quite like the real thing but wonderful when we lived in Cincinnati and the nearest Orange Julius was HOURS away.)

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking it might be time to procure one.  A food processor, that is.  If you read my last posts, you know that I’ve been using my blender in place of a food processor for some recipes.  And it’s been a bit hard on my blender, which got more use recently from our live-in, soon-to-be missionary housemate for a few months.  (She was on some smoothie diet.)  We drug it up from downstairs for her, dusted it off and made a place for it on the counter.  So I finally had no excuses and set about making some of the recipes I’d stalled on. 

But using a blender in place of a food processor is tricky business.  And at times the blender has smelled pretty hot, like in an-about-to-catch-on-fire kind of way.  (Thank you, frozen banana ‘ice cream’!)  I don’t blame it. 

When I used it to make the fudgy snow balls, it was really difficult to get the batter out of the blender in order to roll it into balls.  Sticky stuff and all stuck around the blade.  And I still had to mix it up a bit afterward. 

So, I’m in the market for a small food processor.  I’m thinking something that’s about 3 cups, no larger.  I don’t want a huge contraption I have to store.  And the 1.5 cup mini seems a little on the small side for some projects.  I saw an Oster brand version at Walmart for about $20 for the 3 cup size that seems like a good option.  Might be a good addition to my gift wish list for birthday or Christmas, though I might not be able to wait that long.  Fresh salsa is calling my name.

Do you have a food processor?  If so, do you use it?  What size/brand is it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Life has been more than a little crazy lately.  Maybe you've noticed, due to the lack of regular posting on this here blog, something that hasn't happened much for me.  So here is my heartfelt apology for that, dear readers!  I don't mean to be slacking on you.

But I've felt a lack of inspiration for cooking especially, but for many things in life lately.  So that makes it difficult to write posts for a food blog, huh?!  

I have had SOME inspiration, though.  From a variety of places.  I'll highlight a couple for you.

  • MasterChef:  This little Fox TV reality show is full of amateur chefs competing for the adoration of 3 self-proclaimed food gurus.  It's intriguing, mouth-watering fun.  Gordon Ramsey seen here is much less the raving food nazi as seen on Hell's Kitchen, and much more a nurturing (though heavy-handed) mentor.  The challenges are difficult, the contestants are crazy, and the food is varied.  But every episode includes at least one dish that makes me want to break out the pots & pans.  This is the 2nd season of this show.  I previously wrote about stumbling upon the first season last summer.
  • Cooking with friends.  I arrived home yesterday after a weekend visiting friends in Clear Lake, Iowa.  I always enjoy my visits there.  It's such a nice quaint town.  And the McGinnis's always inspire me to create new dishes and add more flavor to my life through cooking.  Top offerings this visit included amazing chicken enchiladas with a poblano pepper / tomatillo cream sauce and Amy's melt-in-my-mouth Magic Cookie bars, which I believe I ate my weight in.  They are also a gluten-free family, so it's nice to be able to bring home recipes for things I can actually make.  Though I'll have to modify some of it to be low fat / no cheese.  And Jake doesn't like coconut, so those bars are all for me!!  I'm already planning to take them to the 2012 Smith Family Vacation. See the recipes for these dishes below.

Magic Cookie Bars
2 C Crushed GF Rice Cereal (about 3.25 cups before crushing)
½ C Margarine
3 T sugar
1 C. Chopped Nuts
1 C. Chocolate chips
1 ½ C. flaked cocnuts
1 Can Eagle Brand Sweetened condensed milk

Combine crushed cereal, margarine and sugar. Press into 9x13 pan. Sprinkle nuts over crust, then scatter chips over nuts, coconut over chips, sweetened condensed milk over cocnut. Bake bars in 350 oven for 25 minutes or until edges turn light brown. Cool and cut into bars.

Tomatillo Enchiladas
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 pound tomatillos (papery skins removed) chopped
1 white onion, chopped
1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped (can also use a green pepper or anahiem as well)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper
1 cup heavy cream
2-2 1/2 pound rotisserie chicken, shredded (or the equivelent in frozen chicken)
14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 1/4 cup monterey jack
8 6 inch corn tortillas (more if needed)

Heat oven to 400 F. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the tomatillos, onion, poblano, garlic cum, and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to food processor, add cream and puree. In a large bowl, combine the chicken, tomatoes, 1 cup of cheese 1/2 cup of tomatillos sauce  and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Warm the tortillas according to the package directions. Spread 1 cup of the reamining sauce in a 9x13 pan. Roll the chicken mixture in the tortillas and place them in the dish, seam side down. Top with remaining sauce and cheese. Bake until beginning to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. 

 What inspires you to cook?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Chicken McNuggets & Sweet ‘N Sour Sauce

I’m a big, lifelong fan of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets.  They are the first, the premiere, everything else is a less-than-adequate copycat. 

I’ve never liked bread.  So growing up, eating at fast food joints with my family was almost pure torture.  I didn’t want a burger with a bun!  Yuck.  So when McDonald’s came out with Chicken McNuggets, I’d found my fast food savior. 

Not only do you get to bypass the bun, but these nuggets are also coated in batter, not breading.  Hallelujah!  (Cue the choir.)  Everyone knows batter trumps breading. 

And Sweet ‘N Sour Sauce is a Chicken McNugget's perfect mate.  In fact, I’ve never once tried another dipping sauce at McDonald’s for their nuggets.  Why would I?!  Sweet ‘N Sour Sauce is sweet and tangy, delightful for both your nuggets and your fries.  (A 4-piece Chicken McNugget Happy Meal with fries and a Coke makes the perfect portion of fast food for this gal.  The fact that I’m about as tall as a 5th grader makes that more so.  And the price – just over $3 – ain’t bad either!)

McDonald’s has come out with new dipping sauces.  And I was briefly tempted to try one.  Maybe the Sweet Chili.  But then I remembered that Sweet ‘N Sour is an original and why mess with perfection?!  Not even a new sauce promotion shall sway me from my devotion to this pairing.

Soon I may have to write a whole post on why it seems I have a McDonald’s problem.  I mean, this is not my first - and not even my second - post mentioning the fast food kingdom’s ruling potentate.  (And, yes, thank you to Google for “potentate”!  I knew there was a more noteworthy synonym for "ruler"!)