Recipe #33: Smores bars

Smores bars are exactly what they sound like - smores in bar form. It's intense, to say the least - graham cracker crust, a chocolate chip cookie-dough like concoction as the middle layer (with the addition of mini marshmallows), topped by Hershey's chocolate squares.

I brought it over to my friend's house, thinking it would go over pretty well with her adorable kids. It did. Her little girl's exact words to me were, "Can you bring this every time you come over?" I'd say that's a ringing endorsement. I wasn't a huge fan of it, but it'll definitely stay in my recipe book for sheer popularity factor (adults raved about it too, when I brought the leftovers to work the next day).

Edits to the recipe: 5 oz of graham crackers isn't enough to cover the pan. Omit the sugar, too - why add more sugar to the crust, when the rest of the recipe contains a lot of sugar? 4 ladles.


Recipe #32: Apricot oat bars

I have little respect for Giada de Laurentiis - mostly because she really plays up her overt sexuality on her cooking show. Because we all need to wear a plunging shirt to cook a lasagna, right? (Insert groan and rolling of eyes). Nevertheless, I found myself watching an episode where she was making these apricot oat bars, and I was compelled to give them a try.

A few tweaks: I reduced the sugar by 1/4 cup, used lower-sugar apricot jam, and doubled the number of apricots.

3.5 ladles: I wasn't thrilled with the result, but my co-workers really seemed to like it. I think this would be better with a different kind of jam - maybe strawberry rhubarb - with chunks of fresh strawberry in it. Might have to experiment with it further.


Recipe #31: Whole wheat sweet potato muffins

One of my favorite sites is foodgawker.com. I love looking at the pretty photos and usually find a number of recipes I want to try out. The site makes me realize the following:
A) there are a lot of dedicated home cooks out there
B) there are a lot of dedicated home cooks who blog
C) my blog really pales in comparison, especially my photos
D) how on earth do some of these people claim to have full-time jobs?!

I really wish I had more time to devote to my blog, but...I don't. When I look at the professional quality photos, I'm envious, but realize those people take this whole food blogging thing way more seriously than I do -- I simply want to share things with my friends.

Anyways, the reason why I mention Foodgawker is because I come across really interesting blogs and recipes. Like this one -- for whole wheat sweet potato muffins, by some bodybuilder named Becky. I definitely wouldn't have come across her blog since I have zero interest in body building, but...I was looking for something easy to make with some cans of organic sweet potato that I had laying around.

I followed the recipe pretty closely, though I added a splash of vanilla extract and a pinch of nutmeg.

Here they are:

I'd give them 3.5 ladles. Pros: Moist, easy to make. Cons: Not too much flavor, and can definitely taste the wheat flour. Considering it doesn't have too much sugar or oil, this isn't a bad recipe if you feel like healthy muffins.


Recipe #30: Chicken adobo

Recipes, like just about everything else, require good writing. I discovered this when I tried out a recipe for chicken adobo recently. Having grown up with many Filipinos, I love Filipino food. I've always wanted to try my hand at a few Filipino recipes, but never had the nerve to (you know when something is so good, you know you won't replicate it as well)? Well, I had very little in my fridge but I really wanted to get dinner on the table. So, I dug up this recipe for chicken adobo. While it seemed easy enough, the directions were lousy.

I can often look at a recipe and tell if it'll turn out well, or if it's missing something critical. That was definitely the case here -- I mean, how good can something taste if the only main ingredients are large amounts of soy sauce and white vinegar? So I adapted the recipe by adding thinly sliced onions; a heaping teaspoon of brown sugar to cut the saltiness of the soy sauce; water; and crushed red peppers. The end result was very tasty and very easy dish that came together in minutes (bonus points for not having to run to the grocery store). I served it with some rice and flash sauteed garlic spinach.

I have to say that I was really happy with my first attempt at chicken adobo. I might try it with pork next time. I'll also have to ask E. for her mother-in-law's recipe for chicken adobo, since she's a Filipina and an amazing cook.


Recipe #29: Vegan crepes

I could never survive as a vegan. Life without butter and cheese...I can't continue.

I really wanted to make crepes last weekend, because R. loves them! But, I didn't have any eggs (this is when my friend E.'s chicken coop could really come in handy), and I didn't want to buy an entire carton right before leaving on vacation. So, I looked up an eggless crepe recipe and came up with a vegan one.

It. Was. Disgusting. 0 ladles. Why? The batter was so thick and lumpy that I actually put it into my blender and blended it until it was a little smoother. Bad batter = bad crepes. Here, it doesn't look so bad, right?

But despite only using a little bit of batter, the crepe was still too thick. And the end result was a very gummy, thick, pasty round of dough. Cue the pizza delivery.


How to cut a pineapple

A friend recently confessed that she had no idea how to cut a pineapple. I assured her it was easy, and always worthwhile to cut your own pineapple (instead of buying pre-cut slices at the store).
Here's a brief picture tutorial:

Make sure you have a sharp, hefty knife and a stable cutting board (put a damp cloth under your board so that it doesn't move around).

Cut off both ends, top and bottom.

Cut into the sides, putting your knife at the top and working it to the bottom (follow the curve of the pineapple).

Here's how it should appear:

Next, cut it in half, and lay both halves (cut side down) on the board:

Cut each half into 4 pieces, vertically:

Now, take each sliver, lay it on its side and cut the tough, woody part off at an angle:

Final step: cut into bite-size chunks. You're done!

See? Easy.


Recipe #28: Stovetop Potatoes

I am never roasting potatoes in the oven again (especially not on a hot summer day). I found a method that makes the potatoes turn out just perfect - crisp on the outside, moist on the inside. And it couldn't be easier.

It's loosely based off of Ina Garten's Dill Fingerling Potatoes recipe. Basically, you melt 2 TB of butter in a Dutch oven (heavy, cast iron pot). Throw some baby potatoes in there (Trader Joe has a convenient 1.5 LB bag of baby potatoes), and sprinkle with salt & pepper. I added some whole garlic cloves and didn't have fresh herbs on hand, so I skipped that part (but it would be just as tasty with rosemary, thyme, etc.). Leave on the stove on low for about 15 minutes, shaking every so often. Take off the burner, but keep the lid on for another 5 minutes. The steam really penetrates the potatoes, leaving them incredibly moist. Couldn't be any easier.

I actually had half a bag of broccoli crowns I needed to use up, so I threw those on top of the potatoes for the last 5 minutes, and they were perfectly steamed, too! I love one-pot wonders.

Best of all, the garlic pieces get beautifully caramelized, and when garlic gets roasted, its flavor really mellows out and becomes sweet. Delicious spread on nice, crusty bread. 5 ladles!


Life's little luxuries

For me, room service is one of life's little luxuries. And when you're tired (from sightseeing or working), sometimes you just want to enjoy a nice meal in the privacy and comfort of your pajamas. This past weekend, while attending a conference, it was just what I needed. Hotel food is hit or miss, but this was a clear hit. Hot, tasty, and enjoyed in my pajamas.


Banana smoothie

I've been having trouble falling asleep lately - probably due to some stress at work. And when I can't fall asleep, I often find myself in front of the TV, watching late-night infomercials. Watching infomercials is a sick addiction, I tell you - sick. The infomercials are so terrible, yet it's like a train wreck -- I can't seem to peel my eyes away from them.

I'm sure you've all heard of the Magic Bullet. I never believe anything I see on those informercials, but 2 co-workers recently raved about the Magic Bullet. So I went to Bed Bath & Beyond in search of the Magic Bullet (I can't bring myself to call the 800 number on their infomercial - call it dignity, call it embarrassment, whatever). The store does in fact carry the Magic Bullet, but I was distracted by Cuisinart's version of the Magic Bullet. It's a tiny bit more expensive, but I was lured by the promise of BPA-free cups.

Anyway, I just tried my own concoction:

- frozen berries (mixture of strawberries, blueberries, blackberries & raspberries)
- skim milk
- spoonful of flaxseed
- one overripe banana (great way to use them up)
- a few ice cubes

Dump in the blending cup, blend for a few seconds -- and voila! A banana berry smoothie:

I might try the other blade to see if it'll crush the ice better. That was the only drawback.

It also comes with a handy travel lid, so I can pop the lid on and take it with me -- very handy for those hectic mornings. There are endless possibilities when it comes to healthy smoothies (yogurt instead of milk, agave nectar or honey for a touch of sweetness, flaxseed oil to aid digestion, or a spoonful of peanut butter for added protein). Now that the farmer's markets are oveflowing with fresh fruit, this system is going to be a great way to use up overripe fruit (I have a tendency to get excited at the market and end up buying way too much fruit than I can possibly eat before it all goes bad!).


Recipe #27:Arborio rice pudding

A few years ago, I received a top-of-the-line Japanese rice cooker, along with a cookbook specially formulated for the rice cooker.

It's worth its weight in gold. Rice turns out perfectly cooked, every single time. There's no fuss, no mess, no nothing...except perfect rice. When I see people cooking rice in a pot on the stove, I feel like telling them to just invest in a Japanese rice cooker and how that'll be a game changer in the way they make rice (what - me, exaggerate? Never). I've never been able to make good rice in a pot, and the time spent trying to scrape the pot clean afterwards is definitely not worth the hassle.

Anyway, I saw a recipe for rice pudding, and staying true to the set-it-and-forget motto of this little baby, it was super easy and turned out quite well. Here's a closeup (the specs you see are nutmeg and cinnamon).

The result? Very, very rich (due to the cream and a few tablespoons of heavy cream), but I couldn't see myself having more than a few spoonfuls anyway. Thank goodness I used water instead of milk, as the recipe called for. Had I used milk, I don't know if the recipe would've been edible -- way too much dairy. I also cut down the amount of sugar the recipe called for, as I almost always do to recipes I find. 4 ladles -- a tasty, easy, comforting treat.


Fish tacos

A few weeks back, we went up to Sonoma for a weekend getaway. We found a local diner (not your typical diner - rather upscale) that was really sleepy and unassuming, but served surprisingly delicious food.

Here are the fish tacos I had, with black bean cole slaw served alongside it. I never enjoyed fish tacos until I moved to California...now, I'm obsessed with them.


Recipe #26: Strawberry lemon curd tart

You'll never believe what happened with this recipe. As you can see, the tart portion is quite labor-intensive. After I had carefully baked the tart, I...dropped it on the floor! It shattered into pieces, as the tart shell was quite buttery and flaky...and apparently fragile. Giant BOO. It was frustrating, to say the least.

But you know what they say -- when life gives you lemons, make lemon bars. ;) So, I went out and bought some pastry shells, and improvised. Here they are, filled with the lemon curd: 

And here they are, with the strawberries on top:

Overall, it was pretty tasty, but I can only give it 3 ladles because of the following:

A) The lemon curd was overwhelmingly sweet -- as in, mouth-puckering sweet. I would definitely reduce the amount of sugar next time.
B) The lemon flavor wasn't very pronounced. I guess I expected it to taste more like a lemon bar, with a more intense lemon kick.
C) The recipe called for a glaze of strawberry jam. I tried it, but it looked very messy and unappealing over the fresh strawberries. I'd venture to say that when the berries are fresh and ripe, you can forego the extra layer of sugar and just showcase the natural beauty of the berries.


Recipe #25 Pumpkin Nutella Cake

I had you at Nutella, right? Well, growing up, Nutella was our peanut butter -- where we grew up, we had more European influences, so peanut butter wasn't very common. And in Europe, Nutella is omnipresent. There are days when I just want to slather myself with this hazelnut spread -- would that be so wrong?

So when I came across a recipe for pumpkin Nutella cake, I just had to give it a try. I'm going to have to give this 3 ladles, though. Believe it or not, pumpkin and Nutella really don't go together. I know -- far be it from me to forego putting Nutella on something. Moreover, it wasn't easy to get the Nutella swirled in. The only recipe only called for it to be dolloped on top, but I figured it would be more delicious if it was woven in throughout the bread -- hence, double the work.

So here's the first half of the cake:

I then added the rest of the batter and then put some more Nutella on top, and swirled it:

Here's the baked version:

I have to say, that the baked version is quite lovely.

And here's how it appears inside:

Moist? Yes. Flavorful? Not really. And despite my best attempts to distribute the Nutella evenly in the batter, there were still big globs of it throughout -- so in some bites, you wouldn't have any Nutella, while in others, you would get a load of it.

When it first came out of the oven, I actually thought it tasted pretty good. So I brought it over to my friend's house. They seemed to like it, but perhaps they were just being polite. After some time had passed, as I was thinking about writing this post, I realized that I would never make this cake again. And I promise -- this is the last pumpkin recipe for a while. I'm pumpkin-ed out!


Recipe #24: New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie

This recipe is a bit laborious, for a chocolate chip cookie -- it's not for the faint of heart. But I'm perpetually in search of the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe, so I was willing to go the distance. I've tried dozens of recipes, but none of them measure up. The perfect cookie, for me, is one that is dense, moist, slightly chewy, and has a balanced sweetness.

This recipe, courtesy of the New York Times, came pretty close. The sea salt really does add a touch of elegance to the humble chocolate chip cookie. My guinea pigs (my dear friends) agreed that it was quite good. I might need to experiment with a few little tweaks in order to make it truly perfect, though (and in all fairness, I only refrigerated the dough for about 4 hours). 4 ladles in the meantime.

And here's a closeup:


What's for lunch

I feel fortunate that I live in an area where I have easy access to such a rich variety of food. Check out these beauties (Vietnamese fried imperial rolls on the left and summer rolls on the right - both vegetarian):

They're stuffed with tofu and all sorts of wonderful veggies (jicama, carrots, etc.). Totally portable, healthy and nutritious (well, minus the little frying part for the imperial rolls). Now this is "fast food" I could have every single day.


Shake, shake, shake!

On our way back to the city from Point Reyes, we stopped into a small restaurant that served blackberry milkshakes made with local, organic ice-cream. Yum!


Day trip to Point Reyes

A very good friend of mine is leaving SF. Boo. She decided that, before she left, she really wanted to see the Point Reyes Lighthouse. So, we grabbed another friend of ours and took a little day trip out there.

It was so beautiful! The hike down is deceivingly steep -- a sign indicated that the steps are the equivalent of a 30-story building. The legs definitely got a work out.

(This shot was taken with my cell phone. Not bad, eh?)

Thank goodness we fueld up beforehand. We stopped by the Cowgirl Creamery, which makes insanely delicious, organic, artisan cheese. 

We stocked up on some Mt. Tam cheese (triple-cream, cow milk), as well as some Tome de Chalosse (semi-soft, cow milk), a loaf of freshly baked bread, some orzo salad, and salt/pepper uncured sausage (which I actually was not a big fan of). Here's our lovely spread: 

A gorgeous day, and a great way to celebrate friends.


Pizza for you, pizza for me

Guess which side of the pizza is R.'s, and which side is mine. ;) Frankly, I don't know that I've ever seen him have any other topping other than pepperoni!


Breakfast to die for at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn

A few weeks ago, we opted for a little "staycation" at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission and Spa. It was a lovely stay. But dare I say (and those who know me, wouldn't be surprised by this admission) that the best part was breakfast at Big 3, one of the restaurants on the property. The previous day when we checked in, a staff member claimed that the lemon ricotta pancakes were "out of this world", so of course I was intrigued. She wasn't kidding - they were outrageously good. Fluffy, light, with just the right amount of lemon flavor. It was served with a piece of preserved lemon and a dollop of creme fraiche. Holy moly was it good:

R. had the sourdough french toast, which he claimed was the "best french toast" he had ever had. It was good, but I don't know that I'd agree with him (I once had carrot cake french toast with cream cheese frosting in Austin, as well as banana bread french toast in SF that were far better), but it was definitely tasty.

The lemon pancakes were so good, that I wouldn't hesitate to drive an hour from SF just to eat them, even if I weren't staying at the hotel. Yes, they were *that* good. I'll have to see if I can replicate it sometime...


Dubai Part 3

And here's the final post about Dubai. This was a great meal at a very popular Lebanese restaurant. It's got a very eclectic and broad-ranging menu, but I recommend avoiding the non-traditional dishes and sticking to the good stuff. Here's a gorgeous spread of hummus, pickles and olives, and salad with haloumi cheese.

We shared a seafood platter (which I didn't include a picture of). Dessert was particularly noteworthy. This is kunafa and warbat. Kunafa is a classic Arabic dessert - filled with a stringy cheese similar to mozzarella. It also usually has some rosewater in it, giving it a lightly floral taste. Warbat is also a delectable cheese dessert - pretty much a baklava that's filled with cheese instead of nuts. They were both warmed up, so the cheese just oozed out, while the phyllo was crusty and crispy.    

I also took my family to a great brunch at the InterContinental Festival City. Brunch is a big deal in Dubai - and it was also the case when we were living in Saudi Arabia. The spread is just phenomenal - so many choices! Let's see - there's an Italian station (pasta made to your liking), an Indian station (with a huge tandoori oven baking fresh naan)...oh, a huge seafood bar and a grill as well - you can ask them to prepare any kind of seafood, any way you please! Here's a grilled lobster my family enjoyed:

Of course, I was mostly interested in the desserts. Here's a small sampling of some of the options we gathered from the dessert section (trust me, I wanted to get one of each. I also wanted to dunk my face into the caramel, fudge and white chocolate fountains...):

Isn't this "strawberry cheesecake" trifle so gorgeous? 

I really wish I had taken more pictures - but you can see much more extensive pictures on their Facebook page. Quite a gluttonous experience! 

But here's the sad, sad kicker - I actually got mild food poisoning the night before, so...I sat and watched as my family ate to their heart's content (they felt terribly guilty). I didn't get to taste anything (just the thought of eating made me nauseous). The only consolation was seeing their happy faces and knowing they enjoyed themselves immensely. 


Recipe #23: Pumpkin bread

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've got a lot of canned pumpkin laying around. So...I tried a new recipe for pumpkin bread. I've made many pumpkin breads in the past, but I have to say that this recipe is by far the easiest and tastiest. It's incredibly moist, flavorful, and very easy/quick to make. Plus, I love recipes where you practically dump things into a bowl (I didn't even read the directions - I just mixed the wet and dry ingredients separately, then gave it a quick mix before pouring it into the pan). I'm not exaggerating when I say this recipe took about 4 minutes to pull together: http://www.food.com/recipe/pumpkin-loaf-139988

However, the one caveat I have is that I think the recipe needs some serious tweaks. Whenever a sweet recipe doesn't call for at least a pinch of salt (or a splash of vanilla extract), I usually add it anyway. In this case, I used both, although the recipe didn't call for either one.

I also made the following changes:

- used 3 eggs, not 4 (only because that's how many I had on hand)
- used 1 cup white sugar and 1 cup dark brown sugar (for extra depth and moisture)
- added 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- dumped the entire mix into a bundt pan and only baked for 40-ish minutes

The result was incredible, and it'll definitely serve as my go-to pumpkin bread recipe from now on. 5 ladles.


Recipe #22: Popcorn

Ok, so I know this recipe isn't going to impress anyone. And I know you're probably in disbelief that I've never made stovetop popcorn. Yes, pick up your jaw off the ground. I guess I've never bothered to think about making it on the stove when I could just pop a bag into the microwave. And I always thought you needed a special popcorn pan - like the kind that has a handle. Turns out you just need an ordinary pot. Damn marketers.

Recently, I read that there are all sorts of nasty chemicals in popcorn bags, so I wanted to make popcorn the old-fashioned way, without any chemicals or additives. Plus, I got some amazing porcini-infused olive oil in Sonoma last weekend that I really wanted to try, in addition to some gorgeous crimson corn kernels (never seen them before).

Of course, I've already forgotten where I got the recipe, but it's basically 3 TB of oil for a 1/2 cup of kernels.

I only used 1 TB of the porcini oil with 2 TB of olive oil, so the flavor was very mellow - perhaps a bit too mellow. Next time, I might try 2 TB of the porcini oil and 1 TB of olive oil. The crimson kernels actually popped up into a beautiful, snowy white.

Gorgeous, right? Food is so beautiful. Why didn't I do this earlier?! Absolutely no point in buying chemical-laden junk popcorn. 5 ladles for ease, health and taste.


More of Dubai

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a few great meals during my most recent trip to Dubai.

Here are some more pictures. This one is of a hot pot (aka Chinese fondue) restaurant that my family enjoys. Here, half of the pot is a light broth, while the other half is a very spicy broth. In Chinese cooking, the concept of yin and yang is ever present. This hot pot presents a beautiful balance of flavors, both taste-wise and aesthetically. The spicy part is incredibly spicy (the red stuff you see floating on top is chili paste -- believe it or not, it was spicy, even for a hard core chili head like me!).

So, you dip a number of things into either side. We chose noodles and super thin slices of lamb. Because of how hot the broths get (there's a tableside burner underneath the pot), both cook very quickly:

They also had a cart with a variety of dipping sauces, ranging from Thai peanut sauce to more hot chili pastes, and a variety of fresh herbs, like cilantro.

To finish it off, we had these incredible "donuts." My family insisted that they were golden nuggets from heaven. And I totally agree. The dipping sauce was an incredibly thick mixture, which I venture to guess was made of sweetened condensed milk. 'Nuf said.


Birthday cupcakes

A few girlfriends came over for brunch and surprised me with flowers and cupcakes for my (early) birthday. Such great friends!


Recipe #21: Scones

On a high from finding such an amazing country bread recipe from King Arthur Flour, I decided to try one of their "guaranteed" recipes for scones. They guarantee that these scones "will have a dark-gold outer crust, and a light-gold, moist inner crumb. They'll taste mildly of butter and vanilla." 

Hm...can't say that I agree, unfortunately. In order to get the dark-gold outer crust, I had to bake them for a bit longer than the recipe called for (even though I made each scone smaller than the recipe called for). But that made them too dry on the inside and a bit too crunchy on the outside. The taste was pretty good, but I probably wouldn't make this recipe again. Frankly, I'm surprised (and disappointed) that this is one of their "guaranteed" recipes! Oh well. At the very least, it gave me a good excuse to use the gorgeous cake plate that my MIL gave me for Christmas.

(If you're wondering why the currants are so prominent on top...it's because I forgot to incorporate them into the mixture and ended up having to place them on top prior to baking. And if you're curious about what happens to the currants when you do that...well, they taste burnt and bitter. Whoops.) 3 ladles.