Monday, November 29, 2010

Do Over Surprise... Congrats Carrot Cake

I never understood the draw of carrot cake until about 2 years ago when I made Weston one for his 22nd birthday. I remember it so well, too - baking in a student-housing kitchen. A BOY's student housing kitchen. You can imagine the adventure, hmm? I think all I could find in the ways of ingredients were salt and cinnamon. The only recipe for carrot cake that I've ever known is the following one which my mom has been using for as far back as I can remember. The batter is divided into 3 parts and the secret is in the amazing flavor and moisture the added pineapple provides. Adding pineapple might not seems so special nowadays since people are throwing all kinds of things into cakes - tomato sauce, Coca Cola, you name it. But this recipe was honestly ground-breaking back in 1992; once again proving that my mama and her friends were way ahead of their time.

Again, the recipe has been modified some because in my opinion, 4 eggs is wayyy too many for a cake and you never need 2 cups of oil when 1 will do the trick.

Group A:

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup oil

Group B:

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

1 Tbs. cinnamon

2 cups flour

½ tsp. nutmeg

Group C:

2 cups grated carrots

1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

½ cup crushed pineapple

½ cup pineapple juice

Mix Group A in a large bowl

Mix all B in medium bowl

Add A & B together

Add Group C one at a time and mix

Bake: grease and flour a 9 x 13 pan

350° 35-40 minutes


½ stick butter

1 cup powdered sugar

8 oz. cream cheese (room temp so there are no lumps)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 cup sour cream (optional, but tasty)

1 cup chopped pistachios (to sprinkle on top)

Cream butter and cream cheese together

Add remaining ingredients

Frost, sprinkle with nuts

* let cake cool BEFORE frosting otherwise you'll have an unsightly mess

Now, this particular cake was created to surprise my friend Sharon, who you will remember from the plan that failed only a month ago - when I made her chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. This time, I was able to deliver her surprise with (almost) no hitches.. dang lab meetings running over all the time and sitting alone in the Student Center with a tiny cake in front of you :) Congrats to you for getting into VCU Med!!!!!!!!!

Since I couldn't carry the entire thing to class, I got a little gung-ho about the upcoming holiday...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Eating Out: Part Three - Tastebuds American Bistro

Dear Tastebuds,

I am in love with you. From your tiny tasters which pack a punch to your ooey-gooey bread pudding which coats my stomach with creaminess to your chocolate cake which deserves some made-up name to capture the reality of its deliciousness.

So, obviously this is not going to be the most impartial review but I can't help it, because I am in LOVE with their chef. Next time I go here, maybe I can meet him...hint hint.

Ok, thinking cap on. Review. Go.

Atmosphere: I am torn because the decor of this restaurant did not do homage to the heaven coming out of the kitchen. I think it would really do them well to add some hardwood in the eating area but overall, the place is quite welcoming - the walls are a nice red, the tablecloths white with black accents... then there's this vinyl black and white tile that just seems a little out of place. But you know what, at the end of the night I was feeling quite at home and cozy, so perhaps it's all part of a grander plan. Also, don't be discouraged by, desolate location across from a creepy looking motel and next to a liquor store. Maybe this place looks different in the daytime???

Service: I make a point to mention this because it was exceptional. Our waiter was so knowledgeable and attentive. Multiple times I noticed him wait until there was a lull in the conversation before he came over to speak with us. I never felt pushed to decide quickly and he humored me like no other when I asked for a complete run-down of the dessert menu. A group of regulars came in and it was clear they were regulars because the owner greeted them with a hearty smile and a bottle of wine. It was a tad weird since we were seated behind them and the owner never came over to ask us how the meal was...just saying.


First Course:
Acorn Squash & Goat Cheese Brulee with Salad of WheatBerries, Pears, Dried Cranberries, and Baby Greens
Duck Leek spring roll with Ginger Pear Dipping Sauce

Are you drooling yet? After reading another review of Tastebuds which tooted the duck roll, we had to try it and it was wonderful, just not for me - I can't handle deep fried. But it wasn't oily and it was definitely served to order. The dipping sauce didn't do much in my opinion, but the flavor of the roll was awesome. As a goat cheese lover, I was over-the-moon for small plate #1. I've never had wheat berry to be honest but I think I am going to start experimenting. The vinaigrette had a lovely delicate flavor with the right about of sweetness and acidity. The squash was buttery and creamy and you could tell it was a seasonal ingredient, another thing Tastebuds is known for. If this is served year-round, it's my new staple.

Second Course:
Shrimp and chili rubbed sirloin kabobs, squash with hominy, and coleslaw
Sirloin with squash risotto and green beans

Looking back, I think it would have done our pocketbooks a great deal if we had skipped the entree because we were both pretty full from the "small" plates. Ok, maybe I should just speak for myself because my babe has got about 4 stomachs. His shrimp was cooked perfectly and was a tad spicy which added some extra flavor. I think we did a trade so I could finish his leftovers of that. As for the beef, also cooked perfectly and spiced nicely. The risotto didn't knock my socks off and neither did the coleslaw for Weston. But he was in love with their hominy side dish and you really can tell that the chef uses local ingredients.

Third Course:
Dessert time!!! If you live close by, I'd say come here whenever you are craving anything particular because chances are, they've got it covered: fruit, chocolate, ice cream, etc. Tastebuds is known for their bread pudding and after sampling it for myself, I can honestly say it is the best I've ever had. Nice and crunchy on the outside and creamy and luscious on the inside - I could taste the butter. Up until this point I'd say the best bread pudding I've had was in Chicago at the Grand Luxe Cafe, if that gives you any comparison. This version was a tad more sophisticated. The other dessert we tried was their chocolate cake which was a nice large portion of basically, pure chocolate. But it didn't get old bite after bite which was a pleasant surprise.

So service and atmosphere aside (which weren't bad to begin with), Tastebuds offers superb cuisine at an affordable price, it'd say. Tips from me would be to just order small plates and if you're really eying an entree, order one and split it. Split everything. Except maybe the bread pudding. Because that, my dears, is just too good to share.

Monday, November 15, 2010

One Oven = Chicken Two Ways

As you all know by now, I do most of my cooking on the weekends so I always have something healthy ready for me when I come home starving. I've had a package of chicken thighs sitting in the freezer since September and I just feel like it's a good idea to rotate out frozen items otherwise they start to taste like...freezer crystals + (insert item name here).

I've also had a box of corn flakes hanging around and so I thought - cornflake-coated chicken. Si I mixed about 3 cups of crushed corn flakes with salt, pepper, garlic powder, a little chili powder, paprika, and turmeric. The turmeric addition I got from my mom, because when we make "coutlet," a Persian dish, we coat with a similar blend of spices.

After defrosting the thighs, I coated them with a little egg wash and then the corn flakes. I first coated with the finer crumbs so they'd stick, then re-doused in egg and covered with the bigger pieces.

I ran out of corn flakes into this process, who I just coasted the "naked" thighs with salt, pepper, and good olive oil. These pieces, I figured, would be good for sandwiches during the week.

After cooking in a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes - wait till the juices run clear when pierced with a knife, allow the chicken to cool and serve atop a bed of wheat spaghetti and some homemade pasta sauce.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Homemade Granola Bars with a Twist

I'm hooked on granola bars. Anything in bar form, really. Bar cookies and cheesecakes are particular favorites of mine. But granola bars - oh, I could eat them like candy. Which is bad. Very bad. Because many of the ones you buy at the store are full of sugar and low in fiber, which goes against the whole draw of granola bars in general; they should be energy food! Good for your body, good for your mind. Now, there are a few brands out there which are excellent sources of protein, fiber, and good-for-you fats: Larabar, Trio, and Kashi are good choices. But man are they expensive! So this weekend, when I was rummaging around trying to pack my lunches for the week, I had a brilliant idea: why not make my own?

Now, I have made granola bars before from my favorite cookbook back in Michigan and they were delicious - but I didn't have that recipe and I only had a limited amount of ingredients. Why? Because I depend on the kindness of others to take me shopping since I don't have a car and due to this crazy-mad grad program, none of us have had any time for a leisurely trip to the supermarket. Not to worry - I think the best creations come from the stuff you have on hand. There is a certain security in knowing you can make something out of nothing.

After typing "granola bars" into Google, I clicked on the first link I found which turned out to be perfect for me - I had almost everything. I got the recipe here but made a few modifications which I HIGHLY suggest. They take these bars to the next level of yum.

What you need:

  • 3 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup crushed corn flakes
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped, toasted pecans
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup - 1/3 cup chopped dark chocolate
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamon (change the amount up or down depending on how much you want to taste this)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

What You Do:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a 9x13 inch baking pan. I used a Pyrex dish and that worked really well to get the bars out.
  2. Mix all the dry ingredients, make a well in the center, and add the wet. If the mixture looks too moist, you can add some more oats or corn flakes, but keep in mind that the moist mixture will soak into the dry ingredients over time. If the mixture looks too wet, add a bit more honey. I kept adding cardamom until I could smell it well - if you add too much it overpowers the flavor and too little will just taste like nothing.
  3. Using your hands, press into the baking dish.
  4. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes in the preheated oven, until the bars begin to turn golden at the edges. Cool for 5 minutes, then cut into bars while still warm. Do not allow the bars to cool completely before cutting, or they will be too hard to cut. I cut mine into nice large squares - don't try for thin strips because the dough is a bit crumbly when warm.

Tips from the Chef:

- When doing #2 above, pour the oil into the batter first, then the honey - this makes the honey super easy to pour out and doesn't leave you with a sticky mess.

- When performing #3 above, coat your hands with Pam spray or butter - this will assure the batter doesn't stick to you!

- I let the bars cook about 40 minutes because I wanted them to be a little more golden brown.

- Allow these to cool completely before storage or they will get soggy. Wrap individually in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and place into a plastic freezer bag - now you're all set to go! A quick and healthy snack you can just grab and head out the door with. And it feels so good knowing exactly what you put in them and how good they are for you, right?

- Other tasty combos might be chocolate - with anything :) Cranberries and white chocolate, chopped dates or apricots, toasted nuts, or coconut. Whatever you like. You might add a bit of rosewater to give an extra something special if you decide on the cardamon and honey profile.

Like I said, I am completely hooked on granola bars. And now that I've found an awesome recipe, I intend to play with the multitude of flavor profiles at my disposal.

Got any favs? Send them my way!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ghanaian Hash

Word cannot describe the party in my mouth when my roommate, Roslyn, made a delicious Ghanian stew for us a while back. Oh-my-gosh it was soooo good. I have been meaning to write about it for weeks, but I wanted to give this post extra time and attention. It was amazing to watch as she took ingredients that to her were so familiar yet so foreign to me, and concocted something unlike anything I'd ever had before.

With some help from her, I was able to recall the recipe. Here's how you too, can replicate this wonderful dinner.

What you need:

seasoned salt
garlic powder
a bay leaf
1 can of crushed tomatoes
1 can of corned beef hash
curry powder
ground nutmeg
cayenne pepper
a few eggs

What to do:

Put the tomatoes and the onion in a blender, add some water, and blend into a thick mixture. Pour into a pot which has a little bit of oil at the bottom. Still and cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the spices and hash and cook for another 5-10 minutes. You use about a sprinkling of each spice - once around the pot, but you can adjust according to your preference. At the very end of the cooking process, add a few beater eggs to the mixture and break them up with a fork as they scramble. The idea here is to create a homogenous hash without too many lumps.

The first thing that surprised me was the spice factor and the way her spice mixture really complimented the plantains. You HAVE to eat this dish with plantains, nothing else will do. All you do is wait until they ripen and then boil them until they are cooked through. Don't be impatient like me, though, and let them cool a bit before eating :)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Eating Out: Part Two - Ginger Thai

Since moving to Richmond I have been on a quest to find some amazing Thai food. Unfortunately, after reading over a dozen reviews on over a dozen restaurants, there were no agreements on the "best" Thai place. So when Weston came in a few weeks ago, we did some research of our own and after much contemplation, settled on Ginger Thai in Carytown.

No pictures so sorry about that - but I promise, here is a very detailed review for you.

Atmosphere: BUSY BUSY We were waiting in the "foyer" for a good while. But the smell was awesome. If you're claustrophobic this might not be so good for you because we could literally bump elbows with the couple next to us and I definitely heard a possibly illegal conversation going on at the table to my right.

First Course:

We ordered their spring roll - not fried. It was alright - not worth $7 in my opinion, even if it came with a side of some pretty good peanut sauce. The filling was lackluster: a few mint leaves, some noodles, cabbage, and about 5 slivers of carrot. But it was enough for 2 to share.

Second Course:

Dish A - Yellow Curry:

This was wonderful, in my opinion. Chicken cooked in chili infused coconut sauce - you can't go wrong with that. The curry also had pieces of potato and carrot in it. The carrot tasted a bit off - acid-like almost and the potato seemed like it had been baked and then put in the curry, so it had a slightly hard crust on it. But the chicken was cooked well and the flavor of the sauce was very good.

Dish B - Pad Thai:

Initially I thought this was very good, too, but then I spotted a flaw that I couldn't get over... The flavor was nice - on the spicy side which both Weston and I enjoy. And I loooove it when they serve that little wedge of lime because I think it adds so much flavor. There wasn't a puddle of oil under the noodles either, which I was grateful for. So what ruined the memory? The noodles. They were brittle. I don't know if it was because they weren't cooked through all the way or maybe that was how the restaurant intended to serve them. It just didn't do it for me. But I will say this: although the ingredient usage is not perfect, Ginger Thai does deliver on flavor.

I suggest you order the Thai tea because it is really wonderful - not too sweet and not orange. The bill cost about $50 which seemed a tad high- but each entree was enough to share and we had a lot of leftovers. If you do decide to go, I'd stick to one appetizer and one entree. Then hop down the street to Bev's for a nice ice cream nightcap.

For your enjoyment and a little added extra review - earlier in the day we tried that little bakery in the Carytown shopping center near CanCan - Jean Jacques, I believe it is called. AMAZING!!! I ordered a lemon poppy seed muffin and it was perfect - I have been dreaming about them since. Just enough fat to hold a nice crumb, lemon zest throughout, and the occasional pocket of baking soda so you know it's homemade. The way people were googling over their tiramisu, I am guessing this bakery has quite the following. Weston got a strawberry danish and since he didn't offer me any I'm guessing it too, was very good. In his defense, I don't think I shared my muffin either ;) Love you, sweetie! If you're looking for a cute place for breakfast tasties or entertaining delights, I suggest you give this bakery a try.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Just Fry It

The other day my roommate had a leftover plantain and so graciously allowed me to try my hand at frying it. Now, the plantain was ripe, really ripe, so it really should have been boiled or grilled, but I wanted something crispy, so I decided to slice it up and fry it. Normally I shy away from frying things because of the amount of oil you need to use. Probably had something to do with the fact that I worry the oil will seep inside me if I even look at it. But I put all this aside because the desire for a sweet something overpowered my irrational fear of getting fat without actually ingestion. Thank you, Dr. Grider.

I couldn't help it - I had to try the plantain raw - it tasted delicious! I loved how it was a little starchy and had some bite to it. My mom and I share a weird love of under-ripe bananas and mealy nectarines.

So I filled up a deep frying pan with a inch of oil and gently plopped the slices in, being careful (and unsuccessful) to not let the oil splatter onto my skin.

Watch them carefully because they'll darken quickly. Set on a paper towel to drain any excess oil - honestly not much stays if they are allowed to crisp up. Sprinkle with salt to bring out the flavor.