Monday, February 28, 2011

Quinoa - the golden grain

Well, technically, it's a seed. A very tasty, nutty seed. And, unlike rice, kind of hard to burn and make too dry or overdress because it literally absorbs whatever you put on it.

My Aunt is very much into health foods and she made this for me when I went back to Michigan. She's always sending me the latest news on what's been shown to have the highest protein content or what's fighting cancer, etc. So after watching her prepare a yummy salad with quinoa as the star, I promised myself I'd try and find some here in Virginia. True to my word, I picked some up at Trader Joe's last week and have since been stuffing myself silly with the following recipe. It's super simple, extremely healthy, and quite addictive.

I've also included some additional ideas of things you can serve with the quinoa, but it is a wonderful light lunch or dinner by itself. The inspiration was originally a Greek themed meal, but after looking in the fridge I realized this salad brings together a traditional Persian appetizer: curly parsley, shards of feta (French), radishes, and pita. I didn't have radishes, but I think they'd add the perfect bite.

Quinoa with Cucumber, Avocado, Tomato, and Parsley

What You Need

1 avocado, cut into medium chunks
1/2 of an English Cucumber, scoop out the seeds and peel off the skin if it's too tough, diced
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half
4 oz feta cheese, cut into medium-small dices
juice of 1/2 a lemon
about 1 cup chopped curly parsley, stems removed, rinsed well
2 cloves garlic, chopped
pepper, salt
3 Tbs olive oil
2 cups cooked quinoa (so 1 cup dry - it basically doubles in size)

Cook the quinoa by adding the grains to a pot and adding twice as much water. Bring to a boil, cover, turn down the heat to a simmer, and let steam for about 15 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed. Fluff it with a fork. It should still have a little crunch to it.

Mix all the veggies in a bowl, add the herbs and dressing, then the cooked quinoa.

Eat immediately or save for leftovers - you might need to add more dressing the next day because it'll absorb overnight, most likely.

Now, you can adjust any of those amounts as needed - the salad was pretty chunky which is how I like it, but you could easily stretch your dollars by adding more quinoa. This recipe feeds about 4 people.

Serve with chicken - all I do is thaw the chicken and arrange it on a sheet pan lined with parchment or aluminum foil. The trick to not over-oiling the chicken (I HATE losing my good olive oil to the tray instead of the chicken), is to first pour the oil into a soup spoon and then use the spoon to spread the oil - this way there isn't any mess. Season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, sage, and oregano. Cook at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes for tenders and longer, maybe 30 minutes, for chicken breasts.

I served with this little yogurt dipping sauce recipe, also Persian-inspired.

Mix about 1 cup of Greek yogurt with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Chop about 1/2 a cup of curly parsley (use the rest of the bunch you used in the quinoa dish). Next, add about half a chopped cucumber and stir it all together. Serve on top of the chicken or the salad.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Giovanni's: Good Times, Good Pizza

My search for the best pizza Richmond is over...I think.

For the past 2 months I have been craving pizza. Pizza with cheese and tons of topping and good flavor and a crispy crust and flavorful sauce. Yes, it's a tall order. Too tall, so I thought. But as you know by now, Weston came in last weekend to surprise me for Valentine's Day. And I was getting ready to "go out with a friend" who had put me in charge of finding a good pizza place. After flipping through a Richmond magazine I have been saving since the summer, I decided the picture from Giovanni's looked most like what I had been craving. Since the dinner was actually a made-up story meant to lure me outside, I didn't go with my friend, but Weston and I went there for dinner that evening, instead. (Next time, Sharon, I am taking you to Kuba Kuba)

Here's me holding my new best friend: the enormo Meat Lover's pizza. The owner, John, was the nicest ever and kept asking if I was sure I wanted to order this giant pie. When I told him how badly and how long I'd looked for a pizza like the one in the picture I saw, he personally started ours. The Meat Lovers, as shown at the top, feeds probably 6 people: the slices are big and there are 12 pieces. The price is unbelievably fair: $20 when rounding UP.

Weston ordered their Sweet Tea and I got to sip a little, too - it was delish. The perfect way to wash down all the cheese and toppings. Be prepared because there's a lot of them. The crust held up nicely and the sauce had some spice to it. Now, I like my pizzas sauced lightly and Weston likes his a little heavier and we were both very happy. Our waitress was so sweet and very friendly - she asked if we wanted an edge or a middle or a bit of both - it's that kind of care that makes me know I'm going back.

The entire pie fed us for 3 meals together and two separately (I sent some home with Weston to Michigan). I was also incredibly pleased with how little oil seeped out during the reheating process - considering all the cheese. For a perfectly heated slice, preheat the oven to 350, line a pan with aluminum foil, cut your slice into dipper-sized pieces (3 inches across) and heat for about 10 minutes.

My new mission is to try as many pizza places as I can in this great city. But Giovanni's will always hold a special memory: the experience was wonderful; I just felt so happy the entire time I was there and every time I reheat a slice I get to relive an amazing evening all over again.

Monday, February 21, 2011

27 Reasons to Skip Bistro 27

Okay, maybe I am exaggerating...I couldn't think of a whole 27 without nit-picking but there were a few very important things which turned me off from this restaurant.

Let's just set the mood, shall we? With Valentine's Day fast approaching, I was pretty sad to learn that Weston definitely couldn't make it down to Richmond due to work conflicts. I mean, I am kind of in love with all things pink and red and heart shaped...especially edible things (like cupcakes!!!)...I digress. Anyway, a friend of mine asked me out for dinner Saturday night so I slapped on a smile and got ready to go. I walked outside the apartment building because she was picking me up, looked left, look right - saw my boyfriend!!! He drove 10 hours just to ask me to be his Valentine. How's that for surprise. The whole day he'd been telling me about his "trip to the grocery store" and "the bank" and it was all a rouse... sneaky sneaky. But I loved it because oh how much I missed him.

I had wanted to go to Tastebuds for Valentine's Day, before I discovered he couldn't make it, but Weston always plans his surprises to a tee and had already made reservations at a place which I was not allowed to know the name of until we got there. I was super psyched when I turned the corner and saw that we'd be trying Bistro 27.

Lo and behold, Bistro 27 is about 3 blocks from my apartment. It's pretty tiny, as are most restaurants in Richmond (except Can Can) and it was packed. I was extremely start. The restaurant is set up with tables near windows and near a mid-line divider and then there are a couple teeny tables in the center of the two - right in the aisleway , basically. These table are narrower and quite awkward. Guess where they put us. Even though there were 3 other open tables in nice locations. Weston, a former waiter, made the astute observation that all the young couples, the ones who probably wouldn't be drinking or paying top dollar, were seated in the bad seats. I'm sorry, but they really were bad - by the restrooms, in the aisle way - these seats do not a romantic evening make. But we were resigned to having a good time, especially considering the crazy-high priced menu. But we'll get there.

Let's talk about service. Insert here all synonyms for "dismissive" and "condescending." We were seated with no introduction, water was plopped in front of us, the dip on the table was not mentioned or explained, and then we waited...and waited. Finally, a sullen looking waitress stopped by and threw the menus down on the table. When I asked about cocktails, she said they didn't have any specials and walked away. I think we saw her about 3 times during the entire meal. We were never asked how the food was, never offered extra utensils when we transitioned to dessert, and never smiled at when some random guy arrived with our food, set it in front of us, and - surprise, surprise - walked away without saying anything. My lasting impressions of service: I think this about sums it up. Our waiter told us at the end of the meal, "Look at yooooou, you've cleaned your plates. Now you can have dessert." Seriously? Seriously. Yes, we are young. But we're also paying customers and deserve a little respect.

Ok, food. It was good. Didn't blow me away by any means. The bread on the table was cold and hard which meant they hadn't made it in-house or it was stale - maybe both. I ordered lobster ravioli which had a good amount of stuffing and the proportion was nice: 6 ravioli. The pricing was not: $25. Weston got scallops and shrimp with saffron ink noodles. The noodles were very good, I will say. They were cold by the time we found the waitress to ask for a spoon, though. I do need to mention that although the saffron sauce had a lot of saffron threads, it didn't taste much like saffron - I think they might have been going for quantity rather than quality of that particular ingredient. Switching gears, the shrimp were cooked well, as were the scallops, and his portion was a good sized one. The orchids on the plate were a little drooping with cream sauce are not the most appetizing. Dessert was pleasant: cheesecake with a hint of rosewater. Although, they advertised it as having a layer of pound cake, which it did not. When I asked if it was served with ice cream, I was told we'd be charged an extra dessert for changing the menu so we did without.

I am sorry to say that I have found the first restaurant in Richmond that I really did not fall in love with. I wanted to, I really did. But I suppose it is a testament to how comfortable our relationship has become that Weston and I both had an amazing time anyway. Somehow the contradiction of Bistro 27's grandiose reputation and the actual experience was comical. And a special thanks to the undergraduate couple next to us for providing the entertainment for the evening: I don't think I've ever seen such ill-mannered people in a restaurant ever.

All in all, we left full but unsatisfied. The next day, we headed straight over to Tastebuds and, as usual, had an amazing meal. Oh! And they made me that Valentine's Day cocktail, compliments of the owners.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Persian Gata Bread

Ok, every since I was born our family would drive to Toronto to see my mom's family who lives there. And this, by extrapolation, meant the following: Persian supermarkets!!!!!!!!! Now, y'all don't even know how in love I am with ethnic markets. But being half Persian, I am particularly in love with the ones of my own culture because it means I get a chance to stock up on all the things I can't get elsewhere.

It's been years since I've been to Toronto, but my mom went with her sisters about a month ago and brought me back my FAVORITE things ever: Sweet Bread. Sweet bread, as I have called it since I was about 3, is actually called "Gata" Bread, but I changed the name in my youth because, well, it tastes sweet. I like it much more than the traditional flat Persian bread with sesame seeds, but my mom strongly disagrees: everyone has their preference suppose.

Why and I bringing this up now, a month after receiving my little surprise? Well, because I wisely threw it in the freezer for a time when I was missing home and needed a sweet treat. See, Sweet Bread is kinda like gold to me...

Other amazing this to do in Toronto is hit up Lawrence street and try "Friends" Persian restaurant. They have the best Persian eggplant in the world. And if you keep driving, there is an enormous Persian supermarket (well, enormous in the ways of ethnic markets) where they make homemade Persian sandwich ice cream bars. If you've never had one, let me explain: you take two of those vanilla wafery cookies and in the center there is saffron infused ice cream with chunks of crystalized cream. It is amazing. Gosh, I'm getting hungry just thinking about it. They're easy to make, come to think of it. Yes, this is one for the blog - it's going on my list.

So what makes Gata so good: the filling! It's like marzipan, except doesn't taste like almond. But the constancy is about the same -more crumbly maybe. It's basically sugar and butter mixed and layered in between two pieces of dough, but in loaf form.'s hard to explain: here's a picture:

I found a recipe here but I haven't tried it and there's no picture, but maybe I'll try it sometime. Probs not, though, because a) I like going to Toronto to visit my family and b) it's waaaay easier to just buy about 10 loaves and freeze them till the next trip ;)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Black Sheep: through the eyes of a first-timer

My class schedule this term is, well, insane as usual. Except now, two days a week, I get out of class at 7pm instead of 2pm. Just imagine how it feels to be learning biomedical topics for 8 hours in a row- or maybe don't...The point is, a friend of mine suggested we go out for dinner after our night exam the other day and I was very excited at the prospect of spending my first school night trying the local cuisine. We decided on Black Sheep since I've been hearing left and right how good it is. I know the standard is to go there for brunch, but their dinner menu looked delicious as well, so off we went.

Let me just say, I was not exactly prepared for how cozy it was. I kind of imagined a more mainstream restaurant vibe, not a little nook with dimmed lighting and wooded benches. It was very sweet and I'd definitely suggest it as a date night spot. I was also unprepared for how small it was. Just us opening the door made the whole place cold for a few minutes. The waitresses were pretty laid back and - oh! can't forget: the salt and pepper shakers are THE CUTEST things ever.

But on to the food. I wasn't in the mood for a sandwich - I wanted something hearty and I suppose the atmosphere whet my appetite because my stomach was telling my brain to ignore the prices and go with whatever I wanted. We started by sharing the sweet potato samosas and I will say that the pastry dough was perfectly flaky and amazing. The filling had a good flavor, but I like my samosas spicy, which these were not. The kicker, though, was the apple chutney. It was like a curried applesauce and I could it it straight up any day. My friend was going to ask if we could buy it to go.

For my main course I was debating between the focaccia with goat cheese and the pot roast - until the waitress told us the special for the evening: pork chop with pumpkin and artichoke heart orzo. At $13, it really was a steal. The flavors were wonderful - the chop had an apple smoked flavor to it and the orzo, although a tad over-cooked, was sauced nicely. The pumpkin added a certain richness to it and I very much enjoyed the fact that they didn't skimp on the artichoke hearts and had taken the time to de-brine them a bit. I also ordered a side of their corn pudding. A little on the sweet side for me, and the custard had broken because there was too much liquid. I should probably mention, also, that the chop was cooked perfectly! It was still juicy and succulent, which isn't easy with pork. And the cut was nice and large with a gorgeous frenched bone.

While dining we saw one of the infamous "battleships" the place is known for. If you are unfamiliar, they are basically enormo subs. I am going back for sure to try one of those - but I need some people to join me; if interested, just write me a comment! The gentleman seated next to us ordered the pot roast so I was able to see that it looked rich and delicious with a nice hearty sauce. Their banana pudding also seemed to be quite popular, so I'll have to try that as well.

All in all, the ambiance was excellent and the food did not disappoint in neither its flavor nor its creativity. I left Black Sheep with yet another excellent restaurant to recommend to others and, for the first time since I've moved here, feeling like a local.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Homemade Everything: This You Gotta See to Believe

While on break (thank you VCU for your monstrous, rejuvenating winter breaks) Weston returned home from work positively flushed with excitement over his latest cooking idea: homemade Snickers. These things are the real deal and here is a little photo documentary...

First we made the nougat...

Foam the egg whites

Use obscene amounts of sugar...

Heat the sugar to a bubbling 230

Mix the cocoa powder with, more sugar, I believe

Gently drizzle in the boiling HOT sugar (thankfully, Weston was very careful not to burn me)
Beat until a beautiful snowy white
It gets SUPER STIFF, though!

Fold the egg white/sugar mixture into the cocoa - very difficult since the nougat is already pretty stiff at this point

Spread into a Pyrex to let harder
The recipe doesn't say this, but I buttered my palm and used my hands so it wouldn't stick

So, we only had natural Spanish peanuts, so we had to roast and shuck them ourselves

Then we layered...

First the peanuts

Then the caramel, heated in the microwave until spreadable
Finally, the chocolate and a few bits of Heath brittle to make it "Sheston approved"

You'll find the recipe for Homemade Snickers here, but it was a very laborious process with not a very satisfying result. We tried making the caramel homemade but it boiled over and didn't set properly so we went to the website and saw about 50 comments saying the same thing, so there was something wrong with it. Hence the store-bought caramels. If I were you, I'd just buy a Snickers... learn from our mistakes :)

I quite appreciated an evening spent with Weston, but it being our last night together before I returned to Virginia, I would have been happy with a take out pizza and an old movie.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pesto with a Pop!

Dear Readers,

For the longest time I thought I didn't like pesto. Perhaps because I was confused about what exactly was in it: I just felt it was so unhealthy - I mean, a little olive oil is fine, but people were telling me they used two cups worth, and I am sorry, but that does NOT sound appetizing to me. I decided that I'd have to try to make the stuff eventually, but I could do it on my terms. Here is my recipe for pesto - it's an affordable version, too, because I used walnuts instead of pine nuts. And be sure to read the "Tips" section because I've got a handy way to make the flavors pop.

What You Need

2 cups fresh basil: we got the tender, tiny-leaved type at Whole Foods. They were sooo cute...

1/4 cups nuts: walnut or pine nuts will work - and I didn't do this at the time, but I imagine toasting them would be delish

1/2 cup olive oil, plus a little more when serving/storing

salt, pepper to taste

2 cloves garlic

squirt of lemon

2 to 3 oz parmesean (a block or already grated), optional

What You Do

In a grinder, or food processor, pulse the garlic and salt to make a little paste
Add the nuts and pepper and grind them roughly (if using parmesan cheese, you can add it now)
Add the basil and lemon juice, turn the processor on, and slowly pour in the olive oil till it forms a nice emulsion - DO NOT over-process, chunks of basil are just fine.


Tips from the Chef
  • I didn't use cheese in mine and I didn't really miss it, but some people really, really enjoy cheese on their pasta, so if you want, add it to the pesto directly or grate some on top before eating
  • don't pulse the basil too much - otherwise you break down the enzymes in the leaves and you'll have a really brown-looking pesto, not a bright green
  • serve pesto over something that can grab it - like fusilli or some other swirly, ridged pasta
  • when serving, add the pesto to your cooked pasta and drizzle over a little bit more olive oil and salt - this makes the mixture pop
  • you can actually freeze pesto! just cover it with a little olive oil to retain freshness and use within 4 weeks

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Chronicle of Food in Chicago

Today let's just reminisce about the fabulous trip Weston and I took to Chicago for New Year's Eve/New Year's 2011!!!

We kicked things off with a little car snack of - get this - wild meat sausage and a Wisconsin cheddar log encrusted with cracked pepper. No, we did not buy said delicacies... they were passed on to us by my aunt who was determined that we not go hungry in the car. Thanks, Aunt Mondi!

We kicked things off with a monstrous banana split at my all-time favorite ice cream parlor, Ghirardelli. Here's a tip that I don't think enough people realize - a banana split traditionally comes with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry BUT you don't have to keep them! So at the counter I asked for the following upgrades: chocolate chip cookie dough, Rocky Road, and strawberry cheesecake. Perfetto!

Another of our favorite places to go is the Grand Luxe Cafe - a perfect spot for someone on a budget, with an uncertain-what-I-want-for-dinner appetite, and who is looking for a great atmosphere. Really, this place truly does have it all, and I'm going to break it down for you.

1) Budget: Portions here are ENORMOUS, so you'll probably come home with leftovers. Try to split an entree (pasta is an easy one) and possibly a side (salad or mashed potatoes, etc) if you don't want leftovers. You'll want to save room for dessert, so ask the waiter to box half your portion before they bring it to the table (this will stop you from over-eating), then you can eat your dessert with a little less guilt...

2) Variety: Here is where the restaurant can be a tad daunting - the menu is pages and pages long. I would say take your time and read it over. The menu is online, too, I believe, so you can look at it beforehand if you are really serious about not missing your options. But their Max Burger is always a standard for us, as is their salmon two ways with mashed sweet and regular potatoes. I've had the pot pie before, but it was a bit too soupy for me on the inside. Their pastas are probably the best deal for the amount you get - about 3 healthy servings worth. As I said, the desserts are where the restaurant really shows it's stuff. Everything is good. Trust me. My personal favorites are the Molten Chocolate Cake (it really does seem to gush with chocolate lava) and the Sticky Bun Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce - made to order. The 7 layer chocolate cake, I will say, needs to be warmed up a little because it comes from the fridge, but that's the only possible not- great thing I can say.

This is the Max Burger...told you it's amazing


I asked for a taste of their banana pudding parfait and they made me a mini one - too cute :)

and finally...

Sticky Bun Bread Pudding!!!!

Lastly, atmosphere: Grand Luxe is a chain, but don't let that set you off. I believe it has ties with the Cheesecake Factory. Actually, I know because my mom, ever the interior designer (not professionally, but she should be) asked about the decor and they told us that the two restaurants are sisters. Big, over-the-top golden swirls line the balusters, the comfy seats are covered with plush velvet, and gorgeous sconces hang from the ceilings. It's really a lot to take in. Ask for a window seat, too, if you want to make the trip worth it - especially at night - because then you can see the city from above and NOT pay a pretty penny for it.

Now, no pictures are available for the next place I want to mention because, well, I was having such a good time that I didn't take any. It's called Mercat al la Planxa ( and it's Iron Chef Garces's restaurant. They serve tapas here, but believe me, if you order 6 plates for two people, you'll be pleasantly plump. Eight and you'll be busting. We chose 8 and could barely walk home we were so full. Even Weston, the man of many stomachs... But in terms of quality, the restaurant lived up to it's name. It's pricey for sure, but for a special occasion, worth it. We made it a point to try things we knew we couldn't make at home or couldn't normally afford: things like homemade saffron noodles with calamari and muscles, white anchovy and pine nut flatbread, and honey glazed pork belly. If you want a quiet atmosphere, this is probably not for you because things were hopping and we were sitting really close to the people next to us. But we like that sort of craziness and I for one, was happy to be able to ring in the New Year in such wonderful company.

So there you have it. A little travel through one of my all-time favorite cities. If there are any places you like, please share because I'd love to try them!!!