Dinner at Urbana

This is quite overdue. But better late than never. I'm posting this using Blogger's "scheduling" function. I'm actually in Vegas turning 30 as you are reading this :)

A few Mondays ago I joined Annie, Amber and Colleen for dinner at Urbana. I've had drinks and pizza at Urbana with Jenn in the summer, but haven't been there for dinner before: I was excited!

Thankfully, the restaurant had a pre-fix menu, which alleviated the stress of having to choose from way too many tapas and main courses. I decided to be adventurous and try an appetizer and an entree that I've never had before.

First, we shared a complimentary basket of bread with butter: delicious! There were two types of bread, but at this point I don't remember any specifics ;)

This is a fancy shmancy cocktail Annie ordered!

My appetizer: Cassoulet with duck confit and garlic sausage. Loved the plate! Loved the presentation, and was surprised that I liked the duck. The sausage, though, was even better! Such a homey dish with such a fancy name ;)

For the entree I ordered Roasted Branzino with cauliflower , preserved lemons and capers. I had no clue what Branzino was until I asked the waiter. Turns out, it is very similar to seabass. The fish was really delicious, but I was disappointed by the cauliflower: it was hardly cooked. I'd much rather had mashed potatoes!

Here is a super cool cup and saucer Amber received when she ordered tea. Love the design of it!

And finally, dessert! Both Annie and I ordered Lemon Cheesecake with strawberry jam and mint creme fraiche. The cheesecake was light and lemony. But I wasn't a fan of the mint creme fraiche...I really only like my mint in mojitos :)

Overall, this was a great meal with fun girls. The restaurant was somewhat dark, so I'll blame the photo quality on that!


Vanilla Ice Cream + Pineapple = Ooh La La

I'm going to be MIA for a few days (Vegas trip, baby!). So in the meantime, I thought I'd post a few things for you to read in the meantime :)

Last week Jenn came over for dinner and brought vanilla ice cream. A full carton of vanilla ice cream for 4 girls. Needless to say, we did not finish the whole thing, and Jenn was generous enough to leave the remainder of the carton for me.

So I've been snacking on the ice cream: by itself, with mini chocolate chips and with strawberry granita. All good options.

On Sunday I decided to do something a bit more elaborate: Vanilla Ice Cream with Pineapple and Caramel Sauce.

brown sugar
pineapple, peeled, cored, sliced
vanilla ice cream

1. Melt the butter in a non-stick pan.
2. Saute pineapple with brown sugar until the sugar and butter form almost a caramel sauce and the pineapple has turned brown.
3. Put a few scoops of vanilla ice cream in a bowl. Top with pineapple slices and caramel sauce.
4. Enjoy.
5. Blame Jenn for leaving the ice cream at your apartment :)


Daring Bakers: Lasagna

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Ok, now that the official rules of including the above paragraph are completed, let me tell you about March challenge. We had to make lasagna with bechamel sauce, ragu, and most importantly hand-made noodles!!!

I have made fresh pasta in some of the classes at Sur La Table, but never at home. I was excited, a bit nervous, overwhelmed and needed to buy a pasta machine because there was no way I was going to roll out the pasta by hand :)

I also did not feel like eating the entire lasagna on my own, so my friends Jenn, Laura and Wendy joined me for dinner a few weeks ago.

And now to the lasagna!
Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna

For the ragu sauce I decided to come up with my own recipe using premade tomato sauce, ground beef, mushrooms, carrots, thyme and dried hot peppers.

For the bechamel sauce I followed the recipe provided, but decided not to add the nutmeg: I'm not a huge fan. Instead, I added a few pinches of chili powder. The sauce came together without a problem, but I had to add quite a bit of milk to make it thinner once I re-heated it for the use in the lasagna.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all purpose unbleached flour
2 & 2/3 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper.

And here is the pasta! It was spinach pasta! (Please click on the collage for better detail. Also, notice that I cut my finger while making the ragu, so kneading the pasta was a bit challenging. I joked with my friends that whoever finds a band aid in their piece of lasagna will win a prize. Of course it was only a joke!)

2 jumbo eggs
6 ounces frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3 & 1/2 cups all purpose unbleached flour

You basically pile your flour on a clean surface. Make a well inside of it. Drop eggs and spinach into the well and whisk the two together. Then slowly start incorporating the flour into the egg/spinach mixture. It will be a mess, but trust the process! Eventually you'll have a nice ball of dough (after at least 10 minutes of kneading!). I actually had quite a bit of flour left over...not quite sure why.

I used the manual pasta machine to stretch the dough into lasagna noodles. I then cooked it for about 2 minutes before starting to layer the lasagna.

The layers are as follows: bechamel, noodles, bechamel, ragu, Parmesan, repeat. End with noodles, bechamel, Parmesan. Bake at 350 covered for 40 minutes and then uncovered for 10. Let the lasagna sit for about 10 minutes before cutting into it.

What can I say? I was pleasantly surprised! I did not think the bechamel sauce would work in this recipe. But it totally did. The girls liked the lasagna too (and Laura ended up not even missing the ricotta!). The pasta was so insanely thin (in a good way) that it pretty much just melted in your mouth.

I have the leftover lasagna in the freezer to eat after my trip to Las Vegas.

Speaking of Vegas, when you read this post on Thursday, March 27th, I will be in Vegas celebrating my 30th birthday: the long weekend with Anna and our friend Lera! I promise to return your comments once I come back.

Can't wait to find out what challenge awaits the Daring Bakers in April!


Russian Cabbage Soup & Friends Award

In the past few months I've made several Russian dishes. Here's another one: Russian Cabbage Soup. Please understand that this is not an exact recipe: each family makes theirs differently, and each time I make it, the ingredients change depending on what I have on hand.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion (I used red), diced
1 cup sliced carrots
2 garlic cloves, sliced
10 cups liquid (you can use chicken stock, vegetable stock, beef stock or water. I used 6 cups of liquid left from cooking a brisket + 4 cups of water)
2 dried de Arbol peppers (optional)
3 potatoes (I used red), cubed
1 cabbage, sliced
salt & pepper
parsley, finely chopped
sour cream

1. In a pan heat the oil, add carrots, onions and garlic and saute for about 10 minutes.
2. In a soup pot bring the liquid to a boil, add potatoes and cook till almost tender.
3. Add carrots/onions/garlic mixture to the potatoes. Add de Arbol peppers and cabbage. Bring the soup to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.
4. Serve with parsley and sour cream (or mayonnaise).

And now for the award: Melissa from Schweet 'N Savory gave me a Friends Award! I'm really happy to pass this award to some great bloggers in no particular order:

Natasha from 5 Star Foodie
Sara from Sara's Kitchen
Lesley from Lesley...Living Life
Elra from Elra's Cooking


Save BOOBS, Win a Cookbook

Just a reminder: it's not too late to donate for a great cause and have a chance to win a cookbook! So far nfmgirl is the only one in the running!

Did I get your attention? :)

A few weeks ago I wrote that I will be walking in the 2 day Avon Breast Cancer Walk in DC the first weekend of May. The reason for this walk is to raise awareness for breast cancer and to raise money for the research. I am required to raise $1800!

With my personal contribution and the help of my friends and a few awesome food bloggers (Leslie, Paz, Fiona, Aaron) I already raised $1011.20.

Here's where I really hope you all will come in: for every $10 dollar donation on my Avon Breast Cancer Walk website, you will get one raffle ticket to win either one of the two cookbooks below (please leave a comment here and let me know which book you prefer). So if you donate $20, your chances of winning are doubled!

Every dollar helps and I really appreciate your help in these difficult times. It is all for a great cause (I don't receive a penny from this).
This contest will end April 5th.
Book #2 Food Synergy

Spicy Pork with Red Onions & Pineapple

Remember I wrote earlier about receiving a sample of dried peppers from Marx company? Over the weekend I decided to put dried de Arbol peppers to use in a Spicy Pork with Red Onions & Pineapple recipe (just like 99.9% of recipes on this blog, this was my own creation).

Ingredients (sorry, this time I don't have exact measurements)
5 dried de Arbol peppers, ground
cumin powder
coriander powder
1 pork tenderloin
2 tablespoons olive oil
red onion, thinly slice
fresh pineapple chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 400.
2. Rub the pork tenderloin with the ground de Arbol peppers, cumin and coriander powder.
3. Heat the oil in a pan, add the pork and onions. Sear the pork on both sides while sauteing the onions.
4. Add pineapple chunks.

(Click on the collage to see better details!)
5. Put the pan with pork, onions and pineapple in the oven for about 20-25 minutes (it depends on how done you want the pork to be: mine was still slightly pink in the middle).
6. Take the pan out of the oven and let the pork rest for about 10 minutes (that lets the temperature to go up by a few degrees and all the juices to settle inside the pork).
7. Slice the pork and serve garnished with red onions and pineapple on top of cous cous.

I really liked how this dish turned out: the spicy and sweet flavors mixed together well and although this was a very easy dish to make, it looked quite impressive.

What's your favorite way to make a pork tenderloin?


Breakfast of Champions

This past Saturday morning I had to get up 7 am in order to attend a 13 mile training walk for my Avon Breast Cancer Walk in May. Obviously I wasn't a happy camper about such an early wake up time, but I thought it'd be more fun to walk such a long distance with other people instead of on my own. Plus, I'd get a chance to meet Sarah, another walker I've exchanged a few emails with.

As a reward for waking up so early on a week-end, I decided to make something special for breakfast: English Muffin with Poached Egg, Avocado, Canadian Bacon & Tomato. This recipe was inspired by my two friends Laura and Annie. Laura recommended having an egg and avocado for breakfast as a good source of protein, and Annie often makes her own English muffing/egg sandwiches at work.

Ingredients and Directions (click on collage for better detail!):

1. Toast an English muffin
2. Slice 1/2 of an avocado and a tomato
3. Poach an egg (Do you know how to poach an egg? You bring water and a bit of vinegar to a simmer in a small pot...the water should be about 2 inches deep. Carefully tap an egg on the counter and then empty its contents into the water. Let the egg sit for a minute and then using a spoon start spooning hot water on top of the egg. Make sure the egg is not sticking to the bottom of the pan! After 3-5 minutes [depending on how runny you want the egg to be] remove the egg from the water and you are ready to eat!)
4. Top the bottom part of English muffin with avocado and tomato slices, then put a slice of Canadian bacon, the poached egg, and then repeat in the opposite order.
5. Place the second half of English muffin on top.

As you can see, the egg yolk will run: which is exactly how I like it :)
This was a great sandwich and gave me plenty of energy for the walk!

If you had to wake up super early on a week-end, how would you make up for that?



Score! Serious Eats chose my Mini Grape Pie as photo of the day :)


Mini Grape Pie

Yesterday I promised to blog about my grape pie. Many of you seemed to be intrigued by this idea, so I'm more than happy to share this story with you.

Like many of my culinary creations, this "recipe" came about because something else has failed: the dough for the hamentashen that I originally set out to make last Tuesday wasn't holding together. I was only able to make 4 of them and did not know what to make with the remaining dough.

That's when I decided to make a Mini Grape Pie. How did I come up with this? I decided to use the grapes because while testing one of Robyn's recipes for broiled pork & grape skewers, I've discovered how amazing grapes become once they are heated. They turn so much sweeter and literally burst once you bite into them.

I used one of my newest rectangular mini dishes from Crate & Barrel, which is luckily oven-safe to make this Mini Grape Pie.

Ingredients for the dough (adopted from Rivka's recipe)
1/3 cup butter at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 egg (I took an entire egg, whisked it with a fork and then used 1/2 of the mixture)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest 
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
1-1.5 cups flour
a bunch of red seedless grapes

(click on the image for better view!)
1. Preheat the oven to 375.
2. Cream the sugar and butter for a minute.
3. Add egg, lemon zest and vanilla. Mix together.
4. Combine dry ingredients and incorporate into the wet ingredients.
5. Once the dough is holding together, make it into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
6. Spray your baking container with oil spray (or use butter). Using 1/2 of the dough make the bottom part of the pie: I simply molded the dough to fit the shape of my dish using my fingers.
7. Put enough grapes on top of the dough to cover it.
8. Cover the grapes with the second half of the dough. Make a few slits. Bake for 20-30 minutes till golden brown.
You know what? This came out really tasty! I had it the next morning for breakfast (re-heated in the microwave) and even my friend Laura at work liked it! If only I had some vanilla ice cream....
Note that this recipe makes 1 mini pie (about 7 x 4 inches). You can double or triple the recipe to make a larger one.
Was this worth the wait?
What cooking creations have you come up with after your original idea has failed?


Hamentashen: another disaster

Last year I attempted to make hamentashen for Purim. That was before I had this food-only blog :) Oh how things have changed...or have they?

My attempt last year was rather unsuccessful: the dough pretty much melted while in the oven, although they still tasted good. But I like pretty things: and the hamentashen did not turn out pretty.

This year I decided to make hamentashen again and followed Rivka's recipe. I've met Rivka a few times and had full faith in her recipe. Because I did not feel like going grocery shopping to buy more butter, I could only make half of the recipe. I used apricot jam as the filling.

I put the dough together, left it in the refrigerator for 40 minutes as the directions specified, but when I started rolling it out, it just would not come together and kept on ripping: ugh!

I managed to make 4 hamentashen total: what a disappointment! They did taste great though.

I did not want to throw the rest of the dough away, so I made a grape pie from it. A grape pie? Say what?  :) Intriguing, right?


Horseradish Mashed Potatoes ala Paige

My friend Paige and I used to cook together while we lived in the same apartment complex. But then she decided to move back to Atlanta...what can I say? Life is not fair sometimes.

Last week I made one of Paige's "recipes": Mashed Potatoes with Horseradish!

I know it might sound a bit off, but I really hope you try it.

All you do is cook potatoes till tender (I used red skinned potatoes and did not peel them). Mash potatoes as you normally would with milk and butter, and then add horseradish to taste.

The horseradish really gives the potatoes a bit of a zing (or a lot, depending on the amount you put). You can also go completely crazy by using beet horseradish: it would give your mashed potatoes and fun pink color.

What do you add to your mashed potatoes to make them less boring?


Hot Peppers & Ragu

Last week, Justin from Marx Foods in Seattle sent me 5 different types of dried peppers to "play with." I was thrilled. And a bit scared. And had no clue what to do with them.

I also still had some ground beef in the freezer that I won from Stephane and some random vegetables: time for RAGU!

Meat and Vegetable Ragu with Panca Peppers


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 cup sliced carrots
2 cups sliced mushrooms
4 sprigs thyme
2 Dried Aji Panca Peppers, rehydrated, seeds removed and finely chopped
1 pound ground beef
26 ounce can of Four Cheese Spaghetti Sauce, or any other type of spaghetti or tomato sauce
salt and freshly ground pepper


1. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onions and garlic and saute for 3 minutes.

2. Add carrots, mushrooms and thyme and saute for about 6 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, brown the ground beef in a separate pan. Discard any of the rendered fat.

4. Add cooked beef and rehydrated peppers to the vegetable mixture. Add spaghetti sauce. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes. Adjust the seasoning.

5. Remove thyme sprigs before serving.

You can serve this ragu over pasta or rice. Or on top of mashed potatoes. Or use it in something a bit more elaborate (check back on March 27th: yes, I like to tease).

If you have any suggestions for what I can make with Dried Habanero Peppers, Dried De Arbol Peppers, Dried Tepin Peppers and Dried Aji Amarillo Peppers please let me know!!!

Potato & Celery Soup

Food is expensive. I hate wasting money. Sometimes I throw food away, which is the same as wasting money.

Some of the recipes I test for Robyn include celery. I'm not a huge fan of celery, so most of the time I throw the non-used celery stalks away. Technically it's not completely a waste because Robyn reimburses me for the groceries...but still.

This weekend I decided to use up the celery to make Potato & Celery Soup.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
6 celery stalks, peeled, chopped
4 thyme sprigs
3 red potatoes, peeled, cubed
enough water or vegetable stock to cover the vegetables
1 cup milk
sea salt & ground pepper

1. Heat oil in a large pot. Add onions and celery and saute for about 10 minutes.
2. Add potatoes, thyme sprigs and enough water/vegetable stock to cover the vegetables.
3. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat and cook until all the vegetables are completely tender.
4. Remove thyme sprigs.
5. Pure in batches until smooth.
6. Add milk and season with sea salt and ground black pepper.

You know what? I was honestly really surprised and pleased by how the soup turned out. It'd be great with some French bread...alas, I did not have any French bread.

What recipes have you made lately with food you would have otherwise thrown out?


Rice Crispy Treats at Jason's

So I came to the United States when I was 13 years old. That means I've missed out on some of your "typical" childhood memories: like watching Princess Bride, going to Disney Land, watching Sunday morning cartoons (or is it Saturday?) and making Rice Crispy Treats!

I've tried several times to watch Princess Bride, but I just don't get it. What I get, however, is the amazing taste of rice crispy treats. I've enjoyed them several times when Katie from work brought them into the office and when Jenn gave me one for Valentine's day. Last Friday, though, I finally got to see how they are made in person at Jason's wine party!

This was such a simple recipe to follow! Melt 2 sticks of butter, add 3 bags of marshmallows, mix till everything is melted. Add 12 cups of rice crispy treats. Combine.

Pour 1/2 of the mixture into 13x9 container, sprinkle with 1 cup of chocolate chips, add the 2nd half of the mixture and sprinkle with another cup of chocolate chips. Let everything set for 10 minutes. Cut into squares and enjoy.

P.S. I'm typing the recipe completely from memory (and after having a glass of wine before I began assisting Jason)...so you might want to Google a real one just to be safe :)

What are some of your favorite memories of growing up in America?


Roasted Peppers

I absolutely love roasted peppers! I use them to make sandwiches, add them to hummus, and like them on top of my pizza.

Obviously, it is very easy to simply pick up a jar of roasted peppers at the grocery store (especially since red and yellow peppers can cost around $3 each), but the process of making your own roasted peppers is actually quite fun!

I was testing a recipe using roasted peppers for Robyn Webb's upcoming vegan cookbook over the weekend and decided to take a few photos of the process.

1) Wash and dry peppers. It's best to use red, orange or yellow ones.
2) Put the peppers directly on top of your gas stove so that the flame hits them.
3) Using a pair of long tongues rotate the peppers once a side of them gets black.
4) Once the entire surface of the peppers is black, take the peppers off the flame and put them in a glass bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap.
5) Let the peppers sit in the bowl for about 10 minutes. The created steam will make it easier for you to remove the skin.
6) Let the peppers cool for an additional 10 minutes (more/less depending on how much heat your hands can handle) and rub off the black skin. You might be tempted to rinse the peppers under the water, but that would remove the smoky flavor, so please don't :)

7. Cut off the top, remove the seeds, and you are ready to add these sweet things to your next recipe.

Additional ideas for using roasted peppers: salads, sandwiches, pureed soups, antipasti plates, bruschetta.



Lunch at Zaytinya

Yesterday I met my friend Emily at Zaytinya for lunch. If you recall, over the summer I had dinner at this restaurant with Anna, Jenn and Mas. We loved the food and service, and I was looking forward to lunching at Zaytinya.

At noon, the restaurant was still pretty empty, and I was surprised when we were told we could not sit at the table of our choice because it was reserved. People reserve certain tables? I asked to have a table with as much natural light as possible because I was planning on taking pictures of the food (of course!).

The restaurant is doing a new economic stimulus promotion where for $20.09 you choose 3 mezzes and one dessert from a pre-selected list of options. Emily and I decided it was an excellent idea (otherwise I'm often overwhelmed by quite an extensive menu).

Our waitress, Christine, took our orders, brought out a bowl of olive oil (notice the Z made with vinegar! It just dawned on me that Z stands for Zaytinya), and then we received a basket of fresh and hot pita bread. We were off to a good start!

For the first round I ordered crispy fried eggplant, and Emily ordered fattoush salad. I know that usually anything fried has to be good, but the eggplant was amazing! I could have happily eaten another few slices: the eggplant was tender on the inside and perfectly crispy on the outside without being too oily. And I was glad (somewhat) I wasn't planning on kissing anyone later because the garlicky sauce was just that: garlicky (in the most perfect way possible).

Emily's fattoush was perfect.

For the second round I ordered shrimp, and Emily ordered chicken with orzo. While Emily liked her dish, I thought it was overly salty. But I did not mind, because I really liked the shrimp! Dill, mustard and lemon juice went so well with the sweetness of the shrimp. And we received a second basket of pita just in time for me to dip it into the sauce.

For the third round Emily ordered Arayes (sort of a panini with ground lamb), and I ordered salmon. Emily's food came, and it was really good: flavorful, crispy and delicious. I was still waiting on my salmon. Then, instead of salmon we received a chicken dish. We called our waitress and told her we received a wrong dish. She apologized, asked if we'd like to still keep the dish (of course!) and said salmon will be on its way shortly.

I really liked the chicken dish: especially a few tomatoes that came along with it. We finished the chicken, and the salmon was still not there. I was beginning to get a bit of deja vu of my lunch with Stacey at Oya. Except that Zaytinya took such better care of fixing their timing mistake.

Christine came over one more time and apologized that the salmon was taking such a long time. She asked if we were in a hurry, and I joked that I worked for the government, and Emily was on vacation, so we were okay. Christine then asked why I was taking photographs of the food, and I told her that I have a food blog.

Poor girl! She got really nervous, and I assured her several times she had nothing to worry about. The food was great, the service was great, and I wasn't planning on writing anything bad about the restaurant.

The salmon finally came. It was pretty good. I guess by that time I was just ready for the dessert.

Oh, and the dessert was amazing! Emily had Turkish Delight, while I had Greek Cherries and Yogurt. LOVED the presentation, and the taste was even better: a perfect way to finish our meal. And we also received coffee (for Emily) and cappuccino (for me) on the house! Jose Andres really knows how to run the place!

On top of it all, we also received 25% discount on our meal: this was way more than anyone could hope for. We tipped Christine on the full amount and left quite happy with the entire experience! I will definitely go back again.

And here are a few of my favorite photos: