Easter Recap: Better Late Than Never

We’re now closer to Cinco de Mayo than Easter, but I’m just now catching up.Some things have to be absolutely the same. My Easter basket is one of those traditions I need. During Easter my first year of college I unexpectedly received a replacement basket for Easter at my parents house! GASP! I don’t dramatically overreact too often, but that was one of them. Dad ended up on a chair or a ladder pulling baskets down until we had the right one. Phew. It was iffy.
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Another tradition inside that basket is a dark chocolate egg. I get coconut creme and Mr. J gets fudge, with our names written on top.

Easter dinner was hosted at my sis’ house. We have a fantastic meal and she’s becoming quite the chef! Check out her tablescape! She’s all about the seasonal decor. (She also loves making trifle and I’m impressed with her creativity to use the trifle dish!)
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I made a dip- more about that later.

Our first course was a Baked Potato Soup from Cooking Light. The traditional loaded potato items were on the side for a garnish which made the soup itself a bit lighter since it didn’t include cups of cheese.
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The main course was a Tuscan pork roast, zucchini and corn saute, and a sausage and sourdough stuffing.
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The pork roast had rosemary, garlic, and it was delicious. Sis didn’t like the zucchini and corn side dish, but I did so I took the leftovers. It had some vinegar and I thought it was fresh and tangy.

If Phantom approves Amrheins…

So work gives me the day off for by birthday (yes, the bday posts continue) so I spent a leisurely day off before a celebratory bday dinner with Mr. J. They day wasn’t actually very lazy since I was cleaning and prepping for the Mac & Cheese taste off.Anywho, after feeling like a 50s housewife waiting for the man to get home, we went to dinner of my choosing. I love Phantom Gourmet and had seen Amrheins and really wanted to try it. I had seen Lobster Mac & Cheese and some steaks they boasted as better than downtown’s steakhouses.
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This Southie original was full of historical charm. They have the oldest hand-carved bar in America. Since they don’t take reservations for parties fewer than 6, we took our chances. We only waited about 15-minutes…just long enough to grab a drink at that bar I was talking about!

Our waitress had an intense Boston accent which added to her charm. The wait for our meals wasn’t as charming but since it took so long, they threw in another round of drinks-on the house. The menu is pretty sizeable. I thought it was cute that they had some unexpected specials like boiled dinner.

I got the Lobster Mac & Cheese despite the fact that I’d be having the taste off the following day. Since I was privy to the sizeable portions mentioned on Phantom Gourmet, I went with the half size and it was perfect. Perfect in size, perfect in noodle texture, perfect in lobster quantity.
amrheins_lob_290_200Love love love that they garnish it with a fried lobster claw. How cool is that?! Also, I got mine without the peas. I’m pretty sure peas are the the only veggie I don’t care for.

Mr. J got the Cowboy Steak. He was going back and forth and went with this one and steak tips. The Cowboy had blue cheese and carmelized onion butter on top. Yum! He really liked it and thought it was cooked perfectly.
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When I heard his came with mixed veggies I was thinking what you are probably thinking: broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots? Nothing of the sort! The peapods, shreaded carrots, and onions looked amazing. His mashed potatoes were also, very noteworthy.

We had already thought about dessert but since the meals took so long, and we had some drinks, we decided to skip it. Since we were pleasantly full, keeping it that way was the right choice.

Outside the restaurant I lost my camera case taking a photo. I took it as a sign for a new one and everytime I see the new one I’ll remember this birthday!

P.S. Birthday meals are official concluded. I bet you wish yours was as long and delicious as mine was!

Family Birthday Dinner

I know, you’ve seen lots of my birthday celebratory meals but there are a few more to post! What can I say, birthdays are important to me and what a better way to celebrate than with friends, my Mr. J, and family?

Here’s my amazing meal with some of my favorites:

We started with stuffed mushrooms
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Then we had roast lamb, zucchini and summer squash, and a potato cake.

The lamb was really good. I can’t eat most red meat and lamb seems to be the only one that doesn’t make me sick. I need smaller portions so it just means I have to really savor each bite.

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Mum has a touch with zucchini and squash. Most other people end up with slightly mushy or a soggy mess. Hers somehow is always perfect. She baked it with a touch of marinara and cheese.

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I LOVED this. It was deceptively good. I want to make this with a bunch!

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Now, the star of our family birthdays…THE cake. This cake is amazing and my main reason for sharing this meal with you. Mum has made this cake and served it so many times we’ve lost track. It is just amazing. Without further ado, I present to you: Chocolate Ring of Coconut Fudge Cake.
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Not too many more bday meals. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I did! Next is my bday dinner out with Mr. J.

Mac & Cheese Taste-Off

The much anticipated Mac & Cheese Taste-Off finally arrived! Ok, so I was probably the most excited…but it was amazing! So good! So fun!

Birthdays are a super big deal to me. This year I had about 5 birthday celebrations. Each amazing and all involving delicious food. I decided to have a dinner party style Mac & Cheese Taste-Off at my apartment with friends.

I read about an annual mac and cheese face off on a blog I love: Wicked Good Travel & Activities and thought it was a fantastic idea. I was brainstorming taste-off ideas since the Wine Off in January.

I invited everyone to come and enjoy. They were welcome to enter one, or enjoy one of the many mac & cheeses here. We got many more than I even expected! There were 10 entries! I made 2 thinking that it would help the number of entries. Ha! My competitive and culinary inclined friends proved we didn’t need help with the entry numbers!

Mr. J made really awesome ballots with criteria including: cheesiness, noodle texture, creativity, and overall taste complete with voting bubbles and printed on orange and yellow paper. We had name cards for chefs to name their dish and let everyone know what the featured cheese is.

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Here they are:

1. Bacon & Scallion Mac & Cheese in a calzone (or outside the calzone!)
featuring: Cheddar & Cream Cheese score: 278

mac&cheese_calzone_290_200 2. Spicy Sausage Mac & Cheese
featuring: Cheddar score: 289
3. Chicken Bacon and Ranch Mac & Cheese
featuring: Cheddar, Asiago, and Monterey Jack score: 232
mac&cheese_ranch_290_200 4. Southwestern Mac & Cheese (that was mine!)
featuring: Pepper Jack & Cheddar score: 292
5. Classic Mac & Cheese (mine too!)
featuring: Gruyere & White Cheddar score: 229
mac&cheese_290_2006. Jalapeno Surprise
featuring: Kerrygold Cheddar score: 258
7. Children in India Are Starving
featuring: Gruyere score: 234
mac&cheese_india_290_2008. White Truffle Mac & Cheese
featuring: Asiago score: 284
9. Winning
featuring: Cheddar, American, Mascarpone score: 270
10. Pepper Jack Mac & Cheese
featuring: Pepper Jack & Cheddar score: 161

I was wowed! They were all soooo good. Not a bad one in the bunch! One recent Mac & Cheese I made wasn’t amazing, you may remember it here. This time I really turned it around. My Southwestern mac and cheese had ground turkey with taco seasoning, roasted red peppers, cheddar, pepper jack and taco seasoning in the cheese sauce. I took my Dad’s advice and mixed in some sour cream before it baked. My classic had orecchiette, Gruyere, Sharp White Cheddar, and breadcrumbs on top. This one was by far my favorite. I use buttermilk and I think it made a nice difference.

Tallying the scores was very hard. It was fun to have different categories with so many entries but it made scoring take a long time. We awarded prizes of grow-at-home herbs, Easy-Mac, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Annie’s Mac & Cheese, and naked mac (aka noodles). The top 3 also got fun award ribbons.

I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked but there’s always next time. I think next time I’d do it in rounds or recommend half batches to better fit them into the oven. Somebody had a great idea of bringing a crock pot to keep it hot (I should have done that)!

We brainstormed all the other ideas. 10 may have boarded on too many. Half mac & cheese and half brownies would have been a fun competition. Wings? Burgers? Pizzas? The sky is the limit of taste-offs!

There was beer, wine, champagne, and sangria (red wine, cranberry vodka, lemonade, and apples) as well as some light aps. I was really grateful that there were so many friends and so many mac & cheeses! It was a great way to celebrate 27.

Chopped at Home

I love watching Chopped not only for the food factor, but the competition aspect! I’m not always in the mood to be told how to make something on another cooking show. Plus, that 10-second countdown at the end of each round? Eeeek! It’s also fun to see where the chefs have come from and I love some of the judges.

My sis and I play chopped sometimes. It brings us back to the days of Ready-Set-Cook from ‘95. Ready Set Cook had studio audience members bring mystery ingredients to cook along side the chef.

On Chopped, there are 3 rounds: appetizer (20-minutes); entree (30-minutes); dessert (20-minutes).  Each round includes a basket of mystery ingredients which need to be included (in any amount) in the meal with any of the pantry items. We don’t always make 3 courses and we definitely don’t have a time limit.

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My ingredients:

Cannellini Beans
Zucchini
Israeli Couscous
Whole Peeled Tomatoes

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Sis’ Ingredents:

Leeks
Thin Cut Pork Chops
Spam

Our Meal:

Pork chops in mustard sauce
Couscous with spam and leeks
White bean, leeks, zucchini, and tomato hash

Directions:

Chop the leeks and bathe or salad-spin the dirt/sand out of them.
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Mix dijon mustard, chopped garlic, salt and pepper together and spread onto the pork chops while a grill pan is heating.
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Drain tomato and bean cans before dropping into a skillet. Add leeks, chopped zucchini and season generously with salt, pepper, and italian seasoning.
chopped_hash_290_200Finely chop spam and pan fry as if it were bacon.
Start cooking the couscous while adding spam and leeks. This will take about 5 minutes so set the pork chops on to grill.

The spam was totally the curve ball here. I have to say, it’s not as weird when sliced into small strips and fried until crispy. Sis and I eat our share of pork so we went with it.

The pork chops were good! I think our sauce had a nice not overpowering flavor. It was a good quick fix that will come in handy sometime in the future.
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I loved the hash. It also provided a good vehicle for leeks 2 ways. It was fresh and a nice medley.

We toasted the couscous before adding the liquid for a more nutty flavor. Spam was the salt factor and dropped leeks in as well.
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Overall, I think our meal would have scored well…it did by our critique! Sis’ idea for leeks 2 ways was a good one…it tied everything together. I ate the leftover veggie hash for lunch and it was still good. I probably wouldn’t have given much credit to canned tomatoes but it was a great variation from my usual sides.

In the past we’ve made ratatouille stuffed, pita chip crusted pork tenderloin with green beans and no-bake chocolate marshmallow cookies.

I highly recommend you try this game sometime! It’s a good challenge to use something you have on hand or to try something new…spam?

I have several of birthday meals to post soon (Figs, Amrheins, and the Mac & Cheese Taste-Off) so stay tuned!

Love-ly Potluck

My office decided to have a Valentine’s Day potluck with the theme: food we love. I made sis guess our theme for Valentine’s Day and she guessed: food that bad for your heart. Also, a fun theme…for another time.

I love breakfast so I made Ebelskiver. These stuffed pancakes are fantastic and highly portable. Potlucks are so much pressure because reheating with only a microwave and toaster oven doesn’t do everything justice. Also, since I travel to work on public transit my choices can also be limited.

These stuffed pancakes became fast favorites of ours after I gave the pan to Mr. J for his birthday. I did 2 fillings: raspberries and chocolate chips. Some other favorite fillings are: jelly, sausage, brown sugar, coconut, and peanut butter.

Generously spray pan with non-stick spray. Pour pancake batter half way, add filling ingredient and add more batter on top.
ebilskiv_choc_290_200Williams Sonoma sells fancy turners but after a $40 pan I decided we would get creative. I can whole heartedly recommend cheap bamboo skewers.
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Some other loved items at our potlucks include:

Somebody loves: Thai Noodles in Peanut Sauce with Asparagus and Cucumbers
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Somebody loves: Matzo Ball Soup
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Somebody loves: Kale Salad with Mango & Sunflower Seeds
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Somebody loves: Queso Dip
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Somebody loves: Care Packages (you can’t see the neutella brownie inside and I ate it before taking a photo)
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Some others love salad and pasta salad.

It was such a fun theme. Some of our past themes have been: picnic food; dip day; and back to school lunch food. I can’t wait for our next potluck!

Cheers to a Wine-Off

Once upon a wintery Saturday night, some friends hosted their annual Wine-off. This competition is not your average wine and cheese night.
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This is a night each couple brings their a-game in the form of an inexpensive wine ($15 or less per bottle). Each is covered and everyone drinks & scores. There were 16 entries before the crowning of the best as well as the Golden Stink Award.
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I was really looking forward to this after thoroughly enjoying it last year AND it was a fun night out after a big work event that day! I’m the wine drinker of the apartment so I pulled a wine out of my wine rack to bring. I never spend more than $15-per-bottle anyway so I was all set! I chose a Malbec, thinking it would be a crowd pleaser and would hopefully score well.Malbecs are a grape variety originally from the Bordeaux region of France but more recently grown in Argentina for this red wine. It pairs with food very well and will stand out against ordinary Merlots or Cabernet Savignons.
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We scored just above the middle of the pack. I wish we brought a chilled white wine since there were so few and after alllll the wine they were refreshing and different.

Ingredients:

friends bringing wine to your apartment
paper wine bags
scorecards
a scoring method to calculate results quickly!
appetizers
dump cups for any heavy handed pours or stinky wines

Directions:

Invite your friends to bring cheap wines to your cocktail party.
Have extra wine bags on hand to conceal the wines.
Make a score card and prepare to tally the scores at the end of the night.
Serve some simple aps.

Presto, you have a wine-off! I love opportunities to have lots of opinions and try new things!

I was so impressed with Miss M’s scorecard. They were so professional it made me anticipate a scantron machine to tally our choices! Cardstock? Bubble choices? Wow!
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Miss M & Mr. R also invited guests to submit a song to the playlist for the night. What a great idea? It was super fun to hear a wide variety and see reactions when somebody’s song came on.

It’s not too late to message your friends and have an impromptu Valentine’s Day get together, or anti-Valentine’s day bash! Careful, it is Monday. This is a great winter party.

I had a small Pumpkin Beer tasting around Thanksgiving which was a lot of fun. I’m thinking about some sort of taste-off for my birthday.

Holiday Feasting

If your holiday season was anything like mine it included goodies of all kinds, and often. Here’s a journey through the last few days of family, friends, and FOOD.

A holiday gathering with friends was made more special with delightful holiday beer. Of course they had the regulars as well but I’m a sucker for seasonal beers. I thought it was a really nice touch to have a few seasonal varieties on hand.

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Some other fun additions they served was a decadent bark. This would be a fantastic post-halloween treat as well. Bittersweet chocolate was topped with pretzels, melted red & green chocolate, and all the candy and cookies you can think of. Bittersweet chocolate was definitely necessary since milk chocolate would make it over-the-top sweet. The pretzels added a nice sweet/salty/crispy aspect.

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Lastly they served roasted chestnuts! I hadn’t ever had them but fell in love. They have a real woodsy flavor. They are meaty and substantial. A little cut on the bottom made them easy to pop right out. Check out how nicely the bowl complimented the nuts too!

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Ok, lets move on to some holiday meals. Breakfasts are my favorites. Christmas Eve was already my 2nd day of holiday celebrations with the C family and we had a crockpot scramble dish including ham, egg, cheese, and shredded potato. We also served Ebelskiver (translation: dutch filled-pancake). These are tasty and really fun. Mr. J is a master at turning them so he did the honors. We filled them with raspberries, banana, and chocolate chips. More than 3 options just gets confusing.

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The pan only allows for a few per batch but we found out the first time making them that this is probably all that we could keep up with at a time anyway. Williams Sonoma makes fancy turners for $12.95 but bamboo skewers work just fine. We kept them warm in the oven while making the rest. I’ll post again about these…they’re that good.

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After discovering a Christmas journal from 1987 we realized the R fam has been eating a traditional Christmas breakfast since at least since then. It is a casserole (to be made the night before) with rice, eggs, velveeta, ham, and asparagus. It’s delectable and nobody is ever ready for a change.

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The other benefit is that it just gets popped into the oven while gifts are in progress and nobody misses anything! We also have a partridge and a pear tree, minus the partridge. Though I’m not sure why, the top of the tree gets a sugar cube with a drop of flavored extract lit on fire for a second.

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Dinner time? There’s no set tradition with the R family so this year we had ham. Yum! Sides included the best sausage stuffing ever, creamed onions, green beans, and a baked fruit on the side.

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Check out the BLT skewers I made with Mrs. C. She brought them to church on Christmas Eve and they were such a hit. How is it that I’ve never had super thick cut bacon? I’m now enlightened. Wow. We cut one end of the grape tomato off to make it stand better.

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One last delectable thing I ate (and ate) was sis’ sticky buns. The recipe will follow soon! Hope everyone else had great meals too!

Post Thanksgiving Pumpkin Beer Taste-Off

My Thanksgiving Day was with family but my the day after was with friends. I hosted a Non-Thanksgiving Pot Luck with a pumpkin beer taste-off. It was great fun and amazing food. Here are some highlights.
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While it was a true potluck, it wasn’t until the day of that we knew who was bringing what. The challenge was to stay away from the foods we had all enjoyed the day before: no pumpkin or squash, no turkey, no cranberries.falfel_sliders_290_200
I made falafel sliders & black forest bread pudding. We also enjoyed: buffalo chicken dip, bruschetta, pizza, breadsticks, 7-layer mexican dip.

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I know, this is a lot of food for nine people.

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Dessert included: banana chocolate “ravioli”, black forest bread pudding; and turtle brownies.Our only nod to the previous day’s holiday was a pumpkin beer tasting. I seemed to track down the last pumpkin beer in all the liquor stores in Somerville, MA. Apparently it is a Halloween thing, not a fall thing. Noted for next year. Here’s how it worked.

We labeled the cups everyone could pour his/her sips from. We made a list to keep track of which was which. I thought about having everyone rank them but decided to keep it easy and just let our guests learn which were the favorites and drink the rest. Check out the variety of the beers!

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I see more taste-offs in my future. When I first had trouble finding pumpkin beer, I decided my second option was for a seasonal beer taste-off. Who knows, maybe that’ll be next!

Gobble Till You Wobble

The sides and day full of snacking is just as important as the turkey, in my opinion. Lots of my family’s dishes are years of practiced tradition. Was it already two years ago that my friends and I had a sides-only pre-thanksgiving meal? This year’s Turkey Day was a fulfilling day complete with food, family, football, and early-to-bed before Black Friday shopping.

The fam might not support both political parties, but they fully support the stuffing and cranberry parties: stuffing from the bird, or baked on the side; and jellied cranberries complete with can ripples, or real cranberries.

We had lots of choices but since my parents are empty-nesters they prefer not to have too many leftovers after filling the tupperware of those no longer under their roof. It’s such a great meal I’m tempted to have a mini turkey-day sometime later in the year…maybe just fewer sides.
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This year I cooked the turkey, well, I prepped it and put it into the oven. My mum was the one basting and taking it out at the PERFECT time. Since it didn’t have a white-pop-out-when-ready devise, Mum pulled it out at precisely the opportune time. I think it was the best turkey I’ve had in years. Yum. Dad was the carver, as per usual.

My sis and I were in charge of some mid-day snacks. We didn’t have a large group, so she made my Greek Dip (hummus, feta, veggies, and pita chips) but sorry, no photo. I make it a lot so I’m sure it’ll make an appearance later. I made puff pastry pinwheels. These are so easy and are great to make with whatever is on hand.

Puff Pastry Pinwheels
Ingredients:

-frozen puff pastry sheet, defrosted
-shredded cheddar cheese
-sliced turkey pepperoini
-1 egg, whisked

Directions:

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Lay puff pastry sheet out before layering with cheese & pepperoni. Roll up, jelly-roll style. Slice about ¼ inch thick. If making ahead of time, freeze entire roll to make for easy cutting later. Lay on greased cookie sheet and brush with egg.
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Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, or until golden brown.

I make this with whatever cheese and fillings I have. Other tried and true fillings include: pesto, mozzerella, and sundried tomato is a great filler; cheddar and bacon makes a delightful bruch addition; and feta, roasted red peppers is great too.

We had pumpkin cheesecake and blueberry bars were our dessert but since neither option was chocolate, I don’t have any photos.