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Banana Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream

April 18, 2014

Now that we have an ice cream maker at home, I feel a bit paralyzed when it comes to what kind of ice cream I should make.  Before we bought our ice cream maker, I always had visions in my head of all these crazy, weird, wacky and wonderful ice cream flavors I could come up with to make at home so we’d always have homemade ice cream on hand.  For 2 years, my husband heard me say things like, “…if we had our own ice cream maker, I would…”  And now that we’ve got one, I’m feeling the pressure to come up with something different and unique and out of the ordinary from what you could buy at the store.  Luckily, one weekend as I contemplated what my next brilliant ice cream flavor should be, an idea popped into my head.  I took a combination of something I really like, a combination of something my husband really likes and experimented to see if I could come up with something that would really work.  The result: banana peanut butter cup ice cream!  I’m the banana lover, my husband loves peanut butter.  Add in a bit of chocolate and we’re both happy.  So, I had to figure out how to combine a peanut butter ice cream base and a banana ice cream base and put it all together to create something edible.

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The ingredients were numerous.  The banana base required bananas, lemon juice, honey and milk.  The ice cream base itself required granulated sugar, heavy whipping cream, milk, eggs and pure vanilla extract.  Add in a little bit of peanut butter and some mini chocolate chips, and we’re ready to put it all together.

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Start by putting together the banana base for the banana ice cream.  Start with 2-3 ripe bananas.  This is easiest to do if the bananas are frozen in the freezer for a few hours, or overnight.  The cold bananas thicken up faster to create ice cream, and when you throw the bananas into the food processor the solidity in the texture of the bananas will help it break down a lot easier.  Take frozen bananas and cut them into slices a couple of inches thick.  This is just to help out the food processor.  Throw the bananas into the food processor.  Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the banana slices.  This will keep the bananas from turning brown and subsequently your ice cream base from turning brown.

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For a little bit of sweetness add a tablespoon or so of honey.  The honey will help extract the natural sweetness of the bananas as well.

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Start the food processor and allow it to breakdown the frozen banana slices.  Blend until you basically have nothing left but this glob of mashed banana.  Then pour 1 cup of whole milk directly into the food processor while it’s still going.  This will help to liquefy your mashed bananas.

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What you end up with is a very thick, white-yellow mashed banana mixture.  Set that aside while you work on the rest of the ice cream base.

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In a saucepan on the stove, add one cup of heavy whipping cream and half a cup of granulated white sugar.  You won’t need as much sugar in the banana peanut butter ice cream base as you would in your vanilla ice cream base.  And remember you’ve already got natural sweetness from the banana and the tablespoon or so of honey you added to the mashed bananas to create the sweetness in the ice cream.  Throw in a pinch of salt as well.  Heat the stove to medium-high heat and allow the sugar to fully dissolve into the heavy cream.  Don’t allow the heavy cream to boil.

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Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer, add in four egg yolks.  Beat the egg yolks until they are fluffy and have become a pale yellow color.

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As the cream and sugar mixture begins to heat up, pour the mashed bananas and milk mixture that you had blended together previously directly into the saucepan.  You’re now adding the banana flavor into the ice cream base.  Also add in one cup of creamy peanut butter.  The heat from the stove will dissolve the peanut butter and this adds the peanut butter flavor into the banana-flavored ice cream base.  When this mixture begins to simmer and bubble along the edges, pour 1/3 of the ice cream base slowly into the bowl of the stand mixer while it is still on so that the ice cream base tempers the egg yolks.  Mix the egg yolks until they come up to temperature and you can pour the entire mixture from the bowl of the stand mixer directly back into the saucepan.  The eggs give the ice cream that thick custard texture.

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Once everything is back in the saucepan, allow the entire saucepan to heat up again.  Continue to stir the mixture and you’ll see it start to thicken.  When the mixture in the saucepan is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and have the edges not run after you run your finger down the back of that spoon, your ice cream mixture is thick enough and you can turn off the heat.  Due to the bananas and the peanut butter, this ice cream base will thicken quickly.

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In a separate glass bowl set aside and sitting in an ice bath, pour one cup of heavy whipping cream.  Using a fine mesh sieve, pour the mixture from the saucepan directly through the sieve and into the glass bowl.  The ice bath will stop the cooking process.  Once you’ve strained the entire contents of the sauce pan into the glass bowl, use a spatula and stir to incorporate the cup of heavy whipping cream you had inside the bowl.

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When you have a uniform ice cream base in the glass bowl, allow it to cool for a bit sitting out on the counter.  Add in a teaspoon or so of pure vanilla extract.  As this isn’t a vanilla ice cream, it’s not necessary to add in as much pure vanilla extract, but you want a little bit to give it that aroma and hint of vanilla.

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Stir in the vanilla and cover the banana peanut butter ice cream you’ve made with plastic wrap.  Push the plastic wrap down so it’s sitting right on the cream mixture.  This is done so that the cream mixture doesn’t form a “skin” while it’s chilling in the refrigerator.  The cream mixture must chill completely in the refrigerator overnight.  No cheating or else your ice cream won’t turn out very well.

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Once the banana-peanut butter-flavored ice cream base has chilled completely, you can pour it directly into your ice cream mixer according to your mixer’s instructions.  The mixture should be pretty thick to begin with and the ice cream maker should make your ice cream start to freeze and almost double in volume.  It generally takes 15-20 minutes for your ice cream base to become the consistency of soft serve ice cream.

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During the last 5 minutes of the mixing process, you can add about half a cup of miniature chocolate chips right into the mixer.  You want to add the chocolate chips at the end when the mixture has pretty much become ice cream so that the chocolate chips don’t just sink down into the bottom of the mixer in a pool of chocolate chips but rather when the mixture is thick so that the chocolate chips can get distributed through the ice cream.

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When the ice cream maker has done its job, turn it off and start scooping the ice cream into air tight containers that you’ll transfer to the freezer so that the ice cream can harden.  If you don’t feel like there are enough miniature chocolate chips in your ice cream, you can add them as you scoop the ice cream into your quart containers.  Since the ice cream is still soft enough, just slowly add in the chocolate chips and use a spoon to mix and incorporate them into the ice cream.

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As soon as the quart container of ice cream is packed, cover it and put it straight into the freezer.  You’re going to want to allow the ice cream to set up for at least 2-3 hours in the freezer.  When the proper amount of time has passed, you’ll be able to use your ice cream scooper to scoop out large spoonfuls of delicious banana peanut butter cup ice cream.  Wow, that’s a mouthful.  I scooped mine into a small glass bowl, topped it with some whipped cream, sprinkled a few more miniature chocolate chips and draped a few banana slices.  This way, when you serve it, the person you’re serving it to has an idea as to what they are about to enjoy before they even take a bite of our concoction.

When I first told my husband I was making banana peanut butter cup ice cream, he was skeptical.  I’m sure in his mind, he was wondering why I couldn’t just make peanut butter cup ice cream and why I had to inject bananas into everything I make.  But, let me tell you, after he had his first spoonful of this ice cream he looked and me and said, “whoa!  This is really good, like really good.  This is ice cream shop quality.”  He said he could definitely taste the subtle banana flavor and you could clearly taste the peanut butter, and having the chocolate chips sprinkled throughout made it reminiscent of a peanut butter cup.  He liked the fact that of the 3 different competing flavors they each equally played a part in the ice cream and no one flavor dominated the other flavors.  He loved my ice cream concoction so much he pretty much was the one to eat the entire batch of ice cream that I made.  I think I’ll have to make more of this!

Napa Valley Grille

April 14, 2014

The beginning of the year means tax season for my husband.  My husband works as an accountant at a small CPA firm and tax season means one of the busiest times of the year.  For me, this means my husband works late every night and every weekend, so finding quality time together during this time of year can be difficult.  Finding time to spend with others is nearly impossible.  However, sometimes exceptions need to be made.  For instance, my husband’s aunt and uncle called us up one weekend while they were passing through LA during a West Coast-getaway-from-the-brutal-Minnesota-winter-trip.  Luckily, they were in town on a Sunday, the one day of the week my husband has off of work, so the timing worked out so that we could all get together and catch up over dinner.  As we live in LA and they were just visiting, they told us to choose the restaurant.  Being a couple who enjoys a good glass of wine, and were in fact, on their way up to California’s wine country and some winery tours, my husband decided to choose a restaurant that I’d never been to, but that would satisfy his aunt and uncle, Napa Valley Grille.

Located in Westwood, California, I remember passing by this restaurant numerous times while I was a student at UCLA.  In fact, I’ve eaten at so many of the restaurants in the neighborhood, but I’ve never actually dined at Napa Valley Grille.  Owing to its name, the décor of the restaurant feels like you’ve been transported to a nice wine bar and restaurant that you’d find in Napa Valley.  There’s a terrific bar with an extensive wine list, a small, but intimate dining room with plenty of private nooks and crannies, and a beautiful outdoor porch with intimate lighting and vines running all through the area creating a perfect setting for outdoor dining during a warm summer evening.

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To start off our meal, we were treated to a plate of the restaurant’s house bread.  In this case, it was gorgeous focaccia bread baked with some type of cheese, a few chili flakes, some fresh herbs, and thinly sliced tomatoes and served along side a dipping sauce made of extra virgin olive oil and some sort of tapenade.  My husband’s uncle, who it’s been told has never met bread he never liked, really enjoyed this focaccia.  I admit that when I first saw the chili flakes on the focaccia bread, I was a bit off put and disappointed fearing that the bread would be too spicy for my taste buds.  But, I was quite surprised by how tasty the bread actually was.  Dipping it in the great olive oil and tapenade mixture, it was perfect.  After we devoured the first plate of bread brought to the table, we couldn’t resist when they asked us if we’d like more bread, so we took a second helping!

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As an appetizer, the braised pear and prosciutto dish really caught my eye.  I’m a huge lover of prosciutto so that’s what I generally tend to lean towards, but I was really intrigued by the braised pear.  It sounded like such a terrific combination.  The braised pear and prosciutto was served with fresh burrata cheese, a balsamic reduction, extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with grey salt.  Now, who could say no to fresh burrata cheese?  If’ you’ve never tried it before, it’s amazing.  It’s fresh mozzarella that is pulled and stuffed in the center with a mixture of cream and more mozzarella.  It creates such a creamy and luscious cheese and it’s sweetness from the cream goes so well with the prosciutto.  The braised pears were perfectly sweet and soft.  Taking a forkful of some of the pear with a bit of prosciutto and some burrata and swirling it on the plate to get in a bit of the balsamic and extra virgin olive oil was just fantastic.  What a terrific forkful of food full of texture and richness and sweet and a bit of acidic bite.  And finishing off the dish with a sprinkling of grey salt was ingenious.  Just enough grey salt to cut through some of the sweetness of the dish.  A beautiful start to the meal.

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My husband and my aunt opted to start their meal with a salad that the waiter said the restaurant was known for, their kale chopped salad.  The salad came with quinoa, toasted almonds, parmesan, plump raisins and a lemon-parmesan vinaigrette.  Admittedly, this picture is a poor representation of how superb the salad tasted.  The greens were a mix of chopped fresh kale and romaine lettuce.  One bite of the salad and my husband’s uncle said this was the best kale he’d ever eaten.  In fact, he mentioned that if he all kale tasted like this, he probably wouldn’t have a dislike for kale.  I had to agree.  The kale was spectacular without the bitter notes that are often associated with kale.  The lemon-parmesan vinaigrette was perfect, the salty and the acidic from the lemon and the parmesan was a perfect balance for the kale and romaine.  This was also the first time I’d ever had quinoa and my husband and I agreed that it wasn’t so bad.  The toasted almonds provided for a nice crunch and texture to the salad.  I can definitely see why the waiter strongly recommended we try this salad.

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For his entrée, my husband’s uncle chose the simply grilled pacific swordfish with ginger port reduction.  My husband’s uncle had mentioned that of all the different varieties of fish, swordfish was his favorite, and the simply grilled version here at Napa Valley Grille didn’t disappoint him at all.  He said it was perfectly cooked and the ginger port reduction went really well with the white meat of the swordfish.  My husband’s aunt had to agree that the swordfish was pretty darn tasty.  This was exactly what he was looking for when he ordered swordfish.

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My husband also went the seafood route and ordered the restaurant’s simply grilled 14 oz branzino cooked in a ponzu sauce.  The waiter had described the fish as having been marinated and roasted in the ponzu sauce so that the flaky white fish meat would absorb the wonderful acidic ponzu sauce, then the fish was simply grilled on the outside so that the skin was crispy but the meat inside was tender and juice from head to tail.  And it literally was head to tail as my husband received an entire branzino, not just a filet, but the whole fish (minus the head).  Squeeze a little lemon juice over the fish and my husband was in love.  Perfectly grilled fish with a nice crispy skin on the outside and perfectly juicy and tender flaky, white fish meat on the inside.  He said it was perfectly cooked and done simply, the way he preferred.

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My husband’s aunt ordered another recommended dish from the waiter and one I seriously debated ordering, the natural grilled pork chop served with whole grain mustard rub, fall squash gratin, caramelized pears and bourbon jus.  Wow, just reading that description is making my mouth water!  The pork chop that came to the table was huge!  Absolutely the biggest pork chop I’ve ever seen before.  My husband’s aunt said that the pork chop was perfectly cooked and tasted phenomenal.  She loved the flavors of the caramelized pears and really liked the fall squash gratin.  The bourbon jus is what sent this dish over the top.  I think perhaps my husband’s aunt surprised herself by finishing off her pork chop.  It was that good.

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For my entrée, I ordered the beer braised short rib.  I was a bit unsure at first of the dish because I wasn’t sure how much of the beer and alcohol I would be able to taste in the dish, but my husband said I should expand my horizons and try something new.  So, I went with this dish and I’m so glad that I did.  The short rib was served over creamy parmesan polenta, roasted tomatoes, spinach and braising jus.  I couldn’t believe the size of the short rib when it came out to the table.  I thought it would be a few small short ribs, not one huge short rib.  The rib meat was so tender, it just fell apart.  The flavor of the meat was spectacular and you shouldn’t taste the alcohol at all.  The combination of the braising jus and the creamy parmesan polenta was spectacular.  I’m glad the restaurant went with polenta rather than the traditional mashed potatoes you might expect.  The flavor of the char of the roasted tomatoes and the spinach was fantastic and the acidity really helped to cut through sweetness of the jus and the polenta.  This dish was fresh and fantastic and I’d order it again in a heartbeat.

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Dessert was a no-brainer for me, and since my husband and I were both stuffed, we actually decided to share a dessert.  Turns out, my husband’s aunt and uncle had the same idea and they also decided to share a dessert.  Guess what?  We both decided on the same dessert, a piece of tiramisu!  It’s hard for me to pass up tiramisu as I love the flavor of the espresso and the lady fingers and the mascarpone cheese!  At Napa Valley Grille, their tiramisu is homemade and served with fresh berries and an espresso crème anglaise.  Now that was interesting as I’d really only ever seen a vanilla crème anglaise before.  I’m not sure if I’d exactly call what was served a crème anglaise as much as an espresso syrup, but whatever it was, it was delicious.  The tiramisu here was light and fluffy and airy and not thick and heavy as sometimes tiramisu can be with all of its ingredients.  It was almost like eating a whipped mousse cake rather than a tiramisu, except that it had all of the flavors of a tiramisu.  It was a terrific ending to our wonderful meal.

It was great that my husband was able to get away from the demands of the working world for a bit and take a night out to spend with his aunt and uncle.  It was great seeing them as we don’t get to spend much time together seeing as we live on the other side of the country from one another.  Napa Valley Grille turned out to be a great restaurant choice for the four of us.  The food was superb, of that we could all agree.  The service was great, and we were even greeted by the Executive Chef at the end of the night.  We all walked out of the restaurant having filled our stomachs with good food, a few laughs, lots of smiles and terrific company.  All in all, I think I’m going to have to come back to Napa Valley Grille in the future.

Living The Suite Life (Again!)

April 9, 2014

It’s always nice when your husband invites you to a company function of his and that function happens to be access to a luxury suite at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to see a hockey game!  Way back at the end of 2011, we had our first opportunity to attend a Los Angeles Kings game from a luxury suite and live it up with all of the perks and amenities that come from being in a luxury suite.  It was such a fun experience, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity when it came around again!  And being that the event we were watching was a hockey game made it all the much better since my husband and I are both huge hockey fans.  For the game this time around, it was the Los Angeles Kings versus the Washington Capitals.  While I’ve seen the Kings play in person numerous times, I’d never seen the Washington Capitals before and it was made all the more special by the fact that the Capitals boast one of the NHL’s most exciting players in Alexander Ovechkin.  What more can you ask for than a night of good fun with great company and good food!

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When we arrived at Staples Center, the crowed was pumped for the game!  Kings fans, and some Capital fans, were streaming in through the doors ready for a good night of hockey action.  Sadly, I almost didn’t even make the game myself due to work obligations!  I was bummed at first when I found out that I might not make this event as I had been so looking forward to it since we had such a good time in the Fall of 2011 when I got to experience a luxury suite for the first time.  Luckily, at the last minute I was released from my work obligation and my husband and I made it to Staples Center just before they sang the National Anthems before the drop of the puck!  And boy was I glad I was able to make for this game as it was a blast!

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First off, watching a game from a luxury suite provides such an amazing view.  It makes you feel spoiled, like it’s really the only way to watch a sporting event. You’ve got your own private box with plush comfortable and private seats, and if you’re not too interested on what’s going on on the court, there’s always a bar top with stools or comfy couches in front a flat screen tv to enjoy. And of course, there’s the food.  Can’t forget the food!

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Let’s start with the most popular food item that was available for us in our suite, grilled chicken and shrimp skewers with a red cabbage slaw. They were so popular I never got my hands on the shrimp skewers.  But, I did try the chicken skewer and thought it was really tasty, albeit with a bit of a spice kick to it.  I wasn’t quite sure what kind of marinade was used, but it packed a bit of heat!

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Served with the skewers was a side of fresh mango salsa.  A bit of fresh mango, some thin-sliced red onions, a bit of cilantro and a whole lot of flavor. Everyone loved the skewers and the side of mango salsa.  By the end of the first period the entire plate of skewers had been completely devoured as had the mango salsa!

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Comfort food and finger foods go hand in hand with sporting events.  Something you can easily dish up, that’s tasty, and is easy to chow down on while you’re watching the game.  So, what are we served?  Chicken drummettes and wings to chomp on.  Good old-fashioned finger-licking-good food.  And the comfort food offering was elbow macaroni served in a cheesy, alfredo sauce with fresh sautéed spinach.  Cheesy goodness and chicken wings, that’s enough to fill anyone up.

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My favorite food offering of the night was really tasty chicken and beef fajitas with sautéed multicolored peppers and onions.  The fajita seasoning was really good with a bit of a kick.  The fajitas were served with warm flour tortillas, salsa and sour cream.  These bad boys were so yummy that I had to sneak back for seconds.  I couldn’t help myself.

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Another favorite of all of us in the suite that night was the sushi and sashimi platter!  Various types of fresh fish from salmon to tuna to yellowtail sashimi, plus some cut sushi rolls all served with a side of wasabi and pickled ginger along with soy sauce to enjoy for one and all. You can bet this was a big hit and another dish that disappeared by the end of the night!

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And then for those of us who were looking for a bit of an after dinner treat, or just a healthier snack offering, there was a fresh fruit plate.  Grapes, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and fresh-cut mango, watermelon, pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe and even star fruit.  I can’t even remember the last time I saw start fruit!

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Let’s not forget the drinks!  Hard to enjoy a night at any sporting event without some drinks to quench your parched throat from all the cheering you do.  There was a refrigerator filled with the tamer drinks for those of us that don’t drink.  Sodas, ginger ale, bottled water.  All thirst quenching.

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Then there was another refrigerator filled with chilled alcoholic drinks. This was a favorite amongst many in the suite.  Various cold beers and even a bottle of champagne.

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But, when you watch any sporting event at Staples Center, the highlight of the night has to be when the knock comes on the door signaling that the dessert cart has come to pay you a visit!  The dessert cart is literally what it sounds like, a cart that is filled to the brim with various desserts.  Desserts to tempt all palettes, even the most discerning ones.

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For those trying to convince themselves that there are such things as a healthier dessert option, try your hand at this six layer carrot cake. Sinful!  There were also bags of gummy bears and M&M’s.  And that bottle you see there is for mini hollowed out chocolate cups that could be filled with dessert liquors such amaretto and Bailey’s for a sweet after dinner chocolate shot.  A few in our group went for those!

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There was this beautiful peanut butter chocolate stack cake.  I was really tempted to go for a piece of this cake.  Peanut butter and chocolate is such a beautiful combination.  The dessert cart also had a refrigerated unit that carried ice cream that could be scooped to make an ice cream sundae with all of the fixings of chocolate sauce, butterscotch, whip cream, nuts and maraschino cherries.

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And what about the gimme s’more cake?  That looked really appetizing as well. And do you spy those huge caramel apples and caramel apples with nuts?  A few people in our group opted for the apples, which one of the people operating the cart cut up in pieces with ease.  Those looked delectable.  How about the toffee crunch brownie bar?  I think if I could have, I would have wanted one of everything.  Rockslide brownie bar was also quite popular as was the delicious looking luscious lemon bar.

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But ultimately, I asked for a piece of the root beer float cake a la mode. Come now, I can’t say no to ice cream!  I’d never even heard of a root beer float cake before, nor had I ever thought of that flavor combination for cake.  And I love root beer floats, so it’s only natural that I’d want to give this cake a try.  Boy, oh boy, this cake didn’t disappoint in the least.  The first bite of cake and it tasted exactly like a root beer float.  I don’t even know how they did it but I was blown away.  I made my husband taste the cake and he said “whoa!” after one bite, so he could obviously taste it as well.  I’m so glad I chose the root beer float cake as it was the perfect selection for me.

While I sat and enjoyed the game from the luxury suite we were so lucky to have for the evening, I contemplated what it would be like to live the suite life all the time!  Once you’ve enjoyed a sporting event from a luxury suite, it spoils you from really getting the full experience when you just show up to a game and have normal seats like everyone else.  If only I could always live the suite life.  Getting the opportunity to enjoy every now and then is better than not enjoying it at all.  The food, the game, the company, it was a fun night had by all!

Crock Pot Chicken Teriyaki

April 1, 2014

I’ve been looking for more easy-to-make recipes for dinner.  It’s so difficult sometimes when you’re working so much to come home and throw together a meal without slaving away in the kitchen for hours.  What I want to come up with is several different dishes that can quickly and easily be made using the freezer and the crock pot.  By that, I mean being able to prep dishes and have them all ready with all of the ingredients thrown into a freezer bag and frozen until the night before they are to be used.  At which point, you’d take the freezer bag out of the freezer and into the refrigerator to allow the ingredients in the bag to thaw.  In the morning, you’d simply throw the ingredients into the crock pot, set the timer and walk out of the house.  Once you came home, dinner would be pretty much done and you could almost serve it directly from the crock pot to the plate.  Of course, before I go around making all these freezer to crock pot dishes, I need to know that they’ll be good, so we’ve got to test them out and see if they pass the test.

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The first of these potential freezer dishes is crock pot chicken teriyaki.  I’ve seen the idea for this dish floated around a bit on Pinterest and it’s always looked so easy to make that I decided to give it a whirl myself.  First things first, we’ve got to make the teriyaki sauce for the chicken.  This is the sauce that chicken will sit in while it’s cooking away in the crockpot, and then later, the sauce will be cooked on the stove top and turned into teriyaki sauce to top the chicken.  To make the teriyaki sauce, you’ll need: half an onion, garlic, fresh ginger, soy sauce, honey, rice wine vinegar, cracked black pepper and 3 ingredients not shown in this picture: brown sugar, sesame oil, and a little bit of liquid smoke.

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Start by finely dicing half and onion.   You want the onion finely chopped so that it breaks down when in the crockpot.  The recipe I was loosely following called for 2 cloves of garlic.  However, you don’t know me if you think 2 cloves of garlic are nearly enough.  My husband and I love our garlic, so I decided to go with about 6 cloves of garlic finely minced.  The garlic and the onion should be thrown into a small mixing bowl.

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Next comes fresh ginger.  Using fresh ginger makes a huge difference, and when you come home at night after having let the crockpot do it’s thing, its the wonderful aroma of fresh ginger that you’ll really smell when you open up the door.  Peel an arm of fresh ginger and mince it up to about the same size you minced the garlic.  You’ll need a couple of tablespoons of ginger.

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The ginger goes into the same small mixing bowl as the onions and the garlic.  Now it’s time to add in about 2 tablespoons of brown sugar.  I just eyeballed it.  The molasses in the brown sugar really helps to bring the teriyaki sauce together and will be great when you boil it at the end of the cooking process to make your sauce for the chicken.  Add the brown sugar right into the small mixing bowl.

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It’s now time for the liquid ingredients.  Start with 1/2 cup of soy sauce.  Any kind of soy sauce works here.  I only had regular soy sauce on hand, but less sodium soy sauce would work just as fine.  Add the soy sauce into the small mixing bowl.

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Measure out 1/4 cup of rice wine vinegar.  Pour the vinegar into the bowl as well.  Remember, rice wine vinegar is more sweet than it is pungent.  It adds a level of sweetness to the sauce and not the acidity of regular white vinegar.  Add in some fresh cracked black pepper as well.  We love the taste of black pepper, so I added about a tablespoon, but you can go with a teaspoon or half a teaspoon.  Also, if you have sesame oil, add in just a little bit of sesame oil, about a teaspoon.  A little bit goes a long way.  And finally, add in about 2 drops of liquid smoke.  The liquid smoke just adds an aroma of smokiness to the dish and gives it a background note of smoke.

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Finally, add in 1/2 cup of honey.  Honey is an all-natural sweetener for the teriyaki sauce.  Remember, teriyaki is as much salty as it is sweet as it is tangy.  The  honey helps to emulsify the sauce and bring it all together and adds a floral sweetness to it.

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When all of the ingredients are in the small mixing bowl, go ahead and whisk it all together in order to incorporate all of the ingredients.  It may seem like a lot of onions, but don’t worry, the majority of them will disintegrate and break down in the crockpot.  This is the magic sauce that flavors and cooks the chicken and then eventually becomes teriyaki sauce to spoon over the chicken.

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Now it’s time for the crockpot to do all of the work.  In the bottom of the crockpot, lay out 2 chicken breasts in a single layer.  By the way, these slow cooker liners are amazing for crockpot cooking, if you haven’t already discovered them, especially for a dish like this where you’ll be using the leftover sauce to make thick teriyaki sauce.  It’s so easy to lift the bag out of the crockpot, take the leftover sauce and pour it into a saucepan.  Then there’s no mess or fuss with your crockpot.

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The final step is to take the teriyaki marinade that you just created and pour it right over the chicken breasts.  Simple and easy, and now you’re done.  The crock pot does all of the work.  Set the timer on your cock pot to 5 hours on high.  Let the crock pot do it’s thing.  Don’t cheat, don’t peak.  After a few hours, your house will just smell amazing from the marinade sauce as it bubbles away.

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After 5 hours, when you lift the lid off the crockpot, this is what you’re left with.  You’ll see that the minced onions have all but dissolved and those that haven’t have caramelized.  The chicken has a lovely brown color because the marinade has soaked into the chicken meat.  Take the chicken out of the crockpot with a slotted spoon or thongs and transfer it to a bowl.  You’ll notice as you try to pick up the chicken that it pretty much falls apart in the thongs.  After 5 hours of cooking, it is so tender it just falls apart.  That’s when you know you’ve done something good.

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Take 2 forks, and shred the chicken you’ve just removed.  It literally should fall apart as soon as you put a fork through it.  Once it’s all shredded, the chicken is done.  Taste it, isn’t it amazing?  That marinade sauce has really done its magic.

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Now, gather up the sauce that remains in the crockpot and pour it into a saucepan.  Turn the stove on medium-high heat.  You’ll see all the wonderful bits of garlic and onion and ginger that remain from the marinade.  That’s terrific, you want that to bring out more flavor when you make the teriyaki sauce.

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It’s time to make a cornstarch slurry.  Take a 1/4 cup of water, or in my case, I used some vegetable stock that I just made for some added flavor.  Add in 3 tablespoons of cornstarch.

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Swirl the cornstarch into the water, or vegetable stock, and ensure that the cornstarch dissolves completely.  This is a cornstarch slurry that will help thicken up and tighten up the teriyaki sauce.

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Now pour the slurry into the remaining marinade sauce that you have on the stove.   Continue stirring the sauce and bring it to a boil.

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Let the sauce boil on the stove for a couple of minutes.  You’ll see the sauce really start to come together.  It’ll bubble and thicken.

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You’ll see that when you spoon up the sauce it’ll be thick, almost the consistency of honey.  That’s exactly what you’re looking for.  You’ll spoon this sauce over the chicken.

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Now, it’s time to assemble your bowl.  Start with a couple of scoops of rice.  Top the rice with the shredded chicken.  Spoon a couple of tablespoonsful of teriyaki sauce right over the shredded chicken.  Add some sliced green onions and roasted sesame seeds atop the chicken and rice and you’re crockpot chicken teriyaki is ready to serve.

This was such an easy meal to make.  It only took a few minutes of preparation and then a few extra minutes at the end to make the teriyaki sauce.  Other than that, the crockpot does all the work.  And the chicken is so tender and flavorful.  The teriyaki sauce only enhances the flavor.  This is one of the easiest and best tasting dishes I’ve ever made.  No one would believe that you didn’t do all the cooking yourself.  This is definitely going to be a future freezer-to-crockpot meal in our household.  It would be foolish not to keep a couple of pre-made bags of this crock pot teriyaki chicken in the freezer for those nights when you just don’t feel like cooking.

Getting Healthy with the NutriBullet

March 24, 2014

For Christmas, my husband’s boss, as he does most years, gives each of his employees the same exact gift.  They usually have an office holiday luncheon and during the luncheon the gifts are handed out.  This year, when my husband came home, he had a big box with him.  While I had kind of heard of this product before, I never really paid attention to what it was and what it did.  What was it?  It was a NutriBullet.  Soon after my husband’s holiday luncheon, I swear I started seeing the NutriBullet being sold every where I went.  Costco, there it was.  WalMart, yep it was there to.  The grocery store, yep I saw it there too.  Bed, Bath & Beyond, of course it was there too.

Billed as the “superfood nutrition extractor” the NutriBullet claims that instead of juicing or blending your fruits and vegetables that the NutriBullet extracts all of the nutrients to transform your food into a “superfood” which then makes you healthier, lowers your blood pressure, your cholesterol and balances your blood sugar to make you healthier and feel better.  According to the NutriBullet, the problem with juicing your fruits and vegetables is that you remove all of the fiber, which is healthy for you, from your foods.  When you blend your fruits and vegetables, a blender can’t fully process everything leaving behind big chunks of food which isn’t pleasant to eat.  But, with the NutriBullet and it’s technology, it extracts all the nutrients from your food and leaves behind a perfectly blended, smooth, nutritious smoothie.  I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical of the whole thing when my husband first brought it home.  In fact, it sat in its box in our living room for a few weeks before we even touched the box.  However, my husband started telling me that quite a few people in his office were bringing their green smoothies to work and really enjoying them.  Then, I noticed that people who worked in my office building had their own green and red smoothies with them.  And of course, I saw this system being sold everywhere.  I almost felt like it was kind of a sign telling me I should give this thing a try.  After all, what’s the worse that could happen?  It doesn’t taste good?  If that’s the worse, then it couldn’t really be bad as it was pure fruits and vegetables in every serving without any additives.  Ok, my husband and I decided to give this thing a try to see how it turned out.

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I finally pulled the NutriBullet out of its packaging and read all the instructions to make sure I knew what I was doing.  The system consists of one base, which contains the motor, a screw on cap with the blades that will attach to the base to make your smoothie, a tall cup, 2 short cups (one with a handle), a screw on handle you could use for the tall cup or the cup without the handle, and 2 lids that fit on either the short cups or the tall cup so that you can refrigerate your drink when you’re finished making it, if you want to save it for later.  The entire system is compact enough that you need very little space on your kitchen counter to make it work.

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Once you have the system set up, all you really need now is the fruits and veggies to create healthy, nutritious drinks.  There is a recipe book that comes with the system that provides basic recipes that you can use and guidelines you can follow to create these smoothies.  But the basic rule of thumb is that the smoothie you create should be 1/2 vegetables and 1/2 fruit.  The terrific thing is that if you create your smoothie correctly, you’ll never taste the vegetables in your smoothie as the sweet natural sugars of the fruits will overpower any taste the vegetables have.  However, you’ve got to use vegetables that are easy to blend and break down, are nutritious, and are very mild in flavor.  Spinach, kale, spring greens and romaine lettuce are all very popular choices.  For us, we started with baby spinach.  Take 2 handfuls of baby spinach, rinse it, and then stuff it into the bottom of the tall cup.  You should see that the baby spinach fills 1/2 the cup to the max line indicated on the cup.  I’ll say that even though my husband and I have nothing against spinach, we generally don’t buy it at our house.  And the idea of eating handfuls of spinach in a smoothie kind of threw me off.  How could I blend fruit and spinach and really not be able to feel like I was drinking in mouthfuls of grass or spinach or something green and gross?  I guess I was about to find out.

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Next, you’ll need to add something creamy and smooth that also creates volume and texture for the smoothie.  The most commonly used fruit here is bananas.  You generally see bananas used in fruit smoothie mixes of any sort because the banana really is healthy, but also creates a nice thick blend when it’s broken down and very smooth and rich texture.  To switch things up a bit, or if you didn’t like bananas, you could avocado.  So, take either a whole banana or a whole avocado and throw it into the tall cup right on top of the spinach.  I love bananas, so there was no question that I’d be using bananas.  Now what goes so well with bananas?  Well strawberries of course.  Strawberries and bananas are like the perfect match made in heaven.  So, I took a few strawberries and throw them into the cup as well.

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The suggestion is that you should try and use four different types of fruits for the 1/2 of the smoothie made of fruits.  The more fruits you use, the more varied in flavor your smoothie will be.  That doesn’t even take into account the different nutritional value you’re getting from each of the different fruits.  And this is where you can really get creative with your drinks.  So, I threw in a quarter of an orange with the rind removed.

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How about some blueberries?  I’m not the world’s biggest blueberry fan, but I find that blending it all up in the NutriBullet transforms it into something I can handle.  I’ve also added a quarter of an apple diced into small pieces.  And at the very top there are a few raspberries.  But, you really can add anything you want.  Since making this the first few times, I’ve since tried mangos, cantaloupe and grapes as well in varying combinations.  You could also try kiwis, pineapple, blackberries, honeydew, and really, any kind of fruit you want.  Oranges are also a good option too, especially for the sweetness they bring to the smoothie due to the natural fruit juices.  And for added texture and flavor and health benefits you could also add almonds, flax seeds or other supplements.

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Once you’ve filled up the cup halfway with greens, and halfway with fruits, you’re ready to add the last part.  It’s time to add water.  The water gives the smoothie a bit of moisture so that it makes it easier to blend together the fruits and the greens.  As suggested in the materials provided, you should really try to refrain from adding liquid such as fruit juice (i.e., orange juice or pineapple juice, etc.) as those fruit juices have added sugars and other ingredients.  When you only use water, you’re not adding anything to the smoothie and allowing the natural sugars and sweetness from the fruits themselves flavor the smoothie and it allows the smoothie to remain as pure and healthy as possible.  On the cup, you’ll see a “max’ line, just fill a little bit of water until you reach the max like.

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Screw the blade cap on tightly to the top of the cup so that it’s secure and won’t leak as it blends.  Now invert the entire cup and place it on the receptacle where the motor for the NutriBullet sits.   The top of the cup becomes the bottom, the bottom becomes the top.  The little bit of water that you poured in and the fruits that you put on top of the greens now start to fall down on top of the blade.  When you start the motor, the fruits will immediately blend with the water and be blended down to a liquid smoothie.

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Most likely, when the blending starts, you’ll see that the smoothie is a nice pale pink or orange color, or perhaps purple color depending on what the dominant color of the fruit you added to the cup was.  Eventually, after a few seconds, the suction power of the blades will drawn the greens down into the smoothie.  And you’ll see immediately that the greens get eaten up by the blades and are ground down to liquid combining with the fruits that were already blended.

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Your smoothie will go from a pinkish-orangish color to a nice green color as the color of the greens tends to dominate the smoothie.  At this point, you’re blending until you have a smoothie to the consistency that you prefer.  You’ll see that all of the bits and pieces of the greens and the fruits have all been blended and their nutrients extracted.  What you’re left with is a liquid green drink, or a healthy green smoothie.

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Admittedly, the first time my husband and I made a green smoothie and gave it a try, we weren’t sure what to expect.  The color of the smoothie, truthfully, isn’t the nicest thing in the world, and the thought of drinking a “green smoothie” was somewhat unappealing.  So we said “bottoms up” and gave it a whirl.  After a sip, both of us kind of tasted it, looked at each other and were surprised.  The “green smoothie” tastes nothing like the color of the smoothie at all.  For all intents and purposes you can’t taste the greens, or in our case, spinach, at all.  The spinach has been ground to a liquid pulp and all you get are the nutrients and vitamins from the spinach but not taste or flavor of it at all.  What you do taste is a smooth, rich fruit blend.  Depending upon the fruits you put into your green juice you may taste a variety of different fruits.  If your banana was really ripe, you’ll probably taste the banana or at least smell the essence of the banana.  The strawberries tend to have a pretty strong, and sweet, flavor.  The sweetness of the orange also tends to shine through.  When adding a mango, it tends to make the smoothie more volume and body and you get a slight exotic, tropical flavor, but you don’t really “taste” it.  Essentially, it’s like your drinking a fruit smoothie where you just blended a bunch of fruit with water.  You don’t taste the greens at all, and except for the color of the smoothie, you don’t even realize you’re drinking greens.

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My husband and I have been thoroughly surprised by how much we’ve enjoyed this Christmas gift.  We never thought we’d be making green smoothies every day to take to work to enjoy.  It really does provide us with a nice boost of energy and helps both of us get through the day.  It’s quite filling too, so you don’t really feel like you need breakfast every morning.  We’ve enjoyed playing around with various combinations of fruits and have been completely awed by how much natural fruits and vegetables we’re consuming now on a weekly basis just because we’re making green smoothies every morning.  It’s satisfying to know that we’re trying to live healthier and eat cleaner.  And the great part about this is that making a green smoothie each morning for both of us to take to work only takes 5 minutes in the morning to literally toss the greens and the fruits in the cup and then let the NutriBullet do all the work.  It’s quick, easy, healthy and satisfying.  That’s a combination of words put together in once sentence that I hardly ever mutter.

Carnitas Street Tacos

March 18, 2014

I’m a huge fan of Mexican food.  Tacos, burritos, tostadas, nachos, refried beans, Mexican rice, salsa, etc.  I love it all.  Be it a sit-down Mexican restaurant or a fast food Mexican taco stand, I can never get enough.  When my husband and I are trying to decide on where to go out and grab some food and I suggest a Mexican place, he always says, “really, Mexican?  That’s all you ever want to eat.”  And it’s so true!  We even try our hand every now and then at making Mexican food at home, really simple taco salads, and nachos from time to time.

One day, when my husband and I were discussing what we should pick up grocery shopping to prepare for the next week’s weeknight meals, he said to me, “how about pulled pork?”  When I heard pulled pork, I instantly got an idea in my head for something a little different.  Admittedly, I had no idea how this would turn out, so I didn’t even tell my husband I was doing this until after it was done.  And I took very few pictures along the way of the process, so bear with me as this will be more “tell” than “show”.  What did I make?  Carnitas street tacos.  So, instead of making a bbq pulled pork, I secretly took the pork butt I had bought and made slow cooker carnitas instead of a slow cooker pulled pork.  The basic idea behind how to make prepare the pork is the same, the flavors a little bit different.

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Start with a bone-in pork butt.  You can get boneless, but I really think that bone-in is much because that’s where all of the flavor really comes from.  Rinse off the pork butt and pat it dry so that it can take on the rub you’re about to put all over it.  On a separate plate, starting assembling the various spices and seasoning for the dry rub.  Start with brown sugar, as the molasses will really start to caramelize and sear into the pork.  Fresh ground salt and pepper is next.

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Then some garlic powder.  A little bit of cinnamon for a hint of spice and warmth.

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Then cumin and coriander.  Wow this sounds good.  I love the scent of cumin and coriander.

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And finally add some oregano.

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Since I also happened to have some dry rub from my favorite bbq joint in Texas, I added some of that in as well.

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Take some oil and rub it all over the pork butt.

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Mix together the spices and seasoning on the plate and then roll the pork butt in the spices and seasoning.  Use up all of the rub and make sure it coats every side of the pork butt.

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On the stove, on high heat, place a cast iron skillet.  When the skillet is hot, add the pork butt right into the skillet and let it sit on each side, including the ends, for 2-4 minutes a side.  This will sear in the flavor of the spices and the seasoning.  You’re not trying to cook the meat, just sear the outside so it’s nice and golden brown and crispy, if you can get it.  This really will make a huge difference when you throw the pork into the slow cooker.

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Meanwhile, thin slice a couple of onions.

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When the pork butt is done, transfer the seared pork butt directly into the bowl of your crock pot.  If you have a slow cooker liner, now’s the time you should use it. After cooking for 12 hours in the slow cooker, the last thing you want to do is have to clean out the slow cooker from all the caked on juices that run off your pork butt.

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407Take an orange and slice it into fourths.  Squeeze the orange juice over the pork in the crockpot, and then throw the orange peel into the crock pot as well.

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Using the same cast iron skillet you just cooked the pork butt in, add in about 1/3 cup of apple cider vinegar for a little bit of acidic tang and sweetness.  And then add in about a 1 1/2 cups of stock.  I happened to have vegetable stock on hand, but you can use whatever you’d like.  The vinegar and stock will help to deglaze the skillet of all of the yummy flavors from searing the pork butt.

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Immediately, throw the onions that you’ve sliced into the same cast iron skillet.  You only need to cook the onions for 3-5 minutes.

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When the skillet is de-glazed and the onions have cooked a little bit, you can add the onions from the skillet directly into the crock pot with the seared pork.410

And don’t forget about the juices still in the cast iron skillet. The mixture of the apple cider vinegar and vegetable stock and all of the flavors from the seared pork that you deglazed from the skillet.  All those juices are poured over the pork butt in the crockpot as well.

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Now, it’s time for the crock pot to do it’s magic.  You want to set the crock pot on high and allow the pork to cook at least 10 hours, but preferably 12-14 hours.  After about 6 hours, your house will start to smell amazing.  After 10-12 hours, you’ll notice that the volume of your crock pot is about half of what it was when you started cooking the pork.

When the time’s up, you can turn the crock pot off and prepare the pork!  By time, the pork is completely cooked through and falling off the bone.  Upon opening the crockpot, you’ll see that the meat of the pork has separated from the bone that’s in there.  Just get rid of the bone all together.  Pull the meat out and use two forks to shred the pork.  Remove the fat cap on the pork butt as you go as well – it’ll fall off easily and you don’t really want to eat it.  Now’s when you should also take the time to skim the oil off the top of the pork juices that remain the crock pot.  One easy way to do this, especially if you’re making this dish the in advance, or the night before you’re going to eat it.  Shred the pork into one container, pour the pork juices from the crockpot into another large container that you can seal.  Take that sealed container and put it into the refrigerator overnight.  The oil and fat off the pork will rise to the top and the incredible pork juices will remain at the bottom.  Due to the temperature of the refrigerator, the oil will solidify into one blob that sits right on the top of the container.  The next morning, take a fork or a spoon and skim the solids off the top and all you’re left with is the delicious pork juices.

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In order to prepare to make carnitas street tacos, you need a few items first.  You’ll need some pico de gallo – trust me here, it’ll be so much better if you make your own simple pico de gallo fresh to serve with these tacos.  The flavor, the cilantro, the hint of lime, the tang from the pico de gallo will be a perfect compliment to the carnitas.

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You will also need corn tortillas.  Personally, I’m a flour tortilla kind of girl, and I always buy flour tortillas, but this dish is 100% better using corn tortillas instead of flour.  So, if you’re like me, just this once, go for corn tortillas.

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Take the shredded pork and portion enough for each tortilla you’ll be making.  Throw the portions of shredded pork onto a flattop grill heated on the stove.  As the shredded pork begins to warm up, take a couple of spoonfuls of the lovely pork juices you’ve reserved and ladle them right over the shredded pork.  This will add moisture to the shredded pork, but also re-infuse the pork with all the flavors of the yummy juices they were cooking in from the crock pot.  Warm the shredded pork thoroughly, and allow the meat to crisp up a bit for a bit of added texture in your tacos.

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While the shredded pork is warming on the grill, take out a clean flat pan and heat it to medium-high on your stove top.  When it’s warm enough, start heating the corn tortillas.  Throw down a corn tortilla in to the pan, allow it to heat on one side, then flip it to the other side.  You want it to be warmed through on both sides.  If it gets a little color on it, don’t worry.  The only way to serve corn tortillas is warm and doing it on the stove top is simple and quick.  As you warm each tortilla, start piling it open faced on a plate.

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When the shredded pork is completely warmed and maybe a bit crispy on the edges, remove it from the flat top griddle and start piling the shredded pork right into the center of the corn tortillas you just warmed.  Remember, corn tortillas are not that big, so there’s no need to overload the tortillas.02.10.14 0212

After all of the tortillas have been loaded with carnitas, it’s time to pile on the pico de gallo you just made.  Add a couple of spoonfuls of the fresh pico de gallo directly on top of the shredded pork that’s sitting on top of the corn tortilla.   How much you add is dependent upon how spicy or flavorful you want your street tacos to be.  And that’s it.  It’s time to enjoy your carnitas street tacos.  It’s best to serve these bad boys as soon as you make them.  The corn tortillas are best when they are still warm and pliant.  The tacos will taste best with the shredded pork is still warm from the flat top.  Combine the warm tortilla and the warm pork with the cool, tangy and crisp bite of the pico de gallo and you have the best carnitas street tacos.  Let your tacos sit for a bit and the juices from the pico de gallo will start to seep into the corn tortilla and make it fall apart.

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Besides, the carnitas street tacos will look so good and taste even better you won’t be able to stand wait to devour them.  I’ve made these for my husband and for my parents and everyone has told me that they taste restaurant quality!  They are so simple and easy to make because your crock pot does all the work for you.  Yes, they are time consuming and it’s almost impossible to cook them and serve them on the same day.  But you’ll have so much carnits from one crock pot cooked pork butt that this is a meal that you can enjoy for days.  Carnitas street tacos involve 3 simple ingredients: shredded carnitas pork, homemade pico de gallo, and corn tortillas.  You can’t get much easier than that.  This is the perfect meal to prepare in advance and have on hand for lunch or dinner the next day, or better yet, elegant and tasty enough to serve at a casual party.  Both my husband and my parents loved my carnitas street tacos, what better compliment can you receive than that?

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro

March 11, 2014

For years I tried to convince my husband to eat at P.F. Chang’s.  I knew my husband loved Asian food, and I was a big fan of the food at P.F. Chang’s so I knew he would love it too. Even though we had even made plans to dine at various P.F. Chang’s locations over the years, for one reason or another it never panned out.  And then finally, out of the blue one weekend, my husband asked me if I might want to eat at P.F. Chang’s.   He said he’d been looking at the menu and it really interested him and he wanted to make reservations.  Ok, well, I’m not one to stand in his way, so I said let’s go for it!

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P.F. Chang’s uses influences of both Chinese and American cultures to create unique and inspired Asian food.  All P.F. Chang’s restaurants are decorated with Terra Cotta Warriors, including the terra cotta horse which symbolizes the Forbidden City in China built for the first Chinese Emperor.  Opening it’s doors in 1993 in Scottsdale, Arizona, P.F. Chang’s is the brainchild of Paul Fleming (P.F.) and Philip Chiang (Chang) who used a combination of their names in the name of the restaurant.  Today, P.F. Chang’s can be found all over the United States and all over the world with restaurants in locations such as Turkey, the U.A.E., the Philippines, Argentina, Columbia and many more.  Though the restaurant is wildly successful and popular, especially judging by how packed it was on a Saturday night when we showed up to their Anaheim location, P.F. Chang’s is sometimes ridiculed for not being authentic Chinese food at completely overblown prices.  However, as they state, P.F. Chang’s isn’t authentic Chinese food but rather food that uses influences from both Chinese and American cultures.  It’s up to each person to judge for themselves what they think of the dishes that are served.

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Our night started off with some unique drinks.  My husband ordered a drink that he is familiar with from his days of working at a bar, ginger beer.  Not literally an alcoholic beer, ginger beer is made up of fresh ginger and lemon juice mixed with pure cane sugar.  I’m still not clear as to why it’s called ginger beer, but it’s probably the same reason we have root beer.  Anyhow, my husband loved his ginger beer, and when I tasted it, I found it to be incredibly refreshing.  More sweet from the combination of lemon juice and pure cane sugar than anything else.  Although, at the end, you can get a few subtle notes of the spicy, tangy fresh ginger.  I really liked this drink.

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I ordered a drink called Auntie Chang’s frappe made with pineapple and orange juice blended with bananas and strawberries and a touch of honey.  This drink too was quite refreshing and light.  I really could taste the citrus from the orange juice and the sweetness of the strawberries.  The touch of honey swirled into the mix also provided a nice floral note.  I couldn’t really taste the banana, though I think that might have been added more for volume and body for the drink than for flavor.  And while I get a little bit of tang of the pineapple juice, I think I would have enjoyed having more pineapple flavor in the drink.

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My husband is a lover of hot & sour soup and asked that we start off our meal with a cup of hot & sour soup.  The soup is described as a “rich and tangy broth with chicken, silken tofu, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and egg.  I loved the heat, or the essence of heat, that the soup brought, just enough of an undertone of chili oil.  The chicken in the soup was nice and I loved the bamboo shoots and the silky, soft tofu.  My husband, not surprisingly, liked the mushrooms and the tofu in the soup as well.  Unfortunately, I did think that the soup itself was a bit too salty.  I didn’t really like the salty bite I felt after every spoonful of soup.

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For an appetizer, I had chosen P.F. Chang’s famous chicken lettuce wraps.  Served with iceberg lettuce leaves that you use as plates or edible serving dishes, the filling is made with wok-seared chicken, mushrooms, green onions and water chestnuts and then topped with crispy rice sticks, this is considered the restaurant’s signature appetizer.  Along with the plate full of iceberg lettuce leaves and the chicken filling you are also provided with a sauce that you drizzle on the lettuce cups.  When the sauce is brought to the table, the waiter asks you how spicy you like it, the spicier your like it, the more chili oil and chili sauce is added.  Essentially, the sauce starts off with some light soy sauce for the nice salty flavor, then you add in spoonfuls of chili oil and chili sauce and you can finish it off with a spoonful of Chinese hot mustard.  You mix everything together and you get a tangy combination of salty, sweet, spicy and tangy.  To eat the lettuce wraps, you start with a large iceberg lettuce leaf that you hold in your hand so that the leaf almost forms a bowl.  Into the “bowl” you take spoonfuls of the chicken filling and some of the crispy rice sticks to add some nice crunch.  Finally, you take a couple of spoonfuls of the sauce and spoon it over the chicken filling.  Then you wrap or roll up the lettuce leave and form a lettuce wrap.  Then you take your creation and enjoy!  It’s almost like being able to play with your food!  The combination of the chicken, mushrooms, green onions and especially water chestnuts is tasty.  When you combine it with the tangy, spicy sauce and the cool, crispy and crunchy iceberg lettuce leaf, you have the perfect combination and a fabulous preview of what’s to come!

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After perusing through the menu, my husband declared that he had to have the crab wontons.  My husband has always said that he’s a huge fan of crab, other than the fact that he doesn’t know how to crack crab legs or claws and they frustrate him so he never bothers with it.  But when you have the crab prepared for him and he just needs to eat it, then he loves it.  The crab wontons are crispy, deep-fried wontons filled with a combination of creamy crab meat, bell peppers, and green onions.  It’s served along with a pickled carrot and cucumber slaw and a side of a spicy plum sauce.  After one bite into the crab wonton, my husband was in love.  He really liked the flavors of the crab filling and the combination of it with the crunchy deep-fried wonton.  He also liked the spicy plum sauce.  For me, I too enjoyed the crab wonton, but without the spicy plum sauce which I found unnecessary.  However,  while I loved the pickled carrot and cucumber slaw, my husband thought that was unnecessary.  My husband loved these crab wontons so much that he felt like we should place another order for more crab wontons.  I had to remind him that we had a lot of food ordered for our family-style entrée that I didn’t think we’d need to order more appetizers.  Reluctantly, he agreed.

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To start off our family-style meal, we decided on the P.F. Chang’s combo fried rice.  Described as rice tossed in a savory soy sauce and sautéed with eggs, julienne carrots, bean sprouts and scallions, what makes it a combo is that it is mixed with a combination of beef, chicken and shrimp for protein.  I will admit that while a simple fried rice, they do a good job of making it really tasty.  It’s not too sweet, not too salty.  And I really liked the mixture of the beef, shrimp and chicken.  It had a nice sprinkling of carrots, scallions and eggs mixed into it, though I could have used more bean sprouts, but I know that’s not always a common item found in fried rice.

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From here, my husband and I decided on one meat dish and one seafood dish.  I chose the meat dish which was shaking beef.  The menu describes shaking beef as “tender flank steak and broccolini, on fresh greens, tomatoes, and red onions, with zesty lime vinaigrette.”  Personally, I love broccolini, so any dish that has broccolini in it will always have me ordering!  I thought that the fresh greens on this plate were a bit excessive and I could have done with out it.  The tomatoes, while I didn’t love them, did provide a nice amount of acidity to the dish.  The star though was the flank steak, it was the most tender and flavorful beef I’ve had a in a shaking beef dish.  It was so perfectly cooked and melt in your mouth tender.  Add a bit of the zesty lime vinaigrette and this was just fantastic.  I really enjoyed this version of shaking beef as it was a combination of so many wonderful flavors.

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My husband chose the seafood dish.  From the menu, he zeroed in on the Oolong Chilean Sea Bass.  With this preparation, the sea bass filet is marinated in oolong tea and broiled in a sweet ginger sauce and served atop a bed of warm spinach.  First off, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger filet of sea bass in my life.  This was massive, which was all the better for us because it was all the more to enjoy!  The warm spinach was a bit of an overkill and something we barely touched, besides the fact that I think if you’re going to serve the sea bass over warm spinach the spinach should be wilted and cooked in the sweet ginger sauce as well.  This was more like having fresh spinach thrown on a plate that already had hot ginger sauce on it and then the hot sea bass filet was put on top of the spinach.  The sea bass itself was so incredibly tender and flaky and flavorful.  The only thing is, I could really only taste the sweet ginger sauce that the filet was broiled in and I couldn’t taste any of the oolong tea that it was marinated in.  That’s not to say that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I just didn’t get any hint of the tea at all.  But this was one of the most tender pieces of sea bass filet I’ve ever enjoyed, and the sweet ginger sauce was spot on.  The flavor of the sweet ginger sauce really transferred and transfused into the sea bass filet and it was such a perfect combination.

By this time, with 2 appetizers, a bowl of soup, and 3 entrée dishes we were stuffed.  In fact, we had to box up some of the fried rice and shaking beef to take home.  But, we couldn’t come all this way and leave without ordering dessert.  Besides, my husband was really eager to try one of the desserts on their seasonal fall menu, and there was another dessert that I knew I wanted.

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My husband wanted to try out a dessert that was on the restaurant’s special fall menu, the caramel apple wontons.  These are handmade, deep-fried wontons that are filled with warm apple, caramel and cream cheese.  The wontons are then dusted with powdered sugar and served alongside cinnamon and caramel sauce.  You can choose from an order of 2 or 4.  Since we already knew we’d be ordering another dessert and just wanted a small taste of this one, we choose an order of 2.  I loved that they served this wontons warm and crispy, that makes all the difference.  I was a bit skeptical of having cream cheese as a filling, but when it’s warm, the cream cheese melts and oozes out and is more like a sauce for the apple and caramel filling inside rather than a creamy, gooey mess.  This really did taste like fall all rolled up into a convenient wonton package.  The apples and the caramel are always going to be a great combination.  But it was the melding of the liquid cream cheese, warm apples and warm apple with a bit of sweetness from the powdered sugar that really made this dessert come together.

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For me, I couldn’t wait to order the banana spring rolls.  I’ve had these before, and remembered how much I had loved them then.  And of course, the dessert has banana in it, so I couldn’t resist.  The banana spring rolls are essentially 3 egg roll wrappers filled with a whole banana, wrapped and then deep-fried and then cut in half.  The deep-frying makes the egg roll wrapper golden brown and crispy, but it also gives the banana inside texture and causes the sugars in the banana to caramelize so that it’s perfectly cooked and yummy.  Served with a couple of scoops of coconut-pineapple ice cream, drizzled with caramel and vanilla sauce and served with fresh berries, this dessert is heavenly!  While the idea of making banana egg rolls is seems like such a simple one, I absolutely loved it.  The flavors of this dessert are one of the best combinations of tropical flavors I’ve had in a dessert, the coconut pineapple ice cream, the fresh berries, and of course the sweet caramelized banana.  This is almost dessert perfection on one plate.  It was the perfect ending to our terrific meal.

After dinner, my husband walked out of the restaurant wondering why we hadn’t ever eaten at P.F. Chang’s before.  We were stuffed, but pleasantly so.  The meal was terrific and the food presented to us so many wonderful combinations of flavors and textures.  And we both agreed that we’d be perfectly happy to come back and order the exact same meal again, there isn’t a thing we would change.  Starting with the crab wontons and the hot & sour soup, to the combo fried rice, the shaking beef, the amazing sea bass and the to-die-for dessert, this was a perfect Saturday night date night meal with my husband.  While perhaps P.F. Chang’s may be criticized for not really being true Chinese food, I think that if you go into the restaurant knowing that they are trying to combine both Asian and American culture and cuisine in order to make harmonious food, you don’t come out of it disappointed that you didn’t get the food that you expected.  What you get instead is a wonderful melding of food and flavors and seasonings and ingredients of two different cultures that are both so interwoven together.  You can be sure that my husband and I will be back to P.F. Chang’s again in the future.