Saturday, March 29, 2008

Easy Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas

A few years ago during a trip to Las Vegas, I had some sweet potato tamales. I've thought ever since then that I'd like to make some myself. Until the other day when I actually started looking at some recipes. Ha! I just don't have that level of dedication. So I made some sweet potato and black bean enchiladas instead.

Though at some point during the process to prepare them to take over to the SO's house to cook (so we could watch DVR'd "Top Chef"), I realized that I'd left my favorite glass dish at his house the last time I cooked enchiladas there. So I packed up my supplies, made sure that he had salsa and chips, and was on my way.

Though when I got there, he informed me that his salsa was Newman's Own Pineapple Salsa. I didn't think it would make a big difference (though I'd never tried it), so I figured it'd be fine.

It was more than fine, though. This little accident turned out to be a very good thing. The pineapple flavor really brightened up the sweet potatoes and made these enchiladas extra tasty. So here's the recipe.

Easy Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas
Corn tortillas (you can use flour and skip the preparation section, but I prefer the taste of corn tortillas)
One half can of black beans
One medium sweet potato
Newman's Own All-Natural Bandita Salsa Pineapple (about half a jar)
Shredded Mexican cheese (use your favorite cheese here--I use Sargento's Mexican cheese blend--or vegan cheddar)
Tomato sauce (for 8 enchiladas, I use 1 8 oz. can of organic tomato sauce)
Optional: add chili powder and/or a pinch of cumin mixed in with the salsa for an extra kick if you like spicy enchiladas.

Peel and chop the sweet potato into small cubes (about the size of a kernel of corn) and saute on medium heat until soft (about five minutes or so). Place in a bowl and add half a can of (drained) whole black beans. Mix in about three or four heaping tablespoons of salsa and set aside.

To prepare the corn tortillas:
1. Heat a large fry pan on high heat with about a teaspoon of refined corn, canoloa or peanut oil (or other high smoke point oil; see here for a list of suggested oils). Keep the oil nearby.
2. Place one tortilla on the oil and brown for 3 or 4 seconds (long enough to pick up the next tortilla).
3. With a spatula, lift the first tortilla and put the new one down on the pan and the first on on top of it. Repeat with as many tortillas as you'll want to use. Add oil as necessary (every 2 or 3 tortillas).
4. Lay out on paper towels to absorb excess oil.

When the tortillas have cooled enough to handle, get out your baking dish or pan (preferably one that is about the width of your tortilla) and place the first tortilla at the far end and place a strip of cheese and a strip of the sweet potato mix down the middle and roll up (don't overstuff). Place the next tortilla right next to it, scooching the tortillas together as much as possible to fit in as many as you can. Repeat until you've filled the dish. Then cover the enchiladas with the can of sauce, a few more heaping spoons of salsa, and a few more sprinkles of cheese. Bake for 15 minutes at 375.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We've secretly replaced their regular cheese...

I had some shredded carrots in the fridge that needed to be eaten, so I asked the SO if he'd like some lasagna. He's possibly the most agreeable person on the planet when it comes to food (just don't try to feed him raw tomatoes), so he was all for it.

Since we're still detoxing from our vacation, I was trying to think of a way to make it a little lighter. I remembered that Yvonne, the Traveling Vegetarian suggested that firm silken tofu was a good replacement for ricotta cheese, so I decided (somewhat hesitantly) to try it. I also added in roasted red pepper (roasted in my toaster oven) since I found that was such a great addition to the lasagna I made in Las Vegas.

The first part of this process is, of course, to fully drain the tofu. With the fresh squash and zucchini, there's already plenty of water in the lasagna (which takes about an hour after cooking to fully soak in; I use canned mushrooms to cut back on the water even more sometimes), so the draining was a real task. Also, I didn't plan for it far enough in advance. So I did the bit where you put the block between two plates and it fell apart. So I just mashed it all up to where it actually looked like ricotta and then put a paper towel over it. Then a kitchen towel. Then a second kitchen towel. Geez, that stuff is all water.

When it was finally at a point where I felt comfortable with its moisture level, I sprinkled it onto the first layer of vegetables in the lasagna. By that point, it was much, much easier than ricotta to deal with. That stuff can get messy (which is why I started skipping it altogether). It didn't look too bad, either.

I cut back on the mozzarella cheese to about 12 ounces total--to help keep it together and add the flavor. And then the moment of truth...

I decided not to tell the SO of my plan until after he'd taken a bite. Not because he'd be opposed to tofu (he's not), but just to see if there was a significant difference. I took a bite first and really didn't notice anything different (I only used one package). But my palate has all the sensitivity of a factory farmer; I'm not a good judge. So I ask the SO, "How is it?" "It's really good. Did you do something different? Did you use some different cheese or something?" Busted! He said that he could sense the texture of it but that he thought it was good and that he still got enough of the mozzarella taste to be happy. And he took home half the leftovers. I'll take that as a good sign. So, welcome to my recipe, tofu.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Yes, another post that is not in keeping with the point of my blog. But in case you really want to know what I ate today, I will tell you. A banana, a Gardenburger with lettuce and tomato with a side of Kashi crackers. Then some cookies and then a movie-theater-size box of Raisinets. And then I polished off a bag of Santitas before yoga. It's a slippery slope over to the dark side. My plan to sugar-detox today did not work.

That is despite reading an article yesterday in Radar magazine about orthorexia, a "condition" (though not medically recognized) that essentially means taking an obsession with healthy eating too far (a "fixation on righteous eating"). For orthorexics, the point of eating becomes less about enjoying food, curbing hunger or getting nutrition and more about purifying the body (and avoiding more and more foods that are deemed impure). I found a handy-dandy little quiz created by the doctor who coined the term just over a decade ago. Dr. Bratman asks (and I answer) these questions:

Orthorexia Self-Test

Each "yes" answer scores one point.

1. Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food? (For four hours, give yourself two points.)
I spend most of every day thinking about food, only about half of which is healthy. I probably spend three hours a day trying to figure out how to enjoy healthy food by reading a bunch of food blogs. (1/2 pt)

2. Do you plan tomorrow's food today?
Most of the time. Don't most people? I mean, otherwise, I'd be going to the market once or twice a day. (1 pt)

3. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
I think about both at the same time. I rarely eat something that I don't enjoy. That something is called "broccoli." And I'm always trying to think of a way to like it (no pts)

4. Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
No way. I don't miss anything. And when I eat junk food, I feel physically bad (the Great Frito Fiasco of 2002 will ensure that I never touch one of those things ever again). (no pts)

5. Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
Yes, because the more I learn about what I eat, the more I want to improve my diet. I wish more people would think that way. (1 pt)

6. Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
I suffer more from not being able to get on roller coasters due to a neck injury than I suffer by not eating corn dogs and fatty tuna. But I miss really good sushi sometimes. (1/2 pt)

7. Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don't?
Yes. I try to keep it to myself, but I know that sometimes, my disdain is difficult to hide when I see what kind of junk other people put in their bodies. (1 pt)

8. Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
More like I feel like a dumbass when I carb out and then crash or have some other ill health effect. (1/2 pt)

9. Does your diet socially isolate you?
Ha! Given that I live in the south, I'd say probably so. (1 pt)

10. When you are eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?
Yes, somewhat. But I think that it's more about the satisfaction of creating something good and good for me and being able to share it more than a direct sense of "if I eat this, then I will feel this way." (no pts)

5 1/2 points.

"If you answer yes to two or three of these questions, you have at least a touch of orthorexia. A score of four or more means that you are in trouble," according to Dr. Bratman. "And if all these statements apply to you, you really need help. You don't have a life--you have a menu." Or you have a food blog.

Addendum: During my research, I came across a very interesting blog: Every Woman Has an Eating Disorder. Very interesting read. I think a lot of women out there can think of at least one way they have an unhealthy relationship with food or some event in their life that caused some food-related trauma. For me, I remember my mother making me weigh my portions of snacks on a Weight Watchers scale when I was nine. Ice cream and chips and stuff. In retrospect, she would have been better off giving me better options for snacks, but she felt like she'd be denying me of some childhood privilege if she didn't keep chips and Twinkies and Little Debbies and ice cream around the house. Maybe she's right, but dang, I was hungry. Yes, I was fat, but I was growing. I also very distinctly remember her keeping a notebook with her at all times where she logged her caloric intake and weight every day. And I know she thought she was fat at 5'4" and 122 pounds. I inherited some issues. I know I'm not the only one.

Reason number eleventy billion why I'm a vegetarian

Sure, you jerks and your factory farms can cause my spinach to harbor e. Coli, but at least I won't ever be dealing with escarole's revenge. Though as soon as I ask myself, "Who in their right mind would eat something that would make orange oil shoot out of their ass?" I remember that my mother was largely unfazed by the reports of "anal leakage" from the great Olestra controversey of the late 90s. This is a woman who has (I've witnessed myself) gone for as long as two weeks without a bowel movement. An evacuation of anything from her colon is welcome at times. Perhaps I should tell her to grab a few pounds of this fish at the market. Though she does have a job. Seems to me that having an orangey, oil-stained pants seat could be career-limiting.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Day 9 - Las Vegas - A sweet send-off

I'd warned the SO that even though 8 nights seemed like a long vacation that we'd not be ready to leave at all and I was right. But our hosts gave us a sweet send-off by taking us to the The Bagel Cafe (aka around their house as "The Jew Deli"). A place simply called The Bagel Cafe set in the middle of what looks like an early-90s office park? Uh, okay.

Oh, but don't let the simplicity of the name and the unassuming location fool you. This place is awesome. An authentic Jewish New York Deli run by authentic New York Jews but in Las Vegas instead (ostensibly to serve the large Las Vegas Jew population). I could hardly contain my excitement upon entering the cafe and seeing the huge counter holding tons of sweet treats, breads, bagels and even bialys. But there was breakfast to be had.

We decided to dine family style, pretty much. An order of cinnamon challah bread french toast, the "home-made cheese-filled blintzes," a potato knish (baked on-site rather than the fried version flown in from New York), and matzoh brie with apple sauce. That french toast was huge. Four of us couldn't finish it off even though it was just about the best french toast I've ever had in a restaurant (though the Pancake Pantry's sourdough french toast is pretty damn good).

And the blintzes. Wow. The SO had never had blintzes and was very happy to have them sitting at his plate (he shared...reluctantly). I didn't try any of the matzoh brie since I wasn't in the mood for eggs; I focused on the knish. I'd had one while I was in New York and was rather disappointed. I mean, how could I possibly not like mashed potatoes inside of bread? But I didn't. So I was a little hesitant about this one. But it was delicious. Now I know that I prefer baked over fried (which is hard to imagine).

But the real story here is what I didn't get any pictures of...the desserts. While we were waiting on food, I hit the counter. There were hamentashens and linzer tortes and rugulah and black and whites and everything else you can imagine. So I stocked up for the return flight home. My only regret is that I didn't get more. My haul:
One small black and white (I should have gotten ten--they were orgasmic)
One each of almond, chocolate and mango rugulah
One sugar pretzel (plain and chocolate dough wrapped into a pretzel shape and sprinkled with sugar)
and the piece de resistance: the chocolate cigar

How can I express my love for the chocolate cigar in words? I cannot. But I will try. When I saw it, I asked the guy behind the counter what it was. "Well, it's got chocolate chips and chocolate cake crumbs and chocolate and it's..." Stop right there. You had me at chocolate cake crumbs. Anyway, all of these things plus some pastry dough are combined, cooked and then topped with more chocolate and powdered sugar. I really wish I'd bought ten of these. I need to call these guys and see if they'll FedEx me some stuff. Because very little of these goodies made it off the plane. I imagine there were some very jealous people around us on that flight. The Bagel Cafe: licked-clean thumbs up.

And that's it for my trip. I'm back in Nashville--wearing muumuus and detoxing by eating mostly salad and Gardenburgers in hopes of getting back into real clothes. But dreaming of crepes, sweet potato raviolis, and chocolate cigars.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Days 7 & 8 - Las Vegas

Day 7 in Las Vegas was the SO's birthday. My plan was to head out for a day in Death Valley and then to head back to Vegas so he could have sushi for dinner. So, there's not much to write about unless you want to hear about how much he loved the dead sea critters he ate at a local place that our hosts recommended, Sushi Avenue (and treated us to--thanks again for dinner!). Me, I had a vegetable roll and some veggie tempura.

Day 8 was another day meant for relaxation and hanging out with our hosts. But it was also our last night in town and the last opportunity to see the fountains at the Bellagio (cancelled due to wind when we were on the Strip Saturday night), so I referred back to some of the notes I'd taken before the trip and decided on Agave, a high-concept Mexican junt near where we were staying and just across the street from the Red Rocks Casino.

Typically, I'm against high-concept restaurants where it feels like the menu was created by the marketing department rather than by a chef, but one thing I will say about those types of restaurants is that you can always count on them to serve pretty good food. And Agave actually served very good food.

They start you out with a trio of salsas on a cute little stand. There's a salsa verde, a red salsa (with a tast of lime and cilantro) and a smoky black bean salsa. All three were excellent. The red salsa in particular tasted very bright and fresh.

We ordered guacamole as an appetizer before we saw the salsa trio. We probably wouldn't have ordered it, but I'm glad we did. It was fresh and chunky (I love big chunks of avocado in my guacamole) and very good. And the portion was huge. We couldn't finish it (and I rarely leave good guac behind).

For dinner, I struggled in choosing between the portabella mushroom tamale and the potato and portabella mushroom tacos. I decided on the tacos on the server's recommendation and was not disappointed. Normally, I wouldn't eat a taco stuffed with potato (hellooooo, starch) but I was curious about how they'd blended these tastes into something that was, well, Mexican. Obviously, the asadero cheese, cilantro and lime helped a lot. In fact, the potato seemed to be there mostly for its texture, which worked well with the mushrooms and lettuce. It was cooked just enough to be fluffy at first and then creamy once chewed. And I know I mentioned the lime, but I was very appreciative of how generous they were with the limes, allowing a wedge for each taco. Because I really love lime juice, particularly with Mexican food. Anyway, there were three tacos on my plate and I just couldn't make it through the third one, even though I tried really hard. That potato takes up a lot of room in ye olde stomach. But the SO was kind enough to nearly polish it off, despite having three tacos of his own (he went for the taco sampler--again, filled with sea critters though only after joking with me about ordering the goat).

Obviously, there was no room for dessert. This was an incredibly filling and satisfying meal. Even an hour later when we were at the Paris casino, I had no interest in a dessert crepe. Whew. Agave: thumbs up.

Next up: our last day in Las Vegas ends with a treat at Bagel City.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Day 6 - back in Las Vegas

Tuesday morning, I was eager to get up and finally see my hosts (who were in Memphis for the weekend). After a little catching up and finally meeting baby Eli (born in September), we headed out for lunch to In-N-Out.

Yes, this is still a vegetarian blog, but I'd promised the SO that we'd go and I remembered from a previous trip that they had some rockin' french fries (prepared for frying on site daily!). I also knew of the not-so-secret secret menu that had some vegetarian-friendly items. So I ordered the grilled cheese, fries and a strawberry milkshake.

Oh. Oh.

Generally speaking, I think that "American cheese" is an oxymoron. Though I grew up loving the stuff, you can't easily get me to eat a Kraft single. And don't even ask me about Thousand Island dressing--I don't touch the stuff. But this sandwich was delicious. I don't know--maybe I was extra hungry (I did send the SO inside for another order of fries), but it was one of the most enjoyable sandwiches I've had in a while. And the fries--they really are very good. Crisp and tasty, not too oily and never limp. When In-N-Out talks about their food quality, they ain't lyin'.

Could I have lived without the second order of fries? Yes, but I think my life is that much better for having them. In-N-Out: salted thumbs up.

For dinner, I decided to treat my guests to some lasagna. I had a request for no mushrooms, so I subbed in freshly-roasted red peppers. And you know what? I really liked the addition of that flavor, so I intend to add it to my recipe (though I'm keeping the mushrooms when I cook at home). When it was time to shop for dinner, I decided to take the opportunity to check out the local Trader Joe's. TJ's is a legend in the vegetarian communities and all my friends from out west seem to lament the fact we don't have them in Tennessee, so I was eager to check it out.


First off, it was tiny and cramped. And had the all the ambience of an outdated Piggly Wiggly. The lighting was harsh and made the place seem dirty and the food look unappetizing. But I could really get past that if they actually had the items I wanted. I didn't think I was getting too exotic, but I couldn't find squash or zucchini or a red pepper. And I wasn't thrilled about the cheese, pasta or sauce selection. It was like a gourmet Aldi without the produce selection. It just had a very narrow selection that didn't even seem to included what I would think are basics. But there were some nice-looking convenience foods and I did see that collection of very cheap wine (though I didn't buy any). I did buy some fleur-de-sel caramels on the advice of my host. And some other candy. But I had to go to Whole Foods for everything else I needed to prepare dinner. So my trip to Trader Joe's was a fairly big disappointment. Nonetheless, now I know what it's like. I guess I'd go once in a while for some specialty items, but it wouldn't be my weekly trip. Trader Joe's: one thumb up, one thumb down; neutral thumbs.

Up next: the SO eats more sea critters and we eat at a high-concept Mexican restaurant that I actually like.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Day 5 - Laguna Beach

I contemplated the decision of where we would stay in Laguna Beach for about a month before I finally made the decision. There aren't a whole lot of options in the area but they certainly run the gamut from basic to luxurious. So, despite the fact that the inn was not directly on the beach, I chose to go with the #1 rated hotel on Trip Advisor, Casa Laguna. Not just for the accommodations, but for the highly-recommended breakfast. And I was not disappointed.

I had several vegetarian options, but decided on the Crepe Duo--one with butternut squash and savory creme anglaise and one with fresh berries, cream cheese and a port wine reduction. Both were excellent, but the squash crepe was outstanding. My mouth is watering from the remembrance. The SO ordered the OC Benedict--a poached egg on focaccia with spinach, hollandaise sauce and a citrus zest topped with applewood smoked bacon (it's a rare occasion for him to eat bacon, so I allowed it with minimal consternation).

But I'd read about the waffle and was disappointed at the thought of not having it. So when I saw that another couple had ordered the waffle in addition to their breakfasts, I asked if I could have one as well. My request was granted without hesitation (the service and staff at Casa Laguna were so wonderful). The waffle is served with berries, vanilla creme and blueberry port syrup. Yum. Casa Laguna--blueberry syrup-dipped thumbs up.

We (reluctantly) left Casa Laguna and headed east toward Joshua Tree National Park. Our hearty breakfast kept us going for a while, so we didn't eat again until about 3pm when in the desert oasis of Yucca Valley and we spied the first Del Taco (of several) on Twentynine Palms Highway. Two Veggie Works burritoes lasted me through the rest of the day and into the night. And it's a good thing since we drove back to Las Vegas through the desolate Mojave Desert where the only dining options were roadkill.

Up next: In-N-Out.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

St. Patrick's Day

I'll take another break from my trip re-cap to post a little about Irish cuisine. My family is Scotch-Irish and Irish, so I grew up with some Americanized versions of homeland favorites. I most fondly recall my mother's potato soup (which is nothing like what O'Charley's would have you believe is authentic Irish potato soup--mom's is potatoes, milk, flour, salt, and a little butter--that's it) and potato cakes (also known as boxty, though we use mashed potatoes instead of shredded raw potatoes). I recall with no fondness at all my mom's love of boiled cabbage. As with a lot of vegetables, she inevitably overcooked it so that it smelled of sulfur (as did the whole house). Just the remembrance of that smell makes me want to hurl.

So it was with some trepidation that I decided to set forth in making colcannon for an Irish potluck dinner last night. Colcannon is simply mashed potatoes with cabbage. Why someone would want to ruin a perfectly good batch of mashed potatoes with cabbage, I'll never know but perhaps it was to stretch out the amount of potatoes or to make cabbage more palatable. I mean, certainly there aren't people who like boiled cabbage? Except my mother, that is.

But after reviewing many (many) recipes for colcannon, I came up with something that worked.

Six medium russet potatoes
One small/medium head of green cabbage (or kale)
Three large leeks
3/4 cup milk (can use unflavored soy milk)
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
1/4 teaspoon mace or nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh parsley (garnish)

Peel (optional) and cube the potatoes. Set in a large pan, cover with water, add about half a tablespoon of salt and boil for 20 minutes or until tender. Core and shred or finely chop cabbage. Boil in plenty of water for 15 minutes (do not overboil). When done, pour into a collander and fully drain. Thinly slice leeks and cook in milk over low heat for 15 minutes. When potatoes are done, place in a large bowl and mash with butter, milk and leek mixture, nutmeg and salt and pepper. Stir in cabbage and add sprigs of parsley.

A few helpful hints:
1. I use russet potatoes for mashed potatoes because they mash best, in my opinion. For the sake of presentation, I peeled my potatoes, but most of the nutrients are in the skins, so leave them on if you can stand to look at them.
2. If you're preparing this for a potluck or party or some other event where presentation is important, note that green cabbage isn't very green when cooked. Using kale will yield a greener dish. But adding the parsley will make it green and pretty, too.
3. Do not, not, NOT overboil your cabbage. Overboiling is what causes the sulfur smell. Also, I use only the outermost layers of the cabbage (after removing the top layer). Cabbage cores aren't very tasty (nor are they terribly nutritious). Using lots of water in a big pan also helps. As does using a stainless or nonstick pot (instead of aluminum). Don't want to mess with chopping and boiling cabbage at all? Buy a bag of cole slaw mix and saute it in olive oil until tender instead.
4. Choose leeks that have a lot of white area because you only want to use the white and very palest green sections for your cooking. To prepare leeks, slice off the rooty end and the leaves (just above where it begins to turn green) and wash the layers thoroughly under running water to remove any grit..
5. The traditional way to present the colcannon for the table is to put in a serving dish and make a well in the middle for a big ol' pat of butter. I skipped this step, though.

So, how'd it taste? Well, like mashed potatoes with cabbage and leeks. Or "pretty good" in other words. I guess this is one way to make mashed potatoes a little more nutritious and substantial. The really good news is that only about half this big batch of colcannon was eaten last night (there were three stews and tons of other food), so I'm about to head in the kitchen to make some potato cakes of them.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Day 4--Laguna Beach

Now that the SO has had the Vegas experience, it's time to branch out to California. We got up early Sunday morning and headed west through the desert to the hills of Orange County (on the recommendation of a friend whose family lives there--I wanted to avoid L.A. traffic).

When we arrived in Laguna Beach, it was just before lunch time and we weren't really hungry, so we just bummed around Heisler Park for a little while until it was time to check in at the bed and breakfast. But after we did check in, we realized we were just a little too hungry to wait for the wine and cheese reception, so we drove just a bit up the PCH to a little place called a la carte. Apparently, their main thing is catering, but they have a small store where they sell sandwiches and salads. We got a pint of the spicy noodles in peanut sauce, which really hit the spot. We took it back to the hotel and ate it next to the pool (which has views of the ocean).

After that, we cleaned up and got ready for dinner. We did stop by the b and b's reception, but we weren't feeling all that social. Many of the other guests were having a great time meeting each other but both the SO and I are professionally obliged to talk and be friendly and this was a vacation, so we kept to ourselves.

The SO didn't really require too much of this vacation other than wanting some good seafood and sushi. Since I don't eat either of them, I did quite a bit of research to choose a place that would offer something for both of us. I decided on k'ya. What was of particular interest was the ability to order small plates, so the SO could get a variety of seafood (he ordered sea scallops and seared ahi) instead of having to choose just one. And, okay, these guys really had me at "three cheese macaroni." Y'all know I love my macaroni and cheese.

k'ya did not disappoint us one bit. Everything we had was exceptionally good. We started out with a couple of small salads: Honey Poached Pear & Bermuda Triangle Goat Cheese Salad and Gold Beet, Baby Tomato & Feta Cheese Salad. I wish I could pick a favorite among these two, but I can't. Both were excellent and the chef, I think, showed both great restraint and creativity with both (particularly considering the very delicate dressings on both). Also shown is the sauteed wild mushrooms which were also quite good. There were about three of four different mushrooms and the portion was quite generous (we were only able to eat about half).

While the SO was enjoying his sea critters (he's not yet stopped talking about those scallops), I set upon the mac and cheese. Divine, simply divine. Though I could have done without the additional wild mushrooms that found their way into my pasta. It was well-seasoned and creamy and the breadcrumbs cooked on top were a nice substitute for the hard-cheese crust I usually prefer.

And then there was dessert. It was really hard for me to pass up the molten chocolate cake, but I didn't want to be up all night (I'm so susceptible to sugar and chocolate) and we really didn't have room for more than one dessert to split between us. So we went for the mascarpone cheesecake. Even though I know in my heart that it was not likely vegetarian-friendly (as was the likely case with the cheese in my mac and cheese). I try to be good, but I fall off the rennet wagon once in a while. But at least I can comfort myself with knowing that the cows that produced this wonderful cheese were treated well and came up with a fine-tasting cheesecake. Though I generally prefer my cheesecake to be more of the cake-y type rather than creamy, the taste of the mascarpone made this creamy cheesecake a real winner. This ain't now Philadelphia cream cheese cheesecake. It was very delicate and fresh-tasting--the perfect way to end an incredible dinner. k'ya: thumbs very up.

Up next: breakfast at Casa Laguna.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A break for banana bread

There are several posts I've not gotten around to writing for some reason or another. Around Christmas, I'd meant to post my recipe for banana bread but never did; I suppose I was too busy making the banana nut breads.

Regardless, Claudia's post about her banana bread reminded me that I needed to get it written, though I typically associate banana bread with Christmas...because I usually bake them to give away as gifts (I'm a big fan of the consumable gift). In fact, the bread pictured was one I baked for Jag (note the festive green Saran Wrap).

Generally speaking, I bow in deference to Claudia's culinary expertise, but I have to disagree with her with regard to one element of her recipe--the sour cream. Claudia, your Yankee is showing. Also, though I personally love putting chocolate chips in my banana bread, my mother and most of her family would frown upon the addition. Nuts, yes. Chocolate, no. Banana bread isn't dessert, after all. It's breakfast!

So, my recipe:

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
3 large overripe bananas (easier to mash)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour (I use whole wheat flour)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)--optional
1/2 cup chocolate chips--optional
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or nutmeg--optional

Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Add salt. Place peeled bananas in a medium bowl, add soda and mash. Combine the mashed bananas into the first mixture. Add vanilla, flour and optional ingredients and mix well. Bake in a greased and floured loaf pan (a large one or two-three small ones) at 350 degrees for one hour. Check for doneness with a toothpick (should come out clean from the center of the bread).

I think the sour cream probably makes Claudia's bread a little moister and likely not as sweet than my bread (I'd think the sour cream would add a tang that cuts the sweetness), though the extra butter in mine makes it a little richer, most likely and the extra egg and all wheat flour a little denser. When I get a wild hair, I add the cinnamon or nutmeg. It just depends on my mood. The nutmeg makes it that much more Christmas-y to me. I've also made the bread with Smart Balance and egg whites and it was just as good, so if you're watching your cholesterol, that's something to think about.

So, I'm not saying my bread is better than Claudia's (I dare not go head-to-head in competition...unless it's an all Southern panel of judges who have heads full of filled cavities), but I like it. Hmm...I need to swing by Harris Teeter and see if they've got any overripe bananas on sale, now that I think about it.

Side note: a certain local establishment has been making banana muffins with raisins. I like bananas. I like raisins. But bananas and raisins don't go together. Stop the madness--no banana raisin muffins!

Day 3 Las Vegas--Addendum

I forgot to mention this poor little guy. As we were walking along the Strip, headed back toward the south end, I saw him laying in the street. It was right between Bellagio and Caesar's Palace.

Along with excellent gelato, the Bellagio has several little shops that serve a variety of sweet treats. One of them sells something like twenty different kinds of candy/caramel apples. They ain't cheap. But they are good. I figure that some hapless tourist bought their apple and mistakenly thought it would be a good idea to snack on it while walking along the strip. In this area of the strip, there are a lot of tourists and many of them are looking upward toward the sky, not directly in front of them where they are walking. Said tourist got in about two or three bites before he/she apparently bumped into another tourist thereby sending the expensive, delicious apple straight toward the street. I call this photo "despair" because I can only imagine the response this accident elicited from the snacker.

If it were me, though, I would have picked that sucker back up and eaten the part that hadn't hit the street. It's just a shame when folks be throwin' away a perfectly good caramel apple.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Las Vegas - Day 3 with world-famous chefs

By now you may have figured out that I put a lot of work into planning this vacation. Eating is one of my favorite things to do and I am not one to take chances of missing out on something great. So our Saturday plans were to hit the Las Vegas Strip, home to an extensive collection of restaurants by a dizzying number of world-renowned chefs.

We hit the strip early, parking at New York New York toward the southern end of the strip. After a ride on the coaster (for the SO), we hit the street and went toward the Bellagio for a little snack--gelato. I had authentic gelato at Grom in NYC, but to be honest, it didn't really live up to the gelato I remembered having at the Bellagio. It's Americanized a bit--a little sweeter and a little creamier and the flavors are more catered to American tastes (pistachio, cookies and cream, etc). So while not authentic, I will say that it's is the best American gelato there is. It beats the pants off any standard ice cream and even Luv-It's frozen custard. We got a combo of dulce de leche and tiramisu. It is so unbelievably think and creamy. And did I get a picture? No, of course not. Eyes on the prize and all that, I guess. Bellagio gelato: thumbs up.

We finished up our gelato while walking through the lobby and gardens at Bellagio (the SO had never seen those beautiful Chihuly flowers) and then headed over to Caesar's Palace for lunch. There are a lot of restaurants in the Forum Shops, but I steered us toward Spago. We initially thought we'd split a pizza, but the server suggested it might be too small, so we got two (we could have easily split the pizza, but he didn't know we'd just had gelato of course). I ordered a margherita pizza and the SO ordered a portobella and carmelized onion pizza. The pizzas are authentic Neapolitan style and are so fantastically delicious. Though I generally prefer New York style pizza, I will say that the pizza at Spago is really how pizza was really meant to be. A sturdy, but not too thick crust, fresh mozzarella and other fresh and vibrant ingredients make these pies well worth the fifteen or so dollars each that they cost. And, hey we were on vacation so we opted to get some beer with our pizza. That was the only disappointment at Spago. I suppose that due to some distribution issues or back-kitchen dealing, the only Italian beer they had was Moretti (owned by Heineken). I much prefer Peroni and though they should be similar, I found that Moretti pretty much just tasted like Heineken. Which is not the taste I wanted with my amazing authentic Italian pizza. Regardless, Spago: thumbs up (Moretti: thumbs down).

After walking off a few of the calories we consumed and working up an appetite for dinner, we left the strip to get cleaned up for the night's big event: dinner at B&B Ristorante in the Venetian (better link here). B&B is Mario Batali's small restaurant with partner Joseph Bastianich. I say small because by Las Vegas standards, it really is. It has a very intimate and boutique feel about it. Though it's rather open, so it's not very quiet. And by "intimate," I don't mean romantic--I mean the tables are crammed in so that servers and staff have to turn sideways to walk between them. But that only detracted from the experience a tiny bit. My hosts in Las Vegas were actually surprised by my choice considering that the B&B menu features quite a few odd (by American standards) critter bits, such as oxtail, lamb's brain, and sweetbreads. But I didn't feel a bit limited in my choices at all.

The recommended way to eat at B&B is via a tasting menu or to start with an appetizer (antipasti), then have a pasta dish (primi), then an entree (secondi) and then a cheese or dessert. Frankly, I don't know how anyone could eat that much food and I knew better than to try. Our dinner was started with a bruschetta (compliments of the chef) with a chickpea topping. Next, we split the appetizer of goat cheese truffles. There were three truffles--one rolled in poppy seeds, one rolled in (I think) paprika or curry powder and one rolled in the wild fennel pollen. The flavor combinations were excellent, but I would say that the appetizer was actually a bit larger than it really needed to be. I rarely leave cheese on a plate, but I'd pretty much had my fill of it just eating less than half of what was available. This appetizer could have easily been split by four people.

Instead of going for an entree, we decided to have pasta and save room for dessert. I chose the sweet potato lune (a moon-shaped ravioli) with sage an amaretti. The ravioli was very delicate in taste and served with an equally delicate and light sauce over which and amaretto cookie had been shaved (in the style of grated Parmigiano Reggiano) which gave it a hint of sweetness. It was divine. The flavors stood out yet blended perfectly. And the sommeliere recommended a fine Pinot Grigio to complement my dinner (side note: The by-the-glass serving is quite generous and they bring it to your table in a small carafe so as not to overfill your glass--a very nice touch).

And now, for dessert...after reading Claudia's recollection of her dessert at Otto, I have to say that I was overly excited and giddy and probably too eager to get through my meal and on to the big show. The SO ordered the cannoli, so I had to go for something different. I considered the panna cotta but it had a shot of espresso in it and that combined with the sugar would have had me up all night long. I also considered the bomboloni, but on the server's recommendation, I chose the ciccolato. First off, I will say that the cannoli was (of course) the best I'd ever had and not even playing in the same league or even game as the stuff you get here locally. I'm certain that it was the quality of the ricotta that really set it apart. Next I will say that if you like bread pudding, you will most certainly like the ciccolato. I don't like bread pudding. I don't like bourbon. So I made a huge mistake in ordering this dessert. The SO enjoyed it immensely, but I felt that the "bourbon caramel" was too heavy paired with such a heavy dessert--so much so that it overpowered bites of the vanilla bean gelato as well (and I felt that there was just too much of it served with the dessert). It was too bourbon-y and sweet at the same time. In retrospect, I should have just ordered the bomboloni and let the SO enjoy two desserts, but I was in a luné haze, I suppose. B&B Ristorante: thumbs up (though avoid the ciccolato unless you really like bourbon).

Next up: Laguna Beach, California.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Day 2 Las Vegas

I promise that my gastronomical excursions became more exciting as the week wore on, so bear with me.

We woke up Friday morning to a typical bright, sunny, and soon-to-be warm day in the late winter desert. I had plans for us to visit Hoover Dam, so lunch had to be quick and not too heavy, so we headed for the food bar at the local Whole Foods. The food bar is $7.99 per pound so you have to be smart about what you load up on. Also, it's hard to shove bite-size portions of foods you want to try in the recyclable containers they provide, but I managed. I got about a $5.00 salad--a little heavy thanks to some chunks of feta, but everything I got was tasty. The SO? He's not a frequenter of food bars and got (what I thought) was far more than he could eat. It weighed in at a whopping $12.00. He finished it off, though (with a little help from me). Whole Foods bar: thumbs up.

After the visit to Hoover Dam, we came back to Las Vegas via I-15 along the north side. I remembered seeing a thread on about a frozen custard stand in that area (that was difficult to find), so I entered the info into the SO's GPS and it took us right to Luv-It (I wonder how often this establishment is confused for some other type of business considering its location). I can't recall the name of the sundae we got, but it included caramel, bananas and "jimmies." I had to ask what jimmies were and was told they're chocolate sprinkles (apparently this was a topic over at Slashfood). Now I know. You crazy Yankees and your weird words. Anyhoo, this stuff was just as good as I'd heard. Smooth, creamy, and ridiculoulsly rick like a good frozen custard should be. Luv-It: thumbs up.

Later on, for dinner we headed over to Chinatown (Spring Mountain & Valley View) because we have a lack of good Chinese food here in Nashville that's vegetarian friendly. There were several dim sum places but I couldn't get any good information on how much there would be for me to eat, so I went with a recommendation I read on the Happy Cow directory for Las Vegas, KungFu Plaza. Though I found a lot of things that looked good on the menu, I wanted to go with Chinese instead of Thai, so I chose the stir-fried black fungus and tofu in ginger sauce. Sounds appetizing, no? Silly me, I just thought "black fungus" was just an odd translation of some type of mushroom. But what arrived on my plate was indeed a fungus. It looked like something scraped off the top of month-old soup sitting in the back of the refrigerator and had the consistency of pudding skin. Knowing that anything and everything is fair game for the dinner table in China--including many things I would never, ever eat--I tried it anyway. And it was delicious! Black fungus--I now know--is like tofu in that it typically has no taste of its own. Both the fungus and the tofu were then perfect centerpieces for the very delicious ginger sauce. The portion was quite large, which was a good thing as the SO happily finished it off after being somewhat disappointed in a bland chicken dish. Slowly but surely he's learning that vegetarian food is not boring and can sometimes be a lot better than non-vegetarian food! If only I'd convinced him to order the Tom Ka soup with tofu instead of chicken...though I would have left miserably full. The soup comes in a huge metal vessel resembling a bundt pan that has a sterno heater to keep it warm. It's a large amount--easily enough soup for four people. The SO hated to leave it behind, but we were headed downtown to Fremont Street. KungFu Plaza: thumbs up.

Fremont Street is where the older casinos are located. It's a little more old-school and not quite as family-friendly as the Strip. Our trip coincided with a race, so Fremont Street was packed with NASCAR fans who were quite rowdy. We walked around a bit and did some peoplewatching as well as seeing a couple of the light shows going on overhead every half hour but as the night wore on, I found myself getting a small case of the munchies. Hey, luckily enough the Mermaids Casino had a snack bar. Fried Twinkies! Fried Oreos! Frozen chocolate banana on a stick! All for 99¢ each! Yes, please! Sadly, we were informed there would be at least a 15-minute wait for the deep-fried goodies and we were dead tired, so we settled for just one frozen chocolate banana on a stick (also rolled in walnuts--yum!). For whatever reason, I did not get a picture of my late-night treat, but it wasn't terribly photogenic anyway. But it was tasty. Mermaids Casino: thumbs up.

So that was what we ate during our first full day of vacation. Next up: Spago and Mario Batali's B&B Ristorante.

First night in Las Vegas

Taking a hint from Claudia, I'm going to go day-by-day in recounting my culinary adventures in Las Vegas. Though exciting as that may sound, my first experience was with Del Taco. I'd just spent four hours on a plane, it was late, and I was hungry. I rarely have fast food, but I thought, "what the heck?" And now I have a new favorite fast food joint.

My eyes immediately went to the "Veggie Works Burrito." I figured it would be loaded with stuff I don't like but no--beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, sour cream, and red sauce. Not really "veggies" but all stuff I like (it tasted much better than it looks in my photo). Second, I spied crinkle cut fries. Yes, please. And when they say "macho" size, they mean it. My fries came in a cup larger than one I'd normally order a drink in. But I ate them. According to the website, I consumed about 1200 calories in fifteen minutes. But it was worth it. I love Del Taco. And I just discovered that a local company bought Del Taco in 2006, which is why they're slowly popping up around Nashville (including a location near my home). This is not good news for my waistline.

I only hope that the local employees are as nice and gracious as the ones I encountered out west. Like I said, I don't get fast food often, but when I do, I generally expect lackluster service and a surly attitude at best. I visited the Del Taco on Sahara in Las Vegas and one on the western edge of Twenty Nine Palms, California (not knowing there would be another one just up the road and closer to the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park) and got stellar service at each. And the employees all seemed to actually enjoy being at work. The kitchen area is really open to the front so you can see what's going on. And it's not scary at all. In California, the lady making our burritoes talked to us while she was preparing them--even offering up the advice of taking a fork with us. For the sake of research (of course), I'll visit my local Del Taco soon. I love that there's an item on a menu at a fast food restaurant that I can just quickly order and go without having to qualify with a hundred requests. Veggie Works, despite your copious calories and sodium, I dearly love you. I hate that my physique can only afford to have one of you at a time. Though I guess I could hold the sour cream...

Next up: Whole Foods (the big salad) and Kung Fu.