Part 2: The Southwest

I just completed part 2 of the best bucket list road trip ever. I learned a few things about camping in a van, about the quality of fast food, and I (re-)learned how much I love — and just enjoy being around — my family.

First things first, if for some reason you don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter (shame on you!), you probably have not been informed that my last scans, which I had in San Diego, looked really good!

Unfortunately, barring some sort of miracle, I don’t really have a lot to look forward to medically other than hoping the tumors don’t get bigger (hurting my bones more or breaking them) or spread elsewhere (a big concern especially for the lesions on my skull) — but that’s just what happened! All of the tumors either shrunk or stayed the same size, and luckily one of the big ones on my skull they were worried about, shrunk by like, a lot.

So it was the best news I could have hoped for.

After I left San Diego, I went to see my ex-stepdad in San Bernardino for an hour or so, then went on to my brother’s house in Oxnard (just north of Los Angeles).

Brotherhood

To make a very long story very short, my dad was married before he married my mom. I never knew the woman he married, or her son, my half-brother. For some reason, our father was adamant that my sister and I never meet our brother, and we never did … and after my parents divorced, our father showed us his true colors, and we moved on and didn’t think much about his side of the family at all.

A couple of years ago, on Facebook, I searched my half-brother’s name on a whim (his name was literally all I knew about him, after all), and found a guy who I thought was my brother. His name could have changed. But then, I looked at his photo, and let’s just say, I was sure we were related. Over the last two years, I started to get to know him and his wife, and it’s really been amazing. I even have a “new” niece and nephew.

Then, this diagnosis came.

I wasn’t going to get more time to get to enjoy the loving and fun relationship I just found, this extra side of my family I never knew existed. It’s a harsh realization.

But, we’re going to try to make up for that.

The plan was for me to meet up at his house in Oxnard, then drive through the southwest for a few days on our way to Houston to see our other sister. (It is becoming clear to me that I will basically be travelling between Tennessee and San Diego quite a bit, so I am happy to have my sister’s place in Houston as a sort-of-halfway point to rest.) The three of us hadn’t spent any time together at all except for right when I got out of the hospital, and I could barely move, then.

My brother and I changed our plans several times. First, we talked about going to Vegas and the Grand Canyon, then considered both traffic (at the canyon) and Covid-19 (in Vegas). Then, we talked about going to Dodge City, then quickly realized a) we didn’t have time to go that far east before heading to Houston in three days, and b) there is nothing to do in Dodge City. We were also trying to plot our route along where some cool Harvest Hosts places are, but many are closed for either the pandemic or the season.

We finally settled on driving in a general easterly direction, stopping briefly in Vegas for a quick photo shoot, then driving to Zion National Park instead of the Grand Canyon. We also wanted to go through New Mexico and see Roswell, and maybe Carlsbad Canyons. We had a general plan, but not an itinerary.

On the Road Again

My brother insisted on leaving his house at an ungodly hour, so I got to see the sunrise touched with a bit of smog and haze and wildfire smoke while he drove the van.

In Vegas, we took our obligatory sign photo …

… and I gave Trump hotel a little salute on behalf of those of us with pre-existing conditions.

But it was still morning, so we barely spent any time in Vegas. I lost $10 at the slot machines in Circus Circus, I washed my hands about 10 times, and then we were back on the road.

The real breathtaking views — like, it will literally take your breath away — were in Zion National Park.

Photos don’t even do it justice (although I will say, my iPhone 8 was taking some great shots!). Thank goodness for Teddy Roosevelt’s foresight to set aside and protect National Parks, because they are the most amazing places.

Zion has guided tours on a tram, but also a self-guided driving tour with a really cool windy road, which luckily has points where you can stop and take pictures.

It was really an incredible afternoon. We could have spent a week there exploring all of the mountains, trails and little villages nearby.

There was also a super-cool thing that you probably don’t know about if you’ve never been to Zion … but there is a weird hole in one of the mountains that looks man-made but might not be …

After wondering aloud what the heck that could be, my brother and I took the driveable trail that goes through one of the mountain tunnels. It was completed in 1930, so it’s wicked narrow and super dark, and of course has no electricity or infrastructure apart from the actual road and tunnel. It turns out, that hole in the mountain is a way to get light into the tunnel without electricity.

Brilliant.

If you’d like to hear my brother and I discover this in real time, check out this awesome POV video he took while driving through the tunnel . And be sure to follow and check out my brother’s theme park blog, Park Journey.

No More McDonald’s

On our way to Vegas from California, we stopped at McDonald’s somewhere in the desert. Mostly because it was the only place to stop. We were thinking about lunch at a diner near Yermo that apparently has awesome food and cool movie memorabilia, but it was kind of gross and empty when we arrived.

I basically used their ladies’ room, took this photo with a creepy Elvis, and left.

After our cruise through Zion National Park, we were planning to spend the night at a Harvest Hosts spot, a trading post in Navajo country almost at the Four Corners (of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado).

After a very long and very beautiful drive — which was surprisingly diverse, in my opinion (you expect the desert to only look a certain way, but in northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Utah, you see an amazing variety of rocks, formations, mountains, flora, and even weather) — we came to the trading post, but it was very dark at night and there was no phone reception. It seemed a little too sketchy, so we kept driving to a small town in northwestern New Mexico to get a motel room for the night.

There is no food in the desert.

We arrived almost exactly at 10 p.m., but everything was closed. Everything except– wouldn’t you know it — the McDonald’s. My poor brother drove all around Farmington, New Mexico looking for any kind of food, but eventually went to the McDonald’s because that was all that was available. We ate enough to not be starving anymore, but then we both felt kind of gross.

The next day, it was time for something better.

We weren’t far from Santa Fe, and I had a good friend who has spent a lot of time there. We arrived just in time for lunch, and at her suggestion stopped in the center of town — the Plaza, as they call it.

We were excited for anything that didn’t come in a paper bag and have fries and a drink included. We found the Cowgirl BBQ restaurant, where (appropriately socially distanced) we had some amazing drinks and spicy food.

New Mexico is famous for its chiles, and I ordered their Smoked Chicken Short Stack, which was a stack of blue corn tortillas layered with smoked chicken, then topped with chile sauce.

I got it Christmas style, or red and green together. It was … definitely spicy. The chicken had an amazing smoked flavor and the tortillas were nice and fresh.

We hit the road again, headed to Roswell, then to Carlsbad Caverns. Halfway between the two was another Harvest Hosts stop, this time a winery. When I called them ahead of time to let them know we were coming, they informed us that it was lasagna night, so in addition to a place to camp, we could taste some wine and have a nice dinner. It was like we almost could get over having nothing but fast food the day before.

Roswell is … interesting. I expected that some of the town would be trying to bank on the weird alien landing story, but wow.

The sign for the Dunkin’ Donuts had an alien holding it up.

The gas station had green moonmen waving you in to the car wash.

The street signs look like this:

WE GET IT. THERE ARE ALIENS.

The UFO Museum was very cool, complete with full replicas…

… of the alien autopsy and other parts of the legendary story of the Roswell alien landing.

Honestly, some of it was more than a little creepy.

I will say that the UFO Museum, at least, took social distancing and Covid precautions very seriously. Everyone was masked, there was a machine at the door that took your temperature, and there was a strict 6-feet distancing policy.

I kind of wanted to just get out of there before someone offered me an alien-shaped burger or something. Plus, I had lasagna to eat. We had to get on the road to the Balzano Family Winery so we could have dinner and some wine before it got dark.

Success!

This is a really great Harvest Hosts spot. If you aren’t familiar with Harvest Hosts, it is an RV owners’ program wherein you pay an annual fee, and you can park your rig (or converted cargo van as it were) for free at various locations. Most of them are farms, breweries, distilleries, wineries and attractions, but you can also expand your membership to golf courses.

Anyway, we set up the van (electric hookups are always a plus), then went to their lovely garden area for dinner. It’s not a restaurant, but a winery and gift shop, and apparently they also have dinner nights.

We stumbled luckily upon lasagna night, and we ordered a bottle of the Montepulciano to wash it down.

The pecan pie was also slammin’.

It was very, very nice.

In the morning, we rose with the sun, and took a few photos of the lovely sunrise over the desert.

Then it was on to Carlsbad Caverns. This is where we got really lucky.

For the most part, 2020 was one of the worst times to decide to take a nationwide road trip. Unfortunately, my clock is ticking, so I have to hit the road, pandemic or no. But half of the cool places to visit are closed or irreparably affected.

Others, like Carlsbad Caverns, are better.

We checked the website before we arrived (a MUST when traveling anywhere these days), and it advised to come early, because they often sell out of tickets before 9 a.m.

The visitor center and gift shop is awesome.

They only allow people to visit the cave a few at a time. We got a ticket for one of the first tour groups (8:45 a.m.) and I had my walker with me because my back was hurting.

So, with the combination of our early ticket time and my handicap, we got to take the elevator down to the caverns, which shaved about 45 minutes off of the walk down. Which meant that as we entered the cave, the first group of tourists (from 8 a.m.) were still descending.

We were practically alone. In the caverns.

They tell you to keep your voice to a whisper, because any noise reverberates like crazy. I’ve seen photos and videos of tourists in the caverns, and they’re always super close to each other, and the videos sound like there’s a ton of background noise (probably all of those people whispering to each other).

But this was practically silent.

We didn’t go far (it’s a hike for healthy people and my back wasn’t just up to it), but we saw about half of the public part of the cave, and that was a lot.

The lighting inside makes the rocks look like living creatures or spooky ghouls, and being in there in near-silence doesn’t hurt, either.

After Carlsbad, we headed southeast to see our sister in Houston. If you’ve ever been through west Texas, you’ll know that part of the trip isn’t much to write about other than the fried chicken. The chicken livers at Bush’s Fried Chicken in Pecos were legit.

Check out my next post for the shenanigans we got up to in Houston, and my trip further east to an alpaca farm and my mom’s house. I’ll be at my mom’s for a couple of weeks while I get my RV ready to hit the road!

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

Chillin at Jimmy Carter’s

I think I have found my new favorite Mexican food spot, you guys. They’re authentic, they’re classy, and they’ve got lots and lots of soups. What more could you want?

This past week, I finally got to check out Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café in the Hillcrest/Balboa Park neighborhood. It’s been there for decades, but I am behind; I know. I had no idea what a great place I was missing. The service isn’t just great; the servers treat you like you’re a guest in their home … because you practically are. Most of Jimmy’s employees have been working for him for decades. It is quite apparent that everyone there loves their jobs, and loves Jimmy himself.

The food is ALL homemade. It is ALL authentic. It is ALL Jimmy Carter approved. But for me, the best part is the soup list.

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Albondigas (meatball soup)

There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.

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Green chicken pozole

There is menudo every weekend.

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But that’s not all! Every day, the chef picks 2-3 more soups to have on special that day (Check out Jimmy Carter’s Instagram page for daily special announcements). There are over two dozen rotating soups, from calabaza y elotes and caldo de res, to Mexican clam chowder and spicy pork guerrero.

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Chicken tortilla soup

Their soup list is INSANE. I managed to escape with their internal soup list, which details the ingredients and garnishes for each one.

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I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.

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I’ll take one of each!

You could eat here every day for a month and never have the same meal twice. I love it!

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In addition to the albondigas and green chicken pozole, I also checked out some delicious wet tacos (above) and some mini quesadillas (below) stuffed with chicken and carnitas.

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I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.

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Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.

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I got to try them all, and I think the Tlaquepaque is my favorite. I see why it’s the most popular … it’s creamy and spicy and good on literally everything.

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There is literally nothing I would not like to eat with this sauce, but Jimmy himself recommends the cheese enchiladas with this gorgeous stuff on top.

Don’t forget the drinks and dessert! In addition to a super-huge menu of authentic Mexican cuisine, Jimmy Carter’s offers a fun assortment of cocktails and other drinks. As you know, I recently discovered the beauty of the tequila mule for myself, so I sampled JCMC’s mezcal mule.

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Outstanding!

And, although I was definitely slowing down by this point (those soups were so good I was licking the bowl), I had to sneak in a few tastes of the coconut flan.

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All in all, I am so glad I finally visited. I will definitely be back to try more of those amazing soups and sauces.

Saturday at H Mart

This weekend I finally got to check out the newly-opened H Mart on Balboa Avenue (the one on Mira Mesa is still there, but this second one just opened in early June).

The second H Mart is considerably larger than the older store, and boasts a huge food hall with tons of amazing food.

After perusing the baked goods (that are waiting for you as soon as you walk in the entrance), it occurred to me: one must never go grocery shopping while hungry.

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Luckily, there were plenty of options.

First, I tried some kimchi fried rice from Bann Korean Cuisine. The kimchi was delicious but the dish itself was a little TOO packed with green onions for my taste.

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The busiest part of the food hall, by far, was the Myungrang Hot Dog stand, which features delicious sticked hot dogs coated in a tasty rice batter (and in some cases, squid ink, cheeses, or potato), then you have the option to have them rolled in sugar or coated in any one of a variety of yummy sauces.

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And, of course, you can’t go wrong with the hot dog coated in cheese.

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It was quite interesting … I expected them to be crunchy but I wasn’t prepared for the chewiness of the dough. Also the sugar topping was a great addition, despite how it sounds – the sweetness of the sugar balances perfectly with the saltiness of the hot dog.

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After a quick perusal of the grocery part of the store, and picking up a few essentials – sesame oil, Korean pancake mix, Korean BBQ sauce for grilling later (see below) and some ginger candies – I headed across the street to Cross Street Chicken and Beer for some after-shopping sustenance.

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There was a short wait … but it was worth it.

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I tried the soy garlic wings and the spicy corn poppers, plus a nice flight of IPA beers. I usually drink IPAs, but the beers here were specifically selected to complement the chicken and other dishes.

This place is a gem.

I kept the party going when I got home …I smoked some chicken legs and pork belly using that Korean BBQ sauce …

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… and I used smoked meats, that oniony kimchi fried rice, plus homemade sticky rice and savory Korean pancakes, as my meal prep for the week.

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Toast of Gaslamp 2018

The holiday season got kicked off right here in downtown San Diego last weekend … most of the tasting walking tours you generally get tickets to in this town are small bites of food only, and the Toast of Gaslamp is one of the few where you get food AND cocktails.

I went to the event (after giving away a pair on my Instagram page) with an awesome foodie friend, because of course you need an awesome foodie friend for an event like this one. Luckily, most of the participating restaurants were on Fifth Avenue or very close.

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First, we were all supposed to dress in festive holiday outfits. In contrast to the previous few days when the weather was FREEZING (read: San Diego “freezing,” which is about 40 degrees), Saturday was sunny and warm. Definitely the weather you want when you are doing a walking tour, but not when you’re wearing festive winter hats.

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So, this cute ensemble didn’t last long. (By the way, these gorgeous purple couches are at Side Bar downtown, where we also enjoyed a lovely taste of a cauliflower tempura dish.)

I think my only complaint about this event (other than the weather, which is hardly anyone’s fault), is that the tasting ticket all the participants were given also said what the tastes and sips were, and some of them turned out to not be correct.

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For example, the first entry, American Junkie, supposedly offered chipotle bacon mac and cheese with BBQ pulled pork garnish (!!) and crispy rock shrimp. The mac and cheese unfortunately was not really there, but the shrimp with sweet aji Amarillo sauce was delicious, as was the watermelon mule.

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Because it was a holiday theme, lots of the food samples offered were sweets, like this gingerbread spread on plain bagels at Spill the Beans

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Or these delicious New Orleans-style beignets at The Dive

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I think one of my favorites was the chicken and waffle bite at Tin Roof, although their “Yule Mule” was a little too sweet for me.

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Although most of the non-dessert food samples turned out to be some sort of ceviche — luckily, all of them were quite delicious, especially the shrimp ceviche from Bar Vie and the house ceviche from Machu Picchu — there was also some ultra-smoky pulled pork and coleslaw from Gaslamp BBQ

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Stay tuned for more next year! 

Hatch Chile Season in Full Effect

Hatch Chiles are truly a marketing marvel of modern times. Typically, from around the beginning of August through the end of September, you will see many of your local stores featuring the mild New Mexican chile pepper, and many of them will offer free roasting as well.

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I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a “Hatch bag” from the Lazy Acres Natural Market in Mission Hills (on Washington Street, if you’re in San Diego). It’s a wonderful natural foods market, and they make a ton of their own products. I was given a bag not just of the chili peppers themselves, but a plethora of items made with Hatch chiles.

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That’s pie, cornbread, wine, crackers, cheese, cream cheese, beef patties, orange juice, guacamole, cream cheese, fiesta mix, and of course, some Hatch chiles, both fresh and roasted. Wow! Who knew they even made Chile Wine? (Not me.)

The first thing I did was grate up some of that Hatch chili cheddar cheese, and I used it in my Sunday meal prep to spice up my breakfast casserole.

The recipe for the casserole is wicked simple: the crust/bottom layer is crumbled up biscuits, then cooked sausage with mushroom and onion, then scrambled egg mixed with a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Top with cheese and bake til done, like 30 minutes on 400 degrees.

 

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Next, I used the Hatch chili cream cheese and the grated Hatch chile cheddar cheese, plus ranch dressing and chicken breast, to make this amazing little snack.

If you’re ever stuck needing a quick, easy, potluck dish, or just a regular appetizer or snack, this is for you. Simply mix the chicken (canned or fresh/cooked) with ranch and cream cheese, then top with grated cheese and bake until bubbly. This is a very versatile  – the original recipe is buffalo sauce and regular cream cheese instead of Hatch-flavored cream cheese and cheddar cheese – and will be an instant crowd-pleaser.

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I also used the spicy orange juice (I was too chicken to drink it) in my Instant Pot to make some delicious ribs … just cook the ribs (on their side, like pictured below) on a rack inside the pot, pressure cook on high pressure for 25-30 minutes (and natural release), and then finish off on the grill or under a broiler with your favorite BBQ sauce. You won’t be disappointed!

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I also used the cornbread for a few dishes … it was a perfect accompaniment to the sweet taste of the Mississippi “Coke” Roast I also made in my Instant Pot.

Coke Roast is one of those recipes that sound really crazy when you read the ingredients, but you know it’s for real as soon as you taste it. This particular insanely easy and fast Instant Pot recipe is a pork loin (or beef chuck roast, but I think the pork is more tender), a can of Cola-Cola, a stick of butter, half a jar of pepperoncinis (with the juice), a packet of ranch dressing mix and a packet of au jus gravy mix. Pressure-cook for about 30 minutes with natural release, and serve over something spicy.

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I used the Hatch chile cream cheese and cheddar cheese for variations on a few of my favorite recipes. In addition to the chicken-cheese dip, I also made one of my favorite side dishes with a spicy twist.

These onions are usually made with Asiago cheese … simply wrap a slice of bacon around a half an onion, then add broth, cream, and roast until tender. Then add a bunch of grated Asiago cheese on top. I followed this same recipe but added Hatch cheddar instead of Asiago. It doesn’t have the same funky Asiago flavor, but the spiciness certainly made up for it.

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I think my favorite item in the bag was the delicious beef patties … they were clearly handmade, stuffed with cheese and lots of chunks of Hatch chiles, and the meat was very tender and fresh.

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I served the burgers on cauliflower sandwich thins with ketchup, mustard and mayo, and topped it with some sautéed mushrooms and fresh Hatch guacamole from the Hatch bag.

It was EPIC.

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What’s your favorite Hatch chile recipe? Let us know in the comments and your recipe might be selected for our Hatch feature next summer!

BBQ Class with the ‘Czar of Char’

This week, I was lucky enough to be a part of a small gathering of food bloggers to meet with Chef Alex Benes at the Wood Ranch Restaurant in Hazard Center (San Diego). We were all treated to most of the items from the menu, including desserts, all while Chef explained to us some of his favorite tips and techniques.

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There was a lot of talk about meat – and I’ll get to that later – but to me, some of the biggest stars were the vegetables and sides. To start, we enjoyed sweet potatoes and cauliflower fresh from the grill:

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Or the Farmhouse Salad, with kale, Brussels sprouts, quinoa, black beans, roasted broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, scallions, cucumbers, radishes and hard-boiled egg (and to which many people also add chicken or other meat):

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And we got to sample this INSANE burger known as “The Ultimate,” which has pulled pork and slaw, brisket and cheese, kielbasa and jalapeno, and topped with shredded fried onions:

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To my surprise, Chef said that when he’s cooking for himself or his loved ones, his favorite food to grill is actually fish! You’d think he would be all about a brisket or a tri-tip, but his favorite thing is to grill a whole fish. Wood Ranch doesn’t feature a whole fish on its (already pretty extensive) menu, but they do have some amazing options for salmon and shrimp. We got to sample salmon three ways (with blackened seasoning, and with two different spicy glazes), and they were all delicious.

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And look at these sides! The mashed potatoes and mac & cheese were pretty standard but very tasty, and the peanut coleslaw is a perfect crunchy side for their smoked meats.

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We had a bit of a debate at the table about whether the tri-tip or the brisket, and honestly, while both of them were amazing, I think I liked the tri-tip more. The tri-tip was served with Wood Ranch’s signature BBQ sauce (which you can purchase by the bottle):

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… But the brisket was so tender, and it was served with this awesome housemade cherry chipotle sauce, which I would happily buy by the bottle if they let me.

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I didn’t partake in the desserts – but they looked amazing. You can choose from cheesecake:

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… chocolate cake:

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… peach cobbler:

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or Oreo Cookie Crunch:

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I was trying to stay on my diet but it was difficult.

I highly recommend this place, for the convenience (right off the freeway and the trolley line), the ambiance and the friendly staff; but most of all the food. The chef clearly takes the time and effort to put out a premium product.

Instant Pot Love – How to make yogurt, cheesecake, meatloaf and more

Do you have an Instant Pot yet?

It was apparently the hottest gift for the 2017 holiday season, so if you’re like me, someone who loves you bought you one of these babies.

Happy Holidays to me!

It’s really an amazing machine.

It’s a pressure cooker – but not one of those old and clunky ones that your grandmother used to have that made horrible noises and looked like it might explode at any moment.

This is a computerized cooking machine that is smart enough to remember your past settings and cook everything from hardboiled eggs to cheesecake to BBQ ribs.

After using this machine for a few weeks, I was able to happily donate my old slow cooker (because the IP has a slow cooker setting that doesn’t involve pressurization), my rice cooker (it makes all rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and any other type of grains in half the time of the best rice cooker on the market), and my yogurt maker.

Yogurt

Speaking of yogurt, you can literally make a ton of it at the touch of a button. I recommend setting it up before you go to bed at night, and you’ll wake up to yogurt!

All it requires is:

  • a gallon of milk,
  • a small container of plain yogurt (approx. 6 oz.), and
  • a 5 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk.

Put it on the “Yogurt” setting for 10 hours (or more) and then refrigerate.

That’s it.

Six quarts of homemade Greek yogurt.

That yields 6 quarts of yogurt.

Wow!

Adapting Your Favorites to the IP

My first experiment with this machine was for a tagine recipe … one of my favorite Moroccan dishes with chicken, chicken livers, green olives, preserved lemons, and other veggies.

Instead of slow cooking this for 8-9 hours, or on the stovetop in a fancy tagine clay pot, I simply placed all the ingredients in the Instant Pot and pressure-cooked it for 25 minutes.

Instant Pot Moroccan chicken

I have to admit, I was still a little nervous. Would that be enough time to cook chicken? And to make sure all of the flavors were properly cooked in to the meat?

To my pleased surprise, it turned out beautifully. If you are trying to adapt your favorite recipes to the Instant Pot, check out this link.

I think the most important thing when adapting is to check the pressure release – a “quick release” of the pressure will let the steam escape right away and are for recipes that are not generally slow-cooked (see, for example, the meatloaf and mashed potatoes recipe, below).

For a recipe like this chicken where you want the flavors to be infused into every bite, you will want to do a “natural release” method after the cooking time is over. It takes a few extra minutes, but it’s worth it. And it’s still ready to eat in a fraction of the time.

Sweet Dishes

One of the first rookie mistakes of the Instant Pot is to neglect the sealing ring. The IP comes with a clear ring that fits on the inside of the pressurized lid.

At the very least, you need to make sure the sealing ring is cleaned after every use, or the flavors from whatever you cook will stick to the ring and get into everything you cook later.

If you intend to use your Instant Pot for savory dishes (chicken, ribs, eggs) as well as sweet dishes (cheesecakes and desserts), then the first thing you need to do is buy at least one extra sealing ring. I got a pair of them on Amazon.

Now I only use the red sealing ring for desserts and sweet dishes.

I also purchased a springform pan that fits inside a 6-quart Instant Pot, and I can use this for cheesecakes and other desserts as well as lasagna.

Cheesecake

I made a couple of different types of cheesecake to see how well it worked. Basically, you can make the crust however you like (crushed cookies with melted butter, or even a brownie that is only partially baked in the oven).

Oreo crust!

Then the filling recipe is simple:

  • 4 8-oz. packages of cream cheese
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar

The most important thing to remember is that the cream cheese and eggs MUST be at room temperature. If not, they will not blend properly and will result in a lumpy cheesecake. Make sure all ingredients are blended and smooth, then pour into your springform pan.

Cook on the (high) pressure setting for 45 minutes, and use the natural release method (which will take about another 10-15 minutes).

Let it cool and garnish with your favorite toppings.

Oreo cheesecake with berries.

This is one of my favorite recipes because it’s so easily adaptable. Try it with lots of different crusts and/or toppings!

Turtle cheesecake with brownie crust

I have tried similar recipes in the oven before, and I even made some in the oven while I was making some in the Instant Pot, just so I could see the difference in flavor and texture. The pressure cooking makes the filling much softer and lighter!

Food parties

During my first couple of weeks with the Instant Pot, I organized a few friends for a tamale party.

If you’ve never been to one, it’s basically a fun way to make a party out of something that can be pretty boring and tedious – making tamales.

Tamales are a popular dish around the holiday season, especially in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They are delicious concoctions of many types of fillings and masa (corn) dough stuffed into corn husks and steamed.

They are also a giant pain to make. Hence, a party.

Tamale party setup

Instead of spending hours doing all the work yourself, you get a few friends, everyone brings fillings and masa dough and corn husks (as well as a few bottles of wine and snacks to sustain you for a long afternoon), and everyone makes a bunch of tamales.

It’s a little bit of work, but everyone goes home with tons of tamales to eat (or freeze for later).

Tons of tamales. Literally.

As you can imagine, the Instant Pot made a ton of work a little easier.

The night before the party, I used my Instant Pot to make a vegetarian filling … literally a variety of vegetables and spices simmered for a few hours. Except that it literally took less than 20 minutes on the pressure setting. It took me longer to chop all of the veggies than it did for me to make a huge amount of delicious vegetarian filling.

Vegetarian tamale filling

I also made a chicken verde filling – literally a few boneless chicken thighs and a big can of salsa verde – that was ready in half an hour.

Saving the day at the tamale party

And, of course, tamales need to be cooked, too; and that usually takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours in standard steamer pot. But I actually brought my Instant Pot with me to the party (did I mention it’s very portable and has a handy handle on top?) and was able to steam a few batches right on the spot.

A full pot (I have a 6-quart) stuffed full of tamales steamed each one beautifully in 30-35 minutes. (Do a quick release afterwards.)

Weeknight Meals

Because the Instant Pot can make short work out of many dishes that would otherwise take hours and hours, it’s perfect for weeknight meals and holiday dinners.

For Christmas dinner I used it to make Brussels sprouts (in 3 minutes!); and for New Year’s, I made black-eyed peas and greens, a delicious Southern New Year’s Day tradition to bring good luck in the new year.

Usually it simmers in my slow cooker for 24 hours. This year, I made it in 35 minutes – from dried beans!

Black-eyed peas and greens for New Year’s Day.

Which brings me to another awesome feature of the Instant Pot – it’s multi-functionality! Although most recipes use the “pressure” setting, there is also an equally awesome “sauté” setting.

For example, before, when I made black-eyed peas in my crock pot, I would brown the onions and garlic and whatnot before adding them to the slow cooker.

With the Instant Pot, you can sauté the veggies, then add the rest of your ingredients and switch the setting to pressure to complete the dish! It saves tons of time in washing multiple pots and pans, not to mention that you are cooking the food in a fraction of the time.

Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes

The meatloaf and mashed potatoes recipe from I Wash, You Dry is definitely going to be a weeknight supper regular for me. It’s so easy!

Meatloaf and mashed potatoes AT THE SAME TIME!

You place the potatoes and chicken broth at the bottom, then put the wire rack over the potatoes and place the foil-wrapped meatloaf on top. You can even cook a vegetable side dish in there, too.

Meatloaf and potatoes dinner

With only 25 minutes on pressure, and quick release, you can have a delicious dinner on the table in no time.

Sous Vide Eggs and Meal Planning

I usually eat breakfast on the go, and it’s hard to do that and stay healthy sometimes. Luckily, the Instant Pot is also great  for meal prep.

This is another cool Instant Pot accessory … a silicone mold. The Amazon listing says it’s for baby food and egg bites, among other things, but I use it mostly for eggs.

Sous vide egg bites

The most important thing to remember here is to not fill the cups all the way. I made that mistake my first time, and the egg mixture expanded and almost popped out of the container!

Ah well. They still tasted good!

This is a really great way to prepare an easy and healthy breakfast.

You can customize the flavorings (and control the salt and fat, etc.), and make a whole pan of these in less than half an hour – 8 minutes of pressure cooking (which means it will take a moment to get to the appropriate pressure) and then 10 minutes to let the steam naturally release.

The result is a pan of delicious and super-fluffy egg bites you can eat all week long.

Coming soon

In addition to some fun and useful Instant Pot accessories, I treated myself to a new cookbook, too!

I really adore Indian food, and I can’t wait to experience how much easier it is to make at home with the Instant Pot!

Coming up soon on Starbright’s Kitchen!

Please stay tuned to Starbrightskitchen.com to see the creations from Urvashi Pitre’s Indian Instant Pot Cookbook!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herb and Eatery

A few of us lucky food bloggers got a chance last weekend to visit Brian Malarkey’s newest venture, Herb & Eatery – an extension, really, of his award-winning restaurant Herb & Wood.

Herb & Eatery is the front of the store and the Herb & Wood dining room is in the back.

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Herb & Wood has already won a ton of accolades for being the most stylish and sexy new restaurant in town- and now with Herb & Eatery, you can take all of the goodness home with you.

Jars of goodness at Herb & Eatery

Jars of goodness at Herb & Eatery

Herb & Eatery essentially has all of the goodies that make chefs (and humble food bloggers) swoon. Brian Malarkey gave us a sweet tour of the chef’s shop and restaurant before filling us with food.

Brian Malarkey

Almost everything is made in-house. You like the tapenade or the salsa that was part of your (award-winning) dinner at Herb & Wood? Come next door and you can buy a jar of it to take home.

Want some fresh herbs, fresh-baked croissants, imported cheeses, frozen ice cream cookie sandwiches, or even the designer flatware you used? It’s all for sale next door.

View of the pastries from the second floor

View of the pastries from the second floor

Herb & Wood was the first phase of this project; and this awesome shop is phase two. They have already expanded the upstairs area into a lounge for private gatherings; and the adjacent space into an art gallery and private event room.

Art on display in the private event space next door to Herb & Eatery

Art on display in the private event space next door to Herb & Eatery

In addition to a drool-worthy “chef’s shop,” a host of housemade pastries are available, every one of them made around-the-clock by pastry chef extraordinaire Adrian Mendoza.

pastries and kombucha

And don’t forget the house-made kombucha.

pastries

Speaking of croissants, YOU WANT THESE CROISSANTS.

They are made fresh daily (and sell out really fast) with tons of specialty imported butter and they are said to rival the best Parisian café. We enjoyed them plain, stuffed with chocolate, stuffed with meat and cheese, and made into these lovely breakfast sandwiches.

This is the Maple Croissant: filled with maple pork sausage, a fried egg, gruyere cheese, arugula and aioli.

croissant

We also got to sample a few of the baked eggs dishes: Brian was very exited about these … they take a loaf (bread) pan and fill it with scrambled eggs and potato, then bake it, slice it, and cover each slice in one of five different topping combinations.

This is the one with mushrooms, Humboldt goat cheese, herbs, kale, and crème fraiche. It was heavenly.

mushroom baked eggs

And this is the baked egg with tomato, capers, olives, basil pesto and lemon zest:

baked egg with tomato

We weren’t even close to being finished. Next we got to sample a few of the items from the All Day Menu (breakfast is only served from 8-11 a.m.).

One of my favorites was the poke & avocado salad, with kimchi, cilantro, housemade ponzu and mixed greens:

poke

… but I also loved the smoked curry chicken and cashews salad with kale and cilantro.

curry chicken salad

We also sampled some of their amazing sandwiches, like the banh mi with chicken sausage, papaya, and chicken liver pate:

banh mi

… as well as the amazing tuna melt with olive oil-poached albacore tuna, preserved lemons, herbs, capers and white cheddar cheese.

tuna melt

As if that wasn’t enough carbs to put us all into respective food comas, we also got a sample of two of Brian Malarkey’s favorite appetizers: a Marin triple cream brie with seasonal mustard and jelly:

brie

…  plus these beautiful sugar cane Thai chicken skewers:

thai sugar cane chicken skewers

And really amazing root fries with homemade smoked French dressing and yusu aioli:

root fries

Aaaand ice cream cookies …

ice cream cookies

The ice cream cookie flavor blends were perfect: they have chocolate chip cookies with mint chocolate chip ice cream; cranberry oatmeal cookies with vanilla bean (my favorite) and peanut butter cookies with banana ice cream.

I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise given the amazing reputation that Malarkey enjoys in this town, but LITERALLY everything they have is amazingly delicious.

This isn’t one of those places where you might drop in for a breakfast pastry because they have a good baker, but not come for lunch or dinner because other items aren’t as good.  Here, everything is good. You can tell that the chefs and employees there take food quality seriously and want you to experience the best. I’ll definitely be back!

The Franken-Cookie

  • Sometimes, you just can’t decide. I was recently at home with a sweet tooth and a pantry full of goodies, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted an oatmeal cookie, a peanut butter cookie, or a chocolate chip cookie. I mean, who can choose?

So I created the Frankencookie. The best parts of all three cookies, rolled into one giant, soft, sweet — and not drastically unhealthy — snack.

Frankencookie

The Franken-Cookie

(makes about a dozen large cookies or 16-18 small ones)

  • 3 cups oatmeal, quick-cooking or old-fashioned
  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup shredded coconut
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 325. Mix together the oatmeal, flour, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and baking soda. Slowly add the coconut oil, peanut butter, eggs and honey, and mix well until completely blended. Then add the coconut and chocolate chips (and the walnuts if you are choosing that option).

Form the dough into balls (makes about 12 large cookies or about 18 small ones) and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.

Frankencookies

Thanks to coconut oil instead of butter or oil, and brown sugar and honey instead of granulated white sugar, this is even a *relatively* healthy cookie.

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recipe card - Frankencookie

Easy and healthy Cranberry-Date Bars

I don’t know about you guys, but the “cherry pie” Larabars are one of my favorite go-to snacks. I was recently checking out the package, and noticed this:

cherry pie larabars

That’s right! In addition to being raw, paleo, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, kosher, dairy-free and soy-free, it only has three ingredients!

This year, I entered the Cape Cod Select Blogger Challenge, to join fellow food bloggers in creating some delicious new recipes starring Cape Cod Select Premium Frozen Cranberries.

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I decided to make these “cherry pie” bars with cranberries instead of cherries. These are easy to make, really healthy and unprocessed, and YUMMY. I also added a touch of honey and cinnamon to counteract some of the tartness of the cranberries.

cape cod select premium cranberries

First, the ingredients. I know there are only three, but they’re important.

The Cape Cod Select Premium Frozen Cranberries come frozen, so remove the bag from the freezer a few hours prior to making these. Then they’ll be easier to chop into small pieces.

I purchased this package of date paste, or baking dates:

baking dates

Just be sure to check the ingredients. If it says anything other than “dates,” buy something else. No additives are needed. Dates are naturally very sweet, so you don’t want anything with added sugars or oils.

If you can’t find date paste locally (I found it at my local Indian/Asian market), try purchasing it online. If you would rather make it from scratch, try this recipe.

As far as the almonds, the easiest way is to buy a package of the sliced almonds, and then break them up in the bag before you add them to the cranberries and dates.

  • 1 16-oz package of Cape Cod Select Premium Frozen Cranberries, defrosted and diced
  • 1 10-oz bag of sliced almonds, crushed into very small pieces
  • 1 13-oz package of date paste (see note above)
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp. honey

Step 1: Make sure all ingredients are as small as possible. Dice the cranberries, crush the almond slices, and make sure the date paste is smooth. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and blend completely.

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At this point, try to squeeze out as much excess juice as possible.

Step 2: Transfer to deep-dish baking pan and make sure it is packed in tightly. Bake on the lowest setting in your oven for approx. 2 hours.

Note: Fresh-frozen cranberries are naturally much juicier than dried cherries, so you have a couple of options to dry the bars. If you have a dehydrator, you can also dehydrate then for 3-5 hours on the high setting.

bars on the dehydrator

Step 3: Wrap each bar individually. Keep chilled.

cranberry date bars

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recipe-card-cdabars

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