Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Italy, Day 1

Our honeymoon in Italy was truly a trip of a lifetime and I hope that one day Jim and I get to go back and experience all the magic over again. We both threw money in the Trevi Fountain which legend says means we are guaranteed to come back.  I will do my best to cover the highlights of our trip, and take it city by. This picture is the foyer of the Westin Excelsior, Rome where we stayed the first three nights.

The Westin Excelsior is architecturally grandiose, but hasn't quiet moved into the 21st century the way some other grand hotels have. The hotel is located near Via Veneto and Piazza Barberini, a beautiful and upscale commercial neighborhood, near some of Rome's best shopping. In the 1950's and early 1960s, Via Veneto was the swinging place to be where Frank Sinatra paraded up and down the boulevard for the paparazzi.

We were so fortunate to have been moved into an upgraded room. The colors, textures and even the carpeting was beautiful. I slept BEST in this bed at the Westin than I did at any other hotel on our stay. Maybe because this was the only hotel with a queen mattress. It was so odd to me that the other hotels simply pushed two twin beds together to make a queen or king bed.

Our room had a private terrace with a great view of the city!

The bathroom is always the space I check out first. I like the mini shampoos and other amenities they put in here for us. As I soon learned, even a wash cloth in Italy was an amenity, as other hotels did not provide those.

My absolute favorite part of the bathroom was this amazing tub and the window in the bathroom that opens to the terrace.

Jim reviewing our itinerary for the tour that began the following day. We had this entire first day to explore on our own, at our own pace and get used to the time change.

We had a hungry visitor on our terrace, who also joined us for breakfast every morning (I swear it was the same one that came back.)

Our lovely travel agent sent us a sweet congratulations card and some chocolate dipped strawberries.

As we left the hotel to go explore the city, I snapped this shot before crossing the road. And let me say crossing the street is truly a leap of faith. Italian drivers pretend they don't see you and if you are timid or hesitate they will whip right past you. We learned that you must step out in traffic and TRUST they will slow down. It always worked, but oh my goodness it was scary.

Down one of the streets we came upon this fruit stand with vibrant fruits and vegetables! I loved it.

I had to elbow my way through the crowd to get a picture in front of the Trevi Fountain. It's hard to believe this piazza was nearly deserted before the 1954 film Three Coins in the Fountain brought new interest to this lovely spot. The fountain is supplied by water from the Acqua Vergine aqueduct and a triumph of the baroque style, it was completed in 1762. The focus of the fountain is Neptunus Rex, standing on a shell chariot drawn by winged horses and led by a pair of Triton's.  It was stunning, but when we went back in the evening after dinner it was absolutely breathtaking. The lights, the people and all the energy...it made Rome my favorite city on our trip.

One of the most desirable areas of Rome is the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. This district is a maze of narrow streets and alleys dating from the Middle Ages. Jim was very jazzed to see the Pantheon and the only way to explore this area is on foot. We did SO much walking on this trip!  Piazza Novona is bustling with side walk cafes, street artists, musicians and trattorie.  The Pantheon is from ancient Roman times and is surrounded by a district built much later. This pagan temple has been rescued and turned into a church.

Lunch on day one was unforgettable. Upon a recommendation from the hotel for a restaurant off the beaten path where locals would eat, we searched and searched and searched and finally found Pietro. With just a little sign and unassuming entrance, I had no idea what was in store for our very first meal in Italy.

When we walked in, "Momma" came out of the kitchen to greet us and gestured for us to choose from one of the 10 empty tables in her restaurant.

Momma was so attentive, and I don't believe it was because we were her only patrons. She was warm, welcoming and didn't speak a word of English. We all  laughed when I told her we didn't speak Italian.

Many pointing and hand gestures later, we had a bottle of water, a liter of house wine and this amazing appetizer on our table.

Parmesan with a slice of black truffle. I kid you not she brought out those two black truffles and a knife and shaved two hearty slices for us at the table.

Jim and I then split this Caprese salad which was so incredibly fresh with flavors bursting like pop rocks in my mouth. I knew we still had more food coming and tried not to get too full, but it was a salad that I could not stop eating. Fresh sliced tomatoes that were sweet, soft and flavorful mozzarella, fresh basil, black olives and all drizzled with olive oil.

We also had to try the prosciutto. It came with a dollop of fresh mozzarella and two basil leaves with two tomatoes. We gobbled everything up!

Jim's entree was the tomato spaghetti.

I know I ordered the better entree. Homemade gnocchi in a Gorgonzola cream sauce topped with Parmesan and THEN.... THEN, she brought back a black truffle to the table along with a grater and began to freshly grate truffle ALL over the pasta. Seriously? Shoot me now! No, wait...let me eat this meal then shoot me, I would die a very very happy woman. My chef friend Gabe has promised to show me how to recreate this meal at home. I guarantee I will post the tutorial as soon as we complete this heavenly meal.

On our first evening in Rome we learned how late the Italians eat dinner. Most restaurants were not even open until 7 or 7:30 PM. We had an hour to kill before our dinner reservation so we walked towards Piazza Barberini and stopped for a drink at La Baita.

When the restaurant says "American Bar" that means they have alcohol. When they say "bar" that means a coffee bar.

My first Italian Beer, Nastro Azzurro.

Luckily after we grabbed a seat on the covered patio, the rain started coming down. We were safe from the weather, but the unexpected thunderstorm provided us lots to look at as people came up from the underground transportation onto a wet street and began running for shelter. It was quite entertaining.

Looking at this picture brings me right back to this quaint restaurant. This was also a recommendation from the hotel, and we were so thankful that we had our first dinner in Rome at this place. http://www.vineriailchianti.com/

The restaurant looked so small from the entrance, but as our waitress led us back through numerous rooms to our table for two we realized what a big place it actually was.

We started with an appetizer of assorted salumi, sliced thin and served with some cheese, nuts and bread.

Our wine was the 2007 Nittardi Classico, a Chianti for only 22 euros. The label made me laugh, it looked like a devil in a vat of grapes with all these naked bums sticking up from the grapes. For the price of the bottle, the wine was spectacular.

Next we ordered our first Italian pizza. It had tomato sauce, mozzarella and thinly sliced prosciutto. We were surprised when it was delivered as a whole pie, no slices. We each took a fork and knife to it and could not believe how great it was. We love pizza, and heard pizza in Italy was better, but we were shocked to experience it ourselves. I will tell you this, I've never had anything like it before. The pizza crust was absolutely perfect. It was thin, but the tomato sauce didn't make it soggy. The edge had a great crisp crunch to it. We didn't leave any pizza.

Then the small plate of pumpkin tortellini came out. The dough was thin and soft, the stuffing of pumpkin puree was flavorful and then the entire tortellini was drizzled with brown butter and crispy sage. These were subtle and simple flavors, which on their own might be quite bland and boring, but together they were OMG. Pure bliss on a plate.

At the end of this meal, and every other meal in Italy, we ended with an espresso. In this picture also is the Grappa that Jim tried for the first time. I'd have to be honest and say it smelled and tasted like lighter fluid to me, but the waiter said he brought us the best grappa in the house... I'd hate to taste their worst grappa.

To the south of our hotel, Via Veneto comes to an end at Piazza Barberini, dominated by the 1642 Triton Fountain, a baroque celebration with four dolphins holding up an open scallop shell in which a Triton sits blowing into a conch. Overlooking the square is the Palazzo Barberini and also the spot where Jim and I enjoyed after dinner treats while people watching.

Grappa makes Jim a happy man. Do you know what I discovered on this trip?


and Gelato. Two things I could not get enough of on this trip. More stories to come!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bobby's Chicken Tacos

I made Bobby Flay's Spice-Rubbed Chicken Breast Tacos with Grilled Poblano Pepper and Coleslaw. Long title, and interesting ingredient list, but I was in the mood to go out on a limb and experiment. My trust in Bobby Flay was rewarded, these tacos are A.M.A.Z.I.N.G!

There are several components. The Grilled Poblanos, BBQ Onions, Coleslaw, Spice-Rubbed Chicken and  Guacamole. Here are the step by step directions:

Of course Bobby Flay uses an outdoor grill, probably charcoal. Our gas grill is unreliable and on it's last leg, so I used a grill pan by Lodge that my girlfriend Jenna gave me as a wedding gift. It's great because it has grill ridges on one side, perfect for searing meats and a flat griddle on the other, perfect for foods like fish and eggs.

Bobby used his grill to blacken the poblano peppers. I turned my oven to broil and placed three poblano peppers in and let them blister and blacken for about 10 minutes, checking and turning about every 2 or 3 minutes.

Remove from the grill or oven, place in a bowl and cover with plastic for 10 minutes. The poblanos steam and the skin becomes easier to remove. Remove the skin, seeds and stem and cut into thin slices. Set aside.

I'm very happy with how the onions turned out. In the past, I've cut an onion into rings and then sauteed them on the stove. Here, I cut the onion into slices (leaving the layers intact) season with a little salt and pepper and placed them on my grill pan (ridge side) and let them char for about 4 minutes. Flip the onion slices over and brush with a jarred bbq sauce. If you want to make homemade BBQ Sauce, see my HWM BBQ Sauce recipe. I was SO skeptical of the BBQ flavor in my chicken taco, but I went with it and I encourage you to try this also.  Separate the onion into rings, set aside.

For the Coleslaw I use:
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon celery seed
3 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar
1/2 small red onion, thinly diced
i bag of shredded cabbage

Bobby's recipe called for buying your own cabbage and shredding it. The taco recipe already had enough made-from-scratch elements, this was a step I skipped. Whisk together the mayonnaise, sugar, celery salt, celery seed, vinegar in a large bowl. Add the cabbage and stir to combine, season with salt and pepper, if needed. Let slaw sit at least 15 minutes before serving.

Have I added that I don't even like Coleslaw, of any kind!?!? This is really good though, a must try.
I've never made a chicken rub quite like this before. Check out the ingredients:
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

The cinnamon is a great surprise! Whisk together all the spices in a small bowl. Season top side of the breasts with the rub mixture, turn over and season the back with a little salt. Drizzle with some of the oil and place on the grill, rub side down and grill until lightly golden brown and a crust has formed, about 3 minutes. Turn the chicken over, cooking until just cooked through, about 6 minutes longer. Remove from the grill and let rest 5 minutes before slicing.  The brown sugar helps the rub caramalize, it's great.

I admit I went rogue on the Guacamole. I didn't care for the way Bobby made his guacamole, so I did a little something different. In my cuisinart blender I put two avocados,  2 T lime juice, 1/2 red onion, 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, 1/2 seeded jalapeno (happened to be a VERY hot one.) I pureed this until it was a paste, hardly any chunks.

The Assembly: I purchased freshly made tortillas from my grocery store (yum) and assembled the taco by first smearing a thin layer of my guacamole, then placing a few strips of chicken, topped with a few thin strips of poblano, then coleslaw. There were SO many flavors going on, I couldn't believe my first bite when everything came alive and worked so well together. The spicy guacamole and spicy warm chicken went very well with the tangy bbq onions and all was cooled off by the coleslaw. Jim gave this an A++! Way to go Bobby Flay!  

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Easy Chicken Stir Fry

A stir fry meal is one of the most versatile dishes ever. This is definitely one meal you want to have in your back pocket. You can customize it on the fly depending on your personal taste or based on what you have available in the fridge and pantry. This is usually what I cook when it's about time to grocery shop again and I have a lonely onion and a few asparagus or almost dead bell pepper hanging out. This post will show you how simple it is to whip up a very filling and healthy dinner fast.

I find packages like this in my grocery store and bought this one because it was on sale - deeply discounted.

I'm not saying these pre-packaged meals don't taste good, but I am really turned off by what I found inside. Just look at the ingredients! Noodles that are par cooked and packaged. The vegetables made me want to barf. It just isn't right that these vegetables can have a shelf life of a year. The sauce had SO many ingredients, most of which I didn't understand.

It is so simple to make your own stir fry. Here are the Basics of Stir Fry. I pulled out all the fresh veggies I had: onion, green bell pepper, carrots, asparagus and garlic. You can add WHATEVER veggies you like or have on hand. Broccoli would be great, scallions, cilantro, bean sprouts, zucchini or squash would be wonderful too.

Protein: We eat a lot of Chicken in our house, but your favorite protein would work here. Sliced beef and tofu are very popular stir fry meats. Be sure to buy the pressed firm tofu. Or you can opt for a fully vegetarian stir fry.

Seasonings: The basics consist of soy sauce and a chili garlic hot sauce if you like food spicy. Both are found on the asian food aisle of your grocery store. I got a little fancy and used both dark and light soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, peanut oil and sesame oil.

Toppings: I like to use peanuts and sesame seeds.

The filler: You can eat stir fry plain, or you can add "filler" which would be something like noodles or rice. I like it both ways, and usually let Jim decide which kind of starch he prefers that evening.

That's it. Simple. I started by adding 1 T peanut oil and 1 T sesame oil into a skillet. Olive oil or another oil would work here too. I like the flavors of both sesame and peanut oil. And guess what? You DON'T have to have a wok to make stir fry. Just before the oil began to smoke, I added two chicken breasts that I cut into one inch pieces. Let them brown on one side, then flip and brown on the other - about a minute and a half, 70%. These are added back to cook longer later in the process, so you don't need to worry about completely cooking the chicken through...just get a good color on them. Remove to a plate when done.

Veggies! If you have tough veggies that need to cook longer, then add those first and stir around to give them a head start. Then begin adding your veggies until you reach the really dainty stuff, like scallions. I had one onion, 2 cloves of garlic minced, 8 asparagus that I sliced on the diagonal in one inch pieces and 4 baby carrots which I julienned.

Now it's time to add the sauce. I added 2 T light soy sauce, 2 T dark soy sauce, 1 T rice wine vinegar, 1 T fish sauce, 1/4 t celery salt, 1/2 T chili garlic sauce.

Stir and saute until vegetables are about cooked the way you want them (2 minutes). I like the onion to still have some bite to it, and not be translucent.

I add the chicken back in and stir it around in the hot skillet together. The sauce doesn't coat the way I want it to, it's a little thin. So I take 1 T of hot water and dissolve 1 t of corn starch, then pour that into my pan. The cornstarch acts as a thickener and the sauce starts coating all the veggies and chicken like I wanted.

If you go the noodle route, then I like to boil the noodle until al dente, then throw it into my stir fry so the noodles get mixed in and coated with the sauce also.

I finish it off with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and peanuts for crunch. Fast, easy, yummy and healthy. It's the ideal weekday dinner.

Now here is the BEST tip ever! You can repurpose leftover stir fry by making soup! Toss your leftovers into a saucepan and add chicken broth, beef broth or vegetable broth. Heat through, and eat. It's the best ever. I almost prefer the leftover soup to the stir fry. It makes a great lunch the next day.

{Printable Recipe}