Monday, December 26, 2011

Chicken and Waffles, Oh My!

{MERRY CHRISTMAS YA'LL! I hope each of you had a wonderful holiday. While I enjoy some family festivities in Texas, please enjoy the below foodie adventure I had in November. Someone forgot to post it last month. Fail. Better late than never!}

I'm not really certain when I first heard about the chicken and waffles craze that was hitting the foodie scene, but I know my initial reaction was one of perplexment. Is that a word? It was like when my mom fed me a pierogi for the first time. It was the frozen kind from Schwan's, thank you very much. I was all, you're telling me this is pasta filled with potatoes and cheese?! Mom... really MOM? The concept was beyond me, but once I took my first bite it all made perfect, delicious sense. In much the same way, I became a hardcore chicken and waffles convert.

When I say hardcore convert I mean that I finally tried traditional chicken and waffles in November and haven't stopped thinking about it since.  To be more specific, I tried LA's famous Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles. I figure if it's good enough for Obama, it's good enough for me. Now I should mention that I've had versions of chicken and waffles in the past, and it was always ok, but it was always a gourmet spin on the original concept. I didn't actually fall in LOVE with the combo until I had the traditional variety at Roscoe's. Who needs gourmet when the original is SO FREAKING YUM?!

Now chicken and waffles is certainly not health food (I mean, that's an ice cream sized scoop of butter on top of my waffle) but I found myself surprised by the lack of overall greasiness of my meal. The waffle was thin and not overly sweet, and the butter added an essential salt factor to cut the sticky sweetness of the syrup drizzled on top. I ended up pushing about half the butter to the side to lessen my chances of artery blockage on the spot. (Oh, you can order your chicken and waffles with gravy too if artery blockage is what you're going for.) And the chicken, oh the chicken! I heard someone order white meat only so I did the same. My chicken was perfectly cooked, somehow not greasy in the slightest, and just slightly crunchy. When you're cutting the chicken to bite-sized pieces to pair with your slices of waffle, it's important that the entire crust doesn't crunch off in the process. I'm happy to report that this crust held its own so that I could easily construct each glorious bite to contain a piece of chicken and a piece of waffle coated in butter and syrup.

From the first bite until the thirtieth bite, chicken and waffles made perfect sense. Sweet and salty, crunchy and chewy, these are flavor and texture combinations we know to make good eats. Why did I question it so?! Please forgive me, chicken and waffles. Never again will I doubt you.

Seriously, when I get back to LA I'm going to Roscoe's. Who's in?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Came Early

Justin has been hinting forever that he wants me to make Shepard's Pie. Wikipedia actually just taught me that I shouldn't call the dish I made a Shepard's Pie because it didn't contain mutton or lamb. Thanks Wikipedia, but I'm going to forge ahead regardless. I must admit, I was pretty intimidated by the idea of recreating one of Justin's favorite dishes. I've never made Shepard's Pie, and can't even really recall a time that I've eaten Shepard's Pie, but I figured a combination of beef, vegetables and mashed potatoes couldn't be wrong, so I pulled a recipe that sounded promising.

The recipe I chose called for braising beef in red wine for about two hours so it was the perfect slow-cooking meal for my Christmas celebration with Justin this weekend. Since we won't be together on Christmas, we set aside last Sunday to stay home with the dogs, build a gingerbread house, cook a holiday meal and exchange our gifts to each other (while listening to Christmas music the whole day of course).

First I seared the beef.

I don't have a dutch oven (perhaps add to the wedding registry?) so I just used a large stock pot. I found pre-cut Black Angus steak cubes at Trader Joe's so my pieces were preeeeetty small. Because of this, they cooked a lot faster than the recipe suggested. Bonus! Next I added the veggies.

I added diced fennel to the mix since I had a bulb that needed to be used. After the vegetables were softened, I added the flour, water, chicken broth and red wine. I used Merlot, because that's what I had. Side note: Am I the only one who can't have Merlot without thinking about this scene from "Sideways"? (Video not appropriate for work, or children, or small animals...)

From there I had two hours to kill while the mixture soaked in the hot tub-o wine getting all tender and flavorful. I may not exchange Christmas gifts with my family, but Justin and I sure do! I got the whole Hunger Games series and a new set of teas to go with the tea set I just got for my birthday. Definitely going to be diving into the books on my trip home this week. Back to the Shepard's Pie: When the beef was finally finished braising, it was shredding easily and tasting amazing. I removed it from the pot and shredded it with a fork then added it back to the vegetable mixture. After adding frozen peas and cooking for a few more minutes it was ready for the casserole dish.


I prepared some mashed red potatoes to go on top.

Then placed the whole thing in the oven for another twenty to twenty-five minutes. It is absolutely essential that you place your casserole dish in the oven on top of a sheet pan. There will be seepage. And it will not be pretty. Case in point.

If anyone knows how to avoid said seepage, please do tell. Regardless, I assure you that seepage will not affect your flavor. This was so good! The beef got so tender that it reminded me of the beloved short-rib and the sauce its juices create with the wine would make any vegetable taste like gold. I'm positive the filling from this pie would taste heavenly served atop some polenta as well. Mmmm, polenta.

I served the pie with my new favorite brussels sprouts (as in I just made them for the first time and immediately declared them my favorite).

The sprouts are first browned in the skillet and then braised in stock and shallots (or white wine but I didn't have any).  The braised liquid then becomes a tasty sauce with the addition of half and half and dijon mustard. Have brussels sprouts ever made you drool?

Just me? Ok, fine. But I do hope I've convinced you to at least make one of these dishes. I know I'll be making both of them again and again and scouring Pinterest for more recipes where anything is braised in wine and/or dijon :)

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Favorite Time of Year

Did you know that December is my favorite month of the year? For one, my birthday is in December, and secondly, I LOVE CHRISTMAS! Christmas time means Christmas music (like Mariah Carey's 'Merry Christmas' album, an all-time fave), beautiful holiday decorations, Christmas movies (Love Actually, Home Alone, Elf, Christmas Vacation) and holiday treats like hot cocoa (ho-cho), peppermint bark, caramel corn, fudge, cookies, gingerbread, etc. PS, I love 'Love Actually' so much that when I was assigned to recreate a movie poster of my choice in my Photoshop class, I picked this one.



This should have been the movie's tagline anyway.

You might notice that I did not include presents in my favorite things about Christmas list. This is not because I don't love presents, because ya'll know I do, but because we stopped exchanging Christmas gifts as a family about five years ago. My parents made the executive decision that the "kids" were too old to be showered with gifts and we should instead each provide one gift for a White Elephant exchange. When I first heard wind of this "one present" business I was NOT enthused. I wanted my presents! Over the years though I've grown to enjoy the fact that while most everyone else is out battling parking garages and crowded malls to get their shopping done, I can find my one gift and then spend the rest of the holidays doing fun things like building a gingerbread house or slowly braising beef in red wine for a scrumptious Shepard's pie dinner, which is exactly what I did this weekend.

Constructing a gingerbread house is harder than I remembered. Blergh. But decorating sure was fun!

And tasty. Yep, Justin ate icing straight from the bag. Like, a lot of it.

An icing induced coma followed. Can you spot Vincent?

And now the final product!

It looks more or less like children or our dogs decorated it but we were still pretty proud of our accomplishment. That was until the house completely crumbled to the ground when Justin tried to move it out of the base that was provided to help build the frame. No pictures, just tears. Ok no tears either, just hmph. Oh well, I still love Christmas!

Later that evening I made the most delish and comforting meal of Shepard's Pie and dijon braised brussels sprouts. Recipes for both coming up next!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Birthday Loot

Remember when birthdays used to mean loads and loads of presents? Your parents would foot the bill for a big party and invite all of your classmates and neighbors and you'd reap the benefits of the piles of glorious new toys? Boy, those were the days...

These days my birthday gatherings are much smaller, but I'm not complaining. I'd much rather take a birthday vacation or sip wine with a few friends than run around a McDonalds with the Hamburglar (I had birthday parties at McDonalds, didn't you?)  But sometimes I do miss the new toys. This year, however, I got toys!

Welcoming me into the 21st Century is my new iPhone 4S, courtesy of my lovely fiance. I have had the same phone since, no joke, January of 2008. I resisted the iPhone for a long time because I was a huge fan of the keyboard on my old Samsung BlackJack and worried that I would fall behind in my mad texting skills were I to switch to a touch screen. Sadly, my texting skills have suffered a bit but I'm hoping that's temporary. The selling point for Justin getting me the iPhone for my birthday was when we realized he would be home alone on Christmas day. I think there's a movie about this and I saw what crazy shenanigans that kid got into ;)

Kidding aside, I'm going home for Christmas but Justin is staying in LA, having exhausted his vacation hours at work. His parents are coming to stay with him but will be arriving the day after Christmas. He's totally excited to be staying home with the dogs for Christmas but we immediately started thinking of ways to Skype or iChat or something of the sort so he wouldn't be so alone that day. Enter FaceTime! It was time for a new phone anyway and if I got one before I went home for the holidays then we could FaceTime to our hearts' content on Christmas day. It took a bit of a hunt to find the white one I wanted so I actually got this puppy a few days after my birthday but we've already used FaceTime twice to chat while he's working late. Fun fact: If you hold the phone up to Vincent during FaceTime and try to talk to him he freaks and hides.

Another super fun birthday toy is my new Teavana tea maker and teas gifted by my bestie. It had to have been almost two years ago that she and I were browsing the mall together when we were tempted into a Teavana store for hot tea samples. We were both really impressed by the assortment of loose leaf teas and the awesome flavors they offered. I'm a coffee person but I've been interested in adding tea to my diet for the health benefits. Hot tea took a looooooooong time to grow on me but there has definitely been a shift over the past few years. My bestie remembered how much I enjoyed the samples we tried and set me up with this awesome gift set.

Right away, the Roobios Chai was calling to me. I brewed up my first cup this weekend and it was so fun!


Stirred in a little vanilla half and half and took a sip.

Two thumbs up! The hot tea was so soothing and immediately put me in a state of relaxation. The flavors were awesome to boot. Spicy hints of cinnamon and ginger mixed with the french vanilla creamer perfectly. Next time I'll try the rock sugar that came with the set. Looking forward to my next cup already.

I also received some goodies from the family, so I pretty much made out like a bandit this year.

A gift basket of treats from my parents and beautiful flowers from Justin's. I didn't miss the Hamburglar one bit :) Thank you to everyone who made my 28th amazing. That means YOU!

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Look!

Confession: I wasn't that into my previous blog header. If you recall, you used to see this when you'd stumble upon my little ol' blog.

Now you see this.

You like?

I'm still no designer, but since September I've been taking a Photoshop class online through UCLA Extension. I was a little worried that the online class would be lame, but my job paid for the course so I gave it a chance (hull-o if it's free, it's for me). Since we occasionally need small design work done around the office and nobody on staff knows how to use the Photoshop software we own except me, I volunteered to be the Photoshop guru (using this term loosely). I took a very basic design class in college, but many years and many versions of Photoshop have passed since then, so it was time for a brush up.

I'm happy to report that the class concluded last week and I'm really happy with what I learned overall. I also found it strangely satisfying to be graded again. For the most part, once you enter the workforce the only concrete feedback you get on your performance is usually in the form of a once yearly review. There was something so gratifying about completing projects each week and getting evaluated on my progress in real time. It also doesn't hurt that I completed dominated the course. Can I get a booyah for finishing with a 99%?!

Yes, this picture is still cracking me up.

I used my new-found Photoshop skills to create a blog header that I'm much happier with. There's still a lot more work to be done on the overall blog design, but I'm getting to it piece by piece. If you have any feedback (certain colors hard to read, hate the background, etc.) please feel free to drop me a comment. Thank you kindly!

Friday, December 9, 2011

On Turning 28

This week I celebrated my 28th birthday! Is it just me or does 28 sound loads more distinguished than 27? Distinguished or not, I still ate cookie cake.

And spaghetti.

Though I should mention that the spaghetti was actually highly adult fancified spaghetti. Justin took me to Scott Conant's Scarpetta at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills for my birthday. Unless we're traveling, our fine dining experiences are few and far between. The nice thing about LA though is that when these special occasions do pop up, you have your pick of some pretty posh places to eat like celebrities (and sometimes among celebrities). We picked Scarpetta for my birthday dinner since my fave cuisine is that of the Italian variety, and slightly also because Scott Conant is a judge on Chopped, which we watch a lot. Sadly no celebrities were in attendance while we dined, nor was Scott Conant in the kitchen, but we still left impressed and full to the brim.

Our meal started with an incredible complimentary bread basket. The basket-o-carbs contained about four different kinds of tasty bread, but the standout was the stromboli-esque piece pictured above. Slices of salami and cheese are cooked right into it! The breads came with an eggplant spread, creamy butter and some high quality olive oil. I love having choices!

We read reviews online about the small portion sizes of the entrees so we decided to order some starters in addition to our meals. Justin wanted the roasted sea scallops and I wanted the creamy polenta with truffled mushrooms so we got both.

I'm not actually big on mushrooms AT ALL, but I do like truffles so I figured I'd be alright with the polenta dish. But OMG! BEST POLENTA OF MY LIFE!!! I have to yell it to accurately portray the amazingness that was this polenta. It was the smoothest, silkiest, creamiest, most yummy and savory polenta I've ever tasted. And I've tasted A LOT of good polenta (sorry mom!). I would have liked to lick my plate but I think I heard that's frowned upon in Beverly Hills.

If you aren't familiar with polenta (first of all, where have you been and please get some polenta ASAP, it will change your life) the closest thing I can compare it to is grits. Southern reference, ya'll. Polenta is made from ground cornmeal that is boiled and then usually mixed with some type of fat to smooth it out like butter, cream or mascarpone. In most polenta dishes I've had, I've been able to detect a slight coarseness to the cornmeal, but my guess is that Scarpetta finely grinds their cornmeal down to the tiniest grounds they can possibly get (I might try this sometime), thus contributing to its amazing texture. Oh and they probably use like a gallon of cream. Oh yes. Fat makes it better.

After we scarfed the bread basket and the life-changing polenta, our entrees arrived. Justin ordered the organic roasted chicken and I decided I had to try the house specialty, tomato and basil spaghetti.

Justin's chicken was excellent and came with some brown shredded item on the side that we couldn't for the life of us figure out. It tasted remarkably like beef, but we learned that it was actually caramelized cabbage. Crazy. I was pretty skeptical about ordering such a simple pasta dish, but Chef Conant is known for his spaghetti and my curiosity got the better of me. It was remarkable pasta, but remarkable because it was what pasta should taste like. If I went to Italy and someone's grandmother made me fresh pasta that's what I imagine I would get. Amazing, simple, balanced, chewy, satisfying, comfort in a bowl. Even still, it was hard to get past the price tag for something with such a simple ingredient list. The dish was almost as much as Justin's chicken, and you can't tell me that it costs nearly the same amount to produce those two items.

My criticisms were soon forgotten though, as soon as dessert hit the table. My sneaky date must have told our server at some point that we were celebrating my birthday. We ordered the Vanilla Caramel Budino and they made the plate extra fun!

Ok get ready because I have to yell again. THERE ARE NO WORDS FOR THIS DESSERT!! I'm still not 100% sure what budino is, but I am one million percent sure that it was one of my top three desserts ever. I've had budino before, the signature butterscotch budino at Mozza, but this one was my favorite by far. Imagine a thick and sticky vanilla pudding, topped with salted caramel sauce, topped with chunks of chocolate with bits of salty crunchies tucked inside and then topped with fresh whipped cream. I loved how each new layer introduced new flavor and texture. Despite what the reviews said about small portions at Scarpetta, we left stuffed to the max and couldn't even finish the dessert. Ugh. It's a crime really.

So far my 28th year of life promises to be one for the books, with my upcoming wedding and those of a few good friends as well. I look forward to being this age, actually. And I hope year 28 includes a few more vanilla caramel budinos.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Finding a Wedding Dress

Even though Los Angeles may offer a larger selection of bridal boutiques, it didn't feel right to start my wedding dress search without my mom and sister present. My recent trip to Texas for Thanksgiving proved to be the perfect opportunity to gather the women whose opinions I value most to help me find THE dress, as they say. The dress searching committee consisted of my younger sister, (also known as my maid of honor) my best friend from high school, (who is also a bridesmaid) my mom and Justin's mom. My sister made appointments at two of Austin's well-reviewed bridal boutiques in hopes that we might knock this to-do off the list while I was home. We started at Serendipity, with excitement and emotions running high, as I was going to be trying on my first wedding dress ever.

In all the excitement I completely forgot to bring my wedding binder where I've been collecting images of inspiration for the past few months. I would have to recall the pictures of dresses I had torn out of magazines from memory. Some of the dresses on the racks looked familiar, and many of them were over my budget. Unfortunately my experience at Serendipity was mediocre at best. The majority of the dress samples were in really poor condition, dirty or ripped from being tried on so many times. I also didn't feel comfortable with my consultant, who didn't offer a lot of help making sure the dresses were fitted to me as best they could be before I showed them to my posse. Because of this, it was hard for me to imagine how the dresses would look in my size. I couldn't get past how large and unflattering they were and I quickly went through about 10-12 dresses before I liked even one. The first shop did teach me, however, that the dresses I had seen online and in magazines looked completely different on a body type that isn't "model". Likewise, dresses I wouldn't have given a second look on the racks or in a picture, could look amazing on your particular figure.

Our shopping experience at the second store, Blush Bridal Lounge, was exponentially better from the second we walked in the door. We were offered champagne punch and mini cupcakes (do they know us or what?) and escorted to our own dressing room that opened up to a private viewing area where my gang could relax on a couch while I changed in and out of dresses. The dress collection at Blush was much smaller, but the dresses seemed more affordable than the selection at Serendipity. By the time I tried on the 15th dress, I had figured out that the items I thought were important to me (lace details, unique neckline, etc.) were not making me feel as beautiful as the dresses with the right silhouette were. Once I had figured out what shape was the most flattering for me, I ended up loving two dresses at Blush. This is where great consultants are worth their weight in gold. The ladies at Blush asked a lot of questions about my venue and the overall feel of the wedding to make sure we chose the right dress for what I had in mind.When I voiced concern about the fullness of one of the skirts, they showed me how it can easily be taken out in alterations. Their direction, along with the "you can't go wrong with either of these dresses" comments from my posse, helped me land on a decision after only one day of wedding dress shopping. To be clear, that's one day and probably 20-25 dresses tried on.

Did I mention that this dress shopping took place on Black Friday? That's right, the infamous day-after-Thanksgiving-sale madness day. This was purely coincidental, as we weren't aware of any major bridal sales, but it turned out to be a good time to shop nonetheless. Blush was having a sample sale to make room for their 2012 collections and one of the dresses I had fallen for just happened to be a sample in perfect condition. If you've never been wedding dress shopping before, this is how it works - All dresses you try on are "samples" and samples generally range in size from 8-10. If you like the dress and decide to purchase it, the boutique orders it in your size and it takes 6-8 months to come in. When it arrives, you will most likely need it altered to fit your specific dimensions so it fits you perfectly on wedding day. When you purchase a sample, you take the dress from the rack home. For me, this made perfect sense. I would need to alter a wedding dress anyway, and the sample was in perfect condition, so I saved about $700 and got to take the dress home that day. Booyah!

(We've learned that Chula is afraid of cats, by the way.)

I surprised myself with the dress I chose because some of the elements it includes are those I swore I didn't want. I won't go into detail since I gotta surprise the fiance who is reading this, but the dress makes me feel beautiful and comfortable which is all I'm looking for on my wedding day. I went into this experience with a very modest dress budget, knowing I'd rather spend the wedding funds on items that will benefit my guests who will be traveling from out of state to attend this event, rather than a garment I wear for one day. Let's be honest, nothing is coming of that dress after the wedding day and my sister has already said she WILL NOT wear a recycled dress. If you are reading this thinking "oh em gee Becky is cray cray, the wedding dress is absolutely the most important part of the wedding and I no longer value her opinions on the matter" then so be it. But I will still offer these words of wisdom:

1. Know your wedding venue/theme/season before you go dress shopping and take those items into consideration when choosing your dress. Will the bedazzled princess gown be appropriate for your summer beach wedding or would something lighter and less formal make more sense?
2. Be open. You may have fallen in love with a dress you saw on "Say Yes to the Dress" but until you've seen it on yourself, it is not true love. You may be surprised to find that your tastes change for the dress that truly flatters your figure. No one wants to suck in their belly all night to look good in the styles the models make look effortless.
3. Have fun. Give dresses a try even if they don't appear to suit your style on the rack. A simple dress can give you the curves you always wanted and you can build on the look with accessories.
4. Know your budget. It may sound obvious but when discussing a dress budget, I didn't take the cost of alterations and accessories (veil, belt, headpiece, etc.) into account. If you are on a tight budget, be sure to include those extras so you can find a dress that gives you room to pay for accessories and alterations without going over.

While I was in Austin I also got a small taste of how I may feel on my wedding day - Like a celebrity! My parents threw an amazing engagement party for Justin and me and we weren't quite prepared for all the attention that comes along with such an event. If you like attention, you will love getting engaged! There were pictures of us all over the house, our names on cake and napkins and everyone wanted to talk to us, even people we had never met. It was pretty overwhelming, but we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful party. We are very grateful for all the planning and prep my parents put into it and especially lucky that Justin's parents could be there to lend a helping hand and meet some extended family and close friends of the family before the wedding.