Zen, yo.

The other night, James and I decided to try the new(ish) Zen Asian Grill and Sushi in Burtonsville. James had been resisting for a while because they market themselves as a sushi joint. He doesn’t do raw.

I looked online, and it turns out they do some standard Chinese American dishes as well. Once future hubby knew he would be able to eat, he agreed to come.

The first thing you see when you walk in the door is a glittering waterfall. Love it. All at once I was whisked away to a mountain pagoda in some nondescript Asian locale.

We were greeted by a host of smiling faces, and quickly seated. The decor was absolutely amazing. Zen all the way. Open, yet warm and cozy. Whoever designed it was a genius. It didn’t feel like Burtonsville. It felt like Georgetown, or Dupont Circle, or Bethesda. It was like going downtown without the traffic.

The menu was fairly large, considering the size of the establishment, but everything looked as though it belonged. I was very hungry when I arrived, so I quickly picked two items off the very long sushi list. Baltimore roll and California roll. Ok, stop laughing at me. They had a lot of lovely looking, more “authentic” choices, but I wasn’t feeling very adventurous, and I was going to have to eat everything myself since James isn’t a sushi sharer. By the way, he ordered sweet and sour chicken along with chicken fried rice.

Dinner was almost over when I remembered to take a picture. I was lost in the moment. :)

Dinner was almost over when I remembered to take a picture. I was lost in the moment. 🙂

Extremely yummy. I mean it was delicious. I’ll have to go sample more of the menu to give you a more comprehensive review, but everything I tasted was delicious. The feel of this place is the real reason to go, however. It’s a great date location, if you’re interested.

The Cheese Log Ratings:
Food: 4.5 cheeses
Atmosphere: 5 cheeses
Service: 5 cheeses
Date-worthyness: 4.5 cheeses
Would I return: DEFINITELY! Can’t wait!!

How to Teach a Man to Cook

Before I met him, James’s cooking expertise extended to frozen pizzas and scrambled eggs. Yesterday, I came home to the sweet comforting smell of a whole chicken simmering in the slow cooker. I took a deep breath and thanked God for giving me such an awesome man to marry. He made it all by himself, and it was perfect.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been emailing him 4-step directions for making barbecue chicken thighs, tilapia, and baked salmon. He’s done an awesome job with all of them. A+.

That’s the secret really. Clear and direct directions. Don’t blabber. Tell him where the pans are located. Draw a picture of which way the chicken is supposed to face. And let him do it.

I’m so excited. Either tonight or tomorrow, we’re making chicken soup. And soon, maybe even tonight, I’ll teach him how to sauté. I can’t wait to see him this evening! Amazing how the level of my happiness is directly related to the amount of time I spend in cooking-related activities. It’s going to be an awesome weekend!

Olney’s Mexican Escape

Last night, my mom and I went to Sol Azteca in Olney, MD. While the restaurant is not new, the shopping center was newly renovated and we had never noticed the place before.

We were greeted with white table cloths and dim lighting, something that added a little feeling of formality that is not commonly found in Mexican restaurants. People don’t usually picture white table cloths when they’re in the mood for tacos, enchiladas, carne asada and guacamole. Still, it was nice.

The chips and salsa were perfect.  The salsa was fresh and simple, the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant. I could have eated ten more servings of it.

The menu was impressive. Not only did they have a wide selection of Mexican favorites (priced generally between $11-14), but also a list of “House Specialties” that were primarily Peruvian and Seafood selections ($15-20). There were so many options, I’ll have to go back to get a better idea of what to recommend to people.

We ordered chicken enchiladas, vegetable fajitas, and a cheese chile relleno. All were delicious. The chicken enchiladas were made with corn tortillas, which though not my favorite, are more authentic than the flour variety for enchiladas. My mom really enjoyed her vegetable fajitas, though she did say that the vegetables could have been cut a tad smaller to make it easier to eat. The cheese chile relleno was fabulous. In case you’ve never had one, “chile relleno” means “stuffed chile”. It’s a big green poblano pepper that has been stuffed (usually with cheese and meat), fried in a batter, and smothered in more cheese. Of course, any vehicle for cheese and ranchero sauce is welcome to me.

For dessert, we had the flan: perfectly smooth, creamy texture coupled with a sweet cinnamon flavor. It came to us decorated on a plate decorated with raspberry sauce squiggles, which added the perfect fruity tang to the mix. A+

For 2 entrées, an extra side (that was the size of a meal in itself), and dessert, we got out of there for $35. Pretty sweet in this part of Maryland. The portions were so huge we both had lunch for the next day as well.

Sol Azteca was a great Mexican escape after a long day at work, with an awesome selection of entrees with generous portions. While not the best Mexican I’ve ever had (El Azteca in Clarksville is my favorite), it was very enjoyable, and I’ll certainly be going back. A-

Sol Azteca on Urbanspoon

Spinach Stuffed Mushrooms

The first time I made these, my family fell in love. My mom in particular LOVES these. I’ve made them for parties, but they’re wonderful as a side at dinner too. The inspiration for these came from something I found on the food network, but having made them so long I changed a few things along the way. The amounts are a rough estimate, so don’t worry if you have to change things.

Ingredients:

20-30 Cremini (baby bella) mushrooms

bag of pre-washed baby spinach

2-3 tbsp cream cheese

1 bag (2 cups) shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan or romano

salt & pepper

1/4 tsp garlic powder

Directions:

Rinse and dry mushrooms. Remove stems. Set mushroom caps aside.

Finely chop the spinach. If you’d like to use the food processor, there’s nothing stopping you. I like chopping spinach, though, and I think it gives it a nice texture.

In a medium bowl, combine spinach, mozzarella, parmesan, salt & pepper, and garlic powder. The mix in cream cheese. I like to use a fork to mash it in there. Be persistent, it might take a little muscle, but when you’re done you should have a soft, creamy mixture. You might need to add more cream cheese. In fact last time I made this, I used almost 4 oz. It just depends on what type of consistency you’re looking for.

Line baking sheet with aluminum foil. Stuff each mushroom cap with some of the spinach mixture (I like it when they’re overflowing and you have to eat them with a fork and knife). Its ok if you crowd them a little to fit them on the sheet, since mushrooms shrink a little when cooked. Bake at 375°F for about 10-12 minutes. Really, it’s hard to over-cook a mushroom, and you want everything to be soft and melted.

Cute Italian Restaurant in Maryland

Friday night I had dinner with my mom at Pepino’s in Burtonsville, MD. It’s a cute little family owned Italian restaurant tucked away in the corner of a sleepy shopping center. We’ve been going here ever since we moved into the area in 2002, as it’s not too far from the high school my sister and I went to. I think it finally deserves a blog post.

The most impressive thing about Pepino’s is the atmosphere. They really treat you like family. While waiting for a table, we had a lovely conversation with the owner, a very nice lady named Margaret. Another couple of people were also waiting and had no place to sit, so right away she said “Here, sit here and talk to my dad,” and sat them right down with her father. It was so sweet!

The food at Pepino’s is Delicious. While you’re waiting, they’ll bring you warm Italian bread. Olive oil and cheese is already on the table: no stinginess there! Pastas are priced around $9-12, with most of the entrée’s at $11-16: pretty comfortable, especially considering the generous portions. My mom had the eggplant parmigiana, which she was raving about. I’m not a huge fan of eggplant, so I went and got the veal parmigiana. Delicious. Cooked perfectly. Smothered in the most delectable homemade sauce you’ll ever get at a restaurant. Slightly on the tangy side. Perfect with the cheese on the table.

We were too stuffed to order dessert. I actually had enough left over for lunch the next day, but sadly I forgot to grab my doggie bag. I almost cried when I realized I forgot it.

Like I said, I’ve been there a million times before, and I’ll go a million times again. Great food, great atmosphere. Actually, not a bad Valentine’s day idea…

Pepinos Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Smith Island Cake -A.K.A. Why I love Maryland

Not many people outside of Maryland have ever had it. In fact, with the exception of people on the Eastern Shore, not many Marylanders have had it. Smith Island Cake (also known, along with crabs, as God’s Gift to Maryland) looks like this:

Smith Island Cake, as pictured in National Geographic

8-15 layers of yellow cake, with fudgey chocolate icing in between. Seriously, this is the richest cake you’ll ever taste. It’s AMAZING!

They actually make it by cooking each layer separately in its own cake pan, like 8-10 round cake pans with a tablespoon or two of batter in them. Named in 2008 as the official dessert of the State of Maryland, It comes from Smith Island (go figure), a remote island in the Chesapeake Bay that is only accessible by boat. The remoteness and inaccessibility of the island have made the place somewhat of a time capsule. Discovered by John Smith in the 1600s, the people of Smith Island still retain a sort of Elizabethan dialect, as well as an accent that separates them from the rest of Maryland.

Surprisingly, right in the middle of Maryland where most Marylanders live (between DC and Baltimore), Smith Island Cake is almost impossible to find. Luckily for the rest of the world, you can order it online at www.smithislandbakingco.com and have it shipped to your door in 2 days or less. I think I know what I want for my birthday…

Copyright 2010

Lunch on a Greek Island

With Maryland being absolutely freezing today, I’m wishing I was back in Greece.

In August of 2010, I visited the Greek island of Aegina with some friends. For those of you unfamiliar with Aegina, it’s an island that’s about 45 minutes away from the port of Piraeus, the port of Athens. The island is rather large compared to its neighbors, but aside from a busy street of restaurants right near the dock, it’s a warm, sleepy paradise of pistacio trees and bright blue water. I can’t wait to go back!

Approaching Aegina

The day we were there, it was about 100°F. We had lunch in the shade of a big blue tent overlooking the marina, and it was DELICIOUS.

First, we had some really awesome tzaziki. You can get this stuff here, but it’s nothing like the creamy flavor you get in Greece.

We put our tzaziki on this bread, and it was fantastic:

Then I ordered Calamari. I always love calamari, but this was exceptional. Soft and buttery, like they just caught it that morning.

Best Calamari Ever

Lucky for me, there’s a fantastic Greek restaurant down the street from my house. I might have to go there tonight.

Italian Christmas Feast

My family has a tradition of having a crazy awesome, 5 course Italian feast on Christmas day. Every year my mom would deck the halls and put out an extremely long table for 15-20 people, and I would spend 2 or 3 days cooking the most amazing food imaginable. For the first time in 5 or 6 years, I’m not cooking, and my parents no longer have a house with space for such a long table. In memory of the good ol’ days, here are the courses we used to have:

1. Antipasta: Imported Italian cold cuts (Prosciutto, Capacolla, Mortadella, Sopresatta), cheeses (Provolone, Mozzarella, Fontina), my mom’s antipasta salad (roasted red pepper, mushroom, artichoke, capers), Aunt Annie’s tuna salad (with vinegar, not sure what else is in it but it was good), and Italian bread.

2. THE soup. It’s made with lamb and escarole, and comes from the village my mom’s grandmother is from (Rosetto Valfortore, near Foggia).

3. Homemade spaghetti, meatballs, and bracciole (Steaks pounded thin and rolled up with provolone and prosciutto. In Italy they call this involtini).

4. Salad. Usually we don’t have room for it, but we try to eat a few bites.

5. Pork roast. We try. Again, no room. Many years we end up skipping this or saving it for another day.

Dessert: cannoli, tiramisu, all kinds of pies, cookies, and my mom’s dream pie (Walnut crust, cream cheesey layer, chocolate pudding, cool whip, amazingness).

Someday when I have my own house, I’ll do this again. My aunt is doing something like this for us this year, but it’s not the same when it’s not at our house. I really do miss having a home. But it’s ok,  I WILL do this again someday. I hope it’s not too far in the future.

Foodie Goes to the Bowling Alley

It sounds like a horror story, right? Bowling alleys are notorious the world over for microwaved pizza and nachos. No one goes to a bowling alley for the food, right?

Wrong.

Yesterday was my fiancé’s birthday, so after work, I took him to 300. No, not the movie. The bowling alley. It’s more than a bowling alley though. It’s also an upscale restaurant with full bar. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

http://www.3hundred.com/

You walk in, and suddenly you’re thinking “Is this paradise?” We get our fingers fitted for a bowling ball. We get our shoe rentals. A waiter takes us to our lane.

It’s a Wednesday, so we don’t order anything off the extensive cocktail list, but they look delicious. The menu is your modern American, sort of like the Cheesecake Factory. With James being the birthday boy, we ordered a pizza, half cheese half sausage. And it was the kind of pizza you’d expect in an upscale place, no frozen garbage.

We bowled two games. As my finger was still injured from this past weekend’s holiday party, I opted for bumpers. Lame, I know. But I’m one of those people who can’t handle a gutter ball properly.

For dessert, we got James’s favorite: a Brownie Sundae. He’s a “less-is-more” kind of man when it comes to food. This time it came with a cute little candle on top. It was priceless. We’ll definitely be going back.

Chicken Carbonara

I’m a huge fan of pasta carbonara, especially when done right. If you’ve never had it, it’s basically pasta and bacon with a creamy egg-based sauce coating the pasta. In other words, heaven.

Last night, I was out of bacon, but I had 2 big chicken breasts and 4 people eating dinner, so I decided to make it with chicken, and it was AWESOME!! Here’s what I did:

Cook 1 lb pasta (thin spaghetti works best) according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking, drizzle about 2 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan. Add about 1 clove fresh minced garlic. Throw in a tbsp of butter if you really want it to be delicious. Chop 2 chicken breasts into bite size pieces, and add to pan. Saute together until chicken is cooked but not tough.

In a separate bowl, whip 4 eggs until completely smooth. We don’t want ANY egg clumps. Whip in a few tbsp heavy cream if you have it. Add about 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.

When pasta is done cooking, drain and return to pan. Add chicken and some of the juice of the frying pan to the pasta.

Now here’s the tricky part, read carefully:

Add egg mixture to pasta, stirring quickly and constantly. The goal here is for the egg to coat the pasta before the hot pasta cooks the egg. The last thing we want are egg clumps. We want a nice, shiny coating. Don’t worry, you can do it. Just do it quickly.

I hope you like it!