Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Whoa Nellie: Good Food for a Rumbling Belly

Location: Lee Vining, CA
Date: Aug. 25, 2011

A sign catering to your car and your hunger
No, your eyes do not deceive you. The sign above reads "Mobil" (as in a gas station) and "Restaurant" (as in a culinary destination). Two places that are not typically collaborative have joined forces just outside Yosemite National Park, on the corner of Highway 120 and Highway 395, to satisfy empty tanks for both vehicles and their occupants alike.

I don't know about you, but I generally think of gas stations as nice places for motorized modes of transportation to splurge on as much premium fuel as their drivers are willing to flush into their overzealous tanks. Hungry humans, however, are limited to over processed crap in a sack; food options that are about as good for your body as 50-year-old gunky motor oil is for your vehicle's engine. That is, of course, until my experience at Whoa Nellie Deli gave me hope that great food can be found at some (albeit a very limited 'some') gas stations.

Due to an intriguingly hyped recommendation from a longtime friend, my family and I decided to give this place a try for one of the seven dinners that we annually devour in the Eastern Sierras. Upon entering, I noticed immediately that we didn't quite fit in. By no means were we outcasts, but the majority of the patrons were dusty and visibly exhausted from a long day or two (or three or more) of enjoying the memorable experiences that Yosemite has to offer. My family and I, on the other hand, were pretty clean and fresh off another relaxing day at June Lake, a few miles down Highway 395. Nevertheless, we were hungry. If not for spending hours trekking through one of John Muir's picturesque wooded asylums, then we were simply hungry because we were on vacation, and wanted to eat.

For a deli in a gas station, there were quite a few enticing choices. Wild Buffalo Meatloaf and Legendary Lobster Taquitos were undoubtedly an unexpected duo on the very captivating list of menu items. Our inside source, however, advocated an article much simpler. A margarita from the left. A pizza from the right. That'll do.

World Famous BBQ Chicken Pizza with cilantro pesto. I don't know how the classically Californian pie from an unconventional gas station eatery ascended the culinary ranks to global prominence, but it was damn good. Let's take it from the top. Sesame seeds...eh. I don't know why they were there. Flavor and texture? Unnecessary. Presentation? I guess so, but it's pizza from a gas station in the mountains. In this case, I care very little about appearance. I'm all about the taste. No food presentation would be comparable to the pristine surrounding Sierra scenery anyway. The BBQ sauce was sweet, thick and hearty. Tasting it took me back to cherished family cookouts. The mozzarella cheese was successfully transformed into the molten dairy darling synonymous with all great circular flat breads. There was plenty of cheese to form long strings of mozzarella goodness from its source to my taster, but not enough to overpower the other components. The chicken was amazing. Dark meat was used, which kept each bite of chicken succulent and moist, thanks to a slightly higher fat content. More fat also meant more taste, thus dark chicken brought another level of flavor to an already flavorful bite of pizza that white meat just wouldn't have had. And there was plenty of it. I believe I got a piece of chicken in just about every bite. The most surprising aspect of the pizza was the cilantro pesto. It was unexpected, but added a very fresh flavor in a creamy package that helped balance the rich hearty flavors of the other ingredients. In order to support such a cast of delectable ingredients, a solid base is a must. The crust on this pizza was just that. Solid. It was charred and crisp, but retained a slight chew. Most importantly, it stood up to the task of bringing each memorable bite from the paper plate to my watering mouth.

Why wouldn't this place have dessert? With four mouths to feed, one dessert wouldn't suffice. Carrot cake was one of two gigantic slices of dessert that my family splurged on. This cake was loaded. Carrots obviously took the lead, but it was surrounded by an ensemble of talented costars from raisins to, well, unfortunately, other unidentifiable ingredients. The six layers of cake could have easily satisfied any sweet tooth on their own. Its inherent moisture warranted no need for any creamy frosting to mask potential dryness, but the cream cheese frosting was there in full force. It was so sweet, creamy and rich. The combination of moist cake and creamy frosting successfully spoiled every last one of my nearly 10000 taste buds with sweet, sweet bliss. The textural contrast provided by the nuts on top didn't hurt either.

Chocolate lovers rejoice! This cake could satisfy any chocolate craving known to man/woman. I really don't know how to describe this treat other than it was 100% chocolate. It was bittersweet and sweet. The cake itself was dense, but moist. It stuck together well without becoming too crumbly. The chocolate ganache was so rich. Not quite as creamy as the carrot cake's frosting, but it melted in my mouth and created a favorable flow of chocolate that coated my tongue, and helped transport each dense bite of cake down my throat. The only thing this monstrous slice of chocolate cake needed was a nice tall glass of ice cold milk. 

If you ever find yourself planning a trip to Yosemite, or anywhere near this place, do yourself a favor and stop by. Your hunger will be satisfied, and taste buds eternally grateful. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pineapple & Coconut Marinated Chicken Kabobs

The most difficult part of this dish may just be skewering all of the ingredients. It's a little time consuming, very repetitive and possibly dangerous if you let your focus slip and skewer your finger instead of a piece of chicken. Fortunately, that scenario did not happen to me, but it did cross my mind a couple times, leaving me with thoughts of, "That would really suck if..."

This dish is simple, and tastes great. Soaking the chicken in my homemade marinade keeps it moist and saturates it with sweet and spicy flavors. Grilled pineapple is sweet and always delicious. The flavor of peppers and onions are also greatly enhanced when grilled.

Pineapple & Coconut Marinated Chicken Kabobs

Pineapple & Coconut Marinated Chicken Kabobs
Servings: 3
Total Time: ~1 hour + 20 minutes

For marinade:
8 oz. can crushed pineapple in juice
3/4 c. coconut milk
1/4 c. honey
2 tbls. crushed red pepper
1 tbl. ginger, chopped
Juice and zest of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste

For kabobs:
3 chicken breasts, cut into uniform chunks
1 fresh pineapple, chopped into chunks
1 green bell pepper, chopped into chunks
1 red bell pepper, chopped into chunks
1/2 red onion, chopped into chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
6 wooden skewers, soaked in water

1. Combine all ingredients for marinade in a mixing bowl. Place chicken and marinade into a large freezer bag. Refrigerate and marinate for 1 hour.

2. After the chicken has soaked, preheat grill to medium heat.

3. Build your kabobs. Obviously, order doesn't matter, but I went onion, chicken, bell pepper, pineapple, onion, chicken, other color bell pepper, pineapple, etc. until I had gone through the process 5 times.

4. Brush the kabobs with canola oil, or mist with cooking spray. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Space evenly on the grill. Cook 5 to 7 minutes on each side, or until chicken has cooked through.

1. Plain pineapple juice will work just fine in the marinade. I only used a can of crushed pineapple because it was readily available and convenient.

2. Discard all marinade after the marination process has finished.

3. Keep all ingredients as uniform in size as possible in order to ensure even cooking.

4. For a very tasty and filling meal, serve kabobs with Shrimp-Coconut Rice and a side salad. Mixing all components of the kabobs with the rice also adds crunchy textural contrasts. Garnishing with lime wedges isn't a bad idea either.

Coconut-themed surf and turf meal

Shrimp-Coconut Rice

I've never cooked with coconut milk...until now. This side dish is a great balance of creamy, sweet and spicy flavors. I used it as a very flavorful pairing to my Pineapple & Coconut Marinated Chicken Kabobs.

Shrimp-Coconut Rice

Shrimp-Coconut Rice
Servings: 3
Total Time: ~20 minutes

2 c. cooked brown rice
3/4 lb. 71/90 count shrimp
1 jalapeno, diced
1 Fresno chile, diced
1 tbl. olive oil
3/4 c. coconut milk
2 tbls. toasted sesame seeds
1 tbl. ginger, grated
1 tbl. honey
Juice and zest of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbls. fresh cilantro, chopped

1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Once hot, toss in jalapeno and Fresno chiles. Allow peppers to sweat for 3 to 4 minutes.

2. After peppers have sweat, add shrimp. Season with salt and pepper. Allow shrimp and chiles to cook until shrimp becomes pink.

Shrimp and chiles near completion
3. Add rice and coconut milk. Bring milk to a boil.

4. Once boiling, add all other ingredients except sesame seeds and cilantro. Reduced to a simmer and cover. Allow simmer to continue for 10 minutes.

5. Just before service, mix in cilantro and sesame seeds.

1. For more flavorful rice, cook in chicken stock.

2. Add more peppers for more spice, or increase honey dosage for a sweeter dish.

3. Be sure to check the seasonings after the rice has simmered. Adjust to your liking if needed.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chipotle Black Bean Grilled Tostada Pizza

Pizza Tuesday is a weekly family tradition I do not plan on giving up anytime soon. Because Taco Tuesday is also a popular theme for the pre-hump day meal, I thought it'd be a great idea to create a Southwestern flavored pie. Inspired by California Pizza Kitchen's version, this flat bread tastes and looks like a giant tostada. I added my own personal twists by including chipotles and using a grill. Grilling the crust gives this pizza a nice charred flavor that is reminiscent of the smoky flavor inherited by a wood-fired oven. Also, the pizza's thin crust provides a nice crispy base that reminds the taste buds of a crunchy tostada shell.

Chipotle Black Bean Grilled Tostada Pizza

Servings: 3
Total Time: ~20 minutes

1 can black beans
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
1 c. chicken stock
1 tbl. olive oil
6 chicken tenderloins (or 2 chicken breasts), cooked and cubed or shredded
1 c. shredded Cheddar and Monterey cheese
1/2 avocado, diced
1 roma tomoato, diced
3 tbls. cilantro, loosely chopped
1-2 tbls. ranch dressing
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 pizza pie crust (I made my own, but store bought will work)
Salt and pepper to taste


1. Preheat oil in large skillet. Once warm, saute onions until translucent. Add garlic, season with salt and pepper and continue to cook until onions brown. Finally, toss in chipotles.

2. Rinse black beans and toss into pan. Add chicken stock and allow beans to simmer until about 3/4 liquid reduces. This will take 5-10 minutes. Check the seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if needed.

3. Once most of the stock is reduced, blend beans in a blender. Make them as chunky or as smooth as you'd like.

4. Preheat your grill to medium heat. Coat the pizza crust in olive oil or cooking spray.

5. Once the grill is heated, toss the crust onto the grill.

6. The crust will begin to crisp quickly. Give it a couple minutes and flip. Wait another couple minutes for the second side to brown. Remove and place onto a baking sheet.

7. Top the pizza crust with beans, cheese and chicken. Place back onto the grill. Remember to keep the crust on the baking pan so the bottom doesn't burn.

8. In a couple minutes, the cheese should be melted, and all other toppings should be warmed through. Remove from grill and top with cilantro, tomatoes and avocados. Drizzle with ranch and lime juice. Finalize with a light touch of fresh cracked black pepper.

1. You don't have to make your own beans. A can of refried beans will work. I would still suggest spicing up the canned refried beans with chipotles, however.

2. Grilling the crust can be a little tricky, but the oven works just fine too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Upbeat Grub at Allen's Uptown

Location: Whittier, CA
Date: Sept. 10, 2011

If it wasn't for an old friend, I don't believe I would've ever experienced the alluring culinary offerings that Allen's dishes out on a daily basis. Hooked after her first visit, my Allen's insider decided I needed to try it for myself because she deemed the destination blog worthy. We went. She was right.

When we arrived, the place was small, cozy and inviting. There were no other customers at the time, so we sat at the bar and were offered the remote to their flat screen. Talk about making customers feel welcome! We were then offered three of Allen's finest: a mound of crispy golden brown steak fries smothered in rich gravy, juicy brisket, melted cheddar cheese and topped with perfectly sauteed onions, a deliciously salty blue cheese and bacon burger and a brisket sandwich coated with oh-so-sweet BBQ sauce.

Famous Gravy Fries w/ cheese
Allen's Famous Jersey Style Gravy Fries made it out of the kitchen first. Typically, I'm a french fry purest, and prefer to enjoy my strips of crisp-on-the-outside-tender-in-the-middle potatoes delicately seasoned and alone. I generally do not approve of toppings, such as chili and gravy, to rudely interfere with the integrity of my beloved fries. This dish, however, is one of Allen's most notorious, so I decided to give it a taste with an open mind. The gravy was rich, but served with restraint, so it never overpowered the other components. The onions were tender, but retained a pleasant crunch and were not too oily. The brisket was amazing. It was tender and juicy...the way all brisket should be. I know the cheese isn't melted in this picture, but the residual heat from all other ingredients melted the cheddar to a luscious velvety texture in no time. Surprisingly, the french fries at the bottom did not get too soggy. Yes, they lost their crispy texture, but the thickness of the steak fries allowed each piece of potato to retain its shape, despite being suffocated by the huge mound of invigorating ingredients. As a whole, the dish reminded me of a huge gluttonous plate of meat and potatoes delicious and more than filling enough to satisfy the world's hungriest. While the gravy fries did not convert me from my fry purest ways, they did provide me with an enjoyably tasty new dish experience. I now believe fries can be smothered in various sauces and toppings when done right. Allen's dose it right. It would be wise of all of you to try these at least once.

The gravy fries could have been a meal on their own, but did I really travel all the way to a new culinary destination to sample one lonely menu item? Forget about it! I wanted Allen's best, and the fries were only the appetizer.

BBQ Bacon Bleu Cheese Burger
The BBQ Bacon Bleu Cheese Burger was one of two sandwiches sampled. If you want to know how to make the perfect bacon blue cheese burger, talk to Allen's! The beef was juicy and a little pink, a must for any burger worth a second bite. The bacon was crispy, not soft and limp like that grotesquely tan-ish colored crap fast food restaurants try to pass off as fried pork. The vibrant green lettuce added another crisp, fresh element to go along with the bacon. The blue cheese was the creamy yin to the bacon's crispy yang. Its salty, creamy texture complemented the crispy bacon and tempted my taste buds in a way that few flavor combinations can. The element that really catapulted this burger towards the top of my list, however, was the delectable pillows of carbs that supported the bottom and covered the top of this amazing sandwich. The bun had a crusty exterior and a slightly chewy interior that held up nicely to the bold flavors inside the halves. A good bun will always take a good burger to the realm of greatness. This bun certainly delivered. Whew, two scrumptious samplings down, one to go.

BBQ Sandwich
When a sandwich is composed of three things like Allen's BBQ Sandwich (shredded Angus brisket, a bakery roll and Swiss cheese), the ingredients better be able to speak for themselves. Let me tell you, the ingredients on this sandwich spoke loud and clear. The bun here was singing the same tune it did for the burger. It was able to hold its own and support the juicy meat and smooth Swiss without absorbing too much moisture. The brisket was tender and juicy like it was on the fries. The BBQ sauce added a very appetizing sweetness. The Swiss blanketed the meat very favorably, cutting through the sauce so the sandwich didn't become too sweet. Placing the pickle inside the sandwich added a nice crunch to change up the textures and keep my mouth interested. For the record, I did not eat both of these sandwiches alone. They were split 50/50, so I had half of each.

I learned the best way to eat both sandwich halves was to alternate bites. The burger was predominantly salty. The BBQ sandwich was inherently sweet. Oscillating back and forth between sweet and salty bites really exited my sense of taste and added a little extra enjoyment to my meal. Regardless of the menu item you choose, I'm confident you'll enjoy your experience at Allen's. At Allen's, great food is proudly served on foam plates in a very friendly manner. They make everybody feel like a local.

I am proud to say that "even I ate it at Allen's!" Do yourselves a favor and check this place out.

*All photos courtesy of Natalie Lacayo.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sierra's Sweet Treats

Location: Lee Vining, CA
Date: Aug. 23, 2011

It's such a shame that my favorite place to get soft serve ice cream is about a 6 to 7 hour long, grueling drive from home. OK, maybe the drive isn't so grueling, provided the air conditioning in your vehicle works the entire way, and you never give the numerous CHP officers continuously patrolling Highway 395 any just reason to pull you over, and slap you with a fine steep enough to make even the richest fellow wince, but it is a long drive. If you're now wondering: Why make this drive for a simple ice cream cone when there's a DQ dishing out soft serve right down the street? Well, for one, the delectably creamy concoctions are better than Dairy Queen's main stream treats. And, for reason B, the sweet cream haven wasn't my trip's only destination.

A sign of very good things to come
Located in Lee Vining, a petite California settlement in the perpetually picturesque Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Mono Cone has turned into a must visit during my family's annual June Lake (another petite mountain settlement) summer vacation. The place is named after the extremely salty Mono Lake, but delivers amazingly sweet eats that'll have you craving seconds immediately.

The predecessor of Mono Cone's moniker
It's hard to beat the views of the vast wilderness surrounding Mono Cone, but, at times when my sweet tooth is screaming, there is one view I'd take over the seemingly endless scenery.

Mono Cone's facade
Mono Cone is open and, yes, you can take my order!

The ice cream I wait an entire year for
No, I did not order two ice cream cones (the one on the right with the Halloween colors is my dad's), but, if I did, who are you to judge, anyway? Everybody's entitled to a little indulgence. The chocolate dipped cones (although quite good in their own right) at Dairy Queen have absolutely nothing on the Flavor Burst Combo Cones found at Mono Cone. It's the long list of sweet and delicious flavors available to swirl around a vanilla cone that sets the soft serve at Mono Cone way apart from all other ice cream establishments. Flavors can only be swirled around vanilla (sorry chocolate lovers), but, if you've been keeping up with your reading, I know you know that I know you know I have no problem with that. - If you caught the Dodgeball reference I just threw out there, I'm proud of you. If you didn't, I'm sorry for suddenly throwing such horrible diction in your face, but I strongly urge you to watch the movie so you're better prepared next time. If you don't laugh at least 17 times, you should have your sense of humor checked out. It might be broken. - Now, back to the ice cream...

Orange and chocolate are the two flavors gracefully swirling around my dad's cone. I can't speak of the flavor bursts firsthand, but, if you like chocolate covered oranges (as I do), I'm sure you'd have no problem enjoying the cone. I chose three flavor bursts: butter pecan, cheesecake and banana. Believe me, if I could've had more, I would have, but a small cone can apparently only handle three flavor bursts at once. The sugary variety of flavors yielded a delectable surprise each time my tongue touched the cool, creamy mid-afternoon dessert. One lick would lead me to a mouthful of butter pecan, one of my favorite ice cream flavors, and provide me with instant gratification. The next sampling took me to a plateful of cheesecake that I never have trouble cherishing. I could taste the crusts of some of the best cheesecakes I've had without any type of "crust" flavor on the cone. Bananas and desserts get along very well, so, when banana burst onto the flavor scene, my taste buds went up to a whole new level of sweet tooth bliss. It's safe to say I enjoyed my Flavor Burst Combo Cone a whole lot more than any sweet-addict kid could ever enjoy camping out in a candy store.

Also sampled were an Oreo peanut butter shake and a peanut butter cup shake, ordered by my sister and mom, respectively. Both shakes were incredibly thick and topped with a mammoth mound of light, fluffy whipped cream. Oh yes, they were both as good as they sound.

Ice cream isn't the only thing you get if you go to Mono Cone, however. Sure, you can order burgers and other food, but take a short stroll down the street and you get to knock on the door of an upside-down house.

Inverted living quarters
If you'd like to learn more about it, read the sign.

Inverted sign
The sign was oriented in this manner on the house, so I chose not to rotate my picture in order to give you the full experience.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Orange Juiced Mashed Sweet Potatoes

I'm a huge fan of sweet potatoes, and, when I decided to use fall flavors for my Labor Day meal, they had to become part of the menu. The honey helps bring out the inherent sweetness from the potatoes. Cinnamon adds a very pleasant mild spice. The orange juice adds an unexpected citrus undertone that brings another level of flavor to the way I normally make mashed sweet potatoes.

Orange twirl garnish courtesy of mom
Orange Juiced Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Servings: 4
Time: ~10 min. (not including potato baking time)

3 large baked sweet potatoes (or yams)
6 oz. honey-vanilla Greek yogurt
1-2 tbls. honey (make it as sweet as you'd like)
1 tbl. cinnamon
1/2 c. milk
1 tbls. butter
Juice and zest of half an orange
Salt to taste

1. Allow the baked sweet potatoes to cool. Once cooled, remove the skin.

2. Place all peeled potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Add all other ingredients and mash to your desired smoothness.

3. Put mashed sweet potatoes in a casserole dish and heat through via method of your choice (oven or microwave).

1. You may alter the consistency by changing the amount of milk used. More milk with thin the potatoes out, while less milk keeps them thicker.

Little Labor Baby Backs

This past Labor Day, my family and I decided to celebrate the unofficial end of summer by making ribs reminiscent of fall flavors. Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon are the two ingredients that remind me most of fall. There is not a lot of labor involved in making these ribs, which kept me out of the kitchen and enjoying the work free spirit of Labor Day. We enjoyed the succulent baby backs (that were fall-off-the-bone tender!) with delicious mashed sweet potatoes (maintaining the fall theme), a simply crisp garden salad and sweet, juicy grilled corn (not pictured).

Baby back ribs, mashed sweet potatoes and salad
Little Labor Baby Backs

Servings: ~3
Time: 15 min. prep, 2 - 2.5 hrs. cook

3 lbs. baby back ribs
2 tbls. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
2-3 tbls. canola oil
3/4 c. apple cider vinegar
3 c. chicken stock/broth
2 tbls. dried thyme

1. Preheat oven to 325 deg. Combine all spices in a bowl and rub into topside of ribs.

All rubbed up
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet and portion the ribs so they will fit in the pan. Once the oil is hot, place the ribs in the skillet topside down until a crust forms. Do this one portion at a time.

Pre-bake crust
3. After all ribs have been crusted, deglaze the pan with the vinegar. Bring to a simmer and reduce for 4 to 5 min. Add the chicken stock and thyme. Allow liquid to simmer for 10 minutes.

4. Put the ribs into a baking dish and add the chicken stock and vinegar mixture. Bake tightly covered for about 2.5 hrs.

5. Once the ribs are done, heat the grill and grab your favorite bbq sauce. I made my own, and would suggest a sweet sauce so the sugars can caramelize on the grill and help create a nice second crust layer.

6. Brush the sauce on the top of the ribs and place topside down on the grill. Grill for about 5 to 10 minutes, or until your desired crustiness has formed.

Grilled finish and ready to feed
1. The post-bake grilling can be skipped. I like the charred textured from grilling, but if you'd rather eat them straight out of the oven, go for it!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Margherita Pizza Stuffed Chicken Breasts

This recipe combines two of my favorite things: chicken and pizza. Usually, when I'm thinking of chicken and pizza it's because I'm making some type of pizza, and am planning to use a healthy dose of succulent shredded chicken breast as one of many flavorful toppings. For this recipe, however, I have decided to put a fresh and colorful margherita pizza inside of a perfectly baked chicken breast. For those of you in need of a little culinary education, a margherita pizza typically consists of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. The colors of these ingredients, red, white and green, coincide with those found on the Italian flag (not necessarily coincidentally, I might add). I jazzed the three traditional ingredients up a little bit by adding golden brown pancetta, and using smoked mozzarella (to help create the smoky elements of a wood fired pizza) and sun-dried tomatoes (to enhance the tomato flavor some). The pizza "crust" is emulated by breading the chicken, as I would to make oven-fried chicken.

Stuffed Chicken with Spaghetti and Roasted Garlic Bread
Margherita Pizza Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Servings: 4
Total Time: ~ 1 hour (depending on your prep work speed)

A few star ingredients
4 chicken breast halves
8 oz. smoked mozzarella cheese, shredded
8 tbls. ricotta cheese
1/4 c. parmesan cheese + 2 tbls./breast for garnish
8 tbls. fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 small to medium pack sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 c. marinara sauce
6 oz. pancetta
2 c. panko bread crumbs
2 c. whole wheat flour (white will work too)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for drizzling

1. Preheat oven to 375 deg. On the stove, cook the pancetta until golden brown and crisp. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. 

Pancetta before
Pancetta after
2. Place all chicken breasts on a cutting board, and season all sides with salt and pepper. Once seasoned, create a pocket in each breast so ingredients may be stuffed inside. It is important to form each pocket without slicing all the way through the chicken. For a demonstration consult the bonus video below. 

3. Once all chicken pockets have been created, smear 2 tbls. of ricotta cheese on the bottom of each pocket. Reserve some of the mozzarella for last minute melting on top of the chicken breast. Now, evenly distribute the rest of the mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and pancetta into each chicken pocket. Close up the holes as best as possible with toothpicks.

4. After the chicken breasts have been stuffed, pour the flour, eggs and bread crumbs into three separate dishes. Season the flour with salt and pepper. Beat the eggs. Mix a little pepper and parmesan cheese in with the bread crumbs. 

Breading station

5. With the breading ingredients prepared, it is time to bread the chicken. Make sure no tasty ingredients sneak out of the hole during this step. Coat the chicken with the flour first, then dip into the eggs and finally cover with bread crumbs. Place the perfectly breaded chicken on a greased (and foiled-line if you want to greatly reduce clean up time) baking tray. Drizzle each breast with olive oil.
6. Place the food in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes. After the allotted time, rotate the try (this is not necessary, but something I like to do). Continue baking for another 10 minutes. 

7. After about 30 minutes, remove the breasts and cover with marinara sauce (1/4 c. for each breast). Also, top with remaining mozzarella. Return to the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the sauce to heat and cheese to melt and slightly brown.

8. Once the chicken is cooked completely through and the cheese has melted, remove from the oven and allow to rest for a couple minutes. Also, please remember to remove all toothpicks!

9. Garnish with a few basil leaves and parmesan cheese, and enjoy with your favorite Italian sides! I chose spaghetti and garlic bread. You'll have plenty of time to prepare your favorites while the chicken is in the hot box.

1. Anytime you're working with raw meats, especially chicken, always keep separate from other ingredients. When you're touching the chicken, only touch the chicken until you can wash your hands. After you've finished preparing the chicken, wash the cutting board, or use a fresh one if needed for anything else. Don't cut fresh ingredients with the same knife used to cut raw chicken. I don't mean to nag, but food safety should always be a top priority.

2. I didn't add the sauce and cheese until the last few minutes of baking for two reasons: (1) I wanted the breading on the chicken to have a chance to crisp up and brown in order to maintain its necessary pizza crust integrity. (2) I didn't want the sauce and cheese to burn.

3. The cooking time will vary depending on the size of each breast, and even the power of your oven. The new oven I use cooks a little quicker than the old one, despite the exact same temperature setting. If you use a convection setting, then the cooking time is reduced even further. You're chicken is done when the juices run clear. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Hometown Gem

Location: Redlands, CA
Date: Aug. 19, 2011

When it comes to frozen treats, I am undoubtedly an aficionado. Give me a nice deep bowl of softend ice cream with a spoon and I'm a happy guy. Hand me a tall thick shake and I'll keep drinking until a brain freeze stops me cold. Take me to a self-serve frozen yogurt site and I tend to lose all control. A little bit of this and a little bit of that turns into a whole lot of probiotic-rich frozen yogurt by the time I make it to the scale, and have to pay for every single ounce I unwittingly acquired. Yes, the probiotic emphasis does help me mentally justify spending close to $10 for one sitting's worth of frozen yogurt's fat free (see, I did it again) creamy goodness. However, despite my overly consistent cravings for soft frozen desserts, I had been deprived of one intriguing type of cool treat until recently.

I found it easy to blame the fact that I've never had frozen custard on my lifelong residency in Southern California. Fortunately, my frozen custard problem was remedied by a picturesque little brick building in Redlands, CA.

I don't know why I hadn't been to, or even heard of, this place before I decided to Google the best places to eat in the Inland Empire, hoping to find a local chow spot worth my time and money that I hadn't been to before. In fact, it doesn't matter because my previous ignorance is irrelevant now. Google led me straight to a hometown gem! Oh, and there was a bonus...

Theron's offers sandwiches too! This revelation only meant one thing: my sister and I would be making the 15 minute drive to try some sandwiches and frozen custard.

After a slight detour, we arrived at a small brick building unobtrusively positioned just off the street specifying its address. Two surprises greeted us after entering and ordering: there was no inside seating, and ordering a sandwich meant that you could also receive a kid-sized cup of custard. Perfect!

Chocolate and vanilla frozen custard
When asked if we wanted the custard before or after the sandwiches came, it didn't take long to answer, "Now!" Who doesn't want dessert first when given the opportunity? We took our pre-sandwich offerings outside and situated ourselves in the shade of one of many vibrantly green trees. I was responsible for the vanilla because it is my favorite ice cream (and now frozen custard) flavor ever. Vanilla is a flavor that never fails on its own, and effortlessly plays host to any variety of ice cream (or frozen custard) topping or mix-in imaginable, no matter how creative or farfetched your sweet culinary mind becomes. Custard is richer than ice cream thanks to a heightened egg incorporation accompanied by a decreased integration of air during the production process. Sitting in the heat of another summer day, the cool temperature of the custard was instantly inviting. However, any ice cream, frozen yogurt or smoothie, for that matter, would have provided the same heat relieving benefit at that time. What really did me in was the texture and authentic vanilla flavor. The extensively chilled custard was rich, creamy and smooth. Each bite warranted a pause as the custard gracefully melted, and released its refreshing army of vanilla flavors to coat the inside my mouth, as if tasked with the mission to invade and takeover each of my defenseless taste buds. Before the battle was over, however, our sandwiches arrived.

Nevada Street w/ ham
My sister's choice was first up. She order the Nevada Street sandwich, replacing roast beef for her favorite lunch meat, ham. White bread, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, red onions and cheddar cheese were all cast in supporting roles. Each ingredient is clearly identifiable, and, as strongly supported by the few scattered crumbs left behind in the picture below, successfully collaborated with one another to create a recipe for tasty triumph.

Pleasing the picky palate of my sister is not always easy, but Theron's seemed to have done so effortlessly.

Zanja Special
Now, this behemoth is my kind of sandwich! Known as the Zanja Special, this midday meal between scrumptiously supportive swirled rye bread features perfectly sliced, melt-in-your-mouth pastrami, a welcoming amount of vinegary mustard, deliciously sour sauerkraut, fresh and crisp red onions and, last, but certainly not least, wholesomely holey Swiss cheese. Typically, when I eat out, I order items not readily available at home. Swirled rye bread, pastrami and sauerkraut are all ingredients that I hardly ever have on hand, so I couldn't wait to try the Zanja Special. The first thing that impressed me was the bread-to-meat ratio. In the perfect sandwich, there should be enough meat to necessitate a slight press on either side of the sandwich in order to allow your mouth to wrap itself around all ingredients, but enough bread to prevent the I-need-a-fork-now-because-I've-ran-out-of-bread-with-three-bites-of-sandwich-insides-to-go-and-don't-feel-like-carnivorously-using-my-hands scenario. Theron's certainly delivered a sandwich meeting this arguably picking culinary requirement of mine. I couldn't fit my mouth around each bite without slightly squeezing each piece of bread together. The flavors took it from there. The pastrami was not in short supply, and possessed a desired saltiness without being overly fatty. The sauerkraut was, well, sour, but slightly sweet, thus played nicely with the pastrami's salty side. A pleasant texture was provided by the onions' crisp nature. The presence of the Swiss cheese helped tame the vibrant mustard so its vinegary bite never became overpowering. Finally, the swirled rye was hearty enough to accompany the strong flavors of the sandwich without every becoming too dry.

Halfway through the Zanja Special, I realized I still had frozen custard left. It was melting fast, leaving me with only one option. I finished it happily as its cool sweetness helped counterbalance the bold flavors of the sandwich. With a fresh palate, I was ready to enjoy the rest of my lunch, and did so with great contentment.

Image courtesy of Ally Schmitz
Great food in a quaint setting is sure to give anybody that coveted, "Ahh!" feeling feverishly sought after during any culinary adventure. Whether its for a more flamboyant custard offering with mix-ins galore, or another satisfying sandwich, I'm sure I'll return to Theron's for another escapade at some point because its flavorsome offerings are minutes away from my own backyard.

What's your favorite noteworthy hometown gem? Share below and let the whole world know, or at least the small portion of the whole world taking advantage of the great opportunity to read this blog.

Interested to learn more about Theron's Frozen Custard? Check out their website here.

As always, thanks for reading!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Triple D Time-out: The Coffee Cup

Location: Boulder City, NV
Date: Aug. 9, 2011

This mini culinary adventure was my second Triple D stop during my recent trip to Vegas. I'm a huge fan of breakfast cafes with great tasting food sans all the hoopla often inherent with finer breakfast establishments. The morning meal is supposed to be the most important meal of the day, so why not enjoy it comfortably without worrying about your wardrobe or blowing up your wallet first thing in the morning? Now, I have no problem splurging on fine dining for dinner, but nothing beats the comfort of a hearty meal in the AM from a great cafe where you can just show up as you are and fit right it. Don't take my word for it though, ask the cyclist who was enjoying a steaming cup of coffee and some nutrient dense mid-ride fuel at the inviting bar decked out in his fitted spandex (which, by the way, is infinitely more comfortable on long rides than drag-inducing loose attire) and helmet nestled on top of the adjacent comfortably cushioned bar stool.

It's right across the street!
I find the best cafes off the beaten path in tranquil locations where leisure trumps the fast paced bustle of the real world everyday. Located in the historical district of Boulder City, NV, and neighbored only by Mom and Pop souvenir and antique shops, The Coffee Cup undoubtedly fits the mold. It's situated in a setting reminiscent of a time long, long ago...a time I can't personally relate to, but my grandpa may vividly remember. Despite the fact that my birthday occurred much more recently than times when a setting like this was the norm, I do appreciate opportunities to pause and step back in time. The pleasant camaraderie constantly looming in these low key eateries makes me wish more existed, and keeps me coming back to similar places anytime I can.

License plates from near and far
  The decor inside was put up with the classic throw-anything-and-everything-on-the-walls-and-it-will-work mentality. Knickknacks from surfboards to pictures to old water skies graciously adorned the walls, giving costumers a vast variety of interesting objects to gaze at while waiting for the main event with friends and loved ones. The wall that caught my attention first, however, was their wall of old license plates. It instantly took me back to my favorite place in the San Diego area to get a big, juicy bacon cheeseburger. Hodad's, like The Coffee Cup, also utilizes old license plates as unconventional interior decorations. Thus, associating this cafe to one of my favorites had my mouth watering, and taste buds ready to indulge minutes before I had even peaked at their menu!

Upon gazing at the menu, my eyes instantly gravitated towards the boxed "South of the Border" breakfast items. My only question for the friendly waitress: How is the Pork Chile Verde different from the Pork Ranchero Sauce? The Pork Ranchero Sauce has a few added ingredients and a little more spice. More spice?! Spicy food is my favorite...I'll have the Huevos Rancheros! How would you like your eggs? Poached!

Huevos Rancheros
Yeah, I know! The menu claimed the Huevos Rancheros are "smothered in our Pork Ranchero Sauce." They weren't kidding! I could have just eaten a bowl of the Pork Ranchero Sauce on its own. The huge chunks of pork were fall-off-the-bone tender...if I may use an old culinary cliche. There actually wasn't a single bone on my plate though, so maybe I should save that line for another day. However, I can attest to the delicious meat being fork tender. All I had to do to get a bite-sized piece was simply touch the top of the pork along the grain with the side of my fork and, seemingly instantaneously, the pork separated. Carefully poking the exposed pork with the prongs of my fork (so it wouldn't separate further, of course), I took that first bite, and found myself immediately at peace knowing that I had just embarked on a "South of the Border" culinary adventure that would not soon be forgotten.

The pork was juicy and tender on its own, but the flavor was brought to a whole new level after soaking in its ranchero bath. The spiciness of the sauce never came on too strong (I can handle some spice though, so some may think its a little spicier than I did), but the mildness of the tomatoes did help cut through the spice to switch up the flavors and keep me interested. Refried beans were buried at the bottom of this palette pleasing pyramid, and helped thicken some of the juices while also bringing a desired salty element. The tortillas brought a nice crunch to the party, preventing the texture of the dish from becoming too one dimensional. The eggs were perfectly poached, and, by "perfectly poached," I mean once I cut into the egg, its runny yolk spewed out in lava-like fashion, adding a whole new rich saucy element. Oh, and who doesn't like gooey, melted cheese? It's like the cherry on top for any hearty egg dish! The hashbrowns were good too, but my sister ate most of them, as I was too enthralled eating bite after bite of the delicious Huevos Rancheros without stopping. In fact, when I took my last bite, I could've licked the residue left behind on the plate, but, uh, that would've just been plain gross! Instead, I figured it best to maintain my dignity, and simply finish sipping my coffee.

For those of you who enjoy a morning sugar rush by devouring sweet, dessert-like meals, try this on for size...

Chocolate chip and peanut butter waffle
If you're a waffle lover like my sister, you would quite possibly be in waffle heaven at this place. They have a diverse list of just over 10 ingredients ranging from sweet to savory, including fruits and nuts, to choose from, and encourage you to build your own waffle. Well, this place isn't a build-a-waffle so you don't actually build them...just choose your favorite ingredients, tell the waitress, and a cook will build it for you. My sister chose chocolate chips and peanut butter for her mix-ins. She also requested it be piled high with their fresh and fluffy whipped cream. I took a bite and it was very good. Chocolate and peanut butter are an epic sweet and salty combination. The waffle was crisp on the outside, but warm and a little chewy on the inside...two desirable qualities for any waffle. The whipped topping was very light and never tasted too heavy. Sweet breakfasts are my sister's thing though, as I prefer hearty, savor dishes like the tasty one featured above. My sister really enjoyed this though, so, if sweets for breakfast is your thing, you'd be undoubtedly satisfied as well.

The Coffee Cup has a lot to offer and I encourage any of you to stop by next time you're in the area. The drive from Las Vegas is a breeze, the quaint setting is a nice change of pace from crowds constantly congregated up and down the strip, and the food, well, I already told you about the food, but if you need a reminder scroll back up the page. If you can't stop by anytime soon, you may learn all about The Coffee Cup here, and wish that you could!