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!