Vegetarian Michelada

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My parents just got back from a two week vacation in Mexico. While we suffered through rain, ice and snow here in Virginia, we occasionally received photos via email of palm trees, clear blue water, and sunny sandy beaches. So one night last week, we cranked up the heat in the house and whipped up some tacos and spicy micheladas for dinner.

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A Michelada is a Mexican beer cocktail that Kyle and I first tried in Portland, Oregon, of all places.We encountered the michelada on several restaurant menus in Portland, including Pine State Biscuits, where it may have actually been billed as a “beer bloody mary” and Por Que No Tacos.

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It appears that micheladas hang out at authentic Mexican restaurants and hipster havens. I’ve never seen a michelada on a restaurant menu in Richmond, but I’m sure I will soon. I would venture to say they became really hip in Austin eight years ago, in Brooklyn four years ago, and in Portland two years ago. So at that rate, the hipsters in Richmond started drinking them last year and I’m just now finding out about them. We’ll all be drinking them at Sunday brunch by next year.

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The next time you are in Portland, please make sure you throw on a flannel shirt and get to a Pine State Biscuits location before you leave town. Their egg and cheese biscuit sandwich with a fried green tomato was a heavy, delicious breakfast that kept me full while sightseeing until mid-afternoon.

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Their Stumptown Coffee is also excellent.  If you’re on vacation, get yourself a cocktail too. The beer cocktail that Kyle ordered came with a can of Rainier beer on the side, which we figure is the PBR of the Pacific Northwest?

We decided to try our own recipe for a michelada last week, because most of the recipes I found included some type of fish sauce, clam juice, anchovy or oyster sauce, which we generally try to substitute out if we can. So here is our recipe for vegetarian micheladas, which is still a work in progress and completely adaptable for your own tastes. I only measured to develop the recipe, but I doubt I will ever measure the ingredients again. Customize the number of dashes of each ingredient you use to suit your mood that day. Stir, taste, and season again if it’s not quite right the first time.

Also a note on beers: I tried these with lighter beer (Pacifico, Modelo Especial) and dark  beer (Negra Modelo), and while these are most commonly made with the lighter Mexican adjunct lagers, I prefer a darker beer in mine.

Vegetarian Michelada

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Ingredients:

  • 1 lime wedge
  • Sea salt
  • Chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon liquid aminos
  • 1/2 teaspoon vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 dashes hot sauce (Tapatio)
  • 2 pinches ground black pepper
  • 12 ounces of cold beer

Preparation:

  1. Mix equal parts sea salt and chili powder in a bowl.
  2. Rub the lime wedge around the rim of a pint glass.
  3. Dip the glass upside-down in the chili powder salt mixture to make a chili-salt rim.
  4. Add the lime wedge to the glass. Add lime juice, tomato juice, liquid aminos, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and black pepper to the glass and stir.
  5. Top with 12 ounces of cold beer. Stir, taste, and adjust seasoning.
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A Farmtastic Weekend

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It has been really cold in Richmond for the last week, and I have gladly stayed bundled up indoors at work for a few days. I broke out my fleece-lined tights for the first time this winter, and I wore scarves in my office every day. Towards the end of the week, it started to warm up (a little bit), and a peek at the forecast revealed that we were expecting a sunny, chilly weekend, followed by a few days of icy rain. Early Saturday morning, I decided to seize the day and take full advantage of the sun while it lasted. First stop: South of the James Farmers Market!

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I wrote about my history with Haas Mushrooms last week, and writing that post made me realize how much I missed visiting the market every weekend. The stark difference between the cold weather outside and my warm and toasty bed inside has prevented me from making the trek to Forest Hill Park for several weeks. However, I used to make it to the market by 7:30 every Saturday, rain or shine, so this week I decided there was no room for excuses! It was below freezing while I picked out my mushrooms this week, but they were totally worth it.

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How cool is this funny looking guy? This is a lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus), also known as a sheep’s head, hedgehog, or pom pom mushroom. I picked up a mixed bag from Haas and researched this odd looking mushroom that I found in my bag when I got home. Like many mushrooms, it has remarkable anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties. This type of mushroom contains 20 percent protein and is specifically well known for its unique nerve regenerative properties. One article that I found particularly interesting was this one from Paul Stamets for the Huffington Post blog: “Lion’s Mane: A Mushroom that Improves your Memory and Mood?” The healing properties of food never cease to amaze me. I am so looking forward to experimenting with cooking this cool find.

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In other weird food news, it’s Romanesco Season! I could not resist picking up this gorgeous head of romanesco from Walnut Hill Farm Produce at the market this weekend. It was so cold out there that this thing had tiny icicles hanging from its florets.

After returning home and thawing out, I packed up my car, picked up a friend, and headed west to Powhatan State Park for a hike. It was only in the thirties, but the cloudless sky provided plenty of sunshine, which made me feel a little warmer on my trek through this fairly new state park.

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This park is about a 45-minute drive from Richmond and it offers hiking and mountain biking trails, campsites, playgrounds, canoe launches, and beautiful views of the James River. Established in 2003 and still under construction, the park’s facilities are in great shape. I paid $4 to enter the park and there were very few cars in the trailhead parking lots. My friend and I only saw one other hiker and one cyclist while we were there. We took the Turkey Trail and River Trail to a few gorgeous views next to the icy river.

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As the sun started to fall closer to the horizon, we headed out of the park and drove about 15 miles to Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery for their release of the Vanilla Virginia Black Bear Russian Imperial Stout.

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The brewery is located on a beautiful farm surrounded by rolling hills. We made it there in time for the sunset, and the enormous fire pit was our favorite amenity, especially as the sun faded away and the temperature started to drop. I have wanted to visit the brewery ever since they opened but had not made it out to Goochland to check it out yet. The farm and the brewhouse were beautiful and the beer was delicious. The owners and the other beer nerds in attendance were very friendly and the whole release party had a very laid back vibe.

I think I’ll really enjoy visiting the farm again when the weather warms up in the spring. I believe their next big beer release is in March. Now that I’ve had my fill of the great outdoors, and the forecast promises icy rain for the next two days, I’ll be drinking my stout indoors, in fuzzy bear slippers, until next weekend rolls around again. Cheers!

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Fall 2014 Vegetarian Beer Dinner

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It’s that time again! Sixteen foodies and beer lovers gathered last weekend at our house for the fifth potluck Vegetarian Beer Dinner. I know I say this every time, but I think this was the best one yet!

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This was our first October beer dinner and there was a great summer-into-fall theme. October is my favorite month, so naturally I feel that there is a lot to about this season to celebrate. Kyle and I were married two Octobers ago and while I was setting up chalkboard signs and table linens last weekend, I definitely felt like I was preparing our wedding venue all over again. The weather was beautiful and the leaves on the trees in our neighborhood were just starting to turn colors. We were so lucky with the weather that with a few patio heaters, we were able to host the dinner outside in our backyard.

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We tried out a new game this time to greet guests while they arrived. We wrapped three bottles of brown ale in Halloween themed craft tape to cover the labels. Each guest had three numbers to correspond with the numbered bottles, and there were three jars with the names of the beers we were blind tasting: Legend Brown Ale, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale, and Rogue Hazelnut Brown Ale. Taking turns, we tasted all three beers and then tried to guess which beer was in each bottle. Guests voted by placing their numbers in the jars that they thought matched their beers. We didn’t track individual answers so there were no winners or losers, but by counting the numbers in each jar we could tell that most of the crowd correctly guessed the Rogue ale, and most of the crowd mixed up the Legend and Smuttynose beers.

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We provided eight ounce jars for tasting throughout the dinner and I wrote each guest’s name on a chalk label on each jar. The graduated ounce marks on the glassware helped for measuring tasting portions for those of us who were trying to stay relatively sober through the whole dinner!

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Guests were paired up and each group explained their food and beer pairing. All dishes were vegetarian and beers were seasonal. We had several vegan and gluten-free dishes so that there was a little something for everyone. The more competitive groups campaigned for their dishes to be voted the best dish of the night during after-dinner discussion. I couldn’t choose a favorite. They were all so different and delicious.

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The lineup is as follows, and I will link up to recipes as I get them.

Vegan Meatballs in a Sweet and Spicy Mole Sauce, with Xocoveza Mocha Stout, paired by Lauren and Kyle

Tomato & Mozzarella Caprese Skewers, with Bison Honey Basil Ale, paired by Carissa, Mike and Jess

Watermelon Radishes with Burrata, with Anderson Valley The Kimmie, The Yink & The Holy Gose, paired by Paul and Leah

Channa Masala, with Hardywood RVA IPA, paired by Liz (I Heart Vegetables) and Alex

Vegetarian Pigs in a Blanket with Gourmet Mustard, paired with Lost Rhino Rhino Chasers Pilsner, paired by Lindsay (Neat As You Please) and AJ

Roasted Corn Salad from Terry Walters’ Clean Start, paired with Sierra Nevada Flipside Red IPA, paired by Adrienne (Sit Pretty Design) and Al

Apple Crisp (recipe coming soon to the EBF Blog), paired with Lickinghole Creek Brewery Virginia Black Bear Russian Imperial Stout, paired by Brittany (Eating Bird Food) and Isaac

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I can’t choose a favorite pairing for this one because everyone brought their A game and it was a truly wonderful dinner. Much thanks to Alyssa, Morgan and Isaac for bringing additional beers to share. Thanks to Jess for helping me set up the dreamy fall patio décor. And thank you, of course, to Kyle, who consistently puts up with my bite-off-more-than-I-can-chew syndrome when it comes to entertaining. But who else would bring you a seven course vegetarian beer dinner, outdoors, at the end of October, but the type of person who bites off more than she can chew?

If seven courses weren’t enough, there were s’mores waiting at the fire pit after dinner. Which brings me to one more thank you – thanks Al for sharing your amazing fire-building skills with us once again!

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Thanks to a combination of designated drivers, self control, and Uber ridesharing service (for those who lacked both), everyone got home safely, full, and happy.

Did you miss the recaps of the first four vegetarian beer dinners? Check them out here:

Vegetarian Beer Dinner I – August 2012

Vegetarian Beer Dinner II – December 2012

Vegetarian Beer Dinner III – April 2013

Vegetarian Beer Dinner IV – September 2013

Vegan Meatballs in a Sweet and Spicy Mole Sauce

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Ever since Brittany and I brought home a second place win at the Richmond Vegetarian Festival Food Fight Iron Chef style cooking competition, I’ve been thinking about how to make our vegan nut meat into meatballs. I have to give Brittany credit for introducing me to nut meat, which is basically coarsely ground walnuts, seasoned to taste like ground beef. All alone, nut meat probably isn’t fooling anyone into thinking they’re eating real meat. However, the taste and texture definitely resemble meat when you use this ingredient in tacos, casseroles, and anything with a sauce.

I did some research on nut meatballs (hehe) but wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger on recipe testing until I settled on a creative sauce. It all came together for me when I planned the next vegetarian beer dinner in the same week that I tasted Xocoveza Mocha Stout. This beer smells remarkably like Mexican hot chocolate, and I could not get enough of the smooth, rich taste when I tried it on draft at The Beer Mongers in Portland, Oregon last month. I was immediately inspired to pair this delicious Mexican Chocolate Stout with Meatballs in a Mole Sauce at our next beer dinner.

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Xocoveza Mocha Stout is a collaboration between Stone Brewing, Cervezeria Insurgente, and home brewer Chris Banker. I’ve tried a few different attempts at a Mexican Chocolate Stout, including Kyle’s own winter 2012 home brew, which was a Mexican chocolate milk stout, as well as some variations from popular microbreweries that have hit the market over the last two years. This is the only one that I have tasted that really nailed the aroma and taste of Mexican hot chocolate with a hint of coffee.

For the food pairing, I wanted to make sure that I brought in the same chili and chocolate flavors in the sauce as well as the meatballs themselves. I used Annette Ramke and Kendall Scott’s Walnut Meat-Less Balls recipe posted on Nava Atlas’ VegKitchen as a base recipe, then I gave it my own twist. I recommend you do the same, swapping spices to get different flavors and to put your own spin on this great base recipe for vegan nut meatballs.

Vegan Meatballs in a Sweet and Spicy Mole Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 cup baby bella mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons wheat germ
  • 3 Tablespoons rolled oats
  • 1 Tablespoon nutritional yeast
  • 2 Tablespoons tamari
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Sauce:

  • 2 cups marinara sauce
  • 1/4 cup vegan dark chocolate chips
  • 4 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cocoa powder

Preparation:

  1. In a medium sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onions, mushrooms, and garlic for 4-5 minutes, until soft. Set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  3. When cooled, add onions, mushrooms and garlic to a food processor. Add remaining meatball ingredients (walnuts through black pepper) to the food processor and blend until smooth.
  4. Form mixture into small balls and place on cookie sheet. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees F. Uncover, flip meatballs and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
  5. While meatballs are baking, make the mole sauce. Heat all ingredients in medium sauce pan for 10 minutes on low-medium until chocolate is melted and sauce is bubbling. Ladle over meatballs and serve warm.

What the Heck is a Chayote Squash, and What to Drink for Cinco de Mayo?

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These weird little squashes have been staring at me from a bin in the produce section of my grocery store for far too long. I have passed by the bright green chayote squash dozens of times, wondering how to cook them and what they taste like. I finally picked up three of these weird little gourds last week, and I stumped the cashier when I went to check out.

“Excuse me, what is this?”

“Chayote. C-H-A-Y-O-T-E.”

“I don’t see the code for that, are they pears?”

“No, they’re labeled ‘chayote squash’ on the bin. Maybe they’re under ‘squash’?”

asks coworker in next lane: “Do you know the code for these?”

coworker: “No, they look like pears. Charge her for pears.”

Pears were $3.99 per pound that week, and I have no idea how much the chayote were priced per pound. I guess chayote is not a fast-mover at the Carytown Kroger. In the cashiers’ defense, the chayote does look a bit like a pear that is trying to eat itself.

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The chayote originates from Mexico, where the fruit, leaves, blossoms, and roots of the plant are eaten. The squash has a very thin green skin attached to the green-to-white flesh. The skins and seeds are edible, although I found that many recipes call for the skins and seeds to be removed. The flesh is very crisp, and the raw squash has the texture of a potato and a very mild flavor like a broccoli stalk. The chayote can be eaten raw, but it is often cooked and seasoned, or eaten in a sauce with other more flavorful ingredients.

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I found a great vegetarian recipe for Chayotes Rellenos from world-renowned chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, of The Border Grill in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Santa Monica. I had never tried one of their recipes before, so it was an evening of firsts.

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The chayote was very easy to work with. I left the skins on, but boiling caused them to peel off. The texture and flavor of the cooked chayote was similar to summer squash. I loved that this recipe incorporated epazote, and the crunch from the almonds added an unexpected and pleasant texture to the filling, which probably would have been pretty mushy otherwise, due to the cooked squash and mushrooms.

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I topped the cooked stuffed squash with some fresh pea shoots, which were an impulse purchase from Relay Foods. I normally would have tossed some cilantro on there, but I was out (rare occurrence!). One thing that recipes for stuffed squash or eggplant NEVER tell you is what to do with the extra filling. Am I the only one who always has extra filling after stuffing my vegetables?

I put the extra filling in a glass baking dish, topped it with cheese, and baked it at the same time and temperature indicated in the recipe. It worked out great.

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If you’re feeling inspired by Cinco de Mayo and you want to try out a Mexican dish besides tacos or nachos, I suggest that you give chayotes a try. Although they do not pack a ton of flavor on their own, they are very versatile and do soak up the flavors around them. Next I would like to try them in a really spicy curry, topped with chopped fresh mango, and I do not intend to wait for another holiday to do it.

What to Eat on Cinco de Mayo

If you are feeling less ingredient-adventurous but you do still want something Mexican-inspired on your table this week, check out my recipe roundup from last week.

What to Drink with Mexican Cuisine

If you want to branch out from the standard Corona, Sol, or Tecate that are very popular this time of year, head to your local craft beer store. Kyle and I collaborated on this list of brews drink with Latin American food.

For an authentic Mexican beer that is a cut above the rest, seek out Negra Modelo or Bohemia.

For a local Virginia alternative to the Mexican light lager, try Blue Mountain Brewery Lager or Legend Brewing Co Pilsner.

If you like hoppy beers, try Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai or Smuttynose Finestkind IPA.

If you intend to sit on a porch and sip beer for a few hours, pick up Sierra Nevada Summerfest or Lagunitas Daytime.

And if you just want a beer that looks great in a Cinco de Mayo party spread and is refreshing on a warm evening out on the back deck, pick up Breckenridge Brewery Agave Wheat. When you choose a beer that is infused with an iconic Mexican ingredient and labeled with a skeleton wearing a sombrero, you get an A+ for sticking to a theme!

 

Due Stagioni and Beer Dinneroni

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This is a tale of two seasons and two pizza recipes.

Kyle and I hosted a potluck vegetarian beer dinner at our house Saturday night. The theme was Farewell Summer, Hello Fall and the guest list approached twenty, for the largest Vegology beer dinner yet. For a month, we tasted and tested beers. Two weeks before the event, we began to prepare the house, yard, and décor.  One week before the dinner party, I realized that merely a wish and a dream would not get twenty people to fit into our house and around the same table, so I placed my order with Party Perfect to rent banquet tables and folding chairs for the patio. By Friday afternoon, the only thing I had not prepared for yet was what dish to make. It was the element I was least worried about, since I’ve thrown together my dishes for the last two beer dinners at the last minute.

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As I drove home from work on Friday evening, I started to think about what dishes I could prepare. The loose guidelines I imposed on myself and the guests – “summer or fall, any kind of small plate” – were not focused enough, so I had way too many ideas floating around in my head. I started to think about transitional seasonal dishes, ones that could bring you from summer into fall, and foods that I could make ahead and reheat at party time, and then it hit me. Four seasons pizza.

Quattro stagioni is a pizza with four different ingredient sections, representing the four seasons: artichokes for spring, olives for summer, mushrooms for fall, and prosciutto for winter. I decided to make miniature pizzas, or pizzettes, and do them in two seasons, due stagioni. Because I couldn’t think of a beer that would pair well with both olives and mushrooms, I did seasoned zucchini for summer on one half, and mushrooms for fall on the other, with a basil pesto base and fresh asiago melted on top (thank you,  Dany Schutte of Ellwood Thompson’s for the cheese suggestion!). The zucchini seasoning I used was the Village Garden piquant spice blend, which can be purchased locally at the South of the James farmers’ market or the Carytown farmers’ market.

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I knew the pizzette idea was a winner. I woke up Saturday morning and floated to Project Yoga at the VMFA feeling confident. After a relaxing practice in the cool autumn-like morning sun, I purchased my ingredients, some fresh flowers for the table, and a few more pieces of décor, and headed home to prepare for the party. Kyle was at work so I had to tidy up the patio, set up the tables and chairs, decorate, clean the house, and prepare the food all by myself. Everything was going really smoothly and I even had time to practice my introduction speech for the Due Stagioni Pizzettes, and decide whether to curtsy or bow when our guests gave us a standing ovation and declared the dish the most clever and delicious thing they had ever had the pleasure of tasting.

Then, suddenly, it was forty-five minutes before party time and I hadn’t made my dish yet, three people had cancelled, and Kyle was stuck at work. I frantically sliced zucchini, rolled out and cut dough, and preheated the oven. I was still assembling my dish as guests started to arrive and I distractedly pulled it out of the oven as the first course was being served. By the time my turn came around to serve, my award-winning pizzette idea had made a spiral descent down the drain and turned out to be an oily, crispy mess. A mess that left me wishing that I had chosen a stronger beer to wash down my soggy burnt crust, instead of that light, crisp pilsner, served with a side of hubris.

I made some mistakes, and I am going to outline them here so you don’t have to make them yourself. Because the next day, I repurchased all my ingredients and made the whole dish over again to prove to myself that it would work. And it was good!

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So here are the don’ts of making miniature pizzas, besides the obvious ones (don’t wait until the last minute to test your recipe, don’t cook during your dinner party, don’t shut off your brain while entertaining in your kitchen).

  1. Don’t roll out your crust too thin. I used a thinner crust the first time, thinking that a thicker crust would swallow up or spit out the delicate toppings as it rose. On the remake, I cut out the pizza rounds from a thicker sheet of dough and it worked much better.
  2. Don’t forget that your pesto has oil in it. Don’t use too much oil when sauteing your zucchini. I used way too much oil overall in the first batch, and when I pulled the pan from the oven, the oil from the pesto and the zucchini had seeped out and formed a slick on the baking sheet.
  3. Don’t second guess browned edges. I checked on the pizzettes at one point and saw browned edges but the top of the dough still looked soft and wet, so I left them in the oven for a few more minutes. Big mistake. The pesto pizzettes turned into hockey puckettes very quickly.

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Lucky for me, we had a beautiful evening with great food and beers and excellent company. Hopefully the nightmare of the failed pizzettes haunted only me that night, as everyone else seemed to have a wonderful time. Here is a rundown of the courses we enjoyed at our fourth ever potluck vegetarian beer dinner:

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with Crispin Cider – Liz and Alex from I Heart Vegetables – deliciously fresh and tart, with sweet dressing and two kinds of nuts for crunch, a great start to the meal.

Eggplant, Chickpea, and Potato Curry with Three Brothers The Great Outdoors – Sydney and Andrew from chic stripes – perfect as the sun started to set and the temperature began to drop, a dish with summer vegetables and fall spices to keep us warm, and a beer that reminds you of camping.

Cracklin’ Cauliflower with home brewed rye pale ale – Brittany and Isaac from Eating Bird Food – Brittany is right that this cauliflower is great at any temperature, and the flavor went really well with Isaac’s impressive home brew. I’ve made her recipe before, and it’s a keeper.

Due Stagioni Pizzettes (improved recipe below) with Victory Prima Pils – me and Kyle – thank goodness Kyle’s sense of humor and optimism pairs well with my high-strung perfectionism, so when the first attempt fell flat we could laugh it off and have another beer. . . then try again the next day!

Cauliflower “Cous Cous” Salad with Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Wild – Paul and Leah – I need to get this recipe and I’ll link to it here. We loved this pairing of a dish and a beer that both came with a twist – the “cous cous” is actually cauliflower and the beer is actually Lagunitas Little Sumpin’, with an additional wild yeast strain.

Skillet Apple Pie with Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout – Shannon and Evan from Thirsty Richmond and Boho Cycle Studio – so decadent, this apple pie was perfect, not an exaggeration, and it elevated my appreciation of this milk stout, as well as cast iron skillets. Oh, and blogger husbands, who are (in my humble opinion) the very best.

Deconstructed Apple Pie with Cider – Brock (Isaac’s brother) and Alex from Quarter Life Cupcake – I did not know that a vegan, gluten-free homemade dessert could be so good! I am officially a believer now.

And then the after-dinner bonus beers came out, including Goose Island Harvest Ale from Al (and poor Adrienne who had to stay home with a cold), Dogfish Head Tweasonale, The Alchemist Heady Topper, Goose Island Bourbon County, and more. Thank you to everyone who made this dinner special!

Due Stagioni Pesto Pizzettes

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Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought, rolled out to 1/4 inch thick
  • medium zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced – both shiitakes and maitakes are good (maitake mushrooms are our favorite)
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto, homemade or store bought
  • Italian seasoning or herb/spice blend of your choice for the zucchini
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 3 ounces fresh (soft) asiago cheese, or mozzarella, grated

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium heat in a medium pan. Add zucchini to pan and saute until tender, adding seasoning to taste halfway through cooking. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat in medium pan. Sprinkle the oil with 1/2 tsp black pepper. Add mushrooms to pan and saute until tender, then remove from heat.
  4. Using a 2-1/2 inch round cookie cutter, punch circles in the rolled out pizza dough and transfer to baking sheet. This should yield about 12-15 pizza round.
  5. Top each pizza round with pesto, dividing evenly among all rounds. Place two zucchini slices on one half of each round, and a spoonful of mushrooms on the other half. Top with grated cheese.
  6. Bake in preheated oven 10-12 minutes until edges begin to brown – then remove immediately!
  7. Can be reheated from refrigerated in 350 degree oven for 4-5 minutes if needed.

“Almost Free” Sangria

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I am fortunate to say that I have just returned from a beautiful and relaxing vacation in Mexico. Kyle and I joined my family for a week at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. We swam with dolphins, explored the natural beauty of Contoy Island, enjoyed relaxing spa services, and went shopping on the crowded streets of Isla Mujeres. We went snorkeling at Xel-Ha, and as I swam on the surface of the clear blue water in a rocky lagoon, I saw a large barracuda calmly and terrifyingly glide below me. We ate delicious food at beautiful restaurants and expansive buffets on the property. All of our beer, wine, and cocktails were included, and we even had a liquor dispenser for in-room mixology.

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We threw a little birthday celebration for my Mom a few days early this year, at the end of the week. Faced with an amazing itinerary of activities, a ridiculous amount of credits for free spa services, a cocktail menu that I couldn’t have drank my way through in a week if I tried, 24-hour free room service, and seventeen hours of buffet service available per day, I struggled to find something special I could give Mom for her birthday that wasn’t already included! Then as I walked along the fresh fruit buffet one morning, it hit me. You can’t get real sangria here. One of my Mom’s favorite warm weather indulgences isn’t available on any of the menus. But the ingredients were.

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When you explore any of the shopping districts, plazas, tourist attractions, or resort areas in Mexico, you are always greeted with merchants calling you over to see what they have to sell, promising you a great deal on whatever it is you may be searching for. “Hola, Señoritas, come inside, great prices for you, real silver, dresses, blouses, almost free for you today.”

On my first trip to Mexico, I visited Mexico City, Teotihuacan, Puebla, Oaxaca, Huatulco, and a few small towns in between. Everywhere we went, we heard “almost free for you” from the local peddlers. That was the trip through malaria country, when we doused ourselves in military grade bug spray, brushed our teeth with bottled water for fear of what flowed from the tap, and once had to draw the shades on the tour bus for the duration of a four-hour trip through the mountains so that the political protesters outside the bus couldn’t identify us as American students.

My most recent trip was the one at the five-star all-inclusive resort, with bilingual wait staff around every corner, a reverse osmosis water purification system on the property, complimentary Wi-Fi, an in-room Chi hair straightening iron, and “almost free” sangria. Both vacations were incredible experiences, for very different reasons. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to see the country from many perspectives.

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My attempt to create a “free” cocktail made from things found in the room and on buffets (for which you must pay a hefty weekly fee, hence the “almost” in its title) began three days before the birthday celebration, with the squirreling away of free sugar packets. I needed twenty 5-gram packets for my recipe. After I swiped all of the 5-gram sugar packets from the coffee condiment tray in the room two days in a row, the housekeeping staff started replenishing the tray with 4-gram sugar packets instead. Hmm. Maybe they found my stash of sugar packets hidden under an upside down coffee cup and they were on to my game. Regardless, they left the stash and enabled my hoarding, albeit in smaller size packages, for another day.

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The fruit came from the breakfast buffet on the morning of the celebration. The tropical fruit salad was cut by the chef, but I had to break down the peach slices and pineapple chunks into tiny pieces with a plastic fork and knife. The knife was surprising sharp for  plasticware.

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My in-room free liquor options were vodka, whisky, tequila, and rum. I went with the rum. This sangria was starting to feel pretty Caribbean. The liquor dispenser provides one shot-sized dose of liquor per press of the nozzle, which is  convenient if you are trying to measure your liquor in modest, drinkable, portions. However if your aim is to dispense twelve ounces of rum at once, operation of the dispenser becomes a little more difficult. But I’m not complaining.

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I never saw a drink pitcher at any of the bars or restaurants for my whole stay. The only thing that resembled a large vessel in which I could mix my ingredients was a 32-ounce insulated mug that retailed for a ridiculously high price of $40 in the gift shop. I considered using the ice bucket, but we are classy people. We do not ruin the in-room amenities like the shiny silver ice bucket. So I mixed the fruit, sugar, and rum in a (presumably) clean plastic bag. Double-bagged, just to be safe.

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The boozy bag o’ fruit chilled in the mini refrigerator for about eight hours.

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We thought the mini bar contained apple juice and orange juice. I reached for what I assumed was orange juice and then I read the label. Bebida con pulpa de mango. This was a box of 16% mango juice plus water and sugar. I thought, it’s a good thing I only had fourteen 5-gram packets and four 4-gram packets of sugar, instead of the twenty 5-gram packets I desired, because we’re about to make up the difference with this “juice.”

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A free bottle of wine comes with the room, along with a very cheap corkscrew. Based on the tropical fruit, liquor, and juice I used, I would recommend a citrusy white wine if you have a choice. I did not have a choice, and I knew that Mom loves read sangria, so Kyle wrestled the artificial cork out of the Spanish Merlot and I dumped it and the mango juice into the sangria bag.

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I couldn’t serve the sangria out of a complimentary laundry bag (what kind of bartender do you take me for?!) so I emptied a 1.5 liter water bottle, snipped a small corner off the wine bag, and transferred the homemade hooch to the botella de agua. Fancy.

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I served the sangria over ice with a splash of soda. Mom was pleasantly surprised by the gesture, and after each drinking at least one glass of the fruity wine cocktail, we all survived the night. Success!

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Almost Free Sangria

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 cups fresh fruit, diced
  • 1-1/2 cups light rum
  • 3/4 cups fruit juice (orange is preferred, but mango works too)
  • 1- 750 mL bottle of wine
  • 1/2 cup club soda, citrus soda, or ginger ale

Preparation:

  1. Combine sugar, fruit, and liquor in a large pitcher (or whatever vessel you have on hand). Mix thoroughly.
  2. Refrigerate the fruit mixture for 8-12 hours.
  3. Add juice and wine to mixture. Chill for 1 hour.
  4. Add the soda right before serving, or add a splash to each glass. Serve sangria over ice.

My second birthday present o my Mom: silver earrings (not free).

My third birthday present to my Mom: the satisfaction of knowing that if I ever end up imprisoned at an all-inclusive resort, I will make friends quickly due to my improvisational mixology skills, and will therefore be safe and happy even in the direst of circumstances.

Happy Birthday Mom!