Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lunch At Olive Garden

SP and I were out and about on Saturday. We had an appointment in the morning and then planned to do some 'fun' shopping along with the usual chores and errands. As soon as we left the house, my stomach started making 'feed me' noises. So embarrassing. This continued on the drive to our appointment, in the waiting area, during the meeting. I ate my usual breakfast and it wasn't even noon when we finished, but my stomach had been demanding food for well over an hour. We decided we had to eat before anything else. But where? Originally we were thinking mall court food, but that wasn't really appealing to us. Then we remembered our gift certificate to Olive Garden plus we had a coupon. We figured (hoped) that the wait around noon wouldn't be as horrible as the wait at dinner time. Fortunately, it wasn't. We were seated after a 5-10 minute wait.
Saturday was another frigid, blustery weekend day. I was so cold - the wind chill was 19 and it was just so darn windy. So while SP ordered iced tea, I ordered hot tea. To my surprise and delight, Olive Garden offers more than plain black tea. They have flavored teas, like Earl Grey. I like that the hot water comes in a carafe that gave me 2-3 cups of tea.
A newfangled teabag
The teabag intrigued me. I'd never seen one like this! I had to read the directions on the foil packet! All the tea we drink, loose leaf and bags, and I'd never seen this neat self-squeezing teabag. No need for a spoon. I don't know if I was all befuddled or bedazzled by this neato teabag design, but I spaced out on the sugar. I looked at the blue, pink, yellow, and white cylinders and thought something like oh, blue for boy, pink for girl, what's yellow? Oh it's all the same I'll use a yellow.
The confusing sweetener options
Total brain cramp. Or maybe I was thinking of the last time I was at Olive Garden, which was for Z's bridal shower, and then maybe my mind wandered to showers...  then baby showers...  and maybe that's why I was thinking of blue for boys and pink for girls, but sheesh...  I wondered why my first cup of tea tasted so sweet. It was tasty, but sweeter than I normally make it. Um... maybe because it was fake sugar. I cannot believe I spaced out on this. Blue = Equal, pink = Sweet N Low, yellow = some other fake sugar, and white = the real deal. Duh. But I didn't figure that out until my second cup of tea. SP had a good time making fun of me.

Anyway, I chose to start with soup instead of salad because I was cold! Soup sounded warming and comforting.
Chicken & Gnocchi Soup
It was good, but I'm not sure I'd get it again. I didn't like all the green onions, and it was saltier than I would have liked but that's a risk of soups at places like Olive Garden. The gnocchi were pretty tasty. Not soft and pillowy, but definitely not tough or rubbery or heavy balls of dough.
Minestrone Soup
SP chose minestrone soup. He liked it, as did I when I tried a bite, but it, too, was a little salty. Of course, we tend to under salt our foods because we don't like salt, so perhaps others wouldn't notice any salty taste.

We also received a basket of the breadsticks:
SP suggested sharing an appetizer of these fried goodies, which surprised me because he's not really a fried foods person, but I like fried calamari & cheese!
Appetizer Platter, we chose 3 appetizers: Calamari with Mustard Sauce, Fried Mozzarella with Marinara, and Stuffed Mushrooms
The calamari was all rings, which I liked, and not heavily breaded and not rubbery. My favorite of the three appetizers. The mustard dipping sauce was really good, too. The mushroom caps were OK. I think they are stuffed with a mix of breadcrumbs, cheese, and herbs. I thought I tasted a bit too much garlic salt, so I only ate one mushroom cap.

The fried mozzarella was OK and the marinara was OK.
Grilled Shrimp Caprese
SP ordered Grilled Shrimp Caprese and ate a bit less than half. He said it was tasty. I didn't try any. I was busy eating half of my Ravioli di Portobello:
Ravioli di Portobello
They were tasty. The creamy, cheesy sauce was good.

I know I am just as guilty as other food bloggers in being a bit 'snobby' towards chain restaurants. The fact of the matter is, not all chains are horrible. Yes, most of the food is pre-made and all they have to do is cook it. They aren't whipping up a marinade from scratch or baking their own bread or making fresh pasta. And that's OK. This was a perfectly decent, tasty lunch, and we had leftovers for another lunch.

My issue is that, for instance, SP's Shrimp Caprese was $16, and for $16 we could get a fresher, completely homemade, tastier pasta dish at Piccolo Forno or Osteria 2350. Even my ravioli was $12, and given a choice, I'd rather pay another $2-$4 more for homemade ravioli at one of the above mentioned places.

If we hadn't had the gift card and a coupon, we probably would have just hit the mall food court for a Subway or a soft pretzel. This was a nice lunch date, especially since we had separate plans for the evening, and it was nice to relax and be out of the hustle and bustle of the mall. Our server was very friendly. She kept SP's iced tea filled. She asked if we wanted our soup or appetizer first, informing us that the appetizer could take up to 10 minutes to come out because of cooking/broiling the mushroom caps. A manager was walking around, checking on customers, too, and I thought that was nice.

And chains certainly are good locations for families with small children. They are less formal and more spacious than some of the places at which we dine in Lawrenceville or East Liberty, places that would not be good for children.

All in all, a good lunch.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


This past Friday, our friends S & R invited us to join them for dinner at Cure, a recently opened (January 2012, I think) restaurant on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. I wanted to try Cure because I had heard good things not just about Cure but also about Chef Severino when he was at Elements. At the same time, my desire to try Cure was somewhat dampened by my... fear of the menu. Read on for more details, and remember, despite being a 'food blogger' and loving to cook and dine out, I have a sensitive stomach and I am somewhat peculiar about what I will/won't eat/try! So I went in excited and fearful!
Friday evening was quite blustery. We parked on Butler Street and allowed the gusts to propel us a block down to the pig that greets you at the door. You may be noticing the step in the photo. Yes, there is a small step. It's even smaller if you go around the corner. It was quite easy for SP to get me up the step. Inside is dark and cozy. Rustic, with one wall wood planks, meat hooks for coat hangars, a chalkboard not announcing daily specials but instead upcoming events, such as dinners with other local chefs and cooking classes. The music was a wee bit loud for me, so I had to lean in to the table to hear/speak (I have a soft voice so often in loud restaurants I need to lean in and yell!). The rear of the restaurant has the open kitchen and I think there is bar-like seating there, too, but since it's up 4-5 steps, I didn't check it out. The bathrooms are up the steps as well.
I really liked the interior. Our table was ready and waiting for us even though SP & I were about 20 minutes early (there wasn't as much traffic as we expected). Our reservation was for 7:15 pm and we were surprised Cure wasn't more crowded. It did get quite busy between 7 and 8 pm, and also, we thought that maybe this meat-centric restaurant wasn't so busy because it was a Friday during Lent.

Since Cure is BYOB, our server opened our wine (Kendall Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon) and we enjoyed a glass while looking around, spotting all the pig decor/figurines, and looking over the menu.
I like the torn, charred look to the menu, presented on a piece of charred wood and held in place by a rubberband. SP & I used our early arrival time to look up, on his phone, some words on the menu that we didn't know. I felt kind of stupid and was thankful for the invention of smartphones. Otherwise, I would have had to be the annoying diner, peppering the server with endless questions about each ingredient, or I would have had to just wing it and hope that my stomach liked what it got!

What didn't we know? SP & I like to think we know a fair amount about foods/ingredients, but we both were a little clueless here.

Treviso: my guess was going to be a green, but there was also rapini in the dish and that's a green, so then I got confused. Looking it up we learned it's a town in Italy and also a red radicchio.

Boudin Blanc/Boudin Noir: my guess was going to be a blood sausage/non blood sausage based on the blanc/noir, and it is.

Escabeche: I know I've seen this before, but I just couldn't remember that it refers to poached or fried fish/meat with an acidic marinade.

Bacalao: we guessed this would be like Japanese bonito flakes, and we were close. It's dried, salted cod.

After our phone research, I felt a little too stupid to be at the restaurant! S & R arrived, opened their Mark West Pinot Noir, and we ordered. SP & I shared Crispy Pigs Ear Salad.
Charred radicchio, egg, pickled duck tongue, anchovy vinaigrette, and Pecorino Romano. I was apprehensive and swore to SP that I would try ONE BITE but that he'd have to eat the rest. Somehow, I forgot all about the scary to me parts of this dish (pig ear, anchovy, duck tongue) when it arrived and once I tasted it, I couldn't stop. I had more than a few bites, and I don't mean bites of the 'normal' parts like the cheese and egg. This was so tasty! R ordered this for herself and she loved it, too.
S & R shared this Salumi platter with salami toscano, lardo, pork terrine, coppa di testa, chicken rillettes, chorizo, duck ciccioli, cornichon, mustard, red onion. They would have liked a bit more bread for with the meats. SP tried a taste of chorizo and said it was tasty and spicy. I tried a bit of whatever is in the lower right of the photo and it was pretty tasty. This is another example of scary to me foods - meats studded with things like garlic, meats cooked in and then mixed with lots of fat and turned into a spreadable paste, head cheese, meat jellies/terrines - the idea of these things does not appeal to me but at Cure when I forgot about what they were and actually tasted them, I went, hmmm, yum. Let's try another taste. Hmm yes, that's good. 

S also ordered the White Bean Soup, which he said was very good. I forgot to take a photo. It comes with goat cheese, crispy kale, and chili oil. When it is served, the server places a bowl with the solid ingredients on the table in front of you and the pours the hot broth from a kettle over the solid ingredients in the bowl.  
Although I had been eyeing the lamb, fear of garlic (although our server checked and said I would be OK) and the fact that lamb is tastiest when slightly pink and my stomach sometimes doesn't like when I feed it pink lamb made me choose the safer dish: chicken. Heritage Farm Chicken with escarole, pancetta, soffrito, potato espuma. When it arrived, I really couldn't identify anything under the gravy and espuma, so I just dug in. Oh my gosh. So good! The chicken was good, but what I really enjoyed was the interplay of the flavors of everything else when I took a bite. Yum.
SP chose Boudin Blanc with melted cabbage, dates, bernaise, mustard. I had a taste and thought it was terrific. A very flavorful sausage without resorting to all those strong spices and herbs for flavor.
S ordered the Meat Pie with pork belly, sweetbreads, duck, chicken liver, bone marrow, sunchoke, maitake, and rosemary. He said it was delicious. R has tried this dish on one of their previous visits and she enjoys it a lot, too.
R ordered the Spanish Mackerel, escabeche, bacalao, sweet garlic, chive. She liked it a lot. Sorry for the horrible photo. It's dark in Cure!
We didn't need dessert, we were satisfied, but we decided we wanted dessert. We shared the chocolate dessert: Chocolate Souffle Cake, pistachio butter, sea salt, olive oil. S & R shared the same dessert. Everyone thought it was quite good and devoured every last bit. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the pistachio butter since I do not normally like nuts/pistachios/nut butter.

I discovered that we all are quite skilled in scraping our plates clean and maybe even licking them a tiny bit!

I really enjoyed my Cure meal, and as I said before, that surprises me because the menu is 'different.' I haven't seen too many Pittsburgh menus with pickled duck tongue or meat pie like this. It is a smallish menu with about 5 starters, 6 entrees, and 2 desserts, and I think some items change frequently. For instance, just a couple of days ago there was a mushroom risotto on the menu and I was thinking that would be my safe choice, but when we got to Cure, it was no longer on the menu. The mackerel that R ordered was not listed online on Saturday. Perhaps it's a fish option for Friday only because of Lent?

Our server was excellent. Happy to answer questions. Kept the water glasses filled. S & R brought 2 bottles of wine, a white and a red. They opted to open the red first and our server offered to keep the white chilled in their refrigerator in back.

It's always nice when a restaurant you are slightly 'fearful of' because its menu offerings are a bit 'different' turns out to be an amazing, delicious experience. That was the case with Cure for me. Lately I've seen more restaurants in Pittsburgh offering items like bone marrow, pork belly, pates, foie gras, and it makes me happy to see this even if it might not always be my personal choice in foods. I know my chicken entree wasn't too 'different' but I am excited that I enjoyed the pig ear & pickled duck tongue so much plus my tiny taste of the salumi platter and my taste of boudin blanc.

Cure is now on our 'Go To Again' list. It's delicious.

Cure on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 24, 2012

Birthday Cake for SP

Once again, it's near the end of February. That means it's SP's birthday. I wanted to continue my tradition of baking him a cake, all by myself, and surprising him after work. But what kind?

Previous cakes were Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing (2009), the Lemon Cake Disaster (2010), and  Double Ginger Sour Cream Bundt Cake with Gingered Strawberries (2011).

I consulted the 'to make' list, but every listed cake seemed a bit difficult for me to handle on my own. I wasn't comfortable trying to whip eggs whites and fold them into a mixture for a mousse cake, I didn't want to attempt a tower of eight skinny layers while home alone, and as I discovered when I went poking through the pantry, we are completely out or have very little left of a lot of basic staples after all that holiday cookie baking plus a few of the remaining staples have soon-to-expire or expired dates on them. Whoops.
In addition to figuring out what kind of cake to bake. I couldn't figure out when to bake it. His birthday is on a Sunday, so I couldn't bake it on his birthday and surprise him because he would be home. For the 3 days before his birthday, we are busy. I wasn't sure I wanted to bake his cake if we were not going to be home to enjoy it.

I finally decided to bake it on Thursday. I also decided to go with a basic birthday cake. One chocolate layer, one white layer, frosted with chocolate icing.
The chocolate layer recipe is from a very old Hershey's Fabulous Desserts Cookbook. The recipe is for one layer in a square pan. It is noteworthy in that the chocolate layer contains no butter and no eggs, but does use water, oil, and vinegar. I think this is the first time I've made an egg-less and butter-less cake.The yellow layer recipe is from my beat up copy of Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, a one layer busy day cake recipe. The chocolate frosting recipe is from the Hershey's book. It's a buttercream frosting (butter, powdered sugar, cocoa, milk, vanilla), and I used 3/4 cup cocoa for a dark chocolate frosting.
We cut into the cake last night when we got home from our meeting. Both layers are moist, though I find the white layer to be a bit bland tasting. I added extra splashes of vanilla and milk to the frosting, and that seems to have helped make it a bit smoother/less grainy. I beat it for a long time to make sure everything was really incorporated. We both really dislike grainy frosting.
I wanted to use our frosting tips to pipe a pretty design on the cake, but the frosting made just enough to cover the layers. Next time, I'd make an extra batch of frosting, not just so I can play with making pretty piped designs, but I felt a little like I was repeatedly smoothing and stretching the frosting to cover the cake. I thought there wasn't going to be enough!

The best part: the top layer didn't slide off the bottom layer!

So, happy birthday, SP. I'm glad you like your cake.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Crab Imperial

I've been crabby for the last month. As in thinking about the cans of jumbo lump crab in the refrigerator, not my mood! Usually we use the crab to make crab cakes or the orzo-artichoke-tomato-crab pasta dish. But I wanted something different. Plus the orzo dish is a good spring/summer dish. I thought about a crab imperial and looked it up in several cookbooks. Our Cover & Bake cookbook has a crab imperial recipe, but it calls for cod in addition to crab. Even though those recipes have been reliably super tasty, I wasn't sure if I wanted fish contaminating my crab.
I looked up other crab imperial recipes, but the creaminess, the high fat content, the cholesterol of this dish kept me from actually making it. Plus, my fear of it being rubbery, or bland, or any of the other potential pitfalls listed in Cover & Bake's recipe development description.
But I kept thinking about those cans of crab. Especially since there is another Seafood Stock Up Sale at GEMD this Saturday. I was set to just make crab cakes again when I opened the newest issue of Saveur and discovered a recipe for crab imperial.
We were looking for a quick & easy dish, something that would make about 3 meals since we have evening plans most every day this week, which means really quick meals or grabbing fast food on the evenings with plans. This recipe seemed super easy, quick, about the right size, and all we needed to buy was a red pepper & some cream. I figured we should just make it, to get the crab imperial craving out of my mind.
Saveur says to serve this with toasted bread, so we made a homemade white bread in the bread machine. I know, whole wheat would be healthier, but...
It takes about 10-15 minutes to make the crab mixture, then 20 minutes to bake it. We scooped the creamy, deliciously crabby mixture onto the warm bread.
Crab mixed with onion, red pepper, panko, melted butter, Worcestershire, sherry, lemon juice, paprika, cayenne, dry mustard, parsley, and cream. We roasted some asparagus, too. Hopefully, the asparagus will counteract the 'bad' of the crab imperial!
Not the healthiest of meals, but oh is it tasty. The paprika and cayenne give it a nice kick. It lingers on your tongue and you know it's there, but it's not overpoweringly spicy. We would definitely make this again, maybe for dinner guests along with a huge salad. That way, we won't eat all of the crab! Or maybe as a hot appetizer at a party, served with bread or crackers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Super Secret Location?

SP's birthday is coming up. This past weekend, we got together with his family for his birthday dinner. He chose Burgatory.

After choosing Burgatory, then lamenting the distance from our house and the usual long wait times, we started talking about how wouldn't it be nice if the new super secret Burgatory location was in the Robinson area.

Then I was reading last Thursday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Local West section, and in the Municipal News section I saw this tidbit:

"Burgatory wants to open a hamburger restaurant with an outdoor seating area in the former Scoglio's Italian Restaurant in The Pointe at North Fayette shopping center. Burgatory has other locations at Waterworks Mall and inside the Consol Energy Center.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/12047/1210657-57-0.stm#ixzz1n2JpgwJI"

Could it be? Could the super secret third location coming soon really be near us? Or could this be a super secret fourth location? We are hoping so! It would be a great addition to this area. I suppose having 3 locations means Burgatory might qualify as a  'chain restaurant' but it would be a local chain, not national. 
Anyway, since SP's mom likes to eat around 4:30pm, we figured we would get there early to put our name on the waiting list. I wanted to leave at 3pm, SP said 3:30pm seemed early enough. At 3:15pm I checked their site and there was a 50-60 minute wait, so we headed out at 3:25pm!!

We got there at 4pm and there was a 60-75 minute wait for our group of seven. SP texted/called everyone else that we were on the wait list and we went shopping, or, more accurately, browsing. It's very easy to have an hour fly by when you are in Barnes & Noble looking at cookbooks and travel books!
Everyone chose to fill out a Custom Creation sheet for their meal. We like Burgatory because it has a variety of burger choices (beef, wagyu, chicken, bison, veggie, crab) and tons of toppings, plus several bread choices, including topless (just bread on the bottom) and naked (no bread), which was good since SP's mom doesn't eat carbs.
This time I chose chicken instead of beef. Turns out they offer chicken breasts and ground chicken patties. I chose a chicken breast, topped with gruyere, bourbon BBQ sauce, bacon, mushroom, arugula, greens, tomato, and cucumber on brioche. Yum! 
SP chose a topless bison burger with gruyere, whole grain mustard, bacon, Napa slaw, greens, arugula, tomato, pickles and I don't even know what else!

SP's mom had a naked beef burger with lots of veggies. His dad had a beef burger on herbed foccacia with cheese, onions, and lots of other stuff. And Googer had a naked veggie burger with Kingston jerk rub, banana ketchup, grilled pineapple, grilled onions, roasted red peppers, baby spinach, arugula, sliced tomato, and poblano peppers. Sadly, he didn't take a photo of his meal, but he did give me a copy of his custom creation sheet!
Of course after the meal we had to order milkshakes. This time, we each ordered a shake so that we could try two kinds, and of course, we ended up getting to-go cups to take our shakes home. We shared the Coffee & Donuts shake and the Salted Nutella Crunch shake.
Lots of whipped cream on top the Salted Nutella Crunch shake. Nutella & Nestle Crunch Bars.
A munchkin donut on top the Coffee & Donuts shake. Kona coffee, glazed donuts, and a hint of chocolate syrup.

Both the shakes are non-alcoholic shakes. They were quite good, but I found myself getting that uncomfortable milkshake stomach bloating and unhappy feeling. I ended up putting the remainder of my shake in our freezer and finishing it on Monday. SP & I think that the first shake we had at Burgatory, the one on New Year's Eve with the champagne, strawberries, and pizzelles, tasted so good and didn't bother me because of the alcohol. We now are anxious to return to try an alcoholic shake again to see if the alcohol helps cut the dairy 'badness' for my stomach. 

Another tasty meal at Burgatory, and hopefully we'll soon be able to zip right over to a Burgatory near us!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Weekday Scalloped Potatoes

This past weekend we again made the Weekday Scalloped Potatoes from Cover & Bake. I can't believe it has been over a year since we last made these!
I like that they are cheesy, but not too cheesy. I like the thyme flavor. I like that the potatoes cook in the milk and chicken broth until tender before being dumped in a casserole dish, sprinkled with cheese, and baked until bubbly.
I especially like scalloped potatoes with ham and vegetables. Yum!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Orange-Almond Biscotti

I'm much more of a cookie girl than a cake or pie or ice cream girl. After last week's disappointing cake, I wanted cookies for this week's evening treat. I think I saw in one of the cookbooks I borrowed from the library an Orange-Almond Biscotti recipe and that planted the idea. I definitely saw an Orange-Almond Biscotti recipe in Baking Illustrated. Baking Illustrated has never let us down, so we decided to make the Orange-Almond Biscotti recipe from that cookbook.
I measured everything, toasted the almonds, and started mixing the dough while SP unpacked groceries. He finished folding in the flour mixture and shaped the logs. In true geek fashion, he decided he couldn't just eyeball dividing the dough in half. He had to use the scale.
Whenever we make biscotti, our logs are never 13x2. We never seem to have that much dough. It doesn't really matter, though, because what we lack in quantity is there in quality. This is another tasty biscotti recipe. There's 4 tablespoons of butter and 2 eggs in this biscotti recipe, so the recipe said that the biscotti might be more cookie like than hard like a biscotti. We didn't find that to be the case! Ours turned out crispy and I had fun dunking them in some orange-spice tea.
The recipe called for vanilla and almond extracts, but I couldn't help wondering how it would be with orange and almond extracts. Maybe next time we'll try that combination. And maybe more orange zest. I like a lot of citrus flavor!