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It’s a little strange to jump right in with a post after over a year of not blogging, but, I’m ripping the band-aid off. Let’s do this!

Thus far, autumn has been chock full of delicious, hearty comfort food. Perhaps it’s the change in season or the change in my own personal scenery, but I’ve felt re-inspired with what I’m creating in the kitchen, and what I’m choosing when I eat out. Here are some of the more delectable and inspired foods I have been cooking, or just straight-up eating, lately:

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While I helped make these cheesy taco cups, the inspiration was all from my boyfriend’s mom, Robin. We made these together for a Mexican themed family party a few weeks ago, and they were a huge hit! To make, layer wonton wrappers, cooked taco beef, crushed tortilla chips, mexican shreeded cheese, and refried beans twice in a cupcake tin. Fill each cup with these layers, then bake until crispy and bubbling. Top with sour cream, cilantro and chives!

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After bookmarking the recipe months ago, I finally made EatLiveRun’s epic babaganoush soup! I’m fairly addicted to babaganoush (the word and the food), so this soup was a no brainer. I definitely did not expect it to be as out-of-this world flavorful and addictive as it was, though – I even went back for thirds! Stir in some grilled chicken for a heartier meal.

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This dish has been a cold-weather staple in our house for over a year now – braised red cabbage with bacon! It’s a bit reminiscent of sauerkraut, which is a fall-winter favorite of mine, but it’s heartier due to the red cabbage and shorter cooking time. The salty – sweet- sour combo of this dish will keep you coming back for more. Inspired by by Kelsey’s Essentials.

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The Apple Crisp pictured above to the right was a throw-together dessert one Friday evening, but it turned out amazingly well. I took three huge honeycrisp apples from the Farmers Market, peeled and sliced them and tossed with some brown sugar and cinnamon. Then, I topped them with a combination of rolled oats, brown and white sugar, butter, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice. Baked at 350 for about an hour, it was to-die-for! Just don’t skimp on the butter.

Also, the dish on the left is taco-smothered sweet potatoes – also a quick and easy dinner that is so SO satisfying!

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Roasted Sweet Corn! Can anyone get enough of this in the fall? It’s such a seasonal must. I had this corn a few weeks ago during a pumpkin picking expedition to Harbes Family Farm on Long Island’s north fork. They literally DIPPED each ear in a vat of butter. DIPPED! Enough said.

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Inspired by the new location in NYC, last Friday night I attempted to make Umami burgers based off this recipe from the owner. While the burgers tasted great (helped in large part by the heap of caramelized onions), I think the lack of ratios or measurements for the Umami flavorings hurt me. I under-seasoned, and this wound up tasting like a regular, albeit delicious, burger. Thankfully, the oven-roasted rosemary sweet potato fries more than made up for the lack of oooooh-mami!

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Okay. The waffle pictured above probably deserves it’s own post, a trophy, and a holiday named after it. This was consumed at Queens Comfort, an epic hipster brunch spot on 30th ave in Astoria, on Saturday. It’s called a Caramel Apple and Buttermilk Bacon Waffle, which sort of says it all. Basically, a super fluffy, apple laden waffle topped with caramel syrup and huge chunks of crispy bacon. Be still, my heart.

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Not a great photo, but above is the soup I made monday night when Adam and I were both feeling a cold coming on. Inspired by Iowa Girl Eats, this is Spaghetti (squash) and Meatball soup. I loved that it’s a heartier, more marinara-y (it’s a word) version of tomato soup, but full of Italian turkey meatballs and crisp spaghetti squash. This came together in 30 minutes and hit the spot in curing our sniffles.

Reliving these delicious meals and moments from the past month put a smile on my face, and hopefully it will help you feel re-inspired in the kitchen as it has me!

What fall foods have you been cooking lately?

Fall is officially here, along with that crisp cool breeze I just can’t get enough of. I’ve been on an everything-autumn kick for the past week or so, and it has no signs of disappearing anytime soon. This includes, of course, sampling all sorts of pumpkin-flavored beers, baking and consuming lots of apple-crumbly goodness, a new pumpkin-yellow purse, and purchasing the mother of all rich fall meals: The CrockPot.

This item has been on my kitchen must-haves list for a while, but simply not having the storage space to stow it always put me off. But finally, this fall, inspired by an un-used Bed Bath and Beyond gift card, I caved and made the purchase. And so far, the pros have far outweighed the cons.

Along with these other fall staples is pumpkin butter. What can I say? I love the stuff. One spoonful of this amber goodness adds the flavor of fall to anything from sweet potatoes to oatmeal to plain old toast. The idea to make homemade pumpkin butter derives simply from the fact that purchasing prepared pumpkin butter will set you back a pretty penny. You could spend $7 or more on a tiny jar of the pre-made stuff, or for the same cost and a few hours of your time, you can make your own pumpkin butter and end up with cups upon cups of the stuff. I’m not kidding. In fact, I’ll be spreading pumpkin butter on everything from now until Christmas, and guess what? Not sorry. It’s just so.good.

Homemade Pumpkin Butter – Makes about 6 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 medium sugar pumpkin, about 7-8 lbs (available at your local grocery store in the fall), peeled, cored and cubed
  • 1 cup of all-natural 100% juice apple juice or cider
  • 1 cup of packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tsp of ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp of ground ginger

You will also need a crock-pot or slow-cooker and a blender.

Method

1. To prepare your sugar pumpkin, begin by turning the pumpkin on its side and carefully removing the stem (use a very sharp knife to make this easier). Then, place the pumpkin right-side up and cut it in half. Using a large spoon, scrape out the seeds and pulp from the core (you can rinse and save the seeds for roasting too).

2. To peel the pumpkin, use either a heavy-duty vegetable peeler or a chefs knife. If using a knife, slowly trim away all orange skin and green pith from top to bottom. Be sure to remove all skin and pith as that won’t taste good in the pumpkin butter.

3. Once all of the skin is removed, cut the pumpkin into 1 inch chunks and toss in the crockpot. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Cook on high for 4 hours, or until the pumpkin is soft and darker in color, stirring occasionally if desired.

4. Once the pumpkin is very soft, remove the cinnamon sticks from the mixture and puree until smooth using an immersion or upright blender. Return to the slow-cooker and continue to cook on low, uncovered for another 30 minutes to thicken slightly.

Enjoy on toast with peanut butter, on muffins, or in oatmeal! Also a great topping for pancakes or filling for cookies!

Thai Chicken Pizza

Boy, has it been a while. Has anyone else been stuck in a time warp this summer? Somehow it’s already mid-August, and I’m still trying to figure out why I’ve been to the beach ONCE this summer.

Oh, now I remember! The past month has been utterly devoured by a huge life change – moving to a new apartment for the first time in three years. It’s pretty amazing how much stuff a person can accumulate in just a few years, and how that stuff can disappear into a rather small two-bedroom NYC apartment. Trying to fit it all into an even smaller one-bedroom apartment is quite the challenge, and hence my summer has rushed by in a swirl of packing, cleaning, un-packing, cleaning some more, painting, learned how to rewire light fixtures, and oh yes, painting.

In the midst of all this, we’ve found a decent amount of time to cook in our new, even tinier kitchen (though apparently little time to share such cooking adventures). With Whole Foods dangerously situated just around the corner, meal planning has become our new best friend in an effort to eat better and spend less. So far, it’s working out pretty well; we’re spending a bit below our weekly grocery budget, while still enjoying dishes like eggplant parm, oven roasted pork chops with smashed potatoes and “Nini’s Barbeque Sauce,” and one of my favorites, Chicken Paprika. These meals have been shamelessly inhaled during DIY breaks, and taking pictures was a low priority. Last night’s dinner, though, was too good to not share.

Thai Chicken Pizza. This inspiration came from the Tasty Kitchen Blog, by way of HowSweetEats. It was penciled into Tuesday’s dinner slot, and we picked up all the essentials on our grocery run Sunday. But because, however, a Culinary Education still can’t teach me the visual differences between a zucchini and a cucumber (I like to think I was too distracted by the nearby pluot samples), some slight modifications occurred. I think the end result may actually be better with raw cucumber than cooked zucchini; it made it more reminiscent of many Thai dishes, like Bahn Mi, that often have a raw cucumber slaw in the mix.

I knew this was going to be a hit the second I smelled it coming out of the oven. When I took my first bite, I called to Adam, “Oh, you’re going to love this! It’s like Bahn Mi on a pizza!” And sure enough, he did. In fact, only two small slices remain from our whole pie – it was that good!

Best enjoyed after lots of hard DIY work, with an ice-cold glass of Trader Joe’s Coastal Sauv Blanc!

Thai Chicken Pizza – Serves 2 – 4

Barely Adapted from Tasty Kitchen

Ingredients

  • 1 batch of pizza dough (we used Whole Foods pre-made pizza dough)
  • 1/2 cups Sweet Asian Chili Sauce, plus extra for dipping if desired
  • 1 whole shallot, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
  • 1 cup cooked chicken breast, thinly sliced
  • 6 oz shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/4 cups chopped peanuts
  • 1/4 cups cucumber, sliced into match sticks
  • 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pizza dough to about a 1/4 inch thick, or however your like the thickness of your crust. Lay dough down on a pizza stone or baking sheet that has been lightly greased with olive oil.
  3. Spread Asian chili sauce on the surface of the dough to create an even coating. Add the sliced shallots and  red chili flakes. Then add the sliced chicken breast and top with the cheese.
  4. Place the pizza in the oven and cook for about 8 to 10, keeping an eye on your crust and toppings so they do not burn. Once the crust is golden around the edges and the cheese is nice and bubbly, remove pizza from the oven.
  5. Top pizza with the sliced cucumber, chopped peanuts, fresh cilantro and basil. Slice and serve with additional chili sauce if desired.

This pizza was perfect! Crunchy crust, slightly spicy but also sweet, which left you coming back, bite after bite, for more. I had a reasonable two slices for dinner, but wound up snacking  on another two over the course of the rest of the night while I read Game of Thrones (book 3, oh my god!).
Also worth mentioning – any left over toppings will make a pretty spectacular thai chicken salad for lunch the next day, if tossed over lettuce. Just mix a bit of the sweet chili sauce with some vinegar for a sweet and spicy dressing!
Enjoy :-)

In a couple of weeks, I’m making a big move and headed to a new apartment for the first time in three years.  Since the summer of 2009, I’ve called the Upper East Side of Manhattan home – and what a wonderful three years it has been. But as much as I’ve loved the wider sidewalks, quieter streets, and hop-skip-and-a-run to Central Park of my neighborhood, I’m looking forward to heading downtown for the next phase of my life.

In recent weeks, many a balmy evening or lazy saturday have been spent meandering around the streets of the Lower East Side (namely, Orchard Street), peeking into shops, grabbing a beer at the just-opened Landbrot, or noshing on cheap, delicious eats. If there’s one thing that LES has perfected, it’s the quick, no-frills, ten-dollar meal. From the Meatball Shop on one end of Rivington to Prosperity Dumpling on the other, you can have a satisfying, taste-bud-tingling meal for less than the standard $20 bill, which many New Yorkers have come to consider the new minimum tender. As I’ve become painfully sick of paying $9 for almonds at The Food Emporium, this neighborhood comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air.

And I already have my favorite spot. Ideally located within steps of our new pad, Taqueria Lower East Side  was first introduced to me by some friends who have reputations for being excellent Mexican food scouts. I stopped in Taqueria for a quick snack one afternoon – just a simple carnitas taco, setting me back just $2.50. What? Yes. And while my expectations were in line with the price tag, they were quickly flipped on their head – each of the five bites it took to down this  shredded pork taco were simply heavenly.

I’ve been back three times since then, and I haven’t even moved to the neighborhood yet. It’s just that good. I also can’t get enough of the cheesy West-Coast-Meets-80’s-Revival decor, or the fact that they play eclectic music while screening 80’s Tom Cruise movies on the flat screens over the bar.

Dinner at sunset on Saturday was spent noshing on Taqueria’s excellent guacamole, which I find to rival both Dos Caminos (my NYC restaurant standard), and my roommate’s guac (personal standard), especially since it is consumed with still-hot freshly made corn tortilla chips. And while at Market Price, usually around $7, it’s one of the pricier menu items, it’s also a hefty portion and sure to satisfy, with a spicy kick to boot.

Other menu favorites include the tacos, obviously. In order starting with the best, my favorite is the bistec (steak), followed by chorizo (hot sausage), carnitas (pork), and fish. But really, they’re all varying shades of excellent.

Steak Taco

Carnitas Taco

Fish Taco

I also love the Chicken flautas – shredded chicken encased in tightly wrapped, deep-fried corn tortillas, served on a bed of lettuce, green salsa, topped with cheese and drizzled with queso fresca. My better half, on the other hand, prefers the tostadas: a crispy flat corn tortilla topped with (in his case) shredded pork, lettuce, salsa, avocado, cheese and more queso fresca. The only down side is you have to eat it with a fork and knife.

To drink, the touted options include margaritas, house-made sangria, and Mexican beer. While the sangria is good, it’s not great, and a beer is just as authentic and refreshing, while a good bit cheaper. We were less inclined to fill up on drinks, as you quickly fill up on the food here, especially when guacamole is on the table.

Moral of the story? I’m already infatuated with Taqueria, and haven’t even moved on to the quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, or sopas sections of the menu. Chances are high that this will be my new LES eatery of choice, and perhaps a nice change from my go-to pizza joint on the Upper East.

What are your favorite NYC cheap eateries? If you’re not living in NYC, what’s your favorite cheap eats spot in your city?

Let’s see, where did I leave off….

Our next two days in California took us up the coast through Santa Barbara, to the small Danish town of Solvang, where we indulged in a very  “Under the Tuscan Sun”-esque experience. By this point I thought I’d be used to the constant surprises of the California landscape, but once again the town’s facade swept me away.

Solvang itself looked like a town you would find nestled in the Alps, not just 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara. The town was decidedly branded as a mini-Copenhagen, complete with wood-framed rustic architecture and Danish-themed signs everywhere.

But the main draw of Solvang is the vineyards. Solvang is part of a small wine region in Southern California that was the stage for the movie Sideways, which helped catapult the area to popularity among tourists and locals alike. JD, who had visited before, suggested we hire a driver to take us from vineyard to vineyard, but after scoping out a map of the area, one idea particularly caught our eyes – Bike Rentals!

For just $20 each, we secured four bikes (individual bikes, not the four-seaters pictured above) for the rest of the afternoon. We set off down a footpath that led to the main road all the vineyards are located on, and after just ten minutes of biking, we had left our Danish town behind and had arrived in what looked like the south of France! Rolling golden hills, fields of cows and bales of hay, grazing horses beyond wooden fences…

And of course, vineyards!

Our first stop was Buttonwood Vineyard, which was by far our favorite stop of the day. We wound up hanging out here for over an hour, sipping our way through a seven-glass tasting, chatting with the sommelier, Brian, and eventually buying a couple of bottles to stash in our bike packs. The grounds of Buttonwood were beautiful – as a family owned and operated farm, the grounds had more than just grape vines – there were various fruit trees and a stunning garden full of benches and paths to meander.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the beauty of Buttonwood, but we had a few more vineyards planned, and were also starting to feel our stomachs rumble. We headed to Rideau Vineyard next, another gorgeous property where the tastings were held in an old mansion with warmly lit, antique-filled rooms. As we settled in for our next tasting, we spotted the mansion’s actual kitchen, where a very enticing sign was hung:

As we were increasingly starving, we ordered two tapas plates and moseyed out to the backyard where we set up camp with our wine and had a leisurely lunch of cheeses, cured meats, nuts, airy breads and dried fruit. It was the perfect meal to accompany our tasting.

The rest of the day was spent biking up and down Alamo Pintado Road, as we headed to Blackjack Ranch Vineyards and Winery where the movie Sideways was filmed, and back down to Buttonwood to say hi to Brian one more time!

We finally made it back to Solvang as the sun was setting, and spent the last minutes of the afternoon camped out on our hotel’s pool deck, enjoying a bottle of Blackjack’s “21” Chardonnay and taking in the summer sun.

The whole town of Solvang seems to fall asleep when the sun goes down, but we were determined to make the most of our evening, so we headed over to a popular Italian restaurant in town called Cecco, just a short walk from our hotel around nine pm. We’d heard great word of mouth about Cecco in just the few hours we’d spent in Solvang so far, and we’re psyched to try it out.

Of course, we brought our own bottles of wine from our vineyard adventures, and our waitress happily decorked one as we were seated at our table. Thus began a quite excellent feast of Italian food that impressed even us spoiled New Yorkers!

We started things off with the “Polpette,” boar meatballs with rich tomato sauce, wilted kale and oregano. These meatballs were each huge, and so delicious – they were tender, mouthwatering sponges for the tomato sauce that made the whole restaurant smell like my grandma’s house. We soaked up every last drop of that sauce with extra bread.

For our main courses, I opted for the ravioli, which were mushroom ravioli in a buttery, sage-filled mushroom cream sauce. Considering I rarely eat ravioli and usually save it for special occasions, this dish totally exceeded my expectations. The ravioli themselves were very good, filled with a light mix of mushrooms and ricotta, but the sauce is what really took this dish over the edge. It was a buttery, savory infusion of sage, rosemary, and mushrooms that I probably would have drunk with a straw, given the option. As it were, I didn’t leave a speck on the plate.

I even sopped up some of the sauce with this delicious pizza that Cara ordered – the Cinghiale pizza with wild boar sausage, tomato, smoked mozzarella and kale. It was fantastic, both straight up, dipped in mushroom-sage sauce, and eaten cold on the car ride the next day.

As for the rest of the group, we had one Shrimp alla Puttanesca, and Braised Beef Cheeks on a bed of Polenta. Both diners were very happy with their entrees.

For dessert (how can you say no?!), we went with tiramisu, one of Cara’s favorites and a dish that is increasingly growing on me. I find that tiramisu can often be… just off. Either it tastes like it’s been soaked in rum, or its way too soggy, or the flavors clash. But Cecco hit this out of the park – their tiramisu was dense and moist, but not too wet, with the perfect balance of coffee and liquor flavors. The drizzle of chocolate sauce and scattering of raspberries was a great touch… well, I should know, since I ate nearly all of them!

After dinner, we were all in a sleep food-fueled mood, and since all of Solvang was already asleep, we headed back to our hotel where we channel surfed and dozed off well before midnight. What can I say, when you’re in wine country, staying away past 11 pm just isn’t in the cards!

Our food adventures in Solvang ended Sunday morning with a marvelous surprise. We awoke to discover that JD was missing, but quickly noticed him outside through the window. He was walking toward the hotel carrying a tray of four coffees atop a nondescript cardboard box. But we all knew what that meant.

Breakfast!

Discovered on a previous trip to Solvang, JD had brought us back a breakfast specialty from the Solvang Restaurant in town: Aebleskivers! These pancake balls are a Danish delicacy,  made by pouring batter into a special heated griddle with round molds. As the batter cooks, it is slowly turned in the mold to form the signature ball shape. I’d never had anything like this, but I’d describe it as the delicious love-child of Italian zeppolis, Belgian waffles, and regular old pancakes. In case you couldn’t tell, that means they were ridiculously yummy and addicting. They are served topped with powdered sugar with a sweet, fresh raspberry jam for dipping, smothering, dunking, etc. Hands down, one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had!

It was with bellies full of Aebleskivers and heavy hearts that we bid Solvang goodbye! But don’t worry, there are still a few more food adventures to come for the last day of our dreamy California vacation…

I just got back from my first trip out to California, and man, was it a whirlwind adventure!

We – that is, my roommate, boyfriend, and self – arrived at LAX late Thursday night and were greeted by one of our closest friends, JD, who moved out to LA a few years ago. This was not only our first trip to visit him, but our first trip to the West Coast AND the first time we’d seen each other in over six months. Needless to say, the anticipation and excitement were  all running high!

Once we landed, we headed to our friend’s pad in Echo Park and crashed out, since it was close to 3 am East Coast time. Plus, we had a jam-packed schedule for our trip and wanted to kick Friday off bright and early.

And so we did, as our Friday morning began with a home cooked California-style breakfast (it only took me a few minutes to take over the host’s kitchen) made from farm-fresh ingredients from JD’s local market. Sweet local honey on hearty slices of whole grain bread, buttery wedges of ripe California avocado, thick-cut bacon from a nearby farm, and of course, sunny-side up eggs sizzled right in that bacon fat.

It’s not every day you have a breakfast like this, and we dug deep in to fill our bellies for the first stop on our trip: Griffith Park!

We headed up to Griffith Park, just a short drive from JD’s digs in Echo Park, arriving well before noon, and thankfully, before most of the crowds and heat. This gave us ample time and space to circle around the observatory and take in the views of surrounding LA (though the morning fog / smog hindered our photos) for the first time. Personally, I couldn’t (and still can’t) get over how geographically different LA is from New York. I can’t help but compare all cities to the horizontally limited, vertically stacked layout of NYC, and Los Angeles could not have been more different. Between the sprawl, the lack of taxis, and the juxtaposition of palm trees and mountains, it was hard to remember that we were technically in a “city,” not the ‘burbs. Only the small cluster of smog-obscured  sky scrapers served as reminder.

After checking out the observatory, we began a hike up into the mountains as the sun rose and heat mounted. Once again, my mind was blown by the diversity of terrain out west – one minute we were in a foggy valley surrounded by palm trees; the next we were up on a dusty mountain path, trekking past scrubby dessert bushes and passing wild coyotes. The comparative landscapes were both beautiful and intriguing, as there was always something new to look at.

Not too long into our hike, our stomachs began to grumble and all talk turned to lunch. We headed back to the car with the promise of true-blue West Coast fish tacos on the menu. And these did not disappoint…

We pulled into a divey take out spot that only had three things on the menu: fried halibut tacos, fried shrimp tacos, and drinks! Sure made ordering easy, so I opted for two fish and one shrimp taco. We watched as the cooks pulled thick pieces of fish out of batter and dropped them straight into a vat of bubbling oil, where they sizzled and popped for a few minutes until declared done. Then, they went straight onto doubled-up hot corn tortillas, and were passed over to us.

In one corner of the shop stood a counter with several types of relishes, salsa and sauces. My tacos got topped with some shredded Napa cabbage, pico de gallo, the house salsa: a sweet red radish chutney, and a small squirt of sour cream, which I can safely attest made up the strangest assortment of taco toppings I’ve ever come across – but it looked and smelled delicious! We headed outside to snag a table in the breezy shade, and dug in.

Absolutely delish! West Coast fish tacos did NOT disappoint; the fish was still hot and insanely crispy, which played nicely against the cold crunch of cabbage and refreshing notes of the pico and radish salsa. I started with the fried shrimp tacos and couldn’t believe how mouthwateringly scrumptious they were, but they were quickly upstaged by the fried halibut, which had the creamy, flakey texture of the fish upping the game. Three tacos equaled the perfect lunch, washed down by some refreshing iced water.

Once our bellies were full, it was onward and upward to our next adventure – touristy Hollywood sightseeing. Since as New Yorkers we get our fair share of crowds on a daily basis, we passed on walking around the heart of downtown Hollywood with the throngs of tourists; instead, JD gave us a wonderful tour of Hollywood by car. And by this, I mean that we spotted an actual Hollywood Tour truck, and wound up tailing it for over an hour.

That tour led us past all the hottest Hollywood sights, including the Osbourne Mansion, Kodak Theater, and tons of celebrity houses – we even saw Sean Kingston in his driveway! It was all in good fun until we inadvertently followed the tour truck into a cul-de-sac, and realized the driver was on to us when he shouted over his loud-speaker, “You’ve gotta pay for this tour – and I’ve got your plate numbers!”

Whoops! After that, we figured it was probably time to ditch the tour – and hunt down a snack.

We did a bit more driving and wound up in Westwood, the cute college town surrounding UCLA. The promise of ice cream sandwiches hung in the air, and we made tracks to Diddy Riese Cookies, a small spot with a line out the door.

Okay, here’s the deal. This was pretty much the best dessert spot ever. Warm, gooey, chewy cookies in all sorts of flavors are used to make homemade mix-and-match ice cream sandwiches and ice cream sundaes with cookies, fudge and whipped cream. All for about two bucks!!  The boys opted for ice cream sandwiches, while Cara and I each got a sundae with an extra cookie (which would be two cookies per sundae. That’s right… don’t judge).

That would be a chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, whipped cream, hot fudge, a peanut butter cookie, and a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie. Sighhhh. We sat outside in the sun and totally blissed out while dipping chewy, melted soft-baked cookies in custardy ice cream. One of these is needed in New York!

After a crazy day of indulgent delights and a dozey car ride back to Echo Park, we were all on board when JD suggested we head to his favorite vegetarian restaurant for dinner, figuring we all needed some nutrients after the tacos and ice cream. Luckily, he scored a reservation at the small, chic Elf Cafe, so we walked over (yes, we walked in LA) during golden hour to snag our table on the sidewalk. Elf, gloriously, is a BYOB restaurant, and we wound up working our way through not one, not two, but three bottles of wine during dinner. Hey, when in Rome, right?

Ever since my life-changing dinner at Candle 79, I’ve been fascinated with the creative fare at vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and Elf did not disappoint. We started off with the Tahini-Avocado puree, an avocado-laden spin on hummus that was served with warm, doughy pita slices, sour oil-cured olives, and whole cloves of roasted garlic. This dip was extremely addicting, and of course, we wound up requesting extra pita.

Another starter rounded out our appetizer course – cornmeal and herb dusted buffalo oyster mushrooms with a blue cheese cream reduction. These crispy mushroom bits were almost like fries, but the real winner was the blue cheese sauce, which was more like a blue cheese butter that melted, dripping all over the warm pita bread. Insane.

As the sun set, we switched the red wine and our main courses arrived.  I went with the Morrocan Vegetable Terrine, which was, to be honest, just okay – a little one-note in both flavor and texture (and color, from the looks of this picture).

The other’s seemed way more satisfied with their entrees – a decadent, creamy wild mushroom risotto, the baked tart with thyme and garlic, stuffed with roasted tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and smoked mozzarella, and the special which was stuffed grape leaves with crispy risotto cakes. Though this food was vegetarian, overall it felt indulgent and soul-satisfying – we were not left wanting at all.

Which is exactly why we finished the meal off with dessert ;-) It’s hard to resist ordering dessert when you have four friends to share with! Elf only had two desserts that night, and we went with the Banana Tart. After a few glasses of wine, I must admit, I couldn’t tell whether this was vegan or gluten-free (was there a crust, or just caramel?) but one thing is for sure – it was delicious. The bananas were layered in a criss-cross fashion, dripping with a caramel sauce and topped with plump raisins. The dish was served with some cream sauce, which we daringly drizzled all over the tart. The bananas were so tightly packed, they were almost dough-like in consistency. This was such a high note to end the meal.

After that, we meandered around the corner for a few more beers, where I learned that strawberry beer is never a good choice, before calling in a night. After all, we had another big day ahead – in Santa Barbara wine country! For more on that, stay tuned….

This weekend, we spent Saturday, along with the rest of Manhattan, at the highly awaited Great GoogaMooga food and music festival in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It was an absolutely perfect day – sunny, clear, and breezy in the high 70’s. We started the day off at Coney Island to watch my roommate cross the finish line at the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and then rode the subway twenty minutes to the festival. Given that we arrived at the Park just after 10 am, and GoogaMooga didn’t start until 11, we thought we could perhaps wander through the fairgrounds while they were still setting up – but no such luck. We wound up being the third and fourth people in line to get into the festival, and could see all the vendors coming and going with kegs, coolers of food, and various equipment, which only heightened our anticipation.

However, Mooga’s first downside arrived shortly after 11 am: we were still corralled in our line, now several hundred people deep, with no sign of when we’d be able to enter the festival. Clearly it takes time to set up for an event of this magnitude, but with all the preparations and hype, we were a bit shocked that we wound up standing in line an extra thirty minutes after the festival was supposed to begin, with little information or reassurance from those working the gate. Just after 11:30, we were finally and suddenly let in to Nethermead Field and the party began!

Arriving at Mooga early was a great call; we were able to walk around, get the lay of the land, and map our our game plan for tastings before the crowds built up. We also discovered that most of the hot food vendors wouldn’t be ready to serve their tastings until after noon, so we decided to start with some dessert since most of that was already made and on ice. I’d been hearing things for months about Momofuku Milk Bar‘s Crack Pie, and encouraged my dessert-ambivalent boyfriend to make this first stop with me.

Oh. My. God. Crack Pie. Now I know what all the fuss is about! Our slice of pie was very cold, which was appreciated as the outside temperatures were climbing. The base was a standard buttery crumbly pie crust, and the filling…. words can barely describe it! It was almost a cookie-dough consistency – a cross between a custard and caramel, and tasted like a mix of brown sugar, butterscotch, and a little bit of heaven, and the top was bruléed! Even Adam couldn’t stop eating this – and he admittedly doesn’t love dessert! Needless to say, starting Mooga off with the Crack Pie set our expectations very high.

Following the crack pie episode, we sampled several dishes in quick succession, navigating our selections using the GoogaMooga iPhone app, an awesome tool that helped us manage the event at our own pace. In the next hour, we tried:

Fried Chicken Wings, sprinkled with Chili Powder and Paprika, drizzled in honey, from Bromberg Bros. of Blue Ribbon Restaurants:

The spicy, juicy Thai Sausage Sandwich with Asian Slaw from DBGB:

The Chihuahua Crif Dog – a hot dog wrapped in bacon (!!) served with slices of avocado and sour cream.

And more dessert – a banana ice cream with peanut butter cookies sandwich from MELT Bakery:

Perhaps we should have paced ourselves better, because about an hour in to the event, we were completely stuffed! Our attention turned to the gorgeous beer and wine tasting tents that were set up in the center of the grounds and we walked over to get our taste on. Row after row of wineries and breweries had set up shop in the maroon and orange striped circus tents. But as soon as we approached the them, we saw signs telling us that no cash was accepted here – we would have to wait on line to get “Googa Moula” – credits you must purchase to exchange for beer and wine.

There were a couple of  “Googa Moula” lines scattered throughout the meadow, but the lines were really long and didn’t seem to be moving, so we opted to skip these and go back later when the lines were shorter. Big mistake – the lines only grew longer as the day went on.

Instead, we went to the regular beverage stands and got some Blue Moon, white wine, and a few other craft beers to sip on. These lines were also long, but not as long as  “Moula.” We were able to score a couple of huge cups of beer and spread our blanket out under the shade of large tree to enjoy. It was probably my favorite part of the day, just sitting there in the shade with music rocking out, watching people go by and all the action unfold.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in a mix of hanging in the shade, sipping beers and wine, and trying to avoid sunburn while waiting on lines for food and drink. Luckily, there was enough excellent food and beverage enjoyment to counteract the line waiting. A couple more excellent samples rounded out the afternoon:

Fried Cheesecake Bombs from James Restaurant – including two Lemon-Ricotta and one Chocolate. Completely out of this world good!

We also tried a fried chicken Bahn Mi sandwich, but it was actually rather bland and unmemorable, so it’s not pictured here.

Finally, we ended the day with the Polenta with Sausage and Peppers from Frankie’s Spuntino, which was off the hook!

Oh, and because we hadn’t fully ruptured our stomachs at this point, we also snagged ourselves a Momofuku Milk Bar Chocolate Chip/Marshmallow/Cornflake cookie for the train, fully securing our one way ticket to food coma!

We left GoogaMooga around six pm, making our stay at the festival just under seven hours! Needless to say, a great time was had by both of us. Though GoogaMooga didn’t hit it completely out of the park, I thought the event was really well done, especially given the immense numbers of guests and vendors, and the fact that it was the first year.

In summary, here’s what GoogaMooga did well:

  • Location – Nethermead Field in Prosect Park was picturesque, secluded, lush and large enough for the masses.
  • The FOOD! Both the astounding variety and incredible quality of the dishes were the highlight of the day
  • The music – while music wasn’t a selling point for me to attend, I really appreciated that there was always something upbeat and interesting being played on one of the two huge stages in the park
  • The app – Helped us Type-A foodies scope out the dishes (and prices) we were interested in before the event, and hunt them down once at GM
  • The regular beverage tents – these saved the day for us since there was no way we were waiting in the hour-long lines for Googa Moula! Even though the wait here was still thirty minutes, double-sized cups of beer and wine more than made up for it.

And where it fell short:

  • Crowd control – Anyone at Mooga will tell you that the biggest downside were the lines. Especially when it came to alcohol, where the lines could take upwards of thirty minutes, most of the day was spent waiting in line for drinks or food.
  • Cell service – This one is a toss up – the huge crowds clearly cause cell outages, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world – it was kind of nice to be cut off for the afternoon. However, lack of wireless meant most credit card machines and laptops that helped Mooga fuction also went down.
  • Googa Moula – as mentioned, these lines were over an hour long, which turned many off from taking advantage of the craft beer and wine tastings. Plus, the laptops were down so instead of handing out “Moula” cards, staff was giving out red carnival tickets to exchange for booze. Overall, it seemed everything that could go wrong did go wrong when it came to “Moula,” so hopefully next year’s event will have a better system in place.
  • Speakers and demos – maybe it was because the event started late, but none of the highly touted guest speakers (Michael Symon, Pat LaFrieda) seemed to be on stage when and where they were supposed to be. Like music, this wasn’t a huge pull for us, but we still noticed the disconnect.

Overall, the pros of Googa far outweigh it’s first year shortcomings, and I’ll certainly be back for round two in 2013, with high hopes that they’ve ironed out some of these kinks!

Did you visit the Great GoogaMooga this weekend? What did you think? 

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