Sunday, July 26, 2009

Roasted Spinach Portobellos

We served these last weekend when we had family over for dinner. They were served between the cheese platter and the salad pictured in last Friday's entry. Katie found the recipe in Laurie Stempfle's Small Plates For Sharing.

2 large portobello mushrooms, gills removed
Butter-flavored cooking spray
2 slices bacon, diced
2 cups chopped fresh spinach leaves, lightly packed
3 tbsp basil pesto
2 tbsp fine dry bread crumbs
3/4 cup grated Italian cheese blend
2 tsp pine nuts

Remove and chop mushroom stems and set aside. Spray both sides of mushroom caps with cooking spray and place stem-side down on a baking sheet. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes.

Cook bacon in frying pan until crisp. Add mushroom stems and cook for about 5 minutes until softened and liquid is evaporated.

Stir in spinach leaves and pesto and cook until spinach is softened. Remove from heat.

Stir in bread crumbs and half of the cheese. Spoon into mushroom caps. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and pine nuts. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until heated through and golden. Cut into quarters. Garnish with sprig of basil if desired.

Makes 8 wedges.

These were a huge hit with our guests. This is definitely an appetizer we'll make again!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Week in Food

Here's what I've been eating recently.

Rather than using my Baskin Robbins coupon on National Ice Cream Day, I took Katie to the local Coldstone Creamery. I had Mud Pie Mojo, which consists of coffee ice cream, peanut butter, Oreo cookies, fudge, and roasted almonds.

A recent long work day found me famished with no time to actually stop and eat. I stopped at a convenience store for what I affectionately refer to as a "7-11 Lunch": A drink and a bag of chips, in this case an Icee and a bag of Harvest Cheddar Sunchips.

We attended a party at the home of some friends. As is typical for one of their parties, there was plenty of fresh and delicious food, most of it purchased at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. Seen here is a platter of sliced French bread topped with cheese and smoked salmon.

At the same party I also filled up on bread, cheese, crackers, olive tapenade, and artichoke dip, seen below.

I chased these appetizers with rotisserie chicken, roasted potatoes, and salad. Apologies for the overuse of flash on this picture; I was on my fifth or sixth Pisco Sour at this point.

Here's the caprese salad from The Melting Pot, a leftover photo from our anniversary earlier this month: Baby greens topped with tomatoes and mozzarella, dressed with balsamic vinegar.

The Melting Pot's California salad consists of baby greens, Roma tomatoes, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese, with a light sprinkling of raspberry black walnut vinaigrette dressing.

Last Saturday, we had out-of-town relatives over for dinner. We put out some fresh mozzarella, as well as an excellent, moderately-spicy peppercorn cheese from Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Co. That's the wedge of cheese seen at the top of the platter. No, it hasn't gone bad. Those are peppercorns.

We prepared a salad of red leaf lettuce, diced apples, cranberries, candied walnuts, gorgonzola cheese and raspberry walnut vinaigrette. While it may seem that the idea for this salad was stolen from The Melting Pot, in truth we have been making this salad (or variations thereof) for years; if we were inspired by any restaurant, it's likely Pizza My Heart.

We barbecued a pound of shrimp, and served it with fettucine or angel hair pasta, depending on the preferences of our guests. Katie made a cream sauce that didn't photograph as well as I'd hoped. However, it tasted just as good as I'd hoped.

We also barbecued two ears of corn, seen here sliced in half. There were four guests, plus Katie and myself. One guest doesn't like corn, and I took one for the team and did without, ensuring that the remaining three guests and my wife could have half an ear each.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

National Ice Cream Day

That's right, today is National Ice Cream Day in the United States. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan designated July National Ice Cream Month, and the third Sunday in July National Ice Cream Day. What better way to celebrate this little-known occasion than to enjoy a delicious frozen confection?

Though frozen desserts are believed to have existed for thousands of years, recipes for ice cream as we know it were first circulated in the 18th century. Since that time, ice cream has increased in popularity, finding its way into cones, sundaes, milkshakes, and sodas; and rising to the rank of second-favorite dessert in the United States - just behind cookies - according to a 1997 AC Nielsen survey. Second favorite? Really? Make no mistake; cookies are very high on my list of favorite desserts. I just can't imagine getting quite as excited by them as I do by ice cream.

So, on this third Sunday in July, don't forget to pay tribute to this classic, versatile and delicious dessert. Be on the lookout for special ice cream-related promotions in your area. Oakland, California's Fenton's Creamery, celebrating its 115th year in business, served free scoops to customers during an outdoor celebration this afternoon, and had I learned of this more than twenty minutes ago I might have made the drive to Oakland in order to take part. Instead, I think I'll celebrate National Ice Cream Day by redeeming a coupon for a free pint from Baskin Robbins, which I got a couple weeks ago in exchange for a pint of blood. A fair trade, wouldn't you say?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pizza My Heart: A Slice of Life

When the bars and clubs on University Avenue in Palo Alto close in the early hours of the morning, there are few choices for hungry patrons in need of a quick bite before bed. In my twenties, when I was known to visit said clubs on occasion, I sometimes found myself bleary-eyed and hungry, walking the upscale Palo Alto streets well past midnight. One restaurant I could always count on was Pizza My Heart. Although I haven't been to a club in years, I still find myself craving Pizza My Heart, and I try to stop in (albeit at the San Mateo location) for a slice whenever I can.

That's right, just a slice. While they do respectable business selling pizza by the pie, for me the thrill of going to Pizza My Heart has always been in having a quick slice. Or two or three. Pizza My Heart has a wide variety of choices to be enjoyed, from basic stuff like cheese, pepperoni and mushroom to less traditional combinations like Maui Wowie (ham and pineapple), Prima (tomatoes, olives and feta), and chicken and bacon, formerly known as D'Lex and so named in honor of a regular customer.

However, Pizza My Heart also offers a plethora of pizzas not available by the slice: Almost thirty distinctive pies according to their website, including five creations that have won awards in various pizza contests. Their pizzas feature toppings as diverse as green apple slices, portobella mushrooms, artichoke, linguica, and clams. Purists need not turn up their noses, as Pizza My Heart makes a combination pizza - among others - worthy of counter space in any New York pizzeria. However, the similarity to New York pizza ends there, as Pizza My Heart looks - and feels - very much like a California pizza restaurant. Beyond the sometimes hipper-than-hip toppings, the location I frequent is decorated with surfing memorabilia, from posters to custom surfboards.

Additionally, there's a soda fountain, and it's got Cherry Coke. That wins them major points with me, though I wouldn't be reviewing Pizza My Heart so favorably if they had Cherry Coke and lousy pizza. It's not the surf-shack atmosphere or the soda fountain or even the punch card with which diners can eat their way to free sodas, salad and even pizza that has me coming back; it is most definitely the pizza itself, although since Katie and I have been eating together at Pizza My Heart since our third date, the place carries a lot of sentimental value for us as well.

As mentioned above, Pizza My Heart also offers a selection of pre-packaged salads. On our most recent visit, we shared a chicken walnut salad.

Consisting of juicy chunks of chicken, crisp baby greens, crunchy candied walnuts, and aromatic gorgonzola cheese and served with a Balsamic vinaigrette dressing, this salad is a perfect lead-in to any slice of pizza. It also has the distinction of being one of my favorite salads to make at home, though I find that my own rendition needs a bit of work.

We followed the salad with their chicken and bacon pizza. In addition to copious amounts of the eponymous ingredients, this particular selection is topped with mushrooms, green onions, and lots of garlic, all piled atop a creamy white sauce.

I've been ordering the chicken and bacon pizza almost exclusively for more than a couple years. It's handily supplanted my previous favorite, Pizza My Heart's excellent combination pizza. It's interesting to note that, fifteen years ago, I doubt I would have ventured beyond my traditional mindset to try - let alone enjoy - a pizza topped with chicken. But I've grown much more adventurous in my relatively old age, and I consider this particular slice among the best I've ever tasted.

Pizza My Heart is my favorite pizzeria for by-the-slice eating, as the variety of slices they offer, as well as the taste and overall quality of their food, dwarf the local competition. Additionally, unlike some pizzerias that inexplicably offer slices at only a pre-determined time of day, I can walk into Pizza My Heart at any time during its operating hours, order a slice and a soda (Cherry Coke, naturally), and know I'm in for a superior meal. My only complaint about Pizza My Heart - and it's a minor, petty gripe, I'll admit - is that there doesn't happen to be a location any closer than San Mateo, which is two hours from Roseville. As we find ourselves in San Mateo regularly, it's easy for us to overlook this complaint.

Pizza My Heart has seventeen locations on the San Mateo County Peninsula and the South Bay. Operating hours vary. The location pictured above is located at 140 E. 4th Avenue, San Mateo, CA 94401. Their website is

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Week in Food: Dessert Edition

I'm not much of a dessert-eater. When going out to dinner, it's rare that I "save room" for dessert. I am not an aficionado of cake or pie, preferring cookies, candy and ice cream over either of these. Most of the time, however, I find that a good meal doesn't need anything to top it off. That's not to say that I don't like dessert; far from it. I suppose that I like dessert as much as the next guy, but I'd much rather fill up on dinner itself. Having said that, here are a few desserts I've enjoyed recently.

For our second wedding anniversary, Katie and I had dinner at The Melting Pot, as it is the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion: Fun, intimate, and more pricey than the average "just because" casual dining spot. Here's the dessert tray, which includes such dippable morsels as strawberries, bananas, Rice Krispy squares, marshmallows rolled in chocolate and graham crackers, pound cake, brownies, and a small wedge of cheesecake that you can barely make out in the photo. We ordered the original chocolate fondue, which is combined with crunchy peanut butter to lend the perfect accent to the aforementioned items.

A chocolate cake doughnut, with nuts.

I'm a fan of casino buffets, and tend to eat at them more than I actually gamble. In other words, it's not unusual for me to go to a casino solely for the food. And to contradict my introduction to this post, in spite of the obscene amount of food I might consume at an all-you-can-eat casino buffet, I frequently do save room for dessert. Here's a piece of carrot cake from the Waterfall Buffet at nearby Red Hawk Casino.

A mint Aero chocolate bar. Manufactured by Nestlé for sale outside the United States, regular and mint-flavored Aero bars have been a favorite of mine since a 2005 trip to Ireland wherein I found myself craving them almost as much as the Guinness. Upon returning home, I found myself craving them, until I found them in a local specialty candy store.

Here's a very delectable fruit tart I got to sample at a party last night. Despite its richness, I could easily have eaten half of it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Independence Day: What I Ate

As they've done for the past few years, my cousin Phil and his wife Gina threw a huge party on the Fourth of July. There were around a hundred and fifty people, but enough food - most of it homemade - for three times that many. Behold:

Red, white and blue popcorn. Patriotic, and tasty!

Seen here are spring rolls with spinach, goat cheese, strawberries and pecans. In the center of the platter is a raspberry dipping sauce that nicely complemented the various ingredients.

Barbecued chicken.

There was plenty of tri-tip as well.

There were lots of hot dogs for the kids.

Here's my first plate: Chicken wings, spring rolls, barbecued chicken, a corn muffin, and some of the creamiest macaroni and cheese I've ever had the pleasure of eating.

Here's my second plate: Barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese, spring rolls, tri-tip, chili, and a corn muffin.

After the food was served and guests had some time to eat and relax a bit, we lined up to taste and vote on a variety of chilis brought by guests. The styles ran the gamut from heartier, stew-like dishes to meatless chilis and everything in between. Some had pork, some had chicken, some were spicy and others were not. I didn't take any pictures of the actual chili - I was way too busy sampling it.

The hosts pulled out all the stops for dessert as well: There were enough cupcakes and cookies to go around, as well as pie, cake and fresh fruit.

In the afternoon there was a pool tournament, as well as a game of bean-bag toss that lasted several hours. In spite of occasional wind, the Bay Area weather held up nicely, and it was a wonderful day spent with family and friends. I hope everyone enjoyed their Fourth as much as we did!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Jalisco Grill: The Mission Comes to Roseville

Jalisco Grill is my neighborhood taqueria. Literally. It is less than five minutes by car from my home in Roseville, and less than ten on foot. It is at most five blocks away, and I can reach it without crossing a single major intersection. For the convenience factor and proximity alone, I find Jalisco Grill well worth a visit. But for me, convenience is hardly the most important factor when choosing a place to eat, as I would travel a great distance for exceptional food of any variety, and wouldn't be caught dead at a Denny's were it a mere block away. So, closeness aside, is Jalisco Grill a good place to eat? Most certainly.

When Jalisco Grill opened in 2006, situated in a small shopping center beside a bank, across the parking lot from a Dollar Tree, I was extremely skeptical. From the outside, the place simply looked too nice, too clean and commercial. I grew up on the San Mateo County Peninsula, a string of suburbs incorporated and developed in the early- to mid-twentieth century, and when I moved to Roseville in 2001 I was unprepared for its relative newness, the city having been extensively developed in the previous decade. In 2001, everything looked too nice, too clean and commercial compared to what I was used to.

As a newly transplanted Roseville resident, I was frustrated by the difficulty of finding an independent eatery - be it a taqueria, delicatessen, or barbecue joint - amongst the seemingly endless supply of casual dining restaurants such as T.G.I. Friday's, Red Robin and Applebee's. The closest thing to a taqueria that I could find was Baja Fresh. For someone like myself, the culinary landscape in Roseville in the early part of this decade was wholly unsatisfying.

To be fair, it's not as if there were no restaurants other than bland, corporate-owned chains such as the ones mentioned above. But during Roseville's economic boom, there was no way a mom-and-pop business could afford rent in one of the city's most trod-upon commercial areas. Finding independent eateries worthy of a visit was something of a scavenger hunt, a challenge not for the faint-hearted.

At first glance, Jalisco Grill seems a world apart from the taquerias where I ate in my youth. These were old and sometimes run-down buildings, frequently located in Latino neighborhoods, patronized by a largely Latino clientele. They might have been found in a quiet downtown area, or in a parking lot between a liquor store and a shoe repair establishment. They all served excellent food, prepared by people who knew what authentic Mexican food tasted like; most of them still do.

Though when I was younger I found a sort of badge of honor in seeking out the most authentic taquerias in the Bay Area, and thought it impossible that I could find a superior burrito in a gentrified neighborhood, the deciding factor is, and always has been, the food itself. While I believe that the tried-and-true taquerias of San Francisco's Mission District and San Mateo's Burrito Alley, most of which have been in business for decades, serve the best food, I try to keep an open mind about restaurants that don't fit this paradigm. At the same time, I am quick to cross off my list any restaurant that fails to make the grade.

Jalisco Grill is part of a recently-established retail area (i.e. strip mall). The building resembles something you'd see in Latin America, but only vaguely so; the architectural style seems forced, the sort of thing a white person might have his contractor build in order to emulate something he saw during a recent trip to Mexico. The restaurant's sign, proudly advertising "Fresh Authentic Mexican Cuisine" initially turned me off as well. From the outside, the whole thing screamed gringo to me.

After a few months of driving past its location, I gave Jalisco Grill a chance. I had heard through the proverbial grapevine that their food was good, even that it compared to some of the taquerias in the Mission. Such a bold statement begged - no, demanded - that I find out for myself. I don't remember what I ate during that first visit - common sense tells me that it must have been a burrito - but I distinctly remember being sorry that I hadn't stopped in when they first opened. Whether or not Jalisco Grill's burritos are in any way on par with the best of the Mission is up for conjecture, or at the very least a matter of personal opinion, but the food easily surpassed what I expected it to be.

One aspect of Jalisco Grill that makes it stand out above many of the taquerias I frequent when I'm in the Bay Area is the fact that I've yet to settle on one item or dish that I'd be content to order forever. Unlike San Mateo's Taqueria Pancho Villa, where the burrito rules over everything else; and the nearby Taqueria Tres Amigos, where I have been passing over their burritos in favor of crispy tacos since 1996, when I go to Jalisco Grill it's rare that I know exactly what I am going to order. It might be a super burrito, or I might decide on tacos. If I order tacos, they might be crispy, or they might not. Perhaps I will get something completely different, something I've never tried before. The only thing I know for certain is that the service will be more than efficient, accommodating substitutions or special orders with a smile; and that the food served hot and very delicious.

Though not as customizable as those served at Pancho Villa, the burritos at Jalisco Grill are very filling, stuffed with meat, rice, beans, salsa, cheese, sour cream and guacamole. Their menu lists carne asada, chicken, carnitas, al pastor and chile verde as meat choices, though tacos can be prepared with chorizo, cabeza (beef head) and lengua (tongue) as well. I usually order my burrito with carne asada or chicken, but today I was craving carnitas.

It had been some time - easily a year or more - since I'd ordered a burrito with carnitas. I'm not sure why this is; I have nothing against pork and frequently order my tacos with barbecued pork. Perhaps I was simply too hooked on Jalisco Grill's carne asada, or maybe it was the word "fried" that kept me away, though that doesn't seem likely. At any rate, the taste of the deliciously-seasoned pork is still on my tongue, and will remain there until I have more. At $6.49, it is comparable price-wise with the burritos sold at other Northern California taquerias: The excellent super burrito at Taqueria Pancho Villa is slightly closer to the $7.00 mark, while Sacramento's Vaqueros Taqueria sells a super burrito that, as of this writing will set you back $5.75 but is slightly smaller.

The tacos at Jalisco Grill are worth ordering as well. Listed on the menu as "small tacos", their plain soft tacos are an exercise in simplicity. They consist of meat, onion, cilantro and salsa, piled atop two corn tortillas for $2.10 each. Though not the most inexpensive taco you'll find, they're delicious. Seen here are, clockwise from top, carne asada, chicken, and carnitas.

If I am ordering tacos, however, it is more likely that I am having the crispy tacos. These contain copious amounts of meat within a crispy-fried corn tortilla. They are topped with shredded cheese and served with sour cream, guacamole and lettuce on the side. The crispy tacos are $2.49 each, and wholly satisfying. From left to right we have chicken, carne asada and al pastor.

I will occasionally order their Super Nachos when I am in the mood for something different, or if I want to share an entree. This enormous dish includes meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, salsa and, of course, chips. I like the way the colors of the sour cream, guacamole and salsa mimic the colors of the Mexican flag, albeit backwards as I photographed the nachos upside down.

Once again, the end product is the main factor that determines how much I enjoy eating at any given taqueria, more than the price, more than the location, more even than the general upkeep of the restaurant. But I admit that my opinion may be swayed by whether or not the restaurant features self-serve tortilla chips and salsa, and a soda fountain. Many of the authentic Bay Area taquerias I earlier heralded cannot boast these things. Though I am used to buying Coke by the can or the bottle when I eat at certain establishments, or having my tortilla chips and salsa doled out by the staff, I am always relieved when I walk into a new taqueria and see that the soda fountain and the salsa bar are accessible to customers. Given how relatively inexpensive chips, salsa, and soda are in the grand scheme of things, being able to have as much as I want goes a long way toward impressing me. Jalisco Grill has both, and earns bonus points for always having Cherry Coke (my favorite soda) in the fountain, and a wide array of salsas, hot sauces and condiments in the salsa bar.

More than anything else, Jalisco Grill represents two things to me: The dawn of a new era in Roseville cuisine, as prior to its opening I found myself traveling to nearby Citrus Heights and Sacramento for taqueria-style burritos; and a reminder not to judge a book by its cover. In spite of all outward appearances, Jalisco Grill measures up nicely to taquerias like El Super Burrito in San Bruno, California; and Taqueria El Faro in South San Francisco, both of which were amongst the first taquerias I ate at as a child. The menu is extensive, with a diverse selection of delicious and authentic dishes beyond the requisite burritos and tacos. I try not to wait very long between visits.

Jalisco Grill is located at 5180 Foothills Blvd #150, Roseville, CA 95747, and 9050 Fairway Drive #155, Roseville, CA 95678. Their website is