Monday, January 23, 2012

Party for Panda!

Let me set the scene – black & white crepe paper and Chinese lanterns hung across the ceiling, strategically stacked black & white plates and Kung Fu Panda napkins on the counter, a panda cake hidden safely out of view in the closet, bunches of black & white balloons placed around the room….this must be a child’s theme party, right?  You’d think.  I’ll add a few extra elements to clear things up – vodka punch mixed and ready, frig stocked with various beers and additional bottles of vodka and the play list arranged with Silversun Pickups “Lazy Eye” right at the top, per the birthday boy’s request (which we heard no less than 15 times throughout the night).  That’s right folks, this was an adult birthday party – for my 34 year old brother in fact. 

My brother happens to be Asian and sometime over the years his dear friends dubbed him “Panda”, not to make fun of him, but as a term of endearment.  And while he’s most certainly not vegetarian as pandas are, he does have a vase with bamboo in his kitchen…just sayin’.

Here are some pics of the party food which consisted of the following – all made by myself and some friends:

1) Mini tacos with all the fixins, his favorite food (1 point for nurture!)
2) 3 kinds of mini sandwiches- beef & swiss/turkey & provolone/tomato & mozzarella
3) Panda cake - made and decorated by yours truly
4) Cupcakes from the leftover cake batter 

Tostitos Scoops become mini-tacos

Tomato Mozzarella Pesto
Roast Beef & Swiss

The party was a great success.  Everyone left happy and full of both food and beverage.  We didn’t even make it out dancing as we were supposed to as the last guests didn’t leave until around 3am – good times for sure.  Happy Birthday Panda!

**On a side note, after showing off my cake decorating skills to a co-worker, I have now been commissioned to make a cake of the Patriots logo for her Superbowl party – hmm, I may have to start a little side business…**

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Reviews - Toki & Jackson

I’ve read all the reviews, I’ve heard all the rage, but I had to experience it myself to believe it.  Is Toki really that good??  Umm, yes, definitely.  And yes, it’s a ramen restaurant.  Not some fancy schmancy place serving things like truffles and foie gras that you are supposed to like because they’re expensive – we’re talking $10 bowls of soup.  The portion is huge and the flavor is amazing.  I had the Toki Hakata Classic (pork ramen) and I highly recommend it.  If you like spicy food as I do, get it with a side of the Endorphin Sauce, it’s the perfect little kick.  I tried some of the dumplings as well; the veggie and chicken, and both were delicious.  You can get them steamed, deep fried or pan fried – I prefer pan fried for that great textural balance, a little soft and a little crunchy – yum.

Toki is a tiny place.  The seating is mainly bar seats facing the kitchen or lining the walls of one small room.  I think there were only a few free-standing tables.  What this means is that there will likely be a wait, and you should definitely wait.  Go downstairs to The Pug for a drink, they’ll call your cell phone when your table/seat is ready.  I was told 40 minutes and ended up getting called in about 15, and that was for a group of 5, so you never know.  The music is funky as is the décor.  It’s a great place and I’ll definitely be going back for more.

I’m always a little skeptical about restaurants in hotels – not sure why, there are plenty of great ones out there, from fancy ones like J&G at the W Hotel in DC to hole-in-the-wall spots like La Caraquena in Falls Church, VA which is attached to a shitty motel (trust me, go and try the arepas).  Perhaps I should just finally abandon the skepticism.

Jackson 20 is located in the Hotel Monaco in Old Town Alexandria.  I’ve been there twice now, but the first time was just for drinks.  I had a deliciously potent cocktail that involved pomegranate – unfortunately that’s all I remember as I then went on to do a tasting menu with wine pairing at Restaurant Eve…followed by a 10K the next morning, ugh.  But I remember loving the drink!  This time though, I was there for a nice leisurely meal with a friend.  I started with a raspberry & vodka based cocktail.  We’re not talking raspberry vodka, we’re talking fresh raspberries muddled into the vodka – clean and really tasty.

It was restaurant week unbeknownst to us, so we ended up getting three course meals, I mean because when someone puts a deal in front of you, you have to take them up on it right?  My friend and I both started with the wedge salad.  It was great…not your typical wedge that mom made.  This had freshly made dressing with a large slice of blue cheese on the side, not to mention the colorful pickled red onions and super tasty “bacon”.  This bacon was really chunks of pork deliciously fried, not the strips you might envision.

On to the entrees – my friend got the mac & cheese, which she said was great.  It was a huge portion served in a cast iron skillet.  I love little touches like that – don’t just give me a big round plate with a blob of macaroni, make it exciting!  And they did.  I went home-style (it was cold and rainy, I must have been channeling mom) and ordered the pot roast.  Oh yeah, meat and potatoes baby….  The meat was tender and flavorful and the potato was interesting.  It was basically cored and stuffed with caramelized onions.  Well, from a couple posts ago, I think everyone knows how I feel about caramelized onions.  There were also some roasted root vegetables – carrots, squash, etc.  Not all that thrilling, but still pretty good.

Finally was dessert.  Well, not being a chocolate person, I usually opt for anything other, but when you add mint, I’m a sucker for it.  I had the grasshopper pie, which basically tasted like a Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookie, and how can you go wrong with that?  Again, the portions were huge, I don’t think I finished any of the three courses and I still got my money’s worth.  Definitely give them a try, maybe you’ll get lucky and get the bartender we did - he was super honest about our food choices and the second round of drinks was on him…Cheers!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Coveted Nuggets

As promised, I am finally sharing the recipe for chicken nuggets that I have now become famous for - “famous” is obviously used very loosely here - though apparently I am using the word “nuggets” too loosely as well.  I suppose these should be classified more as chicken chunks, but you get the idea…I take chicken breasts and cut them into 4-5 pieces each – can I help it if chicken is now genetically engineered and saline injected to be enormous?!  Perhaps if I was in France where the animals are still of their original natural size these would look more like the fast food size nuggets we Americans are used to.

At any rate, these are great and relatively healthy since they are baked rather than fried.  They have been a go-to for dinner since college, and they’re perfect for Winter Classic or Superbowl parties.  If you make a bunch, it’s a little time consuming but when you’re just making them for a couple people it’s quite simple.  Here’s the deal:


-       -  Boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into the size of your choosing (though I firmly believe that keeping the pieces larger helps to guarantee that they remain juicy)
-         - Flour - for dipping
-         - 1-2 Eggs mixed slightly to break up yolks - for dipping
-         - Bread crumb mixture consisting of the following:
o   Italian Style or Plain Bread Crumbs
o   Panko Japanese Bread Crumbs
o   Garlic powder
o   Dried Parsley
o   Dried Basil
o   Cayenne Pepper
o   Grated Parmesan Cheese
o   Salt & Pepper
o   McCormick Montreal Chicken Seasoning (optional, but I like to add a couple shakes)


Preheat oven to 425º.  Place a cooling rack in a half sheet/jelly roll pan (or use a broiler pan) and spray with non-stick cooking spray.  Prepare chicken by dipping each piece in flour, shaking off the excess, then dipping them in the eggs and finally into the bread crumb mixture.  Coat each piece well with the crumbs then place on the prepared pan.  Bake for about 20-25 minutes, flipping each piece half-way through.  You can also broil these to shorten the cooking time to about 14-15 minutes, but you have to pay close attention not to let the tops burn.  Cut one piece in half to ensure they are cooked through.

Serve with your favorite condiments, a side of mac-n-cheese or broccoli, or turn them into mini servings of chicken parmesan with some marinara and mozzarella.  Whatever you prefer, it’s hard to go wrong.