Crock Pot Beef Stew

Ingredients:
2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch pieces
5 cups cut-up fresh vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, celery and onions
3 cups water
1 package Beef Stew Seasoning Mix
1/4 cup flour

Directions:
Mix vegetables, water and Seasoning Mix in crock pot.
Coat beef with flour and stir into ingredients already in the crock pot. Cover and cook for 8 hours on low or 5 hours on high until beef is tender.

Review:
This is a great meal if you’re looking for something hearty, pretty healthy and you’re short on time. Erin and I have been trying really hard to eat healthy and we’ve realized that it takes a lot of planning; she had the great idea of using the crock pot to throw things in before she leaves for work and then there’s nothing to be done when we get home. One night last week, she whipped this up and it was great.

Erin didn’t use potatoes but added extra carrots and celery and this dish was great and it felt really healthy. I’m sure you could use different seasonings than the mix that we bought at the grocery store, but it was a quick and easy start, and we’ll certainly build on the recipe next time. Also, to cut down on the calories and carbs, I’m sure you could skip the flour, but using it will make the broth a little thicker and will create the difference between a stew and a soup.

Overall, the flavor was really delicious and the beef was tender – a great, warm, hearty dish that’s pretty easy to put together and that’s still easy on the waistband.

Enjoy!!

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Cava Mezze – Rockville

If you shop at Giant in Bethesda or any of the Whole Foods in the Rockville/Bethesda area, I’m sure you’ve seen Cava’s packaged hummus, tzatziki, tabouleh, and crazy feta. I noticed these a couple months ago and was so excited to see that their success was spilling outside the restaurant walls and that their delicious dips were more accessible. All the items taste just like what the restaurant serves and are worth the couple extra dollars.

Upon entering Cava, you immediately see the dark, intimate setting and hear the boisterous conversations in this small restaurant (it holds about 25 tables). The seats are very close together, but there’s something about this place where that doesn’t bother me. Everyone in the restaurant always seems to be having a great time talking and laughing, but it is also very possible to have a nice, romantic dinner. Large groups would be hard to handle here as the footprint is so small, but that would be my only “gripe.”

The food at Cava is out of this world; I don’t say that too often, but it is true. As their name says, they only serve small and they are all delicious. We’ve just about everything on the menu, and it seems that everything just tastes better and better each time we order it. A plate of olives, harissa, and pita are delivered to your table as soon as you are seated. I don’t know what it is about this stuff, but it’s so good! Other than the pita plate and dips, we don’t normally get an appetizer although a good friend of mine, Adam Silverman, loves to order the Saganaki, also known as the flaming cheese, as an appetizer – this is literally Greek cheese that is lightly breaded, 151 proof rum is dumped on top, then lit on fire to heat and soften it. I have to say that it’s pretty average as far as cheese goes, but it is a fun dish to order (and if you don’t want to order it, I promise someone else in the restaurant will while you are there).

For dinner, scallops with risotto, lamb chops, eggplant with meat sauce, and either the chicken souvlaki or the chicken pita are always ordered. Outside of these items, we’ve had the spanikopita, braised meatballs, lollipop chicken, mini gyros, Cava mac and cheese, and the crazy feta. These dishes are all really good, but we tend to stick with what we love and throw one of these in every now and again. Sometimes we’re just looking for something light and we go here for their salads – the village salad and the rocket salad are both our favorites and you can get gyro meat added on top to make it a full meal. If you couldn’t have guessed it, everything here is worth trying and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Cava opened up a restaurant on Capitol Hill, in DC, but it’s not quite the same as their original Rockville location (or maybe I’m just a little bit partial). They also have a smaller, Chipotle-style spot in Bethesda on Bethesda Row where you stand in line and choose to make a salad or sandwich from a couple different meats and toppings. I’ve tried the Bethesda location for lunch and wasn’t so thrilled, but if you need a Cava meal and you’re pressed on time, then this is a good option.

Something to also note is a rumor around the mean streets of MoCo – evidently Cava and Mamma Lucia’s are pairing up and one of their new restaurants is coming to Potomac soon. I know there are plans for a restaurant in Park Potomac (near the Harris Teeter and Founding Farmers), but I’m not sure if this is going to be Cava or the new partnership restaurant. I’ll be sure to keep you posted because that is going to be a must try!

If you haven’t been to Cava, you must make plans to go soon. Don’t be scared away by the wait at the front door; you can always go on a Monday when you can make reservations or just have a seat at the bar with a glass of wine while you wait (the Tortoise Creek Pinot Noir is one of my favorites there)… it’s definitely worth it!


Ardeo and Bardeo – Cleveland Park

Well, as many of you probably know, this week is Restaurant Week in DC. You can get a full 3-course meal (appetizer, entrée, and dessert) for $35.00 at many restaurants around the city. I’m not usually such a fan about going out during Restaurant Week because there seems to be a stigma — waiters seem to think you are just there for the “deal” and that you’d not likely to ever come there again because it may be expensive. Well, any of you that know me, know I love food (how do you think I got this beautiful body?) and know that good service is important to me; I tend not to really make a big deal about the price as long as the meal is delicious, it is what you asked for, and the service is good.

Erin and I were downtown a while back and noticed Ardeo + Bardeo from the backseat of a cab – from the outside it looked like a small, modern place with bit of a rustic flare and really caught our attention. We are never really in the vicinity of the Cleveland Park area of DC, but we often talked about going to this restaurant; when we first saw that Restaurant Week was coming up, this is the first place we looked to make a reservation and what a great idea that was. The menu here is not really pricey enough to get a “deal” for Restaurant Week, but this week is always a good excuse to try a new place and indulge yourself with a delicious meal and dessert.

From the moment we walked in the door until the second we left, our experience was nothing but great. Walking into the dining side of the restaurant, Ardeo, there are only 10 wooden tables surrounded by leather chairs, dark wood, and wine bottles adorning the walls and creating separation from other tables around you. The feel was very warm and welcoming and the staff really embraced that idea. We were kindly greeted by a server, given the cocktail and wine menu, along with the run-down on how Restaurant Week worked with their menu.

Everything on the menu looked delicious – it’s a very modern American menu with items that are not normally on your radar for everyday meals. We decided to start with the Beef Carpaccio and Mussels. The thinly sliced, raw beef was served with a finely chopped Caesar salad topped with a whole anchovy – great presentation and equally delicious. The mussels were absolutely delicious; served neatly plated with a chickpea puree and juices that required sopping (yes, we used the warm, crusty bread that was brought to the table to dip in the amazingly flavorful broth that was left behind). The mussels were far better than any mussels I’ve had, even from restaurants that specialize in this shellfish. What a great way to start this meal!

For our entrees, Erin decided on the Rabbit Bolognese and I got the Steak and Eggs. Neither of us had ever tried rabbit before so we were going out on a limb with this one, but what a treat it was. The rabbit had the consistency and texture of a brisket and was in an amazing, light red sauce served over in-house made ricotta stuffed agnolotti (ravioli type noodles). My ribeye looked and tasted like a perfectly cooked filet and was served with a potato puree, sautéed mushrooms and an “egg in a basket”. There was a very small yolk served in a piece of grilled toast that reminded me of my childhood breakfasts that my mom would make – what a great way to bring a personal story into your dining experience. The overall winner between these two meals was the Rabbit Bolognese; it sounds a little scary but if you get chance to eat here, you have to get it.

And, of course, since we decided to indulge, we ordered dessert… surprise!! Erin got the Chocolate Bread Pudding and I ordered the Chocolate Tort. Neither of these chocolate dishes were too sweet like I expected them to be, they were much more savory with a hint of sweet and were perfectly presented. The bread pudding was moist with a crunchy top and was served with salted caramel ice cream… so delicious. The amaretto flavored, dark chocolate tort was served with roasted pistachios and topped with whipped cream. I don’t normally like dessert and hardly ever order it, but both of these were amazing and a definitely a perfect way to end this great meal.

Before going to any new restaurant, we always check out the reviews on “Yelp!”. If you’ve never heard of this website, it’s a rating and review website for restaurants around the US. This is where I got the general idea for my blog – I wanted a space for my friends and family to see where I’ve been and what I thought of it, a much more personal touch than a public website where people often go to rant. We use this website all the time, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. Actually, when I drove cross-country from CA to MD with Matt Covin when he was moving back from his luxurious Los Angeles lifestyle, we used Yelp! for EVERY meal; the food we ate on that trip was some of the best in the country and we’re still talking about it… Just ask him about the brisket and white mac and cheese in Oklahoma City, OK or his steak in Amarillo, TX or the appetizers and beer from the small brewery in Little Rock, AR. Anyway, back to my story… Yelp… the reviews on Yelp! for Ardeo + Bardeo were great and people were right on the money with this one.

If you are ever in the Cleveland Park area or are looking for a nice night out, this is a must try. A small, intimate restaurant with items you’re not likely to see very often and a wait staff that is so kind, honest, and specific about the details is the type of experience you should cherish, and you will be able to cherish that at Ardeo + Bardeo! Enjoy!


Happy New Year

Happy and Healthy 2012 to you! We’re back from vacation and ready to start the new year off on the right foot. Reviews of restaurants we went to and recipes we made over the holidays will be posted soon, so check back soon!

Thanks to everyone who read last year — it was a lot of fun writing for you. Always feel free to e-mail me suggestions on places to eat, recipes to make, and other stores or shops to check out. Since 2012 is evidently the end of the world, I have a lot to cover this year!


Cream Cheese Chipped Beef Ball

Ingredients:
2 (8 oz) packages cream cheese
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons mustard
1 medium yellow onion minced
2 (4 oz) packages chipped beef

Directions:
Put cream cheese in large bowl, add in mayo, mustard, and onion. Grind chipped beef in a food processor until finely chopped. Add 2/3 of chipped beef to mix (keep remaining chipped beef to cover cheese ball). Use hands to mix ingredients. Mix well. Form into a ball and pat remaining chipped beef around ball. Place on the plate that you plan to serve on and cover with plastic wrap. Serve with crackers.

Review:
Thank you, Aunt Karen, for this recipe. The Chipped Beef Ball is something that has been in the family for as long as I can remember and you’ll usually find it on the table at any Main (my mom’s side of the family) family event. It’s a great recipe that is easy to make, that’s great for snacking, and something that you can make ahead of time (it actually tastes better if you let it sit in the refrigerator for a couple days before serving). I made the appetizer this week for a party on Saturday night at my family’s house and thought I’d share it with all of you.

As always, I used fat free cream cheese and low sodium chipped beef so it’s a little healthier (let’s get the new year started out right!!). As the directions state, use your hands to mix all of the ingredients together; if you use a food processor, the texture will become too soft. The softness will become an issue when you are ready to form the ball, but it will still be good for a spread that you can place in a dish.

Unfortunately, this is not kosher but I’m going to be trying other ingredients, instead of chipped beef, and will keep you posted on the results.


Chocolate Covered Matzo

Ingredients:
4-6 whole matzos
8 oz butter
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 pinch of salt
1 bag (2 cups) chocolate chips, good quality

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover a large baking pan with aluminum foil, including the edges and line with wax paper on top. This will ease the pain of clean-up from the caramel spill-overs. Place the matzo in the pan in a single layer. If necessary, break to cover the entire surface.

In a medium pot melt the butter and sugar and bring to a boil. Keep pot boiling for an additional 3 minutes while stirring. Remove from heat and add the pinch of salt. Pour the mixture over the matzos and spread evenly. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes. The mixture will bubble and spread evenly over the matzos. Keep an eye on the matzos to make sure they do not burn.

Remove the matzos from the oven and sprinkle with chocolate chips. Wait for 1-2 minutes, until chocolate chips soften, and spread over matzos. Place matzos in the freezer for 10-15 minutes in order for the chocolate to harden. Remove from the freezer and break into pieces.

Review:
This sweet snack is a great alternative to cookies or cake and will always have people asking for the recipe. We recently had a Hanukkah Party at my place and someone brought over what everyone thought was toffee – well, to our surprise, it was chocolate covered matzo (thanks Adriane and Andrew for bringing it). With upcoming work and family holiday parties filling up the calendar, I decided that this would be something I’d try for a change – what a hit it was! If you didn’t know anything about what you were eating, you’d think this was toffee; it has a great caramel and chocolate flavor with the perfect crunch. The more sugar/butter mixture and chocolate you add, the richer it will be so you can adjust accordingly.

If you don’t have matzo around the house, you can do this with saltine crackers as well, just leave out the salt in the recipe. Also, the reason for “good quality” chocolate chips is that these normally stay firm and not melt after the matzo has been in the freezer. Many times, store brand or cheaper chocolate chips will re-soften and create a big mess.

I know my recipes are normally low-fat, but there’s not really a way to cut the fat, calories or carbs in this one so save this for a real treat. I’ve received several requests for this recipe so I hope it’s a hit at your gatherings. Enjoy!


Il Porto – Gaithersburg

Are you looking for a delicious Italian meal in a cozy restaurant with an amazing wait staff? If so, you don’t need to go any further than Il Porto in Gaithersburg (and Frederick). The restaurant is located in the Market shopping center off of Muddy Branch Road but please do not judge a book by its cover (I did this originally and I was completely wrong!). The restaurant can get pretty packed on Friday and Saturday nights so call ahead to see if there’s a wait and put your name on the reservation list. The owners just renovated the interior and took over the retail store next door to expand their footprint; that put in about 20 more tables and a great bar area.

Upon walking into the restaurant, you are greeted by a jovial Italian man (I’m not sure if it’s the owner or not) and quickly seated. As you look around the restaurant, you are likely to see someone you know; even if you don’t, it will quickly feel like home. The wait staff all seem to know the customers they are waiting on and some customers even walk around the restaurant saying hello to everyone they know; it’s such a great atmosphere. Homemade bread, freshly grated parmesan cheese, and rosemary olive oil are always brought over to the table and it’s hard not to start mixing up the dipping sauce before the waiter has even left the table. During our visit this past week, we asked Luis (the best waiter in the whole place, in my opinion) to warm the bread up a little bit. I expected the chef to put it in the microwave for a couple of seconds and return it to our table and I would have been fine with that, but we were delivered hot, toasted bread without any questions or signs of any ill thought.

The food here is great! In the past, we’ve had their Calamari, Chicken Parmesan, Eggplant Parmesan, Crispy Flounder, Chicken with Vodka Sauce and we always get the Greek salad. This time, we decided to get different entrées – we ordered the Chicken Doratti (thanks for the suggestion, Gayle) and Chicken Marsala. The Chicken Marsala was delicious and was served with a side of fettuccini noodles and red sauce; the marsala sauce didn’t have pieces of mushrooms like the sauce from many other places, but the favor was out of this world! The Chicken Doratti entrée is thin chicken breasts in a light butter, lemon and caper sauce with a side of pasta – this was absolutely amazing! Instead of the pasta as my side dish, I requested sautéed spinach and it was delivered perfectly, with no questions.

As I mentioned before, one of the entrées I often get is the whole Crispy Flounder. If you’ve never had a whole fish, this is the place to get it! The crispy exterior fresh flounder is served with an apricot sauce drizzled over the top and is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. It’s not on the menu everyday (and when it is, it goes fast) so definitely try it if you see it listed as a special.

Il Porto also has a restaurant in downtown Frederick that I hear is just as amazing as their Gaithersburg location; if you’re in Frederick and looking for an alternative to Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, Mamma Lucia, or Venutti’s then you must try their location on Market Street. Il Porto is one of my favorite places to go for any type of occasion; we’ve been just for a quick dinner, a romantic night out, and even on Valentine’s Day last year – it just seems to be perfect anytime! Give it a try and let me know what you think!