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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lunch at The Grain House, Basking Ridge NJ

Hey Foodies,

I'm chopping the Valentine's Day menu up a little bit to talk about today's lunch.  Here at GVK, I'll be reviewing my experiences at restaurants, as well as my trials and tribulations in the kitchen.  I'll give the dishes a rating out of a five-point scale, along with my thoughts.  Hopefully they'll help make eatery choices a little easier on you!

A bunch of people I work with/for (including my boss and my boss's boss) all flew/drove into the office today for a series of meetings, and lucky-yours-truly got to go to lunch with them!  (I get to go to the fun stuff, woohoo!)  We all went to The Grain House in Basking Ridge (click the name to go to their website), which is a local spot next to a hotel next to the office; so it makes for a convenient business-casual meal.  I've been there often and never been disappointed.  Today's entree was quite tasty and not something I'd even seen before, so I had to get it.  Not to mention the OUTSTANDING appetizers.  I know, capital letters indicates a PBD (pretty big deal), so I have to say, if nothing else, go with a friend or two and get a table-full of appies.  Well worth it.  Plus, if the fireplace is going?  Super-cozy.  If I weren't with work colleagues at 12:30 on a Thursday, you'd find me curled up with a glass of red right next to that fire.

We ordered appetizers for the table - there were ten of us, and they were all just really darn good, so they went really quickly:

  • Golden Calamari with Peppadew Peppers, Oranges, Pignoli Nuts, and Reggiano Cheese.  I'm always a fan of calamari, but this was outstanding.  The breading was light, and flavored with lemon and lime; and while I've seen peppers in calamari before, the wedges of orange were new.  These were also breaded, and with the hot and chunky tomato sauce served alongside, was sweeter than any I've had before.  Great flavor puts this over the top at 4.5 out of 5.  It doesn't feel right to give my first dish five stars - but it's definitely a contender!
  • Mediterranean Plate: Falafel, Hummus, Tabbouleh, Tapenade, and Grilled Flatbread.  I saw this on the menu and silently cheered!  E put me on Mediterranean food not long after we met, at a restaurant in North Brunswick called Headquarters.  While nothing can touch the experience of Headquarters (which I'll review separately), this appy took me right back.  I had fun explaining the different items to the people scratching their heads at the different names:
    • Falafel = patty made from ground chickpeas and/or fava beans;
    • Hummus = a spread made with ground chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic;
    • Tabbouleh = a type of salad made of bulgar wheat, parsley, mint, tomato, onion, and seasoned with lemon juice and olive oil;
    • Tapenade = pureed kalamata olives.. mmmmm....
    • Flatbread = they just gave us pita pockets.  :)
While not many of my co-workers tried it, it just meant more for me!  Everything was fresh and tasted just right.  I especially liked the olive tapenade, big shocker there, but the whole plate was delicious and perfect.  Extra whole olives and tomato wedges made the dish complete.  I could have had two of those full plates and been a very happy girl.  4.75 out of 5!  I KNOW!!!  This wasn't a 5 because it wasn't fully authentic, and you could tell, but a lot has to be said for fresh ingredients.  Never underestimate the power of locally grown food.
  • Red Corn Nachos: Flash Fried Organic Tortillas, House-Made Salsa, Scallions, Spiced Beef, Braised Black Beans, Fresh Avocado, Jack Cheese.  These were okay but what really made them stand out were the red chips they used instead of your typical tortilla chips.  The guac was homemade too, but surprisingly flavor-less - I guess because it was really only avocado and not true guacamole.  I only had one small bite and I didn't even take any meat with it, so it may be unfair to rate this item, but heck, I still will: 2.5/5.  E and I make waaaay better nachos; I'll review them next time we make them.  Babe, soon? :)
  • Fried Mozzarella.  This was a special-menu item: Grain House gets seasonal local cheeses from The Valley Shepherd Creamery (linked), a dairy farm north of me that I actually went to with my cousins two winters ago.  This was the selection for this time of year.  The shape was similar to the mozz sticks you get at TGI Fridays - you know, the long, thin rectangles?  But the breading - like the calamari - was light and airy, and it was topped with bean sprouts and a tomato almost-salsa.  Some of the best mozz stix I've had in a long time, if not ever; but it's almost unfair to rank them in the same category.  It's like the Friday's mozz stix grew up, graduated college, put down the Solo cups, and went to culinary school.  4/5.
  • And finally, the Almond Crusted English Cheddar with Slow Cooked Applejack Compote.  WHOA.  GVK Rule Number Two: When in doubt, go with the cheese.  Saturated fat aside, cheese makes just about anything taste heavenly.  And this.  Was.  HEAVENLY.  Pretty sure I heard angels singing as I took my single bite of this - yes, unfortunately, I only got a little bite because the plate was meant only for two, and I was sitting at the foot of the table with nine hungry people-way-higher-paid-ranked-than-I-am.  And everyone loves cheese.  Oh well, at least I had my tapenade!  The apples were sweet and sugary, and matched the sharpness of the cheddar and bite of the almonds in perfect harmony.  Mouth IS watering as I type this.  You know when you build something up in your mind so it may seem better than it actually was?  Well that's not happening with this.  It was that good.  Pair a bite of cheese/almond/apple with a bite of the hot cinnamon bread they serve you at the table, and bask in the flavor.  And if you are into wine?  I'd pair this with a rich, full-bodied Merlot.  Yes, I am a wine-and-cheese freak.  Man, this is not helping my mouthwatering issue.  Anyway, let me just give this experience a 5/5 and stop gushing so much.  Also - this is on the dinner menu, so if you don't see it on the lunch menu, just ask for it.  And if they tell you they don't have it, call me.
So, after the appetizer feast, I was feeling pretty good, but of course I needed an entree, right?  The entire menu is quite intriguing, but something caught my eye and I just had to go with it: the Lump Crab and Sea Scallop Sausage with Fresh Chives and Black Artisan Linguini in a Spanish Saffron Sauce.  It also includes freshly roasted tomatoes in the saffron sauce, which added additional light flavor.  However, the sausage is what caught my eye.  I always love a good hot and spicy, but I am a seafood addict and had never seen a seafood sausage of any kind, much less two of my favorite types.  And black linguini?  Why not.  Let's do this.

Honestly, I was hoping for more sausage.  I suppose I should have known; anything gourmet-seafood for a low-low-price of about $15 will have limited seafood and a whole lotta pasta.  But, everything was quite tasty; I'm not really "mad about saffron", but it was light and complimented the smokiness of the linguini.  PS, do you know how they dye the pasta black?  Bonus points if you can tell me how in the comments - no google-cheating!

I also ordered a side salad (gotta get my green in), which was a spring mix with pears, walnuts, gorgonzola, and red onions tossed in a honey vinegarette.
Probably should have moved my other plate out of the way.
Wasn't crazy about the dressing, but I normally get my dressing on the side so I blame myself for this one. 

Whole entree gets a 3 out of 5; if I got more sausage and less of everything else, it would be a 4.  Quite recommended!  I gotta get me a sausage maker, though, so I can make this meal myself.  With, um, more normal looking pasta most likely.

Turns out that, of my colleagues, I got the most exotic item on the menu.  Burgers, sammies, and salads were well-received.  We did not get dessert or drinks; service was (and consistently is) excellent (was quite crowded but they always kept our water glasses full and asked how we were doing).  Whole experience at Grain House is a 4 out of 5. 

Summary: Go for the delicious appetizers, cozy atmosphere, and the great service!

Next post: back to our regularly-scheduled Valentine's Day Menu.

Cheers, C

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Valentine's Day Menu, Part One

First things first - I'm completely, totally, 100% brand-new at this blogging "thing".  If anyone has pointers - widgets, templates, all that stuff - I'm all ears.  This is definitely a work-in-progress!

If you missed my first blog entry, check below for my introduction and some background information on who I am and from where Girl Versus Kitchen came.  The purpose of this blog, however, is really out of popular demand.  After posting various pictures and statuses on (what else) FB about various things I've made or restaurants I've visited, I got a lot of feedback asking for recipes, reviews, and MORE FOOD!  And so, alas, that's what I'm giving you!  Things I'm making, things I want to make, how to make it, where I've eaten, what I've had, how I liked it, and as many pictures as I can post.  The biggest problem is remembering to take pictures of the food before eating it all.

A lot of my ideas come from previously-existing recipes I come across online, in magazines, or through word-of-mouth; then I give it my own flair.  When I post recipes here, I'll write them exactly how I prepare them; however I'll always give credit where it's due.  That way, if any of my readers decide to experiment, they can either use my recipe, or the one I used to create my version! 

I'll also do my best to add photographs that either E or I have taken; but, honestly, sometimes we're too hungry to stop and take a picture.  Or we simply forget.  In which case, I'll include a picture from the recipe I adapted the dish from.  Sound good?  Deal?  Okay deal!

For Valentine's Day this year, I decided to prepare an extensive three-course menu to surprise E when he came home from work.  Here's the rundown:

Champagne (of course) .. ok, it was Asti.  Not real Champagne.  But still delicious.

Whole Kalamata and Feta-Stuffed Green Olives

Shrimp Francesca with Artichoke Hearts and Grape Tomatoes

Proscuitto-Wrapped Asparagus with Onion-Chive Cream Cheese

Baked Salmon in Puff Pastry, stuffed with Baby Spinach and Shiitake Mushrooms

Hand-Dipped Chocolate Dipped Strawberries with Peanut Butter Drizzle

The olives were from the Olive Bar from my Happy Place, ShopRite - so no real culinary talent needed there.  I was introduced to kalamatas by E and fell in love; the green olives I did not try, E said they were okay but almost too much feta in such a giant olive took away from the experience.  Hey, at least the kalamatas went over well.  They're a popular ingredient in my kitchen, so be ready to see these little purple babies often! 

The Shrimp Francesca was a delicious suggestion by the fantastic folks over at AllRecipes as either a yummy app, or as an entree served over cappelini or any other pasta.  I chose to pair the olives with the Francesca as an appetizer over chilled glasses of 1997 Dom Perignon a bottle of Martini & Rossi Asti I had left over from New Years Eve.  Came out amazing, and I would definitely make this again as an entree with a side of steamed broccoli rabe or spinach.  E and I helped ourselves to cocktail plates of the shrimp while the Salmon Puff Pastry baked in the oven. 

I'm so excited, my first blog recipe!!

Shrimp Francesca with Artichoke Hearts and Grape Tomatoes

picture from AllRecipes recipe; not really what our dish looked like because for some reason this picture omits the artichokes, and the tomatoes were my own addition; plus this shows as over rice which could be a good option but we did not do.  Wow this is a long caption.
  • 1/2 lb large to colossal shrimp, uncooked, peeled and de-veined
  • 8 to 10 artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
  • 15 grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 c bread crumbs or panko
  • 1/2 tbsp Italian seasoning or 1/2 tsp each basil, oregano, parsley, and garlic powder
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 tbsp Smart Balance (I like to use this in place of butter, but butter is acceptable)
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • parmesano romano cheese, grated, to taste (I use about 1 and 1/2 tbsp)

Preheat oven to 375*F.

Spray a 9 by 9 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray, and arrange the shrimp at the bottom of the dish.  Make sure none overlap.

Stuff pieces of artichoke and tomato among the shrimp, creating a colorful evenness throughout the dish.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs and Italian seasonings/basil, oregano, parsley, garlic powder over everything, and then sprinkle with the lemon juice.

While the shrimp marinates for a few minutes (do NOT let sit for more than a half-hour in the lemon juice, as the shrimp will begin to dissolve and become grainy from the citric acid), make your garlic-butter: Melt the Smart Balance in a small saucepan under medium-low heat, then before completely melted add the garlic.  Let it all bubble together until the garlic begins to cook through, about two to three minutes.

Drizzle the garlic/SB mixture over the shrimp dish, and top with the parmesano romano cheese.

Bake on top rack until cheese and crumbs begin to brown and shrimp turn pink - about 10-12 minutes.  At this point, I like to turn on the broiler and really crisp up the top, but no more than 60 seconds here.  GVK's rule number one: Nothing worse than overcooking!  It's so sad when your big, gorgeous shrimpies turn itty-bitty and tough.  Bleh.

Serve hot; as an app, goes well alone or on crusty slices of bread.  As an entree, serve over pasta.  Serves 2 as an app; this recipe is easily multipliable...? is that a word?

Tomorrow I'll detail the remaining portions of our fantastic V-Day meal.  Cheers!

PS - any and all feedback is appreciated!  Tell me how to improve!  Tell me what you'd like to see!  Help me with formatting, content, anything and everything!
Help me.. help you!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pop the Champagne, I'm Finally Starting This Thing!

Well, here goes nothing.

Hi all!  After much hemming and hawing, I'm finally launching my food blog.  Yes, this will be mostly about food; but, if you're anything like me, you know food ties extremely well  (sometimes too well)  into all sorts of facets of your life.  So.  As they say, "I never thought I'd be doing this," but, WELCOME and congratulations for stumbling onto Girl Versus Kitchen!  I hope you plan on visiting often.  It's gonna be a heckuva ride.  I hope.

A little bit about me.  Just when you thought you had enough of yet another 20-something Jersey Girl, I'm just that.. another one.  I live in NJ, only an hour and a half from my hometown in.. NJ.  I didn't fall far from the tree, but that's not to say I'll be here forever.  I haven't set an anchor (mortgage) down just yet.  In time, in time.

 So yes, me: I'm your regular upper-twenties NJ girl with a love of all things culinary.  Has high life aspirations, but sometimes often needs a kick to get started.  Lucky in love, life, family, and friendship, and always looking for ways to improve herself and the world around her.  IT cube-rat by day, TV junkie by night.  Exercise aficionado, if she ever gets out of her computer chair.  Prefers sunrises to sunsets and wine to vodka (so do her headaches).  Her happy places include staring out the kitchen window with a fresh cup of coffee, a limitless shopping spree at Wegmans (but Shoprite will do), and Martha's Vineyard beaches with a nighttime campfire under a starlit sky.  Music taste ranges from Taking Back Sunday and Incubus to Robyn and and Kaskade, with Sinatra, Usher, and Beethoven thrown in for good measure.  Food tastes are equally disparate.  Wishes her piano, paintbrushes, and tap shoes weren't so dusty.  Would love a personal stylist every day (I guess we all would, right?). Enjoys the endless possibilities before her.

I share my home with two roommates who don't help with rent and don't have jobs, but I let them live with me anyway because they're cats and they're quite adorable, even the fat old-man one.

 This is T.  He's my 9 year old grumpster, but he means well.  He weighs nearly twice as much as he should, but yes we're working on it.    He can attest that losing five pounds isn't always easy!

And this is L.  She's a 4-5ish year old goofball, a stray I took in from the neighborhood, and she's the opposite of T in personality, size, and.. well, pretty much everything.  But they seem to get along well.

I have a wonderful man in my life, E, who is always there to make me laugh, inspire and motivate me, and eat my cooking.  He is also a fabulous co-chef and a significant influence on what comes out of my kitchen!  So for that, babe, I thank you.  :)

Additional inspiration comes from my parents.  I am a product of my extremely loving, doting parents who are, well, amazing in the kitchen.  While my mom knows what she knows (which is a lot, Mom! :) ), my dad has always been the one who loved trying something new.  He taught me to never be afraid to give anything a shot at least once.  Maybe even twice.  And, I will attest that my father always makes THE BEST scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, Sirloin or Porterhouse (bone in), short ribs, chicken marsala, etc etc etc that I could ever have.  Seriously.  Most amazing scrambled eggs ever.  No cheese needed!

 My parents have also been my launching pad for appreciating wines.  If you ever need to win me over, you can do so with a bottle of Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico.  Or any bottle of Riesling.  I've collected the bottles of wine I've had (no duplicate bottles) in my kitchen, above the cupboards, since I got my own place in March 2006.  I'll end that habit when I move into a nicer place, whenever that will be - but I like to have the memories of the good times I had over wine.

Which brings me to.. my kitchen.

 God, I hate my kitchen.  Okay.  Hate is strong, but - I've grown up considerably in the past five years I've had my apartment, and I think I'm due for an upgrade.  Especially since I've had MORE than enough of the 1970s/80s appliances, easily-staining formica countertops, electric oven, and frankly just all my old stuff.  I'm ready to purge and start over like you wouldn't believe.

But, oh, the beauty that comes out of this kitchen.  I adore cooking, and I will try to whip up pretty much anything.  Not to say I haven't had my share of mishaps (which I'll address later, believe me), not to mention my personal flair of "special moments".  Despite my hatred of my working space, a lot of love comes out of it.  I cannot wait to share it with all of you!

My next post will cover the menu I created yesterday for E and me, Valentines' Day.  :)  Can't wait to share!