Lone Star Texas Grill

I love meals that are interactive because it’s fun and an instant way to start conversations between dining companions. Naturally, fajitas are high on my favourite foods list because they’re just so much fun to eat, on top of being a somewhat healthy choice and so easily customizable to suit anyone’s taste.

Years ago, an ex boyfriend introduced me to Lone Star and promised me the best fajitas I have ever had in my life. Being a young teen, I really didn’t have much to compare it to, but I did know when I liked something – and I definitely liked these! Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with our young romance and there was never a Lone Star close enough to home to justify a trip, so I thought that was the last I would see of these amazing fajitas. You can imagine how excited I was when I heard Lone Star was opening in Oakville, and as an added bonus, it is up the street from my office. The anticipation was killing me and I drooled at the thought of finally trying these fajitas again.

Lone Star opened about a year ago in the building where Outback used to be before all the Canadian ones closed down. You are greeted at the door (generally held open by a plaid shirt wearing cowgirl) and transported to an atmosphere of cowboys and ranchers. There are boots, hats, horseshoes and wood trim everywhere you look, and all of the servers have code names like Nevada or T-Rex (not quite sure how that one fits the cowboy theme). There is a big machine at the back of the restaurant that churns out fresh-made tortilla shells and I have seen children back there watching and helping to make their own creations. 

Once we were seated, we were brought a basket of fresh tortilla chips and salsa instead of your typical bread basket. The chips were warm and lightly salted and the salsa was cool and made with crisp diced tomatoes and onions. We also ordered a Con Queso to start, which is a warm cheese dip that is similar in texture to Cheez Whiz but tastes like real melted cheese without the grease of real cheese. There was a mixture of spices and jalapenos in the cheese that gave it a very mild kick. You could also get it topped with beef, but we opted to enjoy it on its own.
We came for the fajitas, and decided to be adventurous, so we ordered the Fajita Fiesta for 2: $32.99 for steak and chicken, shrimp and ribs with all of the fixings. I didn’t really feel like the chicken so we asked for a double order of steak instead – a decision that I am so very glad we made. We also asked for a cup of the Honey Garlic Jalapeno sauce on the side for an extra sweet kick to the meal.

The fajita sides came first and we were each handed a small sectioned plate that had everything from lettuce to guacamole. There was also rice and beans to share. Lone Star definitely does not want to have food go to waste because these portions were tiny. For an average person, I would say there was enough fixings to make 2 normal sized fajitas. I have been with many people who have had to ask for more cheese, more lettuce, etc. because there simply isn’t enough given the amount of meat/veggies that come out and the unlimited number of tortilla shells.
The tortilla shells came out at the same time as the sizzling meat platter in order to be as warm as possible when you go to eat them. From my previous experiences with Lone Star, the server is supposed to open the tortilla container and offer you one before setting them down on the table, but ours did not do this on this visit. Nonetheless, the tortillas were warm and chewy and tasted like they just came off the machine. They don’t taste like tortilla shells you normally buy from the grocery store because they are so soft and chewy vs. the processed dry ones from the store. Trust me, you won’t want to eat anything but fresh shells after you try these.
The meat came on a large sizzling platter that you can hear from the other side of the restaurant. Placed in the middle, it covered nearly the whole table!  The shrimp were perfectly cooked and tender with every bite. They were listed as garlic shrimp but with the flavours of the onions and peppers, that was really all I could taste. The ribs – and I have never thought to have ribs in fajitas – were fall off the bone tender and doused in barbeque sauce. The sauce was too sweet for my liking, but the meat was well cooked and worked surprisingly well in a fajita. My favourite of all though, was the steak because it literally melted in your mouth when you bit into it. It was cooked to a perfect medium as it sizzled on the plate and seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper. I was so glad we doubled up on the steak because I could have eaten my weight in that alone. The peppers and onions were cooked perfectly with a bit of crisp, so there were no soggy veggies in any fajita we ate.
The service we received from the server was average. I felt because we came later in the evening and were asked to sit in the bar, the service was much less attentive than if we were in the dining room. Not to say that the bar was full, because we were one of perhaps four tables, but our server was also the bartender and I think she must have been distracted because it was a struggle to have her come by to the table. The manager did make it a point to stop by and ask how we were enjoying our meal, and we appreciated that gesture. He said that he tries to make it out to every table to make it a personal experience, and I thought that was such a nice thing to do. It’s so rare to get that personalized face-to-face interaction, and I thought it showed good customer service on his part.

If you’re in the mood for some excellent fajitas, I highly recommend checking out Lone Star. There were many other options on the menu as well, but they are known for their fajitas and I can see why. Fresh, hot, made to order tortilla shells make all the difference in the world – and if you like steak, you have to try it from here. You’ll never want fajitas from anywhere else again. I know I don’t!

Lone Star Texas Grill on Urbanspoon
Lone Star Texas Grill
2520 Hyde Park Gate, Oakville

Artisano Bakery Cafe

The area around my office is filled with every kind of restaurant you can think of, so there is certainly no shortage of places to go for lunch when you wake up late and had to rush out the door before packing something to eat. Not that I would ever do that. I am obviously the responsible one who packed her lunch the night before, always goes to bed early so as not to be rushed in the morning and I would never, ever hit the snooze button 239487342 times.

When I saw that Artisano was open close to the office, I was really excited because there is something magical about having a sandwich made on fresh baked bread. Located in the plaza next to the Mandarin and grocery store, Artisano is a place that promises fresh baked goods, hearty soups and big salads. Needing something quick and relatively healthy, LJ and I decided to try it out.

Walking in, I noticed that it was a mixture between a bakery and a coffee house. You order at the counter and you are given a CD-sized disk that vibrates and flashes once your order is ready. If you are coming at lunch, I suggest you try to come early in order to get a seat – we got there a little after noon and managed to score one of the last tables. The front has a display of fresh baked sweets and treats, and to the left of the cash registers is the pizza oven and the sandwich prep station. If you order a drink, you are given an empty glass to fill up at the fountain machine and refill at your leisure.

LJ and I both went with the combo deal: $8.99 for a half sandwich and soup or salad. The sandwich menu is extensive that ranged from classic sandwiches such as egg salad to gourmet sandwiches such as steak and portobello. The salad menu offered quite a few choices that went beyond a typical garden or Caesar. Finally, the soup offerings were plentiful and change depending on the day. There were at least six choices that I can remember being offered that day, which is a nice treat for those looking for something a little different.

LJ chose the Tomato Bisque for her choice, and it came with a fresh slice of baguette. The portion size was adequate and the soup tasted fresh-made rather than a frozen or canned concoction. Unfortunately, the taste of the soup was nothing special and it tasted similar to a cream of tomato soup that was under-seasoned.  The baguette was fresh and soft and made for a good dipping companion to the bisque. LJ’s sandwich choice was Turkey, Brie and Green Apple on a ciabatta bun, which was fantastic. The bread is spread with a generous layer of cranberry mayonnaise and layered with real turkey breast, slices of brie, green apple and topped with fresh arugula. The bread was slightly crisp on the outside and incredibly soft on the inside, and all of the ingredients worked well together. The cranberry mayonnaise was sweet but worked well with the tartness of the apple. The sandwich is served cold so the cheese was cut in thick slices that were creamy but not melted. 
I decided to try the corn chowder which was full of corn and potato and carrots. It was not a thick chowder, but it was definitely creamy and sweet from the corn. It was served piping hot and was seasoned perfectly. I decided to try the Pulled Pork sandwich upon the recommendation of the customer in front of me and the server at the cash register.  Served on a toasted egg bun with barbeque sauce and coleslaw, the pork is piled high and doused in sauce. The pork was also scooped using what I guess was an ice cream scoop because it was uniformly packed on top of the bun, which to me, did not look overly appetizing. The barbeque sauce is sweet, but the less flavourful coleslaw cut the sweetness a bit. The meat was tender and juicy, but the sauce overpowered the sandwich too much for my palette. I prefer a more muted barbeque sauce so I can taste the other flavours that accompany it.  Probably not something I would order again with the other options available to me, but certainly not the worst pulled pork I have ever had.
Artisano is a great place to go if you are looking for something that is quick, comforting and fresh. The prices aren’t bad for the portion size and the quality of ingredients, and it definitely beats a peanut butter sandwich every day. If you’re looking to spend some time there to unwind, they also have free Wifi! 

Artisano Bakery Café on Restaurantica
Artisano Bakery Café on Urbanspoon
Artisano Bakery Cafe
3145 Dundas St. W., Mississauga

Recipe: Banana Muffins with a Twist

Do you ever have one of those horrible days at work where nothing will make you feel better aside from coming home, curling up on the couch with something carb-ilicious and a cold Diet A & W root beer to watch reruns of Jon & K8te (pre-divorce)? No? Oh, well...me neither. However, for those of you that have those kinds of days, these muffins will make you feel better. They’re like the food equivalent of getting a hug from your best friend. Who is wearing the cosiest sweater. Who smells like banana muffins. Is it weird I want my best friend to smell like a banana muffin? Probably best you don’t answer that.

Anyways, I needed to bake because my bananas were looking pretty sad, but I wanted something different and decided that a crumbly streusel-like top would be the best answer. These actually turned out amazing – the crumble top adds a nice crunchy texture to the soft, moist muffin. And we all know how much I love my crunch.

This recipe makes 12 large muffins. Just as an FYI, I packaged the leftovers in an airtight container and they kept well for a couple of days until we ate them all. The muffins remained moist, but the crumble top lost its crunch (but still tasted good).  Try these the next time you have a bad day. They’re so magically delicious, you'll have no choice but to feel better.

Banana Muffins with a Twist

1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
2 bananas, mashed
4 Tbsp vanilla yogourt
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup oil
1 tsp vanilla

Crumb Topping
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp flour
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp butter

1.       Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease or line 12 muffin cups.
2.       In a large bowl, mix first six ingredients and set aside.
3.       In separate bowl, mix together bananas, sugar, egg, oil and vanilla. Stir in dry ingredients until just moistened and spoon into muffin cups.
4.       In small bowl, mix together crumb toppings, working butter into dry ingredients until evenly incorporated and makes a grainy mixture. Sprinkle topping evenly over muffins.
5.       Bake for 18-20 minutes until toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Makes 12 muffins.

Recipe: Peanut Butter Cookies with Peanut Butter Cups

As the holidays draw nearer, I find myself on a baking kick trying to find some good cookie recipes to add to my repertoire. This particular recipe was inspired by walking down the candy aisle at the store and stumbling across a box of mini peanut butter cups. My brain immediately jumped to the thought of me eating them in a bowl of milk like cereal, and I had to stop and tell myself that it probably wasn’t one of my most brilliant ideas. However, they were small enough that I could use them in a baking project, and so I happily justified purchasing them. 
My original intent was to make peanut butter thumbprint cookies with a peanut butter cup filling the centre, and I set out to find a simple recipe that would showcase the peanut buttery goodness that was coming. This post so far is short and I’ve already said “peanut butter” so many times, I’m going to be peanut buttered out by the end of this. See? I did it again. Peanut buttering myself into a sticky oblivion by my excessive use of peanut butter. Gets addictive, I tell you. I may have a problem.

Anyways, back to the cookies. This recipe consists of a simple five ingredient list, six including the chocolate cups. I have always preferred peanut butter cookie recipes without the flour because I like them to be a little crispier than other cookies. The original recipe I found yielded 24 cookies, but I was too lazy to measure out half my jar of peanut butter so I doubled the recipe, used the whole jar and made 48 cookies.

I used a full 500 gram jar of organic peanut butter – the kind where the oil separates from the peanut butter and there are no other ingredients except for peanuts. I find when the cookie recipe calls for peanut butter as the main ingredient and there is no flour, it is better to splurge and use the organic kind. There is some kind of magic that makes my cookies come out better when I use the peanut butter where the oil has separated. Don’t ask me why, because all I know is the cookie fairies make my cookies turn out perfectly every time.
The other good part about this recipe is that everything is done in one bowl, and mixed by hand with a wooden spoon. No need to bring out the mixers, or multiple bowls. This is simple, pure, peanut butter cookie roots we’re getting back to, people. 

Using my trusty cookie scoop, I spooned out tablespoon sized balls of dough and set them about two inches apart on the baking sheet – 12 per sheet – and prepared two pans, flattening each ball as I went. Using the handle of the wooden spoon, I made an indentation in each ball to get the “thumbprint” and popped them into the oven for 12 minutes. While they were baking, I took the peanut butter cups and cut them in half so you can see the chocolate coating with the peanut butter insides and set them aside. The cookies were ready when I noticed the golden edges because I wanted a crispier cookie. Working quickly while they were still warm on the sheet, I used the handle of the spoon to push the indent down again since the cookies puffed up a bit while they baked, and placed one half of the peanut butter cup into each cookie. Once the 24 cookies were done, I transferred them to wire racks to let them cool and let the chocolate melt into the tops of the cookies.
The second batch I wanted to do something a little different so I flattened the pre-scooped balls and placed half a peanut butter cup inside. I then rolled the balls with my hands, covering the chocolate completely and placed it on the cookie sheet. Once all the cookies had chocolate inside and were sitting on the pans, I flattened them slightly with the back of my spoon and placed them in the oven. This time, I baked them for only 10 minutes because I wanted them to be slightly softer than the first batch so the inside was gooey with the chocolate. They came out with crispy edges but a softer middle, so when you broke them in half while they were still warm, the chocolate oozed into a ganache-like texture.

If you feel like peanut butter and prefer cookies that are a little crisp rather than soft and chewy, try this recipe out. They are extremely rich because of the amount of peanut butter used, but are pretty to look at and make your house smell divine as they are baking. Although I added the peanut butter cups because I had them on hand, these would take equally as delicious being baked without them, or even with chocolate chips. Either way, if you love peanut butter, you’re going to love these cookies.

Neurotic Peanut Butter Cookies with Peanut Butter Cups
1 500g jar of organic peanut butter (only ingredient listed should be peanuts)
1 ½ cups sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
24 mini peanut butter cups, halved

1.       Preheat oven to 350.
2.       In a large bowl, combine peanut butter, sugar, eggs, baking soda and salt. Mix by hand until combined.
3.       Drop by teaspoonful onto cookie sheet, approximately two inches apart. 12 to a standard cookie sheet.
4.       For thumbprints: Using the end of a wooden spoon, make indentation in centre of each cookie the size of the peanut butter cup.
For chocolate centres: Flatten each ball of dough and place peanut butter cup half into centre of each. Roll into ball until chocolate is completely covered by dough.
5.       Bake 10-12 minutes until edges are golden.
6.       Remove trays from oven and transfer cookies to wire racks for cooling.
For thumbprints: Use spoon to recreate indentation as cookies will have puffed while baking. Quickly place a peanut butter cup half into indentation before transferring cookie to wire rack for cooling.

Makes 48 cookies.

Scores – Rotisserie and Ribs

My family has never been a fan of a traditional turkey dinner, so it’s rare that I get the works with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and so on. We’re much more the type to do roasts or individual Cornish hens for those with the craving for poultry come holiday meal times. Generally speaking, I’m the only one in the family that loves a good roasted turkey with stuffing, so I’m unfortunately outnumbered most of the time (even though I’m usually the one doing the cooking).

So when we were passing by a Scores recently, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have some roasted chicken and potatoes. Luckily for me, it’s also their Holiday Feast time of year which means you also get stuffing and cranberry sauce with your meal!

The first time I heard of Scores, I thought it sounded like a sports bar or a pub of some sort. What it is, is a restaurant very similar to Swiss Chalet but with the addition of a soup, salad and fruit bar which you can add to any meal option. The inside of the Mississauga location is warm and cozy, again, very similar to a Swiss Chalet with big comfortable booths and warm reds and yellows for decor.

Starting from $9.95 (more if you choose the white meat option) you can order the Holiday Feast: a quarter chicken, sweet potato fries, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the soup, salad and fruit bar. I know white meat is better for me, but I prefer dark meat when I’m eating chicken. I find that the flavour is better retained and it’s much less dry than white meat. So, I chose the quarter chicken with the thigh and leg. 

While waiting for my meal, I started with the soup. There is always the Chicken Noodle soup – a flavourful broth chock full of noodles, big chunks of chicken and vegetables. It was delicious and tasted homemade. The other soup of the day was Cream of Vegetable – a choice I wish I hadn’t tried. It tasted of pureed vegetables drenched in butter, and was much too rich for my liking. If that’s your cup of tea, then all the more power to you; but I was unable to have more than a spoonful.
The salad bar has the standard Caesar and fresh greens with a variety of chopped vegetables and dressings. There were also a number of mixed salads from traditional potato to coleslaw to pasta with feta and olives. One of my favourites was the couscous salad with raisins and carrots, whereas the boyfriend enjoyed the egg noodles with Thai sesame dressing and green peppers. There was certainly enough of a variety to tempt even the most discerning of salad eaters into trying at least a few choices.
When the hot food came, I was surprised at the size of the portion. The chicken was large and took up more than half the plate, and there was a healthy portion of sweet potato fries, a large scoop of stuffing, a cup of the rotisserie sauce and a spoonful of cranberry sauce. I don’t normally care for the sauce, and our server was more than happy to bring me a cup of their normal gravy instead. 

I will normally choose sweet potato fries over regular fries if given the option, and was surprised that the Holiday Feast came with sweet potatoes as its standard offering. The fries were crispy coated and soft and sweet on the inside. There was not much salt on them, so you could really enjoy the sweet potato flavour. The stuffing was reminiscent of boxed stuffing mix you could buy at the grocery store and was heavy on the sage. I chose to skip the stuffing and focused my attention the mountain of fries instead. The cranberry sauce was nothing special and could have been from any can, but went well with the chicken.  Speaking of the chicken, it was fantastic. It was perfectly roasted so that the skin was crispy but the meat was tender and fell off the bone. The seasonings had seeped into the meat so every bite was flavourful and moist. I could have probably eaten a whole chicken and fallen into a happy chicken overdose.
If you’re looking for comfort food and like Swiss Chalet, I encourage you to make a trip out to Scores Rotisserie and Ribs to try their chicken. I myself actually prefer it over Swiss Chalet, as I found both the soup and the chicken to be better seasoned and prepared here at Scores. My only complaint is that there isn’t one closer to home.
Scores Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Scores - Rotisserie and Ribs
2967 Argentia Rd., Mississauga

McDonald's Blueberry Maple Pie

One of my favourite sweets is pie. There’s something comforting about a flaky, buttery pastry combined with sticky fruit that makes me happy. Though I am fairly comfortable in the kitchen, I have never had the urge to bake my own pies, even though I love them so. I think it’s partly because I’m intimidated by the idea of making my own crust, but mainly it’s because I’m pretty lazy. Why bake your own when you can walk into the majority of fast food establishments and have a hot mini pie for a dollar? I know it’s not the same, but it still tastes good!
I have always been a fan of the apple pies at McDonald’s, but when I noticed the sign for blueberry maple pies, I couldn’t help myself. At 99 cents each or two for $1.49, I figured it was cheap enough that if I didn’t like it, at least I wouldn’t feel guilty not eating it all.
For those of you who haven’t had a pie from McDonald’s, they’re fairly decent as far as fast food pies go. McDonald’s takes it a step further than most places and bakes their pies, even though the majority of their competitors still fry them. Each pie comes in its own mini box and is about the length of a stick of butter.

When I first opened the box to see the pie, I was expecting to be hit with the smell of blueberries and maple. I was disappointed that I really didn’t smell anything at all, even though the pie was still warm. Upon breaking it in half to examine the filling, there was a faint smell of blueberries, but again, no maple.
The filling is vibrant purple-blue that is extremely glossy and sticky. The taste has hints of blueberry, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with the blueberry flavour that I was expecting. I could taste no maple in it, but I did find that it was so sweet it was border-line too sweet to enjoy. The crust was flaky and soft, but the filling was too strong and made me dislike the pie. 

If you’re going to have a pie at McDonald’s, I would probably take a pass on this seasonal product and stick to the apple. My favourite way to eat it is with some of their ice cream in a cup, and spooning the pie into it. A cheap and quick pie a la mode, but so very delicious. Sometimes, you have to take the shortcuts but the end result is just as yummy.

August 8

When I was younger, I went through a phase when I only wanted to eat small foods. This consisted of mini bananas, cocktail wieners, quail eggs...basically anything that was miniature in size or its own tiny little package. Dim sum then, became a natural favourite for me because it fit my criteria so well (not to mention that it was delicious). Dim sum refers to a Chinese dish that involves small portions of food, usually served in a small steamer or on small plates. Individual dumplings, or small spring rolls – it quickly became my favourite type of food, and probably still is to this day.

You can only imagine how happy I was when I discovered that there was an all-you-can-eat dim sum and sushi place in town. Sushi has always been something I enjoy and to pair it with dim sum sounded like food heaven to me. I rounded up some company and we went on a rainy evening a while back.

Located at the corner of Brant and Fairview, the parking here is minimal. Once the spots fill up, you are forced to find parking in one of the nearby plazas or on the side streets. We were lucky that it was a rainy night, and there was a spot opening up just as we pulled in. Walking into the restaurant, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the modern decor on the walls and how pretty everything looked. The lighting is soft, and the wallpaper on the walls are textured to have an almost velvet feel to them. The tables are uncovered but reminded me of grey kitchen counters, which felt out of place in the dark beauty of the room.
For $21.99 per person for a weeknight dinner and $1.99 for bottomless pop, August 8 is not one of the cheaper places to go for a meal. However, we were confident that we could get value for our money because we were all starving.  Each table is given a menu that lists all the offerings by number, a stack of note paper and a few pencils. You are expected to write down the number of the dish you want, and the quantity of each. The menu is very clear to point out how many pieces of an item come in each order, so you multiply it by the number of pieces you want (ie. One order of sashimi is one piece, but one order of maki is six pieces). You just have to be careful to note how many pieces make up an order and not order too much.
I tried the Hot and Sour soup and found it to be very sweet, although the ingredients in it were fresh and not overcooked. I am told the miso soup was watery and was nothing special. We ordered tempura shrimp which came out crispy and not too greasy, as well as tempura yam which was also perfectly fried and not soggy. The dim sum was steamed fresh and came out piping hot, and I was impressed at the variety of dishes that was offered. One of the best dishes dim sum of the night was the deep fried calamari which was crispy and cooked perfectly so there was no rubbery texture to be had.
We ordered a fair amount of sashimi and each plate that was brought to us was beautifully presented, and the fish was fresh and cut very thick. We also tried the House Roll, which was a deep fried roll California roll on a bed of spicy sauce. Though sceptical at first, it was well done with a crispy outside and a cool inside. It was recommended that we try the Lovers Sushi, which was an odd concoction of white tuna and crab with spicy sauce on top of a potato chip, and garnished with caviar. I wouldn’t say it was bad, but the strange textures and flavour combination made it an interesting dish. 
Another favourite from the evening included the Unagi Pizza: deep fried rice with barbeque eel, spicy sauce and fish roe. The crispy texture of the rice with the creaminess of the spicy sauce and eel made it a taste explosion. If you like a bit of spice, I highly recommend trying the pizza.
There were also plenty of grilled dishes and we tried the Beef Mushroom Roll: tender beef strips wrapped around mushrooms and scallions, as well as the Asparagus Bacon Roll: a cooked piece of bacon wrapped around an asparagus spear.  The Beef Short Ribs were well seasoned and flavourful, but there was so much fat on each piece we could barely taste them.
The dessert offerings were large for a sushi buffet, and also included a few steamed custard buns typical of dim sum restaurants. We tried the red bean and the mango ice creams, as well as the mango pudding to top off our meals. All in all, a fantastic meal that satisfied my love for dim sum. Judging from how busy the dining room was and how full the parking lot can be, I recommend having an earlier dinner or arriving a little later rather than right at prime dinner hour.

August 8 on Restaurantica
August 8 Dim Sum + Sushi on Urbanspoon
August 8
834 Brant St., Burlington

Sabatasso’s Deluxe Deep Dish Pizza Singles

If it hasn’t become painfully clear, I and the people I surround myself with are pizza lovers. It’s a pretty safe bet that if we frequent an establishment that has pizza on the menu, someone in the group is going to try it. Since we eat pizza so often, we fancy ourselves pizza experts of sorts: always on the lookout for good pizza so we can share our findings with others. It’s a task we happily attack with gusto.
For the most part, frozen pizza has never been high on the list of foods I like to buy. I normally find their toppings unappetizing and their dough inedible. Rising crust, deep-dish... so many options,  and yet so many disappointments. However, I am still drawn to new brands when I come across them, just to see if I can find the diamond in the rough.

While walking around Costco, we came across Sabastasso’s Deluxe Deep Dish Pizza Singles with Sausage and Pepperoni ($10.95 for a box of 12) in the aisle beside frozen sushi (I’m not kidding) and frozen garlic bread. I have never heard of this brand before, but the picture looked appetizing and the price was right. Apparently, I am living proof that advertising works and is aimed at people who like pretty pictures.

Each pizza is conveniently wrapped in individual packages with cooking instructions on each. I hate when cooking instructions are printed only on boxes and not on each wrapper, making me have to keep a large box because I don’t remember how to cook something the next time I go to eat it. But back to the pizza. You can either cook it in the microwave for a few minutes or in the oven. I prefer the microwave because I’m usually impatient and three minutes is a lot quicker than 25. Plus I hate having to turn on the oven and waste all that energy for something so small. However, for the purpose this review, I tried it both ways to compare results.

Microwaving takes 3 ½  to 5 minutes. The first time, I tried 4 minutes, and the pizza was so overcooked it became hard as a rock. The second one I put in for 3 minutes, and it came out much better. Typical of a frozen pizza, the dough was soggy and the cheese made a mess on the plate, but the sauce was very good and the toppings were flavoured perfectly.

Waiting for almost half an hour for tiny pizzas to cook is a difficult task when you’re as impatient as I am. That being said, baking these pizzas in the oven is definitely the way to go. After 25 minutes, I pulled out perfectly baked individual pizzas. The crust was crispy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside. The cheese had bubbled into a gooey blanket, and the pepperoni had crispy edges without being dried out. A huge difference from the microwaved version; waiting the extra 20-odd minutes was completely worth it.  
If you like deep-dish pizza with plenty of toppings in individual sizes, I highly recommend this product. Be patient and pop them into the oven if you have the time because it makes a huge difference. Use the time to make a salad to pair with it, or polish off a glass (or two!) of wine – whatever you do, don’t microwave them if you can help it. Reach deep - some of us need to reach deeper than others - into yourself and find your patience! You’ll be so glad you did.

Michelina's Harmony - Fettuccine with Creamy Pesto

I feel like we’re really starting to bond now that I’ve written a bunch of posts. You’re starting to get to know me and my neuroses, and I’m OK with that. Since we’re in the trust circle now, I have a confession to make. It’s something not many people know about. Ready? I really like frozen dinners. There. I said it. I feel better getting that off my chest. I hope you don’t think any less of me now.

I like the convenience of a full meal packaged into a tiny, frozen box that’s ready in a matter of minutes. Most of the time I like how they taste, and I like that I can have a variety of meals at my fingertips, ready to go whenever I need them. Having a full meal ready after a long day of work, or a quick lunch that I don’t need to leave the office for is a wonderful thing.
I have generally had good luck with Michelina’s and its line of frozen meals. I suppose it makes more sense to call them frozen meals rather than dinners since you can eat them at whatever point in the day you like, but it’s a habit I can’t seem to break. I digress. Michelina’s has a number of product lines, and this time I felt like trying its Harmony line because a creamy pesto sauce sounded like it had the potential to be delicious. I also thought that a dish without meat was more likely to be better, because there was less to mess up. Was I ever wrong.

The picture on the box was of a pasta dish brimming with vegetables with a creamy pesto sauce beautifully covering each noodle. What I got after I followed the microwave instructions and opened the lid was far from the picture. The noodles were separate from the sauce and vegetables, and needed a good stir to create the dish. However, the noodles were a clumpy ball and it was hard to mix the sauce into something that didn’t want to cooperate. The sauce itself looked like alfredo with flecks of green in it, and there were very few vegetables. There was one lone carrot in the whole box and some small broccoli florets. I realize that we generally eat portion sizes that are too big compared to what we really need, but this portion seemed exceptionally small. The fact that it was a large ball of noodle made it look smaller, I’m sure. It tasted watery, and there was nothing that made the pesto sauce distinguishable. 
 As I mentioned, I am usually a fan of Michelina’s various product lines. However, this particular meal is an emphatic pass on my part and I would never buy it again. There are plenty of brands and choices that make a far better product than this one. I’m not sure why it’s called the Harmony line of products, but the Fettuccine with Creamy Pesto was definitely off-key.  

Recipe: Banana Chip Cookies with Crystallized Ginger

I love to be in the kitchen. The process of throwing ingredients together to develop and create something delicious gives me a sense of both calm and pride. Although cooking is my hobby, baking is where my passion lies. The fact that I have such a strong love for sweets probably plays a key role in this. Despite my love for the art, I find I only bake recreationally for a few specific reasons:

1.       I have perishable items in my pantry/fridge/cupboard that need to be used. Fruit and milk are usually the main culprits.
2.       I have the oven on because I’m baking something else and feel it would be a waste not to use said oven if it’s already preheated.
3.       I’m meeting someone new or going to someone’s house. Sometimes both happen at the same time!
4.       I’m watching a TV show, movie or sporting event and I can’t handle the stress. I have been known to whip up many a batch of cookies during playoff games or horror movies.
5.       I’m too lazy to go to the store to buy cookies because that means changing out of my pyjamas.

Last night was a combination of a few of those reasons, but mainly it was because I had the oven on already and there were some bananas that were begging to be baked into a tasty bite-sized treat. The only problem was that I only had one lone egg in my fridge, a very small amount of flour and an even smaller amount of butter. I started scouring the numerous food blogs I have bookmarked and came across a recipe that claimed to be a cross between banana bread and chocolate chip cookies, but with candied ginger added.

Feeling particularly adventurous (and having a large container of crystallized ginger that I wasn’t quite sure how to use up before it started to harden), I dived into the recipe realizing that I was going to have to tweak it significantly: first off, I had two sad-looking bananas and wanted to use them both up even though the recipe only called for one. So in both bananas went. Second, the recipe called for two lightly beaten egg yolks. There were two problems with this: 1) I only had one egg, and 2) I was feeling too lazy to actually beat the egg before I added it to the recipe. Yes, I realize that’s pretty lazy, but hey, it was 10 at night and I saved myself from using an extra bowl that I’d have to wash later! So in went the whole egg. The original recipe also called for a half cup of white sugar and a half cup of brown sugar, but I decided that by doubling the bananas I had enough sweetness, so I only added the half cup of brown sugar. Finally, I had about a cup of carob chips that I wanted to use because they are a healthy alternative to chocolate chips and these were somewhat healthy cookies. The fact that the bag was already open and I didn’t want to open a new bag of chocolate chips to only half use may have also been a small factor in my choice to use carob; it just sounds better when I say I wanted to be healthier. 

Meanwhile, back at the mixing bowl, I got to thinking that I didn’t particularly feel like cookies. So I purposely over-mixed the batter a bit to make the end result denser. I wanted them to come out of the oven more scone-like so you could add a bit of butter for some extra richness. After mixing it all together, I used my trusty cookie scoop (a fabulous investment if you want uniform cookies) and made exactly three dozen cookies of the exact same size. I was impressed – usually the end few are too small or there are extra bits here and there from scraping the bowl, but no, this made exactly 36 tablespoon-sized cookies.
The cookies from the original recipe spread while they baked into perfectly round, flat cookies. Mine kept their mountainous shape from when I dropped them onto the sheet and did not spread at all, which was exactly what I wanted. The first batch I made I left in for 14 minutes, which was the minimum time the recipe called for, but I found that the bottoms burnt. I adjusted to 12 minutes for the second batch and was happy with the golden colour that turned out. The cookies themselves were moist and soft on the inside with a bit of chewiness to the edges. Even though I had cut the original amount the recipe called for by half a cup, I found were too many chips and would probably cut it down to half a cup next time. The ginger added an interesting touch to the banana, but was not as overpowering as I thought it would be. I am glad I added the extra banana to give it a more natural sweetness and a stronger banana taste.
My tasting panel consisted of the roomie, the boyfriend and a number of co-workers, and the recipe was well received by all. According to the recipe calculator on Spark People, each cookie was about 100 calories and had four grams of fat – much better for you than a typical chocolate chip cookie which is around 140 calories with seven grams of fat. I really liked this recipe and think that the flavour combination of banana, chocolate and ginger work perfectly together. I would absolutely make these again, but would perhaps make them bigger and pass them off as scones. Paired with a hot cup of tea and warmed with some butter, these would make a great afternoon snack.   

Loosely adapted from Piece of Cake, these are Neurotic Banana Chip Cookies with Crystallized Ginger

2¼ cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp cinnamon, ground
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 egg, large
1 tsp vanilla
2 bananas, mashed
1 cup carob chips
½ cup crystallized ginger, minced

1.       Preheat oven to 375°F with oven rack set to the centre position.
2.       Mix flour, baking soda and salt in one bowl and set aside.
3.        In a separate bowl, mix sugar, melted butter, egg and vanilla until well blended.
4.       Stir in the mashed banana.
5.       Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until mostly mixed then fold in the chips and ginger.
6.       Drop by tablespoons onto baking sheets, 12 per sheet.
7.       Bake one sheet at a time for 12–16 minutes, or until brown. Do not overbake.
8.       Cool completely before storing in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 36 cookies.