Hawaiian Hau’oli

Aloha!

So, last week, for a wonderful week, I was fortunate enough to spend some time on the two of the Hawaiian islands.  The original purpose – to run the Kauai Marathon.

But then…I fractured my ankle.

Trying to start a new trend in footwear, perhaps? This is Bootsie, my new friend for the next 6-8 weeks. MEH!

Trying to start a new trend in footwear, perhaps? This is Bootsie, my new friend for the next 6-8 weeks. MEH!

Yep.  Fractured my freakin’ ankle three days before leaving for Hawaii.  SUCK!!  I tried to put a positive spin on things…I really did.  At least I was still going to Hawaii.  Yeah…it didn’t really work for me then either…but I was trying.  To help make this painful adjustment, I started a Twitter account for Bootsie (the boot I’m forced to wear for 6-8 weeks) to document traveling adventures.  I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason…so there better be a damn good reason for this.  That’s all I’m saying.

The first leg of the trip was flying out to San Diego.  This gave us pretty much a full day to adjust to a bit of the time change (West Coast = 3 hours behind EST; Hawaii = 6 hours behind EST) and break up what was already a long ass flight to the islands.  We’d depart San Diego before it was bright and early to get to Kauai by mid-morning.  It was a plan.  The ankle just meant we had to depart from the hotel sooner because I wasn’t moving anywhere very fast.  So…my traveling companions, Cathy & Jenn, were both very helpful and very, very patient with me.  And, I didn’t complain much.  I mean, complaining won’t change the situation.  I just apologized…a lot…for being slow.

The first order of business after getting to San Diego and checking into the hotel to drop off luggage was…lunch.  Not having prepared for lunch, I ate a protein bar, while my fellow travelers ate tacos from a local taco stand.  SO cool.  But after that, I required my morning cup of coffee…so we sought out and found a great local establishment called…

Lestat’s Coffee House, San Diego, California

Lestat’s is one of those places that is open 24/7, 365 days of the year.  YES…it is always open!  Holiday?  No worries…they’re open!  Lestat’s Coffee House has a few signature drinks on their menu…and as it was pretty toasty in San Diego, I wasn’t feeling the hot coffee that day.  Neither were my traveling friends.  So, they each got coffee freezes (think blended drinks!) while I opted for one of Lestat’s Signature Drinks done up all refreshing and cold.  Jenn got the Winter Raspberry Freeze ($5.25), which is a ice blended raspberry mocha.  I took one little sip.  WINNING!  Cathy had me pick for her, and I choose the Arctic Squirrel Freeze ($5.25) for her, which is an ice blended hazelnut mocha (similar to the Hazelnut Turtle drink she loves at our local cafe…just…blended and cold).  As for me…I went with the Iced Arctic Joey ($4.55)…which is coconut, almond and chocolate.  I had mine made with coconut milk as well (+$1.00).  In essence, it was a liquid almond joy.  And it was delicious.  There were bits of coconut floating in it.  I think I was just starting to get in the Aloha spirit by getting something with coconut.  Needless to say…smooth, creamy, delicious.  Nothing overwhelmed the drink, and it wasn’t heavy.  It was pure liquid gold.  And refreshing.  And tasty.  And in the end, coffee should always be tasty.  I was beyond happy with this decision.

Lestat's Coffee House Iced Almond Joey with Coconut Milk

Lestat’s Coffee House Iced Almond Joey with Coconut Milk

Upon arriving in Hawaii…after the rental car debacle…wherein we learned…convertible is fun…but not when you have a fractured ankle.  We got it sorted…and switched out the fun and stylish convertible for…a Ford Fusion.  Yeah…definitely not the way we had envisioned traveling, but it gave us more leg room and some more storage space for our big-ass luggage.  LOL!  After checking into Pono Kai Resort in Kauai…coffee was needed.

It’s always coffee with me.  LOL!

So, we scoped out and fell in love with a local café called Ha Coffee Bar.  And we went back every day we were on the island of Kauai…save for Sunday, because they are closed.

Ha Coffee Bar, Lihue, Hawaii

It was love at first “Aloha” when it came to Ha Coffee Bar.  I have nothing but warm fuzzies when I think back to every stop at Ha Coffee Bar, each morning, first thing, while on Kauai.  It was a bit of a drive from the resort, but always worth it.  I tried three different things on the three days we were there that they were open.  And, not once, was I ever disappointed in my choice.  Ha Coffee Bar is a café that is built to resemble an old-school bar.  No joke.  Their iced drinks are even mixed in martini shakers.  LOVE.  This set-up allows them to showcase and sell products and items, such as pour-overs, that might not typically be served at a café.  Ha Coffee Bar primarily serves espresso coffee, cold brewed coffee, pour-over and French press coffee.  The variety in the types of coffee they serve allows for different origins and price points, which also helps minimize waste as they don’t have coffee sitting and going stale…high quality coffee and flexibility that allows customers to explore different blends, flavor profiles and methods of making coffee.  Coffee love.  And boy…did I LOVE this.  On the first day there, I stayed pretty basic.  I got a Salted Caramel French Pressed Cafe Au Lait with Almond Milk.  I loved that they added the flavor to the steamed milk itself, and then gave me the pitcher of leftover almond milk in case I needed more of it in the drink.  But it was perfect the way they gave it to me.  And the French pressed coffee…OMG…so good.  Jenn got a simple Iced Hazelnut Latte and Cathy got an Iced Peppermint Mocha.  So, on the next morning, I noticed they had signature drinks hanging up near the register…so I decided to give one of those a try.  I had it narrowed down to two…but opted for their drink the Bee Sting.  The Bee Sting is simply Espresso, Coconut Milk, Honey and Cinnamon.  I got it iced…as the humidity was killer that morning.  Cathy got their take on an Iced Black & White Mocha (Zebra).  And it was, absolutely, hands down, my favorite coffee drink of the trip.  I wish I could have had it again.  I would have gotten it again.  The coconut milk gave it this rich flavor, the honey sweetened it, the cinnamon lent a hint of spice…and espresso…got me moving for sure.  Simple…yet SO good.  SO very good.  In fact, on our last day there, this is the drink that Jenn opted to get after trying mine.  With Ha closed on Sunday, we had to go elsewhere, but on our last day on Kauai…we were there in the morning and I was getting another signature drink…Liquid Sunshine, which was cold brew coffee, coconut syrup, and coconut milk.  DELICIOUS!!  Not Bee Sting delicious…but delicious.  I was quite happy with it.  Not something I can get here…anywhere…so that was most of the draw for this drink in particular.  The last morning there, Cathy got the Iced Hazelnut Mocha and a Pineapple Cream Cheese Scone to enjoy for breakfast.  I still say it today…back in Louisville, Kentucky…that I miss Ha Coffee Bar.  It made that much of an impression.

Ha Coffee's Salted Caramel Cafe Au Lait with Almond Milk, Iced Bee Sting, and Iced Liquid Sunshine

Ha Coffee’s Salted Caramel Cafe Au Lait with Almond Milk, Iced Bee Sting, and Iced Liquid Sunshine

 

Skinny Mike’s Hawaiian Ice Cream, Lihue, Hawaii

I have KONG Radio to thank for the discovery of Skinny Mike’s.  As we were driving the island of Kauai on Saturday, just enjoying beaches and the like…an advertisement for Skinny Mike’s Hawaiian Ice Cream came on.  And it advertised ice cream, sorbets, and vegan ice cream.  They had my attention, and the attention of both Jenn and Cathy too.  I looked them up…and took note of where it was located.  And we vowed to go there and check them out.  At least once, yes?

And so, Saturday evening, after splitting a gluten-free pizza at a local chain…we headed over to Harbor Mall, where Skinny Mike’s is located.  We parked and marched up the stairs to the little shop.  Online I had taken a peak at the flavors, and sort of had my heart set on the Pineapple Cream.  However…they didn’t have that flavor.  So…I was left to look over the offered flavors while Jenn & Cathy made their choices.  We each got regular scoops ($3.49) of our flavor choices.  Cathy went with the Mint Chocolate Chip as it is one of her favorites…anywhere.  Jenn won with their signature flavor…a local classic…Macadamia Nut.  Hers was so good, we went back the last night there and each got a scoop of the Macademia Nut.  That’s how good that was.  For my first trip there, without the Pineapple flavor being available…I went with the suggestion of Coconut Cream.  The Coconut Cream ice cream was the perfect level of coconut flavor.  No bits of raw coconut…just the flavor infused in a creamy scoop of ice cream goodness.  It was delicious.  Smooth.  And melted fast.  Ah…coconut based things…I didn’t mind though.  Not one bit.  I eat frozen desserts rather quickly regardless.  LOL!  We were so impressed with the ice cream there that, as I said, we all went back to get the signature Macadamia Nut flavor on our last night on Kauai.  Worth it.  That was some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had.  Just…delicious.  I miss it.  I want some more of the Macadamia Nut flavor…it’s a craving that hits now.  Now that I know it exists…but can’t get it anywhere else…but there.

Skinny Mike's Hawaiian Ice Cream's Coconut Cream and Macadamia Nut Ice Cream

Skinny Mike’s Hawaiian Ice Cream’s Coconut Cream and Macadamia Nut Ice Cream

 

Java Kai, Kapaa, Hawaii

What happens when  your favorite Hawaiian coffee stop on Kauai is closed on Sunday?  You have to find a new place to get that caffeine hit.  And this was what we were left to do on Sunday morning.  Sunday.  When I should have been running a marathon.  When, instead, I was hobbling around Kapaa in search of coffee.  The stop at the little food truck-like coffee place was…not going to work for everyone.  No one was really happy with the menu options…so…we backtracked to a spot that Jenn spotted and had looked up online.  It wasn’t far from the resort.  It was a worthwhile stop in the end.  And, in the end, we all ended up with a bit of breakfast with our coffee as well.  How?  Because this place had some gluten-free options on the menu and in the bakery case.  SCORE!  This meant we could have something a little more substantial at the start of the day, instead of the meager protein bars or yogurts back at the resort.  It would mean eating better now and not making poor choices later.  And so…Jenn got one of the bars from the bakery case…the Aloha Bar ($3.75), I think.  For her caffeinated goodness that morning, she got the Iced Macanut Latte ($4.50).  Cathy went for the Breakfast Burrito ($10.50), which includes eggs, roasted potatoes, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese, which she got with the mango-chipotle salsa.  For her drink, she got the Iced Hazelnut Mocha ($4.70).  She at hers there at the café as she was the driver.  As for me…they had gluten-free English muffins.  HELLO!  So I ended up getting the Gluten Free English Muffin with Cream Cheese ($3.95), which they kindly toasted for me…looks like in a pan…no cross-contamination.  And for the drink, I got the Iced Macanut Latte ($4.50) with Almond Milk (+$0.75).  Jenn and I had ours to go and I happily noshed away on a Glutino English Muffin with a light spread of cream cheese.  The Macanut Latte…macadamia nut flavor…espresso…nutty goodness.  And it was just the perfect drink that morning.  It was supposed to be marathon morning…and I needed a distraction.  This food, while simple and basic…was just what I needed.  The drive along the coast helped too!

Java Kai's Gluten Free English Muffin (with Cream Cheese) and Macanut Latte with Almond Milk

Java Kai’s Gluten Free English Muffin (with Cream Cheese) and Macanut Latte with Almond Milk

 

Hanalei Bay, Hanalei, Hawaii

We visited a lot of beaches while visiting Hawaii.  I mean, that’s part of the point when you visit an island, right?  But, I think, above all others, my favorite one we stopped at, and spent the most time at, was Hanalei Bay.  This beach is stunning.  A beautiful 2-mile long crescent of white sand, nestled beneath a breathtaking range of mountains.  The water was relatively calm that day, with some small waves crashing against the shore.  Despite my new friend…Bootsie…being on, we were determined to get away and enjoy the day.  Anything to keep my mind off the fact that I should have been running.  Hanalei Bay is a great beach for walking and body surfing.  Calm waves, lifeguards, and a great coast line.  I managed a few solo ventures along the waterline of the beach, just needing to at least move a little…minus the boot.  I took it off for beach time.  Strange tan lines were not on the agenda.  I was very careful of where I stepped and the movement of the sand…and would pause if a wave came up and rolled over my legs…because that undertow could be a bit strong and throw me off balance.  It was here that I realized my surf lessons the following day were not going to happen, as much as I wanted to give it a try.  It was just not going to be physically possible for me to get up on a surf board.  I was brokenhearted over this…but shrugged it off as no big deal.  These were the cards I was dealt.  Suck it up, cupcake…you’re in Hawaii!

Me and Bootsie at Hanalei Bay

Me and Bootsie at Hanalei Bay

After some walking and some laying on the beach…we got dressed and headed off for the next venture.  Which tunred out to be a good thing.  Heavy rains started soon after we had changed…and soon, Jenn and I realized just how sunburned we had gotten.  I don’t think Jenn slapped on any sunscreen.  I had…but the burn was in those places where clothes met skin or that strings were located.  I was trying to avoid strange tan lines…and yet…that is what I ended up with in the end.

That being said…for a moment, I forgot about the ankle…and the boot…and I just enjoyed the perfect afternoon at the perfect beach.

JoJo’s Shave Ice, Hanalei, Hawaii

I have my good friend Harry Cooke to thank for the journey, while in Hanalei, to JoJo’s Shave Ice.  He had mentioned it to me in a message on Facebook…and we were right there!!  And with the rain pouring down now, it gave us a good excuse to not sit in a car and try to avoid the flooding roads.  It gave us some time to hope the rain would pass and we could do more exploring.  The rain didn’t pass.  It was with us the rest of the time on the North Shore.  However, after a bit of a short (hobbling, for me) spring from the rental car to the little storefront that the Hanalei JoJo’s Shave Ice operates out of…we knew we were in for a treat.  The original JoJo’s began in Waimea in 1992, the same year that Hurricane Iniki landed on Kauai.  That store is stil there today and still has the original JoJo’s sign.  The goal of JoJo’s…to offer the ultimate in Shave Ice on Kauai…which is a true Hawaiian treat.  When they expanded into Hanalei, they took the JoJo’s traditions and secret recipes along…and introduced the smaller “junior size,” which closely matches the normal serving size of other shave ice venues throughout Hawaii.  JoJo’s doesn’t use commercially made syrups.  They, instead, carefully make up their own syrups, with a lot less sugar and more flavor than the commercially used ones by other shave ice businesses.  And…no corn syrups either.  They also have upgraded all their locations with the best ice machines on Kauai, making for an unmatched, fluffy shave.  LOVE.  The three of us each got the Junior Sizes ($4.50).  And they let you choose up to 4-5 flavors.  I don’t remember what Jenn got…but it had cherry…and perhaps lime?  I can’t recall.  Cathy got Root Beer, Lemon and Grape Shave Ice.  And I opted for two of my favorite flavors…Watermelon and Strawberry Shave Ice.  Of course, now looking back, I wish I opted for something more…local…like mango or something.  Next time.  But the shave ice at JoJo’s was huge…filling…and amazingly packed with flavor.  I can see why it’s been open for 23 years.

30 ounces of Watermelon and Strawberry flavored goodness from JoJo's Shave Ice

30 ounces of Watermelon and Strawberry flavored goodness from JoJo’s Shave Ice

 

Kalaheo Coffee Company & Café, Kalaheo, Hawaii

I know that technically Kalaheo Coffee Company & Café should have gotten a full review, as it was our place to catch a bite for lunch…on Monday afternoon.  However, it was a hot day…and the humidity was really doing a number on me.  And while there were a few options for a gluten-free vegetarian on the menu, what sounded really, really good was the Spinach and Kauai Greens Salad ($10.95).  And the reason that this didn’t warrant a Restaurant Review post was…it was a salad I could have made at home.  Honestly.  But this was what I wanted.  The Spinach and Kauai Greens Salad is a blend of fresh grown Kailani Farm greens, served with crisp spinach and topped off with strawberries and candied pecans.  I kept the feta cheese and held the side of warm flat bread for obvious reasons.  It came with a simple balsamic vinaigrette.  And it was delicious.  Light, but filling.  And cooling.  And just flat-out what I was really wanting that miserably humid day.  But…it was a salad I could make…and therefore…it garners a mention here…but the restaurant itself is cozy and has a lot of great, fresh-made, delicious sandwiches, salads, soups, etc, to choose from.  And I loved sitting in there, listening to runners who had run the day before discuss the marathon and half marathon…looking at the different food items coming out of the kitchen to each table.  Beautiful setting, beautiful food…and tasty too.  For the record, Cathy got the Hot Pastrami Sandwich, which contained grilled onions, mushrooms, and melted Swiss cheese on toasted bread.  She got it with the much raved about Garlic Cilantro Fries…which after seeing her and Jenn devour…made me really wish I could have had those.  Not safe though…not for me.  Darn it.

Kalaheo Coffee Company & Café's Spinach & Kauai Greens Salad

Kalaheo Coffee Company & Café’s Spinach & Kauai Greens Salad

 

USS Arizona Memorial – Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii

This was one ONE place that I had to visit while in Hawaii, and the main and primary reason we even island hopped over to O’ahu instead of just hanging tight on the beautiful island of Kauai.  Honolulu is definitely a hopping city and much more urban…think LA and NYC.  But this…this stop was…important.  To all three of us.  The USS Arizona Memorial is the number one visitor destination in Hawaii, drawing millions of people from all over the world to see where World War II began for the United States on December 7, 1941.  Visitors are free to explore the grounds of the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center, which was recently expanded from the original 3 acres to 17 acres, and is now operated by the National Park Service.  Admission and parking is free to all visitors.  Over 2000 tickets are given out free per day on a first come, first serve basis.  We had to check our bags before entering the historic site, so Jenn and I did that while Cathy went to get the tickets she reserved online for us.  We were set for the final shuttle out, at 2:45 pm.  It was the hottest day in Honolulu…and with all the metal and concrete, we were literally melting out in the sun while walking around the ground.  We ducked into the museum, but it was even hotter in there.  Bottles of water were purchased and Cathy and I downed ours before we were put on an earlier shuttle, the 2:30 pm, to head out to the memorial.  A US Navy boat taxied us out to the USS Arizona Memorial, which is built over the remains of the sunken battleship, the final resting place of the 1,177 crewmen killed on December 7, 1941, when their ship was bombed by the Japanese Naval Forces.  The memorial itself was relatively quiet upon disembarking and walking over to it.  You can still see the oil leaking out of the actual ship that is buried beneath the waters of Pearl Harbor.  It is moving and touching.  And the memorial is beautiful and humbling.  And I am so glad that we went.

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

 

Dole Plantation, Wahiawa, Hawaii

Two words…

DOLE WHIP.

DOLE FREAKIN’ WHIP!!  That was the primary reason to venture out to the Dole Plantation in Wahaiwa.  It was a bit of a journey…a long drive, but well worth it.  The Dole Plantation originally operated as a fruit stand beginning in 1950, before opening up to the public as “Hawaii’s ‘Pineapple Experience'” in 1989.  Another one of O’ahu’s most popular visitor attractions, the Dole Plantation provides activities for the entire family, including the Pineapple Express ($8.25/adult), the Plantation Garden Tour ($5.00/adult), and the Pineapple Garden Maze ($6.00/adult).  None of which we did…due to the cost that was associated with each one and the warm, humid weather that made us want to stick to the air conditioning.  What we did do, however, was shop at the HUGE gift shop, which carries a wide variety of Dole Plantation Gifts, local favorites, foods, and refreshments…including DOLE WHIP!!  You can even purchase a fresh pineapple to take home.  I wish I had.  The pineapple in Hawaii is freakin’ incredible.  I did some shopping, buying a few minor things like Dole Pineapple hard candy and a magnet.  Easy to transport and all.  And then, we went over to The Plantation Grille to purchase a bowl each of the world famous Dole Whip ($5.25).  It was a large serving, which I loved, and devoured enthusiastically.  Better than Disney, which is one of the few places Dole Whip is available.  This was…amazing and I wish I had gone back for seconds.  Dole Whip, by the way, is vegan and gluten free.  LOVE!!  It’s just pure frozen treat love.

Dole Whip from The Dole Plantation's Plantation Grille

Dole Whip from The Dole Plantation’s Plantation Grille

 

Panalu’u Beach Park and the Random Pineapple Roadside Stand, Hauula, Hawaii

Welcome to two of the most random stops we made on our trek around the North Shore of O’ahu.  Panalu’u Beach Park is located on O’ahu’s windward coast and has this strip of narrow, sandy beach.  The nearshore ocean bottom is shallow and has a reef, so swimming conditions here are poor.  This was a clam day at this particular beach when we pulled over to check it out.  Cathy went wading…and the water looked so refreshing (another humid and hot day!), that I took off Bootsie and kicked off my flip-flop to go wading in the surf myself.  My friend Jenn snapped my favorite picture of me on this entire trip here…with the gorgeous blue water and the white sand on the beach.  As I said on my Instagram…”Make only memories…Leave only footprints…Kill only time…”

Me on Punalu'u Beach Park (THIS IS MY FAVORITE PICTURE!)

Me on Punalu’u Beach Park (THIS IS MY FAVORITE PICTURE!)

From there, we went hunting for a shrimp place, Romey’s Kahuku Prawns and Shrimp, that the lady at Enterprise told Cathy about after we first arrived in Honolulu, when she mentioned we would be heading up to the North Shore.  Along the way, I had been hunting for mangos and we found a stand that advertised them.  We pulled into this dodgy little roadside stand, only to learn that they were out of mangos.  The weather had ended the season early.  I was bummed.  BUT…we did purchase a fresh pineapple there, so we purchased one for $5.00, and watched as this little old lady had it peeled and sliced in less that 2 minutes…bagged…and ready for us to take away.  We wasted no time, after climbing into the car, trying it out.  So fresh…so juicy…so amazing.  Hands down, the best pineapple I have eaten in my life.  Anywhere.  And I’ve had a lot of pineapple.  We did find Romy’s…and Jenn and Cathy split a plate of the Garlic and Butter Shrimp.  They ate that and I ate a good 2/3 (if not more) of the pineapple.  They helped a little after they were done with their fresh seafood.

Best.  Pineapple.  Purchase.  EVER!

BEST PINEAPPLE EVER from a random roadside stand along the North Shore of O'ahu! They peeled and chopped it right there!

BEST PINEAPPLE EVER from a random roadside stand along the North Shore of O’ahu! They peeled and chopped it right there!

 

Chief’s Luau, Waimanalo, Hawaii

Okay, again, this would generally get a blog of its own, despite not being a restaurant.  I couldn’t go to Hawaii and not do a luau, even if it is one that is so tourist-y…it’s funny.  We chose Chief’s Luau ($82.00+) due to the fact that it is the best ranked luau on O’auh AND that it had an allergen menu on their Web site.  And, yeah, it’s tourist-y, but I actually had a lot of fun at the luau.  I finally got a lei (made of shells as we had the cheapest package), had my picture taken with Chief…learned how to hula dance, watched Cathy throw a spear (rather poorly), watched Cathy make a coconut leaf headband (which she left behind), listened to great music, enjoyed the history of the dances that are native to Hawaii…and just…kicked back, laughed, and enjoyed my final night in Hawaii…with a Mai Tai and everything.  Aside from the free drink…the luau package also included dinner…and as a gluten-free vegetarian, this left only a few things for me to pick from.  Cathy was there for the meat…the pork…cooked in the ground with banana leaves…but for someone like me…I got the food that was catered in.  And that’s fine…but because it was catered, I didn’t review it.  I was left with the Seasonal Fruit Salad (more pineapple!), the Poi (GROSS…it looked like Barney’s (the purple dinosaur) snot…kind of gelatinous and goopy and YUCK.  I didn’t want to try it, but peer pressure had me at least take a taste.  NEVER AGAIN!), the Steamed White Rice and (my personal favorite) the Sweet Potatoes.  My first plate of food was not really full, and as this was all you can eat, I ventured back for more of the DELICIOUS sweet potatoes and the fruit.  Because…fruit and sweet potatoes are actually two of my favorite foods in life.  For real.  The Mai Tai’s were delicious…and I had a great time at the luau.  If you are in O’ahu and want to go to a luau…go to Chief’s.  They are #1 for a reason!

Seasonal Fruit Salad, Poi (GROSS!), White Steamed Rice, and Sweet Potatoes - my gluten free and vegetarian dinner at Chief's Luau

Seasonal Fruit Salad, Poi (GROSS!), White Steamed Rice, and Sweet Potatoes – my gluten free and vegetarian dinner at Chief’s Luau

 

Barista, Portland, Oregon

The flight we took back to the mainland went through Portland, where we disembarked and stayed an entire day, so we could explore.  Cathy and Jenn had Voodoo Doughnuts for breakfast.  We hit up the food pods for lunch, we did a gastropub for dinner.  But after the stop for doughnuts, it was vital that we got caffeine.  And I chose Barista, out of all the different coffee shops in Portland.  I chose wisely…of this I am certain.  Being a former barista, myself, I not only liked the name, I liked everything I read about them.  Barista was established by coffee legend, Billy Wilson, who now has four (4) Barista cafés open in the Portland area.  Let me tell you, this cofee delivers!!  Barista is one of the first multi-roaster shops in the Portland area, showcasing Heart, Coava, and another roaster on bar for espresso or drip.  Barista is known for serving exceptional coffees from the world’s finest roasters, prepared by the most skilled baristas in the Portland area.  No joke.  Jenn skipped out on this amazing experience, but both Cathy and I partook of the opportunity to try the coffee at the Downtown Barista location.  Cathy ordered the Semi-Sweet Valrohna Mocha ($4.50).  I went for the Bittersweet Valrohna Mocha ($4.50) with Almond Milk (+$0.75).  It was delicious.  Strong…but smooth.  There was this perfect balance of chocolate and espresso that just…melted together.  The milk softened up the bite of the espresso itself, cutting through the dark chocolate.  OH MY GOD…one of the best coffees I have ever had.  If you are in Portland and love coffee…you are missing out if you don’t swing by one of the Barista locations.  For real.  I loved every sip.  Even better…finally a coffeeshop that gives me an 8 ounce cup of coffee for a small!!  THANK YOU!

Barista's Bittersweet Valrohna Mocha with Almond Milk

Barista’s Bittersweet Valrohna Mocha with Almond Milk

And that was it.  It was Portland to Vegas to Louisville from there.  And my 10 day vacation came to an end.  Back in Louisville, it’s hard for me to ignore Bootsie.  It’s a depressing reminder of everything I’ve had to cancel for the upcoming weeks leading into November.  I tried not to fuss much over it on the trip.  And, I ate whatever I wanted…whenever I wanted…as long as it fit into my dietary restrictions.  And despite limited mobility and really lack of much movement at all…while continuing to stuff my face with local eats…I lost 3 pounds.  I’ve put it back on since coming home though…so no worries.  LOL!

It was a beautiful trip to paradise…and I’m already dreaming about my return.  Next time…to actually run the Kauai Marathon!!

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Restaurant Review: Juniper, Portland, Oregon

Juniper Food Cart, Portland, Oregon

Juniper Food Cart, Portland, Oregon

Restaurant: Juniper, Portland, Oregon

Twas the end of my vacation, and after a late flight in from Honolulu, Hawaii, and a walk of doom from the wrong train stop to the hotel my friends and I were staying in…around 11 p.m. at night…my Friday morning started off really well.  My two friends who have no food allergies took in a Portland, Oregon staple…Voodoo Doughnut…for breakfast.

It had been discussed that we would do some shopping around Portland and then hit up the food pods for lunch.  In fact, after a bit of researching, my roomie found the perfect pod for us to visit…due to one food cart where she knew I could get something to eat.

The food cart…Juniper.

Juniper is a worker-owned food cart that was founded by five (5) women – Kashi, Lizz, Elena, Frencesca, and Summer.  They serve nourishing, vibrant, whole-foods that are consciously sourced.  Their menu is seasonal and features local and global flavors that pair lesser known produce with familiar favorites.  They are proud to offer meals that are mostly organic, local farm sourced and made from scratch.  They encourage you, above all else, to “Love Your Food.”

Speaking of food, this team of ladies work hard to source foods grown locally, supplied by small businesses, with worker-focused and community driven practices.  They keep the food on their menu in sync with natural availability, which also helps keep our bodies in sync with the seasons.  They believe that access to healthy and sustainable food is a social justice issue and have set sort and long term goals for themselves aiming at using their position in the food industry to open doors to people who have trouble accessing healthy and steady food sources.  And with all that going on, these ladies do their best to keep prices on the menu sustainable for them to stay in business, to be able to source foods in a way that is in line with their mission, and to also stay accessible to a large cross-section of people.

But, that’s not all…these intrepid food cart entrepreneurs built their menu with high awareness of food sensitives and allergies.  Their menu items are and always will be gluten-free and vegan (completely free of dairy, meat, honey, and egg), and limited on the amount of soy ingredients – meaning they sparingly use tamari, tofu and soy curls.  If necessary, they are happy to substitute or eliminate the tofu or soy curls completely from an order.

I Love This Cart's Small Loaded Tater Tots

I Love This Cart’s Small Loaded Tater Tots

With all that said…on Friday morning, I spent the day drinking amazing coffee, ducking into local shops, and just checking out as much of Portland as I could while hobbling around.  I handled it well enough, but when noon rolled around, I was more than ready to eat.  I knew what I was getting from the food pod, and Cathy pretty much knew what she wanted…so we walked the other carts so Jenn could figure out what she wanted to eat.  And after a little wandering…we made our choices.  Cathy was left over at I Hearth This Cart, as she had her eyes on the small Loaded Tater Tots ($4.00), which are tots layered up with Tillamook cheddar cheese, bacon, and green onion, served w/ chipotle ranch. These are, by the way, gluten-free.  Jenn got a quesadilla…I don’t remember from what cart.  She gave Cathy her avocado.  I was waiting on my dish for most of their orders and eating.  But…I won’t complain.

The one reason I chose Juniper over all other food carts at that specific pod was because of the vegan and gluten-free options.  This was one very safe cart for me to dine in without wondering how I would feel afterwards.  And, honestly, the one dish that caught my eye first and foremost was one of their offered sandwiches…

The Vegan BBQ Bacon Sandwich.

OH HELL YEAH!!

Juniper’s Vegan BBQ Bacon Sandwich (7.00) is BBQ soy curls, cabbage and carrot slaw, avocado, and coconut bacon, piled onto two grilled slices of their homemade gluten-free bread.  I got mine with a T.A.S. Coconut Water ($2.50).  I waled up to the cart and said I had heard stories of this sandwich and said that was what I wanted for lunch.  It was a bit of a wait, but they were hopping at lunch time.  Never a bad thing.  And I don’t mind waiting for food I can see being prepared right there in front of me.  And trust me…this sandwich was worth the time standing on the sidewalk holding a can of coconut water.  HA!

But the wait was well worth it.  The sandwich looked and smelled amazing.  The soy curls gave the BBQ “meaty” portion of this sandwich a great depth of flavor.  It really made the sandwich feel like a sandwich.  The coconut bacon was amazing, as smokey, delicious bacon made out of coconut always is.  And the slaw and avocado just completed the full affect, adding texture and a bit of cooling deliciousness.  The toasted gluten-free bread was done to a golden perfection.  And this was all served up with a side of greens, lightly dressed.  How amazing.

First bite was love.  I shared a piece with Cathy, and she said it was “pretty tasty.”  Which means, she liked it but didn’t love it.  HA!  She was eating deep fried potato tots…of course my healthy and amazing sammie wasn’t going to win out.  But to me, this was perfection.  It’s a food I can’t get from any of the meager selection of food trucks here in the area, nor anywhere else I have visited…which was the main reason that Juniper was where I wanted to eat.  There was no getting around that.  I wanted that sandwich before I even left for Hawaii…and before I made it to Portland.  And it was everything that I expected.  For the record, the coconut bacon tastes like bacon…not coconut.  And it is awesome.  So, pretty tasty is a total understatement and doesn’t do this cart the justice it deserves for the quality and standard of food that they are putting out.  Above all else, one of the best vegan and gluten-free sandwiches I have ever been able to eat.  So far above anything else offered anywhere else.  Miles above.  I love sammies…and this one…was just what I wanted, needed, and ended up devouring.  I was so happy it was on the menu when I got to Juniper’s food cart.

If you are in Portland, be sure to make the most out of your stay.  Check out all the different varieties of food pods out there…eat at a food cart.  But if you have food allergies and food restrictions like I do, head over to Juniper at the food carts on SW 3rd and Washington.  If they have it…get the Vegan BBQ Sammie.  Trust me…all expectations of any sandwich that is vegan and gluten-free…will be exceded.  This was sandwich nirvana for me.  I only wish I had been able to go back for another one before leaving town.

I will be back though.  And I know where I’m catching a bite.

Juniper's Gluten Free Vegan BBQ Bacon Sandwich

Juniper’s Gluten Free Vegan BBQ Bacon Sandwich

Product Review: Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp

Sophie's Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp

Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp

Product: Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp – $5.99+

Dear Sophie’s Kitchen:

I love you.  I love everything about you.  I love everything you develop and offer to the vegan and gluten free community.  Your products have gone from wowing me to astounding me.  Sometimes I go into something thinking that it will end up horribly wrong, but then…everything about it just seems right.

That was how I felt about the Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp.

For the record, back when I used to eat seafood (and other meats)…shrimp was my favorite thing in life.  However, that being said, I never developed a taste for coconut shrimp.  I don’t know why…but that was the case.  It disgusted me.  So, why, then, was I ever tempted to even purchase a vegan version of a seafood I didn’t like?  I have no clue.  No answer.  Nothing except that I get really excited when I see new products from a beloved and trusted company, and that is the case with Sophie’s Kitchen.  I have loved everything from the Fish Filets to the Crab Cakes to the Calamari to the Shrimp and Prawns.  Love.  Just lots of vegan seafood love.  I went into it nervous and a little bit concerned and found out that sometimes, the vegan version from Sophie’s Kitchen is even better than I remember the original and actual seafood version being.

Talk about amazing, right?

So that…my dearest readers…has to be why I picked up a box of the Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp.  I got new product happy.  I couldn’t help it.  It was in my freezer for awhile…just begging to be made.  And with a little determination to clear out items that I’ve been hoarding in my freezer/pantry/fridge…I made sure that this box of vegan seafood got used this weekend.  Enter…Sunday night.

My roommate was craving shrimp po’boys.  She told me so.  And she reminded me of the box of vegan coconut shrimp in the freezer.  I told her that I was a little bit nervous about those as I never liked coconut shrimp to begin with…but she insisted.  Po’boys.  Besides…one more item out of the freezer.  So, Saturday night, I pulled the shrimp out of the freezer and placed it in the fridge to thaw.  I finished up grocery shopping (and discovered my local store stopped carrying the gluten-free sandwich rolls…so I had to purchase gluten-free hotdog buns…which are SO not the same!) and came home to a fun afternoon of hanging out with my downstairs neighbors, eating gluten-free lemon chiffon birthday cake (I made it…as my roomie requested it for her birthday and that happened while we were in New York City), cleaning up the apartment, getting laundry done, and taking a nice walk in the beautiful weather.  We were both ready for dinner soon after 5 p.m.  And Sophie’s Kitchen makes it a breeze.

While my makeshift sandwich rolls (aka: hotdog buns) toasted in the oven, I prepared a sweet chili aoili to put on top of the sandwich itself.  I sliced up some grape tomatoes and washed a mixture of various super greens (kale, spinach, arugula).  Then, as the hotdog buns were finishing up in the oven, I put a spoonful of coconut oil into a hot pan and gave a quick pan fry to 12 of the Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp.  I mean, coconut oil just seemed logical to me.  I allowed them to cook on one side for about 3 minutes, then flipped them over to find them a perfect golden brown on the side that had cooked through.  So, I did the same on that side, then removed them to a paper towel and began to assemble the po’boys.  A little Veganaise…the greens, the tomatoes, the vegan shrimp, then the aoili to top it all off.  It all came together so well…even if the bread was a bit of a challenge.

Okay…so I ate a bit of the shrimp on its own first.  Why?  Because I needed to taste it without my drizzle of aoili on it.  Guess what?  My tastebuds lit up.  And I was amazed with how much I loved this flavor.  Honestly…the texture was meaty and perfect…with the crispiness of the breading on the outside and the soft vegan shrimp on the inside.  There was this nice sweet kick in the breading that I absolutely adored.  And sort of wished I was eating these outside of the actual sandwich itself.  Both my roommate and I saved a shrimp to eat alone.  Sophie’s Kitchen definitely did it once more and let me know that I can, in fact, love coconut shrimp.  Either tastes change or, more likely, they just do it better than the real thing.  But, I devoured this faster than any other product I’ve tried from Sophie’s Kitchen.  Big, big love!!

So…what exactly is vegan seafood made from?  Well, the Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp is made from water, konjac powder, pea protein, potato starch, coconut powder, rice flakes (from brown rice), canola oil, paprikia, fenugreek, organic agave nectar, sea salt, turmeric, white pepper, alginate (from seaweed), and calcium hydroxide.  Is it clean eating…nope.  Not even close.  But…it’s not too bad as processed, frozen products go.  Not at all.  These are soy-free, vegan (100% plant based), non-GMO, gluten-free, contain no artificial preservatives, no artificial colors, no MSG, they are free of trans fats, and they are cholesterol free.  These also contain no added sugar.  Nothing about them is artificial.  Nothing.

So, let’s talk nutrition.  A serving of Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Coconut Shrimp is 4 pieces of shrimp.  This serving will provide you with 130 calories and 10 grams of fat.  This serving also gives you 150 mg sodium and 1 gram of sugar.  A serving will give you 12 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of fiber, and less than one gram of protein.  You’ll feel full, but mostly due to what you pair it with.  In this case…I made it into a sandwich…and that definitely gives it a dinner heft that kept me full until the next morning.

Once again, blown away by how much I am loving the products that come from Sophie’s Kitchen.  Seriously, if you turned vegan, vegetarian, or are gluten-free and want some breaded “seafood”…I encourage you to seek out Sophie’s Kitchen and try it.  Take it from me…you’ll fall in love with the products.  If Sophie’s Kitchen can make me fall in love with coconut shrimp…imagine what it can do for you.

I’m so glad to be dining on this once more tonight.  Beyond YUM!

Sophie's Kitchen Gluten Free Coconut Shrimp in a Gluten Free Vegan Coconut Shrimp Po'Boy

Sophie’s Kitchen Gluten Free Coconut Shrimp in a Gluten Free Vegan Coconut Shrimp Po’Boy

Restaurant Review: The Liffey Irish Pub, St. Paul, Minnesota

The Liffey Irish Pub, St. Paul, Minnesota

The Liffey Irish Pub, St. Paul, Minnesota

Restaurant: The Liffey Irish Pub, St. Paul, Minnesota

I finished.  I ran.  I walked.  I crossed the finish line of the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon.  And after all the hullabaloo at the finish line…the gathering of essentials like finisher’s medal, finisher’s shirt, banana, water, photos, chocolate milk, salty snacks, and so on…I met up with my adoring public…Heather and Cathy.  They were at the designated spot at the runner reunion area.  And the night before we had made noises of checking out a pub after my run.

It has sort of become a thing…we either do a pub or Mexican food after I run a marathon.

You don’t mess with a thing.

Bad things happen when you mess with…a thing.

So, it just so happened that a great Irish pub in St. Paul, called The Liffey Irish Pub, wasn’t but a couple of blocks away from the finish area.  While I was getting some compressions socks on and a different pair of shoes, Heather called ahead to see what the wait would be like.  It turned out we were in between the rushes.  So, after I stretched for a moment, we decided to pack up and make the hike to the pub.  It was a slow hike…my foot, my ankle, my legs were killing me.  I had never felt like this after a marathon…but I’d been injured (still was) and couldn’t train.  It sucked, but my friends were more than willing to work with me.

Our good friend, Paul, whom we met through the big U2 summer of concert madness a couple years ago, met us there.  He had been one of the group at Mile 17 and had said he could join us for lunch.  I stepped inside and immediately was given a hug.  We were immediately seated by the hostess, but before hitting up the table, Cathy and I ducked into the bathroom so I could get out of my running clothes and into something more comfortable (yoga pants and a t-shirt!).  We found the table where Paul and Heather were seated and I started looking at the menu.

Usually it takes me awhile to be hungry, but at this point, I was hungry.  Amazingly enough.  And, also a plus, we knew from the Internet search, that The Liffey had a gluten-free menu.  And when our drink orders were taken (water for starters and then Heather and Paul got drinks with their food), we were given the opportunity to think about what to eat.  Easy here.  For the non-vegetarian and gluten-free (my dining compatriots), it seemed that Fish and Chips (Heather & Paul got the North Atlantic Cod – $14.00; Cathy got the Canadian Walleye – $15.00) was the pub grub of choice (naturally!).  For me…the Quinoa Salad ($9.75) sounded like the meal of choice.  Ideal for recovery too!

Orders in…and we started talking about everything we had been up to…and U2 stuff…and all that jazz.  In fact, we were so busy talking that it took us a moment to realize that the tray that came in a little later had our food on it!  I think we were all ready to eat.  Paul actually got his fish and chips with a Guinness and Heather got hers with a delicious Strongbow cider.  Mmmm.  I was feeling dehydrated so it was water only for me with my meal…this time.

The Liffey Irish Pub's Quinoa Salad

The Liffey Irish Pub’s Quinoa Salad

The Quinoa Salad was a fantastic bed of spinach that contained quinoa, roasted sweet potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, capers, basil, and avocado.  All these amazing vegetables and grains were tossed with a fantastic, and highly delicious lime vinaigrette.  The quinoa and spinach were great protein for after the run. And I loved the flavor.  I didn’t actually expect the sweet potatoes to be cold, but didn’t mind it in this salad.  While I’m not a huge fan of capers, the salty and vinagery flavor complimented the lime vinaigrette and the earthy vegetables in the salad.  I enjoyed this salad down to the last bite.  Amazing.  And it takes a lot to amaze me when it comes to salad.  This one hit all the right notes…and was like no other salad I’ve had before.

I like different.

I also like being able to enjoy a dessert when I go out to eat.  And there happened to be a few that I could indulge in here at The Liffey Irish Pub.  Oh, St. Paul…you’re winning me over with this gem of an Irish pub.  A fruit cup was an option.  Or the local Izzy’s Ice Cream (flavors unknown).  But the one that interested me was the gluten-free version of their S’more Pot du Crème.  We asked for four spoons.

The Gluten Free S’more ($5.50) was a rich chocolate custard with Izzy’s Vanilla Bean ice cream.  All of this was topped off with a fantastic marshmallow fluff brûlée.  It sounded beyond delicious.  And when it came out…all four of us dove in.  Seriously.  Four spoons dipped into the toasted marshmallow top, through that layer of vanilla ice cream and touching that decadent chocolate custard.

BEST. DESSERT. EVER.

We licked that bowl clean.  While I was glad there were four of us going after this dessert, I probably could have eaten the entire thing by myself without feeling any regrets.  It was so good.  The rich custard with the cold ice cream and the warm, fluffy nature of the fluff was the perfect combination.  It felt like I was eating a delicious s’more at a campfire.  But better.  This was just…the best campground treat elevated to restaurant quality.  High class.  Amazing.  I was wishing for one more bite once we polished it off.

It was unanimous, really.

BEST. DESSERT. EVER.

Should I say it again?

BEST.  DESSERT. EVER.

I was way beyond satisfied when I shuffled out of their with my friends.  We each said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.  Paul one way, Heather to take us to our car and then meet up with us at my grandpa’s house so I could shower and then we could keep me moving by walking the Mall of America.

Where I bought a fantastic dress…

But, that’s of no consequence.  What is, however, is the fact that, without hesitation, without any doubt, I would eagerly return to eat at The Liffey, in St. Paul, Minnesota, whenever I happened to be in the area.  Forget any other pubs that might be more convenient to where I am in Minneapolis.  This one blew me away.  And, I of course would have to get another taste of the…BEST.  DESSERT.  EVER.

Yep…I’ll be back.  Count on it!

The Liffey's Gluten-Free S'more (aka: BEST. DESSERT. EVER.)

The Liffey’s Gluten-Free S’more (aka: BEST. DESSERT. EVER.)

Restaurant Review: The Grape Leaf, Louisville, Kentucky

The Grape Leaf, Louisville, Kentucky

The Grape Leaf, Louisville, Kentucky

Restaurant: The Grape Leaf, Louisville, Kentucky

It’s not my birthday…but my roommate and I have a tradition to treat each other to a birthday meal someplace new, interesting, or a personal favorite for each others special day.  Mine was pushed back to this weekend as my birthday fell on the start of the weekend and I already had Indian food on the mind at my favorite place in Louisville!

So, I had said that what I really wanted was…finally…some Chinese food.  We had read a review a couple years ago about a place called the Tea Station in Louisville that had gluten-free options.  However, after e-mailing them and not hearing anything back…then the roomie calling and basically being told they can give me rice and vegetables and tofu…and after seeing reviews about how the place has sort of been on a downward spiral…it was time for a second option.

The problem was…I really wanted Chinese food.  So, now, nothing sounded like something I wanted.

Perfect.

I tried to get some feedback from Cathy, but she kept saying it was my choice.  Which only stressed me out.  I narrowed it down to a couple of places…and after scanning the menu pages a few times, I settled…on The Grape Leaf.

Yep.  Mediterranean food!  I love everything about Mediterranean food…so I figured…why not try out somewhere new and different and interesting?  So…after work, we drove out to Frankfort Avenue…and attempted to find parking.  We finally managed to find a spot well up the road and made a bit of a hike to the restaurant itself.  The Grape Leaf prides itself on being a friendly, locally owned, pan-mediterranean neighborhood restaurant.  I loved everything about that statement, so I was pretty excited about it.  Not to mention, their chef, Nabil Al-Saba, is the real deal – serving up authentic cuisine since 1992.

Impressive, yes?

We stepped into the restaurant and were greeted by the hostess.  We were taken to our table and seated.  One of the chairs had a balled up cloth napkin on it, but it was near the window and I was sitting in the seat nearest the aisle.  So, I set my purse down in the chair, away from the napkin, and settled in to look at the menu.  The hostess/waitress asked if we wanted any appetizers like hummus or grape leaves, but Cathy said this was our first time there so we were going to familiarize ourselves with the menu first.  So, she went to retrieve glasses of water while we perused the menu.

When she returned, she asked if we had any questions or if we were ready to order.  We had done a bit of discussion while sitting there…but finally settled on what we were going to eat.  Cathy went first, as she had the easier order.  She went with the Lamb Schwarma with her two sides being the Lentil Soup with Pita and the Cauliflower Rice ($13.25).

I was going with a couple of items on the Appetizer list.  I settled on a cup of the Organic Vegan Red Lentil Soup ($4.00) and the Vegetarian Grape Leaves ($7.50).  Order was in.

A cup of The Grape Leaf's Vegan Red Lentil Soup

A cup of The Grape Leaf’s Vegan Red Lentil Soup

And just moments later, our appetizer soups arrived.  I had to take a picture for the blog, but Cathy dove in and said…”It tastes citrus-y.”  That made me giggle and once my photo was taken, I spooned up a bit myself and tasted it.  I didn’t get citrus at all, but I did get this smokey-sweet flavor from the paprika that was sprinkled on top.  The menu lists the ingredients of this sup as being organic red lentils, extra virgin olive oil, onion, and spices.  What it was was this thick and rich soup that had a gentle, tame flavor that was elevated by the dashes of paprika over the top.  It was warm and soothing and smooth.  And it was a good way to start the meal, for sure.

In fact, we had just polished off our cups of soup when the entrées arrived at the table.  Wow.  Fast.

The grape leaves looked like…grape leaves.  I mean, you can’t really dress those up, can you?  Except with spices…like that same sprinkling of paprika…everywhere.  I mean…everywhere.  I had six stuffed grape leaves on the plate with a dollop of tzatziki and lettuce in the middle.  The grape leaves themselves were wrapped around a blend of tomato, parsley, onion, Egyptian rice, and herbs.  I cut into one of them.  They looked really great.  I dipped my fork in the tzatziki and added it to the bite…and gave it a try.

It was…pretty good.  It was okay.  The textures were great.  The grape leaves were cooked perfectly, kept soft.  The stuffing was creamy and had a bit of flavor.  Not a lot though.  In fact, the star of the entire dish was the tzatziki.  So, thank goodness for that.  I had Cathy try a bite and she liked the creamy inside…but just didn’t look like she was a fan at all.  And, sadly, being a schwarma lover…she was most impressed with her side of Cauliflower Rice.  I was also…really…really…concerned with how quickly the food came to the table.  I watch Kitchen Nightmares…I know how this works…

The food was just…okay.  Not meh.  Not gross.  But not something I would actively make a point to go back and try again.  Which…is so sad.  This was my birthday meal and it didn’t live up to expectations.  I feel cheated.  I feel like my going out on a limb…trying something different…was a letdown.  Do I get a do-over?  We left after paying the bill and decided we couldn’t end the night with food that we weren’t happy with…so we hiked just up the street to The Comfy Cow for kiddie scoops of their Strawberry Fields Forever ice cream.

So…The Grape Leaf…has an amazing reputation…but it wasn’t busy when we were there…nor was the food anything to scream from the rooftops about.  It was just…eh…good.

And I was hoping for great.  I was expecting great.

I don’t think I’ll be back.

The Grape Leaf's Vegetarian Grape Leaves

The Grape Leaf’s Vegetarian Grape Leaves

Recipe: Grilled Eggplant with Gluten Free Couscous and Greek Yogurt Dressing

Sometimes…it’s fun to ignore those magical CSA bin vegetables and go off the beaten path.  Besides, while I love having fresh and local produce delivered to my door, I also love the fun and buzz of the local’s farmer’s market.  And that’s exactly what my roommate and I did this week.  While we have some great bin ingredients, there was an amazing recipe in the October 2014 issue of Vegetarian Times…and the only ingredient I currently had in the home was the couscous.

Don’t panic.  This is gluten-free couscous that came in my Cuisine Cube this month.  I was pretty stoked about that and really wanted to use it right away.  So, that same day as I was flipping through the Vegetarian Times magazine (that had also just arrived)…one dish stood out, as it utilized couscous.  When Cathy read the magazine after me, she also spotted it.  So, that Saturday morning, we went out to a large farmer’s market in Louisville and picked up the necessary ingredients to make this dish.

I prepped most of it last night, so today, the only thing I needed to do to complete the dish was slice and grill the eggplant.  Simple…

Recipe: Grilled Eggplant with Gluten Free Couscous and Greek Yogurt Dressing

Grilled Eggplant with Gluten Free Couscous and Greek Yogurt Dressing

Grilled Eggplant with Gluten Free Couscous and Greek Yogurt Dressing

Servings: 4
Time: Prep 30 minutes; Cook 10 minutes

Ingredients for salad:

  • 2/3 cup couscous (I used a gluten-free brand)
  • 1 cup pomegranate seeds, divided
  • 2 Persian cucumbers, diced (1 cup)
  • 1/4 cup sliced green onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tsp white wine vinegar

Ingredients for dressing:

  • 7 ounces low-fat plain Greek yogurt (or dairy-free yogurt)
  • 1/2 cup chopped Persian cucumber
  • 1/4 cup mint leaves
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic

Ingredients for eggplant:

  • 4 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 small Italian eggplants, each but on the bias into 6 slices

Directions:

To make the salad: Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan.  Stir in couscous.  Cover pan, remove from heat, and let stand for 5 minutes.  Transfer to bowl and cool for 10 minutes.

Stir 3/4 cup pomegranate seeds and remaining ingredients into couscous, and season with salt and pepper, if desired.

Chill for 1 hour, or overnight.

To make the dressing: Purée all ingredients in a blender until smooth.

To make eggplant: Preheat grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.  Whisk together oil and mint in a small bowl.  Brush eggplant slices with mint oil and season with salt and pepper, if desired.  Grill slices 4 minutes per side, or until tender and nicely grill-marked.

Divide salad among plates.  Top each serving with 3 eggplant slices, 1 tablespoon of remaining pomegranate seeds, and 2 tablespoons of the dressing.

Serve any remaining dressing on the side.

~*~*~

I made only one minor change.  Instead of making the mint oil, I instead added a hit of cayenne pepper, cumin, and garlic powder to the olive oil instead, then brushed that over each slice of eggplant and grilled it.  It worked out perfectly.  And the mint dressing is so light and fresh that it really just brings everything together on the plate.  I highly recommend this hot and cold salad.  It’s simple and easy and beyond delicious for sure!  I can’t wait to make it again.

Product Review: Molina di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous

Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous

Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous

Product: Molina di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous – $3.00+

There was a time…back before I was diagnosed as a Celiac…when I used to make numerous dishes with a grain known as couscous.  But, as couscous is made from the semolina of hard wheat…so any couscous dish I started to ignore or substitute quinoa.  It worked…but it wasn’t the same.

You cannot imagine my excitement when I opened up this month’s Cuisine Cube and found a box of Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous.  I was beyond thrilled.  Seriously, I might have done a happy dance in my office.  Okay…I did do a happy dance.  And with that being said, I was already making plans in my head to recreate some of my favorite couscous dishes with this little box.  My roommate immediately said, “BREAKFAST COUSCOUS!”  Which, is definitely going to happen.  But…it just so happened that I ended up making a salad first with this product.

It was this month’s issue of Vegetarian Times, highlighting hot and cold salads.  And the one that really, really caught her attention was one of Grilled Eggplant with Couscous and Greek Yogurt Dressing.  We looked over the ingredients and they all seemed within reason to pick up at the local farmer’s market (as none of the ingredients were in the CSA bin this week), so I made a pact…if we could find the ingredients, I would cook up the dish.  Because now…I could absolutely use couscous in a dish that asked for it.

The shopping was a success and last night, I found myself prepping most of the ingredients for our dinner tonight.  I cooked up the couscous, seeded the pomegranate, diced the cucumbers, chopped the green onion, and chopped the mint leaves.  I blended together the yogurt dressing ingredients, after a quick run to the store for the actual yogurt itself.  It was the one ingredient we forgot about.  HA!  Not bad.

Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous (cooked)

Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous (cooked)

I have to say…the couscous is easy enough to cook.  I actually didn’t follow the ingredients on the box.  I went off the instructions in Vegetarian Times for the cooking of the whole-wheat couscous they used in the original recipe.  So, instead of 2/3 cup of couscous with 2/3 cup of boiling water, I used the 2/3 cup of couscous and 1 cup of boiling water, letting it cook for 5 minutes.  Usually the said amount of boiling water and the same ratio of couscous would sit for 2 minutes, then the box says to add oil or butter and cook for 3 more minutes over a slow flame.  The way I did it worked just as well, and when the 5 minutes was up, I emptied the pan of couscous into a bowl to cool for 10 minutes.  Then I added the pomegranate seeds and the remaining ingredients, seasoning with olive oil and white wine vinegar.  I let it chill overnight in the fridge.

After work today, my roomie and I returned home and I set out to grill the eggplant and piece the dish together.  That’s what I did.  I plated the couscous salad, then topped it with the grilled eggplant, gave a drizzle of the Greek yogurt dressing and topped it off with a few more pomegranate seeds.  It looked amazing.  And it tasted just as good!

Now, my roommate said her least favorite part of the dish was the couscous, but to me, it was one of the highlights.  Maybe it was because I haven’t had it in a long time.  But I did nothing special to season this couscous, as I used to hit up the regular couscous with cayenne while it steamed.  I left this one plain, as I was adding enough flavors via the fresh ingredients and the oil and vinegar…and a touch of salt to season.  I thought the texture was clearly different.  This was a lighter, smoother, not as gritty couscous, but it was the perfect ingredient for this dish.  In fact, I can’t wait to try it in my “Breakfast Couscous” later on this week.

The grains of the Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous were finer and smoother than regular couscous.  However, this is not to say that it was mush.  Anything but that.  In fact, the grains were still very noticeable on the palate and tongue.  I found that it really blended well with all the fresh vegetables and ingredients that were placed on top of it.  It was perfection…quinoa wouldn’t have been the same.  The couscous was perfect.  And it tasted brilliant.

I was beyond impressed!

So, I bet you’re wondering what a gluten-free couscous is made from.  Simple.  One ingredient is all that is listed on Molino di Nicoli’s Web site – corn flour.  Yes, the Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous is simply corn flour.  That explains the different texture from regular couscous…but ultimately still delicious.  It felt more like grits than couscous…but…it will do.  Different…but close enough in my eyes.

As far as nutrition goes…well…let me see if I can figure this out.  A serving size of Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous is 50 grams, which is about 1/4 of a cup.  This serving will provide you with 177 calories and 0.5 grams of fat.  You will be consuming 0.002 mg sodium (yes…that is the actual measurement) and 0.3 grams of sugar.  A serving provides you with 1.3 grams of fiber and 3.8 grams of protein.  It’s not too filling, but you won’t fell starved an hour later either.  Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous is gluten-free and cholesterol free.

I will be savoring this couscous for as long as I can, as I have a few more dishes I want to make with it.  But tonight’s meal was a success.  It was the perfect base for the grilled eggplant and the light and lively dressing that brought everything together.  Beyond happy.  It’s not exactly couscous, but when you’re gluten-free…this is close enough.  Close enough…and really, really good!

Thank you, once again, Cuisine Cube.  Because of you…I’m one happy couscous eating girl again!

Grilled Eggplant with Greek Yogurt Dressing over a Gluten Free Couscous Salad using Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous

Grilled Eggplant with Greek Yogurt Dressing over a Gluten Free Couscous Salad using Molino di Nicoli Gluten Free Couscous