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Celebrity Solstice Caribbean Cruise! :)

So last month, Hubs and I decided to refresh our Tahiti tans since they were slowly fading over winter. It had been fairly chilly out here so we hopped onto Costco Travel and booked ourselves onto a Celebrity Cruise to the Caribbeans. It was my first time cruising and I personally couldn’t wait to gorge myself on all the yummy goods the ship had to offer. It definitely helped that Celebrity has been consistently rated the best cruise food and they actually have a couple James Beard award chefs on board! Thanks Hubs! :D

Since Hubs had been cruising before with his family, we opted for the Western Carribean since it featured two stops he had never been to. Our port of calls were the Grand Caymans, Cozumel, Roatan, and Rivera Costa Maya. Hubs hopped onto Tripadvisor and found out that lobster was the best in Roatan… Unfortunately Tripadvisor majorly failed us again so he was super duper pissed.

Our flights were not booked well at all… we took had to connect through LAX and on a redeye in order to get over to Fort Lauderdale, but given that we saved a good $700 on the flights for two of us, I’m not complaining. We landed at the horrendous time of 6AM, hung out and met my co-workers at the airport and then we flagged a taxi and boarded onto the Celebrity Solstice.

It was pretty. :D Very pretty!

I snapped this picture when we were docked and were being tendered from the cruise ship onto the Cayman Islands. Boarding the ship in Port Everglades was pretty easy. I unfortunately was absolutely cranky because some genius parents decided that it was the best idea ever to have their toddlers fly on a red eye. Seriously. DO NOT DO IT. I have NOT been on a single red eye where the kids slept soundly. I ended up sandwiched between two toddlers. One in the row in front, and one in back. It was obviously torturous for the poor kids since they couldn’t not get comfortable and sleep which resulted in everyone around them not sleeping. They fussed and later just sobbed cause they were so frustrated. I don’t know who I felt worse for… the mom or the child. Parents… please fly with your kids during the day, so that they aren’t exhausted, yet unable to fall asleep which = super cranky children. Thankfully Hubs had brought ear plugs so I plugged them in and semi-dozed.

Our rooms weren’t ready when we were on the cruise so we wandered around and ended up in the Adult Only Solarium. Ahhh… love it! They had this healthy oriented food bar that we noshed at and then we ended up at the buffet upstairs with EVERY SINGLE OTHER PASSENGER and their 18 pieces of luggage. I was definitely frustrated and my fuse was getting shorter. Thankfully they announced that our rooms were ready and we found ours and settled in. I finally got to take a nice long hot shower and we hopped back onto the deck to see the ship pull away from shore.

We were off! Throughout the rest of the day, we wandered and explored the ship. One thing that struck me as odd was that Leonardo DiCaprio was advertising Tag Heuer watches. Clearly Celebrity totally missed out on the Titanic movie. It was off putting that Jack Dawson was on the ship advertising watches… last time I checked, he didn’t exactly exude confidence in ships. I thought Tag had plenty of other spokespeople…

Since we made it back safely, it was apparent that we didn’t meet the fate of Titanic… or maybe I should say the Concordia!

Momofuku Feast!

We hosted Small Group this past week over at our home and I got the chance to finally make Momofuku’s Bo Ssam. It truly is a porky feast!! I’ve been totally obsessed with David Chang’s cookbook… I’ve made the pork belly buns multiple times this month and I finally got around to tackling the ramen broth. Ironically, I noticed that one of the toppings for the ramen included  roasted pork shoulder. The same kind that he uses in his Bo Ssam recipe. Early this week, I stopped in the grocery store and bought two hunks of pork shoulder and let them brine in my fridge until Tuesday. Wednesday morning, I popped them into my All-Clad slow cooker since I wasn’t comfortable leaving the oven on all day while we weren’t home. I got home, pulled the shoulders out, popped them into the oven for the last 1.5 hours to finish.

While the shoulder was caramelizing and warming up, I made the various sauces and condiments to go with it and did the quick pickles again. I had made pork belly over the weekend so I toasted up the slices and pulled together some pork belly buns as appetizers. Lettuce, ssam sauce, kimchee, kimchee puree, cucumber, rice, pickled onions, ginger scallion sauce, and of course, the roast pig. It made for a yummy feast and I was really impressed with how it turned out. I still can’t get over that Momofuku charges $200 buckaroos for this… not including tax and tip… which brings it up to around $250. GEEZ!!!

I was too busy running around like a headless chicken but my lovely friend Lise managed to snap a pic of the table before we devoured the food. I totally stole this off of her FB page. Thanks Lise!!!

photo credits: Lise N.

When I’m feeding friends and large groups, usually it resorts into some sort of carb heavy dish since prepping lots of meat leads to inconsistency. My pots and pans are only so large… and making multiple batches = cold first batch or people waiting around to eat. This pork shoulder dish really hits the spot… plenty of meat so I’m not stuffing everyone with carbs, plenty of lettuce to wrap the meat up in so that helps take the headache away from having to do a veggie dish. I guess I can always default to roasting some brussel sprouts or throwing together a salad… but I usually shy away from salads at get togethers anyway.

Thanks Momofuku!! :D

Dungeness Crab’s in Season!!

Every year, we eagerly await the winter time because that’s when the fattest juiciest Dungeness crabs are available. And they are seriously good noms!

I found a local seafood restaurant that was running a crab festival menu to celebrate my Aunt Daphne’s birthday. They were super accommodating and let me bring in my homemade NY cheesecake without charging me an arm and a leg for the cake cutting fee. I ended up giving the manager and our server each a large slice of the cheesecake to enjoy.

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Instead of bread, they gave us edamame and Pepperidge Farm Pretzel Fishies. Super cute! I like the fish theme… But we weren’t here to eat the pretzel fish and the shelled beans. We were here for the GOOD stuff…

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Voila! Beautiful beautiful roasted crab… with a black pepper garlic sauce… served over garlic noodles. OMG. It was soooo good…. Good enough that we had ordered two of these suckers to share at the table.

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It’s almost like looking at mirror images! Amongst our fav crab restaurants around here… we’re constantly eating at Crabhouse, Boiling Crab, and R and G Lounge.

Crispy Roasted Pork Belly

One of my favorite dishes to order at the traditional Cantonese BBQ Places is the roast duck and the roast pork. Usually they hang up a full pig in the window, hacking off portions when people order it. The downside to this method is that the pig is out in the window until it has been sold… so the restaurants don’t roast a fresh whole pig everyday. One the first day, when its fresh, Wilbur still tastes delicious… skin is crackling… the meat is moist and well flavored. By day two, he’s not so crackling.

In the past, we’ve ordered this at Koi Palace, our local dim sum place…. at a whopping 18 buckaroos for a small dish full of crispy roasted pork belly. That’s when it dawned on me… Koi Palace doesn’t roast entire pigs in the back; it just doesn’t make sense to do that and keep that dish consistent. I realized that they must be only roasting the belly portions. Which led me to attempt making this at home.

I went and bought a nice hunk of pork belly, marinated it, prepped it, and popped it into the oven. Crossed my fingers and hoped that it would turn out.

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After an hour, the pork belly started getting some color on it. The fat from underneath the skin started pooling on top of the skin, bubbling occasionally.

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I pulled it out to examine… and to poke the skin a bit more to get more fat to render out. The water on the bottom of the dish is to prevent the rendered fat from catching on fire… and to make cleanup a bit easier.

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Hour and a half into it… it’s starting to get lots of pretty color and nice crunchy bubbles on the skin. I poked at the corner and tasted the meat to see if the seasoning worked.

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YAY!!! Almost there! Here’s the pork belly pulled out and resting prior to being hacked into bite sized pieces. The skin had browned and bubbled beautifully. At this point, I only hope that it tasted as good as it looked.

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OMG. It was delicious! The marbling and layers of fat and meat were amazing. Most of the fat had rendered out and crisped up the pork skin. It was better than the restaurants since I could control the seasoning and salt and the skin was far more crunchy than the ones at the restaurant. Definitely a success and given the cost and price; totally worth it to make it at home!

Momofuku Pork Belly Buns…. and Chicharones!

I was on a cooking binge… and made a bunch of stuff. I made two braised dishes for my Daring Kitchen Challenge (whoops! Still need to post about it!!!). I also attempted to make David Chang’s Momofuku Pork Belly Buns. It required me to work with pork belly… which was a new cut of meat for me to deal with.

A quick trip to Ranch 99 and I came back home, armed with a chunk of Wilbur’s tummy. I had to sharpen a good Shun knife to carefully de-skin the belly (which I later turned into Chicharones), brined the belly with equal parts of Kosher salt and sugar, and tucked it into my fridge to marinate overnight. The next morning, I pulled out the luscious hunk of belly, high-heat roasted it to render out the fat, and then on low heat, slowly confit-ed the pork belly in its own fat and juices… Pulled it out, wrapped it up while it was still warm and chilled it in the fridge to make slicing easier.

Once it chilled, I sliced it up, and got them toasting to rewarm in my new LC skillet. It turned out really well since the enamel on the inside prevented the pork belly from burning and yet the heat managed to render out more fat before we ate them. The best part was that it got certain parts of the pork belly slice nice and crispy-toasted. MMM!!!

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I got my buns and set up my ghetto steamer and made the pickles. The quick pickle cucumber is a dish that I grew up eating since my grandmother would pickle cucumbers like that and toss with sesame oil and some reconstituted wakame for a quick salad. In case you’re wondering… my ghetto steamer was Hubs’ old Ranch 99 wok with a toaster oven roasting rack put in there… It did the trick… the buns came out hot and fluffy!

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I also shredded up some green onions to add in there… A smear of hoisin sauce, a luscious piece of pork belly, cucumber pickles, some green onions, and a light squeeze of Kewpie Mayo a la Ippudo NY style.

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Hubs said I could do a throwdown with Chairman Bao… I think these were probably one of the best pork belly buns I’ve had. Reheating the pork slices in the cast iron skillet really made a HUGE difference. It rendered out more fat so the actual buns weren’t as greasy, and it really added another flavor and texture dimension by making the edges nice and crunchy. MMMmmmm….

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I highly recommend the Momofuku cookbook, either on Amazon or from your local library. I feel bad for re-posting his recipes here since I didn’t even buy the book and I went the cheap route and borrowed it from the library but a quick Google and you’ll find the recipe for the pork belly.

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As for the pork skin… a good restaurant kitchen is amazing at using up all their odds and ends so nothing goes to waste. The pig skin that was sliced off got turned into chicharones. It spent a good portion of the day “dehydrating” in my convection oven at 170F until it dried up into this gross plastic-y thing… which was broken into little pieces and fried. I tossed them in a mixture of green and red japanese chili pepper, white pepper, and kosher salt. They were definitely delicious-y crunchy. Hubs loved them with some cold beer.  It was a LOT of work to make these…I’d recommend people to make this once… just so you can see the skins puff up in the hot oil – it really was trippy! In terms of time/work, if I ever got the hankering to eat fried pork skins, I think I’ve seen them for sale at the Mi Puebla across 101.

Elsie from Down Under and Le Creuset in Gilroy!

I promise this blog is SLIGHTLY cooking related! So after I found out that my beloved Cobalt Blue Le Creuset was now discontinued; I found out that the Gilroy Outlets still carried a few pieces that they had left. When Hubs suggested making a trip down there to go shopping, I jumped at the chance to go pick up some first rate pieces out there. The outlets usually carry Cast Iron Seconds, and first rated stoneware. Essentially, the stoneware line is slightly discounted because its at the outlets, and the Seconds can see a pretty hefty discount… something along the lines of 20-30% off. Usually they have slight imperfections in the color gradient but usually they still are awesome in terms of the LC quality.

So this part of the blog would probably appeal more to my car loving friends. I usually spend around 2 hours of my life everyday sitting in my car commuting… in traffic no less. Which has pretty much rendered me into thinking that I drive because I NEED to drive. I need to get to work so I drive… I ran out of milk, so I need to drive to Safeway…etc.

On our way down to Gilroy, we came across this spiffy little Lotus on the road… Covered in decals and all sorts of writing! Hubs was driving along in the fast line and we passed it; but it was enough for me to catch a glimpse of “Australia to Alaska.” Ehh?? So after googling on my iPhone and not getting anything, Hubs drove like a little old granny at 45 MPH in the slow lane until we could get behind this Lotus. OMG. She was an Australian car! Nifty! With a really cool license plate… and a driver on the right side! Wow! She had this cool storage box on the trunk that listed the driver’s blog.

I snapped a few pictures and found the driver’s blog. So apparently she’s a Lotus Elise named “Elsie”… and the owner and driver, Giles Cooper planned for 18 months to figure out a way to drive his car from Australia to Alaska. And get this… he’s driving thousands of miles because he loves to drive. Wow…. I would have flown or cruised up to Alaska… but he’s making the roadtrip of a lifetime with his car. I found his blog to be very well written and intriguing… and VERY inspiring! It’s one of the rare non-food related blogs that I’ve bookmarked and I look forward to seeing his updates as he makes his way through the US and slowly up to Canada. So best of luck to you Giles!! I look forward to reading the adventures of that you and Elsie take… Especially looking forward to the pictures of Elsie up in Banff!

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Going back to Gilroy… I walked away with some good loot! I found the stoneware Cobalt Blue spoon rest, Le Creuset silicone measuring cups (also in Cobalt), a nice new spatula (in Cobalt), the cast iron round trivet I’ve been drooling over for awhile now… (yes yes…. also in Cobalt), silicone and terry cloth handle protectors for my skillet so I can safely grab the handle without burning off my hands, and some nifty stainless steel knob replacements so I can switch out the black knobs when I want to put my LC into the oven. :D Also Hubs managed to get more loot than me… he got some Donald Trump ties at $9.99, some wardrobe basics, and a nifty new Pearl Izumi jacket to wear when he does his Appalachian Fall Bike Ride later this year.

Daring Kitchen BRAISING: Preserved Mustard and Pork Belly – 梅菜扣肉, Red Braised Oxtails, Short Ribs Braised in Japanese Curry

I went a little bonkers this month with my Daring Kitchen challenge. We were told to Brave the Braise… and I pulled out all of my Le Creuset and went to town. I cooked three items… and Hubs and I had enough food to last us a week and a half!

I made Preserved Mustard Braised Pork Belly, Red-Braised Oxtails, Beef Short Ribs braised in Japanese Curry.

**Blog checking line: The March, 2012 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Carol, a/k/a Poisonive – and she challenged us all to learn the art of Braising! Carol focused on Michael Ruhlman’s technique and shared with us some of his expertise from his book “Ruhlman’s Twenty”.**

The new stove was busy cooking all day long… I had eggs boiling in the back to make potato salad, my pork belly braising, the oxtails braising, the short ribs braising, and a piece of pork skin removed from the Momofuku Pork Belly Buns, boiling in the front to make the Momofuku Chicharones.

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Growing up, my family always enjoyed eating 梅菜扣肉. It’s a traditional Hakka dish, and I used to order it at Tea Station when I lived in San Diego. I’ve made it a few times over the years, usually with pork shoulder to cut down on the amount of fat and grease but this time, I finally made it the traditional way… with pork belly. Complete with frying!

The preparation of the dish calls for the pork belly to be deep fried until dry and crispy, braised until pillowy and tender, and then steamed at the very end.

I used about 1 pound of pork belly, with skin on and shallow fried it for about 10-12 minutes on each side. While the pork belly was frying, I soaked the preserved mustard in warm water after rinsing it through multiple times to get any sand or grit out. I really like using the Hsin Tung Yang brand that can be found at Ranch 99 or Marina. They do a good job of preserving it and its sold pretty gritless! I browned some minced garlic in my dutch oven, added in the mustard, threw in a dash of good soy sauce, a cup of chicken sock, a good pour of rice wine, a sprinkling of anise seed. I nestled the freshly fried pork belly in the middle and let the Le Creuset braise for about 3 hours. Turned off the heat, and let the whole thing cool down. Pulled the pork belly out, sliced it up and placed it back into a dish with the mustard covering it and steamed it for about 30 minutes. It was definitely very work intensive but the results were amazing. I served it over some blanched baby bok choy that I quartered up.

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I browned the oxtails (all 5 pounds of them!) in some hot oil making two batches. In the end, I tossed in the classic Chinese red-braising ingredients: ginger, garlic, green onions, crystal sugar, soy sauce and wine. Traditionally this dish also has preserved orange peels in there which I don’t like so I usually add in lime or lemon zest. In this case, it was lime zest since we just recently bought a case of Coronas. Hubs has been drinking his beers with funny looking lime wedges since I’ve zested most of them! The oxtails need to braise for a REALLY long time until the ligaments all fall apart and the fat renders out and the meat is falling off the bone tender. At the end, I tossed in some bean curd. We ate it up served over rice… and it was DELICIOUS!

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I forgot to snap pictures of the curry before we ate it but I still have lots of leftovers in the fridge so the next time we eat leftovers, I’ll bust out my iPhone.

Cooking Blogs and My Cooking Binge

Our kitchen got a nice makeover in the past few weeks. Last year, Hubs replaced our refrigerator… so the fugly faded fridge now is moved into this room-converted-from-the-garage… which leads me on a whole new rant.

We live in Silicon Valley. People here are generally engineers…. especially in the area we live. I’m willing to bet that nearly everyone around us are engineers of some sort… or at least people with degrees. Therefore it is a good assumption to make that people here on the Peninsula are fairly educated. Palo Alto specifically. Yet… pray tell… when a previous owner wanted an extra room, they split the two car garage in half to make it into a bonus room. Honestly, I think it’s a fantastic idea. Any emo teenagers can go in there to mope… it can be converted into a business room, hell, if the Hubs wanted to rock out, he could put his drum set in there and go to town. Except this genius of an previous owner split the garage in half, across the garage. WTH. Who seriously does that!?!?!? It makes NO LOGICAL sense whatsoever. So now, we have a very shallow and wide garage, and this long skinny room. Seriously. If they split it down the middle, then at least we could park 1 car and have one bonus room. Now, we have one bonus room, and I think I could fit a Smart car in the remainder of the “garage”… if I drove onto the driveway really fast and Initial D-style-drifted it sideways in. Ugh.

Anyway… so that long skinny room is now used as an office and we dragged our old fridge in there to use as our spare/beer/drinks/frozen foods from Costco fridge. We got this beautiful stainless steel fridge in our kitchen. When my mother in law was visiting before Christmas, she realized that we were cooking on this old school Jenn-Air stove that was in THEIR first home….  that they bought before Hubs was born. She and my father in law generously gifted us a new GE Cafe gas stove for Christmas. Yes… we chose a gas stove, even though our kitchen had electric. So we found some guys to come in and install gas and after a huge hole in the kitchen, lots of tile dust everywhere, we now have a new stove installed. And it is beautiful. Absolutely BEAUTIFUL. It has a duel convection oven and 5 gorgeous gas firing cooking areas. I’m in love.

Since now the fridge and the stove match, Hubs felt the need to swap out the dishwasher too. Which was a good idea, since we were using it as a glorified dish rack. I found the bottom and sides so old and stained I highly doubted the old dishwasher’s ability to actually clean my dishes.

So now, everything matches this brushed stainless steel look. I love it. Which put me into this crazy cooking binge. Over the weekend, I made a bunch of stuff… that resulted in all the burners being used and nearly every piece of Le Creuset cookware being dusted off and shown some love.

I regularly stalk a handful of cooking blogs and I finally worked up my guts to try out making a plethora of pork belly dishes. I kept coming across the Momofuku pork belly recipe and while I was reading up on that, I came across the Cantonese style Crispy Roasted Pork that we usually order from the Chinese BBQ places that serve roasted duck. I went to Ranch 99 and armed myself with a two gorgeous pieces of Wilbur and got to work.  Momofuku’s recipe was really easy and now I have a nice hunk of pork belly chilling in the fridge waiting for me to slice and tuck into the buns. The crispy pork turned out AMAZING… Better than the restaurant version. I’m a happy camper. :)

I’ll get to pictures and recipes soon but in the meantime, here’s all five burners and my Le Creuset working hard away!

20120312-172121.jpgSpeaking of which… Le Creuset decided to discontinue Cobalt Blue. ARGHHH!!! I purposely registered for it since it seemed like a classic color… that I hoped to build up my collection over the years. Now I’m scouring the web to find all the pieces I really like before it completely disappears!

Thank You…

I follow a good amount of cooking blogs and am constantly Googling for recipes and coming across amazing blogs. Some blogs come and go; some are only good for the one recipe I’m looking for and when I browse through, I don’t find anything that peaks my interest. It’s rare that I find cooking blogs that I love nearly recipe that is posted and follow nearly religiously.

I found this amazing blogger when I was on a hunt to find a certain dish to make at home. I would always order it at restaurants when we went out to eat and it would be slightly pricey, since the ingredients didn’t seem to justify the price. I found her blog, and for 4 years, I read it and browsed through the recipes she posted. I learned to cook that dish well at home, so that I no longer had to order it when we ate out. I actually found her recipe to be better than the restaurants in our area and I’ve learned to adjust the seasonings and ingredients account for my favorite vegetables.

She would make the food I loved super easy to cook and she wrote candidly about her health struggles and her immense love for her family. I recently found out that her health finally gave out. It broke my heart to find out the news, and I mourned someone amazing that I never met.

She touched a legion of home cooks with her blog and her recipes, and I’m so honored that she shared her home cooking with all of us. I made that dish this Saturday night… toasted her memory and prayed for her, her  family and friends before I started cooking. Thank you so much. Your memory definitely lives on every time I cook something from your blog.

Midweek Date @ Nopa

So for some time now, Hubs and I have been trying to head up to SF to eat at Nopa after our friend Ben raved about how they made the best pork chops. EVER. Growing up, I never had a fondness for pork chops, until about two years ago, we stopped in at Martin’s West and the waiter convinced me to try the pork chops. They were divine. Thick cut. Juicy. Cooked to a medium, and that was when I discovered that Wilbur could be safely eaten at a medium doneness. It was over. I was on a mission to find the best pork chop ever.

We decided to head into the city on a random Wednesday and Hubs drove up to meet me. I tried making a reservation on my trusty yelp app but Opentable was showing seatings at 10PM. EH!?!?! It’s Wednesday! Not Friday…. undeterred, I called the restaurant and got a table for 9PM. Not as late, and not as bad either. We circled the blocks and snagged some decent parking and went inside. We were waiting at the bar area while our table was being cleared when a SFer snapped at me and stated “just to let you know. I’m waiting for these seats.” Okay… Chicky-poo… no need to get territorial! I was merely standing in the bar waiting for 5 minutes while the waitstaff was prepping our table. Sheesh! She might as well pee on the bar stools to mark her territory! I can see why some tourists and say that people from the city aren’t very nice.

The server brought out an amuse-buche of a housemade crouton topped with some hummus. Delicious! I wish they had all you can eat croutons. That was a mean crouton! Oh yeah… along with some Maldon Sea Salt.

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We ordered the grilled broccoli. Probably because the idea of lemon zest and anchovies really appeal to me. And quite frankly, who grills broccoli? I always figured that the second it touched a grill, the little florets would go up in flames like hair. It was delicious. The BEST broccoli I’ve ever had. *sigh*

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I ordered the pork chops… it came with pureed celery root, shaved kumquats and since I absolutely hate carrots, subbed out the roasted carrots for roasted brussel sprouts. YUM!!

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Hubs also got the pork chop. Hence we were having ourselves a nice big piggy fest.

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I hated it. Here’s my plate:

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Just kidding. It was THE BEST pork chop I’ve ever had. Luscious. Juicy, perfectly porky and the vinagrette and kumquats balanced Wilbur out perfectly. Oh yeah… and now I can actually say that I like celery root puree! :D

Sorry for the crappy iPhone pics… I need to seriously update my phone. :( Seriously… how is my iPhone4 taking crappy pictures that’s similar to the ones that my original metal backed Edge iPhone did!?