Monday, June 27, 2016

Buffalo Chicken Stuffed Shells


I love Buffalo chicken in all shapes and forms. It's one of my favorite flavor profiles, and I'm always looking for different ways to adapt my favorite dishes into Buffalo versions. When faced with half a box of jumbo pasta shells recently, I decided to stuff them with none other than spicy Buffalo chicken and creamy ricotta cheese.

The filling

Tangy homemade blue cheese dressing, and gooey mozzarella finish off the dish, yielding a real winner in my book.

Ready to hit the oven!

These Buffalo chicken stuffed shells are super easy to make, especially if you already have some cooked chicken on hand to shred, but it's easy enough to cook a chicken breast or two and shred them up for this purpose.

Many stuffed shell fillings include an egg to held bind the mixture, but I left that out of mine. I liked that the filling was somewhat looser and creamier, but you can easily add a beaten egg if you want your filling to hold together a bit more. It's really not necessary in my opinion though.

I use homemade blue cheese dressing as the "sauce" on top. I've seen other similar recipes online that don't really have any type of sauce, and I always feel this yields really dry shells, even with a sprinkle of cheese on top.

The creamy sauce that results from a combination of the dressing and shredded mozzarella is true perfection with the al dente shells and spicy, but luscious filling.

A bit of crunch from the chopped celery is the final touch to these excellent crowd-pleasing stuffed shells.

Serve them as an appetizer/snack at your next game night or sporting event, or enjoy them for dinner with a crisp salad on the side. Either way, they are definitely an easy-to-prepare rendition of my beloved Buffalo chicken.

Buffalo Chicken Stuffed Shells
Serves 3 to 4 (makes about 18 to 20 shells)

1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup diced celery
2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast (I used leftover rotisserie chicken meat)
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
2/3 cup hot sauce, such as Frank's Red Hot
2 to 4 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese (depending on preference)
6 ounces jumbo pasta shells (about 18 to 20 shells--I like to boil a couple extra too in case any of them rip)
1 cup blue cheese dressing, preferably homemade

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F with the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Lightly grease a large baking dish (or a couple smaller ones--I baked two-thirds of my shells in a 10 1/2-by-7-inch baking dish, and froze the rest in a 7-by-5-inch baking dish).

Boil the pasta shells in generously salted water for 1 minute less than the package directs. Drain and remove the shells to a tray or baking sheet so they are spread out and do not stick to each other. Allow them to cool.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet and add the celery, cooking for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until crisp-tender. Remove from the heat and add to a medium mixing bowl along with the shredded chicken breast, ricotta cheese, 1/4 cup of the mozzarella, the hot sauce, and the crumbled blue cheese.

Spoon the chicken mixture into the cooked pasta shells dividing the mixture evenly. I yielded 19 stuffed shells. Place the shells into the greased baking dish and drizzle the tops of the shells with the blue cheese dressing. Top the shells with the remaining 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese.

Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 15 minutes, then uncover and continue to bake another 10 minutes or until bubbly and heated through. Serve immediately.

*Note* You can easily double this recipe and use an entire 12 ounce package of jumbo pasta shells.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Walt Disney World: California Grill


Wrapping up this series of Walt Disney World blog posts, I'm actually sharing one of my favorites today. Perched atop Disney's Contemporary Resort is the elegant California Grill. I reviewed it a year ago, and am very happy to have the opportunity to discuss it once again.

This beautiful, chic space features delicious flavors from the Pacific coast while boasting some of the best views around. California Grill is one of the prime spots on property for viewing Wishes, the fireworks spectacular at the Magic Kingdom. It also has great views of the nearby resorts including the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian, and the Wilderness Lodge. Epcot's also visible in the distance.

California Grill is another Signature Dining spot, using up two table service credits if you're on the Disney Dining Plan. The prices do reflect that, but the quality of the food and service will definitely not disappoint.

We started our meal with a cocktail. The Tropical Fruit Margarita features Patron Silver Tequila, and Cointreau Noir with tropical fruit puree, in this case passion fruit. It's so light and refreshing! It doesn't have the harshness of a really strong margarita (that's the Patron for you!). It's definitely one of the tastiest margaritas I've had, and really reflects that bright, sunny California feeling one should have when dining here.

Tropical Fruit Margarita $11.75

Bread service includes Whole Wheat Sourdough Rolls and Lavender Fococcia with soft butter. Both breads are freshly baked and very delicious. I'm a sucker for a good bread and butter combo.

Last time we dined at California Grill, we shared a couple of appetizers including the famous Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli. We learned our lesson, and on this visit each ordered our own. This is not something you'll want to share. Trust me...

Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli $15

This gorgeous raviolo is filled with two kinds of goat cheese, and then sits in a lovely tomato-fennel broth. It's topped with crispy mushrooms, tiny basil, and is finished with a drizzle of Arbequina organic olive oil. It is absolute heaven in your mouth and is 100% worth the $15 price tag. Again, TRUST ME on this.

For our entrees my sister and I actually did a little surf and turf again, but this time she was the surf and I was the turf. She was enraptured by the Seafood Ramen option, which includes lobster, Gulf shrimp, scallops, house-made ramen, and crisp vegetables in a fragrant broth. The broth itself is slightly spicy and reminiscent of a miso soup (probably dashi based), but with way more flavor. The delicate seafood, as expected, is all cooked to perfection. My sister was a very happy girl!

Seafood Ramen $50

My choice was the Oak-Fired Filet of Beef, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and served atop a black truffle, Gruyere, and caramelized red onion risotto, wilted ice root spinach, and finished with a tawny port wine emulsion. You may recall that I also ordered the Oak-Fired Filet of Beef on my previous visit, but last time it was prepared in a completely different way, focusing on tomatoes as the highlighted ingredient.

Oak-Fired Filet of Beef $49

I absolutely love both preparations, although they are vastly different. This particular risotto is silky with a very mild truffle flavor, and not too cheesy. The port wine emulsion is out-of-this-world-good, and definitely the most assertive component on the plate. It wonderfully compliments the exceptional meat. This dish is literally the perfect balance of everything. Definite love. You really can't go wrong here.

By this point we had finished our cocktails, and asked our awesome server (I believe his name was Taz) for a recommendation for our second cocktail. He said he would bring us one of his favorites, but it would be a surprise. He arrived shortly afterwards with two beautiful Sake Martinis. A blend of Karen "Coy" Sake, Licor 43, and Cruzan Mango Rum with a splash of orange and pineapple juices. This is a cocktail that I would not have normally thought to order, however, it is exquisite! It's not too sweet, with light floral notes. Although vastly different from the Tropical Fruit Margarita, it's refreshing in its own way. A very fortunate surprise indeed!

Sake Martini $11

For dessert we selected the Plant City Strawberry Shortcake, featuring strawberry mousse, Bavarian cream, strawberry compote, and a tiny orange scone with vanilla ice cream. This is a beautiful presentation for a refreshing dessert. Although there's probably a whole lot of gelatin holding it together, it's an elegant rendition of a classic dessert.

Plant City Strawberry Shortcake $13

There's even a surprise strawberry filling inside the cylinder.

Since this was a belated birthday celebration, we also received the lovely Peaches and Cream Crème Brûlée to try. Rich sweet cream custard cloaks a chunky peach compote, and is finished with caramelized turbinado sugar.

Peaches and Cream Crème Brûlée $13 (or free on your birthday!)

This is perhaps the best crème brûlée I've ever had because I absolutely love the inclusion of the peaches. It really lightens up what is typically a very rich dessert. We actually prefer this crème brûlée to the strawberry shortcake.

California Grill is always a special experience. I've never had a single complaint here. From the stellar service, the bright and colorful decor, the excellent craft cocktails, and the perfectly executed food time and time again, it's easy to understand why we keep returning to California Grill.

California Grill
4600 World Drive
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32831
(407) 939-3463

Monday, June 20, 2016

Walt Disney World: Grand Floridian Cafe


Although we are head over heels for breakfast at Kona Cafe (and just so happened to also be staying at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort on this recent trip) we decided to have an early breakfast at another of the Monorail resorts before heading to Magic Kingdom. Right next door to the Poly is the most elegant of all the Disney resorts: Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. It's theme depicts a turn-of-the-century Victoria style, which is amplified by the vast, chandeliered lobby complete with grand piano.

There are several truly fantastic dining options at the Grand Floridian. For breakfast we headed to the Grand Floridian Cafe. A friend of mine has raved about dinner here (a great choice, but often overlooked by flashier options), and we had read some great reviews about breakfast as well, so we decided to give it a shot.

The Grand Floridian Cafe opens at 7 am for breakfast, a whole 30 minutes earlier than Kona Cafe, so we figured that would give us more time to eat and still make it to Magic Kingdom in time for Extra Magic Hours starting at 8 am. What we didn't realize is that the Monorail wouldn't open until 7 am too, which is when we had made our reservation.

We were told there is a walking path to the Grand Floridian, but in our hasty efforts to find it, we gave up and headed back to the Monorail at the Poly to just wait, and expected to be a few minutes late for our reservation. Apparently there IS a walking path, and now I've learned where it is for next time, but just something to keep in mind for the future. Don't make such early reservations unless you know for sure your transportation method will be available at that hour! This would be a better option if one was staying at the Grand Floridian, or had made a later reservation.

The Grand Floridian Cafe carries the same Victorian theming, with floral wallpaper and carpeting, and lace-draped windows throughout. Overlooking the beautifully landscaped grounds, the setting feels quite calm and serene, a really nice way to start your day before a crazy day at the parks.

The breakfast menu has recently changed, much to our disappointment. When we were originally booking our Advanced Dining Reservations we reviewed the menu and found some really exciting options, such as Lobster Eggs Benedict and Citrus Pancakes (roasted pecan and sun-dried cranberry pancakes with house-made orange butter), but the selection during our visit was much more basic and lacked some of those special flourishes. Some of these menu items are probably seasonal, but we were still disappointed that nothing equally as thrilling was added to the menu prior to our arrival.

The only pancake option is a basic buttermilk version, and they only have the standard Eggs Benedict on the current menu (previously that was available in addition to the lobster variation). With that said, the menu still has plenty of options, even if they weren't the ones we had seen on previous menus.

My sister selected the Garden Omelet, which is a three-egg omelet with spinach, feta, and roasted tomato served with a potato casserole or fresh fruit.

Garden Omelet $13

It honestly looks very small considering it's made with three eggs, but the flavor is great! It reminds me a bit of a Greek style omelet, minus the obligatory olives. I do think the plate looks pretty naked with the omelet and small piece of potato casserole (maybe a smaller plate would make it look bigger?), but my sister was satisfied with the portion size, flavor, and quality of her meal.

I ordered the traditional Eggs Benedict. It's easily one of my favorite breakfast dishes of all time, and I was happy to try the version here. It's very well executed, with a crisp-but-not-dry English muffin, perfectly poached eggs (soft yolk, but whites cooked completely through), the right amount of Hollandaise (not a massive pool like some places do), and a really appropriate side dish of lightly dressed arugula and halved heirloom cherry tomatoes. The acidity and brightness of the salad helps cut through the richness of the Benedict. It's truly a better balanced side dish than potatoes would have been. I was very happy with my choice.

The Benedict $13

The prices are a few dollars higher than comparable items at Kona Cafe, and overall, I'd pick Kona Cafe for breakfast in the future for it's more unique menu (*cough* Macadamia Pineapple Pancakes) and general atmosphere. I'd still love to try the Grand Floridian Cafe for dinner sometime, but it's not really a destination breakfast the way it is at Kona Cafe, where we will Uber it up from another resort just to have breakfast there.

Grand Floridian Cafe
4401 Grand Floridian Way
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 824-1841

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Walt Disney World: The Hollywood Brown Derby


In 1955, "I Love Lucy" aired an episode entitled "Hollywood at Last" which featured a scene were Lucy and the Mertzes dine at the Hollywood Brown Derby. It results in a hilarious conclusion where William Holden gets a pie in the face. Ever since I saw this episode of "I Love Lucy" years ago, I've been fascinated by the Hollywood Brown Derby. I've even made the famous Grapefruit Cake!

For years I've wanted to try the Hollywood Brown Derby located at Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's an authentic replica of the original in Hollywood, and even contains the original celebrity caricatures that made it so famous, along with its glamorous clientele. Some of the Derby's most well-known dishes still grace the menu, such as the Cobb Salad and the Grapefruit Cake.

When you enter the Hollywood Brown Derby, you definitely feel like you've stepped back in time (I even spotted some pay phones! Remember those? Haha). There is an old map of Hollywood hanging in the waiting area, with the two original Brown Derby locations highlighted.

There are also several celebrity caricatures gracing these walls, a bit of a preview to what can be expected once you step foot into the dining room.

I definitely got that warm, fuzzy feeling when we were seated at our table. Looking all around the room, it definitely feels like old Hollywood. 

Between the dark brown wooden accents and upholstered booths, to the cream-colored walls, retro-looking lamps and ceiling lights, the dining room feels cozy and comfortable, yet glam and chic. 

The sheer number of caricatures on all the walls makes me giddy! I really wish I could have spent the day wandering around the restaurant seeing what faces I could recognize. I did spot John Wayne near our table!

The Hollywood Brown Derby is a Signature Restaurant at Disney, meaning it's price point is higher than most, and if you're using a Disney Dining Plan, this will count for two table service meals instead of one. The menu is reflective of that, and is definitely worthy of the stars gracing the walls.

Our meal begins with warm rolls and whipped butter topped with a sprinkle of red salt. As always, irresistible. 

We absolutely had to split a Cobb Salad to start. You can get either an appetizer or entree portion, but we went with the smaller of the two. It features finely chopped greens (and they're not kidding when they say that; the greens are FINELY chopped, like parsley), turkey breast, bacon, hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese, avocado, chives, and Cobb dressing. Cobb Salad has been one of my favorite salads for years, and I was so thrilled to begin my meal with the original version of it at a replica of the restaurant where it was first created.

Cobb Salad (appetizer) $11

My sister selected the Charred Filet of Beef as her entree. It is meant to be served with forest mushroom and white truffle oil mashed potatoes, sauteed rainbow carrots, and haricots verts, with a red wine reduction. She asked if the mashed potatoes could be swapped out for the creamy gruyere mac and cheese which is a featured side on the Bell and Evans Chicken Breast entree. The kitchen was happy to oblige, and my sister received her customized dish. 

Charred Filet of Beef $49

The beef was an absolute perfect medium rare, so tender and juicy. It's topped with a sweet onion jam. The vegetables are crisp-tender and very nicely seasoned. There's some smoky, salty bacon hidden within the mac and cheese, which is made with orecchiette pasta, and serves as a wonderful accompaniment to the beef. She was beyond satisfied with this excellent entree choice.

I went with surf to her turf for my entree. My Pan-seared Black Grouper is served with half an herb-crusted lobster tail, heirloom tomato, baby spinach, orzo salad, and a Cognac-mushroom beurre blanc.

Pan-seared Black Grouper $46

Not only does the dish have a really gorgeous presentation, with the lobster meat mostly removed from the shell to ease the dining process, but all of the components are prepared immaculately. The grouper is nicely seasoned and perfectly cooked, yielding a juicy, melt-in-your-mouth fillet. Definitely no dry fish here!

The lobster is delicate and tender. It easily elevates the dish, as lobster is known to do, and is a fantastic addition to an already stellar seafood entree. The orzo is a wonderful base for the fish, and between the baby spinach, the umami mushrooms, and all that creamy, delicious Cognac-mushroom beurre blanc, it's difficult not to lick your plate clean. All the flavors just sing. I was very impressed and very satisfied with my meal.

As much as we would have loved to indulge in dessert, we were about ready to call it a day at this point. We were actually having a belated birthday celebration on this trip (my birthday was in April), and so our wonderful server brought over a small sweet treat at the culmination of our meal. It was a silky chocolate truffle filled with orange cream (they call it cream even though it's not creamy--don't know why). Honestly, the filling didn't taste much like orange, but I still thought it was a lovely complimentary treat in honor of a celebratory occasion, and the chocolate was velvety smooth.

As we were exiting the dining room, I noticed some adorable recipe cards shaped like the Hollywood Brown Derby hat, featuring recipes for the Cobb Salad and the Grapefruit Cake. What a nice touch! I took one of each, even though I have these recipes in one of my older Disney cookbooks :) It's a nice souvenir from our meal!

After many years of waiting, I was so pleased by my meal at the Hollywood Brown Derby. It definitely met my expectations both as a Signature Restaurant, but also as an ode to a beloved Hollywood classic. It's a spot I would happily return to again in the future. 

The Hollywood Brown Derby
Hollywood Blvd
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Walt Disney World Resort


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