the best food in charlottesville: boylan heights

i’ve decided to start a series on this blog about the best food in charlottesville.  i’ve tried a smattering of restaurants around town, some icky, some mediocre, and some absolutely fabulous ones.  i’ll share my favorite meals and restaurants here so that you can go try them out!  the first post in this series is about my number one favorite place to eat around UVA: boylan heights.

i’m about to make you jealous.

if you have never heard of this incredible establishment, it is a “gourmet burger bar” where you can pick from a selection of ridiculous creations already set on their menu, or pick up a scantron sheet and make your own.  they come with delectable shoestring or sweet potato fries (and sometimes tots!!) and you walk out at the end of the night in the middle of a food coma.

they boast natural and local ingredients (right up my alley!) which you can totally taste in each bite, from the burger buns from local bakeries around town, to tomatoes and lettuce grown from small farms that i see selling the same produce at the farmers’ market every weekend.

can i please just tell you about their veggie burger?  it is about as far from a Boca burger as you can get.  nothing is processed about this patty–and it is certainly not a flat hockey puck of rubbery beans.  it is a quinoa base (a grain high in protein and fiber!) with fresh bell peppers, corn, black beans, tomatoes, charred zucchini and all sorts of green herbs (parsley, cilantro, and oregano i’m guessing).  it is loosely formed into a fat patty and grilled on the flat-top just like a regular burger is, so it even has that crust on the outside.  i recommend the veggie burger to absolutely everyone that i take to boylan and i have it almost every time i go (and i’m not even a vegetarian!)

photo courtesy of boylan’s flickr

there are other things on the menu besides burgers, however.  i have heard tell that their BLT is just the right ratio of bacon to lettuce and juicy farm-stand tomato, and it is grilled to a crispy crunch on the griddle.  their salads are refreshing (and you can get any burger bun-less in a bowl on top of a bed of mesclun greens instead of with fries!).  but there is also my mother’s favorite item that makes her crave boylan every time the fam comes to visit:  the grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich.  it is a gorgeous creation of PB&B on toasty white bread, grilled until everything is melty inside.  it even comes with a side of honey for dipping (which is my mom’s favorite part :] ).  i’m not saying it won’t cause the onset of diabetes, but it surely is a treat every once and a while.

but by far my favorite part of going to this restaurant is finding out what the B.O.M.B. is (“burger of the month” for you first-timers).  it is always some new and exciting creation that leaves me drooling once i see it pass by.  i’m not just talking about making a “featured burger” that has some interesting topping every month.  nope.  these BOMBs go all out: salmon burgers on a bed of asian sticky rice and veg, chorizo burger with avocado, lettuce, tomato, and spicy siracha mayo, etc.  absolutely nuts.  this month (october), the BOMB was a pork, veal, and beef burger topped with a tomato/basil/mozzarella salad and a light pesto mayo on a local olive-oil roll.  i went most recently for my birthday with a huge group of friends and had the masterpiece:

the october BOMB, courtesy of boylan’s website

like i mentioned before, if you are an inventor of your own, you are also welcome to build-your-own burger.  there are a million toppings, from tillamook cheddar to a fried egg, to a big fat onion ring.  a friend of mine built her own at my birthday bash and i snapped a quick shot before it was demolished:
to summarize, boylan heights is completely and totally a must-eat when you are looking for a delicious meal in charlottesville.  it is not super expensive, the atmosphere is casual and fun (sports games on flat-screens galore!), and i hear they have legendary brunch on the weekends.  
go check them out!  you will not be disappointed! 

couscouscouscous.

guys!  i finally got to use my adorable tri-colored pearl couscous!  i know that might not seem super exciting to you, but i bought it like at the beginning of the semester and haven’t had a chance to cook with it before now!  (it’s dried.. don’t worry.  it doesn’t go rancid).

i recently stumbled upon a recipe for a stuffed green pepper that used a mediterranean couscous stuffing instead of the traditional ground beef filling.  i was SUPER excited to make up my own recipe for the stuffing (because this would give me the excuse i needed to use my pearl couscous!) and made a special grocery trip just for this dinner.  it made enough for 4… but i generally eat dishes for a few days afterwards as leftovers, so it worked well for me.  but i would totally recommend making this dish for a dinner party or just as a quick, healthy dish for the fam on a weeknight!

here’s what you need:  four green peppers, two chicken breasts, one small zucchini, one large tomato, one cucumber, one cup uncooked pearl couscous, chicken bullion cube (or chicken stock), a cup of feta cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, S&P, and a 1/3 cup of fresh cut cilantro.

to start, clean out your four green peppers by cutting off the tops (save them!) and removing the seeds and ribs.  **note: these are sweet peppers, not hot ones like jalepenos or anything, so removing the insides is just so you can eat the entire pepper, not to remove the heat.   once cleaned, put them in a pot of boiling water for about 6-9 minutes or until they are firm but slightly tender.  these are the edible cups for your couscous filling!  set them aside to cool.

follow the instructions on the back of your pearl couscous package and cook it accordingly, adding either one chicken bullion cube to the correct amount of water, or just substitute the water for chicken stock.  add about a tablespoon of olive oil to the couscous after it has cooked to keep each individual grain separate from the others!  let this cool.

next, take the green pepper tops that you saved and cut them into bite-size pieces.  cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and slice it into half-moon shapes roughly the size of your green pepper pieces.  at this point, take two chicken breasts (responsibly raised / organic if possible) and slice them in to the same size pieces.  **note:  is your chicken too soft to cut into small chunks?  put it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes and it will be easier to cut!

throw this whole mixture into a skillet with a drizzle of olive oil and sauté until soft and sizzl-y.  put this off to the side to cool.

while the other pieces cool, wash and dice one large tomato and one medium sized cucumber.  you are welcome to seed (aka take the seeds and insides out) of both the tomato and the cucumber, but i would recommend leaving them in as they have lots of flavor!  chop about 1/3 cup of cilantro (or you can use parsley if you’re crazy and not a cilantro person..).

time to assemble!  take the cooled chicken and sauteed vegetables, the chopped tomato and cucumber, the fresh cilantro, and a cup of feta cheese and toss them all together with the pearl couscous.  add a generous squeeze of lemon juice (fresh preferably), a drizzle of olive oil, and some S&P to taste.  here’s what the stuffing should look like:

finally, take your four cooled peppers and stuff them generously with the stuffing.  if you have leftovers of the filling, it is great with pita chips as an appetizer or just with a spoon for a light lunch!  i would recommend serving this dish with a cool greek salad on the side and maybe some toasty slices of baguette with butter.  
enjoy this fresh and healthy supper!

lo mein, 捞面, delicious, 美味.

i think i have made it pretty clear in the past (and anyone who knows me should absolutely know) that i am in love with all chinese food.  its the kind of food that i constantly crave and can eat for every SINGLE meal of every single day for the rest of my life.  its the perfect cuisine for me:  salty, full of veg, obsessively uses rice and noodles, etc.

so, the other day my friend Lindsay and i were at the gym getting our sweat on, and i started to crave chinese hardcore.  we both decided that it was kind of counterintuitive to work out and then blow all the work by eating chinese right afterwards, so we waited.  but i continued to crave it.  two nights later, i finally broke down and HAD to have it.  but, instead of calling up my trusty friends at Yuan Ho (“by da dumpstah! two minnes!”), i decided to make it myself.  Lindsay and i hit up Teeter, stocked up on veg and lo mein noodles, and i went home to cook.

here’s what you’ll need:
the veg:                                                       the other:
-one small eggplant                                     -one package of wide lo mein noodles
-one bundle of baby bok choy                    -1 1/2 cups of cooked peeled shrimp (or chicken or beef)
-one large carrot                                          -teriyaki sauce
-half a pint of sliced button mushrooms      -soy sauce
-a handful of snow peas                              -sesame oil
-half of a medium vidallia onion                   -minced garlic
-one small can of bamboo shoots
-a handful of bean sprouts

here’s what you do:

i started by prepping all the veg and piling them together on a plate for later.

cut the carrot in half and half again, and then slice into small matchstick pieces. clean the bok choy in the sink to remove the grit or dirt that gets trapped between the layers, and chop the pieces into bite size chunks. wash and dice the eggplant into sugar cube-sized squares.  i left the skin on because it gets tender when stir-fried, but you can peel it if you’d like! peel and slice the onion in half-moons and separate the layers. drain the bamboo shoots, and leave the snow peas and mushrooms as is.

in the mean time, i had a pot of water on to boil for my lo mein noodles.  i used a wide noodle that i found on the asian aisle of my grocery.  if you can’t find that kind of noodle, any other thick one will do. or–just use spaghetti!  make sure to toss the noodles with a little but of oil when they come out of the water or they will be impossible to separate later on when you get ready to stir-fry them.

next, get a wok or a large non-stick skillet on the stove, heated up to high with a few tablespoons of oil.  once you see the oil begin to ripple (that tells you its really hot!), add the onions, carrots, and eggplant into the pan.  stir-fry them for just about a minute and then add the rest of the vegetables (except for the bamboo shoots and bean sprouts).  stir-fry the whole mixture for a good five minutes, adding a clove or two of minced garlic towards the end (make sure it doesnt burn!).  add some sesame oil for flavor, along with some soy sauce and teriyaki sauce to taste.  add the bamboo shoots and continue to fry.

**note: i forgot to get ginger when i was at the grocery!  ginger will kick up the spice and flavor of this lo mein, so make sure to grab some when you go.  a knob of ginger is cheap and will last for a few months in the freezer!

at the last minute, add the cooked shrimp and stir-fry until it warms through and picks up the flavors of the sauces.  at this point, take the cooked noodles and add them to the pan with the rest of the veg and shrimp.  add more sesame oil and soy/teriyaki to taste (which might be more than you think– remember the noodles need to be flavored and they soak up the flavor!) and stir-fry everything together until the flavors combine.

take the whole dish off the heat, add bean sprouts right on the top for a cool crunch, and voila!  or should i say, 瞧!  here is the finished dish (sans sprouts, oops!).  enjoy!

Kara’s Shrimp and Vegetable Lo Mein

i’m two decades old?! let’s celebrate!

i still cannot believe that i turned 20.

 its weird for me to celebrate a birthday away from home, because i am such the kind of person that loves tradition and looks forward to celebrating the same way every year.  a birthday in my household has several special traditions:  the birthdayperson gets to pick what we have for dinner, the kind of dessert, and gets to use the “You are Special Today” plate (which is crucial).  since this year my birthday fell over fall roll (my a cappella group goes on tour), i was lucky enough to be serenaded by three different (hot) male a cappella groups at the Ivys and spent the day with my Belles. but it still wasn’t exactly the same, so i went home the next weekend for a delayed celebration.

after a hellish train ride (never, ever ride amtrak), i got home and my mom and i went to pick out my cake from our favorite bakery.  the next morning we got up and hit the grocery to gather the ingredients for my special birthday dinner– Eggplant Lasagna.  YUM.  it is completely vegetarian and we decided to add all sorts of other veggies to it in addition to eggplant, so it was very healthy to boot.  (fun fact– eggplant is a berry!)

before i begin, i would like to give photo credit to my lovely mother, as she snapped these shots while she cooked and i went shopping :]

the idea behind this eggplant lasagna is that we replace the pasta (gasp!  me, replace pasta?!) with thin slices of roasted eggplant and other sauteed veggies.  the ricotta and marinara sauce doesn’t change, don’t worry!

she started by getting four large eggplants and slicing them in to about 3/4 of an inch thick slices (remember–they roast down in the oven, so cut them thicker to begin with!).  she brushed them with olive oil and put them in the oven to roast until they were tender (about half an hour or so).

in the mean time, she took a large yellow and a large green zucchini, cut them in half moons, and sauteed them until slightly tender.  she did the same thing next with an entire pint of button mushrooms, and set all the veggies aside.

then comes the fun part:  layering!

in the bottom of a large baking dish, she added a can of fire roasted diced tomatoes along with about two cups of good marinara sauce (this acts as the base so the lasagna doesn’t stick to the bottom!).

next goes all the eggplant in a full layer, spread out evenly.  after the eggplant goes on, put a layer of the zucchini and mushrooms right on top (shown farther down).  make sure to save half of the zucchini for the top layer!

then comes the good stuff— the ricotta.  she added some fresh cracked pepper and some dried oregano to the mixture before plopping it on top of the zucchini and mushroom layer.  spread it out evenly with a spoon.

lastly, add the rest of the zucchini and mushrooms along with the rest of the jar of marinara sauce (or make your own, of course!)  sprinkle the whole beautiful lasagna with parmesan cheese, cover with tin foil, and pop it in the oven.  **note:  why not cover this with mozzarella or shredded cheeses?  wait until the lasagna has mostly baked through first.  then, when you take the tin foil off in the last 15 minutes of baking, cover it with cheese and put it back in uncovered.  this way the cheese wont stick to the foil and come completely off your lasagna!**

the lasagna goes in to bake for about 40, covered, and 15 uncovered.  just check it closer to the end and test the center with a fork– if it is hot and bubbly, you’re all set!  here’s what it looks like when it comes out:

in addition to this masterpiece, we had garlic bread and a wonderful salad with herbs and dressed with simple oil and vinegar dressing, courtesy of my grandmother :]

the table was set and with all the food on the table, we were READY to dig in!

finally, birthday cake time!  from the bakery we picked up my favorite:  cherry almond cake.  divine.

good food, beautiful weekend at home, great family, and another great year.  i’d say my birthday was a total success :]

birthday cake for beanie

i really like to bake.  but i don’t really have a sweet tooth, so baking for me is something i do for others.  in my opinion, a birthday cake is a very special and integral part of a birthday celebration, so it has to be good.

one of my favorite things to do is gush over my friends when its their birthdays– make sure they feel special all day long.  because a birthday comes once a year, so why not really celebrate?  one of my lovely Belles had a birthday last week and i decided to bake her a cake to share with the group.  i generally find out if there are favorite flavors they’d like to have, or a specific kind of cake preference, but Beanie said she just wanted chocolate and some kind of fruit.  perfect.


i decided to make her a chocolate cake with a raspberry and strawberry filling.  but with a dark chocolate cake base, i didn’t really feel like frosting the entire thing with store bought icing (and can’t make my own from scratch because i don’t have a mixer!) and i knew icing would be too sugary for the cake i had in mind.  instead, i went to the store and found a pint of fresh strawberries and a jar of raspberry preserves (this is my favorite kind, but just pick out something that looks good quality).  i also picked up a box of dark chocolate cake mix and some striped candles.

i simply baked two 8-inch square cakes and let them cool completely.  while they cooled off, i took what i had left of the white icing from Beth’s birthday cake from the fridge (about a cup) and added around a 1/4 cup of raspberry preserves in to the icing, stirring until combined.  i also gave the strawberries a good wash and sliced them in to long, thick slices (maybe 4 or 5 per medium sized strawberry).

once the cakes were cooled, i took the bottom layer and placed it on a cardboard cake round (or a plate will do as well).  i made sure to level off the top to have a smooth surface.  i then spread a thick layer of the raspberry icing on the layer and covered it with strawberry slices.  then i added the top layer carefully, pressing it down so that the layers were secure to each other.  i left the top layer as-is (meaning i did not level it off or anything– i left it rustic looking).

to decorate the top, i took what was leftover of the raspberry icing and put a big dollop in the middle of the cake top.  i nestled two beautiful strawberries on the top– one whole and one cut and fanned.

the cake came out wonderfully moist and the fresh fruit and preserves were a great complement to the rich dark chocolate cake.  i added candles at the last minute, of course!

we devoured every last crumb :]

orzo a la laura!

i love my mom’s cooking.  she is so smart about her recipes and they are always delicious.  when i’m planning my dinners for the week, i always think back to what dishes i was always ecstatic to see on our dinner menu (which my mom planned and posted on the fridge every week).  things like meatball subs, piggys in a blanket, aroni, crab noodles (which to this day is the most perfect dish in the world), and chinese noodles, to name just a few.

this week i decided to make a family favorite which we always take to parties and is a huge hit.  its light, fresh, healthy, and absolutely divine.  plus, it has pasta in it, which is an automatic ‘A’ for me.  i’m dubbing this dish, “Orzo a la Laura” because it is my mom’s creation.  of course i put a little spin on mine!

here’s what you need:  one box of orzo pasta, a pint of fresh cherry or grape tomatoes, one small cucumber, fresh basil (if you have it– if you don’t, just use a spoonful of pesto!), baby mozzarella balls, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, S&P, and fresh mixed greens.  to bump up the protein, you can either add rotisserie chicken or a can of chick peas.

i start by making the orzo.  be careful, though– a little dry orzo makes a lot of cooked pasta.  i used about half the box.  i generally don’t bother putting olive oil in the pasta water, but in this case I would recommend it because the pasta is small and you don’t want it to stick together.  when it’s done, drain the orzo and put it back in the pot to cool.

while the orzo cooks/cools, rinse your veggies and peel the cucumber.  i diced my cuke into small cubes so that they would distribute well into the salad.  i also halved (or quaretered if it was a big one!) a pint of fresh heirloom cherry tomatoes from the farmers’ market.  they were all different colors, including purple! check them out:

in a big, glass bowl, i made the dressing by adding half a cup of good olive oil, about an 1/8 of a cup of balsamic vinegar (add more or less to your taste–i like my dressings vinegary), a good crack of salt and a good crack of pepper.  i whisked it around with a fork for a few seconds until it was all incorporated and tossed my veg right in to marinate.  
next step was addressing the mozzarella.  i used baby balls of mozz called “ciliegini” which are the ones you generally find on tomato/basil/mozzarella skewers for appetizers.  they are just the right size to halve or quarter and toss in with the salad.  i added them to the veg mixture and tossed it around again.
take your orzo (which has cooled slightly) and toss it in with the rest of the veg/cheese/dressing mixture in the glass bowl.  toss around gently until everything is coated nicely.  at this point i would add my fresh basil (chiffonade, please!).  but, since i foolishly forgot to buy any this week at the farmers’ market, i decided to improvise with a spoonful of basil pesto that i had in my freezer (look for the recipe in my previous post, presto, pesto!)  and it worked perfectly!
when my mom makes this salad, she adds roasted red peppers, spinach, and sometimes even asparagus.  so feel free to add whatever looks great at the market that week!
i serve my pasta salad over a bed of mixed greens (for added veggies) and some sliced rotisserie chicken.  you can also pull the chicken apart and toss it in to the salad (or substitute chick peas… yum!)
here’s the final product!  
thanks for teaching me how to cook, mom!