Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Eating My Way Through Austin with VERTS

Hi, guys! I had SUCH an amazing time in Austin last week. What an awesome city. I already want to go back!

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I had the opportunity to visit (and eat my way through) Austin, thanks to VERTS Mediterranean Grill. VERTS? Never heard of it? It was new to me too, and it’s because VERTS is an Austin-based fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant. They serve healthy, customizable pitas, salads, and bowls, and all of their food is made from scratch daily using fresh, all-natural ingredients– everything from sauces and toppings to meats and falafel.

 

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In 2011, just days after graduating college, co-founders Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein launched VERTS with the simple idea of recreating the popular food they missed from their native Europe and making it available for American consumers. Since then, VERTS has grown to 33 locations across Texas with a goal of expanding to 200 restaurants by 2020 in cities including Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia.

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Ok, so I bet you’re wondering why I went all the way to Austin to experience VERTS firsthand. Well, VERTS is debuting in Boston THIS FRIDAY, November 4th. That’s right, a new location will open its doors at 95 Summer Street in downtown Boston.

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***In celebration of the Boston opening, VERTS will offer guests one free, full-size entrée from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The first 200 guests to arrive to the Summer Street restaurant will also receive complimentary swag bags including VERTS t-shirts, recipes, coupons, and more. Guests who opt to purchase additional sides, drinks or entrées on opening day will benefit a worthy Boston cause. As part of its commitment to serving the surrounding community, VERTS will donate 100 percent of sales on Friday, November 4th to a local non-profit.

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Ok, recap time! And you’re probably not surprised that my trip to Austin kicked off with a visit to the very first VERTS location, right off-campus at the University of Texas.

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The interior was pretty standard of your usual fast-casual restaurant, but I assure you the quality of food and variety of ingredients at VERTS is what really sets it apart.

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In 2015, the original location received a facelift, but its original space is commemorated on the floor.

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This location also includes a test-kitchen to support the ever-changing, seasonal menu.

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After meeting some of the VERTS team, it was time to dig in and, boy, they had quite the tasting for us. Holy cow, there was so much food, and I was so impressed with the quality, freshness, and flavors of everything I tried. My top favorites:

  • Braised Pork Rice Bowl with fried Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, pickled red onions, spicy cilantro sauce, aleppo pepper, and lemon <— totally obsessed
  • Falafel & Quinoa Tabbouleh Bowl with pickled red onions, herbs, pita, hummus, and lemon <– EASILY the best falafel I’ve ever had!
  • Spicy Chicken Pita with grilled vegetables, pickled jalapenos, romaine lettuce, hot harissa sauce, and spicy red pepper sauce

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After lunch, we headed out for some kayaking on the river. Pictured below: Georgina from A Noted Life and Talia from Breakaway Communications.

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It was so nice enjoying the sights, scenery, and SUNSHINE. It was definitely tough going back to Boston’s chilly temps.

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After our kayaking adventures, we went back to our hotel rooms, freshened up, and then headed out again for dinner at Emmer & Rye with some of the VERTS team.

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Emmer & Rye is a seasonally-inspired, farm-to-table restaurant that serves American cuisine in a Dim Sum style, and, not surprisingly, our meal was absolutely incredible. It was so fun trying all of the different dishes!

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After a seriously unforgettable meal, we had the opportunity to meet, Chef Kevin Fink, who was recently named Best New Chef by Food & Wine. So cool!

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Day 2 started with breakfast tacos at Torchy’s.

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I immediately fell in love with them and vowed to eat breakfast tacos more often. Yummmmm!

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Yep, they were “damn good tacos,” no doubt.

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After breakfast, we visited the VERTS offices to meet the rest of the team and chat with Dominik via conference call.

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One of the office walls was covered with photos of each of the VERTS locations.

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And at the end was a bunch of empty frames for new locations coming soon. Very exciting!

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After that, it was time for lunch at la Barbecue, which is a top pick for barbecue in Austin.

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The place was hopping at lunchtime with lengthy lines, but we planned ahead, so we had a SPREAD of delicious eats in no time at all.

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I feel like we ordered one of everything from the menu– beef rib, brisket, sausage, beans, potato salad, coleslaw… and, guys, it was so friggin’ good.

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I honestly don’t think I’ll ever forget this dining experience for as long as I live!

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Before I knew it, I was saying goodbye to Austin and getting on a plane back to Boston. Austin is a place that I’ve always wanted to visit, and it totally surpassed my expectations, especially in the food department. I definitely ate well in the 48 hours that I spent there! 🙂

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A big THANK YOU to VERTS for inviting me to Austin. I can’t wait to check out the first Boston location and enjoy that incredible Braised Pork Rice Bowl once again!

Questions of the Day

Have you ever visited Austin? Where’d you eat? 



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Why the Blood-Brain Barrier Is So Critical (and How to Maintain It)

Asian Pesto Chicken Meatball Lettuce Wraps

Nourishing and delicious, these Asian Pesto Chicken Meatball Lettuce Wraps are packed with protein, fiber and skin-friendly beta carotene to give your complexion a healthy glow into fall and beyond!

In addition to one of fall’s favorite foods, sweet potatoes, these Chicken Meatball Lettuce Wraps contain heart-healthy oats, flax seeds and cashew nuts. Oh, and about that Asian pesto sauce, fair warning: You may want to eat it by the spoonful. It’s that good!

I used a combo of dark-meat and white-meat chicken, along with some egg, ground oats and ground flax seed, to keep the meatballs moist. But feel free to experiment with all-white-meat or all-dark-meat chicken, and to sub almond flour for the oats if you prefer a grain-free version.

The pesto sauce is easily made ahead of time, as are the meatballs, so you can pull the recipe together quickly to enjoy it as a complete meal for lunch or dinner whenever you’re ready to eat.

Asian Pesto Chicken Meatball Lettuce Wraps
Serves 4

Asian Pesto
2 cups loosely packed cilantro, large stems removed
½ cup roasted & lightly salted cashew nuts
1 large clove garlic
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon low sodium (gluten free optional) tamari or soy sauce

Meatballs
1 large egg
½ pound ground white meat chicken
½ pound ground dark meat chicken
¼ cup oats (gluten free optional)
2 tablespoons ground flax seed
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

Lettuce Wraps
8 romaine lettuce leaves
2 cups grated sweet potato
1 cup chopped green onion
Asian pesto (recipe above)
Meatballs (recipe above)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with a silicone liner or aluminum foil, and set aside.

Make the Asian pesto: Combine cilantro, cashew nuts, garlic, rice wine vinegar, lime juice, and tamari in a blender. Blend on high speed, stopping blender periodically to scrape sides, until ingredients are smooth. Pour into a small bowl until ready to assemble lettuce wraps. (May be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight container, until ready to use.)

Make the meatballs: Crack egg into a large mixing bowl, and stir with a whisk or fork until well beaten. Add ground chicken to bowl. Place oats and ground flax seed in a blender, and blend on high speed until mixture resembles coarse flour. Add oat/flax mixture to chicken and eggs along with ginger, garlic, salt, and pepper. Stir well with a fork until ingredients are well combined. Using clean, well-moistened hands (to prevent meatballs from getting too sticky), shape ground chicken mixture into 24, ~ 1 inch diameter meatballs, and place on lined baking sheet. Bake in oven for 15 minutes, or until cooked through, and no pink color remains.

While meatballs are cooking, grate sweet potato with a box grater or food processor with a grater/shredder blade. Place in microwave safe bowl with plastic wrap on top. Poke holes in plastic wrap with a fork. Heat on high in microwave for 1 minute. Carefully remove plastic wrap and stir sweet potatoes. Place plastic wrap back on top, and cook for an additional 1 minute, or until sweet potato has softened. Allow to cool before assembling lettuce wraps

Assemble the lettuce wraps: Carefully wash and dry lettuce leaves, then place on a serving tray for assembly. Divide sweet potato mixture equally, and place on top of lettuce leaves. Top each lettuce leaf with 3 meatballs, about 1 tablespoon of Asian pesto, and chopped green onions. Serve immediately.

Per serving (2 wraps): Calories 455; Fat 15 g {Saturated 2 g); Cholesterol 132 mg; Sodium 645 mg; Carbohydrate 48 g; Fiber 7 g; Sugars 7 g; Protein 36 g

EA Stewart, MBA, RD is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in wellness and GI nutrition. In addition, EA is the creator of The Spicy RD, which features delicious gluten-free recipes made from healthy, seasonal ingredients.



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Ghost-O-Ween

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We had such a festive Halloween ’round here!! Mazen LOVED it. He’s at that perfect age for holidays now, and he had a great time from breakfast to bedtime.

I started the day with a smoothie –

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And then snapped a few pictures at the preschool Halloween parade. All the kids walk through in their costumes. It’s the cutest event all year! Mazen spent the day going “Woooooooo” like a ghost!

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I worked through the morning and rested my legs after Sunday soccer. Mondays are my new favorite day of the week because I take a total rest day, although I usually get in some walking to the school and back, which is good to stretch!

Lunch at home was leftovers from the night before – panko turbot (this was the best fish I’ve had all year!), sautéed spinach with melted feta, and Red, Hot, Blues.

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After I picked M up from school, we relaxed for a bit before getting back into costume to head to the University of Virginia lawn. Karen made Mazen’s costume this year, and he got a lot of compliments on his spooky tassels. He refused the white face paint we had planned, but we settled on some dark eyes.

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The Lawn is always crazy and chaotic, but I think it’s worth the trip to see all the funny and creative costumes. Many of the students dress up too. I saw a great Mary Poppins, and a hilarious baby in a carrier dressed as Hodor from Game of Thrones.

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We met some of our friends and went through the trick-or-treating loop.

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When we got home with a Darth Vadar full of candy, we went to just a few houses on our street. Mazen LOVED trick-or-treating. He kept saying “This is so fun Mommy!!” He didn’t even care about the candy as much as greeting people and going into ghost mode.

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When we returned home, we greeted a handful of trick-or-treaters at our house. I think we had the most visitors ever in my adult life – a good two dozen or so. It was a super fun, and Mazen’s face lit up every time our doorbell rang!

I made some chicken with rice and cauliflower (a Cook Smarts recipe!) after bedtime and had a few mini candy bars for dessert!

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Hope you all had a happy Halloween! And a very happy birthday to my dad today!!

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Clean Eating Caraway Seed Pork Chops Recipe

Clean Eating Caraway Seed Pork Chops Recipe

I’m always looking for a new way to make pork chops. They are super easy for me to have on hand, so I try to get as creative as I can with them because it’s something we are eating often these days.… Read more →



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