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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Restaurant Wars 2013 - Olive Garden

The biggest problem with going to Olive Garden? Getting a table. It seems no matter what day of the week you go, you will be waiting for a table unless you arrive at three o'clock for dinner. Yet for some reason, people are willing to wait over an hour for soup, salad and bread sticks. Well wait no more, make it all at home.

In order to test out the OG, boyfriend and I ventured out to dinner on a very specific night. February 13th. This year February 13th was both the day before Valentine's day and Ash Wednesday. When we arrived at 7:30, we were escorted right to a waiting booth. That's a first in my book.

The person who really likes OG in my house is BF. He calls it classic Italian comfort food. What you would want your bowl of carbonara to look and taste like. The dishes are all simple, straightforward and require no fancy words to describe. It's not the food your Italian grandmother would prepare, unless she was cooking for two dozen. 

To keep with that classic OG menu, BF and I both got simple dishes. BF went with a chicken Parmesan and I decided on a chicken and shrimp carbonara. Both meals came with the traditional OG soup/salad and bread sticks, and I ordered a cherry Italian soda to round out my meal.

First, do not order the cherry Italian soda unless you have a real love of children's cough syrup. It was dead on in flavor and probably had twice the amount of sugar. I took a sip and ordered a water as replacement.

Next, the general rule with the bread sticks is a follows - eat them before they get cold or prepare to sword fight with them. Once these little gems cool off, they take on a other worldly strength. I had ideas on how to avoid this issue at home.

Our meals were just as expected. BF dove into his chicken Parmesan whole heartily, until he realized he ate too many bread sticks and couldn't eat anymore. My carbonara came out looking creamy and delicious, and incredibly oily. I found out the next day as I had my leftovers just how much oil was in my dish. I love carbonara and this was good, it's just not something I could eat on a regular basis.

The plan for home. Recreate the OG experience from bread sticks to salad to main course. Lighten the fat load and try to maintain the flavors. 

Olive Garden salad at home is pretty easy.  The salad itself is just lettuce, pepperoncini, black olives, red onions and croutons.  Black olives are gross, so I omitted those.  It's pretty true to when I go to the restaurant.  The dressing has quite a few copycat recipes online that I based my final recipe on and apparently those are very similar to the actual OG recipe (I couldn't believe that they actually use mayonnaise in their recipe).  Where I took a big left turn is with my carbonara recipe.

Want easy and delicious bread sticks?  You need two ingredients.  Pizza dough and garlic salt.  I used a pre-made pizza dough from the grocery store and cut in into eight pieces.  I rolled each piece into a bread stick-like shape and spritzed them with cooking spray.  After a light sprinkle with garlic salt and eighteen minutes in the oven, we had bread sticks that didn't harden up in two minutes.  A little denser than the OG variety, but BF and I both liked the pizza dough sticks better.

The OG carbonara dish I received was covered in cheese and dripping in oil.  I made a simple and classic carbonara with grilled chicken.  BF was a little sad that my version wasn't under a layer of cheese, but it was something I could actually have before going to the gym.  After our dinner at the OG, we went home and melted into the couch.

Next time you want some Olive Garden and don't want to wait for a table, just pick up a few ingredients and make it at home!  Or you could sit in the bar area, they serve the full menu at the bar and the wait is usually much shorter!

Olive Garden Salad Dressing
Adapted from CopyKat Recipes

I was very surprised when I read all of the copycat recipes and they contained mayonnaise!  The OG recipe is kind of white in color, so I guess it makes sense!  Rather than adding Italian seasoning, I added my own favorite variety of herbs.  Flavor yours with your favorites!

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1/4 cup shredded Romano cheese
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fresh parsley
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender and pulse until smooth.

Classic Chicken alla Carbonara
Adapted from Williams Sonoma Pasta Cookbook

1 pound chicken breast
2 eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup Romano cheese, freshly grated
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
3/4 pound linguine
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound pancetta, diced (I like to use Citterio, pre-cubed pancetta)
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 cup white wine
Kosher salt and pepper
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add linguine and cook according to package directions. 

Preheat grill (or grill pan) and grill chicken until cooked through.  While the chicken is cooking, prepare the carbonara sauce.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, Romano cheese and Parmesan cheese.  Set aside.  Heat a skillet over medium heat and warm the olive oil.  Add pancetta and cook until it becomes crispy, about 4 minutes.  Add garlic and cook for another minute.  Add white wine and cook until reduced by half.

Once pasta is done cooking, drain and add to the egg mixture in the large bowl.  Toss to coat, the hot pasta will cook the eggs.  Add pancetta mixture from the skillet, season with salt and pepper and toss with parsley.
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