Thursday, July 29, 2010

Whole Lotta Bakin' Going On

I’ll admit it. I’ve been lazy lately. I’ll blame the heat for part of it. It’s just been too hot to turn on the oven and bake anything. My air conditioner struggles to keep the house cool when I don’t have the oven on. But I’d been craving some jam thumbprint cookies. The weather finally cooled a bit (if you can call 90 degrees cool), so I decided that it was baking weather. Time for thumbprint cookies!

The reason behind the cookie craving was a photo I’d seen in one of my French cookbooks. I am one of those food nerds who flip through cookbooks and drool over all of the photos (not literally). The photo of the cookies always catches my eye. According to the cookbook, they’re very easy to make and inexpensive. I love that French cookbooks often tell you the ease of the recipe and how much you’ll be spending on it.

Jam thumbprints can be pretty boring and often need a bit of jazzing up. How did I jazz up mine? Apricot mango pepper jelly. With red pepper flakes in it. I picked it up from Joanie, of Ohana Favorites, at the farmers’ market. Sweet and spicy all at the same time. Perfect.

The cookies turned out a little less sweet than others I’ve made. I attribute this to the use of a French recipe. European sweets are often less sweet than American ones. That works for me. After trying several thumbprint cookie recipes, this is the one I’ll probably be sticking with. Plus it is very easy and inexpensive!

Petits-four a la confiture
(Jam Thumbprints)
Adapted from Francoise Bernard’s Ma Cuisine d’Aujourd’hui (Hachette Pratique)

Scant 1 cup flour
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
4 tbsp sugar
1 large egg, separated
¼ cup jam
Pinch of salt
Ice water, as needed

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl, using a wooden spoon, cream the butter and sugar until they lighten. Add the egg yolk, flour and the salt. When the dough becomes too thick to beat with a spoon, continue mixing by hand.  If the dough is too crumbly and doesn't hold together, add ice water 1 tsp at a time until the dough just comes together.

Make walnut-sized balls of dough and place them on a greased or lined baking sheet. Make an indentation in the middle of each ball with your finger or the handle-end of a wooden spoon. Divide the jam evenly among each ball of dough, just filling the indentation.

Lightly beat the egg white with a fork, then brush the beaten egg white over each of the dough balls. Cook for 20-25 minutes, rotating the pan once. Allow to cool on a rack. Makes about 24 cookies.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And the Winner Is...

My friend, Vince, always says that customer service is a dead art. After spending a lot of time in customer service, I tend to agree. Phone specialists don’t care about your problem, and that’s assuming that they even understand what your problem is. After fighting with the USPS phone system for 15 minutes while trying to track a package, he hit 0 to get an operator and was promptly informed by the automated system that “there is no need for you to speak with a representative. The information you have been provided is correct.” Go into any retail outlet, and the odds are good that you won’t be spoken to or even acknowledged. Even the Walmart greeters are getting a little slack in this area.

My biggest irritation comes with the apparent disinterest in customer service on the part of waitstaff. I have been rushed out of restaurants by waitstaff ending their shift (this usually occurs around 4-5pm, when day shift leaves and night shift turns up). I’ve had plates stack up through the entire meal because the server didn’t feel like removing appetizer plates when bringing dessert. Or having to beg for a drink refill. I’ve been a server, so I know that it can be an extremely difficult job, especially during a rush. I also, however, tend to go to restaurants during the off-hours when the server may only have one or two tables. When I was surviving on tips, I made every effort to keep my tables happy. Chatting with my coworkers didn’t pay the rent.

When I see some spectacular customer service, I feel it’s important to recognize it. That’s why today I am presenting the inaugural Lemon Goodness Customer Service award. And the winner is…Paula from the Kannapolis IHOP. IHOP. Really?

LA and I weren’t really interested in anything specific, and we were going to be in the vicinity of the IHOP, so we decided to go there. Paula recommended the strawberry lemonade by saying that she takes a cup home with her every night. LA went with the recommendation, but I chose watermelon lemonade. After looking at their specials menu, we saw that the “Minionade” was strawberry lemonade with sprinkles on top. I asked Paula if LA could have sprinkles on his. She brought the sprinkles out and dusted his drink with him. When he needed a refill, she asked if he wanted sprinkles on it, as well as offering sprinkles on our to-go beverages.

As always, LA and I were laughing hysterically about jokes that only we find funny. Paula said that we seemed fun and wanted to work with us. We told her that we’re unemployed but not to feel too bad about it because we hadn’t liked our jobs anyway. She told us to apply for jobs at the IHOP because she’d love to work with us. LA and I agreed that we’d love to work with her.

When it was time to order, I told her that LA wanted the “Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘n’ Fruity”. Paula said many of her customers order it as “the Rooty Tooty, hold the Fruity”. Considering my dining companion, this was especially hysterical. In all honesty, LA didn’t want this, I just wanted to say it. We both ordered the special Minion pancakes: lemon pancakes with berry compote and whipped cream. If you stop by IHOP in the near future (while they’re available), we both highly recommend the Minion pancakes.

Paula told us that she’s been at that IHOP for 11 years. She isn’t worried about job security, because people will always want to eat. Even if they don’t have jobs. Like us. It was obvious to us that Paula must love her job. She’s been there for 11 years, which means she isn’t an aspiring actress or just passing the time until a better job comes up. While she joked around with us and was a pleasure to talk to, she also made sure that the service itself was good.

These days, it’s easier to find poor customer service than great customer service. We found one of the greatest. I also want to say that we left Paula a hefty tip. She deserved every penny of it. If you want to be treated like you’re actually appreciated as a customer, go see Paula at the Kannapolis IHOP. We agreed that we’ll be returning. We may even call and get Paula’s schedule first!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Hummus Among Us

Flipping through Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions, one discovers that white people love hummus.  They (we) like to keep it in the fridge next to the Brita pitcher.  Truth be told, my hummus is usually on the shelf above the Brita pitcher, but it's still there all the same.  I don't know how, when, or why white people jumped up on the hummus bandwagon.  According to the aforementioned book, we do love adopting other people's cultures. 

I don't know when I had hummus for the first time.  My mother and I would get gyros from a Greek fast food place in the mall, and maybe I had it there first.  Or perhaps at Yum Yum Cafe, where I was first introduced to Chicken Shwarma.  You'd never guess that Yum Yum Cafe was a Middle Eastern restaurant, going by the name alone.  I can thank my friend Jon for taking me there for the first time.  It was a block away from our dorm, and several of us took a little trip.  I've been a sucker for Middle Eastern food ever since.

Where was I?  Oh, right...telling you about how much white people love hummus.  Or maybe just about how much I love hummus.  Having it for the first time is a revelation.  It's nutty, earthy, a little tangy, and very creamy.  I would never have imagined that chickpeas would taste so good (or eggplant, in hummus's cousin baba ghanoush). 

The best part about hummus may be how unbelievably easy it is to make.  I will say that it's easiest if you have a food processor.  I bought my food processor for the sole purpose of making hummus (I do use it for other things occasionally).  The most difficult part is tracking down tahini, which is paste made from ground sesame seeds.  Most large supermarkets are starting to carry it, and it's often found in either the Kosher section or near the peanut butter.  Once you find it, stick it in the refrigerator and it will be there until the end of the world or you run out, whichever comes first.  I have a giant jar that I bought over two years ago.  I'm still using it.  If you're really lazy, hummus can be purchased ready-to-eat in the produce or deli section of most supermarkets.  Oddly, my nearest supermarket has it with the cream cheese and non-dairy creamer.  Go figure.  We've also found hummus nearly ready-to-eat in a can at the Super G Mart.  Although it appears that you would just open the can and eat it (like Joe and LA did), the fine print on the side actually says that you need to add garlic and lemon juice.  It's still easy.

LA has been making all manner of hummus lately, using beans other than the typical chickpeas, most notably black bean hummus.  Google "black bean hummus" and you'll find scores of recipes.  Hummus really is a great snack.  High in fiber, no cholesterol.  I suppose it would be even better for me if I ate it with carrot sticks, but I prefer the more traditional pita bread.  Even if it is whole-wheat pita.  With it being 100 degrees and humid every day, I'm looking for things to eat that don't require cooking.  Hummus is the way to go.  If you haven't tried it before, now is definitely the time to do so.

I have been making the following recipe for ages, and I have no idea where it comes from.  LA has been substituting lime juice for the lemon juice and prefers it.  I haven't tried it yet, but I wanted to throw it out there as an option.*


1 14-oz can chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans or ceci beans)
3 tbsp tahini
2-3 tbsp lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, crushed
pinch of salt
cayenne pepper, to taste
1-2 tbsp olive oil

Drain the chickpeas, reserving the liquid.  Put the beans in a food processor with the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and salt.  Process until very smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally.  Add the cayenne pepper and process until blended.

With the machine running, slowly pour in the olive oil.  If it's too thick, add some of the reserved bean liquid to thin.

*When the weather starts to cool, I'll be posting a recipe for one of my favorite soups of all-time.  It includes chickpeas and tahini.  You can justify buying tahini for two recipes!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mmm...Butter-Wrapped Margarine

Yesterday I participated in a live online chat with Kathleen Purvis, the food editor of the Charlotte Observer (a link to her blog, I’ll Bite, can be found on the menu on the left). Most participants asked questions pertaining to seasonal items, such as zucchini or peaches, or about local restaurants. A participant named John asked the best question of the day:

Is margarine safe to eat straight from the tub? Or is there some sort of special preparation you use? I like to wrap margarine in butter before serving. Is that recommended?

Ms. Purvis, I, and, presumably, the rest of the participants were not prepared for a question of this caliber. In the case of John’s question, the whole is definitely not greater than the sum of its parts. Each part is a beguiling question all its own. Therefore, I’ve decided to break down the whole and attempt to answer or, at least, offer my thoughts on each part.

Is margarine safe to eat straight from the tub? Margarine has been around for over 130 years. While it hasn’t been available the entire time in tub form, I, and most of you, grew up eating margarine straight from the tub, most notably on toast. When my niece was about 3, I saw her eating a spoonful of a thick yellowish substance, but couldn’t make out what it was. When I asked what she was eating, she replied, “Butter” (I wouldn’t expect a 3-year old to say “Margarine”). Rather than trying to convince a 3-year old that eating a spoonful of margarine may not be the healthiest option, I instead asked my mother why she’d given it to her in the first place. Her answer? “That’s what she wanted.” My niece recently graduated from high school relatively unscathed and without dying a horrible margarine-induced death. I am aware of arguments on both sides regarding the safety and health factors of eating margarine. Trans fats, no trans fats. The argument is basically whether or not to eat it at all. I have yet to hear an argument regarding the tub.

Is there some sort of special preparation you use? I wish John had elaborated on this point. I’m not familiar with a “special preparation”. Maybe melt it and then chill it to get it back to its hardened state? Sprinkle it with lard? Luckily, John does have an idea.

I like to wrap margarine in butter before serving. Again, John really could’ve elaborated on this one. This is, in fact, my favorite part of the question. I surveyed a couple people to see if they could figure out how John was accomplishing Butter-Wrapped Margarine. LA’s partner Joe and I both theorize that perhaps he softens a stick of butter, then wraps it around a chilled stick of margarine. My mother thinks he might soften the butter and just spread it on the margarine. Either way, I’d love to be in the kitchen with John when he’s wrapping his margarine. I’d also like to see how his guests react to this delight. Joe pointed out that John’s special preparation really does put you on the fast track for a massive coronary.  Really though, more than knowing how he wraps the margarine, I'd like to know why. 

Is that recommended? No. While I wouldn’t necessarily dissuade someone with John’s tenacity from wrapping margarine with butter, I cannot recommend or even endorse this solution. If you can really call it a solution. I would love to ask John where this suggestion came from in the first place. Is it an old family tradition? Did he hear about it on one of the morning TV shows that are always frightening my mother with how ubiquitous and relatively innocuous household products will kill or, at the very least, maim you?

John, if you’re reading this, please answer my questions, as I have answered yours. I eagerly await your response. Until then, I will be eating my margarine directly from the tub, as I am just too lazy to figure out how to go about wrapping it. Fingers crossed that it’s safe!

P.S.  In case you're wondering, Ms. Purvis's response to John's question was "Why would margarine not be safe from the tub? I don't think it needs preparation. It's margarine."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Terror at the Supermarket

Who knew that the supermarket could be such a dangerous place?  I regularly walk to the supermarket, since it isn't that far.  Today, on my trip, I got offered a ride from a very creepy guy, who turned around on the highway to come back to where I was walking, and who then chose to sit in his truck and stare at me.  I made a side trip into another store, hoping to wait out the creepy guy.  When I finally made it into the supermarket, he was waiting for me.  Right by the door.  He then proceeded to follow me around the store, and even went to the same checkout lane that I did, although it was the farthest from where we'd most recently been and not the shortest.  Then stood unusually close to me.  I practically ran out of the store and across the highway.  I even had a plan hatched in case he followed me out.  Miss Tammy and LB at the Grill would play a role as my protectors!  Fortunately, he drove on by and didn't follow me to the Grill or home.  I didn't have to use Plans A, B, or C (all of which were fully formulated in my head by this point).

I would like to thank Officer Zienka of the Kannapolis Police Department, who came to my house, took a report, and was very polite and sympathetic.  Unfortunately, he said that the supermarket customer service manager is not overly helpful and doesn't usually cooperate in any investigation, even into shoplifting.  Officer Zienka also said that "crackwhores" in an adjacent area will accept rides from strangers and that makes all the men offering think that anyone will accept a ride.  I was advised to start driving to the grocery store.  I really didn't need this much excitement in my day.

On a side note, I googled "Kannapolis police Zienka" to make sure I got his name right.  One of my first results was "lesbian zdenka donkeyporn".  At least I got a laugh out of all of it.

Menu Scolaire Update

I found out today that my dad definitely still will not eat canned peaches.  Thank you, School Lunch Program!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Riddle Solved?

It seems that we may finally know the answer to the age-old question:  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  British scientists have determined that it was the chicken!  Read all about it here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Menu Scolaire

From 2nd through 8th grade, I went to school in a rural community. Lunch there was the same for everybody: meat, starch, veg, and dessert with a glass of milk. Well, okay, not for everybody. John was lactose intolerant, so he got water. But everything else was the same. I remember hot turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes. Ketchup-coated meatloaf with cheese-topped mashed potatoes. My least favorite lunches included sloppy joes or sauerkraut. Karen would eat the sauerkraut, so the rest of us would put it in our hands and pass it to her under the table. Sloppy joes were not as easily passed, so we had to find ways to make them edible enough to get through half. My dad was the janitor there, and he can tell you about the canned peaches that were served. Or, in his words, “those damn slimy peaches”. To this day, I still don’t think he’ll eat canned peaches.

When I started high school, we moved to a larger town with a more “traditional” school lunch program. We had the regular school lunch line, with foods that most of us wouldn’t eat, and the pizza and burger line, filled with rubbery pizza and what appeared to be cardboard cutouts of burgers. My junior year saw the installation of a salad bar. If I did manage to eat school lunch, it was from the salad bar. More typically, it was a Dr. Pepper and Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine (sorry, Mom). The salad bar was a definite improvement and gave us the opportunity to eat something that resembled food. Many schools are “considering” this route, and I highly encourage it. Food service managers can say that kids won’t eat vegetables, but that’s because the vegetables they’re usually given have been overcooked to the point of grey mushiness. Or the vegetable is ketchup.

One of my favorite blogs is Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project. Mrs. Q eats school lunch every day, then photographs it and provides commentary. Most of what she eats falls squarely in the classification of “beige food”. Mrs. Q also allows guest bloggers. My favorite guest blogger is a resident of Toulouse, France, and provided a link to Toulouse’s website, where you can find school lunch menus all the way back to January. I had to take a look. Honestly, I nearly cried. I then called Vince and read some of the menus to him. He nearly cried. He also asked where these meals were when we were kids. Why don’t we deserve good food? I’ve decided to provide some sample menus as well. If you’d like to try your hand at reading them in French, they can be found here. Otherwise, please to enjoy in English.

Mache and beet salad
Breaded fish
Pumpkin puree
Organic apple tart

Leek tart
Organic roast chicken
Green beans
Chantailloux cheese

Radishes with butter
Salmon with sorrel sauce
Vegetable cakes

Endive salad
Hamburger steak with tomato sauce
French fries
Roquefort cheese
Peaches in syrup

Grated carrots
Ham or Fish sauteed in butter
Organic yogurt

Other weeks, the kids got veal marengo, lamb curry, and beef stew. If the kids are eating school lunch, this is what they’re getting. If they don’t want what’s on the menu, they can bring their own lunch. No one is pandering to their tastes by saying, “Kids don’t want salmon in sorrel sauce, so we provide them with nachos and chicken nuggets.” The kids eat the salmon in sorrel sauce, and they grow up to have experienced a wider range of tastes. They’re also less likely to be picky eaters. Just ask LA about that.

I’m not saying that we have to take on the French menus in our schools. Maybe accept the spirit of what they do. We don’t have to serve our kids crap because it’s cheap and we think it’s all they will eat. Offer them something that actually looks appetizing (grey peas are no one’s idea of appetizing) and see what happens. You never know, we might end up with kids who like eating vegetables more than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos covered in nacho cheese.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Yum Yum and Other Tidbits

While the American supermarket has every item that I want on a daily basis, sometimes I want to dress up, go to a fancy specialty food store, and make my pantry feel pretty.  This was part of the reason LA and I ended up in South Park:  I wanted to go to Dean & Deluca.  I love Dean & Deluca.  Mainly I love to go there and wish I had the money to buy all the things that they sell.  I stand at the chocolate counter and stare in amazement like a...well, like a kid in a candy store.  Fleur de sel caramel chocolates, strawberry balsamic chocolates, peach caramel chocolates.  I want it all.  But it's not just the candy.

They have a great selection of sanding sugars for baking, raspberry shallot mustard, a million types of salt.  Plus they have a spectacular cheese and charcuterie section.  We were looking at the cheeses and were offered some samples.  First up, a smoked blue cheese.  I can honestly say I'd never had one of those before.  Not a creamy blue, it was still very smooth, with a mellowness brought about by the smoking.  I didn't think it could get better.  Next we had an ashed goat's milk cheese.  I was surprised when LA took a piece, since he usually is fairly vocal about his dislike of goat cheese.  The middle of the cheese had the slightly chalky consistency typical of a fresh goat's milk cheese, it was very creamy around the edges, similar in texture to a Camembert.  LA and I both liked that one, although not as much as the blue.  Finally, we were offered a piece of an aged sheep's milk cheese.  When LA grabbed it, I knew he hadn't heard what she said.  We both bit into it and declared it the best of the three.  It was nutty and reminded me of Gruyere.  While LA was contemplating buying some of it, I said, "It's sheep's milk", at which point he began to gag and carry on like it was the most disgusting thing he'd ever eaten.  I reminded him that, only moments before, he'd loved it.  Didn't matter.  The love affair was over.  He continued gagging until I took him to one of the sample stations around the store and he got a piece of bread. 

We also considered buying some "Pepper Delights", although the card was laying on its side and I thought they were called "Peter's Delights".  I'd hate to think of what those are.  The Pepper Delights were small green peppers stuffed with prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella.  A couple customers assured me that they were addictive.  I asked the quite-attractive counterman if they were spicy at all.  He said that they were far too spicy for him, but maybe we'd like them.  After the issue 6 feet away at the cheese counter, I decided to forego the Pepper Delights.  I didn't have any bread in the car to feed LA if he didn't like those.  So far, I had avoided all traps, but I was unable to resist the pastries.  My heart was set on a lemon meringue tart, but, at $7, my wallet was against it.  My wallet won.  I settled for a lemon cupcake.  Which I ate the following day.  That thing was huge!  I ate it in one sitting and regretted it for several hours.  I'm not used to having so much sugar in my stomach at one time.  I had initially planned on eating the cupcake right away (in front of LA), so I needed a beverage with which to wash it down.  Dean & Deluca carries bottled water in the shape of a flask!  Was there any way for me not to buy it?  I think not.  Apparently I got some looks later, in the car, while I was taking a drink from it at a stoplight.  I was actually proud of myself and the restraint that I showed in Dean & Deluca.  I would've happily walked out of there with my arms (and LA's) full of gourmet delights.  That will have to wait until the next trip.

Besides not wanting to torment LA, my other reason for not eating the cupcake right away was that I'd been informed I would be doing some pie testing later.  I'm not much of a sugar fiend, so I have to limit myself to a small amount per day.  When we got back to LA's, he provided me with slices of two pies.  The first pie was a peanut butter pie, whose recipe had been given to him by a non-cooking friend.  One cup of peanut butter, one cup of sugar, and two containers of whipped topping, combined and plopped into a graham cracker crust.  I'm not a big peanut butter fan.  I like it with jelly, and that's about it.  I took a small sliver of that and still only ate half of it.  If you are a peanut butter fan, then it's a great pie.  He served it straight from the freezer, making it incredibly convenient as well.  If you want an easy dessert for a hot summer night, that may be the way to go.  Unless you don't like peanut butter.  That's where the second pie comes in.

The next pie was blueberry yum yum.  And it really was yum yum.  Blueberry pie filling, sugar, Dream Whip, and cream cheese in a graham cracker crust.  I'm not typically a fan of blueberries, but this was so good.  LA gave me a small piece and took the larger piece.  In retrospect, I should've distracted him and took the larger piece when he wasn't looking.  The yum yum can be made with any berry pie filling, and, like the peanut butter pie, can be made and kept in the freezer.  Both pies only require assembly.  If LA can do it, so can you!  (He'd probably tell you that, too.)

As a side note, I'm a little behind on my Saturday Night Live, but I caught an episode in which Zach Galifianakis (who I love), as a gay beauty pageant dad, tells his wife, "You smell like a bunch of stinky ol' Bojangles sausage biscuits."  Do they even know what those are in New York?  I, for one, love a Bojangles sausage biscuit.  With some Bo-rounds.  Hmmm, I might be going out for breakfast.

Blueberry Yum Yum
from L.A. Berlyn

1 purchased graham cracker pie crust
2 cans blueberry pie filling
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 box (2 packets) powdered dessert topping mix
2 16 oz packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup milk

Combine sugar, dessert topping mix, cream cheese and milk.  Spread half of the cream cheese mixture over the pie crust.  Top with the pie filling.  Spread with the remaining half of the cream cheese mixture for a marbled look.  To have a white cream topping, pipe the remaining cream cheese mixture on top, rather than spreading it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lunch Counter

Some mornings come earlier than others.  Yesterday's didn't come early at all.  It came so late, in fact, that I missed the farmers' market.  So LA and I had to find something else to do.  Hmmm, what to do on a very warm Saturday?  We headed on down to South Park.  (Cue Les Claypool.)  We did have ourselves a time, too.

The food court at the mall wasn't appealing to either of us.  We passed on McCormick & Schmick's since they do steak and seafood, and I really don't want to deal with LA going into anaphylactic shock over lunch.  He didn't feel like Mexican food, and M5's menu didn't appeal to him.  That brought us to The Counter, for "Custom Built Burgers".  The Counter is a small, mostly West Coast chain with a menu consisting, unsurprisingly, of mostly burgers.  The restaurant is small and industrial, with high ceilings, visible ventilation, and a lot of blue paint.  Too much blue paint, in my opinion.  Even the staff wears blue t-shirts.  While we were waiting for our food, we got to watch the World Cup.  If you call periodically glancing at the monitors above the bar "watching the World Cup". 

LA went the easy route and ordered the Hobo Pack.  The menu describes this as "an assortment of grilled vegetables topped with fresh herbs".  While it didn't specify which vegetables, LA was told that it did contain mushrooms and he would not be able to order it without them.  He ordered it anyway, deciding that he would just pick them out.  What he got was a parchment packet filled with an assortment of grilled vegetables.  I saw corn, red peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms.  He loved it and said he would start making it at home.  Minus the mushrooms.

I like to make things difficult for myself, so I custom built my burger.  While options are good, too much of a good thing can be overwhelming.  For my burger, did I want beef, chicken, turkey, or veggie?  1/3 pound, 1/2 pound, or 1 full pound (post-cooking weight, not pre)?  Did I want it on a bun or on a bed of lettuce?  If I wanted a bun, did I want a regular bun, whole wheat, or an English muffin?  Those were the easy choices.  I was allowed one cheese, but had to pick from among 11 different options.  I could have up to four toppings from a selection of 20.  I can't imagine picking carrot strings, hard-boiled eggs, and pineapple as toppings for a burger, but obviously someone else can.  Mustard and mayo aren't good enough for The Counter's patrons. I still had to choose from among 20 sauces. My mind was spinning by this point, and I wished I'd just picked the BLT from the standard menu. Before the headache kicked in, I settled for a 1/3 pound beef burger with Tillamook cheddar, bacon, dill pickle chips, scallions, and organic mixed greens, with garlic aioli on an English muffin.  Oh, and the fries are extra.  But what's a burger without fries?  So I got those too.

The burger arrived perfectly cooked and one inch thick.  Some may say that I have a big mouth, but I encountered some difficulty consuming the burger.  I think "nibbled" best described how I ate my burger.  The fries were shoestrings, sprinkled with seasoned salt.  They were very good.  I used the garlic aioli as a dipping sauce.  Aioli is really just a fancy word for mayo, so I was expecting garlic-flavored mayo.  I didn't detect even a hint of garlic.  I also didn't detect a hint of cheddar on the burger, although I could see it was there.  The bacon was a little on the undercooked side, but tasted fine.  I was most happy with the scallions.  They gave the burger an unexpected kick that was lacking from the cheese and the aioli.  A tasty burger, yes.  Worth the price?  Not really. 

I know this is South Park, where I should be happy to pay more for the privilege of appearing wealthy or trendy.  The waitress told LA that she is a vegetarian.  I said that of course she is.  All servers in a place like that are vegetarians.  It may even be a rule.  She was friendly and polite, but more interested in chit-chatting with her friends than taking care of her tables.  This also may have been a rule, since only one server spent more time serving customers than talking to coworkers.  I wasn't unhappy with the experience at The Counter; just not impressed.  The food was good, but not good enough for me to make another trip.  I don't need 20 sauces and 11 types of cheese.  I can get a burger with much less hassle anywhere, for the same price or less.  And not have a headache when I leave.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Venice by Way of New York by Way of Kannapolis

I may be living on a shoestring, but that doesn't mean that I don't want to treat myself periodically to a meal made by someone other than me.  Especially if it's inexpensive.  It was this desire that led me to Venice New York Style Pizza and Italian Cuisine.  Not only is Venice located very near my favorite wig store (no, I don't wear a wig.  Yet.), but they have signs advertising their daily lunch specials for $5.95.  That's hard to beat.

On our first visit, LA and I were initially the only customers, but more people came in while we were there.  We both immediately took to the decor, with LA saying that he felt like he was dining on a train due to the unique booths.  We took forever to order, mainly because we were having too much of a laugh over their menu.  The menu items weren't the issue.  The spelling and grammar were.  As a pizza topping, you have the option of getting "green papers" or "banana papers".  The Buffalo shrimp come with a side of "Ranch Dre".  The "Chicken Rap" includes "chider" cheese.  Many of the pasta dishes are available "backed", such as Backed Cheese Ravioli.  You can even get Spaghetti Wits Meatballs.  Our personal favorite was the "Child Lasagna".  I believe they mean it is a child's portion of lasagna, but, without an accompanying description, you really are left with just an assumption.  The server must be used to people's reaction to the menu, because she seemed totally unphased by it.  When LA asked for his stromboli with banana papers, she said that it was the printer's fault and that they'd be getting new menus.  She even provided us with takeout menus, so we could enjoy the typos in the comfort of our own homes.

Enough about our spelling snobbery.  LA ordered a small pepperoni stromboli.  What arrived was almost the size of his arm.  I can't even imagine what the large must look like.  The stromboli was pretty standard, with a side of marinara.  LA raved about the marinara.  I ordered broccoli chicken alfredo, which, surprisingly, was spelled correctly on the menu.  The fettucine arrived in a delicious cream sauce that was a little lighter on broccoli than I would have preferred.  As promised, it was topped with grilled chicken.  I couldn't make out the seasoning used on the chicken, but it was absolutely delicious.  And it was grilled.  Menus often say grilled, but the chicken is often either parcooked and put on the grill for 30 seconds, or it's cooked by another method altogether.  While LA thought that the cream sauce was too thin, I thought it was perfect.  It wasn't overly heavy, which I find is often the case with restaurant alfredo sauce.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the chef actually knew what he was doing.  Go figure.  The pastas come with a side of garlic bread.  In this case, it was a chunk of Italian bread, sliced in half, slathered with garlic butter and oregano and baked.  I ate it all.

On our next visit, a few customers were already there.  We began with the homemade potato chips with a side of ranch dressing.  Maybe I'm too cynical, but I was more than a little surprised when homemade potato chips arrived.  Very thinly sliced, skin-on Russet potatoes, fried until crisp.  Some weren't as crisp as others.  Just another way to tell that they were homemade.  It's easy to forget just how good homemade potato chips are.  I know I should stay away from the fried foods, but it's hard to do when they're that good.  I would recommend the potato chips to anyone going to Venice.

LA ordered a personal cheese pizza from the Express Lunch menu.  A larger-than-expected thin-crust cheese pizza was brought out on a pedestal (literally).  When I asked LA how it was, he told me again how much he loves their marinara.  That was far more descriptive than the "Good" that I normally get out of him.  My side salad came first.  Lettuce, tomato, carrots, and green olives with a side of not-homemade blue cheese dressing (despite what the menu says about homemade dressings).  The side salad also comes with onions and green peppers, but I opted out of those.  The only thing I really have to say about the salad is that it came too soon after the potato chips, so it just had to sit there on the table and watch me eat the chips.  After the salad came my lasagna.  The menu indicates that the lasagna is comprised of layers of pasta, ground beef (not child), and cheeses, topped with a homemade sauce.  My expectations being low, I was prepared for frozen lasagna with some fresh sauce poured over it before heating it.  (I worked in one establishment where the homemade lasagna was just that--frozen Stouffer's lasagna, topped with our own sauce.)  Again, I was happily surprised.  The whole thing was homemade.  The whole thing was huge (I took more than half home with me).  And the whole thing was delicious.  It also tasted just as good the next day, when I reheated it.  LA also took half of his pizza home with him, although he later ate it in the car, having been reheated in the heat of the car.  Mmm, car pizza.

After two visits, LA and I both had the same impressions of Venice:  good-sized portions for the price, all the important items are homemade (salad dressings notwithstanding), and everything we've had has been very good.  We were highly impressed, moreso than expected, and we plan to make this one of our regular joints.  We aren't, however, looking forward to the newly-printed menus coming soon.  Part of the charm of Venice is the ability to laugh at the "printer's" mistake.  I'll just have to keep my takeout menu to remind me.

Venice New York Style Pizza and Italian Restaurant is located at 1121 S. Cannon Blvd. in Kannapolis.

Monday, July 5, 2010

That's a Lot of Garlic

I'm always eager to try a new food.  I'd stumbled across a couple of recipes for garlic scape pesto, and, never having heard of garlic scapes before, I knew I had to try it.  I love pesto and I love garlic.  What could go wrong?

The garlic scape is actually the stem of the garlic plant.  We most commonly eat the garlic bulb, but the stems are edible as well.  Garlic scapes look remarkably similar to the green part of scallions, and I actually got them confused with scallions on more than one occasion.  I'm sure I'd seen garlic scapes many times, only I assumed they were funny looking onions.

After reading the recipes, I decided to seek out the garlic scapes.  I didn't have to go very far--I found them at the farmers' market.  I duly paid the price for a bunch of the scapes, then put them in the refrigerator.  Each day I would look at them and think, "I need to make pesto today."  But I always had an excuse.  After several days, I finally had the now-or-never moment and made the pesto.

The pesto is very similar to normal basil pesto.  I used the garlic scapes, walnuts (they're what I had), grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and olive oil.  Very straightforward.  I put it all into the food processor and let it go until it was the right consistency.  I then ate it with some cooked pasta.

The verdict?  I thought I loved garlic, but apparently I don't LOVE garlic.  The pesto was very garlicky.  So much so that I couldn't even finish all the pasta.  I must've had garlic breath for three days.  It was garlicky and pesto-y, but I don't believe I'll be having it again.  Garlic scapes are one product of spring and summer that I won't be looking forward to next year.

If you think that there's no such thing as too much garlic and you'd like to try the pesto anyway, click here for the recipe that I (sort of) followed.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

That IS a Tasty Burger!

At some point during my magazine-flipping or internet-surfing, I came across a photo of a pimento cheese bacon burger.  It looked heavenly.  I didn't read the accompanying article or recipe.  I just figured I'd make my own with pimento cheese, bacon, and a burger.  So I began planning.

With this recipe in mind, I bought some pimento cheese from Sandra with Harvest Catering.  I've had good pimento cheese and bad pimento cheese.  The supermarket variety is sweet and bright orange.  I'd love to say that it qualifies as bad pimento cheese, but I can't.  I happily eat it.  But Harvest Catering's is very good pimento cheese.  Grated cheddar, cream cheese, and pimentos.  I didn't have any bread, and my ground beef was frozen, so I ate the pimento cheese with crackers.  Until I ran out of crackers.  Then I ate it with my finger.  The point is that I'd eaten all of the pimento cheese by the time the ground beef had thawed, so I didn't get to have my long-desired pimento cheese bacon burger.

I was counting the days until I'd run into Sandra at the farmers market again, and today was the day!  Sandra has two varieties of pimento cheese: mild and jalapeno.  For a change of pace, I opted for the jalapeno.  While I was out, I also picked up some Arnold's Select Whole Wheat Sandwich Thins, which look like really thin English muffins.  I prefer to use English muffins as hamburger buns, so I figured the Sandwich Thins would work just as well. 

Dinner time had finally arrived.  I was using ground beef from Scally's Natural Beef for my burger, with some bacon from my freezer, and Harvest Catering's pimento cheese.  I also added lettuce, pickle, and mayo to make it a traditional burger.  Before final assembly, I toasted the bread.  Just as protection against sogginess.  So how was the burger?  More heavenly than the original photo had led me to imagine!  I almost cried when I finished eating it, because I didn't want the deliciousness to end.  I was even tempted to make another one, but that would just be gluttony.  I think I've discovered my new favorite burger.

Harvest Catering is at the Winecoff School Rd farmers' market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and at the Kannapolis Research Campus market on Thursdays.  The Scallys are at Winecoff School Rd on Saturdays.