Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good vs. Evil

Last night I had the pleasure to attend Good vs. Evil: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert.  Most people are familiar with Anthony Bourdain through his show No Reservations on the Travel Channel or maybe through some of his books, such as Kitchen Confidential.  Eric Ripert has his own show, albeit less publicized, on PBS called Avec Eric.

 Let me start by saying that Eric Ripert is handsome.  I knew this before I went.  I was glad I already knew this, because he and Mr. Bourdain looked pretty small from my seat in the lower nosebleeds.  At least I wasn't in the upper nosebleeds.  As I expected, many of the audience members were cooks and chefs.  This included the three gentlemen seated next to me.  I spoke briefly with the one nearest to me.  He is a student at Johnson & Wales University and he works for a private chef.  I knew he was in the industry based solely upon his attire.  It was a dead giveaway.  But you're not here to read about the audience--you want to hear about the show.

Mr. Bourdain is quite comfortable speaking in front of a crowd and has perfected his TV voice.  Chef Ripert was quieter and less verbose.  What he lacked in theatricality he made up for in handsomeness.  Did I mention he's handsome? 

The show started with Chef Ripert seated on an uncomfortable-looking yellow folding chair, with Mr. Bourdain interviewing him.  Chef Ripert was riddled with questions about employing illegal aliens, what he thinks of the Whopper ("satisfying" but "disturbing"), and how many times he's "done Martha Stewart".  The two switched places, with Chef Ripert interrogating Mr. Bourdain about his past drug use, his wife's ability to kick ass, and why he thinks he's qualified to be a judge on Top Chef. 

After the grillings, both gentlemen sat in armchairs and discussed assorted topics.  I was actually wishing Mr. Bourdain would stop talking and let Chef Ripert say something.  Chef Ripert is very interesting.  And handsome.  The topics were all relevant to foodies and chefs, with discussions about sustainability; urban farming; the redecorating of Chef Ripert's restaurant, Le Bernardin; why we should all buy a plane ticket to Asia; Rachael Ray and Paula Deen; fruit baskets; and whether Gordon Ramsay should be allowed a TV show.  If you want to know all the details, you'll have to catch the pair at their next stop. 

I've been a fan of both men for quite some time, especially Mr. Bourdain.  Good vs. Evil gave me additional food for thought (pun intended), plus it gave me the chance to look at Chef Ripert for an hour and a half.  He's handsome. 

If you're really into food or are fans of either gentleman, I recommend seeing this show if at all possible.  If not, they both have a variety of books available online and at your nearest bookstore.  Maybe even at your library.  Also check out Chef Ripert's website, as well as Mr. Bourdain's No Reservations website.  Both sites include television schedules when you can catch both.  If you can, try to find the No Reservations where Mr. Bourdain returns for a night working the line at his old restaurant, Les Halles, and brings Chef Ripert with him.  Best of both worlds.

It Really Was Mayonnaise from Heaven

I assume my last post left you wondering how my speech on the wonders of mayonnaise turned out.  I got a 98 on it, so I guess it turned out pretty well.  I was trying to upload the video of it, but I kept getting an error.  You'll just have to believe me when I say how I did.  I ended up with mayonnaise, but I can't say that people were that interested.  I passed around samples and one classmate said I should get an A+ for taste.  When I reviewed the video, I saw that I said "um" and "uh" a combined 15 times, and I said "so" 12 times, but one of those was used appropriately.  So I know what I'm doing, but I can't speak.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Like Mayonnaise from Heaven

I had a rather eye-opening culinary experience today that I thought I would share with my devoted readers and any of you who may have randomly found my blog.  I can't say I was horrified by the experience, but I was definitely surprised.  I know that my knowledge of food may sometimes surpass that of the average person on the street, yet I am still shocked by how little awareness people have of what they're eating on a daily basis.

I am currently enrolled in a Public Speaking class.  Our next assigned speech is a "demonstration speech," better known as a how-to speech.  We went around the room, and each student stated what he or she would like to demonstrate for this speech.  The answers showed the diversity of the class.  One girl will demonstrate how to do a quick weave, another is performing a Jewish dance.  One boy will show us either how to tie a bowtie or play the guitar.  When it was my turn to speak, I said, "I'd like to show how to make mayonnaise."  I was almost embarrassed by the simplicity of my subject.  The instructor had said that all demonstrations had to be college-level, so no PBJs or how to tie a shoe.  Does making a simple sauce like mayonnaise count as college-level?

I got my answer almost as soon as the words had left my mouth.  In unison, half of my class asked, with a tone of sheer astonishment, "You can MAKE mayonnaise?"  All I could think was, "What did you think--that it fell from the sky already in the jar?"  Granted, most of the people in my class are barely out of high school.  But none of them knew that mayonnaise is easily made.  The woman next to me asked what all goes in to mayonnaise.  "Not much, really."  At this point, I paused to stretch, and she pressed further.  "Well, are you going to tell me?"  I responded with the full list of ingredients--egg yolk, salt, lemon juice or vinegar, oil.  She was stunned into silence (which is saying something for her).

The woman had given me an idea though.  We have to use an "attention device" at the beginning of our speech to get the attention of the audience.  Maybe, for my attention device, I'll read the ingredient label from a jar of Miracle Whip.  Yes, that's technically salad dressing, but that's what most people consider mayonnaise.  That ingredient list would certainly get their attention. 

With the shock and surprise created by my statement, I think I really will demonstrate how to make mayonnaise.  It will be a test run for when I get my own cooking show!  I'll have to start now.  LA and I will be swimming in mayonnaise by the time I have to give the speech.  But we'll have some delicious sandwiches.

So you can know the joy of homemade mayonnaise too, here you go:

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature 30 minutes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon mustard
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1-2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper

Whisk together yolk, mustard, and 1/4 teaspoon salt until combined well. Add about 1/4 cup oil drop by drop, whisking constantly until mixture begins to thicken. Whisk in lemon juice, then add remaining 1/2 cup oil in a very slow, thin stream, whisking constantly until well blended. If at any time it appears that oil is not being incorporated, stop adding oil and whisk mixture vigorously until smooth, then continue adding oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Chill, surface covered with plastic wrap, until ready to use.

Cooks' notes:

• The egg yolk in this recipe is not cooked, which may be of concern if salmonella is a problem in your area.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Feeling a Little Lupie

After six months in Charlotte, LA and I still claim to be newcomers. We are still figuring out where the locals go and where we can go that won’t break the bank. I planned to meet my friend, Shelby, for lunch and asked where we should meet. She asked me if I knew where Lupie’s Café is. Sure, I do, but I assumed it was a biker bar. LA thought it must be Mexican food. Shelby said we should meet there.

As we walked in to Lupie’s Café, I was struck by the décor: wooden booths, bare wood ceiling and walls, a surf shack vibe to the place. What’s that music they’re playing? Depending on who’s in charge of the music, it may be Johnny Cash, James Brown, or Jefferson Airplane. I’ve heard just about everything there. I actually finally asked and was told that there’s a house iPod, but the staff can also plug in their iPod and share their taste in music with the masses.

Minus the pink Port-o-let

Shelby and I met on a Thursday, which meant the daily special was chicken ‘n’ dumplings. Do I have to mention how much I love chicken ‘n’ dumplings? I didn’t think so. I was not disappointed. Meaty chunks of chicken, swimming in thick gravy, studded with dumplings that were dense but not at all doughy. The green beans were and long-simmered and well-seasoned (although a little saltier than I should be eating them). I know that the popular belief is that green beans should be cooked just until “crisp-tender”. I don’t subscribe to that popular belief. I love long-cooked green beans. They’re soft and juicy, with the same green color as the Pinto my mom drove when I was 7. Lupie’s mac ‘n’ cheese is creamy (rather than custardy, which I’m not crazy about) and yummy, but it has a thick layer of dark brown cheese on top. I’m not usually one to complain about baked cheese, but it never seems to work for me on Lupie’s mac ‘n’ cheese. I eat the mac and leave the cheese.

I’ve since taken LA and have gone back on a number of occasions. LA declared their burger to be the best he’s ever had. It is a good burger, but not the best I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s because I forgot to tell them that I didn’t want ketchup on it. LA’s personal favorite is the Big Dog with Cincinnati chili and cole slaw. The Cincinnati is a little sweet, but full of flavor and not hot. It’s a good match for the hot dog.

Lupie’s Café has the same menu all day, with specials for each day of the week. Thursday is my obvious favorite. Monday has meatloaf, which I had once and wasn’t overly impressed with. Monday is also the only day of the week on which mashed potatoes are available. The gravy is a white cream gravy with a mushroom flavor to it. The first time I had it, the waiter warned me about the mushroom gravy. I was expecting loads of mushrooms for me to pick out, but I was mistaken. Skip the meatloaf and order the 3- or 4-vegetable plate if you really want the potatoes. Two quiches are available every day of the week; typically one with a meat (often crab or turkey sausage) and the other vegetarian. The quiches come with salad and a side of fruit. The quiches are tall and light, with a higher filling per egg ratio than you normally see.

The downstairs bar area
During the day, Lupie’s Café attracts a business crowd, but the dinner crowd is younger and more “liberal”. Lupie works the cash register and is a delight. She’s very friendly and will treat you like a regular in no time. LA’s #1 reason for returning to Lupie’s Café is Jason, his favorite waiter. I like Jason too, but I find the majority of the waitstaff to be friendly, efficient, and very knowledgeable. You can tell they like their jobs. How often can you really say that about your server?

I think it goes without saying that Lupie’s Café is one of our “places”. We’re recognized when we go there, and you know how much LA and I love that. Go to Lupie’s Café. Unless you’re Grant Luckey, you’ll want to become a regular too.

Note: Three notes, actually. 1) Grant Luckey likes “going new places and trying new things”, but he refused to go to Lupie’s with us because he looked at the menu and decided that “they don’t have new things.” 2) On our last visit to Lupie’s, we were forced to sit by ourselves in the lower level to make room for Time Out Youth, a local organization that helps gay teens and young adults handle issues that result from them coming out. Yay Lupie’s, for being gay friendly! 3) Also on our last visit, our server, Nannette, played matchmaker for LA by giving him the name and number of a single friend of hers.

Lupie's Cafe is located at 2718 Monroe Road in Charlotte (there's currently a pink Port-O-Let out front, so you can't miss it).  A second location is at 101-A Old Statesville Rd in Huntersville.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I Can Only Spend What?? Part Deux

Many moons ago, I was challenged to create a fake budget for myself, and I had to incorporate 90 balanced meals. I promised to post my menu when I was done, and I never got around to it. I’m sure you’re all used to that by now.

I want to pat myself on the back and say that I had $5 left over on my fake budget. I would probably use the $5 to buy something other than lentils. Believe it or not, you can buy a lot of food products at the dollar store, and a lot of them aren’t too bad. The country ham is great, and you can often find feta cheese. I don’t know if I’d want to eat this menu all the time, but I could still live happily on it.

In case you were wondering, my food bill for the month was $93.15, and that included tax. I remember when I could easily live on that for a month, but those days are long gone. I also want to mention that many of my classmates went the Lean Cuisine route. I made a personal pledge that I would neither do that nor live on sandwiches. I was successful on both counts!

Click on the above menu to see it larger

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Lucky Peach, Indeed

What has two thumbs and is a total slacker?  This guy!  Yes, I know it's been far too long since I've regaled you with kitchen stories.  And I realize you're still waiting to know how my fake budget turned out.  Not to worry--that will be my next post.  At this time, I have bigger and better things to tell you.  What could be bigger and better than a fake poverty-level budget?  I'M IN LOVE!

Who is it?  The answer may be surprising, depending upon how well you know me.  It's not so much of a who as a what.  And that what is Lucky Peach.  And what, pray tell, is Lucky Peach?  It's a new quarterly magazine from NYC Chef David Chang and the people who bring you No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain.  Do I really have to tell you that it is my new favorite magazine?  I didn't think so.

My intrepid sidekick, LA, and I were perusing the magazine racks at our local Barnes & Noble, and I decided to look over the cooking section.  I do so mostly out of habit, since I know what's waiting for me is typically a showcase of Food Network honeys (and Food Network magazine, if I want all the honeys in one place).  I don't need to know how to make a "tablescape" for every crappy meal I've cooked up using all pre-made ingredients, and I never say "Yum-O", so those magazines aren't really for me.  The only exception may be Paula Deen's.  She is my dream mother-in-law.  Besides, her magazine is full of photos of her eye candy son, Bobby.  So maybe that magazine is one of the better ones.  Bon Appetit is all available online (and full of out-of-my-real-and-fake-budget ingredients) and Saveur has never been one of my favorites.  How many issues can they devote to pesto? 

Then my eye caught a photo of a hand holding a plucked chicken.  Right there in the front row!  Who could possibly have the audacity to show food in its raw form?  David Chang, apparently.  Then I saw "Issue 1 - Ramen".  Seriously?  I flipped through the magazine, and I was instantly hooked.  Of course, I was also not-so-instantly out of money, so the purchase of the magazine would have to wait until after payday.

Once the money was in the bank, we headed back to B&N.  I had to have that magazine!  I happily plunked down my $10 (+ tax), hoping that I would get my money's worth.  And get it, I did.  This may be the best magazine in print. 

The first issue is, in fact, devoted to ramen.  But not in the way you might think.  The first article is a travel diary, tracing a trip through Japan in search of great ramen.  Ruth Reichl (editor of the now sadly defunct Gourmet magazine) reviews assorted store brands of ramen.  David Chang gives us some great recipes using dried ramen noodles, including Instant Ramen Gnocchi Parisienne and Instant Ramen Cacio e Pepe.  While Chef Chang apologizes for writing an "obvious" recipe like Ramen-Crusted Skate, I would still happily try making it.

Despite great articles on the origins of ramen and a biography of David Chang written by Anthony Bourdain, my personal favorite items in the first issue of Lucky Peach are two haiku.  One is a recipe for Corn with Miso Butter and Bacon, written by the editor.  Yes, a recipe written in haiku form.  The best haiku, however, comes courtesy of Oscar, who is (presumably) David Chang's dog.  And who wears a do-rag.  "If I had some eggs / I could have some eggs 'n' toast / If I had some toast."  A dog who writes haiku.  Awesome! 

My favorite article from the magazine.  How is this not me and my friends?
Do I need to say again how much I love Lucky Peach?  While the $10 cover price may be a bit steep, the magazine is all articles, unlike many other food magazines which are stuffed with advertisements for rubber floor mats and vacations in Sedona.  The good news is that a subscription is only $28.  Okay, it's still higher than your average magazine, but I'm ready to support someone who knows how to cook and cares about food and not just "tablescapes".  It always comes back to the tablescape. 

Seriously--go buy this magazine!  Keep in print so I have something interesting to read between classes.

For a subscription to Lucky Peach, click here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I Can Only Spend What??

As many of you know, I have once again become a college student.  Third time's the charm!  I'm in classes full-time for the next two years, and my current term began in May.  I'm in one online psychology class, which is just plain weird.  But I'm also taking a sociology class in an honest-to-goodness classroom.  I love this class!  Most of the other students don't, but that's their problem.  How is this relevant, you may ask?  Well, I'll tell you how it's relevant.  Our last assignment is one for which we have to create a budget.  Sounds easy, right?  Not exactly.  We're allotted a monthly income of $674, with $17 in food stamps. 

With our $674, we have to pay rent and utilities, plus buy a bus pass and $9 worth of medication each month.  (I wish my medication bill were so low!)  We also have to do laundry, buy toilet paper, and eat 90 balanced meals.  We also must buy one "other" item.  I'm taking Orson with me to my crappy imaginary apartment, so my "other" item is dog food.  One guy in the class asked if he could buy weed with his.  I suppose we all have our priorities.  I haven't finished my budget to find out how much I'm allowed to spend on food, but I know it can't be much.  The instructor stipulated that we have to eat balanced meals to ensure that most of the 19-year old guys in my class (including the pot-smoker mentioned above) don't just live on ramen.  I think I may have a slight advantage.

Yesterday LA and I scoped out the local Dollar Tree.  I love me some Dollar Tree.  I know what will become my primary grocery source on my imaginary budget.  I found eggs, flour, country ham, frozen vegetables, crackers, baguettes, and popsicles, all for $1 each!  Yesterday I bought mustard, pickles, tater tots, and John Wayne toilet paper.  I'm sure you are all familiar with John Wayne toilet paper.  It's rough, it's tough, and it doesn't take shit off anyone!  But it's four rolls for $1, so it went in the basket. 

After the Dollar Tree, we headed over to the farmer's market.  I promised to make LA fried green tomatoes for the 4th.  I picked up two green tomatoes, a head of romaine lettuce, and an onion for $3.14.  I would've liked to also pick up the number of the guy who rang it all up, but that wasn't happening.  The farmer's market will be involved in the produce aspect of my fake menu/budget.

So far, my menu is sounding pretty tasty.  Roast chicken with mashed sweet potatoes and peas.  Roasted garlic and potato soup with chicken salad on a baguette.  Lentil salad with tomatoes and hard-boiled egg.  Country ham, potato, and green pea Spanish tortilla with a Caesar salad.  Who knew that being on a budget could taste so good? 

Once I figure out the actual budget, a few things may change, but I have a feeling I'll still be eating better than most of the class.  Maybe I should tell the instructor that I have a slight advantage and not to judge me too harshly for my menu.  I can just imagine him asking how I managed to eat so well on so little money.  I may have to incorporate this menu into my current budget!  It sounds better than how I'm eating now.

Once I finish the entire menu and budget, I plan on posting it for all to see.  Wish me luck and keep your fingers crossed that I get an A!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Carla Anne's Cookies are Now Nationally Known

I want to give a shout out to Carla Whaley (and Mark) of Carla Anne's Homestyle Cookies!  I was flipping through the June 2011 issue of Food Network Magazine, and I saw her BBQ cookies.  I have to admit that I haven't had the BBQ cookies (although now I have to), but I have had her blueberry muffins and sourdough bread.  Both are highly recommended.  Her best item in my book is her Cheerwine truffle, a delicious bite of Cheerwine, wrapped in a chocolate coating.  (For those readers not from these parts, Cheerwine is a regionally-produced cherry-flavored soda.)

The aforementioned cookies are available on Carla's website for $12 for 24 cookies.  Get them while you can!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On an Evening in Charlotte

Like most people, LA and I are creatures of habit.  We go to the Liberty East, we go to Las Margaritas.  Occasionally we venture out to a new place.  In this case, we ventured out to FedEx Office (which I usually still refer to as "Kinko's").  Our trip to FedEx Office paid off in unexpected ways.

LA needed to print out some documents on a day on which the library was closed.  The next best place to print something?  FedEx Office.  We went there on a Tuesday around lunchtime.  By the time the documents were printed, we were starving.  We could go to Chipotle.  Who doesn't love Chipotle?  I used to eat there when there was only one in the whole country.  (Speaking of, you still owe me $5 for that bet, Scott.)  Mexican was a little tired for us, since we'd recently been to the aforementioned Las Margaritas.  Our other options were bagels or pizza.  LA chose pizza, and I readily agreed.

When we walked into MezzaNotte, I was expecting a regular corner pizza joint.  Red-checked tablecloths, a counter at which we'd place our order, even some parmesan shakers sitting on the table.  Boy, was I wrong!  MezzaNotte is a very cozy and upscale place, with white cotton tablecloths, dark wood panelling, and a wood-fired pizza oven behind the bar.  On a side note, who puts the pizza oven behind the bar?  I consider it to be a small question and not one that detracts from the overall atmosphere of MezzaNotte.

The sign outside MezzaNotte states that their Lunch Express Menu is $9.95.  For lunch?  I'm used to the Dollar Menu.  But we hoped we'd get our money's worth.  The Lunch Express includes a soup or salad, a slice of pizza, and an entree, as well as iced tea.  Ok, maybe the price isn't as bad as we initially thought.

Based on the recommendation of our server, Iesha, LA ordered the tomato goat cheese soup, a slice of cheese pizza, and the Rigatoni Buttera.  I asked what was involved in the MezzaNotte salad.  Iesha wasn't sure, but she knew it had iceberg, onions, and blue cheese dressing.  I'll have that, but hold the onions!  I also ordered a slice of margherita pizza, as well as the Rigatoni Buttera. 

LA's soup was delicious.  Excellent recommendation!  Very tomatoey and acidic, but with the tang and creaminess of goat cheese.  The MezzaNotte salad is, in reality, a mix of iceberg and romaine lettuces, with cherry tomatoes, red onion, artichoke hearts, diced ham, and black olives, in the housemade blue cheese dressing.  My salad arrived with a small slice of easily-removed red onion.  The pantry cook was a little heavy-handed with the salad dressing, but I didn't mind.  Their dressing is reminiscent of Caesar dressing, but with the addition of blue cheese.  They should bottle and sell it!

Next arrived the pizza.  The "slice" is actually half of a small pizza.  LA had the standard American cheese pizza.  It was good, but tasted like every other slice of cheese pizza that I've ever had.  The margherita pizza was covered in a tangy tomato sauce, with gooey fresh mozzarella and spicy basil.  LA thought mine was too spicy, but I thought it was perfect.  The wood-fired oven gives the crust a crispy chew, which can make it difficult to cut through, and the slices are to big to eat by hand.  I'm not typically a crust person, but I ate all of mine.

We both then got a small plate of rigatoni in a tomato cream sauce, with peas and Italian sausage.  I found the rigatoni to be a bit too al dente, and neither of us were particularly crazy about the dish.  The peas were too much of a contrast with the sausage and sauce, and the dish had no real counterpoint that provided any balance. 

On our next visit, I stuck with the standard Express Lunch menu.  This time I had the house salad.  You'd think it would be the same as the MezzaNotte salad, but you (and I and Iesha) would be mistaken.  The house salad is a mix of lettuces, with tomatoes, cucumber, and carrots.  Again, it was dressed heavy-handedly. 

I ordered the diavola pizza after asking Iesha what was on it.  She wasn't sure, but she thought that it had red peppers and knew it had banana peppers.  Never one to make things easy on a server, I requested that they hold the banana peppers.  The diavola pizza has a spicy tomato sauce that's covered with Italian sausage, salami, and mozzarella.  I saw nary a red pepper.  All the same, it was fantastic.  I liked it even better than I had the margherita pizza. 

Filet of branzino caught my eye, and I asked Iesha what came with it.  "Nothing.  You get so much with everything else that it doesn't come with anything."  I ordered it anyway.  A good size filet of the branzino, which is a white fish, arrived, with a side of roasted potatoes and tomatoes.  The fish had been floured and pan-fried to perfection, neither undercooked nor dry.  LA had a bit and declared it "too plain", but a squeeze of the accompanying lemon was all the seasoning I needed for it.
LA ordered the Ariana salad, which typically comes with salmon, but asked to have the steak from the Bistecca salad substituted for the salmon.  No problem.  When his salad arrived, it was the Bistecca salad.  Back it went to the kitchen.  Why had he been so adamant about the Ariana salad?  Because it's a spinach salad with caramelized walnuts, cherry tomatoes, bacon, and goat cheese.  The steak was a bit salty and had even been finished with sea salt, but it was cooked to medium rare, just as LA had ordered it.  He thought the salad was only dressed with oil, but I think there was a vinaigrette hiding somewhere in there.  I would order that in the future, only without the sea salt finish.

The best thing about MezzaNotte?  A basket of bread is brought to the table, accompanied by white beans.  The white beans are tossed with some diced tomato, red onion, basil, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.  I'm starting to drool just thinking about it.  Who needs butter?

The service at MezzaNotte has been excellent on both visits.  Iesha was our server on both occasions.  My personal opinion is that she should be a bit more knowledgeable about their menu items, but she makes up for it by taking good care of her tables.  LA and I both had mistakes on our special orders, but they were quickly and pleasantly corrected.  The ambience is fantastic as well.  It's comfortable and cozy, but not overly casual.  While there is a patio, it's been too hot for us to sit out there.  Maybe some evening we'll stop in for one of their Happy Hour pizza specials and sit on the patio, watching traffic go by.  Without question, we plan on becoming regulars.

MezzaNotte is located at 2907 Providence Road, in the Providence Plaza, at the corner of Providence and Sharon Amity.

P.S. Props to anyone who got the Dean Martin reference from the title of this post.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I'll Give You Something to Cry About!

With the knowledge that I wouldn't be able to drive for one to two weeks after my surgery (which went quite smoothly), I've been cooking large batches of things and then freezing them.  Our freezer is full of "war rations"--little foil bricks of assorted deliciousness.  We've got creamed tacos, meatloaf, lasagna, chili, and beef stew hiding out in the freezer.  But it all seemed a little beef heavy.  I wanted something that would be lighter.  Of course, I still had to make a huge portion of it.

Last week I bought a turkey breast.  The whole thing.  It even came with a gravy packet!  I started throwing more items into my grocery cart, thinking of all the wonderful things I could have with my turkey.  Then the lightbulb came on.  I could make a turkey roulade!

I can't be bothered to follow someone else's recipe or write down my own, so I thought about what would taste good and then went with it.  The stuffing started with half a loaf of Everything bread from Walmart.  That bread is ridiculously good.  I cut it into large cubes and baked them in the oven at 350 degrees F until they were croutons.  I minced half an onion and several stalks of celery and cooked those with about two cloves of garlic.  I tossed those into a bowl with the croutons, then sprinkled in ground sage, dried thyme, and black pepper, moistening it with 1 1/2 cups of sodium-free chicken broth.  At this point, I realized it was bland.  I stared at the open pantry for minutes, hoping something would catch my attention.  Green chiles!  Really, it was a toss-up between green chiles and chickpeas.  I mixed in a teaspoon of diced green chiles and what seemed like way too much cumin.  The stuffing still didn't taste how I wanted it to, but I said "to hell with it" and moved on. 

I removed the breasts from the bone, then threw the bone in a pot with cold water, the remaining half onion, some peppercorns, parsley, and more celery.  It's still cooking.  I butterflied the breasts, cutting a slit in them and opening them like a book.  I pulled out my trusty rolling pin and started whacking the heck out of the poor, defenseless breasts.  The rolling pin also came in handy to chase away nosy little dogs.  That was the moment that LA showed up in the kitchen, looking at me like I'd gone completely mad.  "What are you doing??"  "Flattening the turkey."  I thought it was obvious.  I put the stuffing at one end of each breast and rolled them up.  LA ate the remaining uncooked stuffing out of the bowl.  I placed the breasts on a greased baking pan.  Then I did something amazing.

I grabbed the low-sodium bacon out of the fridge and laid slices on the turkey, tucking them in so they didn't curl up during cooking.  Bacon-wrapped stuffed turkey breast!  LA was in awe.  Into a 350 degree F oven they went.  I have a thermometer with an alarm that tells me when my food is done, so I stuck that in so I wouldn't have to watch the turkey.  I had more important things to worry about, like whether or not LA and I had gotten prison mail (he did, I didn't).

After about an hour, the house smelled like bacony goodness, and the turkey was done.  I removed the breasts to a platter and scraped all of the drippings into my saucepan.  Following the directions on the accompanying gravy packet, I added 1 cup of water and 1 cup of homemade turkey stock and brought it to a boil.  I cut open the gravy packet and carried it over to the pan when the inevitable happened.  It slipped out of my hand.  I grabbed the now half-full packet from the floor and quickly dumped it in the pan.  I was covered in gravy, my apron was covered in gravy, the stove was covered in gravy, and, most especially, the floor was covered in gravy.  The dogs thought they'd died and gone to gravy heaven.  LA tried to get them out of the kitchen, but I considered them to be the cleanup crew.  They did a fantastic job.

I returned to the gravy, to which I added more green chiles, cumin, and black pepper.  Time to eat!  The turkey sliced effortlessly and had a beautiful stuffing center.  I ladled some gravy over three slices and handed it to LA, before preparing some for myself.  Before cutting in to my own, I asked LA how it was.  He told me he was too busy "eating delicious" to talk.  He was right.  I thought I would cry.  The bacon was crisp, the turkey was tender and moist, and the stuffing was spicy and had absorbed additional juice from the turkey.  All I could say was, "I think I'm going to cry."  I thought about poor Kayla, having to eat dry, bland old turkey while I was eating stuffed yumminess.  I guess next Easter, she'll just have to spend it with us.

Also, kudos to me for doing most of this one-handed.  I single-handedly made a turkey dinner!  Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It's Good to Be Regular

Ha!  Fooled you!  You thought this would be a diatribe on the wonders of bran, but you were mistaken.  I'm talking about being a regular at a neighborhood dining spot.  And no, chain restaurants and fast food joints do not count.  I mean real, neighborhood restaurants, with real servers and food that hasn't come straight out of a box.

When LA first moved in with me way back in November of '09, we made it our goal to become regulars at the North 29 Grill in Kannapolis.  We went every Saturday; eventually Miss Tammy and the gang learned our names.  Then they learned that we lived two houses away.  They also learned some personal information about us, which I will not go into further at this time.

For us, becoming a regular somewhere gave us a sense of home and community.  Neither of us has any family in the state (unless we count each other), and we were both tired of feeling anonymous in the community.  We solved that problem with our weekly outings to "the Grill". 

We've since said our good-byes to the fine folks at the North 29 Grill, as we embarked upon new adventures in the Queen City.  But being in the big city left us with a bit of dilemma: which place should become the new "our place"?  We had Carolina Kebap, which is run by friendly people who serve fantastic Turkish food.  If you go there and the roast chicken is available, get it!  Las Margaritas is good, but it didn't quite fit the bill.  On one of our early outings to see what was in our area, we stumbled onto Liberty East Restaurant, Open 24 Hours.

We took our chances on Liberty East late one night.  The parking lot was practically empty.  The unfriendliest host in the restaurant seated us.  We then had the pleasure of meeting our waitress.  She was an older woman with short hair and a smoker's voice.  Here's our actual exchange:

Me:  "We've never been here before.  What's good on the menu?"
Peggy:  "everything"
Me:  "And what's your name?"
Peggy:  "peggy"

Peggy doesn't speak with capital letters.  Or inflection.  Or even a glimmer of life in her eyes.  Other servers have confirmed that Peggy is always like that.  Other servers are also friendly and helpful, but there's something about Peggy's soulless service that makes her our favorite.

The Liberty East is a diner, whether their name says so or not.  Wood spindles between booths, wood-patterned melamine on the walls, and wagon wheel light fixtures.  They also have a refrigerated pie case that they use (much to my consternation) to store boxes of cereal.  At the front, near the cash register, is a non-working cigarette machine--the old school kind where you pulled the lever and your box of cigarettes fell down.  Ah, the good ol' days.  The menu also hasn't been updated in a generation.  Not only can I get livermush with breakfast, but I can get liver and onions for dinner.  With that being said, the food is certainly worth the trip.

Liberty East has three daily specials that may or may not come with soup (depending on whether Peggy is your server), three vegetables sides, and your choice of banana or chocolate puddin' (again depending on whether Peggy is your server).  All this for usually under $7, depending on the main item you pick.  LA had beef tips over rice, which he thought was really good, although the gravy had a weird taste to it that I attributed to allspice.  I had the pot roast.  Tender, with chunks of carrot and fingerling potato, but again with the allspice.  Another server said the hot open-faced turkey sandwich is made with deli turkey, so she didn't recommend that.  I did get the hot beef sandwich and got my money's worth.  Two slices of white bread, with probably a half pound of roast beef, served with the brown allspiced gravy and a side of steak fries.  The roast beef dinner is stacked even higher.  In both cases, I was eating roast beef for more than one meal.  My favorite menu item is the cheeseburger.  Nothing special, but it is tasty.  The burgers are served with unsalted steak fries, which is a bonus for me. 

On the flip side, LA was disappointed in the gyro pita, as was I with the patty melt.  And I love a patty melt.  Neither were bad, just not as good as some of the other items we've had. 

Liberty East is where we head late at night when we're hungry and don't feel like cooking.  We've gone anywhere from 8pm on a Saturday night to 11pm on a weeknight and have been on of the few tables.  The folks that are there are of every age, color, and "lifestyle".  Saturday mornings are a different story.  I took my friend Vince to the Liberty East when he was visiting from Orlando.  The restaurant was packed, and we were the youngest people there by probably 30+ years.  The breakfasts are good, and they are available all day.  Watching the breakfasts cooks was also a fun pasttime, as I could watch the stack of eggs quickly shrink. 

A few things to keep in mind AKA the bees in my bonnet:  1) The wait staff goes out the front door to smoke.  2)  The bathrooms are clean and in good condition, but smell like mold and cleaner.  I couldn't even stay in there long enough to use them--I just walked in, looked around, and walked back out.  3)  The servers usually have friends and/or family there while they're working.  Don't they have sidework?  4)  I've seen three different men working the cash register, all at different times of the day, so I assume they are the owners and have shifts.  They all have the same accent that I can't place, and they are all exceptionally unfriendly.  One is less unfriendly than the others, but not by much.  When they're not busy, they usually sit in the first booth nearest the register, which is intimidating for me when I'm seated near them.  I heard one of them joke with a customer once, but it came out sounding more like a threat on their life.  And they never act like they've seen us before.

We're still working on becoming regulars.  Since LA and I are always together, we're a little easier to remember.  Maybe it will sink in one day and we'll be welcomed with open arms.  And, to answer your unasked question, no, there's no Liberty West Restaurant.  We asked.

Liberty East Restaurant is located at 5112 E. Independence Blvd.  It's between Sharon Amity Rd and Idlewild, next to Casual Male XL and Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

UPDATE:  We went back to the Liberty East for lunch on 4/9.  The same cook and dishwasher have been there every single time we've gone, which makes me wonder if they are ever given any time off.  The man at the cash register was younger and friendlier than the regular ones (and an admitted chocoholic).  I had the roast beef dinner, this time ordering the black-eyed peas as one of my sides.  Oh my word!  Next time I go, I may just order those and nothing else.  They had been cooked with onions, which I could taste, but they were so good.  I didn't detect as much allspice or whatever it is in the brown gravy this time either.  I practically liked the plate clean.  LA had a "tossed salad", which was iceberg lettuce and one tomato wedge.  Our waitress was quite pleasant and gave me regular refills of my soft drink.  She just brought a pitcher of sweet tea for LA.  We'd actually gone there because LA was craving banana puddin', then he didn't even order any!  It's still our favorite place in Charlotte.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Back and Better Than Ever??

Apparently, I am always going on hiatus.  In this case, the causes were many: we moved, we lost internet access, and I had a computer virus.  Luckily for all of you, at least two of the three issues were corrected (we're still working on internet connectivity to some degree).  I'd like to thank the good folks at Carolinas Medical Center for allowing me use of their network in order to download the anti-virus software I needed. 

So how's the low-sodium diet going?  Well, I'm glad you asked!  It's not going all that well.  Salt is in everything.  If I go to Olive Garden, I can have one (one!) breadstick OR half of a salad OR marinara dipping sauce.  But no dipping sauce with the breadstick.  I wasn't frequenting Olive Garden anyway, but now I have a real reason not to go there.  I don't always have the wherewithal to cook at home, so most of the time I just take my chances when we eat out.  Showmar's has some great salads, although I can't eat the taco bowl.  I can have burgers and chicken tenders at Steak 'n' Shake, so that's our most common go-to.  I did cheat and have Chipotle the other night, and it was worth a little "water weight gain".  I have to do all of my cheating now.  I've been told that, once I get my defibrillator implanted, the doctors will be able to tell how much sodium I'm eating.  Eeeek!

In my quest to (sometimes) eat less sodium and stay on track, I found two guides to assist me.  What to Eat When You're Eating Out was my first attempt at navigating the salted waters of the restaurant world.  And those salted waters turned out to be scarier than I imagined.  900+ milligrams of sodium in a 6" tuna sub at Subway??  I'm allowed 600mg per meal.  1700+ milligrams in one of the angus burgers at McD's.  Huh--death by angus burger.  The most surprising thing for me was finding out that the majority of the sodium is in the bread/bun.  I didn't get a strange look when I ordered the Filet O' Fish sans bun (and cheese). 

What to Eat When You're Eating Out is not the type of book that you take with you.  Unless you want to trade heart problems for back problems.  I needed something a little more portable.  Then I ran across Pocket Posh Complete Calorie Counter at a local bookstore.  Not only does it provide a limited section on restaurant foods, but the majority of the book is dedicated to grocery store items.  Yes, you can just look at the label on a package of Oreos, but you can also know what's in store for you before you ever leave home.  The best part?  There are two actually:  it's small enough to fit into a purse or bag, and the cover has a cute design on it so no one will know you're carting around a nutrition guide.  I carry mine in my purse.  Then again, I could survive the apocalypse (or zombie attack) with everything in my purse. 

The good news is that most restaurants have their nutrition information available online.  Since I have internet access on my phone, I can look up the best items for me when I arrive at the restaurant.  Or say to hell with it and get whatever I want.  No more cheating after April 14th!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Life in the Low-Sodium Lane

Four weeks ago, I began my new journey with cardiomyopathy (a weak heart) and congestive heart failure (CHF). This journey brought with it the need for a low-sodium diet. This was reasonably easy to accomplish in the hospital, as the catering group knew that I was on a special diet. Of course, that didn’t stop them from occasionally bringing me something not on my diet. Sometimes I sent it back, sometimes I didn’t. The three weeks spent eating hospital food prepared me for my return home. Basically, I came home with the knowledge that I could make food that tasted so much better than what I was served during my hospital stay. Tastier, and more interesting.

Along with the aforementioned burger, crustless quiche, and breakfast burrito, I also made a Southwest chicken lasagna from a recipe I’d printed out in 1998. The recipe came from a “healthy living” website, but only the fat and calorie content could be considered low. I didn’t calculate the sodium content, but I knew it couldn’t be good. I did my best to lower this by using all low-sodium products and adding more veggies than called for. I’m sure it still exceeded my limit of 600mg of sodium per meal. LA loved the lasagna and gave me the greatest compliment on it: This doesn’t taste healthy. Since we both enjoyed it so well, I plan on making it again, but there will be additional adjustments to make it healthier and lower in sodium. Once I have created a great version, I will be posting a recipe. Until then, you’ll just have to wait.

The home health care group sent out a cardiac nurse to check on me today. She asked if anyone had told me about the diet I was to follow. Only 6 different people, providing me with pages and pages of dietary information. All of which I read, partially out of boredom. So, to answer her question, yes, I am aware of the diet. I ordered two low-salt cookbooks, which arrived yesterday. LA and I both read the labels on everything at the grocery store (if you want to extend your grocery-shopping experience, take the time to read the labels of every item you buy. You’ll be there for hours!). I keep a food log in which I write down everything I eat and drink. Sadly, or maybe not, I actually kept a food log even before I went into the hospital. The nurse looked over my food log and challenged me on a couple of items. “Can you explain how chips and salsa are low sodium?” Yes, I can. The chips only had 30mg of sodium per serving. I may have gone over a serving, but that is beside the point. She did recommend that I start listing the amount of sodium that I am consuming with each item, to ensure that I am staying under 2000mg per day. After doing that for only half a day, I am convinced I’ve been going waaaay over my limit. A serving of Triscuits (135mg) is only 6 crackers. I did know that one, so I’d been pretty good about it. Some of the others were a little more challenging. The garlic melba crackers I love only have 130mg in them, but a serving is 4 crackers. Who only eats 4 crackers? 6 crackers is borderline ridiculous!

With the two new low-sodium cookbooks I got, I now have recipes for everything from low-sodium soy sauce to condensed cream of mushroom soup to fried chicken. I’m looking forward to trying those books to see how things turn out. Both were highly reviewed on Amazon, but I’ll save my reviews until I’ve cooked from both. Tonight’s dinner, sadly, won’t be coming from the new books, but is a recipe from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The dish is essentially only lentils, black pepper, and brown rice. She also calls for an onion carmelized in an unholy amount of oil, but I am omitting that for the sake of my already weakened heart. LA enjoys the dish with a bit of feta cheese in the onion’s place.

Low-sodium cooking is harder than it may seem, but also easier than I expected. The hardest part is getting used to the taste of normal foods without salt. If you don’t know what I mean, go to McDonald’s and order unsalted fries. LA said it best with, “They taste like potatoes!” The salt does allow the natural flavor of food to come through, and I’m sure the natural flavor is something few of us have tasted in quite some time. As I continue cooking and experimenting, I will be posting more recipes, including the Southwest chicken lasagna. Even salt-eaters are going to like these!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year and All That

Happy 2011!!  I am happy to report that I was able to ring in the New Year in the comfort of my own home, having been discharged from the hospital on Tuesday.  Now that I am no longer being served low-salt, low-taste food on a regular schedule, I am forced to cook my own.  I can't go out to eat--there's too much salt in everything.  I can't buy prepared foods--there's too much salt in everything.  That leaves me to fend for myself.

Having watched (and smelled) LA eat some sad-looking burgers from the hospital cafeteria, I was craving a burger.  I'm sure I could make a healthy version.  And I did.  96% lean ground beef seasoned with black pepper and garlic powder, low-sodium sliced Colby-Jack cheese (thank you, Sargento), lettuce, tomato, and a whole-wheat roll.  The burger was a bit overcooked and dry, and the roll was overtoasted.  Even so, we both agreed it was the best burger ever.  I guess context is everything.  Had we not been burned out on hospital food, we may not have been so enamored of the burger.  As it was our first post-hospital meal, we were thrilled by it.  The meal was rounded out with a baked potato.  I thought about making potato wedges, but just didn't have the energy.  Baked potatoes would have to do.  Fat-free sour cream, low-sodium shredded Cheddar (thank you again, Sargento!), and imitation bacon bits topped the spuds.  Who knew low-sodium could taste so good??  On a side note, imitation bacon bits have lower sodium than real bacon bits, so I am allowed to have them.  On another side note, Morningstar bacon (which we call "facon") tastes just like imitation bacon bits.  Don't waste your money.

The next evening, we were having company and I was feeling a bit lazy.  I cooked up some frozen "Southern-style" hashbrowns, chopped broccoli, and green peas.  This I dumped into a small casserole dish and seasoned with black pepper, my stand-by garlic powder, and some chipotle powder.  I mixed Eggbeaters with milk to create the custard, then poured it over the veggies, then topped it all with more of my low-sodium shredded cheddar.  I baked it for 50 minutes at 375 degrees, and it came out puffed up and golden.  I'll admit it was a tad spicy, but LA and I were thrilled with the outcome.  He even went back for seconds!  The leftovers were combined with more Eggbeaters and hashbrowns, then wrapped in a tortilla, and we had breakfast burritos the following morning. 

I won't lie and say that this whole low-sodium thing is easy, but it's turning out not to be as difficult as I thought.  I can't buy a lot of my old standards at the supermarket, and I'm having to cook a lot more than I was before, since we can't just pop out and grab something.  But it's totally worth it, to keep me alive and keep LA healthy.  More to come on the low-sodium lifestyle!