Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Great Plates: Great deals?

Great Plates Downtown is an annual event in Fort Collins, along the lines of Restaurant Week in other cities. For a two-week duration participating restaurants offer a dinner special for $18.68, which is quite cheap compared to the three-course lunch for $24.07 and the three-course dinner for $35 offered only during weekdays for typical Restaurant Week promotions in New York City. Plus, depending on the restaurant, $18.68 can be the total cost of two entrees, a three-course meal for one, a three-course meal for two, or a full family dinner. Quite a bargain!
"Beef Tenderloin Diavolo," Rustic Oven
But in the end, is Great Plates really a "deal"? I'm not so sure. I went with three friends to The Rustic Oven, where they were offering two entrees for $18.68. We were given a list of about nine or ten options, but in the interest of getting the best bang for the buck three of us opted to go with the "Baked Tenderloin Diavolo" that you see above, which normally costs $17.95. I would have been mighty grumpy had I paid full price for this one. The pasta was bland and overcooked, the gorgonzola and chipotle sauce tasted muddled, and the tenderloin—which I had expected in big pieces from the menu description—arrived instead as itty bitty chunklets scattered ungenerously throughout the pasta. It was every bit worth paying nine bucks for, but not much more.
Similarly, I would have been grumpy paying full price for this prime rib from Austin's American Grill, which is normally $18-$20. Here the Great Plates promotion was also two entrees for $18.68 so my steak was only nine bucks. Unfortunately, while it was a hefty slab of meat, its flavor was tiresome and bland, and I would up taking most of it home in order to transform it into something else. In terms of quantity this was surely a deal, but in terms of quality, I found the deal wanting. I liked the meal I'd had at Austin's several months ago much better.
Finally, at Taj Mahal, where again the promotion was two entrees for $18.68, we were given a choice of entrees whose prices barely hovered above nine bucks to begin with. The food was good, but the price we paid was only a dollar or so cheaper than what we would have paid without the promotion.

For all three restaurants the choice of entrees came from their regular menu. So what's the problem here? Are restaurants not putting out their best efforts with this promotion, or is the food just not great? Maybe they were just so slammed during the promotion that less care was taken with each dish. Or maybe it's simply a matter of taste, and of picking the right entree.

I'll continue to check out Great Plates as it comes up, but I'm a bit less excited about it than I was at first. Perhaps I just have to figure out which restaurants offer the best experience, like I started to do with Restaurant Week in NYC.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dumpling sauce, reimagined into stew

Remember all that dumpling sauce? It seemed like a shame to dump it out after I'd finished the dumplings, especially because it had pretty good flavor: sweetened soy with a good dousing of vinegar and chili oil. I decided to marinate some strips of lean beef in the stuff before grilling, in sort of a bastard version of Korean bbq. At the last minute, though, I didn't feel like going to the trouble of borrowing and setting up the grill in my courtyard. I tried searing the meat on my stove instead, but by using a flimsy nonstick pan I did nothing but make the meat tough as it boiled in its own juices—I really need to get myself a cast-iron pan.

What to do? At that point, the only thing I could think of was to subject the meat to a long, slow braise, giving it hours in wet heat to become tender again. I added the remaining cup of dumpling sauce to a few cups of water in a Dutch oven, and then tumbled in the cubes of toughened meat. I doctored the brew with several cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of chili-garlic paste, and a few more glugs of soy sauce. And after letting the beef simmer for several hours, I threw in a block of diced tofu.

Because my original cut was so lean, the beef never did become perfectly tender, but the end results were pretty tasty nonetheless. Does this count as another "meal" that came out of my Chinese takeout?

China House: Takeout for the tired

Two meals, one person. That's what happens when you come back from a ski weekend in Vail, loll about on your couch feeling too wiped out to even think about preparing food, attempt to get Chinese food delivered to your apartment, and realize there is a minimum order requirement. And the two orders of dumplings are what you add on when you also see a coupon for three dollars off orders of twenty bucks or more.

Leftovers. You can always eat the rest the next day, and the next day after that.
Plus the next day after that one, until you want to die.
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The above spread was from China House, a place I knew only because a menu had once been slipped under my door. Of all the other menus that had appeared at my apartment, China House's semi-utilitarian design most closely matched what I associate with "junky Chinese takeout": red and black text, a clip-art pagoda on the front, lunch and dinner specials on the back. Exactly what I wanted.
I went for the classics: beef and broccoli and General Tso's chicken. Both were dinner specials, which means they each came with pork fried rice, an egg roll, and soup. I chose hot and sour for both.
It shouldn't have been a surprise that junky Chinese food is approximately the same across the nation, but it was. Maybe there's one giant kitchen in the middle of America; the food was no better and no worse than what I was used to getting in NYC. Jennifer 8. Lee can say a few things about that.
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I had originally ordered "Chinese Donut" (whatever that is) and steamed dumplings, but after they ran my credit card they realized there were no more donuts to be had. They called me back offering cream cheese wontons, but I opted for "Dumpling Szechuan Style." As you can see, "Szechuan style" means dousing the same steamed pork dumplings in a sweet, viscous sauce—about the same sauce as the one coating the nuggets of chicken in my order of General Tso's. My two orders of dumplings also came with two large tubs of dipping sauce. Just how much sauce do dumplings need?

Altogether, this order stretched into about eight different meals: Szechuan-style dumplings for one meal, soup and steamed dumplings for another, General Tso's for three meals, and beef and broccoli for three meals. Plus those two egg rolls. Not bad, but I really don't recommend eating takeout Chinese food for that many days in a row—unless you want to feel perfectly disgusting for a long, long time.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fries, buffalo-style, at Trailhead Tavern

After two pints each of Odell IPA at Trailhead, some nibbles were in order. Rather than attempting a full meal, I opted just for an order of fries, which came with my choice of dipping sauces. My usual MO might have been to ask for a little tub of each—I love condiments!—but instead I made an inquiry as to the bartender's favorite, to which he replied "wing sauce and ranch dressing." Turns out that perfect, crisp, hand-cut potato wedges make as good a sauce-delivery vehicle as deep-fried chicken wings.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A sauce from bits and pieces, odds and ends

Because I don't have a car, when a friend is kind enough to drive me to the supermarket I tend to stock up. And since friends who offer to take me grocery shopping appear far more often than I think they do, the result is that my cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer are often bursting with food. It's a perpetual effort to whittle down my supplies before the items start getting old.

So I feel great satisfaction when I can make a dish that uses up several languishing ingredients at once. Into this particular batch of pasta sauce went:

a pound of diced andouille, which had been in the freezer for two months;
a can of diced tomatoes, which had been in the pantry for three months;
half a can of tomato paste, frozen for one month;
the last of a container of finely diced celery, which hadn't made it into celery bread;
an aging head of garlic;
a large bundle of kale;
three softened plum tomatoes;
and the final Jonagold apple.

This last, when grated, melted invisibly into the sauce while lending a bit of sweetness; I might use that trick again. As for the rest, since most of this recipe was about using up random ingredients, chances of me creating this exact sauce again are slim. I'll just have to enjoy it while it's around.

Apples and cheese as pancakes

In the grocery Jonagold apples were on sale for 49 cents a pound, a price at which I gleefully snapped up five large, blushing specimens. But when I got them home and took a bite, I found the flesh creamy and sweet, yes, but also soft instead of crisp. Into the drawer they went—whereupon I forgot about them until two weeks later.

Since I had no desire to eat them straight, I decided I had to cook them. I wanted an apple-centric recipe that didn't rely on butter and sugar to make the fruit delicious. After spotting the tub of cottage cheese in my refrigerator, I knew what I was after: apple and cottage cheese pancakes.

I loosely based mine on The Moosewood Cookbook recipe, and no doubt my pancakes would have been better had I made a point of separating the egg whites and beating them into peaks before folding them back into the batter. As it was, I was too lazy to pull out the mixer, and added in my eggs whole. I also added in three apples (probably amounting to two cups of grated apple instead of one), and left out the walnuts. The pancakes I ended up with were decidedly less fluffy, but they were also pleasantly sweet with an apple-pie whiff of cinnamon. And to my surprise the cottage cheese maintained its integrity, appearing as large soft curds dotted throughout the pancakes. I enjoyed these immensely, and might even pull out the mixer next time to make a proper batch.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"No regrets at Taj Mahal"

Click here to read my latest dining profile for the Coloradoan!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The great bageling

Sesame bagel
It must be obvious by now that I love bagels. If it isn't, well…I do. And I have been meaning to try my hand at making them forever.

It was the elusive malt syrup that foiled me, each and every time. I had read recipes that said I could substitute honey or leave the syrup out altogether, but I was determined to do it right, make the real deal, come up with a bagel that would eliminate my need to buy bagels in a shop forever. Every time I came across a bagel recipe I'd think to myself, Gotta go get that malt syrup…and then I never would. I didn't know where to look. When I finally came across a jar of the stuff in Whole Foods while on winter break in NYC, it was nearly seven dollars and I was about to leave for Colorado.

So once again bagels were on the brain. But I was still missing my ingredient.
Barley malt flour instead of syrup
Back in Colorado, I happened to find the same jar of malt syrup in Sunflower Market for about the same price. But just as I was about to pay, I spotted a bag of malted barley flour by the register, discounted to a dollar because of a small puncture in one side. Could I use this instead? Yes!
Sponge Adding dry ingredients to sponge
Post-knead Divided into balls for first rest
I finally had everything I needed. So following the recipe posted by the Fresh Loaf—one of the only ones I could find that gave a measurement for malt flour—I whipped up the sponge, incorporated the dry ingredients after two hours, kneaded the hell out of the dough, divided the dough into twelve balls, and let those rest for twenty minutes.
Shaped and ready for resting
Shaping the dough into rings took a little more time than I expected, mostly because the dough was so stiff and dry it didn't easily adhere to itself. I used the hand-rolling method as detailed in the LA Times recipe (roll the dough ball into a rope, pinch the ends together with a two-inch overlap, and continue rolling together with your fingers until the ring is smooth and even) rather than the hole-punch method described by the Fresh Loaf. I did try the hole-punch method with another batch later on, and found that I preferred the former method because it provided sleeker results.
Into the fridge
After twenty minutes I covered the shaped rings with plastic wrap and put them in my refrigerator to give the dough a slow overnight rise.
Day two, out of the fridge Toppings
The next morning, the rings came out of the fridge looking noticeably risen. I started a pot of water boiling, and readied two bowls of toppings: sesame and dried onion.
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Following a whim and some of the advice in the lengthy string of comments that followed the Fresh Loaf post, once the water got hot I added honey, sugar, and a few tablespoons of malt powder to my brew instead of baking soda. I'm not sure if the malt powder did anything, but I do think the honey and sugar helped to give the bagels the nice shiny crust they ended up with.

I boiled each ring for about two minutes on each side. As each came out of the bath and on to the baking sheet, I quickly sprinkled on the toppings while the ring was still wet. Once I had a full tray, into the oven it went!
Boiled and topped Baked!
Pre- and post-bake.
Success! The sesame bagels were perfect—they came out of the oven looking just as glossy and browned as I had hoped they would.
Burnt onion topping
The onion bagels weren't quite so pretty—in the oven every last little bit of onion had burnt, creating a bumpy landscape of charcoal and ash atop each crusty orb.
Underbelly Innards
After I brushed off the more egregiously burnt bits though, I found that the bagels still tasted fine, with a nice flavor from the onion. Next time I will try soaking the dried onion beforehand. Or is there another method to dealing with the onion topping?
Eating time
Also, I felt inspired by reading FoodMayhem's recipe to whip up some scallion cream cheese to smear on top. So simple to make, and definitely an excellent accompaniment to the crunchy, dark-brown crust and chewy innards of the bagels!
A few last things.

1. My first batch seemed to lack salt, but I suspect that might have been an error on my part (I may have added 1 and 3/4 teaspoons of salt instead of the 2 and 3/4 as specified by the Fresh Loaf). The next time I made them, I added 3 teaspoons so that I could bump up the salt just a little in case I had simply made a mistake the first time, and that seemed to be a good amount.

2. The Fresh Loaf specifies two teaspoons of malt powder, but I found that three teaspoons gave the bagels a more noticeable bagel-y flavor. The malt addition is definitely what makes the bagels taste like real bagels.

3. I also added two teaspoons of sugar to the dough in my second batch. I think it improved the flavor.

4. A dozen bagels out of this amount of dough made for some pretty huge bagels. With my second batch I divided the dough into sixteen balls, and while that was fine they were just a little smaller than I liked. Fourteen is probably the magic number.

5. I've already stated my preference for hand-rolling rather than hole-punching when shaping the dough into rings, but I wanted to give a bit more detail. When I shaped the dough via hole-punching, the surface of the dough seemed bumpy and cratered, especially when they came out of the water bath (another commenter on the Fresh Loaf mentioned this problem, too). With the hand-rolling method, the bagels were nice and smooth. It was also harder to get a consistent thickness in each ring with the hole-punching method.

6. Definitely honey and/or sugar in the water bath, and not baking soda. Baking soda, as far as I can tell, is instead what gives pretzels their distinctive flavor…but for bagels, this is no good.

7. The crust on my second batch of bagels developed a curious separation from the inner ring of dough, and basically crumbled off once I toasted them, leaving me with naked-edged bagels. I'm not sure if this is because I froze them and then defrosted them to eat, but I did notice it more after doing so. Then again, I froze and defrosted my first batch too, and there was no such issue. Anyone have any ideas?

That's all I've got. I hope some of you end up making a batch of bagels, too, because while for bread-baking the process is not as simple as making no-knead and its kin, the results are really worth it. Plus, I'm still experimenting, and would love to hear all of your attempts/trials/feedback/advice. Good luck!

Crusty Homemade Bagels
by Soopling, adapted from The Fresh Loaf

Makes fourteen bagels

1 teaspoon instant yeast
4 cups bread flour (I used all-purpose, which was fine)
2 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
3 3/4 cups bread flour (again, I used all-purpose)
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons malt powder
2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon honey and/or 1 tablespoon sugar for the water bath
Toppings for the bagels (seeds, salt, onion, or garlic—soak dehydrated onion first)

Day 1
In a large bowl combine yeast and water and then add flour. Stir until well blended and then let rise for two hours, covered.

After two hours, add the additional yeast into the sponge. Add only three cups of the flour and all of the malt powder, salt, and sugar. Mix until until a ball forms. Gradually incorporate the remaining 3/4 cup of flour and knead for ten minutes. Dough should be stiff but well blended.

Split dough into fourteen pieces and roll into balls. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for twenty minutes.

After the resting period, roll each dough ball into a rope, pinch the ends together with a two-inch overlap, and continue rolling together with your fingers until the ring is smooth and even. There should be about a two-inch hole in the middle when you're done. Arrange each one on a lightly oiled baking sheet.

Cover the shaped rings with plastic wrap and let rest for twenty or thirty minutes before stashing in the refrigerator overnight.

Day 2
Take the bagels out of the refrigerator. Bring large pot of water to boil and add sugar and/or honey to the water.

Boil each bagel for a minute or two on each side, and then place onto a lightly oiled baking sheet. Immediately after taking each one out of the pot, while the dough is still wet, sprinkle on the toppings.

Bake in a 500 degree oven for five minutes, and then rotate the sheets and bake for another five minutes.

Eat with scallion cream cheese!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One more place to spout off about food

Aaaaaand I'm now a "Dictator" on Citysearch's 3BuckBites site. Really it's $3.99 (buck) bites, but I won't quibble.

Keep an eye out for some cheapo eats!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

From memory, a Filipino breakfast

My college ex-boyfriend was the one to introduce me to all things Filipino, and that included Filipino-style breakfasting. When he'd come to visit me or I'd come to visit him, he'd take a few cups of leftover white rice, plenty of chopped garlic, and some salt and stir up a pan full of garlic fried rice to be eaten alongside runny fried eggs and sweet, vinegary longanisa sausage. Ketchup and/or hot sauce were optional but welcome. And we ate, of course, with a fork and spoon.

It had been many years since I last ate a Filipino breakfast, but since I had a package of chicken longanisa in the freezer, I decided it was as good a time as any. Using my ex's old method I chopped up a head of garlic, sauteed it with oil and salt in a pan until the pieces became golden, and then added in two cups of cold white rice, breaking up any clumps with my spatula until each grain was hot and coated in the savory oil. In another pan I fried up the longanisa and the eggs, and I took out the ketchup and hot sauce from the refrigerator. Fifteen minutes later, I had a steaming plate of garlic fried rice, fried eggs, and fried sausage in front of me, and the way it filled my belly was just as good as I remembered.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Semi-fail: Roasted acorn squash

Maybe it was that I'd had the acorn squash on my counter for so long it went from dark green to mottled bright orange. Maybe it's that my oven runs hot, and burnt the outside of the squash before cooking the inside. Maybe it's that I just didn't add enough butter.

Whatever the reason, I wouldn't call my first time roasting acorn squash a success. It wasn't a failure, either, but in the end, something was less than spectacular about the results.
Oh, the innards tasted decent enough after I scooped them out and mashed them with more butter, more salt, and a drizzle of good Colorado honey, but really I was tasting the additions and not the squash itself. Next time: cook the squash before it gets old, and lower the temperature on the oven.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Romano's Macaroni Grill: Wherefore art thou, Carmela?

Romano's Macaroni Grill, like many other chain restaurants, has a particular shtick. In this case it's the bottle of house wine that's brought and left on the table, inviting the diner to pour glasses at will and to pay on an honor system at the end. There's also the giant plastic bottle of olive oil next to the salt and pepper shakers, and the server who pours that oil into a dish and writes her name in crayon on the paper tablecloth upon arrival.
Soon after ordering, "Tuscan bread" arrives to the table, a hot, fat, fluffy loaf with a slick of salt, oil, and dried herbs on the outside and the texture of a commercial hot dog bun inside. The diner and her companions are encouraged to tear off pieces of this bread and to dip them into the aforementioned dish of olive oil, which the server has also seasoned with pepper and salt.
While the diners are chewing on the second loaf, the entrees arrive. Above is "Carmela's Chicken Rigatoni": chicken, mushrooms, and caramelized onions in a Marsala wine sauce over rigatoni pasta. It is about what one might expect from a chain restaurant: everything done correctly and adequately, but without soul.

Despite knowing that chain restaurants are more for consistency than heart, this diner desperately wanted to taste something personal in the pasta she was eating…to see, somehow, that Carmela is a real person cooking behind the stove. But in a place like Macaroni Grill, that wish is nothing but silly.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Way to brew: Blomus Teastick

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When I'm at home there is nearly always a cup of tea at my elbow, whether I'm at my desk in front of the computer, at the dining table with a proofreading project, or on the couch in front of the television. Most of the time, it's loose leaf green tea that I'm sipping; there's just nothing like a fragrant hot cup of the stuff to get me through my day.

A few months ago TL sent me a surprise in the mail: the Floz Design 'Utilo' Teastick for Blomus, a sleek and attractive little gadget. Press down on the top to reveal a little pocket for loose tea, fill it up, and pop the slim metal stick into a cup of hot water. Swirl it around to let water pass through the perforations and voila, your tea is ready.
While the tea takes a little longer to steep and there is some limitation to how much the leaves can freely expand, I do like the neatness of the teastick. It keeps floating leaves from sticking to my lips and makes for easy cleanup, too. Thanks TL!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Strange (bread)fellows: A celery loaf

I'm not really into celery—or rather I never think to eat it. That is, except in cold mayo-based salads like the krab version I whipped up one day, where the finely diced stalks added a tiny, refreshing crunch with every bite. I only used a few handfuls' worth in that salad, though, which left me with a sizable container of leftovers.
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The diced celery languished in my refrigerator for a week or so before the guilt set in. I was loathe to let it go bad, but I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do with it either. Then it hit me—bread! I could up the health quotient of my loaf while ridding myself of an unwanted ingredient. And there was potential for interesting sandwiches, too: honey and peanut butter on celery bread; cream cheese and thinly sliced ham on celery bread.

So I kneaded handfuls of diced celery into the dough of my standard bread loaf before putting it in the oven to bake, trying to cram in as much as possible. In the process little green bits dropped all over my counter.
I hadn't counted on the earthy sweetness of the baked celery, which lent its flavor and fragrance to the resulting loaf with good results. There was a pleasant vegetal aroma to the bread that complemented most anything I put on it without being too strange. It might not be my favorite bread, but if I ever have leftover stalks again, I now have one more way to use them up.

Kinda makes me wonder what other vegetables I can hide in my bread….