Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sonic Drive-In: Now I get it….

For years I was confused by the Sonic commercials that frequently appeared on my television screen, because there are no branches of Sonic in NYC. (Apparently it's cheaper for the fast food chain to buy airtime in nationwide blocks.) Thanks to the ads, when I moved to Fort Collins last August I noted the presence of a Sonic next to campus; my interest, however, ended there.

But last Sunday I spent the afternoon biking the Poudre Trail with GS and her friends, and as we made our way back from the river they started talking about Cherry Limeades and happy hour. I soon learned that from 2–4pm every day, drinks and slushes at Sonic are half off. And then we were all pulling up to Sonic's bike rack and piling around the wooden tables on the patio.

Sonic calls itself a drive-in, which I thought was just a gimmick until I discovered the series of parking spaces with intercoms and saw that there was no actual counter at which to order. It's the same even if you're planning to eat in—you sit down, look at the menu suspended at your table, press the button, make your order through the intercom, and a server comes out of the kitchen five or ten minutes later with whatever you've asked for.

I wasn't hungry, so while everyone chowed down on corn dogs, onion rings, and chicken strip sandwiches, I went for a Sonic Chiller: Strawberry Limeade blended with vanilla soft serve. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Sonic claims their limeades and Chillers are made with freshly squeezed lime, and I can believe it—the flavor of the soft serve popped with a bright citrus tang that didn't seem artificial. Plus, as I dipped my spoon down into the cup, I came up with whole chunks of real strawberry. My Chiller wasn't included in the happy hour special, but on a hot day after a long bike ride, nothing tasted more refreshing.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Panino's: A place to satisfy cravings"

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Check out my review of Panino's Italian Restaurant in Fort Collins, CO, here.

And in other news, I am no longer writing about meals and events that took place months ago—I've officially caught up with my backlog of posts, wheeee! From now on (hopefully) this blog will be current. Um, until the semester begins, anyway….

Friday, July 24, 2009

Caribbean Food Shack, now in new digs

My friend GS, who I hadn't seen in probably ten years or more (aside from a three-minute run-in at a subway station once) was in Fort Collins for a ten-day conference, and I was eager to catch up with her. Mostly I was tickled that someone I knew from NYC was actually in the area, so that tells you how excited I would be if any of you were in town. Hear that, friends? Visit me!

Since she had a full schedule and only about an hour for dinner, we walked to a stretch of restaurants near campus and came upon the Caribbean Food Shack, which had moved from its location in the gas station to a little spot all its own. I'd really liked the "combo pie" I'd eaten there, and had been meaning to try their bake 'n' shark sandwich ever since. This was the perfect opportunity.

The bake 'n' shark sandwich consists of marinated and seasoned fried shark stuffed into fluffy, fried "bake" bread, topped with cabbage slaw and a sweet Caribbean cocktail sauce. The firm flesh of the shark against the crunch of slaw and crispy bread was quite delicious, and of course it was good in the way fried things always are. Though I might have preferred that either the bread or the shark be fried, instead of both—the sandwich felt a little heavy by the time I got through it, though the sweetness of the cocktail sauce went a long way toward balancing things out.

There's so much more on the Caribbean Food Shack menu that I want to try…I'll definitely be back. Also, when we left, we came upon this scene outside:
Bunny. On a leash. Tethered to a bush. In a parking lot.
Perhaps his owner had taken him for a walk, and stopped to run an errand…?
I'll never know.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Green Tea and Chocolate Swirl Cake: A treat in green and black

For KS's birthday I wanted to bake something fun, and it seemed like that "something" should be less wholesome than banana blueberry bread or lemon-blueberry yogurt cake. So of course chocolate came to mind…and when I looked through my list of bookmarked recipes, I found Bakerella's chocolate matcha bundt cake.
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Which was perfect, because the last time I'd gone home to NYC I'd spotted this packet of green tea powder in my parents' pantry. My mom had made a face when I'd asked her about it, saying she had tried to brew a cup but had found the tea way too bitter. I was happy to take the powder off her hands, knowing that once back in Colorado I'd be using it to bake green tea cakes and green tea cookies.
Bakerella's recipe seemed a bit rich to me: there were three cups of sugar and a full cup of butter for only three cups of flour (looks like I've become my dad, after all). So I decided to make some adjustments, both to work with what ingredients I had (no milk, for instance) and to make it a bit healthier. I cut the sugar by a third, cut the butter by a quarter, and substituted 1 cup of plain nonfat yogurt and 1 1/4 cups of water for the 1 3/4 cups of milk her recipe called for.
The cake still ended up tasting rich, sweet, and moist, though with what seemed like a slightly coarser crumb from Bakerella's (maybe from the yogurt? I've noticed that all the yogurt cakes I've baked have shared a similar texture). I had planned only to make some cupcakes, but there was so much batter in the recipe that I had enough for a loaf cake too.
I really loved this cake—not only was it beautiful with its swirls of light and dark batter, but the slight, grassy bitterness of the tea played nicely against the sweet dark chocolate. I'll have to try this one again!

Green Tea and Chocolate Swirl Cake
by Soopling, adapted from Bakerella

Chocolate mixture
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Green tea mixture

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2–3 tbsp matcha powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Wet mixture
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup salted butter, at room temperature
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups water, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch loaf pan and prepare 12 cupcake liners in a tin (there will be enough batter for both). You can also bake the full amount of batter in a 12-cup bundt pan.

Whisk the dry ingredients for the chocolate mixture in a bowl and set aside. In another bowl, do the same for the green tea mixture.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until white and fluffy. Add the eggs, yogurt, water, and vanilla. Mix until thoroughly combined.

Evenly divide the wet mixture in two separate bowls. Slowly add the chocolate mixture to one half of the wet mixture and mix thoroughly to make a chocolate batter. Add the green tea mixture to the other half of the wet mixture and mix thoroughly to make a green tea batter.

Drop alternating spoonfuls of each batter into cupcake liners, loaf pan, or bundt pan until they are about 3/4 full. You can use a knife to marble the two batters; just run it through the batters a few times after you've poured them both in.

Bake cupcakes for 20–25 minutes, loaf cake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or bundt cake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The cake/cakes will be done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A brownie, coffee, and a cricket at Cafe Ardour

I don't know why I hadn't stepped into Cafe Ardour sooner—it's one of the cutest coffee shops in Fort Collins (that I've hung out in, anyway). There is a kind of homey charm to the place, highlighted by the rustic wooden tables and tall plants nestled by the windows, the local artwork on the walls, and the dreamy 1940s French music playing softly in the background.
Using a Be Local coupon, I purchased a brownie and received a 12 oz. mug of coffee for free. I didn't think the brownie would be anything special, but once I took a bite, I discovered that the brownie wasn't just good, but excellent. It had a moist, fudgy texture and a fabulous buttery flavor behind the sweet chocolate. When KS saw the leftover piece of brownie sitting on my dining table that evening (I forced myself to eat only half, and gave her the other) and learned that it was from Cafe Ardour, she told me that she has a coworker who buys and eats one of these brownies every single day. I can totally see why.
As I sat in Cafe Ardour for the next hour or two typing up an article, I was joined by this cricket, who hopped between my table and the plant in the corner several times before disappearing. If he had tried to land on my brownie, I would have had to chase him away, but lucky for him he left the sweets for me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pancakes and eggs at Zaidy's Deli

In the morning after the Death Cab for Cutie concert, once we roused ourselves from bed and packed our things, the four of us walked over to Zaidy's Deli to have a quick breakfast before heading back to Fort Collins.
The place offers a Kosher-style deli menu, and inside the atmosphere is straight diner. Our sturdy waitress was simultaneously friendly and no-nonsense, just the way I imagine a diner waitress should be. When we told her we were in a rush she promised to put in our order and have everything out right away.
She certainly made good on her promise, bringing out everything we asked for no more than five minutes later, but there was a drawback to the speediness—my eggs over easy were nearly raw, which I discovered as clear egg white oozed down the edge of my buttermilk pancake. The pancakes themselves were flat and had a slight baking soda or baking powder taste to them, which artificial syrup didn't manage to drown out. In short, a disappointing breakfast. I had had much higher hopes for Zaidy's, but maybe their Kosher specialties are more successful.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hapa Sushi: What's the haps?

Though I returned to Colorado, my hectic weekend (now nearly week) wasn't over yet. I flew into Denver International around noon and was picked up by KS and WP, but we weren't heading home to Fort Collins—we had tickets to see Death Cab for Cutie, Andrew Bird, and Ra Ra Riot perform at Red Rocks Amphitheater that evening, so we were spending the day (and night) in Denver.

After making our way to JP's apartment and dropping off our things, the four of us went to Hapa Sushi for a late lunch/early dinner. It was happy hour, and we were hungry, so we ordered an enormous amount: two salmon-avocado rolls; a yellowtail roll; a California roll; a Philadelphia roll, a "Rock 'n' Roll" (spicy rock shrimp and cucumber); and tuna, salmon, and eel nigiri. The quality of the sushi was average—not great, not terrible. I'm assuming it's more the slick, hip vibe of the place that's gained the restaurant its popularity.
We also got one of Hapa's special rolls, most of which had naughty monikers ("Foreplay," "Climax," "Booty Call"). This one was the "69 Roll," which was described as a "shrimp tempura, crab mix, and cucumber roll wrapped in salmon, sweet soy, and baked with cream sauce." I'm pretty wary of crazy fusion sushi like this, and while the roll didn't taste bad, it also reaffirmed my initial feeling that sushi shouldn't be covered in a blanket of heavy mayonnaise/cream sauce. Or baked until hot. Or be served with an inexplicable strawberry garnish. Okay, so the whole thing was kind of an abomination.
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Nevermind! Once lunch/dinner was finished it was on to Red Rocks, where we spent an hour or two before the concert tailgating in the parking lot, during which a double rainbow and an amazing sunset made their appearance.
Death Cab for Cutie, performing Transatlanticism

Unfortunately, by the time we finally we made our way into the amphitheater both Andrew Bird and Ra Ra Riot had already played. I was kind of sad we had missed the opening acts, but I didn't think about it long, for we were just in time to see Death Cab come on stage. The Red Rocks Amphitheater is an amazing place to take in a concert—the sky above is vast and open, the natural rock formations curve up on either side, and the city lights twinkle in the distance. Seeing any performance there would probably be awesome, but seeing Death Cab made it just so much better.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sock(eye salmon) to me

Hyuck, hyuck. Forgive my terrible post title, but I couldn't resist—the special package TL and I had to drop off with JL were the two packages of wild-caught smoked salmon and two whole wild sockeye salmon (sans their heads) that he had brought back frozen from Vancouver. I don't know how I ended up with so many friends willing to haul seafood back from their hometowns to share, but I consider myself a lucky gal.
We cooked one fish that night (reserving the other one for LB and TL to experiment with the next night). Here it is before…
…and after! JL had stuffed the fish with lemon and parsley and put it briefly on the grill. Due to a grill-sticking issue the salmon was a little less pretty by the time it got to the table, but it was no less delicious. The lean flesh was tender and had a clean, sweet flavor. You can't really tell from this photo, but its color was beautiful too—a deep bright red many shades apart from the typical pale orange of farmed salmon.
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Photo (left) by TL

We ate the fish with a variety of condiments and did a lot of experimenting to find the best flavor combinations. I think all of us have a habit of "cooking at the table" (which is something someone once noted about my brother): we made open-faced sandwiches with roasted garlic and parsley flatbread; laid chunks of the salmon on top of salad; ate pieces of salmon paired with grilled shishito peppers or pickled chioggia beets; and scraped the meat from the spine to make an impromptu spicy salmon mixture using mayonnaise and sriracha. With four pounds of fish on the table there was plenty of room to play.
For dessert, we had blueberry-almond financiers baked by JL. She wasn't that into the pastries, but I liked their gentle sweetness and texture, especially alongside mugs of hot tea.

The next morning I flew back to Colorado with a wedge of leftover flatbread in my bag, which I ate for breakfast at the terminal—a fragrant, tasty reminder of a fun meal.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A gazpacho conversion at Danal

Early Monday morning after JF and JA's wedding, I made my way, with some effort, to TL's apartment. It had been a hectic weekend: on Friday I had slept only few hours in order to catch the shuttle for my 8am flight from Denver International on Saturday morning; I had spent Saturday afternoon and evening with friends having dinner and partying at the beer garden in Astoria; and I had spent all of Sunday at the wedding, traveling between Hastings, NY and Chelsea for the ceremony, reception, and after-party. By the time Monday rolled around, I had gotten maybe four hours of sleep a night and was feeling dead tired. TL was wiped out too, having just returned from Vancouver that morning on a red-eye flight.

But we had errands to run, such as delivering a special package to FoodMayhem headquarters (more on that later), so before we could take a nap we had to take the train from Astoria to Union Square. After dropping off the goods with JL, we asked if she knew of a good place to get breakfast and she recommended Danal.
Danal is definitely a restaurant full of charm: the decor is very French parlor, with menus presented in picture frames and all sorts of quaint knick-knacks and decorations around. Our cozy little banquette belonged more to a house in the countryside than to a restaurant in the middle of New York City.

TL went for the poached eggs with chicken-apple sausage and hollandaise on top of an English muffin (pictured at top). I asked for the lunch special of a tomato, mozzarella, and basil sandwich paired with the soup of the day, which that morning was gazpacho. I had always dismissed the cold Spanish soup as being some kind of watered-down salsa, but this version made me completely change my perception. I loved its clean, bright flavor and lightness, and each sip made me feel rejuventated.
The other half of my lunch special was less exciting. While the sandwich had arrived warm and with marks from a panini press embedded in the bread, sometime between the press and the table the cheese had solidified again mid-ooze. Unremarkable tomatoes and a slightly tough bread didn't help matters, but in the end it wasn't a bad sandwich, just not an amazing one. And it provided just enough fuel to get me back to TL's apartment for a much-needed snooze.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stove: A favorite of Astoria

TL has been a fan of Stove in Astoria for a long time, to the point where he refused to tell other people about it so he could keep the place his own little secret. I'm not sure there's too much danger of that though—the restaurant is located in a residential area far from any train stations, so a person wanting to eat at Stove would have to be pretty dedicated. Even I never made it out there until a week ago, despite TL swearing by the honey-glazed double-cut pork chops for the past year.

I was back in New York City for the weekend in order to attend a friend's wedding (congratulations again, JF and JA!), and managed to arrive in time to celebrate JS's birthday with him the night before. Since we planning to hit up the new beer garden that night, dinner in Astoria was a natural choice.

At Stove, I passed up the pork chops in favor of a hanger steak, cooked medium rare, and with mashed potatoes substituted for the shoe string potatoes it was supposed to come with. I'm not an expert on steaks, but this one seemed full of meaty flavor, though slightly on the chewy side. It also arrived with lightly sauteed carrots, broccoli, and string beans, which were fresh and buttery.
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Our side of the table split an appetizer of the Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in white wine and garlic, which was a smaller portion size than we expected. The mussels were plump and briny, and the sauce made a perfect dip for the crusty bread our server amiably refilled for us throughout the meal. We also got a appetizer special of Irish sausages encased in puff pastry: Stove's version of pigs in a blanket. The onion jam they came with was probably the best part, serving as a perfect complement to the juicy sausage and flaky pastry.

I tried a bite of the birthday boy's strawberry ice cream (the only dessert they don't make in-house, according to our server), as well as several spoonfuls of a dish of strawberries in cream. Both nicely showcased the flavor of the fruit.

In the end, I'm not sure whether Stove is worth the trek. Service was great and everything was tasty, but nothing about the place seemed unique. I felt like I was having a well-prepared meal of pretty typical grub, at a place more like a good neighborhood joint than a destination restaurant. Still, maybe I should try those pork chops….

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Brought to you by the letter B: Blueberry Banana Bread

Hey! Remember my issue with flat baked goods? I have no idea how I achieved this one, but I managed to bake a loaf of banana-blueberry bread that rose up beautifully. I almost didn't want to cut into it, lest it should somehow deflate.
I used a recipe somewhat modified from Dozen Flour's, cutting down the sugar, adding more flour, adding some milk, using one less banana (because I only had two), and throwing in blueberries. As with the lemon-blueberry yogurt loaf, I also sprinkled pearl sugar on top, which I am liking more and more as a cake/muffin topping. It's pretty, it adds texture and sweetness, and it's not messy like frosting or powdered sugar. The sugar does lose some of its crunch as it gradually melts into the baked loaf and pulls moisture from the air, but that only happens after the cake has been around for a few days. If you're sharing this loaf with other people, the sugar melting won't be a problem.

Blueberry Banana Bread
by Soopling

1/2 cup salted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 bananas, very ripe and mashed or cut into chunks
1/2 cup skim milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup blueberries (you can increase this amount, but that was all I had)
1/4 cup pearl sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch loaf pan.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until the mixture is fluffy. Add the eggs, bananas, milk, and vanilla extract and mix until combined. It's okay if the batter is a little lumpy from the banana.

Whisk together the baking soda, salt, and flour in another bowl and then add to the wet batter. Mix on low speed, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed, until the dry ingredients are incorporated. Toss the blueberries in about a tablespoon of flour, and then gently fold them into the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and sprinkle pearl sugar on top. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Remove from pan and place on a rack to cool.

A buffet plate to celebrate our nation

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For this year's Fourth of July, I was invited to spend the weekend in Woody Creek, a small town right outside of Aspen and the former stomping ground of journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson. (We passed by the entrance to his estate, and there were all sorts of "Keep Out" signs plastered at the side of it.) WP's aunt and uncle were throwing a combination family reunion/engagement party for one of WP's cousins at their house, and any good friend of the family was welcome to come. Their house is pretty magical; not only is it surrounded by vast stretches of their own land, they've taken that land and installed a wonderland of things to play on, play with, or sit around: a rope swing, normal swings, a zipline, a treehouse, a fire pit. The actual Woody Creek gurgles right next to it, and in winter, their son creates a homemade ice skating rink in what's essentially their backyard.
As might be expected, there was plenty of food waiting on the table when RM, KS, and I arrived, and plenty more would show up all weekend. I was tickled by what seemed like some truly American and regional dishes, such as a salad of peas and shredded cheese in mayonnaise, a salad of fruit pieces swimming in condensed milk, a salad of shredded green cabbage, nuts, and broken-up ramen noodles, and a dish that consisted of baking together a mix of canned pineapple, white bread, and butter. These were recipes I had never grown up eating but which are probably common to many people's childhoods. I was glad—and also bemused—that they were part of my experience that weekend. Is it weird to say that it actually made me feel more American?
We mostly spent the weekend hanging out: at the creek, around the fire pit, on the wraparound porch. Hummingbirds flitted around us constantly, and the dogs were always ready for a game of frisbee. There were many more plates of food like this one.
Both nights we slept in tents or in the treehouse, the sound of the creek a lullaby in our ears. When finally it came time for us to leave on Monday morning, we were all tired but also all happy and relaxed from a weekend spent outdoors. A better Fourth of July would have been hard to pull off elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Five Guys for a burger and fries

Guess where I had a burger?
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If you guessed Five Guys, you're spot on. CH and I stopped there to pick up an early dinner after going to Recycled Cycles to purchase new inner tubes for my bike—MH had offered to give my bike a much-needed tuneup and to change out the tires, and feeding him (and us) was only proper.
We got everything to go, so above is the large-sized portion of their french fries, but poured out into a bowl and set on a placemat (we're civilized folk around here). Like the Vern's fries, these weren't particularly crisp, but I thought the ones at Vern's had a more distinctive potato flavor. So much for the fried potato with a pedigree.
My "little cheeseburger" really wasn't all that little—in fact, it was the perfect size. It had traveled for a bit so it wasn't as hot as I would have liked it to be, but it was a decent burger, and would probably be quite excellent fresh (I'm only guessing). Two burgers in a month…not bad!