Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bring Back the Weck (and maybe everything else will improve?)

For dinner, I had boneless wings, potato thingies with cheese, and a Bud Light. We went to Buffalo Wild Wings, formerly known as BW3 or Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, weck being a type of sandwich bread served in western NY state.

First, the service was the worst I've received in years. The worst, in fact, since I ate lunch at an outdoor cafe in Madrid in 2004 and all the employees disappeared for two hours the moment I decided I needed my check- not disappeared like European waiters being unobtrusive and not coming to the table until you stare them down, disappeared like they literally left. Tonight, it took fifteen minutes for someone to come to the table. Did I mention we were really hungry, and in need of a beer after sitting in the library studying for finals for ten hours? He delivered a drink a friend had ordered before we arrived, then turned and left despite our entreaties. I actually started speculating about whether it would be faster to go wait in the very long take-out line. He came back fifteen minutes later, tried to take our order, finally succeeded, and disappeared again, only reappearing to drop our food and run off. Then it took him another fifteen to deliver our check after we requested it, and another fifteen before he would come pick it up, despite walking by every five minutes and staring directly at it. Finals are looming and none of us were in very nice moods anyway, so this was not cool.

It gets worse. Namely, the food. Against my intuition, I decided to branch out and try the boneless wings over regular ones, hoping they were slightly healthier. They may have been, if only because I didn't want to eat very many. They looked like something that came frozen in bulk from Costco, rejuvenated by a swim in the deep fryer. They received only the lightest drizzle of sauce, and the waiter ran off before I could ask for a side of sauce to remedy their dryness, so I was stuck with overly crunchy nuggets of dough. They reminded me of vegetarian chicken nuggets before food scientists cared enough about meatless products to make them palatable, or maybe something you'd find in an elementary school's cafeteria. The "buffalo chips" (aka "potato thingies", because "buffalo chips" is an awkwardly cheesy name for something served at a macho sports bar)were ok, although they are always very bland. I suppose I should appreciate it when something low-sodium comes out of a restaurant kitchen, but they're potatoes! They need salt! And cheese that actually tastes like something! No on all counts.

BW3 has been suffering from more general problems lately. The increased corporate focus on "family friendliness" virtually guarantees food on the floor and screaming toddlers at certain times of the day (fortunately, this evening was not one of those times, or I really might have killed someone). They really don't seem to be focused on the food anymore, if they ever were. The last straw for me is the sheer absurdity of their new wings saucing policy. They will no longer split sauces on small orders- how hard is it to make six wings one flavor, and the other six another? It's such a minor customer service issue, and their refusal leads me to believe they just don't care about their customers or their food. Charge me extra if you must, but to outright refuse is to incite my wrath.

I can only hope Wing Stop catches on to BW3's vulnerabilities and changes their business model enough to poach BW3's customers. Wing Stop has delicious wings (try the garlic parm!), and the most perfect fries in the world, in case you wondered.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Carbanoodle Casserole

For dinner, I had an assortment of Japanese food- ikura and sea bass sushi, philly rolls, gyoza, an "S&M roll" and a tiger eye maki roll, followed by some tapioca pudding at home. Everything was good, except for the tiger eye roll. The jalapeno was a nice touch, but the outside was very doughy and bland.

More interesting, however, is what I cooked for Thanksgiving. My contribution to the meal is a recipe from my MIL she's been cooking for years and years. I think it came from a 1970s cookbook, back when casseroles were still cool without being retro, and simple starches were in. I have fondly dubbed it the Carbanoodle Casserole, due to the preponderance of carbs. Did I mention the recipe requires a half-pound of butter?

The first thing to note is that I wanted to grocery shop for ingredients yesterday while I was getting dinner at Whole Foods, but I couldn't. I wandered around the store for a few minutes in a confused daze, before I realized that WF does not sell most of the required ingredients. In fact, they're things I'd be a little embarrassed to buy, if I didn't know how amazingly tasty the end product is. Like Minute Rice. Imagine my surprise when I actually DID make it to another grocery store tonight, only to see people agonizing over what kind of Minute Rice to buy for Thanksgiving...

Basically, you melt half a pound of butter in a large pot, add a half pound of fine egg noodles, and brown them. Then you add two cups of Minute Rice, just under 22 oz. of canned onion soup (no, not the good stuff), 22oz. of chicken broth, a cup of water, some soy sauce, some canned water chestnuts, and two jars of canned, sliced mushrooms. Mix well, dump into a 3qt. casserole, cover, and bake at 350 until the liquid is mostly absorbed, 30-45 min. Sorry my camera batteries are dead, this mess looks so bland yet icky I'd really love to share step-by-step photos.

The first time I saw the recipe, I was seriously confused at the canned carby asian fusion weirdness of it, but it's addictive. The leftovers are even better, if there are any. If I have time after finals, I plan on trying to recreate the casserole in a slightly healthier incarnation- whole wheat noodles, brown rice, higher-quality onion soup. The butter's not going anywhere, but Minute Rice just scares me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Greasy Breakfast Tacos- yum.

For breakfast, I had a barbacoa taco and a potato and cheese taco. They were very good. The accompanying coffee, however, was awful.

We went to Villa Arcos, a little red shack of a restaurant on the other side of the tracks close to downtown. It is in the same neighborhood as the original Ninfa's, Houston's most famous homegrown Mexican-American food. Ninfa's has strayed into Tex-Mex yuckiness as it has franchised out, which is why I hesitate to call it Mexican food. The above pic is of Ninfa's, but it gives you a vague idea of the atmosphere. Villa Arcos is known for the best breakfast tacos in Houston. Having visited, I know their secret- lard. So much lard that their flour tortillas are almost translucent. I love my tortillas de maiz, but these were, by far, the best flour tortillas I've ever had. The barbacoa was heavily seasoned, kind of greasy, and very delicious. The accompanying salsa verde was painfully spicy but full-flavored, and complemented the greasiness nicely. My only complaint was the cheese on the second taco- it was a yellow cheese that failed to melt well, and remained rubbery and flavorless. The potatoes were smushy rather than crispy, but it turned out to be an asset to the overall texture.

The other great thing about our journey to the other side of town is that we discovered a strange, completely out of place beer garden down the street. I didn't get enough of a look to determine if it's really a beer garden or just a creatively named Mexican bar with a little side yard, but it's definitely worth looking into.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Welcome to the South.

God help me, I had chicken fried steak for lunch. I'm pretty sure I'd never, ever, ever eaten it before, just on principle. That said, our school cafeteria cooks southern specials three days a week (somehow Monday and Tuesday aren't special enough to merit their own special), and today was CFS day. I don't know what I was thinking.

I certainly wasn't thinking about gravy. Gravy doesn't exist in my universe. I will eat gravy if the turkey is very dry on Thanksgiving, and that's it. Not being a southerner by birth or inclination, I didn't realize that CFS would come utterly drenched in gravy. I ate it anyway. It was pretty decent, and I probably would have enjoyed it if I'd been able to get my mind off clogged arteries and gooey gravy. The batter formed a nice lacy crust, and the meat was relatively tender. Accompanying the steak were surprisingly tasty mashed potatoes, a salad, and black-eyed peas. Only the potatoes were exciting. Their smooth texture suggested reconstitution, or maybe just huge amounts of margarine, but the flavor was great, probably due to the garlic and parsley mixed in. An interesting food experience, but not one I'd like to repeat anytime soon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hummus at Home

For dinner, I had salsa-flavored tortillas dipped in hummus, with chocolate chip cookies and a Red Stripe.

I don't have much to say about the actual meal. The hummus was Sabra's extra-spicy flavor, and the cookies were from Whole Foods. I do, however, have an exciting cooking tip, courtesy of my college Spanish prof. We are friends on Facebook, and he posted a story awhile back about how his (Spanish) wife lights the toaster on fire pretty regularly by using it to heat tortillas. I tried it tonight, and it's utterly brilliant. Just watch them to make sure the house doesn't go up in flames...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Oh mai.

For dinner, we went to Mai's, a Vietnamese place downtown that's been around for thirty years and is family-owned. The decor was eclectic, in a kitschy neon and glass block kind of way. I had "salt toasted tofu" and Vietnamese pork dumplings topped with bbq pork...I wanted to like the place.

First, it should be said that I tried to order eel sauteed in curry and coconut sauce, but our waiter reacted with "NOOOO. That is BAD. Very bad!!! Bad. No, get this instead (points to "our most famous dish", "traditional" garlic beef). He seemed to be in a huge hurry, and was so emphatic that I didn't try to clarify if he meant "don't eat it, it's cat meat contaminated with arsenic", or if he just meant "white people don't order that here, you'll hate it and get grossed out and complain". I know this is the reaction I've gotten before at Vietnamese restaurants when I try to order something strange, so it was probably #2 (unless you are in Waco, where I swear I was once served cat). I was weirded out, and didn't want the boring-sounding dish he suggested, but I also didn't want to risk eating something he had such strong feelings about. So I scanned the menu for something else that sounded interesting, and came up with salty tofu. Big mistake.

Granted, I've never been to Vietnam. I have strong opinions about what makes good pho, and that's about it. But the salty tofu, along with a number of other dishes on the menu, looked and sounded like Chinese food. We theorized that maybe it's northern Vietnamese, but either way I didn't like it. The tofu was not particularly salty, nor was it toasted. It was battered and deep-fried, mixed with veggies and garlic, and covered in a mysterious tan glaze redolent of MSG. The menu calls it a lemon sauce, but I had no inkling of lemon when I was actually eating it. The most exotic part of my dinner was learning to remove the husks from garlic cloves with chopsticks, because they didn't peel them before adding them to the veggies. Halfway through dinner, it struck me- the "salty tofu" tasted just like Chicken McNuggets! A spongy protein, surrounded by a thin layer of undercooked batter goo, enveloped in deep-fried batter, dipped in additive-laden sauce. Seriously, click on the photo below to appreciate salty tofu in all its glory (and my dirty fork...)

Not all was bad. The pork dumplings were delicious. The dough resembled what I'd call Chinese dumplings- white, translucent, very soft and pillowy, with a slightly chewy consistency- and was amazing dunked in fish sauce. The presentation was a little strange: dumplings laid on a bed of lettuce, on top of which was a huge crown of BBQ fried pork that reminded me of Filipino tocino, on top of which was a mound of fried shoestring onions.

Jon's meal was more interesting- a bed of rice with minute steak, sunny side up egg, veggies, and a "pork cake". Minus the cake, it reminded me of the food that developed when Japanese immigrants moved to Peru in the 1900s.

I'll give them another chance to evaluate their pho, and maybe next time they will deign to let me try their eel. I really hope it's good, because, based on tonight's experience, I'm really not understanding how they've managed to stay in business this long.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mon Poulet Roti avec Soupe a L'oignon

For dinner, I had roast chicken, French onion soup, and spaghetti squash. I was in the mood to cook, so everything was made from scratch except the soup stock.

The chicken was easy and surprisingly quick to cook- one hour for a five-pound roaster. I based it on Keller's perfect roast chicken recipe- high temp and completely dry skin to develop crispiness. I modified it by using fresh thyme (left over from making the soup) and garlic under the skin, and by cooking it in my cast iron skillet, for convenience. Despite its near-impossibility to clean, I love using my cast iron skillet in non-traditional ways. The chicken turned out flavorful but slightly tough- I assumed the chicken had been pre-brined because it was a typical supermarket non-organic bird, but I think I was wrong. Sanderson Farms needs to define "minimal processing" on their packaging. I've also cooked a whole chicken in my dutch oven to great effect in the past, but it results in nice meat at the expense of a crispy crust. Moreover, my dutch oven was busy making soup.

The soup was a recipe from Cook's Illustrated I've been wanting to make for the better part of a year. I'd been putting it off because of the time commitment and the lack of winter weather; today I caved, figuring it was better than writing papers. The first hard part was slicing the onions- I am hugely sensitive to onions, and generally either wear ski goggles (seriously), or make my loving husband do it. The LH was away, and my ski goggles have disappeared since we moved. I struggled through SEVEN onions, taking several wash-hands-cry-blow-nose-wash-hands breaks. The dog looked on with amusement. The next two hours required minimal involvement, but I continued to have trouble with onion sensitivity- the whole house reeked, and my eyes wouldn't stop tearing. Then another hour reducing the onions further on the stovetop, toasting bread, and adding stock, and it was done. I felt like the result lacked depth of flavor, and the sweet-salty balance was off. The recipe encouraged caramelization for "depth", but the result was very sweet, not deep. It may have had something to do with the onions. I went to Randall's over Whole Foods because it was on my way home, and they carried only "Texas Sweet" yellow onions, and some unlabeled yellow onions. The recipe called for yellow, stating that white onions were too sweet, so I chose the unlabeled ones and hoped for the best. Maybe it will taste better tomorrow.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

You can put ANYTHING on a waffle.

In the interest of the impending election, and general weirdness, here is a photo of the presidential candidates (and 'Ol Hillary) sculpted in hummus.

Today for lunch, I had an organic flaxseed waffle, toasted and slathered in lemon hummus. I was rushed, trying to prepare a butternut squash dish for my grandmother's birthday dinner. Lunch was an afterthought, prompted mostly by the annoying man blocking my path to the milk at the grocery store. While trying to squeeze by him, I happened to look over and notice about twelve different varieties of hummus for sale. Lemon hummus sounded interesting. I got home, and discovered I'd forgotten to buy anything to dip in it- no bread, no pita, no tortillas. The only breadlike substance in the house was flaxseed waffles.

It was interesting. Not bad, a blend between sweet and savory. The lemon flavors bridged the gap between the salty hummus and the slightly sweet waffle very well. Something about it was a little off-putting, but I think it was more the concept than the actual flavors or texture.

The most exciting part of the evening was my grandmother's mention of her Meyer lemon tree in the backyard. Her backyard is amazing- I am already lusting after her persimmon crop in a few weeks. The lemons are getting ripe, so I took a few to play with. Unless I find something better to do, I'm going to candy them. This recipe looks utterly amazing, but I'm not terribly confident in my sea urchin butchering skills.