Sunday, March 29, 2015

Six Dolla, Make You Holla

Among my many idiosyncrasies is one that my wife probably dislikes the most.

I'm cheap.

Well, more accurately, others think I'm cheap. I think I'm "value conscience".

There's times when I can drop big bucks and not blink an eye. The laptop I'm typing this on is an expensive Apple Macbook. In addition to being a food geek, I'm a computer geek. And in my opinion, the Macbook is the best laptop one can buy, and as a geek, I've got to have the best. But it's worth the extra money over a run of the mill laptop. In spite of being expensive, it's a good value.

Today as we were driving out to Sharon Springs, the roads were wet, the car ran out of wiper fluid, and it became nearly impossible to see out the windshield. I stopped at a convenience store to get more fluid. It was $4. That hurt. I almost didn't buy it. You see, it's not a good value. If I went to Walmart I could get the stuff for $1.97. Fully 50% less. As I'm buying it, the only thing running through my mind is, "I'm paying double for this, it's a ripoff". I wasn't happy. We're talking $2 here. Hardly a princely sum. Yet, it caused me grief.

We were driving out to Sharon Springs for breakfast. An all you can eat pancake and waffle breakfast, with sausage, and coffee, juice, or milk all for just 6 bucks.

Now that's a great value!

In late winter/early spring, the NY State Maple Producers Association run an event called Maple Weekend to raise awareness of local Maple Syrup Farms. Stone House Farm is one of the participants, and they put on a wallet friendly, $6 all you can eat breakfast.

They do it in the 'sap house', and our table was less than 3 feet from the evaporator, a huge aluminum contraption that reduces the sap to syrup. The breakfast is very homespun, these guys are not restaurant professionals to be sure. But that only added to the charm of the experience, I loved it.

I loved that I was helping support a small, family run farm. I loved the communal tables. I loved seeing how the sap was turned into syrup. I loved how friendly, down to earth, and welcoming everyone who worked there was. And of course, I loved the price.

My wife and I decided that every year from now on, we'll make the trek to Stone House Farm for their wonderful all you can eat breakfast. A breakfast that would still be a deal at twice the price. But next time, I'll check the wiper fluid before we leave.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Jumpin' Jack's is not Just a Restaurant

I grew up in Schenectady. I have fond memories of Jumpin' Jack's. When I was a kid, my father would take my brother and me to Collins Park, across the street from JJ's, to swim in Collins Lake. After a couple hours at the lake, he would take us to Jumpin' Jack's. I'd always get a plain cheeseburger and fries. I vividly remember sitting at one of the many picnic tables, still wet and shirtless, happily munching away. It was mandatory that we get a soft serve cone too. I don't know if they still have them, but back then they had these double cone monstrosities. Two ice cream cones in one. I loved those things. There was so much ice cream in them we'd often nearly get sick trying to finish it all.

Then there's the many times we'd watch the fireworks there. Scotia puts on a very popular fireworks show near the river, every year around the 4th, at Freedom Park in Jumpin' Jack's back yard. In spite of the long lines, getting something at JJ's was always part of the experience. We looked forward to it every year. In fact, a couple of years ago my wife and I took my daughter to see the fireworks there. Even with the crowds, it's a lot of fun.

Jumpin' Jack's is a local treasure. Happily it remains insanely popular to this day.

This past Thursday Jumpin' Jack's opened for the season to long lines. WTEN covered it, and there were even a few people waiting in line early in the morning before they opened, similar to the lines that form at Apple stores before a new iPhone is released. WTEN interviewed the manager, and he said, "I don't understand why, sometimes, [Jumpin' Jack's is so popular]... we're just a restaurant...".


Jumpin' Jack's is just a restaurant?

He then added, "...we must be doing something right."


I almost fell off my chair. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Restaurants don't become popular by chance. Special places are special for a reason. Understanding what's special about your business is important. It's especially important for a business that is an integral part of the fabric and history of the region like Jumpin' Jack's is, to understand, as the French say, their raison d'être. 

What is Jumpin' Jack's "reason for being"?

Jumpin' Jack's is not about the food.


If I want a great burger, I'll go to Five Guys. If I want a great fish fry, I'll go to Ted's. I could go on, but you get the point.

Not that I don't enjoy the food. I do, and of course the throngs of crowds they attract enjoy the food too. But that's not what makes it special. The food alone is not the attraction. The entire experience is the attraction. Take Jumpin' Jack's and put it in the mall food court and it would likely fail. Because frankly, while the food is good, it's not unique, and there are better versions of what they sell everywhere.

How many Five Guys have picnic tables overlooking the Mohawk? How many Ted's Fish Fry have a hugely popular fireworks show in their back yard? How many restaurants have a large and beautiful park just steps away?

How many have all of that together?

Go to Jumpin' Jack's. Go with family and friends. Get something to eat, and have a cone afterward. Sit at a picnic table and enjoy the breeze. Then go down to the river and skip some stones. Or go over to Collins Park, and let the little ones' play on the swings and slides. Bring a frisbee, or a ball and glove, or a basketball. Or go see one of the live music events at Freedom Park. Or stay for the fireworks.

Nope, Jumpin' Jack's is not just a restaurant.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Trader Joe's Bacon Jerky

I was leafing through the pile of junk mail we get everyday, and in that mess was the March edition of the Fearless Flyer. Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer is their monthly mailing in which they highlight new and not so new items for sale at the stores. It's written in a quaint, campy, conversational tone and is fun to look through.

One of the things that makes TJ's special, are it's excellent house brand processed foods. Everyone has their favorites. Currently, some of mine are the mac-n-cheese bites (these are worthy of their own post), the mini mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches, and I'm also a fan of their Indian inspired frozen entrées, among others. They are constantly introducing new, interesting items, so the flyer is worth a look. You can pick it up at the store or sign up for it on their website.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

In Defense of The Cheesecake Factory

I don't know if there's a chain that is more divisive among restaurant goers than The Cheesecake Factory. There seems to be no middle ground. People either love it, or hate it. But it seems to endear a special distaste with foodies', those for whom food and restaurants are more a hobby and obsession than they are sustenance.

It's detractors cite The Cheesecake Factory's gaudy, almost circus like decor as offensive. They find fault with it's menu that gives new meaning to the word vast. They especially dislike the portions, which for some dishes are enormous. Worse, The Cheesecake Factory has a penchant for butter and cream, and many of the dishes have astronomical calorie counts as a result. 

To complicate matters, on a recent visit, I was handed no less than three menus. The regular menu—that has dozens of dishes on it—the relatively new 'Skinnylicious' menu, and what was new to me, a happy hour menu. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Ghost Chili Hot Sauce at Mokomandy

About once a year I travel to the Washington DC area for work. When I travel, it's always difficult to find good restaurants—sorry, let me rephrase that—it's difficult to find special restaurants. I'm talking about places that are unique, and have dishes that are memorable. The kind of dishes you don't forget about the next day. Dishes you dream about long after you've eaten them.

Thanks to a question I asked on one of the message boards on yelp, I found such a place. Mokomandy.

Mokomandy is very much like a gastropub. Gastropubs take typical bar food and kick it up a notch. They turn dishes you've had a thousand times, and transform them into something special by using higher quality ingredients, and preparing them in unique and interesting ways.

Mokomandy is a mashup of Korean, Cajun and American food. Korean and Cajun? Now that's special. They also have an excellent beer selection, and a creative cocktail menu. The food is primarily Korean and Cajun comfort dishes. I enjoyed everything I had there but one thing stood out as extra special. The house made ghost chili hot sauce.

Ghost Chilis or Bhut Jolokia, as they are also known are the hottest chili peppers in the world. Chili peppers are rated on what's called the Scoville scale, which measures a chili's heat. For comparison, jalapeños are rated at between 3 and 8 thousand Scoville units. Ghost Peppers are rated at over 1 MILLION. That's about 200 times hotter than a jalapeño! Yikes.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Popcorn at Madison Theater

The Madison Theatre before World War II
The Madison Theater on Madison Ave. in Albany first opened in 1929, 86 years ago. It survived the Great Depression and—from what I can glean from the few articles written about it—it managed to largely stay open until about 2004 when the CVS next door proposed demolishing it to make room for a drive thru.

Thankfully it survived and in 2013 the owners of Tierra Coffee Roasters who ran the adjacent coffee shop, purchased the theater and completely gutted, and refurbished it. It now houses three small (90-120 seat) screens, and an 168 seat performance space. It reopened in early 2014 showing old movies and newer, second run flicks. I've seen 3 movies there, and the theaters are nice. They have wonderfully comfortable chairs that recline, and modern surround sound systems. It's a great venue to see a movie, especially if you're a movie buff who's into classics. They run a lot of classics and it's a blast to see old favorites on the big screen.

It was the popcorn though, that really got my attention.
Coconut oil popped

Friday, March 13, 2015

Easy Roast Chicken

We eat out a lot. I love eating out. I like to try different places and different foods, plus there's no mess to cleanup at home. But I also cook a lot. And certainly we eat at home far more than we eat out.

I'm the designated cook in the house. I do 95% of the cooking. When I first got into cooking about a decade ago, I was into making complicated, fancy dishes. Dishes that require prep time and lots of ingredients. "I'm a good cook and I'm going to show off dammit!"

That didn't last.

I still enjoy making fancy dishes, but doing that everyday just doesn't fly. Who has the time? Or who has the cash to invest in all kinds of ingredients that may get used only once and then sit around? I've learned that day in and day out, simple, but tasty, and wholsome dishes are the way to go. See my quick sauce recipe for a good example of that.

Today I want to share my roast chicken method. I guess you could call it a recipe, but it's more a method than a recipe. It's super simple, and oven time aside, it's quick.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Infamous Swifty’s Buffalo Burger

The Buffalo Burger at Swifty’s is world renown. A couple of years ago I traveled to a remote village in the mountains of Tibet. When the locals found out I was from the U.S. and specifically from Albany NY, they raised their eyebrows and with palpable excitement asked if had I eaten the Buffalo burger at Swifty’s. I had to tell them no, I hadn’t. They were crestfallen. I think from that point on they no longer respected me. At that moment, I vowed I would one day eat this mythical creation. 

The Buffalo Burger is a breaded, deep fried beef patty that’s then dipped in Buffalo sauce—wing sauce as I like to call it. To bread and deep fry a 1/2 pound beef patty is gilding the lily to say the least. To then soak it in wing sauce is diabolical. The thing is not for the faint of heart. Only the gastronomically jaded need apply.

One does not just go to Swifty’s and eat the Buffalo Burger. One trains for it, the way an Olympic athlete trains for the games. Yet, weeks or even months of preparation cannot truly gird one for the experience I knew I was about to embark on.

But that didn’t stop me from trying.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

My Secret

Many have a food that they guiltily eat in secret. A food they secretly love. Maybe it's incredibly unhealthy. Maybe it's something others sneer at as not worthy of culinary consideration. Perhaps it's so over-the-top indulgent they're embarrassed to admit they enjoy it.

For me, one of those foods is Kraft macaroni and cheese.

Did I just hear you quietly scoff under your breath? Suspend your disdain for a moment, because Kraft mac-n-cheese, done right, is one of life's little joys.

Kraft mac-n-cheese is a kid favorite. They love it. My daughter constantly requests we make it for her. It's so popular that some restaurants have it on their kids menu. It's easy to dismiss it as kiddie food, something an adult palate would never bother with. It's also neon orange. The color is totally fake. It's outrageously bright orange. It's as if it were saying "Hey, look at me!" It has no real cheese in it. The ingredients list reads like a college level science exam. Plus, it has no nutritional value other than carbs and a little protein.

In spite of all the negatives, the kids are on to something. Because it's diabolically delicious.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Quick! Sauce

Mmm, pasta. Who doesn't love a big steaming hot bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, tossed in a savory, slightly sweet, and herby tomato sauce? Or a giant slice of lasagna, loaded with ricotta and sausage?

Examples of pasta have been discovered in China dating back some 4,000 years ago, millennia before the Italians are credited with popularizing it. But some suggest the Chinese version is technically a noodle and not pasta. Apparently the two are not the same.

No matter. Whether created by the Italians, or the Chinese, pasta is delicious, and is as much a part of American culture as pizza, hot dogs, or apple pie.

There are as many different sauces as there are pasta shapes. Bolognese, Alfredo, aglio e olio (garlic and oil), the list goes on. But none are as popular, and arguably as delicious, as the classic tomato sauce.

Today I want to convince you to make your own tomato sauce and skip store bought jarred sauce.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Cookie Monster

I have a monster in my home. A seven year old monster, with brown eyes and dirty blonde hair. It weighs 45 lbs, and has the face of an angel. It's obsessed with the color pink, and has an affinity for fluffy stuffed things. It also gobbles up anything sweet, in the blink of an eye.

The monster of course is my daughter. She loves cookies, but what kid doesn't? She also loves to help in the kitchen. She gets in the way more than helping actually, but that's ok. My hope is that one day she'll share Dad's passion for food. Letting her participate in making meals can only foster that. We even bought a little stool she can stand on to reach the counter. It's pink.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bad Chain Restaurants

I have a love-hate relationship with chain restaurants. Like anything, there are good ones, and there are bad ones. But not everyone agrees. Mention Cheesecake Factory among a group of foodies and the groans and sneers will be palpable. This, in spite of the fact that Cheesecake Factory is actually one of the better chains in America today.

I have a fascination with bad chain restaurants. I'm like a deer in the headlights when I discover one. Like a car wreck on the highway, I can't help but stare. I can't look away. There is just something about eating really bad, really cheap food that I enjoy. Oddly, I'm attracted to places that are guaranteed—pardon the pun—to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. It's masochistic. I know.

I recently scratched my bad chain itch by dining at CiCi's Pizza. Though calling it dining is a stretch.