Sunday, June 28, 2015

Rustic Buttermilk Biscuits

I adore comfort foods, and I'm lucky that I get to travel to Atlanta 3-4 times a year. I've had some great southern comfort food there. Fried chicken and waffles, great BBQ, shrimp and grits, and of course buttermilk biscuits.

My wife and daughter love biscuits too. Actually, let me rephrase that. They love my biscuits. I've been making them as long as I can remember, and I make a pretty good version of them. It's one of those dishes that's incredibly simple, but is easy to screw up, and takes a little experience to make well.

But when they're made well, they are delicious. Tender, moist, and flaky interior, with a slightly crunchy crust. And if all you've ever eaten are biscuits from a fast food joint, or from those tubes in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, you're missing out.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hidden Gem

My wife and I had an evening without our little one. Usually we eat out when we don't have our daughter, it allows us to eat anywhere we want without worrying if the restaurant is kid friendly, and whether there's something she'll like on the menu.

We had a hard time trying to decide where to go. It was a beautiful evening, and my wife suggested we eat somewhere that has a patio. So the search began. I remembered All Over Albany has an outdoor dining map. Unfortunately, their list is getting out of date, and none of the restaurants on there appealed to us that night anyway.

What I really wanted, was to eat someplace a little unique, someplace small and out of the way. We racked our brains and bandied about some ideas, but came up with nothing. I turned to yelp.

Friday, June 12, 2015


When I'm out, I tend to be pretty easy going. I very rarely complain (though my wife might disagree with that), and generally I let wrongs slide. It's just not worth making a stink, and being the bad guy. I even get embarrassed when someone unduly complains. If there are serious issues with the food, or service, that's one thing, but for little offenses, especially when with a group, it's best to keep your mouth shut, smile, and let the good times roll.

I can be a perfectionist to a fault sometimes, and while that can be an asset, it also is a curse. When things aren't up to standards, I get annoyed. I recently had an experience at a food establishment that pushed a few of my buttons. It ended up being a cascade of annoyances. It got me thinking about things that annoy me, and common 'wrongs' I see perpetrated on the restaurant going, food eating public.

In no particular order, some things that annoy me:

Huge desserts. You go out, have a nice meal, and if you're like me, you crave something sweet after dinner. But you're full, you don't want another huge course. Sometimes a coffee or latte with sugar in it is all I need. But sometimes I want something more. Maybe a scoop of ice cream, or maybe a few bites of a rich, dense, dark chocolate cake. I don't want, and can't eat, a piece of cake, or pie, or dish ice cream the size of a football.

Birthday and Wedding cakes. Specifically I'm referring to those spongy, flavorless yellow cakes covered in thick, heavy frosting that's nothing more than shortening and sugar. Every birthday party, or wedding I go to it's the same. The cake itself is like eating your bath sponge. And the frosting is essentially sweetened Crisco. Oh, sometimes it has that thin sliver of strawberry jelly in it. That sucks too.

Lukewarm food. Yep, I'm like a broken record on this one. It's my number one pet peeve. And it annoys the hell out of me.

Carpets in restaurants. You ever watch those shows on HGTV where people are shopping for a house? And inevitably one of the bathrooms in one of the houses has carpet in it? And the reaction is always the same... "Who puts carpet in a bathroom?" I say, who puts a carpet in a restaurant? Restaurants serve food and drinks. Food and drinks do get spilled on the floor. Many times a day likely. Over time the carpet gets filthy. I don't care how much they clean it. When a restaurant has a carpet in the dining room it's unappetizing and detracts from the food and ambiance.

Waitstaff who, when picking up the check, say, "Do you want the change?" Why do they do this? Just bring back the change and leave it on the table! If I intend the change to be a tip, I'll leave it there. Do they think that if they return my change without asking, I'm going to change my mind and not tip them? I pay with a credit card as much as possible just so I can avoid this annoying question.

Menus the size of the bible. Ok, I'm a bit of a hypocrite on this. I dedicated an entire post to praising Cheesecake Factory, and they have a menu with over 300 items on it. But they are the exception and most restaurants cannot pull off a big menu and do it well. When a restaurant has a huge menu, it's guaranteed the food will be average at best.

People who don't order the specialty of the house. They order chicken at a steakhouse or steak at a seafood restaurant, then they wonder why their food wasn't that good. Sometimes you go with a group and you really don't like the specialty of the house, or you just don't eat beef, or are allergic to shellfish, or are a vegetarian. That's fine. I get it. But if you want a delicious meal, your best bet is always the specialty of the house. I went to a lobster restaurant in Maine years ago. I ordered the chicken parm. That was one of the stupidest things I've ever done. The chick parm was terrible. Everyone else loved their lobster. I will never do that again.

Italian reastaurants that serve crap "Italian" bread. The Capital Region has dozens of Italian American restaurants. They all serve Italian bread before the meal. 95% of them serve crap. It's soft and spongy. It lacks any flavor. This is not Italian bread. It's sunbeam or wonder bread masquerading as Italian bread. If there's anyone who should be serving good Italian bread it should be an Italian restaurant. Every time this happens I want to take the owner by the hand, put them in my car, and drive them down to Perreca's and force feed them real Italian bread. Maybe then they'll get it.

High prices. I'm not against high prices per se. If the food, ambiance, and service warrant it, I'll gladly pay for it. But there are too many restaurants that are overcharging for mediocre food and service. This is especially a problem in the Albany area. Recently, my wife and I went to Babbo in NYC. Mario Batali's famed Italian restaurant. The food and service were outstanding. Most of the pasta dishes are around $20-$23. There's restaurants in Albany that charge that much and more for pasta, that isn't half as good as Babbo. It's shameful. And I'm using pasta as an example, it's not just the pasta they're overcharging you for.

Buffets. It makes me sad that so many people don't dislike buffets. Food that was cooked in some cases hours ago. Anything crunchy or crispy becomes soggy. Vegetables become mushy. Sauces become gooey and gloppy. Nothing is hot, everything is lukewarm.

Potluck dinners. Potluck's are worse than buffets. At least at buffets the food is in a steam table and kept warm. At a potluck, people invariable make casserole dishes. I'm sure they're good steaming hot out of the oven, but by the time you eat it it's barely warm and usually cold, and generally whatever it is, it fuses into a spongy, gluey, sticky mass.

Picky eaters. This is interesting in that I used to be a picky eater, and I think that's worth an entire post of it's own. We had several dinner guests over once and I was making a pasta dish. One guest didn't like what was in the pasta, or anything else for that matter and I had to radically alter the menu. My 7 year old daughter is a picky eater, and it drives me nuts. She's picky to the point of madness. You'd think being a reformed picky eater I'd understand, but I don't. There's foods I don't like, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and I eat them. I expect others to, too.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Fried Chicken Sandwich from God

Chicken sandwiches usually are my go to when I'm out, need to grab a quick lunch and I'm not in the mood for a burger or pizza. I've eaten a lot of them. And I especially love fried chicken sandwiches.

I've made no secret of my love of Chik-Fil-A, and their tender, juicy, delicious fried chicken. They make a good one. But it's fast food, and while it's tasty as hell, it's processed.

Speaking of processed, Wendy's also comes to mind. They make a decent fried chicken sandwich too. I like their Spicy Chicken sandwich, though it's just good, and not great.

A lot of restaurants cheat, and put chicken fingers on a roll and call it a sandwich. Those tend to suck. Chicken fingers have too much breading to meat ratio. A good chicken sandwich has crunchy, well seasoned breading, but it's also got to have plenty of actual chicken meat. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Blue Apron - A Pictorial

If you've never heard of Blue Apron, they are a fresh, uncooked, meal delivery service. Each week, they send you 3 meals, with all the ingredients you need to cook the meal and recipe cards with instructions. The only items you need to have on hand are olive oil, salt, and pepper.

We've fallen in love with it. I'm a decent home cook, and if you've visited my blog at all, you've probably seen some of the recipes I've posted. But I love variety. And as good as I consider my own recipes, I get bored with them sometimes, and crave something different.

Blue Apron is not the only meal service we use. We also use Plated. I like Plated a bit more than Blue Apron because the recipes tend to be more adventurous and there's more choice, but Plated is also more expensive than BA. We go back and forth depending on which meals appeal to us more that week.

Speaking of adventure, these recipes generally are not kid friendly, and if you are even a bit picky the meals might not appeal to you. Also, you have to love to cook. You will be doing a lot of cooking and prep work.

But I do love to cook, and I love the variety Blue Apron and Plated gives us. I've tried many ingredients and dishes I never would have otherwise, and many of them have become staples for us now. These meal services have expanded my food knowledge, and my cooking skills, and my palate too.

Blue Apron sends 6 meals, 2 servings each of 3 different recipes. You can skip any week you want, and order more servings per meal as well. They generally have one chicken, one pork or beef, and one fish, along with 3 vegetarian meals to choose from each week.

Additionally, there's no waste. They send you exactly the ingredients you need, in the exact amounts you need. There's no buying a spice or herb, using 1 teaspoon of it, and the rest sits in the pantry unused—forever.

They are quite healthy too, and run around 600-700 calories per serving. I feel good eating this stuff.

Our meals arrive on Tuesday, but you can choose other days of the week if they are more convenient for you.
Our meals have arrived!

Each meal comes with a recipe card, with a brief description of the meal, and detailed instructions on the back on how to prepare the meal.
The 3 dishes we'll be eating this week.
The boxes are packed with two or three large ice packs, and I've never had food arrive warm.
Veggies are always placed on top. Ice packs and meat/fish on the bottom.

 Most everything is sent raw, and unprocessed, with some exceptions like the steam buns here.
That's a lot of stuff! And I have to cook it all.

A closer look at the produce.

I'm making the cod dish tonight. I'm ready to prep!

Looks yummy.

Let's do this.

Prep work done. Time to cook!

There it is. Looks delicious no? Not a bad plating job if I do say so myself.
I didn't bother with photos of me cooking, because well, they are boring. The recipe cards claim it takes 25-35 minutes to make the meal. I don't know if I'm slow, but they generally take me 45-50 minutes. But like I said, I like to cook, so it's not an issue, plus the meals are wholesome and delicious, and that's the whole point of cooking at home isn't it?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Staycationaurant IV - Phoenix Part I - Best Pizza in America

Welcome to episode IV of my Staycationaurant series. I've got a lot to share about Phoenix, so I'm breaking this post up into two parts. Here's part one. I hope you enjoy it.

This past weekend, I attended the wedding of the son of a longtime friend in Chandler Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. And as I'm sure you've guessed, I was quite excited to check out the restaurant scene in "The Valley".

We were only in the Phoenix area for few days, and half of one day would be spent at the wedding. Time was not on my side. I did mange to squeeze in several interesting restaurants though, and overall I had some great food there.

We arrived late Friday, and after a long plane ride, and a 45 minute drive to the hotel, we were tired. To make matters worse, Arizona doesn't observe daylight savings time, which left us with a 3 hour jet lag. Nevertheless, troopers that we are, we checked in to the hotel, and after briefly decompressing, and meeting up with a friend, we headed to dinner.

By time we headed out for dinner it was 7pm local time (10pm eastern). We had not eaten since Noon eastern and we were starving. In my reasearch I had failed to find something close to the hotel that I really wanted to try. I was forced to exercise my backup plan for dinner.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill

Firebirds is a semi-upscale steakhouse chain, and I had been to one in New Jersey. It was close to the hotel, and I knew the food was good, so we ate there.

I ordered a chili rubbed sirloin that came with a side of "southwest" potatoes au gratin. My wife and friend both ordered a pecan crusted trout dish, and we shared a salad.

The food was all delicious, but pretty standard fare. If anything stood out it would have to have been the potatoes. They arrived so hot they were bubbling and sizzling, and I go crazy for very hot foods. The potatoes were so hot I burned the roof of my mouth, twice, (but I didn't mind one bit). They were really tasty. Mildly spicy, with tons of cheese and a great b├ęchamel sauce. The potatoes were perfectly al dente. That dish is a winner.

The next day was the wedding, and fortunately it started at 5. That left me with enough time to hit someplace special for lunch, and still have enough time to get back to the hotel, get cleaned up, and dressed up for the wedding.

There was only one restaurant on my "must visit" list while in Phoenix.

Pizzeria Bianco                                          

Pizzeria Bianco, has been called one of the best pizzeria's in America, by the NY Times, and Food and Wine magazine, among others.

Reading the reviews on yelp, many reviewers complained that the wait was hours long, and Pizzeria Bianco doesn't take reservations. They opened at 11, and my plan was to arrive at 10:30, in hopes that I'd be early enough to be in the first seating. We arrived at 10:30, and had trouble finding parking. Pizzeria Bianco is near the Phoenix Conference Center, and there was a large event happening there Saturday. It was hot, about 100 degrees, and we ended up walking several blocks in the sweltering heat.

To my amazement, there was no line, so we found refuge under a tree for some shade and waited for the doors to open.

The Pizzeria is quite tiny, maybe 12 tables tops, which would explain the long waits people are complaining about. It has great ambiance though, and the restaurant is dominated by the wood fired oven. There's no doubt why you're there. You're there to indulge in great pizza.

Our waiter brought bread to the table that they make themselves, and it was quite good. It's a french baguette style, with crunchy, chewy crust, with a very open, moist interior. These guys know their dough.

We ordered a margarita pizza, and a pie with just red sauce, and sliced garlic, to which we added mushrooms.

Look at that crust. Full of flavor, crunchy, with just enough chew, and a good amount of char which held a little smokiness from the wood fire. What I loved most about the pizza is the lightness of the crust. Many pizzas are heavy. But this is just so incredibly light. You can eat slice after slice and not experience that bloated, stuffed feeling you get from eating too much bread. And with pizza this good, you'll not want to stop until every last crumb is in your belly.

The red sauce too is very good. It's simple and very fresh tasting. It's just sweet enough, with small chunks of tomatoes for a little texture.

Is Pizzaria Bianco the best pizza in America? I don't know. But I do know that it's damn good, and I have no idea how one would improve on it. It's near perfect in my mind.

If I lived in the area, I'd be here all the time. It was without a doubt the highlight of our visit. Phoenix is blessed to have such great pizza in their midst.

Stay tuned for Phoenix part two, which I hope to have up later in the week.

But in the mean time, here are a few more gratuitous photos of Pizzeria Bianco and that amazing pizza.

The front of the tiny building. I was pleased there was no line.

The oven, and the small seating area.

Light airy end crust.

Even the bottom crust has bubbles, and is light but still chewy