Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Love of a Good Cookie

Sometimes, life can surprise you.

Also, chocolate chip cookies.

I love making chocolate chip cookies, but I've never had any kind of secret recipe; I use the recipe on the back of the Tollhouse Chocolate Chips, and I'm proud of it. Of all the recipes I make, its the one I've probably changed the least. Because really, what can you change about chocolate chip cookies? How could they really get better (while of course, still being decidedly chocolate chip cookies)?

Of course, I have an answer to that question. It's Cook's Illustrated. I've mentioned before how Cook's Illustrated has rarely led me astray---their recipes are always good, and all their improvements on old standards in the past have always been impressive (their green bean casserole is AMAZING). The only rub tends to be, are all of these improvements and recipe machinations worth it? The green bean casserole, for instance, though fabulous, is usually a two day affair to prepare (rather than the 5 minute prep to the Campbell's recipe standard).

Their chocolate chip cookie recipe, though delicious and a definitely improvement, of course involved more steps. So you tell me---do these extra steps sound worth it?

Extra Step One: Brown the Butter
This give the cookies a slightly more complex, nutty, toffee flavor. Also makes the batter even more delicious to eat right out of the bowl. If you've ever browned butter though, you know know that its really easy to go past that perfect point into something disgusting. So be careful!

Extra Step Two: Rest the Batter
After you mix the wet ingredients, you going through a process of whipping for 30 seconds, then resting for 3 minutes. You do this over and over, about three times, until the batter becomes smooth and shiny. This seemed to make the batter a much more uniform consistency with nice lift.

Extra Step Three: Weigh the Flour
I know that lots of serious baking recipes tell you to weigh the flour; I usually choose to ignore this. But, in principle, for something as finicky as cookies, I understand the principle--and I did happen to have a food
scale. So I gave it a try.

I don't know if my proportions were more accurate, or if it was the batter resting , but the cookies turned out perfect. They didn't over spread, and they didn't turn out too cakey or dry; they were just the right amount if crispness and chewiness.

I suppose to really tell if its the recipe and not just luck (which is an important factor in baking) I'll have to try these again. But assuming it works. what do you think? Are these steps worth a reliable, toffee-rich chocolate chip cookie?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Ass Out of You and Me

When given the option of going to a local restaurant, or going to a chain, I'm always going to go with the local restaurant. This is because I assume that local restaurants will always be more interesting, more memorable, and just BETTER.

So the following is a lesson is about what happens when you assume. 

Are you following where this is going?

I don't want to get mean about this---because then no one is going to learn. So lets start out with the positives.

The Tea Steak House is cute, with a down-to-earth, local feel. In a small town like this (Tea, SD), this is where the old, long term locals eat. Which is always a good sign---when you see old people eating somewhere, you have to think that they've done something right to get them to keep coming.
 It's unpretentious, relaxed, and has very affordable lunchtime prices on everything on the menu. Their special, for instance, was around only $5. 

Everyone there seemed nice, polite and genuine.

Now, onto the food. This is the part where things go more downhill.

I ordered a steak sandwich with fries. 

Now, I make certain assumptions about the word "sandwich" that I am beginning to believe must be some sort of unfair cultural presumption--I assume that "sandwich" implies "something between two slices of bread" or at the very least, if you want to get generous about it, "something between two slices of something else." Unless I was supposed to shingle the fries together and make the bun myself, I'm pretty sure this is not a sandwich.

But maybe I am wrong---which I am starting to think because this is the SECOND TIME this has happened to Dave and I. The other incident involved an unfortunate evening at the Gateway in Sioux Falls, wherein Dave received a burger inexplicably sans bun. Upon asking for a bun, said waitress seemed very confused, as if the request of a bun could be likened to asking for extra marshmallows in your beer.

Yet, I digress. Assuming I am the one who made a mistake, lets move on. How was that steak sandwich?

Do you like a thick unrendered fat ring and an absence of seasoning on your steak? Then this one is for you. On one hand, if this slab of meat HAD been sandwiched in a bun, it would have been impossible to eat, as so much of the steak was not edible. 

It was cooked to the doneness I asked for. So points there.

There were other issues at this meal, but I won't go into them in detail. Lets just say, they ran out of the special, the order was delayed, and at the end of the meal, this candy display was looking mighty appetizing.
But then something happened that it is very difficult to gloss over. 30 minutes to an hour after we left the restaurant, two of our party of three came down with food poisoning.

I'm not the CDC, but it's not looking good for you here, Tea Steak House.

I CAN proudly say that I was not one of those three to fall ill, which is actually rather unusual. I have inherited my paternal family's stomach, which is notoriously known for being made of a soft, porous material that soaks up any intestinal malady around. I couldn't figure out what I had or hadn't eaten that neither of them had, so I was left to conclude that it must be something that I am consuming that they are not. 

Could it be kombucha?

 (This batch turned out great, by the way. Strawberry flavored, and made in smaller 20 oz bottles definitely preserves some of that fizziness better. Downside is that the bottles are clear, so you can see all the goopies.)

So, wrapping this all up....I wanted the Tea Steak House to be good. I really did. I was so in their corner. And I'll always be in the local restaurant corner, rooting for kitschy coffee shops and skeezy looking Mexican joints over Starbucks and Chevy's Tex-Mex any day.

But when you go to a place and get a tasteless meal, poor service and food poisoning, it really makes you wistful for a bit of reliable consistency. Even if you have to go to Applebees to get it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nick's Gyros: A Dramatic Reinactment

Scene: Open on Nick's Gyros, small Greek restaurant in Sioux Falls, where two people, a husband and a wife, are waiting in line to order at the front counter. They both eye the menu inquisitively. Suddenly, it is their turn. They approach the man at the counter.

Man: (stares vacantly at the couple, pencil in hand. He has the dead eyes of a man who has worked too long and too hard, and now no longer gives a crap about what you would like on your sandwich)

Rebecca: Hi, I'd like the gyro plate and some baklava.

Man: Would you huma-sever-mmmuh huh-fing?

Rebecca: What was that?

Man: (looking exasperated) Everything on the sandwich?

Rebecca: Oh. Yes, thanks.

Dave: I'll have the gyro sandwich, toppings on the side.

Man: $14.29

The couple pays and walks over to a table to wait.

Dave: (looks around at decorations) The Greeks really have to get over using only blue and white.

(A fifteen minute conversation ensues about the development of the Roman arch. Abriged due to complete pointlessness of conversation)

The food arrives.

Rebecca: One little piece of feta? How sad. I need cheese. I'm from Wisconsin.

Dave: Wow, the tomatoes are actually fresh. I thought they'd be gross and mushy. That's why I always get them on the side.

Eating ensues.

Dave: (eating a french fry) These are not good.

Rebecca: Are you just saying that so I won't try to eat any of your fries?

Dave: No, I'm saying that because they're not good.

Rebecca: (shrugs and eats all the fries) Want a piece of baklava?

Dave: Not really. I already ate two lunches today.

Rebecca: Lunch meetings?

Dave: Yep. Didn't pay for either one.

Rebecca: (takes a bite of baklava) I hate you.

Dave: How is it?

Rebecca: Pretty good. Not bad, but I've had better.

Dave: Yeah, that's how I feel about this whole meal. They definitely benefit being the only Greek place in town. If Oakland's Gyros was to open up here, they'd blow them out of the water.

Rebecca: Is that a chain?

Dave: (looks highly affronted) I never took you to Oakland's Gyros in Milwaukee? (Another long rant ensues about the virtues of Oakland's Gyros.)....and they don't cut their meat right! It's supposed to be long strips of meat, not chunks!

Rebecca: So, verdict in the end?

Dave: It was ok, but I have no real desire to come here again.

Rebecca: I don't know. It was kind of greasy, but I'd come here again. It was not expensive at all, the portions were pretty big, and it gives me my gyro fix. Win.

----End Scene-----

Note: Actual conversations in this drama may have been altered without altering their meaning or the eventual outcome. If you would like to perform this play at your school or community theater, please contact the administrator.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Restaurants

I may have accused Sioux Falls of lacking variety in its restaurants in the past, of perhaps not knowing what vegetables are. While I stand by my statement that it would definitely not be easy to be a vegetarian here, I've recently come to notice a bit more variety here than I've seen previously. Case in point: two restaurants Dave and I have been to recently. The first;

Don't let that classy name fool you; Senor Wiener is basically one run-on penis joke of a restaurant. But really, I mean that is the best possible sense. So many restaurants--and people for that matter--take themselves so seriously these days. We're afraid of being corny. Witty, ironic, even kitschy, yes; but never corny, and certainly not coarse. Senor Wiener knows what you are thinking about it---and its laughing right along with you. Along with the ongoing genitalia jokes ("that's a big wiener you got there" on their commercials), the restaurant itself decorated obvious, and gleefully photoshopped photos of the "owner"--- some sort of Mexican hot dog mogul---with various icons throughout history, from Hitler to Bill Clinton.
The food is a similarly varied selection of hot dog creations that span the gamut of the very simple (Naked Dog---just a hot dog and a bun) to the creative and complex (The Aloha Dog -- pineapple, pepperoni, mozzarella, bacon and ranch). I was curious about some of their crazier dogs, but Dave and I decided to go with a couple of old stand bys, mostly because we were just looking for a snack. I went with the a carnival favorite: The Corn Dog
  Alright---perhaps I should have warned you: the photos is the post will not be awesome, as they were taken with a blackberry. But then, hot dogs never really LOOK that great, they mostly just taste great (or, one hopes). The corn dog was exactly what I'd expect from a corn dog---but I did sort of wish that I'd gotten one of the more interesting ones.

Dave, on the other hand, enjoyed the artery clogging Chili Cheese Dog.
I didn't eat any of this cheesy delight, but I believe Dave found it acceptable. Yowza.

And now for something completely different...

  I would describe this place as being like Cold Stone Creamery, but with salad instead of ice cream. Like cold stone, you select your base (a variety of greens, including romaine, iceberg, spinach and a spring mix) then you select fix ins and a dressing.  There are of course also a selection of intriguing signature salads if you don't feel up to making your own brilliant creation.

The restaurant itself is bright, and chain-like, though I believe this is the first location. Taking the "Green" concept to heart, the cups and cutlery are biodegradable, and clearly labeled food waste and recycling bins make it easy for customers to help to do their part.
I went for the BLT salad (this girl likes bacon), but made the unfortunate mistake of getting my salad "mixed up," just because I wanted to see the saladista ( Salad attendant? Salad server? Salad maker?) mix it together with her cleavers.
This just reminded me that there is a reason I don't order chop salads---if I wanted my food to look like it does in my stomach---well, I don't. I'm big on presentation, and the salad looked a lot better before it was chopped up. The salad tasted pretty good, although the bacon was disappointingly tiny bits which could have been from a prepackaged bag. I could have made this salad myself. Which, I suppose is a pitfall of a restaurant like this---you should pretty much always be able to make what they make.

Dave, of course, representing the masculine quotient of our estrogen laden lunch party (outnumbered 2:1) ordered the least veggie-like of the salads. The taco salad.

Didn't look too bad, but Dave said they added too much queso sauce to it. Again, South Dakota---veggies NOT bad!

All in all, Mixed GO GREEN! had potential, and I like the concept. However, I've never been one of those girls who orders a salad at every meal---I like salads, they're just rarely the only event in my meal. This lead to the unfortunate/fortunate side effect that immediately after leaving Mixed, we were slurping malts at the Sonic Drive In across the street. So much for healthy.

Also, for anyone wondering--the Kombucha turned out great, and I even tricked a number of people into trying it. I liked the flavored bottle better, though I think next time, I'm going to try to use smaller bottles. The slight carbonation was more pronounced when I first opened the bottles, but dissipated on later openings. Smaller bottles would preserve it better, I think. No one has died from it yet!