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MLB and I spent last week at Horseshoe Bay, and it turned into quite a busy time. (Important Note: The following is the equivalent of showing blurry vacation slides from that trip with your parents to Knott's Berry Farm to captive friends who reciprocate by never coming back to your house, even when tempted by a Pecan Log from Stuckey's. If it will help, try to imagine me narrating this in Samuel L. Jackson's voice.)

Horseshoe Bay is a little different than many places this time of year...it's less crowded and quieter because a lot of folks with lake houses aren't particularly interested in boating or skiing in winter weather (although the typical Hill Country winter isn't what you'd call brutal). Nevertheless, we managed to fill our schedule with some memorable events. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday

We were invited by friends to attend a Celtic music concert in nearby Marble Falls. None of us knew what to expect from the event, which was a fundraiser for The Phoenix Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental health services to children and their parents. The concert, billed as "A Celtic Christmas," was held in the Uptown Theater, a renovated 40s-era movie theater which, despite its name, is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Marble Falls. It's a funky little place, very cool in its own way, and provided an intimate setting for what turned out to be a surprisingly delightful three hours of music.

The evening featured two musical groups. First to perform was The Here & Now, a quartet of Austin- and Dallas-based musicians. The fiddle player, Niamh Fahy, is an Irish lass who serves as a music therapist for The Phoenix Center. She was also the driving force behind organizing the event.

The Here & Now perform what I'd call traditional Irish music, although I'm hardly an expert in the genre. It's contemplative and lively by turns, and always lyrical.

The Here & Now
The Here & Now

It's worth mentioning that we were seated next to the stage, so we had a great view of the proceedings, which included some impressive dancing by Emily and Gavin, a couple of youngsters with extremely quick feet.

Emily and Gavin
Irish dancers Emily and Gavin

Gavin did step dancing (usually associated with productions like Riverdance), while Emily's specialty was old-style. I know this only because I visited with her during intermission where I succumbed to her atomic-powered dimple and bought one of the group's CDs.

Following that intermission, the trio known as Celjun took the stage. Celjun is a band based in Lafayette, Louisiana, and they specialize in a music amalgam of Celtic and Cajun genres (hence their name, right?). Their music is a bit more raucous...probably something you'd expect to hear around midnight in an Irish pub (not that I'm personally knowledgeable about that). I was most impressed with the skills of Pete Dawson, the flautist/whistle player (whistleist?) who hails from Baton Rouge. If you want a sample of his music, check out this video beginning at the 3 minute mark.

Celjun
Ireland + Cajun Country = Celjun

Sunday

We took a day of rest from social activities and enjoyed some beautiful weather and a nice afternoon bike ride. And, as usual, Mother Nature provided some entertainment.

The Hill Country isn't really known for its fall foliage, but you can run across some spectacular, if isolated, examples.

Fall colors
Beautiful fall color

Beauty in nature comes in different shapes and sizes. MLB spotted this amazing fungus during one of our bike rides, and I later returned to photograph it.

Tree fungus
It Came From Beyond: fungus growing on tree stump

There's an owl who (get it..."who...who..." OK, never mind.) hangs around our house. He (or she) is elusive, and I generally spot her (him) only as a shadow gliding through the trees...until now:

Owl in tree
The Watched watches the Watcher

There's one more encounter with the animal kingdom I want to share, but in the interest of building suspense, it will come at the end. Please try to stay awake.

Monday

One of the primary purposes of this trip was to attend the annual Horseshoe Bay Members Christmas Party, a free dinner and dance held at the resort. It occurs on a Monday to reduce attendance (my theory, anyway), but if that's an effective strategy, it was difficult to discern based on the turnout. Anyway, we enjoyed the company of close friends as well as acquaintances old and new, and even got to do a little dancing.

Music was provided by the David Young Band, an Austin-based group featuring musicians who can play basically anything in any genre (we got everything from At Last to Uptown Funk).

This was our third time to attend this event, and we learned early on that a 20' x 20' dance floor doesn't accommodate the 500 or so people who want to dance, so our best bet was to get in some steps early on, while most people were still in the buffet lines. But the evening had an inauspicious start, because some sound system problems seemed to have the keyboard player doing a different song than the rest of the band, and we were all confused.

They finally got that sorted out and we were treated to a song we could actually dance to. But...it was a tango. Nobody outside of the movies plays a tango at a party...primarily because nobody actually knows how to do a tango. OK, that's an exaggeration, because, well...WE do. And so we did, alone on the floor (until mid-way through the song, an(other) older couple joined us). It was actually pretty great, and someone claimed that one table gave us a standing ovation at the end, although I'm pretty sure they were just heading for the open bar for vodka shots.

David Young Band
The David Young Band - Don't be fooled by the suits; they can boogie.

Later in the evening, the dance floor resembled a mosh pit, if mosh pits are ever populated by over-50 affluent wine-infused white folks in sparkly clothes. But I admit when the band led the crowd in doing The Stroll during an extended version of Uptown Funk, it was magically surreal.

Oh, did I mention that the whole thing was free?

Tuesday (hang in there; we're almost halfway finished)

Tuesday's plans centered around Christmas lights. But we first had a significant civic event to attend.

Today was the ribbon cutting for the new Horseshoe Creek Hiking Trail, and a pretty good crowd turned out in beautiful sunny weather for the event.

The trail begins near the Horseshoe Bay Mausoleum ("New niches coming soon!"), located on one of the highest spots overlooking Lake LBJ, and meanders along the Creek for just over two miles, down to Highway 2147. It's not a treacherous trek, but it is strenuous...hiking boots and a sturdy stick are recommended. We haven't yet done the hike, but it's on our "definite to-do" list.

The land for the trail was donated by Wayne and Eileen Hurd, who have donated untold amounts of acreage for civic use in the area. Mr. Hurd passed away in 2011, but Mrs. Hurd was present for the ribbon cutting.

Horseshoe Creek ribbon cutting
Eileen Hurd (center) cuts the ribbon to open the Horseshoe Creek Trail

I didn't even know that Horseshoe Creek existed, and it was a revelation to see (and hear) the live water coursing down and through the hills. I'm not sure it's always so energetic, but recent heavy rainfall had a wondrous effect.

Horseshoe Creek
Horseshoe Creek - a view from the new trail

That evening, we headed 20 minutes south to Johnson City with friends to take in the vaunted downtown square display. Each year, the courthouse and surrounding businesses go all out with lighted displays; the courthouse alone is draped with more than 100,00 lights.

We ate dinner at the Pecan Street Brewery (I heartily recommend the Pecan Sweet Fried Chicken), located directly across from the courthouse. After dinner, we braved the chill wind to walk around the square before heading back to HSB.

Christmas lights on the Johnson City square
A Christmas display on the Johnson City square

Christmas lights on the Johnson City courthouse
The lighted courthouse

The display was impressive enough to make the trip worthwhile. But wait! There's more!

On the way out of town, we pulled onto Highway 290 and something caught our eyes a couple of blocks away. Well, it would have been difficult to miss it, as it resembled nothing less than a premature sunrise, or perhaps a nuclear plant meltdown. Intrigued, we drove to the display on the grounds of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative headquarters, where we were greeted by a score of huge oak trees adorned with what we would later learn are 1.2 MILLION LED lights. Holy cow...I earlier described something as surreal, but this took the concept to a whole new level.

Lights on the PEC trees
Our electric bill payments at work

PEC has been doing this display for more than a quarter century; the blue lights were added in celebration of the organization's 75th anniversary a few years ago, and they apparently were popular enough (or difficult enough to remove) that they've remained.

Once our retinas recovered enough to drive safely back home, we resolved to drive into Mable Falls to view that community's annual Christmas display. In retrospect, we should have done that first, because pretty much anything will pale in comparison (both figuratively and literally) to the PEC installation. 

The town's "Walkway of Lights" has a gorgeous setting on the bank of Marble Falls Lake, and it's laid out as an out-and-back route of perhaps a quarter mile through hundreds of random holiday displays. It's a pretty impressive installation for a small town. It boasts of more than 2 million lights and 400 displays, but frankly, spread out over such a wide area, it's not as dramatic as some others (*cough* PEC *cough*).

Marble Falls Walkway of Lights
The entrance to the Walkway of Lights

On the other hand, it probably is more kid-friendly (not quite as overwhelming to the senses), and there were quite a few families exploring the trail.

We were a bit disappointed at how many "sculptures" had non-functioning lights; I guess it's hard to stay on top of 2 million of them. And the displays became a little repetitive. You can have only so many Santa-and-reindeer tableaus before they start to run together. There were some imaginative ones, though: Santa riding a jet ski; Santa in a helicopter; Santa gutting a reindeer to make jerky. OK, I made that last one up. But this is hunting country, so...

Wednesday

Nothing happened on Wednesday. Well, other than...

We made a day trip to San Antonio to do some Christmas shopping at La Cantera and The Rim. Despite the proximity to Christmas, both areas were remarkably calm, which was a pleasant surprise. 

By the way, if you're driving in from the north on Highway 281 and that area is your general destination, I strongly recommend exiting onto FM 473 a few miles south of Blanco and driving through Kendalia, then on to I-10, where you'll enter the interstate just a couple of miles from the Fiesta Texas exit. Believe me, even with the winding road and lower speed limit, you'll come out ahead by avoiding 281 as it enters San Antonio. Plus it's a much more scenic drive. Just try to come back before dark, as the deer encounters might be a bit intense.

On the way home, shortly before 5:00, MLB was noodling around on her phone and discovered that Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate were playing that evening at Pardner's in Lake Buchanan. Pardner's is an old-fashioned honky-tonk that features a decent dance floor, a live band every Wednesday night, and a crowd demographic that skews AARP-wardly. (The live music begins at 6:30 and ends at 9:30, so that should give you a clue.)

If you've never heard of 8 From the Gate (Quick...can you identify the source of the band's name? The answer is helpfully provided below.), don't feel bad; neither had we. But the music that MLB streamed sounded danceable, and we decided to forego dinner to get in some two-stepping before heading over to some friends' home to drop off a gift.

We arrived around 6:45 and the dance was in full swing. We recognized several of the folks in attendance, either from other dance venues, or from previous trips to Pardner's. It's a place for regulars, and you can count on most of the same people showing up every Wednesday.

Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate at Pardner's
Can't see it in the photo, but it was almost a cliche that
the steel guitarist played with a lit cigarette in his hand


It's a great place for people watching (we were particularly intrigued this night by the man pushing 80 years and 300 pounds, sporting a straw hat and denim overalls tucked inside cowboy boots, whose dance style was primarily limited to walking around the floor with much younger women...that is, until the band played Dwight Yoakam's Fast As You, and then he absolutely rocked out), and everyone is pretty friendly. As you might expect, the crowd isn't rowdy; the biggest downside is that it's not a non-smoking venue, and despite having a good ventilation system, we always leave feeling a little smoky.

The music was good, and we got in more than an hour of dancing before heading back to our appointment in HSB.

I mentioned that we had skipped dinner; dancing always trumps eating, but we were a bit peckish and intended to go to Marble Falls for a Whataburger or something equally...fast...after a quick visit with our friends.

However, it's good to have a gourmet cook for a friend, because they also had not eaten and were laying out a spread of leftovers that rivaled anything we had consumed thus far on the trip (up to and including chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates and homemade chocolate-and-coconut truffles). Maybe next time, Whataburger.

Thursday (at last)


We spent the day at home taking care of some chores. The high point of the day (and perhaps the week) was when I discovered - following several frustrating nights of lukewarm-to-cold showers - that the hot and cold water connections on the shower were actually reversed, and all the work I had done to recalibrate the scald preventer in an attempt to get more hot water was actually just providing more cold. Sometimes, the best solutions are the easiest; I'm just glad I didn't give in to the impulse to call out a plumber, who would no doubt be blogging now about yet another idiot customer. 

And, incidentally, those of you who are more deeply steeped in the arcane plumbing arts are probably wondering what good a scald preventer does in a case like that. I can answer that with an assertive "none." In my defense, the mere presence of that device kept me from trying the ultimate solution until I simply ran out of options.

Following a wonderfully steaming shower, we headed for nearby Spicewood with our dear friends to observe a long-standing Christmas tradition of buying each others' dinners instead of exchanging gifts. They had recommended Apis as a good place for a special dinner, and it was.

Apis is one of those farm-to-table eateries that are all the rage nowadays; it's also an apiary, in case you're into bees (and who isn't?). Their menus are prix fixe, which is French for "you're gonna need a bigger wallet," so it's probably never going to be a replacement for the Bluebonnet Cafe. However, it serves nicely as a celebratory spot for special occasions.

Apis specializes in what I refer to as foo-foo food. You know, the dishes that are comprised of ingredients that require several adjectives to impress upon you their elegance and sophistication: it's not just crab, it's "Peekytoe Crab"; why serve mere pastrami when you have access to "Veal Brisket Pastrami"; and a simple radish can never compete with an "Easter Egg Radish." In other words, you pay by the adjective.

All kidding aside, the food was great, the atmosphere warm, and the service knowledgeable with just the right amount of solicitousness. Highlights for me included an appetizer of charred Spanish octopus (a whole tentacle, and I was able to resist the temptation to wrestle it, Lloyd Bridges-style, much to the relief of my table mates), and the Honey and Crème Fraiche Gateau, a dessert topped with a tiny curl of crispy honeycomb. OTOH, there was a small miss: I couldn't resist trying a sardine-based "snack" (which was sort of a pre-appetizer appetizer). I was interested to see what kind of magic they could work with sardines, but just as a pig with lipstick is still, at the end of the day, a pig...well, you can figure out the rest. (And no offense to pigs; your bacon is delicious.)

All in all, it was a great way to end a great week...and this seems to be a great way to end an endless blog post. So...

Not So Fast...

Those brave few of you who are indeed still awake may recall that I promised one last thing.

I grew up in Fort Stockton, about an hour's drive from Alpine where the high school football team is known as The Fightin' Bucks. Most of you may understand that that nickname comes honestly, as deer of the buck persuasion are known to lock horns, literally, to assert dominance and win a date with the homecoming queen, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

We were returning home at HSB one evening before dusk and, as usual, there were a number of whitetail deer doing deery things in the open field across the street from our house. It so happened that a couple of them were engaged in the aforementioned ritual, and I managed to get a short video of the epic struggle on my phone. The quality is poor - we were 50 yards away in low light - but you should still be able to get a sense of how, well, ridiculous bucks look when they fight. I did speed up the video considerably; two minutes of this action is 90 seconds too long. (And keep your comments about the length of this post to yourselves.)




"8 From the Gate" is a rodeo reference. If you can stay on a bull for eight seconds after the gate opens to release your mount, then you've achieved a qualified ride. Good luck with all that, and let me know how it goes. [Return to the riveting account]

What color is your salmon?
March 12, 2015 6:26 PM | Posted in: ,

So, I was perusing my Twitter feed because it's much easier to get ideas from other people than come up with them myself and I ran across this article about how our salmon gets colored. As a frequent eater of salmon, I found it interesting that unless the fish was caught by aging hippie outdoorsmen channeling the spirit of Euell Gibbons, it got its pleasing salmon color by eating crayolas. OK, that's a loose interpretation, but, yeah, they feed "ranch grown" salmon a kind of pigment along with the regular salmon chow, otherwise we persnickety consumers would never buy it because it would be gray and not match our dining décor.

SalmoFanBut here's where it really gets fascinating. Someone has come up with a salmon color chart, which even has a trademarked and elegantly provocative name, the DSM SalmoFan™.  The SalmoFan™ comes in two varieties, one that's - wait for it - fan-shaped, with little colored "fingers" (not unlike the spark plug gap gauges back when such things mattered, or paint fan decks for those with limited automotive knowledge), and another that's a row of possible salmon colors. It's called SalmoFan™ Lineal, because, well, you know. 

The SalmoFan™ has an array of 15 strips, each of which is numbered from 20 to 34, with the lower numbers being lighter shades of salmon, and the higher numbers being darker, almost but not quite getting to red. According to sophisticated market research, darker colored salmon commands a higher price.

You can actually order SalmoFan™s from the DSM website, and they're free, although you have to give them a bunch of information that they may use to confirm that you're in the salmon color grading business or something, so I didn't bother, primarily because I couldn't come up with a convincing cover story about why someone in West Texas would have a commercial concern about fish pigmentation. But I still fantasize about how cool it would be to whip out my personal SalmoFan™ at the local sushi bar and quiz the server about whether she really believes that California Roll made with number 25 salmon warrants such an exorbitant price. Much professional winking and hilarity would ensue, I suspect.

Anyway, I was amazed and alarmed to discover that even though someone had gone to considerable trouble to identify 15 shades of potential salmon pigmentation, nobody has taken the next logical step and provided the hexadecimal equivalents for those shades. I suspect this has caused grief for countless designers building salmon-themed websites, because they've had to basically shoot in the dark and hope that by sheer chance they've picked the correct shade for their particular salmon-consuming demographic target. I aim to rectify this gap in human knowledge, and therefore submit for your consideration the EDS SalmoHex Chart of Pinkish Colors. The following chart has been prepared following rigorous proprietary analysis, drawing extensively on both my years of Photoshop experience and minutes of DSM SalmoFan study.


SalmoFan™
Color

Hexadecimal Equivalent

SalmoFan™
Color

Hexadecimal Equivalent

SalmoFan™
Color

Hexadecimal Equivalent

34

A81503

33

BC1301

32

CA2603

31

D02D06

30

DA3A13

29

DD4C22

28

DF572F

27

E7683F

26

EA6C43

25

ED734B

24

EB7C56

23

ED825E

22

ED8C62

21

F29B77

20

F2AD87


I realize that as helpful as the preceding cross reference may be, it will still not meet the needs of those who must have just the right shade of invitation for their fish-themed wedding, but coming up with Pantone equivalents is too much work. I can't do everything, folks.
Debbie and I decided to head downtown after church this morning and try the new brunch at the Basin Burger House. It was our first visit to this relatively new, locally-owned restaurant.

We arrived around 11:15 and the small parking lot was already full. Fortunately, there's plenty of parking on the street and in the city-owed lot next door. The restaurant was also almost full, but we were seated immediately in a booth on the east end of the building. We were immediately impressed with the openness of the space and the natural light that illumines it. I recommend requesting a seat in that area if you go for brunch; the other end of the building looks a bit darker.

The brunch menu isn't extensive, but it offers a wide variety of entrées (see below). Debbie chose the Texas Benedict and I opted for the Pork Hash. Our food arrived quickly - perhaps too quickly. While the Yukon potatoes were almost too hot to eat, and the eggs were cooked to perfection, the hash on my dish and the shredded brisket on hers were on the lukewarm side, and the grated cheddar/white cheese sprinkled over the dishes wasn't melted.

The food was good, but not breathtaking. We felt that the brisket and the hash both were a little on the dry side, and I would like to see a bit more imagination applied to the hash. I believe that some grilled onions and traffic-light bell pepper mixed in with the pork - and perhaps some cilantro or basil - would enhance the dish. (The menu refers to bacon, but I couldn't detect any. I didn't think that was a drawback, however.)

One of the high points of the meal was the coffee. I don't know what brand they serve, but I'd go back just for another cup (and it was a very large, steaming cup). I'm going out on a limb here, but it was the best coffee I've had in Midland outside of our home.

Basin Burger doesn't appear to suffer from the same employee shortage that plagues practically every other restaurant in West Texas. The servers were plentiful, attentive, and helpful. Coupled with the very pleasant surroundings (and the outdoor dining looks interesting once the weather cooperates), this is a great addition to downtown. 

Midland needs more of these one-off restaurants, with their own homegrown flavor and atmosphere. When I think of the best eateries in town, they're all locally-owned: Cancun Grill, Venezia's, Garlic Press, Luigi's, Manny's Italian Village. The national chains are important additions, but they're not what defines a city. While Basin Burger may still have some tweaking to do with their brunch menu, it's already a great addition to our dining choices. We'll go back.

Photo of menu

Dining fit for a Mogul at the Shahi Tandoor
August 24, 2012 9:27 PM | Posted in:

We accidentally tried a new restaurant tonight, and it was a pleasant experience. OK, perhaps "accidentally" isn't precisely correct. We decided to eat Thai food and when we got to the restaurant we found it was closed (for a "family emergency"). So we decided to drive a few miles down the road to try out the new Indian restaurant, Shahi Tandoor, located in the sumptuous (*ahem*) Grand Texan Hotel, which used to be called something else, something less grandiose but just as forgettable. 

The restaurant is essentially a hotel eatery, and it has the distinction of sharing its space with a pizzeria and the hotel bar. But we had read a couple of reviews and were prepared for the unfortunate ambiance. Very few dining places in Midland have really appealing atmosphere - although there is something invigorating about the white noise produced by sizzling fajita serving dishes - so that's not a test of fellowship for us.

It's all about the food, and in this case, the food was really good. However, I have no idea what we ate, other than in a generic "it was fish-, lamb-, shrimp-, and chicken-ish" (I'm always looking for an excuse to use "fish-ish" in a sentence). So, as a public service, here's a snapshot of the dish we shared. Feel free to google this stuff if you're really curious.

Photo of menu item

It may looks like a lot of food, and in fact it probably was enough to feed a lower-caste Indian family for a week, but for us big-eatin' Ahmuricans, it was about right for two people. We did load up a medium sized carry-out box, so we weren't total pigs.

This was a good combo for a first visit, and for someone who doesn't know much about Indian cuisine; our last authentic Indian meal was only about 30 years ago, in Dallas...but we still have found memories of it. And, yes, it's pricey, at least for Midland, but it IS a hotel restaurant, and it DID (or WILL) feed two people for one and another fraction of a meal. There are, of course, lower-priced menu items for those without cruise ship appetites.

Our favorites were the lamb and shrimp dishes, the naan bread, and the curry rice (rice pullao) with the lentil sauce (dal makhani). The meal was accompanied by a yogurt based dipping sauce which I don't think is shown on the menu, and it was an excellent counterpoint to the spiciness of the other dishes. We didn't particularly care for the fish, however; fortunately, it was the smallest portion on the platter. 

The restaurant was quite busy, and with only two servers, meals were slow in coming out. We arrived before the rush so that wasn't an issue for us. But what struck us is that at least half the patrons were Indian families. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but Midland's Indian population strikes me as being, overall, affluent and well-educated, and I suspect that if they like a restaurant well enough to patronize it, it's probably authentic and high quality. I don't know about the former, but the latter is certainly true. We'll go back.

New blog in town
February 7, 2012 5:03 PM | Posted in: ,

This could be pretty cool...a new website that shows the menus and hours of Midland restaurants. MidlandMenus.com currently has information for about thirty restaurants, as well as a [small] handful of reviews. I assume the coverage will increase over time, as that's just a fraction of the eateries we have access to in the Tall City eateries we have access to in the Tall City.

The menus are either scans or photos of the actual documents, pretty much unedited (a good example is Tater World's menu with all prices covered with duct tape. Stay classy, dude! [Ed. - Hey, it's a restaurant named "Tater World." Cut 'em some slack.]). 

The challenge will be to stay current, as many restaurants regularly update their menus, and occasionally change their hours. One of our favorites - which hasn't yet been added to the website - is Dos Margaritas, they're rolling out a new seafood-centric menu this Sunday.

Reviews are a different matter. There are only three as of this writing, and they're pretty superficial. The review for Kuo's, a favorite of many Midlanders, was based on a take-out order, which is probably not the ideal way to review a restaurant. It will be interesting to see how this section unfolds. The site's administrator was wise enough to disable comments for the reviews, to avoid (or at least minimize) controversy. People take their food seriously.

Speaking of the site administrator, there's nothing on the site to identify who's in charge. I don't know if that's important to you; I generally like to know whose opinions I'm relying on. But that's a personal call.

Salad Rave
September 15, 2011 11:43 AM | Posted in:

Last night's dinner at Poehi's was quite pleasant, with the combination of a open-air bayside table (where we watched an enterprising pelican gulp down his own fresh seafood) and good food. I had a pretty straightforward fresh salmon fillet, grilled with olive oil, but the real star of the meal was my salad, of all things.

It started with a thin bed of field greens, on top of which four thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes -- the kind we can't get in Midland -- were laid out in a row. The tomatoes were topped with a combination of blue cheese sprinkles, shreds of bacon, and drizzled balsamic vinegar. That alone would have made it a good dish, but then each tomato slice was adorned with a French-fried onion ring, which elevated the dish into the realm of greatness.

Compliments to the chef for a delicious bit of simple culinary imagination!

Dill Effects
August 18, 2011 7:04 AM | Posted in:

The last few times I've gone to the supermarket, I've bought Central Market's "Herb Garden Spring Mix" instead of lettuce for our salads. It contains a wide variety of greens and a few different herbs, but the most distinctive flavor of the mix comes from bits of fresh dill. And every time I take a bite of a sandwich or salad with that mix, I immediately start thinking about dill pickles, past and present.

My Grandma Siegmund's homemade dill pickles were the gold standard, the best I've ever eaten. When we'd go visit her at Walnut Bend, and later in Gainesville, she'd serve them at lunch and dinner, and I thought they went with everything. The fresh dill flavor was heavenly, and it created a permanent imprint on my brain, a small detail that evokes big memories.

It's also a reminder of the sad current state of commercially-produced dill pickles, which seem to have no other purpose than as a delivery mechanism for salt. The jar of "hamburger dill chips" in our refrigerator represents the common breed: nowhere on the ingredients label is dill listed. I suppose it's included somewhere in the "natural flavors" that brings up the tail end of the list.

I understand that making good dill pickles is a time-consuming process, and that there's little profit incentive for anyone to scale up the old-fashioned homemade approach, but count me as one of those who'd gladly pay more for the experience.

On the other hand, let's not get carried away and suggest that I learn to make my own. That's just crazy talk.
It's probably because we're just rubes from the country, but we were amazed to discover during our recent visit to Santa Fe that there are [at least] two stores in the downtown area that specialize in selling olive oil and balsalmic vinegar in a wide array of flavors. We spent quite a bit of time in Oleaceae (the store name is the plant family that contains the olive tree, as well as being an extremely challenging word to type), a small shop on Old Santa Fe Trail (it's actually part of the La Fonda Hotel, adjacent to the candy store and knife shop, if you're familiar with that particular block).

Photo of tourists in front of store
Small town tourists

The little store is crammed full of small gleaming stainless steel vats, and you can sample any of the flavors, accompanied by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whose command of food pairings rivals that of any wine steward. And if you think that tasting samples of vinegar or oil sounds unappetizing, you'd be surprised at the reality. Most of what we tried was delicious...so much so, in fact, that we ended up ordering four bottles (two of the 18-year old balsalmic vinegar, one of roasted French walnut oil (good for ice cream topping, we're told), and one of arbequina olive oil.

One thing is for sure, salad time at Gazette HQ will never be the same, and there's no going back to Wishbone Italian.

Restaurant Rant
September 17, 2010 9:11 AM | Posted in: ,

Have you noticed that some restaurants have become rather stingy with their oven time?

First, it was IHOP, doing away with their iconic warm syrup, forcing us to us the decades-old, occasionally mislabeled communal dispensers. Now, as a kid, I was always amazed at the bounty of available sweet and sticky substances to be found in those containers - who doesn't love dollar pancakes drowned in a combination of pecan and blueberry syrup? But that sort of thing lost its appeal roughly four decades ago, and now all I desire is a simple maple-like flavor delivered in a form that will actually melt the solid lump of butter atop the short stack. But, no, even that simple pleasure is now denied,*

And then there's Cracker Barrel, which has apparently adopted a strategy of combating global warming by serving its breakfast muffins cold.* (And without butter, although that's a perverted blessing given the inability of the muffins to melt it.) Does anyone really prefer their blueberry or apple bran muffins unheated?

C'mon, folks. Life's short and hard enough without making us suffer these basic indignities.

*In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that warm syrup and heated muffins will be provided, but only upon special request. But that's sort of like ordering a bottle of wine with dinner and, oh, by the way, do mind also uncorking it for us?

Instant Coffee Gratification
October 30, 2009 6:34 AM | Posted in:

When we arrived for our usual Wednesday evening interlude at the Rankin Highway Starbucks, we were greeted by a barista wearing a lobster on her head. I tried not to stare, acting as though this was a commonplace occurrence in my daily routine, but curiosity finally got the better of me.

Why are you wearing a lobster on your head?

My boss told me I had to wear it until I sold ten of these. She pointed at something in a rack in front of the register. So far, no one has felt sorry enough for me to buy one.

She was referring to the little packets of Via, the company's new "instant coffee" (although they use the more refined term, "microground"). There had been a flurry of ads about it a while back, but I hadn't seen any lately and hadn't given it any serious thought.

Well, I'll help you out; add this one to my bill. I handed her a three-pack of the bold Italian Roast, good for three cups and at $1 per cup, a better deal than their in-store brew.

I fried up a cup of water yesterday afternoon and dumped in the contents of a packet, and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. In fact, I think I prefer it to the in-store version, which is usually strong to the point of bitterness. Via was smooth, and was plenty bold without overdoing it. I recommend it.

However, I'm still on the fence about wearing the lobster on my head.
We enjoyed a DiGiorno pizza last night, a Thin Crust Supreme supplemented with extra mozzarella and pepperoni, if you must know. And while it was quite tasty and a completely acceptable and less expensive alternative to a restaurant offering, it was also square.

There were some logistical issues of fitting it on a round serving platter and figuring out how to slice the darned thing, but the shape also raised an issue that should be of paramount importance to every serious pizza aficionado: assuming the area is the same, do you get more crust from a round pizza or a square one?

I'm sure there are manifold websites devoted to explaining the relationship of the circumference of a circle to the perimeter of a quadrilateral shape, but I chose to do it the old-fashioned way, with a slide rule and abacus. Ha ha, just kidding. I used Excel. (I wanted to use my iPhone's calculator but it doesn't compute square roots. At least not like I want to compute them, with one touch of a key.)

And, of course, what I found shouldn't surprise anyone. By choosing a square shape for its pizza over a round one, DiGiorno has effectively caused the amount of crust to be...oh, look! A baby bunny!

You didn't really think I was going to deprive you of the joy of figuring this one out for yourself, did you?
Me: Are you still coming home for lunch? 

She: Yep. Me: Good. I'll fry* you up your usual Chunky Girl soup. 

She: What'd you just say? 

Me: Uh...what? Oh, I just said, uh, that I'd make your usual soup. 

She (doubtful): OK. 

That's what I get for being observant. Well, that's what I get for being observant and a smart-aleck. I can't help it if I noticed the ill-advised way that our local grocery store choose to abbreviate Campbell's Chunky Grilled Sausage and Chicken Soup:

 
Scan of grocery receipt

By the way, MLB (who, just for the record, is the antithesis of "chunky"), contends that this particular model of soup is her very favorite, and well worth trying. 

*Actually, it's 1:45 in the microwave. Frying is not remotely involved, as that would smack of cooking, an endeavor to which I do not aspire.
MLB is in another time zone on business, leaving me and the Dog Faced Girl to fend for ourselves, a task for which we each are woefully ill-equipped. In fairness to Abbye, the fact that she's aged, infirm, blind, and lacks opposable thumbs gives her some legitimate excuses that I, for the most part (hold your snide observations) lack. 

Take the task of making coffee, for example. Now, one of the things my wife does to ensure that our home is a little bit of heaven on earth is prepare our fancy-schmancy coffeemaker the night before, so that when I arise at precisely 5:26 a.m. and stroll into the kitchen, while she's hammering out mileage on the treadmill I'm dispensing a cuppa joe so fresh it's like a slap in the face from Miley Cyrus. 

She makes it look easy, but I'm finding there's more to it than meets the eye. Monday night, for example, I set everything up, carefully measuring three cups of water and four scoops of coffee that would yield my expected three cups of java. I failed to consider the effects of overnight evaporation and water loss during the brewing cycle, and had to resort to sucking on the bottom of a soggy #4 flat-bottomed filter to get my RDA of caffeine on Tuesday morning. If that paints a sad mental picture, I assure you that the reality is worse. 

Last night, I was determined not to repeat that mistake, and I didn't. I achieved that goal by grasping at a higher standard of incompetence, as I failed to remember to put any water at all into the coffeemaker. 

I can't wait to see what awaits me in the morning. I'm pretty sure that I'm approaching the end of the possible ways to mess up this task, but if things go badly again tomorrow, I'm putting Abbye in charge. She couldn't do any worse.

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