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!

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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…”.

STOP THE PRESSES!

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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.

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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.

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.

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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

Before the mid 90s, most movie theaters popped their popcorn in a coconut oil blend. In 1994, food cops, The Center for Science in the Public Interest orchestrated a consumer scare campaign in the hopes that consumers would pressure theaters to abandon using coconut oil in their popcorn because of it’s high saturated fat content. They effectively demonized coconut oil and the campaign worked. By the mid to late 90’s coconut oil popped popcorn had disappeared from theaters.

But today the science has changed—as it often does— and coconut oil is now thought to be healthy. I have a jar of coconut oil in my pantry, and I use it for frying on occasion. It adds a distinct coconut flavor to foods cooked with it, it’s not a neutral oil and it works best with foods that have a neutral flavor, like… popcorn!

The popcorn at Madison Theater is popped with coconut oil. The coconut oil adds a pronounced, but subtle, coconut flavor to the popcorn. It also adds an unctuousness that air popped popcorn or corn popped in lighter oils simply does not have—due mostly to it’s high saturated fat content. They also use real butter at Madison Theater, and the combination of the butter and coconut oil is amazing. It’s the most flavorful popcorn I can remember eating. It is delicious, and it’s worth a trip to Madison Theater just to have the popcorn.

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.

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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.

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Guilty Pleasure

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.

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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.

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