Tuesday, July 15, 2008

No, I didn't fall off the face of the earth

I've just been busy.

I won't bore you with the details, though, because you come here to read about food, not about my shenanigans.

So, after years of making tasty food that's not necessarily unique, I think I may have come up with something original and delicious that could be what my sister-in-law deemed my "signature dish." It's not so much a dish as a side dish, although adding a protein could easily make it meal.

I came up with this dish one night when I was trying to think of something salty, sweet, and fresh to serve with chicken. I had some random fruits and veggies on hand, plus an overpriced package of mint, so I decided to use all of those ingredients to make something delicious.

The result was mango pepper rice with mint. It sounds like a questionable combination, I know, but the flavors complement and enhance one another beautifully.

Of course, a recipe isn't really in the cards with me, but I can give you general proportions of each ingredient. This is one of those dishes you can tailor depending on how much you like ingredient, so if you're a big mango fan, you can throw in more a greater proportion of mango.

Mango Pepper Rice with Mint

2 parts diced mango
2 parts diced red pepper
1 part diced red onion
mint chiffonade to taste

Toss the mango, red pepper, and red onion with some olive oil and a splash of sriracha or other hot sauce (optional). Dump the mixture onto a hot grill pan. Move fruit and veggies around to prevent burning and sticking. Remove after 4-5 minutes, once everything has some slight charring and has softened a bit.

Toss mixture with hot or cold rice--jasmine, basmati, white, whatever. I find that the exact ratio above is good for two cups of uncooked rice. Season with plenty of salt, which will make the mango and red pepper taste even sweeter.

To prevent wilting, stir in mint immediately before serving.

Tastes great with chicken or pork.

The second time I made this rice, I served it with slices of pork tenderloin and peach-pineapple salsa. I'm not sure I've made a better meal in the past six months.
My sister-in-law loved the rice, and my wannabe-gourmand brother deemed it "phenomenal." Me? Well, I just call it my signature (side) dish.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

KC Shopping: Smoke 'n' Fire

This post is the first in a series about shopping in Kansas City. Since I'm new here, I want to see the best the city has to offer. For example: Where do they sell the best imported Italian ingredients? Where can you find awesome artisanal cheeses? Who's the best butcher in KC? Where do restaurants buy their supplies--pots and pans, dinnerware, food?

A Honda Civic my Argo, I'm in pursuit of the many Golden Fleeces this city has to offer.

My first stop on this journey was Smoke 'n' Fire, "a family owned fireplace and barbeque store established in 1998, specializing in both indoor heating and outdoor cooking." Now that I live in one of the BBQ meccas of the country, I knew I needed to find a comprehensive source for all things grilling and BBQing. With friendly, helpful employees and more spices than you'd find in Paul Prudhomme's pantry, Smoke 'n' Fire is a wonderful store for both the amateur and the professional grillmeister. Although the prices are slightly higher than what you might find at a grocery store, the selection at Smoke 'n' Fire is far more extensive than what you'd find anywhere else -- and I prefer to support local businesses and vendors.

The photos on the store's website were more than enough to convince me to drive 20 minutes to check the place out. The banner at the top of the homepage is a panoramic shot of the inside of store, showing not only the different grills and smokers, but also the aisles of cooking utensils and food products.

The site has a specials section from which I printed a page of coupons. The coupon that appealed to me most was the spice cabinet "spring cleaning": bring in any old rub, spice or seasoning and get $1 off the purchase of a new rub or seasoning. So, I condensed multiple bottles of the same spice, threw some of the nearly empty ones in a bag and looked forward to swapping out the old for the new.

I also looked forward to snapping some great shots of the inside of the store. But I was put off by the sign on the window of Smoke 'n' Fire that said something along the lines of, "No video cameras or photography permitted." I didn't ask anyone if they'd make an exception, remembering that the banner at the top of the homepage was a better shot of the whole store than I'd be able to get on my own. The banner on the site changes depending on which page of the site you navigate to, so you can pretend you're taking a mini-tour through those photos.

My own tour of the store focused completely on the retail section, which was stocked with every grilling accessory imaginable, from the standard -- wood chips and chunks, charcoal, grill brushes, sauce mops, kabob racks, thermometers -- to the unorthodox -- telescoping forks, 20" tongs with an LED flashlight, seasoned wood skewers, the "turkey cannon." The store also carries all sorts of cookware, including Lodge cast-iron products. As a single girl who's not quite ready to invest in a full-sized grill, I picked up a one-burner Lodge Logic reversible grill pan/griddle instead ($37.95).

The next step was figuring out what to cook on my new toy. An entire wall is stocked about five-feet high with rubs, marinades, spices, oils, vinegars, sauces and dry mixes. I must've looked as confused as a guy at Victoria's Secret, because after just a couple of minutes of clueless gawking, a handsome young employee sauntered over to me and asked if I needed any help. I took him up on his offer and kept him occupied with questions for at least the next 10 minutes.

He helped me pick out a sauce: Blues Hog BBQ ($5.25/pint), which he declared the best BBQ sauce ever.

He helped me pick out a rub: Obie-Cue's TX Sweet Rub ($8.00/12 oz.), which he recommended for use on chicken.

He helped me pick out a crust: Char Crust Sundried Tomato and Garlic ($6.00/4 oz.), which he said would work on any type of meat or fish. I found it at Price Chopper for a buck less, evidence that some of the products in the store can be found for (marginally) less elsewhere.

I picked out a dry mix on my own: The Garlic of Eatin' ($3.75/2 oz.).

I hauled my wares to the cash register, passing the grills as I made my way. In addition to standard Weber and Ducane grills, Smoke 'n' Fire sells custom-built grills and islands. The large showroom contains numerous examples of what you can have installed on your patio or in your backyard.

I also peeked at the kitchen, where classes are held almost every Saturday and on the occasional Thursday. Regular classes last two hours and mini-classes last one, and cost $55 and $25, respectively. Chef Richard McPeake, a regular instructor at the Culinary Center of Kansas City, teaches the majority of the classes, which are on techniques of grilling and smoking.

After staring at grills and other large things I cannot afford, I finally made it up to the cash register. I presented my coupon, which I was able to use for the rub and the crust. The lady ringing me up said the Garlic of Eatin' mix is delicious, and that the recipe on the packaging for garlic and artichoke dip is worth the calories in the mayo. With full endorsements from the staff on all of the food products I bought, I was very excited to bring them home and try them out.

The next night, I tried the Char Crust on some boneless, skinless chicken. The grill pan did its job, creating perfect, parallel sear marks on the chicken. A little rotating created those awesome hatchmarks.

And the Char Crust did its job, too, forming a flavorful, not-too-salty crust wherever it was dredged on the chicken.

With or without BBQ sauce, the chicken was delicious. I used a very small amount of the Char Crust on the two breasts I cooked, so I think I'd be able to coat at least another dozen. I'm looking forward to tasting the other products I bought at Smoke 'n' Fire, as the Char Crust didn't disappoint and the grill pan made a fine debut.

If you like to grill, BBQ, smoke or do any sort of cooking, head over to Smoke 'n' Fire. Don't bring your camera, but do bring an appetite for grilling -- and some coupons of those printable coupons.

Smoke 'n' Fire
8030 W. 151st St.
Overland Park, KS 66223

Monday, March 10, 2008

So much better

My remedy for flavorless chicken worked like a charm.

Behold, chicken and waffles.

Sitting atop a buttery waffle and then doused with syrup and hot sauce, Stroud's chicken undergoes a complete transformation. At once sweet, salty and savory, this is the royal treatment for chicken.

Review: Stroud's

I went to an institution yesterday. Yes, I'm fine. No, the walls weren't padded. And no, I didn't have to wear a straight jacket. It wasn't that kind of institution.

In Kansas City, Stroud's is an institution people willingly go to. There aren't any barred windows or nurses in white uniforms, but rather pan-fried chicken and whole lot of history. I know for sure that I never want to be in an institution, but because of the underwhelming chicken and mediocre sides, I'm not so sure I'll be running back to this culinary institution.

Ira shows you where you can park.

As of 2005, Stroud's had two locations in Kansas City and one in Wichita. Since then, the original South KC location has closed; a new one is due to open later this month in Fairway. Stroud's at Oak Ridge Manor in North KC is a good 40-minute drive from the Kansas suburbs, but as a fried chicken fanatic, I was hardly put off by the distance.

Set back from the highway off a two-lane road, Stroud's occupies a 179-year-old building which served for years as a home for the Compton family. After changing hands a few times, the building was purchased by the owners of the original Stroud's in South KC, whose restaurant had already been frying up chicken for 50 years. Since 1983, Stroud's at Oak Ridge Manor has carried on the traditions established by the flagship restaurant.

Oak Ridge Manor is more charming than that guy who opens doors and pulls out chairs. Its white siding and green shutters give way inside to rustic oak and walnut logs and beams.

As if still being used as a home, the restaurant is composed of many rooms, all of which are used for dining. The walls are adorned with plaques and awards for the restaurant's famous fried chicken, with a number of newspaper and magazine articles interspersed for good measure. Hidden among the self-appreciation is a worn, ragged document in a black frame. Turns out it's the original deed for the property, signed in 1827 by some guy named John Quincy Adams.

I arrived at Stroud's with my friend Ira at 2:25 on a Saturday afternoon, just short of half an hour after opening. The hostess informed us that the dining room was full, so we had two options: wait 45 minutes for a table or eat the bar. Irked at first, we opted to eat at the five- or six-person bar, which was empty when we arrived, but full five minutes later.

If unable to eat in a dining room, the bar is an acceptable backup. Wrapped in the same warm wood as the dining rooms, the small bar has a warm, homey atmosphere that's not too prim or stuffy for licking grease off your fingers.

The bartender, who tended to us acutely during our entire lunch, took our orders and passed them on to the kitchen. In addition to a side dish and cinnamon rolls, a first course is served with every meal, giving diners a choice between chicken noodle soup and salad. I chose the soup and Ira the salad. Both arrived about five minutes after we placed our order.

The soup was a yellow broth with small globules of golden fat floating on top. In the broth were small, soft pieces of carrot, celery and onion, as well as shredded bits of chicken, evidence that the soup was made down the hall in the kitchen. I could've happily eaten a bowlful of the noodles and nothing more. Thick, hearty and tender, the noodles were among the best I've eaten.

Ira's salad was standard iceberg with one unusual ingredient. Nestled alongside the standard cucumber and croutons was a slice of ruby-red beet. Add a sprinkling of mozzarella and a couple of wedges of lemon for some extra flavor, and you have your Stroud's salad.

Half an hour after Ira and I finished our first courses, our entrees arrived. My wing, thigh, leg and breast were served on the same large platter as Ira's all-dark meal of two thighs and two legs. The chicken had a light brown crust that didn't quite qualify as golden.

Beneath the slight crunch of the underseasoned crust was underseasoned chicken. Nothing about the chicken as a whole was particularly flavorful, leaving my tastebuds disappointed. I applaud the kitchen for keeping the chicken moist, but I want to take the cooks shopping at Penzey's.

Being starch lovers, Ira and I ordered mashed potatoes and cottage fries as our side dishes. The mashed potatoes were starchy, which I like in baked potatoes but not in their mashed counterparts. The consistency was grainy, not creamy like mashed potatoes should be. Like the chicken, the mashers were sorely lacking in flavor. A hearty pinch of salt and some pepper would've made up for the fact that I couldn't taste any butter in the potatoes.

Perhaps the mashed potatoes were underseasoned so gravy could be ladled on top, but the gravy was sort of congealed and not particularly appealing, so I refrained from using it, instead letting it jiggle in its bowl. Please notice, though, the abundance of pepper in the gravy, evidence that someone in the kitchen knows where to find some and how to use it.

I associate cottage fries with Yours Truly, a small chain of restaurants in Northeast Ohio. Their crinkle-cut circular fries were golden and crispy on the outside, but fluffy and tender on the inside. Given the yardstick Stroud's cottage fries had to live up to, it's no surprise that they were a disappointment. They weren't crispy, they weren't golden, they weren't fluffy. I sometimes call myself a "French fry whore" because I enjoy and eat all fries, but I didn't eat more than a dozen of these cottage fries. Even a swim in some Heinz couldn't save these spuds.

For some reason, we were served a bowl of green beans. I don't think we were supposed to get them -- and Ira and I don't like green beans -- so they sat there on the bar, looking like they'd just emerged from an aluminum can. Yummy.

The cinnamon rolls served with the meal seemed better treated as a breakfast or as dessert, which may be why Stroud's doesn't have a dessert menu. With tops crusted in cinnamon sugar...

...the rolls were yeasty and fluffy inside...

...and buttery on the bottom. I'd eat one of these for breakfast, but I kept them far away from my fried chicken. I really would've enjoyed a flaky, buttery biscuit with my chicken, but there was no KFC within walking distance.

After licking my fingers clean, I pulled my credit card out of my wallet and paid for the $34 meal. Considering how much food comes with each meal, the $16-$20 price is a pretty good deal. But if you find that food lacking in flavor, a reasonable deal won't bring you back to any restaurant. So, I basically spent $20 on a really good bowl of chicken noodle soup.

I brought home some leftover chicken, which is now sitting in my fridge, waiting to be consumed. And I know just how to bring some flavor to it: butter, syrup and hot sauce. Chicken and waffles, here I come.

5410 NE Oak Ridge Dr.
Kansas City, MO 64119

P.S. Gratuitous chicken mailbox shot:

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A message from Bacon and Bakin'

And also today's lunch.

It's the double-smoked bacon from the Italian grocery and deli ("Specialita d'Italia") at City Market in KC. Four thick slices cost me $1.05. The bacon was out of this world. I baked it at 350 degrees for, oh, 10-15 minutes, until it was slightly crispy. Bacon this thick would have to be charred in order to be completely crispy, so aiming for a combination of meatiness and crispiness is best for this bacon. (I normally broil bacon, but I didn't feel like cleaning up a bacony broiler pan, so I opted for bakin' the bacon. Worked out nicely.)

The double-smoked bacon had a smoky flavor that did not overwhelm the flavor of the meat. I tasted not only smoke, but also pork; it was a nice balance. The tiny bit of rind was the best part of each slice. It got crispy out the outside, but stayed tender underneath that crust. The rind melted in my mouth.

As you see, there was a lot of meat in each slice and not a whole lot of fat. I hate when the fat in bacon is floppy, gelatinous, and generally unappetizing, but the dearth of fat in this bacon and the method of cooking ensured that I didn't end up with anything nasty on my plate.

I liked this grocery not only for their awesome bacon, but also for their groceries. Take, for example, their selection of DeCecco pastas. For $2, I bought a box of one of my favorite shapes of pasta. Here are the little tennis racquets bathing in creamy vodka sauce:

The store also sells the unbeatable San Marzano tomatoes, all sorts of olive oils and vinegars, and other imported products from Italy. Unfortunately, I didn't see pici there, that thick, Tuscan pasta I couldn't get enough of during my 10 days in Italy.

When I need good Italian groceries--or some outrageously good bacon--I know where I'll be going.

(P.S. I apologize for my truancy as of late. I have all sorts of stuff to write about now, so hang tight.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Since You've Been Gone: Discontinued, Rebranded, and Changed for the Worse (Part IV)

After three posts about dearly departed foods, I conclude this series on discontinued, rebranded, and changed food. Please feel free to continue to chatter about this topic, though!

This final installation will deal with foods from my middle childhood, consisting of the years 1990-1995. The items below were some of my favorite snack foods, things I'd bring in my lunch to school or munch on after getting home from school.

I don't think Nabisco Zings "cracker chips" were around for more than a year or two. I clearly remember sitting on a beanbag chair in the corner of my second-grade classroom, reading a book and snacking on a Ziploc baggy-ful of Zings. The Z-shaped crackers were ranch-flavored and packed a zippy punch. Because they were baked, my mom sent me to school w/these as a snack, not feeling too guilty about what she was letting me eat. As for the items below? Well, she probably felt kinda guilty about them... (No photo included 'cause there doesn't appear to be one online. There is textual documentation of these zingy crackers, though.)

Keebler rules. I mean, freakin' elves make such delicacies as Fudge Stripe and Grasshopper cookies! Those pointy-shoed sprites once made chips called O'Boises. O'Boises are quite possibly in my top 5 chips of all time. In BBQ, sour cream and onion, and plain (my favorite) flavors, O'Boises were really salty, really light, and really bubbly. Yes, bubbly. Each chip was covered with lots of small air pockets, resulting in an extremely light and crunchy consistency. The bubbles ranged in size from tiny to thumbnail-sized, and while some of the bubbles broke while the chips bounced around in the bag, most of them remained intact. The burst-bubble bits and other broken pieces ended up at the bottom of the bag, and they tasted every bit as good as the whole chips. I haven't seen a chip like this since, and, sadly, I doubt I'll see one again. Shame. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user englishkris.)

Okay, I don't even remember the name of these things, but they were really quite tasty. Keebler may have made them...but maybe not. (Off to a good, helpful start here, huh?) Anyway, these were basically shortbread cookies studded w/a sole Hershey Kiss. Each cookie was kinda crispy and kinda sandy, and was a little larger in diameter to a half dollar. It was poofy, too, but didn't have any sort of the softness or moistness you'd expect from a taller cookie. In the center of each cookie, a Hershey Kiss was inserted, topping off the not-too-sweet shortbread w/a great rush of chocolate and sugar. Eating the cookie away from the Kiss was my modus operandi, as I didn't care so much about the cookie as I did the Kiss. The Kiss had a few little bumps on the bottom; my guess is that the cookie had indentations in it so when the Kiss was inserted, the two would stick together better. These came two or three to a package (don't remember), with numerous packages in a box. I have memories of eating these, too, in class. I was kind enough to share them with Robert Schultz, who was grumpy even as an eight-year-old. (The photo is what the cookies looked like, but isn't actually them. Photo courtesy of www.cookies4alloccasions.com.)

My mom used to buy Handi-Snacks at Sam's Club when I was younger 'cause I ate the things like Kobayashi eats hot dogs. During summer 1994, I brought one or two w/me to camp each day to eat as a snack or as part of my lunch. On some days, I probably had three or four packs of these a day. Yep, that's right. If you do the math, that's 12-16 crackers and about 3-4 oz. of "processed cheese food." At some point, though, Kraft bought the Nabisco product and then changed the cheese, the bright orange stuff I smeared onto the buttery crackers using that famous little red, plastic stick. When Kraft began making Handi-Snacks, the cheese changed. The old cheese used to be kind of light w/some bubbly sponginess to it (sounds weird, but it worked); the new cheese is heavy, goopy, and solid. The old cheese wasn't too pungent; the new cheese tastes strongly of fake cheese and dirty feet. The old cheese was a light orange color; the new cheese is a darker orange that looks more like something you'd expect from Tropicana. In all, the Kraft cheese is a complete disappointment, ruining Handi-Snacks for me forever. Oh, and nothing against Ritz crackers, but the original crackers were NOT Ritz, so the current Kraft product--Ritz crackers and whack-ass cheese--is a complete fraud. After buying and trying the Kraft version a few years ago, I ended up throwing out the remaining packages in the box 'cause, yeah, the cheese is that bad. (Photo courtesy of www.lanaihello.com.)

Although this is my last post in the "Since You've Been Gone" series, I encourage you to keep posting comments about your favorite discontinued, rebranded, and changed foods. I know that foods from my youth like O'Boises will forever be stuck in my brain and on my palate, so please share your thoughts and memories!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Since You've Been Gone: Discontinued, Rebranded, and Changed for the Worse (Part III)

Restaurant chains do stupid stuff. A prime--yet arguable, to some--example: the McRib. Others contest that McDonald's old fries, the ones boiled in tasty, tasty lard, were the greatest thing ever to grace a fast-food tray.

For one reason or another, such as lack of popularity or the artery-clogging factor, chain restaurants discontinue or change certain menu items. Although the McRib surfaces annually in certain locations, you won't find the lard fries anywhere. I mourn the loss/change of other items.

The first item is the old McDonald's McNugget. A few years ago, I remember McDonald's started advertising their new all-white-meat chicken nuggets. I hadn't eaten their nuggets for a good number of years, but I remembered them as processed, mystery-meat-filled morsels that were shaped either like ovals or the state of Louisiana. Regardless of shape, the coating was usually crisp, and the "meat" inside was spongy, yet moist and flavorful. Flash forward March 2007. I made my annual pilgrimage to McDonald's for a Shamrock Shake. I had some coupons, so I got some McNuggets, too. It had been a good five years or so since I'd tasted one of these bad boys, which were still formed into those unnatural, yet familiar shapes. I bit into one of the Louisianas first. The chicken inside was definitely white, but it was still processed and spongy. I could've dealt w/sponginess, but I needed some flavor! Apparently the flavor in McNuggets used to come from meats/items that don't fall into the category of "white meat," perhaps falling instead into the category of "dark meat, organs, and lymph nodes." I'd take Mystery Nuggets over the all-white-meat McNuggets any day; what I don't know won't hurt me. (Photo courtesy of www.wowdavao.com.)

While we're on the subject of fast-food chicken products, I found out something disturbing the other day: Burger King discontinued their Chicken Tenders. I wanted to be absolutely sure that BK had discontinued another item (which I will talk about below), so I went to their website. The menu lists "Chicken Fries" and "Chicken Crowns" on the menu, but Chicken Tenders were nowhere to be found. I won't even get started on my feelings on chicken shaped like a fry and a crown, but I'll say just one word: huh??? Chicken Tenders at BK were about three times as long as they were wide, and they were a mix of processed chicken and real chicken. They were spongier than McNuggets, but tasted a billion times better than those when plucked right from a vat of boiling fat. Come to think of it, they weren't so bad cold, either. As the years went on, the real chicken in the tenders was phased out, meaning a better name for them would've been Chicken-Flavored Sponges. (Photo of crown-shaped "chicken" courtesy of www.bp2.blogger.com.)

Continuing w/Burger King, what happened to their Sourdough Bacon Cheeseburger? This was the burger that actually got me to like burgers! It was my gateway burger! Who can resist uber-buttery toasted sourdough rounds, cheese, bacon, and some meaty patties? Um, not me, for one. I introduced my friend Rob to these edible coronaries, and we still talk about their glory 6+ years later. I give credit to BK for helping me to learn the beauty that is the bacon cheeseburger, but I also blame them for taking away their greatest sandwich ever. The photo here is not of the original Sourdough Bacon Cheeseburger, but rather a decent photo of what it might have looked like it its heyday. Imagine that sandwich...but compressed to about 1/4" thick, 'cause real burgers never look the same in person as they do in photos. (Photo courtesy of www.foodfacts.info.)

Although the Cheesecake Factory makes these Buffalo Blasts things that I love more than some of my family members (I will boycott if they get rid of these, too--seriously), they committed a huuuuge crime in my book. Their Triple Chocolate Chip Cheesecake was my favorite dessert there, but in honor of Godiva's 25th anniversary or something equally unimportant, they got rid of the Triple Chocolate Chip and replaced it with a Godiva Cheesecake. I don't even like Godiva chocolate, so this was a real slap in the face. Why get rid of tiny chocolate chips, normal chocolate chips, and jumbo chocolate chips??? Just to do some cross-promotion w/Godiva? Bullroar, as my dad would say. (Photo courtesy of reviewsby.us.com.)

Little Caesar's pizza pales in comparison to Pizzeria Bianco's, but the one thing they used to do right was Chocolate Ravioli. Instead of pasta, the "dough" was white chocolate; instead of meat or cheese, the "filling" was chocolate truffle. How brilliant is that? The little ravioli were sold two to a pack for a buck. Each ravioli was the size of a normal frozen one you'd find at the grocery store, and because they came in pairs, they made a perfect little snack for me and my brother. I remember eating Chocolate Ravioli when I was 6 or 7, probably, but to this day I remember them as being extremely delicious. I loved eating the edges, which appeared to be cut with pinking shears, and which didn't contain any of the "filling." These things looked like real ravioli but tasted way better than your store-bought stuff. I'd like to find a ravioli-shaped chocolate mold so I could make these at home. There's no record of these things online, either in writing or in photo form, it appears, so here's some generic ravioli. Pretend they're made completely of chocolate. (Photo courtesy of www.orderpasta.com.)

Have popular chain restaurants discontinued your favorite sandwich? Have they changed the recipe for their fries or their chicken fingers? Have they done anything else to their food to piss you off? Lemme know what you miss!