Thursday, July 28, 2011

Some good insulation..

It is a long story and so, here we go:

I was at home yesterday watching the house while we had some workers work on it.  Our house is about 5 and 1/2 years old, but that didn't stop the bad construction job from being noticed.  A large list of problems and issues has befallen every home owner in our subdivision and while C.A. Jones doesn't seem to care or worry, we get foot with the bill.  So, our house was made with hardly any insulation in the attic so while we had the house set to 70 degrees, if it was 100 degrees outside, like it has been recently, the house would be as much as 83 degrees inside when we get home from work, around 6:30pm.  It also is worth mentioning that we have two extra AC portable units running 24hours a day to keep that temperature at that golden 80 something.  After having loads of advice and suggestions, even a horrible suggestion from Dr. Energy Saver who suggested a plan costing no less than $5,300, we took care of the whole mistake for a measly $1,500. 

So, I am at home thinking of creative brownie flavors while the construction workers we hired fixed all of our attic, insulation and heating/cooling issues for that lower amount, when I think of some great ideas.  I make the first one: sweet potato brownies.  I am told that it tastes like a sweet potato pie, which is a great idea for a brownie. 
The second flavor I came up with is sage.  I used a handful of fresh sage, chopped it up, and threw it into the batter.  The resulting brownie was a very herby flavor that was a strong sage flavor.  (Although it was suggested to me to make it a chocolate brownie with sage inside.)  Both brownies were important as the construction workers thought both of them were cool.  Which makes me think that the reason why they did such a good job on our house was the fact that I had offered them freshly cooked, albeit strange flavored, brownies.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is the difference?

As per a suggestion, this past Sunday I made a batch of my chocolate chip cookies.  This time, I made them using all organic ingredients. 
So was there a difference between the ingredients?  Well, as more and more laws are put into place to protect the consumer, the term "Organic" constantly changes.  What was organic last year may not be organic this year.  What did I have?  Organic eggs, organic butter, organic sugar cane sugar, organic flour, organic semi-sweet chocolate chips.  I let the butter warm a bit before creaming it with some sugar.  I used this sugar instead of white and brown and just used one 'color'.  It turned out not as sweet as I normally like them.  I also used semi-sweet chips because they didn't have organic milk chocolate chips.  The organic butter didn't seem to taste any different than regular butter.  The organic chocolate chips didn't taste any different than regular chips and the organic flour smelled and tasted just like regular non-organic flour.  All-in-all, the organic cookie tasted just like a cookie made with inorganic materials.  So, what is the big deal? 

Organic things have to go through certain procedures, use only organic fertilizers and no GMO's or other inject-able materials into the animals to make them.  Like no steroids or anything in the cows.  The organic egg making chickens probably ate regular feed instead of being forced corn or something else to make big meaty areas on their bodies or worse.  The organic raising cows would only eat natural grasses and what-not so nothing gets passed into the food.  Was it more expensive? Yes.  Is it concerned healthier for you?  I think.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Created by Physicians....

I had to try it, it is a Dietary Supplement drink, sold at Whole Foods and I had to buy it.  Why not?  It is created by physicians, right?  So it has to be good for you.  The flavor I picked was Acai Grape, which should work, as the dark and smokey flavor of the Acai berry should go well with that same smokey flavor of the tannins in the grape.  Yeah, it only went so well.

According to the side of the bottle, the "unique combo of powerful plant extracts including muira puama, catuaba, guarana and yerba mate, release energy at a steady rate for 6-8 hours*".  The "*" says that this statement has not been approved by the FDA.  So, what you have is a group of doctors who claim that these chemicals do something that the doctors in the FDA don't agree to.  Well, the muira puama helps with sexual dysfunction as it is sometimes referred to as "potency wood", according to the peoples of the Amazon.  Catuaba is made from the bark of a bunch of trees in Brazil and is used as a remedy for erectile dysfunction.  Guarana is a plant in the Amazon area that has twice as much as caffeine as coffee.  Finally, the yerba mate plant is found in South America and is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

So, what I drank yesterday, was essentially liquid Viagra with caffeine?  Did it give me energy for 6-8 hours?  No.  I was tired before drinking it, while drinking it and after drinking it.  Did it give me more....  sexual "oomph"?  No.  I fail to see the purpose of a drink that has chemicals to treat male sexual issues but is packaged as an energy drink and sold to both sexes.  One word: FAIL.

I have to say that the flavor could have made up for it but it was a bland and tasteless concoction that would make any herbalist happy to know that they could not do any worse.  So, what does function:Alternative Energy get from me?  A 2 out of 5 stars.  I drank it, but fail to see the effects.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Who are the readers in the Readers' Choice?

While looking at the Sauce magazine's Readers' Choice for best of places around St. Louis, I start to wonder: who are these Readers?  I'm not an expert on every type of food, but I have a hard time getting through my own head that the Readers' Favorite choice is not necessarily the best.  (As in, food quality, taste, price and so forth.)  Obviously, if you had two bars: Bar A and Bar B, and even though the same bars serve the same thing in every way, if Bar B charges $1 less than Bar A for the same thing, then it will score as a favorite for the people; the Readers.  With this idea though, it seems to bring a false concept or a little white lie to the reader now, because those "Favorite" places may not be the "best" places.

Here's a rant: The Drunken Fish gets picked by many St. Louisans as the best place for sushi in the area.  When I was last there, about 2 years ago, the sushi was warm and so was the sashimi.  They also had a dish that was basically a pork katsu with BBQ sauce.  Now, my wife and I tried and collaborated on the review of the Drunken Fish and while they may claim to do sushi the best and most Japanese like or most traditional they are sadly mistaken.  We have been to Japan and we have eaten sushi there.  So, someone telling us that "this is how it is prepared in Japan" when we know it isn't, doesn't work.  Their Jedi mind tricks are fruitless.  Furthermore, the reason that the Drunken Fish must always be on top, with warm or frozen food when it is supposed to be cool or room temperature, must have to do with the prices of their alcohol.  I know that may seem shallow, but I would dare say that 90% of St. Louis residents are drinkers and if it is a few bucks less, then it is always a plus.  It could be the worst looking bar in the city, but if it sold quarter pints of Guinness, I'd call in my favorite too.

So what does something have to be to be a real favorite?  This is why I wrote earlier on why St. Louis has no food culture, or didn't and is only now slowly starting to rebuild what it once had.  When a sushi place and bar is best known for its bar, then it still makes the list.  Also, when you have 3-4 places and they are all bad, the least bad is chosen.  Lastly, like any voting process, the most votes win.  So, if a bad restaurant has a lot of family, relatives or friends and they all put in votes and win, they could be the worst but still win the popular vote.

Now, what should be done?  I am taking it upon myself to ask foodies, anyone who knows anything about food at all, to tell me their favorite places and why.  Not just "blank is my favorite because it is..." but "blank is my favorite because the staff were knowledgeable and the food was great".  Looking at the lists, almost turn my stomach and brings up some topics from past restaurant reviewers in the media.

1. Most restaurant reviewers never paid a thing for their meals.  You go to a restaurant, get a free meal, and then comp the restaurant by giving them really good marks and overlooking the really salty steak or the $200 price meal that you would have had to pay otherwise.  So, they write off the bill and you think it is the greatest thing ever.

2.  Most restaurants give special treatment to reviewers.  This is more than just getting your meal paid for.  In the case of Niche and Taste.  I have tried to make reservations multiple times and the best time that they can give me is 9:30 in the evening.  I am willing to bet, that if I told them that I was a restaurant writer/reviewer, they would be able to squeeze me in at 7pm any night on any day.  I may also get the best table or the kitchen table, if they have one.  I may also get to meet the chef.  The reason why I don't let anyone know, is that I want to give a real and honest review of my first visit, which is something that not a single restaurant reviewer does any more. 

3.  Reviews after one visit.  I read online that the number 1 complaint of restaurant owners is that the reviewer should not make a judgment and review a location based on one visit.  But how else can we get an honest opinion of a restaurant?  If someone comes in from out of town and asks me where they should go, what should I tell them?  Should I tell them that I have no idea because I've only been there once or twice?  When someone goes to a restaurant, and doesn't expect special treatment because they didn't identify that they were a reviewer or affiliated with a media, news or periodical agency or company, they are treated to what could be a good or bad dining experience.  I have gone to restaurants before and had bad experiences on the first visit, I have gone and had bad experiences on the 5th visit also.  So, what this person is going to experience doesn't matter how many times they visit, really, because the number of times just comes up with an average experience, not a first-time visit.  It is the most important as well as it is a first impression.  If I take a bite of a new food, I can tell in that first bite if I like it or not.  I try to take a second bite, but the first one determines if I should take a second.  If I go to a restaurant and it is bad the first time, I will not want to go back.  Therefore, I find it adequate to write reviews after one visit.

So, what should be done now?  I will attempt my own best of list.  I will start it and ask friends and family and fans and then I will visit the best one chosen and check it out.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Summertime foods and treats

I grew up in South ST. Louis City, or technically the county.  The city marker, that shows people when you have entered St. Louis city proper and not the outside county area, was located about a mile away from my home.  I remember hot and humid summers in the city as my father would take my brothers and I on trips with him.  He did this to allow my mother, who was watching us during his work week, to get some rest and relaxation.

On really hot days like today, I remember that my dad would take us on small trips to the local Hobby Shop on Hampton or even the old army surplus stores off of Watson.  After these trips, we would often stop for something like some ice cream or a good soda pop.  But back then, in the 80's, I remember soda coming in ice cold bottles.  Also, the ice cream came from Ted Drews, so it was always good.  We may have also helped him with a trip to Hannake Hardware or Ace, where we would buy a bag of freshly popped popcorn for a quarter.  Sure it was the most salty and underflavored popcorn ever, but the idea of having your own small paper bag of popcorn while riding in the shopping cart and looking at cool hardware and doors and lights, as a kid, is the best.  I likely could waste a whole day doing this again with my kids.

Another thing that I remember was a Kool Aid stand.  Everyone had stands where they would sell drinks for like 5 cents a cup.  I know it isn't much but as a kid in the 80's any extra change you could get was a piece of candy waiting to be bought.  I remember making and buying drinks from these stands and it wasn't the best tasting Kool Aid or the best for you, but when it was a hundred out side, it felt great.

Ben Franklin was the name of a nickel candy shop and craft store that was located about a mile from our old house, in the Old Orchard Center.  My brothers and I used to get our bikes and ride up to this store where we would spend as little as $1 on candies, enough to fill our pockets, back when candies were as little as 5 cents each and there were even penny candies.  I remember buying Tootsie Rolls for a penny each and now they are sold for about 20 cents each; talk about inflation!

I also remember to beat the heat, my dad would sometimes take us to his job, so he could get some work done on the weekend and be ahead of the game on his job.  While we would be busy in his office doing "work", with the paper, pens and highlighters he would let us play with.  When he was in need of a break, we would go to the break room, which had a small refrigerator and inside was a pile of Vess orange sodas.  A sign on the door read "50 cents a soda".  My dad would spend $1 and we would have a cool and refreshing Vess soda.

The thing with STL is that there isn't a lot of street food vendors because the city has little to no residential and mostly old buildings for work.  So, the county area is where the food places would be.  I remember that there was a guy that would always sell pretzels, good soft and tasty pretzels.  He would walk along a section of street near Arsenal and would sell these 12 inch long pretzels, Gus's Pretzels, for as little as a quarter.  Nothing is better than finishing a soccer game, early in the morning and having a snack on the way home with a nice long pretzel.

Weekend or more specifically Saturday lunches were usually composed of fried balogna sandwiches, which is great with some mayonaise on the bread as well.  It is cheap and filling and made all of us happy.  I think of it now as a way of shaping my food views as what we eat and enjoy as food memories as kids is what we enjoy later in our lives.  Memories like this make up what we want to see in the future as well, as more and more of these things disappear. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Oh my gosh it is ugly!

I had a fun time picking something out at Whole Foods a few weeks ago and this time, it was something called an Ugli Fruit. 
So, what is an ugli fruit?  It is a trade marked creation.  So, to all of you against genetically altered or modified foods, this is one such thing.  This fruit is owned and created by the Cabel Hall Citrus Limited company and is a hybrid of a grapefruit, orange and a tangerine.  It is a large citrus fruit and is more sour than an orange but sweeter than a tangerine.  I have a picture of what it looks like open here:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Off to the Farmhaus

Let me tell you about St. Louis and fine dining: it is starting to make a comeback.  I know that there are places in STL that you can pay $100 for a steak and sit down in a restaurant where the average age is 70 something and enjoy a steak in peace and quiet, but that is not what real fine dining is.  Fine dining is great food and great service and great atmosphere, with a great cause.  That is it.

Now, unlike food writers who work for places in STL, like the RFT, Sauce magazine or even Feast magazine, when I make a reservation at a restaurant, I don't want them to know it is me.  I want to give an honest experience, not one tainted by free meals, perks or extra friendly service.  So, I called Friday night for a reservation at Sage and they didn't have an opening until 9pm.  Again, if you have a restaurant that has only 7 tables, then you need a bit more.  Also, I called Taste/Niche and they didn't have an opening until 9:30pm.  Now, sure, we finished eating our meals at the Farmhaus by 9:45 or so, but starting a night romantic dinner at 9:30pm, means that doing something afterwards is difficult, well with the lack of real danceable night clubs in St. Louis and all.  I'm sure that if I called and mentioned that I was a food and restaurant critic that I could have gotten a seat at any time, but what is the fun in that?

Farmhaus was nice and friendly and we got a spot at 8:15.  The restaurant gathers most of their ingredients from local sources and when the can't, they get the best.  It is more of a fancy/casual restaurant.  We saw some people in shorts and others in suits.  We sat near the bar and it was a nice atmosphere for my wife and I.  The food menu is typed on a piece of paper and changed daily so we picked some plates to share.

The first plate that we ordered was the "Escolar Chaumette Traminette, dill and butter poached, grilled Pacific Blue prawns, roasted carrots and bok choy".  I don't like most fish, but this fish tasted like butter and dill and was delicious.  My wife enjoyed the perfectly cooked prawns and we both ate everything in the dish, including the two pieces of bok choy and the carrots.  A 4 out of 5 for me.
Also, as a warning, the pictures all have a yellow tint because of the yellow light that was shining down on our table.  But everything was good.
The next dish we had was the "Day Boat Scallops Whipped shrimp, roasted locally foraged chanterelle mushrooms".  The scallops were okay, by my standards, my wife said that they were cooked perfectly, so we will go with her thoughts.  The whipped shrimp tasted like sweet shrimp and there were two dried tomato skins on top, which were like very delicate and thin tomato chips.  It was an easy 4 out of 5.
I had to do it and the next dish was the "Beet Risotto Roasted heirloom beets, Oregon white truffle" and it was awesome.  The risotto had the perfect creamy texture that it should have but it had a meaty flavor that was rich enough that it tasted like venison or a very good beef stock.  It was also colored and cooked with beets which gave it a beety flavor along with shaved pieces of truffle.  The truffle was a perfect balance for the risotto and everything worked well together.  A 4 out of 5.
We then had the next dish as "Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf Sweet and Yukon Gold smashed potatoes, sous vide pearl onions, tomato Merlot reduction."  The bacon added some flavor but wasn't needed to add much to the meatloaf as the meat was tasty.  The gravy was almost more of a tomato sauce, as it was supposed to be and the onions were perfectly cooked and tasty as well.  For having bacon in the name and the recipe, it didn't taste much like bacon, which is a good thing, with all of these other complimenting flavors.  A 4 out of 5 for me.
Besides the dessert, which was the honey and pecan ice cream with all the other pecan stuff, the meal was great.  The service staff are all wearing jeans and flannel shirts, like a stereotype farmer and they are so friendly.  When asked about which dish our server would recommend, unlike other restaurants, she didn't suggest the most expensive item.  I highly recommend the Farmhaus restaurant and I highly suggest anyone and everyone go there.  I would say that they are the RM of St. Louis.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

From Red Lantern to Red Apple: try the difference

The Red Lantern was an ancient business.  (Well, maybe not that old.)  But everyone in Columbia, Illinois is aware how long The Lantern has been a part of their lives.  This family owned business seems to have been part of the Main Street businesses for as long as most can remember. The Lantern was known for selling home-made comfort food, for a cheap price and for having food and an atmosphere that was very comfortable.  My family would frequently make jokes about how when we enter the building, the average age of customers would drop to 60 years old instead of 70.

The food was good, as it had maybe 20 items or so on the menu and when it was a special day, like once a week, they would have a special dish.  The salads had as much lettuce as half a head and as much cheese as half a bag and they would sell it for $7.  That was always more salad than you could eat.  The sandwiches, like a BLT, came with two full sandwiches and a large handful of fries.  Everything was good, nothing elaborate or new or exciting, but the kind of stuff your grandmother would make for you. 

After serving the community, the owners decided to retire and sold the place.  The new owners turned it into a Red Apple, which is a home style food restaurant.  What they also did, was remodel the inside, leaving almost blank walls:

Before, these walls were covered with all sorts of nick-naks and things from the area, which is somewhat still attached to their farming roots.  As plain and as boring as the decor looks now, so is the food.  As I said, the menu has about 100 items on it.  The food, seems to be all frozen foods that are just deep fried to warm up and then serve.  I went with a table of 5 so there were six of us, 4 adults and two kids.  We ordered a special dish of the corned beef and cabbage, a kid's meal of grilled cheese and french fries, a kid's meal of chicken fingers and french fries, two salads, a burger and a soap (chicken and dumplings).

Now, these items were all on the original Lantern's menu, but here is the difference:

The corned beef and cabbage's vegetables, the cabbage, potatoes and the celery and carrot mix were just steamed and flavorless.  No butter, no salt and no pepper. The salads were warm and didn't have enough cheese, mostly warm lettuce.  The grilled cheese didn't have the cheese melted, it was just warmed.  The French fries tasted like the store bought frozen fries when you under cook them in the oven, they were hard and crispy on the outside and soft and cold on the inside.  The chicken strips were frozen strips fried to be cooked, they were cold in some areas.  The burger was a regular burger, nothing special.  The soup, the chicken and dumpling was yellow, as in so yellow it was made with fake chicken stock and was salty.

All of this reminded me of a Sponge bob episode.  In this episode, the main eating place, the Krusty Krab, which sells the most delicious thing ever in the World, the Krabby Patty, which I think is like a White Castle slider, is sold to a franchise.  The franchise turns it into a TGIFridays spin off called Kabby O'Mondays.  The place also takes the hand made patties off the menu and makes them using an assembly line with robots and machines where there is no care or passion in the food anymore.  But, it doesn't matter because the customers still come for the atmosphere and the food, no matter that the food is not as good as it used to be.

This is the same case.  The Lantern did these few things well enough that it had a regular set of customers.  This new restaurant, the Red Apple, can't seem to do anything well and likely will only have regulars because they have no place else to go.