Tag Archives: food

Heaven In a Plain Wrapper

One of my favorite things about travelling is getting to find new places to eat. I always try to avoid hitting the chain places in favor of local independent eateries. Of course sometimes I will still go to Chili’s or Cheddars because it is convenient, but I try to find new places as often as possible. My trip to Colorado afforded me many opportunities to eat at new places, but tonight’s dinner location was noteworthy for its mix of good and bad.

DiCicco’s is an Italian restaurant near the Denver Airport nestled among a collection of hotels. It is in a big, uninviting building with a solid door, no windows and a patio that is loaded down with equipment and not used for seating. Upon entering the edifice, one gets a sense of entering an expensive boutique restaurant, but instead of a hostess stand, diners face a counter with a cash register, and what looks like a server stand. The hostess did not react to me for several moments until I asked where the hostess stand was. After clearing up my confusion, she asked if I wanted to sit in the bar area or the dining room. I was taken to the two-story dining room and seated in an intimate two-person booth adorned with very pretty hand-painted floral patterns on the walls. These paintings were all over the restaurant including the ceiling and vents. One wall of the dining room was a large screen showing video of Andrea Bocelli singing in a concert. I would later find out that on weekends, the videos are replaced with live entertainment in the form of a keyboardist and once a month they feature a live band.

Brandon, my waiter, was quite knowledgeable about the restaurant’s history and the menu. He seemed pleasant and nice, but he forgot my soda and took an inordinate amount to time coming back to take my order. I asked a few questions about some of the choices and settled on the cannelloni with meatballs and minestrone. I was glad I did. Unfortunately, however, the cannelloni came out before the minestrone. The soft drink glasses were quite small, necessitating several refills, of which Brandon was not as attentive as I would like.

The highlight of the dinner was the dinner. The cannelloni was the best I have had. Every bite was a bit of heaven covered in mozzarella. The meatballs, smothered in marinara, were delectable and accented the cannelloni very well. Even the minestrone, when it finally arrived, was quite good to the point I spooned every bit of the broth I could reach stopping only when my spoon came up empty. I cannot remember a more tasty Italian dinner.

If only it was served in a more accommodating environment.

This is not to say that the dining room was drab or distracting from the dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the entire interior is festooned with impressive hand-painted artwork on the walls—not canvases hanging on the walls—but rather murals covering almost all of the plaster. The problem was the fact that the impressive adornments are only on the interior of an uninviting building. The front door is solid wood with no windows. Similarly, the windows that are on the walls are plastered over. As I mentioned earlier, the building has a two-story patio that would offer diners a spectacular view of sunset over the Rocky Mountains, but the patio is closed and filled with excess equipment, which is quite unattractive.

DiCicco’s has very good food and it is worth the trip for that. The only problem is one has to get past the uninviting building to get it. If the restaurant was not one of only two in the immediate area, I might not have even bothered to enter it. The exterior is not inviting and the foyer did little to change the impression. It is only when one enters the dining room does the restaurant become somewhat promising. It is only when the food is served does the place shine, and it shines brightly.

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Meatasaurus Rex

The sizzle hits you before the smell, but the double whammy really gets your mouth watering.  There is nothing better than a good steak, unless it is a good pot roast or pork loin or perhaps some short ribs.  I have always insisted that a meal is not a meal unless it has some primary protein (MEAT) included.  You could safely call me a carnvore.  If I were a dinosaur, I would be a meatasaurus.  My mother would love to have a pot of beans with cornbread and cabbage as a meal.  I could enjoy it as well, as long as the beans were cooked with a large ham bone and pieces of pork.  But still, a good steak is at the top of my list.  Of course, it has to be cooked properly, and that is where most people have troubles.  The other day I was enjoying lunch with some colleagues when the topic of cooking came up, and in that discussion was how to grill a good steak.
pullquoteIn another life, I was a restaurant manager and I have worked at every possible job in the food service industry including cook.  I am a pretty good cook if I do say so myself.  When I was 18 or 19, I worked at Bill Kenny’s Restaurant in Humble, Texas.  Bill built and opened the restaurant to operate at a loss for tax purposes.  He never meant for it to make money.  He paid the staff well and offered plates for low prices.  He hired a certified chef to run the kitchen along with a kitchen manager and myself and one other guy as assistant kitchen managers.  I had already worked at food prep and line cook and expediter jobs at places like Red Lobster, Sonic and Long John Silver’s so I knew my way around a commercial kitchen.  With the combination of talented staff, low prices and good food, Bill Kenny’s became a victim of its own success.  It made money.  A lot of money.  Bill lost his tax write-off and so he closed the restaurant and sold the land.  There was a Texaco where the place once stood.
While I was there, I learned a lot about cooking, but nothing more important than how to grill a steak.  The chef was not a tall man, but the description of “large” fits.  He clearly enjoyed the benefits of his labours.  He took me under his wing and showed me a lot about food preparation, but one day he was talking about steaks and temperatures.  I thought he meant we needed a meat thermometer, but he quickly corrected me.  Rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well and well-done are the proper designations for steaks and the best temperature to serve a good steak is medium-rare.  Now, at that time the sight of blood on a plate kind of grossed me out.  I was still young and inexperienced in the finer foods so pink meat was scary and rare was out of the question.
“How do you like your steak,” he asked me.
“Well done, of course,” I confidently answered.
He looked at me as though I had just spit on his grill.  “Well done is shoe leather.  It’s a waste of meat.”  The contempt dripped from his mouth.  “Come here,” he said.
He led me over to the grill where a huge slab of sirloin had just hit the fire.  Bright red marbled with white with the grease just starting to weep across the surface, it sizzled on the hot grill.  It was called “The Hanger” because it was so big it hung over the edges of a standard platter.
“What temperature is that steak right now,” he asked.
I looked around for a meat thermometer.
“No. no.  Just look at it.  You can see it if you know what to look for.”
I was lost and it must have shown on my face.  He grabbed the tongs and pointed to the grain of the beef.  “See the color?  Here by the marbling.  When it turns gray like this across the surface, you are at rare.”
He picked up one side of the steak.  “See how the meat moves along the grain?  It’s still pliable,” he said jabbing the tongs into the meat.  “That means it’s still tender.  If we want to serve this rare, we flip it now just long enough to char grill marks on this side and serve it.”
“Rare?” I wrinkled my nose as he flipped the steak.
“This guy wants medium,” he said ignoring my reaction, “so we leave it down here a little longer, then we flip it back and turn it 90 degrees to get the square grill marks.”
We watched the steak cook for a few seconds before he brought up my reaction.
“What you got against rare?”
“It’s gross and bloody,” I answered as if that was enough of an explanation.
“Boy,” he sighed.  “You missin’ out.  All the flavor’s in the blood.” He reached up and grabbed a knife from the magnetic holder beside the grill.  “Here,” he said cutting a chunk of beef from the side and stabbing it with a fork. “Try this.”
“But this is a customer’s lunch!” I was aghast at the suggestion.
“Ah, he won’t finish this,” he said dismissively.  “No one does.  He’ll never notice it missing,” he popped the bite into his mouth.  He cut another one and again offered it to me.  “Go on, you’re supposed to periodically taste test anyway.”
I wrinkled my nose again as I took the fork.  The meat was still pink with a drop of red juice and grease forming along the bottom of the cut; a perfect medium-rare.  Not wanting to look bad, I put it in my mouth, fully expecting the bile to immediately surge in my throat.  To the contrary, my mouth watered and the mixed with the juices to create a heavenly experience as I chewed the best bite of food I had ever experienced.  I groaned my approval.  The chef just nodded with a knowing smile.
From that moment on, medium rare is the only way I take steak.  I Iearned much about steaks from that chef.  Of course the steak needs to be seasoned.  Some use marinades, some use complicated mixes of spices.  For my money, salt, pepper and occasionally a hint of cumin sprinkled on both sides of the steak should be all that is needed to bring out the natural flavors of the meat.  No steak sauce should ever touch a properly prepared steak.  Sauces are for well-done shoe leather to make it semi-palatable.  Of course, if well-done is to your taste, have a bottle of A-1 and Bon appetit.
After I left Bill Kenny’s, I went on to many more restaurant jobs, learning more and vowing after each one that it would be my last.  Grandy’s, Casa Viva, and Waffle House each taught me something about cooking and I took my favorite recipies from each one so I have a pretty good repertoire, and I could probably open my own restaurant if I ever completely lost my mind.  I guess next to cooking a steak, the most important lesson I ever learned from all my time in restaurants was that the best job in food service is that of customer.  I’ll keep that job for a while.  It lets me sample all the varieties of meat available at the many restaurants that keep popping up all over.  The best steak I have ever eaten (that I didn’t cook) was a filet mignon from Morton’s in Nashville, but the prettiest most perfectly prepared T-bone was at a Texas Roadhouse in Katy Texas.  I keep trying to find the best steaks everywhere I go.  I am a carnivore, after all.

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A is for Apple Butter

There is not much more satisfying in life than apple butter on a warm buttermilk biscuit at the Cracker Barrel. I have always liked apple butter as long as I can remember. As a child, I would have it on toast, on biscuits—heck I would eat it with a spoon. The only thing I would like better than apple butter on a spoon would be cake batter. I have been known to whip up a Betty Crocker cake mix just to sit and eat it out of a bowl. Now, it is never a good idea to eat a whole chocolate cake’s worth of batter. My stomach, at least, cannot endure that much chocolaty goodness at one sitting, so I baked the remainder to eat later. I never needed a chocolate cake to be iced before I eat it. If only someone would put these two great tastes together.

One time, when I was 11 or 12, it was my younger sister’s birthday and mom had baked a devil’s food cake for her birthday. The two 9-inch layers were still cooling in the pans on the stove when mom sent me to do the dishes after lunch. As I unloaded the dishwasher, the cakes sat on the stove whispering at me, tempting me. The surface of both layers formed small peaks like the top of a Dairy Queen ice cream cone. These peaks would interfere with the proper application of icing, so it would only be a help to remove these peaks so my mom could finish preparing the birthday cake. After all, it was just two small pinches of cake. No one would miss them.

I continued to work on the dishes as the cakes continued their siren’s song. One pot put away, one pinch. One glass put away, one pinch. One fork put away, one more pinch. By the time I finished putting away the dishes, I had pinched a crater in one of the layers almost to the bottom of the pan. It was then that I realized that I had eaten almost half of one layer of the cake! I knew I would be in serious trouble unless I could figure out how to hide the damage. This was before the proliferation of packaged icing, so I knew my mom planned on making the icing, so I could not fill the hole with that.

I was almost in a panic as I stared at the hole in the cake. I had to think of something; something that would look like chocolate cake. I opened the refrigerator and examined the contents for anything that would look like chocolate cake when my eyes fell upon the jar of Mott’s apple butter. Apple butter is brown; almost the same shade as chocolate cake batter. I figured I would fill the hole with the butter and no one would know. 11 and 12-year-olds are so brilliant.

Just as soon as I smoothed the apple butter into the hole and put the jar back into the fridge, my mom came into the kitchen madder than a wet hen that I had not yet finished the dishes. I stood in front of the stove and took my butt chewing as my mom explained the error of my ways. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the cake pans and stopped her tirade mid-sentence. I could see the wheels turning as she regarded the cake pans. She knew something wasn’t right as she reached out and touched the wet surface and tasted it. Her eyes grew wide as saucers as the realization of what I did hit. She grabbed the yard stick that hung on the side of the fridge and held it over her head like a samurai warrior. That is the last thing I remember as I scampered with a sore butt up to my room. I don’t even remember eating the cake. I believe my mom spooned the apple butter out of the cake as she repaired the damage.

So, while I did have the foresight to mix the two great tastes, I never got to experience it. Hmm, perhaps I should do some experimenting in the kitchen to see just how well the two flavors mix. Or maybe I should just enjoy apple butter on a hot biscuit as it was intended and enjoy the chocolate cake as dessert. That way, I have two separate satisfying treats. Which reminds me; I had apple butter at Cracker Barrel the other day, so now I need to get some cake mix.

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The Human Vacuum Cleaner

“Eat it and beat it, privates. Swallow your food and chew it later. Move it maggots!” These imperatives from my drill sergeant reverberated through the chow hall, causing me and the other assembled Army recruits to stuff our faces as fast as possible and may have contributed to my long habit of eating quickly, usually faster than those with whom I dine. This is not a bragging point, mind you. It is simply a matter of fact. The other day at lunch, though, I had to really re-examine how fast I actually eat.

My mother has long complained that I eat too quickly, but the ironic thing is that, to my memory, she—not my drill sergeant—was the initial instigator of my rapid consumption. She had a rule at suppertime that no one leaves the table until their plate was clean. I would be outside down the street at my friend’s house when my mom would holler for dinner. Children don’t like coming home to eat since it interferes with playtime and kids don’t like stopping to eat. Who needs food? Kids are indestructible anyway. At least they think they are. So it was with a grumble and a groan that I dragged myself to the dinner table. I would sit there staring at the cauliflower or asparagus and quickly feel my stomach rebelling at the idea of welcoming such fare into my body.

When I was 11 or 12, we were living in Newport News Virginia and we had our family meals around the brand new table in our dining room. I wasn’t eating particularly fast at that point, but I do remember that brussel sprouts were on the menu on one particular evening. As a child, I was quite picky about what I would eat and toward the top of my “not-in-a-million-years” menu was Brussel sprouts; right behind asparagus and okra. My mother insists that she didn’t prepare that meal, and she doesn’t remember serving brussel sprouts. We may have had one of my grandmothers visiting at the time and perhaps she served it. Either way, this memory is way too ingrained in my brain to be just a figment.

It sat there, staring at me with its leafy eye, mocking me, daring me to eat it. It knew I despised it, sitting on my plate in the juice from the steam pot like a swollen miniature head of lettuce. Even the smell wrinkled my face into the mask of tragedy. And it was a tragedy as I was forbidden to leave the table until I had consumed that nauseous vegetable. So, I sat. And sat. Minutes seemed like hours as I engaged in a staring contest with a vegetable. It was an epic battle of wills, to be sure, but not so much with my grandmother who imposed my sentence, but more so with the brussel sprout.

Finally, my butt sore from the eternity of sitting at the now-empty table, I stabbed the morsel with my fork, taking out my frustrations with the violent act, and put it in my mouth. I had a plan. I would not eat it, but I would hold it in my mouth until I could spit it out. My grandmother must have surmised my plan because she told me to sit until I swallowed it. Being the willful young man, I refused and I breathed through my nose while holding the sprout against the backs of my teeth with the tip of my tongue so as to avoid having it come into contact with the taste buds. Another eternity passed.

Finally, my grandmother relented and I bolted to my bathroom and spat the offensive vegetable into the toilet bowl with the force of projectile vomiting. I flushed the toilet and watched with satisfaction as the sprout rolled in the swirling water, spiraling down to its final end. An end not in my stomach.

So, when it comes to dinner, I can be a little willful and when my mother said I could not leave the table until my plate was clean, and as long as we were not having asparagus, okra or brussel sprouts, I would become a human vacuum cleaner and suck down whatever was on my plate as quickly as possible so I could get back to whatever activity dinner was interrupting.

As time passed, I was usually the first one finished at any meal, even if I had nothing pending. The playtime of kids gave way to the sullen activity of teenagers and I was no longer in a rush to finish eating. Even so, however, I still consistently finished before anyone else. Once I joined the Army, the ever-present imperative from the drill sergeants drove me to eat even faster. My mother expressed concern on more than one occasion—the latest being two months ago—about how fast I eat. My wife shares her concern and, lately, I have been making an effort to slow down my eating, particularly when eating with other people. It seems that shoveling food into one’s mouth in a manner akin to raking in the winning pot at the poker table is a tad on the rude side.

The other day I was having lunch at Chipotle with two VIPs from the corporate office. I always have the Barbacoa burrito (Shredded beef in a spicy sauce) and my companions had fajita burritos. I was engaging in the conversation just like any other meal when I noticed that both of them were almost done with their meals and I was not even half-way through mine. The woman, who was about a hundred pounds soaking wet, finished first, followed by the man who was taller than me but about the same weight. They politely sat there talking, waiting for me to complete my meal. This has never happened to me. No one since the incident with the brussel sprout has finished a meal faster than I. Perhaps all those years of my mom nagging made a subconscious impression. Or maybe my wife voicing her concerns has changed me. Or…maybe those people were just that hungry.

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