Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Battle Royalle: What's playing in our house

Last week was pho and high school musicals. This week, it is the four* crappy television shows I sit through regularly. Yes, this is grumpy parent rant and it is also a subject that I shouldn't have an informed opinion on.

Way back in the 70s, if it was on TV, you could watch it. There was no "I love this episode so I am going to watch only this episode again and again and complain if we have to stop in the middle of a show I have seen 50 times" like there is today with cable TV and DVRs. Left to there own devices, my kids would watch exactly 4 shows - with special emphasis on a few episodes of each show, all of them on Disney. Here they are in order from ugh, not again to tolerable. If you have to watch these shows repeatedly, I feel your pain.

Jessie: I hate the premise of the show and it doesn't help that the repeated "Hey, Jessie oohho ohh" of the theme song will rattle in your head for days. Super rich jet-setting New Yorkers adopt a bunch of kids and basically leave them in New York to be raised by a nanny and a sarcastic butler. Hijinks ensue. Sound a little like The Nanny? This was created by one of The Nanny's producers.

Shake It Up: Two best friends in high school are also on a local dance show. One is dumb, the other is smart. Hijinks ensue. It's more tolerable than Jessie, but not much. Plus, one of the leads in the show goes by one name like Cher or Madonna. Your age shouldn't end in "teen" if you are going to go by one name.

Austin and Ally: Down in beautifully sunny Miami, a male teen singing sensation, his shy female best friend/song writer, and two other friends go to school, write songs and perform. Hijinks ensue. For the most part, I find the dancing and music on this show awful. The two sidekick friends make it watchable. The female sidekick gets fired from a job in most episodes and the male sidekick friend is so over the top goofy that he can be funny. He occasionally gets into smack-off type insult fights with another character and they can also be amusing. Under no circumstances take this as a recommendation to watch the show. It is still a sit through only if you must kids show.

Dog With A Blog: Maybe it's because I have a blog too, maybe because the parents aren't morons, or maybe it's because this is essentially ALF with a talking dog instead of an alien puppet. The father looks familiar. I think he's been in commercials. The mother is Beth Littleford who used to be a reporter on The Daily Show. Anyhow, out of the four shows that seem to run on a continuous loop when the kids watch TV, this is the best one. It's pretty close to a traditional network sit-com and you don't feel yourself getting dumber like you do when Jessie is showing.

*There used to be a 5th show, Good Luck Charlie but that seems to have fallen out of favor. The series ended and I think that killed it for the kids. It was a fairly standard sit-com that would fall on the higher end of this tolerable scale.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Battle Royale: Soup and Stage Edition


My first visit to a pizzeria is almost always filled with the hope that I have found the pizza I grew up eating. No matter how often I am disappointed, there is always hope. The comparison of the pizza in front of me to the long gone pizza from The Brick Oven in Bridgeport, Connecticut probably happens more often than it should. Over the past few days, two pairs of things are readily comparable. The first was by design, the second just kind of happened.

Soup
While I really like Pho, I am certainly not an expert. I have had it from exactly 3 Capital District restaurants, mostly from one place because it is the most convenient for me and I would argue that a weekly bowl of pho last winter kept me healthy while everyone else in the house sniffled and coughed. I have no preconceived notion of how pho should taste. I don't know the traditions of how it should be served or what a great price on a bowl is. To me, it is just a bowl of very enjoyable noodle soup. So this compare/contrast is strictly based on personal taste.

On Thursday, I was near Kim’s on Madison Ave. I had read about Kim’s in a Times Union review, All Over Albany and another write up at Chopsticks Optional.  The restaurant is in certainly nice enough, nothing fancy. There was one other table of 6 having lunch when I arrived. Out of several options of pho, I went with the brisket, eye round and beef meatball combination.


It was good. I thought the broth was a little thin. From memory, this bowl of pho seemed similar to the bowl I had at Saigon Spring in Clifton Park when the restaurant opened (my one and only visit – don’t get to Clifton Park often).  In my mind, I though I liked my usual bowl of pho better. But I hadn’t had a bowl of my usual pho in awhile…which brings us to Friday’s Lunch at Pho Yum.

Last year, I ate enough bowls of pho at Pho Yum to be recognized when I visit and I am expected to get a bowl of pho with beef brisket and a glass of water. When I arrived on Friday, the restaurant was full. I counted 17 people in the small shop. Luckily, I snagged a seat at a table that had just been vacated. And you’ve got to give Linh (the owner and keeper of the front of the house) credit, I haven’t been there in months and she still recognized me and knew my order. To compare apples to apples, I switched up my usual brisket order to the Pho Yum - any three meats - and got the same brisket, eye round beef meatball combo I had on Thursday. The base of the dish is the broth, and Pho Yum’s broth had more flavor and more gelatin/body to it. It also had more fat. Not sure that’s a bad thing though. Here’s how I’d score the fight:
Broth: Pho Yum’s was better.
Noodles: Pho Yum’s had better texture.
Eye Round: Draw – the eye round was pretty much the same.
Brisket: I liked Pho Yum’s. It had some fatty, crunchy pieces. If you’re into that, Pho Yum’s wins, if not, you’ll like the brisket at Kim’s better.
Meatballs: These aren’t Italian style meatballs. They’re light, kind of spongy meatballs that are pretty damn tasty. The meatballs at Kim’s were better.
Sides: Draw. They are pretty much exactly the same. I don’t add the siracha or hoisin to the soup. I like both sauces, just not in my soup. The jalapeno at packed more punch, but that is going to be pepper to pepper anywhere.
Cost: Both portions were enough, but the portion at Kim’s is noticeably bigger and slightly cheaper. This pho at Kim’s was $8.95 and it was $10 at Pho Yum (before tax and tip).

In the end, I would like to try many things on the menu at Kim’s, but when I’m looking for a bowl of pho, I’ll spend the extra buck at Pho Yum.

Stage
This weekend turned out to be a weekend of musical theater. High School musical theater. On Saturday night we saw Footloose. Sunday afternoon, we caught the afternoon matinee of Oklahoma! Both plays were pretty well done. Both plays had some pretty good laughs. The crowds at both plays gave the cast standing ovations. But let’s score the fight:

Orchestra: the musicians at Oklahoma! were better.
Vocals: the singers at Oklahoma! were better. The kid that played Curly could really sing well.
Set: the set at Oklahoma! was nicer.
Cost: Draw – same price. At face value, for less than a single ticket to see The Lion King at Proctors, a family of 4 can go see a high school show and buy baked goods during the intermission. Sure, there’s some drop in production quality, but in terms of enjoyment I don’t think that drop is a factor of 4. For both plays, two kids and two adult tickets were $44. For the four of us to see the Lion King, it was well over $200. Given the choice, I think I’d rather go see the high school play. In my book, "Let's Hear it for the Boy" trumps "Hakuna Matata."

In the end, I wished the school that did Oklahoma! put on Footloose. After all, no matter what you do to it, the play Oklahoma! is still Oklahoma! and I’d be ok with never seeing it again. Even though the song “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” has been rolling around in my head. It’s a change from the barrage of One Direction songs my daughters subject me to... but not all change is good.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Steers - 2014

A little warning, there are a few pictures in this post you might not want to see. It will be significantly less graphic than the slaughter and packing posts were last year, but this is once again about the slaughtering and butchering of two steer. There are a few some pictures of meat that isn't in steak form. If that isn't something you want to see or read about, press "back" on your browser. I'll try to put a jump in, but I'm not the most technically proficient blogger out there so hopefully this jump works and you don't see anything you don't want to see.






Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Summer in February - Mid March Edition

Usually around Valentine's Day or school's winter break, we get together at my in-laws for Summer in February (also known as Rib and Pierogi Day). The day is essentially a summer barbecue to help break up the middle of winter. Due to a number of scheduling conflicts and a seriously cold winter, the annual celebration was pushed back to this past Sunday.

Sadly, I haven't fired up this barbecue pit since last February. Which is too bad because it is fun cooking food over coals. Have I mentioned propane sucks lately? This is just a square of old concrete blocks that have slowly started to crumble but can hold it together enough to support and old commercial oven grate. I rearranged some of the blocks Sunday morning and I was one course off. So I took a few similarly sized logs and put them around the top. A piece of stainless steel sheet metal goes on top of the logs as a lid. The burn barrel in back is used to burn wood down to coals.


I had three racks of ribs in there and about three pounds of sausage at the end. The came out pretty well. I should have trusted my instincts instead of the clock and pulled the ribs a little sooner. I think I have mentioned this before, the coals go on the ground in a pit like this. Not a problem in the summer, but in the winter the ground thaws and puts out the coals (ask me how I know). Buried under the coals is an old cast iron grate to keep the coals off the ground.


Here's Aunt Carol hard at work getting the pierogi cooked.
 

She brings her own frying station and sets up in the garage. It is actually a pretty slick setup. She's got two electric fryers and an electric warming tray. I believe it only tripped the circuit twice.


After a handful of appetizers - taco dip, a warm spinach/artichoke dip, shrimp cocktail and some killer stuffed mushrooms (these were my downfall - I ate a lot of those), dinner was ready.


There were ribs and pierogi, sausage, salad, deviled eggs and potato salad (my mother-in-law makes a superior tater salad).



For dessert, there was an apple square and a few flavors of ice cream. If you went home hungry, it was your own damn fault. It's been two days, I don't think I've fully recovered yet.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner



Well, Winner Winner Chicken-less Dinner.

A few weeks ago, I left a comment on the Albany Eats blog as an entry to win a three course dinner for two including wine at Creo in Stuyvesant Plaza. Looking at our calendar, it pretty much had to be this weekend. I contacted the restaurant, set up a time, and spoke with the manager about any allergies or disliked foods. With one daughter at a sleepover party and another at our house with a sitter, we set off for a 6:00 reservation.

We were warmly greeted, our coats were checked and we were led to a table set for two with glasses of ice water already poured for us. After a brief wine discussion and a visit from Chef David Gibson, we opted for glasses of the chef’s selection for each course instead of a bottle. The first round was a light, California Pinot Noir. I was only taking mental notes so I don’t recall which wine it was exactly, which is too bad because I think my sister-in-law would have liked it. Bread and butter were brought to the table while we waited for appetizers.

I commented on the fancy balls of butter and my wife said, “They’re probably ice cold.” She was pleasantly surprised to find that the butter was room temperature. It was a nice touch. The appetizers arrived and we were presented with Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Kung Pao Calamari. I’ve got to tell you, the Brussels sprouts were really quite tasty and neither one of us are huge Brussels sprout fans. The best bites were of the very roasted leaves that flaked off the sprout. Fried calamari is one of a few dishes that have a “The Best I Ever Had” memory. My fried calamari gold standard was at a Todd English restaurant in Boston that has unfortunately closed.  Being one of those select few dishes, mental comparisons are going to be made. This Kung Pao calamari was very enjoyable and kind of similar style the Todd English calamari, but the champ is still the champ. Since I’m nitpicking, this dish is probably better in the summer when the diced tomato in the dish isn’t a February tomato. And, unable to resist the jab: a former local restaurant reviewer’s husband would probably really like them.
 
 (there was a phone malfunction and we dug in before I got a picture)

After the appetizers were cleared, any crumbs on the table were brushed off and we were brought two palette cleansing sorbets. One was peach and the other was honey/mango. Both were silky smooth and delicious. So smooth and crystal free that I wondered if there was a little cream in there. Either way, a small scoop of dessert before dinner is always nice.

The next round of wine was delivered. This one was a Renieri Invetro Toscano Super Tuscan. I had never heard of a Super Tuscan making it much easier to remember. Plus, since I have a 12 year olds sense of humor, I had mental images of a Mighty Mouse styled Italian wine super hero. (Here comes Super Tuscan to save the day.) This was a much more full bodied wine. Even to the point where this wine felt heavier in the glass. Our chef selected entrees were brought to the table next. We were given one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, seared Ahi tuna with soy mustard vinaigrette. The tuna was served on a bed of crispy, fried shoestring potatoes. The fish was a nice medium rare and the sauce was delicious. We at the fish first since the Super Tuscan paired with the other entrée which was pork Osso Bucco. The Osso Bucco wasn’t on the menu Saturday night and the incredibly tender meat was served with a mushroom risotto and sautéed rappini. I really enjoyed this dish and since my wife wanted to try the desserts, I got a little extra of the braised pork.




Last but not least were the desserts. A vanilla crème brulee and a rum raisin bread pudding. Both were very good and before we left, both were very gone. 


This was the first time we had been to Creo and we really liked it. Since we didn’t really get to look at the menu, guessing from the online menu the meal we had would have cost about $120 before tax and tip. Certainly not cheap eats, but between the two of us, we could have easily skipped one of the entrees and had enough to eat. I believe there might be future opportunities to win a similar dining experience, so keep your eyes out on the local blogs for another chance to win dinner for two. If you aren’t lucky enough to win dinner, Creo participated in the City Dining Cards. When Daniel at the FussyLittleBlog was giving away cards a little while back, a 10% $10 off of a $30 purchase card from Creo was one of the cards I received in the mail. I’m looking forward to using it.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Market Bistro by Price Chopper



For reasons that aren’t quite clear, I was invited to take a tour of the new Market Bistro by Price Chopper this week. I seriously doubt what goes on at the Jon In Albany Blog has any influence on anything anyone ever does and it shouldn’t. However, I try not to turn down invitations if I can make an event. I missed what looked like a good one at The Cheese Traveler last week. Anyhow, I arrived at the Latham Market Bistro just before 1:00 where I was met by Mona Golub and brought back to what will be a teaching kitchen where the only face I recognized was Steve Barnes of the Times Union. Steve and I toured a Shop Rite together. We must be on the same super market mailing list.
 

The visit started out with some quick presentations about the concept. Mona Golub introduced Neil Golub who talked quite passionately about the concept and how development began almost immediately after the Bon Ton left the mall. The goal was to have most of America’s favorite foods made to order in one place. He called it a “Microcosm of America’s food industry.” He talked about the three deli’s the store has: Ben & Bill’s is a New York City style deli, an Italian deli with cured meats and fresh pasta made daily, traditional supermarket deli with cold cuts. The cheese section was influenced by Zabaar’s. The store has a wellness program and “Quickcare” center with a nurse practitioner. Neil also talked about new “Local” signage that was out on the shelves in the store. He was clearly hands on with the stores concept and design.

Next to speak was Jerry Golub. He talked about market research that showed people went out to eat and then went grocery shopping. This goal was to combine the two experiences in one Shop & Dine experience. He touched on a few more things like the Chef’s Grill which will be a full service restaurant in the store which also serves wine and beer. The restaurant will feature items from other parts of the store like fresh pasta and sausages from the Italian deli or corned beef for hash from Ben & Bill’s. He called the store a “living, breathing lab” where new things could be tried. Some will succeed, some will fail but the successes could be exported to the other stores.

The final speaker before the tour began was Lewis Shaye, the Vice President of Culinary Concepts for Price Chopper. He’s been working on this project for almost 5 years. He said the theme they tried to carry out through the Bistro was “Remarkable.” They wanted to do things that hadn’t been done in a grocery store before. The other concept that carries though the eateries is menu related. Each section has some specialties that are always on the menu, some limited time offerings that will change as well as made to order options. With that, the tour began. With that said, we left the cooking classroom (which is pretty nice space) and headed out to the Bistro.

First on the tour was a Starbucks near the main entrance to the store. Just adjacent to the Starbucks will be a few shelves of pastries  and and ice cream station. But the Ice cream station was the last stop, so we to a quick step to the side to see a soup area.


Adjacent to the soup area is a Subtown, an East coast style sub shop. I sampled the Italian mix and it was pretty good. Bread can make or break a sub and this was pretty good. Half subs (about 7 inches) were in the $5 to $7 range, full 14 inch subs were about $9 to $10.
 


Next door to Subtown is a salad station. Salads ran from about $6.50 to $9. One touch that was pointed out is that they are freezing the salad serving plates so they are chilled when you get your salad.

I liked that the salads are tossed so everything is dressed. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d put $6 to $9 worth of salad in a bowl at a traditional salad bar. These prices are in line with a shop like Panera, but at Panera you have the option to get a smaller salad and half a sandwich. I’m sure the salad sales will be watched and any issues will be addressed, but I think some fine tuning might be needed.

Next up is Burritos. Like a Moe’s or Chipotle, you can get a burrito bowl or quesadilla. Unlike Moe’s or Chipotle, they are offering some different flavors like Buffalo chicken, BBQ, Italian and a Mediterranean. There’s a kids meal option and they had tofu also. Most everything at this station was just under $7 but could be upgraded to a meal package. We sampled a Buffalo chicken quesadilla. It had the right Frank’s Red Hot flavor and some fresh scallion added a little crunch but it wasn’t anything special. My daughter Allison would love this station and want to come shopping if she knew about it.


Next up was the smokehouse. The actual smoker is over by the meat counter. There’s brisket, ribs, chicken and pulled pork. There’s a bigger spread of prices ($5 to $15) depending on what you order and how much you want. There are also family meal options. We tried some brisket, a rib and the pulled pork. I thought the brisket was a little over smoked, the rib was fall off the bone tender and pretty tasty and this style of pulled pork isn’t for me. I go for an Eastern North Carolina style with a vinegar sauce. This was more of a barbecue sauce. People like that style. I’d probably like it more if that’s what I had eaten first. The smokehouse chef gave Steve a taste of smoky caramelized onions and it looked like Steve really liked them. I didn’t taste them.


Moving along…the burger stand. We sampled a pastrami hot dog. A Hembold’s hot dog with mustard, onion and pastrami bits. The pastrami bits reminded of the crumbled bacon found on southern Connecticut dogs with the works. Personally, I think there are better hot dogs out there then Hembold’s. If you wanted to keep it local-ish, I’d pick Hoffman’s out of Syracuse. Just my two cents. The burger we tasted was well done but still good. It had store cured and smoked bacon on it. I give bonus points for making their own bacon. Burgers were around $6.50 but could be turned into a meal for around $10. I think hot dogs were around $3 and there were kid’s meal options.


On to seafood. My picture of the menu board came out blurry. It’s tough to eat, take notes like you are playing reporter and take pictures on a phone. I know, tough problems. The seafood shop looked pretty standard offering fried everything. We were given samples of the lobster roll. A full order of the lobster roll will set you back almost $17. I thought it was OK, but lobster rolls aren’t my thing. It was lightly dressed with mayo, but I have mayo issues.

 

Switching sides of the aisle, there is sushi. They have a new partner running the sushi stand and apparently business has doubled since the change. If you are looking for advice on where to get sushi, I could probably refer you to someone. For example, I’m not exactly sure what I tried, but I tried two pieces. The first, I think was the crunchy dragon roll. I’d never had any sushi with something crunchy on it. I thought it was pretty good. Now that I’m looking at the menu, I see that has imitation crab in it and I doubt I’d get it again. But they have a crunchy tempura shrimp roll and I’d give that a try. I thought the crunchy topping was quite good. No idea if crunchy sushi is blasphemy, but I liked it. I’m pretty sure my other bite was a smoked salmon cream cheese wrap. It was good, but I didn’t like it as much as the crunchy one. See, not exactly a connoisseur. 

 


Behind the sushi section is the cheese shop. It looked like they had some interesting choices and they are also interested in offering local cheeses. The samples offered to us were a Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue cheese (not my thing, didn’t like the smoke), a Cabot cloth bound cheddar (pretty good) and a Nettle Meadow honey lavender fromage blanc goat cheese (this was delicious). Just off to the side of the cheese shop was a growler station. It looked cool. Can’t help but wish it was a bourbon station.



 Alright, we’re turning the corner and starting to head back towards the front of the store. The Italian deli offers up many kinds of sausage. Pork, lamb, duck, turkey in various styles ranging in price from $2.79 to $5.99 a pound. They also have many kinds of fresh pasta ranging in price from $5.99 to $6.99 a pound. They also have a lot of salami and cured meats you would expect in an Italian deli too. We tried a two pasta dishes that were just so-so. I believe they would have been much better prepared and served right away. It has to be tough to prepare fresh pasta for a walking tour that will just suddenly show up.





Still reading? They got an olive oil station where you can try a bunch of oils – some straight, others are infused – and balsamic vinegar too. Twelve ounce bottles go between $7 and $15 depending on your choice. There was a good looking olive bar too.


 Then you have a regular deli with lunch meats and some prepared items. The regular deli is offering Chef’s meals for $6 which are a main and two sides.


Ben and Bill’s is the next deli. The deli which is heavily influence by the legendary Joe’s (I never got the chance to eat there, but I have heard many people miss it) still features meats from Old World Provisions. Prepared properly, an Old World Provisions pastrami sandwich is heaven.  Most deli sandwiches are $6.50 for a half and $9.50 for a whole. Your cardiologist probably would recommend the half, especially if you are going to try the potato pancake. That’s no low fat pancake.Lots of smoke fish too.



This side of the aisle ends with the Stone Fired Pizza shop. I’d argue this is an area that requires immediate attention, but I’m probably not their typical pizza customer. First, I have no idea what Stone Fired is. I looked it up online and found a few restaurants with a similar name. It looks like pizza is cooked in a regular oven. Maybe the oven has a stone floor. From what I could see of the oven, it looked like it was set to 550 degrees which in my opinion is too cold. You’ve got a brand spanking new hot rod pizza oven and it is being used by a few kids that are running it like a home oven. Not the kids fault though, they need training.


And look at this pizza.

Where’s the rim? I'm going to stop beating it up. The picture says enough. If they are looking to make a quality pizza, a consultant is needed.

Coming down off my high horse, we go to the Chef’s grill back at the entrance to the Bistro section. This will be the full service, 50 seat restaurant that will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. The idea is to sample from all of the stands. For example, showcasing the fresh pasta and sausage from the Italian market. It’s ambitious and I’m curious to see how it does. They plan to open it by the 1st of the month. 


The last stop was back to the ice cream shop which features Perry’s and Hagen Das ice creams. They make their own hot fudge and whipped cream and both are pretty good. A sundae is $569. We also tried a strawberry shake, which was also good. A 16 oz. shake is $4.60.


A few of us strangled behind and were shown the smoker back in the meat section. It’s not out on display because there isn’t much to see. If you’re interested, it’s the largest smoke Southern Pride makes. Just to the side of the smoker, I noticed a dry aging chamber. I’ve seen dry aged beef for sale, but don’t recall ever seeing a market like Price Chopper doing the dry aging themselves. I thought that was impressive.


There’s a really big natural and organic section – a little more than one entire aisle, both sides. And in that section, there is a pretty large Gluten Free area with some gluten free breads made in Saratoga.


There’s a smaller version of the Westgate Price Chopper’s international aisle and local tags on the shelves next to the products. They are currently at 520 “Local” products with local being taken to mean within 400 miles of the store. Turns out that we make a lot of tomato sauce within 400 miles of Latham.
 

I don’t know if this store will change my shopping habits. I tend to hit a few grocery stores a week. Sometimes for price, but mostly because the stores carry different things. I enjoyed the tour and in the spirit of Festivus, I took some time to air my two biggest Price Chopper grievances.

The first is because I’m cheap. On sale, a bottle of Polar seltzer is $1 at Price Chopper. The regular price at Hannaford is $0.85 and it goes on sale for $0.79. I have a major Ruby Red Grapefuit flavored seltzer problem.

Grievance #2: All of the shrimp for sale in Price Chopper have more ingredients than just “shrimp.” The all have sodium-phos-nitra-blah-blah-blah in them. If you sold just shrimp, maybe I’d try some. Preferably from the US.

After I aired my grievances, we went back to the cooking school room for the feats of strength.



Well, really we just shook hands and I left. But I left with this bag of goodies. Food blogger swag.


So if you made it all the way to the end of this, or at least scrolled down to the end, leave a comment letting me know if you plan to check out the new Bistro Market. I’ll number the comments, that random.org will pick a number and then I’ll make arrangements to get you the bag of goodies less the bread (it would be green by the time you get it). Up for grabs is a reusable tote, a bottle of sparkling cranberry/raspberry water, a jar of Thai chili roasted garlic, some cheese with espresso in it, a lemon infused olive oil, tortilla chips and a gift card of an unknown amount. There's also a series of coupons for $2 off growlers every week, but you'll miss the first week. I’ll close the contest on Saturday, March 1st at midnight. Please be in or willing to travel to the Albany area to get the bag o' swag. Hopefully, I'll get at least one comment...not sure though. If you made it this far, your odds are pretty good.