October 25, 2007

On Buca di Beppo

I have friends who hate chain restaurants, and well, have friends that love chains too. But for those that despise the mass-produced feel of “the chain restaurant”: I wonder how they feel about Buca di Beppo.

Even though there’s a Buca di Beppo 5 minutes from my house, it had been years (I want to say almost a decade) since I’ve been there. They used to only serve enormous family-style portions, so you always needed a large group to even think about going there. But recently, they’ve come out with the “Mio” portion: made for the individual diner, not accompanied by a family of 10 to share with.

It took me years and many double-takes at the Buca di Beppo advertisement on Chow.com to realize that the cozy Italian establishment just down the street was a national chain. To me, you would never know.

The place feels like an Italian family’s home with black and white old photos plastered all over the walls. Colored Christmas lights are strung just about everywhere you look, from the entrance to the wall beside your very own table. And the tables themselves are very close together, creating an atmosphere that makes you feel like…well, family. You forget you’re simply having dinner plans with a friend, and that you don’t actually know everyone else there.

This feeling was really cemented when the waitress called everybody’s attention for the little boy’s birthday who was conveniently seated right in the middle of our room. I’ve been around for the common friendly birthday singing at restaurants before, but this one seemed more heartfelt than usual. I felt like I was in a movie, and I almost wanted to say to my friend “Oh yea, it’s Johnny’s Birthday?” and then I realized…oh wait, I have no idea who this kid is.
Like I said, you’d never know it was a chain. And while I know that atmosphere can be mass-produced just like food, they really pulled one over on me.

But anyway, on to the food.

One of the dishes I distinctly remembered savoring from Buca di Beppo was their Chicken Cacciatore. Maybe as a child that was the first time I ever had such a dish and discovered I liked it, or maybe they just made a mean Cacciatore – but either way, I was in love. You can only imagine my dismay when after reading the menu five or so times – I saw no sign of Chicken Cacciatore.

I asked the waitress what happened, and she said if they had all the ingredients, they could certainly whip it up for me. Again, I was impressed. Would an ordinary restaurant offer to make something not on the menu? This wasn’t a simple “bowl of noodles.” But instead of bothering them, I decided to try something else. Maybe there was a reason it was no longer on the menu.

I was feeling adventurous so I went with something I had never heard of: the penne arrabbiata – penne served with spicy sausage, crushed red pepper and a zesty marinara. My friend ordered the lasagna.

The waitress brought out a huge hunk of bread and some olive oil for us to indulge in before our meals came. And dipping huge hunks of bread in a mixture of olive oil and parmesan cheese just happens to be one of my favorite parts of any Italian meal.

Next, she served me my side caesar salad (also a new perk of the Mio portion – you can add a salad for $2.99 instead of having to split a GIANT salad for $9.99). I was definitely pleased with this salad. I’m ordinarily picky with Caesar salads and this one was up to par – they even served it with a lemon; a definite plus!

And finally, out came the food. Said friend’s lasagna:

And my Penne Arrabbiata:

I sampled both and they were delicious. Both of the sauces were flavorful and rich. The flavors did not seem mass produced. The only bout I had with the whole dish is that I thought the sausage would be more incorporated into the sauce, instead of laid on top. I ordinarily do not order sausage so I wasn’t one for eating it straight up – but of course, this isn’t the restaurant’s fault. Abd though “mio” size, the portions were still rather large.

And, if Bittman and Batali had dinner together here (as if there were a chance of that happening), I think they’d both be satisfied with the ratio of pasta to sauce. Both were highlighted in my dish, and it was the perfect compromise.

-Hillary, still wondering what “Buca di Beppo” means…FreeTranslation.com translates it as: “it pierces of Beppo.” I’m not sure that’s what they were going for…
Editor, Recipe4Living

October 24, 2007

Pepper Steak surprise

Believe me, I know this looks unappetizing, but hear me out before passing judgment. And no, it’s not ‘surprise’ because something terrible lurks within, like say, a Turkey Medley Surprise you might endure at a dorm cafeteria.

In regards to Jim’s hankering for cooking Quick Chinese Pepper Steak, I just happened to have had a very similar dinner last night. But, being the spoiled 22-year-old in transition that I am, I didn’t cook it; my mom did.

A conversation earlier in the day:
Mom: “I’m cooking pepper steak for dinner. Are you going to be home?”
Me: “I guess.”

I was secretly and not very subtly unexcited for this meal. Sometimes I can be a total snob when it comes to my free and home-cooked meals. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m still an immature teenager at heart, but I plan to grow out of that someday, I swear.

Anyway, I come home to find dinner set on the table. Just as I was expecting, some pepper steak was bubbling in the saucepan, accompanied by a separate pot of rice. At this point, I’m hungry and more amused by the steak than I was  by the idea of it earlier in the day. Though it wasn’t the most attractive dish I had ever seen, it smelled good.

So I served myself some and tasted it, and the steak, as I told my mother, was cooked to perfection. While I thought it was something she had whipped up in a half hour or so, that was definitely not the case. She had been slow cooking the steak with its vegetables and juices for a good 2 -2.5 hours and I have to say, you could really tell. The meat was so tender; it was delicious!

If you want to know how she made it, she sauteed the meat in some oil and garlic. Then she sauteed her peppers (red and yellow), mushrooms, and onions. She combined the meat and veggies and added some soy sauce. She then covered the pan and let it cook for 2-2.5 hours before serving it on beds of rice.

It’s very similar to this recipe (just no au jus), and I highly recommend it.

-Hillary, little pissed that my mom made AG’s tomato sauce with my brother instead of me! Just kidding…sort of.
Editor, Recipe4Living

The Keys to Our Destruction

Like whoa.

The net is abuzz about Chow’s latest article, which teaches you how to make bigger, better (-tasting and -for-you) versions of all your favorite Halloween candy treats. Twix! Snickers! Almond Joy! And my personal nemesis, Peanut Butter Cups.

Yes, I am impressed with the kitchen wizardry that allows for such yummy-lookin’ copies, and yes, I am thrilled that these recipes are accessible enough to become delicious realities in my kitchen. But you know what? This is just irresponsible.

About the only reason I don’t constantly make Peanut Butter Cups is because I don’t know how. The keys to those delicious salty-sweet-rich pockets of caloric intake now lie in my hands, and I know that in the future I will rue the day I learned the forbidden knowledge necessary to cook my own end.

Seriously, though, well done, Chow guys. My hat’s off to you. Just pay for my quad bypass, okay?

While we’re preparing Halloween snacks, try some of these next week:
Tootsie Rolls (drink)
Candied Apples
No-Bake Snickers Snack Bars
Milky Way Brownies

-Jim gives it a week before he caves and makes all this stuff

Dinner for One?

I’m still learning to cook alone.

It’s funny; when I’m eating with others I usually want to spend time talking with them–chilling at a restaurant or laughing at a bar–rather than cooking them dinner. Last night, I ate some (admittedly delicious) takeout Orange Chicken, for once all by my lonesome in my house. I wondered why I hadn’t simply made some kind of Asian chicken myself, and realized: when other people are around, cooking is becomes this thrilling, unifying Group Activity. Everybody’s got something they can do. Got no knife skills? That’s okay, tear off those cilantro leaves. Scared of plants? Awesome, stir this pot for the next thirty minutes. Just here for a taste? Well, what do you think?

Also, my greatest successes in the kitchen have come with company or when it was for company. I love the solidarity you feel, tasting something alongside your sous-chef. I love the cooking-by-wiki way my brothers prepare chili. And, being as egotistical as I am, I love a flurry of compliments from the peanut gallery once the food is served (believe me, this only works with other people. Complimenting yourself is kinda depressing).

Of course, I’ve spoken about the pride I feel whenever I make something good. But the desire for that pride is always tempered by a combination of laziness and sheer terror. When I step into a kitchen alone, see the dutch oven looming, prepare my mise-en-place like a good little foodie and find it’s twice as big as I expected…I imagine just how much I can screw up. In my head I hear Statler and Waldorf cackling from the balcony.

“Oh, look, here comes my favorite part of the meal!”
“What, the main course?”
“No, the the Pepto-Bismol!”

It’s a little absurd that I’m more eager to try for my peers than I am for an audience of none, don’t you think? Particularly given just how good food can be when you give it your total, undivided attention. I need to remember that cooking isn’t necessarily about being impressive or perfect; it’s about making something that tastes good, and feeling utterly happy with your results. Regardless of whether or not you’ve got an audience.

No matter what these guys say, we can’t give into kitchen fear, or balk at cooking just ’cause we’re only doing it for one. After all, when I make a mess out of a dish and eat it anyway, at least I know I made the attempt; when I call in a cardboard-like Domino’s thin-crust, I’ve already admitted defeat.

Screw laziness, screw terror. I want more pride.

I think I’ll start with this: Chicken Lasagna. Sounds pretty delicious, and with pre-cooked chicken that’s one less step for me to screw up.

Other simple dishes to shut the muppets up:
Encrusted Walnut Chicken
Quick Chinese Pepper Steak
San Francisco Pork Chops

-Jim should probably read this book at some point, too

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