Saturday, April 21, 2007

Social networking for Foodies -

As if there weren't already enough social networking sites out there, a new site has popped up that I had to try out, despite already having a MySpace site & profile that I sorely neglect. This new site, is focused on connecting foodies to each other. The site is heavy on the web 2.0 stuff (tags, stumbles, groups, etc) but they do allow folks to upload their own recipes and swap info in a free-form fashion with each other as well as form sub groups around specific food topics. I've already set up a basic profile as well as joined the Southern Cooking and the Mexican groups. I haven't submitted any recipes yet, but have already started tagging and saving a few new things I'd like to try. I've also started feeding some of my favorite restaurants into the site with my personal reviews. Seems to still have a relatively low user base, but I'm curious to see if it takes off once the site is out of beta.

The big red Weber Grill in Schaumburg, Il

I spent the better part of last week on the road for work observing focus groups of women talking about cooking and meal planning. During most of these sessions, we were treated to delivered boxes of food from local suburban casual dining dives and disasters like PF Chang's and Bennigan's. During a session in Schaumberg, Illinois (about 30 minutes outside of Chicago) we were able to slip out of the research facility for an actual sit-down lunch. Drawn by the 10% discount offered on our hotel keys and the fact that it was across the street, we opted for the Weber Grill Restaurant - an outgrowth of the infamous back-yard primal cooking appliance company we all know and have encountered.

This place took the grill idea over the top. The front lawn was graced with a 15 foot high red grill greeting the passing traffic. Inside, the light fixtures were made of grill covers and every opportunity to refer to Weber's heritage was taken. For lunch, I opted for the Pulled Pork/BBQ Chicken combo plate with my pork served North Carolina style (seasoned with a spiced vinegar sauce vs. the Midwest style that relies on tomato based sauces).

The chicken was tasty enough and the pork had more than sufficient flavor, but the texture left much to be desired. I kept encountering what tasted to be little pellets of fat and the meat was tenderized to the point of near-butter making it barely distinguishable from the fat globules. Looking at the other dishes, I have to imagine there is more to this place than what I encountered. Given they have 3 Chicago-area locations and are expanding to Indianapolis soon, it's only a matter time before I find myself in the Weber Grill again sometime soon, so I'll have to give them another chance to prove themselves as other than the another suburban chain restaurant.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Train me, shred me

Calories in, calories out right? I've completed 10% of the 40 sessions of personal training that I've recently purchased from Fitness Together where the mantra is "1 Client, 1 Trainer, 1 Goal." Now that I'm 30-something, my love of food and wine is catching up with my ass, so it's time to get serious about staying fit. I'm enjoying the sessions, but there have been several times that I've felt near death as they focus on continuous circuit training. Since all the equipment of the studio is exclusively yours to use during your session, there is no waiting or breathing between exercises, thus a combined cardio and resistance workout. I haven't been pushed as hard as when I was 12 and forced to join my school's football team to "toughen me up". After a month of pre-season training in the 95+ degree Alabama August sun in a jock 2 sizes too small (thanks Mom), the football program was canceled for the year. I almost felt resentful - now I'm grateful I can give someone several thousand dollars to hurt me to my benefit.

I'm awaiting a new eating plan that is to be derived from my self-reported survey of meal preferences and a 24-hour log of my eating that ran the gamut from skim-milk oatmeal to country fried steak. I'm hoping to come out the other end of this journey with a flatter belly and a bigger man-rack so that I at least look good when I'm stuffing my face.

Gourmet Convenience

In an effort to do more cooking at home to stem our spiraling restaurant meal expenditures, I've been relying more on the type of convenience food products by which I make my living marketing to the masses. Here are a few highlights of things that have proven indispensable recently (none of which are manufactured by my employer):

Big Bags of Quick Frozen Chicken Breasts: My local Trader Joe's has great prices on bags of frozen chicken fillets. On Sunday or Monday night, I'll throw them in a bowl of cold water for about 30 minutes to thaw, drain and sprinkle them with kosher salt, fresh ground pepper and ancho chile powder and broil them on high for about 6 minutes per side. I throw them in the fridge and use them for quick protein boosts after my work-outs, chop them up to throw into tacos, pasta sauces and salads or whatever.

Boxed Risotto: I've discovered these delicious Lundberg Risotto mixes that cook up in about 20 minutes that are hearty and elegant enough to jazz up a simple oven roasted salmon or pan seared pork chops. Just toss up a simple spinach salad and you've got instant fine dining.

Stuffed Pasta: Somewhere during that Atkins/South Beach madness, I forgot how much I enjoyed a simple plate of refrigerated ravioli or tortellini finished with a nice chunky rustic tomato sauce or gorgeous pesto toss. I've rediscovered how easy it is to buy these vacuum packed boxes of filled pasta and keep them in the freezer for whatever, whenever. Again, Trader Joe's to the rescue for dinner tonight when I took some fire-roasted veggie stuffed ravioli from my freezer, boiled it up and tossed it with Trader Joe's jarred vodka sauce (studded with chunks of pre-cooked chicken breast). I accompanied it with some frozen french-style green beans with slivered almonds. Dinner took 15 minutes to cook up and went over very well.

Better Than Boullion
: The blow-hard celebrity chefs and Alton Brown tell you "if you're going to use boullion, you might as well use water." Not true. My BF's mom turned me on to these refrigerated jarred concentrated paste-style bases that comes in chicken, beef and other proteins. Just a tablespoon of this stuff in a quart of boiling water opens up a world of fast gourmet possibilities from decadent rice to luxurious sauces. I don't waste my time with canned/boxed broth where there's always extra to throw out anymore.

I'm finding that by just putting the right things in my pantry and freezer, I'm able to throw together some fittingly high-end meals without letting my weekly grocery budget stretch into the triple digits. I get my new meal plan from my trainer soon, so we'll see how long this affordable trend lasts. The protein shakes are already chilling in the fridge . . .

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Vicodin, Ibuprofin, Cipro and Sondre Lerche

I've been fighting brain-crushing headaches with a mixture of about 1600 mg of ibuprofin, plus some Vicodin to help me sleep and some Cipro to kill what may be ailing me (the working theory centers around a malicious sinus infection). With those things swimming around in me (on top of numerous other drugs to treat my allergies and the acne that at age 31 will not leave me be) I decided to give up adult beverages until I'm well and I can retire the extra pills. In the midst of this, my buddy wanted to celebrate his birthday with dinner at Stella's Fish Cafe followed by a concert by Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet at the First Avenue 7th St. Entry.

The meal at Stella's was so unremarkable, I'm not going to write much about it. I never really liked the place from the first time I visited the men's room and was greeted by a 10-foot photo inside the door of a man naked from the waist-down lying in a pool of his own vomit on the floor of a public bathroom. Rumor has it that the picture is a photo of the owner's son. Anyway the pomegranate mint lemonade was refreshing though a bit on the chemical-tinged side. That place exists for it's rooftop deck with the gorgeous view of the city. Until that opens up, there's no reason to go, so check it out in July when we get past this bloody snow.

Sondre Lerche defied description. He's apparently big in his home country of Norway, but there's no shortage of Norwegians here in the twin cities who love his energetic blend of driving guitar, crooning vocals and explosive energetic flights of fantasy he managed to carry the audience through via his infectious hooks and quirky lyrics. The band spent a lot of time smiling at each other, so I wonder what they knew that we didn't. Anyway, when the band is having fun, so is the crowd, so I'll forgive them for making 2 curtain calls and leaving me breathless and sore feet from standing through the 2+ hour performance. He's better live than on CD, so catch him if he comes anywhere near you. Concert would have been better with a beer though . . .

Teahouse surprise

I've heard more than a few reputable sources tell me the Chinese place up the street from my office is surprisingly good, but I rarely venture out of my office during the day, much less cross the highway for a meal. When I'm coming or going from work, I'm trying to get to or from my home in Minneapolis as fast as possible, not sample the local cuisine in Plymouth, MN. One recent night, I decided to work late, so I took a dinner break to try out The Teahouse.

The best Chinese places have the humblest of exteriors, so this unassuming strip-center resident, across a parking lot from a fading multiplex theater, looked promising. I was offered 2 menus to peruse - an authentic Sichuan menu and a "regular" menu - read "nothing we'd really eat in China, or anywhere else except in a "Chinese" restaurant in America, but if you want it, we've got it!" I opted to try the Chun King Spicy Shrimp from the Sichuan menu with a starter of egg drop soup.

The soup was solid and thick with egg and the broth appropriately just short of custard-like in its thickness. The shrimp was lightly battered and sat on a thin sauce loaded with chile peppers and garlic. The eating experience was an exquisite sinus clearing affair. Dining alone takes away the embarrassment of frequent nose-blowing, but left me bummed I couldn't share this with someone (or better yet try another dish to get my mouth on more of the Teahouse delights. I think I've found a reason to try to get out for lunch more often.