Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Triangle Cafe

Finally! I've been off traveling again. This time it was to Batesville, Arkansas for lunch. As usual, there wasn't a planned exact location other than "something local" to eat. After driving around for a few minutes, I stepped into a local bank branch office to ask what was good nearby. Aha! That is a technique that works! Local banks have plenty of generally friendly people who often eat out for lunch on a regular basis, and they've tried just about everything local available. A helpful lady there suggested Triangle Cafe, it was "just up at the top of the hill."

As soon as I saw the place, I remembered seeing it the last time I was in Batesville and thinking it looked interesting. With the new smoking ban in place, I'm a lot less hesitant to enter a small local cafe than I have been in the past, so in we went. The wonderful aroma from the instant I walked in the door let me know I hadn't made a mistake.

Since it was the two of us, we decided to get one of their lunch plate specials, plus a bacon cheeseburger and tater tots, then share the whole lot. The plate special included a salad bar and desert, which were the only two dull spots in an otherwise excellent meal. The plate lunch included a hearty bowl of vegetable beef soup, green beans and fried potatoes. There was actual beef in the soup, plus a range of vegetables that would take a while to list. The cheeseburger... it was one of the best I think I've had anywhere. Forget the $8 and $10 burger at the gourmet restaurant or even casual dining restaurant. This $5 burger, in all it's half-pound, bacon and cheese topped glory, puts others to shame. It really was just that good. Astoundingly enough, someone while we were there ordered a double burger. Where did they put a pound of hamburger?! It took two of us to eat the single patty burger. The atmosphere was worth noting too; the menus were printed on a laminated triangle, and the ceiling was covered with a somewhat rusty corrugated tin roof. The staff was friendly, and the patrons seemed to be locals, some who clearly frequent the cafe were happily chatting with the wait staff.

Next time you're in Batesville, Arkansas for breakfast or lunch, Triangle Cafe will fill your belly and not pillage your wallet. It's one of those places that if you leave hungry, it's your own fault.

Other restaurants I've visited in the Batesville area that are worth noting are Josie's at the Lockhouse and Elizabeth's, both of which were recommended by the same friendly bank folks that suggested Triangle Cafe.

I hope to be adding more restaurants soon. At dinner tonight, I found out that a couple, friends of mine, will be doing lots of traveling for business throughout Arkansas and Missouri in the coming months. They like to dine at interesting, off the beaten path places so I hope to get some tips back from them soon.
(Hint, hint... you know who you are!) Any suggestions from anyone are of course welcome. If I go there, I'll post about my experience, as good, bad or ugly as it may be.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Guniea Pigs Have Spoken!

I've delivered all but one of the goody bags of treats I baked and thus the results are in. Recipes! I've have a few requests for recipes from some of the items I've baked so I'm including them below.

Here's the recipes:

Will's Crockpot Sugared Pecans or Walnuts

Spiced pecans or walnuts, from the slow cooker. Sugared pecan recipe with cinnamon and spices, or use walnuts.

16 ounces pecans or walnut halves
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Turn slow cooker to HIGH about 15 minutes in advance. In hot slow cooker, stir together the nuts and butter. Add the powdered sugar, stirring to blend and coat evenly. Cover and cook on HIGH for 15 minutes.
Reduce the heat to LOW and remove lid; cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 2 to 3 hours, or until the nuts are coated with a crisp glaze.
Transfer the nuts to a bowl.
In another small bowl, combine the spices; sift over the nuts, stirring to coat evenly.
Let cool before serving.

Caramel Covered pretzels

1 bag of pretzel wands
50 caramels
2 Tablespoons whipping cream
any type of nuts, chopped finely
Approx 1 cup chocolate chips, any flavor

Melt caramels and whipping cream over low heat. Dip and completely cover each pretzel with caramel...then place in chopped, using hands to kind of press and cover wands with nuts. Transfer to foil lined pan (can be sprayed lightly with nonstick spray). Put chocolate (about 1 cup) and a dollop of shortening (2 teaspoons or so), in a ziplock bag. Microwave on low heat till melted. Squish chocolate and shortening together until mixed well. Snip a tiny end off one corner of the bag, and drizzle the chocolate over the pretzels. Allow to set and store in an airtight container.
(I did not have any whipping cream and rather than buy some for 2 tablespoons, I cheated and used water. It had the same desired effect as the cream.)

Cranberry, Orange & Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1 large egg
zest of one orange (about 2-3 tsp)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F and line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar, beating with an electric mixer until light. Beat in egg and orange zest. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add in the flour mixture, stirring only until just combined. Stir in the cranberries and chocolate chips.
Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls (about 1 1/4-inch balls) onto prepared cookie sheets and bake for 9-12 minutes, until edges are very lightly browned. Cool for 3-4 minutes on baking sheet then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Makes about 4 dozen.

Toasted Mixed Nuts

2 cups skinned hazelnuts or cashews
2 cups unskinned whole almonds
2 cups walnut halves
2 cups pecan halves
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Set the oven at 350 degrees. Have on hand a rimmed baking sheet.

In a large bowl, combine the hazelnuts or cashews, almonds, walnuts, and pecans. Add the butter a little at a time, tossing well. Stir in the oil.

Lay the nuts on the baking sheet in one layer and roast them for 10 minutes, turning often, until they begin to toast.

Combine the sugar, cayenne, cumin, and salt and sprinkle over the nuts. Toss and return to the oven. Roast for 10 minutes more or until the nuts are pale golden. Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Makes about 8 cups.

Hot & Spicy Chex mix

4 cups Corn Chex cereal
4 cups Rice Chex cereal
1 cup pretzels
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons red pepper sauce
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup bite-size cheese crackers
1/4 cup margarine or butter - Do not use spread or tub products
1 1/4 teaspoons seasoned salt
1 cup seasoned snack sticks (optional)
1 cup plain or garlic bagel chips (optional)

Melt margarine in large microwavable bowl uncovered on High. Stir in seasonings. Gradually stir in remaining ingredients until evenly coated. Microwave uncovered on High 1 1/2 minutes, stir. Heat another 1 minute, stir; heat again for 45 seconds, stir. Heat once more for 30 seconds. Spread on paper towels to cool. Store in airtight container when cool.

The toasted mixed nuts are cooling in the kitchen right now, so if you're wondering why you didn't get some, they were delayed until tonight! Also I made a very good yet ridiculously easy Peanut Butter Fudge, recipe complements of Cooks Illustrated. I'll save the typing of that recipe for another time.

The big hit this year was the Caramel Pretzels. Those were a snap to make, actually they were fun. I took a little liberties with the decorating and just topped them with anything I had that sounded good; finely chopped raw nuts, cinnamon chips, snowflake sprinkles and of course, chocolate. You can't go wrong with chocolate!

I do think I'd recommend any of the above recipes. My source for two of the recipes (the cookies and the toasted mixed nuts) is Slashfood, which is an excellent site for foodies, with daily updates.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Holiday Baking

It's that time of year where either you're the one in the kitchen whipping up batches upon batches of goodies, or you're busy consuming all the treats as they pass by your nose. I love how this time of year I can try oodles of good new recipes that I've been itching to try and can give away at least 90 percent of it. So yes, my family and friends are my best guinea pigs but they seem to do the job willingly. For the most part it's safe, no one has died from my cooking yet.

As much as I advocate cooking for yourself because you have control over what ingredients go into the dish, I cringe at the idea of food gifts sometimes. If I don't personally know pretty well the person who baked it, I'll probably politely decline. It's a cleanliness issue; does the cook know about proper food storage and handling? Do they keep their kitchen clean? (Define clean.) Do they just wash their hands before they begin or is it someone with 18 cats that all climb all over every inch of the counter tops? (Icky!) This paranoia I have stemmed from the panic that suddenly hit me on a random Tuesday afternoon when I was due to meet someone for dinner at a local buffet. Ah, the buffet... a veritable germ infested disaster waiting to happen. The sneeze guards just can't quite defend the mac & cheese from the 8 year old with the remnants of a cold. I justify my buffet avoidance now to those who aren't germ-o-phobes by the lack of value for me, I can't begin to eat the amount of mostly mediocre food necessary to make it worth the $15 price tag. From that fear, my concerns about others cooking has expanded to encompass pot-luck meals. Those are even more of a disaster in the makings, as you've got lots of food coming from a wide range of homes, with equal variances in cleanliness and proper food preparation knowledge. Throw in the challenge of getting food at the right and safe temperatures for extended periods of time, plus there's the travel time just to get there. Unfortunately at most pot-luck events, you're expected to eat plenty and are surrounded by family or friends who may be offended if you don't. What's a germ fearing nut to do? Smile, eat some chips, drink a bottle of water, and casually mention how you're working to keep your girlish figure.

Now that I've successfully left you paranoid about eating anything you didn't make yourself over the holidays, remember the conclusion I've come to for such occasions; a few germs won't kill you. But knowing they are there will probably help you to keep your appetite in check. Here's a new little modern day motto for the germ-o-phobe lurking inside you: "Walk softly and carry a bottle of antibacterial hand gel."

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Top 40

Today I was reading an article about the Top 40 Restaurants in the US. Most were in or near major cities and were places I'd either heard about only in passing or not at all. While I'm not extremely well traveled, I do like to think I've not been limited only to a tiny speck of this planet and have been beyond the borders of my home state. Given that I also enjoy a very good meal as much as the next self-proclaimed "foodie," it seems that limiting to just 40 great restaurants out of the entire US is a tough feat. On top of that, what makes a restaurant "Top 40" material? Must it be swanky, oozing with the trendiest looks or have an extraordinarily elegant ambiance? Is is the quality of the food only? Are we limited only to restaurants that are stand-alone, no chains or franchises? Could it even be... fast food?

Here's some of my picks for Top restaurants in the US. I won't commit to 40 as I know there are too many good ones out there to stop there; at the same time I'll get tired of writing and you'll be sick of reading my opinions before I can ever make it to 40. That said, let's get on with the list.

In no particular order...

Ruth's Chris Steak House - One of my all-time favorites. I avoid going on the weekends as it's busier then and service has on occasion suffered because of it. Usually it doesn't, but it has happened. Then again, "bad" service at Ruth's Chris is better than fabulous service at many other restaurants. Locations worldwide.
Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company - The food is excellent, the menu diverse and presented with a touch of humor and the atmosphere is the most fun I've seen anywhere. Asheville, NC
The Melting Pot - I know it's so cliche because of the fondue theme but for something different, or maybe a girls night out it's just what you need. The intimate environment gives you privacy that I've not found in any other restaurant. Locations nationwide.
Jameson's By the Sea - Some of the best fresh seafood I've had anywhere, period. Very casual setting, choose a table outside for the view. Located in Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii.
Mama's Fish House - Again some of the best fresh seafood ever. With the name you'd expect a laid back affair, but this is far from it. It's a much more gourmet presentation of seafood. The menus are printed fresh daily to incorporate which fisherman caught what items, even going so far as to tell you the name of the boat. Yes, that ahi tuna was caught by John Smith on his boat The Fair Lady. Located just outside of Paia on the Hana Highway in Maui, Hawaii.
BJ's Pizza - This was some of the best pizza I've ever tasted. The Blue Hawaii wasn't bad either. I blame this place for introducing me to POG and thus leaving me permanently in search of an equally good fresh fruit juice combination to rival this one. Locations throughout the US.

I'll end my list here for now, but those are just a few of my clearly biased favorites. What's on your list of best dining? Are they ones you reserve for special occasions or is it the place you go every Friday for lunch? Is it the food, the atmosphere or everything all in one?