The Burger King.

In the era of “better burgers,” two chains have polled as offering the nation’s best: Five Guys and In-N-Out. Both are regional restaurants that have in recent years expanded their presence across the country. In-N-Out, from California, features palm trees and crisp white uniforms on its employees, while Five Guys, from Virginia, has more of a blue collar feel, its locations famously stocked with boxes of peanuts (and its fries fried in their oil).

Burger lovers typically align themselves with one brand or the other, and in 2017, for the first time, more Americans have pledged their allegiance to Five Guys, according to the annual Harris Poll, which was released Tuesday morning. In-N-Out came in second, after topping the poll in both 2015 and 2016.

In-N-Out vs. Five Guys Burgers: America Has a New Favorite Destination, Newsweek (May 16, 2017). 

Now, all is as it should be.  Indeed, my top burger joints remain in the top 10.  An honorable mention goes to Culver’s, where the butter burgers (yes, it is an appropriate description) are tasty and the custard toothsome.   How does your favorite stack up?  The results for America’s favorite burger are as follows:

1. Five Guys
2. In-N-Out
3. Shake Shack
4. Wendy’s
5. Culver’s
6. Whataburger
7. McDonald’s
8. Sonic America’s Drive-In
9. Smashburger
10. Steak ‘N Shake

Arby’s: A Different Take.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post about the dismal on-base eating choices.  Then, choices included Captain D’s, Macaroni Grill, Popeyes, Burger King, Subway, and Pizza Hut.  My hunt for a satisfying salad led me to Chili’s on Kadena Air Base.  Yes.  That statement does speak volumes.

Months ago, a sign notified patrons that Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen (think Popeyes but with seafood) was closing.  Having eaten there once, I was grateful for the news.  The establishment served fried and breaded seafood.  ([S] and I shared a stone cold chicken salad, which likely had been sitting in the refrigerator for longer than I’d like to imagine.)

A few weeks ago, as I was driving by Captain D’s former home, a large white and red sign was hung stating, “Arby’s.”  The fast food establishment opened weeks ago and lines were out the door.  The drive through line was so long makeshift lanes were created for lunchtime.  Really.

The last time I ate at an Arby’s stateside was five years ago.  I remember because, then, I thought the restaurant had gone the way of Roy Roger’s.  Surprise.  It hadn’t.  Today, at least in Okinawa, it is a thriving enterprise.  Indeed, the one time we attempted to eat lunch at Arby’s, the line was far too long for any reasonable person to wait. 

Today, at 1:40 p.m., we attempted to eat at Arby’s again.  Nearly all seats were taken, but there was no line.  We order two roasted turkey gyros, a small ham and cheese slider, a vanilla milkshake, large curly fries, and a drink.  The gyros were vegetable heavy and served with a yogurt based sauce–certainly healthier than other dining options available. 

It was an experience.  But it’s not one that I plan on repeating any time soon. 

I Love New York.

Yesterday, I read an article discussing healthy breakfast choices.  The upshot?  If you want to do a body good, skip the cereal.  Most cereals have too much sugar, too much salt, too many preservatives, and too many artificial sweeteners.  Yes, cereal lovers, the the reason you look forward to your breakfast likely is less than virtuous. 

That said, if you have to eat cereal, make it a good one. 

#EatRealFood

 

The New York City public school system has quietly replaced breakfast cereals made by the Kellogg Company, the titan whose name is virtually synonymous with cereal, with those from a small California upstart called Back to the Roots.

The switch, which follows a student taste test that began last spring, adds menu options that are lower in sugar and sodium and higher in whole grains. Coming in the nation’s largest school system, and potentially spreading to other large districts that collaborate with New York in bulk purchases, it is one of the biggest signs to date of the inroads that small food companies are making into the mainstream.

But the change also highlights the many hurdles facing small food companies and advocates of better nutrition, years after the federal government started pressing school districts to improve their menus.

Last summer, Kellogg discontinued two Kashi cereals, Berry Blossoms and Honey Sunshine, that were on the schools’ breakfast menu. But instead of replacing them with other Kellogg cereals, the schools opted to buy Back to the Roots cereals because of their better nutritional profile and organic ingredients, said Eric Goldstein, the chief executive of the Office of School Support Services, which oversees food operations of the city’s Department of Education.

Today, the 254,000 students, on average, who eat a free breakfast in city schools are offered two Back to the Roots cereals in addition to three more conventional choices from General Mills, Kellogg and Post Foods.

One 28-gram serving of Back to the Roots Cinnamon Clusters, for instance, has half as much sugar and four-fifths as many calories as the same amount of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats, which are still offered in New York schools. The Kellogg product is made of five ingredients, including the preservative butylated hydroxytoluene and gelatin, and has eight added vitamins. The Back to the Roots cereal has just four ingredients, no preservatives and no added vitamins; it is certified organic, and organic vitamins are hard to find.

—  Healthier Cereals Snare a Spot on New York School Menus, The New York Times (March 1, 2017).

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Now.

Many years ago, a dear friend invited me to her home in Queens.  Unknown to me, she had prepared a feast for lunch.  I watched as she threw together hummus.  “Don’t you do this,” she instructed, as she casually blended garbanzo beans, water, lemon juice, and tahini in a blender without the lid.  As she made cacik, a Turkish yogurt and cucumber dish, her husband noted the importance of using fresh lemon juice.  Moments later, I watched her toss a palm full of dill into the yogurt with curiosity.  (It’s a necessity, giving the dish a tangy bite.)  She showed me how to make cheese and meat filled borek or kalem böreği (I don’t know which).  As I sat at her kitchen table with her family, the number of plates and bowls filled with bites too numerous to count, I wondered why her family would ever want to eat out. 

Then.

Of course, that meal was more than a meal.  It was about hospitality.  It was about family.  It was about about teaching me to prepare food.  It was about love.  It was more than five years ago.  Homemade cacik, hummus, and baba ganoush have been go to healthy comfort foods ever since.  Tonight, I tried my hand at borek or kalem böreği.  Our table featured only a fraction of the dishes I was treated to years ago–and my spread certainly wasn’t as pretty.  But tonight’s meal reminded me of the joy of cooking for loved ones and the honor of being cooked for. 

#TurkishFood

The Morning After.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s day is my favorite time of the year.  With the Christmas hustle and bustle over, the days prior to the New Year are quiet, calm, and peaceful.  New toys provide a distraction to children young and old and the stress of preparing for the holiday gives way to euphoria that the holiday has passed, yet once again.

Early Christmas morning, [S] found the bicycle hidden behind the curtain and helmet under the tree left by Santa Claus.  After her discovery, it was as if the wrapped gifts sitting under the tree had become invisible.  Indeed, it took us hours to complete opening gifts on Christmas day.  While the number of gifts appeared modest, it became clear that she had received more than enough. 

Judging by the amount of use, [S]’s favorite gift is her bicycle helmet.  She wears it inside the house while she plays; she wears it outside the house riding her bike.  Each time she puts on her helmet, I smile, recalling Russell’s demand that we buy her a helmet when she was first learning how to walk. 

The day after Christmas, we hosted a small cocktail party, serving mostly light fare–black bean hummos, toasted pita chips, chicken teriyaki meatballs, crudite, assorted cheeses served with baguette, herb dip and crackers, bruschetta, deviled eggs, fresh strawberries, chicken adobo casserole, tortilla chips, grapes, uh, you get the picture.  We also had plenty of sweet treats from cranberry pie and homemade cookies to peppermint bark and an assortment of candy.  Clearly, we prepared too much. 

My favorite part of entertaining is grazing on leftovers post-party.  The next morning, [S] ate strawberries, grapes and pita bread and Russell and I indulged in dip, vegetables, fruit, and bruschetta.

With the reality that our refrigerator cannot hold another dish or bottle and that our living room cannot house another book or bear, I know that my fear that we won’t have enough–enough gifts under the tree for our daughter or enough food on the table to feed our guests–is not based in reality.  Indeed, we have more than enough.  For that–and for not having to cook for days–I’m deeply grateful.

Japanese Cooking: I Prepared That!

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Teriyaki Chicken Meatballs, made with ground chicken, tofu, red bell pepper, green onion and egg. 

For three weeks, our on-base grocery store has been without salad greens.  In other words, our staple bags of baby spinach and lettuce leaves have been missing-in-action.  This week, I noticed a sign posted where the greens typically sit.  The upshot?  No salad greens for now.  The reason(s)?  I can’t recall.  And, really, it doesn’t matter.

Desperate for fresh reasonably priced produce, I ventured into town, but not without first making a shopping list.  My meal planning is based around dishes that are easy to prepare, quick to make, and, vegetable-centered.  Fortunately, many Japanese dishes meet all three criteria.  Indeed, the best way to purchase groceries locally is to buy seasonally with the understanding that many dishes use the same ingredients, varying in cooking method or quantity.  Carrots, cabbage, green onion, onion, bean spouts, ginger, eggs, tofu and pork are  common ingredients in Japanese recipes.

My simple three-word search of “easy Japanese recipes” resulted in a gem of a find–Just One Cookbook, which features easy Japanese recipes, colorful photos, cooking techniques, and cultural context.  The mouthwatering video tutorial on how to make green tea cookies made me want to learn more about preparing Japanese food.  Staying on the site, I learned that Japanese hamburger, called hamburg, is made with tofu.  This is one of my favorite items to order at a cafe.  Unlike dense American hamburgers served on a bun with fries, a hamburg is small and airy, covered with a soy-based sauce, often served with rice and a salad.  After the meal, one leaves feeling restaurant feeling righteous and perfectly satiated.  The reason for the lightness of the burger?  Tofu.

Tonight’s dinner was yakisoba, a simple stir-fry dish, made even easier with prepared sauce purchased in the condiment section of the store. (I’ve made the sauce twice, using two different recipes, with varying results.)  Cabbage, carrots, onions, green onion, and red bell pepper, along with a bit of pork and fresh wheat noodles, made for a simple one-pot meal.

How were the meals?  Our resident recipe tester gobbled up the chicken meatballs, commenting, “Ummm, I like it!”  And, tonight, she didn’t say a word, she just ate her entire serving of yakisoba including all of the veg.

That’s as good as it gets.

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Yakisoba, an easy and fast meal to prepare.

 

RE:PRINT (NYT): These Are the Only Kitchen Tools You Need

With the prevalence of convenience-based prepared food, cooking often has taken a backseat to, well, er, most things.  For me, this was especially true when I was single and responsible solely for feeding myself.  Mixed nuts for dinner?  Fine.  Bagel and cream cheese from the deli for breakfast?  Yes.  Custom prepared salad from the place downstairs for lunch?  Of course.  Then, my refrigerator was used as storage for white wine, Champagne, water, and chocolate.  As decadent as that selection may sound, the reality is that my currently stocked refrigerator is more impressive–fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, carrots, spinach, cheese, eggs, butter, apples, oranges, etc.  And, yes, of course, a chilled bottle of Champagne.

As with many of life’s dramatic changes, my transition from non-cook to cook was a byproduct of life’s upheaval.  I purchased heavy-bottom pots and pans, narrow metal measuring spoons, nesting metal measuring cups, and a high-end set of knives after calling off my first engagement.  (I also purchased a potato ricer and a meatloaf pan; the former a waste of money, the latter a worthwhile purchase depending upon one’s fondness of the dish.)  He had wanted me to cook; I had done so.  He had the well-stocked kitchen filled with knives costing more than some people make in a month; I had a paring knife.

I purchased tongs, a metal whisk, wooden spoons, a sieve, a second sheet pan, and a stove top-to-oven pot after my second engagement went the way of my first.  He was a great cook, inspiring me to cook by touch and taste rather than merely following a recipe.  He taught me the fundamentals of cooking, explaining the reasoning behind the technique.  He also sent me a Le Creuset pot as a housewarming gift post break-up.

Today, I have a wide array of kitchen tools at the ready.  That is, in large part, because I married my husband in my mid-to-late 30s.  (Really, what’s in a number?)  Even post-consolidation of our kitchen items, we found one item missing:  an immersion blender.  Yes, one can blend soups in a blender, but it is easier–and safer–not to.

Now, with all the right tools at my disposal, I would much rather make chocolate chip cookies than buy them.  Same goes for hummos (black bean or chick pea), chicken noodle soup, curries (Indian or Asian), butternut squash soup, etc.  And, yes, I’m still using the same heavy-bottom pots and pans purchased all those years ago.

* * *

RE:PRINT:  The New York Times

These Are the Only Kitchen Tools You Need

The on-ramp for cooking is finding the recipes that make you want to cook, whether you get them from NYT Cooking or BuzzFeed or even a cookbook.

It doesn’t matter what they’re for (Slutty Brownies or kale salad or Bacon Explosion). What does matter is having the tools that make recipes work.

Why think about it in advance? If you suddenly need a spatula, you can get one at CVS. Who cares if it’s plastic? The dollar store sells measuring spoons. Is it a problem that they’re shaped like the state of Texas?

Yes, it is.

It’s a lot easier to spend one afternoon buying the right stuff than to spend every morning you want to cook something in a sweat, trying to improvise a substitute for a rolling pin (an empty wine bottle?) or a bread knife (good luck).

To outfit your kitchen, go to the big-box store of your choice: Upscale places like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table are browse-worthy, but they often charge much more for the same basic tools. And don’t think you have to be completely sensible: Buy some crazy thing that appeals to you, like a set of miniature pie tins or a state-of-the-art meat thermometer or one of those old-school apple peelers. The things you don’t need but want are the things that will lure you into the kitchen.

To set up your kitchen for basic cooking (and some baking) tasks, you will need:

1 big (8-inch) knife

1 serrated bread knife

2 small paring knives

1 10-inch cast-iron skillet

1 small nonstick skillet

1 4-quart pot with a lid

1 9-by-13-inch metal baking pan

Metal measuring spoons

A metal whisk, long wooden spoons and a silicone spatula

A pair of sturdy metal tongs

Plastic or glass measuring cups (a 1-cup and a 2-cup)

2 13-by-18-inch sheet pans

A set of mixing bowls (plastic is fine)

And if you have some extra cash, buy some kind of chopping/mixing device — either a food processor with multiple blades or a hand blender with multiple attachments.

Finally, because someday you will give in to the voices that say you must learn to roast a chicken, do yourself a favor and buy some kitchen shears. Cooking is easy. Carving is hard.

* * *

A Child’s Place

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[S]’s breakfast at Seaside Cafe Hanon, Okinawa, Japan.
I have never been one to eat breakfast out.  Perhaps it’s because I’m frugal.  Why spend $10 on eggs and pancakes when it costs pennies on the dollar to make at home?  Perhaps it’s because I loathe leaving the house early on weekend mornings.  How is it a lazy morning if I must put myself together to leave our house?  Or maybe it’s just because I enjoy breakfasts at home–the smell of coffee brewing, the sound of eggs being cracked, and the unrestrained giggles of a two-and-a-half year old.

Living in Okinawa has not changed my feelings on eating breakfast out, but it has given me a reason to embrace when we do so:  the children’s breakfast set.  Here, one typically orders a meal set.  Sets often include a choice of beverage, the main course, and a dessert.  For breakfast, children are routinely offered ice cream, chocolate, or whip cream to accompany pancakes, in addition to syrup.  And the creativity of eating establishments is bemusing when it comes to children’s plates.  One cafe provided [S] with a liquid chocolate pen to decorate her own pancakes.

At Seaside Cafe Hanon, [S]’s meal included three types of ice cream, pancakes, and a mini-cream puff.  The restaurant substituted the egg-based cream with whip cream on the ears and in the cream puff without us asking, given [S]’s egg allergy.  (I only requested that they leave the egg-cream off the plate.  But that wouldn’t fit the aesthetic, would it?)

I find joy in the pride and creativity of restaurant workers here.  One’s job is not merely to prepare and/or serve a meal.  Rather, it is seen as an honor to do so.  And it shows.

How was my meal?  It was beautifully presented and delicious.

seasidecafehanon
Eggs Benedict, steak bacon, and whole wheat pancakes, served with a salad.

Goyza, Lumpia, and Egg Rolls.

A few weeks ago, [S] and I were walking to the playground near our home, when we met a neighbor who was mowing the lawn.  She wore headphones and no shoes.  She stopped the lawn mower to say hello.  And we are happy she did.  A few days later, she joined us for an outing to the playground, library, and mall.  Last week, she visited the misters atop the mall roof with us.  In between our outings, she dropped off a plate of frozen homemade lumpia.

For those unfamiliar with Filipino food, lumpia is a common snack.  It is a spring roll, filled with cabbage, carrots, onion, garlic, and/or minced meat (pork, beef, chicken, shrimp), which may be served fried or uncooked (depending on the ingredients).  “Just use any kind of oil and fry on medium heat until golden brown,” she instructed me.

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Lumpia.

The lumpia were filled with pork, carrots, celery, onion, salt and pepper, and a bit of soy sauce.  While they could be fried frozen on medium heat, I cooked them partially thawed.  Oishii!

Earlier this year, I discovered a labor intensive method of making authentic Chinese egg rolls, which Russell and I both agreed were restaurant worthy.  Have I made them again?  No.  It was a lot of work and required a significant amount of clean up.

In my experience, one of the best ways to wait out a storm is to cook or bake.  Such a task provides a constructive way to pass the time, while ensuring prepared food is at the ready in case of a power outage.  In preparation of Chaba, we stopped by our local market and purchased ground pork, green onions, and dumpling wrappers.  My hope was to make a tasty batch of goyza, Japanese dumplings.

The traditional goyza taste profile is pork, green onion, garlic, ginger, and a hint of sugar.  One can find a plate of goyza at the prepared food sections of markets or at any Japanese restaurant.  In the end, we made 55 dumplings, cooked 22 and froze the rest.  They were served with a sauce made of rice vinegar, soy sauce and a drizzle of sesame oil.  The taste?  Better than anything I had hoped for.  The cooking method–fry, steam, fry–yielded perfectly cooked dumplings with a crispy bottom.  Interested in trying it for yourself?  Here is the tutorial I used.

It’s time intensive, yes.  But I also found the process therapeutic.  Perhaps it was because [S] was being minded by her Father.  Or maybe because it was something new.  Whatever the reason, I predict future dumpling making on rainy days.

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