Saturday, August 28, 2010

Garden Bistro 24

Last night Mr. Hungry and I went out to the new restaurant, Garden Bistro 24 in Colonie.  It's located on Central Avenue in the plaza where Super Video used to be, but is a new building, I believe (remember Super Video?  I miss it.)  Buzz on local food blog, Table Hopping, had been immensely positive, and I was intrigued by the promise of a concise, focused menu and reasonable prices.

We made reservations for 8:00, but when we got there, though it was busy, we could see that we would have gotten a table regardless.  Still, if you're planning on going more along prime dinner hours (6:00-7:00 or so around here), you might want to call ahead.  The restaurant is decorated in tones of gold and burgundy, with touches here and there that give nods to France - fleur de lis and Eiffel tower sorts of things. 

To your right you'll see a large board containing the night's specials, including prices.  We were seated almost immediately and handed the regular menu, the wine menu, and the specials menu, including beer specials on the back.  Beer-lovers take note: all four (or was it five?) beer specials were local, including Saratoga Ale and Cooperstown's Hennepin.  I opted to stick with water last night, but it was nice to see local beers.

As plates piled high with golden frites whizzed by, I knew there was really no thinking to do.  I must order something that gives me those frites, I thought to myself.  I opted for the Flat Iron Steak Frites ($11) while Mr. Hungry, also feeling beefy, went with the other option, the Hangar Steak Frites ($12).  I also ordered a small house salad with their citrus vinaigrette and received a good-sized bowl of mixed greens, ripe tomato (it was red!), cucumber, carrot, regrettably, raw red onion (I'll have to remember to ask for that to be held, next time), and micro greens.  The salad was well-dressed, not over-dressed, and the dressing was tart and garlicky.  I'd never had micro greens before, that I could recall, and I didn't notice huge flavor, but they looked nice, and I imagine they're pretty good for me, too.  Mr. Hungry started with French onion soup ($6) and received the standard, cheese-encrusted crock.  I took a little sip of his broth and found it to be rich and flavorful, and pretty much exactly as you'd want a French onion broth to taste.

Our steaks arrived shortly thereafter.  I'd gotten mine topped with herb butter while Mr. Hungry was Mr. Greedy and asked for caramelized onions as well as blue cheese.  I tasted both steaks and can appreciate both.  The hangar steak has a really beefy flavor and meaty chewiness to it that I find really satisfying, but the flat iron is tender and juicier.  While the herb butter was good, I think next time I'd have to top my steak with those onions the Mr. had.  Deeply tan and meltingly soft, they would make anything taste emminently better.  The frites were very thin, almost shoestring style, with skins on and were pretty well-done.  I prefer my fries a bit thicker so there's more of a potato flavor, but these were good.  They reminded me a bit of the canned Potato Stix snack, but in a good way.  My only other small complaint is that I thought both fries and steak could use a touch more salt, but it didn't bother me so much that I felt I needed to ask our waitress for the salt shaker that was strangely missing from our table (present on all the rest).

The serving size was adequate and filling, but it was one meal's worth of food.  That is not at all a complaint - I like receiving smaller portions, and this is really not food you want to take home to reheat.  So we had dessert!  I had a good cup of coffee ($2, and locally roasted, per the menu, though from where, I don't know) and the housemade almond cake ($4), said to be glazed with apricot preserves and topped with toasted almonds.  I was presented with a small, round cakelet topped with whipped cream and a blackberry - I wish I'd had my camera as it was really cute.  The taste was mouth-fillingly almondy, sweet, and just the slightest bit dry.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Mr. Hungry went with the pineapple upside-down cake ($4), which is one of his favorites but is rarely seen on menus.  It, too, was a small, round cake and was moist and sweet, topped with the classic caramelized pineapple.

After having abysmally slow and negligent service at another restaurant recently, the service at Garden Bistro was a breath of fresh air.  They took a team approach, which I nearly always prefer, and they seemed genuinely happy to be working there.  The waitresses we spoke with were knowledgeable about the menu and just all around pleasant.  We got refills promptly, and save one silly gaffe - our waitress asked if we wanted dessert before we'd eaten our entrees! - I have no complaints.  The restaurant was spotlessly clean, including the bathrooms and the glimpse into the kitchen I got on my way to the bathroom, part of which I'm sure is due to being new, but it is still promising to see.

Will we go back?  Certainly.  There was a delicious sounding crepe special last night, stuffed with spinach, caramelized onions, roast chicken, and chevre ($11) as well as a swordfish special that tempted me ($17).  I would also love to go with a mussels lover as the bowls going past, piled with shiny black shellfish, looked and smelled wonderful, but I'm not certain I like mussels, having not eaten them in years and not liking them previously, and while I'm game to try new things, I don't want to order a bowl for my dinner only to hate them.  Mr. Hungry doesn't eat any fish or shellfish, so he's no help in that department.

Garden Bistro 24 is exactly the neighborhood kind of place that this area needed.  The food was very good, with reasonable portions and prices, and most importantly, we left feeling better - happier, mellower, sated - than we had when we came in, all for under $50, before tip.  I don't know if it was the food, service, atmosphere, or combination of the three, but I can't remember the last time I left a restaurant with a greater sense of well-being.

Monday, August 23, 2010

An Old Favorite

The above picture may not look like much, but it's one of my favorite things to eat.  It's a combination of plain yogurt, something for sweetness, and Mu Mu Muesli.  In this picture you'll see pieces of fresh nectarine.  They were so sweet and juicy, I didn't add any other sweeteners, but often I'll add maple syrup or fruit preserves instead.  My preferred yogurt is Brown Cow plain low fat.  Stonyfield will also do, but its flavor isn't as rich.

I first tasted Mu Mu Muesli when I was handed a little paper cup containing it and some whole milk maple yogurt at the Schenectady Greenmarket.  I was sold.  It is available to purchase there, but I take a big refillable container and get it in bulk at the Honest Weight Co-Op.  For those uninitiated, muesli is pretty much untoasted granola.  This particular brand combines oats, flax seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, unsweetened dried coconut, almonds, and the best part, dried dates.  It's lightly sweet, crunchy, chewy, nutty, and makes for a filling breakfast or a healthy snack.  I've even been known to eat it twice in a day.  As someone who doesn't often eat the same thing twice, this is high praise indeed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


After a visit to the Farmer's Market at the Crossings a few weeks ago, I was inspired to try my hand at making fruit pies. 

I grew up with a mom who baked like a fiend, and I watched her roll out pie dough countless times as a child.  Yet for some reason, making pie crust seemed like it should be something really difficult.  It wasn't.  I used a modified recipe I found at Hillbilly Housewife, substituting dairy-free margarine for the shortening.  I wouldn't normally bake with margarine, but I was going to be sharing the pie with a friend who needed it to be so.  I also discovered I was nearly out of all-purpose flour, so I ended up subbing whole wheat flour for half of the recipe.

The crust came out just fine, though it wasn't as flaky as I'd hoped, but it rolled nicely and tasted ok.  The filling, however, was gorgeous.  If you needed a reason to be convinced that farmer's markets are worth shopping at, summer fruit is the reason.  I bought juicy, sweet peaches from George Markets in Latham (I think! - I should have written it down) and a reasonably priced quart of blackberries from the vendor at the back of the first row towards the back near the playground - helpful, isn't it?  These blackberries put those blackberry shaped things the supermarket sells to shame.  I payed $5 for a quart of really delicious, sweet, flavorful blackberries and they were worth every cent.

I blanched the peaches and then peeled them, sliced, and added to a mixing bowl with the blackberries.  A cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of flour, and a sprinkling of cinnamon, and the filling was complete.  Here's how it looked once added to the crust, before it received its dough hat.

Ah!  A thing of beauty!

Once the top crust was on, I brushed it with an egg wash, pricked a pretty (off-center) design in the top, and sprinkled it with Sugar in the Raw for sweetness and crunch and put the whole thing in the oven.  Here it is before baking:

Mmm, pie. 

The question that sets fear in the pie-baker's heart is one that can only be answered by slicing into it: will the filling have set?  I don't like the texture cornstarch adds, so I put my faith in flour.  And the results...

Delicious, and not too runny at all.

I highly recommend peach-blackberry pie, but even better, if you can believe it, was a peach-strawberry pie I made the following weekend.

Method was largely the same, except my pie crust was made with butter this time.  Oh, what a difference the fat makes!  This pie crust, while handling, was supple, pleasantly elastic, yet silky and tender.  It was really a pleasure to work with.  I also purchased more all purpose flour, so I didn't use any whole wheat this time around.  The resultant crust was golden, crisp, and so very tasty.

The only change to the filling was strawberries in place of blackberries, and I think I preferred it that way.  Either way, you can't lose.  I'm only sorry I didn't take a picture of the peach-strawberry pie.

If you've been afraid to try your hand at pie crust in the past, don't be!  It's very easy, and in the end, you have pie!  What could be better?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman, was a very well-written book, but ultimately, was not for me.  It came highly recommended by several friends, but I am just not a big historical fiction reader and should have known better.  It took me a very long time to finish and in the end, I'm not certain it was worth my time to slog through.

In 19th century England, Gustine is an impoverished young mother, indentured to her landlord Whilky Robinson as his "dress lodger" - she wears an elegant gown of his and works as a prostitute, with the idea that the gown brings a higher class of clientele and with it, higher profits.  When the opportunity presents itself for her to provide much needed medical care for her son, she grabs it, even though it means procuring corpses for a local surgeon upon which to practice operating.  All of this is set among the backdrop of a devastating outbreak of cholera morbus.

The book is cleverly narrated, and shifts between perspectives adeptly.  It winds through several lives, though of course, focuses mainly on the titular dress lodger.  It is a bleak, sad book that has drawn comparisons to Dickens in tone, and while I'm regrettably not well-versed in the latter, it does seem to share his rather pessimistic (some might prefer to say realistic) sensibilities.  This is a not an idealized picture of England but rather a harsh look into class differences, the lives of the very poor, and the utter disregard with which their lives were viewed by the upper classes. 

If you enjoy historical fiction, particularly that with a dark edge, I'd recommend this book to you.  I can't fault Holman's writing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gnocchi with Creamy Tomato Sauce

I don't like tomato sauce very much.  This doesn't seem to be a popular opinion.  I've tried several homemade recipes for marinara - long cooked, quick cooking, fresh tomatoes, canned - and none of them tasted any more appealing to me than a regular old jar of sauce.  So I make no apologies in buying jarred marinara for the times when I need such sauce.

So I don't like plain old marinara much.  However, add a few ingredients to it and it becomes magical.  I recently made my faux vodka sauce and it was as delicious as the first time I made it.

To make creamy tomato sauce, also know as faux vodka sauce, start by adding a cup of white wine and half a jar (about 2 cups) of basic pasta type sauce to a pan.  You could use homemade if you like, but I would stick with either marinara or tomato basil.  Turn it on medium - trust me that you don't want the heat too high.  Your kitchen will be covered in tomatoey spatters - and let it simmer for twenty to thirty minutes for the wine to reduce.   Here's my sauce bubbling away on the stove.

When the sauce smells less strongly of wine and has been simmering for a while, start boiling your pasta water.  You could serve this with any pasta, but I was drawn to Target's Archer Farms gnocchi one day and they were better than I expected.  Both me and Mr. Hungry really liked them.  This time the gnocchi are Pastene brand from Hannaford.  Both products were vacuum-sealed, shelf-stable, and cook very quickly.

Once the gnocchi has cooked and been drained, turn the heat off the sauce, pour about a cup of cream into your sauce, a few generous handfuls of Romano or Parmesan cheese (I prefer the former), and stir it around.  Add the gnocchi to the pot with the sauce, mix it all, and serve.   Unfortunately, I ddin't have cream,  but I did have some half-and-half to use it up.  It wasn't really rich enough and sort of broke (or maybe curdled?) in the tomato sauce.  It tasted fine, but heavy cream is much  better.

I had some nice broccoli...

that I cut into florets and tossed into the boiling water for a few minutes with the gnocchi.

I seem unable to determine the proper amount of sauce for a pound of gnocchi and added far too much to this batch, but I used a slotted spoon to get rid of the excess and it came out just fine.  I make no claims that this is gourmet food, and it's barely even homemade, but it is delicious, fairly nutritious (the gnocchi I bought has a good deal of fiber!), and pretty inexpensive.  Here's how it looked before we ate:

Friday, August 6, 2010

Slow Cooker Honey-Orange Chicken Drumsticks

It's been hot here in Albany.  Seriously, sweat-drippingly hot.  I can scarcely stand to think about cooking.  Days like yesterday make me very glad to have a slow cooker.

Dinner last night was honey-orange drumsticks, loosely based on a recipe from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook.  I say loosely because of the five ingredients called for, I only had the two major ones.  I left out the instant tapioca, used for thickening, and substituted garlic for shallots.  I didn't have a can of roasted green chiles but intended to add a dash of hot sauce.  I forgot.

I decided to strip the skin off the legs because chicken skin tends to get flabby and unappealing in the slow cooker thanks to the wet nature of this cooking method.  This was the most labor-intensive part of the meal.  I whisked half a can of orange juice concentrate (thawed from frozen) with ¼ cup of honey and added some salt and pepper.  The legs were placed on top, tossed around to coat, and the slow cooker was placed on high for a few hours.

Due to the method of cooking, my drumsticks were looking sad and anemic as they cooked.  Mr. Hungry thought they smelled rather like meatballs cooking and was surprised to find chicken on the menu.  I attribute this to the garlic.  Here they are in the crock after cooking for about three hours:

To accompany them I attempted to make brown rice. The smell of brown basmati rice cooking is so deliciously fragrant – it reminds me of popcorn.  Unfortunately, despite cooking the rice exactly to the package directions, plus extra cooking time, the rice never softened.  So we didn’t eat it.  It made the house smell good, so all was not lost. 

Good thing I’d planned on serving a big salad.  Here’s one of our favorite simple combinations.  It’s certainly nothing innovative, but the sweet, tangy strawberries go so well with the roasty, toasted pecans.  I scored the locally-grown cucumber at Hannaford for a mere $0.89!  Hooray for summer!

Here’s dinner on my plate before salad.  I hadn’t realize the rice was underdone and put it on my plate only to discover it was inedible.  If anyone has tips about making brown rice actually cook when you cook it, please let me know!

All in all this was just an average dinner.  Despite the long cooking time the chicken didn’t absorb much flavor.  It probably would have been better had I thickened the sauce as it would have clung to the drumsticks.  It was nothing fancy, but it was good enough for a very hot weeknight, and sometimes good enough is enough.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

First Post

I have been thinking about starting a blog for a long time, but strangely enough what was always holding me back was the name.  I couldn't think of what to call the thing.  During a bout of insomnia last night I decided to forgo anything clever or cute and keep it really simple: food & books.

I am terrible at both remembering to take pictures and uploading them from camera to computer, but I will try to start being more of a photographer, for blog's sake.  I hope this blog will find a reader or two.