Eating Out (Again)

Last night, to celebrate the end of our 14-day quarantine, we went out to eat at the Harbor Cafe. It was our first dinner out in three months.

It was a little weird, being served by masked wait staff, but the restaurant had erected plexiglass barriers between booths and had implemented procedures to address social distancing, including having a designated “in” door and “out” door to ensure that people don’t bump into each other. And patrons are required to wear their masks until they are seated.

The masks and procedures made it a different experience, but it was a great pleasure to be served a hot meal and an ice-cold beer again. I got the fish and chips, and can honestly report that french fries truly are a revelation after a three-month respite.

We enjoyed our meal and gave our server a hefty tip. Working in a mask can’t be fun, and waiters and waitresses still have to make up for their shutdown period. We all should be generous with the people whose jobs were closed down due to the coronavirus.

The Cooking Impulse

I’ve found that, as the coronavirus shutdown/closed-up period has continued, I’ve become a lot more interested in cooking.

I’ve always liked baking — as any faithful reader of this blog knows — but I’ve not done a lot in the cooking category.  Before the shutdown, I’d head to the office for work, come home after a long day, and as often as not just make myself a plate of meat and cheeses for dinner — often stopping at Katzinger’s Deli on the way home to get some special items.  Kish would offer to whip up something more elaborate, but meat, cheese, and crackers really seemed to hit the right spot.  

Since the shutdown, however, I’ve been working remotely — which means I’m either setting up my laptop on the kitchen island or somewhere near the kitchen.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been in close proximity to the refrigerator and the stove, but I seem to be thinking about cooking more than ever before.  I’ve made a lot of stews using odds and ends from the cupboard, and given our little crock pot a serious work out in preparing briskets, chicken, chili, and other dinners.  More recently, though, my attention has focused on the grill and the stovetop.  On Monday I made a very tasty pasta with smoked mussels, clams, and a variation on Alfredo sauce, and last night I prepared some succulent Panko-crusted chicken breasts.  Tonight, weather permitting, I’ll be grilling out.

As with everything else that has happened during this crazy period, I wonder if this development represents a lasting change, or whether when things get back to normal the cooking impulse will be felt no more.  I can’t say for sure, but I can say this:  as much as I have enjoyed my dalliance with cooking, I’m definitely looking forward to going to a restaurant in the very near future.   

Cooking With “Liquid Gold”

We’ve learned a lesson during this shutdown period:  if you are ordering groceries for delivery in order to comply with a mandatory governmental quarantine, you really need to be specific about what you want.  Otherwise, you run the risk that the person who is doing the shopping for you will make a judgment call that might not be what you intended.

We learned this lesson this week when we placed a delivery order and one of the items was “American cheese.”  We were thinking of the Kraft singles for use in grilling cheeseburgers, but what we got instead was a box of Velveeta “liquid gold” cheese — which definitely stirred some childhood memories.

In the Webner household of the ’60s, a brick of Velveeta was a staple of the family refrigerator.  Who doesn’t remember opening up the foil wrapper and gazing at that soft, golden brick still bearing the traces of the foil wrapper that indicated that the cheese had been injected into the packaging in liquid form.  (Presumably, that’s why the package calls Velveeta “liquid gold.”)  Unlike other cheese, Velveeta could not be cut and eaten by hand, unless you wanted to squish the cheese and end up with a thick cheese residue on your hands.  Instead, Velveeta was specifically designed for melting and cooking purposes — like gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, or even more gooey macaroni and cheese.

We haven’t had a brick of Velveeta in the fridge for years, but it doesn’t look like it has changed one bit in the intervening decades.  The packaging and presentation looks the same, although the box now helpfully notes that Velveeta has 50 percent less fat than cheddar cheese.  Back in the ’60s, the fat content of Velveeta — or for that matter any other kind of food in the family fridge or cupboard — was not something that was disclosed, or even considered. 

We’ll be using every ounce of this unexpected brick for cooking, because in the shutdown period, it’s “waste not, want not.”  Yesterday we made scrambled eggs with the “liquid gold,” and it still melts as well as it ever did.  

Sketchy Stuff First

When you’re stuck at home by governmental edict and need to be mindful that you can’t simply go out at your whim to replenish your supplies, what is your approach to how to address the available resources?  More specifically, do you consume the good stuff first, knowing that at the end of your shut-in period your future self will be dealing with the dregs and cursing your present self for total selfishness, or do you hit with the sketchy items first, secure in the knowledge that your future self will be reveling in the good stuff later and thanking you for your foresight and sacrifice?

I always adopt the latter approach — which is why, last night, I tried my first few cans of “hard seltzer.” 

I’ve seen younger people trying this stuff, but had never been tempted myself.  A global pandemic and mandatory isolation periods have ways of imposing their will upon such preferences, however.  A few cans of the stuff were in the refrigerator, and since I wanted to preserve our limited supply of beer and wine, I decided to give it a try.  Last night I sampled the “ruby grapefruit” and “black cherry” flavors.

In looking at the can, I can see why people might drink this stuff.  It’s low carb, and low calorie.  It’s also low taste — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re talking about an over-the-top flavor like “ruby grapefruit.”  I braced myself for the first few sips, thinking that it might be horribly cloying.  Fortunately, the folks at White Claw took a more subtle approach.  It’s still the flavor of grapefruit (not exactly the taste I’m going for in an alcoholic beverage) but at least it’s not at the pungent, hit you over the head level.  That said, in my view the black cherry flavor was more potable — although it still isn’t a flavor I would choose for an adult drink, and reminded me more of the kind of beverage you’d get as a kid at an amusement park.

Flavors aside, the hard seltzer is definitely a light and refreshing beverage, and as someone who’s gone the low-carb route before in the desperate twilight struggle against unnecessary pounds, I can see its appeal from that standpoint.  It’s not going to replace a cold beer in my book, but it’s not undrinkable.  Once we get out of the house and get a chance to hit the grocery store, I might actually try some other flavors, and stock the refrigerator with a few cans in anticipation of the next global pandemic.

Ban The Buffet

Several fast food restaurants — including Burger King and Popeyes — have announced that they are shutting down self-serve soda fountain areas as their restaurants are reopening to in-restaurant customer service.  Those areas are seen as potential sources of coronavirus transmission (as well as being wet, sticky, and messy, incidentally).  If customers want to get a refill on a drink, they will need to go to the counter and ask for one rather than refilling their cups themselves.

replace-food-shields-sneeze-guardsI think this is a good step for a lot of reasons, and I hope the reasoning soon expands to encompass other “self-serve” monstrosities — like “salad bars” and buffets.  Risk of infection and disease transmission aside, I’ve never much cared for places where all of the food tends to end up at room temperature and you’re looking at eating something from a chafing dish that somebody else has already picked over.  I have a reflexive aversion to food that needs to be provided with “sneeze-guard” protection.  I also don’t like practices that allow businesses to fob off a share of the work that should be performed by paid employees to their patrons instead.

And let’s face it — buffets and self-serve food don’t exactly bring out the best in people, do they.  If you’ve ever been to a buffet — be it on a cruise ship, at a Las Vegas casino, or a hotel’s breakfast offering — you know that buffets tend to encourage appalling gluttony.  It’s embarrassing to watch, really.  No one ordering breakfast from a menu is going to ask the waitress to bring them three separate dishes, but it’s pretty common to see people surreptitiously going back for multiple helpings of waffles at the hotel “breakfast bar.”

Maybe we’ll be able to get back to the idea that people should actually be seated at restaurants, and served by wait staff.  And who knows?  Maybe getting rid of self-serve options will help our economy recover from the government-ordered shutdowns and encourage the hiring of more employees.  I’d gladly contribute a nickel or dime of added cost for my cheeseburger to accomplish this greater good and make America the land of the buffet-free.

DQ’d

We’ve been good — really, we have — about complying with shelter in place requirements and staying indoors. But after a while you get tired of your own cooking, and the urges for a hot bacon cheeseburger, some fries, and a Butterfinger Blizzard just become too strong to resist. And boy — after weeks of no fast food, being DQ’d never tasted so good!

Moving up the cravings list are a bucket of KFC original recipe chicken, with mashed potatoes, gravy, macaroni and cheese, and biscuits, and a Skyline Chili three-way with two loaded cheese coneys.

Revisiting The Perfect PB And J

We’ve gotten carryout for dinner several times during our shut-in period, but lunch — with one exception — has been a homemade affair.  That means that I’ve eaten more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches over the past few weeks than I’ve probably eaten in the last 10 years.  My regular consumption of this legendary member of the sandwich family has increased my already high regard for this brilliant culinary invention, and also made me reflect on the elements of the perfect PB and J.  

As with any sandwich, bread is a key element.  Although I cut my teeth on PB and Js made with Wonder Bread, my adult tastes definitely favor a hearty wheat bread, preferably with a few seeds.  I like the bread toasted, too, because the toasting gives the sandwich an additional texture and crunch, and the warmth from the toasting makes it easier to get a uniform spread on the peanut butter, without ripping the bread to shreds. Making sure the spread is uniform, and also appropriately thin, also is important in order to avoid the dribble factor when biting into the sandwich.

As for the peanut butter, I’m an advocate for crunchy, also for texture reasons.  My jelly tastes, just like my tastes in bread, have changed since childhood.  Back then, the jelly was inevitably grape jelly, with an occasional foray into strawberry jam on special occasions.  Now, I favor raspberry or blueberry jams or preserves, also spread carefully to avoid running the risk of dropping a blob onto your pants or shirt front.  In fairness, however, I think there is only one wrong choice on the jelly:  orange marmalade.  I once new someone who zealously argued that orange marmalade was the preferred ingredient for a PB and J.  (I think that person has long since been committed.)

Cut the sandwich diagonally, serve with a glass of ice cold whole milk, and you’ve got a pretty good homemade lunch that makes the shut-in period more agreeable.