February 2009

It’s one of three restaurants on Jones Street in downtown Norcross, and of the three, it is the newest to that location and perhaps the best. I took my family there tonight, and as is typical for the times I’ve been, it was full. The wait, however, was short, and we were seated within 2-3 minutes.

There are a couple draws for this place to eat. For one, they claim their food is more authentically Mexican, as opposed to a border Tex-Mex cuisine.  The second is their use of a molcajete, a mortar made of volcanic stone, as a serving instrument for a number of their dishes.  They heat the stone mortar up, let it cook the food, and of course the molcajete comes out with the mix of cheese and meat openly bubbling. The molcajete is edged with green onions, tomatoes, and cactus. There are sides: rice, beans, and ground chorizo sausage, along with hot steamy tortillas.  So, you get a tortilla, and add sides, meat and cheese, fold it up and eat it.

My wife was fond of their cooked plantains, which were both dry and tasty. A lot of cooked plantains have an oily texture, but not these. I had a chile relleno, with meat. I’d have loved to try their relleno stuffed with cheese, but I know from experience that’s something I can’t eat this late at night anymore. Just too much fat in the dish.

Service was, for the most part, excellent. As cramped as the restaurant can be, they clear tables and moves people to their seats with a lot of skill. Waiters drop by often, are attentive, drinks are filled quickly. They have good chips, and a good salsa. In terms of price, entrees in Zapatas run from about 11 dollars to 18 dollars a plate. Obviously there are less expensive alternatives to Zapatas, but the sheer spectacle of having your food delivered in a mortar made of volcanic rock makes this a place I heartily recommend.

Zapata on Urbanspoon

What people want  is as individual as a fingerprint.  For now, however, these sites and links have caught my eye, and I’ll let others have a go at them, if they wish.

This is a good looking soup.

More notes on the super grain quinoa, and how to use it. Quinoa is so easy to make, I suspect it goes mainstream in a few years.

Some brief links on food blogs I’ve enjoyed reading. This is a good looking tabouleh salad.  This is a quick article on cooking pearled barley (yum!). And Modern Domestic has a pound cake series that leaves my mouth watering (her comments about food shows are also very amusing).

I have an interest in lamb, since it’s generally available in more reasonable portions than steak and tends to be cheaper. I also like the taste. Three lamb links that caught my eye are these. Steve Raichlen has a nice post on a lamb rub (looks like a curry to me *^^*), The Real Epicurean gets down and simple with lamb steaks, and this post on lamb curry looks worth picking up and trying sometime. Well, that time when I buy a six pack of spice mills and toast my own seeds (gotta be a cheaper way)..

Hackerette has some nice quick ways to cook pasta. More on pasta: if it’s made right, it’s made from hard wheat. I spent a summer in a grain elevator, and the rule of thumb is, the harder the wheat, the higher the protein content (up to 15% in the case of some hard wheats). I don’t know why pasta, made from hard wheats, tags in at a mere 10% protein content, but I suspect it’s because the US of A sets up grades and 10% is the minimum to get to the best grade, with regard to pasta.

I like this blogger’s style. Can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s because I come from a family of Texans, and he’s in Texas. But I enjoyed this post.

When I buy some guava paste (I’ve seen sticks and tins so far, not sure which is best) I have to try this guava pie.

Finally, my wife has a life long affection for Cracker Jack. So, sometime, I’ll have to show her this caramel corn recipe.

I wasn’t expecting to touch amaranth until breakfast, and there are no photos, just some fast comments. I came home and most of my dinner was already cooked for me, but I needed a side and didn’t want to bother with a frozen entree. I had tried quinoa before and it worked just fine, light and nutty. I had a bit of lamb, still warm, so I made a red wine reduction (cabernet sauvignon this time, better than shiraz), and got out the amaranth.

I used 3 ounces (by volume) of amaranth in 6 ounces of water, in a 2 quart saucepan with glass lid, heated to a boil, and reduced to a simmer. I started with the pot covered, and uncovered it around 14-15 minutes because it was looking watery. It was visibly different within 12 minutes, but I cooked it a whole 20 minutes, to get rid of as much water as I could. Sources I’ve seen say it takes 18-20 minutes to cook.

Amaranth is mild, has a nutty flavor, I’ve heard others write of malt overtones. That’s possible. The superior protein content (also here) of amaranth makes this an interesting alternative to rice, or corn. The seeds are tiny, much smaller than quinoa or barley, and so it doesn’t have the satisfying chewiness I get with cooked quinoa and barley. I can’t decide whether it reminds me of cream of wheat or malt-o-meal, but it’s reminding me of one of those. Of the two “super grains”, I think I prefer quinoa, but wouldn’t turn this down.

I ate all of it. I don’t regret it one bit.

I’ve been promising I’ll test both quinoa and amaranth in terms of their breakfast cereal appeal. I didn’t want to cook for 5, just 1, and the guiding principle was KISS (keep it simple, stupid). So, I started with 1/4 cup of quinoa and 1/2 cup of cold water. Put it on the stove and heated. Started with cold water, turned up the heat, waited till it was boiling, reduced temperature, trying to get it to simmer. Never did really succeed in finding an optimum temperature, was playing with temperature throughout. After 15 minutes it was done.

Plain cooked quinoa makes a fine breakfast cereal.

Plain cooked quinoa makes a fine breakfast cereal.

It smelled good when taking it out of the pan. I was concerned I would have to add something to make it palatable, but I shouldn’t have been so worried. It smelled so good, some of the quinoa never made it into the breakfast bowl. It has a nutty flavor, sufficient to stand on its own without any additives. If you were to make a regular routine of the grain, however, you might want to add things, like fruits or nuts, or a little brown sugar, to vary the flavor of what you eat.

I enjoyed it immensely. If you have the patience to watch the pot over the 15 minutes it cooks, you should be able to succeed.  Should work well in a bachelor kitchen. Should work well as a side dish.

Issues? It’s a small grain. That makes it hard to wash, hard to handle. There will be transfer losses.

If you’re a bachelor, then sometimes the hardest thing to do is come up with ways to jazz up your food, make it a little better. I can’t solve every cooking problem or every cooking issue, but we’ll list a trick every so often to help you on your cooking way.

1) If you’re making spaghetti and using one of the commercial spaghetti sauce packets with tomato sauce (or canned sauce) and meat, I’ll offer a couple ways to make it a better sauce. First, double the amount of ground beef they recommend. It makes the sauce richer, it makes the sauce more like a meal. Second, get a large bell pepper or two, sliced mushrooms perhaps,  and a triangle of parmesan cheese. No, not ground cheese, a real chunk of parmesan cheese. If you have access to a cheese shop and can get parmigiano-reggiano, that would even be better, but a chunk of parmesan from Wisconsin will be far better than anything you can get preground and in a can. Get a grater too, while you’re at it, if you don’t have one.

The cheese on the right can make a marked improvement to the packet on the left.

The cheese on the right can make a marked improvement to the packet on the left.

Follow the instructions on the packet, add the meat. Core and devein the pepper, then cut the pepper into strips or squares and toss that into the sauce. Before you’re done with the sauce, grate some cheese. Don’t grate too much, as a little parmesan goes a long way. Toss it into the sauce, stir thoroughly and taste test. Add pepper, basil, garlic  or other spices as desired.

Though not essential, pimentos can add both color and flavor to a sauce, and the smaller kind are cheap.

Though not essential, pimentos can add both color and flavor to a sauce, and the smaller kind are cheap.

I’ve seen bachelor friends try this and go from, “My mom makes the best spaghetti sauce in the world” to “Oh, that’s pretty good” and helping themselves to seconds.

Now obviously this isn’t the only way to improve on a spaghetti packet, or that can of Ragu. Other sites that offer ways to improve a sauce are here and here. And finally, though parmigiano-reggiano is about the most expensive cheese I know, outside of artisanal cheeses, since it’s used more to enhance flavors than be the meal, you don’t need much, you don’t use much, and if you keep it cool and dry, it keeps forever.

It have nothing against oatmeal per se, I’ve eaten a ton of it and if I were a regular breakfast eater, I’d probably eat more of it. It’s a grain, it’s cheap, it cooks fast. If you look at the nutrition profile for plain instant oatmeal on the nutritiondata site, you’ll see it’s pretty good for you. However, as we enter the 21st century, there are two whole “grains” that have an excellent nutritional profile, and equally important, they cook fast. These two are amaranth and quinoa.

Amaranth is on the left. Quinoa is in the middle. Pearled barley is on the right.

Amaranth is on the left. Quinoa is in the middle. Pearled barley is on the right.

For now I’ve been using them as part of the grain component in various soups, and Deborah Madison has suggested soups using the mix of corn, amaranth and quinoa. I’m curious if either of these can be used as a direct substitute for oatmeal in the morning meal. Yes, there will be more cooking time with these two than with instant oatmeal, but not too much more, and they will cook faster than pearled barley, for example.

Looking for people who have traveled this path, I find a recipe for breakfast quinoa here, and one for amaranth here. The Blogger Reforming Daily notes that both amaranth and quinoa are gluten free.

I intend to try both over the next few days, and I’ll report the results for quinoa here, and eventually amaranth here.

I was working the day of my wife’s birthday and I had no idea how long I would be working. But when we finished  and finished early, I really didn’t want to come home empty handed. I had left my wife a card and flowers and a gift, but still, it’s a birthday. So once I found some candies I went down Scenic Highway (124) just past 78 and turned left soon after.

My wife’s favorite cake is carrot cake and I didn’t see any. I had no time to call and ask, this was all last minute. I looked at the fudge bars and the caramel bars and thought they were delectable, so I got a few of those. When I mentioned I didn’t see any carrot cake, the lady behind the counter said, “I think I have one in the back.” She looked and yes, there was one. She offered to ice “Happy Birthday” in blue for me, at no extra change. The cake, if I recall right, cost about $20.00.

My wife was a bit shocked and also quite pleased. If I had told her I was going to buy a cake from Bill Rhodes Bakery, she would have told me no and suggested (strongly) that I go to Publix. But I had worked the day of her birthday and yes, I was trying to make it up to her. I’m glad she understood.

The cake, once we cut into it, was light, carroty, and smelled and tasted of spices that aren’t found in the supermarket carrot cakes. Yep. Worth every penny.

Bill Rhodes Bakery on Urbanspoon

Back in January Mark Bittman came out with a post discussing food oriented New Year’s resolutions, and one of the most exciting things he said, from a personal point of view, was this quote:

Simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes and you’re better off;

And I’m probably not alone in buying onions, carrots, and celery and trying it.  And now that some reaction to this statement has appeared, herehere, but especially here, I’m also relieved that other people have pretty much the same reaction to their efforts as I had.

But more so, I just have this aversion to getting rid of perfectly good onions, celery, and carrots in order to flavor water. I’d much rather eat the onions, carrots and celery than throw them out.

When I was younger my father would gather the whole family and go for hours to get to an “all you can eat” fish joint.  They could be nice looking or run down shacks. The only common thread between the places he would choose were lots of fish, simple fresh water fish (perch or catfish), good cornbread, usually in the form of hush puppies, and a reasonable price.

One of the things I’ve never been able to successfully locate in the Atlanta area is a simple, reliable place like that. My father made it seem as if the South (or Michigan, for the few years we lived in the Upper Peninsula) was littered with these kinds of restaurants. After all, he could find them just about anywhere. When I’ve looked, it’s been hard to get fried catfish that was also not greasy. Dry fried catfish is a bit of a find these days.

The Blue Marlin is located on Pleasant Hill Road, a couple blocks east of the I-85 – Pleasant Hill Intersection.  I can say that the catfish in Blue Marlin — in my experience — has been both well fried, well spiced, and dry. No, I haven’t tried the entire menu. I could care less about their lobster. I stick to deviled crabs, fried perch, and their salt and pepper catfish. Ok, I tried the flounder once, and it was good too. But mostly I go to this place to remind me of every hole in the wall my father would drag me to.

The hush puppies are good, good enough I’m asked to order extra when I take this food home. Service I’ve had here has generally been good, though with the staff turnover I’ve seen here, I can see why people have complained about the service in the past. To put a slightly different face on it, one of the best dining experiences I ever had came in my first visit here. The waitress was from New Orleans, gabby and excellent. Simply phenomenal. But, as I said, they have a high turnover and I can’t guarantee you’ll get a great waiter or waitress.

Blue Marlin Seafood on Urbanspoon

It’s on the corner of Oak Road and 124, next to the Pizza Hut Express. It’s easy to miss the Golden Krust bakery, and the name doesn’t give you much of a hint of what is inside. But once inside, you can smell the food and spices and it leaves me, at least, hungry.

There isn’t much space in this small restaurant and bakery and I’ve never really eaten on site. I wouldn’t recommend it; it gets too crowded, to be honest. This is a take out place. You can get chicken, jerked chicken and curried chicken, but the star of the menu really are their golden fried patties. The patty is a pastry shaped like an empanada, and filled with hot meat. They can be had for less than 2.00 each and depending on the size of your appetite, 1 or 2 is usually enough.

They also have some other exotic treats.  Golden Krusts’ peas and rice are a bit like the red beans and rice you find in Louisiana. Fried plantains are part of their menu, and that alone would have me going there. But my family has grown fond of the jerked chicken patties, so it’s usually a run to Golden Krust, pick up six patties and a fried plantain side, and then on with the rest of the day’s business.

Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery on Urbanspoon

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