Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Philly Cheesesteaks: one of my favorite foods

When I was in high school, I worked at restaurant in the Cottonwood Mall food court named the Philly Station —justly named after the 'style' of sandwiches that we sold there. We had it all, we had your steak and onion (minus the cheese), your cheesesteak supreme (cheese, onions, mushrooms and bellpeppers), your chicken Philly sandwiches (sub out the steak for chicken) and, for all you vegetariansout there, we had your veggie supreme (made with all the veggies and cheese). 

I worked there for about three years before I left for college and since then, I have always compared everyone that I consume to those that  I used to cook and sell at the mall. Honestly, we put up quite some competition when it came to other sandwiches. For one, we had three kinds of cheese to choose from: the subtle taste of provolone, the buttery flavor of the swiss cheese and the messy, but finger-licking good melted cheddar cheese. Secondly, we always made sure that our grill was clean, to ensure you were actually tasting the meat and not the charred leftovers from the sandwich ordered before yours. Lastly, our bread was the perfect accompaniment to our meat and cheese. It was always toasted when it was ordered and never left out. It was crispy enough on the outside to contrast the gooey cheese, but not crispy enough to rip your mouth apart when you ate it —perfect. 

Today in Edgartown, I had finally pulled myself out of bed early enough to make it to the Edgartown Deli— one of the few places on the island that offers meals within my budget. They are only open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and I haven't been able to make it out of the house before one (and when you consider the bus schedules, I have to wait until 1:38 to catch the route 6 bus, and I wont get into town until fifteen past the hour, then I feel guilty for coming in at like 2:30 just when they're getting ready to close up shop). The store is a quaint place that is laid out like many delis that I have been to. There are colorful signs and chalkboards that briefly describe the sandwich, its condiments and its clever names after whoever was the first to make it or whoever ordered it posted around the counter and a small selection of tables and chairs. Nothing fancy but just comfortable enough to chill out and read a book or a newspaper while you eat.
I was feeling a sandwich at the time so I was feeling good about the deli. Since I had a history with Philly cheesesteaks, I had to order one. I'm not a big fan of bell peppers and the menu made it nice and easy for me. They started with the rudimentary sub with steak and cheese and added a veggie with every step up. The steak and onion, steak and mushroom, steak and bell pepper and what they named the 'bomb', with all of the above. Price-wise, it was the best bang for the buck. The sandwiches were $8.50 individually and with all the fixings, it was just an extra $0.45 extra. Not bad for an extra serving of vegetables. Mom would be proud— if I ordered it. Like I said I don't like bell peppers so I opted for the steak and onion. 

I settled into a booth just before a group of eight entered the small deli and started discussing the menu. Good thing I had a book to keep me entertained while I waited for my Philly. I ordered it for here but it came out wrapped up to go. I couldn't help but feel like that was a message from the kitchen staff to amscray.  Too bad. Its not that I wanted to be a pain in the arse, but it was just after two and I would be done eating it in no time. Not to mention, after the party of eight ordered their meal, a party of four entered after them. I wasn't eating alone and they weren't going to kick out 13 paying customers. That's just bad business practice. 

Wrapped in a piece of thick wax paper, I could feel the heat coming from my sub. I opened it and peeled the wax paper away from the melted Swiss cheese. The onions were cooked too long and almost non-existent, in texture but still had flavor— it was good. I like onions when they still have a bite to them. They had gotten shredded up with the cooked steak and mixed in so that it was all one mass of melted cheese, steak and onions. I didn't need to put any mayo on it but I emptied a packet onto the wax paper for some dipping action if i was in the mood. It ended up that I was. The mayo was really runny though. I think that had I been sitting at an unleveled table, then the mayo would run right into my lap and onto my black pants. Good thing it was. 

Considering the three elements that I think make a good Philly cheesesteak— the cheese, cleanliness of the grill (subsequently the taste of the steak) and the bread— it was a pretty decent cheesesteak. I would definitely have to comeback for a chicken Philly next time (I had to alter my challenge and make it to where I could never eat the same thing twice anywhere). The bread was a little too soft for my liking but it was still slightly toasty. The meat was good, there were no ridiculously charred pieces of steak and you could tell it was a pretty clean grill— that and the time when I ordered it. They used Swiss which is always a good choice. 

If I could give them some pointers, I would tell them to wait until the meat is halfway done to add the onions to the grill so that they don't cook for too long and to toast their bread a little longer. It could be toastier. Don't get me wrong though, I ate the entire thing and I was thoroughly satisfied. I just like to think that I've cooked a good share of Philies in my high school days to know how to make a close to perfect one. 

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Simple Tuna Sandwich

Today was the sunniest day that I've seen since last Monday. All week has been nothing but overcast skies and light to heavy downpours. Today was in a way comparable to a typical day inLas Cruces , N.M. — sunny with no clouds in the sky. However, here on the vineyard, there is a breeze. Since there are no natural barriers to the wind on the island, the breeze comes in cool as the water surround it. It was the third day of sun that I've seen since my arrival.

In the pursuit of a job during my stay on Martha's Vineyard, I had taken a visit to Aquinnah (for pure enjoyment, not job searching) to Vineyard Haven (for a bus transfer) to Oak Bluffs (dropped off a few resumes) to Edgartown (for a bus transfer) and back home, stirring up quite a growl in my belly. Nevertheless I knew that I was on a tight schedule. My friend had invited me to watch the prequel (I think) to the Da Vinci Code with her at 7:30 p.m. so I had just under a half an hour to get a bite to eat.

rovided I had a limited selection in the pantry (see Dinner for Days post below), I have limited options. I didn't have time to cook up a piece of chicken anything fancy like that. I had to eat something fairly substantial otherwise my growling stomach was going to get me kicked out of the theater. 

Thinking quickly, I went over my list of available products and I thought a tuna sandwich would be good. I may have titled this blog A Simple Tuna Sandwich, however, I had no can opener. I had a bottle opener or at least a fancy church key for that matter. So I had to force open my can of tuna in spring water with a bottle opener. By the time that I was done with it, it had looked like something that would have come out of a Tim Burton movie about food items that have come to life. It was looked a can of tuna with the teeth of a shark. 

I had been using my landlord's mayo for my sandwiches, so I used that as a binding agent. I cut up some parsley and added salt and pepper. For contrast in texture, I toasted my bread and used the spinach and tomatoes from the fridge. I had to slice the little grape tomatoes into three or four pieces to fit them in my sandwich and just added a layer of spinach on top. 

By the end, the sandwich was looking pretty good. I cut some extra grape tomatoes as a 'side' to my sandwich and seasoned them with salt and pepper and sprinkled the last of the parsley that clung to the plastic chopping board. It turned out pretty well. The parsley provided a peppery background to the tuna and there was just enough mayonnaise to taste but not to overwhelm. The tomatoes sweetened the sandwich just enough to sooth the bite of the parsley and the slightly bitter taste of the spinach was a nice note.  

I ate my sandwich a glass of milk and was out the door by 6:30 p.m. — just in time to meet her outside. I think my milk is going bad, it put a weird taste in my mouth. I'm going to have to check that out. Or maybe the peppery parsley was not a good match with the creaminess of the milk. Nevertheless, it was a deliciously, satisfying, simple tuna sandwich.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I'll eat relish— but I will not eat pickles

Everyone has that one thing that they couldn't stand when they you're a child, but can't get enough of now. You know like the dreaded Brussels sprouts, or spinach— mainly anything that was green. The green thing that I couldn't stand when I was younger and however, still cannot stand, are pickles. I just can't handle the taste of the vinegar and the pickling spices. Oh, and the texture, it just makes me cringe. But here's the strange part —I enjoy relish. I also enjoy cucumbers sprinkled with salt and pepper and a healthy splash of white wine vinegar— isn't that essentially what a pickle is? Perhaps, but only after a few days or even weeks depending on the process.  

I just have these memories of eating hamburgers, fast-food hamburgers to be precise, and I would come across this slight crunch and then I would feel that wet, slippery pickle chip in my mouth. I could always feel it over the other common vegetables;  slices of tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and the rings of onion. I never enjoyed eating a hamburger with pickle chips in it. 

As many restaurants do, they serve pickle spears as an accompaniment to any sandwich or sometimes wrap or roll-up, depending on what they call it. Today at a small little cafe in Edgartown called Among the Flowers Cafe, justly named because of all the flowers planted along the cafes perimeter and the cute flowers that decorate each table inside and on the patio. It was cold outside and I was craving coffee. I woke up late today— and every day since I arrived —and skipped any sort of breakfast. Since I'm on a tight budget, I opted for a $6.95 BLT. Its hard to screw up a BLT and to my  delight, they don't usually have pickles nestled between the lettuce and the tomatoes. Granted, if that were the case it would be referred to as a BLPT, BPLT, BLTP or... the list could go on for two or three more lines of text— you get the idea. 

I poured myself a cup of half hazelnut and the rest French roast, seeing as how the air pot was nearing the end of its contents by spewing drops of coffee and air into my 'large' compostable paper cup, and took a seat by the window. My BLT was done in a few minutes after I had taken my seat and I was joined by a red plastic basket adorned with paper, a BLT, a generous helping of potato chips— and a pickle spear. 

While reading my book, The Omnivore's Dilema (perfect reading material for eating, yes?), I ate my sandwich in silence picking out little bits of the conversation taking place just a few feet away from me about the adventures at the Lampost, and what they refer to as 'VH' or 'OB'. How hip they are? I thought while I giggled to myself. 

Every so often I would come across a part of my sandwich that had been laying far too near to the pickle spear. I could taste it as the juices seeped quickly into my toasted bread whenever I would set my sandwich down into the basket between page-turning and chip-eating. I always thought that pickle spears were a bad partner for sandwich for that reason— aside from my dislike towards them —the juices are always absorbed by the sponge bread used to make the sandwich or hamburger.  

After one more bite that tasted of pickle, I decided I would just take a bite out of the spear. I don't know what I was trying to prove, or even who I was trying to prove it to, but it seemed like the opportune time to do it. So I did. I took a bite about the size a a nickel. Suffice to say I confirmed my feelings about pickles— I just don't like them. Proudly, however, I chewed it up and swallowed it. There was no polite removal of the pickle chunk into a napkin or even worse the spitting out of the pickle chunk into my basket of chips and the remaining half of my BLT. 

Perhaps I'll try again when I feel like it. I'll eat relish in my tuna salad or on a Hebrew National All Beef Hot Dog — but I will not eat pickle spears, pickle chips or even consider drinking the pickle juice (Joey, if you ever read this, pickle juice snow cones were the worst idea ever). 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Taste of Thai on the Vineyard: Bangkok Cuisine

For many fans of Thai food, the two words bring about a world of flavors that are so often associated with ingredients like peanuts, cilantro, lime and fish sauce. Familiar dishes that have made their way onto menus throughout the world of cuisine are Crab Rangoon, Pad Thai and Tom Yum soup. 
Thailand and the surrounding countries, for example Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia, have perfected the art of combining the four basic tastes of cuisine— sweetness, sourness, bitterness saltiness— into one delectable dish that is bound to make an impression to bring about yearnings for more dishes to imitate it. Take part in eating any meal from any of these or other eastern cuisine and prepare to indulge in a harmonious integration of these four flavors. 
Lately, I find my days have been filled with walks up and down the streets any of the three main towns here in Martha's Vineyard —Edgartown, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs— making mental notes of where to treat my taste buds once I have a fairly steady income to cover dining expenses. Meals on the island have been averaging about $10 to $15 a plate which can quickly add up once you consider a beverage, $2 to $3, and a tip, variable upon the sort of establishment. It also doesn't help that I believe in good karma and that good service deserves a good tip. 
Almost every establishment has a menu posted either in the window near the entrance or in a display case to entice window shoppers and hungry pedestrians to stop in for a bite to ease their hunger pains. I have read about goat curry, sauteed sweetbreads and of course claims of the best lobster rolls on the island. Im challenging myself (and anyone else who will be on the island) to try and eat at each restaurant— that I can afford mind you —at least once. My stomach and I are up to the challenge and have five places tackled and have just a hundred or so ahead of me. I'll be on the island long after the summer visitors have packed their bags and turn their keys in the doors of whatever place they call 'home'. I have time on my hands and hopefully a bottomless stomach to fill. 
Today I visited Oak Bluffs and invited a new friend of mine to join me. He accepted my offer and we rendezvoused outside the restaurant about four o'clock at Bangkok Cuisine, since they closed from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. between lunch and dinner menus. I had previously passed by and read the menu, conveniently placed in the window to entice me as I window shopped for souvenirs to buy everyone on my long list before my departure from the island in October, and a soft-shell crab salad lured me in. 
When I returned to meet my friend, he kindly opened the door for my and we were both welcomed by the aroma of savory and salty concoctions wafting from the kitchen. You could almost see into the kitchen as you walk in— an ingenious move on the owners part to attract customers to their restaurant. Our server sat us near the front windows— another ingenious move to attract customers to their restaurant. 
I hadn't been to a Thai restaurant since the Organ Cafe was bought and re-opened as Thai Delight last year. The Organ Cafe used to be Organ's only landmark putting it on the map between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, N.M. It was sold and re-opened by a sweet, old, thai gentleman that I found to be quiet, reserved and camera-shy when I reviewed his restaurant for the local e
ntertainment guide, Pulse. I ordered a plate of noodles and a Thai chai tea that afternoon and remember enjoying every bite and every sip that was set in front of me. 
Today I ordered the soft-shell crab hot and spicy salad and a Thai iced coffee. The iced coffee came out in a tall flute and resembled a world-recognized glass of Guinness Stout poured with the perfect amount of thick,frothy,coffee-with-crea-colored head. If my mom would have been there sitting across from me instead of my friend, she would have described it as 'sexy'. And it was sexy. 
The coffee was sweetened just right, not to much cream and still strong enough to ward off any bit of fatigue that I generated from my walk around the petite hills of Oak Bluffs. I have never been disappointed by a Thai or a Vietnamese iced coffee— or even iced tea for that matter. I highly recommend them. 
Our plates came out and we were both equally impressed by the salad, that we both proceeded to take photos of it. The presentation was beautiful. The salad was served in a single leaf of iceberg lettuce that had been delicately removed from the head so as not to tear any holes in its thin membrane. There were two soft-shell crabs divided and deep-fried in a light batter. the salad was a fresh medley of green beans, cabbage, carrots and fried peanuts. Also on the plate were perfectly carved flowers cut from carrots. 

The salad was tossed in a simple dressing of what I could only imagine was a combination of rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, sweet chili sauce and a few other components I couldn't identify— but there was no oil. It was everything I had imagined it to be; it was reminiscent of Thai meals that I've had in the past. I could taste the four basic flavors; the sour tinge from the vinegar and the saltiness from the fish sauce both equally matched by its partner, the bitterness and the sweetness. 

Eastern culinary artists, young and ancient, are also very conscious in the textures that they provide us while we eat. For instance, when you are eating a bowl of steaming, brothy Pho, you have the soft noodles and crunch of the bean sprouts and other vegetables. They were consistent in ensuring that you had complimenting balances between the different tastes and textures of each meal. The soft-shell crab was a perfect example of such. The batter was crispy and the inside soft and easy to chew, the carrots were marinated in the dressing and the cabbage and green beans were still crisp to the bite.

The meal was thoroughly enjoyable. I drank every drop of the iced coffee and ate every piece of crab, unfortunately saving no room for all the salad. I must admit it was delicious, but I will only return for the Thai iced coffee since, it was my number five on lists of places I've dined at on the Vineyard. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Dinner for Days

My name is Jessica Rodrigo and I like to think of myself as a foodie. I enjoy cooking food, eating food, looking at food and learning about the many different realms of food: desserts, entrees, properties of food, appetizers, salads, raw foods, unsuccessful foods – you name it, I'm interested. I grew up watching the Food Network Channel with my parents for our 'quality time' together. My siblings and I used to help out in the kitchen when we were young; starting with the dishes, then moving our way up the ladder to washing the rice for the rice cooker and onto separating the spring roll wrappers so that my mom could make lumpia. Eventually we got more capable of handling the kitchen chores and started cooking the meals.

I have lived on my own for just about five years now and have taught myself the basics of cooking and taken a few classes in some advanced techniques like cake decorating and chocolate work. Having grown up in New Mexico where burritos and enchiladas are the kings and queens of the restaurant menus, I naturally had a curiosity to explore gastronomy on a personal level. I tried new recipes, cooked things I've heard of but never tasted such as mole (mō-lē) or Cornish game hens.

Recently I moved to Martha's Vineyard for an internship at a local weekly and money will definitely will be on things-to-monitor list along with my dirty laundry and the rising tide when I'm at the beach – swimming is not on of my stronger traits.

After a long afternoon walking around what is referred to as "Up Island", I returned to West Tisbury where I am currently staying with a baker and also, local business owner. It just so worked out that he works in a kitchen for a living and I love the kitchen – its my favorite part of any house. Being that the owner of the house owns a local deli, his kitchen is equipped with a gas range (a dream come true), a super-sharp set of kitchen knives and a great set of cookware. It has been wonderful to cook things in his kitchen.

Knowing that I have a limited budget I could only spend money on things I know I will eat. This is what I bought:
• a bundle of parsley
• a pint of grape tomatoes
• a head of garlic
• a pound of pasta
• a pound basmati rice
• a can of diced tomatoes
• two cans of tuna
• a pack of butter
• half a gallon of milk
• half a gallon of orange juice
• a bag of spinach
• raspberry and walnut vinaigrette
• three chicken breast halves

• a box of wheat thins
• a loaf of bread
• a package of sandwich meat (turkey)

All that was roughly $50 – breaking it down to $3.14 an item. It hurt just a little, considering I went from the Las Cruces, New Mexico cost of living to the Martha's Vineyard-summer-getaway-hot-spot, Massachusetts cost of living. I had to plan it where everything I bought, could be used in combination with each other.

I could use the pasta, bread and rice as my bases; the tuna, sandwich meat and chicken were my proteins; and the vegetables could be used interchangeably. I was set for days – a week or so at most.

My first meal, prepared a few days ago, was a very simple pasta with sauteed garlic, grape tomatoes and parsley. I cooked a large serving of spaghetti (saving some in a bag for later in the week), strained it in a colander and melted some butter and olive oil in the same pot. Then I put in the garlic and the grape tomatoes, which I cut into halves. After the garlic became aromatic, I threw a portion of the noodles back in and tossed in the chopped parsley. Seasoned with salt and pepper to taste – it was done.

Today I made a similar pasta dish with chicken. I prepared
my chicken breasts before freezing them so that I had each portion cut and prepared for cooking. I had two quarters in the refrigerator ready to go, so I used one. I seasoned with salt and pepper and prepared a small, pint-sized All-Clad pot on the stove. On low heat, I measured about a tablespoon of olive oil and coating the bottom evenly. I cooked the chicken for a few minutes on each side and removed it from the pot. I replaced a little bit of olive oil in the pan and put in chopped garlic and half of the can of diced tomatoes. Once the tomatoes could cook down a little, I sliced the chicken into chunks and placed it back into the pot to finish cooking. In went the parsley, just before the noodles from a few days ago and ta da – there was dinner. It was simple and delicious.

And this is how most of the dishes I prepare this week will look; just exchange pasta for rice, chicken for tuna and parsley for spinach. It is all in what you can do with what you have. Bon appétit.