Monday, May 09, 2016

First Visit: JJ's Red Hots

This review might surprise you for two reasons. Actually, maybe three:
1. What am I doing at a hot dog joint?
2. Why would I say "meh" about a place that is a Charlotte favorite?
3. Why am I saying I'll try it again?


Ok. I went to the hot dog joint because I live with two people who will eat meat, no matter where it came from. Do they discriminate between "humanely-raised" meat and other? No. Do they love ground meat with seasonings and anything else that might get swept up from the floor? Yes. But also, I'd heard so much about JJ's and how great it is, and that they have a veggie dog that even non-vegetarians would eat. So why not?

On to the "meh" part:

First of all, I pretty much think the joint is inappropriately named. I really should be "JJ's Hot Dog Fixin' Joint." Because, based upon my veggie dog and the guys' meat dogs, I'd have to say the hot dog is really just a filler. They have several choices on their menu for how you want your dog decorated, and it's clear that it's pretty much all about that. In the case of our dogs, it's all about mustard. Ballpark mustard, actually. We all ordered the first item on the menu, the JJ's "No. 1 Red Hot." To me, it makes sense to order that item because it seems that's where this whole venture of theirs probably started. They use Sahlen's Hot Dogs, which I've never heard of before. 

When I visited the Sahlen's website, I found that this company has been around since 1869, and they boast about their "signature smokehouse flavor."  What we got was mustard. Mustard and mustard and mustard. The guys were not impressed with the smoky flavor of their hot dogs (they didn't detect any), and I'm still not sure what the veggie dog actually tasted like. 

Now, I am a lover a mustard. Don't get me wrong. In fact, I've been known to snarf down 2 or 3 Hormel Wrangler or Nathan's hot dogs with nothing but ballpark mustard on them. But those dogs are fatty and have a robust flavor and texture and snappy skin that can hold up to a nice, thick line of mustard. These dogs couldn't cut it. They are meant for a finer hand, I think. 

I'll try it again. I'm not sure when and I'm not sure what I'll have. I don't know if I'll throw out my questions about the sources of the meat and just eat a meat dog or sausage, or if I'll try the veggie dog again but with different fixin's. I will try it again because hundreds (maybe thousands) of people can't be wrong. I'm willing to guess that we just chose the wrong dogs. 

Oh. And we like the hot dog with the roasting fork. Cute.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Book Review: Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking

 Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen

Before picking up this book, my knowledge of Stephen Hawking could fit into maybe two sentences: He has something like ALS. He's a super-genius science guy who talks about black holes. 

Both of those are true, but of course there is so much more. This book, written by Jane Hawking, is a fascinating story about Stephen Hawking's meteoric rise to scientific fame, as well as his descent into physical immobility. 

Ms. Hawking details how they met in their later teen years (through Stephen's sister) and their decision to marry, despite his diagnosis of motor neurone disease, with it's bleak prognosis. Through years of struggling to obtain disability assistance from Britain's National Health Service, and navigating the globe without the handicap accessibility we take for granted these days, Stephen thrived in academia and the Hawking children grew under Ms. Hawking's steady and constant care. 

Hawking's struggles are detailed and persistent in this book. She pulls no punches, calling out people and institutions who failed to offer support. But she also heralds the many people and institutions who provide unflagging encouragement and assistance. The book is not bitter, but one can not fail to wonder how she managed to escape developing an entirely bitter outlook on life. 

The edition I read had two postscripts, written as the book was re-published after it's original 2007 release. The story has also been made into a movie, "The Theory of Everything," which came out in 2015.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Book Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


This is the story of  Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who emigrate from Nigeria to two different countries and then come home again. I'm not sure how this book came to me, but I sure didn't want to let it go back to the library. I am quite certain, however, that I decided to read this book solely based on my experience another Adichie book, "Purple Hibiscus." Her absorbing storytelling, done with some of the best prose I can remember ever reading, is both entertaining and educational. 

Adichie's observations about human behavior touch home. As you read her books, you often find yourself realizing, "Of course! I've seen people do and say those things and now I get a glimpse of understanding the thought process behind it!" 

Ifemelu came to the U.S. as a student on an education visa. Her education in Nigeria was frustrating as she tried to find continuity in a time of turmoil that caused work stoppages, power outages, and government upheaval. In the U.S, she moved in with her aunt who had emigrated here with her young son. Ifemelu's struggles to find work and become self-sufficient were tough, but she survived the hardship to become a blogger and speaker with a focus on race issues. Her assessment of racism in America, and her observations of the heirarchy of non-white people is compelling and familiar. 

Ifemelu's childhood friend and teenage lover, Obinze, emigrated illegally to the U.K. His plan was also to pursue education, but he did not have the benefit of family or government assistance. His part of the story is short but sometimes brutal, as he tried to work under a borrowed National Health card.

Both Ifemelu and Obinze end up back in Nigeria. I won't tell you how that happened for each of them, so as to not spoil the story.  They find their way to each back in Nigeria, which is the third component to the story. 

One of the most compelling passages of the book, to me, is when Adichie has a character that contrast racial attitudes in the U.S. with those in the U.K. 

There are time, particularly when Adichie inserts some of Ifemelu's blog entries, where the book drags for a few pages. But there are reasons for those entries, and they don't detract from the story.

Get this book. Then read "Purple Hibiscus" too.

Friday, April 08, 2016

First Visit: Bang Bang Burgers

This, my friends, is how you do a black bean burger:

This is a quinoa black bean burger, from Bang Bang Burger. This sandwich respects the black bean burger and those who choose to eat them. This creation has a crisp crust, flavorful mixture, and is topped with delicious condiments. There were crunchy pickles, a chipotle ranch dressing, and some mo' jack cheese on a wonderfully toasted bun. The accompanying fries were crisp and generous. 
Mensa Boy had a Bang Bang Burger, which was a standard burger with lettuce, tomatoes and onion and their special Bangburger sauce. Burgers come in single patty or double patty sizes. He had the single and felt it was plenty. I've seen a couple people comment online that it's expensive, but I don't think so. For $10 you get a meal that is high quality. thoughtful, and filling.

I don't know what is in their Bangburger sauce. Their website doesn't go into that. We thought it tasted a bit like a zipped-up Thousand Island sauce. I dipped my fries into Bob's. The restaurant is a counter-ordering place, but they bring your food to the table. The offer a nice selection of craft beers, many of them local. We were there on a Saturday night around 7 and it was steady busy but not crowded. It's located in the cool Elizabeth neighborhood. I could see it being a neighborhood place. There were no TVs up playing sports, I think. I don't remember, so that tells you it's not an obvious attraction if there are any. 

The restaurant is about 5 minutes from the Grady Cole Center. With the close proximity to the Charlotte Roller Girls, and the wonderful food, I'm sure we'll be back. 

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

First Taste: Anew Riesling

I picked up the Anew Riesling almost without thought the other day. They had this and the Rose on an endcap at Harris Teeter. I'm sorry to say I don't remember the price, but I'm cheap, so I'm pretty sure it would have been less than $12. 

The only thing I looked for was its appellation. It's from the Columbia Valley, Washington, so that's all I needed to know. I'll drink domestic Rieslings from there or Oregon. Otherwise, I'll go with European, Australian or Chilean ones. California Rieslings are awful. 

The main thing about Columbia Valley Rieslings is that they all pretty much taste the same. They all seem to be moderately sweet, with notes of peach. They are good well-chilled, alone or with white meats, seafood or vegetarian dishes. I don't suggest them with cheese. They will work with meat, but really it's a lighter wine for a lighter meal.

I have to say I'm a little disappointed in the vintner for not being entirely truthful in their labeling. This is not actually all Riesling. It's a blend. Riesling is the grape in majority, but there is some Gewurztraminer and Muscat in there, as well. I found this out when I sussed out the website to give you the link. I can definitely see adding the Gewurztraminer for some acid and spiciness, but the Reisling grapes don't need the added sweetness offered by Muscat. 

Oh and also...there is plenty of room to mock the vintner's campaign. They say their wines are "perfect for those seeking balance in their life." 

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Internet Recipe Test: Wonton Soup

You know how, a lot of times you see a photo of some food on the internet and it's just gorgeous? You think it looks so wonderful and appetizing that you just want to make it. So you read the recipe and feel it's fairly straightforward and you are pretty sure your family members will like it. 

But sometimes...actually often...your finished product doesn't look at all like the one on the website. And sometimes you find you really don't like the flavor, either. You'll never make that recipe again.

That happens with cookbooks and magazines, too. But on the internet, any dummy can put up a shot of some food and publish a recipe. There's no cost to them. There's no editor stopping their product from getting out into the world. So there are a lot of recipes out that that have no business being published in any way, shape or form. And there are a lot of good food ideas out there, but the recipe has flaws. 

I use a lot of recipes off the 'net. Some I return to again and again and others I'll never make again. And there are some that, I suspect, are not what they appear. I think there are lots of photos attached to recipes that aren't a true representation of what the final product is. 

So from time to time, I'm going to show the results of my internet recipe experiments. Some of them will be recipes I think seem true to the photo and advertising and are well-written, and some will be epic fails that I think should be taken off the www. 

So today I bring you Wonton Soup. And this one is a fantastic success!  I don't remember where I first saw this recipe. It could have popped up on Pinterest. I am a fan of Asian soups, particularly Wonton and Hot & Sour. This recipe looked like a good weeknight meal with minimal fuss. There are not too many ingredients, and it's a good candidate for a chilly night.

So here is Wonton Soup from a website called The author is Bee Yinn Low. The website has been around since 2006, and this recipe was published in September, 2014. The author says she's a cookbook author and recipe developer. I didn't know that when I made this soup tonight.

I don't plan to post the entire recipe here. I think you should visit the website, look around, and make it from there. But here are my notes on the recipe:

First, my issues with the recipe:

1. I'm not a fan of bouillon, but I can understand why she uses it in the recipe. She doesn't mention where the chicken stock is going to come from, but the average home cook is probably going to buy it at the grocery, and the bouillon will plump up the chicken flavor. I make my own stock and freeze it, so I doubted I needed to add that. I didn't and I'm glad.
2. Salt. She has you put in bouillon and salt to the marinade seasonings. Don't do that. Leave the salt out of the marinade. You can adjust later in the soup and the marinade has a very nice flavor already from the fish sauce and sesame oil (and bouillon).
3. Cutting the shrimp. She tells you to use "big shrimp," and then to cut them into 3-4 pieces. I did that and it worked ok. But really they should be cut smaller so that you are able to more easily fold your wontons. With the larger pieces, my filling was much too lumpy and the wonton skins didn't want to fold around it well, and some broke open. Mind you, I was careful not to use too much filling, but it still was a bit difficult. After the first 4, I didn't curl them up into traditional wontons. I left them as triangles and that worked fine. 

My tweaks:

1. I added miso to the marinade. It added a nice depth of flavor to the shrimp. I used Awase miso, which is a blend of red and white miso. I found it on the shelf at Harris Teeter. I added maybe 1/4 teaspoon to the marinade and then 1 tablespoon to the chicken stock. It really made the soup pop with flavor. 
2. Next time I will finely chop, or even mince the shrimp. When you look closely at the photo of the original recipe, you can see a fairly uniform texture under the surface of the wonton wrapper. No bumps and edges like I had from the varying sizes of the pieces of shrimp. You've got to remember that wonton noodles are dumplings, and most often the stuffing is ground pork. GROUND pork. So next time I make this soup (and there will be MANY, many next times), I will just about mince the shrimp.

The final thing I will say about this recipe is...she has you finely chop yellow chives or scallions (Use scallions. You're not going to find yellow chives in a regular grocery), use half in the marinade, and then never tells you what to use the other half for. I lost my concentration for a split second and dropped the full amount into the marinade and then saw what I had done. I knew it would be too onion-y that way, so I scooped out half the scallions. drizzled in a little fish sauce and sesame oil, and called it a day. It came out fine. I read some of the comments and did find one where someone asked what they were supposed to do with the rest of the scallions...use as garnish? The author said "yes." So why didn't she go back into the recipe and add that line?

Oh. And a final, final thing. The author was absolutely correct in the time estimate she put on the recipe. It took about 15 minutes prep time. But that was active prep. There is an hour of waiting around for the shrimp to marinade. Alton Brown has taken to including those inactive times to his recipe time estimates and it's really helpful.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

First Visit: Hobo's

 Hobo's is a tavern in downtown Fort Mill. It's been open for a while now, but I kept getting information from friends about slow service and uneven food quality. I hadn't heard anything for a while now, so when a group of friends from school wanted to go out after work, I was ready.

I'm always looking for a good bean burger, and they have a house made one on their menu. It's an impressive-looking sandwich on great bread. There is a slice of avocado and tomato on top, as well as some bean sprouts. To be honest, I'm not sure why people feel they must put avocado on a black bean burger. It really doesn't add anything most of the time. If you have a great-tasting patty, it's going to pop with flavor and really nothing you put on top is going to be necessary, unless you add some crisp lettuce for crunch. 

That said, this was not a great-tasting patty. Actually, this patty didn't have much flavor at all. It wasn't terrible, but it really had so much potential for being great. It just was kind of..."there." And it was huge. It seemed almost as if they had some black beans and glued them together with more smashed beans and then shaped a huge patty with the mixture. I'd estimate that the patty was over 1.5 cups in size. I brought half of it home. If they had put a little thought into the patty, such as maybe some garlic, some cilantro...really any kind of aromatic...and then cut the size down by at least a third, maybe a half...they could have had something really good there. Also, a good black bean patty should have a little crispness to it. This did not. Will I have it again? No. But it won't kill anyone. 

The fries were another thing, too. I didn't capture many of them in this shot, but the few that you can see tell the story. They were a bit greasy, not terribly hot, and I think I had the bottom of the batch. I had a lot of little ends and shards in mine. One of the other people at my table had house-made chips and they looked fantastic. I'd definitely go for that next time. I might also try their grown-up grilled cheese next time. The only other vegetarian sandwich option is a portabello mushroom burger. Those have been done to death in the vegetarian world, and most of the time not done well. I have little reason to believe Hobo's would do them any better. I often eat fish when I go to taverns, and a friend of mine says their grouper bites are good, so I might try that or their fish sandwich. 

So yes, I'll probably go back. But it will be because our group would like to go out again and it's a convenient location. I doubt I'd take my guys there or invite friends to go.