October 16, 2007

Cheap/Tasty: Penne Alla Awesome

"Oh. Heavy cream? Skip, is there anything I can substitute?"

"No. Absolutely not. Please Robin, don't substitute anything for the heavy cream. We're talking 1 tablespoon (per serving). Please. Just have a little less and eat a salad."

This story started last week when I didn't feel like making dinner. I'm still settling into Birmingham, and cooking sometimes feels a bit overwhelming. It's getting better, though. Anyway, I decided to walk over to Chez Lulu for something light.

I ended up ordering penne alla vodka. It rocked. I was very pleased. Good sauce. Pleasantly spicy. It was everything I'd hoped for and the dish helped me figure out how I gage restaurants: if I can make it better than the restaurant, it wasn't worth it. When I finished my pasta, I decided that it was at least as good as something I could have put together.

And then I got the bill. Sixteen dollars for a smallish plate of pasta without any meat. I was not happy. Right, and they don't take American Express. Ugh.

On the walk home, I decided to make the pasta for myself. The next day I found Lidia Bastianich's recipe, gathered the ingredients, and rocked it out. I cannot remember a dish I've prepared that tasted so good, came together so quickly with so few ingredients. I ended up using a can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes (instead of whole) and didn't puree them (because I still don't have a food processor larger than 1/2 cup). And since Lidia didn't give any kind of direction with the red pepper flakes, I used three large pinches (which I estimate at around 1 1/2 tablespoons). The result was at least as good as Chez Lulu's, a pleasant spice level (though next time I may put a little more), and, as you'll see in a moment, incredibly cheap.

It wasn't much more than 35 mintues from boiling the water to sitting down at the table. So worth it.

Final cost per portion - $2.05 per serving.

October 11, 2007

Service Extraordinaire: Are you Being Gouged?

I love Google mashup maps. This morning I found some that compare the cost of a head of lettuce, a quart of milk, and six-pack of beer around the five boroughs of Manhattan (and some neighboring locales). The purple lettuces in the picture above indicate heads of iceburg lettuce with a cost greater than $1.75, and the green ones indicate a price of $1.25 or less. The beer map is a bit more shocking.

It's something everybody knows about (the $2.80 box of Kashi at Trader Joes and the ludicrous $6 package of the same Kashi on Central Park South) but it's always interesting (and useful) to have all of that information in one place.

The Crowdsourcing project from which this map (and the others) came asked Brian Lehrer show watchers to find the local prices and upload them to the WNYC website. That's pretty awesome.

October 1, 2007

First Bite: Urth Caffe (Melrose, LA)

After an entertaining and delightful dinner at Sushi Sushi on North Beverly, Jenn and I went out for brunch at the Urth Caffe. I had been hoping to check out some of Suzanne Goin's cooking at the Hungry Cat, but it just wasn't meant to be (which is too bad, considering everything I'd read; I had planned to stop at the Santa Barbara location for lunch, but they don't serve it, and then on Saturday morning, the LA branch wasn't serving brunch. Next time).

Back to the Urth. Since Jenn lives in walking distance of the Avalon Hotel (pictures) where I was staying (mostly overrated if you ask me, though you haven't), she gave me the choice of going to the close Urth Caffe or the cute one. I looked back, quizzically, and asked if one had better food, and if they both had outdoor seating. She said they were both identical, so I went for the cute one (Melrose). Why not?

I was hungry, but had no idea what I was getting myself into. When I got to the front of the line, about 10 minutes' wait, I ordered the assorted bread basket with Brie, a small dolce cappuccino, a side of eggs, and a side of potatoes (and a brownie. I hadn't had my morning chocolate fix). I'm not sure what I was thinking, since the bread basket came with five breads, but when the waiter came my plates filled the table. Filled it.

The cappuccino was good (not as good as Intelligentsia) but the bread basket was not terribly exciting. The demi-baguette shaped loaf was the best, followed by the bagel. The rest were unexciting. Bland. Crumby (which is to say unsuitable for the Brie).

Jenn's caramelized banana bread pudding was the star of the day. The subtle sweetness, beautiful bananas, and the little pot of sweetened cream made this a near perfect breakfast in my eyes. And it made me long for Birmingham a bit. It's true.

Urth was fine, just don't order the bread basket, eggs, and potatoes unless you want to share it with at least one other person. The caramelized banana bread pudding was to die for.

"I feel like I'm going to die every day" basically sums up my motoring experience in L.A. Jenn said it, but I definitely felt it. More than a bit scary for driving.

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