Saturday, July 28, 2012

San Francisco Vacation Day 3

In-N-Out animal fries: The most over the top food
Of course we needed to start the day with a great cup of coffee. Z. and I each went with an americano from the Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building. While waiting for our coffee, we discovered the Acme Bread Company. And by "discover", I mean we had walked past Acme upteem times between this visit and our first San Francisco adventure and that morning finally decided to actually see how much the bread cost. What a find for cheap travelers! Their product is amazing and inexpensive (and not just be big city standards). Z. and I enjoyed two rolls each, spending less than 4 bucks total on breakfast. The bread was so delicious and cheap, we even made a point to pick up rolls to eat on the plane the next day. I'm not even going to attempt to describe the experience of eating this bread. I trust you to understand what I mean when I say that if you appreciate high-quality, crusty, artisanal  bread, you will love the bread from Acme.

Blue Bottle americano and rolls from Acme Bread

Cheap Travel Tip #387: Interested in visiting some museums but the admission price has you feeling down? Don't forget the National Park Service! Some National Park locations do not have fees, one such location being the S.F. Maritime National Historical Park. While there is an admission charge to the historic vessels, the visitor center at Jefferson and Hyde is free. Those of the Justin Bieber - demographic may find the lack of glitz and glamor boring but us old folks enjoyed wandering through the exhibits. I am from the dirt and sage encrusted hills of the mainland, so I appreciated the opportunity to see basic sea-faring items like rope and a propeller up close. They were enormous!

I can't imagine there were people who wore these!

We stayed down by the water for a little longer to enjoy one more lunch at the In-N-Out. Z. explored the secret menu further with a grilled cheese animal style with extra spread, while I had animal fries for the first time. Let me tell any of you uninitiated a little bit about In-N-Out's animal fries. First of all, this was THE MOST over the top food I have ever eaten. Why, yes, to answer your question, I am a very sheltered foodie. The animal fries start out innocently enough with an order of their fries, thin and golden. These are then topped with cheese, grilled onions, and spread. It's messy, salty, and requires a fork...

The highlight of our second day in the big city was seeing the San Francisco Opera's production of Nixon in China. Adams' music was amazing! I still cannot get over how well that orchestra can play or how impressive the singing was. One of my favorite parts of going to the S.F. opera is just being in the War Memorial Opera House. The building is grand and old-fashioned in a good way. Go to the bottom floor and you won't even have to close your eyes to imagine men in tales and women rustling in silk enjoying their dinner before the opera. Or, if you want to feel like a damsel in a castle, stop by a window in the stairwell.

I still have one more day of adventuring and great food to share with you. I am saving my tales of embarrassment for next time. Let's just say that putting my foot in my mouth led me to discovering how nice the folks were down in San Francisco.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

2012 Northwest Cooks Competition

I competed in my first cooking competition last Saturday! While I didn't win, I loved the experience and am hungry for more. I was so captivated by the competition that I came up with an idea for the next competition during the drive home and the pièce de résistance of the dish while I was supposed to be falling asleep that night.

Let me begin my tale from the beginning. Z. and I were picking up some half-and-half from the Market of Choice when we saw fliers advertising the Northwest Cooks competition. I was intrigued because two of my favorite food companies, Umqua Dairy and Market of Choice were partnering together on a venture. There were three categories: appetizer/side dish, entree/main dish, and desert. The recipe needed to utilize Umqua Dairy. 9 finalists would be invited to cook their dish July 7th in Eugene. The grand prize was a choice of 1 of 4 Oregon Weekend Getaway Destinations. I was most excited about the category winner prize: a $250 gift certificate to Market of Choice. I took a flier, not sure if I could come up with anything original to submit because I love dairy but rarely cook or prepare meals with it.

After some time ruminating, I remembered a recipe I had created just a few weeks earlier with the intention of sharing it here on Cheap Not Frugal Eats. I wasn't too excited about submitting it for the competition because the dish was complicated with multiple parts. The deadline for submissions arrived without a new recipe and I was not intending on entering. Z. was out of town, I was having a crummy week, and decided to bite the bullet and submit the recipe I had. What was the worse that could happen? ...Nothing too painful; I could only think of mild and innocuous rejection.

A few weeks later, while in San Francisco, with the recipe submission out of mind, I had a message letting me know that I was picked as a finalist for the Northwest Cooks competition and was invited to cook my recipe in Eugene. You should have seen how Z.'s face glowed with proudness. I thought he was going to burst!

The next few weeks were spent dutifully practicing my recipe and telling everyone I could that I was a finalist in a cooking competition (I was only slightly obnoxious). I made the complete recipe 3 or four times during this period. There would be leftover polenta cakes to practice browning perfectly or sauce to drizzle. I must say, even though I spent hours cleaning the kitchen, all the practice made a difference.

The first time I made the recipe post-finalist notification, I just made it as quickly as I could because I knew there was a two hour time limit in the competition. This is one part I was very nervous about. When I cook, I don't care how long my food takes. After the initial session, I would time myself. I was so anxious about getting everything done in time that I burnt myself multiple times, made giant messes while trying to stir something, or break the polenta cakes because I was in a hurry.

In the competition I would have to double my recipe so I made sure to also practice that. The first time I tried doubling the sauce, I made it wrong! I thought I had my recipe memorized exactly. I forget to double the flour and quadrupled the stock. I learned that you cannot add flour to an already boiling mixture and expect it to thicken. I had a big mess! The sauce was watery with flour chunks.

Turns out, I got my nerves out during my practice sessions. When the competition arrived, I was extremely nervous about everything except the cooking. That, I knew I could handle no problem. It was nice to see all the other finalists were just as nervous as I was!

A perk of being a finalist was that I was offered a free room at the Valley River Inn for Friday. Even though Corvallis is only 60 minutes away, I took advantage of the offer. Z. always takes me on vacation, now I had a chance to take him on a (mini) trip. We made an adventure out of the experience. We drove down to Eugene around lunch time on Friday to enjoy one of our favorite meals: the salad bar at Track Town Pizza. Then, we wandered to several more of our favorite Eugene locations before checking into the hotel.

Not only did my dish have multiple parts but the polenta portion needed to be made ahead and refrigerated. I had made arrangements with the event organizer to use a part of my cooking time to prepare my polenta. While the polenta was cooking, I used the time to chop the onion I would need. I spent 22 minutes preparing the polenta which also happens to have been the average in my practice sessions.

After the successful polenta cooking, I was looking forward to Saturday. Prior to this experience, I had never cooked in a restaurant kitchen and I did not know what to expect. I assumed I would be using a gas stove and that made me nervous as I have very little experience cooking on gas. I was most worried about scorching my polenta (both when making the creamy polenta, and especially when making the creamy polenta cakes).

After a restless night, I enjoyed my complimentary breakfast at the hotel restaurant (I had eggs Benedict, of course). Z. and I hung around until it was my time to check-in and begin cooking. When I checked-in I received a lovely swag basket with kitchen goodies. Thank goodness! I used several of the utensils while cooking. I had no idea a medium-sized mixing bowl with a handle and a spout would make such a great addition to my life. I wanted to strain my sauce and then put it in a squeeze bottle for drizzling. This bowl made that task easier and less messy.

What seemed like such a lonely and spacious kitchen the day before was now jam-packed and bustling. The desert finalists were plating, while the appetizer/side dish finalists were in the middle of cooking. Then the three of us main dish finalists made our entrance. During all of this, the kitchen staff was preparing samples for the event and completing their daily tasks. Every staff member was gracious and extremely helpful. The finalists I chatted with, including myself, were so worried that the real chefs would laugh at us. Each finalists' ingredients were gathered in a basket but there might be a missing ingredient or we might not see a particular dish or utensil, we would ask one of the chefs for assistance when we couldn't find an event person. It was no problem at all.

Space and work stations were at a premium. I snagged some work space that had enough room that I could spread out but it was downwind and around the corner from the range.  In my own kitchen and cooking the night before, my work space had always been right across from the range. I was very concerned about burning my food and the extra time I would spend going back and forth. Even when my food is bubbling a mere couple of feet away, I forget it's there. What was I going to do when my pans weren't even with smelling range?

I knew the best thing I could do was recenter myself and slow my brain down. I did this by spending a few minutes selecting all the pots and utensils I would need, carefully arranging my work space, and going through my ingredients.

I felt more clearheaded and finally began going through the motions of cooking my dish. The organizers had done the grocery shopping for us (unless we brought in any pre-approved ingredients) at the Market of Choice. All my ingredients were organic and the produce was beautiful. My recipe calls for turnip greens because that's what I used when I created my dish and loved the flavor the turnip greens added. There were no turnip greens to be had. Instead, I used a bunch of kale with amazing purple stems and dandelion greens. Dandelion greens were the best substitute! The dandelion greens were tender and flavorful, with a hint of pepperiness.

The most stressful time of cooking was getting the dishes ready for the judges. Food styling is not something I intuitively have an eye for (as you can see from the photos in my early posts). I tried doing some research before the competition but could find nothing useful. I had no idea what shape to cut the polenta cakes into. I went with a squarish shape because it would fit on my spatula. My inspiration was using polenta loaf to create a version of my Caramelized Onion, Spinach, and White Bean Pizza and when the chef I was chatting with after the competition heard this, he told me cutting it into a pizza shape would have been an option. So yes, my plate looked amateurish, especially with my sauce drizzled in zig zags across the top but I did the best I knew how.

The judges' table was on a raised platform. We wheeled a cart out that held our plates and served the judges. I get nervous when I have friends over to the apartment for the first time and I feed them. This was terribly nerve-wracking.

The judges tasted everyone's food, I cleaned up my area, and awaited the results. ...I didn't win. I was disappointed but not surprised. I didn't have a chance to taste the main dish winner's food but I have an idea of how tasty her dish might have been because we cooked next to each other at the stove. Her chicken smelled really good while it was cooking. I think one of the keys to her success was Mexican oregano. When she added it to the pan, the smell was fantastic. I am inspired to finally try Mexican oregano and start using it!

And to top everything off, we were having our portraits professionally taken with our food after presenting to the judges. I worried about this. I had been in a hot kitchen for two hours hovering over a gas range. I was also a mess. I had polenta all over my apron and my shirt. I was a big mess!

I came away from the competition with a few bits of wisdom:
  • I cook good food. I have a new level of confidence in my abilities and my tastes. My dish was the most different, the most complex, and one of the only meatless recipes (the only meatless main dish). The first question I got from multiple people was, "Are you vegetarian?" I stand more firm in my capabilities in making meals that show off how amazing vegetables and plant-based ingredients can be.
  • Looking back, I realize the ways that my recipe was not the best choice for a competition, especially a competition that was aimed at putting together a cook book for home cooks. The average home cook could not make my recipe; it would be overwhelming. Next time, I will take my audience into consideration better. Plus, I lost sight of how extraordinary simple food can be.
  • Don't have a recipe that requires you to make something ahead of time. That was a pain and stressful.
  • I thought about and memorized the exact order of each step I would take to make my dish. This included mundane tasks like thinking about when to turn the heat on under my pans or when I should add the oil to my pans.
  • Lastly, I was reminded again of how if you don't try, you can't be picked as a winner.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

San Francisco Vacation Days 1 and 2

Day 1

A few weeks ago Z. took me on an awesome vacation to San Francisco to see the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera! I wanted to share our adventures with you and perhaps a few cheap traveling tips.

Z. and I are lucky enough (or not because we have to drive out of town either way) to have two airports to choose from when flying: the Eugene Airport or Portland International Airport. When planning a trip we look at ticket prices, taking into consideration driving costs and parking. We love flying out of Eugene because it's a great airport and only 45 minutes away but this time, flying out of Portland was the way to go.

We were taking a morning flight, so we decided to make an adventure out of it and stay the night in a hotel near the airport, using hotel points, of course.

This was not the first day of vacation for Z; he had his car serviced and went to work for a couple of hours. Even though he had my fantastic company, I don't think he felt on vacation. By lunchtime we were on the highway and eventually we made our way to Ikea, a stop we reserve just for trips to keep the experience special. We weren't there to shop, we were there for lunch but I did make Z. wander around. Z. was sensible and enjoyed Ikea's veggie wrap. I, of course, went for their Swedish meatballs. I got the combo which was a plate of 15 meatballs and mashed potatoes with a salad and soda for $5.99. Not a bad deal. And tasty!

Those of you who have experienced a meal at Ikea will know exactly what I love. I was disturbed by the cafeteria format - get in line, grab a tray, pick out your cold food, have your meatballs and mashed potatoes served to your from some hotel pans - but now, I appreciate the experience. It's so different than anything else in my day-to day life.

We spent the afternoon window shopping. Z. was a trooper, going into two pet stores just so I could gawk at fish. I have a slight obsessination (obsession + fascination = obsessination) with tropical, freshwater fish. Then, we watched a movie we had checked out from the hotel and then hit the sack, gearing up for a very early wake-up. It was a delightful, low-key day spent with my sweetheart.

Day 2: The Big City

The Airport

Checking-in and going through security can be easy and painless...if you are prepared. Z. is a consummate traveler and this is his domain but I will share the things we do to help make a pleasant journey.
  • First, we check into our flight online as soon as we are able. 
  • For short trips like this vacation, we each bring a backpack, no checked luggage.
  • Z. has a particular spot he likes to park in once at the airport to make for the shortest bus rides going to and from the terminal.
  • Even though we were already checked-in, we like a paper copy of the boarding passes from the airline. We use the check-in kiosks. They really are straight-forward and easy to use. 
  • Since we didn't have checked luggage we headed straight to security. 
  • I have two pieces of advice for travelers that will make everyone's day more pleasant:
    2. Put wallets, keys, cell phones, everything, from your pocket into your backpack or purse then you do not have to worry about making the machine beep, this is especially important with the new scanners.
  • This means nothing is loose or in one of the airport containers and everything fits neatly in a bin or on the conveyor belt. Z. only brings a laptop if he's on a work trip or it is a particularly long trip so we are through pretty quickly. Putting my shoes back on is the step that takes the longest.
  • Don't get sucked into buying food at the airport; bring some snacks with you. The one exception I allow myself is a bagel from Starbucks. And, you can bring an empty water bottle through and either refill it at a drinking fountain or ask a barista to fill it up for you.
Well, our flight was delayed by a couple of hours. We went for short walks, watched planes, and read. Sometimes a delayed flight can have a silver lining. Z. got to finally see, in person, the Lufthansa Airbus A380 (aka the Whale Jet) upon our arrival to SFO. He's a big airplane fanatic and this was a highlight of the trip for him! If we had been on time we would have been in downtown San Francisco before the Whale Jet berthed at the International Terminal.

Once at SFO

Here's a tip that I thought everyone knew but multiple parties at SFO within my hearing did not:
  • Figure out how you will be leaving the airport before your trip.
  • And if you plan on using public transportation, figure out what kind of ticket you will need for your trip and locations you can purchase your tickets at.
There are so many little things you can do that do not cost any money but can significantly improve your trip.

We knew we wanted a transit pass. This is the second time we have gone with a 3-day transit pass for $21 and I think it is fantastic. The pass lets you ride the muni, streetcars, and cable cars as much as would like. One round-trip on the famous cable cars costs $12!  Here is a link to the transit website showing the passes, prices, and there is a link that shows locations of where you can purchase a pass. I am digressing; I will discuss the advantages of SF transportation for travelers in a later post.

We knew that (and on our previous trips did) you could buy a transit pass from the information desk in baggage claim at the airport. Turns out, we could now also pay using a card (before it was cash only) and get our Bart ticket. One stop shopping! The Bart is the train that will get you from the airport to the city. Do not be afraid of the Bart! It may be dingy and run-down looking but it gets you where you need to get.

Getting the Bart ticket at the information desk was a great idea. Even though we had to wait on the clueless people ahead of us, we did not have wait in line at a kiosk at the Bart station.

San Francisco

We had finally made it to the city! We knew exactly what we wanted to do: take the Bart to the Embarcadero and catch a streetcar to In-N-Out Burger. Before this trip, I had never tried In-N-Out Burger and was definitely looking forward to the chance. Z. had been raving about this place since his very first visit to an In-N-Out a few weeks earlier. He had done a little research and discovered their "secret" menu. The menu that is posted has Double-Double, cheeseburger, hamburger, french fries, shakes, and beverages on it. Very simple. The website lists a few different variations on the basic cheeseburger that you can enjoy but there are many more possibilities. This article provided plenty of entertainment and inspiration.

Z. knew exactly what he wanted: a grilled cheese animal-style, fries and a chocolate shake. Animal-style means your sandwich has pickle, extra spread, and chopped grilled onions added. It was my turn to decide. I wanted a cheeseburger animal-style, fries well-done, spread on the side, and a chocolate shake. I was nervous that I would mess up my order then the cashier would laugh at me for trying to be slick. I did just fine, ordering a hamburger instead of a cheeseburger. Not bad for my first time. The food was great! That was definitely one of the better burgers I have had. I couldn't complain about the price either. I spent a little over 6 bucks for a huge lunch. Just wait until you see what I had on my second visit to In-N-Out!

We had a little bit of time before we needed to check-in the hotel so we wandered down towards the water. San Francisco may be a bustling, major city but you can find moments of quiet and repose. I don't want to give away our secret little gem but do look in on historical sits or parks. They are generally free and you never know what you might discover.

After taking a break at the hotel with a steaming americano, we headed towards Davies Symphony Hall to listen to the San Francisco Symphony perform Bartok's "Blue Beard's Castle". Before I begin gushing about the amazing orchestra, let me take a step onto my soap box. Everyone, even if you don't like classical music, should see a major symphony orchestra live, at least once. The sounds coming through speakers may sound moving and beautiful but the sound a high-caliber orchestra can produce is not like anything you can imagine. Z. has described the experience to like, "The sound is bigger than themselves [the performers]". I find it inspiring to be sitting in front of a large group of people who are experts at what they do working together towards a common goal  in unity.

After that mind blowing experience, we trotted back - well, my short legs trotted while Z. walked briskly - to the hotel, found a vending machine with overpriced root beer and called it a night.

I have two more days of food and adventure to share with you!