Monthly Archives: May 2012

Alternatives to Panera Bread (Which I Still Hate)

Locro de papas, de mi casa

Since I posted about how much I despise Panera Bread, I’ve gamely attempted to try their food again. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. Every time I go in there, resolute in my decision to finally slurp up a bowl of soup, the indignity of it all just overwhelms me. I cannot pay almost five dollars for a ladleful of mediocre soup. For five dollars, I can make my own damn soup – five times as much as Panera’s serving offers – and it will taste infinitely better. So I leave, empty belly intact.

Last night, Xavier and I went to Hartsfield International Airport to hang out for a while. Not because we’re terrorists getting the lay of the land, or because we particularly enjoy riding Marta. It was because our friends were in town. Catae and Andre had a layover en route to their fabulous vacation, and we were very excited to see them for the first time since the summer.

It was a little bit like that movie “The Terminal,” I’d imagine, although I’ve never seen the movie. Xavier and I couldn’t go past security without boarding passes, so our friends had to come out to the atrium. After a while of chatting out there, we were somewhat hungry. There has been a lot of noise lately about airport food increasing in quality. Atlanta is apparently adding fine-dining restaurants for classy travelers. When you’re stuck in the atrium, though, these places are not options. After surveying the fast-food options, it became clear that the only reasonable place for us to dine was the Atlanta Bread Company.

The Atlanta Bread Company is a local rip-off of Panera Bread. It’s nearly identical from the business model (order at counter while being deluged with display of shiny pastries) to menu (you-pick-two served with a chunk of baguette ring a bell?). I was hungry and the only other option was Panda Express, so I decided to swallow my pride, hoist my sense of wonder, and check it out.

I settled on the you-pick-two, and the only obvious choices were French onion soup and a California avocado sandwich. The cashier seemed a little confused throughout the ordering process, so it was hardly surprising when my sandwich came out on the bread that Xavier wanted, and Xavier’s bread was completely wrong. Regardless, I opened my mouth and tried to judge the food on its own merit.

The baguette served with the meal was flavorless and cottony. There was no textural contrast between crust and crumb. Winner? Panera.

French onion soup? Passable. A little too salty, a little light on onion. It had body, but not too much. The Asiago cheese garnish, like that at any fast-food cafe, melted into the broth and stuck to the bottom of the bowl. Winner? There is none. Panera Bread and Atlanta Bread Company have tied.

My favorite part of the meal was the California avocado sandwich, a vegetarian option. It did not arrive in the condition it had been promised to me. Onion-tomato foccacia had been replaced with Asiago cheese bread, and although I’d requested no onions, a few limp rings lingered between the tomato and provolone slices. But the avocado  was plentiful and perfectly ripe, and its flavor cut perfectly with dill mayonnaise. This bread, unlike the baguette, was perfect. Winner? Atlanta Bread Company. By a long shot.

So in the bracket battle of chain cafe/bakeries, Atlanta Bread Company, because in what could have been a tie, ABC came out on top by feeding me an entire avocado smashed between two delicious slices of bread. A perfectly ripe avocado can beat pretty much anything edible, except perhaps bacon.\

I’m willing to review other establishments that are like Panera or Atlanta Bread Company. Anyone have ideas?

On Learning How to Drive a Five-Speed

My first car… the Toyota on the street, that is.

I’m so jealous of anyone who can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. If you are one of the lucky few, congratulations: you deserve a high-five and a cookie. For the last few months, I’ve been making my best attempts to join the exclusive club of stick-shifters. The learning experience has been traumatic all the way through.

We started in an empty church parking lot on the west side of Atlanta, conveniently situated on an hill. Since it was Saturday, the lot was empty save for stragglers collecting stray cans from the ground. I knew the basics: start in first, don’t ride the clutch, skillfully maneuver your feet. I also knew the approximate locations of the gears in relation to the shifter, thanks to a high school boyfriend who sometimes let me shift while he worked the clutch. I say ‘sometimes’ because those fun times ended when I accidentally put the car into reverse instead of fifth on the highway. Despite the utter lack of success, from my past experience, I thought learning would be a piece of cake.

The lesson began: turn on the car and get it to move.

“What do you mean I have to remove the clutch slowly?” I screamed by the fifth time the tires screeched, the car rocked, and the engine went dead. “I thought you took your foot off the clutch when you hit the gas!”

Eventually, after stalling almost a dozen times, I got the hang of the footwork. We sputtered and shook as the car shivered into first gear, but it happened. We headed straight across the asphalt. There was just enough time to hit second gear before we reached the edge of the lot.

“Stop! Stop!” begged my instructor. I slammed on the brake. With another mighty shake, the engine stalled. Of course I’d forgotten to hit the clutch.

After an hour of variations on this theme, I could successfully get the car in motion on a flat surface. I could put it into second gear and then come to a stop: my favorite part of the ordeal.

It was time to learn how to start on a hill.

We cruised over to the parking lot’s incline, only stalling once or twice on the way. I stopped, moved my right foot to the accelerator and left to the clutch… and stalled. We slipped backwards down the hill, narrowly missing one of the scavengers. My instructor grabbed the emergency brake and halted us for dear life. I opened the windows and turned off the ignition. We leaned back in our seats, breathing hard with fear (instructor) and frustration (me).

“Hey, wanna buy some walnuts?” asked an unshaven and likely homeless face in the now-open window.

“No, we’re good,” I demurred.

By that time I was completely fed up with driving stick, and decided it would be best to save the rest of the instruction for a new day. The next few lessons were held at night, on the open road. When midnight hit and Atlanta’s Midtown streets were quiet, we stuttered around in a little Honda, brakes squealing and engine rocking. It wasn’t bad. I understood the footwork – sort of – and shifted when told to do so. We even attempted the reverse gear, and despite getting stuck in a parking lot, things weren’t so bad.

Next came a few daylight drives. Supervised, I dutifully drove to work and out to a restaurant. Things were looking up. My instructor managed the emergency brake when we were on a hill and with his help, I avoided murdering anyone. With success came confidence, and with confidence came a longer evening drive to really test my skills. From my Midtown home, I drove onto the highway and up through Buckhead. Shifting like a champion, I offered to show my instructor some really cool houses in the Vinings area. (We both appreciate fine architecture, so it felt like a good idea). As I came to a stop at a traffic light, I noticed that we were on a hill. Going up. And behind me idled a BMW SUV, right at my back bumper and ready to go.

The light changed to green. I rolled backwards. Stalled. Laughed nervously.

After turning on the ignition again, I did the usual: slow lift-off from the clutch, quick slam on the gas. I was nervous and feeling the pressure from traffic idling behind me. We stalled again, the car shaking with indignation and clutch abuse.

Lather, rinse, repeat – five times. Horns honked. The light turned red. The BMW started to drive around me, windows down to extend a hearty curse in my direction. And I had a complete panic attack, so the only logical next step was to vault over the gear shift into the front seat and make my instructor drive me home.

It took a few days before I was ready to try again, but when I did, my instructor was really racking his brain for something that would make me understand what I was doing. Although I could technically operate the vehicle, it wasn’t by feel or intuition, but simply following orders. And then he told me a little trick: when you’re starting, pull your foot just a little bit off the clutch while accelerating, then when you feel the car starting to move forward, ease off the clutch slowly.

For some reason, this was the secret that I needed. But the experience was still so stressful that my instructor took to videotaping my aghast facial expressions as I practiced manipulating the clutch on inclines. So now I’m somewhat capable of driving the thing but it’s still stressful, and the car still shakes sometimes for reasons I can only guess at.

But I’m getting a new car in July when my lease runs out, and you better believe I’ll be trying to find a six-speed!

green garlic casserole recipe

I was really excited when the Piedmont Park Farmer’s Market opened up this past weekend. Last fall, the market was something of a Saturday morning ritual. We’d wake up as early as possible, haul the dog into the car, and park the car as close to Piedmont Park as we could get. Once at the market, we’d share a cup of iced almond coffee from our favorite vendor and buy a little bit of whatever produce looked good. Even little Riley got to sip water and sample dog biscuits from one of the stalls.

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed at the farmer’s market, much more so than at a grocery store. When you walk into the Publix or Pathmark closest to your house, there’s tons of fruit and vegetables to peruse. While the offerings might look shiny and inviting, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors creating an illusion. Have you ever gotten strawberries in November? They’re watery and tasteless. They were picked unripe so they’d hold up for transport, gassed with ethylene to give them color, and then shipped across the country for you to buy at a ridiculously high price. Yum.

On the other hand, at the farmer’s market, you can be reasonably sure that everything came from the ground very recently. If you see strawberries for sale, it’s because they’re actually in season. Therefore, they are probably delicious. This makes me want to go nuts and buy everything I see.

But it’s best to not go nuts, especially when it comes to fresh and highly perishable produce. My goal for this season is to keep my purchases limited to staple items and a couple of things that I’ve been craving, or want to experiment with. At least on this first weekend I was able to stick to this. We left the farmer’s market with a relatively light load: eggs, strawberries, kale, and green garlic.

I was intrigued when I saw something that looked like somewhat like leeks, but had a thicker bulb at the end. The vendor told us it was green garlic. When we cut into the bulb at the bottom, he said, pieces of garlic would be inside. I’d never seen garlic looking like anything but a bunch of cloves bound by papery membrane. In the spirit of adventure, we brought some home.

I brought it home to investigate. The greens on top still looked somewhat like leeks. I sliced them off and saved them for later use.

Next, I removed the hairy root end. What remained looked like a big clove of garlic – instead of papery skin, it had a thick oniony covering.

Cutting into the head yielded whole cloves of garlic, nestled within the layers.

Of course I tasted the baby garlic to compare it to the cured garlic that we see in stores. It was surprisingly delicious. It definitely had a garlicky taste, but it was milder, sweeter, and not at all pungent. The next question was, what should I cook with it?

My significant other has an extremely sensitive nose and is quick to show it off. Whenever I eat garlic out of his sight, he knows. Even if I brush my teeth and chew tons of gum, he can always tell that I had falafel for lunch that day. While this is charming in its own way, my top priority was to take advantage of the garlic’s delicate flavor. I decided that I would make pesto. It was a breeze: the garlic, basil, walnuts, parmiaggiano, olive oil, salt, and pepper went for a spin in the food processor. I used more garlic than I would usually would, and the resulting pesto was delicious. Its flavor was bright, garlicky but not overwhelmingly so. Furthermore, it went completely undetected by Xavier, so that was fun.

With the rest of the fresh garlic, I decided to riff from a New York Times recipe. The author originally envisioned a gratin fashioned from beet greens, green garlic, and barley. A bit of Gruyere cheese was to deepen the flavor. Mine used farmer’s market kale and arborio rice, and mozzarella. Sometimes you just have to use what’s already in the fridge. Regardless of the changes, this dish was amazing. I’m excited to obtain beet greens later at some point – I’ll make a gratin the way Martha Rose Shulman intended.

I’m really excited that the farmer’s market is open again, and I can’t wait to experiment with more new vegetables as spring and summer continue. And for the record? The strawberries that we bought were the tastiest that I’ve ever had.

Snapshots from South America: Havanettes

My sweet tooth is probably one of my defining characteristics. If there’s anything I love more than sugar, it’s hard to think of what it could be. During the long afternoon stretch at work, you’ll often find me offering to go on a milkshake run to Chick-fil-a or Steak’n’Shake. After a meal, I always need something sweet to munch on. And let’s not forget about the six-month stretch where I ate Ben and Jerry’s for breakfast. (Man, being a grown-up is fun!).

In light of this sugar obsession, I was pretty excited when my friend Marie gave me a new candy to try. They’re called Havanettes. When another friend had traveled to Argentina, Marie requested that he bring back tons of them because you just can’t find them anywhere except Argentina. Being a generous friend, she gave us a few to try. Here’s what they look like.
Cone-shaped. Pretty cool.
When you unwrap each piece, you’ll find what looks like an elongated Mallomar.
It’s not quite a Mallomar. But it’s sort of close. A Havanette consists of a cookie (biscocho) base, topped with a healthy batch of dulce de leche and enrobed in chocolate. Here, have a bite.
The biscocho is sweet and soft, a worthy base for the rich dulce de leche. For once, you might almost forget that the chocolate part is still there. It’s not long before this is all that remains…
Havanettes: Argentinian Mallomars with dulce de leche instead of marshmallow. Not bad. Not bad at all. At times like this, I’m glad my friends are not only well-traveled, but generous.
And if you’re going to Argentina, please bring some back for me.