Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dinner for three.

Once in a while I spend my day at work thinking about what I will cook that night, with a menu firmly in mind based on things I know I have in the fridge or plan to buy on the way home. This rarely happens. Usually I stand in front of the open fridge wondering how on earth I will manage to make a meal out of an assortment of random ingredients. At this point, if I am alone, I give up and have scrambled eggs on toast, but there are two other people counting on me, and I have to come up with something. I begin to realize how my mother felt, having to produce dinner every night for five or six people, three of them teenagers. Ungrateful sods we were, too. There were always one or two meat dishes, and another couple of vegetable or tofu dishes, perhaps some fish or other seafood, and soup to finish the meal. We took turns setting the table and clearing up, doing the dishes and making rice, and perhaps I might do a little prep work here and there, but otherwise it was all just my mother cooking.

Tonight I pull out the corn someone (probably my father) bought the other day, shucking the husks away from the tightly packed kernels and putting a pot of water on to boil. Thinking ahead, I figure I can probably boil the corn first, then quickly cook the asparagus in the same boiling water. (No sense in wasting time and energy there). There is some ground pork in the fridge; if I cook it all, I can use some tonight and the rest in a different dish, some other night. (Again, planning ahead). It goes on to cook while I dice two squares of dried seasoned tofu and trim the asparagus spears. The pork-and-tofu looks kind of bland. I wish I had something else to throw in, like those leathery long beans that come in neatly tied bundles that look like lengths of dark green rope, which I often chop up and stir-fry with that dried tofu confronting me on the cutting board. I rummage around in the fridge and find a foil packet of some sort of pickled vegetable, and inspiration strikes.

Quickly now, because everything else is ready to go, I chop up the pickles (I can't read Chinese, so I don't exactly know what they are) and throw them in with the ground pork and tofu, sprinkle it all with a little soy sauce and stir it together. It goes well with the steamed rice, the pickled vegetables adding a tart zing to the sweetly bland pork, the salty seasoned tofu. Everything else is ready, the boiled corn, a plate of asparagus spears, the pork stir-fry. I put some smoked fish on a plate, a last dish to round out the meal, and we compare the two, sturgeon and cod. The sturgeon is drier and firmer, more delicate; the cod is softer and fattier, a little sweet. I think it is a good dinner, and hope that my parents agree.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dinner for three.

For some reason I don't exactly remember my father came home with an enormous steak wrapped in brown paper. I don't know what possessed him, since we normally only eat steak when my mom is conveniently in another country, or at least another city. But here it is, and it has to be eaten somehow, so we may as well get to it. I season it with salt and freshly ground pepper - I had not really considered how much better freshly ground pepper was than the stuff that comes already ground, in a little can, until I finally caved and bought a hand-cranked pepper grinder - and wonder if I could get away with my Jeffrey Steingarten method of cooking steak. Because the Jeffrey Steingarten method, which he refers to as the perfectly good alternative to a properly grilled steak (as I have no barbecue to play with and feel a bit strange about using the community barbecues in my condo building's courtyard) involves a considerable amount of butter.

If you think about it, you are essentially deep-frying your steak in butter. This, I feel, is very bad for you. I guiltily look around to make sure my parents aren't watching before I slide several tablespoons of butter in the pan (still rather less butter than the recipe calls for, although I do cling tightly to Steingarten's assurance that most of the butter stays in the pan and not on the steak) to melt. I think it is fortunate that my father cannot chew very well at the moment, and I will be eating most of the steak, and at any rate, it will be shared amongst us, so it is not as though we are consuming an entire steak ourselves, and the few tablespoons of butter - if that - which cling to the final product will therefore be divided accordingly, between three people. All this rationalizing passes through my mind as I stand at the stove, basting this huge steak with spoonfuls of gently browning butter, praying that my mother will not turn around from her seat at the dining table and my father will not get up from his comfortable position watching tv to see what I am doing in the kitchen.

With the steak I serve some cucumbers pickled in a dressing of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and a few drops of sesame oil. I braise some escarole in chicken stock and sauté some mushrooms - white ones this time - with onions. There is a piece of smoked sturgeon to round out our meal, and of course, steamed rice to sop up the juices. The steak is on the rarer side of medium-rare, with a perfectly browned crust, and neither parent seems to notice the taste of butter that lingers with every bite, nor do they ask how such beefy perfection was attained. Phew.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dinner for three.

My parents are in town, arriving late at night to a hastily tidied apartment and a refrigerator stocked with ridiculous amounts of vegetables and two kinds of ice cream (Cherry Garcia for my dad, triple-chocolate Dove bars for my mom). And now it is time to cook proper food. This is the most difficult part of any visit; not the part where I cede the master bedroom with its queen-size bed and ensuite bathroom, not the part when I put away the books that ordinarily pile up on the coffee table or the stacks of mail that wobble dangerously on the otherwise abandoned dining table. The hard part is dealing with the fact that now I have to think of a meal as a coherent whole, with dishes that appeal to my carnivorous father (who feels that a meal without meat is incomplete) and my herbivorous mother (who can eat an entire plate of garlic-laced sautéed spinach at one go) and can be whipped together as quickly as possible. And at the same time.

Cooking for other people is a lesson in timing, in anticipation. When I am eating alone I rarely use more than one pot, or make more than one or two dishes for myself. When I am cooking for the three of us, there are usually at least three dishes, more often four. It is hard to manage more than two burners at once, so some things have to be done ahead of time, or one dish can be something cold, or something baked in the oven. Often there is a braised dish, which can be slowly left to cook on low heat, needing little attention save an occasional stir. (Bonus points if there is enough for two nights, easy to reheat gently while I deal with other things). For sautéed dishes, I am lazy, so I often use the same pan for two dishes without washing it in between, so anything involving garlic or soy sauce will have to be cooked last, or it will contaminate the next dish.

Tonight I cooked some Dover sole for dinner, along with stir-fried (-ish, since I haven't got a proper stove or a wok) garlic-soy green beans, roasted carrots, and Portabello mushrooms sautéed with a little chopped onion. The carrots were tossed with a little olive oil and sea salt and shoved into the toaster oven (insanely, large enough to handle a 9x9 Pyrex baking dish). Then the onions were sautéed until translucent and just turning golden, before I added the sliced mushrooms, cooking it all together until they were tender but not squidgy. Next came the green beans, well actually, the minced garlic heated in oil until they were lightly browned, and then adding the beans, tossing to coat with the garlic-infused oil. A little water went in, and then the cover clapped on. Later I would splash in some soy sauce, perhaps a little more water. They are ready when the beans are just browned in spots but not burnt. (On more than one occasion I have burned them, leading my mom to ask if I was trying to poison us all with carcinogens).

While the beans were cooking, I heated another pan, this time a cast-iron skillet, for the Dover sole. This was a mistake. I should have used a non-stick pan, because the fish stuck to the pan, and then fell apart when I tried to flip it. These things happen. You move on, and anyway it's time to eat dinner, leaving all the mistakes in the kitchen with all the dirty pots and pans, the garlic skins, the green bean ends, the carrot peels. Concentrate on the tender white flesh of the sole, the sweetness of the roasted carrots that are almost like candy, so caramelized they became in the oven, the savory garlic-soy flavor of the beans. Think about how good steamed white rice is, how mushrooms and onions meld together so perfectly, how happy you are that your parents are here again.

It was all very good, and we finished everything except the rice. And tomorrow I will have to start all over with something new.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Market dinner.

Yesterday I came home to the new Bon Appetit. It feels strange to read this magazine again; unlike Gourmet, which I have been reading since 1992 or thereabouts, I have not read Bon Appetit since the early 90's, until I was at a friend's house last month and flipped through several issues stacked on her living room table. It was very different from what I remember, the layout and content and photographs. Styles change. Trends change. There aren't columns with amusing anecdotes of life as someone who loves food; gone was the little interview with some celebrity about their eating and cooking habits on the last page. But I flipped through the pages and saw restaurants and recipes I wanted to try, little knick-knacks I would love to purchase for my table (and an extravagant canvas-and-suede picnic tote for two with a set of ceramic dishes). One recipe in particular caught my eye - shortcakes filled with peaches and a ginger cream - but all this comes later.

I had a dish firmly in mind - the trofie pasta I had purchased last week at the market, tossed with kale and bacon. But it could wait. It was still early. I drank my ginger ale with Campari and settled in to read the rest of my magazine. An article caught my eye - the interview with Peter Hoffman (the chef-owner of Savoy and Back Forty in New York City), long an advocate of farmer's markets, he was instrumental in establishing New York's greenmarkets and is frequently seen at the most famous of them all, the Union Square Greenmarket (which I remember from Laurie Colwin's essays nearly twenty years ago). His tips - taste as you go, and do a walk-through before you start buying to compare prices and quality and availability - aren't anything new to me, since I already do those things - but he strikes at the heart of why we should shop there. Buying from local farmers is about getting off the grid...Money stays local, our outlying regions can remain agriculturally productive, and the landscape is preserved. And in response to what is probably the number-one reason why most people don't shop at the farmer's market, the cost, he has this to say: Get with it. That is the real cost of food. Vote with your fork and your belly, and support the opportunity to buy directly from farmers and eat better food by buying from them.

I have been shopping and cooking and eating mostly off the grid for the past three or four weeks, as much as I possibly can. As much as I can afford to. I think of how lucky I am that I can do this, that I can leave work at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon (since I get there around 7:00 am) and head to the market and load my bags with fruits and vegetables and meat and drive home sneaking a few berries here and there. The market is located in the parking lot of a Grocery Outlet, and the irony is not lost on me. But the doorbell rings, and C. is here. Time to cook dinner. It takes very little time to strip the stems from a bunch of kale and slice the leaves, chop a small onion, mince a handful of parsley, dice several slices of bacon. A pot of water is set to boil as the bacon cooks away. C. has brought some bread, and I mix together some butter and garlic (grated on the Microplane into almost a paste) and a little parsley, soften it in the microwave, and spread it across the bread, sprinkling on some grated grana padano before sticking it in the toaster oven to bake.

After the bacon bits have cooked up they go into a bowl, and a little olive oil is added to the pan. The onions are next, sautéed until translucent, and then the kale, which wilts gently in the heat. I add chicken broth, let it cook down. The water has come to a boil; in goes the trofie pasta, which floats to the top as it cooks. Everything is tossed together with the fresh parsley and more cheese and dinner is ready, deep bowls of pasta, a dish of hot garlic bread, dripping with butter. We lay back on the sofa and recover for a while before I abandon C. to my stash of magazines and head back to clean up the kitchen and make dessert. I pull together a variation on the peach-and-ginger-cream shortcakes from Bon Appetit - I will use blueberries instead of peaches, and I have no crystallized ginger on hand. It will just be the ginger-ale-infused shortcakes filled with blueberries and whipped cream, lightly sweetened and touched with vanilla. And they are perfect, warm and crusty against the cool softness of whipped cream and sweet berries.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Saturday Lark.

It is a routine, every time I have to work on a Saturday, beginning with the whisper of anticipation that wraps around me an hour before I leave in the late afternoon. I get things ready for tomorrow; I shuffle papers together and clean up my desk. T. is still hard at work when I say my goodbyes, sling my bag over my shoulder. There is time to kill, so I stop by Retrofit and pick up some greeting cards and chat with K. for a while. And then five o'clock comes and goes, so I head down to Lark. In the winter the dining room veiled with sheer curtains seems warm and cosy against the winter chill; in the summer it feels like a cool oasis. I am earlier than usual, so early that the chef has not yet donned his white jacket; the servers are all clustered around him at the bar, tasting the night's specials, going over the menu. Some of them are busily folding napkins, each movement swift and precise, the sharp-cornered white parcels rising in stacks along the counter. All the servers who remember my face wave or say hi as they walk by, and I am glad that my mother is not here to raise an eyebrow at this familiarity.

As usual I order something off the menu (a chilled soup) and one of the specials of the evening (sautéed squid). As always, there are two kinds of bread and sweet fresh butter, better, it seems, than any other I could buy. At home I rarely butter my bread, so I will feel less guilty when I do at restaurants. The soup arrives, a deep rosy red, strawberry-and-tomato, topped with a blob of fresh ricotta, "bruléed," as the menu called it. The cheese is still warm, startling against the cold soup, as startling as the contrast between creamy and the clear brightness of the fruit. (For the tomato is a fruit as well, is it not?). The flavors of tomato and strawberry meld so completely that I cannot tell where one begins and the other ends, or which dominates, because they are perfectly balanced. And yet I can taste them both, the way I can hear the separate strands of melody in a Bach prelude intertwining together and apart.

The squid is scented with lemongrass and ginger and garlic, spiked with hot chili pepper and tossed with green garlic scapes and some kind of mushroom. The mushrooms are, I think, superfluous, but otherwise it is absolutely perfect. Each bite of squid is tender and heady with the aromatics, warmed by the bite of chili peppers. It is Asian-inflected without being too "fusion," and it is exciting (as I have said before) to watch the chef - and the kitchen - move in this direction without losing any of the precision and mastery that they have consistently shown in the two and a half years that I have been dining here. (The exception is the confit duck leg, which has just never impressed me, but no one seems to know what to do with a confit duck leg, although that time they added shredded duck leg to a creamy pile of gigli pasta tossed with fat green peas was pretty fantastic). I think about whether I want something sweet or not, but I see the the servers tasting something that seems to involve a fair amount of whipped cream, and when I hear the words "bread pudding," well, what else could I do except give in?

The bread pudding is made with what tastes like banana bread (although I could be, and probably am, wrong), studded with nuts and resting on a pool of caramel sauce, holding a drift of whipped cream aloft and sprinkled with raspberries. All thoughts of moderation go out of my head. It is dense and rich and really too much for one person, but of course I eat it all and scrape my plate and seriously consider licking it, but another couple has just sat down next to me, and my server comes by to take away my bare plate before I can disgrace myself. As I walk home in the bright warmth of early evening I can still taste the warm caramel.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Market Friday.

I got to the market earlier than usual today, and as always the wide path between the two rows of stalls is teeming with shoppers. There are couples and harried mothers hauling small children and serious looking middle-aged people in sensible shoes, all armed with canvas shopping bags and small bills. It is a smaller market, not as sprawling as the Ballard one that seems to go on for blocks on Sundays; it only takes me a few minutes to walk from one end to another, surveying the different farms displaying their wares, tables piled high with baskets of vegetables, flats of berries, plates of pastries, packages of fresh pastas of all kinds, deep freezers filled with meats and seafoods, buckets of flowers. I compare the price of strawberries from different places; the cheapest ones are the smallest ones, so I get the bigger ones that are deep red and intensely fragrant, even though they cost a little more. But all that comes later.

First I buy vegetables from the same farm where I bought those crisp fat sugar snaps last time - potatoes, onions, zucchini, green beans. Then I buy two pounds of Rainier cherries, wander over to another produce stall and gather an armload of more vegetables - dark kale, feathery-topped carrots tied in a neat bundle (much bigger than the tiny baby ones I bought last time), a frothing bulb of fennel, some golden beets with their greens still attached. I pick up the chicken I ordered some weeks ago, wrapped neatly in paper, and sausages. I need rhubarb for my latest ice-cream experiment, and strawberries, and eggs, and I have just enough money left for a cannoli, the crisp golden shell filled with ricotta cream and topped with a maraschino cherry at each end. I love maraschino cherries, but everyone else I know hates them. The eggs are the last thing I buy, and I have to eke out my change with five pennies, but it was all worth it, I hope.

As soon as I get home I eat my cannoli, and it is very good, but my mind is on the rhubarb ice cream. Even before I put away my vegetables I have the two stalks of rhubarb washed and roughly chopped. There wasn't quite enough rhubarb - I need a pound - so I threw in some strawberries, and processed the fruit with some sugar and a splash of vanilla. All the recipes I looked at (although I didn't quite follow any of them precisely) called for lemon juice, which I don't have, so I slosh in some balsamic vinegar, thinking of how well balsamic goes with strawberries; just a touch of it will deepen the flavors. The pureed fruit cooks down over low heat; it softens and cooks into a thick sauce, a clear deep red. I pour some milk and cream into a bowl, and stir in the fruit purée. The white cream and red fruit are almost shocking in contrast to each other, swirling together until it comes together into a vast pinkness. I taste some, and then taste some more, but it has to cool before I can put it in the ice cream maker, so I put it in the fridge and eat a handful of the Rainier cherries that I had bought earlier.

An hour later, it is only a moment's work to pour the ice cream mixture into the machine and walk away. Half an hour later it has thickened into soft ice cream. I taste a little - it is sweet and a little tangy with little bits of soft rhubarb sprinkled throughout, and a gorgeous soft pink - and scoop some into a bowl. I eat my ice cream with a the fresh blackberries from the market, and it is summer in each bite. Next: strawberry ice cream.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

We all scream for ice cream. part two.

Several years ago I discovered butter caramels made with fleur de sel. They came from the île de Ré, and I had bought some of the sel de Ré a little while before. (The salt had large, coarse crystals, unlike the flaky Maldon salt that I began using much later, and which I still use to this day). The caramels were sweet and buttery, with the sharp contrast of the sea salt intensifying the flavors, and they were instantly addictive. I left a trail of those little blue-and-white wrappers wherever I went, and when they disappeared from the shelves of Williams-Sonoma, I was inconsolable. Years went by. A blog (written by a couple whom I had met at the Lark Whole Beast Supper) mentioned a recipe for a Salted Butter Caramel ice cream (which they used to fill profiteroles served with a mocha sauce). The recipe came from David Lebovitz, who was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse and who now lives in Paris. I took note of the idea of salted butter caramel ice cream and filed it away in that part of my brain called Delicious Things To Try (Someday, When I Have The Equipment), but did not take it seriously until G. mentioned it as her latest ice cream experiment.

Finally, I broke down and bought my own ice cream machine. After a brief flirtation with vanilla ice cream, just to see how my cute little ice cream maker worked, it was time to really go for it and confront my deepest fear: making caramel. I don't know why, but I have a fear of burning sugar. It's not as though I have any aversion to setting things on fire, but I have always had trouble with the concept of melting sugar. Often it would burn, or stick to where I didn't want it to stick, or it was a pain in the ass to clean off the pots and utensils and the trail of rock-hard caramel droplets trailing across the floor and countertops. But my desire to play with my new ice cream maker won out, and soon I had everything laid out and ready to go: cream, milk, butter, eggs, vanilla, and of course, sugar. Spatulas and whisks littered every surface; sugar made the floor gritty underfoot. Oh well.

First: the caramel praline. The sugar was poured into a heavy saucepan, set over medium heat. I ran around cleaning up the kitchen, separating eggs, dividing the milk, making an ice bath for the custard. The sugar began to melt, and I stirred it carefully. The color deepened, and I took it to the edge of burnt before sprinkling it with some finely crushed sea salt and pouring it over one of those silicone baking sheets. It was beautiful. Then came the caramel custard base: more sugar, melting slowly into a pool of dark caramel. Again, I pushed it almost to the edge of being burnt, then added the butter, which melted and foamed as I stirred it in. I poured in the cream, which fizzled madly; first the caramel seized into fat globs, then slowly melded with the cream into a smooth, butterscotch mass. I added milk, tempered in the eggs, cooked it all until it thickened across the back of a spoon. I strained it all into more cold milk, whisked it together, tasted it. It was good. It was heartbreaking that I would have to wait almost an entire day before this creamy goodness could be turned into ice cream, but patience is its own reward, or something.

Throughout the day I kept thinking of my tub of custard, waiting for me at home. I practically shot out the door exactly eight hours after I had walked in, almost ran all the way home, and once inside my apartment breathlessly tossing aside backpack, jacket, shoes, mail, a visible trail down the hallway. Grabbing the plastic tub of ice-cream mixture I dipped another spoon in - it was smooth and cold and ever so faintly bittersweet - and started up the ice cream maker. While it churned away I smashed the praline into bits with a sherry bottle that happened to be standing on the counter (I couldn't find the rolling pin), and I waited until the creamy custard definitely looked like ice cream before I stirred it in. The tiny shards of caramel swirled into the golden-brown depths; I turned it off, removed the cover, the plastic dasher, dipped another spoon in - I am almost out of spoons now - and fell straight into heaven. (At this point I realize that the front door is still open).

It always seems a bit of a miracle when I produce something absolutely delicious in the kitchen. I wonder, could I really have made something so wonderful, me, with my bare hands and my propensity for wreaking havoc just about anywhere I go? I can hardly wait to make more ice cream, but I am out of freezer space. I can just imagine all the possibilities before me.

Monday, July 7, 2008

We all scream for ice cream. part one.

Some fifteen or twenty years ago my dad had a student who was an ace cook - her specialty was fantastically elaborate cakes full of all sorts of good things, like a black forest cake made with fresh Bing cherries and whipping cream and mountains of shaved chocolate - and occasionally made ice cream for our potluck parties. It was one of those old-fashioned ice cream makers that you packed with ice, sprinkling the ice with rock salt and cranking the handle until it felt like your arm was going to fall off. Then someone else would take over and keep cranking until their arm got tired. Eventually the ice cream was ready, the barrel lifted, dripping, from the melting ice, the dasher removed from the ice cream, softer and milder than store-bought. I think one time it was peach ice cream, which I have never had anywhere else, but then peach ice cream should be home-made, eaten after a barbecue on a lazy summer afternoon. Hand-cranked ice cream made me think of The Great Brain, when the brothers would take turns licking the extra ice cream from the dasher. (I think one brother - the Great Brain - was charging their friends to lick the dasher, but I may have remembered it wrong, and I can't find my copy).

Then electric ice-cream makers became available, then widely available, then wildly popular. Still, I resisted. Did I really need to make my own ice cream? Did I really need another gadget next to the food processor, the standing mixer, the hand mixer, the cordless stick blender, the bread machine, not to mention daily standbys like the boiling-water dispenser, the rice cooker, and the toaster oven? Did I have room in the freezer for the freezer bowl, counter space for the machine? I continued adding to my Le Creuset collection, and shoved all thoughts of ice cream makers aside. Then G. started talking about all the ice creams she was making on what seemed to be a weekly basis. It was too seductive for words, and I started gazing moon-eyed at the glossy pictures in kitchen gadget magazines and polling people about their machines. And then I caved. It was my birthday. I wanted a present. What could be better than an ice cream maker, the gift that just keeps on giving?

Like a sleepwalker I went into Crate and Barrel yesterday and emerged about five minutes later with an ice cream maker. It was white and sleek and had a scalloped edge around its plastic base and removable cover. It looked adorable on my kitchen counter, and I couldn't wait to begin. I washed all the removable parts - the freezer bowl, lightweight plastic mixing blade, and cover - and put the bowl in the freezer. It would need to chill overnight; I still had to buy milk and cream and eggs, anyway. I went out to dinner and spent the evening thinking about how to use my new birthday present, the oval Le Creuset D. bought me (roast chicken, perhaps). It was not until the next day that I came home with everything I needed for ice cream and the fun could begin. In the interests of immediate gratification, it would have to be something simple - the salted caramel ice cream would have to cool overnight in the fridge - and so I turned to vanilla ice cream, the first recipe in the little instruction booklet.

Lazily I mixed milk and sugar in a bowl, added cream, a splash of vanilla. The freezer bowl (a double-walled bowl filled with some kind of gel that freezes solid overnight) went on top of the mixer base, then the dasher, then the cover. I flipped it on, and then poured the creamy mixture in through the feeding spout on top. It whirred away as I cleaned up the kitchen, contemplated dinner. Ever so often I would peer at the thickening cream; it stayed soupy for what seemed like forever, and then began to come together into something actually resembling vanilla ice cream. Half an hour went by, and it was ready. The ice cream was soft and sweet and creamy, fragrant with vanilla, a promising beginning. Next up: salted butter caramel ice cream.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Suburban days.

We get off work early, and the next thing I know C. and I are whizzing down the freeway, on our way to IKEA. We head straight for the door marked EXIT, and emerge two minutes later with soft-serve frozen yogurt cones (I will save the Swedish meatballs, which I have always wanted to try, for another trip), before walking through the main entrance. I must say, frozen yogurt makes the endless maze of furniture much more bearable, even though I still get lost and have to backtrack a couple of times, emerging at last with a woven wicker basket, two pump canisters for hand soap, a jar of lingonberry preserves, chocolate-filled butter cookies, and a box of 200 bendy straws in four different colors. And it is time for dinner.

We head back over to Southcenter. I seldom go to the mall, and find myself in the suburbs even more rarely. Which means I almost never eat at the sort of chain restaurants that appear at suburban malls, places like the Cheesecake Factory or Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse. When I was in college and $20 (including tax and tip) felt like an awful lot of money to be spending on dinner, going out to TGI Fridays and Bahama Breeze was an extravagance, especially if you ordered a drink and shared an appetizer and had dessert afterwards. My senior year of college we all loved going to Bahama Breeze - it had just opened in Rochester, NY - for piña coladas and other fruity drinks and things like flank steak marinated in jerk spices and garnished with fried plantain slices. Out of nostalgia, we almost go there for dinner, but my insatiable curiosity about Claim Jumper won out, so there we were.

Claim Jumper is a cavernous, rustic-looking (in a Disney kind of way) restaurant that serves Flinstone-sized portions of chicken and ribs and meatloaf. I had been hearing about it from another co-worker for years, about their foot-high chocolate cake and entrées large enough to feed a family of four for three days. We walk into the air-conditioned darkness and are immediately faced with the glass-fronted dessert case, showcasing their famous cake, and equally immense slices of bread pudding, cheesecake, vast bowls of apple crisp and berry cobbler. It makes me nervous. I am too old to be eating a bowl of apple crisp the size of my face. And after eating mostly eggs and vegetables and brown rice for the past few days, the sight of chickens turning on electric spits and platters of barbecue ribs being served at the next table makes me a little queasy.

Fortunately, many items on the menu come in half-portions, which is somewhat reassuring. We order our dinner and lean back in the fake-leather-covered booths (which are made out of fake-looking rocks and illuminated by green-glass-shaded lamps, the kind you see in offices and libraries of bygone eras, or at least in movies that take place in offices and libraries of bygone eras). Our appetizer arrives, loaded potato skins, covered in melted cheese and sprinkled with bacon bits, the crispy skins surrounding a hollowed-out potato bowl filled with sour cream for dipping. The potato skins are probably deep-fried, and I feel my arteries clogging up with every bite, but they are addictive. I can't remember the last time I ate this sort of thing, and it will probably be a very long time before I can bring myself to do it again.

The rotisserie chicken is pretty good, served with perfectly fine grilled asparagus and red-skinned mashed (or I should say smashed) potatoes; the garlic toast is buttery and sprinkled with bits of orange cheese, which I find disquieting. I like garlic bread, and I like Texas toast, but it should not come sprinkled with orange cheese. Even parmesan from a cardboard tube would be less disturbing. But it was still a good dinner, if not a great dinner. I would come here again, after a trip to IKEA or the mall, laden with packages and more than ready to sink into a cozy booth for a dinner of roast chicken or meatloaf with mashed potatoes. And I would save room for the foot-high chocolate cake.