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Coffee: A Love Story

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Maybe it was the joy of waking up at the house of two close friends, or the fact that I did not need to prepare it myself, but when presented with a cup of coffee this past Saturday morning I found myself in absolute elation. Now to be frank, this is not far from my normal reaction to my first cup of coffee of the day, but this cup indeed tasted rich and dark and perfect.

I wrapped my hands around it and breathed in its smoky aroma.   I asked where this coffee was from – expecting one of Columbus’ many excellent coffee roasters to be named – and was faced with the name of an old addiction: Starbucks. Starbuck’s espresso blend to be exact. Starbuck’s espresso blend on sale for $7.99 to be really exact.

I will further set the context of this moment by telling you that earlier that week I realized I had been spending almost $75 a month on coffee. And not single cup lattes or cappuccinos, just bags of coffee beans. Somehow I had continued to purchase bags of $18 coffee from my local roaster without doing some quick math as to how much this would add up in a household that goes through a bag a week.

I had convinced myself that this luxury was important, because I love coffee. I mean, yes, almost everyone loves coffee (one only need to take only a glance at the decorative mug industry to see 500 iterations of this sentiment), but I swear my love is different. Coffee is my security blanket. My always there for me friend. And as someone who has recently committed herself to waking up at 5AM everyday without regard to my bedtime of 11:30PM, a really important part of not crashing my car during my one hour commute.

So yes, coffee is important to me. But here I was last Saturday morning, enjoying the best cup of coffee I’d had in a long time, and it came at the low price of $8 a bag. Still, web articles and the localavore movement nagged at my enjoyment. “But what about the local coffee shops!” cried some long lost NPR piece in my mind. “Starbucks burns their coffee!” echoed Chris Kimball from a rerun of America’s Test Kitchen.

Like most things in life, there comes a time when you learn to push through the crowds and to take the advice of experts with a grain of salt. If you like something, then the choral cries against it should not distract from said enjoyment. You know yourself best, and if it tastes good, then please ignore external critics and take a second helping of that canned green bean casserole. Food is meant to be enjoyed, not constantly analyzed.

In the world of food and consumption, however, I do think some attention needs to be paid to the bigger picture as our decisions are not made in a vacuum. When every food choice impacts environments and economies (i.e. other human beings and living creatures), we cannot simply decide, for example, that we are fine with the unrestrained eating of animal proteins from major corporations because we like it. Sure, enjoy a crappy hot dog with a well deserved wild abandon (I know I do every summer), but remember that attention and more importantly money should be paid to those local and/or sustainably ethical producers of meat when it is financially possible.

With this in mind, it is time I change my coffee consumer ways. Yes, I will still continue to buy from my local roaster, but perhaps these bags can be a weekend only treat. During the week, I will embrace my love of Starbucks and my boyfriend’s even more economical love of Dunkin Donuts. My budget will thank me, the local economy will forgive me, and my caffeine intake can remain at its normal level of medium high to “oh no I’ve had too much coffee” levels.

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Grocery Store Addict

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One of my most visited childhood vacation grocery stores: Grandma Faye’s in Hocking Hills, Ohio.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite parts of family vacation was the trip to the grocery store in town to stock up for the week. Whether we were at a cottage on the beach or a cabin in the woods, I loved the ceremony of preparing for the week of vacation by stocking up on the basics, plus fun extras like quirky local grocery store brand sodas or dips and chips from the deli counter.

As an adult I have integrated this tradition into my own travels, and love exploring local markets to see what people buy for dinner. I have fond memories of the little mercado that we stopped at daily in Costa Rica to grab water, beer, and maybe some snacks or ingredients for a meal.  The markets in China were unreal, including a very memorable trip to a market in a traditional hutong in Beijing.   I remember a very chic and charming market in Vienna that Jason and I stopped at in the middle of a semi-heated exchange about getting lost to pick up contact solution, and regretting that in my haste I didn’t take the time to ooh and aah over the beautiful pastry displays.

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Market in a hutong in Beijing.

Best of all was the cheese and wine shop we stumbled upon in the small town of Malmedy, just as we thought we’d never find a store open and would have to spend our first night in Belgium hungry and (worse) without a local beer. Locals cheerfully strolled in and out, melodies of exchanges in French about cheese and meats eased through the air like Christmas lights between customers and the women behind the counter. I nervously approached the counter with our goods: canard fumé, pain, and biere. I soundlessly practiced the words in the event that there was a quiz portion of the checking out process. But the woman smiled warmly, we exchanged a few words in French, and then Jason and I were on our way.

When at home, the story of my relationship with the grocery store becomes less sweet tradition and more full blown obsession. I love grocery stores. From the second largest Kroger Marketplace that just opened in my part of town all the way to the small but proud co-op in the college town where I work, I love them all equally. And now that many grocery stores have integrated bars into their layouts, I even feel justified in considering going to the grocery store not so much a chore but a fun outing. Most Sundays Jason and I can be found at Jungle Jim’s, grabbing a pint and then picking up a few items or knocking out our weekly grocery shopping.

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I loved this little corner store and deli in Boston.

I think what I find so enchanting about grocery stores, both at home and away, is that they speak to so much possibility. Here before you lay ingredients that are just waiting to take you on a culinary adventure. A variety of local garlic you’ve never seen opens the door to learning more about the allium family of vegetables, plus results in a simple but delicious meal of roasted chicken over rice smothered in sautéed buttery garlic. Even just buying the usual weekly log of groceries is exciting to me. The methodic preparation for a week’s meals is less chore, and more choose your own adventure book. Will it be a stir fry kind of week? Or a roasted vegetable soup kind of week?

Then there is of course the terrible process of paying and lugging all of your groceries to you car, loading and unloading into your house, and then find space in your kitchen to properly store all of your carefully selected items. But once they are all in their new homes in the crisper or freezer or pantry, you can admire your fully stocked kitchen.

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Findlay Market in downtown Cincinnati is a favorite summer market of mine.

There is nothing quite as comforting to me as a fully stocked fridge on a Sunday night, minus the accompanying anxiety that I will not use the chicken in time and that I’ll forget about the asparagus and it will wilt and melt into an ooze of green shame. Last night I got out of bed to put a chuck roast into the freezer, so anxious that it was approaching it’s downfall in the fridge. I hate defrosting meat, especially in the microwave, so I try to avoid need to do so at all costs. But I realized the likelihood of me finally getting around to making a 4 hour pot roast on a weekday night was slim, so into the freezer it went to wait for the weekend.

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Visiting my girls in Columbus usually means a Saturday visiting nine different grocery stores. No shame in our grocery game.

I think one of the best things to make when you get home from a Sunday shopping trip is a really great salad. Your produce is at its freshest, and a salad allows you to throw in a variety of items together that you just purchased and can’t wait to taste. Plus you’ve just done a lot of heavy lifting so now is not the time to embark on a big kitchen project, unless you are like me a masochist and immediately begin roasting meats and making lunches for the week.

My formula for a perfect salad is an indulgent protein like a freshly grilled steak or smoked salmon, hearty spinach or tender butter lettuce, and something with a little kick like scallions or shredded radish. Ripe avocado always makes a great addition as well. I’m not really big on bottled salad dressings, so I usually shake up olive oil and vinegar with some salt and pepper. Lastly some shaved parmesan or blue cheese makes a perfect final touch.

Have a glass of wine, eat standing up at the kitchen counter, and admire the adulthood you just conquered for the week.

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The Frugal Chicken

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If there is one thing in life I am not, it is disciplined.

If there are two things in life I am not, it is disciplined and frugal.

Frugality and discipline. The traits are pretty close friends. If you are disciplined, you can resist the temptation to indulge. If you are frugal, you have decided to be steadfast in your spending. Unfortunately I have not been blessed with either of these characteristics.

To put it nicely, I am too easy going and spontaneous to be held to budgets and hard earned habits. To put it realistically, I can be a bit flighty when it comes to maintaining a gym routine longer than a week or saying no to the urge to buy expensive cheese. I have been working on these habits during the oh-so-holy time of reform that is January, but that’s a story for another time.

There is, however, one thing I have done for many years that speaks to both frugality and discipline. And that is roasting a chicken and then making stock. This process is extremely economical in that buying a whole chicken is always cheaper than buying a butchered chicken. Roasting and making stock also takes discipline, considering I need to commit myself to the endeavor of three or four hours in the kitchen and lots of heavy lifting of pots.

This process of frugality and discipline, despite its incongruity with my natural state of being, is the Sunday mass of my cooking religion. It must be done with some regularity to maintain and renew my faith in the power of home cooking. The process upholds all the basic tenants of my kitchen belief system. It fills me with a spiritual calm like no other cooking task can. And just like religion, roasting a chicken and making stock is something others often see as too much work, too intimidating, or not worth the effort.

I am here to tell you, dear reader, that this is not the case. Yes, both of these processes take time, but the practice itself is dummy proof once you’ve done it a few times. And the results and products are well worth the time and effort put into them. When it comes to roasting a chicken, which I admit can be intimidating, I have found no other guaranteed recipe than that from the holier-than-thou Alice Waters.

The basics are roasting for twenty minutes breast side up, twenty minutes breast side down, and then ten to twenty minutes breast side up again until toasty brown. I have tried other methods and have been faced with the horrifying shame of cutting into the thigh and finding a raw pink scar of failure. The horror! Alice Water’s method? Perfectly cooked every time. That crazy lady knows what’s up from time to time.

After you have roasted and carved the chicken, you will be left with this terrifying heap of chicken back flesh and backbone which we call a carcass because we can’t think of anything less gross to call it. This will be used to make stock. Throw together with some weepy carrots, sad onions, and limp celery (or just fresh vegetables if you’re one of those disciplined people who never leave veggies to die a slow death in the crisper) and then simmer away for 2 – 4 hours. Really, any basic stock recipe you find online will do the trick.

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Homemade stock, roast chicken drippings, and glorious chicken fat

Best of all, roasting a chicken yields not just a carcass for stock making and a roast for dinner, but also delicious versatile chicken fat and roast drippings. Simply save the pan drippings from your roast chicken in the fridge overnight, and when you wake up you’ll find the fat perfectly adhered to the surface of a deeply golden gelatinous chicken essence.

That’s four products for the effort of one! It’s like an infomercial where you get not one crappy product but four! Except that these products are not crappy but delectable and can be used to make so many more delicious things like Ree Drummond’s amazing chicken and dumplings, which coincidentally I just made tonight.

I have probably made this recipe more than any other in my home cooking career. It never fails, and the results are spectacularly good on a cold winter night or packed away for the best mid week lunch ever. Please make this today, or tomorrow, or this weekend. Even if you ignore my urgings to spend half of your hard earned Sunday roasting chickens and making homemade stock, this recipe really is dynamite. It really is best with homemade stock, but if you use store bought I promise to look the other way.

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Ree Drummond’s Chicken and Dumplings (modified for use with roast chicken and boyfriends who don’t like onions)

2 Tablespoons butter or chicken fat

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup flour

Shredded meat from roast chicken (I prefer a mix of light and dark meat)

1/2 cup diced carrots

1/2 cup diced celery

1/4 cup diced onion

1/2 teaspoon ground thyme

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

6 cups homemade stock (supplement with water if your stock didn’t yield six cups)

1/2 cup heavy cream

Dumplings:

1-1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup Yellow cornmeal

1 Tablespoon (heaping) baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cup half-and-half (or watered down heavy cream if you don’t want to buy two dairy products for one recipe)

Melt chicken fat or butter in heavy bottom dutch oven or pot. Add diced onion, carrots, and celery. Stir and cook for 3 to 4 minutes over medium-low heat. Stir in ground thyme and turmeric, then pour in chicken broth. Stir to combine, then add shredded chicken. Cover pot and simmer for 10 minutes or until veggies are tender.

While chicken is simmering, make the dough for the dumplings: sift together all dry ingredients, then add half-and-half, stirring gently to combine. Set aside.

Pour heavy cream into the pot and stir to combine.

Drop tablespoons of dumpling dough into the simmering pot. Cover pot halfway and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. Check seasonings; add salt if needed. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.

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Where To Lay Your Head: A Guide to Cozy & Culturally Relevant Accommodations

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Our first morning in Costa Rica

As I have gotten older, a few things have changed about the way I travel. In particular, where I stay has become much more important than it used to be. As a young college student crisscrossing Europe, the location and security of my hostel were all that was important. As I would really only be there to sleep, any charm or decoration were just extras. Now, however, the space where I lay my bags and my head at night has become just as important to the experience as what the local restaurant scene is like.

I am not, however, talking about upgrading to fancy internationally recognizable hotels. Although I am a sucker for room service and constantly refreshed sheets, these amenities do not really contribute to my overall cultural experience. What I am talking about are the places you can stay that make you feel at home in a country not your own; where the combination of coziness and local charm meet to make your accommodation one of the best parts of your trip. A place where staying in on a Saturday night feels equally exciting and in touch with the city you are in as going out and exploring the streets.

There are a few commonalities in the places that I have stayed where I have experienced this. If you’re looking to find your next cultural den, keep these qualities in mind as you do your research.

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Our private backyard in Costa Rica, complete with beautiful plants and howling monkeys.

Look for a place that gives you both a connection with, and refuge from, the outside world.  This is a difficult combination to find, but when you do the pay off is big. What you want is to still be in touch with what’s happening outside your accommodation, while also giving you a place that feels removed and sheltered from the hustle and bustle of a busy city or perhaps the afternoon downpours if in a rainforest.  You want to be able to sense the pulse of your destination, without being right in the rush of it all.

This can be accomplished with something as simple as a large window with a great view, an excellent balcony from which you can sip your morning coffee of evening cocktail from, or best of all, a place with a private (or shared) outdoor space. The casita we stayed in Costa Rica had a private backyard with a garden and cabana. We spent every morning here, sipping Costa Rican coffee in hammocks, listening to monkeys hop from tree to tree above us. It was the perfect way to start the day in Costa Rica.

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The cloudy skyline of Ghent was the perfect place to start and end the day in our favorite Belgian city.

Our apartment in Ghent had a small but charming balcony. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it overlooked a canal and the skyline of the city. I sat here in the mornings to drink coffee and read, and in the evenings we would have a beer and watch the sunset. The front of our second floor apartment faced a busy street with large windows which also gave us a nice connection to the city. Nature in the back, city in the front – a great combination.

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The view from our breakfast table. Local art & local coffee.

Find a space with local charm and character.  Does anyone really want to look at another generic painting of a field? They don’t call it hotel art as a means of a compliment. What I would like to look at, however, is locally crafted pottery or fresh flowers. Anything that can be placed inside the space that reminds you of where you are at is a perfect way to connect with the culture even when inside your accommodation.

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Bourbon + Horses = Kentucky

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Horses just a few yards away from the house.

In a bed and breakfast in Kentucky, the owners had this concept down. The entire house was a chic white and blue motif, complete with touches of Kentucky’s finest exports: bourbon and horses. A theme that could come off as corny or overplayed was done so beautifully and spoke to a sophistication one might not always associate with the Bluegrass state. When you were in that house there was no doubt where you were, and the views of the horse farm outside your window certainly didn’t hurt either.

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Photo from Le Fenil de Marcel on AirBnb.com

Our apartment at a farmhouse in Malmedy was perhaps on the other end of the spectrum – it was a very minimally designed space. Simple wood and sparse decorations. But somehow it worked. It felt clean yet cozy, and the fact that the owner had constructed the apartment himself left you with a feeling of his care and attention to detail. This was the first place we stayed in Belgium, and after the sensory overload of travel it was the perfect place to unwind and get ready for our trip.   We gathered some supplies from a shop in town – a few local beers, smoked duck and bread – and had a lovely little evening on the farm.

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Enjoying coffee and pastries in our Brussels studio apartment.

Seek out an accommodation where you can cook a meal or at least make a cup of coffee or tea.  As someone who spends more time in the kitchen than any other part of the house, having the ability to cook while travelling is something I relish. Finding a place with even something as simple as a sink and a hot plate opens you up to the possibility of cooking a meal for yourself. As much as I love exploring local restaurants and cafes, there is something so pleasing about preparing a simple dish while travelling.

After a trip to a local market in Ghent, and one terrifying incident in which I almost lost my wallet (another story for another post), we returned to our apartment to make dinner. I found some local cheese and promising looking bacon lardons, and set off to make a go-to dish: pasta carbonara.

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After dealing with a total lack of appetite in Bruges, I welcomed the return of my hunger as I whisked the electric orange egg yolks together with Belgian cream and boiled delicate stands of spaghetti. I broke our beer explorations with some Spanish wine, and we sunk onto the couch for a well earned meal at home. After eating nothing over the past two days but half a ham and cheese sandwich and three fries, I went to town on this bowl of familiar yet unfamiliar food. It felt comforting and restorative, made all the better by the cozy surroundings of our Ghent apartment.

Against most traditional travel advice, the way I planned our trip to Costa Rica was with one google search after a long and stressful week:  “Beach bungalow in Costa Rica”.  The placed we ended up staying was one of the first I found, and after some communication with the owners and drooling over the photos I committed without much further research.  And it turned out to be one of our best trips yet.  I have to admit although I used to be inspired to travel by images of city skylines and promises of great nightlife, I now spend time searching through Airbnb photos of cottages and city lofts as means of finding my next great adventure.  Maybe you’ll find yours below!

Where we stayed:

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Eighth Pole Inn: Lexington, Kentucky

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Le fenil de Marcel: Malmedy, Belgium

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Appartementje met zicht op de Leie: Ghent, Belgium

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Villa Andalucia: Tamarindo, Costa Rica

 

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Why Life Isn’t Like a Green Bean Casserole

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I hosted my first dinner party over the holidays. It was a very last minute decision and I was nervous but excited about pulling off a big meal for a small crowd. I set out to cook a duck, mash potatoes, roast brussel sprouts, and create a homemade green bean casserole for seven people with about a days worth of prep. And you know what? It turned out pretty great. I started cooking around 1:30pm on Wednesday and we were sitting down to eat at about 7:45, just fifteen minutes past my best guess of when we might eat.

The food was warm, friends were gathered, wine was poured. I was not anxious or frazzled, and the kitchen was relatively clean thanks to my obsessive “keep your station clean” mentality. I felt very proud to have created such a cozy den of friendship, and in my ability to prove to myself that I could feed a crowd. The serving dishes were mismatched but clean, and the vision of my perfectly imperfect homemade feast made me feel that I can make shit happen in my life when I want to.  I felt adult, proud, and powerful.

Flash forward to Saturday afternoon, where I now find myself crying into my knife as I chop cabbage and green apples for a salad. We’re fostering a second dog for the long weekend with hopes of adopting. She’s a sweet loving beagle we’ve named Millie. Millie and our current dog Gayle have had a couple fights, and things aren’t going as we had hoped. I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep her. And now her hopeful face and playful trot comes to represent all in the world that I cannot control.

I’m thinking about her, and about our broken sink. Something we have tried to control, but can’t. And all the other things in my life, the big and the small, that I want to change but either haven’t figured out how to fix or simply don’t have control over. I’m thinking about my eternal optimism that things will get better, which at the moment feels like a perfectly ripe peach that has been smashed by a dirty boot. Sadness oozes around my chest, mascara clouds my vision, and I have the deep down melancholy that is hard to climb out of. I put down the kitchen knife and slump to the floor. I let the cabbage weep on the cutting board while I weep on our cold tile floor.

An hour and an anxiety pill later I am walking the dogs with Jason, feeling the edges of my sadness being folded down. The pain is not so sharp now, and our soft conversation and the vision of two happy dogs walking on rainy sidewalks calms me. I don’t know what will come next, but this little moment is nice and that is enough for now.

If only life was more like an improvised green bean casserole. Do a little research and gather the right ingredients, and everything will always turn out okay. And if something does go wrong – the sauce burns, the beans are overcooked – starting over is possible. Your just need to clean the pans, review what went right and what went wrong, and then begin again with the hope of something delicious still to come.

I suppose  life is too big a place to always keep your station clean and organized, and even with the best ingredients gathered things can happen beyond our control. Even when you scrub the pans clean you still have the memory of your failures and past pains.  I guess the point is to still hope for something delicious out of life, even if that seems out of reach at the moment.

If nothing else, taking a dog on a walk always seems an anecdote to a not-so-nice world.

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Instant Food Porn: The Rise of the Hyperlapse Recipe Video

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A sample of hyperlapse food videos from the popular site Tasty.

Oreo churros. Bacon chips with guacamole. Pizza mac and cheese. Sounds like the menu from a college kids dream restaurant, right? Thanks to the rise of the hyperlapse recipe video, these are no longer just the food fantasies of the young and hungry. They are now the video creations you’ve likely seen plastered all over your Facebook feed, making cooking fatty fusion foods look fast and easy.

I myself have fallen into a trance watching these videos. Shot from above, you see only the hands of the person preparing the dish. Words flash across the screen, indicated ingredients, timing, and temperatures – the very basics of a recipe. Everything else – technique, methods, and philosophy of cooking – is left either to the video or the viewer’s imagination to fill in.

One pot chicken alfredo is prepared in a 32 second video clip. A recipe for a cheesesteak stew bowl takes 47 seconds. Discussion of how to properly cut meat across the gain, or any mention of a traditional Italian white sauce are absent. The history and technique of the food are unimportant – what matters most is the “money shot”. This is the final shot of the dish, where sauces ooze suggestively and greedy hands enter to pull apart a cheesy BBQ chicken quesadilla. The comments below suggest sheer bliss at this –“OMG” and “We have to try this” – are the most common refrains.

As a millennial, I get it. Our attention spans are so shot from being raised on technology that the quick and cheap satisfaction one gets from a 30 second recipe video is like a hit of cheese filled heroin. The recipes are compiled of the trendy yet unhealthy ingredients that get quick “likes” and shares – bacon, cheddar cheese, cinnamon rolls, steak, and anything related to pizza.   They make cooking look easy and accessible, and use ingredients that most college kids or 20 something’s have the budget for.

As a home cook, I find myself hating these videos. I think what irks me most comes down to two factors – the overwhelming presence of fast food fusion, and the lack of any cooking skills being taught. Most of the recipes take a recipe classic like Irish stew, the Philly cheesesteak, or Pad Thai, and turn them into streamlined versions of themselves. There is no history or even a sprinkle of authenticity. They are the water spots of the original dishes, perhaps relatable only in one or two of the ingredients and the name that was so carelessly slapped on the recipe.

Or even worse, they are carelessly fused with an another dish or cuisine, usually in order to make the end result more carb and cheese filled. Taco Egg Rolls. Spicy Masala Veggie Burgers. Kimchi Quesadillas. We all seem to get upset when the traditional music or clothing of these cultures are appropriated – so why not the food as well? The comment section does seem to have a few voices speaking out against these food mash ups, or at least correcting their names. One commenter pointed out that “masala” basically means spicy or spiced, so the name Spicy Masala Veggie Burger is repetitive. Unfortunately in the sped up version of these dishes, there is no time to explain what masala means or the complex history behind Indian cuisine.

Lastly I find that what these videos miss is the opportunity to teach kitchen skills. Sure, they may show a roux being made or the basics of bread making in some of their more complex videos, but there is no science or technique delivered. I’d much prefer a short video teaching how to make a roux, and how this base can be used for a variety of sauces or dishes. This would allow the viewer to take this skill into future culinary experiences and begin building a knowledge base for cooking. It’s like the old saying: “Give a college kid a recipe for beer mac and cheese, he’ll cure himself of one hang over. Teach him how to make a roux and he’ll host dinner parties for life.”

What I will say is that if these videos are getting more people, especially young people, into the kitchen then that is a good thing. I am excited by anyone getting into the kitchen and taking a risk at making their first meal. Hopefully they will move beyond these instant satisfaction dishes and seek more complex sources of food knowledge. If the hyperlapse food videos are the gateway drugs to America’s Test Kitchen and Food52, then I can accept the path that must be taken to get there.

But please, quit it with the taco egg rolls.

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The Casual-ification of Restaurants and Why it’s Great for Everyone

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A great meal from Smithtown Seafood, the restaurant connected to West Sixth Brewery.

I am too much of a homebody to go out to eat very often, or at least as often as a food writer should. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy restaurant food, but more so that I am crowd-averse and don’t like to be fussed over. Perhaps a result of years of waitressing, I am not always comfortable being the customer.

That said, there is a evolving trend in the ‘casualification’ of restaurants that I really enjoy. By this I mean that the best new restaurants increasingly aren’t white table cloth joints with perfectly poised hostesses. More often the best new restaurants are places where you order at the counter or a bar, and then wait for your food to be brought to you or picked up by you. Places where your meal is not enjoyed on a table cloth, but on picnic tables or funky wooden bars. And while many have mourned the loss of the classic French restaurant experience, I very much embrace it.

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Sitting grill side at Mazunte, enjoying a great meal and watching the flow of meal tickets flurry by.

What I think is so wonderful about this change is that it places the emphasis on the food, and serves to increase the accessibility of excellent meals to a wider audience. I have dined at Nicola’s and loved every second of it, but that’s not really in my budget to do so more than a very special occasion. I can, however, afford to frequent Dutch’s or Mazunte or Eli’s with enough regularity to see menus evolve and to try different dishes. The fact that all of these restaurants have made Cincinnati magazine’s annual Best Restaurant list must mean I’m not alone in this adoration of the casual restaurant.

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A charcuterie plate and chatting with a cook behind the counter at Dutch’s.

The experience of dining at a casual restaurant pushes you to interact genuinely with other patrons and the staff of the restaurant. Shared seating arrangements put you next to other restaurant goers. Open air kitchens can put you face to face with the cook. And without all the pretense of fine dining, it feels like you can all take a collective deep breath and just relax.

Yes, you are still the customer enjoying a night out and the staff is at work – but it feels like you’re on the same team. A team that just appreciates really awesome food. Without all the showy expenses of a full wait staff or an elaborate dining room, the only way to make your mark is to have damn good food and employ people who are committed to that goal.

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Worth the wait — half the fun of Eli’s is the picnic table seating and BYOB policy.

I recall a Friday night spent at Eli’s, the best barbeque joint in Cincinnati, where the wait for your meal was somewhere around 2 hours. The seating at Eli’s is communal picnic tables as well as a nearby park where people set up camp with blankets and coolers of local beer. Instead of turning on those whose food was ready, the crowds would burst into applause whenever a pager went off to signal the arrival of a meal. People were so excited just at the thought of someone else getting to enjoy their pulled pork sandwich and mac and cheese. Now that is a restaurant where the food is front and center, and a sense of community is second.