Thursday, October 28, 2010

Anatomy of a Blimpy Burger

If you're one of those people who dislikes yelling out your order in front of a bunch of people only to get called out for it by a skanky short order cook who looks like Ted Nugent, do not go to Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger. During our recent visit, a guy about eight people ahead of us in line had his wife order for him. Having your wife order for you at Blimpy Burgers is like admitting you're a big pussy. The cook - a tough, red-headed Ted Nugent lookalike - called him on it.

"I want to hear it from you!" she yelled, laying him open for all of us to see.

This kind of stuff doesn't unnerve me because I know you have to go into Blimpy Burger prepared. You can't waver or be indecisive or God forbid, hide behind your spouse as she orders for you. You go in ready to kick some ass. You start with your deep fryer order (ours: fried zucchini and fries, SIR!), you then move on to your burger size and bun (doubles on kaisers), you then tell them what grilled items and type of cheese you want (mushrooms, onions, swiss), and then you breathe a huge sigh of relief, like you do at the end of a double root canal. The hard part is over.

Blimpy Burger isn't an ordinary burger place and that's thanks to its sort of unconventional burgers (and, yes, its wet-your-pants ordering system). The burgers are more of a loose meat patty, architecturally built with a multitude of toppings. They start out as golf ball size chunks of ground beef that get whacked down hard with a spatula into very thin, irregularly shaped patties. The advantage of this is irregular shaped patty = little bits of crunchiness (thinner meat chars more quickly) which counter the greasiness/juiciness of the meat. I don't know it this was well thought out or intentional, but it certainly is wondrous.

Before the whacking:

After the whacking:

There also has been much discussion about the number of patties one should order and I've concluded that three gives you the perfect ratio of meat to bun. Four, or a quad, is good for Big and Tall Shop patrons. Five, or a quint, is obscene, and best left to marijuana-fueled post-fraternity party forays or trying to impress your girlfriend. Just a note: for fear of too much meat, I would never order a triple anywhere else. But it just works at Blimpy's.

A word about the griddle: grease. A word about the line: long. A word about the burger: one of the best you'll ever have.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The thing about dinner theater

I'm not going to lie to you. I've never been to dinner theater in the strictest sense of the word. I haven't experienced the magic of the Chanhassen Dinner Theater in the Twin Cities or laughed til I cried into my baked ham at La Comedia Dinner Theater in Springboro, Ohio (touted as "A Taste of Broadway"). I have, however, been to the kind of restaurant where the servers break out in song in the middle of service and I frankly find it embarrassing.

I'm not sure who I'm more embarrassed for, myself or the servers. When the Fairmont Hotel first opened in Chicago years ago, its flagship restaurant was one of those servers-who-sing kind of places. It was called Pastoral or Symphonie or Chorale or some other music-in-a-country-setting kind of name. The servers all wore dirndls and lederhosen and sang in earnest as they brought out the pasta primavera. Whenever I sensed they were going to break out in song, I would hightail it to the ladies room and stay there until it was over. I was just thankful they weren't wearing roller skates.

I never would have paid to go to a place like Pastoral/Symphonie/Chorale. My sister-in-law's father invited me. If someone else is paying, I'll go just about anywhere once, even Medieval Times, another dinner theater experience, this one with jousting. I might even pay for Medieval Times myself, because the idea of jousting and eating at the same time is just so random, especially when it happens in Schaumburg, that it verges on eccentrically brilliant.

Dinner theater menus and cruise ship menus are apparently written by the same people, with all-you-can-eat Baked Virginia Ham and Roast Beef from the Carving Station playing the starring roles. 'Seasoned' Tilapia is offered on many menus, too, and this likely means a sprinkling of Mrs. Dash. Toby's Dinner Theater in Baltimore serves something called Our Famous Spinach "Phunque" Casserole. "Phunque" has all sorts of unpleasant connotations, starting with aromas that emanate from the nether regions of the body, so I can't even imagine what that might taste like. Toby's also serves Knockwurst with Baked Beans and I have to wonder, is this a wise thing to put on the menu when people are expected to sit still and be quiet for 2 hours?

There was a restaurant in Greenwich Village that took the singing server routine to a whole new place, namely Tuckahoe, New York. Though I can't recall the name, I do remember it catered to a gay clientele. If there was a birthday at the table, the male servers would tartsy out in caftans and turbans, and belt out the theme to the TV show, "Maude." You know, Lady Godiva was a freedom rider, she didn't care if the whole world knew......It came as a complete surprise the first time around and I laughed heartily and thought, this place has mastered it. But by birthday number 9 that night, and the 36th sung chorus of "And then there's Maude!", I had reverted to my former, dinner theater-hating self.

I like music in restaurants. Ambient music is good. A jukebox in the right kind of place is fine, too. Even the Rolling Stones can have a place at the table (like at Mario Batali's Babbo in New York, where Sticky Fingers played in its entirety when we were there a few years ago.) But if I ever see a server wearing a costume again, I'm outta there.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hail the gods of collegiate dining

I have a confession to make: I never ate cafeteria food in college. Occasionally, I might make myself a bologna sandwich at the cafeteria sandwich bar (only one of my dorms even had one), but I never once stood in line with my tray, watching as the lady with the shower cap sadly doled out slop on to my plastic plate.

It wasn't as if I was a food snob. I just owned a really good hot pot, and I happened to like spaghetti with Ragu enough to eat it every night for four years.

But now I'm feeling wistful. I think I may have missed out, and here's why:

The chicken broccoli bake at the University of Michigan.

I can't remember exactly how I stumbled upon this nearly legendary staple of the Residential Dining System, but once I started researching, I discovered it has legions of adoring fans. There are internet forums about which dorm offers a more delicious version and which one handles its rice accompaniment better (separate rice or rice underneath as it bakes). There have been a handful of attempts at recreating the recipe, and scathing rebuttals at those attempts for not doing the dish justice.

Apparently, the chicken broccoli bake is to dorm food what Knute Rockne is to college football. I decided I had to try it.

After much digging (ok, a relatively quick Google search), I found the real deal: the sanctioned recipe with the official Residential Dining Service seal. It even feels presidential.

In case the name doesn't paint a detailed enough picture, chicken broccoli bake is a casserole. It involves chicken, a chickeny cream sauce, and broccoli, plus a crispy bread crumb topping. It is industrial-strength Betty Crocker comfort food served on a pile of rice. In the fall, as the wind gets nippier and the sun just never seems to provide enough warmth, this will hit the spot. Ditto, after a few bong hits.

University of Michigan Chicken Broccoli Bake - Serves 6

1 pound broccoli, chopped fresh or frozen
12 oz. diced chicken breast (leftover cooked chicken would be great in this)
2 Tbs. butter or oil
2 Tbs. diced onions
2 Tbs. flour
1 1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp chicken bouillion granules or 1 bouillion cube
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 cup whipping or heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbs. grated parmesan cheese
3 Tbs. bread crumbs (I use panko style for extra crunchiness)

Rice for serving

Steam the broccoli for a few minutes - do not overcook. In a saute pan, cook the diced chicken until no longer pink. You may need a little oil to keep the chicken from sticking. Remove the chicken and set aside. Using the same saute pan, heat the butter or oil and saute the onions until translucent. Stir in the flour and cook constantly for 1 - 2 minutes. Adjust the heat if the mixture is browning too quickly.

Combine the water and bouillion and stir until dissolved. Add that to the pan and stir over heat for a few minutes until it is thickened.

In a separate bowl or large mixing cup, combine the sour cream and heavy cream. Add a little of the hot liquid and stir, to temper the cream mixture. Add cream mixture back to the hot liquid and blend thoroughly.

Salt and pepper to taste. Gently simmer for five minutes. Do not bring to a boil or the mixture will separate. Gently fold in cooked chicken and broccoli.

Place mixture in a buttered casserole dish. Combine bread crumbs with parmesan cheese and sprinkle evenly on top of the chicken mixture. Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven until top is lightly brown and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Do not overbake or it will separate.

Serve over rice. Alternately, and this is how I made it, cook the rice first, and then turn it into the buttered casserole dish. Spoon the chicken broccoli mixture over the rice, then the breadcrumb mixture, then bake as directed.