Thanksgiving Face Off

American, Cuisine, Homemade, New Jersey
A turkey butter sculpture set the mood this year

A turkey butter sculpture set the mood this year

Legs:

Those who know me know that I love to cook. I find that using food as a creative outlet is extremely therapeutic, and sharing my creations with someone who truly enjoys them is so rewarding.

This year I nearly begged my parents to host Thanksgiving, with the understanding that I would be responsible for (almost) everything. Last year my dad was the chef de cuisine and I his sous chef; I felt confident that this was my year to rise to the top tier and bless my family with a beautiful meal.

Fourteen of us gathered in my parents’ New Jersey home on Thanksgiving Thursday. I prepared an extensive menu with the old standbys, new additions and twists on Thanksgiving classics. The best part is that every single thing was made by me or my dad. Nothing came from a can, bag or industrial processing line. This meal was the definition of home cooking.

A cornucopia of thanks!

A cornucopia of thanks!

The Menu
  • Salad: Spinach and radicchio with pear, brie and pecans. Dressing made from orange juice, honey, balsamic and dijon.
  • Soup: Butternut squash, sweet potato and carrot. Homemade cinnamon apple chips to garnish.
  • Turkey: (Prepared by dad, a turkey master) Salt brined in lemon and fresh oregano, cooked with lemon, celery and onions in the cavity.
  • Gravy: (Also dad) Lemon and oregano to match the brine. Nice punch of acid with a white wine lurking in the background.
  • Stuffing: (Dad’s famous recipe – don’t mess with it) Sausage, apples, walnuts, celery and onions go into this beautiful bake. This is not Stove Top.
  • Mash: (Last chance for Dad to shine) A thing of legend which relatives demand. The trick? White pepper.
  • Cranberry Sauce: Cranapple sauce to be precise. Lemon zest and Grand Marnier to spruce things up a bit.
  • Green beans: Baked with bacon and onions. Sauce made from bacon drippings, apple cider vinegar and sugar. Game changer.
  • Pumpkin cheesecake: With a gingersnap and pecan crust and topped with salted caramel. The most decadent, luxurious thing I’ve eaten all year.

Beautiful as this feast was, all good things must come to an end. November is finished and it’s time to eat to the death to declare a winner this month. Find out how we repurposed the best meal of the year and turn it into a punishment:

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Where the Wild Things Are

American, Cuisine, New York, Specialty Shops

The Battleground

Bareburger, 366 West 46th Street, New York City


The Contenders

Southern Elk Burger vs. Roadhouse Wild Boar Burger

Southern Elk Burger

Ready to be more jealous than you’ve ever been before? Fried green tomato with whole grain maple horseradish mustard top off pepperjack cheese, applewood-smoked thick-cut bacon and an ELK PATTY. Yeah, you’re jealous.

 

Legs:

Choosing from the incredible selection at Bareburger was difficult to say the least. I went in knowing I wanted an elk patty, and from there experienced mental agony as I longed for every burger option and could only choose one. Since my favorite burger style is western (fried onions, pepperjack, bacon, BBQ sauce), I decided to try Bareburger’s take on it, although they placed it a little closer to the equator than I’m used to. Southern Elk Burger, here I come!

Commence flavor explosion. Let’s start with the elk burger itself. Super juicy (read: actually dripping juice), bright red, tender and full of wonderful, amazing, gamey flavor. It tasted like I took a bite out of a living elk that had quickly grilled itself for my dining pleasure. And oh, what a pleasure it was. This game-changing patty was seriously enhanced by all of its condiment friends.

Everything on this burger was necessary, and everything on this burger was delicious. Thick-cut applewood smoked bacon was so thick I literally mistook an escaped piece for a french fry. This bacon stepped it up a notch and all other types of bacon should be ashamed of themselves for not living up to thick-cut’s exacting standards. Fried onions and bacon pair SO well together, and this was no exception. The caramelization of the onions and the smokey saltiness of the bacon is a classic combination that no man can come between.

My whole grain bun was garnished with two things:

  1. Fried green tomato
  2. Whole grain maple horseradish mustard

I cannot even begin to convey how astounding these two flavors are together. The tart, almost vinegary flavor of a fried green tomato needs this exact sauce to complete it and make it whole. Whole grain mustard is a long-time favorite of mine. Put in horseradish to make it even tangier? I’m intrigued. Add in maple to balance out the sourness you’ve just concocted? Completely sold. This was the single greatest bun-condiment-tomato combination I’ve ever had the pleasure of sinking my teeth into.

I’m ruined for other burgers.


Roadhouse boar burger decorated with pepper jack cheese, turkey bacon, hass avocado, sweet apple grilled onions, red piquanté peppers, and smoked paprika mayo. Served with a side of meerkat. Not really. That would be awful.

Snax:

I was confident of two things as we were sat in the quirky space that is Bareburger. One, my life was now a little brighter as I stared up at the painted wooden bear head over our table. Two, I would not be leaving this establishment without an exotic burger in my belly.

Choosing from just one of Bareburger’s signature styles was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever faced on a menu. Every style has its own unique charm that beckons burger enthusiasts with a wink and a smile. After carefully reviewing my suitors I selected the Roadhouse with wild boar and began life anew.

The first bite had me peeling back layer after layer of bold flavor. Creamy, sweet, smoky, and even the slightest hint of spicy came stampeding out of this magnificent burger. All of the toppings flowed flawlessly from one to the next and came as close to the edge of being too busy without falling off. Pairing smoked paprika mayo with pepper jack cheese was a particularly inspired choice. Without the added flair to the mayo and cheese this burger could have become dangerously creamy, much like my River Grill experience. In fact, there was even more creaminess on the horizon as a slice of hass avocado joined the flavor bonanza.

Every topping on this burger was a winner from the get go, but the sweet apple grilled onions, turkey bacon (substitution), and red piquanté peppers brought out the best in my boar. The duality of sweet and savory in the onions and peppers helped contrast the boar’s slight char and welcomed tinge of gaminess. As a secondary protein, the turkey bacon worked as a gateway from topping to boar with the kind of humility you would expect from the perfect sidekick.

The boar itself was like pork’s far cooler cousin from out of town. It carried a char much like a beef patty but had a distinguishable flavor all its own. A bit gamey at times, but if you order a wild boar burger not expecting gaminess, then you should just keep quiet while the adults talk about burgers.

I really don’t see how this burger can be topped.

 


And the winner is… a tie?

✗Protein ✗Sauce ✗Sides/Veggies ✗Presentation

You might think this is a cop out, but you weren’t there. Both of our burgers were astounding. Like, game-changing, life-altering, head-over-heels fantastic works of burger art. Both proteins: succulent. Both sauces: legitimately incredible. Both veggies: lovely. Both presentations: well I mean they’re just burgers.

It’s a wash. How can you choose a favorite child? How can you choose a favorite Bareburger?

November wins:

Legs: 1 – Snax: 1

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A Chinese Bistro?

Chinese, Cuisine, New Jersey, Specialty Shops

The Battleground

A & J Bistro, East Hanover, New Jersey


The Contenders

Hong Shao Niu Ro Mian vs. Dan Dan Mian

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup vs. Noodles in Hot Spicy Sesame Sauce

Tender, tender beef. Handmade wide noodles. Flavorful spicy broth. Bok choy. Fairy dust.

Legs:

A & J Bistro. What a place. Although the name would lead you to believe it’s French, actually they specialize in some of the best, most honest Chinese food I’ve ever had. Don’t get me wrong, I love lo mein, but General Tso never darkens the doorstep of A&J. At a place where the Chinese guests outnumber everyone else by at least 20 to 1, you know you’ve hit gold.

Except for our century egg, I’ve never had anything here I didn’t like. If ordering a noodle dish, they’ll ask you if you want wide or thin noodles. The answer is wide. Always. Their wide noodles are handmade, misshapen and absolutely mouthwatering. The thin? From a machine (can you blame them?)

Their beef is so tender. Like, cut-in-half-with-your-chopsticks tender. It also acts as a wonderful vessel for the lovely sauce it’s been simmering in. Packed full of flavor, this bovine knows what’s what.

But back to the sauce, which is more of a spicy vinegar oil than anything else. Maybe that sounds weird, but trust me, it works. It’s a thin sauce that’s a beautiful dark reddish brown and carries all the depth of flavor that hue would inspire. Just the right amount of acid, a subtle hint of sweet and a punch of umami all come together with a spicy finish. Of course, I went ahead and added more of my own rice vinegar, soy sauce and spoonfuls of A & J’s amazing chili oil, because you can never go wrong with (much) more chili.

The bok choy was an add-on and totally worth it. Gotta have my green. Steamed to a lovely shade and refreshingly crisp, I honestly believe it completes the dish.

Final note: A & J is so cheap. Like, every time I get the bill I’m astounded by how little the wide array of food has cost (you have to get some of their small plates to share – amazing). They are cash only, though, so come prepared.


Homemade wide noodles with sesame sauce and a stylish bok choy beret.

Snax:

Prior to meeting Legs I had never had authentic Chinese cuisine. The furthest I got was General Tso’s, pork fried rice, and eggrolls. As I am a functioning human being, eggrolls still hold a place in my heart, but the rest went by the wayside a long time ago. Now with a newfound sense of self-preservation and a love for A & J Bistro I never have to call Ming-Feng ever again.

My first steps into life after Tso lead me straight to dan dan mian. A & J’s handmade wide noodles left me with a sense of wonder as I entered the new frontier speeding passed towers of takeaway containers overflowing with lo mein. These noodles are nice and soft, devoid of grease, and gently carry a flavor rather than inducing the headaches I was so accustomed to when in range of its fast food cousin. Toto, we’re not in Grand Sichuan anymore.

I have never felt greater empathy for the seed/nut allergic masses than when slurping down noodle after sesame sauce covered noodle at A & J. Get your EpiPens out boys and girls. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. This lovely sesame sauce topped with peanuts delivers a creamy, rounded out nuttiness that delights with every bite. Never overwhelming in thickness and always exits the palette and just the right time, this sauce is a true professional. Adding chili oil, soy sauce, and rice vinegar gives the sesame a little more complexity, but it’s not essential to its resounding success.

Some protein would be nice and a lot more bok choy, which doesn’t come standard, but this modest little meal is the perfect introduction to the ill-informed. More Chinese please!

 

 


And the winner is… Legs!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✗Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

Snax didn’t even have protein. Chump. His sauce though… wow. He actually ordered what I wanted to get, but out of benevolence I allowed him to dine upon my (formerly) favorite dish. Looks like it pays to be kind.

 

November wins:

Legs: 1 – Snax: 1

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Healthy Revival

American, Cuisine, New York, Specialty Shops

The Battleground

ReViVer, Hell’s Kitchen, NYC


The Contenders

Loco Moco vs. Mahi Curry

wpid-2014-11-06-00.06.21.jpg.jpeg

Loco Moco = an over easy egg sitting on a “chicken burger” served on a bed of brown rice and sauteed veggies, all topped off with a tomatillo sauce. Sounds too good to be true?

Legs:

While visiting ReViVer, which specializes in healthy fast food, I just couldn’t say no to something named Loco Moco. ReViVer offers nutritionally balanced food with quick service at fast food prices – and who doesn’t love a fried egg?

If only reality lived up to expectation. This was not a bad meal by any means. It was fine. Just fine. The chicken burger truly was a burger. The ground and then reformed patty just felt far too mushy, ruining its lovely balance of smoky seasonings. This came as somewhat of a nasty shock as I had been expecting a chicken breast, but I guess the fault there lies with me.

What I was hoping would be the epic climax to a roller coaster of a meal also left me wanting more. My over easy egg just wasn’t runny enough for my taste. It was more of a solid than a beautiful, creamy yolk. Combine that with the under-seasoned tomatillo sauce smothering everything and choking the meal’s life away, and the nail is in the coffin.

My rice and veg were great. Simply delicious. Perhaps because they weren’t trying as hard as their fancy neighbors. Brown rice, black beans, spinach and roasted tomatoes. Honest, hearty, down to earth.

Tofu, fennel, carrots, peppers, cucumbers, cannellini beans, radish, and red quinoa, tossed with orange miso dressing and topped with toasted almonds and just the right amount of "oh my God."

Tofu, fennel, carrots, peppers, cucumbers, cannellini beans, radish, and red quinoa, tossed with orange miso dressing. Topped with toasted almonds and just the right amount of “oh my God.”

Good thing we got the most delicious salad on the planet for a starter.


wpid-2014-11-06-00.12.24.jpg.jpeg

A huge slab of mahi-mahi served as a vessel for the coconut curry sauce I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Served with some pretty stellar vegetables to cheer the stoniest of hearts.

Snax:

When I went out on a limb and ordered fish at a fast food joint, I was numb with anticipation. Would I be rewarded for my risk and pull in higher earnings? Or would it explode in my face and further my losing streak?

Both. The answer is both.

On one hand, my meal was a Southeast Asian delight. My coconut red curry sauce is hard to play down. It tasted like a coconut got married to curry and served party-in-my-mouth for the reception. All of the guests were satisfied, most of all me.

On the other hand, the fish was “meh.” Any flavor the mahi-mahi originally had was completely overwhelmed by that beautiful, albeit powerful, curry sauce. The fish was basically just a hunk of protein sitting on veggies.

But oh, what veggies they were. Roasted zucchini, butternut squash and carrots provided the perfect amount of sweetness to the coconut curry marriage sauce. They complimented each other and were cooked very nicely. Spinach and broccoli came back in from the savory side of life to balance out all the flavors and make sure my taste buds got the full one-two. Brown basmati rice on the bottom of everything acted as a sponge to ensure that not a single drop of sauce got wasted.

This dish also came with a completely superfluous avocado salsa verde. I’m not sure why it was there and I barely remember eating it. Completely overwhelmed by the other great flavors going on.

Turns out you can have great fast food that’s healthy, but you still shouldn’t order the fish.


And the winner is… Snax!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✓Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

This one was kind of a no-brainer. Legs’ sauce had no flavor and mine was packed full of it. Legs’ veggies were good too, but my zucchini and butternut squash really brought this win home. She gets protein because I ate a flavorless slab of fish while her chicken mush actually had seasoning. But overall, I’m definitely the champion this time around.

November wins:

Legs: 0 – Snax: 1

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A Polish Seafood Extravaganza

Cuisine, Food, New Jersey, Polish

The Battleground

Abigail’s Cafe, Linden, New Jersey


The Contenders

Grilled Tuna Salad vs. Red Snapper with Sweet Corn Sauce

Sesame-encrusted tuna cooked medium rare. Side salad of mango, tomatoes, avocado and mixed greens. It's better than it looks.

Sesame-encrusted tuna cooked medium rare. Side salad of mango, tomato, avocado and mixed greens. Incredibly, it’s even better than it looks.

Legs:

This was advertised as a grilled tuna salad special. You can imagine my surprise and glee when the salad turned out to be a side salad with a huge piece of perfectly cooked tuna as the star. Look at that beautiful bright pink. Go on, look at it.

The tuna was encrusted in a game-changing sesame ginger crust. A classic combination, yes, but throwing it on the grill and infusing in with that lovely smokey flavor elevated this commonplace protein to a new standard of glory. Umami and smoke abounded and it was a thing of beauty.

The “salad” was really just a mixture of awesome things:

  • 1 entire avocado
  • A whole ton of mango
  • Mixed greens
  • Really, really, really good tomatoes
  • A sweet and savory vinaigrette

Grape tomatoes are not my favorite. They’re not even close to my favorite, and Snax downright hates them. By the end of the meal, they were gone, and he had eaten at least half of them! Why? Because the vinaigrette was SO FREAKING GOOD that it soaked its way into this average veggie and turned its life around. I think it goes without saying that the fresh mango and avocado were sublime.

The flavors in this dish complemented each other so perfectly. Each and every component was light and could easily have been overwhelmed by its neighbor. Much to my delight, they performed a delicate dance and really enjoyed the marriage rather than one partner fighting for control. Ah, pure harmony.

My only complaint is that this dish was on special so I can’t eat it every day of my life.

Red Snacker

Pan seared red snapper served with sweet corn sauce, heirloom tomatoes, sauteéd spinach, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream mashed potatoes.

Snax:

I love Abigail’s. It’s a great place to grab a couple bottles of Żywiec with your pals or have a quiet evening with just you, your significant other, and a pitcher of one of their stupendous sangria flavors. It’s hard to go wrong at Abigail’s with atmosphere and drinks as equally impressive as the cuisine. But where there’s a will there’s a way.

My fascination with sauce has been well documented (see Bobby Van’s) so it should come as no surprise that I was excited to try sweet corn sauce.The sauce isn’t as unappealing to the eye as it is to the taste buds, but it was no ugly duckling turned swan princess. The only proof that I have of the sauce being sweet corn flavored is the physical presence of corn. No real sweetness to take note of. Mediocre at best.

You know the disaster movie cliché when nonessential personnel are directed off the premises? Those tomatoes would have been on the first plane to safety as the hero  stayed behind to save humanity. Just go home tomatoes.

The fish was prepared well enough but all I can remember is the taste of “sweet” corn sauce on everything. That snapper deserved a better end to its days than to be humiliated by corn. Life can be cruel.

Underneath the now humiliated snapper was a bed of sauteéd spinach. It had all of the nutritional value you would expect from spinach and was also green. Popeye would be proud. Then again he ate the stuff straight from the can so that’s not saying much.

Not a word about those mashed potatoes. Not. A. Word.


And the winner is… Legs!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✓Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

A clean sweep, but Snax really didn’t stand a chance. You can tell just from looking at the photos whose meal was superior. I’ve been dreaming about my “salad” ever since, and he’s been trying to forget that his snapper ever existed.

Don’t forget that we’re doing a new format from here on out. At the end of the month the half of the duo with fewer wins will be punished (on video). Right now Legs is in the lead and she hopes it stays that way!

September/October wins:

Legs: 1 Snax: 0

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Steak Out House

American, Cuisine, Fine Dining, New York

The Battleground

Bobby Van’s, Financial District, New York

The Contenders

Lobster Ravioli vs. Roasted Chicken Breast
Lobster ravioli, sage butter, sauteed spinach and shrimp chunks? Served with  a side of tears.

Lobster ravioli, sage butter, sautéed spinach and shrimp chunks? Served with a side of tears.

Legs:

It’s been awhile since I’ve had lobster ravioli, but I always dwell on the memory fondly. Sadly, that was not the case at this gourmet Wall Street eatery. Maybe it’s my fault for ordering something other than steak at a steakhouse, so I guess I got my just desserts.

Lobster ravioli in sage butter? Yep, definitely. Cheers. Intense excitement built up during the salad round. Sadly, the instant my plate was set in front of me I knew exactly what was in store. Frozen. The sad, saggy centers held only a remnant of their pre-freezer glory. Tell-tale black zebra stripes decorating the pasta could only be produced by machinery. Call me crazy for expecting something fresh at $28 a plate.

My “sage butter” was just droplets of oil adorning the dish. The tough pasta did nothing to soak up my pathetic attempt at a sauce. Luckily, the lobster in the middle was in nice chunks. Frozen, thawed, stringy, chewy chunks. This catastrophe was sitting on a bed of spinach. Great! I love spinach! For reasons unknown to me, the chef decided to throw chopped bits of shrimp in with the sautéed greens?? Doesn’t make any sense; I can’t make heads or tails of it.

I’m in trouble.

Roasted chicken with creamy risotto and apple cider sauce. Strong aftertaste of regret.

Roasted chicken with creamy risotto and apple cider sauce. What hath God wrought?

Snax:

That’s right. I didn’t get a steak either. You’re probably thinking that we’re both crazy, but all of the steak options had supplemental charges and we weren’t exactly eager to spend at Bobby Van’s. So I went with the safe choice, chicken…I’m so naive.

What really drew me to the dish was the promise of apple cider sauce. What I got instead was the flavor of buttered movie popcorn with an almost caramel-like aftertaste. It was very strange but surprisingly tolerable with a spoonful of creamy risotto. This isn’t to say that the risotto rode in on a white stallion to save the day. They just complimented each other well in their fierce mediocrity and left me at the mercy of the evil king.

There was nothing thrilling about the chicken. It was OK and even had a decent char to it at times. Unfortunately it wasn’t consistent and slipped from a nice flavor to a burnt reminder that life isn’t always fair. The worst part was when the burnt flakes of chicken found a new home in the risotto like a friend who overstays his welcome at your place after getting kicked out of his. Hopefully chicken flakes can get off of my crummy risotto couch, get a job, and win this thing.


And the winner is… Snax!

✓Protein  ✓Sauce  ✓Sides/Veggies  ✓Presentation

My chicken tasted like chicken and my strange sauce and risotto mixture was also food. It’s hard to lose when your opponent is a specimen of mass production on top of an irrational pile of spinach and shrimp. Bobby Van’s, you’re a steakhouse in New York City and you somehow left us disappointed. Let’s see how Legs deals with another equation that doesn’t add up as she suffers this week’s punishment.


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Legs isn’t done yet! Check out how she really feels about Bobby Van’s in the very first issue of Sour Grapes!