Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Milagro Summit

Putting together an online presence ain't easy. You've got content to plan, new guys to welcome, and technology to discuss. As such, we decided to hold another SFA Summit to plan the new year. We chose to go to Milagro Modern Mexican in Webster because John had a suspect New Years Eve there, but a prompt and heartfelt response made them worth of another try. Let's go through the food.

Tuna Ceviche

This is hands down the best ceviche we've ever had. The Ahi Tuna and Avocado were perfect together, and the jicama gave it just enough texture. If you go and don't try this, you owe yourself a slap in the face. Could definitely stand alone as an entree so long as you abuse the complimentary chips and salsa.
SFA-3, Ceviche - 0.

Barbacoa Beef Burrito

Josh may be a sandwich snob, but he tore through this burrito. All the classic elements of a Qdoba burrito, but worth the extra couple of bucks for higher end ingredients.

Chori Huevo Torta

I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more chorizo. The chorizo sausage on this is made in-house and is so good I wouldn't have minded a little more. The eggs were done perfectly, and I'd love to grab a sandwich like this for breakfast on the way into the office. Served next to some just-spicy-enough sweet potato fries and some crisp slaw and this was a complete meal and then some.

Baja Fish Tacos

The fish tacos were the thing we were least excited about, but we don't really have any issue with them, they just weren't "you can feel the wind in your face and the sand in your wetsuit" amazing.

The Beer

This was a workday lunch summit so we didn't partake, but the selection looked largely local and well thought-out. Will definitely need to check in on the dinner menu and imbibe sometime.
Tequila? It's like beer.

The Verdict

Nestled adorably into downtown Webster (watch the one-way streets leaving), Milagro does a good job combining classic Mexican techniques with new ingredients and vice versa. Certainly not overpriced on this visit (and from the look of the menu, not generally), this is a great place to step beyond the El Maguey's of St. Louis. If we had to ding it for anything, it'd be that out booth was pushed to its limit with our ample bottoms, which makes the "not undersized but certainly not oversized" portions a good fit for the place.

The level of service brought this place over the top, and we'd happily recommend stopping in for lunch or a tequila-fueled dinner date. You may even want to sign up for their 5k.

Hopefully a thumbs up isn't culturally insensitive in Mexico.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Crock Potting At Its Finest

If you're not cooking at least one or two meals a week, you're a sissy. Yeah, that's right, I said cooking is manly, in a round about way.

Regardless of what your grandpa did or what some ignorant show like 2 1/2 Men says (Full disclosure: I'm not sure what that show says because it sucks and I don't watch it. You shouldn't either for that matter.), your wife is probably just as busy as you are, if not more so. So, roll up your sleeves, get in the kitchen and make the family some dinner!

With that said, I'm going to do you a huge solid and float you one of the most delicious recipes in the world. Here's the best part, it's easy. My dog could make this recipe, if he wasn't a lazy Chihauhau who spends 22 hours a day sleeping.

Here's your shopping list:
1. 1 package of boneless skinless chicken breasts (figure about 1 1/2 per person)
2. 1 can (10 3/4 oz) cream of chicken soup
3. 1 cup of white wine (or substitute chicken broth)
4. 1 packet of chicken gravy (found in the seasoning packets section)
5. 1 block (8 oz) of cream cheese
6. 1 box of white rice

Now, follow these simple steps. Get a Crock-Pot; and set it to low. Place the chicken breasts along the bottom. Open the gravy packet and sprinkle it over the chicken. In a separate bowl, whisk the soup and white wine together. Pour over the chicken and let it cook for about 8 hours.
This is what it should look like before the Crock-Pot does its thing.
When you're ready to eat, start cooking the rice. We usually make extra (like 4 cups), because this thing is awesome left over. Spoon the chicken out of the Crock-Pot and place it in a separate bowl. Cut the block of cream cheese into fourths and whisk it in the liquid that's in the Crock-Pot. That will thicken it up and make a most delicious sauce/gravy. Trust me, it's awesome. Now, plate a bed of rice, toss on a piece of chicken and liberally spoon sauce all over that bad boy.
I like to add a little salt and pepper once it's plated. Your call.
If there is any doubt in your mind that this isn't the Crock-Pot chicken and rice recipe to end all Crock-Pot chicken and rice recipes, consider this story. I found this recipe in the cookbook that came with our slow cooker. (Yeah it's not a name brand Crock-Pot. We don't have that kind of money.) Needless to say, my wife was skeptical of any recipe that was from the pages of a book that came with a slow cooker.

Not one to be deterred, I forged ahead. I made it; and Tiffany was amazed. She frequently refers to it simply as "the deliciousness." Enough said.

Update: Going Mainstream

Apparently, not all Crock-Pots are created equally. Our Hamilton Beach bit the dust last week. It had the new-fangled time-delay functionality. It kept shutting off randomly throughout the day. Who wants to come home to $25 of half-cooked food? Boo!

We scraped together an extra 35 cents and ordered a Crock-Pot brand Crock-Pot on Amazon. It arrived yesterday. We opted for the old-school model without the digital display. It's black and stainless steel. We'll see how long this one lasts.

Black, stainless steel, and oh so manly.
At family functions, my grandma wheels out a Crock-Pot that I figured was from the 1950s. You know, the one with the paisley pattern on the side. Fun fact: Rival introduced the name brand Crock-Pot in 1971. In 1974, they wheeled out the stoneware inserts. Still, grandma's has to be 20+ years old. If this one lasts that long, I'll give it a proper burial in the backyard.

Since the Hamilton Beach only lasted 3 years, it suffered a much less glorious fate.
Note the pizza box under the slow cooker. That was plan B.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sandwich Snobbery Is an Ugly Thing

When I left the frostbitten sidewalks of Truman State University, I dreamed of becoming a regular columnist for the New York Times.

Here I am nearly 10 years later as an unpaid contributor to the Suburban Father Alliance blog. I think it’s safe to say, “Mom, I made it.”

Like you, I’ve been thrilled to read John and Jamie’s exploits over the years. (I just realized my name starts with a J also.) When they asked me to be their Illinois correspondent, I was thrilled.

Speaking of Illinois, let’s address that now. Yes, I’m from an Illinois suburb of St. Louis – O’Fallon. Yeah, it’s a different world over here. When Chesterfield is being bombarded by snow, we are left waiting a whole 45 minutes before the system makes it here.

If you ever cross the Mississippi River into Illinois, most of you know to drive a minimum of 12 miles into Illinois before exiting the interstate. Never been over here? Well, there’s a pit of human despair that extends from the river until you reach the bluffs of Fairview Heights. It’s called East St. Louis. If you're not familiar with the area, you may want to steer clear.

A little more about myself…I grew up in Rolla, Mo. Yep, I’m a native Missourian, and, yes, I root for the Cardinals. However, I do not root for the Los Angeles Rams. What? They’re still in St. Louis? Just wait another year.

My wife (Tiffany) and I have two children. Lucas was born Oct. 20, 2008. He passed away on Nov. 17, 2010 after a rough battle with leukemia. You can read about it at his Caring Bridge site.

Lucas was diagnosed in June 2010. Here he is just days earlier.

Our youngest son, Linus, was born Oct. 25, 2011. Luckily he’s now sleeping through the night. He looks a lot like his brother; and we’re very blessed to have him.

Here's Linus this past fall. They resemble each other, just a bit.

Meat and's not enough

In preparing for this blog, I did a lot of soul searching about who I am. During lunch on Monday, I came to a very difficult truth about myself. I’m a sandwich snob.

You see, a typical homemade sandwich consisting of meat, cheese and condiments just isn’t good enough for me. I blame Subway for my sandwich snobbery. More specifically, I blame the Rolla Subway network. Years of choosing from a veritable garden at Subway has ruined me.

You see, despite my grandpa’s ramblings on “why would anyone pay $5 for some bread and cold cuts”, the Subway craze caught on early in Rolla. There are currently five Subways in the town. At any moment, all 19,506 residents are never more than 7 minutes from a Subway. With the recent addition of a Jimmy John's, I think it's safe to say Rolla is a town that loves its sandwiches.

Yet, I must remind you that this town's lust for sandwiches has created a first-rate sandwich snob. Is this a victimless crime? Ask my wife. I doubt my eye rolls at ham and cheese on two pieces of standard wheat bread have made her feel good about tossing "sandwiches" out there as a viable lunch option. When faced with such glum options, I sometimes find myself applying unnatural methods to hum-ho ingredients in an effort to create a sum greater than its parts. For three straight days, I toasted salami and cheese on wheat in a pan. Foolish? Absolutely. Everyone knows salami is a meat best served cold. It's amazing the ridiculous methods a snob will employ when faced with a poorly-stocked fridge.

This just won't do.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to throw this garbage in the trash and head over to Casey’s. They just added a “sandwich parlor” next to the rotating racks of pizza. I need to see what that’s all about.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What's in your Coffee?

It's Monday. Coffee me NOW!

For me you can pretty much substitute any day of the week into that first sentence for me. I like coffee. I am drawn to it. It makes me happy.

Really quick before we go on, I will put out a fun fact that I was at one time in the Food & Beverage industry very briefly. In that time I picked up 2 key facts (and 30lbs to my waistline): 1) No business wants to buy orange juice for $8 a gallon and 2) A pot of Coffee is pretty inexpensive to make. Since this time, I have taken these two lessons and have applied it to my OJ & Coffee interactions ever since. This history coupled with the fact that I am cheap was a perfect storm for what occurred last week on Twitter with Kaldi's Coffee.

First off, I have apologized for being kind of an A-hole to Kaldi's but I will also do it publicly here.

Now on to the blog post... After this tweet exchange, Kaldi's offered to take the interaction with them to email. I'm all about learning and I love me some coffee so I felt it would be worth it. It was. And this is where I had my mind blown and Kaldi's Coffee taught me a lesson in all things good coffee. Below is an email from them. It's lengthy but worth a read if you have ever complained about expensive coffee.

"Hi, John,

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to better explain why our coffee costs what it does.

My name is Mike. I work as one of the lead baristas at our Kirkwood cafe and also head-up Kaldi's online presence. No worries about the tweets. It is something I encounter daily at work. Explaining the cost behind our coffee is one of our biggest challenges, but really, it's a great opportunity to talk about coffee and what goes into your daily cup.

I've been working at Kaldi's for just over a year and a half and I still learn something new about coffee everyday. I was a regular customer before joining Kaldi's so I really do understand both sides. There are a ton of choices when it comes to buying coffee. So, at the very least, I hope you'll know what you're choosing when you buy coffee from us. We don't take that choice lightly.

I'll break down what goes into each cup with as much coffee jargon as possible aside. I tend to get wordy. Apologies for the length.

Kaldi's belongs to a group called the Specialty Coffee Association of America. That means, among many other things, that our guests should expect that the coffee we serve is among the best you will find in the world. 

That starts with the coffee farmers, or producers as we like to call them. We travel to the coffee's origin working with producers to educate them on what we look for when we buy coffee, which in turns allows them to produce better coffee. Most farmers are concerned with quantity, while we are just concerned with quality. We are happy to then pay a premium for that coffee above what is paid for the majority of coffee you'll find. That in turn makes it a win-win for both sides. Producers are able to make a better living supporting their families and we're able to enjoy amazing coffees because they're able to focus on the quality, not just producing as much as possible. That's a big part of the higher cost. 

All coffee we roast is considered speciality coffee, a designation given to only 3-7% of coffee produced in the world. We like to compare this to wine. Wines receive scores that allow them to more easily be judged on their quality. Coffee goes through a similar process, needing an 80 or higher score on a 100 point scale to be considered speciality coffee. Our green coffee buyer, Tyler, scores and samples all coffees in house and at the coffee farms and then chooses which ones we like the most. Just like you'll find cheap and expensive wines the same is true for coffee. You're paying for the experience you receive from it.

Next, our roasters in our roasting facility near Highway 40 & Vandeventer in downtown St. Louis roast our coffee. Most of our coffees and specifically our single origin coffees, or those that aren't blended into blends like our Cafe Kaldi or Espresso 700 and aren't flavored like our Highlander Grogg, are roasted lightly.

Generally, most people equate a dark roast with more flavor, but that really only depends on what flavor you are seeking. The reason most coffee is roasted on the darker side is because the ligher you roast it, the more the inherit qualities within the coffee bean are apparent when you brew it. So, if you are roasting already bad quality coffee beans, you'll get bad taste notes from the beans if you were to roast it lightly. 

However, if you start with great coffee beans, roasting them lightly allows for those great taste notes to come out. Roasting it dark imposes a smoky, sometimes bitter taste.  We try to impose as little flavor from the roasting process on the coffee. The coffee producers really do the heavy lifting when it comes to making great coffee so we try and leave their work as it is.

We bag, seal and label all 500,000+ pounds of coffee we roast every year by hand locally here in St. Louis. 

Our baristas go through extensive training and a certification process to be able to work behind the espresso bar. It took me about a year to feel comfortable making drinks and go through the certification process, and that is pretty average. When we hire team members, the expectation is that they'll become a barista and are in it for the long haul, not as a temp position.

As we speak, we have a group of baristas who are training for a regional barista competition happening this next week. Winners from that go onto the US Competition and then the World Competition. We regularly send baristas who place regionally and nationally as some of the best baristas among baristas from across the country. 

It sounds like you are just a drip coffee drinker, which is just fine. Our drip coffee brewers go through a calibration process by our roasters that is more scientific that I can even wrap my head around just yet. So, even though when I go to brew a pot of coffee for our drip bar I'm hitting a button to brew, it only tastes great because of their precise calibration along with the years of experience our roasters use to roast the coffee. 

Our technical department actually services a good majority of coffee brewers and espresso machines in Missouri. Chances are even though it may not be using our coffee, we are the ones trusted to service the equipment. 

So, to recap where the cost comes from, it boils down to buying the best coffees we can find at a premium and then extensively training and educating everyone along the chain from bean to brew. 

Educating our guests about what goes into the coffee is a huge challenge we and other specialty coffee companies face, but I really do enjoy when I'm given a chance to. 

Know that when you support us it's toward something bigger than coffee you'll find at say at a gas station or pre-ground and sealed in a 64oz canister. 

Thanks for reading all of that. I highly recommend visiting one of our coffee cuppings, or tastings, held at our roasting facility every Friday at 2 p.m. It's free and our roasters host it. That's where I learn the most about coffee and it's pretty cool to get a behind-the-scenes look at the operation. They'll do a quick tour, too. All you have to do is just show up.  

Please, let me know if that helps and if you have any further questions."

Kaldi's Coffee

So, you can see. All coffee isn't created the same and I had my arse handed to me. I really wanted to take this opportunity to thank Kaldi's Coffee for taking some time out to kindly school my butt on coffee. I am going to try and not complain again about the price of coffee AND they may have just got a customer for life.

Commercial time......

I feel like a separate post to review their coffee will need to be made, but I feel that I should point out one of their Coffees now and you should buy it immediately. It is their Highlander Grog and you can purchase it right here. All I can say about it is it is the "Bacon of Coffee". Its incredible and I want to copyright that phrase. I have thought this for several years now and its not just because of this interaction with them. Seriously buy some now. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Double Double

My wife went out of town again this week. I'm actually really good at keeping my children alive in these situations. Keeping them presentable can be a whole different thing.

This time at least we had a theme. Double up on everything.

First step? Double hair things.
But what does it mean?
Then, just when you thought it couldn't get any doublier, double chocolate milk mustaches and double chocolate milk crotches.
Don't look too close, just trust me. Perv.
Yes, that was on the way to school. In fairness to me, it was actually Carnation Breakfast Essentials and not just straight chocolate milk, so at least they were healthy in their filth.

Friday, January 4, 2013

How did that happen?

This week we hit 10,000 visits. Instead for writing about nothing for a page, I thought I would just share with you what we've done over that time...

We drank Beer. 

Ate Beef Jerky

Debated if Bacon was Better than Beef Jerky

Had a baby

Got a new watch

Talked about our Junk. A lot.

More Beer

Needed to shave... Badly.

Shared holiday memories

Used Excel for things other than work... while at work.

Guess what else??? Beer.

Confessed my Love of Bonobos pants 600 times. 

Confessed  my ManQuirk of Tiered Underpants

And you read all this crap... Thank you from the bottom of our coffee pots. 

John & Jamie.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Yes that was $177 for Mexican food

Happy New Year to you and yours. We here at the SFA are diligently working to bring you awesome stuff so long as it doesn't interfere with our family and employment status.

While it was fresh in my memory, I thought I would share with you one of the worst experiences I've had at a restaurant. It occurred just last night on New Year's Eve. The wife and I went out to dinner with my inlaws. Long Story (that is soon to be another blog post) but we currently live with them while we are between houses. Anyway, we thought it would be a good time to meet up with them outside of our currently living arrangements and without kids to just talk like adults. We settled on a restaurant that they had been to before but we were anxious to try. Its called Milagro and its in Webster Groves (for those of you out of town readers, sorry just think St. Louis). It gets some pretty good press and is known for Modern Mexican cuisine.

We got reservations the day before with a simple phone call. They had seating for 4 adults & no high chairs available. Perfect. The phone call was pretty short and went like this?
Wife: "Do you have availability tonorrow night?"
Milagro: "Yes."
Wife: "Great. See you at 6:30pm"
Milagro: "Ok."

New Years Eve was suddenly upon us and the wife and I got all dressed up to go out. This means we showered, she wore heels, and I tucked in my shirt. Pretty fancy. We arrived at the restaurant and my roommates/inlaws were already there. They let us know there was a fixed menu for the evening. It took the wife and I as odd as it wasn't mentioned on the phone, but whatever, sometimes its nice to be forced into situation where you have to try new stuff.

We are started off with a half a glass of Champagne and the meal had begun.... We were trapped.

Now I won't bore you with the complexity of the flavors of the meal or the conundrum of Modern Mexican cuisine versus traditional Mexican cuisine because, I can't describe to you how food tastes anyway. However, all the food was very good. The meal went like this: Small Enchilada w/ Mushrooms, Mango/Pineapple/Avocado Salad, Pulled Brisket in a corn boat, Snapper with Asparagus, White Cake for dessert. The food was good. Better than average. Simple. Refined. We were still hungry though. Which is tough to do with my mother-in-law, it doesn't take much to fill her up and she is very healthy. Throughout dinner the 4 of us did split a bottle of wine and the wife and I each had an additional glass. My inlaws are light weights and can't hang with us young kids. The meal had come to an end and we were pretty pleased with how everything tasted but were still a bit hungry (as mentioned before). Not a terribly big deal because both couples were going to other parties where there would be some stuff to snack on, but still we just ate 5 courses and shouldn't be wanting food as we were leaving the restaurant. Whatever, it was good.

Then the bill came....

Please keep in mind that when we called for reservations we were not told that there would be a fixed menu or that when we arrived, said fixed menu did NOT have a price listed on it. The wine was under $30 for the bottle. So we didn't go crazy on booze. Well, it turns out the 5 course meal was $60 A PERSON with a grand total of $300 for the table without tip. We all kind of looked at each other for a few minutes dumbfounded until my adoring wife said, "Did we just spend $177 Dollars on Mexican food?" We had been had. At no point in our conversations with the restaurant did they mention a fixed menu or the price of the meal.

As mentioned before, the food was good, but not $177 good. Also please don't think I am a cheapskate or a white trash bum when it comes to eating out. We were completely blindsided by this meal's cost and it set the tone for the evening. We had to cut our next party short so we could go relieve the baby sitter before midnight (which on top of this was a lot of money).

So, Milagro, you should be ashamed of yourself for not setting the tone for the night with your patrons, at least I am sure your bank account had a happy new year.

- end rant.