29 October 2010

Groupon: sucky, or no?

I have been subscribing to Groupon now for about two months, though I generally just watch the deals pass me by; I live about an hour away from the city housing Groupon’s mad deals, so it has to be pretty interesting to be worth the drive.  I did, however, break down and purchase one for an Italian bistro in LoDo, anticipating that we might someday be in the neighborhood for another reason and could use a bite to eat. 

Specializing in discounts for local restaurants, spas, and other merchants, the company promises “one ridiculously huge coupon each day, on the best things to eat, see, do and buy in your city.”  Launched in 2008, it actually grew out of a website called The Point, a website that lets you start a campaign asking people to give money or do something as a group once a "tipping point" of people agree to participate.  

Groupon further claims that they “came up with the patent-pending idea for Groupon as an antidote to a common ailment for us city-dwellers: there's so much cool stuff to do, but the choice can be overwhelming. With so many options, sometimes the easiest thing is to go to a familiar restaurant, or just stay at home and watch a movie. As a result, we miss out on trying all the cool things our cities have to offer. By focusing on one good or service each day, Groupon makes it simple. And by leveraging The Point's framework for collective buying, Groupon is able to offer deals that make it very difficult to say no.” (Does that last part sound a little creepy or is it just me?)

It’s a nice idea to encourage people to be tourists in their own cities (I’ve had that same philosophy for years), but is it really an antidote for a Prufrockian lack of confidence in your ability to choose a restaurant, or is it just a way to ban together and be cheapskates?  (For me, it’s the “cheapskate” one.)

I got a pretty sweet deal : I paid $10 for $20 worth of food and, because it was only lunch, and because my husband and I are cheap, we only ended up paying an extra $2 out-of-pocket to complete the transaction.  The wait staff was perfectly friendly about using a Groupon and there didn’t seem to be any problems, but for some reason I felt a little slimy doing it.  I wondered if it turned out to be an OK deal for them, and felt compelled to tip rather generously on the full amount of our meals to assuage my Irish guilt that they might be getting screwed.  I mean, if a deal (in this case, $12 + tip for two generous lunches and cappuccinos in a posh Denver neighborhood) seems too good to be true, it probably is.  But I certainly wasn’t getting hurt from my end, so I wondered who was feeling the pinch. 

Sure enough, my instincts were right—Groupon seems to be a pretty bad deal, at least for restaurants.   Some initial research has already been done on the phenomenon 
and it seems that service-based industries fair better. But restaurants are suffering from poor tipping, pressure to give deeper discounts than they want to give (“very difficult to say no”—kind of menacing, isn’t it?),  and some pretty high overhead costs (food, paying servers, rent, utilities…), making it difficult for them to recoup their losses from the Groupons presented.  And if you follow along, it’s the small, local businesses that are dealing with Groupons.  Never once have I seen an Applebee’s, Wal-Mart, or other national chain use them—they don’t need the advertising.  So if Groupon hurts the business owners, it’s the neighborhood businesses, the ones we should be most interested in supporting, that are suffering. 

Participating in Groupon is sold to businesses as a great way to market your restaurant or store, and it certainly made me aware of a new watering hole I didn’t know about.  But, in my case, I am not very likely to go back because I don’t live nearby; I was willing to try it and go a little out of my way because I had this great coupon for the place.  And even if I did live nearby, there’s nothing compelling me to return and pay full price.  While our sandwiches and coffee were good, I can easily make those things at home, and for $12 each for lunch, this bistro doesn’t seem nearly as special as it did at 50% off.  I wonder how many people are in the same boat as me?  Does Groupon foster the expansion of a business’s loyal customer base, or just bring one-timers in because they love a deal?    

The early research done on this phenomenon does offer some suggestions for making Groupon work better for long-term profits, like spreading the coupon out over multiple visits, but that doesn’t sound like as good of a deal to me, and I would be less likely to bite if I had to make a longer-term commitment to using my coupon.  The beauty of Groupon, for the consumer, is that you can try something new with no strings attached, and if it sucks, you really didn’t pay that much for the experience.  But even if it was great, why go back and pay full price when you can just wait for the next Groupon to come around and send you to another new restaurant? 
Like purchasing responsibly made goods, it might be worth a few extra bucks to just say “no” to Groupons and give the businesses you care about what they need to survive.  For a compelling argument against using this company, read this first-hand testimonial from a “Mom-andPop” coffee shop in Portland.  It convinced me.


23 October 2010

Grill Extravaganza with weird sauces

If you have been following the tale of the inherited Asian foods, you are aware of our friends’ move to New Jersey and depositing of various sauces, pastes, and leaves in our refrigerator. I have been experimenting with a lot of raw ingredients I had never before used, like banana leaves, kaffir lime leaves, and ghee. This weekend I turned to the various pre-made sauces and marinades taking up a fair amount of space in the fridge door and had a big ol’ grilling extravaganza.

It is not my way to simply pour sauce out of bottle and call dinner done; at the very least, I usually doctor said sauce and make it into something fussier than it probably needs to be. But these jars and bottles promised a complete, and authentic, taste experience, so I followed the directions and simply marinated various meats in them without any other additives. Then, because it is still warm outside and there were cold beers in the fridge, we grilled everything on skewers and served with more of the sauces to dip on the side.

We used pre-cut pieces of “stew meat”, which you can get in the meat section of any grocery store. We got packages of pork and beef stew meat; they’re cheap, tougher cuts, but the marinade softened them up and we didn’t have to cook them long (about 10 min., turning after 5). We also got some chicken tenders and thread those through skewers like (very thick) satay sticks.

Sauce #1: Lee Kum Kee Korean Barbeque: We had this on pork, and it was delicious. There was just a little bit of sweetness to it (much less than American BBQ sauce), and a lot of salty, garlicky flavor coming through. It was really a great balance of flavors. The sauce is a bit thick, so you can afford to add some water to it if you choose to provide some dipping sauce on the side. This turned out to be our favorite sauce of the evening.

Sauce #2: Kikkoman Takumi Teriyaki Sauce: This is not the Kikkoman from the grocery store (Takumi is their premium line), and this is not the syrupy sweet crap you get in restaurants playing Madonna’s greatest hits and offering chop suey and American burgers on the menu. This stuff is actually quite salty and has a pretty strong sesame flavor (probably because it’s loaded with toasted sesame seeds). I thought it was really good, and if I hadn’t had the Korean BBQ sauce to compare it to, I would have loved it. It was just a bit more one-dimensional than the Korean BBQ, which had such an excellent balance of sweet, garlicky, and savory. This teriyaki sauce didn’t have any sweetness to it at all, so it was mostly just salty and nutty (but very good). It is thin enough to use as-is as a marinade or dipping sauce. We used it on beef and the flavor combination was great.

Sauce #3: Lee Kum Kee Satay Sauce: I was pretty excited about this one but it was actually our least favorite. It was a very thick paste, so you need to cut it with water just to marinade the chicken. And it hardens up like natural peanut butter in the fridge, so remember to take it out and let it warm up on the counter for 5 minutes or so before trying to work with it.
The sauce had peanut butter as its base, but it also had a strong shrimp flavor to it. (Shellfish allergy sufferers, beware! There is shrimp paste in this.) There was a moderate level of spiciness from the chilies in it, but it really needed a lot of salt, we all thought. So, even though it was peanutty (which I love) and a bit spicy, it seemed pretty flat in taste. Not only was it lacking salt, but I think it could have used some brightness, perhaps from vinegar or something. We have a lot of this sauce left, so I’m going to experiment with using it in a soup or something.

I also whipped up a batch of my usual tofu marinade and grilled some of that on the side. If you grill tofu alongside meat, just keep your eyes on it—the tofu is done within 5 minutes, and the meat takes about twice as long depending on the size of your chunks. On the side, I just served a cold rice salad with some of the tofu marinade and some fresh edamame, diced carrot, and broccoli.

15 October 2010

excerpt from Carpet Store Diaries

Please enjoy my humble offering, this excerpt from my new book, Driving a Rental Car in Heels. Like it?  There's more!  Order now!  

Monday, June 5, 1995

I need a job.  I am calling this “family-owned and run” carpet store because it does not involve fast food, small children, or getting dirty.  I do not really have that rigid of a list of deal-breakers, but these are all things I generally dislike, and it seems like it would be nice to avoid them.
I call the store and speak with the owner.  At first he seems a bit evasive. “Hi, is Joe there?”  “Uh, I don’t know.  Who is this?”  “My name is Nicole; I’m calling about your ad for clerical help.”  “Oh, I’m Joe, yeah.”  Uncomfortable silence.  I hear small, high-pitched clicking sounds.  Is he trimming his nails?  “Sooo, have you filled the position?” “No.  Do you want it?” “Yes, I’d be interested in coming in and meeting with you.”  “OK, can you come tomorrow morning?  We open at 9am.  Okthanksbye.”  Click.
The conversation is so abrupt that I sit for the next several minutes wondering if I have a job interview for tomorrow.  I want the job (if it pays money and not root vegetables, I will take it), so I eventually decide that I will show up and, if he didn’t mean for me to come, he might feel pressured into taking me because I am standing there in front of him.  I am not proud.  I am slightly behind on my rent. 
It also occurs to me that I do not know where this place is, because the name of the carpet store is not even listed in the ad: “Joe” and a phone number, that’s it for information.  I really don’t want to come off as a dope or one of those people who asks too many questions, though.  Hoo boy, this is awkward.  I know!  I will just call and ask for directions to the store!  I won’t identify myself–what are the odds of Joe answering again when he seemed in such a hurry?  I will pose as a potential customer.  I won’t even have to say this–it will be understood.  Add problem-solving skills to the resume.  “Hello, can you give me directions to your store?” “Yeah, is that you, Nicole?  I wondered if you knew where we were.  Take Cicero to 57th, North on 57th, West on Wolf.  We’re next to the 7-11 in the strip mall.”  Click.  I wonder if he will remember what an idiot I am by tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 6, 1995

I arrive five minutes before the store is supposed to open and no one is around.  The place is completely dark.  I sit in my car and start to feel like a stalker.  At 9:02 by my clock, the lights come on, but I see no movement towards the front door, where I need to be let in.
Then a woman in her 50s (60s?) approaches with a warm, generous smile to let me in.  She is very petite and seems to be wearing a lot of gold jewelry.  Also, her hair is a strange kind of hay color.  She opens the door and beams up at me (up–she might be the first adult I have met who is taller than me) and says “Are you Nikki?  Joe’s waitin’ for ya!”  I have not been “Nikki” since I was perhaps nine years old, but now is not the time for such petty concerns.  They can call me a two-bit whore (which I am not, by the way) if they want to hire me. 
This little pistol is named Carol, and she is Joe’s mother.  She is talkative and smells slightly of wine.  When she takes me back to the break area (not a room, but a section which is partitioned pretty thoroughly from the rest of the store) I see why.  Everyone is sitting around an open bottle of Riunite burgundy with Styrofoam cups in hand.  Huh.  Carol explains that they don’t usually sit around drinking, “at least not till noon!  Ha!”, but they are celebrating closing a very big deal with a housing development.  They will be installing the carpet in every new house that goes up.  That is exciting.  I am offered wine, as well.  Not unfamiliar with a morning cocktail and not wanting to look aloof, I accept. 
Joe is a small and jittery man.  He slicks back his dark, wavy hair, but it is uncooperative.  The result is a greasy mess which is mostly smoothed to his scalp, but with the occasional half-curl forming little wings that stick out from various surprising places on his head.  He has several gold rings, and each seems to be some kind of band with a large hunk of something in the front–a gold plate with an initial, a cluster of small diamonds, and in one case, a literal hunk of unformed gold.  He is also wearing two thick gold chains: one has a cross, and one has an Italian horn hanging from it.  He is probably in his early 30s, but his outfit could have come from my dad’s closet: faded jeans, not in the purposeful, cool way; button down shirt with vertical stripes; slightly worn but very clean white leather tennis shoes. 
Joe shows me to a desk and starts explaining what I will do.  Apparently there is no job interview; I have been hired.  I will not sell carpet, of course, because I know nothing, but I am encouraged to watch the others and should “speak up” if I decide I would like to go that route.  Right now Joe, his mother Carol, and his father Joe Senior (divorced from Carol) sell the carpet. 
I will sit at a desk near the back of the store, direct people to a salesperson, answer phones, and oversee the installers.  The warehouse manager should be the one to send the installers on their jobs and make sure they get their jobs done, but he is apparently inadequate in this area, as Joe informs me “He just smokes doobs all day with them”.  So, now I will have to be the bad cop and make them do their work.  I have no management experience, but I do have experience in being an unlikeable drag, so I feel qualified for this. 
I proceed to sit at my desk and laugh uncomfortably at mildly sexist jokes for the rest of the day.  I meet Joe Senior (he is the only one who calls me Nicole instead of Nikki, because he can tell I’m “classy”.  He sort of says it like, “Nee-call”.  He is from America, however.).  I also meet Al, Carol’s husband, who calls the store “a total fuckin’ clusterfuck” and wishes me luck, and Sue, Joe’s lovely bride.  She completely ignores me, but I do not take it personally.  She only seems to notice Joe, actually.  She complains about various irritants in her life and then leaves.  I think she just misses him.  She has left their 14-month-old daughter at home to stop in and “get out of that friggin’ house”.  I am unsure what to make of her.  

09 October 2010

Tamarind Paste-?!?!

Tamarind paste, num num!
What the heck do you do with this stuff? Our friends gave this to us, along with a whole bundle of other sauces and exotic ingredients, when they moved.  I’ve seen this in Asian and also in Mexican supermarkets in different forms, but I had no idea what purpose it served. It’s a tropical fruit that grows all over India, and its pulp is very sour, acting as a good foil to sweeter ingredients in chutneys and to spicy curries. As a Midwesterner, I have not often been one to mix sweet and savory ingredients into dishes, so I definitely needed some help with this one. I turned to the excellent Laxmi’s Vegetarian Kitchen by Laxmi Hiremath (1995) and slightly revised her recipe for this dish from the delta region of Tanjore in southern India.

Tamarind-Garlic Rice

Serves 8

½ tsp. coriander seeds

1 tsp. dried yellow split peas

½ tsp. cumin seeds

2 dried red chiles, stemmed

Pinch of cinnamon

2 cups basmati rice, rinsed and drained

3 cups water

1 tsp. salt

1 ½ Tbsp. canola or peanut oil

½ tsp. mustard seeds

½ Tbs. sliced fresh garlic

¼ tsp. turmeric

½ tsp. tamarind paste

2 Tbs. chopped cashews

½ tsp. brown sugar

2 Tbsp. ghee

Toast the coriander, split peas, cumin, and chiles in a dry frying pan on medium heat until the spices are aromatic and the seeds start to darken, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Stir in pinch cinnamon and set aside.

Cook the rice in the three cups of water and salt in a Dutch oven. Set aside.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds. When seeds start to pop, reduce heat to medium-low and stir in garlic and turmeric. Stir constantly, cooking until garlic starts to brown (3-4 minutes). Add the tamarind paste and ¾ cup of water. Whisk ingredients together, bring to a boil, and then simmer for 5 minutes.

Stir in the nuts and brown sugar and remove saucepan from heat. Pour the mixture over the rice in the Dutch oven and mix thoroughly. Cover and place on hot burner, cooking gently until all liquid is absorbed (5-8 minutes). Drizzle the top of the rice with 2 Tbsp. ghee and serve hot alongside a main dish of your choice.

07 October 2010

New Book! Discount Price!

New and available at a discount price* to you, the loyal (or occasional, or first-time) readers of this blog!  

My little collection of humorous (I hope) essays, some of which have found their way to this blog, is ready and available through Create Space Press here.  It's 110 pages of pee-in-your-pants fun!  

*Enter discount code UJFDNWB2 for $2.00 off when you check out. 

02 October 2010

Hiking food: a recipe

Since moving to Colorado, I have become an outdoor person. I now voluntarily spend my free time sporting active wear made from synthetic fabrics and exerting myself in the blazing sun or icy snow. Never in all my torturous years of high school P.E. class would I have guessed it would happen. But let’s face it; the scenery is enough to distract you from a fair amount of discomfort.

I have hiked all over the Front Range--Boulder, Fort Collins, Lyons, Estes Park, and Laramie and Jackson, Wyoming--but I love Rocky Mountain National Park most of all. Because I do not need to prove how macho I am, I eschew the “14ers” for moderately strenuous hikes that afford good views and pleasant areas to pop a squat and eat my bagged lunch. At the end of this post are some of my personal favorites, but hey, chime in with yours, too! The more suggestions, the better!

The best lunch combines a good deal of protein with some carbs for energy, fits easily into your bag, and requires as little clean-up as possible. I often make this lentil “salad” (really more like a chunky spread), double-bag it in sandwich-sized Ziplocs, and bring along some whole wheat tortillas to scoop it up and eat. Paired with a bag of carrot and celery sticks or some dried fruit, I personally guarantee you will not be lacking in fuel for your hike.

Curried Lentils for Fuel

1 cup red lentils (this is not a good time to substitute--use the red)
2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1-5.46 oz. can coconut milk
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 tablespoon lime juice

Combine water, lentils, bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until water has been absorbed and lentils have broken down. Remove bay leaf and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil at medium heat in a large frying pan or chef’s pan. Sautee onion, garlic, mustard seeds, and ginger, stirring constantly until onion softens and seeds begin to pop (about 5 minutes). When this happens, reduce heat to medium-low and add the rest of the spices, stirring constantly to coat onion and garlic. Do this for another 4 minutes so that the spices become slightly toasted (they will be fragrant), and add your lentils, tomato paste, and coconut milk.

Stir mixture well, cover, and allow to simmer 10 minutes. Turn off heat and add remaining teaspoon salt and lime juice, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. (I usually add more black pepper at this point, too.)

*You can put this in Ziploc bags (I double up to avoid leaks) and scoop out with tortillas or pita bread on the trail. You can also offer some cooked basmati rice on the side and serve this as a lovely, exotic yet easy dish for guests.

Great hikes for picnicking in Rocky Mountain National Park

Cub Lake: This trail is pretty easy until the end, when it gets just a bit steep. About 2/3 of the way in, you’ll come across a beautiful, large lake with a great view of Long’s Peak looming overhead. There are lots of rocks around the lake that make perfect seats for a picnic.

Gem Lake: A steeper and shorter hike, the end yields a small hanging lake with a tiny waterfall. There are grassy areas and large rocks for sitting down to eat your lunch, and the antsy ones who finish first can do some extra climbing above the waterfall while the rest of your party finishes.

Lawn Lake: Perhaps you are sensing a pattern here. Besides two beautiful alpine lakes (Lawn and Crystal) upon which to contemplate the meaning of your lunch, the Roaring River was the site of a dam failure that led to three deaths during the great flood of 1982.

Sky Pond (pictured above): more water, amazing views, and a strenuous enough hike to earn your lentils!

Add your comments to continue this list!