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Parmigiano Reggiano is an aged, part skim-milk cheese from Italy that goes great with crisp apples and other fruit, but try to find it served that way in a restaurant.
Editor's note: Why go out to eat in restaurants when you can dine like a king at home? Today, I also discuss further Can Can Sale adventures at ShopRite.
I had a wonderful Italian dinner on Monday night -- small shrimp and unusually tender squid in a fra diavolo sauce, vegetable frittata, shell pasta with tuna, stuffed mushroom, eggplant caponata and a nice, four-green salad -- and drank a full-bodied Italian red wine with it.
My wife and mother-in-law ate baked fillet of sole and my son had barbecued chicken wings, all with similar side dishes.
My dessert: crisp apple sections paired with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. They had ice cream. And we enjoyed all of this in the comfort of our own home.
Why go out?
When I think of our recent restaurant experiences, I wish we could eat like this every night and never leave the house.
That morning, I stopped by Jerry's Gourmet and More in Englewood, and picked up four Meals To Go at a mere $7.99 each -- less than the cost of a restaurant appetizer.
We could have a different meal from Jerry's every night or order takeout delivered to our door from our favorite places.
Then, we wouldn't have to go out and sit in a drafty dining room, as we did recently in settings as diverse as Nanoosh, a casual, organic Middle Eastern restaurant at a mall in Paramus, and Lupa Osteria Romana, a popular Manhattan trattoria where a skimpy meal for three cost more than $100 -- without wine.
And I wouldn't have to pay $5.50 for a bottle of light beer, $10 to $12 for a glass of wine or $2.95 for a cup of lukewarm coffee.
We long ago started trying to reproduce at home some of our favorite dining-out meals, such as Korean barbecue, which my son refers to as "cook on the table."
For years, we ate what is essentially mystery meat in Korean restaurants before I started buying Nature's Reserve free-range, grass-fed Australian beef at ShopRite, sliced it thin and placed it in a freezer bag with Korean marinade.
Now, we cook this fun Korean meal on a stove-top grill at home and wrap the beef in red-lettuce leaves with spicy bean paste, garlic, rice and kimchi -- just as we did in restaurants.
We don't have to tip or rush because other people are waiting for our table. And a cold beer, which goes great with Korean food, is as close as the refrigerator.
Made to order
I don't know any Italian-American restaurants in North Jersey that serve whole-wheat pasta with a red sauce and sardines, one of our favorite meals at home.
Or would be willing to add a half-pound of fresh spinach to wilt and mix with a pound of pasta with garlic, oil and anchovies.
By eating at home, we can enjoy antibiotic-free poultry and meat, grass-fed lamb and wild-caught salmon -- fresh, frozen or smoked. Our salads are usually made with organic greens.
For dessert, there are always a few kinds of cheese in the refrigerator to have with fruit and organic black tea.
At Lupa in Manhattan, the menu tells customers all poultry and meat are from Heritage Foods USA, a network of farms and ranches where animals are raised naturally and not pumped full of growth hormones to get them to market as fast as possible.
In North Jersey, most restaurant menus are silent on the origin of the poultry, beef and pork served in their dining rooms or the owners cut corners to maximize profits.
Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay's so-called Hamburger Palace in Paramus uses Certified Angus Beef, which is raised conventionally with harmful additives. Flay could buy a more expensive natural line of Certified Angus Beef free of antibiotics or growth hormones, but doesn't.
Restaurant owners seeking maximum profit at the expense of their customers' health are aided by restaurant critics who don't bother to ask about the origin or quality of the food they sample and promote in their reviews.
If reviewers paid for their own meals -- instead of spending their employers' money -- they might pay more attention to the quality of the food they're served and produce critiques that are more consumer-oriented.
When we ate at Lupa, we loved the service. Still, I felt like having wine, but refused to pay $12 for a single glass when I could buy an entire bottle for less.
You can't eat paint
Why go to Sear House, a steakhouse in Closter, where the brothers who own the place claim they spent $5 million to renovate, then served a critic "smelly" tuna sushi and an ordinary, fatty rib-eye for $45?
Yet, the reviewer still gave the place 3 stars out of a possible 4.
We liked Amici Family Restaurant in Bergenfield until the night we were served a tough, sinewy piece of fish the menu said was red snapper. When we asked, the waitress relayed the chef's insistence it was red snapper.
We won't return.
And if you believe what you read in the newspaper, why go to a restaurant where owners think you're complaining about the food to get a free meal?
Places we love
It would be difficult to kick the restaurant habit altogether, even though we usually eat out only once a week and do takeout on another night. And in retirement, I enjoy meeting friends for breakfast or lunch out.
At Rosa Mexicano, a fine-dining mall restaurant in Hackensack, I had the wonderful, made-from-scratch fish tacos for lunch on Tuesday and a friend chose the Enchiladas Suizas. The entrees included several side dishes and terrific salsas.
We had to order a la carte, because the fish tacos and his chicken enchiladas weren't included in a $16.50, two-course lunch special. But the two light beers he drank cost $11 and the bill came to $54 and change with tip and tax.
And there are places we've been going to for years we'd have a hard time living without, such as Wondee's and Lotus Cafe in Hackensack, and So Gong Dong in Palisades Park.
Wondee's is a Thai restaurant with terrific prices for whole fish, which you can get steamed and covered with a spicy blend of chili and garlic. (In fact, a whole fish at Wondee's is only a few dollars more than the fish tacos at Rosa Mexicano.)
Lotus Cafe specializes in big Chinese meals, such as the 11-course Formosa Banquet for Ten at about $31 per person, including tip and tax. And So Gong Dong serves a healthy meal of Korean soft-tofu stew, kimchi and other comfort foods for $10.
All are BYOs, and all are unpretentious, welcoming places where families gather for a good meal at prices that won't break the bank.
I can Can Can
We continue to shop the Can Can Sale at ShopRite with mixed results.
My wife went to the Englewood ShopRite for more Adirondack seltzer and Airwick air freshener, then wiped out any savings with the purchase of Cortizone-10 hydrocortisone cream for $8.27.
I returned the 2-ounce tube for a refund today and managed to find a 1-ounce ShopRite-brand tube of the same anti-itch cream for $2.99, the last one on the shelf. My wife said there weren't any when she shopped.
Today, I also picked up a half-gallon of Smart Balance Fat-Free Lactose-Free Milk with Omega 3 for $1.99 or half-price, compared to $3.39 for the ShopRite brand.
Bottles of VO5 shampoo were 88 cents each, but a can of Progresso soup was $1.25. I bought five of the former, none of the latter.
At last year's Can Can Sale, Progresso soups were $1.19 a can or 10 for $10 with a coupon and store card.