Diner Culture

My friend Michele and I at the Marlton Diner on our last day of high school.

It’s 3am, and you and your friends realize you are all super hungry.  Maybe you know a pizza place that’s still open.  Maybe your Taco Bell has a 24hr drive thru.  Maybe you attempt to make some ridiculous concoction with whatever is in the fridge.

If you live in Jersey, you go to the diner.

There’s a classic list of “you know you’re from South Jersey” -isms that has been floating around the internet for a few years now, and one of them (near the top of the list, of course) is “if you wonder why there aren’t more 24-hour diners everywhere else in the country.”  The diner isn’t just a place to eat, it’s a place for friends to come together.  It’s a place for memories.

There are a few rules that basically classify an authentic diner.  First, it must be open for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  If the diner has “hours,” it’s not a real diner.  Second, the entire menu has to be available all day.  The best part of going to the diner is having waffles and ice cream for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  Third, it has to look like a diner.  Stainless steel, vinyl, and neon signs are a must.

I can think of at least ten diners that are less than ten minutes away from me, all of which have their own memories.  I usually don’t associate specific memories with restaurants, but diners are different.  There is something about the culture of the diner that makes you feel like everything that happens there is significant.  My friends and I piled into The Marlton Diner after graduation practice on our last day of high school for a celebratory brunch.  My dad took my brother and I to a diner after our first Eagles game and we sat at our own table and ordered milkshakes instead of dinner food.  I’ve had first dates at the diner, breakups at the diner, and celebrations at the diner.  When my friends and I were at Warped Tour last week, it was cold and we were tired and hungry, and as we sat listening to the last few bands, all I could think about was the short stack of chocolate chip pancakes that was waiting for me at The Cherry Hill diner on the way home.

I’m sure there are plenty of diners elsewhere in the country, but for some reason, whenever I think of my hometown, the diner is one of the first things on the list of things associated (mostly because I think about how much I don’t like the Marlton Diner; I prefer Medport).

The most important thing I’ve learned about diners is: it’s never just about eating breakfast or dinner.  It’s about eating breakfast for dinner.

When You Just Have to “Wing it”

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Our favorite Pasta Roni variety!

I have two very, very picky little brothers.  Well, little is relative: one is fifteen and taller than me, the other is eight and almost as tall as me.  Picky is no exaggeration, though; these boys will not eat ANYTHING, especially the older one (the kid won’t eat pizza or hamburgers, for starters).

We are home alone a lot in the summer, since my parents work, so we often have to fend for ourselves for lunch.  When I don’t feel like trying very hard, or paying to take them out to lunch, there’s one trick I’ve found to be a popular favorite and it only takes about five minutes to make.  It comes in very handy when all you can hear is a whiny chorus of “I’m hungryyyyyy.”

Ever heard of Pasta Roni?  My brothers absolutely love the stuff, and it comes in really handy when we don’t have the time or ingredients for homemade creamy pasta.  It doesn’t taste half bad, and the Angel Hair varieties only take 4-5 minutes to cook.  We like the Pasta with Herbs and Parmesan Cheese varieties, and all you have to do is follow the directions right on the box – just add butter, milk, and water.

For those quick lunches, I like to cook 2 boxes of Pasta Roni and grill up some Tyson frozen chicken (not the breaded strips kind, the grilled chicken breast kind).  I cook both, spicing the chicken with a bit of garlic powder, salt, pepper, and whatever else is sitting in the front of the spice cabinet.  When they’re done cooking, I just cut the chicken up into bite size pieces and mix it into the pasta.

This isn’t a truly homemade lunch, but the boys love it and it is super quick to make.  And since you can get boxes of Pasta Roni on sale for $1 each or less, it’s a pretty good bang for your buck.

I prefer to make my own homemade creamy pasta sauce, but this works well for two picky boys who look at anything unfamiliar like it’s alive and going to crawl off of the plate at any moment.

Going Out: The Melting Pot

Ryan’s first time at The Melting Pot in Atlantic City, NJ. He loved it!

Confession time!

The Melting Pot is my absolute obsession right now.  I love everything about it.  It was my choice for my birthday dinner, and my family has a reservation for tonight at 5:45 in Philadelphia.

I’ve never been to The Melting Pot in Philly before, but I’ve been to the one in Atlantic City many times and the one in Boston once or twice.  I think their food is absolutely delicious and the concept is so much fun and so perfect for a long, hearty meal with good friends or family.  I am so excited to go tonight, especially because my dad and brother have never been before, so I can’t wait to witness their first experience.

For those of you who have never been, the meal comes out in four courses.  The first is a cheese fondue, and you have a choice of about five or so varieties, all of which are delicious and very distinct.  I really like the Wisconsin Trio and the Traditional Swiss.  Along with the cheese comes your dipping selections, which include veggies, granny smith apples, and several varieties of bread.

The second course is the salad, which may seem boring among the other courses, but they certainly do not disappoint in this department.  My absolute favorite is the California Salad, which comes with candied pecans that are arguably one of my favorite parts of the meal.

Third is the moment everyone has been waiting for, the main course.  You can choose from individual entrees that come with one or two types of meat (or vegetarian selections), or you can opt for the “Four Course Classic,” in which case the third course comes with a variety of meats, including tuna, shrimp, chicken, and sirloin.  This course is my favorite because you get to cook your own food, plus their dipping sauces are AMAZING.  With the meats, they bring out a pot of hot broth, into which they pour mushrooms, potatoes, and broccoli.  You let the veggies cook for awhile as you skewer your meats, one at a time, and cook them in the broth.  When they are finished cooking (each one takes about 1-2 minutes), you put them on a separate plate and use their signature dipping sauces (the waiter tells you which sauce goes best with which type of meat) and enjoy!   It is so much fun, and since you are cooking the food yourself, it spreads the meal out and makes the enjoyment and excitement last even longer.

The final course is dessert, and they definitely make sure you finish with a bang.  I have tried almost all of their chocolate fondue varieties, and each is as good as the one before.  My favorite is probably the Chocolate S’mores, but not by much, since all of them are so delicious.  I mean, you really can’t go wrong if there’s chocolate involved.  They bring out a huge plate of dipping choices, including cake, marshmallows, graham crackers, strawberries, bananas, and brownies.  By the end of the meal, you are already so stuffed that it seems almost impossible to finish off the final course, but trust me, you will make a valiant attempt.

I really just love the atmosphere of The Melting Pot restaurants.  I love that you don’t feel like you are waiting forever for your food to come out, and I love that you get to enjoy the experience of being constantly involved in the cooking process.  The level of interaction is beyond compare, and the taste lives up to all expectations.

The Melting Pot is, of course, super expensive, but if you find specials or coupons it can cut the price nearly in half (trust me, I’m a broke college student and I always look for the deals!).  I love going during AC Restaurant Week, when you can get a 3-course lunch (Salad, Entree, and Dessert) for only $15 per person!  You can also go during any other time for dinner and forgo all courses besides the main one, and pay as little as $19 per person.  Another great way to get part of the experience without the full price is to go for just salads and dessert, which are reasonably priced and just as delicious as all four courses.

Even though it is a chain, I think they do a great job of making the experience very personal no matter which location you are at.  I highly recommend that you give it a try, no matter where you are located!  You can find a map of their locations here.

Happy Eating!

Going Out: The Franklin Fountain

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My little brother Ryan outside of The Franklin Fountain a few years ago, patiently waiting for his Cotton Candy ice cream on a sugar cone (he gets the same thing every time).

I am an ice cream person.  I will totally admit it.  I eat way more ice cream than is normal for any one person.  I would probably be about twenty pounds lighter if it weren’t for all of the ice cream I eat.  

I have a favorite ice cream place.  I mean, I love all ice cream places, but I do happen to have a favorite one.  My all-time favorite ice cream place is in Philadelphia, and it’s called The Franklin Fountain.  

The Franklin Fountain is an adorable little shop on Market Street in Philly.  It opened in 2004, but it feels like it’s been around since 1700.  The employees dress up, the signs are all old-fashioned, and the bathroom is labeled “the water closet.”  Its quirkiness really sets it apart: they serve their to-go orders in Chinese takeout containers.  Cutest thing ever. 

 

Besides that, the ice cream is absolutely delicious.  They have every flavor you could ever imagine and they are all homemade.  They also have a huge menu filled with awesome sundaes.  They also make old fashioned flavored sodas and fantastic milkshakes.  

My absolute favorite thing about The Franklin Fountain is their homemade hot fudge.  It is made using local ingredients in antique copper candy kettles, and it is to die for.  The best thing I’ve ever had at The Franklin Fountain was simply a dish of vanilla ice cream with their delicious hot fudge drizzled on top.  

The Franklin Fountain is perfect on a hot summer day, and the line wraps all the way through the store and out the door on Friday and Saturday nights.  I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Philadelphia area, or to locals who are looking for a great way to finish off a long day in the city.  

We love to take the RiverLink ferry over from the Camden Waterfront after a day at the Aquarium or the Children’s Garden;  it is about a fifteen minute trip over to Penn’s Landing and is $7 per person round trip.  The Franklin Fountain is an easy walk from Penn’s Landing, and there are a bunch of great pizza places around that area if you’re looking to eat before you grab some ice cream (We like Soho Pizza on Market, just a few blocks down).  

Overall, I’d say The Franklin Fountain is the best ice cream I’ve ever had in my life, and I encourage you to give it a try.  You’re cheating yourself if you don’t try the homemade fudge, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t end up purchasing a jar to take home with you!

Enjoy! 

Tried this recipe tonight for dinner and everyone loved it! I didn’t have a whole onion, so I chopped up what was left of the onion and the red and green peppers from tacos the other night, and they worked perfectly (about 2 cups of veggies in all). I also made my own cheese soup, since I don’t particularly like the flavor of the canned kind. It only takes about 5 minutes, and you can find a great recipe for it here.

It was a huge hit with kids and grown-ups, and it was enough for about 10 people to have medium sized servings!  Thanks My Days Can Count for the recipe!

My Days Can Count

Ingredients:

4 chicken breasts – grilled

1 stick butter

2 cloves garlic

1 onion, chopped

3/4 Cups flour

1/4 teaspoon cumin

2 teaspoons paprika

16 ounces sour cream

1 small can green chilis

1 can cheddar cheese soup

32 ounces chicken broth

tortilla chips, black olives, monterey jack cheese, chives

I had my husband grill the chicken earlier and he added some chicken spices but usually I just add salt and pepper.  If you don’t want to grill the chicken, cook it anywhich way you choose.

In a large pot, melt butter over med-high heat.

Dice up the onion and garlic.

Add onion and garlic to the melted butter and cook until the onions are clear looking and wilted.

Once the onions are wilted, add 3/4 Cups all-purpose flour to the pot. Stir flour into butter/onion mixture.  This will become very thick.

Add cumin and paprika to this thick mess and stir.

Now add the chicken…

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No Fuss Pudding Pie

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Me on my seventh birthday with my mom’s homemade Pudding Pie. It was my special request!

Everyone in my family has a sweet tooth, and we have been experimenting with different desserts since as far back as I can remember.  There is one dessert, however, that we continue to make for every occasion.  It is a family classic and crowd favorite, and it is so incredibly easy (aside from a bit of math involved) and absolutely delicious.

Ingredients:
1 Graham Cracker Pie Crust (we like the Keebler brand)
1 8oz container of Cool Whip
2 packages Jell-o Instant Chocolate Pudding Mix
2 cups of milk

Preparation:

1. Combine milk and pudding mix in medium bowl powder disappears completely.  The resulting mixture will be thicker than regular pudding.

2. Divide in thirds and layer 2/3 of the mixture into the graham cracker crust.

3. Divide Cool Whip in thirds and add 1/3 of Cool Whip to remaining 1/3 of chocolate pudding.  Mix until combined completely; this mixture should be light brown and somewhat fluffy.

4.  Add Cool Whip/Pudding mixture as the second layer in the pie crust.

5.  Spread remaining Cool Whip as the third layer of the crust.  Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.  The longer it sits, the more the crust will absorb some of the moisture and be less likely to crumble when serving.

6. Bring to parties and hear your friends and family admire the delicious chocolate pie that you *slaved over* for years to come 😉

Breakfast Problems

I have a huge problem.  I hate breakfast.  I hate eating breakfast, I hate thinking about breakfast, and I especially hate cooking breakfast.

When I was younger, I had a real problem eating breakfast before school.  Starting around sixth grade, I stopped eating breakfast entirely, and that lasted about five years.  By the time I was a senior, I was able to grab a granola bar or some crackers to go, but that was about it.

In the summer, my go-to breakfast is cereal.  Our house is usually stocked with Cheerios, Kix, and Frosted Flakes, and since I don’t get up until 8 or 9 every morning, breakfast is a little easier to stomach (compared with six in the morning).  My favorite cereal is Lucky Charms, but my mom won’t buy them, so I only get them when I’m away at school.

I don’t mind pancakes and french toast and bacon, but eggs? Forget it.  I have always had a huge problem with eggs. I can tolerate omelets on occasion, but straight up scrambled eggs are public breakfast enemy number one.  Something about the texture and the taste just gross me out.

Today, I came downstairs for breakfast and took a peek into the pantry.  We have a pretty big Cheerio collection right now, so I grabbed the box of Honey Nut and made my way to the fridge.

That was when I found out the worst news: no milk.  I was pretty disappointed.  My brother has swim practice in a few minutes, so with one of my quick breakfast options depleted, I was going to have to get creative.  I didn’t have time for pancakes or waffles, there is no bacon in this house, and I’m pretty sure if there were any granola bars left I’d have eaten them yesterday.

I made my brother eggs to fuel him up for practice, and while I had the cheese out, I decided to make myself a breakfast quesadilla.  I have a hard time eating a lot in the morning, especially heavy stuff, so all that went into my quesadilla was Kraft Four Cheese Mexican.  I grilled it on the skillet, and it was done in time to sit down and enjoy breakfast with my brother.

Sometimes you have to think outside of the box a little to get what you want.  I wanted breakfast, but traditional breakfast food wasn’t working for me.  Hopefully, though, I’ll have time to go get milk today.

Maybe I’ll even grab a box of Lucky Charms while I’m at it.

Going Out: Friendly’s

Today is my birthday, and we celebrated it by going to Friendly’s for lunch.

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My brother Ryan and I at Friendly’s for lunch

Friendly’s is far from fine cuisine, but here, it is a family favorite.  There is something about going to Friendly’s that just gets everyone excited and puts us all in a good mood.  We have celebrated everything there, from birthdays to little league championships to dance recitals to the last day of school, and it has always been a popular hangout for me and my friends after school dances and youth group meetings.

The menu is pretty big, and a lot of it is actually really good.  My absolute favorite is the Turkey Club Supermelt, but I also love their wraps, burgers, salads, and quesadillas.  In my opinion, their french fries are not all that great (super mushy), so I usually sub a cup of soup or applesauce instead.

Whatever the food may be, the dessert is really the best part of going to Friendly’s.  My family hardly ever gets dessert when we go out to eat, but it is an unspoken family law that we will get ice cream at Friendly’s.  They probably have over thirty different flavors of ice cream to choose from, with the option to order one of their predetermined sundaes or create your own concoction.  Nothing compares to a Friendly’s sundae.  Their milkshakes are also incredible, and not only do they fill your glass to the top, but they bring out the entire half-full metal mixing cup along with it.  My personal favorite is the Friend-z, which is comparable to a DQ Blizzard or Sonic Blast, but with more stuff and better tasting ice cream.

Whenever I go to Friendly’s I get to be a kid again, if only for an hour or so.  I love the atmosphere and the ice cream, and I love that it is chock full of memories from my childhood.  I hope to someday bring my children to Friendly’s on their birthdays and sing along to the Friendly’s Birthday Song: “If you’re good you’ll get your wishes/if you’re bad you’ll do our dishes.”

Thankfully, I’ve never had to do their dishes.

Microwave Hash Brown Casserole

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This was the first time I cooked this dish – for a dorm friendly food contest. It won 2nd place!

Today, I have been making a lot of preparations for my return to school in August.  I submitted my early move-in request, signed up to volunteer for freshman move-in and work the Strong Women Strong Girls table at the Activity Fair, and sent my RSVP to the Service Learning Partnership Orientation for the class I will be TAing in the fall (I like to do it all!).

Doing all this college-y stuff has inspired me to share a college girl friendly recipe for the day.  I love this recipe because it’s easy, inexpensive, and it can be cooked in the microwave! (Good news for anyone living in a traditional dorm).  I made it quite a few times during my freshman year, and even submitted it in a contest where it won 2nd place!

So here it is, Microwave Hash Brown Casserole!

Ingredients:
2 cups frozen tater tots
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup each chopped bell pepper and onion
1/2 medium sized ham steak, diced
1/3 cup grated cheddar cheese (or your favorite grated blend – I like the Kraft Four Cheese Mexican!)
Salt and pepper

Preparation: 

(Quick note: I like to make this dish in a round Pyrex glass bowl.  The four cup one is the perfect size and it transitions easily from microwave to refrigerator if there are leftovers.)

1.  Start with your tater tots in a medium sized microwavable dish.  Add chicken broth and microwave on high for five minutes.
2.  Remove from microwave and stir together until broth disappears completely and the tater tots lose their individual form.  Add onion and pepper; stir together and microwave on high for another five minutes.
3. Remove and add ham.  Lightly salt and pepper, and stir again.  Layer cheese on top of the dish; you can add more or less than the suggested amount to taste.  Microwave for 2-3 minutes, or until cheese is melted.
4.  Give it one more good stir, and serve.

This works as a great dinner for 1 or 2 people to share, or a side dish for 3-4 people (I like to omit the ham if I’m cooking it as a side).  Also tastes great with bacon bits!

Another quick note: measurements are not super important for this recipe.  I pretty much eyeball everything, and just cut up whatever pepper and onion I happen to have on hand at the time.  As long as your tater tot to broth ratio is good, you will have a perfect, dorm friendly microwave casserole!

Happy Eating!

Eating Out: Husk

Victoria and I with her friends Devon and Katie outside of Husk in Charleston, SC.

Last week I was on vacation in Charleston, South Carolina (more on that here), and my friend Victoria, with whom I was staying, took us to this fabulous restaurant downtown called Husk.

The restaurant is a little bit pricey and VERY trendy, so Vickie made a lunch reservation about a month in advance.  The lunch prices were much more reasonable, around $12 a plate.  The restaurant is all about locally grown southern food, and when you walk in, they have a huge chalkboard with all of their ingredients listed next to the local supplier from which they were purchased.

The menu was small albeit slightly overwhelming, since there was a lot of unfamiliar territory in traditional southern food.  The bacon cornbread they ordered as an appetizer was not my thing (I’m not a cornbread person) although they seemed to like it a lot.  I had a hard time deciding between a few things on the lunch menu, but in the end I went with the most boring dish you can imagine – the cheeseburger.  Sometimes it’s better to be safe.

What I didn’t expect was that this cheeseburger would be far from safe.  Ordering the burger turned out to be the best decision I made that day, since it was probably the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had in my life.  It was a double cheeseburger, complete with sauteed onions, homemade pickles, melted cheddar cheese, and secret sauce (it felt almost like a honey mustard, but more savory and not quite as thick).  I wish I could effectively describe to you the incredible flavors this burger brought to the table, and I wish even more that I had taken a picture so that you could see the fresh cheddar cheese just oozing out of the homemade bun.

I also loved the staff at the restaurant, who were friendly and accommodating.   Vickie had booked her reservation through Open Table, and in the comments section had asked them to do something special for my birthday, which is coming up.  They brought out a pudding dessert in a miniature mason jar, complete with a candle and four spoons, at no extra cost.  It was absolutely precious and I was so thankful for the experience.

All in all, I highly recommend Husk if you are visiting Charleston anytime soon.  I also suggest that you make a reservation in advance, and stick with lunch if you are on any sort of budget.

You definitely will not be disappointed.