Best food

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About 25 years ago, I bought my very first home and immediately ran out to the store to purchase a gas grill because that’s what men do. You get a big grill and cook up steaks and dogs for your neighbors while drinking beer and talking about how bad the Yankees are.
I didn’t have a huge yard, so when I got the grill home I leaned it right up against the house, fired it up and went inside to tenderize the meat. I wasn’t sure how to do that, so I just hit it with an old bowling ball. When I took my beaten up meat out to the yard, I smelled something funny. Something was already cooking but it didn’t smell very good. Then I saw it. The grill was too close to the back of the house and was literally melting the siding. Had I waited another ten minutes I would have been serving well done steak to the local fire department without needing a grill because the whole place would have gone up.
This story is my way of telling you I’m no Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen. Can I toast a bagel and slather butter on top? Absolutely, but nobody will be inviting me to next season’s episode of “Chopped.” I can just imagine how that would go. The host would tell us to open our basket of ingredients—octopus, lemons and ostrich toes—and then say, “It appears the contestant from New York just took off his apron, left and went to the nearest Burger King.” Still, since this April’s magazine is dedicated to the best food in the Capital Region I thought I’d share what little knowledge I have to help anyone who is worse in the kitchen than I.
The best “restaurant” I’ve ever been to was in Troy but it closed many, many years ago so we’ll save that story for last. Let’s start instead with something my mom used to say: “If you can read you can cook.” I always thought that was overly optimistic but it turns out she was right. Next time you are at the supermarket stop by the spice aisle and look for the powdered sauce mixes; McCormick has a whole rack of them. Most of these mixes involve you heating up some water, milk or butter in a pan and stirring in the powder from the little pouch. Then you toss it over whatever you want and, “wa la,” you’re a chef. Are you Bradley Cooper in that fabulously underrated movie “Burnt?” No, but nine out of ten people will put a fork in what you’ve created, take a bite and roll their eyes with delight. I’ve made the McCormick’s Chicken Alfredo more than once and it never disappoints. In fact, I’ll make you a promise. You give a few of those mixes a try at home and I guarantee you’ll be out at a restaurant, like say Olive Garden, take a bite of their food, turn to your dinner companion and say, “Mine is better.”
As I get older, one of my wishes is to actually learn how to cook from scratch and not use the pre-packaged stuff that helps you cheat. I’ll see the flyer from a local community college advertising cooking classes and think one of these days I have to check this out. Seeing I’m only eight years from retirement, I guess I’m waiting until then when I know I’ll have lots of free time. I saw in a movie once where the teacher at the cooking class lets you drink wine as you learn. I think that’s the class for me, although I’ll have to make sure it’s not at 9am; I never drink before 9:30 (kidding).
A chef once told me that we Americans have become accustomed to eating crap food and thinking we’re satisfied. He said in his exotic European accent, “You think if you full, it good. But it no good. You forgot what good is.” He’s right, of course. Look at the “all you can eat” buffets we line up for only to shovel it in two forks at a time. Is the food really good? Eh, not really, but we sure are full when we leave. I make it a point to get out at least once a month to what I consider a “finer restaurant.” We certainly have no shortage of them around here, especially if you like Italian—Canali’s, Paolo Lombardi’s, Moscatiello’s, Aperitivo; the list goes on. And when on vacation, we always budget a couple hundred bucks for a fancy night out. Sitting on the patio at Olives at the Bellagio in Vegas, close enough to the fountains to get wet, is at the top of my list.
But that’s not my favorite; I told you that one was in Troy long ago. When I was a little boy I’d run home from school at lunchtime and my mom would have chicken noodle soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches waiting on the kitchen table. Perhaps it was her company or a mom’s loving touch, but as long as I live I don’t think anything will taste quite as good.
John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at johngray@fox23news.com.

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