Vegetables

Baked Mashed Potatoes

I would like to thank my colleague, Deb Rosenthal, for the following guest post. Deb is a fellow food aficionado and recently heard about a new technique for making mashed potatoes, so she stepped up to the plate and offered to write about her experience. Turns out the results were mixed.

My Quest for Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Ever since I moved 3,000 miles away from my family it became clear that if I wanted Thanksgiving dinner I would have to make it for myself. Last year I made the basics and it turned out fine. This year, I was cocky. Last year went so well, I need to outdo it! I thought to myself. Started out simple enough, brine the turkey, two different from-scratch stuffings, balsamic glazed brussel sprouts and the list goes on. I was stumped when I got to the mashed potatoes. What more could be done to the simple potato?

The answer came to me through the help of the internet: baking the potatoes instead of boiling. This method allows you to make creamier mashed potatoes; since there is no addition of water in the cooking process you can add more milk and butter. I wasn’t sure about this so I did a test potato a few nights before the big day. It worked out great! I baked the potato in my toaster oven for 40 minutes, scooped the insides out (leaving the unwashed skins behind) and easily mashed it with milk and butter. It was delicious. The next day at work I told everyone about my new discovery, claiming it was going to lead to better mashed potatoes in a fraction of the time.

Finally, Turkey Day arrived. I was riding high on my horse, I had even volunteered to write about this experience for Mark’s blog, as I knew I wanted to share the discovery with others. I started out, happily documenting my experience along the way.

Pre heat over, wash the potatoes, place on a baking sheet and pierce with fork – check! Everything is going great so far.

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Bake for 45 minutes, take out of oven and cut in half – check!

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This is when things went downhill. I had laid out the whole day, giving myself ample time to cook everything in order to have dinner on the table by 4. I was not supposed to start the potatoes until noon but I had woken up early and figured I might as well get a jump on the day. After I took the potatoes out of the oven I thought to myself (and please note – this is the moment I look back on as the start of the train wreck) I’m in no rush, might as well hold off on dealing with the potatoes until after coffee. Several cups of coffee later I returned to the kitchen to start scooping potatoes.

Turns out, once potatoes are cooled they are not as soft as when they are piping hot from the oven. I ended up having to peel all the peels with the back of a spoon, instead of simply scooping the potato out of the skins.

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It gets worse. Have you ever tried to mash a hard potato? Of course not; that’s a stupid thing to do. Well, yours truly got a 45-minute lesson on that. When baked potatoes cool they get hard. Mashing cold potatoes is the worst. Legit. The. Worst. It was throw-the-bowl-of-potatoes-out-the-window-and-cancel-the-rest-of-Thanksgiving hard. This is also the point where I stopped documenting my journey.

Once the potatoes were finally sort of all mashed up I added in a warmed mixture of butter and milk. My original thoughts were correct, baked potatoes were able to absorb more liquid than boiled ones. To add more flavor, I decided to then roast a whole head of garlic and mash that into a paste to fold into the potatoes. This yielded some really good, and really garlicy mashed potatoes. Just for the record, this final step only occurred to me after I took a 45-minute break to drink some tea and read a book.

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In case anyone is wondering, the rest of the dinner turned out great. Everything went sort-of according to plan. Yes, the turkey came out of the oven an hour and a half later than scheduled and the gravy took what felt like a year and a half to reach a boil, but all in all I will say it was a success.

While the potatoes did turn out great, do I think they were any better than simple boiled potatoes? No. I think peeling the potatoes, throwing them into a pot of boiling water and then draining and mashing them is easier. And really, at the end of the day, it all tastes the same covered in gravy and cranberry sauce.

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Thank you once again for being a guinea pig, Deb. Remember: it’s all in the name of science! If you have an idea for a food-related post and would like to be a guest contributor to Eat My Words, just drop me a line or leave a comment below!

Categories: Vegetables | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

National Caesar Salad Day

Holy Caesar! The 4th of July marks independence from boring salads. It’s National Caesar Salad Day!

Last year, we celebrated National Barbecued Spareribs Day. Seemed appropriate, given that Independence Day is traditionally associated with barbecuing. But there’s a very good reason it’s also been declared National Caesar Salad Day: it was on this date in 1924 that Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant operating a restaurant in Tijuana, invented the dish. Cardini actually lived in San Diego, but crossed the border every day in order to avoid Prohibition. Because let’s face it, what is Mexican food without tequila? On that fateful July 4 Cardini ran out of the ingredients needed to make a proper salad, so he used whatever supplies he had on hand in order to keep his customers happy. These included whole lettuce leaves, Italian olive oil, and coddled eggs. For dramatic effect – or perhaps to distract diners’ attention from the fact that they were basically eating scraps of food hastily cobbled together – he prepared the salad tableside. And ended up with a surprise hit on his hands. People began trekking to his restaurant not for the booze, but for his namesake salad. Other staff members took credit for inventing the salad, and Caesar’s own brother, Alex, claims Caesar stole the idea from his “Aviator’s Salad,” named because it was served to airmen stationed at the naval base in San Diego. Alex’s recipe was similar, but contained anchovies. Nothing like a little family drama to cloud a happy moment, huh? While nobody can say for certain who came up with the first Caesar salad, Julia Child claims she enjoyed a Caesar’s salad while dining at Cardini’s restaurant in the early 1920s. Ha! Take that, Alex!

Today, Caesar’s salad is usually comprised of romaine lettuce, croutons, parmesan cheese, lemon, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and black pepper. It is often topped with grilled chicken, steak, or salmon. I happen to love a good Caesar salad…even when it comes out of a bag. And that’s where today’s did. It was delicious nonetheless!

National Caesar Salad Day

Categories: Vegetables | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Canned Corn: Which Brand is Best?

Tara and I were shopping for our weekly groceries this afternoon and were in the canned vegetables section. She needed canned corn for a goulash recipe she was making. “Normally I buy Green Giant,” she said. “But when I’m just mixing a bunch of ingredients together, the cheap stuff will do.” At that point she plucked a can of Santiam off the shelf and started to walk away.

“Wait!” I said. “Is there really a difference between brands of canned corn?”

“I have no idea,” she replied.

“We should find out,” I said. And just like that, a new food challenge was born!

We can thank Napoleon Bonaparte for canning. French troops were suffering badly from malnutrition during their war with Russia in the 18th century, and Napoleon offered a reward of 12,000 francs to anybody who could develop a method of preserving food to keep the troops fed. Nicolas Appert, a candy maker from Paris, won the prize in 1809. Keenly aware that storing wine in sealed bottles helped preserve it, he applied the same principle to food, filling wide-mouthed glass bottles with food, corking them, and boiling them. The tin can followed shortly after, introduced by Englishman Peter Durand. And the rest is history.

To keep the playing field even, I chose the same type of corn: sweet, whole kernel yellow corn. There were two “economy” brands, Santiam and the WinCo store brand, and two “premium” brands: Green Giant and Del Monte. We decided to sample them straight out of the can – uncooked and not doctored up with butter, salt, or any other flavoring that might inadvertently sway our opinions. It was a double-blind study in which I labeled the bottom of each bowl with a number from 1-4, each one matching with a corresponding can, and mixed them up so that I had no idea which bowl corresponded to which can. Tara and I enlisted the aid of my daughter, as well, for a third opinion. unnamed

I went first, and it became immediately apparent that there were differences in flavor between each brand. They looked identical, but taste-wise, that was another story. After sampling all four, I chose my favorite. Then my daughter went, followed by Tara.

Surprisingly, the results were unanimous. We all chose the same brand as our favorite.

The winner? Del Monte. 

Del Monte’s kernels were plump and sweet, and had a pleasing consistency that was nearly creamy in texture. They were slightly salty, slightly buttery. Just a good, crisp fresh-tasting corn.

Green Giant came in second. Again, the corn was high quality, but the flavor was just a little lacking.

We were split between the bottom two as to which was worse, but they both finished 3 and 4 in the rankings. I found the WinCo brand to have a strange “burned” flavor, while Tara described it as tasting metallic. The Santiam brand didn’t have much flavor at all, and the kernels were a little smaller – and stringier.

I have to admit, the results of this taste test surprised me. I had always assumed all canned vegetables were the same, and that if you bought a more expensive brand you were essentially paying for the name. It turns out I was wrong, that there are differences in quality. The lesson? You get what you pay for! From now on, we’ll be buying Del Monte when we purchase canned corn.

I’m curious to see how other canned veggies stack up. Look for a sequel coming soon.

In the meantime, here are 15 great recipes using canned corn.

When it comes to canned corn, you get what you pay for.

When it comes to canned corn, you get what you pay for.

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Categories: Vegetables | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

300/365: National American Beer Day/National Potato Day*

October 27th marks our 300th food challenge of the year. It’s National American Beer Day! And also, National Potato Day. We’re on the road and enjoying our first-ever NFL game: Redskins vs. our beloved Broncos here in Denver. Fortunately, stadiums are synonymous with beer, and since we spent most of today at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, were easily able to celebrate both food holidays (potato wedges and Bud Light). Think of this as a two-touchdown performance in the 4th quarter. Speaking of…what a great game! 45-21, Broncos beat the Redskins handily. Go, Peyton!! National American Beer Day

We have already celebrated beer and potato holidays, so I won’t bore you with regurgitated history lessons. Instead, I promised a big announcement, and I wanted to save it for a special day. Challenge #300 certainly qualifies; we are racing toward the finish line now, with barely over two months to go, and nary a misstep. The food challenge has been time consuming, costly, and has required tons of planning and hard work, but it’s also been a lot of fun! We have learned a lot about the history of many popular dishes, and tried plenty of new ones we’d only ever heard of previously. Part of us will be sad when this all ends. Which leads to our announcement:

Eat My Words will continue beyond December 31st! 

Not in the same form, of course. Assuming we successfully complete our quest to consume a year’s worth of food holidays, we’re not going to turn around and do it all over again. Been there, done that, and we’d be dealing with an awful lot of repetition. Plus, the demands of a daily blog are overwhelming. The fact that we have been able to devote so much time to our challenge in a year that included a marriage, three-day work function, and multiple weekend trips is pretty amazing…but we wouldn’t want to do it again. It’s taken a ton of effort, not to mention a little bit of luck. I’m glad we took this on, but man, never again!

However, there is plenty more we can do, at a much more relaxing pace. Read: whenever we want, rather than on a daily basis. The theme of our blog will still revolve around food challenges, and we’ve got a lot of fun ones planned. Some of our ideas include:

  • Making a meal using only yellow foods.
  • Creating upscale versions of kid’s food (Spaghetti-Os, Sloppy Joes).
  • Cooking a retro meal from a 1950s-era cookbook.
  • Making a complete meal using ingredients that start with the letter R.
  • Cooking a Dinner From Hell, using foods we despise.
  • Making a meal using only ingredients sourced from the farmer’s market that day.

We also envision more head-to-head challenges (like our souffle battles) and, yes, we’ll celebrate the occasional food holiday – ones that we passed on the first time around when there were multiple choices, and others that we just really enjoyed. We have lots of great ideas, and will be turning to our readers for even more. Our blog will be more interactive than ever before!

So, there you have it! Eat My Words will be back in 2014 with new challenges, new food facts, and new fun. A scaled-down version that won’t clog your In Box with emails every single day. It’s a win/win, folks!

Categories: Alcohol, Vegetables | Tags: , , , | 10 Comments

256/365: National Snack A Pickle Time*

Friday, September 13 is your lucky day if you love pickles! It’s the holiday that is a real mouthful: National Snack A Pickle Time.

Not “day,” mind you. “Time.” I don’t know who came up with the name of this holiday, but it’s a real doozie. It’s also National Peanut Day which, despite being more straightforward and easier to say, didn’t appeal to us as much. We’ve already gone nuts with the legumes in other celebrated dishes this year, so we might as well get our pickle on!

Also, on a personal note, this is a very special weekend for Tara and I: we are getting married tomorrow. Today, we are setting out for the Oregon coast, where we rented a beach house for the festivities. It’s going to be a pretty small gathering, just 14 of our closest family members. Lest you think a little event like a wedding is going to prevent us from participating in our food challenge, guess again! The celebrated foods over the next few days are pretty easy, and we are incorporating tomorrow’s into the theme of our wedding. Let’s just say everything sort of lined up perfectly for the type of ceremony (read: casual and quirky) we are having.

People have been getting pickled for as long as alcohol existed. And people have been pickling foods since the Mesopotamians pick(l)ed up the habit in 2400 BC. While cucumbers are most commonly associated with pickles, virtually any vegetable or fruit can be pickled: it’s just got to be submerged in a brine that consists of salt and vinegar. Pickles have long been revered as being nutritional, having healing powers, and serving as beauty aids. Cleopatra attributed her good looks to a diet rich in pickles, and Julius Caesar fed pickles to his troops to provide them with physical and spiritual strength as they set out to conquer the world. Even Shakespeare made reference to pickles in Anthony and Cleopatra when he wrote, “What say you? Hence, Horrible villain! or I’ll spurn thine eyes like balls before me; I’ll unhair thy head: Thou shalt be whipp’d with wire and stew’d in brine, Smarting in lingering pickle.” Death by pickle juice? How horrible! (“Unhairing thy head” doesn’t sound very pleasant, either). ‘Twas Christopher Columbus who introduced pickles to the New World, planting cucumbers in Haiti for the sole purpose of pickling. In fact, pickles were a mainstay on long ocean voyages, providing sailors with a snack that didn’t spoil and prevented scurvy. What’s not to love about a pickle?

I do love pickles and they happen to be a favorite snack of mine, so this holiday was hardly a stretch. I can often be found hunched over the kitchen sink, munching on a pickle after a hard day at work or coming back from running errands. I suppose most people would reach for a piece of fruit, but not me. Naturally, we had plenty of pickles on hand, so Tara and I snacked on a pickle before embarking on our trip to the Oregon coast.

See you on our wedding day!

National Snack A Pickle Time

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250/365: National Acorn Squash Day

I don’t mean to step on any toes today, but we are going to celebrate a quintessential autumn dish. September 7 is National Acorn Squash Day!

You probably think acorn squash is a vegetable. That’s the kind of thinking that’ll get you tossed off the island, mister! (If you were on an island and you’re a man). Fact is, much like the tomato, it’s technically a fruit dressed up like a vegetable. In other words, an impostor. Squash is indigenous to North and Central America, and was one of the staple food items of Native Americans, along with beans, corn, and strawberry Jell-O. Named for it’s shape – that’d be an acorn, not a corn – acorn squash is related to zucchini, but much smaller in size. It’s typically dark green with a splash of orange, and has distinctive ridges across its surface. The flesh is yellow-orange and sweet. Acorn squash is best baked, and often served stuffed. It can also be sauteed or steamed. Just be sure to remove the fibers and stems before cooking. Unless you happen to like fibers and stems. If that’s the case, go ahead and leave ’em in. It’s your digestive tract. Other names for this fruit include winter squash, žalud squash, agern squash, ng bunga ng oak kalabasa, courge poivrée, eichelkürbis, makk squash, acorn leiðsögn, squash dearcán, squash ghianda, zīle drūzmēties, gilė skvošas, Żołądź squash, abóbora, ghindă squash, calabaza, acorn boga, ekollonsquash, meşe palamudu kabak, and sboncen fesen.

We had never tried acorn squash before, though I buy it almost every year. Like candy corn, it’s a festive way to celebrate fall (and Halloween). I often have decorative gourds on display. We baked it, with a little butter, brown sugar, and maple syrup – the recipe follows – and served it as a side dish with some fried chicken and potato salad. We were both amazed by how delicious it tasted!

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Acorn squash
  • 1 Tbsp Butter
  • 2 Tbsp Brown Sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Maple Syrup
  • Dash of Salt

1 Preheat oven to 400°F.

2 Using a strong chef’s knife, and perhaps a rubber mallet to help, cut the acorn squash in half, lengthwise, from stem to end. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff in the center of each half. Score the insides of each half several times with a sharp knife. Place each half in a baking pan, cut side up. Add about a 1/4 inch of water to the bottom of the baking pan so that the skins don’t burn and the squash doesn’t get dried out.

3 Coat the inside of each half with 1/2 a Tbsp of butter. Add a dash of salt if you are using unsalted butter. Add a Tbsp of brown sugar to the cavity of each half. Dribble on a teaspoon of maple syrup to each half.

4 Bake in the oven for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes, until the squash is very soft and the tops are browned. Do not undercook. When finished, remove from oven and let cool a little before serving. Spoon any buttery sugar sauce that has not already been absorbed by the squash over the exposed areas.

Yield: Serves 2 to 4, depending on how much squash you like to eat.

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Categories: Fruit, Vegetables | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

231/365: National Potato Day/National Hot & Spicy Food Day*

Today presents us with a real dilemma. We have two food holidays to choose from: National Potato Day, or National Hot & Spicy Food Day. No problem for me, but somebody in the house doesn’t like potatoes OR hot and spicy foods.

Hint: it’s not the cat.

Before I continue, I want to update you on a recent challenge. A couple of days ago was National Vanilla Custard Day. My parents had given us some rennet tablets to assist in the preparation. I had never used them before – had never even heard of them, as a matter of fact – and the instructions for preparation were very precise. My first batch was ruined because the milk was too hot, so I cooked up a second helping, and this time the temperature was just right. We put it in the refrigerator overnight to set, and the next morning – before hitting the road – tried the custard. It wasn’t bad at all. But, after fourteen hours in a cooler filled with ice, the consistency had changed to something akin to a watery, lumpy cottage cheese. Neither of us was keen on trying it, but we knew we must adhere to the rules of the challenge, so we actually waited until the stroke of midnight, when it was officially Saturday, and had a spoonful each. Honestly, the flavor wasn’t bad, but the texture was revolting. So, our vanilla custard was a major disappointment – but given the obstacles we faced this weekend, we won’t beat ourselves up too badly.

Moving right along…

Spices were first used to flavor foods around 7000 B.C. when our forefathers discovered mastodon tasted so much better with a dash of red pepper flakes. Some cultures began to build their entire cuisines around spicy foods (Indian, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, and others), which isn’t really a bad thing: hot spices rev up the immune system, ignite the libido, and stimulate the brain. Which means, eating them will keep you healthy, horny, and smart as a whip. Plenty of reason there to pass the jalapenos!

I figured it would be easy to celebrate both food holidays today by combining the two. How to do that? With a bag of jalapeno flavored potato chips, of course! They were good. Tara wasn’t as crazy about them, but was a trooper about it (like always) and had a couple despite her distaste for them.

National Hot & Spicy Food Day, National Potato Day

Categories: Too Weird to Categorize, Vegetables | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

224/365: National Julienne Fries Day*

No matter how you slice it – though it had better be in long, thin strips – today’s food holiday is a tasty one. August 12 is National Julienne Fries Day!

Not to be confused with National French Fries Day, of course. We could have gone wild that day and eaten jumbo-sized steak fries or wedge fries! (Alas, we did not. Ours were julienned, which is the most popular method of preparing french fries, at least in the fast food world). Julienning is a culinary knife technique in which a food is cut into long, thin strips similar to matchsticks. Carrots and celery are frequently julienned. When potatoes are julienned, they are often referred to as “shoestring” fries. The origin of the term is unclear, though it is French and may refer to a person named Philippe. Just kidding, named Julien.  The technique was first described in François Massialot’s Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois, published in 1722.

According to Wikipedia, instructions for proper julienning are as follows:

With a sharp knife the raw vegetable is sliced to length and trimmed on four sides to create a thick rectangular stick 6 to 7 cm (2.4 to 2.8 in), then cut lengthwise into thin 1 to 2 mm (0.039 to 0.079 in) slices. Stacking these slices and again cutting lengthwise into thin (1 to 2 mm (0.039 to 0.079 in), equal to the thickness) strips creates thin uniform square sticks. Julienne usually applies to vegetables prepared in this way but it can also be applied to the preparation of meat or fish, especially in stir fry techniques.

Work that knife, baby! And don’t forget your ruler, apparently. Sheesh. Technical much?

We weren’t in the mood for precision cutting this evening, so we opened a bag of OreIda french fries instead. And baked them. Oh, the ignominy! But we used a real good quality ketchup. And fry sauce from Arctic Circle.

National Julienne Fries Day

Categories: Vegetables | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

220/365: National Zucchini Day*

Squash your plans to eat any other vegetables today: unless they’re long and green, they just don’t measure up. August 8 is National Zucchini Day!

It’s also National Frozen Custard Day, and that presented us with an interesting dilemma: there’s a frozen custard joint in town that churns out delicious, creamy frozen custard. But, with so many desserts on the calendar, whenever the opportunity arises to have something that isn’t sweet, we jump on it. Sure enough, the healthy choice beat out the far more decadent choice, and we decided to honor zucchini (which tend to get far too little respect this time of year anyway, growing to inordinately large sizes and ending up dumped on unsuspecting neighbors’ doorsteps in alarming numbers).

The truth is, like tomatoes and Carmen Miranda’s hat, zucchini are technically a fruit, not a vegetable. I actually failed to mention this fact on National Zucchini Bread Day, but did cover the history of the squash itself, so click on the link if you want to know how/where it originated.

We didn’t want to repeat ourselves and bake zucchini bread again, so we got more creative this time. I like the challenges where we repurpose the main ingredient in unexpected ways, straying from the obvious. We made pork and chicken fajitas for dinner, and added sliced zucchini to our vegetable mix (peppers, onions, and mushrooms). Traditional Mexican? Not at all, but that didn’t matter a bit. It was delicious!

National Zucchini Day

Categories: Vegetables | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

194/365: National French Fries Day/National Beans ‘n Franks Day

If you’ve ever played “one potato, two potato” as a kid (or an adult – hey, I’m not judging your arrested development!), today’s holiday just might ap-peel to you. July 13 is National French Fries Day! It’s also National Beans ‘n Franks Day, and we decided to do something rare and double dip. That is, celebrate both food holidays. I think we’ve only ever done this once before all year.

Despite the name, french fries aren’t really French. These deep-fried potatoes – known as “chips” in the U.K. and certain countries Down Under (which is kind of cute, but also confusing, because they call chips “crisps” and it’s all one big slippery slope into anarchy from there) – were actually invented in Belgium. The Spanish introduced potatoes to Europe in the 16th century, and before long the Belgians were frying up thin strips of potatoes in place of the small fish they could no longer fry when the rivers froze over during the winter. A French army officer named Antoine-Augustine Parmentier began championing the lowly potato in his country, where it had previously been viewed as unfit for human consumption in the mistaken belief that potatoes caused diseases. No wonder the French have a reputation for being snooty!  He began hosting dinners for famous guests like Benjamin Franklin,  King Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette, during which potatoes would be served in an effort to prove that they were not only edible, but delicious. It wasn’t until a great famine in 1785 that the French realized hey, maybe we can eat these, after all. A decade later fried potatoes – called frites – were all the rage. When they were introduced to America, fast-food chains named them “French fries” in an homage to their European heritage, not realizing that the Belgians had actually been making them for a good hundred years longer. Which is all fine, I suppose. Belgian fries just doesn’t have the same ring to it, you know?

Beans ‘n franks is a quintessentially American dish in which hot dogs are cut up and cooked in the same sauce used to make baked beans. The two had been served together for decades, until one day somebody – whose name is sadly lost to history – decided it was too much work to take a bite of a hot dog and then scoop up a forkful of beans, so what the heck, let’s just mix ’em together and save all this time and trouble. Presumably, of course. There isn’t a lot of history available on the origin of this particular dish, and my motto is: when in doubt, make stuff up!

I kid, I kid.

To celebrate, first we opened a can of Beanee Weenees in the morning. Nothing says breakfast like beans ‘n franks! Later in the afternoon, we were visiting Capitol Hill in downtown Seattle (we’re in the Emerald City this weekend) and we dropped by Dick’s Drive In for an order of fresh-cut fries. Both were wonderful!

Beans 'n franks.

Beans ‘n franks.

National French Fries Day

Categories: Meat, Too Weird to Categorize, Vegetables | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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