15 September, 2014

Collaborative Bacon, Part 2

As you may remember from this post, Jess Watski (Foodette) suddenly appeared last week bearing the two most important ingredients for making bacon:

  1. A pork belly
  2. A desire to make bacon
Curing the bacon took about four days, from Sunday afternoon until Thursday night when I removed it from the cryovac pouch in which it slept, gave the belly a rinse under cool running water and picked off any remaining spice bits. I set it on a few paper towels and patted it dry, and later I set it aside in the cool pantry  covered with a loose-knit cotton dishtowel. The idea was to age the belly, allowing more of the moisture to evaporate out of it before sending it to the smoker.

By the time Jess arrived on Saturday, the bacon was ready to go. The fat was dryer and waxy, and the lean had firmed and darkened in color.

For comparison's sake, I trimmed a few thin slices off of one end and fried them up crispy in a small skillet. Simple, unsmoked (or "green") bacon. The flavor was delicious: bacony to be sure, but with just a hint of the juniper berries and a slight sharp edge from the mustard seed. Jess' choices for seasoning were great. So I added a couple of meat hooks to the thick end, and we hung it in the smoker for a little quality time with some smouldering apple wood.

I set the fire in the smoker to low and started the chips. To prevent a big heat build-up around the meat, I set an heavy aluminum baker's tray above the burner. We kept the temperature very low (less than 200F) and left the side to hang and smoke for 3 hours.

After chilling the side for about half an hour in the freezer to firm it up a bit, I brought out my slicer and we cut it 18 slices to the pound. Because the side was on the small side, this was just right for moderately-thick slices. We made up 1-pound packages.

Jess was really happy with the end results. She's still got another side from that Berkshire pig. We're thinking maybe making some pancetta next.

11 September, 2014

Free Fries at McDonald's TOMORROW ONLY!

To celebrate National Potato Month, McDonald's restaurants in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts are offering FREE FRIES! On Friday September 12th, from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, just walk politely into a local Mickey D's and receive a free order of small fries.

10 September, 2014

Help Protect Net Neutrality

I'll bet you recognize that twirly thing up there. It's a "loading" symbol. It's designed to reassure you that something is actually happening behind the scenes when your computer isn't displaying the content you selected. 

Hope you enjoy it, because if big ISPs have their way, you'll be doing a lot more loading and a lot less looking, especially with small sites like this one.

08 September, 2014

Collaborative Bacon, Part 1

Photo by Foodette
Last week I got a message from Jess Watsky (aka the famous Foodette.) Seems she had a big ol' pile of pig meat which included a belly, and she was wondering if I could find some time to show her how to turn that belly into bacon.

But of course!

I had recently been enchanted by her recent foray into offal, a slow-roasted pig's head - the creation of which she detailed on her blog, Foodette Reviews.

Another photo stolen from Foodette
And that is how it came to be that on a fine Sunday afternoon, Jess, Lynnafred, Maryanne, and I gathered around my kitchen table with a propane torch, singeing the bristles off a wonderful Berkshire pork belly.

I prepped a bowl of basic bacon cure - 2 parts kosher salt, 1 part demerara sugar, 1 generous tablespoon of curing salt - in a bowl. We added seasonings: sweet Hungarian paprika, freshly cracked black pepper, mustard seed, juniper berries and home-grown bay leaves crushed in a mortar.

And then Jess and I donned food-service gloves and gently rubbed the salt mixture into the pork before vacuum sealing it into a plastic time capsule not to be opened until Saturday.

Photo by Dave. For a change.
The salt had already started working its magic by Sunday night. Every now and then I'd take the package out and massage it a little. As the salt draws moisture from the meat, a brine forms in the bag. Although it had only been a few hours, a noticeable brine was already pooling up the the spaces by the meat.

Join us later in the week as we continue the adventure.

05 September, 2014

That Fried Egg Photo

What is it with this picture?

It appears in tons of those "click bait" advertisements you see all over the web. In fact, it's possible that Google might sense the presence of it and present one of the pitches in an AdSense advertisement right on this page in the right-hand sidebar. 

The picture seems to have no origin. Doing a reverse-image search only brings up various ads. Examining the EXIF data embedded in the pictures yields no information at all.

And so, we have this picture of fried eggs - disgusting, overcooked, nasty-looking fried eggs - appearing here and there across the internet.  And I have no clue why an advertiser would choose this particular image for the products they sell.

Don't bother clicking on any of these.
They don't link to any shitty sales scams.
This seems to be the most common application of the picture right now: Some kind of mysterious "testosterone trick." What do eggs have to do with testosterone, anyway?  If eating eggs made men hairier or more muscular or grow a bigger dick, most guys would look like gorillas dragging a three-foot cock behind them like some veiny pink dragon tail. It's obvious that this frying pan full of ruined breakfasts isn't really the key to testoteronic mastery.

Especially when many more secret Man-Hormone-Trick advertisements are like this one, featuring attractive women who would appreciate a better "performance." 

Wilford Brimly would
be pleased.
But apparently, overfried poultry embryos are also the key to an odd trick that destroys diabetes. (It certainly would be odd if eating lots of eggs could destroy diabetes, I admit.)

I'm trying to figure out how a wrinkle solution would horrify a surgeon. Maybe if you grew an extra leg out of your back and the rest of your skin had to stretch to fit it. That would probably horrify a surgeon. And get you locked in a government lab for experimentation, too.

Italian people seem to associate fried eggs with unlikely medical benefits, too. This ad is wicked common on Italian websites. They use our eggy friends to advertise a miracle "Antidote to Obesity" which can help you lose 30 pounds a month from your belly, ass, and thighs.

It works in the US, too, though in the American version, we're told to "Eat more fat." Is that really necessary?

04 September, 2014

ALDI Pizza Ravioli

The frozen-food cases at ALDI hold such delights - which rotate in availability with a baffling inscrutability - that I could probably write this blog exclusively about ALDI products and never run out of source material. Why, just the other day I went in for some bread and a head of lettuce - and nothing else - but the siren song of the frozen foods beckoned me and there I beheld PIZZA RAVIOLI.

There were two varieties available: Pepperoni and Cheese. I bought a bag of each and boiled them up according to standard ravioli operating procedures, and then served them without attempting to distinguish by sight which ones were which.

The Pizza Ravioli are as deliciously satisfying as frozen ravioli can be. That is not intended to be insulting or ironic, either: The ravioli I grew up eating was always frozen - I don't think I saw a "fresh" ravioli until I was like thirty years old - but it means that you're not going to find huge bursting-at-the-seams-with-ricotta ravioli in these bags. The filling is standard quantity, and standard-for-ALDI quality (which means, of course, that it's right on par with any name brand you might usually buy.)

I cooked and served the two varieties by dumping both bags at once into the boiling water, then fishing them out and intermingling them in a big shallow serving bowl. I wanted an adventure, because it's impossible to tell by eye whether the ravioli on the end of your fork is pepperoni or cheese. It's not until the mildly spicy taste of the pepperoni hits your tongue that the difference is clear. ALDI certainly got the taste down pat here. These ravs genuinely taste like pizza, enough so that even Lynnafred's boyfriend ate them, despite his declared distate for ricotta cheese (he usually only eats meat ravs, the heathen.) They were really delicious, and a nice change from standard ravioli. I would buy them again.

Remember if you can't find these in your local ALDI, have a chat with the store manager to see when the store is going to get some in. Like many of ALDI's products, Pizza Raviolis are generally a "limited time" item, and every store's schedule differs.

03 September, 2014

Fishy Delights 51: Look's Atlantic Premium Smoked Sardine Fillets

Man, I loves me some canned sardines, as you can probably tell by looking at how many different brands I've reviewed over the years. I often take a can to work for lunch - they're easy to eat, wicked good for you, and they have a side benefit of making my office smell fishy until the trash is emptied (I derive amusement from the annoyance of the next shift.)

These smoked sardine fillets are a bit of a departure for me, since I usually go for the smaller cans of "whole" fish. And, as you might expect, not only the flavor but the texture of these little morsels are very different than whole canned sardines.

I've had many smoked sardines before. It's very common for a label to note that the fish are "lightly smoked." Sometimes - as with the Galleon brand sardines I recently reviewed - the smoke flavor is of the utmost subtlety, almost a whisper. Other times the smoke flavor is more distinct, though still gentle. Not, however, with these fillets. The smoke flavor is strong and assertive (though not as strong as with, say, Blind Robin smoked herring,) and the fish tends to fall apart and be a bit on the dry side. I think that this is because the fish are simply packed in the cans with a bit of salt - no added water or oil - and the resulting liquid in the can is released from the fishies when they cook during processing.

Like all the sardines I eat, I enjoyed these just the way they were, straight out of the can. But if you were to flake the fish with a fork and mix it well with some cream cheese and some finely chopped capers, and then season it with a bit of salt, some good hot Hungarian or Spanish paprika, and just the slightest dash of allspice, you'd have a pretty damn good cracker spread.

In New England, you can usually find Look's products at Ocean State Job Lot stores.

02 September, 2014

My Rice Milk Adventure

James Cagney laughing it up with
Virginia Bruce and a glass
of milk in Winner Take All, 1932
Dairy products have always been my friend. Cheese...milk...butter...half-and-half in my coffee...whipped cream. I've had to give most of that stuff up since my bypass (I still eat cheese - I'm only human) but the only thing I really miss is milk. Whole milk. Before my surgery, milk was my beverage of choice with meals. Part of that, of course, is due to childhood habits, but there's some social conditioning going on there too. Milk is deeply ingrained in American culture; just pay attention when you're watching old movies. When you start noticing little details in films you'd be surprised how many scenes there are where people drink milk. When the hospital dietitian came around to discuss the "cardiac diet" I was henceforth expected to follow, I was told that rich dairy products were right out...but I could drink all the SKIM milk I wanted. Skim milk is good for me. Whole milk is poison.

To hell with that. I really can't stand the taste or mouthfeel of skim milk. It's nasty shit. I'd rather never drink milk again than drink skim milk. So I started looking for a substitute. I found that most brands of soy milk are pretty good. My favorite "grain milk," though is rice milk. Commercial rice milk is pretty amazing - Not only does it have a consistency very close to dairy, it also tastes like the milk that's left behind in the bowl after eating Rice Krispies (which is basically the best flavor that milk can be except for chocolate and malt.) Naturally, we've been going through a lot of Rice Dream, at like three bucks a container. It gets expensive fast, so I decided to try making my own because I am a cheap bastard thrifty. The ingredients in Rice Dream are pretty simple, too: filtered water, partially milled brown rice, veggie oil to provide a bit of body, and some added vitamins. How hard can this be, right?

It turns out that it's not that hard to find rice milk recipes on the web. In fact, there are so many that it can be kind of overwhelming. The first time I asked Chef Google for her recommendations, the top results called for using brown rice and a long initial cooking time. So that's what I did:

Rice Milk (Cooked Rice #1)

1 cup brown rice
8 cups water
1/4 cup canola oil
dash of salt
additional water
sugar to taste

Combine the rice, water, oil, and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil. Turn down to a very low simmer, cover, and allow to cook for 3 hours or longer (a slow cooker or cockpot is excellent for this.) When the rice has cooked enough, it will look kind of like a soupy rice sludge.

Measure the sludge into a blender. For every cup of rice you put in, add 2 cups of fresh water (put in rice and water alternately so you don't overfill the blender.) Whirl the mixture on high for at least five minutes. (If you have a Vitamix or Ninja this will probably be enough; if you have a standard blender, you'll need to leave the blender on for somewhat longer.)

She likes green beans, though.
The rice milk will now be somewhat thinner than when it came from the pot, and it needs to be filtered. Use a very fine-mesh strainer - or a strainer lined with a piece or two of cheesecloth - to pour the rice milk through and into a big bowl. Scrape along the inside of the strainer every now and then to help the stuff flow through.

When done, you will have some thick rice milk (more like "rice heavy cream" in viscosity) in the bowl, and a strainer full of disgusting mushy rice bran. You can throw the bran out, or eat it if you want some fiber in your diet. If you have chickens, give it them. (I gave mine to my parrot. She didn't like it.)

When you cook rice this long, it gets thick and gummy. Even after thinning it in the blender and removing a lot of solids with the filter, the rice milk - although a very lovely white color - was still too thick to comfortably drink. Starting with a measured 36 ounces of the thick stuff, I gradually added water, sampling as I went, until I arrived at a quaffable consistency. I wound up getting about 56 ounces of rice milk for every 36 ounces of thick liquid I measured into the blender. If you try this method, you'll need to experiment to find the right consistency for you. The heavily-cooked rice had developed a somewhat bitter aftertaste and I added a little sugar to round off the flavor. It wasn't all that bad, but it wasn't exactly good, either. No matter what I did, I couldn't get rid of the gumminess. I made something like four batches of this cooked-brown-rice rice milk because even though I wasn't that happy with the end result, I wanted to tinker with it AND I wanted to use up all of the brown rice. My final batch of cooked white rice milk was made with white rice. It was sill gummy, but there wasn't nearly the quantity of dregs in the strainer. I learned two lessons from this:

  1. Cooking the rice into a paste is NOT a good way to start rice milk.
  2. Screw brown rice. If all I'm doing is skimming off the bran anyway, why the hell am I spending more money on brown rice vs. white? 

Despite being kind of unhappy with the results, I couldn't call these first attempts at homemade rice milk a failure. The milk turned out exactly as the online recipes said it would, I just didn't care for the results.

Next, I tried using cooked rice left over from a meal. The rice was cooked, but not cooked until it's soul departed for the Elysian Rice Paddies.

Rice Milk (Cooked Rice #2)

1 cup leftover cooked rice
4 cups water
Dash of salt
Sugar to taste

Combine rice, water, and salt in a blender and whirl until smooth. Add sugar to taste and blend a little bit longer. Pour through a fine strainer or a few layers of cheesecloth to remove any chunky bits. Serve chilled, shake well before serving.

If you use white rice, like I did, you'll find that there are a lot less solids that need to be filtered out, because there isn't any indigestible bran to remove from the milk.

This turned out a little bit better, but still had that cooked-rice gumminess that I really didn't care for. Why was the Rice Dreams commercial rice milk so smooth and clean-tasting, while mine was gummy? I looked up more recipes and found that some people were making their rice milk from raw rice. Could this be the answer?

Rice Milk (Raw Rice)

1 cup raw rice
8 cups water
Pinch of salt
Sugar to taste

Some recipes recommended toasting the rice as a first step, to help develop a better flavor. Put the dry rice into a skillet over medium heat and stir it frequently as the rice toasts and browns slightly. Remove from heat when fragrant and lightly browned.

I made batches with both toasted and untoasted rice. I couldn't tell the difference between the two.

Combine the rice and the water and allow to soak for 8 to 10 hours. I just put the stuff together in the blender before I left for work. When I got home that evening, the rice was soaked and already in the blender.

Whirl the soaked rice/water mix at high speed for 10 minutes to destroy the rice and incorporate as much of it as possible into the rice milk. Add salt and sugar to taste, sipping and adjusting as needed.

Pour through a cheesecloth-lined fine strainer, serve chilled. Rice milk will separate in the fridge; shake well before serving.

The flavor of this version is pretty much what I was looking for...and yet, it still wasn't right. My Ninja blender, as efficient and deadly as it is, couldn't grind the rice fine enough for efficient processing. Worse yet, the milk had some fine particles still floating about - too fine for the cheesecloth to catch, but coarse enough to make it feel like I was drinking a glass of sand. I solved this problem by pouring the rice milk through a nut milk bag - an extremely fine-meshed nylon back that is used to filter...well, homemade nut milk.

Finally! I had a decent homemade rice milk. Now I wanted something faster.

That's when I decided to use rice flour instead of whole rice grains. I don't have a grain mill, and obviously my blender is not the right tool for grinding rice. After some trial and error, I have a recipe now that works beautifully, and is proportioned to the 46-ounce juice bottles that I use to store the milk:

Dave's Rice Milk

46 ounces water
1 cup rice flour
1/2 tsp salt or salt substitue
1/4 cup canola oil
3 to 4 tbsp demerara sugar or regular sugar

Combine all ingredients in a blender and whirl on high speed for 8 to 10 minutes. Pour through a nut milk bag, carefully squeezing out all the liquid you can from the bag.

Shake well before serving; serve chilled.

This turns out the most awesome homemade rice milk of all, much cheaper than buying the commercial stuff. Someday, I'm going to find a grain mill at an estate sale or thrift shop and I'll mill my own rice flour from whole rice and the milk will be even cheaper, but for now buying rice flour in bulk (or from the Bob's Red Mill section at Ocean State Job Lot) will have to do.

01 September, 2014

Cleaning silverware with SCIENCE!

Maryanne and I picked up a really nice antique silverplate service Saturday at a little antique shop outside of Pittsfield with the intent of putting it to use as our everyday flatware. It was moderately tarnished, and today I set to work with the silver polish to try and get it back to lustrous beauty.

And after about an hour of work to get half a dozen pieces done, I decided there had to be an easier way. Dr. Google, as usual, had some great suggestions. I decided to use the one that presented the least amount of work.

Set a large pan on the stove and line it with aluminum foil and lay out some silverware on the foil. Every piece of flatware must be touching the aluminum somewhere, even if it's only a small point of contact. Pour water into the pan to cover the silverware by a couple of inches and turn the fire on under the pan. Bring the water to a full boil.

Shut the heat off under the pan and sprinkle the water liberally with baking soda. The water will appear to foam as the baking soda works, and there may be a "rotten egg" smell. That's hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of the chemical reaction cleaning your silver.

Hydrogen sulfide is poisonous, but you'd have to seal yourself inside a plastic bag along with the reaction to get a dose big enough to do you any harm.

The foaming will stop after a few minutes. Leave the silverware in the solution for a little while longer to allow the reaction to work as completely as possible.

Remove the silverware to a dishpan filled with warm, soapy water and clean it thoroughly. The tarnish should be mostly gone, and the silver will have a lovely matte finish. If you want a more shiny look, finish off the cleaning job by quickly buffing it up with a bit of silver polish.

<<- Before

After ->>

So how does this all work?

Silver combines with sulfur compounds in the air to form silver sulfide, which is black, and appears on the surface of the silver as tarnish. Removing the silver sulfide coating from the surface makes the silver shiny again..

You can remove the silver sulfide two ways: scrub it off the surface (i.e. use silver polish) or reverse the chemical reaction (i.e. turn the silver sulfide back into silver.) The method I used uses a chemical reaction, sped up by heating the water, to turn the silver sulfide back into silver.

Aluminum has a lower ionization energy than silver - it takes more energy to remove electrons from a silver atom than it does from an aluminum atom. During the cleaning process, the aluminum foil is oxidized (loses electrons) and the silver is reduced (gains electrons.) The silver turns bright and the aluminum foil darkens as the tarnish is "transferred" from the silver to the aluminum.  Because this is an electrochemical reaction, the silver and the aluminum must be touching.

30 August, 2014

Hometown Buffet, Manchester CT

My wife and I were driving through Manchester, Connecticut last Friday, kinda-sorta looking for a place to have supper, when we happened to notice a Hometown Buffet. When Lynnafred was a tyke, there was a Hometown Buffet in Enfield and Friday nights were Hometown Buffet nights. The food was not horrendous, little Lynnafred could always find something she liked on the steam tables, and - best of all - it was cheap to feed a kid there (they used to charge $1 per year of an under-8-year-old kid's age. Hell of good deal.)

Even though Manchester has a myriad of dining options, we decided to eat at Hometown Buffet for the worst of all possible reasons: nostalgia. We had no idea that we would soon be having a supper that was just one small step better than eating vienna sausages right from the can, with our fingers, while standing over the kitchen sink in the dark, crying.

There's no way for me to gently segue into a description of the food here so I'll just get right to it. The front and center table has always featured the Hometown Buffet staples: Meat loaf, oven-roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, mac and cheese, baked potatoes, yeast rolls, and cornbread. Mass-market mac and cheese is far too salty for my present tastes, which is just as well because the edges were drying out and slightly darkened as though it had been made a while ago and finally made it to the table. I took a chicken wing and a small scoop of potatoes which was an immediate cause for regret. The spuds had developed a skin and a long sheet of it lifted along with scoop. No gravy for me, either, since I couldn't decide whether to take some of the thick grey part or watery brown part. The meat loaf must have been pretty good though, because there were nothing but crumbs in the pan, and as soon as more would come out it was immediately scarfed up by hungry (and probably undiscriminating) hoards. In all fairness, the rolls and cornbread were decent.

A side table had other mains - baked salmon which had a strong chemical aftertaste, some kind of whitefish (might have been haddock but it was so thoroughly cooked that I couldn't even tell if it was organic matter, let alone what species,) fried fish of similarly indeterminate origin thickly coated with a greasy batter crust.

I was just sitting down to start eating when Maryanne said, "Don't eat with that fork." It took me a couple tries, but I finally found a fork and knife that I could wipe clean enough to eat with. This hygienic lack was not confined to utensils. At the beverage station, there were various spills here and there on the counters, and straw wrappers and napkins littered the floor.

Finding something to drink was even harder than finding a clean fork. I poured a sip's worth of iced tea so I could see if it was sweetened or not. I never found out, since the tea smelled as if it were brewed from used toilet paper. "Filtered water" must have been filtered though a jug of bleach. Perhaps, though, this is a characteristic of the water in Manchester because all the water-based beverages available had that bleachy chlorine flavor hanging over every sip. Luckily, there was chocolate milk. (In the background is a view of Maryanne's plate as she attempts more or less successfully to rip her cut-resistant chicken into bite-sized pieces with a dull knife.)

I was lucky enough to score a piece of Darkly Cooked Bread Triangle. I say "lucky" because many of the children there, mistaking it for pizza, were eating it as fast as it could be brought from the kitchen.

Desserts were no better. Bizarrely, the soft-serve machine left a dangling turd of ice cream from the nozzle no matter how hard customers tried to claim every bit of the treat as it extruded from the machine. Slices of cake were dry and crusty. A pan of apple cobbler looked like it had been served by beating it with a golf club. Maryanne and I tried some kind of
cheesecake that might have been an Elmer's Glue Chiffon.

Many of the staff were completely unprofessional, loudly chatting with each other about the drinking they planned to to after work as they were setting out food at the steam tables, customers milling around them. They made no attempt to censor any of their profanity-laced language, even around the kids. (A notable exception to this was the young woman clearing plates from our table, who was pleasant, friendly, and patient even to the most difficult patron despite being responsible for busing tables across half of the dining floor. We gave her a great tip. She deserved every penny.)

Maryanne and I were actually laughing as we left the restaurant. Not because of the awesomeness of the experience, of course, but because we were astounded that an eatery widely known for it's mediocrity could stay open at such a low quality level. I guess my grandfather was right: there really is an ass for every seat.