30 September, 2008

A Wicked Cool Garlic Grater.

So my brother-in-law came back from a trip to Italy with this bitchen stoneware pottery garlic grater that I totally fell in love with as soon as I saw it. It was this little hand-thrown piece of stoneware with a pointy grater texture in a central spiral pattern. Very nice; rubbing a clove of garlic on it turns the garlic into a lovely smooth paste and leaves behind the stringy bits.

Then last week I went to The Big E. We were on our way out of the fairgrounds when one of the sales hucksters caught my eye - he was demonstrating the type of stoneware garlic grater that I had so admired in my brother-in-law's kitchen! The ones the Garlic Man were selling didn't have the rustic charm of the funky-looking grater my brother-in-law bought, but it works just as well and it was, after all, still hand crafted in Europe.  Plus, the charming yellow glaze goes well in my sunny yellow kitchen.

So, just what is this thing good for, you ask? Well, the teeth are fairly sharp in a ceramic way - not sharp enough to do any damage to your skin or fingernails, but devastating to stuff like garlic and gingerroot. In fact, it does a better job at pasting garlic than anything I've ever tried - garlic presses, smearing with the side of my chef's knife, you name it, this is better and just as fast. When you use it to grate garlic, it makes a perfectly smooth garlic paste. The grater works just as well on ginger root - pulping it and leaving the strings and tough bits completely behind - and on nutmeg, rendering the nut into a beautiful, finely grated powder. Similarly, it's excellent for grating hard table cheese like parmesan or romano.

On one of the websites I visited that peddles this type of grater, they mentioned that they're good for zesting citrus peel as well but I tried that and found it very difficult, probably for the same reason that the grater doesn't cut skin - the peel kind of bends around the teeth and doesn't readily cut.

I don't have any brands to recommend. As far as I can tell, the differences in the various ceramic graters are purely cosmetic regardless of where they are purchased or who makes them. I can only tell you that if you use finely grated garlic you will LOVE one of these and they are totally worth the price, even if you never ever use it for ginger, nutmeg, or cheese. Just do a Google search for ceramic garlic grater and follow the results.


GourmetGrater.com is the website for the garlic grater we bought.  They're made in a variety of different colors and patterns, and each of them is handcrafted in Spain.  They also carry herb mills and other accessories - if you'e looking for a garlic grater you might want to check them out.

29 September, 2008

Pörkölt - Hungarian Stew

One of my family's favorite cold-weather suppers is Pörkölt, an Hungarian stew that can be made with beef, pork, veal, or chicken. Our favorite is pork.

As stews go, this one is relatively quick - a couple hours of prep and cooking time - but it's still something we generally make on a weekend. Best of all is making it the night before and reheating it for supper the next day, so the flavors have a chance to fully develop overnight.

Start with 4 to 5 tablespoons of fat. You can use a vegetable oil if you like, but pork fat or lard is traditional. Usually, I take some pork fat trimmings and render them for a few minutes until I have some fat on the bottom of the pan.

Chop two or three onions finely - about 2 cups - and add them to the hot fat along with two cloves of garlic, minced. Sautee the onions and garlic until the onions are turning translucent and amber.

Turn off the heat
and stir in 3 or 4 tablespoons of good Hungarian sweet paprika. There are two secrets to really delicious pörkölt here: The first is to turn the heat off before adding the paprika. This keeps it from burning and getting bitter when it hits the hot fat. Stir it in without heat, then turn the fire back on after the paprika is "preheated." The second secret is to use good Hungarian paprika. Don't use that cheap red dust you can get in the supermarket or dollar store: it's just not the same and the final result will betray the inferior ingredients.

Bring up the fire again under your pot and add about 2 pounds of cubed pork. This is a stew, so use a cheap cut - pork shoulder is fine, or shank, or those silly "country style ribs" which aren't ribs at all. Some fat on them is okay, too, but don't worry about it too much especially if you started with some rendered pork fat in the beginning.

Anyway, add the pork and stir it well to coat it all over with the paprika and onion. Let it cook for a few minutes over medium heat.

Add a chopped bell pepper and a cup of chopped fresh, ripe tomato. I had a couple of very ripe but kind of sad-looking tomatoes - almost the last of the season - from my garden, so I cut them up and put them in. Then add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot and float the peppers. Too much water will make the pörkölt too soupy. As the stew cooks, it will thicken by reduction.

Cover the pot and bring to a simmer. Cook covered for about twenty minutes. Uncover and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, for an hour or so more. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Allow the broth to reduce into a thick gravy, only adding water as necessary to prevent the meat from scorching on the bottom of the pan.

When the pork is tender and the broth has reduced into a delicious thick gravy redolent with the blended flavors of paprika, onion, garlic, and bell pepper the pörkölt is ready to serve. You can serve it with galuska (Hungarian dumplings), or noodles, or over rice like we always do.

Pörkölt (Hungarian Stew) made with Pork

4 - 5 tablespoons fat
1½ to 2 cups finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
3 - 4 tablespoons good paprika
2 pounds pork, cubed
1 large bell pepper
1 cup chopped tomato
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat fat in a heavy Dutch oven. Add onion and garlic; cook until onion is translucent and amber. Turn off heat and stir in paprika, then return pot to the fire and add pork. Cook over medium heat while stirring to coat pork completely. Simmer a few minutes, stirring constantly to avoid scorching.

Add bell pepper and tomato to the pot and just enough water to cover the bottom of the kettle and "float" the bell pepper. Cover and bring to a simmer, then cook for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Finally, uncover and continue to simmer for 90 minutes or so to reduce the broth into a gravy. Adjust seasonings as necessary. When pork is tender and broth has thickened, the pörkölt is ready. Serve with dumplings, noodles, or rice.

28 September, 2008

Markdown Nonsense

One of the ways I control my costs at the grocery store is by shopping the "markdown bins," where still-usable product of less-than-optimal quality is sold at a discount. For canned or processed foods, this usually means a damaged exterior box or a dented can. In the meat case, it's most often stuff on its last date of sale. And in the produce department, it's fruit and vegetables that have been bruised or become overripe waiting for purchase.

I don't have any problem with buying any of these "almost good" items because using them trims about twenty-five to thirty percent off my grocery bill and I buy them to use almost immediately anyway. The markdown produce is especially useful to me because I can get a package of excellent tomatoes for something like 39 cents a pound - and while they'll be just on the verge of overripe, that's perfect for soup, stew, or tomato sauce.

But just like everywhere else in the grocery store, I have to be careful in the markdown bins - especially with produce. Very often I'll come across what seems a great deal at first glance only to realize that I can get the same items at the local produce store fresh for a lower price per pound than the supermarket markdown.

And then, of course, there're the ridiculous "bundles" that the supermarket does when marking down fruit and veg. Sometimes it works out - I've bought packages containing nectarines, plums, apricots, and peaches all combined for 29 cents pound, and gone home and made "mixed stonefruit jam" that turned out wonderful - but sometimes the combinations make no sense at all:

An onion and a grapefruit? Wut?


27 September, 2008

Doritos Collisions - Pizza Cravers and Ranch

Frito-Lay continues their wildly successful "Collisions" concept with yet ano6ther interesting combination: Pizza Cravers and Ranch. Just like the other Collisions, two separate flavors are mixed and packaged in one bag.

The last time I reviewed a Collisions variety, it was Hot Wing and Blue Cheese - two really good flavors that went together beautifully. That's a hard combination to beat, but Frito-Lay did come up with a combination that surprised me with how tasty it is.

Pizza Cravers is the new flavor in the bag (the Ranch is just the standard Doritos Cool Ranch chip) and it's a solid hit. Very much like the Hot Wing, in that tangy tomatoey way, but dosed with a good shot of black pepper, oregano, and other Italianish flavors with a mild but noticeable spicy kick at the finish. This flavor would be excellent all on its own.

Surprisingly enough, the Ranch and the Pizza flavors work very well together, the cool sour-milky Ranch acting as a tangy counterpoint to the spicy, tart Pizza Cravers. Doritos does it again, coming up with another tasty combo.

Frito-Lay's Dorito info website

25 September, 2008

Ramen Review 9: Nissin Chow Mein Kung Pao Chicken Flavor

Nissen Chow Mein, Kung Pao Flavor.

Ease of Preparation: 6/10.
Add water and contents of vegetable packets to the bowl; cover and microwave for six minutes; stir in contents of seasoning packet and "liquid" packet; let stand 1 minute before serving. Like the beef flavor I reviewed earlier, this gets a couple points off for the six-minute microwaving time and the very flimsy bowl that needed the support of a plate underneath it in order to be removed from the microwave after heating.

Vegetable packet: 8/10
Onions, green onions, carrot, shiitake mushrooms, small bits of meat-like TVP, rather nice chunk of dried red chile pepper (hot!). This flavor also came with a small pouch of chopped nuts and a third pouch containing hoisin sauce and a small amount of hot chile oil.

Taste: 7/10
Tasty but not exceptional. The nuts were virtually indetectable in the final product and really added nothing to the flavor, which was predominately hoisin saucy with some mushroom backnotes. The texture was decent thanks to the occasional lumps of TVP.

Spiciness: 7/10
Nice background heat from beginning to end with frequent explosions of FIRE provided by the generous chunks of birdseye pepper. Made my nose run! Won't be hot enough for hard-core chiliheads but it was good enough for me.

Overall rating: 8/10 - Recommended.

Relevant links:
Nissin Home Page
Nissin Chow Mein Kung Pao Chicken Flavor Nutrition Facts (at www.thedailyplate.com)

24 September, 2008

Soup, from scratch.

Winter is coming; the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and I've got soup on my mind.

It's one of my favorite foods. I prefer homemade, but there are some canned soups I'll enjoy without hesitation. Campbell's Alphabet, for example: My mom used to give us that for lunch on cold, rainy days when I was a kid, and I still associate it with warmth and comfort. And I can be perfectly happy with a soup based on premade broth and a half-hour of simmering.

But my favorite kind of soup of all is the kind that's made "from nothing," as my mother says.

Soup is not just food, it's a kind of culinary alchemy. One starts with little more than water, salt, and the humblest of scraps and roots. Time and seasoning and a careful hand transforms them into an ambrosia that nourishes the body and the soul.

I'd type in a recipe but it would be pointless. That kind of soup isn't made from a list of ingredients and an instruction sheet; it forms slowly, at a simmer, from cast-off bits and overlooked trimmings and sometimes, from necessity. It gradually reaches the fullness of its flavor and fills the kitchen with an aroma that speaks directly to the blood, summoning memories across generations from the earliest open fires driving back the cold and the darkness from the edge of the hearth. The best I can do is take pictures so we can imagine we're together in my kitchen, spending an afternoon making a pot of beef vegetable soup. Pull up a chair. This kind of soup is the epitome of Slow Food, and we're going to take some time.

We'll start with some bones. I use whatever is cheap at the market, or whatever I have stored in the freezer from trimming a larger cut. For this pot of soup, I'm using a beef knuckle that has a decent bit of meat clinging to it, as well as some gristle, cartilage, and fat. The butcher has sawn this bone in half down the middle to make it easier to brown.

We'll need a little fat to brown the meat in, so first off let's trim some of the extra fat off the bone and put it in the bottom of a heavy stock pot over medium heat. We'll render out some of the fat, slowly so it doesn't burn, turning the chunk of fat frequently as it browns. When we have a couple tablespoons of fat in the bottom of the pan, we'll take the fat out and put the bones in.

Keep the heat on medium as we turn the bones to brown all sides. We want a nice dark brown all over, even on the cut sides of the bones, to give the soup flavor.

While the bones are browning, peel a largish onion and two or three carrots. Chop them up, along with a couple of ribs of celery - leaves and all.

Dump the chopped vegetables into the stock pot with the bones and turn up the heat a little. Cook them, stirring occasionally, until the onions are turning amber and translucent.

Then add enough water to cover everything. Also put in a scant tablespoon of salt, a couple of bay leaves, and a bunch of whole black peppercorns. Turn the heat up to high just long enough to bring the pot up to a boil, then turn the heat down to keep everything at a simmer. This is a great time to chop up a few tomatoes and add them to the pot, too - there is nothing a beef broth likes better than a touch of tomato.

With the tomatoes in and the broth simmering, cover the stockpot and allow the fire to work it's magic. Check it every so often and give it a stir.

About an hour into the simmer, you can give the broth a taste for seasoning. A splash of Worcestershire might be nice, or some more salt. I like to use Vegeta, an Eastern European seasoning (careful, though, it contains some MSG) and Maggi Seasoning from Germany. Did you know that the Maggi Seasoning we buy here in the USA isn't the same formula as the one they sell in Switzerland and Germany? True. The German version is made with an extract of lovage and other herbs - it's fantastic in soups, stews, gravies...anything you can cook with moist heat. The American version tastes more like soy sauce than anything else.

Anyway, after the soup has been cooking gently for awhile, give it a taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Tasting as you go is an important part of cooking. Many people don't do it, though. If you normally don't, making soup is a great way to develop the habit.

Here's the broth three hours or so after we started. That rich ruddy color is from the tomatoes. Use a big slotted spoon to lift out the bones and set them aside to cool. Leave the pot on the simmer and the fat will be pushed to the sides of the pot, making it much easier to skim off. (Or, if you prefer, you can cool the soup and refrigerate it, and lift off the hardened fat after the soup is chilled.) When you skim off the fat, don't take off every little bit. Leave a couple of teaspoons in - it improves the flavor of the broth a whole lot.

Pick off the meat from the bones and set it aside.

Now that the soup is skimmed off and seasoned just the way you like it, add veggies. For this batch, I put in shredded cabbage, some leftover succotash (corn and lima beans), green peas, some chopped up leftover broccoli, and a diced potato. You can pretty much put in anything you like, either bought fresh at the store or leftover from the fridge. I used leftovers and cabbage because we had a bunch of bills to pay and there wasn't a lot of money left for groceries. That's one of the best things about soup: it doesn't care if you only have three bucks in your pocket, it'll still feed you like a king.

After you put the veggies, add the meat back into the pot and the pot back onto the fire. Simmer for another fifteen or twenty minutes - long enough to cook the veggies through - and serve it up.

Bon appetit.

And thanks, Michele.

23 September, 2008

Eating at the Eastern States Exposition

The Eastern States Exposition, or Big E for short, is a seventeen day State Fair participated in by all six New England states. It was originally a traditional agricultural fair, but these days the agricultural element is almost an afterthought - the Big E advertising hardly even mentions it anymore; judging is pretty much limited to a handful of sheep and cattle events and the only crops that get show off these days are giant pumpkins.

The "exhibits" now are mostly hucksters selling stuff out of tents lining every paved and unpaved traffic route, sideshow-style come-ons (SEE THE GIANT HORSE FOR JUST $1!!) and food vendors.

There are a ton of food vendors, and they're found in two main areas of the fairgrounds: on the midway and on The Avenue of the States - a broad boulevard that runs past six brick buildings - replicas of each of the original New England statehouses. The food vendors in the State Buildings tend to highlight foods emblematic of the agricultural and culinary traditions of the region. I'm going to take you on a tour of the delicious foods found in each of the State Buildings at the fair.


Most of the exhibits in the Connecticut building seem to be centered around manufacturing and corporate image. Timex has a prominent booth near the front of the building, Lego has a huge exhibit along the back, and of course the huge Foxwoods casino has a massive footprint as well. The Department of Agriculture has been relegated to a tiny booth off to one side.

Foodies will still find a few things of interest here, however. Candymaker Pez is headquartered in Orange, CT, and has a huge exhibit and sales booth they call the Pez Farmer's Market where you can buy a wide variety of Pez flavors and hard-to-find dispensers.

There's also Emilee's Italian Ices (smooth and delicious and very refreshing after walking our feet off at the fair) and 7th Heaven Spice Company. Based in Windsor, CT, 7th Heaven has built a huge and far-reaching reputation with their online sales; those of us who live in North Central Connecticut are lucky enough to find them at local supermarkets. Protip: They have one of the best blends of jerk spice I've ever tried, and their habanero powder is second to none.

Around the back of the building you'll find Rosco's Big Dog dishing up their famous hot dogs and fries. The hot dogs are truly awesome, but skip the steamed burgers. Ted's in Meriden or Coach D's in Springfield Massachusetts do them better, and there are lots of other great foods waiting for you in the other buildings.

New Hampshire

The highlight of the New Hampshire building for foodies is the New Hampshire Agriculture exhibit. Wild blueberry pie, delicious peach crisp, and maple sundaes are all on offer, as well as New Hampshire-grown fresh apples. Our favorite was the maple flavored milk.


The Maine building is where the serious eating begins. One of the most popular food concessions at the entire fair is located here: Maine baked potatoes, loaded. This concession started years ago in a small booth area on the south side of the building. As time went on and the potatoes became more popular, the line for them made getting around in the Maine building nearly impossible. Today, the line forms under a canopy outside the south wall and snakes through several turns and lanes before bringing hungry spudfans to the actual concession. The potatoes are delicious, and toppings include freshly minced chives, sour cream, rich butter, and crunchy crumbled bacon (all of which are produced on Maine farms.) It's a treat, but thanks to the long line we decided to skip it this year.

One thing we never skip is the smoked salmon on a stick, sold by Maine-ly Smoked Salmon of Perry. They sell some of the very best hot-smoked salmon I've ever tasted - expertly done over applewood - and it's one of the few commercial products that I can honestly say is as good as the fish that comes out of my own smoker. At the same booth, we bought some Capt'n Eli's Blueberry Soda, made by the Shipyard Brewing Company of Portland. It was very refreshing; not overly sweet but with a strong fresh blueberry flavor and a very fine carbonation that sort of melted away as we drank. They were also selling the equally excellent Capt'n Eli's Root Beer, a wonderful, premium draft-style rootbeer as rich and creamy as anything you can remember from your childhood.

No visit to the Maine building would be complete, of course, without a lobster roll, and these were made with big chunks of claw and tail meat, bound together with a kiss of melted butter, and stuffed into split-top New England-style hot dog rolls. Classic.

The Wild Blueberry Association of North America, headquartered in Old Town, had a large and wonderful exhibit selling wild blueberry juice, delicious wild blueberry pie, and an absolutely outstanding wild blueberry cobbler that was made with no added sugar.

The pie and the cobbler were the best desserts at the fair.


The Massachusetts Building was a lot of fun, starting with this marvelously surreal poster advertising eggs. It was hanging up over a display of products which included big ol' jars of my favorite bar food, pickled eggs.

One of the biggest exhibits was at the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. Although Vermont maple syrup is a lot more famous, Massachusetts produces a decent quantity of excellent maple syrup and sugar as well. They had sugar products of all kinds as well as syrup and cotton candy. I picked up a small bag of maple sugar candies to use in my coffee later - I love the slightly smoky brown flavor that maple sugar gives to my coffee.

Our other favorite stops here were at Koffee Kup Bakery. They're an old-time donut shop/bakery with two locations in Western Massachusetts (one in Springfield and one in Holyoke), carrying on a New England tradition by baking all of their products from scratch on site just like they have for the past 60 years. If you're ever traveling through Springfield, you should try to get to the Springfield Plaza on Liberty Street to visit them - they have one of the coolest surviving neon signs you could ever hope to see.

The last plug I'll make for a Massachusetts business in their state building is for The Granville Country Store. They were selling several varieties of their excellent aged sharp cheddar cheese, and it was flying off the shelves. The actual store is located in Granville Massachusetts, off of Route 57 - kind of off the beaten track - and visitors to the fair were taking full advantage of the easy access at the state building. Their cheddar is the rival of any I've had anywhere else.


For the most part, I found the Vermont building to be rather disappointing. The famous Vermont cheddar cheese was represented solely by Cabot, at prices almost 75% higher than shoppers could find at any supermarket in the area. And while the Cold Hollow Cider Company was serving up delicious apple pie and had fudge that my daughter found irresistable, their "fresh" apple cider was actually pasteurized, not fresh. Thankfully, one food vendor there consistently outshines the rest and makes the Vermont building an actual destination: American Flatbread. They have built one of their wood-fired beehive ovens there inside the Vermont building, and serve up astoundingly delicious 100% all-natural organic pizza.

We enjoyed a pepperoni slice (perfectly baked flatbread topped with mozzarella and wide slices of nitrite-free pepperoni) and a tomato-pesto slice (flatbread again, topped with mozzarella, sweet yellow cherry tomatoes, and green swirls of delicious homemade pesto.) Over the years since they first appeared at the Big E, American Flatbread has built themselves quite a reputation; although their pizza is quite a bit more expensive than the ordinary 'za available from vendors out on the midway, it is much tastier and quite popular - you're almost guaranteed to wait at least a few minutes in line (but the service is fast and friendly, and the wood-fired pizza is well worth a few minutes pause and a few dollars premium.)

Rhode Island

Last, but by no means least, we visited the Rhode Island building, where the Kenyon Corn Meal Company has become another of the "destination" food vendors, thanks to their popular clam cakes. I chatted with a few of the folks waiting with me for our turn to buy a bag of clam cakes, and more than one of them told me that Kenyon's is their first stop when they arrive at the fair. (I don't find that hard to believe at all: it is usually our first stop as well.) The clam cakes are always light and tender, and even contain the occasional fragment of clam. The concession also sells some of the best chowder ever made.

Across the aisle from Kenyon's is Tucker Seafood, selling a wide variety of seafood, fish, and shellfish. Their chowder is excellent and their fish and chips is second to none. That isn't to say that everything they sell is instant win, however; they make a quahog chili (using chopped quahog instead of ground beef for the main component of the dish) which is, quite simply, heinous.

And so, with all these tasty delights, what was the best thing we ate on the Avenue of the States? That would have been here, at Constantino's Venda Ravioli where we were served the best lobster ravioli we've ever tasted. Served with your choice of red sauces (vodka, marinara, or bolognese) and an optional sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan cheese, each serving consists of four 3-inch-square ravs stuffed with lobster filling. And this is no stingy bit of shredded lobster with lots of breadcrumb filling, either - we're talking respectable chunks of knuckle meat. You know you're eating lobster in this ravioli.

Two other mentions before I finish up this post - both are local companies that weren't represented in the State Buildings, but set up on the midway among the typical carny food vendors selling their deep fried oreos, corn dogs, and caramel apples:

Millie's Pierogis are a fixture in the Pioneer Valley. The company is located in Chicopee, Massachusetts, and they sell their pierogi in supermarkets all over the Valley and into Northern Connecticut. They're one of the best commercially-produced pierogi anywhere, and every single one of them is made by hand, just as though your own Polish grandmother was sitting in your kitchen rolling out the dough herself.

Connecticut Valley Tobacconist has a charming post-and-beam storefront on the midway. Broadleaf and shade tobacco has been grown in Connecticut for centuries and is still an important cash crop for many of our farmers. And Connecticut Valley leaf has an impeccable reputation; it is used to wrap some of the finest cigars in the world (and was the preferred wrapper for the best Cuban cigars until the revolution and subsequent US embargo on trade with Cuba.)

The store has a wide selection of cigars, domestic and imported, many of which incorporate Connecticut-grown leaf, and carries their own house brand of cigar. At intervals throughout the day, the store also has demonstrations of how hand-made cigars are rolled.

Eastern States Exposition (The Big E)
1305 Memorial Avenue
West Springfield, MA 01089
(413) 737-2443

New England's Great State Fair

20 September, 2008

Laura Lynn Cream of Crab Soup

The wholesale meat market I go to doesn't just sell meat. They have a big freezer case with food-service-sized pouches of frozen vegetables, and they have a small section of canned food that never seems to have the same stuff stacked up in it two weeks in a row. That section is where I found standard (15-ounce) cans of Laura Lynn Cream of Crab soup for 25 cents each.

Now, I'm not a big fan of canned soup. There are a few varieties I like, but not that many; my family probably uses three or four cans of condensed soup a year. But for a quarter, I figured I'd take a chance. What the hell, the worst that could happen was I'd find out it tastes like shit and then blog about it, just like I do with other crappy canned stuff I buy. I took home two cans.

To my surprise, however, it wasn't that bad.

Prepared according to label directions, this cream of crab soup is pretty bland and nondescript. It has a bit of a crabby flavor, and there are lots of thready little bits of crabmeat, but it's a lot like every other canned cream soup out there - milky, mild, and meh. What surprised me was how delicious it was with a little bit of dressing up.

For example: Some friends dropped in for a visit a few weeks ago, and we invited them to stay for dinner. I needed a fast appetizer. I prepared a can of Laura Lynn Cream of Crab soup using 3/4 of a can of milk and 1/4 can of half-and-half. While it was heating, I took a small tub of freshly shucked oysters from the fridge and quickly sauteed them in a bit of butter, cooking them only until the edges started to curl a bit, then dropped two oysters and a small lump of butter into each of 6 small soup cups. When the soup was done, I ladled some into each cup, added a generous grind of fresh nutmeg, a little salt and pepper, and garnished with a sprig of parsley. It was excellent.

Shortly after using up that second can, I went back to the market and picked up a wholesale unit of it (12 cans) and I'm glad I did - I haven't seen the stuff for sale since.

I like to use it as a quick base for impromptu chowders. It really is amazing what half a cup of leftover lobster and a few chopped quahogs can do in a saucepan full of this "cream of crab" soup, but you don't even need costly ingredients for a winning combo - a small can of chopped clams, or some farmed fresh mussels, or even some chopped leftover fish and a handful of diced potatoes are wonderful as well. I hope I can find some more when I run out.

19 September, 2008

Hebert Gourmet Chocolate

I recently had the opportunity to try two of Hebert Gourmet Chocolates' "Fully Loaded" varieties of chocolate confections.

Hebert, located in Shewsbury MA, has been making fine chocolates since 1917. They've always been extremely high-quality products with chocolate rivaling Lindt and other European makers in rich, silky-smooth flavor.

The two varieties we tried were Blueberry Bites and Cookies & Creme MiniBars. Both were small, individually-wrapped bite-sized versions of products that Hebert also makes in full-sized chocolate bars. Fans of Hebert chocolate will not be surprised that theses bite-sized treats are every bit as delicious as the large bars. Of course, deliciousness and convenience have their price; Hebert chocolates are a premium brand that sell for a bit more than the standard Hershey bars, and these bite-sized morsels are more expensive than their full-sized cousins.

Cookies & Creme bars are part candy, part cookie, made by adding crumbled bits of chocolate sandwich cookies and chocolate chips to a milk chocolate base. The heavenly smooth Hebert milk chocolate offers a silky textural contrast to the crunchy cookie fragments, making the candy even more delightful. These were a particular favorite of my daughter.

The Blueberry Bites were equally mouthwatering. A traditional filled-chocolate candy, each 55% dark chocolate bite encapsulates a marvelous liquid center made from real blueberries.

Did you know that Hebert Candies gives tours of their Shrewsbury facilities? If you're day tripping in Southern New England, you might want to stop in. The tours are free and you get chocolate samples as you go through. No reservations are needed unless you have 10 or more people in your group. The tour takes about 45 minutes, and you might want to budget enough time to go to the candy store while you're there.

Hebert Candies
575 Hartford Turnpike
Shrewsbury MA 01545
(508) 845-8051

Directions: Take the Mass Pike (I-90) to Exit 11 (Millbury/Worcester) Turn left onto Grafton Road for half a mile until you reach US20. Take a right onto US20. Hebert's will be a little more than three miles ahead on your right.

18 September, 2008

Patum Peperium - The Gentleman's Relish

So, last week I was running down Helen's British One Hundred and tripped over No. 33, Patum Peperium or Gentleman's Relish. I'd never heard of it before, so I did a little research and found that it's a sort of anchovy paste rumored to be excellent on hot toast.

I can't even begin to tell you how delicious that sounded.

By the end of the day, I had located a large handful of online merchants who carried the stuff, including one who sold it not only in the widely-available plastic container but also in the classic glass container (elegant black, with gold lettering no less.) So I placed the order and had a jar of Patum Peperium in my hands in three days.

Ooooh, I was psyched. I put a slice of bread in the toaster and sat down at the kitchen table with my new treasure. Inside the gorgeous glass jar was a thick portion of nondescript brown paste which smelled slightly fishy, slightly fermenty, and a bit like very old milk. The smell was strong enough to summon my dog, Zim, who sat at my feet and gazed up at me with big, liquid eyes, begging for just the slightest taste of this new and stinky treat!

First, I tried a little dab of it straight out of the jar. Salty and fishy, though not quite as fishy as I expected, a bit herbal, and quite unlike anything I'd ever tried before. I spread some sparingly on a hot slice of toast, and it was truly delicious, just as the jar label promised. The dog agreed. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter do not agree. This is yet another food that no other human in the family will share with me.

Since that first taste, I've been trying it in different ways:
  • Spread thinly on a lettuce and tomato sandwich - very good
  • Blended with lobster tomalley and cream cheese as a spread - aces!
  • Whisked as a seasoning into eggs before scrambling (suggested by the Wikipedia article) - good, but not exceptional.
  • Stirred into the gravy of a beef stew - Excellent, really "woke up" the flavor in a way that salt alone wouldn't have done.
I'm reasonably sure that Gentleman's Relish could be used in any situation where one might use anchovy paste, but it's so much better tasting than plain anchovy paste. I plan to keep a supply on hand from now on.

17 September, 2008

Lapsang Souchong

Autumn's just about here. The nights are getting cooler and longer, and until I fire up the pellet stove for the season, the house gets a little chilly at night. Chilly enough for a good cup of tea, y'know?

So I brew a big mug of Lapsang Souchong. It's a unique variety of black tea: the leaves are dried over pine fires, which impart an unusual smoky taste to the tea. It's not a "culinary" smoke flavor, like hickory-smoked bacon or applewood-smoked pork. No...it's a"true" smoke. A "wild" smoke. The smoke of a lightning-kindled brush fire, or a latenight campfire.

When I was a kid and October came around, the whole family would work outside on cold clear Sunday afternoons, raking and piling leaves. The days were sunny and the skies were cloudless and bright blue, and we could see our breath as the wide bamboo rakes pulled oak leaves across the yard to the burn pile out by the toolshed. Late in the afternoon, we'd light the leaves and burn the piles down to ash. The fire was warm on our faces and the smoke stung our eyes when the wind shifted. We'd watch the fire and smell the smoke and we were tired from raking leaves and piling branches all day, but we knew there was beef stew with dumplings waiting in the kitchen and besides, the smoke smelled great.

October skies and leaf fires. That was where my very first mug of Lapsang Souchong took me. The aroma and taste of the tea is almost a perfect simulation of that long-ago autumn air.

And that's not the only memory that Lapsang nudges awake. Some of the best times of my life have been wrapped in fire and smoke. Clambakes on the beach cooked over driftwood fires. Half-drunken marathon Monopoly games in front of the fireplace at my best friend's house back in the '70s. Poking at a bright campfire while my three-year-old daughter sings herself to sleep in the tent behind me. Thawing out beside the fire, winter camping during hunting season in Vermont.

Yeah. That's one damn amazing cup of tea.

16 September, 2008

Lindt Cherry & Chili Chocolate

Swiss chocolatier Lindt has yet another winner in their line of high-quality chocolate bars: Creation 70% Cherry & Chili. Chile pepper-infused cherry filling is sandwiched into a bar of Lindt's gorgeous velvety dark chocolate, and the result is a confection with a surprisingly complex cascade of flavors.

The experience starts, of course, with the dark chocolate. Unlike some other 70% darks, Lindt's is as smooth as butter, without a hint of graniness. Subtle backnotes of coffee, cashew, and burnt toast gradually fade as the cherry flavor comes forward and blends with the intricacies of the chocolate.

Most chile peppers have some degree of "pepper flavor" that is completely separate from the element of heat. To me, it usually tastes like toasted paprika, a fruity and smoky essence that is almost experienced as an aroma rather than a flavor. This smokiness is also evident as the cherry flavor builds. Curiously, though, there is very little heat...

...until just at the end, when the chocolate has melted and the cherry has faded away, the chile's warmth builds up in a gentle and very subtle way to leave your palate with a faint glow.

Chile and chocolate is a winning combination, but chileheads shouldn't buy this Lindt bar looking for a firey burn. Lindt has taken a great deal of care to balance the flavors and "mouth effects" of this chocolate in a way that choreographs the chile, chocolate, and cherry notes almost perfectly. It's the ideal chocolate if you want to introduce the wonderful chile/chocolate combination to someone with little interest in peppers, but if you're the kind of person who turns to capsaicin strictly for your "endorphine rush" fire, skip it.


Lindt's website.

Lindt Creation 70% chili-cherry-chocolate on the Chocablog.

15 September, 2008

Stop & Shop Supermarket Giveaway

Stop and Shop is a supermarket chain that operates about 350 stores in the northeastern US (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey.) They're currently overhauling their "brand identity" with a new logo, store makeovers, and an expansion in their organic and natural foods line.

They're celebrating this new look with a 12-week sweepstakes. Each week, they'll be giving away "free groceries for a year" in the form of a $5200 Stop & Shop gift card. There are other, smaller giveaways in the sweepstakes, too ($25 and $50 gift cards.)

If you're already a Stop & Shop customer and have one of their "savings cards," you're all set and can enter once a week for the duration of the sweeps. If you're not a customer, you can register for a savings card online.

Stop & Shop's website (follow the links to the contest.)