28 February, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Steamed Pudding

This is a steamer mold.  It's made of tin, has a tight-fitting, slightly domed lid, and holds about a quart.  The two small rings you see on the left of the steamer were intended for wire or stirng, which could be threaded through them and tied to keep the lid on while the contents cooked.
The mold pictured belonged to my great-grandmother and was handmade by a local tinsmith in Homestead PA when she lived there in the early 1900's.  Unlike later factory-made molds that were stamped and assembled, this one has a soldered seam on one side that runs from the loop at the rim to the base.

Molds like this were once common in American kitchens.  Steamed puddings were popular cold-weather desserts - they were rich, dense and filling, and the long steaming process helped heat the kitchen.  Tastes have changed and we rarely have steamed puddings any more.  In my family, the tradition survives with our annual plum pudding at Christmas time.  My mother has always made a plum pudding for the family yuletide table, just as her mother and her mother's mother before.  We don't use my great-grandmother's steamer mold, though - even though the tin's plating is still almost as bright as the day she bought it from the tinsmith almost a hundred years ago, I'm almost certain that the solder is lead-based and I'd rather not use it for food.


27 February, 2010

The Last Sardine Cannery In the US to Close

For a hundred years, sardines have been processed in Prospect Harbor, Maine, at the Stinson Seafood cannery.  It was once one of 46 sardine canneries that dotted the coast of Maine at the peak of the sardine fishery in the early 1950's.  Now the Beach Cliff Sardines fisherman sign - a painted cutout that stands as tall as a telephone pole at the edge of the building's parking lot - looks out over the town from the last remaining sardine cannery  in the US.

Last remaining until April, that is.

San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods LLC,  the current owner of the plant, announced on 17 February 2010 that they were ending operations in Prospect Harbor and closing the cannery.  Federal catch limits for herring - reduced to 180,000 metric tons in 2004 and further reduced to 91,200 metric tons this year - are blamed by the company for the closing.  They claim that the tighter limits have made it uneconomical to continue business there - even though Bumble Bee had previously told workers that they were committed to keeping the plant open regardless of the reduced catch level.

Maine is losing another bit of her history and her heritage. Prospect Harbor is  losing a piece of its identity.  And 130 people living there are losing their jobs, forced out of work in a county already struggling with a 10.9% unemployment rate.  Tender-hearted Bumble Bee says that they'll offer laid-off employees jobs that open up at their other plants in New Jersey, Canada, California, and Puerto Rico.  Mighty big of 'em. Maybe they think we've forgotten that the Snow's Clam Chowder that is now canned in Cape May NJ was also once a Maine product before they moved production out of New England and changed the recipe to slop.

Prospect Harbor, a village on the Schoodic Penninsula about 45 minutes east of Ellsworth, doesn't have many jobs to offer, and this closing is going to affect more than just the 130 people directly employed by the factory.  Area lobstermen, for example, are already being squeezed by historically low lobster prices.  They were able to buy herring for bait directly from the plant at a good, inexpensive price.  After April, lobster bait is going to be more expensive, further cutting into their pockets.

And in the meantime, selectmen and other officials from the affected towns are working to help find a buyer for the cannery and explore alternatives to sardine processing.


26 February, 2010

The Best Pie Crust Ever, and Cute Little Pies

Baking has long been the weakest of my culinary skills.  It took me quite a while to get the hang of making homemade bread, for example, and even now I'm not all that good at it.  I can make a decent white Italian bread dough, which I use for specialty loaves (pepperoni bread, Easter Pizza, spinach bread, and so on) but I admit I'm a lot better at curing a slab of bacon than baking a loaf of bread.

That goes for pies, too.  Not the fillings, mind you - my pie fillings are awesome - but my crusts have always been less than spectacular.  Some years ago, I finally just gave up trying and started buying Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, which is pretty much just flour, lard, and a bit of salt, just like most homemade crusts. But lately money's been pretty tight and pre-cut pre-rolled circles of pie crust from the refrigerator case is more expensive and less versatile than homemade.  So the search was on for a pie crust recipe that even a baking doofus like me could knock together reliably.  

It took a while, but I finally found a pie crust recipe that comes out beautifully - flaky and tender and, um...easy as pie to make.  It was on a handwritten scrap of memo paper tucked in one of my old estate-sale cookbook discoveries, and versions of it are common all over the internet.  I present it to you here:

Never Fail Pie Crust
Makes pastry for two 2-crust pies

1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cup lard
1 large egg
6 tablespoons icewater
1 teaspoon cider vinegar

Combine the salt, sugar and flour in a large bowl.  Cut in the lard with a pastry blender until the mixture is coarse and crumbly.  

Beat the egg with icewater and vinegar, then stir it into the flour mixture with a fork until moistened.  Knead it a little to make a smooth, silky dough.  Divide the dough into four equal portions, wrap each ball in plastic, and refrigerate it for at least 15 minutes before rolling it out.
You can use shortening instead of lard if you like, but I've found that lard really does make the best pie crust and because I don't make a steady diet of the stuff I'm not too worried about indulging occasionally.

You wouldn't believe how easy this dough is to work with.  I rolled it out directly on my lovely old formica tabletop without pastry cloth or wax paper, just a dusting of flour to keep it from sticking, and it was simple to roll and easy to pick up off the table top no matter how thin I rolled it.  Truly awesome.

Last night I made up a batch of the pie crust to help me use up some leftover chicken and gravy.  I lined a bunch of little Pyrex custard cups with the pastry, filled each of them with cubed chicken, some precooked diced potatoes and carrots, some frozen peas, a bit of minced onion, and a big dollop of chicken gravy.  Then I fitted them with top crusts and popped them into a 375F oven for a little less than an hour.

They turned out great.  Seriously great.  I am so glad I found that pie crust recipe.


25 February, 2010

National Clam Chowder Day! (Fishy Delights 30)

Today - February 25th - is National Clam Chowder Day.  I don't know who comes up with stuff like that, but it just so happens that not only do I really like clam chowder, but I also recently enjoyed  a can of Bar Harbor Food's clam chowder for lunch.
Although I prefer to make my own clam chowder, the condensed canned variety holds a special place in my memories; my mom served us New England clam chowder the way some other moms served chicken noodle soup.  Her preferred brand was Snow's, but after a series of moves, mergers, and buyouts since 1990, Snow's ain't what it used to be and no longer has a place on my pantry shelf.  I've tried a number of brands of canned New England clam chowder in the past couple years, and have found the big national brands (Snow's, Campbell's, and Progresso, to name a few) to be pretty nasty stuff.

Not so with Bar Harbor.   Stirring a can of the condensed soup with an equal amount  of milk (using the soup can as a measuring tool) over low heat just until the chowder is bubbling hot brings me back to Mom's kitchen when I was ten years old.  Rich and clammy, smooth and without any of the unpleasant gumminess of lesser brands, I've never had to doctor up a can of Bar Harbor with extra clams or potatoes to make it satisfying.  This is a canned chowder of choice.

Just like my Mom used to, I put a pat of butter in the bottom of the bowl before ladling in the chowder, and top it off with a grind of black pepper.  There's hardly anything more welcome when coming in from shoveling a snowy driveway than a steaming mug of clam chowder.  Well...hot chocolate comes close, I guess.


23 February, 2010


There is nothing like a big, juicy burger. I never buy pre-made ground beef patties; I always get freshly-made burger from Caronna's Market (my local butcher shop) which is ground right there in the store - often while I wait. A big hand-formed patty of that beef, grilled under a broiler or, better yet, over hot coals, is truly awesome.

But sometimes, I don't want a big juicy burger. I want a thinner, 1930's-style fried patty. I call 'em flatburgers.

 I start out by using a cheap teflon-coated egg ring as a burger form.  It's completely useless as an egg ring because it's been made with a deep seam where the egg sticks.  But it makes a nearly perfect 1/3-pound ground beef patty just the right size to fit on a standard hamburger bun.  I press the meat into the ring on a disposable foam plate and carefully remove the ring.

To make this patty into a flatburger, I press the patty gently with my fingertips, forming it into a thinner quarter-inch-thick patty with a wider diameter.  Then I fry it under a cast-iron bacon press to keep it from shrinking as it cooks, and serve it up with ketchup and mustard and a slice of cheese on an oversized sesame-seed sandwich bun. Voilà!  A flatburger - remarkably similar to the burgers my great-grandfather used to get at small diners in the late 30s. Despite the thinness of the patty, it's still a 1/3-pound burger, so it's  remarkably satisfying

Flatburger or no, it can still be decked out with all the trimmings you desire.  Add cheese, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon - especially bacon - and the Flatburger suddenly doesn't seem so flat.

Take a trip back in time and try a flatburger sometime.

21 February, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Killingworth Cranberries

Connecticut has never been a huge player in the cranberry industry, and I have to admit that until my sister Fran gave me this cool little late-1950s cookbook, I had no idea that cranberries had been commercially harvested in Killingworth, a small town south of Middletown on CT Route 81.

A little bit of research revealed that a cranberry bog on Pond Meadow Road in Killingworth has been tended by the Evarts family since Cyrus Evarts first purchased the land and planted cranberries in 1896.. 

Today, the Evarts family still raises cranberries in a small, 3-acre bog.  The berries are packaged and sold locally at Bishop's Orchards farm market in Guilford, CT.

Here are a couple of the more unusual recipes from this 16-page bookel:

Cranberry Marbles

2 cups sugar
2 cups water

When boiling add 1 pound Killingworth Brand Cranberries. Cover and set back 5 minutes.  Then put on to cook 5 minutes. Remove from stove and let cool with cover on. Don't open the lid.

Steamed Cranberry Pudding

2 cups Killingworth Brand Cranberries
1 1/3 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon cmace
2 teaspoons soda
1/3 cup hot water
½ cup molasses

Halve cranberries; add to flour, salt, spices and soda. Combine hot water and molasses; blend with first mixture.  Transfer to well greased pudding mold. Cover and steam for 2½ hours. Unmold; serve with your favorite sauce.

Bishop's Orchards - Location, hours, and information about the farm stand, orchards, and winery at Bishop's.

The Evarts family does not maintain a website for their cranberry production.

18 February, 2010

NECCO Wafers Get A Facelift

NECCO Wafers - the oldest continuously-produced candy in the US, dating from 1847 - have undergone a major remake.  The NECCO logo has been redesigned, the packaging has been revamped, and the colors and flavors of the wafers themselves have been reformulated and new flavors introduced.

From top to bottom in the picture above:

Original NECCO Wafers:  Eight flavors:  Pink (wintergreen), purple (clove), white (cinnamon), charcoal grey (licorice), brown (chocolate), yellow (lemon), green (lime), and orange (orange.)  I've been eating these since I was a kid and I never knew the white ones were supposed to be cinnamon.  I always thought the flavor was the same pepsiny stuff that's in Beeman's Gum and wax lips.  By the way, the purple ones are my favorite.

New NECCO Wafers.  There are seven flavors now, and the company says prominently on the label that they're all natural.  Lime flavor has been dropped, but the other seven are the same, though the lemon and cinnamon are more subtle, and the chocolate flavor more strongly cocoa-flavored.

NECCO Chocolate assortment.  Chocolate NECCO wafers used to be uniformly brown chocolate wafers. Now, they come in a four-flavor chocolate assortment: Moccha, White Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, and Dark Chocolate.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between the Milk and Dark flavors to me, but Lynnafred says that the Darks are more like cocoa than the Milk.  The White Chocolate flavor is heavily tinged with vanilla, yet retains the cocoa-butter back taste of good white chocolate.  And the Moccha flavor does have some coffee taste.

NECCO Smoothies.  These were really interesting and had very distinct and enjoyable flavors.  Pale blue (blueberry) was surprisingly strong-flavored and very good. Yellow (banana caramel) had a full, sweet banana flavor with just a hint of caramel-vanilla deliciousness behind it.  Tropical was a pretty good pineapple flavor with a hint of coconut.  Orangey-pink (peach) tasted like gummi peaches, sweet and mouth-wateringly fruity. Pink (strawberry creme) was also very good.  Like strawberry syrup.



17 February, 2010

La Primera Farmer Sausage

I had no idea what to expect when I picked up one of these big salami-like things at the local wholesale/retail meat market.  A quick look at the label made me think it was some kind of summer sausage, though with more pork in the mix than usual.  But it was a good price and the fie print said it was made by John Morrell & Co (though La Primera brand doesn't appear on the Morrell website.)

Commonly found around here in Hispanic markets, I've heard La Primera referred to as "Puerto Rican salami."  While I can't speak to the accuracy of that, I can tell you that the flavor is unique:  similar in some ways to a summer sausage and in other ways to Genoa salami, it is distinctly different from either of them.

La Primera is mildly fermented and is loaded with whole peppercorns.  We've enjoyed it with cheese, fruit, and crackers, and sliced thinly for sandwiches.  It's great stuff, and I wouldn't hesitate to buy it again.


16 February, 2010

Parsley in a Tube

So I'm at Shaw's the other day and I see this stuff called Gourmet Garden Parsley Herb Blend, and it's parsley in a tube, I kid you not.  Like finely-chopped leaf-filled toothpaste.  It was marked down to 60 cents, so how the hell could I resist?

When I got it home, I squeezed some out and tasted it.  It tasted like - suprise! - parsley.  Really salty parsley.  The front label calls it "Parsley Herb Blend," but the ingredients panel gives the real scoop on just what the blend consists of:

Parsley, Dextrose, Whey (milk), Canola Oil, Sodium Lactate, Salt, Glycerine, Sodium Ascorbate to help protect flavor, Citric Acid to promote color retention, Xanthan Gum, Ascorbic Acid to promote color retention.

Ah.  Salt plus two sodium compounds - that certainly explains the salty taste.

I made stuffed peppers that evening, and thought it would be the ideal time to try it out.  I mixed the rice, ground beef, and minced onion for the filling and added the seasoning, which included a big squeeze of the parsley.  It looks like goose shit.

It worked into the mix fairly evenly, and the saltiness got absorbed and distributed throughout the batch without any problems.  With the exception of the really fine cut (much tinier than I ever cut fresh herbs myself) and, of course, the huge list of non-parsley ingredients, there really wasn't a big difference between Tube Parsley and natural leaf parsley.

And that right there is why I probably won't ever buy this stuff when it isn't at a clearance price.  Fresh parsley is pretty easy to handle, and is already fairly inexpensive.  There is no percieved value for me in having parsley mixed with oil, sugar, and salt ready to squeeze into food, expecially because I'm not so lazy that I can't take a minute or two to chop it myself.



15 February, 2010

Bhuja Original Mix

More than 20 years ago, a cartoon by Jack Ziegler appeared in the New Yorker.  In it, a man sitting at a bar is helping himself to a bowl full of snack mix.  Behind the bar, a huge sack catches his eye.  The sack is filled with the snack mix, and stenciled on the side is the label "FILTHY LITTLE THINGS."

I've never forgotten that cartoon, and I think of it and laugh whenever I come across a bowl of miscellaneous snacky stuff.  And so it was when I picked up a bag of Australian-made  Majans Bhuja Original Mix at Ocean State Job Lot.  I looked at the illustration on the label, immediately thought "Filthy little things!" and bought it.

Bhuja Mix is an Australian version of a common Indian snack known as chevda or chanachur in India.  Chevda has a wide variety of ingredients , and  there's no standard "recipe" per se - much like Chex Mix in the US, every family seems to have their own traditional way of making it.  Majans' version  consists of noodles and crackers made of chickpea flour, fried green peas, and peanuts, mildly spiced with coriander, red pepper, cumin, turmeric, and fennel seed.  

I bought it on a lark and was amazed to find that I liked it a lot.

In fact, it's practically addictive.  Crunchy and awesome, with just a hint of spicy heat.  Don't be fooled by the flames on the bag label - you won't catch anything but your appetite on fire by eating this mix.

Also, Bhuja is good news for celiac sufferers - it's gluten-free.and almost delcious enough to make you forget about the Chex Mix.


Majans Bhuja Mix Blog.  You'll find info about the product, and a list of stores that carry it.

14 February, 2010

Vintage Sunday: My Favorite Knives

Good knives are essential to cooking.  Everyone has their favorite brands, and that's cool with me.  Personally I don't care if a knife is from Shun, Henckles, Wusthof, or whatever.  What's important to me is that the blades are suitable for the job I'm doing, and that they hold a razor-sharp edge with little effort.  Accordingly, I have a selection of knives from various manufacturers.  They're not a fancy master chef's matched set of hand-hammered Damascus steel blades, but they do what I ask of them, and they sharpen nicely.

But of all my various knives, I have two very old, carbon-steel blades that I turn to again and again for certain jobs.  Both of them were obtained at estate sales, and both are older than me.

The first one is a slicing knife, commonly referred to as a "ham slicer."  It has an untapered 1⅛-inch wide blade that extends 13 inches from the handle, full-tang costruction, with walnut handles darkened with time and use.  Its thin, flexible blade is made of carbon steel (not stainless) and like the handles has darkened with age and use.  I touch up the edge now and again with a butcher's steel, but I rarely have to put a real edge on it because it holds up so well.  This is my go-to knife for slicing deli meats and cured charcuterie.  It glides through a leg of prosciutto or a chunk of my capicola like a light saber through Luke Skywalker's wrist, and it makes it easy to cut paper-thin slices you can practically read a newspaper through.  I bought it from the estate of a retired butcher.  A guy who had arrived at the estate sale a few minutes ahead of me bought every knife the man owned except this ham slicer, and I grabbed it immediately.  I don't really care that I didn't get the other knives, because this one has served me so long and so well.

My other vintage knife is a 50-year-old 8-inch slicing knfe - an "Old Hickory" brand carbon-steel knife by Ontario Knife Company of upstate New York.  This knife is one of the best carving knives I've ever used.  You can slice a roast turkey breast so thin your kids will cry when you put the slice on their plate.  It's ideal for slicing salamis and pepperoni, and it's the one knife I use for carving everything from kielbasa to London broil, to pork roasts and rotisserie chickens.  And one of the best things about this knife is you can still get one - they've been in production for more than 100 years and they are still being made, right here  in the USA.  And they're affordable.  A brand-new 8-inch slicer just like mine will set you back less than ten bucks online.

I love my knives.  But I love these two best of all.


13 February, 2010

SuperValu Selling All Connecticut Shaw's Supermarkets

Well, the rumors we've been hearing for the past few months are true:  Minnesota-based SuperValu Inc. is pulling out of the Connecticut market, announcing today that they are selling all of the 18 Shaw's supermarkets they currently operate here.  Most of the stores are being sold to New Jersey's Wakefern Food Corporation, which owns the Shop-Rite and Price/Rite supermarkets.  A handful of othes will be purchased by Stop & Shop, and SuperValu is still trying to find buyers for the remaining two that haven''t been spoken for, which will be closed by the end of March.

Here's a breakdown of the store locations being closed, and what will be opening in their places:

  • Canton - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • Clinton - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • Darien - will reopen as Stop & Shop
  • East Hartford - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite.  Wakefern already has a large Price/Rite on Main Street in the center of East Hartford, but there is no information yet what will happen to that store.
  • Enfield  - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • East Hampton - will reopen as Stop & Shop
  • Fairfield - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • Hamden - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • Manchester - No buyer found yet
  • New Fairfield - will reopen as Stop & Shop
  • New Haven - No buyer found yet
  • Newington - will reopen as Stop & Shop
  • Southbury - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • Stratford - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • Vernon - will reopen as Stop & Shop
  • Wallingford - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • West Hartford - Wakefern, will reopen as Shop-Rite
  • Windham - Wakefern, will reopen as Price/Rite
Shaw's has had a tough time competing in Connecticut; they entered the state in the mid 1990's and at their peak operated 26 stores here.  In about 2005, they started closing down stores that weren't doing so well.  At one time they were the only supermarket chain operating stores in all six New England states, but that distinction will be over soon.

Shaw's pulling out of Enfield also means that they will no longer be serving the Western Massachusetts area - the closet one to here will be Sturbridge, and unfortunately they've never had a special that was worth driving that far.  I'm glad that we've got a Shop Rite opening here, though - perhaps the employees affected by the Shaw's closing will be able to keep their jobs working for Shop Rite. 

Samuel Adams Noble Pils

After seeing the television spots for Samuel Adams' Noble Pils, I decided to see if I could find a sixpack.  I'm partial to lagers and pilsners, and I've enjoyed Sam Adams beers since the first bottles hit New England shelves as a regional microwbrew in the mid-1980's.

Noble Pils is crispy, dry, distinctly hoppy and very refreshing.  I don't taste the "citrusy" aspect that they note in the advertising, which is just as well because I don't much care for that kind of stuff in my beer.  It's being promoted as one of their seasonal brews, which means it will probably be out of the stores by March or so.  I hope the Boston Brewing Company decides to bring it back next year.

12 February, 2010

Fishy Delights 29: Officer brand Smoked Cod Liver in its Own Oil

Most Americans these days have little experience with cod livers or cod liver oil.  The oil was once commonly used as a tonic and preventive medicine, especially in the winter months (it's high in Vitamins A and D) and in my great-grandmother's day was administered every morning by the spoonful to unappreciative children. (I guess you could say that it's still commonly used that way - modern people just take their fish oil in little capsules these days, bypassing the tastebuds.)

Because of this former ubiquity, cod liver oil has it's own special place in urban legend.  Your grandparents might even recount horror stories about having been forced to take it straight up from a spoon as a child.  So the actual flavor of cod liver - and the cod liver oil it's packed in - is likely to come as a huge surprise.  Far from being overwhelmingly "fishy" or rancid-tasting, the flavor is relatively mild and delicate - certainly no worse than a good canned salmon and much less fishy than a can of sardines.

Officer Smoked Cod Liver is a product of Denmark, packed in a 4.26-ounce can.  Inside the can there is a generous portion of cod liver in very pale amber oil.  The pieces of liver inside are soft but firm, creamy and smooth and buttery.  The liver is meltingly tender - almost ethereal in texture - with a gentle, pleasant fish flavor.  More than anything, it reminded me of caviar-flavored butter.

I enjoyed the liver spread on thinly sliced and toasted pumpernickel bread for breakfast, closely attended by my fish-loving dog Zim.  I gave him a tiny bit of the liver, thereby ensuring his continuing devotion, but I have to be careful about feeding him anything this fatty - the last time I tried cod liver in its own oil, I gave a somewhat larger piece to the dog and it kind of seeped out unexpectedly if you know what I mean, and I think you do because let's face it, we're all adults here.

So now that I've given you that charming mental image, I will note that one of the best places to find canned cod liver is in an ethnic Russian market; cod liver salad is a popular Russian treat.  There are many ways to make it, but one of the simplest is as follows:

Cod Liver Salad

1 can of cod liver in its own oil, drained - reserve the oil
1 small shallot, finely minced
2 or 3 hard-boiled eggs, grated
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the cod liver, shallot, and eggs in a bowl and thoroughly blend with a fork. If the mixture seems too dry, drizzle in some of the reserved oil in as you mix until the salad is the consistency you desire.  This is very good as a filling for small tomatoes, or simply spread on bread or crackers.

11 February, 2010

Bresaola Update

I had been keeping watch on the beef eye round in the fridge as it cured, checking it every so often to see how the cure was working.  It felt ready to come out on Sunday - the meat had firmed up quite a bit as the curing process pulled moisture out of the roast - but I just didn't have a chance to get to it until yesterday.  (That's the good thing about doing this - a day or two longer doesn't make too much of a difference in the long run as long as your raw materials are fresh and decent to begin with.)

Even though I had pulled the curing roast out last week and drained it, the fresh cure had found plenty of moisture left to draw out, and the wrinkles in the cryovac were filled with red brine.  I cut the bag and drained the brine, then rinsed all of the herbs from the meat under cool running water.  Some of them still clung a little, so I finished rinsing the meat with white wine, the same way I had done weeks earlier with the capicola before hanging it.

It looked pretty good - nice and red and ready to age.  Some little bits of herbs and especially black pepper clung to the meat even after rinsing and patting it dry.  I considered rinsing the roast off again, but in the end decided to leave the remaining flavorings where they were.

Meanwhile, the casing (a beef bung cap, the same as I use for capicola) soaked in warm water with a good squeeze of lemon juice added.  After soaking for a half hour or so, I rinsed the casing well inside and out and stuffed it with the roast.

Surprisingly enough, I found that stuffing the casings with the beef went a little easier than with the pork.  The somewhat oblong shape of the pork loins lamost require stuffing to be a two-man job, with one guy holding onto the loin and the other working the casing up from the bottom, until finally the casing is on far enough for the loin to "drop in" to the bottom.  The beef eye round was more regular and circular in cross-section, and wasn't that hard to do by myself.

So, here's a ridiculous-looking photo of the bresaola getting the elastic netting applied.  The beef eye is a lot longer than the pork half-loins for capicola, so it stuck out of my homemade pop-bottle sleeve tool.  It was a little tighter fit, too, because the diameter was a bit larger.  But the plastic bottle still made it into a relatively simple job, and the elastic netting was fit to the meat in no time.  I pricked some holes in the casing to squeeze out any trapped air, and then it was off to the attic for curing time.

And there it is, my proto-bresaola, hanging in the curing closet up in the attic alongside the cappies.

Foreground left: Bresaoia
Foreground right: Sweet capicola
Background:  Hot capicolas  (That'w why there's a color difference.)

As long as we're up here anyway, here's an observation about the capicolas:  This is the first year I've tried using elastic netting instead of wooden slats tightly clamped to the meat.  I notice that there isn't an awful lot of shrinkage in diameter as the meat ages and dries, but there seems to be quite a bit of shrinkage in length.  The cappies are getting firmer, though, and are only a little damp to the touch, so I'm reasonably sure that they're drying okay.  I'm hoping that the texture will be as good as normal when we unwrap them.  (If not, no problem, we just go back to slats next year.)


10 February, 2010

Case's Pork Roll

Case's Pork Roll packages have recently appeared at  the Dollar Tree in my town, and from the looks of the way they're selliing, they appear to have been pretty well-accepted.  I gave both the Tangy and the Mild varieties a try to see how they stacked up against the Taylor Pork Roll, which is the original product and one which many pork roll aficianadoes consider the "real deal."

Mild:  "Mild" is an understatement; they might have just as well called this one "bland."  Some hammy flavor, but none of the sharp qualities that distinguish good pork roll from a round slice of SPAM.  Decidedly "meh."

Tangy:  Much better than the mild, and yet it still doesn't hold up to Taylor's, thanks to a weaker cure and a less-robust porky flavor.

If you've got a jones for Jersey Breakfast and the only place near you carrying pork roll is Dollar Tree, Case's will do, I guess, in an "any-pork-in-a-storm" way.  But personally, Case will always be the imitator.

09 February, 2010

Oscar Mayer Super Thick Cut Applewood Smoked Bacon

Marianne at The Royal Bacon Society recently gave away 10 coupons each good for a free pound of Oscar Mayer's new Super Thick Cut Applewood Smoked Bacon, and I was one of the lucky recipients.

If you remember, back in July I mocked Oscar Mayer for their "Hearty Thick Cut" bacon, which was not at all thick cut...but was extra wide.  I thought that was a sneaky trick, but Marianne's review of the new stuff was fairly glowing and, you know, the price was right.

Well, I'm glad I gave them another chance.  The new Super Thick Cut bacon is made of Win and Joy.  The slices are hugely thick - like, ham-thick - and there are only nine slices per pound.  What's more: there are no huge, meatless expanses of fat in these rashers, but rather a very nice balance of lean and fat, with a distribution pattern so perfect that one might call it "textbook bacon."  Consequently, they cooked evenly with no wrinkling or curling.  I always cook very thick bacon over moderately low heat and under a heavy cast-iron bacon press to make sure that the slices brown evenly and aren't tempted to curl up as the fat renders out, but the Super Thick Cut bacon didn't need the bacon press, it stayed flat all by itself.  That's always a good sign, because it means that the cure wasn't too wet and that not a lot of water was retained after the pork came out of the cure.

The final result is delicious.  Semi crisp and not brittle,  just the right amount of salt, and topped off with real applewood smoke (no "added flavoring.")  This stuff is fantastic for breakfast, but would be every bit as awsome wrapped around a thick cut of pork tenderloin, coarsely chopped into a tossed green salad, or laid down heavily on top of burgers.  Oscar Mayer has hit one out of the park with this bacon.

08 February, 2010

Maine Cold Water Shrimp

One of the things I look forward to every year is the annual Maine shrimp season.  For a couple of months every winter, Maine fishermen bring in a harvest of delicious small pink shrimp (Pandalus borealis) from the cold, clean waters of the North Atlantic.  The shrimp are tiny but unparalleled in flavor, and most important to me, they're a seasonal New England product and fit my general philosophy of eating locally-sourced foods in season (when I'm not eating canned crap that no sane individual will try, like Banner Sausage or Pork Brains in Milk Gravy.)

Although these shrimp are on the small side, I favor them over most other varieties for a number of reasons.  The taste is one: they're sweet and tender with a clean shrimp flavor.  They're easy to shell whether you peel them raw for a recipe or wait until after you cook them.  And most importantly, I know where they come from.

The fact is, the more I learned about how imported farmed shrimp are raised, processed, and transported,  the less eager I was to want to eat them, until I finally just quit the imported southeast Asian prawns altogether. 

Over the weekend, I picked up a four-pound bag of shrimp at the local Shaw's, and we had a great time cooking with these little treasures.

  • Fried Shrimp - After shelling a bunch of the shrimp, I ran them through a egg/buttermilk wash and lightly dredged them in flour seasoned with good Hungarian paprika and Old Bay Seasoning.  With a tossed salad and a basket of waffle fries, we had a wonderful Friday night feast.
  • Leave the shells on and plunge the shrimp into a pot of boiling water for a little over a minute; chill with a rinse under cold running water, and you're ready for cold peel-and-eat shrimp.  Small but satisfying, the flavor even comes through when you serve them with your own homemade cocktail sauce.
  • How about a delicious pasta dish?  Cook a package of spinach foglie d'ulivo (olive leaf) pasta.  Drain the pasta, toss it with some olive oil to keep it from sticking together, and set it aside.  Meahwhile, melt four tablespoons of butter in a skillet.  Add three small crushed and chopped garlic cloves, a sprinkling of mixed Italian Seasoning, a sprinkling of Hungarian paprika, and a grind of black pepper to taste.  Add about 2 pounds of shelled Maine shrimp and squeeze a fat wedge of lemon over them; shake and toss over medium-high heat until the shrimp is just done - about a minute and a half, and don't overcook them!  To serve, pile up some pasta leaves on a plate, top with as many shrimp as you like, and spoon over some of the sauce that will have formed in the pan as the shrimp was cooked.  It's awesome.
We're lucky this year: The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Northern Shrimp Section approved an extension of the 2009-2010 shrimp fishing season to 180 days thanks to abundant stocks and the absence of overfishing, and there are plenty of shrimp hitting seafood counters around New England.  Take advantage of it, and give the Maine shrimp a try. 

07 February, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Making It Do

My family and I live in "the old homestead."  Our house was built in the 1920's by my wife's grandfather and his pals he worked with at the mills.

Most of the original features of the house are still intact - for better or worse, as it turns out.  For example, one of the first things we did when we moved in was move the hot water heater out of the kitchen, where it had been since the house was built.

We had a lot of cleaning and clearing to do as well.  I brought truckloads of clothes to the Salvation Army and Goodwill, we held a massive estate sale, and we donated a large number of items to one of the local nursing homes.  Even at that, there are still nooks and crannies in the house that reveal interesting secrets.

The two items above are examples of this.  The display card on the left holds two Mendet aluminum disks along with their fastening hardware (small brass screws and square nuts.)  Mendet repair disks were made to fix small holes in household items to extend their serviceable life after being damaged.  A pair of disks would be put on either side of a hole in, say, the side of an aluminum pan, or in a rubber hot water bottle.  Then the pair would be fittend with the nut and bolt passing through the disks and the hole, and the nut would be tightened down until the Mendet made a water-tight clamping repair to the item.  Four Mendets sold on the card for a dime.  Being able to repair a 75-cent hot water bottle for 2½ cents was certainly worth it at the time.

On the right is another display card holding two heat-resistant plastic knobs for pot lids.  This is actually just one of many such cards I turned up when cleaning the pantry, and I'm kind of glad they were there since I really have used a couple of them.

On a shelf by my workbench in the basement, I have a small wooden box, a bit larger than a shoebox.  In it I keep a variety of repair parts we found when we were preparing the house for moving in.  There are pot handles and knobs, glass percolator domes, cabinet latches, replacement appliance plugs, and a spool of lamp cord, among many other items.  They've come in handy more than once.

Some of my friends find it amusing that I would replace the pull-chain switch in a light fixture or tear down an electric coffee percolator to replace the thermostat; for them, it's a waste of time when it's so much easier to pitch the thing into the trash and buy a cheap drip coffee maker for under $20 at Walmart.  I guess if I were starting out with a cheap Walmart coffee pot to begin with, I'd feel the same way, but the small appliances I have now were designed to last for years and be easy to fix.

So I tinker with stuff when it breaks, and fix it instead of throwing it out, and buy old-stock hardware repair kits when I find them at rummage sales and thrift stores.  I probably wouldn't bother to patch a hole in a hot water bottle though.  I'm all for "Waste not, want not" but sometimes one can take it too far.

06 February, 2010

Yancy's Fancy XXX Sharp Cheddar

Yancy's Fancy cheeses are relatively new to my area; they call themselves "New York's Artisan Cheese" which is kind of puffing out their chest a little because, while the cheese is pretty damn good, I wouldn't go so far as to call the varieties I've tried "artisan" cheese.  I'd like to reserve that designation for small-batch craft-made cheeses from small localized dairies - but at the same time, I realize that artisan and artisanal are as much empty marketing terms as they are actually descriptive.

Okay, so enough ranting.  How's the cheese?  Like I said, pretty damn good.  XXX Sharp Cheddar is an 18-month aged hard cheese, moderately sharp, creamy on the tongue with just the right amount of cheddary bite and no graininess or calcium lactate crystals.

While I didn't find it to be an amazing cheddar like, say, the stuff made in Granville MA at the Granville Country Store or the cheeses I've bought at Jewett's Cheese House in Earlville NY, it ranks at least as good as the Cabot VT Sharp Cheddar available just about everywhere - and it's a bit less expensive.

So - Welcome to New England, Yancy's Fancy.  We're happy to have a new cheese here from our neighbors in New York State. 

05 February, 2010

Make Your Sweetheart Happy

Walgreens never fails to surprise and delight me, especially at holiday time. The manager of my local store seems to enjoy unusual product placement and strange sign headers. Last year, I found Bridgford Summer Sausage "gift packs" on the shelf right next to the elegant Valentine's Day candy. It was no mistake either: the packaging had bright red heart-shaped stickers on them. Pretty awesome, huh?

Anyway, someone in that store is still having fun:

"Make your sweetheart happy with the gifts they LOVE - Valentine's Day, Saturday February 14." That sign header was on a big bin of Loofa Dogs (a squeaky-toy for dogs.)


03 February, 2010

Unspeakable Banner Sausage

Banner Sausage. It's been on my Grail List for some time now, and last weekend I finally had the chance to try it out. Put up in 10½-ounce cans distributed by Pinnacle Foods Corporation (the owner of the Armour Star brand) this stuff is more reminiscent of scrapple than of sausage, and it is nearly impossible to find in supermarkets in my area - I finally gave up and ordered it online. I'm not sure it was worth the effort.

The "Serving Suggestion" photo on the outside of the can shows several nicely browned sausage patties lined up on the edge of a plate of sunny-side-up eggs. The picture left me completely unprepared for what I actually found when I popped the top off of the tin.

The stuff wouldn't come out of the can on it's own. I had to slip a knife between the can and the...um...?meat and give the can a couple of really hard shakes. Even then, it only edged out an inch or so and then stopped. Finally, I punched a hole in the bottom of the can to let some air in behind the sausage, and that seemed to do the trick. With the vacuum well and truly broken, the contents of the can plopped onto my cutting board.

Wet, vaguely pink, kind of grainy. It wobbled when I tapped the cutting board. This was like no other sausage I had ever seen. I doubted I'd be able to get this stuff to fry up as attractively as the patties depicted on the label.

The label says that there are "about five" servings in the can, so I decided to put the cylinder on its side and separate it into five slices. The Banner Sausage had other ideas, however. It was so wet and "loose" that I just couldn't get five slices out of it, and had to settle with four. I preheated a non-stick frying pan while I was slicing the sausage, and by the time I was done it was ready. The patties went in and immediately started sizzling. Shortly after that, they started to release an odd sort of water/grease mixture that evaporated from the pan and left behind a golden brown crust.

I gave the patties a few minutes to brown on the bottom, but it was impossible to get a spatula under them - it was like trying to flip a puddle. I decided that the best thing to do would be to turn the fire way down to low and just let them brown out on the bottom and hope that some of the moisture would evaporate out of them.

They finally got to a point where I figured they would be solid enough to turn. I got the spatula under them and discovered that, although they had cooked to a golden brown crust underneath, they were still loose and very, very wet above. The hell with it, I flipped them over anyway, and each of the patties landed in the pan with an ugly splat. The uncooked parts oozed out from under the brown crusts, and more liquid seeped out.

Now, I'm going to pause for a moment here to talk about the ingredient list on the back of the can. It goes a long way towards explaining why Banner Sausage cooks up the way it does.

Partially Defatted Pork Fatty Tissue, Beef Tripe, Mechanically Separated Chicken, Water, Wheat Flour, Salt. Less than 2%: Vinegar, Natural Flavoring, Sodium Nitrate.

I've always wondered what "partially defatted fatty tissue" was. Maybe it's an udder or something that's been boiled down to render out some of the grease.

Anyway. After another ten minutes or so of gentle frying, the patties had firmed up enough to lift out of the frying pan and onto the breakfast plates. They looked interesting: glossy brown crusts, almost plastic-like, surrounding heated but still wet, pink, grainy interiors. The "patties" didn't like being cut, but they were okay with being "scooped." Trouble is, fork pressure just ripped the crust off the wet part.

As truly awful as this stuff looked, I have to admit that it didn't actually smell all that bad as it cooked. A bit "tripey," I guess, but not nearly as offensive as when I cooked up a batch of pickled tripe for a friend. I guess the best way to describe it would be that it smelled like really, really cheap sausage.

Flavorwise, it wasn't horrible either. Again, "tripey," vaguely sausage-like, but most of all salty. I really don't think that slicing Banner Sausage into patties and frying it is the way to go with this stuff, despite the label photo. Maybe I should have followed the recipe on the back of the can for Sausage 'N Eggs: "Heat sausage; add slightly beaten eggs and continue heating, stirring occasionally, until eggs are set. Season to taste." On second thought, scrambled eggs shot through with veins of greasy wet kinda-meat doesn't sound all that much more appetizing than what I actually ate.

02 February, 2010

Al Fresco All Natural Country Style Chicken Sausage

I'm usually not a big fan of chicken sausage. They're too often dry and the seasonings are weird, and they just don't taste a lot like I expect sausage to taste.

Lynnafred, however, really enjoys chicken sausage. And when I found a great deal on a variety of Al Fresco brand chicken sausage (distributed by Kayem Foods in Chelsea MA) I bought one of each kind available and figured we'd try them out.

This particular variety are labeled as "Country Style with a hint of sage and thyme Breakfast Chicken Sausage." They've got no artificial ingredients and they're fully cooked, so they need only be gently heated before enjoying (we heated them up in a bit of simmering water in a skillet, but we could just as easily have used the microwave.)

I am somewhat surprised to say that I liked them. The flavor was spot on for breakfast sausage, and having the sage and thyme in there was a nice touch. You'll never mistake them for real pork breakfast sausage, but if you're looking for an all-natural lower-fat alternative breakfast meat, you can do a lot worse than these.


Al Fresco All Natural website. Go there for a store locator; they'll also give you a $1.00 off coupon to try out their product.

01 February, 2010

Popeye's pwns KFC

There are a lot of things I like about KFC - their Famous Bowls for example, and the Double Down Sandwich which is likely to live forever as the single most badass sandwich ever offered by a fast food restaurant.

But I will tell you this: I hate the service at KFC. Every time I go to one of the many local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants around here, the service is surly, slow as death and more often than not I'll get the stuff home and find that they've screwed it up.

That's why I'm so happy that there is finally a Popeye's Chicken in the area. It's not in my town. It's not even in the next town over. No, it's three towns and a state line away, and I can get there in about 20 minutes if I use the Interstate. But I really don't mind the 40-minute round trip, because the chicken tastes better, it's less expensive, and the people behind the counter are friendly and engaging - unlike at KFC where half the time they act like they're doing me a goddamn favor by selling me a greasy bucket of capon.

And - here's the killer - I can drive out to that Popeye's, get my food, and drive home in less time than it takes me to get takeout from the KFC five minutes from my house.

Popeye's trivia: A lot of people think that Popeye's was named after Popeye the Sailor, but founder Al Copeland always maintained that he named the chain after Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the main character in the movie The French Connection.