31 May, 2011

Rainforest Cola

The beverage aisle in Ocean State Job Lot is often an occasion for adventure. Although some items are always available (San Pellegrino sparkling water and Polar soft drinks, for example) other stock rotates in and out according, I guess, to whatever kind of odd lot deals they come across.

And that's how I found Rainforest Cola in slender and unique 12 ounce cans.  The ingredients looked interesting, and includes:
  • A small amount of sugar, with the rest of the sweetness provided by stevia leaf extract
  • Acai juice
  • Ginseng
  • Guarana
  • Green tea extract
  • Kola nut extract
Rainforest Cola has quite an interesting taste profile.  The first sip is pure cola flavor with a hint of tartness, which Lynnafred compared to Haribo Gummi Cola Bottles. But other flavors soon come out as well, such as a hint of cinnamon and a strong dried stone fruit flavor. I'm not really sure where that comes from - it could be a acai juice, or it could be under the non-specific "natural flavors" on the label.

I've found it to be a pretty decent summer morning drink; although iced coffee is still my favorite, there is plenty of caffeine in Rainforest Cola to open my eyes as I sit at my desk at work. And even though I do like it quite a bit, I have to say that I think the company might be going a little heavy on the stevia because I'm getting that "non-sugar sweetener aftertaste" at the end. I use stevia in my coffee and occasionally on my cereal, and even though stevia is completely natural, I still get that aftertaste if there's too much of it.  Still and all, I would buy it again...if it becomes widely available by me.

Rainforest Cola is a product of Rainforest Beverages, a company that started up in 2009 to make 100% natural antioxidant soft drinks. As of right now, the cola seems to be their sole product, and it has kind of limited distribution (you can check out the locations selling it by clicking here.)

30 May, 2011

Vecchitto's Italian Ice, Middletown CT

Dekoven Drive in Middletown is a quiet two-lane road on the edge of the town. It runs parallel to Route 9, and as you travel 9 past the city, you can look at Dekoven and see a few billboards, a couple apartment buildings, some former industrial buildings, and a business or two as you go by.  One particular building stands out in a quietly unobtrusive way; a single-story red brick storefront nestled between two larger white structures. There's a sign over the door - Vecchitto's Italian Ice - and a couple of neon signs in the window. It's easy to drive past, but if you're paying attention you can take Exit 15 off of Route 9 (the sign says "66 West, Middletown, Marlboro,") hook a quick right after you get off of 9, and wind up right there at the door of Vecchitto's.  Do this, and you will find frozen happiness in a small paper cup.  Do this not, and you will be poorer for what you have missed.

The Vecchitto family have made and sold Italian Ices in the summer since 1930, here in Middletown and at another location at Sound View. (The shops are only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day.) At one time the family drove a vending truck through the streets, summoning children to the curb with a bell announcing that ices had arrived, but these days the customers come to the shop.  The Vecchittos are old friends to many of their customers, some of whom had enjoyed ices as children and are now bringing their own children and grandchildren there.

The store is a humble place. Behind the counter is a long freezer chest with doors in the top, and there's a cash register at one end.  On the right is another long freezer chest.  By the front window is a single small table and a few chairs. Most customers don't sit inside, though, they bring their ices outside to enjoy with the breeze from the Connecticut River as they slurp their frozen treats and watch the cars whiz by on Route 9.  There's a sign listing the flavors currently available, but if you have a special flavor in mind, just ask - sometimes they have a variety or two that hasn't made it to the board.

I took the family to Vecchitto's on opening day - this year, it was Saturday the 28th.  We got there about 1:30 in the afternoon and there was a steady stream of customers, though no lines or long waits.  As the summers deepens, it gets crazier near the shop with lines of people waiting for their ice fix and cars parked up and down the shoulders of Dekoven.  We ordered a variety of different flavors to sample across the boards and every one of them was completely awesome. Chocolate, rich and impossibly fudgy, almost like a slushy Tootsie Roll; Coconut, clean and smooth and fantastic; Blue Raspberry, fragrant with berry flavor and vanilla; Watermelon (one of Vecchitto's most popular flavors,) like a scoop of frozen fresh fruit; and Grape - remember the full-bodied Concord grape flavor of Welch's juice or Mountain Dew's Pitch Black? Yeah, like that.

Really, there is no Italian Ice anywhere that can compare to Vecchitto's. You would totally make your own day if you took a few minutes to stop by on your way through Middletown, but it is equally worthwhile to drive to Middletown just to get a scoop at Vecchitto's. 

You can even make it an awesome day trip if you want.  We made the ride special by driving to Middletown "the back way" - rather than taking I-91 south to Route 9, we got off 91 in Hartford and picked up Route 2, then traveled up scenic Route 17 to 17A (Main Street in Portland) and over the Arrigoni Bridge into Middletown.  On the way home, we detoured off of 17 in Glastonbury to Route 160, and took the ferry across the river to Rocky Hill, where we caught 91 North and came home again.

That ferry is the oldest continually-operated ferry crossing in the US. It started as a private enterprise in 1655 and was taken over by the State of Connecticut in 1915. Today, the Department of Transportation will bring your carload of people across the river on a ferry platform powered by a small tugboat, and all it will cost you is a drive through some of the prettiest scenery in the state and $3.00 for the fare (which is a bargain.)

29 May, 2011

Lynnafred's Cookie Base

It was too damn hot in the kitchen for me, but Lynnafred got a jones for cookies, and when that happens she becomes a baking demon, unstoppable until several batches of cookies spill from the oven and the dining room table becomes covered with racks of cooling cookies.

She's come up with a very good "cookie base" - an all-purpose mixture that is highly adaptable to the type of cookie she want to produce.

Lynnafred's Cookies
Makes about 6 dozen

 Basic Mix:

1 cup butter, softened
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups of "mix-ins" (chips, nuts, dried fruits, etc.)


Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cream butter and sugars together and beat eggs in one at a time.  Add vanilla extract and mix until smooth. Whisk dry ingredients together in a bowl until well-combined. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and beat until a batter forms. Fold in the "mix ins." Drop by spoonfuls onto a parchment-covered cookie sheet and bake 8 to 10 minutes.  Remove with a spatula to racks to cool. Cookies will be soft when they come out of the oven and will firm up somewhat as they cool.

  • For chocolate cookies, substitute 1 cup of cocoa powder and 1¾ cups of flour for the 2½ cups of flour.
  • Try "mix in" combos that work well together, using any proportion you like that adds up to the two cups required.  Some of Lynnafred's favorites are cinnamon chips + chocolate chips, white chocolate chips + dried blueberries, and dark chocolate chunks + butterscotch chips.
  • Use different kinds of brown sugar for variations in flavor. The darker the brown sugar, the more intense the molasses flavor will be in the sugar.
  • Try interesting "mix-ins" that you wouldn't normally associate with cookies.  Chocolate-covered dried cranberries are awesome in cookies.

Cinnamon cookies are one of Lynnafred's faves.  Unfortunately, we were running a little low on cinnamon chips tonight, so she made these combo chocolate chip-cinnamon chip cookies.

These cookies feature dried blueberries and white chocolate chips.  They're totally more-ish.

28 May, 2011

Rita's Ice, Vernon CT

When you live in the Northern Connecticut / Western Massachusetts area, there are plenty of Italian-Americans, and this means that there are plenty of places to get Italian Ice.  Really AWESOME Italian Ice, in fact, like at Vecchitto's in Middletown CT or Albano's Grocery Store in Springfield MA, or Smyth's Soft Serve in Enfield. Each of these places have top-notch ice and they are my Italian Ice Destinations.  

But there are other places that also sell pretty decent Italian Ice as well and they deserve a shot, too. Places like Rita's Water Ice, a franchised ice/frozen custard store which has several Connecticut locations. We recently stopped in at the Vernon store, which is tucked in off to the side of the former Vernon Circle at 378 Kelly Road in Vernon. It's a seasonal location, only open from the end of March to the end of October.

Along with traditional flavors of ice, Rita's makes "special" flavors as well, often with a nod to pop culture. Lynnafred went for one of those flavors, ordering Swedish Fish ice, while I decided on the blue option and got a cup of Cotton Candy flavor.

Lynnafred's Swedish Fish flavor was perfectly authentic and just like eating Swedish Fish candies in frozen water ice form, right down to the slightly waxy flavor of the confection. I found it a little too agressively sweet for me, but that didn't surprise me because over the past few years my taste for sweets has somewhat diminished as I've been weaning myself away from sweet treats.  My Cotton Candy flavor was similarly excellent with it's vanilla/burnt sugar flavor and bright blue color; it was also less powerfully sweet though believe me, more than sweet enough.  Lynnafred had a taste and said she'd wished she'd gotten the cotton candy.  And though Maryanne passed on the ice in favor of a soft-serve vanilla frozen custard, she too was quite satisfied with her selection (a soft-serve fan since childhood, she's selective about ice creams and not hesitant to say when one doesn't meet with her approval.)

Now that the weather is getting hotter and a quick stop for an Italian Ice is blessed temporary respite from the oppressive weather, it's great to have a few places in mind when one is on the road.  Share your favorite Italian Ice shop in the comments.

26 May, 2011

Mooyah Burgers And Fries

Mooyah Burgers and Fries, a relatively new burger franchise that is kind of a weak imitation of Five Guys, just opened in Hartford, in the Food Court at State House Square.  Lynnafred and I checked them out for lunch today.  

We got there a little after noon and the line was about 25 people deep.  It took us about half an hour to move through the line. This was not the fault of the people taking orders - Mooyah had two registers going and the friendly folks ringing up orders were moving customers through as quickly as they could.

If you've ever been to Five Guys, you'll find Mooyah quite familiar.  Mooyah isn't even subtle about aping practically everything about that other red-shirted hamburger joint, so for me to point out every little detail would get tiresome.  Let's skip right to the food.

Left to right: Mooyah Burger, regular fries, "shake", another Mooyah Burger in front of a large Coke Zero.

The first thing Lynnafred and I noticed was that the burgers are actually smaller than other "premium" fast food burgers.  They look huge - like Five Guys or Red Robin huge - but they're not.  Mooyah uses smaller buns than the other guys, so their generously-sized burgers look more massive than they really are.  Clever, eh?  Until you go to pick up that sloppy-ass pile of grease and melted cheese and the whole thing slides around inside the bun as you try to grip and bite it,  and it plops into your lap.

Mooyah's fries are completely unremarkable.  Have you had  unpeeled potatoes cut into strips and fried before? Yeah me too. Most of the time they haven't been as soggy at the ones at Mooyah, though. And even Wendy's has mostly long, intact fries dusted with sea salt.  We got a cup of little fragments that were seasoned with disappointment and broken dreams.

Lynnafred liked her Oreo shake, though it was in fact soft-serve ice cream over a mound of crushed cookies and hit with the stick blender until still not soft enough to drink. She ended up eating it with a spoon since the straws provided were so small in diameter that they proved impossible to use.

If I were a "ratings" kinda guy, I'd give Mooyah about a five out of ten.  But I'm not, so I'll just say that I might eat there again if I got a flat tire right in front of them, at lunch time, and had to wait an hour for the tow truck, and Burger King were more than a fifteen minute walk away.

USDA Announces New Pork Cooking Guidelines

The USDA has finally updated their guidelines for cooking pork, announcing that an internal temperature of 145 degrees F is quite sufficient for cooking pork.

It's well known that Trichinella is killed at 137 degrees F; I and many others have been saying for years that it is unnecessary to cook the living hell out of pork.  Old cookbooks often advised people to cook pork to a temperature of 180 F, which makes it inedibly dry.

For me the issue with doneness of pork is a matter of texture.  When I make a pork roast, I generally cook it to an internal temp of about 155 F or so.  I find pork that is too rare to be uncomfortably "slimy" in mouthfeel.  (That particular quality disgusts me; it's why I hate gumbo and many types of sashimi.)

So, Huzzah! to the FDA for this sensible new guideline!

24 May, 2011

Sample This New Blog

It's called Eat And Feel Great and it's written by Chef Kit.  The blog is just a few months old, but Chef Kit has published some great recipes and cooking info, and I have a feeling Eat And Feel Great is going to continue to develop into a great resource.  Give it a peek and see what you think (click here or follow the link from my blogroll on the right hand side of the screen.)

Happy Harvest Chili Style Diced Tomatoes

We use a lot of tomatoes in my kitchen.  Even though I put up as many pints of them as possible in the fall, I never seem to have enough to last me through the winter and into the next tomato season, so we end up buying cans of prepared diced tomatoes.  And because I've had mixed experiences with "no-name" and generic brands, I've tended to stay with brand names I've learned over the years to trust: Ro-Tel, Pine Cone, Del Monte, Hunt's.  And now I can add another brand to the list: Happy Harvest.

Happy Harvest isn't a real brand, actually - it's ALDI's "house brand" for some of their canned products.  The only reason I took a chance on them to begin with is because they're from ALDI, and for the most part I've been very happy with their stuff, and once again, I was not disappointed.

These "Chili Style" tomatoes are awesome.  They're in recipe-sized chunks packed in a thick tomato juice (or maybe it's a really thin tomato sauce. I can't tell.) They're seasoned with cumin and ancho pepper, and a bit of onion and garlic from what I can taste. Although they're mildly spicy, they're not at all hot (real chileheads might be disappointed, but I think the milder flavor makes them more versatile for all-round cooking for the family.)  Completely delicious, and - I know this sounds heretical - but far better than Ro-Tel, especially considering that the last few times I've bought Ro-Tel I could barely taste the green chiles that are supposed to be in there.

A Tale of Two Giardiniere

Here's a head-to-head comparison of Guiliano "Mild Garden Mix" and Mezzetta "Italian Mix Giardiniera."  I happened to have both of them in the pantry and decided to compare the two.  Guiliano's giardiniera is usually found at Ocean State Job Lot, so it's fairly inexpensive.  I buy Mezzetta's product at either Stop & Shop or Coronna's Market (my neighborhood corner store and butcher shop.)

Like many other Italian-Americans, I grew up eating giardiniera. It always has a place at family gatherings, and Maryanne and I put a jar of it on the table whenever we're serving a standard tossed salad, because there's nothing like a good giardiniera to wake up a boring bowl of leaves. And I hear that they use it as a sandwich topping in Chicago which really shouldn't surprise me given all the crap they pile onto hot dogs there, right?

My favorite part of the giardiniera is cauliflower. I don't have much use for cooked cauliflower as a veggie, but if it's pickled and still crunchy, I could nom the hell out of it all day. Both Giuliano and Mezzetta are mostly cauliflower. But Giuliano seems to cook the hell out of theirs while somehow, the Mezzetta cauliflower is crunchy and awesome.  Actually, these qualities come up so often I'm not even going to mention it again beyond saying that the veggies in the Giuliano version are universally cooked and soft, while those in the Mezzetta are crunchy and don't taste overprocessed.

Giuliano is also a hell of a lot sharper than Mezzetta. They use a stronger vinegar solution and it shows. Usually, I have to give the Giuliano "garden mix" a quick rinse under cold water to get rid of some of the highly acidic flavor.  Mezzetta giardiniera is a more tolerable strength, with a pleasant bite that doesn't threaten to kill your mouth.

I guess where you can see where this is leading. A good giardiniera is crispy pickled heaven, and a bad giardiniera is just face-collapsing vinegary pucker. Mezzetta is very good indeed.  Guiliano is not quite bad, but it is sub-optimal. Given the choice of the two, it's Mezzetta all the way.

21 May, 2011

Coronado Goat's Milk Lollipops

Goat's milk, I'm told, is an acquired taste. One of my esteemed culinary fellow travelers tells me that he can "taste the goat" with every sip. While I acknowledge that goat's milk does taste different from that of the cow, I don't find the flavor unpleasant.

And so it was that when I saw a long cellophane strip of these goat's milk lollipops at the local Price/Rite, I dropped them into my shopping cart. They were too interesting to leave behind.

And they are DELICIOUS. Beautiful smooth and creamy dulce de leche without any goatiness at all. They're totally awesome.

If you see them, buy them. You will not be disappointed.

Taco Bell's new Beefy Melt Burrito

I tried Taco Bell's new Beefy Melt Burrito last night and I have to say this is some seriously underwhelming stuff.

It sounds promising enough - seasoned beef, seasoned rice, three-cheese blend and sour cream rolled up in a flour tortilla - but it's so totally "meh."

Nothing looks as perfect as the publicity shots, so it's no surprise that burrito wasn't food-glamor-gorgeous. Taste is much more important here. Unfortunately, the Beefy Melt Burrito fails to deliver.

The overall taste is okay, in that familiar Taco Bell way, but there's nothing new or different here. No flavors really stand out (actually, the mildly-flavored sour cream got completely swallowed up and lost by the meat seasonings and cheese) and the texture added by the rice is kind of strange but not unpleasant.

So, there you have it.  Taco Bell's new menu addition will adequately postpone your next meal by temporarily quelling your hunger.  Yeah, that's the best I can do. I've had flavored oatmeal that was more exciting.

Oh, there is one more thing: Don't unroll it to check out what's inside unless you enjoy looking at things that appear to have been used for asswipery.

20 May, 2011

Blue Kool-Aid Bursts vs. Blue Mondo

You know what the most excellent part of the 1990's was?  Blue food.  There seemed to be an endless variety of blue stuff available, and it was everywhere.  Granted, they were mostly sweet things - sugary drinks and candies and frostings and like that - but it was also a lot easier for me to find blue cornmeal back then, too.

Anyway, blue food turned out to be a fad rather than a trend, and these days it's hard to find blue treats. This disappoints me, because the "blue raspberry" flavor commonly associated with the color has long been one of my favorites.  It started when I was a kid and my parents would take us to the local market for Italian ice.  There were only two flavors to choose from back then: lemon and what the guy behind the counter called "blue gelati." Blue ice in those days was just like it is today - brightly colored and vividly flavored with "blue raspberry" flavor.

One of the blue things still widely available is drink, and two of the most common blue drinks are Kool-Aid Bursts and Mondo. Both of them are delightfully blue in both color and taste, and both are completely devoid of any nutritional value save calories. And, while they are alike in these ways, they are ever so different indeed.

Kool-Aid Bursts have a strong blue flavor and is the darker-colored of the two. There is a hint of "body" to the liquid, just like you might find in other flavored beverages. It's sweet, even a bit too sweet, but there is an undefined tartness to the finish. Kool-Aid reminds me of the liquid that used to be inside those Nick'l Nips wax bottles when I was a kid.

Mondo is thinner in both texture and flavor; it's much more like colored water, and the color is almost identical to windshield washer fluid. The blue flavor is more diluted and the actual taste is as much sugarwater as it is blue razz. And taking a big drink all at once makes the back of my throat itch. 

Since both of these drinks are dirt cheap - usually about a dollar for a sixpack - I would choose the Kool-Aid.

18 May, 2011

USDA Inspection Marks: Find Out Where Your Food Was Made

The more you know about food labels and how to read them, the more you can make informed decisions about the products you buy. With that in mind, I'd like to show you an easy way you can discover where many of the canned, frozen, and otherwise processed foods you buy were manufactured.  This is especially useful in the case of generic foods, many of which are packed for private labels by large, well-known national brands.

All processed foods containing meat for sale in interstate commerce are required to pass inspection by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Companies producing the foods are assigned "Establishment Numbers"  which appears on the label along with the inspection mark. The type of mark varies depending upon the type of meat in the product:

The first inspection mark - for raw beef, pork, lamb, and goat - was once commonly stamped on the fat side of the meat in purple ink, and if you're an old guy like me, you might remember having seen those marks or their remnants on the side of your steak or pork chop.  Back in the days when meat was sold by the side and shipped whole to the butcher for cutting, those purple marks were very familiar to consumers. Nowadays, with meat pre-cut into primals and cryovac'd before shipping, the purple marks are rarer and the inspection marks often appear printed on the outside of the plastic wrap.

The second and third marks are commonly found on the labels and outer boxes of canned and frozen foods which contain meat and poultry. They are generally a standard size - about half an inch in diameter - and placed in an easy-to-find location on the label.

Remember how I mentioned that every processor has been assigned "Establishment Numbers?" Those numbers are the key to finding out which company processed the product, and at which plant it was done. The FSIS maintains directories in PDF and XLS format at this website. There are two files, one organized by establishment name, and the other by establishment number. I find the one sorted by number to be the most useful, since it's the number that appears on the mark. All you need to do is click on the link, bring up the file with Adobe Acrobat reader, and search by the number to find the name and address of the processor.  And  if you have a smartphone, it's even better: you can use your phone's browser to download the file of your choice and then use a PDF reader app to look up the establishment right there in the store.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

Here's the inspection mark on a can of Rose Pork Brains in Milk Gravy. The inspection mark says that this product was processed at Establishment 1889. Checking the FSIS directory, we find that Establishment 1889 is Bost Distributing Co. Inc, 2209 Boone Trail Rd., Sanford NC 27330, and that they own five labels, one of which is Foell Packing Company (the actual company listed on the Rose Pork Brains label.)  The directory also lists the primary phone number of the company. It doesn't take much imagination to realize how useful this kind of information can be to the consumer.

Sometimes, a product will have an inspection mark without an establishment number printed inside it, like this one from a can of Chef Boyardee Meat Ravioli. This is most common on stuff processed by huge companies (such as ConAgra, in this case) which have many processing plants across the country.

When you find an inspection mark like this, look at the ends of the can or box for the production codes, which will be either printed there or stamped into the packaging.  That's where you'll find the establishment number - in this case, Est. 794.  This can of Chef was processed by ConAgra at their plant located at 30 Marr Street in Milton, Pennsylvania.

Okay, so now I've shown you how to use the inspection marks to find out a bunch of information about where the stuff in your pantry and freezer is coming from. And that brings me to a hugely practical application of this info: Finding out who is really behind the store brands and generics that you might want to buy to save a few bucks on your grocery bill. You may remember this post from November 2010 reviewing ALDI's Kirkwood Brand frozen fried chicken.  I thought it tasted just like ConAgra's Banquet frozen fried chicken - and it turned out that it really was just like Banquet.  ConAgra processes Kirkwood chicken for ALDI at establishment P-7131 in Batesville Arkansas. The biggest difference between the two brands of chicken? The price, of course - Kirkwood sells for up to $2.00 a box less than Banquet.

Links and other useful information:

Click here to go directly to the download page for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service's Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory. The directories are downloadable from that page. The USDA periodically updates the directory, so if you choose to download it to your smartphone for mobile use, you may want to sign up for email notification of new files using the link provided there.

Click here for the home page of the USDA FSIS. There are tons of links there, with information available on food safety education, product recalls, Q&A board, and more.

16 May, 2011

Dan'l Boone Country Ham at Dollar Tree!

My fascination with Dollar Store Meat continues: I found 3-ounce packages of real, honest, genuine (and delicious) Country Ham (aka American Prosciutto) at Dollar Tree.  At a dollar a package, it works out to a little over $5 a pound, a fair price, and not bad if you consider how incredibly hard it is to find real Country Ham up here in New England.

The ham in the packages - Dan'l Boone Brand - are pre-sliced, and it is the real deal.  And I kind of like the small packs because I can pull out a slice to accent a cold cut grinder, or add some to a pot of greens, or use up the whole pack at breakfast time with delicious biscuits.  Like many other Dollar Tree items, this one probably won't be around long, so if you have a hankering for the taste of real Country Ham, hie thee to a Dollar Tree with a refrigerated food section and grab a packet or two. I promise it's good stuff.

Dan'l Boone Brand is one of the labels used by Goodnight Brothers of Boone, NC to sell their ham.  According to the information on their web page, Dan'l Boone is primarily packaged for grocery store chains and is distributed by Sysco.  They package their product under other labels for different distribution networks, and that includes a brand they call "Hardee's Country Ham" which is packaged exclusively for distribution to and by Hardee's fast food restaurants.

Also of interest:  Goodnight Brothers is on Facebook.  Check out their page's photo album for a close-up look at how country hams are prepped, cured, processed, and packed. It's fascinating.

15 May, 2011


Once upon a time, manufacturers didn't need to put obvious warnings on their products.

14 May, 2011

My Aunt Nellie's Pierogi

Back in the late 1980's, after I had been thoroughly adopted into my wife's family, her grandaunt Nellie handed me a small bundle of papers. "These are the family recipes," she told me. "I didn't want to give them to just anybody, but I know you'll make them so now they're yours."

I've made them many times since then, and I shared the recipe with my friends on the old Fidonet National Cooking Echo, an electronic message forum that predates the internet, in 1997.  Apparently, a lot of other people liked her recipe too, gathered into a large number of internet databases, freeware electronic cookbooks, and so on (often with my byline and attribution stripped out.)

Aunt Nellie's pierogis were always a family favorite.  She had learned how to make them from her mother, who had never written any recipes down on paper. Nellie, however, took notes so she wouldn't miss anything - especially with the dough.  She said that making the fillings was easy, but making the dough depended almost as much on "feel" as it did ingredients. The first time I made pierogies, she sat with me at the kitchen table and walked me through it. We made three batches of dough before it measured up to her standards.

It's hard to describe the proper texture of the dough. It should be almost silky to the fingertips, soft and yielding, yet firm and somewhat elastic - similar to egg noodle dough but not as dry. It's very much like the dough for scallion pancakes, which was once described to me this way: "It should feel like a young girl's arm."

Anyway, I'm going to get right to the recipes. This is going to be a long post.

Auntie Nellie's Pierogi Dough
Enough for 24-30 old-style small pierogi
2 cups sifted flour
1 large egg
1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Mix all ingredients lightly and knead in the bowl.

Rest for an hour, covered. Then turn out onto a floured board and knead again until smooth.  The dough should be silky, firm and elastic.

Roll out dough about 1/8-inch thick. I don't roll out the entire batch at once, but only enough for three or four pierogi. You can gather up scrpas, knead them briefly, and then roll them again - it won't make the dough tough.

Cut out circles with a coffee cup or medium biscuit cutter.  (Use a large biscuit cutter if you want pierogies the size of the ones you buy in the store these days. The coffee cup/medium biscuit cutter method produces the same kind of smaller pierogies that were common up through the 1950s.)

Put a small amount of your choice of filling in the center of each of the circles - about a teaspoon or so will be plenty - and then fold the circle in half with the filling in the center.  

Firmly pinch the outside edges together to seal the pierogi - they need to be well-sealed to keep them from opening up when you cook them.

To cook:  bring a pot of water up to a full rolling boil and drop the pierogi in. Turn the heat down a bit to a low boil to prevent them from opening back up.  Cook them for a few minutes after they rise to the top of the pot and float.  Serve with melted or browned butter, or you can saute them in a little butter with some sliced onions until they are slightly browned.

If you're making them way ahead of time - say, during Lent for eating at Easter breakfast - place them, separated, on a rack or a cookie sheet in your freezer.  They'll be frozen solid in about an hour, and then you can tip them into a plastic bag and pop them back into the freezer for longer-term storage.  Tip: Don't bag them before they are completely frozen, or they will stick together into an impossible-to-separate mass.

Okay, now you have a recipe for the dough and how to fill and cook them.  We'll follow up with a few recipes for fillings.  Over the years I've made a few adaptations; her original recipes were drastically underseasoned, and the quantity yield was strange - some filling recipes would make just the right amount for a single batch of dough and some would make insanely huge quantities that required three or four batches of dough to use up.  The recipes I'm giving here are still hers, they're just tweaked a little, and more accurately sized for a single batch of dough.

This mushroom filling is one of my family's favorites.  Auntie Nellie always made it with plain white mushrooms, but she told me that her grandparents used wild prawdziwek mushrooms from the forest (I found out later that prawdziwek is the Polish name for porcini shrooms, or cèpes. Unfortunately, cèpes are very rarely available fresh here in the US, so I try to use a mix of white, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms for a richer flavor.  Occasionally, I find cèpes canned in oil in the local Russian market. Not only are they awesome for stuff like this filling, but the oil is hugely flavorful for other culinary uses.

Auntie Nellie's Mushroom Pierogi Filling
Enough for one batch of Aunt Nellie's dough

1 medium onion, finely minced
1 cup mushrooms, finely minced
Celery salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large egg yolks

Melt butter (a couple of tablespoons to start) in a pan and saute onion until translucent and amber. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until mushrooms are done. (Onions and mushrooms both take up the butter as they cook, so feel free to add more butter to the pan as you wish.)

Remove the pan from the fire and add seasonings to taste.  Add egg yolks and stir in well.

Allow to cool before filling pierogi.

This cheese filling is Lynnafred's favorite. Even though it's as much mashed potato as it is cheese, the filling becomes kind of "fluffy" and creamy when it cooks, kind of like the ricotta layer in a lasagna.  

Auntie Nellie's Cheese Pierogi Filling
Enough for one batch of Aunt Nellie's dough
1½ cups Farmer's Cheese
1 cup mashed potatoes (leftover is OK, instant is not.)
Celery salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon dried summer savory (optional)

In a bowl, whisk the farmer's cheese until light.  Add mashed potato and seasonings and stir thoroughly until combined.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed before filling pierogi.

No matter how many varieties of pierogi I make for holidays, I have to make at least as much of the cabbage-filled ones as I do of all the others combined.  As much as everyone likes the mushroom and cheese pierogis, they seem to like the cabbage ones best of all. And it's a very flexible recipe as well.  It takes well to doubling or more, and it adapts well to other additions - Auntie Nellie would often make it with a couple of mashed potatoes added, or with a few finely-chopped mushrooms in the mix to liven up the flavor.  Originally, the recipe called for the sauerkraut to be simmered with the cabbage three times, changing the water between each parboiling. While that certainly made the cabbage tender, it also tended to draw off every bit of flavor from the sauerkraut.  I think the flavor is much better with a bit of the sauerkraut tang remaining, so I've eleminated two of the parboilings. Feel free to add them back if you desire.

Auntie Nellie's Cabbage Pierogi Filling
Approximately Enough for one batch of Aunt Nellie's dough
1½ cups sauerkraut
1½ cups finely shredded fresh cabbage
3 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, finely minced
Dash or two of Maggi Seasoning
Celery Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste (see instructions)

Parboil the sauerkraut and cabbage in water to cover, simmering until the cabbage is tender. Pour off the water and finely chop the cabbage mixture.

Melt butter in a skillet and add the onion.  Cook until the onion is amber and translucent, then add a shake or two of Maggi along with the cabbage mixture and saute until the cabbage just starts to brown a bit. Season with celery salt and black pepper.  I usually use a heavy hand with the pepper because the cabbage mix takes well to the fruity aroma and spicy kick of robust black pepper seasoning. Allow to cool completely before filling pierogi.

13 May, 2011

The Most Awesome Diner in Western Massachusetts

Charles Diner on Union Street in West Springfield, MA. The signboard out in front says, "NOW SHOWING 3 STOOGES ALL DAY."  Click on the photo for a full-sized view.

11 May, 2011

Making Panko

My breadbox was a mess - I must have had about eight different "bread ends" in there. What the hell is it about bread that no one wants to eat the last three pieces? Most of it hardly even seemed "day old," which I guess is typical of factory-baked white bread anyway, and even though I knew no one was going to eat it, I didn't want to just chuck it. So I did the next best thing: I made panko.

Panko crumbs are dead easy to make.  Trim the crusts from leftover white bread and push them through the grater on your food processor. Spread the resulting crumbs in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and bake in a 300 F oven for a few minutes until they're dried out but not toasted.

I store mine in a big jar until I need them - anywhere airtight is fine, and they keep a long time, so you can make more as you get more bread that needs used up rather than making it as needed. (It's better to have panko and not need it than to need panko and not have it.)

10 May, 2011

Green Giant Chipotle White Corn

I'm not a big fan of canned veggies.  Canned green beans are okay, I guess.  And some brands of canned corn are good too.  Green Giant, for example: their canned corn is always decent. Crisp and flavorful, like it was just cut from the cob a few minutes before it was put on the table.

And therefore, when I found this Green Giant Chipotle White Corn at the supermarket last week, I picked up a couple of cans knowing that even if I was disappointed in the overall product and it's chipotleness, the actual corn involved would still be pretty good.

So I opened up the can and found crispy delicious white corn studded with little bits of sweet red bell pepper, and clinging to it all was dark mahogany-colored chipotle powder.  It smelled rich and roasty and smoky, with the familiar aroma of chipotle in the background.  Everything seemed to be in the right place and I thought that I might at last have found a "chipotle" product that actually lived up to its label.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.  Green Giant made sure to play it safe for this product, and the chipotle is just another faint flavor note that added nothing to the side dish. - a shame because chipotle pepper and corn are a natural and delicious combo. Lynnafred and I kicked it up a notch by hitting our servings with an extra dose of chipotle powder from the spice cabinet.  Mmmm.  Heat and flavor, even if it was a do-it-yourself seasoning job.

Seriously, though, I really wish that companies would stop slapping the word "chipotle" on everything they churn out of their factories. This ingredient has thoroughly jumped the shark.

08 May, 2011

Bacon Lattice Pie

Happy Mother's Day! How about a nice slice of Bacon Lattice Apple Pie?

The recipe has been wandering around the internet for about three years now, but it's pretty simple to do without a real recipe.  Just make your usual apple pie preparations but add four slices of crispy-cooked bacon, crumbled, into the filling.  Instead of using a top crust, build a lattice crust using strips of raw bacon.  For a ten-inch deep dish pie, it should take about a pound of standard sliced bacon all told. I considered using bacon fat in the crust, but Lynnafred talked me out of it, saying that it would overpower the apples.  She might have been right - the standard crust along with the bacon in the filling and on top gave a very good flavor balance to the whole thing. Maryanne was a bit dubious of the very idea of a bacon-topped pie at first, but because she's a sport she gave it a try, and actually liked it.

It was fun and delicious. Sometimes dumb internet stuff works out pretty well.

07 May, 2011

Benton's Fig Bars

So, you're jonesing for a fig bar, but your favorite Fig Newtons are going to cost more money than you can shake loose from under the cushions on the couch.  WAT DO?

Well, you can go to the dollar store, the job lot place, or ALDI and see what you can get for less than a dollar-three-eighty.  At ALDI, that would be Benton's Fig Bars.  But how do they measure up against Fig Newtons - the Real Thing, the Gold Standard against which all fig bars are measured?

Well, for starters, the cutting blade at the bakery must not be up to Nabisco sharpness standards, because the Benton's bars always look like they were cut apart with an old hack saw.  Other than that, the cookie part of the bars are pretty much the same thing you'll find wrapped around the center of a Newton.

The filling is sweet and figgy, as you would expect, though it is somewhat "wetter" and more gooey than that of a Newton.

These cookies will satisfy a fig bar jones, to be sure, and are perfectly fine for the casual fig bar fan, but if Fig Newtons are your OMG FAVE cookie, you won't be satisfied with Benton's.  You'll spend every bite comparing them unfavorably with the Newtons you wish you had bought in the first place.

06 May, 2011

No, really, it's just pork.

I got this really "uncomfortable" feeling walking by the meat case at Stop & Shop today after work...


Would you pay $1.50 or more for a single medium-sized russet potato?  What if it was individually shrink-wrapped? And came with a label telling you how to microwave it?

Photo by Roger Rice
I used to wonder if the PotatOH! company actually sold potatoes, or whether they just sold licenses and labels to supermarkets, who would then shrink-wrap and label their own taters.  But there is an actual PotatOH! website, where you can go and order a six-pack of PotatOHs for $12.66 plus shipping.

Whatever.  There really is an ass for every seat.

03 May, 2011

Help Identify This Thing

This pan was in the Savers thrift store in Manchester CT last weekend.  It is a 4-inch-deep, 11-inch-diameter pan, made of medium-weight aluminum.  The wooden handle on the left is fitted into an aluminum collar riveted to the pan. The most interesting feature, though, is the crank handle in the center. It is attached to a central "tube" rising from the pan, and is made of cast aluminum with a wooden knob.  The handle turns two "legs" that descend into the pan, along the tube, across the bottom of the pan, and about an inch up the outer wall.  It's important to know that this assembly, which appears to be some sort of stirring mechanism, does not actually scrape the sides or bottom of the pan, but move slightly above them, so no actual "stirring" can be done.

It's not a popcorn popper - there is no lid, nor any way to put a lid on without said lid enclosing the handle - but I have no idea what a pot like this would be used for.  There were no maker's marks or logos on the pan, either, so I don't have a starting point for research.

I invite you to leave a comment if you think you know what this odd pot is, or even if you'd like to speculate.

PS: I didn't buy the pan. Savers had it marked at $19.99, which I considered far too much to pay for something I probably won't use anyway.

EDIT: The mystery is solved!  Thanks to reader steve06082, who suggested that the pan might be a nut or coffee bean roaster.  When I Googled "nut roaster," here's what came up:

Thanks, Steve!

ANY Recipe?

"I added garlic to my recipe for Lemon Meringue Pie, and my life has never been the same!"

02 May, 2011

Expired Yogurt

Will eating yogurt past the "expiration date" printed on the cup kill you?  I found a couple of forgotten yogurts in the back of my fridge.  Let's find out if they've retained their deliciousness.

Siggi's Skyr (Icelandic strained non-fat yogurt)
Expiration date: 17 March 2011
Date opened: 1 May 2011
Yogurt had turned a light brown color. There was little or no liquid seepage. Very thick - the yogurt mass actually cracked when it was scooped. Pronouncedly sour and spoiled flavor. I could barely choke down half a spoonful.

Breyer's Fruit-on-the-Bottom Strawberry
Expiration date: 5 March 2011
Date Opened: 1 May 2011
Some separation had occurred; a pool of clear liquid was at the top of the container but was readily stirred back into the yogurt. This was quite delicious and tasted as good as it might have before its expiration date.