30 June, 2008

Local Food: Beet Greens

Every year, one of the local farms plants acres of beets. And for a few glorious weeks in late June/early July, their farm stand is loaded with lovely tender beet greens as the crop is progressively thinned out to make room for the developing roots. Beet greens are near the top of my list of favorite vegetables, and so I look forward to this time of year; I stop at the farm stand every few days to pick up a couple of pounds of greens.

Beet greens are a "comfort food" for me; my mom used to buy them when I was a kid because they were so much cheaper than spinach, so in the spring and early summer we had them a lot. She used to select the smallest greens she could find, with barely a trace of a beetroot at the tip, and cook them just like she did with spinach - steaming them or simmering them gently in a very small amount of water.

I buy the greens more indiscriminately, just grabbing big ol' bundles of leaves, red stems, and baby beets, and cook them long and slow to make them tender and bring out the full flavor:
  1. Rinse the greens well to remove any traces of sand, then shake them dry
  2. Heat up a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat in the bottom of a heavy Dutch oven
  3. Keep the fire high and drop handfuls of the greens into the pot. Stir them around to wilt them, and as each handful wilts, add more.
  4. When all the greens are in the pot and have had a chance to sizzle and wilt in the hot fat, add a bit of salt and pepper and a small amount of water (usually about a quarter of a cup is enough,) cover the pot, and turn the heat down to low.
  5. Simmer the greens, covered, for at least half an hour while you prepare the rest of the meal. Don't worry if you take longer to fix supper. The greens just get better as they cook.
For a different flavor, try this method using chicken fat or butter (it's especially delicious with butter.)


Pringles MADNESS!

A few weeks ago, I was strolling down the snack aisle in the supermarket and noticed that there are apparently more than twenty-five flavors of Pringles available. Until that moment, I had no idea that Pringles had so many varieties. I was amazed, and also curious: Wouldn't it be cool to get one can of each of the flavors, and taste them all?

The answer is, of course, that it would be cool, but I don't really want to spend something like thirty bucks in one pop on a complete assortment of Pringles. So I'll just buy a few at a time, starting with the seven varieties shown above which a friend and I chose at the local Wal-Mart:
  • Loaded Baked Potato: Supposed to taste like a baked potato with butter, sour cream, chives, cheese, and bacon. It had a hearty potato flavor, traces of butter and sour dairy components, and a hint of artificial smoke.
  • Pizza: Tomato and oregano with a hint of cheese. Not too bad, actually, but not as much pizza flavor as, say, pizza-flavored Goldfish.
  • Extreme Kickin' Cheddar: Cheese with a spicy heat. Although the heat was of course of the "lowest common denominator kind of mild" variety, these were rather good. Much spicier than the Jalapeño flavor, actually.
  • Salt and Vinegar: Exactly as advertised. A small bit saltier than Original, but with a good vinegar taste.
  • Jalapeño: The only flavor component they managed to carry forth from a jalapeño pepper was the green grassiness. There was no heat at all. None. Seriously, a waste of time.
  • Extreme Screamin' Dill Pickle: Probably the best of the lot. Vinegar and dill flavor elements with a subtle, cucumbersome back note made these taste just like a real dill pickle.
  • Honey Mustard: Another one that captured just the right notes, though the mustard was definitely more pronounced than the honey. I like mustard on my cheeseburgers, so this chip kind of reminded me of a cheeseburger flavor.
Seven down, who knows how many to go...

28 June, 2008

Northampton Brewery, Northampton MA

It was a hot and humid summer afternoon when our party of four visited the Northampton Brewery for a late lunch. I had heard great things about the Brewery, and the anticipation was running high. A bit too high, as it turned out.

The atmosphere is funky-informal – low lighting, copper-clad tables with the lovely patina of age and use, very friendly and efficient waitstaff. As we came into the restaurant, we passed a large glassed-in brewing room, and it was fun to watch the activity as the brewmasters tended the equipment. Front of house is laid out nicely, with plenty of space between the roomy tables and comfortable seating. The restaurant immediately seemed like The Right Place To Be.

A six-page menu may seem a little ambitious for a small brewpub, but this is Northampton, an active college town and entertainment destination. Even though we kept our food choices fairly simple, we could tell that the kitchen was more than competent. A half-pound hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes, and caramelized onions, ordered “as rare as the city allows” came to the table beautifully seared outside, gorgeously red-and-rare within. Ranch Turkey BLT wraps were a bit skimpy on the bacon but made up for it with the huge portion of delicious thinly-sliced turkey tucked within. Sweet potato fries were, quite simply, the best any of us had ever tasted. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, creamy and sweet inside; they were the first of our shared side dishes to disappear. Onion rings were a tad greasy but otherwise nearly perfect: delightful batter encasing sweet, tender, hand-cut rings.

Unfortunately, the beers didn’t quite live up to the same standards as the food. Two of us ordered “samplers,” each containing four six-ounce glasses of the beers of our choice. Here’s a rundown of the seven beers tasted (we had one overlapping choice between us:)
  • Magic Carpet Rye: Light and crisp, good body, strong and pleasant rye aftertaste, dry. My favorite of the batch.
  • Raspberry Gold: Very fruity, a little sweeter than we liked; comments included “raspberry soda gone bad,” “beer mixed with raspberry soda”
  • Paradise City Gold: Pretty average beer.
  • Northampton Pale Ale: Slightly skunky, slightly bitter, good maltiness. Not as good as Ballantine, though.
  • Nonotuck IPA: Touted as their version of India Pale Ale, this one was merely bad, with a strong chemical flavor reminiscent of toilet cleaner.
  • Ruby Porter: Perhaps the most successful of the beers we tried; an almost cola-like black, glowing deep red when backlit, rich but not too hoppy, medium body.
  • Snowshovel ESB: Sweet and malty, lingering slight bitterness.

All of these beers, incidentally, were served cool but not chilled. For the porter, that’s okay, but for the Magic Carpet Rye and the two Golds, that was a big mistake. They should have been served ice-cold befitting their lagery lightness. Serving them pub-style only magnified their weaknesses – faults which became more apparent as the beers further warmed to room temperature.

Northampton Brewery
11 Brewster Ct
Northampton, MA 01060

Northampton Brewery website


24 June, 2008

Is This The End of White Lily Flour?

For over a century, White Lily flour has been milled in Knoxville Tennessee using a special process from soft red winter wheat. The unique qualities of the wheat, along with special milling and bleaching processes, make White Lily flour unique - slightly higher in protein than cake flour, but lower than all-purpose flour - and it's status as a regional product found almost exclusively in the South has given it a special niche status as THE flour that southern cooks turn to for tender biscuits and pie crusts, in much the same way that New Englanders turn to King Arthur flour (milled in Vermont.)

Sadly however, 125 years of regional pride and distinction may be on the verge of being lost forever. The company has recently been acquired by the J M Smucker Co., which is shutting down the Knoxville plant and moving milling operations to Smucker's home state of Ohio. Although they have promised that the process for making White Lily flour will be the same as ever - even claiming in a press statement that the new factory has been a secondary producer for White Lily under contract for "generations" - Southern bakers are suspicious and skeptical. In a blind test conducted for a recent New York Times newspaper article, two bakers were able to distinguish the "new" flour in a blind test just by sight and texture. This doesn't bode well for the brand.

I have to admit that I find Smucker's decision to close the Knoxville plant puzzling, coming as it does when people are becoming more aware of local sourcing for their foods and ingredients. There are millions of people in the South who have come to love and trust the White Lily brand, and its status in areas of the country where it is sold is practically elevated to that of myth. Hundreds of thousands of bakers have never used another flour in their entire lives. I just don't understand why Smucker's would jeopardize such a huge and loyal market segment.

If you're passionate about White Lily Flour and want to try to change Smucker's mind about closing the Knoxville mill, I urge you to ignore any ridiculous online petitions that you might find on the internet. Online petitions are worse than worthless: They are ignored by the companies they target, and are not taken seriously by anyone in a position to change policy anywhere. Your best bet is to find some paper, a pen, and a stamp and write to the Customer Service department. Here's Smucker's address:

The J.M. Smucker Co.
1 Strawberry Lane
Orrville, Ohio 44667-0280

You may also choose to click here to visit Smucker's online feedback form at their website.


22 June, 2008

Burger King Burger Shots

Back in 1987, Burger King introduced some miniature burgers that they called "Burger Bundles." Sold in sets of three or six, the little snackers were not a big success, even though BK tried spreading the concept across their menu, with sausage/egg/cheese "Breakfast Bundles" and chicken patty "Chicken Bundles." Later, the small sandwiches were unsuccessfully reintroduced using the cuter name "Burger Buddies."

Today, Burger Buddies are back, under a brand new name: Burger King Burger Shots. They're sold in six-packs only, packaged in flat cardboard flip-top boxes. Apparently, this item is still in development - with my area of Southern New England as part of a test market - because they're called "Burger Shots" on the signage, "mini BURGERS" on the packaging, and they are missing entirely from the official BK website.

Miniature burgers are a great idea - a sales gimmick that has worked for years for White Castle and Krystal - and I can not understand why Burger King hasn't been able to make a go of these. They are delicious. Each burger is made up of the same 100% beef as the standard patties, flame broiled, given a pickle, a small squirt of ketchup and mustard, tasty orange cheese if desired, and topped with a marvelously soft and fresh lightly grilled top bun.

Burger Shots have other good points besides deliciousness. Small food is fun, you know. If you have a couple of kids to feed, I guarantee they'd be delighted to share a box of Shots. They'd be great party food, too. Three or four sixpacks of Burger Shots stacked up on a platter next to the beers, a ballgame on the TV, and you're all set for the afternoon. The burgers are bigger relative to the buns at this scale, too, so they might even be a better deal than getting a couple of cheeseburgers. A six pack of these things are just made for sharing, you know? My wife and I split a box between us. It's more eating than a standard burger, but lighter than two of them. It's just about the perfect-sized lunch.

The only thing I don't really like about them is they're made in some kind of strange connected form - you need to pull two apart to get a single burger, and sometimes the pickle or the patty slips and winds up hanging out of the bun (messy.)

Overall, though, they're great. The only thing that could make me happier with them would be if they were topped with BACON. You got that, Your Highness? Get some bacon on those Shots and you'll have an unstoppable juggernaut of flame-broiled goodness.


18 June, 2008

Cherry Jam

We're getting to the tail end of the California cherry season, and the stores here have been loaded with bags of delicious cherries. At least two of the blogs I read regularly - Fritter and Caviar and Codfish - have featured impromptu small-batch cherry jams.

Both recipes called for one pound of cherries, the juice and peel of one lime or lemon, a bit of almond extract, 2/3 cup of sugar, and half a cup of water as needed. Since I didn't have any limes on hand, I used a lemon.

The jam turned out pretty good. A pound of cherries only makes about 12 ounces of jam, which isn't enough for my needs (we give baskets of homemade jams, jellies, and pickles as holiday gifts) and although the lemon juice helps make the jam a little more tart and brightens the cherry flavor quite well, I'm less happy with the zest. Getting a bite of zest causes a tiny lemony burst which is okay, I guess, but not really what I'm after in a cherry jam.

I still have an eight-pound flat of strawberries in the fridge that needs attention tonight so cherries will have to wait, however. The produce store in town has been selling them at the gorgeous price of $1.99 a pound and if they still have some tomorrow I'll get six pounds and make enough jam for gifts as well as family eating.

Small Batch Cherry Jam

1 pound cherries, pitted and halved
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp almond extract
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup water if needed

Place cherries, lemon juice, and almond extract in a saucepan over medium heat and simmer just until cherries are soft, about 20 minutes. Stir in some water (up to 1/2 a cup) only if needed, then add sugar and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until hot jam is thickened and bubbly.

Cherry jam sets up readily, so you need not bring the temperature to the full 220 F normally needed for jelly. When your stirring paddle comes out from the pan coated with a thick sheet of jelling liquid, test a few drops of jam on a chilled plate. If it's ready, it will set up on the plate after a moment of cooling; if not, cook a few minutes longer and test again.

Makes 12 ounces of jam - enough to fill three small 4-ounce jars.

Recipe adapted from Robin's at caviarandcodfish.com and Sarah's at fritterblog.blogspot.com.

17 June, 2008

Pizzarias Cheese Pizza Chips

Something new showed up in the snack machine at work today: Pizzarias, a crispy flaky snack thing dusted with cheese pizza flavorings.

They're hard to describe. Not really a "chip" - they're too thick and made of too many ingredients, including flour. Not really a "cracker" either - too thin and delicate. The round crisps are very flaky, like phyllo, yet densely structured, and although crunchy at first, dissolve in the mouth into an artificial-tasting paste. They're made of wheat flour, corn flour, dehydrated potatoes, and wheat starch; the potatoes and starch are the likely culprits there.

The topping, despite being a little too salty and quite unevenly applied, is more successful. The cheese, tomato, and Italian herb flavors mingle well and are bold enough to stand up to uncomplicated dips like sour cream.

Would I buy them again? Probably not. They're tasty enough, but the texture and artificial aftertaste outweigh the flavor.

Pizzarias are made by a company called The Inventure Group, who produce quite a hodgepodge of different snackish things. They make a Burger King-branded Ketchup and Fries Potato Snack that isn't too bad, but they're also responsible for Braids brand pretzels, a thoroughly nasty product that tastes remarkably like wet cardboard.

Interestingly, the Pizzarias brand is nowhere to be found on Inventure Group's website. The Cheese Pizza chips are instead displayed under the TGI Friday's brand label.


16 June, 2008

Strawberry Season

Strawberry season starts slowly in New England. Sometime around the second week of June, signs start appearing by the roadsides. Mostly hand-painted, they announce that the fields are ready for picking. Some, like the one at right, spell it out and give the name of the farm you'll be visiting. Others are simpler: There might just be a big picture of a strawberry with an arrow pointing down the side road.

By the middle of the third week, the fields are filled with folks picking berries, and the farm stands have opened, offering pint- and quart-sized baskets of fruit already picked. Churches and civic groups start advertising their Strawberry Supper fundraisers, where for a few dollars one can get a decent meal finished off with delicious homemade strawberry shortcake for dessert. If you're lucky, it will be real shortcake biscuits under those berries, and not those nasty yellow spongecake cups that people from Away try to call "shortcake."

My favorite time to pick strawberries is the early morning. Many of the farms in the area open for picking around 7:00 am. The sun is new in the sky, there's usually a bit of fog in the fields, and the dew is still on the berry plants. A lot of people bend over the rows as they pick, but I prefer to put on old clothes and a pair of kneepads and crawl along the row at berry level, finding juicy red treasures hiding under the leaves as I creep along, pushing a shallow flat tray in front of me.

By nine in the morning, the fog has burned off and the sun is high enough in the sky to start baking the fields, but my wife, daughter, and I are ready to go home anyway, having picked about twenty pounds of berries. That sounds like a lot, but they go fast: we eat some out of hand, make shortcake (of course,) and strawberry-rhubarb pie; there are batches of strawberry preserves to put up, and we also freeze some for later use. (We freeze some small amounts of every berry that comes ripe in season so that at the end of the summer we can make a Mixed Berry Preserve as well.)

Unfortunately, strawberries here are a cool-weather crop and by the first couple weeks of July they're out of season again. I have some everbearing varieties in my garden that will supply us with a small amount through late August, but the big rush will be over and the pick-your-own places will be moving on to other fruits like raspberries, blueberries, and orchard fruits later towards September and October.

While it lasts, though, the berries are everywhere, as much part of our New England heritage as maple sugar in February, apples in September, and pumpkins in October.

"Shortcake" is a slightly sweetened biscuit, baked up on the dry side so it can drink up plenty of strawberry juice when it's topped with berries and whipped cream. If you've only had "strawberry shortcake" on those horrid yellow spongecake cups that taste like they've been carved out of a Hostess Twinkie, do yourself an enormous favor and try my grandmother's recipe for real shortcake:


2 cup flour
4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
5 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 425

Butter and lightly flour an 8-inch cake pan or a cookie sheet.

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Cut the butter in bits and work it into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingers until it resembles coarse meal. Slowly stir in the milk, using just enough to hold the dough together. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for a minute or two. Put the dough into the cake pan, or roll or pat it 3/4 inch thick and cut it into eight 2-inch rounds, using a biscuit cutter. Arrange the rounds on a cookie sheet and bake them for 10 - 12 minutes (or bake the larger cake for 12 - 15 minutes.) Split with two forks while still warm. Spread with butter if you like, fill with sugared berries, and serve warm with heavy cream or whipped cream.

13 June, 2008

Goodbye, Tastespotting

I stopped in at Tastespotting this morning for some ideas and inspiration, only to find the homepage replaced by a farewell notice:
Thanks for a great 18 months! In light of recent legal complications, NOTCOT will no longer be operating TasteSpotting .com. -- Jean, NOTCOT, 6.13.08
NOTCOT's other lifestyle-oriented websites are still up and running, and they've offered no explanation for Tastespotting's closure beyond what is on the placeholder. Food bloggers, of course, are going mad with speculation, and it's no wonder: a photo and link on Tastespotting got your creations noticed and brought visitors.

I've seen several offers to start similar websites since this morning, and I hope at least one of them is able to follow through with an actual startup. Tastespotting filled an important need for the internet's culinary community.

Flanken ribs on the grill?

"Flanken ribs" are a cut of beef short rib from the chuck primal, usually sold as a slab rather than as individual short ribs, and containing meat from the first five ribs. They're considered a little less desirable than short ribs, and because they include the tough gristly areas around the rib they're normally sold for braising.

At the Stop & Shop supermarket in my town, though, they rarely sell flanken ribs in big thick slabs that would braise appealingly. Instead, they slice them less than half an inch thick and sell them without any type of cooking instructions at all, usually at prices starting at $4.99 a pound and up. They're not very big sellers.

Yesterday, when I walked past Stop & Shop's meat case, I noticed a bunch of one- to two-pound packages of flanken had been marked down. I checked out the packages carefully, and noticed that many of the cuts were beautifully marbled and had some potential to cook like a steak instead of by a long, slow braising. So I bought four packages and went home to light the grill.

A charcoal fire is hot and the meat was cut thin, so I kept a careful eye on the meat as it sizzled over the coals. There were a fair amount of flareups - like many rib cuts, there is a good amount of fat in flanken. Since I had a lot of pieces, I cooked them to a range of doneness, from blue (cool and purple inside, rarer than rare) to medium; I love my steak as rare as possible, but my wife likes hers warm and just pink in the middle.

I was pleasantly surprised with the results. The maximum tenderness was achieved by cooking the meat rare - blue was extremely tough, and medium was acceptable but a little on the dry side. Although they were admittedly too thin to result in a really stellar steak experience, for the price (about 99 cents a pound) they were great. And even though they weren't the most tender cuts in the meat case, they were loaded with delicious beefy flavor, very rich and satisfying.

I have seen suggestions on the web that flanken can be marinated before grilling to give a more tender and flavorful result, but I'm not sure I want to do that. There isn't anything a marinade can add to the tenderness of the cut when it's prepared correctly, and too many marinades simply overpower the natural flavor of meat rather than enhancing it.

12 June, 2008

Smyth's Trinity Farm, Enfield CT

I write a lot about fast food, bizarre snacks, and mass-market processed junk, but when it comes right down to it, my family and I eat most of our meals at home and buy very little processed crap from the "center of the supermarket." In fact, we source as much of our food as possible from local producers; what we can't find locally we try to find regionally. Hey, if we can't keep our money in the local economy we can at least attempt to keep it in New England.

A great example of this is Smyth's Trinity Farm, a small local dairy in Enfield, Connecticut, just a few minutes' drive from my home. Mike Smyth and his wife Dale have one of the last working dairies in a town where the cows once outnumbered the people, and we've been buying our milk there exclusively for the past ten or twelve years.

Their dairy herd is pastured on 25 acres of land sandwiched between Interstate 91 and US Route 5 just south of the Massachusetts/Connecticut state line, and the milk those cows produce is processed, bottled, and sold right there at the dairy. They use traditional, pay-a-deposit-and-bring-it-back glass bottles (capped with plastic caps these days - a few years ago their supplier stopped making paper caps, citing low demand.) And although the Smyth's don't make a big deal about it, there isn't anything "unnatural" in their milk. They don't use growth hormones or tons of antibiotics and they don't treat their small herd like four-legged milk factories. The girls are well treated and lovingly cared for, and on many days you can see them when you drive up to buy milk - the salesroom is in the front of the barn and the overhead door is kept wide open on nice days.

Unless you're milking your own cow, this is about as personally acquainted as you can get with your milk supply. And if you're interested in the actual path your milk takes as it gets from moo to you, the Smyths hold Open House Saturdays a few times a year, giving tours of the processing and bottling operations and giving tastes of the milk, yogurt, cream, and butter they produce there.

Now, a small operation is expensive to run, and the milk does cost somewhat more here than at the supermarket. But we're willing to pay the premium for several reasons:

  • Trinity Farm's milk can't be fairly compared to big-brand mass-produced milk, which is blended using milks from hundreds of dairies in order to obtain a consistent and "lowest-common-denominator" taste. Single-dairy milk has a distinctive flavor - a certain uniqueness due to location, pasturing, etc. It's like comparing blended Scotch whiskey to the single-malts that go into it.
  • This flavor difference really stands out when comparing like products. "Whole milk" in the supermarket contains 4% milkfat, and "low fat" milk can have 2% or 1% milkfat. Trinity's fattiest milk is their 3%, which - although lower in fat than supermarket whole milk - has a richer taste and a better flavor. Even their skim milk is better tasting than the nasty thin skim milk in the supermarket dairy case.
  • Trinity's heavy cream and half-and-half are amazing - rich and flavorful, and completely lacking in the gums, extenders, and additives very often found in national brands.
  • Mike and Dale Smyth know many of their customers by name. How many of H P Hood's customers do you think the CEO of Hood chats with at the dairy?
  • Buying milk at the dairy not only keeps my money in the local economy, it helps ensure the future of one of the last family-run farms in my town. The Smyth's kids - adults with kids of their own now - work the farm along with their parents, and are determined to keep the farm viable and operating in the years ahead.
Chances are that there's a working dairy near you, too. They may not sell their entire output directly to consumers (many make ends meet by contributing to co-ops) but they might set up at farmers markets in your area. You owe it to yourself to check it out.

Smyth's Trinity Farm
4 Oliver Road
Enfield CT 06082

Relevant link:

Smith Family Proud of Farming Tradition, from the Springfield MA Republican, 21 May 2008


11 June, 2008

There's a new flavor of Mike's Hard Lemonade hitting the coolers of supermarkets and package stores: pomegranate. It's delicious, and has a surprisingly complex flavor for a fruitbeer. The pomegranate is front and center, of course, but there are subtle hints of citrus and black cherry as well. Refreshing and a little kicky, too, with a 5% alcohol content by volume.

Although my favorite Mike's flavor is still Lime, Pomegranate edges out Cranberry for second place, followed by Lemon, then Wild Berry (which is too cloyingly sweet for my taste.)


10 June, 2008

Sam 'n' Ella's Tomatoes

The consumer advisory issued by the FDA against eating certain types of raw red tomatoes continues. From their latest press release:

The Food and Drug Administration is expanding its warning to consumers nationwide that a salmonellosis outbreak has been linked to consumption of certain raw red plum, red Roma, and red round tomatoes, and products containing these raw, red tomatoes.

FDA recommends that consumers not eat raw red Roma, raw red plum, raw red round tomatoes, or products that contain these types of raw red tomatoes unless the tomatoes are from the sources listed below. If unsure of where tomatoes are grown or harvested, consumers are encouraged to contact the store where the tomato purchase was made. Consumers should continue to eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, or tomatoes grown at home.

On June 5, using traceback and other distribution pattern information, FDA published a list of states, territories, and countries where tomatoes are grown and harvested which have not been associated with this outbreak. This updated list includes: Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands, and Puerto Rico.

Photo by cdozo - http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdozo/  Used under Creative Commons license.Yet another good reason for everyone to be reading the labels, even on the fruit they buy! Imported fruit will carry the country of origin on those annoying little sticky labels that can be so hard to peel off. Before selecting out-of-season tomatoes, take a close look at the label. The one at right shows that the tomato was grown in Canada, a country not affected by the advisory.

Photo by cdozo, Used under Creative Commons license.

09 June, 2008

Double Dog

A sub roll is too big for just one grilled hot dog, but if you cut two slices in the top and set in two grilled hot dogs side by side...it transcends ordinary hot-doggedness and becomes A DOUBLE DOG!


08 June, 2008

How To Open A Clam

It's summertime, and summer eating in New England often includes clams. Soft-shelled clams are steamed, or shucked and fried. Large hard-shelled clams (quahogs) are made into stuffies or chowder. Smaller hard-shelled clams (cherrystones or littlenecks) are often served on the half shell: often raw but sometimes broiled or scalloped or prepared as Clams Casino or Clams Rockefeller.

Regardless of how they are to be eaten, however, many recipes require that the raw clam first be removed from the shell. Soft-shelled clams are easy to open and shuck, because they close relatively loosely and the blade of the clam knife slips in easily to separate the clam from the shell. Hard-shelled clams take a little more work and practice. It can be slow going for a beginner, especially if you've never done it before, but once you know the trick of where to start and have done it a few times you'll be opening clams like a pro.

Before shucking clams, scrub them well under cool running water to loosen and remove any sand or clay that might be sticking to them. With hard-shelled clams, you don't have to worry about grit in the meat. They're closed pretty tightly and they're usually spotless inside.

Start by covering one hand with a kitchen towel. Grip a clam in that covered hand with the lips of the shell against the heel of your hand and the hinge of the clam towards your fingertips. With the other hand, hold the sharp edge of the clam knife against the hinge, pressing on the unsharpened back of the blade with your fingertips. Use the towel-covered hand to squeeze the clam knife and the hinge of the clam together until the blade bites into the hinge.

The towel is there to protect your hands from a cut if the knife slips. When you gain more experience and confidence, you may decide for yourself whether or not the towel is necessary.

Still holding the clam in your toweled hand, use the clam's hinge as a pivot to bring the tip of the knife inward, forcing it into the tight gap between the top and bottom shells. As the knife goes into the clam, move the handle downward so that the tip of the knife contacts the inside of the top lid.

From this point on, it's a lot easier and you probably won't need the towel to help you hang onto the clam. Use the tip of the knife to sever the first of two adductor muscles. This will immediately loosen up that side of the clam, and the seam between the top shell and the bottom shell won't be as tight. You can take the knife out now, flip it, and reinsert it so the sharp edge is pointed in the other direction.

Slide the knife along the seam between the shells. As you move the blade along the seam, keep the tip of the knife in contact with the inside of the top shell. Clams cling to both halves of their home, and it's necessary to loosen their grip here as you go along.

Continue along the seam to the other side of the hinge, where you'll find the second adductor muscle. Sever this muscle with the tip of the knife against the inside of the top shell, just the way you did with the first one. Once you've cut the other adductor muscle, give the knife a twist and the clam will open easily.

And there you have it: a perfectly opened cherrystone clam, ready to use in a recipe, or simply enjoy as is - raw from the half shell.

The method for opening a hard-shell clam is the same no matter what size they are - from the biggest quahog to the most delicate littleneck. The first time you try to open one, take your time and go slow. It's going to take a few tries to get it just right. Sometimes, one of the shells might even crack or break; if so, don't fret about it, just finish that one and flip it over so the unbroken shell is on the bottom. Trust yourself to get better at it as you practice and soon you'll be shucking clams as fast as the guy putting them on ice at the raw bar.


07 June, 2008

Halutza Green Olives

Every so often, I pick up something at a job lot store that I wish was widely available in the regular markets in my area. These Halutza brand green olives are a prime example.

Grown, cured, and packaged in Israel, these are some of the best-tasting green olives I've ever had. They're not too salty and have just the right bittersweet tang that one expects. The texture is just right - tender without being mushy - and to top it off, they're canned in these great-looking barrel-shaped lined tins! What is not to love?

Alas, there is a reason products this good wind up remaindered in the cut-out stores, and this run of Halutza olives is no exception. The label clearly reads "Large 15-17." I'm not sure what the Israelis think "large" means, but I'm positive these olives don't qualify. Any American processor would have labeled them as "small." Also, the back of the can reads: "Caution: 2% of olives may contain pits." Interesting. I guess no one told the label designer that these are unpitted olives.

Halutza's loss was my gain, though. The 750 ml tin was only $1.50.

06 June, 2008

Horned Melon: The Triple Dog Dare Challenge!

Toontz, in her blog Okara Mountain, recently wrote about her tendency to breeze on past certain items when she's grocery shopping:

I lamented to my husband that there are so many items in the grocery store that I just pass by, without even giving them a second thought, just because I have never eaten them before. Or had a bad experience with growing up. My mother, when she fried eggplant, would laugh at me because the smell would literally run me out of the house. I hate brussels sprouts, though my sister raves about them. My little darlings have never eaten a turnip, just because I have never picked one up at the grocery.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? I think all of us do that to some degree. But toontz decided she wants to start pushing out of her comfort zone, and she's invited us along for the ride. Welcome to the Triple Dog Dare Challenge, a monthly event in which participants try out something new and different in a defined food category - it need not be exotic, rare, or expensive, only something one has never tried before. This month's category is Fruit.

This one was something of a stumper for me because I actively seek out strange and unusual foods. I'm familiar with most of the items on internet-based "strange fruit" lists, and most of the supermarkets in my area don't have a very large selection of exotic produce from which to choose.

How fortunate, then, for me to find horned melons at one of the local markets. Also known as kiwanos, melanos, jelly melons, hedged gourds, and "English tomatoes" (really?) horned melons are a bright yellowy-orange when ripe and covered with sharp spikes like a miniature durian.

There it is, in all its lethally spiked cheery orange glory. About six inches or so from end to end, relatively heavy for its size, and covered with leathery skin studded with sharp spines, it looks more like a dog's chew toy than a fruit. (My dog thought so, too, whining and begging for it until I let him take a sniff of it and he bumped his nose on one of the spines.) I inspected the melon carefully, looking for a way in, but there were no obvious entry points, seams, or bits that looked peelable, so it was off to the cutting board.

I cut a long wedge from the melon, end to end. Holy crap, it's green inside!! And filled with seeds that look remarkably like those from a cucumber. Except that cucumber seeds aren't individually surrounded by ectoplasmic blobs, which is what seemed to be the case within this alien-looking melon.

I gave the wedge a tentative squeeze and the little seed blobs popped out from pore-like pockets along the skin of the fruit. It looked, quite frankly, disgusting. But what the hell - I've put worse-looking things in my mouth, so I sucked up a mouthful of the blobs and kind of rolled them around my tongue.

I wasn't sure I could eat the seeds or not, so I kind of pushed the seeds out through my teeth while retaining the blobby fruit part in my mouth. I spit the seeds out and chewed away at the pulp. It's rather resistant to tooth damage, but chewing does release some juice and flavor, and I guess the point is to extract as much of the flavor of the melon as possible before finally swallowing the pulp and going for another mouthful of ectoplasm.

I can't say the flavor was anything very exciting. It was sort of cucumbersome, with a tart green kiwifruit overtone, but I also noted a rather subtle and unpleasant fishiness. This, combined with the slimy frog's-egg texture, made for an experience which I don't regret but won't repeat.

For every cloud there is a silver lining, however, and in this case the silver lining is Sid, our Amazon parrot. He thoroughly enjoyed a slice of horned melon, carefully removing each gooey seed pod and eating first the seed (his favorite part) and then the bright green pulp. When he had completely removed all of the seeds, he proceeded to eat all of the pulpy membrane inside the skin, then flipped the skin over and ate all of the spines from the exterior. By the time he was done, there was naught but a thin rubbery layer of bright orange exterior skin with lots of beakmarks along the edges. I may never buy another horned melon for myself, but I might pick one up for an occasional treat for Sid.


Ramen Review 7: Nissin Cup Noodles with Shrimp

Ease of Preparation: 10/10
There can't be anything simpler than "Pour in boiling water."

Vegetable Packet: N/A
Vegetables and seasonings are already mingled in the cup with no need to add them separately. Cup Noodles are notorious for not having very generous vegetable additions, but this cup had a few peas, kernels of corn, and tiny dehydrated shrimps.

Seasoning Packet: N/A
Like the vegetables, the seasoning was already in the cup.

Taste: 9/10
Standard delicious Nissin ramen broth, but with subtle hints of seafood. I haven't yet found a Cup Noodles broth that wasn't completely awesome.

Spiciness: 0/10 - this isn't marketed as a spicy ramen.

Overall: 9/10 - Recommended


05 June, 2008


Three weeks ago, I started my garden with a fifteen-foot row of strawberry plants. Despite the cool weather, we've had a good balance of sunshine and rain, and the plants have done very well.

Today, the first strawberry flowers appeared!

Even though it's a brand-new strawberry bed and we probably won't get more than a single recipe's worth of shortcake from it this year, I'm still excited.

Perked Coffee

A couple of years ago, we moved to an old 1920's Craftsman-style farmhouse. It's a great little house, with a lot of pre-war charm, because it hasn't been updated in more than fifty years. There are good points to that - all of the original woodwork, including the gorgeous beaded wainscot in the kitchen, is still intact and in perfect condition, for example. But there are some significant drawbacks.

When we moved in, there were only two electrical outlets in the kitchen. One was for the refrigerator, and the other was next to the kitchen door, where a small utility table had been set.

It was obvious that rewiring the kitchen was a priority, but until that could be arranged we needed to find a replacement for our Bunn-O-Matic drip coffee maker. The Bunn has a small hot water heater and holding tank built into it, and requires an electric outlet all its own, and we didn't have any to spare.

A few days later I found a vintage 1960s General Electric percolator at a thrift store. I brought it home and not only did it work perfectly, it could be unplugged and put away in the pantry when not in use. That night, we rediscovered how delicious perked coffee could be. Perking brought out a fuller body and richer flavor than the drip process ever did. It was like we were tasting coffee for the first time all over again.

That weekend the Bunn-O-Matic, freshly scrubbed and back in its original box, went to the Salvation Army store to find a new home. We haven't looked back since.

Along the way, I seem to have picked up a new hobby: collecting percolators. We still have that old GE...and two or three other GE pots with different configurations, a handful of vintage Sunbeams and Universals, and even a couple of beautiful-but-unique brands from the 1920's and 1930's. Every one of them works, and we rotate them in and out of service so that over the course of a few months they all get used for at least a few days.


04 June, 2008

Tofu Brings Magic Happy

I have a confession to make: For all the blogging I do about my favorite vegetable, PORK, I really do like tofu. I found this image out there on the Wild Wild Web, and let me tell you: If I ever found this tofu brand in my local Asian market, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

02 June, 2008

Coach D's Steamed Cheeseburgers, Springfield MA

It was early April when I first saw the sign on the storefront on Sumner Avenue in Springfield: COACH D'S STEAMED CHEESEBURGERS COMING SOON. Since then, I never failed to check out the little plaza whenever I was near that neighborhood, anticipating the arrival of steamed cheeseburgers to Western Massachusetts.

And this weekend, my patience was rewarded! The GRAND OPENING banner was stretched across the front windows of the shop! Joy!

We parked in the back of the building and walked around front to the entrance. There were a few people placing orders at the counter, and we joined them. The menu is quite basic - steamed burgers, BLTs, onion rings, fries, chili cheese fries, milkshakes, and canned soda from a cooler - but it's obvious that this restaurant is concentrating on the burgers and not losing their focus with an overly-ambitious menu.

We placed our orders with the pleasant young man at the cash register and found a bistro-style table out front to await our meal. Despite the number of people ordering, we didn't have to wait long for our food - two steamed cheeseburgers with "the works" - lettuce, tomato, and mayo - an order of fries, and an order of onion rings.

Our burgers were perfect - big, juicy steamed patties topped with meltydelicious wedges of soft warm New York State mild cheddar, lovely leaf lettuce, and fresh summery tomatoes (extra credit to Coach D for the tomatoes - most restaurants are still serving nasty, hard, winter tomatoes this early in the season; this place goes the extra mile to find high-quality slicing tomatoes that have a vine-fresh texture and flavor.) The steamed beauties were as good as anything I've had at Ted's Restaurant in Meriden and even better than the ones I've had at other central Connecticut locations.

The onion rings, although a commercially prepared frozen product, were also excellent. These were not chopped-and-formed nasties, but instead panko-breaded and delicious, fried to golden-brown crispiness, and a perfect accompaniment to the burgers.

The fries were a little less successful. Also a frozen commercial product, we would have preferred it if they had spent an extra few minutes in the fryer (they would have been crispier and more enjoyable.)

Overall, however, we were mighty pleased with Coach D's. There are a few bistro tables that seat one or two people, a couple booths, and an line of stools at a counter-style dining table. The day we were there, a TV in the corner was tuned to ESPN. Service is cafeteria-style and patrons are expected to bus their own tables; the atmosphere is casual and friendly, and the owner has a smile and a greeting for everyone who comes in. On the day we were there, there was a steady stream of customers and while the kitchen was kept plenty busy, there were no delays or unpleasant surprises from back of house. We will definitely be going again.

UPDATE - 20 APRIL 2009: Coach D's Steamed Cheeseburgers has closed.


In Praise of Steamed Cheeseburgers

Chances are, if you're not from Southern New England, you've never heard of a "steamed cheeseburger." Fairly popular in central Connecticut, they are all but unknown in the rest of the country.

For diehard fans, steamed cheeseburgers are the only burgers that are worth eating. For everyone else, they're a delicious change of pace that should be experienced at least once. Five ounces of high-quality ground beef are packed into a rectangular tray, steamed in a stovetop contraption called the Burg'R Tend'R until done, then served on a soft Vienna roll topped with melted mild cheddar cheese and various fixings (which might include lettuce, tomato, onion, and bacon.)

As the burger steams, it sort of pulls together into a thick, deliciously juicy patty that almost resembles a meatball more than a hamburger patty. Just before serving, it's topped with a thick layer of steam-melted cheddar cheese (usually a mild to mid-sharp NY or Wisconsin cheddar, almost never a plain bland "American cheese.") The texture and flavor is wonderful. Top it with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and a few strips of bacon and you have a sandwich that you will never forget.

The first steamed cheeseburgers were served in the late 1940's at a small restaurant called Jack's Lunch in Middletown, CT. A few other diners and lunch counters in central Connecticut also started serving them, and in the 1950's Paul Duberek of Meriden CT began selling them to workers at construction sites and factories, from a small lunch cart equipped with a sandwich steamer. His son Ted, who now owns and operates Ted's Restaurant in Meriden, carries on the tradition today.

The Burg'R Tend'R

Most diners and restaurants serving steamed cheeseburgers use a special stovetop steaming cabinet called a Burg'R Tend"R, which was invented and patented by Dale Greenbacker, a Connecticut metalworker, who incorporated his business as Daleco Inc. in 1978. The commercial-sized Burg'R Tend'R has twelve trays which are used to steam the burgers and melt the blocks of cheese. A somewhat smaller home-kitchen version is also available for true steamed cheeseburger fanatics.

Daleco is now run by Bob Gattilia, and has a website where you can buy your very own Burg'R Tend'R. Click here to visit the Burg'R Tend'R website.

Other Links:

Ted's Restaurant - Ted's is a great, funky, little luncheteria-type joint and the center of the Steamed Cheeseburger Universe. The website is loaded with info but is, unfortunately, rather hideously designed.

Serious Eats - This page on the Serious Eats website hosts the Steamed Cheeseburger excerpt from the documentary Hamburger America by George Motz. [Edited 01-20-2011 to remove link - the video is apparently gone from the Serious Eats site.]

The Better Burger Battle - A discussion on regional hamburger varieties with details on steamed cheeseburgers including an extensive bibliography. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.