31 October, 2009

Banquet Boneless Pork Rib Meal

Although a little strange to look at, the Banquet Boneless Pork Rib Meal is pretty inoffensive as Banquet meals go. In fact, if you've ever had a McDonald's McRib sandwhich, I'd say you already know exactly what to expect from that vaguely rib-shaped chunk of chopped, compressed, and formed pigmeat in the little black tray.

Slightly spongy with added textured vegetable protein and rather bland, the rib patty is greatly improved by the barbecue sauce in which it swims (which is pretty tasty if somewhat oversweet and gooey.) You'll never mistake it for the real thing - not even with your eyes closed - but it won't make you shudder with horror like the Cheesy Smothered Meat Patty.

The sides are pretty standard Banquet meal accompaniments: very corny-tasting masculine corn kernels that give you what-for when you try to chew them, and tasty but made-from-dehydrated mashed potatoes. A decent lunch and good value, especially because they're commonly on sale for $1.00

30 October, 2009

Hellmann's Mayonnaise With Lime

I haven't bought much Hellmann's mayonnaise since Unilever changed the formula in 2006 (making it somewhat blander and sweeter - thanks, Unilever, overnight you changed Hellmann's from my favorite mayo to just another jar of sticky white slop) but when I saw Hellmann's Mayonesa con jugo de limón at the local Shaw's, I decided to give it a try.

The product was eye-catching in several ways:
  • The labeling color scheme is different; there is an orange band along the bottom of the label, and the jar cap is bright orange instead of Hellmann's "blue ribbon" blue.
  • There's a big illustration of a lime on the front
  • And, most interestingly, the labeil is in Spanish as well as English. I hardly ever see this kind of marketing unless I'm in an Hispanic market. And none of the other Hellmann's varieties in Shaw's are bilingually labeled. Because I'm basically a cynical bastard, I suspect that Hellmann's/Unilever's marketing department made a decision like this:

Regardless of how I feel about a marketing ploy which might very well be a product of my fevered imagination, I have to admit that where it counts - taste and texture - Hellmann's with Lime is pretty decent stuff. The lime juice does taste different than the standard lemon - a tad sharper, closer to the late, lamented original formula - without being really "limey." I approve.

28 October, 2009

Home-Cured Olives

My hometown produce store has a big bin of fresh olives right now. They range from green to blushing red, and they're huge!! I've seen fresh olives in local supermarkets for years, and I've always wanted to try curing some at home. Totally impractical, of course, and one of the few things that's actually more expensive when you do it yourself - but still something that I've found intriguing. Part of the reason I never did it was because in the pre-internet days, it was pretty hard to find information about curing any kind of food, let alone olives. Nowadays, of course, getting recipes and information is as simple as typing a few keywords into Google, so I took the plunge and bought a couple pounds of fresh olives to cure.

There they are, in my big shallow pasta bowl. Big, plump and gorgeous, and anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks away from being ready to eat. I started out by dumping them all out into the pasta bowl and swishing them around to wash in cool water.

Next, each of the olives needs to be slit, so I used a sharp paring knife to make a cut from end to end almost down to the pit. As I slit each olive, I dropped it into a 3-liter glass jar.

Then, I filled the jar with a strong plain brine at a ratio of 1 cup of kosher salt to 1 gallon of water. The olives have to stay completely submerged in order to cure properly, so I used an old trick to keep the olives submerged: I filled a plastic bag with leftover brine and topped off the olives with it before closing up the jar. The bag will keep the olives well below the surface of the brine, and putting brine instead of water in the bag guarantees that if the bag ever develops a hole, the brine for the olives won't get diluted. (You can see how this looks in the picture below - see how the olives seem to be suspended in the center of the jar? The plastic bag isn't easily visible once it's filled with brine.) I did this step in the sink, because pouring the brine into a plastic bag is kind of messy, and because I was making sure there was enough in there (completely topped off) it overflowed a little. When the jar was packed and sealed, I put it in the cool, dark kitchen closet for the curing time.

Now comes the hard part: Waiting. Over the next three weeks, I have to visit the olives every few days and swirl the jar a little. Every week or so, the method calls for rinsing the olives and changing the brine. In about three weeks, I'm supposed to taste one of the olives to see how they're doing - if the sample is still bitter, the brine gets changed again and we sample again in a week.

Check back with me in another week, and we'll take a peek at them.

27 October, 2009

My French Toast! IT'S A MIRACLE!!

OMG, MY FRENCH TOAST TOTALLY HAS A FACE ON IT!! CALL THE NEWSPAPERS!! Better yet, call Golden Palace Casino, those guys who bought the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich and talked this poor benighted idiot into tattooing her forehead. Check out the center of this slice of delicious Frfench toast:

Trouble is, I can't quite figure out exactly who has appeared uninvited at the breakfast table. He's too fat to be Jesus, and Elvis didn't have a beard. Top contenders:
  • Orson Welles

  • Billy Mays

  • Ulysses S Grant

  • Bluto

  • Robert Blake

So...what do you think?


Pareidolia is the phenomenon by which humans tend to recognize familiar patterns - faces, animals, speech, and so on - in random stimulae. Simply put, our brains are hard-wired to find recognizable images amongst noise. This is especially true of recognizing faces, which is a skill acquired very early in infancy. For more information about pareidolia, and why a grilled-cheese sandwich isn't really a manifestation of the Holy Mother, you can check Wikipedia and The Skeptic's Dictionary, or you can simply Google the term pareidolia.


26 October, 2009

More Deals Coming Soon...

Five Below is opening a store in my hometown - the grand opening is set for early November. If you haven't heard of them, they're sort of a pumped-up dollar store; stuff in the shop sells for $1 to $5. Their target demographic is teens-plus, and their merchandise lineup includes categories that I'm always sniffing out such as noveties, beverages, snacks, and candies. They call it "trend-right" merchandise and, as is typical with job lot joints, there will be items that they carry as long as sales are decent, and other items that will come in with the latest remainders and closeouts and will never appear again.

With an Ocean State Job Lot close by, I am looking forward to some great deals on interesting stuff. Keep your eyes on the blog, because I bet Five Below will be joining my job lot source list along with Ocean State, Big Lots!, and Dollar Tree.


Five Below's website.


25 October, 2009

Vintage Sunday: Mouli Multipurpose Basket

Just about everyone I know has one (or more) of these expanding-mesh wire baskets in their kitchen. I see them for sale in discount and dollar stores, at church rummage sales, and tag sales. Sometimes, the baskets have a slightly hooked steel bar on the bottom, just like this Mouli branded basket does. (Hooking the handles onto that bar provides a support frame that lets the basket stand up on a tabletop without having to hang on to the handles. The cheap ones don't have this feature.)

These baskets truly are multi-purpose; when my daughter was little, she would bring one out to the henhouse to collect eggs (and my wife Maryanne always calls this kind of basket an "egg basket.") Some friends of ours in France call theirs a "salad basket:" they fill the basket with greens and hold it under running water to rinse them, then shake hell out it to help dry them for dinner. And another friend on the coast uses one as a basket for steaming clams.

Anyway, in all the years I've seen these baskets, I've never seen one in the original box, so when I found this one at a rummage sale recently, I grabbed it. I love the little Mouli chef logo. And in the spring when we get new hens, I'll probably use it like I've used all the others - collecting eggs.

24 October, 2009

Wendy's New Bacon Deluxe

Wendy's has been heavily advertising their new "Bacon Deluxe" burgers - basically a standard bacon cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion added - touting the presence of "thick-sliced applewood smoked bacon." Lynnafred and I gave 'em a shot. The publicity photo (left) looked tempting enough, in that carefully-posed-fake-food-designed-to-look-awesome way, and the ad copy seemed fairly straightforward:
"Forget every bacon cheeseburger you've tried before. Our New Bacon Deluxe is fresh, never frozen. North American beef, melted American cheese, hand-leafed lettuce, and sliced beefsteak tomato topped with four seriously thick, crispy strips of Applewood smoked bacon on a Kaiser bun. real is irresistable."
As much as I love the ridiculousness of "hand-leafed lettuce," I have to admit it was the "Applewood smoked bacon" part that sucked us in, even though we should have known better.

When it comes right down to it, there is nothing about a standard Wendy's burger that distinguishes it from the same type of sandwich at McDonald's. The meat patties are thin, bland, and 100% beef; the orange cheese tastes the same; the buns are squishy whitebread pillows. "Four seriously thick, crispy strips of Applewood smoked bacon" is the selling point of this burger, and it's on this very point that the Bacon Deluxe fails:
  • We didn't get four slices of bacon, we got three: a 25% bacon shortfall.

  • In Wendyspeak, "seriously" must mean "not really." As in "seriously thick, crispy strips" meaning "not really thick, crispy strips." The bacon was sliced no thicker than any standard bacon available at the grocery store. And the shoto shows how flaccid it was, draped over the burger. It wasn't even browned.

  • I'm not really sure what's up with that texture embossed into the fatty part of the bacon. It looks like they ran it between two gears or something. I think they did it because advertising photos of cooked bacon show it so perfectly, evenly, and impossibly wavy, so they mill the bacon strips as a cheapass shortcut instead of just properly cooking it.

  • There's no appreciable flavor difference between the "applewood" smoked bacon Wendy uses and any run-of-the-mill supermarket bacon. The mediocrity of most "applewood-smoked" restaurant menu items leads me to suspect that as little as 1 part apple to 100 parts other hardwood qualifies the smoke as "applewood."
At almost five bucks and up for a Bacon Deluxe, there are no bargains here. Burger King's bacon cheeseburgers are not only a better deal, but better tasting because at least they flame-broil their burgers. And if lettuce and tomato are that important to you, Burger King will add them on request.

23 October, 2009

Food and Fire

I've got a pile of concrete blocks in my back yard. In the spring, they'll be the foundation blocks for my henhouse, but right now they're just a bigass ugly pile of concrete blocks. So I decided to stack them in sort of a circular formation and make an improvised fire pit. The nights are cooling down to almost chilly, and it's kind of nice to light an outdoor fire when my wife and I get home from work so we can enjoy the flames and a beer and the company of the dog as he stretches out in fron to f the fire to bogart the heat.

You can see that it's nothing much to look at - but after all, it's temporary, and for now it's serving the purpose. I've got a couple of cut-up oak pallets to burn and a bunch of maple, walnut, and oak branches in my brush pile, so the past few nights have been warm and crackling. And although you can't really see it in this photo, the fire pit also has a strategic arrangement of bricks in the center that allows me to keep barbeuce baskets at just the right height above the embers for cooking - because as long as I have a nice hardwood fire going anyway, I might as well make supper out there when the fire dies down and the coals glow cherry-red.

Last night, for example, when the initial burn of maple branches had settled into embers, I bedded half a dozen foil-wrapped potatoes in the coals and shoveled more on top of them to help them cooke evenly. While they cooked in the front of the pit, I piled up some pallet cuts in the back and center of the pit and brought up the fire again. Maryanne and I had a Mike's Lemonade as we watched the flames and idly poked at the dog, and eventually the new fire settled down to another nice layer of cooking-ready embers.

Just a couple of likely-looking shoulder-cut London broils, over the heat for a few minutes per side for the perfect rare steaks. When the meat was done, I dug the spuds out of the coals and we had supper.

Mostly, this meal turned out pretty good. A couple of the potatoes - set closer to the center of the action than the others - were fairly well incinerated in their cozy foil wrappers. They had brick-hard carbon exteriors and a shrunken dehydrated core. I'm going to have to work on my potato technique, I guess. But I've got time. We've got another three weeks or more before the nights get so short and so cold that it stops being worth it to build a backyard blaze.


22 October, 2009

Sparkly <3 Vampire Sweethearts

Remember NECCO hearts? They're everywhere around Valentine's Day - especially here in New England, NECCO's home turf. Now - thanks to new owners who seem determined to squeeze every last nickle out of the franchise - there seem to be conversation hearts for everything. Including a version designed to appeal to fans of rather badly-written Mary Sue melodramas about chaste, sparkly vampires.

They're so damn ridiculous I hardly know where to begin mocking them. They come in "Forbidden Fruit" flavors (Tempting Apple, Secret Strawberry, Orange Obsession, and Passion Fruit) which have an overpowering musky aroma that kind of floods your senses when you dare to pop one in your mouth. Some of them are sparkly. And the box I bought actually has "2 of 3" on the upper right corner, so NECCO is marketing these as collectables. What a joke.

Dig the sayings on the hearts: "LIVE 4 EVER." "FORKS." "TRUST ME." "ALWAYS." "BAD GUY." "U R MY LIFE." "I ♥ EC"

And, my favorite:

21 October, 2009

Chum Bucket Candy

I paid nearly two bucks for this tiny little tin of Chum Bucket candy at a little chocolate shop in Gloucester, and it was so disappointing. The label promised "Chum Flavored Candy" and the ingredients listed "artificial seafood flavor" which I figured would be as close to chum as anything else. Not true. The candies are sweet and "biscuity" tasting - kind of like stale Cheerios - but taste nothing at all like chum, or seafood, or for that matter fish of any kind.

Seems to me that manufacturer Accoutrements could have put a little more effort into this stuff. After all, Jelly Belly manages to get some pretty damn convincing and disgusting flavors with those Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans they make - Vomit, Rotten Egg, Sardines, and Dirt spring to mind as being very very authentic.

Resist temptation and pass these up if you see them.

20 October, 2009

Want a Little Pork With That Fat?

Seems to me I remember Gwaltney as being a fairly decent brand when it came to pig products. So when I happened upon Gwaltney bulk sausage at what I thought was a good price, I picked up a chub to see if it was still any good.

Well, it isn't. Good sausage should be at least 20% fat for the flavor and moisture, but it was pretty obvious from looking at the slices that Gwaltney has far more than that - it appears to be at least 60%. The slices fry up soft and spongy and release a LOT of grease - the one-pound chub I fried gave me a couple tablespoons shy of a cup of fat.

Although the flavor wasn't too bad - mildly spicy, a pleasant mix of sage and pepper and not overly salty - the overall cheapness of the stuff is going to keep me from buying it again unless it's on really deep discount.


Gwaltney's website.

18 October, 2009

Vintage Sunday: Wearever Aluminum Sieve

Sorry this post is so late...it was a rainy, miserable day today and I wound up spending the day in the kitchen instead of in front of the computer. That actually worked out pretty well, because my KP duty today directly inspired today's Vintage Sunday post.

Pictured at left: A beautiful old Wearever Aluminum Sieve. It has a wide funnel-like opening, and it tapers off into a perforated cone. this cone fits into a wide aluminum ring fitted with heavy wire legs, and with the sieve snuggled into the cone and steadied by gripping the comfortable, ergonomically-designed Bakelite handle, the sieve makes quick work of whatever soft material you're forcing through it.

I made braised short ribs and gravy for supper tonight, and that's just one of the uses to which I put my sieve. You see, I make pot roasts and short ribs and stuff like that the old-fashioned way: I roast the aromatics and the meat in the oven first, then add liquid and braise the meat. When the meat is just about done, all the roasted and simmered veggies go into the sieve and I use the conical wooden pestle to force the veggies through the fine mesh - allowing delicious braised veggies to improve the flavor and body of the gravy while leaving stringy bits, tomato skins and so forth in the sieve to be taken out and composted. The sieve is also great for making applesauce: cook the apples pips, skins, and all, then run the pulp through the sieve. The seeds and skins get left behind, and the marvelously smooth apple puree is ready to eat or can.

It's one of my very favorite kitchen tools, and it's one of the first things I unpacked when we moved to our new place a few years ago. If you do any food processing or canning, you'll find that one of these makes your life a lot easier. Check locally before you start searching online shops or eBay, though - online these go for upwards of $30 or more, but I picked mine up at a church rummage sale for 50 cents.

Lobster Price Update

Back in June, I wrote about the lingering depression in the lobster market, with live-and-kicking bugs selling in southern Maine hanging at $4.99 a pound, the lowest price in years. Well, we were back in the south-of-Portland area again on Saturday the 17th, and I couldn't believe how much lower prices have gone since then.

Boston dock prices (the price paid to fishermen) are as low as $2.50 a pound, with most lobsters selling for between $2.75 and $3.00 a pound. The retail prices in Maine, from Kittery to Scarborough, was $3.49 to $3.99 a pound.

For some reason, though, restaurant prices in the area aren't reflecting this reality. At Fisherman's Catch in Wells, for example, a twin lobster dinner was being advertised at the "market price" of $21.99. Sorry, but when I can stop at any lobster pound and buy 1½-pounders for $3.99 a pound, there's something not quite right with that story. (End of season or no, I suspect that the reason more people weren't ordering lobster on Saturday had something to do with the price.)

Earlier this month, fishermen were selling lobsters on craigslist at $3.50 a pound - driven there because that direct-to-diner price was still a dollar more a pound than brokers were willing to offer them. It's a great time to buy lobster.

17 October, 2009

Sol Maté Sparkling Yerba Maté Beverage

I found a few bottles of Sol Maté Sparkling Yerba Maté in Ocean State Job Lot last week and bought them, thinking it would be a nice change of pace. Their slogan, found on the neck of the bottle, is "Just Energy, No Jitters," which is probably a reference to the "rejuvenating" claims made about yerba maté as much as it is a statement about the lower caffeine content found in Sol Maté as compared to say, Red Bull or Monster.

According to a FAQ I found at Sol Maté's website, the beverage is made from steeped yerba maté, which is then flavored, carbonated, and bottled. This explains the drink's pleasant tea-like flavor: light and refreshing, with a gentle carbonation that the bottle describes as "sparkling." A pretty good description, actually, because although it's enjoyably fizzy, this is definitely not the stuff to chug before entering a belching contest (that's either good or bad depending on your priorities; you'll have to decide for yourself.)

There were several things I like about Sol Maté:
  • It's not overly sweet. To me, it tasted sweet enough for flavor, but not so much that it was cloying or syrupy. Turns out that there are 21g of organic sugar in the 10-ounce bottle, about half the amount you'd find in a can of cola (and about a third as you'll find in most "energy drinks.")

  • The light carbonation made it go down easy - it was a great refreshing chug after working all morning out in the yard raking and composting leaves.

  • The drink provide a pleasant "pick-me-up." It's got 60mg of caffeine (about the same amount as in an 8-ounce mug of coffee) and 6mg of theobromine (the primary alkaloid found in chocolate.) Also, if you're keen on antioxidants, a bottle of Sol Maté has about the same amount of antioxidants as half a cup of blueberries.

  • And even though it has nothing to do with the actual beverage itself, I really like the bottle it comes in. Heavy glass, with a thick base and gently tapered to the mouth, it's a cool retro design that makes me think of the old returnable bottles we used to get when I was a kid.


Sol Maté's website (uses Flash.)

16 October, 2009

Banquet Homestyle Grilled Meat Patty Meal

Our old friend, the Banquet Meat Patty, is back - this time without the smothering cheese sauce - in Banquet's NEW! Homestyle Grilled Meat Patty Meal.

Aside from the way in which seemingly off-the-shelf ingredients have been combined, there doesn't seem to be many "new" things about this meal. The "meat patty," now freed of the gluey vomitous cheese sauce, tastes pretty much like the standard Banquet "mystery meat" fare - a vaguely oniony-seasoned, oversalted combination of beef, perhaps some pork, and certainly some textured vegetable protein - is practically identical to their "salisbury steak" patty. The sporty grill lines are new, though. I wonder how ConAgra gets them there? Screen printing? Minimum-wage factory worker with a paintbrush and a bucket of Caramel Coloring? The thick, tough, chew-resistant noodles are definitely familiar: I'll never forget them from the Swedish Meatball challenge from several weeks ago. And, of course, there's the Beef Bouillon-flavored gravy in which all of it swims. That's so standard that Banquet probably converges a dozen different manufacturing lines under a huge gravy nozzle for a big splurt before sealing. All of which is to say that although the meal is a triumphant symphony of mediocrity, it's not entirely bad.

At any rate, the absence of the cheese sauce actuallly makes this particular meal a few notches better than its smothered cousin, and for a dollar or so, the Homestyle Grilled Meat Patty Meal will certainly satisfy your lunchtime hunger without grossing you out.

15 October, 2009

ALDI Deutsche Küche Meats

Mixed reviews (though mostly positive) for various selections in ALDI's Deutsche Küche line of meats:

Deutsche Küche Black Forest Brand Smoked Turkey Breast - Quite a deal at just $8.99, this turned out to be a three-pound boneless smoked turkey breast ready to heat and eat, or to slice thinly for sandwiches. Extremely high quality, solid meat with none of the nasty trapped air bubbles we sometimes find in cheap cold cuts, and less added water/broth/whatever than many expensive deli cuts. Lynnafred loves smoked turkey wraps and sandwiches so buying it at this price was a no-brainer. It was easy to cut off perfect, thin slices using a carving knife; I cut about a pound of slices at a time and kept them in a tub in the fridge, ready to use, and the turkey was delicious cut into cubes to toss into salads. A big hit. I'd buy this again in a heartbeat. Product of USA.

Deutsche Küche Black Forest Brand Smoked Ham - Again, $8.99 for a three-pound smoked ham; same high quality as the turkey, great flavor, perfect to heat and eat or carve cold for sandwiches. Just like with the turkey, I used a sharp carving knife to slice off a pound or so at a time for sandwiches and such. This ham was so much better than the pre-sliced deli meats we've found at supermarkets lately that it was hard to believe that the price worked out to only about three bucks a pound. I'd buy this one again as well. Unfortunately, ALDI carries this and the turkey breast only occasionally as "special purchases," so we just take advantage of the deals when they're available. Product of USA.

Deutsche Küche Nuremberg Bratwurst are small, breakfast-sausage-sized links of delicious white bratwurst. Highly seasoned with sage and coriander with hints of mace, these sausages were absolutely delicious. Another "special purchase." I was glad that I took a gamble on them and bought four packages; we were able to enjoy them at breakfast several times. Imported from Germany.

Okay, those were the good items (excellent items, actually.) But I promised a mixed review, so now we're going to consider the two less than successful items.

Deutsche Küche Smoked Bratwurst and Deutsche Küche Knockwurst are both American products; they're the same kind of oversized natural-casing cheap weiner product that every supermarket carries in various brands. There is absolutely nothing special about these. To me, they both taste exactly the same - like cheap-ass, byproduct-filled hot dogs - and have little, if anything, to recommend them. I'd love to go to a real German butcher sometime and get actual, real knockwurst and bratwurst, just to experience the real thing, which I'm sure is miles ahead of this tripe.

Totally not worth the price.

14 October, 2009


What could this be? An Eggo/Star Trek promotional tie-in? It's a good thing that I'm not one of those compulsive hoarders. These are Limited Edition Eggos and must be retained for all time for their collector's value. And yet...delicious waffles... I could see how the intense emotional conflict could bring about a mental "divide by zero" error and make heads asplode.

Did I mention that pictures of Mr. Spock figure prominently on these bitchin' Star Trek Eggos? That makes them...

S P O C K W A F F L E S !

Try saying that three times fast: "Spockwaffles. Spockwaffles. Spockwaffles. " I can't do it; I mess up on the "waffles" part every time.

Anyway, Spockwaffles don't taste any better or worse than regular Eggos, and they're not any more expensive than regular Eggos, but they are undeniably cooler than regular Eggos by virtue of having Spock on some of them.

OM NOM NOM. "Brain and brain!! What is brain??"


Kellogg's website.

13 October, 2009

Domo-kun At 7-11

7-11 is doing a promo: Coffee in a DOMO cup for 99 cents. They've also got some pretty cool-looking Domo signage in the stores.

Trouble is, the coffees are small, and the Domo cups are paper, and coffee is just as good and half the price at four or five other places within line of sight of most of the 7-11s in my town.

Now, if they were selling coffee in a reusable Domo travel mug for $2.50, I'd be all over it.

12 October, 2009

Foraging Suburbia: Wild Mushrooms

My back yard is not a perfect lawn. It's a "yard," with lots of weedy green things growing close to the ground along with the grass. I have to be careful when I'm mowing, because there are small stumps here and there, left behind from clearing brush and vines and other scrub that emerged when the house was vacant before we moved in.

About a month ago, I wasn't paying enough attention in one spot and hit one of the rottier stumps with the lawn mower. It cracked hell out of the stump and loosened it considerably - not enough to dig up, though - and it bent the mower blade bad enough that I had to replace it. And that whack also seems to have activated something in the soil, because late last week I stepped out into the yard and found a huge cluster of golden-brown mushrooms blossoming from the stump.

I am not a mushroom expert, but my friend Michael has some mycological knowledge, so we went into the yard together to check it out. He picked one, tentatively identified it as a Honey Mushroom - Armillaria mellea - and said it was "probably edible." After we did some Googling, Michael took a little nibble and reported that the mushroom was somewhat bitter and perhaps "not in a good way," and it turned out that both assessments were correct: Honey mushrooms are edible, but should be cooked before eating. And late summer/early fall is the peak season for them.

A day or so later, I picked a couple more, sliced them, and fried them in butter. They were pretty good - rich, like Porcini mushrooms, but with kind of a slippery surface and just a faint hint of bitterness behind them that came out near the finish. I liked them.

Unfortunately, I didn't pick any more that day, intending to get out in the morning and harvest enough for supper. But it was pouring rain, weather that lasted two days, and I never got out to the cluster. By the time I did, they were well past their prime, turning black and dumping spores. I picked a few anyway and set them on other stumps around my yard. Perhaps in the future, when conditions are just right, another bloom will attract my eye and we'll have honey mushrooms for supper after all.

11 October, 2009

Vintage Sunday: The Cracker Barrel Cook Book

No, not that Cracker Barrel.

This Cracker Barrel Cook Book has nothing to do with the ubiquitous chain restaurant. It was written as a fund raiser by the Ladies' Aid of the First Congregational Church of Newbury, VT in 1957. It's one of my favorite old cookbooks - a fascinating, sometimes quaint, sometimes bizarre collection of 1950's "heavy cooking," traditional New England fare, folk medicine, and household advice.

Here's a fairly typical traditional recipe from the book. To modern eyes this may seem to be a pretty strange recipe, but you should remember that "salt pork" on a New England family farm wasn't like the thick fatty stuff we have in the supermarket today. "A chunk of fat salt pork" would likely be a relatively lean cut taken from an area between the shoulder and the belly, with a generous amount of fat included:

Salt Pork and Milk Gravy

Take a chunk of fat salt pork and slice it ¼ inch thick. Cover with cold water and bring to boil to remove excess salt. Drain the pork and dry it. Then roll it in flour and fry slowly in hot pork drippings in an iron spider, if you have one. After it has been well browned on both sides, which takes about 20 minutes, remove pork to a warm place. Empty part of the drippings, leaving enough to make gravy. Add flour and stir, cooking until paste is brown, then add hot milk and stir smooth. Use ¼ cup pork drippings, ¼ cup flour, and ½ teaspoon salt to 1 pint of milk for a family of four.

"Spider" is a New England term for a cast-iron frying pan. Once upon a time, when lots of cooking was done over the embers in the kitchen fireplace, cast-iron skillets often were made with long legs that would hold the pan above the embers. I guess they bore enough of a resemblance to a spider that the nickname stuck. You can still buy leggy spiders today for outdoor and campfire cooking. The example on the right is available to order from Curt's Blacksmith Shop in Middlebury, Indiana.


10 October, 2009

Tasting The Famous Canned Cheeseburger

I first read about the Trek'n Eat Cheeseburger in a Can in 2004, and was instantly fascinated. Unfortunately, it's not sold in the United States, and the German company that produces them does not ship outside Europe.

Recently, however, my sister-in-law visited friends in Switzerland and came home with a special treat for me: a canned cheeseburger!!

Americans love their cheeseburgers. It is no wonder that this canned version - impossible for the ordinary burger aficionado to obtain - has achieved some sort of mythic status among American bloggers. Besides, if it were possible to equip your Zombie Apocalypse Shelter with non-perishable burgers, wouldn't you prefer them to MREs, sardines, and powdered milk? You bet you would. Let me tell you, though: the fact that Trek'n Eat doesn't distribute these things in the US is a gift to America. Canned cheeseburgers are foul. Think of the worst "convenience meal" you've ever had - even the Banquet Cheesy Smothered Meat Patty Meal - and the canned cheeseburger completely surpasses it for nastiness.

Opening the can revealed that the top bun, studded with sesame seeds, completely filled the diameter of the can. We gave it a sniff, but there wan't much aroma. Lynnafred poked at the bun a bit and found it to be surprisingly fresh and rather spongy, and not kind of dried and "day-oldish" as we thought it might have been.

Once out of the can, though, the burger was much more like you would have expected a canned cheeseburger to be: small, kind of flat, almost sullen-looking (if a burger could be said to look sullen.) The meat and cheese and whatever else might have been between the buns were invisible, because the bun was large enough to have encased the entire structure all around. We found that intriguing, and I tried to peel back the buns to reveal some of the burgery secrets that might have been contained within. Alas, the bread and cheese had more or less fused together during processing and it was difficult to lift the top bun without having it delaminate into crumbs. I settled for cross-sectioning it with a kitchen knife instead.

I cut the burger first in half to examine the components, then into smaller wedges so that my wife Maryanne, daughtger Lynnafred, and friend Michael could all have a piece. I could not have had a less appetizing-looking item in my hand if I were gripping a cat turd.

The meat patties - yes, there were two of them, stacked atop one another though sligltly offset - were greyish brown, coarse and gritty, with visible bits of...something...studded in there. The cheese had kind of seeped into the pores of the bun like a strange sort of dairy-based plastic sealant. I took a bite, and chewed...

...and spit it out. The meat was disgusting - it was like slices of horribly malseasoned, overcooked, adulterated sausage, at once pasty and grainy and rubbery. It tasted nothing like any type of beef (or even beef substitute) I'd ever had. It is beyond belief that whoever developed this horrid simulacrum of a burger has ever tasted a real cheeseburger. I can't imagine that they've even seen a real cheeseburger, though the possibility that they might have glimpsed a grainy, low-resolution thumbnail of one, from a distance, is plausible.

I took another bite, determined to get at least one taste down the ol' hatch. When all was said and done, the four of us had reluctantly managed to eat a little less than half of the cheeseburger between us. It must be said, though, that Zim thoroughly enjoyed the leftovers.

So. I have eaten a canned cheeseburger. An experience which no one will ever be able to take from me - as well as one I wish never to repeat again. I owe my sister-in-law bigtime favors for this one.

How about a closeup? I promise it was even worse in person.


Trek'n Eat Cheeseburger in a can website - The actual product website (English Language.) Be grateful there is no ordering link for the United States.

One last pair of pictures:

On the left, the product depicted in Trek'n Eat's catalog photo. On the right, what the actual burger looked like when it came out of the can. Not even calling that a "serving suggestion" forgives that level of bullshit.

09 October, 2009

Doritos Late Night Last Call Jalapeno Popper

I really love spicy Doritos, and these "Jalapeno Poppers" deliver. They start out with a cheesy tang and then the heat builds in - sharp and hot and noticeable.

The spice flavor isn't quite "grassy" enough for a proper jalapeno taste, but the fire is just right so I'll forgive Frito-Lay that technical detail.


08 October, 2009

The KFC Double Down Sandwich

Kentucky Fried Chicken's Double Down Sandwich has been on my Grail List since the day I first read about it. It's completely unlike anything else the Colonel has ever offered: two pieces of bacon, sandwiched between two slices of cheese, dressed with sauce and served between two spicy fried chicken breast filets. Yeah, the fried chicken is the bun. How awesome is that?

KFC is offering this sandwich in two test markets right now: Omaha Nebraska and Providence Rhode Island. Providence is but a short road trip from my pleasant little town in the Connecticut River Valley, so it was an easy decision to take a drive to Rhode Island in search of a Double Down Lunch.

Lynnafred, Michael Loo and I set out in the general direction of Providence staying primarily on scenic US6. As we crossed into Rhode Island, I punched "KFC" into the Garmin and let it guide us to the first one it found in the Providence area - a combo KFC/Taco Bell at a shopping plaza in Greenville (just north of Providence.) We pulled into the parking lot and Lynnafred noticed the sign in the window: "They've got 'em - check it out."

Inside, we found that most of the diners were eating from the Taco Bell side of the menu. I scanned the menu boards, but the only mention of the Double Down was on a stand-up sign by the register. We ignored the taco chompers and ordered our Double Downs.

First of all, allow me to give props to KFC, for creating a sandwhich that actually looks in real life like it does on the signs. Chicken, cheese, bacon, sauce, bingo. When we took our sandwiches out of their serving boxes, they weren't substantially different from the photo illustrations. That is pretty much a first since I started writing about fast food.

Okay. So, how about those Double Downs, huh? I can't even begin to tell you how awesome they are. The chicken was perfectly done - juicy and tender, and not a bit overcooked. The coating was spicy - loaded with lots of visible black pepper - but not overwhelmingly so.

The cheese used here was two slices of standard American cheese, not the Pepper Jack and Swiss that are mentioned on some signs. But the bacon was authentic, and the Colonel's Sauce was inoffensive.

At a little under five bucks for the sandwich alone, the Double Down seems a little pricey at first glance. But this is no small snack. There is at least half a pound of chicken here (actually, it felt like a little more than that) and the chicken, bacon, and cheese flavors combine so well that none of us were dissapointed (or hungry when we left.)

I've heard that Double Downs are flying out the door at some of the test locations. I hope that KFC decides to roll these babies out nationally. They're probably the best chicken-and-bacon sandwiches I've ever had, and I'd love to get another one without having to drive all the way out to Rhode Island to get one.

07 October, 2009

Fishy Delights 25: Roland Canned Sprats

Roland Sprats are lightly smoked little fishies packed in soybean oil, so similar to sardines that the difference hardly matters. As canned fish go, they're very good - the smoke flavor is subtle but distinct and the fish are scaleless, tender, and quite delicious.

These probably would have been better if they were packed in olive oil, but they would have been a lot more expensive as well. (These were $1.60 at Ocean State Job Lot.)

06 October, 2009

Goodbye, Gourmet

Conde-Nast has announced the closure of Gourmet magazine, a victim of falling advertising revenue in hard economic times as well as print media's struggle to remain relevant in an increasingly digital environment.

When I was a teenager learning how to cook in the early 1970's, my first influences were the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (the 1967 edition, still my favorite and most-recommended general-purpose cookbook,) Julia Child, and - believe it or not - Graham Kerr in his "Galloping Gourmet" days on PBS. Ha! I bet you thought I was going to say Gourmet, right? Nope. I didn't discover Gourmet until I was in my twenties, stacking magazines at the town recycling center, when I found a huge bundle of them from the 60's and 70's. I took them home just because I was fascinated by the cover photography and figured there would probably be some good stuff inside.

I was right. Gourmet was a treasure trove - travelogues, menus, recipes, cookware, essays and articles - even the ads fascinated me. It was kitchen and escapism all rolled into one, and it was written in such an easy approachable style that I sometimes wondered what was so damn special about "gourmet" cooking anyway?

Even though I thought the magazine had kind of slipped a little in recent years, I'm going to miss it. The recipes will remain accessible, online at epicurious.com, but it would be really great if Conde-Nast would digitize back issues by the decade and market the files.


Pickled Lamb's Tongues


Some time ago, I used to buy jars of pickled lamb's tongues. Made by Rogers, a company that put up all sorts of pickled "tavern food" like pigs feet, ham hocks, pickled eggs, and sausages, they were tender, ready-to-eat, fully-cooked lamb's tongues, packed in a mild vinegar brine and sold in one of the local supermarkets from the chilly area right above the self-service meat case. They were delicious, but when the supermarket closed, I was no longer able to find pickled lamb tongues. I never stopped looking for them, but eventually I found that Rogers Company went out of business a few years back, a victim of changing tastes and the general decline in demand for "tavern food." Dave Fazer of Long Lake Foods believes that Rogers was the last commercial maker of pickled tongue, and my own searching leads me to agree. Apparently, the number of people who ask at their local stores and who email Mr. Fazer looking for lamb tongues just aren't enough to make commercial production viable.

It's possible, however, to make your own.

I have years of experience in canning, meat processing, and charcuterie. I make my own bacon, sausages, corned beef, patés, and more. But I had never put up any pickled meats, so I started by searching for some kind of recipe or written technique that I could study and use - or at least use as a starting point for my own recipe. I pored through my collection of vintage cookbooks and books on charcuterie and meat preservation, to no avail. And when I turned to the internet, the search was almost as frustrating - most Google hits for "pickled tongue" lead to message board postings by people trying to find the commercially prepared product.

Finally, a search on the Chowhound message board found this thread, in which Chowhound user Porker shares his recipe for pickled pork tongue. Lamb's tongue is smaller, more tender, and cooks more quickly than pork tongue, so I made a few tweaks to the recipe - including scaling it to handle the ten-pound wholesaale box of lamb's tongues my neighborhood butcher obtained for me. But without Porker's help and the groundwork he did in developing his recipe, this recipe wouldn't have been such a success.

So, follow along with this step-by-step photo tutorial.

Step One: Curing

Because the tongues are going to be canned for storage, they need to be cured to help prevent botulism (the combination of curing, the acidic vinegar pickle, and refrigeration keeps the pickled tongue safe to eat.) Normally, curing with Instacure #1 (formerly known as Prague Powder #1 or "pink salt") requires about 1 ounce for every 30 pounds of meat, but because we'll be using a simple overnight liquid brine, we need a stronger concentration.

Make as much brine as needed to completely cover the tongues using this baseline:

12 cups of water
1 cup of pickling or kosher salt
6 tablespoons Instacure #1

For the ten-pound batch of tongues I prepared, I needed 3 batches of this brine (2½ gallons.)

Mix the ingredients for the brine in a stainless steel (non-reactive) pot. Wash the tongues under cool running water. Place them in the pot, bring just to a boil on high heat, then remove from heat, allow to cool to room temperature, and store overnight in the liquid.

Because I was processing ten pounds of meat I had to do this step in a 21-quart stockpot which would not fit in my fridge. So, when the tongues had cooled down enough to handle, I divided them between three one-gallon glass jars and filled the jars to the top with the still-warm curing brine. Then, off they went into the fridge for their overnight soak.

Step Two: Cooking

The next day, drain off the curing brine and discard it, and rinse the tongues.

Make up a batch of cooking brine using this baseline:

3 cups of water
1 cup of vinegar
1 tablespoon of salt
1 tablespoon of pickling spice

As before, make up as many batches as you will need to cover the tongues in the pot. Bring up to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer the tongues gently for two hours, until they are fork-tender. Drain the cooked tongues and shock them under cold running water. You'll notice that the tongues are covered in a loose yet tough membrane "shell" - this is the skin of the tongue and it has to be removed. Peel off the skins, and use a sharp knife to remove any roots, veins, and fatty tissues under the tongue.

The skinning process is very easy and although a little tedious will go quickly. When the skin cooks, it becomes hard and plastic-like, and most of the time will peel easily from the tongue. Once it's off, you can use the knife blade to scrape away any fatty bits under the tongue and especially under the thickest part, where you'll find fatty clumps and veins that you'll want to take out if only for appearances' sake.

With the tongues cooked tender, skinned, and ready for the final processing, you're ready to can them.

Step Three: Canning

NOTE: The USDA recommends that meats be canned using a pressure-canning process. I believe that the hot water bath process used here is safe because of the nitrite in the Instacure #1 and the acidity of both the cooking and the canning brines. However, I DO NOT KEEP THESE CANNED TONGUES ON THE SHELF AT ROOM TEMPERATURE, I KEEP THEM IN THE REFRIGERATOR AND I RECOMMEND THAT YOU DO THE SAME. I assume no responsibility for your actions in your kitchen; this is simply a chronicle of my own actions in my kitchen.

Wash your canning jars and prepare the canning brine: You won't need as much of the canning brine as you do cooking brine - only about eight cups or so. For this canning brine, you'll need:

4 cups of water
4 cups of vinegar
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp of pickling spices if desired (I skipped this because I just wanted a nice clear brine.)

Pack the tongues in your canning jars, leaving at least 1½ inches headspace (two inches is even better - the tongues swell during processing and if you don't leave lots of headspace the brine won't completely cover the meat.) Add brine to cover the tongues completely and within ½-inch of the top of the jar. Cap the jars and process them in a boiling water bath for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate 3 to 4 days before eating.

The ten pounds of tongues I process yielded eight 1½-pint widemouth jars of pickled snacks.

Special thanks for the info and encouragement from Porker at Chowhound, and to Anthony Caronna, my neighborhood butcher at Caronna's Market in Thompsonville CT, who was happy to get the lamb's tongues for me on special order. Caronna's, located on Pearl Street right next door to the yellow-brick art deco Thompsonville Fire Department, has been in operation since 1918.

PLEASE NOTE:  I know that many of you reading this blog post have been brought here by Google and Bing as you search for the commercially-produced lamb's tongues you or your family members once purchased at grocery stores.  Unfortunately, when the Rogers Company went out of business, pickled lamb's tongues became unavailable - they were the only company in the United States making them, and no one else has stepped forward to continue the tradition.

Because I enjoy pickled tongues and wanted to enjoy them again, I developed  and published this recipe to help those who are interested in the product make their own, in their own home kitchen, the way I did.  I am not a commercial supplier, just a hobbyist who likes to fiddle around in the kitchen.

If you decide to try making your own pickled tongues and have questions or want more information, please feel free to send me an email and I will do what I can for you to help make your job easier.  Canning anything is a little intimidating - canning and preserving meat products can seem overwhelming to someone who's never done it before.

Please do not write asking to buy pickled lamb's tongues from me. I don't sell them and I won't send you any. I wrote this post to help you make your own, and the only way you're going to get any pickled lamb's tongue is if you get off your ass and get to work.