30 August, 2014

Hometown Buffet, Manchester CT

My wife and I were driving through Manchester, Connecticut last Friday, kinda-sorta looking for a place to have supper, when we happened to notice a Hometown Buffet. When Lynnafred was a tyke, there was a Hometown Buffet in Enfield and Friday nights were Hometown Buffet nights. The food was not horrendous, little Lynnafred could always find something she liked on the steam tables, and - best of all - it was cheap to feed a kid there (they used to charge $1 per year of an under-8-year-old kid's age. Hell of good deal.)

Even though Manchester has a myriad of dining options, we decided to eat at Hometown Buffet for the worst of all possible reasons: nostalgia. We had no idea that we would soon be having a supper that was just one small step better than eating vienna sausages right from the can, with our fingers, while standing over the kitchen sink in the dark, crying.

There's no way for me to gently segue into a description of the food here so I'll just get right to it. The front and center table has always featured the Hometown Buffet staples: Meat loaf, oven-roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, mac and cheese, baked potatoes, yeast rolls, and cornbread. Mass-market mac and cheese is far too salty for my present tastes, which is just as well because the edges were drying out and slightly darkened as though it had been made a while ago and finally made it to the table. I took a chicken wing and a small scoop of potatoes which was an immediate cause for regret. The spuds had developed a skin and a long sheet of it lifted along with scoop. No gravy for me, either, since I couldn't decide whether to take some of the thick grey part or watery brown part. The meat loaf must have been pretty good though, because there were nothing but crumbs in the pan, and as soon as more would come out it was immediately scarfed up by hungry (and probably undiscriminating) hoards. In all fairness, the rolls and cornbread were decent.

A side table had other mains - baked salmon which had a strong chemical aftertaste, some kind of whitefish (might have been haddock but it was so thoroughly cooked that I couldn't even tell if it was organic matter, let alone what species,) fried fish of similarly indeterminate origin thickly coated with a greasy batter crust.

I was just sitting down to start eating when Maryanne said, "Don't eat with that fork." It took me a couple tries, but I finally found a fork and knife that I could wipe clean enough to eat with. This hygienic lack was not confined to utensils. At the beverage station, there were various spills here and there on the counters, and straw wrappers and napkins littered the floor.

Finding something to drink was even harder than finding a clean fork. I poured a sip's worth of iced tea so I could see if it was sweetened or not. I never found out, since the tea smelled as if it were brewed from used toilet paper. "Filtered water" must have been filtered though a jug of bleach. Perhaps, though, this is a characteristic of the water in Manchester because all the water-based beverages available had that bleachy chlorine flavor hanging over every sip. Luckily, there was chocolate milk. (In the background is a view of Maryanne's plate as she attempts more or less successfully to rip her cut-resistant chicken into bite-sized pieces with a dull knife.)

I was lucky enough to score a piece of Darkly Cooked Bread Triangle. I say "lucky" because many of the children there, mistaking it for pizza, were eating it as fast as it could be brought from the kitchen.

Desserts were no better. Bizarrely, the soft-serve machine left a dangling turd of ice cream from the nozzle no matter how hard customers tried to claim every bit of the treat as it extruded from the machine. Slices of cake were dry and crusty. A pan of apple cobbler looked like it had been served by beating it with a golf club. Maryanne and I tried some kind of
cheesecake that might have been an Elmer's Glue Chiffon.

Many of the staff were completely unprofessional, loudly chatting with each other about the drinking they planned to to after work as they were setting out food at the steam tables, customers milling around them. They made no attempt to censor any of their profanity-laced language, even around the kids. (A notable exception to this was the young woman clearing plates from our table, who was pleasant, friendly, and patient even to the most difficult patron despite being responsible for busing tables across half of the dining floor. We gave her a great tip. She deserved every penny.)

Maryanne and I were actually laughing as we left the restaurant. Not because of the awesomeness of the experience, of course, but because we were astounded that an eatery widely known for it's mediocrity could stay open at such a low quality level. I guess my grandfather was right: there really is an ass for every seat.

28 August, 2014

Fishy Delights 50: Galleon Sardines

Okay, so I'm reviewing yet another brand of sardines, helping you to find decent canned fish without having to open tins of gnarly, nasty sea creatures. This time around, it's Galleon brand sardines imported from Portugal, and they are pretty wonderful little silversided morsels.

While not the smallest and most delicate deeners to be found, at four or five to a can they are still a pleasant size and they are nicely cooked - not dry or mushy, but just the right texture.

This particular variety is lightly smoked and packed in olive oil. I have to say that the smoking must be very lightly done indeed because it is barely detectable behind the natural flavor of the fish. All things considered, though, Galleon is a fine brand, and I'll be buying more as long as the supply of them holds out at the local Ocean State Job Lot (a New England job lot/bankrupcy/discount chain.) Kind of a shame that I've only found them at Ocean State because that means when they're gone, they're gone forever.

The company that makes Galleon is A Poveira, a Portuguese cannery that dates back to the late 1930's and which has several different brands of tinned pelagic resources. Their web page is very interesting and shows off the various products they make, as well as documenting their commitment to sustainable fisheries.  

27 August, 2014

Loaves of Fear

There are few things I hate more than to slice bread and find a demon.

26 August, 2014

Lay's Potato Chips - FLAVOR DEATHMATCH

There are four customer-submitted potato chip flavors being marketed right now by Frito-Lay. The winner via popular "voting" will be chosen to join the official Lay's Potato Chip flavor line. The official name of this contest is "Lay's Do Us A Flavor Choose Your Chip Contest," but "Flavor Deathmatch" sounds a lot more exciting.

Anyway, we've tried all four flavors and here's what we think of them:

Kettle Cooked Wasabi Ginger - this one was the hardest of the four for me to find...either it's so popular that stores can't keep it on the shelves, or so few people want them that supermarkets won't reorder them. Based on the flavor, I really can't decide.

I expected a strong horseradish/mustard/ginger kick from these chips, but they're a lot more gentle than I thought they'd be. I didn't get a lot of ginger flavor (a note or two in the background) and the horseradish was limited to only a hint of the true power of The Root, with the strongest flavor element being vinegar. I think these will really appeal to people who like salt-and-vinegar flavored chips...as long as they don't mind a [small] bit of horseradish kick. The kettle cooking  is a plus; the hearty crunch is a great accompaniment.

Wavy Mango Salsa - Fruity and slightly spicy, Lay's has come up with a rather odd interpretation of mango salsa for these chips. "Mango" is way down the list of ingredients in the "Mango Salsa Seasonings" on the label list (third from last!) and it comes through as kind of a vague fermenty citrus flavor, almost like overripe pineapple than mango.  Red bell peppers, onion powder, and paprika round out the salsa taste. I can't imagine this flavor winning the challenge. On it's own, it's kind of disgusting. But it's a wavy chip, and that means it's made for dipping! Maybe Lay's intends this flavor to get obliterated by heavily-seasoned dips. Oh well. I'll never know, because I'll never care.

Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese - A flavor bulls-eye, and why wouldn't it be? Powdered cheese flavoring has been turning fingers orange for at least 50 years, it would be almost impossible for them to screw it up. Now, most "bacon" flavored stuff is pure garbage, relying on smoke and salt to try to fool your taste buds into thinking it doesn't suck. And I'm sure that one of the components of the "Natural Bacon Type Flavor" listed on the label is smoke, because once you notice it, it becomes almost the only thing you can taste. But there is a "meaty" quality to the chip flavor that powdered chemicals alone can not explain. Oh, wait, maybe it's the bacon fat!  Yes, Frito-Lay doses the formula with real bacon fat for that authentic pigmeat experience. In the end, though, it probably doesn't matter: long before the end of the bag, I had eaten a lifetime's supply and the chips were tasting more like Cheetos rubbed around an ashtray than Bacon Mac & Cheese.  Sadly, this flavor will probably be the winner, because there are countless people who have been mesmerized by the Internet Bacon Meme

Cappuccino - Right off the bat, I was impressed by the Cappuccino variety. If you like coffee, your mouth is going to water as soon as you open the bag, because a sweet and gentle coffee aroma will wrap your face in a comfy caffeinated quilt that beckons your taste buds.

And they only get better from there. Cappuccino chips have a lot of complex things going on in their flavor profile. Coffee, cream, cinnamon, and a buttery richness that made me check the ingredients panel (sure enough, butter is on the list.) While the taste can't ever be said to be truly "cappuccino," they have the same kind of umami appeal that salty caramel has - I swear, the human mouth is hard-wired to instantly love anything that is simultaneously salty and sweet.

I liked them best of the four, but I have to qualify that by saying that these aren't the kind of chips you pile up on a plate to keep your burger company. They're a true snacking chip, meant to be eaten all by themselves (or maybe with a simple, unadorned sour cream dip) later in the evening while you're stretched out in your recliner watching Law & Order.

25 August, 2014

Shortening In Bread

Most of the time when I make my own bread, I don't add any shortening - it's just flour, water, yeast, salt, and maybe some sugar or dairy whey to"feed" the yeast. That's not to say I don't understand why bakers put it in there - adding fats to the dough prevents the gluten from developing fully, so it gives the bread a more cake-like crumb and softer crust. It's very common for soft "sandwich" breads.

Commercial breads and those produced by supermarket bakeries often use shortening in their dough because that soft bread with a tender crust is really popular (just look at how many loaves of squishy white bread fly off supermarket shelves) and that's another reason why I always read the labels before I decide to buy something:

Finding "shortening" on the label doesn't bother me. I don't use it personally, but it's pretty much unavoidable unless you personally make every scrap of food you eat and that is impractical. But I will not buy anything using "partially hydrogenated" fats. Partial hydrogenation produces trans fat, period.

22 August, 2014

A Discussion of Fats, A Defense Of Lard, and an Amazing Biscuit Recipe.

Lard. Once upon a time it was the most common cooking fat in American kitchens. But it's been vilified for nearly a century now - bad for you, they say; causes heart disease, they say. Use shortening instead, it's made from heart-healthy vegetable oils, they say.

This is going to sound odd, coming from a guy who survived a heart attack and a five-way bypass operation but here it is: Despite its saturated fat content and the attendant bad publicity, lard isn't all that bad for you. It's actually less harmful than butter, which enjoys awesome press. And if you pay attention to labels when you buy it (or if you make your own) it's less harmful than shortening. One simply cannot make proper biscuits or pie crusts without lard, so it is important to understand how it compares to other fats and how, even after heart surgery, a dab of lard can be a good thing in the kitchen.

First of all, let me come right out and tell you that I don't use shortening at all. Although most shortening is made from vegetable oil and should, in theory, be "better for you" than some other fats, the reason why it stays solid is because it's been hydrogenated. You might be familiar with the huge flap a few years ago about trans fat and its proven direct link to heart disease. When vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated, it creates trans fats. Although vegetable shortenings today claim not to contain trans fats because they are fully hydrogenated, I still don't really trust them. To quote from University of California's Berkeley Wellness website :
Fully hydrogenated oils are being used as a supposedly healthier replacement for partially hydrogenated oils. But food companies often blend fully hydrogenated oils with liquid vegetable oils and put them through a process called interesterification. This changes the structure of the oil so that it performs like a partially hydrogenated oil without the trans fat. Sounds great, but we don’t yet know whether interesterified fats might have their own adverse health consequences. 
Read the ingredients list. If you see “partially hydrogenated oil,” that means some trans fat is present, even if the label says “0” trans fat, which is allowed if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams. Some products, such as Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening, contain both partially and fully hydrogenated oils. If the label just says “hydrogenated” oil, you don’t know if it’s fully or partially hydrogenated. Moreover, you can’t always tell from the label if a fully hydrogenated oil has been interesterified.
Also, shortening makes a softer and less flaky pie crust, so there.

Heart-friendly Olive Oyl.
I'll be honest, though: if I need a high-heat oil for stir fry, I use peanut oil. For the occasional deep-fried food, I use canola oil. And I always have a bottle of sesame oil on hand - it burns at a relatively low temperature, but just a dash of it added to the usual frying oil imparts a rich nutty flavor. And, of course, I use olive oil for all-occasion sauteing and stuff. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat (almost 75%)  and has a fair level of polyunsaturated fat (about 11%) and there are 760mg of Omega-3 fatty acids in every 100 grams.  There's a reason why it's considered "heart friendly."

But it doesn't make very good biscuits or pies. And let's face it, every now and then ya like to have a biscuit or a slice of pie.

Enter lard.

Yes, lard has a lot of saturated fat. At 39%, it's got triple the saturated fat of olive oil (but more than a third less than butter!) But it's also made up of 56% unsaturated fats and in 100g of lard you'll find 1000mg of Omega-3s. Compare that to butter, where the fat is 51% saturated and only 24% unsaturated. And while olive oil and shortening have no cholesterol at all, 100g of lard has only 95mg of cholesterol compared to butter's 215mg.

The fact of the matter is for an occasional baked treat, lard is a good choice for a shortening agent. It's not nearly as cardiocloggy as butter. (If you're making delicious biscuits, you might also consider rendered chicken fat for a shortening agent as well - the profile is very similar to lard, but with less cholesterol and more unsaturated fat.) But be careful: Most commercially-available lard contains, according to the labels, "Lard and Hydrogenated Lard" (these include brands like Armour, Morrell Snow Cap, and Goya.) This is why it's important to read the label. If you can't find locally-produced small-farm lard near you (or if you can't afford it, because let's face it, small batch lard is damn expensive) there are a couple of alternatives. Lundy's brand lard, for example, is refined but not hydrogenated and so is Hatfield brand. (In the Hartford CT / Springfield MA area where I live, you can find Lundy's at Save-A-Lot stores.)

All of this is why I believe that an occasional slice of pie or biscuit for breakfast is no real danger. Moderation is the key.  And truly, there isn't much lard in a single serving of a baked good shortened with lard. My favorite pie crust recipe, for example, calls for 1-3/4 cup of lard and makes enough for two double-crust pies. If you cut one of the resultant pies into 8 slices, each slice has less than two tablespoons of lard in the crust. That's not really that much.  And my favorite biscuit recipe, which calls for a bit more than half a cup of fat, works out to less than a tablespoon of shortening-fat per serving (though I admit you get a little more total fat than that what with the buttermilk in it.)

Best Buttermilk Biscuits

4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
5 cups flour
4 tsp salt (salt substitute may be used to reduce sodium)
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp lard or other fat (see note)
2 cups chilled buttermilk
Melted butter (optional)

Preheat oven to 475 F

Sift together baking powder, soda, flour and salt. Add the fat with a pastry blender until the flour is coarse and mealy-looking.

Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the buttermilk. Quickly mix the ingredients together until moistened. Add a bit more buttermilk if it seems to dry.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead only about ten times, until a ball forms. Pat the dough out to a 3/4-inch thickness and, using a fork, poke holes all over the dough at half-inch intervals. Use a 2-1/2 or 3-inch biscuit cutter to punch out biscuits (remember, go straight down with the cutter, never twist!) When you run out of room to cut more, gather up the scraps, pat it into a 3/4-inch thick pad again, and cut out as many more biscuits as you can. Arrange the biscuits on a parchment-covered cookie sheet and bake 12-15 minutes or until golden.

Brush with melted butter if desired while they're still warm and serve them up.

A note about the fat: You can use any kind of chilled fat for the shortening. I've made them with lard, drippings from a pork roast, and chilled rendered chicken fat. The pork roast ones were AWESOME.

Adapted from a recipe by Chef Scott Peacock via the New York Times.

20 August, 2014

Dog vs. Skunk

Zim is allowed on the couch when he hasn't been tangling
with polecats.
So I let the dog out last night and shortly thereafter the house started to fill with the smell of skunkfunk. Seconds later, the back door slammed shut and in ran the dog, circling around like mad and licking his muzzle (yeah, the dog knows how to open doors, so he was dragging the smell through the house before I could trap him in the bathtub.)

As much as he hated it, he got a deodorizing bath and now he's (mostly) skunk-free - but I didn't want to get the bath concoction in his eyes, so he's still a little stinky around the top of his muzzle.

If one of your domestic animals (this category includes kids) gets sprayed by a skunk, forget the old saw about washing them in tomato juice. Setting aside the fact that tomato juice doesn't work, think of the cost. You'd need like a dozen cans of that stuff to thoroughly bathe a dog/child. Instead, use this:

Anti-Skunk Dogwash

1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide
1/4 cup baking soda
1 tablespoon dishwashing detergent

Combine ingredients in a shallow pan and swirl around briefly until the baking soda is mostly dissolved. Apply it immediately to the dog, working it into his fur and giving him a really thorough washing. The combination of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda breaks down the chemicals in the skunk spray and renders them odorless, and the dishwashing detergent helps carry away the residue. Rinse the dog really well and if he's still funky, mix up another batch and do it again.

A couple additional tips:
  • Dawn dishwashing detergent is gentle and very effective for this. But if you don't have it, use what you've got. When your dog smells like a tear gas grenade just exploded at your feet, you don't have time to go running to the store for a special brand of detergent.
  • Try to keep the wash out of the dog's eyes. When I wash Zim's muzzle, I use an old sponge so I can keep the bathwater where I'm aiming it.
  • Mix a batch up fresh when you need it. Don't mix it up ahead of time! The mixture is not stable - it gives off gas when it's blended - and trying to trap it in a closed container will cause pressure inside the bottle to build until it explodes.

I finished Zim off with a peppermint soap shampoo. Now he's ashamed to go out and meet other dogs because he's afraid the big bulldog up the street is going to call him a sissy.

19 August, 2014

Hey There! How've You Been? It's Been Awhile...

<turns on the lights, peers around the room>

Anybody here?

It's been a couple years since I had a new post. I'm sorry about the absence, but I think I might be ready to start writing again. I want to start out by thanking those of you who sent messages to me wondering what had happened to me and to the blog, so I'm going to publish a FAQ here. It might run a little long; hope it isn't too TL;DR.

Q. Why did you stop writing?

A. I was tired. Like, really tired, all the time. I didn't have the energy to write much, and I didn't seem to have the inspiration I once had. Out in the Meatworld (as opposed to the Blogworld) I was keeping up with the work I needed to do, but I was wearing myself out more quickly than I used to (and that's despite losing about 125 pounds over the course of 2 years.) It just seemed like life was taking a toll on me, and the blog was just the first thing to give.

And then, early in May 2014, I was at the doc's for a scheduled cholesterol checkup when I told him about a fleeting chest pain I'd been having off and on. A few hours later, I was in the cardiac intensive care unit at a local hospital, on a nitro drip, awaiting an angiogram. On May 9th I had a quintuple bypass and began my second lease on life.

You see, heart disease runs in the family. My father died when he was 58. Most of his brothers went even younger. Although certain aspects of my lifestyle weren't exactly cardio-friendly, it really wasn't a matter of if I was going to have a heart attack, it was a matter of when.

Q. Why are you writing again?

A. After the surgery and the subsequent rehab, I feel a lot more like my old self - more energetic and inspired and ready to giddy up once again. And because I'm still grocery shopping and noodling around in the kitchen and finding strange and/or wonderful things out in the markets, I have things I want to share. So here I am.

Having the bypass has necessitated some changes to my lifestyle, as you might imagine. I use a salt substitute these days instead of salt. I've drastically cut down on my consumption of animal fats and in some cases just stopped eating them entirely (do you know how damn hard it is to not eat bacon?  Or sausage? And I have entirely given up butter! It's killin' me! Kind of.)

Q. So does this mean you're going to turn into one of those boring-ass health freaks who spend all their time bitching about gluten and pork fat and holistic eating and all that crap?

A. NO. I still cure and smoke my own bacon and bluefish and other meats. I still occasionally make sausage, and there is no way I'll stop making capicola and pies with homemade crusts. I will probably not be eating too many blocks of ramen noodles any more - did you know that a package of ramen has like 900+ mg of sodium? - but there are plenty of other cool things to write about that you might find interesting even if you're not being forced at scalpel-point to keep your arteries clear.

So thanks for coming back. I'll try to make it worth your time.