30 September, 2014

Aldi's Deutsche Kuche Bavarian Brand Wieners

Here's another one of those "rotational" items that cycle in and out of ALDI stores now and then: Deutsche Kuche Bavarian Brand Wieners. They're decent natural-casing wieners made by Specialty Sausage Co. LLC (Bobak Sausage Co.) in Chicago.

My favorite way to enjoy natural-casing dogs is to steam them; it plumps them up as they heat and coaxes the buns to a delicate pillowy softness.

Don't look for any kind of assertive frankfurter flavor in these wieners. They're made of pork and veal, gently seasoned with black pepper, and lightly smoked. The flavor profile is similar to that of a high-quality veal luncheon loaf, smoked. Not too bad. I would certainly recommend them, especially if you're lucky enough to get them at the end of the sale cycle when the store starts discounting items to get them off the shelf (you might not want to wait that long for these because I bet they don't last that long.)

The somewhat bland nature of this dog lends itself to topping. Chili sauce was pretty good (the smoke was a nice compliment, and the veally flavor came through nicely) but the kraut and mustard pictured above might have been too over-the-top - the sharp tastes of the mustard and kraut totally overwhelmed the rest of the combo.

28 September, 2014

Homemade Dog Treats

Have you ever given your dog those dried chicken strips for a treat? Dogs go crazy for those things. My dog Zim (seen here flapping his lips by hanging out the sunroof of the car) would do just about anything for a bit of dehydrated chicken.

There are two big problems with store-bought dried chicken treats, though: they're mad expensive and - far more importantly - lax production standards in China, where so many of the treats are made, result in products that can potentially kill your dog. I stopped buying imported animal treats several years ago when word first started circulating about the problem, and it hasn't gotten any better since.

Luckily, there is a huge supply of dog treats available to you at an extremely reasonable cost of time and treasure, and you need look no further than local supermarkets.

The answer is right there in the poultry section. The raw materials are inexpensive, dehydrate quickly with little risk of spoilage, have an insanely long shelf life at room temperature once they've been processed, and are not only low in fat but provide your dog with calcium. And they're crunchy as hell, which seems to be really important to dogs - if you've ever seen the way a teething puppy crackles an empty water bottle, you know how much dogs love stuff that crunches between their jaws.

I'm talking about chicken feet, or "chicken paws," as I've seen them hilariously packaged. They start out being low in moisture, consisting mostly of skin, tendons, and bone, so they dry well and keep a long time. While most everyone knows that you're not supposed to give dogs cooked chicken bones because of the danger that they'll splinter, that doesn't apply to raw bones, which help provide dogs with essential nutrients which their canine guts are especially keen at extracting. These treats aren't cooked, they're dried, so they're safe. And of course, they're not made in some anonymous Chinese industrial plant so you know exactly what your dog is eating.

The first step is to acquire a few pounds of chicken feet. Most of your suburban white-bread supermarkets will not carry them, so seek them out at more urban or ethnic locations. Asian markets are ideal, and usually the least expensive. When I make these (which is at least once every couple of months since I always give some away to friends with dogs) I try to get two heavy packages of them, five pounds or so.

Chicken feet are rather cool and prehistoric-looking with big nails and scaly reptilian skin. And there's usually tendons sticking out of the cut ends. If you hold the chicken foot in one hand and pull on the tendons with the other, the toes will curl like some kind of gruesomely beckoning marionette. [My grandmother once told me that when she was a girl, she would take one of the feet of a freshly-killed chicken and do exactly that with it, chasing her squeamish and screaming older sister around the house with the monstrous gripping claw.]

Anyway,  once you get the packages home, open them up and give them a rinse. If you have a child around, show them how those tendons work - the kid will be fascinated and horrified and probably want to try it themselves, and you should let them as long as you have them wash their hands when they're done, because it's fun.

Okay, so that part about kids and tendons is optional, but rinsing shouldn't be. Rinse them off and then pat them dry. Then, using kitchen shears, cut off the toenails. If you cut straight through the toe at the base of the nail, you'll go right through a joint and it's easy. If you cut through bone, it's still easy, it just gives a bit more resistance. I take the nails off, even though I just told you a few paragraphs ago that raw chicken bones are okay, because they're sharp. Most of the nails are like needles, and they don't get any blunter when they're dehydrated. So just to be safe, I remove them.

Next, I arrange them in single layers on the trays of my dehydrator. It's okay if they touch, but you don't want them packed tightly against each other because they need room for air to circulate around. Use as many dehydrator trays as you need, put the cover on, plug it in, and let it do its magic. I rotate the trays bottom to top once or twice a day.

After three days, open up the dehydrator and check them out. They should be totally dry to the touch and rather stiff. If they feel at all pliable and leathery, they're not ready.

It usually takes three or four days for them to all dry out. You'll have a large enough supply for at least two months, feeding your dog one of these treats twice a day or so, and trust me he'll love them.

When you buy dehydrated chicken feet ready-to-eat online or at retail stores, they can cost as much as $45 a pound (they're often put up five or six to a package and that package costs up to 10 dollars!) I buy the feet for $1.29 a pound around here, so for six or seven dollars I make a bag full of them that would retail for about $75.

PS: If you're really lucky, you can find duck feet as well as chicken. They're a little meatier and more substantial than chicken feet, but you process them the same way. Usually they run about 20 - 25 cents a pound more expensive than chicken feet; you'll have to decide for yourself if that's worth it.

Where to find a dehydrator:

You can get one at many Walmarts or hardware stores, in the canning section. You can spend a couple hundred dollars on these things, believe it or not, but you can also order one inexpensively on Amazon. Or you can do what I did and pick one up at a church rummage sale or estate sale. Many people buy one, use it a couple of times, and then get rid of it. I've bought three or four of them secondhand like that, all the same make, and put the trays together to make one bigass dehydrator for making dog treats, jerky, dried herbs, and so on.

25 September, 2014

The Big E 2014 - Observations and Reviews, Part 2

The Eastern States Exposition runs for 17 days every September, and it's a big, raucus event. I could file a blog post about it every day (if I went every day - as it is, I head over there at least a couple days a week during the run.) After the first couple of times, I'm no longer visiting the usual attractions, I'm noticing things.

One of the unsung benefits of attending a state fair really early in the morning is that you get to experience perfectly spotless unused Port-A-Potties. Seriously, check out that sparkling toilethole there. This is the first time in my half a century on earth that I've looked down the hatch and seen nothing but pristine blue poopeater. I got goosebumps. Or maybe piss shivers, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed the overcooked nastyburgers found at Yankee Boy. They're still there, behind the Better Living Center by Gate 9. Apparently kangaroo is off the menu, but now you can enjoy a camel burger if you are so inclined. I know better than to order anything here.

Here's a peek right by Yankee Boy's corrugate compactor. Apparently, they're sourcing their burgers locally from Arnold's Meats, a wholesale/retail supplier. I often buy from Arnold's, and I trust their quality. They're one of the few places around here that still grinds their own burger meat instead of bringing in chubs of industrial mince.

So the culinary horror show at Yankee Boy most likely originates at the grill.

The purpose of an apostrophe is to alert the reader
that the word they are reading will end with an "s"

One day, just inside Gate 9A, Post Foods set up a Cereal Tent! They were giving away samples of many of their cereals along with dollar-off coupons for use at the grocery store. I tried some old favorites like Honey Combs (they still taste like honey, but the cereal bits themselves are a lot smaller than I remember) and some new ones, like Mini Cinnamon Churros (deliciously similar to the competitor's Cinnamon Toast Crunch.) The tent was drawing a steady stream of curious customers, most of whom were old farts like me - not really the target market for stuff like Fruity Pebbles, Alpha-Bits, and Waffle Crisp.

Yuengling Beer, which has recently been returning to the New England market, has really become a presence at the E this year. Near Gate 9A on New England Avenue, Yuengling is running a "brew pub" tent featuring several of their beers on tap. While not boomingly crowded, the tent draws a fair number of people.

And they've turned up in a number of other food service areas as well, even in places I hardly would have expected. Like here, at the Matunuck Oyster Bar, the featured beer is Yuengling. I would have expected them to be carrying Narragansett, which is made right in their Rhode Island back yard.

Another very popular feature is the new Wine & Cheese Barn. you'll need an ID to get in, seein' as there's alcohol and stuff. There's also a long line to get in. Looking at my photo there, you'd probably think that there are only a couple of people ahead of you...

...but alas, the actual tasting area is all the way at the back of this mostly-empty building. Bring your 3DS to kill some time while you wait in line. I moved about three feet in half an hour before I decided that I could go to the liquor store and buy full bottles of wine for the price of my time at prevailing labor rates.

Photo courtesy Eastern States Exposition
The Coliseum is the central building of the Eastern States Exposition; events here were originally the main attraction of the fair in the early part of the 20th century and the other buildings and events gradually grew up around it.

This is an interior view. For fifty years, there was ice plant under the floor and for many years, the Coliseum was the largest ice hockey venue in Western Massachusetts. Growing up, I watched the Springfield Indians (AHL), New England Whalers (WHL), and the Hartford Whalers (NHL) play there (the Hartford Whalers made the Coliseum their home-away-from-home for a short time after the Hartford Civic Center roof collapsed during the winter of 1977-78.)

My favorite events there when I was a kid, though, was the roller derby. Forty years later, I can still remember how much fun that was.

At the far western side of the fairgrounds, near the New Hampshire building, is a large brick structure called the Hamden County Building. It houses a sort of circus museum - a large number of intricately detailed little dioramas depicting traveling show life through the mid-twentieth century. My favorite part of the exhibit is the outhouse tent - catch it at just the right angle and you can see a little guy inside taking a dump.


The Big E 2014 - Matunuck Oyster Bar

In Rhode Island, the Matunuck Oyster Bar is justifiably renowned as one of the state's - indeed, even the country's - best oyster bars. And so it was great excitement that it was announced that they'd be opening up a raw bar at the Big E. While anything new is welcomed at the Exposition (existing businesses tend to become entrenched and the waiting list for new vendors to come in can often be years long) having Matunuck arrive at the fair was treated as an especially big deal, particularly by the local news media who went bonkers over the idea of a raw bar at the Eastern States Exposition! 

[To tell the truth, I was pretty excited by this news too - this is a New England state fair, after all, and we need more New England-oriented attractions and fewer stupid copycat crap attractions like the faux "Mardi Gras" parade.  Mardis Gras? Really? In fucking September??]

So anyway, I wandered by the oyster bar to see what all the fuss was about. The shellfish was nicely iced and looked pretty decent, and they were taking the time to shuck oysters as they were ordered to make sure everyone got the best experience possible. So I ordered half a dozen oysters for a light early lunch.

They were...okay.  Just okay. Nothing stellar, and I'm really glad I decided to order when I did, because when the fair gets crowded, there is a long queue at the ordering counter here and these oysters were, quite frankly, not worth an extended wait time. They were good enough for oysters trucked inland far from the sea, but also they were small, not very plump, and not very sweet or briny. Go to one of Matunuck's Rhode Island restaurants and you will have an awesome experience. Go to their Big E building and you will have supermarket oysters.

The condiments available for the oysters are low-grade standard as well - a slice of lemon and a cup of very bland and ketchupy cocktail sauce on the plate, and a bottle of unexceptional hot sauce at the pickup window for optional sprinkles. Horseradish was missing and very sadly missed - I would have take a big scoop of it just to mix with the cocktail sauce to try and kick up its Heinz 57ness.

Matunuck's auxiliary seating bench (a concrete flower bed.)
I'm also going to take this opportunity to bitch about the seating. Many of the food vendors (and restaurant operators) at the Big E take a crowd-oriented view of seating: they set out picnic tables in their areas and benches at the perimeters, and as folks order they find seats with strangers along with friends, kind of "boarding house" style. Sharing a space like this is common and traditional and it gets people, if not talking to each other, at least introducing themselves and exchanging a little small talk. Not at Manutuck Oyster Bar, though. They set out tiny little tables which can just about fit four people. Except a great number of couples claim tables in such a way that it makes it difficult or impossible for anyone else to sit and share a space, effectively cutting their seating capacity in half. The result of this misguided attempt at "intimate bistro seating" is that those unlucky enough not to find a seat are forced to wander out to the back alley and sit on the concrete edge of the flower bed ringing the New England Center building. There's a great view of the electrical transformer and the service area/trash barrels for the various food vendors. At least it was convenient to be able to just walk a step or two to throw away the shells.

24 September, 2014

The Big E 2014 - Observations and Reviews, Part 1

The Big E - The Eastern States Exposition - is a six-state state fair where all of New England is represented. It runs for seventeen days in September of every year, and I always try to spend some time there. Tickets are $15 for a single day entry, but for $40 you can get a pass that's good for the full run of the fair so that's what I usually do. I spend enough time there petting sheep, talking to goats, and watching cattle judging that the pass easily pays for itself.

I try to get there early - before 9:00 AM. Most of the exhibit buildings don't open until 10, so there aren't too many people wandering around first thing in the morning. Employees and vendors, mostly. The grounds aren't crowded, but they are bustling. Vendors and hucksters are tidying up their kiosks and trucks roll though with deliveries. Everyone wants to get their supplies laid in before 9:30 when vehicles are banished from the fairgrounds for the day, because anything that needs to be brought in after that has to be rolled in by hand.

I like hanging around the fairgrounds early, because I like to see how things work. There are usually a couple of boom trucks travelling around replacing light bulbs on vendor's marquee signs and crews are coming through toting supplies, making sure trash and recycling containers are set, and making other last-minute preparations.

One of the first places to open up is the West Springfield Fire House restaurant on the northwest side of the grounds between Gate 2 and Gate 4. They serve one of the best breakfasts at or away from the fair - two eggs any style, toast, home fries, bacon AND ham, with coffee, for just eight dollars. (Breakfast sandwiches are also available.) You pick up your food and pay cafeteria-style, and there are plenty of seats in the dining area (a lot of the seating is at big round tables where everyone grabs a seat family-style.) The breakfasts are generous, and I always make it my first stop. It's a lot easier to resist the lure of deep-fried state fair junkfood when there's a decent meal under your belt.

Next to open after the restaurants are the vendors. Many of them are happy to serve customers even while they're getting set up for the day, and by 9:30 or so they're already making sales. I found one cool place selling handcrafted glass spheres in various designs - including huge eyeballs.

Each of the New England states has a building dedicated just to them. Those buildings, highlighting the agriculture and selected industries of each state, open at 10. On our first visit of the year, we usually go to the state buildings right after they open, before the crowds start to pour in. We also make it a point to visit the agricultural exhibits in the morning.

By 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon, the fairgrounds are packed and the experience gets somewhat less fun. That's about the time we head for the car, leaving the crowd behind. It's nice to know that we can come back again when the "rush" is over since we have the passes.

23 September, 2014

Out of the Can: Grandma Brown's Baked Beans

Presenting Grandma Brown's Home Baked Beans. That old-timey can with the retro design sure looks innocent enough.

But Grandma Brown's beans slide from the can in a more or less solid mass.
Personally, I am not a fan of Grandma Brown's Home Baked Beans. They're pasty and dense and taste much more like refritos than baked beans to me.

This has got to be a regional thing. Grandma Brown's beans are canned in Mexico, NY, which is north of Syracuse. I know a number of people in upstate NY who love them, but I grew up with the New England style of baked beans, with their looser, saucier consistency and contrasting notes of salty and sweet. (You can find my recipe here.) 

22 September, 2014

Egg Barbies

I've got some plates with Barbie on them. I like them for eating hard boiled eggs with pepper.

18 September, 2014

The Big E 2014 - The Maine Building

I'm spending some quality time at the Eastern States Exposition over the next couple of weeks, so prepare for a bunch of "state fair" types of posts. Everybody writes about the bizarre deep-fried junk food at state fairs (even me) so I'm taking a different tack this time around and telling you about other cool stuff there is to do and eat at the E. This series starts off at the Maine Building.

Let's start off with one of the most bad-ass food trucks I've ever seen.  It's parked behind the Maine building and it's owned and operated by Pizza Pie On The Fly from Portland. It is a genuine Italian-made wood-fired pizza oven on the back of restored 1949 International KB-6. I dearly love both wood-fired ovens and old trucks, so eating pizza and chatting with the crew before the lunch crowd rush was the highlight of my morning.

Pizza margherita: cheese, fresh sliced tomatoes, fresh basil.
But I know you're more interested in the pizza than you are in the truck. Over the course of a couple of days, I tried a slice each of plain cheese, pepperoni, and margherita.

Once upon a time, I used to say that it was impossible to find a decent pizza in Maine. But if Ryan Carey's Pizza Pie On The Fly represents pizza in southern Maine, I might have to take that back.

All of the pizzas are decent, thin-crust New York-style pies - that is to say, they have a thin and tender but chewy inner crust and should be folded as you take your first bites. The portions are generous: about a quarter of a 16-inch pie. The cheese and pepperoni pies were very good and typical of their kind, but the margherita was really great. Since excellent field-grown tomatoes are still in season right now, I would have been disappointed if the tomatoes were lousy, but they weren't. They were fresh and plump and tasted like they had been picked that morning. Combined with the delicious fresh basil and gently melted cheese, it made for a great breakfast.

Pro tip if you try them out: Go at a busier time when the pizzas are really cranking out of the blazing-hot oven. Air temps at the fair have only been in the low 70s, and pizza cools quickly under an awning. If it's not busy, though, you might ask the guys to slide your slice back into the oven for a minute or two to warm up, and then you'll have a chance to talk to them about their own love of pizzas and old trucks.

And if you're at the Maine building and you don't want to stand in a half-hour line for a baked potato, you can stop at Sebastian's Smoke House for a piece of delicious smoked salmon (it's almost as good as my own homemade.) Sebastian's also sells Cap'n Eli's Blueberry Pop, which tastes like real blueberries, not like that artificial (but still delicious) Blue Berry flavor.

They've got Cap'n Eli's Root Beer there, too, and can make you a genuine root beer float if you've a hankering for one.

Other features of the Maine building include fresh wild blueberry pie, maple syrup and candy, lobster rolls (a great deal at $10.00) and a barbecue out back - across the patio from the pizza truck - serving wicked good pulled pork. And of course, there's that baked potato, which is pretty famous and will necessitate a wait in line.

Hickory Syrup Making Update

I've gotten a lot of emails from people having problems with their homemade hickory syrup crystallizing. So I've updated the page about making syrup to offer tips about how to prevent (or correct!) crystals in syrup. Clicking here will bring you directly to the new section about crystallizing.


17 September, 2014

The Sad Condition of Pastrami These Days

Remember back a few years ago, when you'd get pastrami at the deli and it would look like this? Nicely marbled, some strips of fat along the sides, and every thin slice edged with a wonderful crust of cracked black pepper and coriander seed.

And then sometime between then and now, "fat" became a dirty word because lots of people who were unable or unwilling to exert any self-control at the dinner table looked at the large-enough-to-feed-three-people sandwich they were holding and said, "OMG THIS MEAT IS FATTY AND THAT IS WHY I, TOO, AM FATTY," and demanded "leaner" pastrami.

Processing companies began making more pastrami from much leaner cuts of beef, like the round, instead of from the fattier underbelly cuts like the plate or flank. They kept the cure and spice blend the same, so it still tasted like pastrami, but the fat was gone and not only was the finished product dryer, it always tasted like something was missing. Real pastrami was still available, though, but over time it started to get harder to find. Within a few years, I found that if I simply asked the deli for "pastrami" I would be handed a package of that crappy "pastrami round." I had to specifically ask for "plate pastrami," or in some places with less-experienced staff, "the flat kind."

Apparently, though, having lean pastrami round isn't enough. It looks like the fat has been removed from flat pastrami. That stuff to the right is the pastrami I picked up the other day. I don't know what part of the cow it came from, but it sure wasn't the plate or the flank.Maybe they're using a brisket with most (ha, ALL) of the fat trimmed off. And of course such a lean piece of meat isn't going to have a lot of juiciness, so it's injected with a load of saltwater to add moisture. (It adds weight, and therefore cost to you, also - it means you're paying meat prices for water.)

I can't believe I actually paid $10.99 a pound for this stuff. Next time I'm going back to making my own.


15 September, 2014

Collaborative Bacon, Part 2

As you may remember from this post, Jess Watsky (Foodette) suddenly appeared last week bearing the two most important ingredients for making bacon:

  1. A pork belly
  2. A desire to make bacon
Curing the bacon took about four days, from Sunday afternoon until Thursday night when I removed it from the cryovac pouch in which it slept, gave the belly a rinse under cool running water and picked off any remaining spice bits. I set it on a few paper towels and patted it dry, and later I set it aside in the cool pantry  covered with a loose-knit cotton dishtowel. The idea was to age the belly, allowing more of the moisture to evaporate out of it before sending it to the smoker.

By the time Jess arrived on Saturday, the bacon was ready to go. The fat was dryer and waxy, and the lean had firmed and darkened in color.

For comparison's sake, I trimmed a few thin slices off of one end and fried them up crispy in a small skillet. Simple, unsmoked (or "green") bacon. The flavor was delicious: bacony to be sure, but with just a hint of the juniper berries and a slight sharp edge from the mustard seed. Jess' choices for seasoning were great. So I added a couple of meat hooks to the thick end, and we hung it in the smoker for a little quality time with some smouldering apple wood.

I set the fire in the smoker to low and started the chips. To prevent a big heat build-up around the meat, I set an heavy aluminum baker's tray above the burner. We kept the temperature very low (less than 200F) and left the side to hang and smoke for 3 hours.

After chilling the side for about half an hour in the freezer to firm it up a bit, I brought out my slicer and we cut it 18 slices to the pound. Because the side was on the small side, this was just right for moderately-thick slices. We made up 1-pound packages.

Jess was really happy with the end results. She's still got another side from that Berkshire pig. We're thinking maybe making some pancetta next.

11 September, 2014

Free Fries at McDonald's TOMORROW ONLY!

To celebrate National Potato Month, McDonald's restaurants in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts are offering FREE FRIES! On Friday September 12th, from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, just walk politely into a local Mickey D's and receive a free order of small fries.

10 September, 2014

Help Protect Net Neutrality

I'll bet you recognize that twirly thing up there. It's a "loading" symbol. It's designed to reassure you that something is actually happening behind the scenes when your computer isn't displaying the content you selected. 

Hope you enjoy it, because if big ISPs have their way, you'll be doing a lot more loading and a lot less looking, especially with small sites like this one.

08 September, 2014

Collaborative Bacon, Part 1

Photo by Foodette
Last week I got a message from Jess Watsky (aka the famous Foodette.) Seems she had a big ol' pile of pig meat which included a belly, and she was wondering if I could find some time to show her how to turn that belly into bacon.

But of course!

I had recently been enchanted by her recent foray into offal, a slow-roasted pig's head - the creation of which she detailed on her blog, Foodette Reviews.

Another photo stolen from Foodette
And that is how it came to be that on a fine Sunday afternoon, Jess, Lynnafred, Maryanne, and I gathered around my kitchen table with a propane torch, singeing the bristles off a wonderful Berkshire pork belly.

I prepped a bowl of basic bacon cure - 2 parts kosher salt, 1 part demerara sugar, 1 generous tablespoon of curing salt - in a bowl. We added seasonings: sweet Hungarian paprika, freshly cracked black pepper, mustard seed, juniper berries and home-grown bay leaves crushed in a mortar.

And then Jess and I donned food-service gloves and gently rubbed the salt mixture into the pork before vacuum sealing it into a plastic time capsule not to be opened until Saturday.

Photo by Dave. For a change.
The salt had already started working its magic by Sunday night. Every now and then I'd take the package out and massage it a little. As the salt draws moisture from the meat, a brine forms in the bag. Although it had only been a few hours, a noticeable brine was already pooling up the the spaces by the meat.

Join us later in the week as we continue the adventure.