A tour of Saratoga mineral springs

My baker friend Tom turned me on to the Cooking Issues podcast of Dave Arnold, who is an artisanal cocktail maker in Brooklyn among many other skills. Arnold recently visited our fair city to sample and make cocktails from the ubiquitous and generally unloved Saratoga mineral springs. His visit prompted me to share how I torment my own out-of-town guests by inviting them to sip a dozen of these memorable waters over a couple of hours. Let’s go.

Geyser Island Spouter

Geyser Island Spouter in Spa Park. By Ryan Hodnett (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ll start at the Visitor’s Bureau (Broadway at Congress), where you’ll pick up a guide to the mineral springs. (You can also download it here.) Right across the street is Congress Park, where a number of outlets are clustered. (A spring consists of a pipe that descends into the underground aquifer, and a usually rusty and forbidding fountain where the water comes out.) Here you will find Congress Spring (named, as is the park, for an early settler who was a member of Congress) and Columbian Spring, which is a little joke by the city fathers that simply delivers our not very good tap water.

Before you leave the area, walk north across Spring Street to Hathorn Spring. This is generally considered to be the foulest of the waters, and it’s what Dave Arnold used to make his Saratoga Margarita. It’s so salty and metallic it has to be good for you. (The brochure says it’s “cathartic, diuretic, ‘grateful to the stomach’.” A few cocktails mixed with this stuff will definitely set you up.)

Now, make your way via car or bike to Spa Park for the Geyser Trail loop. The Geyser Island Spouter sits on a mound of tailings in the middle of a creek, and Arnold waded across to get a picture of himself drinking from it. You can stay onshore and sample from several taps, then walk the short (around ¼ mile) trail that takes you behind the SPAC concert pavilion (go during an event and you might catch a famous musician taking a smoke break) and up a slight rise to the Orenda Spring (source of some Martian-looking exudations you’ll pass on your journey) then back the way you came.

State Seal Water

Label for State Seal, Saratoga’s original bottled water

Just a short detour from the Geyser Spring parking lot, on the access road, takes you to the unmarked Polaris Spring. This one is said to be radioactive but I’ve quaffed here many times and never developed a glow. Now, back in your car, drive to State Seal Spring on Avenue of the Pines, opposite the Auto Museum which is the site of the original bottling plant. State Seal is the same product sold in the familiar blue bottles (which are now produced across Highway 50, in an anonymous facility that does not offer tours) and folks bring 5 gallon jugs to get it for free.

While sipping your State Seal (or the salty Geyser Spring water, available from a corroded tap in the same pavilion), you can contemplate the timeless nature of human greed and folly. The pavilion is named for Joe Bruno, a disgraced then partially rehabilitated Capital District politician, and a photo of him on an educational sign has been defaced in various ways. In the 1890s, a Scrooge McDuck-style villain hatched a plot to shut down this and all other local springs by siphoning out the CO2 to bottle and sell. Luckily, he was thwarted by Spencer Trask, a larger-than-life local hero easily the equal of Gyro Gearloose.

Two more springs worth noting are in and near High Rock Park just east of downtown. High Rock Spring is where George Washington allegedly nursed a hangover one foggy morning in 1787, mixing the mineral water with rum. Down the street at Excelsior and High Rock you’ll find the Old Red Spring. This water is said to have powerful properties for treating eczema (perhaps because it’s opposite a Superfund site, the former natural gas processing plant).

There are a few more Saratoga mineral springs left to explore, if you like, but I’ll leave you here because the Old Saratoga Brewing Company is right down the road on Excelsior. Here during tasting room hours you can sample other local beverages (including root beer for the underage) with a different but equally salutary effect. Air do shlàinte!

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How to hack your prime rib dinner

Prime Rib Dinner

My prime rib dinner, day two (except for Yorkshire pudding which needs to be eaten on the spot)

Last night I enjoyed a prime rib dinner at House of Prime Rib in San Francisco. This is a fine specimen of the genre, with long waits for tables and toque’d carvers rolling silver trays hither and yon. The concept is simple. You pay $45-50 which may seem like a lot or quite reasonable depending on your point of reference (a buffet in Las Vegas today is in a similar range; an unadorned steak at Salt and Char in Saratoga will set you back $68) and y0u get a large salad, a mini-loaf of Boudin sourdough bread, the meat with its juice, an enormous baked potato, some creamed spinach, some Yorkshire pudding and a tray of horseradish sauces at varying degrees of intensity.

Here is the key to a successful prime rib dinner. Order the biggest cut (which here costs just a few dollars more than the smallest cut), eat only what you want, and take the rest home along with the accompaniments for a second meal (and maybe third) whe the meat will be as good or better the next day. I always order the end cut (also called the baseball cut) which gives you the maximum amount of crusty caramelized exterior. Sometimes it’s a bit more well done than I like but this time I was lucky and the interior meat was medium rare.

I once worked in a prime rib restaurant and can tell you the formula is very simple. Buy quality beef and age it a bit so the moisture content is reduced. We’d rub with salt and pepper and cook in a convection oven to 140 degrees exterior temperature (so the outside is well done, the center is rare) and that was it. Like any beef, it will taste better when allowed to rest instead of immediately after it is sliced.

You can reheat your prime rib dinner, or eat the meat cold by itself or sliced for sandwiches. You can also cut it into 1-inch cubes and sauté with a little butter, garlic and wine and serve over potatoes. We used to do this with the leftover roasts at the prime rib place where I worked and make a house meal. We used vermouth for the wine because we had it on hand for Destination Shrimp.

By the way, how do I waltz in and eat immediately when others wait 2 hours or so for a table? Because I’m alone and I sit at the bar. I miss the hand carving and artistic salad tossing, but conversation with fellow diners (often quirky solo curmudgeons, like me) makes up for it.

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Food for thought: Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook

If you are going to get just one book on Texas barbecue, Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook is a good choice. Robb Walsh is an active but impartial reviewer of the turbulent smokehouse scene who has commented on this blog from time to time. He describes the basics of how to do it, organizes the content along logical story lines (pork is completely separate from beef, for example, as it should be) and doesn’t shirk from controversy (he explains the origins of the Kreutz/Schmidt family feud in Lockhart, for example).

And recipes! In addition to original guidance for cooking basic dishes, Walsh shares a number of recipes he has picked up in his many days on the Texas barbecue trail. Laura Novostad’s Confetti Slaw, which we modified to produce this version, is one good example. (The current edition has been updated with 32 new recipes… including Aaron Franklin’s Expresso Barbecue Sauce.) Like on Burnt My Fingers, he tries to keep the separation straightforward so you get a lot of good taste for a reasonable amount of effort. Check it out.

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Recipe: Two-Minute Cole Slaw

Two Minute Cole Slaw

Two-Minute Cole Slaw

One minute in express checkout line + one minute mixing ingredients = two-minute cole slaw. And it’s pretty good for the time invested. You do need to let it sit an hour or so before serving, however. Inspired by Laura Novostad’s Confetti Slaw in Robb Walsh’s BBQ cookbook; she told him she came up with the recipe because her Taylor TX diners were no longer content with canned peaches as the only side dish. Serves 4-6.

14-oz package cole slaw mix (OR equivalent amount of shredded green cabbage/red cabbage/carrots)
1/2 c Wishbone or other bottled Italian dressing
A little chopped onion (maybe 2 T for the 14-oz cole slaw package)
Cider or white vinegar to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Method: Toss the cole slaw mix with the dressing then refrigerate 1 hour before serving. If you have a bit of patience, taste and add salt and vinegar if needed to round it out.

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Recipe: Buttermilk Cheese Grits

Shies Cheese Grits

Buttermilk Cheese Grits with Shiso

Cheese Grits are the traditional accompaniment to braised short ribs but when they’re made with lots of butter the net effect is just too heavy and fatty. So I cut the fat with buttermilk and added some shiso leaves for contrasting bitterness. Serves 4-6.

1 c polenta or yellow or white corn grits
3 c water (approximate)
1 c buttermilk
2 T butter
½ c or more grated sharp cheddar cheese (variations welcome as long as the cheese has some personality to it)
1 t salt
½ t ground pepper (black or white)
2 T or more shiso, basil, mint or other bitter herb, chiffonade

Method: Bring 2 c water to boil with salt and add polenta. Simmer until it begins to thicken then add butter, cheese and pepper. When cheese is melted add buttermilk. Watch closely and stir frequently as the mixture continues to thicken. Taste after 5 minutes or so to confirm the grits are smooth and flavorful, not at all crunchy. Add more water/buttermilk/cheese/seasoning if you like and continue simmering.

Finished grits should be thick enough to stick to spoon instead of dripping off, but not thicker; they will continue to thicken a bit after you turn off the heat. Just before you serve, mix in the shredded bitter herbs.

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Recipe: Kentucky Short Ribs

Kentucky Short Ribs

Kentucky Short Ribs with Buttermilk Cheese Grits and a side of milkweed*

Why Kentucky Short Ribs? Because instead of a regular flour dredge, I used the leftover 11 herbs and spices mix from the KFC Chicken recipe. Otherwise, this is a classic prep that will bring out the best in these succulent body parts. Allow 1 large rib per person (3/4 lb).

Ingredients to serve 4:
3 lbs short ribs
½ c KFC mix for dredging OR ½ c all purpose flour mixed with 1 t salt and ½ t black pepper
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1 c red wine
3 bay leaves
Few sprigs fresh thyme (optional)
½ lb mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Method: heat oil and 1 T butter in a dutch oven; sauté onions and garlic until soft then add carrots and cook for a few minutes. Reserve the vegetables in a bowl. Dredge the short ribs in flour mixture and brown the ribs, turning until all sides are nice and crisp. Do this in batches if necessary. Pour off excess oil, then return the vegetables to the pot and add wine, bay leaves and optional thyme. Cover and cook 1 ½ hours over low heat or until meat has started to pull away from the bone and is very tender; add water as needed to make sure you have a good amount of liquid at the end.

Meanwhile, sauté mushrooms in 1 T butter. Add to the short ribs about 15 minutes before servings so the flavors can merge. Serve over polenta, grits or other starch to soak up the delicious gravy.

*Yep, the milkweed’s back. A late season second crop came up in my yard so I grabbed a bunch of the young tender shoots and sautéed them up like this.

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Five most popular non-recipe posts on Burnt My Fingers

We have a few big shifts in these guys as we celebrate our fifth anniversary.

  1. What’s the best flour for baking bread? Yes, that’s a good question and we answer it along with an explanation.

  2. The sauce that made Mr. Durkee famous. The current owner of the brand is not interested in its history but our readers certainly are.

  3. Why I’m not buying a Sansaire sous vide device. The alternative device I recommended has long since been discontinued, but folks keep coming back for discussion. Be sure to read the comments.

  4. Turkey Joints from Nora’s of Rome, NY. A secondary mission is to explore the quirky food traditions of upstate New York, where your correspondent spends most of his time. I made a detour on a bitter cold day and got some, but not all, of the story of this esoteric candy.

  5. Stuff to Buy. This page provides Amazon links to some hard to find or especially handy kitchen items which we use on a regular basis. We get a small commission if you end up ordering them, which helps pay for the pixels.

Also, these didn’t make the top five but get honorable mention for orneriness of the commenters. Check out Can Barbecue Be Racist? (I knew that title would be like squirting lighter fluid on a raging fire) and A Long Strange Trip to the Perfect Pickle.

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Is it okay to eat in the car?

If you are a regular Burnt My Fingers reader, you’ve surely asked yourself this question at one time or another: Is it okay to eat in the car? Of course, we’re not talking about a handful of chips or nuts, but that bahn mi sandwich or sack of lengua tacos you planned to spread out on a table at home but it smells so good, right now.

Although I tear into most foods with atavistic vigor, I try to bring a little brainpower to bear on this conundrum. Instant gratification is great: I’m the kid that always chose one cookie now vs two cookies later in the Emotional Intelligence exercise. (If they weren’t so good you had to have them immediately, why would you want them?)

But I often like to adjust my foodstuffs once I get them home—add condiments, and so on. And it’s a more profound eating experience when you can concentrate on the food and not be distracted by the whizzing cars to your left and right and ahead and behind you (which you’re supposed to be paying attention to, actually). And the biggest concern of all: I might spill something on the floor and thus not get to eat the ultimate morsel of the meal.

I have a practical friend, an art director, who solved that last problem when she was spending many hours on the road visiting clients in Southern California. She put a great big honking beach towel in her car. Spread it out before you drive and all crumbs will be caught for examination at the next stoplight. And as a bonus, you don’t get grease stains on your pants or skirt—something that’s important to some people, though perhaps not to us.

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Silly about shiso

Scallop Crudo with Shiso

Scallop Crudo with Shiso

Shiso is an aromatic bitter herb with a flavor profile in the same ballpark as mint and Thai basil: metallic, sharply sour but with a hint of sweetness, and an underlay of smoke or maybe cinnamon. The big (3-4” across) shiso leaves are perfect for wrapping around a wad of rice or fish as is done in sushi restaurants; it’s a natural with uni. Shiso is also called the “beefsteak plant” because its feral flavor makes some think of a rare piece of beef.

Shiso Bush

My shiso bush

I love shiso and couldn’t get enough of it, until I ended up with two productive shiso plants in my back yard. They were about to go to seed and I’ve been scrambling to find creative ways to use it up. Rule of thumb: anything fishy tastes great with shiso. For proof, buy a few leaves at a Japanese market, cut into chiffonade, mix with scallops that have been sliced into thirds and add some good olive oil: you’ve just made scallop crudo with shiso. Those store-bought leaves are pricey so, if you like what you tasted, make plans to plant shiso plants next spring.

Here’s another rule: it’s safe to experiment with shiso in any recipe that calls for basil, as a 1:1 replacement by volume. The other night I stuck a few chopped leaves in a grilled cheese sandwich for a tart flavor accent. And I mixed some shiso leaves into cheese grits to serve with some nice short ribs.

Grilled Cheese Shiso

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Shiso

Just when I was running out of ideas, I ran across the Culinarius Eugenius website and a recipe to make salt shiso pickles. Pickled shiso? Why not. That’s what they do in Korea with perilla, shiso’s cousin. The remaining leaves were pressed into a jar, each sprinkled with a few grains of salt, and are now tucked away in the back of the refrigerator as they cure. Now the plants are starting to flower and I’m planning to harvest a few seeds for next year.

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Our top five recipes (2016 edition)

Three bean salad KFC style

Three bean salad KFC style (plus bonus garbanzos)

This month marks the fifth anniversary of Burnt My Fingers. Thanks for sticking around! As is our custom, we’re reporting the top five recipes measured in page views over the last year. Actually there are six because I have a little trouble believing the stats for #5.

#1. The Colonel’s KFC Three-Bean Salad. And why not? If the Colonel no longer serves it, we will… and we just might improve it with some bonus garbanzo beans.

#2. Vincent’s Garlic Cole Slaw. Sadly, the last Vincent’s seafood restaurant in Plano, TX closed this year, so the only way to get this reeking ambrosia is to make it yourself.

#3. General Tso’s Shrimp with Garlic Sauce. This is a home-grown, from-scratch recipe originated right here, as we attempted to duplicate the Spicy Garlic Shrimp at Taiwan Restaurant on Clement in SF and ended up with something much better.

#4. Squash Casserole a la Highland Park Cafeteria. Great to see there are so many lovers of this Texas classic, as well as the HPC itself. (Although I did get a comment this year from a former HPC employee who said our recipe was different than how they make it at the cafeteria.)

#5. Pickled Tripe. Really, people? I suspect hackers in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania, even though I thought they were not supposed to use electronic gadgets.

#6. Fried Calamari Chinese-Style. The only thing better than Italian-style crispy fried squid is Chinese-style, where you get bonus fried chili rings mixed in.

Happy anniversary to us. Wonder what the list will look like next year?

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