Jake’s Famous Barbecue Sauce… good enough to pour on my meat!

Jake's Famous sauces

The Jake’s Famous lineup

Of the hundreds of products I tasted at last month’s Winter Fancy Food Show, Jake’s Famous barbecue sauces really stood out. His Asian-inspired Blue Oak reminded me of the complex espresso sauce provided at the legendary Franklin’s in Austin. It was one of the very few sauces I’d gladly put on my meat (though not use for mopping). And Jake was kind enough to send samples to test.

BBQ tasting setup

My barbecue tasting setup

I procured a tray of pulled pork and a tray of brisket from Park Side Eatery, an excellent local establishment that has an indoor smoker so is able to deliver barbecue in the dead of winter. Cheap buns and sides of cole slaw and baked beans* were set out as accompaniments, then I invited in my tasters.

Blue Oak BBQ sauce

Blue Oak

Judging time. Blue Oak scored well, though I may have stuffed the ballot box to bring it to the top. It’s what hoisin sauce might taste like if it had been invented in Texas. Ingredients include soy sauce, mango puree and ginger on a flavor base of tomato sauce and molasses. (By the way, Jake told me the name might change to better reflect the Asian influence.) This is a must-try in my opinion.

Memphis Blues BBQ sauce

Memphis Blues

The runner up was Memphis Blues. It’s Jake’s only sauce that has mustard ahead of tomato in the ingredient list, but it’s still darker and more robust than the watery yellow mixtures often poured on pulled pork. That’s its primary application, but it’s sturdy enough to use on beef as well.

Texas Medium BBQ sauce

Texas Medium

We really liked the Texas Medium Hot, which is a great all-purpose sauce with just enough kick. This is what I’d put on my brisket. It doesn’t contain cumin, which I consider a hallmark of a Texas sauce, but is very well balanced without it.

Maple Bourbon got mixed reviews. It’s as complex as the Blue Oak but some felt the flavors didn’t come together as well. I want to try this mopped onto some ribs where I think it will mingle with the meat and smoke flavors and produce a standout result.

Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce

Maple Bourbon

There’s also Original Mild Southern which was pleasant and closest to what most people think of as a jarred barbecue sauce, but with better ingredients; and Really Hot that really is, to the point where I almost don’t recommend you use it on its own. (Southern barbecue places often offer a “mixed” sauce, combining mild and spicy.)

Except for Memphis Blues, molasses is the key to the flavor profile. That’s good if you like this bittersweet ingredient as I do, but it’s not for the raised-pinky set. When you pour Jake’s sauce on your meat, some serious business is going to happen.

There’s not a drop of high-fructose corn syrup, the favorite ingredient of grocery store sauces, yet Jake’s has plenty of body with thick tomato sauce and bits of ingredient (I like it that he did not puree it to a uniform liquid).

So, where can you get these elixers? Start by going to Jake’s “locations” page  to see if there’s a retailer near you. Distribution seems to be mostly in the west with a bit in the south, including Austin-based Central Market.

If you live in the frozen boondocks like I do, you’ll have to order direct.  At present there’s a relatively hefty shipping charge, which Jake says simply passes on his own cost and he’s working to negotiate discounts with the shipping companies. Relative to other costs in life, I think it’s worth a few extra bucks to try what may be one of the best jarred sauces on the market.

Disclosure: I was provided free product for my review, but no other form of compensation.

* By chance, I bought a can of B&M Bacon & Onion Baked Beans. Not bad at all. The first canned beans I have tried that did not demand extensive doctoring with dried mustard, Worcestershire, brown sugar and cider vinegar, though those ingredients woudn’t have hurt.

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The Saratoga Beer Week curmudgeon

Sour Beer Event

Brendon Knight of B United, our tour guide at the Sour Beer event

I was going to write a snarky article about Saratoga Beer Week, just concluded, after finding this post from the very first Beer Week in 2012. Then, the organizers were worried that no one would come to a beer event in the middle of winter. Tickets for the “Beer Summit” were maybe $30 and there was a Groupon to reduce that by half. Now, the tasting is $50 to sample the same brews I can get every day at my local beer store.

However, as Yogi Berra might say, not only did nobody go because it was too expensive, but it sold out. I wasn’t at the Summit, but I did attend a few events during the week and ended up in a markedly better mood. Highlights were Brew Salt Night at Olde Saratoga Brewery, where one could have a flight of six beers paired with beer-salted foods for $8, a “Sour Hour” at Henry Street Taproom, and the San Diego Takeover at that same establishment featuring the magnificent Duet IPA from Alpine and a pepper-laced Imperial Stout from Green Flash.

sour beer setup

Sour beer tasting setup, with paired cheeses

There are a few reasons a craft beer festival might not be on the same level as a comparable event focused on wines. Unlike vintners who are steeped in their terroir, brewers use commercially available ingredients and many are part-time hobbyists. Also, the folks who pour the samples at the tastings are often distributors, rather than the brewers themselves. And then there’s the pricing. How much is too much to pay for a workingman’s quaff?

I balked at $40 for “Wild Thing—A Celebration of Sours” but it turned out to be fair value. We drank five extremely unusual sours that would have been $6-8 at the bar and each was accompanied by a generous portion of an appropriately sour and stinky artisanal cheese as well as HST’s buttery sourdough bread. I do wish the event had stretched out a bit and there had been a break between flights; 5 sours in an hour is a lot. How about a trivia contest focused on wild yeasts? (I’m serious.)

A few restaurants in town featured beer dinners but did not tempt. They were devoted to a single brewery and, unless it’s a powerhouse like Green Flash or Alpine, I’m not interested in tasting your entire line because I don’t like lagers, porters or, god help me, pumpkin-spiced and other flavored beers. How about an IPA dinner, in which you pair each course with an appropriate ale of that category? A stout will be permitted for dessert.

Olde Saratoga Brew Salt tastig

Beer, Brew Salt and snacks at Olde Saratoga Brewery

My suggestion for the distributors, who have a vested interest in presenting their product to an audience of eager neophytes, is that you take more of a leadership role. Don’t just showcase your most popular lines. Throw us some curves from oddball brewers and challenge us to demand them at our local outlets.

And, let’s have more events like the Brew Salt Tasting that are inexpensive and just plain fun. The OSB bar staff, not some fancy caterer, made the paired snacks including moustache-shaped peanut butter sandwiches (to go with PBJ Stout and Chocolate Brew Salt) and they were great.

Okay, glad I got that off my chest. Can’t wait for next year.

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Finlaggan: the Two-Buck Chuck of Islay single malts

Finlaggan Old Reserve

My Islay collection grouped by price point with the Finlaggan on the left.

I picked up a bottle of Finlaggan Islay Single Malt Scotch at Trader Joe’s on a recent trip to California. (TJ can’t sell liquor in New York, one of many challenges living in this arctic region.) I was fascinated, assumed it would be awful at its $17.99 price tag, tried it, liked it, kept trying. As you can see, nearly the whole bottle is gone and I still can’t find out what’s wrong with it. It has peatiness, the bite of the salt air and a disruptive sensation when it hits your throat—all the qualities I value in an Islay. It’s not up with the best of Bowmore, my favorite distillery, but at 1/5 the price it’s definitely a great value for what you’re getting and, I’ve finally decided, a damn good dram of its category.

Not confident of my own tastes, I went online this morning and was surprised to discover quite a secret society of Finlaggan lovers—including some who seem to mark it up significantly and sell it where there isn’t a Trader Joe. Whiskeyparty.net says “it’s not terribly complex, but neither was The Big Lebowski, and that didn’t stop it from being spectacular… So the finish isn’t long. Go suck an egg. This is a fantastic Scotch.” Another perspective comes from Anonymous who calls it “absolutely disgusting…essentially what I would imagine the water from a fire hydrant would taste like after it’s been used to put out a gas station fire” but that’s an indictment non Islay lovers might make of the category in general.

There is quite a bit of mystery about where this inexpensive potion comes from, much of it promulgated by the alleged distiller, Vintage Malt Whisky Co Ltd which tells us “Finlaggan is very much the SECRET Islay, as the name of the distillery from which it comes is a closely guarded secret and known to only a select few. Only those who have sampled Islay malts over a long period and who are familiar with the subtle differences of nose and taste, could begin to guess at the pedigree of this true son of Islay.” I ran across a nice discussion on Reddit including one guy who points out that there’s a Finnegan castle on the north end of Islay and if it’s made by Lagavulin then “Finlaggan” would be a nice bit of wordplay.

Anyway, I can’t wait to get to a liquor-selling state to get more of this. Check it out.

P.S. A comment about the other bottles in the picture. Next to Finlaggan is Bowmore Darkest which is expensive garbage—an Islay especially formulated for those who want a “smooth” whisky. Then comes one of several cask strength bottles from K&L Wines, which buys the casks and bottles them, and the magnificent 1991 Port Matured, which alas is too majestic to drink.

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Recipe: Carol’s Brussel Sprout Slaw

Brussel Slaw

Carol’s Brussel Sprout Slaw

My wife improvised this very well balanced recipe. The interplay of the Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil is particularly nice. Serves 4.

2 c Brussel sprouts, shredded with a knife or mandoline
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1/4 c red onion, finely chopped
1 T lemon zest, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
2 T grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 t Kosher salt
1/4 t ground black pepper

Method: combine all ingredients and toss well to mix. Allow to rest at least 30 minutes to develop flavors. Goes well with a hearty piece of fish or poultry.

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Recipe: Nair’s “National Dish” Feijoada

My friend Nair Wolf, a chef who hails from Brazil, has shared her recipe for this legendary one-dish meal. The following is a restaurant-size prep that will serve 15-20 people but because there so many ingredients I’d advise you to just make the whole recipe, then freeze what you don’t eat. This “bean” dish contains a huge amount of meat, including some items you may not have at your fingertips, so feel free to substitute.

2 lbs black beans, dried
½ lb dried Brazilian smoke meat (not the same as Brazilian dry meat; I’d substitute any lean smoked beef)
10 oz bacon
1 ham hock
1/2 lb smoked sausage
1/2 lb smoked pork chops
1/2 lb Brazilian dry meat (can substitute beef jerky)
1/2 lb fresh spiced sausage (I’d use a couple mild Italian sausages for this)
1/2 lb fresh pork loin, sliced
1 lb beef tri-tip, sliced
2 c onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup of cahuaça sugar cane liquor (can substitute 1 c tequila)
2 bunches of collard greens (julienne)
2 bay leaves
4 oranges, sliced

Method: Soak beans overnight. If using Brazilian dried meat which is very salty, soak that as well and then drain the next morning. Rinse the beans and put to cook in big pot with the bacon, ham hock and bay leaves. After one hour add Brazilian salt meat.

Meanwhile, in another pot sauté onions, the remaining meats, the sausages, and the smoked pork chops. Add water as necessary to cover the meat. Slice the pork loin and tri-tip and cook until the meat is done, removing any froth that forms on the top. Add the pinga or tequila. Now, combine the bean and meat mixtures.

Meanwhile, prepare the collard greens. Cook bacon in a sauté pan, remove to a paper towel leaving 2 T bacon fat. Add garlic and and julienne cut collard greens. Saute 1-2 minutes until limp; remove to a serving dish and cut bacon into small pieces and serve on top of the collard greens.

Serve the meat/bean mixture and collard greens in two bowls so guests can combine as they like. Serve with feijoada sauce.

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Recipe: Nair’s Feijoada Sauce

This is a necessary accompaniment for Nair’s “National Dish” Feijoada.

Juice of 3 lemons
1/4 c orange juice
1/2 c feijoada juice (cooking liquid from the feijoada)
3 T green onion
2 T fresh cilantro, chopped
3 T Italian parsley, chopped
1 c fresh tomatoes without seeds, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Method: combine all ingredients and mix or blend thoroughly. Serve with feijoada. Nair notes that feijoada is a favorite dish of the Cariocas of Rio de Janeiro, the second capital of Brazil.

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The burger rant (it’s all about the bun)

Burger House cheeseburger

Burger House cheeseburger

Behold the perfect burger*, from Jack’s Burger House on Hillcrest in Dallas, TX. Notice how the meat is a thin yet cohesive layer that curves around a much thicker strata of condiments (sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, coarsely chopped onion and pickle chips) just below and is kissed with just the lightest mustache of cheese. Observe how the bun, in spite of visible depressions from rough handling, maintains its integrity and easily contains the ingredients instead of bursting apart. Note the absence of the treacle-y red streaks that that indicate the presence of ketchup, though the rich warmth of yellow mustard is not visible in this example. It’s a symphony of synergistic (one of the rare instances in which this word is appropriate) flavors and textures.

Classic Smashburger

Classic Smashburger

Now, compare a burger I purchased recently at Smashburger in Saratoga Springs, New York. This is not a bad burger, in fact I gave the restaurant 4 stars on Yelp though that was for the sides. But observe how the sloppy lettuce overwhelms the other ingredients. And if I had taken this picture a minute later you would have seen the whole thing had disintegrated due to a fragile bun.

It’s time to blow the whistle on bogus burgers. If you can’t hold it between your fingers while managing another task (like playing a hand of poker, or driving down the interstate), or if you have to wipe your hands on a napkin or your pants after each bite, then it’s not a sandwich and therefore not a hamburger.

Brady Burger

Brady Burger at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs, NY

I don’t have a gripe with fine dining places that put a $16 “burger” on their menu and take quality meats and garnish them with a few well chosen toppings. The Brady Burger from 15 Church in Saratoga, shown here, is a good example. Note that it has a substantial bun, but still you eat with your hands at your own risk. It’s a wink to the simple food that inspired it.

No, my beef is with places in the $5-10 range that broil an oversized hunk of ground meat, carelessly apply vegetables since it’s going to fall apart anyway, then finish with a tiny bun that’s like a clown hat. The whole thing is out of whack. Even worse is the idea of one burger chain, run by a bunch of wise guys, that wraps the concoction in foil before serving. If you get takeout, your burger will have turned to pudding by the time you eat it.

Such establishments have taught a generation of gullible diners that a luxurious burger is by definition something that self destructs as you are enjoying it. (Actually, wasn’t there a Carl’s Junior commercial a few years ago on just this theme?) The current hostility to gluten may play into this; the fragile puffballs served by so many burger places seem to be made of low-gluten pastry flour, often with a no-gluten mix in of potato flour.

If you’re making burgers at home, buy or make quality buns, then toast before serving for an extra measure of tensile strength. If you don’t have another reason to go to Dallas, an excellent and widely available stand-in for Burger House is an In-N-Out cheeseburger with extra onions, mustard instead of sauce and pickles. You’re welcome.

* Photo courtesy of Yelp.

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Eating Local (ish) in Saratoga Springs, New York

Black River Piggery Demo

Tish Agagnos, of Black River Produce, filled in at a demo of meats from The Piggery

When my family moved from San Francisco to upstate New York in 2008, we tried to ease the transition by visiting a few farms. It was disconcerting to meet farmers who drove from Washington County or Columbia County straight down to the Greenmarket in New York City and never thought about finding local markets for their food. There were upstate farmers’ markets but they were small and boutique-y, with prices much higher than the city. The only local slaughterhouse processed meat into strange non-standard cuts.

In 2015, things are quite a bit better. Farmers’ markets are everywhere and the local farmers attend them. We have a meat processor everyone seems to like, Eagle Ridge of Cambridge. Local goods are also showing up in our supermarkets including my favorite, the pricey but passionate Healthy Living Market. And we’re seeing some sustainable economies of scale as distributors find it worth their time to source product from a number of small producers and bring it to market, working over an area that extends from Ithaca (home of Cornell and all the agricultural activity that program inspires) to Vermont (our next-door state and the home of Healthy Living Market.)

A good example of this principle in action is the “uncured” meats from The Piggery which I encountered at Healthy Living. They’ve got deli ham, capicola, a soft salami and the first bologna I’ve ever liked. The cure is light (and it’s celery powder, which they’re more than happy to admit contains nitrites) and the taste has notes of mace and other mild, slightly sweet spices. (The pigs are raised on acorns, which also contributes to the warm, full taste.) Farmer Heather Sanford told me that the goal is to replicate the deli meats that moms are used to buying for kids’ lunches in a natural way. The charcuterie products are sold at a number of outlets in the New England area and well worth seeking out. They have a much bigger range of products at their store and at the Ithaca farmers’ market.

I’d planned to talk with Heather in person, but she was waylaid by the flu and her demo station at Healthy Living was manned by her distributor, Tish Agagnos of Black River Produce. Black River is another piece of the puzzle, providing a full line of products to retail stores (including meats, slaughtered and packed in their own plant) while offering small farmers an economically viable way to get their products to market. Farmers’ markets are fun, but they’re not very scalable because the farmer can only be in one place at a time, and when you’re behind the counter you’re not working with your plants or animals. An efficient distribution network, as an alternative or a supplement, can make running a small farm practical.

The above isn’t exactly the same as locavore eating, in which you pledge to eat only things grown in season within a certain radius of your home in order to support the local economy and reduce carbon footprint. For me, right now in winter, that would involve a lot of cabbages and rutabagas. I rely on the Healthy Living folks to be diligent in sourcing responsibly (they were going to stock Kewpie mayonnaise until they discovered it contains MSG) and tell myself a truck barreling down the road from Ithaca or Vermont loaded with specialty foodstuffs is probably laying down less carbon than the battalions of curious or desperate foodies who would otherwise be foraging the countryside looking for something to eat.

We still need uni, and fresh ramen noodles. But we’re getting there.

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Recipe: Easy Korean Fried Chicken

Tyson KFC

Korean Fried Chicken made with Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips

As irresistible as the sweet/spicy chicken from a Korean market, but made with ingredients from your kitchen and your local supermarket. Serves 4-6.

1 24-oz package Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips (original flavor)
3 T fresh ginger, peeled
3 T fresh garlic, peeled
3 T soy sauce
3 T catsup
3 T white vinegar
1 T Asian sesame oil
1 T sugar
1 t chili powder
Lettuce leaves for serving (optional)

Method: Heat chicken strips according to package directions, 18-20 minutes in 400 degree oven. Meanwhile, chop ginger and garlic in a mini-food processor then add other sauce ingredients and pulse until pureed. When chicken is done, cut into serving size pieces and toss in a bowl with the sauce. Allow 20 minutes for chicken to soak up the flavor. Serve as finger food, with toothpicks, or Korean-style with lettuce leaves which your guests can use to scoop up the chicken for mess-free enjoyment.

NOTE: I whipped this up for a contest sponsored by the Tyson chicken folks. I wanted to see how close I could get to my original recipe using supermarket ingredients and was gratified by the result. You could also make it using leftover Popeye’s or other quality fried chicken. Just be sure to give it enough time in the sauce to soak up the flavor.

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Uncle Steve’s Arribiata Sauce

Uncle Steve tasting his sauce

Uncle Steve tasting his sauce

I have a soft spot for celebrity pasta sauces. First, I think jarred sauce is pretty generic so most any attempt to dress it up is likely to yield positive results. Second, I totally buy the notion of the pressured celeb taking a little time off in the kitchen and adding a little of this, a little of that till something pretty good results. (As opposed to some fancier prepared foods which I don’t think would recognize the eponymous celebrity if they met him/her on the street.)

So, when 3 jars of Uncle Steve’s red sauce showed up after the recent Fancy Food Show, I was totally willing to try them. Had some arrabiata last night over pasta with a grating of parm-reg and a steak broiled Florentine-style, and I was impressed. It has an intense tomato flavor (the tomatoes are organic, and from Italy) and a real kick in the spicy-hot department.

Uncle Steve is Steve Schirripa who played Bobby Baccalieri on The Sopranos, and apparently has a lively business presenting the advice, lifestyle, cooking tips of the goomba which is I gather is equivalent to what we call a “good old boy” in Texas. (I’m familiar with “gooma”, the feminine equivalent, from the show but apparently that has quite a different meaning.)  They actually took my picture with Uncle Steve at the show but the print has never shown up, which is probably a good thing.

At $7.99 a jar (sold in boxes of 3 jars), it’s fairly priced though you will have to pony up for shipping if you order direct. But it’s also available in a wide variety of stores, including Whole Foods, so look for it locally. Full disclosure, I was sent 3 free jars but I did not ask for them and would not have reviewed it if I didn’t like it.

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