My Thanksgiving clips post

The great thing about Thanksgiving (the way we celebrate at my house anyways) is that it’s the same year after year. So, no reason to break new ground when a bunch of existing posts cover the subject well enough:

We’ll cook our turkey this way following the options from with a light brining, stuffing, and roasting at moderate heat with a paper towel or cheesecloth covered with oil or butter over the breast till the last half hour. We’ll use this stuffing recipe, though we’ll dial back the spices because we will be using our bread machine bread for stuffing  which has the spices already mixed in, accompanied by fresh cranberry sauce which, according to our taste test, is the best option and very easy.

The next day we’ll have turkey sandwiches on some good stiff country sourdough with leftover stuffing, gravy, wilted salad and cranberry sauce, nicely lubricated with Durkee’s Famous Sauce. And then the real work begins as we figure out what to do with the remaining 15 pounds or so of turkey.

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The real problem with fast food today

Quarter Pounders from McDonalds

Does this food look appetizing to you?

Walk into most any fast food establishment, approach the counter to order, and what do you see? Typically a bank of dispensing stations with the actual food preparation nowhere in sight. I think separating the kitchen from the people who serve and eat the food is one of the reasons fast food disappoints today.

My local McDonald’s is unusual because the counter is especially wide, and I can stand at one particular spot and watch the activity behind the scenes. As I waited for my two Quarter Pounders with Cheese the other day, I observed a number of assembly operations in which cooked meats are taken out of a drawer with tongs. Also watched a desolate dropped bun lying on the ground, and an employee banging some frozen object against a cabinet in hopes of separating the components that were within (I think they were burgers) then giving up in frustration and tossing the object in the trash. I did not see any grilling, though I was able to identify the double griddle that cooks the burgers on top and bottom at the same time. All in all it was not a view that makes me feel a tasty meal is being created for my enjoyment.

Compare that to the counter experience at In-N-Out Burger, where the kitchen is in plain view and you can observe employees grilling burgers and also slicing onions and chopping potatoes for fries. Real food preparation is going on, and you can participate by ordering from their “secret” menu or doing your own mods which they are happy to accommodate.

McDonald’s has a new CEO who has been credited with some promising changes, including a directive to “toast its hamburger buns longer so sandwiches would be warmer, and change the way it sears and grills its beef so that the patties are juicier” according to the NY Times. Indeed, both the meat and the bun on my burger were fine. As an experiment I tried asking for a In-N-Out style mod. I wanted one of my Quarter Pounders with mustard but no ketchup, and after several “voids” at the register that’s what I got. It’s on the right in the picture above. The amount of mustard has not been adjusted (maybe it’s dispensed by a volume-regulated nozzle like they use in bars) and is unconscionably paltry. It’s not possible that the person who prepared this gave any thought to the fact a real person is going to eat this and hope to enjoy it.

The folks who prepare and dish up the cuisine in many fast food restaurants (who will soon be earning $15/hr in New York State, same as many beginning chefs) have no training or inkling they are in the foodservice business. And therein lies the problem.

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Taste test: best way to cook beets

Ready for the oven

Beets ready to go in the oven. Clockwise from upper left: peeled and wrapped, unpeeled to boil, unpeeled and wrapped, peeled and unwrapped

Why boil beets when you can roast them? That seems to be the mantra of many nurturing, comfort-food recipes this days and it makes some sense. Since beets have a high sugar content, roasting should produce a caramelized exterior to add to the texture and taste.

We did a four-way test in which we took golden beets of roughly equal size and boiled one until tender (about 45 minutes), and roasted one in a foil jacket at 400 degrees for 75 minutes. That seems to be the preferred method—don’t peel it first, just rub on a little olive oil and salt, wrap it up and cook. But we also peeled two more beets, rubbed with that same olive oil and salt, and placed it in that same oven pan in the 400 degree oven, one wrapped in foil and the other au naturel.

Before revealing the results, I will tell you that I had a bias. Boiling beets is a very satisfying experience for me. You can simply slide them out of their jackets when they’re done and, as a bonus, you get some red beet water you can use to make pickled eggs. Why would you want to do anything else?

However, boiled beets scored last in the taste test. The flavor was less intense than any of the baked options. You might call them “watery” thought that’s harsh. You don’t always want strong flavor if, for example, the beets are a harmonious component of a salad.

Next best was the beet that had been peeled, then wrapped in foil. The flavor was definitely stronger than the boiled beet. But this edge held up only in that one-to-one comparison.

Cooked and peeled

The beets have now been cooked and (when necessary) peeled

The beet that was peeled and cooked in the oven without foil looked ugly, but tasted pretty good. The surface was beautifully caramelized and the flavor was intense like the other baked preparations. That outer shell is something I’d experiment with in a recipe, but the lack of visual appeal earns a ding.

And finally, the winner… the unpeeled beet, wrapped in foil! Aargh. I’d assumed that any added flavor would be stripped away when the beet was peeled but not so. It didn’t just pack in the sweetness and complexity, it had the equivalent of a barbecue smoke ring. And, though it had been difficult to peel on an earlier trial just out of the oven, this time I let it cool thoroughly and the skin came off with a fingernail.

Cross section of finished beets

Cross section of finished beets. Note the “smoke ring” on the specimen lower right which was oven roasted, unpeeled, wrapped in foil

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More photos from my trip to Snow’s Barbecue

Door to Snow's Barbecue

Front door to Snow’s Barbecue in Lexington, TX: when you finally reach it on a Saturday morning, you are about to enjoy a life-changing experience.

Snow's Brisket and Pork Shoulder

This time I sampled the smoked pork shoulder (at right) along with my brisket. A bit dry but very tender.

Smoked Chicken at Snow's BBQ.

Also tried the half chicken at $5.50 (short joint shown here). Same rub as the beef, succulent and perfect. No reason not to toss a couple of these into your bag.

Tootsie and Ian

And here’s one of our barbecue neophytes, Ian Saltwick, hanging out with Pitmistress Tootsie. Photo credit: Steve Saltwick

One tends to act like a deer in the headlights when one finally gets to the front of the line at Snow’s, but it’s much more than brisket and ribs. Here are few more memories from last weekend’s visit.

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Spilling the beans at Snow’s Barbecue

Brisket Perfection

Brisket perfection at Snow’s BBQ

Another transcendent visit to Snow’s on a rainy Saturday, with my brother in law and his neophyte guests who had never had this experience before. They first wondered why you would get up early and drive 75 minutes to Lexington, TX and have brisket for breakfast, but soon realized there was no better way to start a day.

Snow's in the rain

Waiting in the rain for Snow’s BBQ

Secrets galore were on open display, which is the mark of a champion that has no fear of losing its throne. We got a tour of the smokers from the new young cook who told us the meat is smoked at 350 degrees then transferred to a finish smoker at 160 degrees where it’s done when he can grab the foil package in his gloved mitts and twist it and feel a bit of “give”. This is information worth its weight in gold, no?

Bean setup at Snow's

Bean setup at Snow’s with Tone chili powder

I also spied the table with the bean prep and confirmed my previous speculations that they use the large size Toné Chili Powder from Sam’s Club. This plus a generous amount of detritus from yesterday’s smoked meats and plenty of salt once again made for the best pinto beans I ever had.

Snow's rub

Snow’s rub tub. The actual ingredients are close to the bottom: salt and a good amount of black pepper.

And, I took a closer look at the rub salt on the shelf next to the restroom and noticed a very substantial amount of black pepper mixed in—perhaps a ratio of 1 part pepper to 4 parts salt compared to just a trace of pepper on my last visit. I asked Kerry if this accounted for a slight difference in the taste of the bark that I’d observed and he said, “never a difference—you may have hit a pocket” of pepper. Yes sir.

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How to know when a recipe isn’t going to come out right

My mother was a great one for buying cookbooks because they had beautiful photography or came from a famous restaurant, then throwing up her hands because the dishes were too difficult to make. I think she was a big influence on my own simpler cooking style and my desire to make recipes as straightforward as possible.

But sometimes you happen on a recipe and it seems so fascinating and exotic, you feel like just have to try it. What are your chance of success, defined as achieving the same result as the source of the recipe?

To answer that question, I’ll take a recipe that is apparently not online but was published in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2015 as part of an article titled “How to Get to Acadia? Hint: Come Hungry” by Matthew Kronsberg. It’s from a place called Loyal Nine in Cambridge MA, where Matt Sheehan cooks what he calls “East Coast Revival Cuisine”.

This is Chef Sheehan’s take on a traditional French Canadian dish called Ployes, a very special kind of crepe. I’m sure it’s delicious when served up in the restaurant, but consider:

  1. You have very likely never tasted this food or anything close to it, so you will not know whether you have nailed when you’re done. -20 points.
  2. It depends on a specialized ingredient you are likely to never need again: silver-hull buckwheat flour. There is a mail order source for this, but still. -10 points. (They could very easily have avoided the deduction by figuring out a workaround with regular buckwheat flour.)
  3. It contains a meta-ingredient, presented without elaboration: pickled mackerel. What exactly is this stuff? Can I use saba from my sushi supplier? Can I substitute pickled herring which my supermarket carries? -10 points.
  4. It describes on a number of precise presentation details that are subjective and probably based on what was on offer at the restaurant the night the recipe was written down, eg: 8 thin, warm slices cured pork jowl or pancetta. How thin? How warm? Any chance I could substitute bacon or maybe prosciutto? -10 points.

You get the idea. By now we have deducted 50 points out of a possible 100, meaning you are as likely as not going to fail at a prep that will satisfy your palate and impress your guests after a great deal of effort and time in the kitchen.

What else might the chef or the food writer done? First of all, tell us the key characteristics (taste and presentation) that make this recipe what it is, and then tell us how to achieve those successfully even if we don’t duplicate every single step. And, give us substitutions as long as they will work. (I’m aware that some things have no substitutes, like durian, but I don’t think silver-hull buckwheat is in this category. Let me use my Bob’s Red Mill buckwheat flour for chrissake, and tell me what the tiny shading of taste or texture is that I’m missing.)

I’m not against regional cuisine or specialized ingredients, given reasonable boundaries. In fact, I’m working on a nice Breton crepe (made with garden variety buckwheat flour) I’ll publish soon. But in the meantime, if anybody digs up this ployes recipe and tries it out, let me know how you did.

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Recipe: Popcorn Chicken with Real Popcorn

Popcorn Chicken with real popcorn

Popcorn Chicken!

What to do with leftover movie popcorn? Here’s a mod of my General Tso’s Prawns which uses popcorn instead of (or in addition to) rice as the starch. Serves 4.

3-4 c popped popcorn*

1 lb boneless skinned chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 ½ t toasted sesame oil
1 large egg white
3 T soy sauce
scant ½ c cornstarch
Oil for frying

Ingredients, for gravy:
3 T rice vinegar (or white vinegar)
3 T sugar
3 T soy sauce
3 T Xiaoxing wine or dry sherry, or 1 T brandy
Generous squirt of Srirachi chili sauce (about ½ t plus)
½ t toasted sesame oil
1 T cornstarch
1 ½ T water
2 T oil, for sautéing the garlic
Garlic, peeled and sliced, about 6 large cloves (1/4 c)
Chicken stock or water
¼ c chopped scallions, including green parts
2 T finely grated ginger

Method: Thoroughly combine 1 ½ t toasted sesame oil, beaten egg white, soy sauce and cornstarch; add a few drops of water if necessary to moisten the cornstarch. Add the chicken to this marinade, mix until evenly coated, and allow to rest 20 minutes while you make the gravy.

Saute the sliced garlic in 2 T oil until it just begins to give off aroma. Add vinegar, sugar, wine, chili sauce and sesame oil; mix and heat. Separately, thoroughly mix 1T cornstarch and 1 ½ t water then add to the gravy. Stir over low heat to thicken. Add as much chicken stock (or water) as you like to stretch out the delicious sauce so long as it doesn’t lose its gravy texture; if you go too far mix a little more cornstarch and water and stir that in. When gravy is to your satisfaction, add grated ginger and scallion and turn off heat.

Fry the chicken in ½ inch of about 375 degree oil in a fry pan (or make small batches in a wok) about 2 minutes until brown and crispy; turn and repeat. Drain on paper towel. Combine chicken and gravy then mix in 2 cups popcorn just before serving (it will wilt after a few minutes); serve more popcorn on the side for guests to add if they wish.

* It’s hard to resist the free refill at my local cinema when you buy the large tub. But DO resist any temptation to butter, salt or otherwise season the popcorn. Of course, this dish is even better (though not as thrifty/miserly) when made with fresh popcorn cooked at home.

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15 Church brings big-city ramen to Saratoga

15 Church Ramen

15 Church Ramen

Your weekend plans have just changed. You are headed to 15 Church in Saratoga Springs, where chef Brady has whipped up some world-class ramen to celebrate the seasonal closing of the patio.

This is not poser ramen broth but deep, complex stuff made with smoked dashi and kurobuta pork bellies that tease you into thinking they’re good for you. The fresh ramen noodles include a whisper of miso. The whole thing is head-banging good…. what we’ve long been waiting for and have finally achieved.

Congratulations to Chef Brady Duhame and 15 Church!

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Why I’m going to Subway for lunch today

A full page ad from the National Pork Producers Council in today’s Wall Street Journal got my attention. It called Subway and its franchises to task for joining the antibiotics-free initiative which, according to the ad, means “Subway isn’t saying ‘use antibiotics only when animals are sick.’ Subway is saying no antibiotics ever—even when animal health and safety could be at risk.”

My initial reaction was, “Subway serves pork?” I thought everything was made with turkey. (Which, it turns out, is also part of the antibiotics-free initiative.) My second thought was, this can’t be true. Even bleeding hearts like Niman Ranch will give antibiotics to a sick animal, though they will then take that animal out of their inventory destined for market.

And, it turns out, the NPPC is indeed lying. It only takes a few seconds of googling to find sources like this one that make it clear the ban applies to general use of antibiotics in large quantities as a preventative tactic. (The problem is that the antibiotics are then transferred to the humans who eat the meat, and are a likely culprit for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.) Giving a sick pig a shot of penicillin is just fine.

The NPPC also does some handwringing about how the lack of antibiotics could cause “unnecessary suffering”. If that’s indeed their concern, then they’d need to shut down the factory farms where the animals are subjected to unnecessary suffering every day of their lives.

Ethical pork husbandry, as practiced by Niman Ranch (which is now owned by Perdue, incidentally) and an increasing number of farmers, actually has huge benefits to the folks who eat the pork, and I’m not talking about good vs. evil but selfish satisfaction. There’s a world of difference between a pork chop from an animal raised humanely and allowed to roam and the watery texture and bland taste of a factory pig. Once you’ve tasted a free-range Berkshire it’s hard to go back.

And that’s why I’m headed to Subway for lunch today, in support of a position that is both good (in the altruistic sense) and good for you. By the way, if you order the cheapest Italian combo on a white bun with oil and vinegar, and have them add every available vegetable garnish, it’s surprisingly palatable.

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Food for thought… ChefTalk

ChefTalk is “a food lover’s link to professional chefs” where regular folk can ask questions and get detailed answers based on a lifetime of learning and practicing pro strategies. Here is an example–a thread in which a starving college student wants to stretch his food budget and receives lots of good advice but also the admonition that “You’re not actually allowed to be broke, starving, unwilling to work and overly-fussy all at the same time.”

There is also advice for would-be professional chefs on is culinary school worth it, how much will I make, etc. Check it out.

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