Food for thought: How to evaluate a new cookbook

This was going to be a review and recommendation of Vegan: The Cookbook by Jean-Christian Jury. The book had received a glowing write up in the very uneven Saturday “Off Duty” section of the Wall Street Journal, and I was eager to tell you about it. It is only available in hardback, which even discounted on Amazon is over $30. Fortunately, I was able to find a copy at my local library.

The first recipe I tried was the Chickpea and Currant Pate on p. 32. I chose this because it used almost entirely ingredients I had on hand. (Rule #1 for evaluating a cookbook—don’t go out and buy exotic ingredients until you know you like the book. Stick to familiar ingredients and learn how this cookbook deals with them.) But alarm bells went off as I was preparing it. There’s supposed to be a bottom layer of chickpea puree, then an onion/sweet potato mix, then more puree. But the proportions are such that this is impossible (nowhere near enough chickpeas). And it’s not really a pate but a terrine because the instructions were to puree the chickpeas, but leave the finely chopped onions in the middle layer. Plus there’s no binding agent so it fell apart pretty quickly when unwrapped.

I browsed a few more recipes I’d like to try. Peanut Stew with Cucumber Sauce (p. 202) had a typo: 400 g of tomatoes equals 14 oz, not 7 oz. (I assume we should go by the grams since the author is European.) And on page 31 we are advised to cook Puy lentils “according to the packet instructions”. A statement like that has no place in a book presumably written by a chef. What’s happening with this and the somewhat questionable technique specified for the pate is either a/the chef knows what he’s doing but isn’t good at putting it down on paper or b/somebody else is shadowing the chef and they don’t know what they’re doing. So rule #2 is: decide whether you can trust the person writing the recipes.

One more strike against the book is that it uses black-box ingredients without really explaining and analyzing what’s in them and telling you how to make appropriate substitutions. “Vegan grated cheese” (p 129), “soy cream” (p 252) and “unsweetened soy yoghurt” (p. 53) are some random examples. (He does provide a recipe for “vegannaise” on p. 52, but it’s in the context of another recipe.) One of the things I love about Teff Love is that the vegan author takes standard Ethiopian spice mixtures and seasoned oils and tells you how to make vegan versions. Rule #3: make sure the instructions are transparent and don’t resort to black box ingredients.

Also! The author gives no guidance as to the use of salt except to add salt to taste. When the dish itself is unfamiliar, that’s not good enough. Is it supposed to be noticeably salty? Just a little salty? Give us at least a baseline, please.

In the end I did find a couple of recipes I liked in Vegan: The Cookbook (a pretty presumptuous title, is that not?) But it’s gone back to the library. Caveat emptor if this appeals to you.

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Recipe: Better-than-KFC Cole Slaw

Better than KFC Coleslaw

Better-than-KFC buttermilk cole slaw

Better-than-KFC Cole Slaw is superior to the original because it’s less sweet and syrupy, just good Buttermilk Cole Slaw like the Colonel intended. 6-8 servings.

½ head green cabbage, about 1 ½ lbs
2 medium carrots, about ½ lb
1 T sugar
3/4 t Kosher salt
1/8 t black pepper
¼ c mayonnaise
2 T buttermilk
2 T milk
1 T white vinegar
1 T  lemon juice

Method: chop the cabbage and carrot fine using your preferred method. (I use a mandoline with a shredding blade.) Mix dressing ingredients in a serving bowl and stir till sugar is dissolved. Add cabbage and carrot and mix well. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

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Touring the better burger chains

Yelpers and Burgers

Yelpers prepare to review burgers

The Albany suburb of Latham, NY is blessed with an abundance of upscale burger stores. Four can be found along a two-mile stretch on Louden Road and a fifth is a short hop away. Thus, a group of intrepid Yelpers was able to spend a rainy Saturday comparing these products in sequence and at close range.

By better burgers, we mean fast food establishments that are a cut above the industrial sludge at McDonalds and its ilk, yet do not claim to be fine dining. All are chains, meaning there must be a formula that can be replicated from location to location. None has a drive-through but all offer takeout.

The variations in ambience were more striking than the differences in burgers themselves. BurgerFi and Smashburger provide a straightforward experience with generous but not particularly luxurious table/bench/chair seating. Elevation Burger tries harder with a similar layout but a clean, natural look (including some real wood here and there) that reminded some of Starbucks. Five Guys was crowded and “dirty” though that’s possibly due to the shells on the floor from the complimentary peanuts. Burger 21 was, as will be seen, in an entirely different category.

But on to the food. We standardized on a single patty cheeseburger with whatever the place considered its default toppings; because these varied we adapted the spec to lettuce/tomato/onions (grilled onions if available) with pickle and “special sauce” or equivalent. (Benjamin M had a slightly different order, but his responses tracked with the others.) Prices before tax ranged from $5.19 for a “Little Cheeseburger” at Five Guys to $7.25 at Elevation. Zena GofF was kind enough to bring a ruler and scale; the burgers were very consistent in the 8-10 ounce range (including bun and toppings) and around 10 cm diameter. (The “Little Cheeseburger” from Five Guys was actually the largest of the lot, by weight and height.)

BurgerFi Cheeseburger

BurgerFi… too much bun (burgers were divided into thirds for tasting)

The first stop, determined because it was at the northern extremity of our itinerary, was BurgerFi. We have one of these in my home town of Saratoga, and I eat there frequently. We noted that the burger came out unusually quickly, something I’ve experienced on other visits. Unfortunately, this place turned off some diners with a sticky floor and loud ambient music they could/would not turn down. Elijah M felt the bun “had no taste” while Benjamin wondered, “is this a McDonald’s cheeseburger in disguise?”

Elevation Burger

Elevation Burger

Elevation Burger, a chain based in Falls Creek, VA, took an unusually long time to serve us for a fast food place (another phenomenon I’ve experienced this on previous visits to this chain.) This is a very finely curated concept with wood touches as I’ve mentioned and unique mini-sheet pans for serving the burgers. Sarah liked the “fresh pickles not cheap ones” and char on the patty, but others marked it down for too-mild sauce and a floppy bun.

Burger 21

Burger 21

Then on to Burger 21, a franchise based in Tampa, FL you can read about here.  Its price was in the middle range but in almost every other way it differed from the other spots. On entering you go to a sort of maitre d station, instead of a counter, to place your order. This was the only store that asked us our desired degree of doneness for the patty. (We ordered medium well, which they said was the default.) You add your own sauces from a condiment bar. (We conservatively chose chipotle mayo, something close to a standard “spread”.) The kitchen is hidden from view and waitstaff bring orders to tables. And there is a sort of soda fountain with stools where I expect you could enjoy a milkshake. (Big stirring machines were on display.) Zena called this a “perfect experience” while Sarah gave it a 5 (best) for customer service. Steve N described “wonderful, crusty caramelization on the patty” and Stephanie remarked on the “good char on the burger” and said “restaurant feel also elevated this burger experience.”

Five Guys

Five Guys

Just across the parking lot, but a mile away conceptually, was Five Guys. These boys had a bunch of built-in fans among our group. Karen kindly ordered favorite fries to share and Steve, who is the Duke of Burger 21 on Yelp meaning he checks in more than any other customer, said he actually prefers the good crispy char he gets on his patties at Five Guys. Others said they normally like Five Guys and this visit may have been below par.

Smashburger had surprising height for a “smashed” burger

The final stop was Smashburger, dictated by location but also because they had beer we could drink while discussing our scores. Our tasting process was thrown off by a promotional triple-double presented by mistake as a standard cheeseburger, but we recovered. Sarah and Zena gave them props for their available milkshakes, and Elijah M actually gave Smashburger his highest rating before confirming Burger 21 was really his favorite.

You can already guess the winner, but a veteran of a number of tasting tours sponsored by FussyLITTLEBlog I’ve never seen a result so unanimous. Burger 21 was the winner on every ballot, almost universally scoring several points above other tightly grouped competitors. Stephanie said “the char on the burger gave it really great flavor. The restaurant feel of this establishment also elevated this burger experience,” while Benjamin M said “wow, about the same price as Five Guys but a lot better. A real surprise!”

Here are final scores: BurgerFi 96.5, Elevation 104.5, Burger 21 133, Five Guys 107.5, Smashburger 103.75. That’s based on a multi point system including burger/cheese, condiments, bun, ambience and overall with 1 being worst, 5 best. I find it interesting that the scores (other than Burger 21) are so close together but maybe it’s not that surprising since we were tasting a standardized product with every store trying to hit the same marks with the same customer base.

The bad news is that Burger 21 is very sparsely distributed; the Latham location is actually the only outlet in New York state. If you find one, hit it… I know I’ll be back for more.

Burger 21Cheeseburger

Look at that melted cheese… Burger 21

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Recipe: Sweet Smoke Cocktail

Sweet Smoke Cocktail

Sweet Smoke Cocktail

We have an excellent local bar called Hamlet & Ghost where I was introduced to the Don Lockwood, a cocktail combining  rye-heavy bourbon and smoky Islay Scotch. (Don Lockwood is the character Gene Kelly plays in Singin’ in the Rain; you would need to go to the Dutch Kills bar in Long Island City, where this drink originated, to find out the connection.) Loved it, but felt there was something missing. Aha: add a leaf of a bitter aromatic, muddled as for a mint julep. Check it out.

1 oz good bourbon (I used Evan Williams)
1 oz peaty Scotch (H&G used Laphroaig, I used something proprietary; don’t overthink this because smoke is more important than refinement)
Squirt of bitters
1 t maple syrup (Grade B preferred)
1 shiso leaf or 3 mint leaves plus more for garnish
Meyer lemon or orange zest for garnish

Method: muddle herb leaves with syrup and bitters. Add alcohol and mix thoroughly. Add ice, garnish and serve.

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Five top foods in Saratoga Springs, NY

I have been sitting on this post awhile because I didn’t really know what to call it. “Best eats in Saratoga” is a little presumptuous because I haven’t tried everything at all the high end places, plus I’m not going to force my preference in a $30 entrée on somebody else. “Best budget eats in Saratoga” on the other hand is too simplistic; some of these foods are great values, others just great dishes. For those who aren’t locals, I should explain that Saratoga Springs, NY is a highly touristed area and as in any such place (cf. Ashland, OR) there are a certain number of establishments which are just phoning it in because during the season they’ll attract massive traffic, regardless. Anyways, here goes.

Roma Italian Mix

Roma Imports Italian Mix sub made by Mike at the Saratoga Springs store on 8/15/16.

1.Hacked Italian Combo Sub at Roma Imports, Washington St. The smell alone at this Italian deli is worth the price of admission: you would be ahead of the game if you simply tossed a Hamilton over the counter and left without your food. But hang in there and order an Italian combo sub with these tweaks (which don’t cost anything extra): domestic sharp provolone instead of regular; fatty cappy him instead of regular; hot or sweet sopressata instead of salami. Plus lettuce, tomato, onion and oil and vinegar dressing of course.

Big Daddy Hatties

Deconstructed Big Daddy fried chicken sandwich from Hattie’s Chicken Shack

2.Deconstructed fried chicken sandwich at Hattie’s Chicken Shack, Wilton. The chicken sandwich is not sold at the original Hattie’s on Phila so you have to go to the mall. Tell them you want the Big Daddy, which gives you an extra thigh to enjoy for a second meal, and you want it “with the parts separate, chicken and slaw on the side because I am going to eat it later at home” since the word “deconstructed” is not likely to register. Get yourself a cup of hot sauce to go while you are waiting for the order.

Brady Burger

Brady Burger and Fixins at 15 Church, Saratoga

3.Big ass burger from (fill in the blanks). Many of our high end restaurants have a burger on the menu, which allows you to enjoy the ambience and the standard setups and service while paying a fraction of the price of any other entrée. And there’s a quiet competition among these places to make the burger really, really good. My favorite was the Brady Burger at 15 Church but now Chef Brady has migrated to Max London’s which offers Brady Burger 2.0. You can’t go wrong with either, or with the burger at Salt & Char.

Tempura at Kinjo Japanese Steakhouse

Tempura Lunch Special at Kinjo’s in Saratoga Springs (it also comes with salad and miso soup).

4.Lunch special at Kinjo Japanese Steakhouse (Congress Plaza). After some unknown but evidently serious sin in the past, Saratoga was afflicted with a curse that says we cannot have Chinese or Thai or Japanese restaurants but only “fusion” places combining multiple cuisines. Kinjo is the best of this challenging lot, delivering consistently good food at a reasonable price point. My go-to is the tempura special (Japanese) with shrimp and vegetables. A dark horse except to those who know this spot and have found it extremely consistent.

Compton's Breakfast Special

Compton’s Breakfast Special with recommended condiments

5.Breakfast special at Compton’s on Broadway. This old school diner is a hotline to authenticity for any visitor who wants to eat like a local. The hours pass like a soap opera, with drunk college students in the early hours (it opens at 4 am, 3 am on weekends) giving way to downtown stalwarts fueling up on their way to work and finally to retired folks passing the time and waiting for someone to trip on the oddly configured step at the entrance. The special (it is no longer called that on the menu, but it’s easy to find) includes protein (bacon, sausage or hash), two eggs, cottage fries, and toast with bottomless coffee—everything you need to kickstart your day, and nothing you don’t need. I get mine with bacon, eggs over easy and rye toast and request Tabasco (for the eggs) and A-1 Sauce (for the potatoes and for when sop up everything with the toast) to intensify the experience.

That’s my list. I’d welcome yours.

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Recipe: African Cauliflower Curry

African Cauliflower Curry

African Cauliflower Curry

African Cauliflower Curry is a filling main dish served over rice or quinoa; can also be a side dish with grilled chicken. Inspired by a recipe of the same name in Vegan: The Cookbook; the original is on page 128 of that book. Serves 6 as a main dish, 10 as side.

1 T olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
1 large red pepper, diced
Florets from one whole head cauliflower, broken into small pieces
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 T mild curry powder
2 t cumin seeds or 1 t ground cumin
2 t coriander seeds or 1 t ground coriander
2 t ground turmeric
1 t ground cinnamon
2-3 cloves (grind in mortar and pestle if you don’t like finding them in your food)
14-oz can cooked chickpeas, with their juice
½ c peanut butter
½ c raisins
¾ t Kosher salt

Method: sauté onion and pepper in olive oil in a large skillet until onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower and cook, turning, for 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Stir in all other ingredients and simmer 25 minutes or until cauliflower is tender, checking occasionally and adding liquid if the dish becomes dry. Serve immediately.

Note: like many stews, this tastes better when reheated the next day. Also, it greatly benefits from a few dashes of a vinegary hot sauce like Tabasco or Frank’s.

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My $37.75 pizza dinner

Frank Pepe Slices

Slices from Frank “Old Reliable” Pepe: original tomato, clam and garlic, seasonal fresh tomato

The other night I found myself staying in Danbury, CT across the street from Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana. This is one of several branches of the home store in New Haven, which at least one blogger as well as Frank himself believes makes the best pizza in the world.

The branches apparently vary in quality, but all bake in a coal-fired oven whose intense heat produces a blistered, chewy crust. When I entered the restaurant and observed the cooks using a peel whose handle extended across the room (maybe a gimmick, or maybe because the fire was too hot to get any closer) I knew I was in good hands.

Frank Pepe Pizza Order

My $37.75 pizza dinner from Frank Pepe’s

The quandary was what to order as a solo diner. Yelp recommendation are pretty much divided between the original tomato pie with mozzarella (currently $9 for a small 12-inch pie) and white clam pizza ($11). There was also a fresh tomato pie ($12.50) which is only available July through September. It was impossible to choose. So I bought them all, with a total bill including tax of $37.75.

This is the strategy I would advise whenever you are in a location where you are sorely tempted by the food and unlikely to return. The opportunity cost of not trying everything appropriate far outweighs any expense or personal discomfort. Just be sure that all that food goes to good use.

None of my pizza from Frank Pepe’s went to waste. I ate a little more than a pie’s worth that night, finished the clam the next day for lunch (since it was made from fresh clams, it would not travel well), shared some at an afternoon meeting and took the remaining slices home to be reheated a couple of days later.

By the way, if I were to go back I’d confidently head for the original tomato pie with mozz, maybe adding a topping or two. The fresh tomato pie is a nice concept, but the liquid of the fresh tomatoes fought with the chewy crackery crust. And the clam is entirely dependent on how generous the prep cook is with the clams and garlic in that instant when they’re topping the pizza. I didn’t get enough, waah, but now I know the technique and can do this at home.

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Our top five non-recipe posts, 2017 edition

In recognition of the sixth anniversary of Burnt My Fingers, here are the top five non-recipe posts that scored the most hits in the past 12 months:

  1. What’s the best flour for baking bread? This post far outputs any other non-recipe screed on our site and ranks high on the first page for Google, simply because it answers a question any novice baker is likely to have. My answer is somewhat of a rant, but accurate.
  2. The sauce that made Mr. Durkee famous. Including this one is a bit of a cheat because it predates this venue and was ported over from my marketing blog. But its popularity speaks for itself. As will be seen, the various custodians of the Durkee brand have proven better sauce (and paint) makers than marketers.
  3. Turkey Joints from Nora’s of Rome, NY. Our account of a strange journey across the frozen tundra of upstate New York in winter, in pursuit of an unusual regional treat. If you like local color posts like this, do some rabbit-holing in the search box for phrases like “barbecue” and “pickles”.
  4. Finlaggan: the Two-Buck Chuck of Islay single malts. A new entry in the top five! And notable because most of the text is marked for deletion. That crafty Trader Joe introduced a bargain Islay Scotch, then changed the formula on us. We kept the original post up for folks who were looking for it, but struck through the no longer applicable accolades so you won’t be tricked into actually buying some.
  5. The cure for watery steak. Evidently a lot of people have this problem, which I first discovered in a steak tourism book. The remedy, as will be seen, is easy and painless.

That was quick. So now click a few links and do some reading. See you in 2018!

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Lan Chi Chili Paste with Garlic

Lan Chi Chili Garlic Paste

Lan Chi Chili Paste with Garlic

In retail, there’s Amazon. In Asian condiments, there’s Lee Kum Kee. This maker of good-but-not-great sauces and relishes has been gobbling up shelf space in Oriental markets to the detriment of smaller brands, notably Lan Chi.

Lan Chi used to have a dozen facings at my nearest local source, Asian Supermarket in Albany. Today they’re gone. The greatest loss is Lan Chi Chili Paste with Garlic, a complex and multifaceted product (in addition to potent amount of roasted chili and funky garlic, it also contains fermented black beans) that’s the perfect foil to a Chinese lunch or a dim sum platter. I’m not alone in this preference; ask any knowledgeable chef which Chinese chili sauce they prefer and they’ll say Lan Chi.

When my backup supply finally ran out, I assumed I’d be able to pick up a jar on a trip to San Francisco Chinatown. But no luck in half a dozen establishments. I began to wonder what had happened and of course consulted Facebook, where Lan Chi Foods had last posted in 2012: “Life is good…sleeping in the hammock enjoying #slumvillage, #macallen18 and a full moon!” A couple of people responded to the post by asking where the Chili Garlic Paste had gone, but there were no replies. One guesses the business has passed to a new generation where preserving the brand is not the highest priority.

I did find a few online sources, fortunately, and placed a successful order at Kim’s Asian Market. The shipping was a flat $6.99 so I was able to bring the per-jar cost down by ordering multiples. (If you’re in a hurry, this source will sell it to you via Amazon Prime, but you’ll pay.) I advise you to do the same. A jar lasts me about 3 years, so divide your life expectancy by that number and purchase accordingly before this manna goes away for good.

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Our top 5 (or so) recipes (2017 edition)

Corn Cucumber Salsa

Corn Cucumber Salsa–the winner!

It’s that time again! September is the 6th anniversary of the Burnt My Fingers blog, and as in previous years we look back at the recipes that have generated the most clicks over the last 12 months. Or, not. The Colonel’s KFC Three-Bean Salad, Vincent’s Garlic Cole Slaw and Squash Casserole a la Highland Park Cafeteria always make the list so we’ll give them a bye. With those three taking a victory lap, here’s what’s left in our top five recipes:

  1. Corn Cucumber Salsa. Hijo! This recipe was inspired by the salsa at GDL Taqueria in Glens Falls, NY, which served the best tacos I’ve ever experienced. Sadly, that place is closed but you can still make this prep at home. For maximum pleasure, do take the trouble to pickle the onions and grill the corn. The niblets make it rolly-poly so it’s not ideal for dipping a chip, but it goes almost anywhere else you want a frisson of fresh taste and heat.

  2. Aji Roja (Mild Red Chile Sauce Peruvian-Style). Another surprise! I came up with this tangy mixture, along with a green companion, to serve with the Peruvian grilled heart specialty called anticuchos. But neither the meat nor the verde sauce has gained any traction, while clicks for aji roja are through the roof. I suspect the key is its resemblance to “Tacolicious” sauce, a Bay Area favorite.

  3. Pickled Tripe. The continued success of this offal dish proves its listing last year was no fluke. I can only imagine the reception we will get when we finally figure out the secret of Pennsylvania Dutch tripe in gelée. (I’m working on it; I now have some cleaned but not bleached tripe in the freezer, plus a pig’s foot as a backup source of collagen.)

  4. Fried Calamari Chinese-Style. This ended up in almost exactly the same spot as last year. It’s our home-grown version of General Tso’s Shrimp, only better thanks to a few refinements like making a stock from the shells. And it’s delicious. Try some tonight!

  5. Pita for Jerusalem. Another surprise! We developed this bake to go with the wonderful dishes in Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem Cookbook, which oddly contains no pita recipe. And preps for this simple pocket bread seem pretty hard to find in general. I guess everybody assumes you’ll buy your pita, but it’s so easy you might as well make your own.

That’s it! Wonder who will be on top next year?

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