Food for Thought: Teff Love

I blundered on Kittee Berns’ Teff Love on Amazon while looking for injera recipes. I don’t think I have ever seen such glowing reviews for a book. I bought it, and committed to sourcing some of the ingredients like ajiwan and nigella which are essential to Ethiopian cooking. Also picked up some teff flour and pre-mixed berbere (chili blend) at my local co-op and was off to the races.

The dishes I made for my first foray were Ye’Bamya Alicha/okra and tomato (p. 102), Ye’Misser Wot/red lentils in spicy sauce (p. 72) and Ye’Atakilt Alicha/stewed cabbage, potatoes and carrots (p. 100). These were indicated as being typical of the choices you’d find on a veggie combo platter in an Ethiopian restaurant. Indeed, they had the flavor variety I was looking for, especially because I’d taken the extra steps of making Ye’Qimen Zeyet/Seasoned Oil (p. 25) and Ye’Wot Qimen/Black Pepper Spice Mixture (p. 40). This being a vegan cookbook, I also consulted the internet and made some Key Wot/spicy beef stew to round things out.

And about the injera: I have had my own struggles with attempts to make an injera starter which I will write about at another time. But Teff Love provides a wonderful hack called Quick Teff Crepes (p. 33) which will do until the real thing comes along. Through unconventional usage of some common ingredients, this provides both the taste and texture of the spongy bread you’re familiar with.

I would buy the book for the teff crepe recipe alone, and feel very confident about the quality and reliability of the recipes as I venture deeper. (In addition to traditional Ethiopian dishes, there are some Ethiopian riffs on other cuisines, such as an Ethiopian mac-and-[vegan]cheese.) Check it out!

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Recipe: Different Wilted Lettuce

Different Wilted Lettuce

Different Wilted Lettuce

Another from the Pi Beta Phi Cookbook, contributed by Helen Rounds of Athens, Ohio. What makes this different wilted lettuce “different” is the addition of a beaten egg. Mrs. Rounds added it along with the other liquids, but that would have curdled it so I add right at the end. You could also prepare the dressing in a double boiler, but that’s a bit too fussy for these straightforward home cooks. Serves 4-6.

Ingredients:
1 head romaine or small head iceberg lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
1-2 slices bacon*
1 T bacon grease or olive oil (optional)
1/4 c cider vinegar
1/4 c water
2 T sugar
3/4 t Kosher salt
1/4 t ground black pepper
1 small onion, minced

Method: chop the bacon and render it until the bits are crispy; you want to end up with at least 1 T fat. If you don’t, add the optional bacon grease or olive oil. Beat the egg fine and mix in sugar, salt and pepper. Add onion, vinegar and water to skillet of bacon and bring to the boil. Whisk in the egg/spice mixture and let it heat just to the point that the egg is beginning to set then pour immediately over the lettuce in serving bowl. Toss to distribute dressing so it evenly heats and wilts the leaves.

*In Mrs. Rounds’ day the bacon slices were thicker, so you’ll probably want to use two of them.

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Recipe: Harvard Beets

Harvard Beets

Harvard Beets

Harvard Beets is one of those grandma holiday side dishes that’s actually quite delicious, especially if you improve it with a bit of orange marmalade like I did. Based on Jean Trevor’s recipe in the Pi Beta Phi cookbook which I really like because a/it’s simple (unlike most, she does not bother with a double boiler) and b/the beets are diced, exposing more surface area to the delicious sauce. Serves 4-6.

Ingredients:
1 lb red beets, cooked, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 T cornstarch
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c vinegar
2 T butter
1 t orange marmalade (optional, but delicious)

Method: mix the sugar and cornstarch in a small saucepan and add vinegar. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, till solids are dissolved and the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes or less. Add butter and optional orange marmalade, and stir until butter is melted. Mix in beets and any juice they’ve formed while sitting and allow 30 minutes for the flavors to meld. Reheat to lukewarm before serving.

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Live Uni: one and done

Live Sea Urchin

Live Uni (I know what you’re thinking, but the one with the grey area on the shell wasn’t the defective one)

On my recent trip to San Francisco, I indulged in a bucket-list checkoff: ordering live uni from Santa Barbara Fish Market. Overnight shipping is a ridiculously cheap $9.95, to California addresses only. (Elsewhere it’s $49.95.) The sea urchins themselves are $12.95 each, which seemed reasonable.

Uni Unboxing

The unboxing

They arrived in a big insulated box with a couple of cooler packs. I confirmed they were still alive (you can tell because the spines move) then refrigerated overnight and went at them the next morning. I had ready a bowl of salt water in which to deposit the meat, and a big bucket for the detritus. I also had a towel for handling, but the spines are not especially sharp.

Uni in Shell

Uni lobe in the shell

One attacks the beast with a pair of sturdy scissors, starting at the mouth which is the only soft area and cutting upward. The first thing you realize is that there is a very good chance of slicing into one of the gonads, which I did immediately. Maybe with experience one can tell where they are located but to this novice the outsides were uniformly spiny, providing no clue of the insides. Once you cut into the shell you’ll quickly release a volume of liquid which you should deposit in your trash bucket, not your lap or on the floor. Continue cutting until you are able to split the sea urchin and expose the interior.

Defective Uni

Defective uni with thin, dark lobes

The first of my three urchins was fairly clean inside and the gonads on the walls were easy to find and scoop out out with a spoon. The second had quite a bit of mucusy gunk that needed to be separated from the lobes. The third, though it looked the same on the outside as the others, was defective. The gonads were dark and not plump, and the one bite I tried was tough and tasteless.

Uni Harvest

My uni harvest, with the defective lobes in background

My entire crop is visible on the plate picture, less one lobe I scooped out and ate immediately. It’s about the same amount you get on one of those wooden trays for $10-20 in a Japanese market, and the store-bought uni would be clean and more uniform. I also confirmed that the wonderful briny taste I associate with uni is something that happens with a bit of aging. These were pleasant but very mild. And thus ends my uni experiment. I’m sure, as with shucking oysters, my skills would improve over time. But I’m happy to leave it to the professionals from now on.

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How to order steak in a seafood restaurant

Yelp has a lot of good insights, but there are a few bozos lurking here and there. Among them are people who go to a restaurant that is known for one particular type of cuisine, order something completely different, then write a one-star review because it’s not to their liking.

Consider, for example, the non-seafood items offered by a restaurant that specializes in fresh seafood. Some people just don’t like seafood or are allergic, so it’s reasonable that a seafood restaurant might have a steak, a vegetarian entrée, a chicken dish to accommodate those diners who are out with their friends or family. But it’s not reasonable to expect the same expertise and quality as on the restaurant’s specialty.

To cook steaks, for example, you need a/a grill; b/a cook who knows the grill’s heat zones; c/a cook who knows how to judge a steak’s degree of doneness. Even if you have a/ you’re not likely to get b/ or c/ if steak is ordered half a dozen times a night. Which is why my title is a trick question to which the answer is: don’t.

Another flavor of yahoo is the person who goes into a restaurant specializing in regional ethnic cuisine and demands an Americanized version of the dish. We have this in Ala Shanghai, an excellent regional Chinese place in upstate New York that borders on fine dining. They also have a huge takeout menu that includes the following pork items:
Spare Rib in Wuxi Style; Peking Pork Chop; Salt & Pepper Pork Chop; Tong-Po Pork;
Stewed Pork w. Tofu Knot; Double Cooked Pork; Smoked Pork w. Chili Pepper; Smoked Pork w. Leek; Pork w. Garlic Sauce; Pork w. Bamboo Shoot; Mo-Shu Pork (Serves w. 4 pancakes); Sliced Pork in Spicy Broth; Sliced Pork w. Fungus. What’s missing? Sweet and Sour Pork… and they take plenty of dings for it.

When I dine out I make a point of asking my server what is the kitchen’s strongest dish or, if that doesn’t produce a clear answer, what is the most popular dish. I also ask for opinions on my tentative picks. The other night I was eating in a neighborhood barbecue place and there were two different slaws. Which to order? I’d already told the server I was having potato salad and she said one of the slaws had a similar dressing, so the choice was easy. I like variety, so I ordered the other slaw.

Life is too short to have bad meals.

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Recipe: Texas Barbecue Beans

Texas Barbecue Beans

Texas Barbecue Beans. You really do want this much liquid, because the pot liquor is the best part of the dish.

This formula is as close as I can get to the manna served at Snow’s without putting you in the pickup and driving to Lexington, TX. These are Texas barbecue beans, not “barbecued’ because no smoking is involved. Serves 8-10.

Ingredients:
1 lb. dried pinto beans (about 2 3/4 c)
8 oz. bacon ends and pieces (about 1 1/2 c) OR 8 oz bacon, finely chopped
Bacon grease
2-4 T Toné or other mild chili powder*
1 t Kosher salt

Method: soak the beans overnight in ample water (much more than enough to cover them in the pot) OR bring to the boil, turn off the heat, and allow to soak for one hour. Meanwhile, render the finely chopped bacon in a large pot until it is crispy and a good amount of fat has been produced. If there’s not a lot of fat, add a tablespoon or two of bacon grease. Pour the beans and their water into the bacon pot (so you don’t lose any of the grease), stir in salt and chili powder.

Bacon Ends and Pieces

I used this “seasoning” which is about half the price of good bacon.

Cook over low heat for an hour, adding more water as needed, then taste and correct the seasoning. (I would start with 3 T chili powder and expect to add the fourth T). Continue cooking and adding water until beans are tender but not soft, about 2-3 hours total. You can serve immediately, though these beans are even better the next day.

*I was pleased to find that substituting a store brand chili powder produced a taste very close to that I got with Toné, the brnd used at Snow’s.

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Albany shows how to do Restaurant Week right

Local Upstate NY chef Dominic Colose writes a lively blog in which, among other topics, he rails against restaurant weeks. He feels they pack his establishment with loutish bottom feeders (my words; he’s more polite) who swoop in for the spoils and will never be seen again.

While I’m sure there are some of those folks, there are also a lot of people who are lured in to try your restaurant and will come back at regular price. In fact, I lauded Chef Colose at his former establishment for a $30 meal that showed me his creativity in cooking and also in meeting a price point. And I criticized certain places that give lip service to restaurant week by, for example, tossing in a cookie with a salad and entrée at regular price and calling it a three course meal.

The 2017 Downtown Albany Restaurant Week (April 1-7) has a different idea, and I’m intrigued by it. Participating restaurants agree to serve at least $35 worth of food (which you could verify by checking the regular menu) for $20.17. It’s like a Groupon: you like getting a discount, but you know how much the meal is worth. (And, like with Groupon, you’ll hopefully know to tip on the full, non-discounted amount.)

Where am I going? Probably not Jack’s Oyster House which will serve me a green salad, tilapia and bread pudding for my $20.17. I don’t doubt their regular prices add up to more than $35, but those are the lower priced items on any menu. City Beer Hall is MUCH better with an intriguing menu that has too many good choices. I think I’ll go for the charcuterie, grilled skate wing and matcha tea panna cotta. They currently have the magnificent Rushing Duck War Elephant DIPA on tap, so I know what I’m going to do with that $15 savings.

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Benton’s Country Hams make mighty good eating

Benton's Country Ham

A sampling of my bounty from Benton’s Country Hams

I was watching a cooking show on TV, probably the excellent “Mind of a Chef” season with Ed Lee, when it occurred to me I had not eaten any country ham in way too long. Thank goodness we have the Internet to help us with problems like this.

Country ham is the American South’s answer to prosciutto and Jamon Serrano. It’s often smoked, always salty, and cured by air drying to the point that much of the moisture is gone and the meat becomes gamey and intensely flavorful. My last country ham was several packets of slices from Clifty Farms, so long ago they don’t even sent me catalogs any more. I had fond memories, but wanted to try something new.

Edwards in Surrey, VA is often cited as the pinnacle of country ham execution, but tragically their smokehouse burnt down in January 2016 and, though it has been rebuilt, the long aging means their signature “Wigwam” ham will not be available until November 2017. I was not tempted by the fill-in products, such as some 4-6 month cured country hams which may or may not come from the new smokehouse. I also had some trepidation about pricing: a 14-16 lb. bone-in Wigwam ham is $180, and their “Suryano” from heritage breeds is even more.

Luckily I lit on the Benton’s Country Hams website, where they sell a ham with the same long aging as Edwards for less than half the price. This is a highly respected brand which is used in a number of prestigious restaurants but they’ve been able to achieve economies of scale while keeping the quality, and the use of humane husbandry practices, intact. And they had an offer that I found irresistible: Benton would slice that ham for me and deliver several packets of slices plus the skin and the bone wrapped separately for just a few dollars more than the whole ham. (This is what they call the “Aged Whole Country Ham Deboned & Trimmed” with product code AWCHDT.)

Less than a week later, the package was on my doorstep. There weren’t any icepacks, but I wouldn’t need them in my locale in early March; don’t know what they do in the Southern summer heat. I dug in and it was indeed mighty good eating. If you are adventurous you can enjoy this meat pretty much as you would prosciutto or Serrano, though you need to make allowances for the thicker cut: instead of wrapping a paper-thin slice around a piece of cantaloupe, you’d cut a square and put it on top with a toothpick. Or you can fry it up with its own fat in which case it becomes a completely different product, a sort of ham jerky, crispy and salty. Eat a slice like a pork chop, or chop it and add to blackeye peas or greens and you will be in heaven.

Shipping wasn’t cheap, so I added four one-pound packages of bacon (only way they sell it). This also was a revelation. The thick slices give up their fat without sticking as you fry them, so you quickly end up with crispy strips of bacon and a generous amount of delicious bacon grease for future adventures.

This is good stuff, and the value makes it hard to pass up. You’re paying the supermarket gourmet bacon price for what may be the best bacon you’ve ever had, and getting an even better deal on the ham. Really, stop reading right now and order you some.

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Food for Thought: The Raw and the Cooked

The Raw and the Cooked

Cover of Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked

I have been reading the wonderfully funny and insightful The Raw and the Cooked, a buffet of food articles by the late Jim Harrison. I first encountered this fine gentleman on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” where he was a cigarette tugging tour guide to the culinary marvels of Montana. The relationship between death and food is a constaint refrain in his writing, and shortly after that episode was filmed Harrison did indeed pass away.

So, I certainly recommend you buy the book or get it out of your library. But I hope you will not be distracted as I am by the unsettling photograph on the cover. Where was it taken? Googling the photographer, Maude Schuyler Clay, turns up that she is a Mississippian and indeed this looks like classic Southern cooking in the photo. Harrison is in some kind of casual dining establishment* (the tablecloth is a faux cowhide), eating what looks to be fried fish served with turnip greens, blackeye peas and a hush puppy. A square of cornbread and bottles of Louisiana Hot Sauce and pepper sauce complete the setup.

But look closer and it becomes a case of “find the six things wrong in this picture”. What is Harrison doing drinking a glass of red wine with his fish? (For that matter, white wine would equally out of place. This is Southern food! It demands ice tea, water or a beer, depending on the local temperance laws.) And what is going on with the table setting next to his? His dining companion appears to have ordered a couple of pork chops with fried okra and butter beans plus a side of squash casserole, all good. But why is that plate so close to Harrison’s arm he would knock it off the table if he lifted his wine glass? And why is that diner’s place set with a knife but no fork, spoon or napkin, or chair for that matter? And whose ice tea is that way off in the corner? Add to that the fact the wainscot rail behind him is photographed at a nausea-inducing angle when it could just as easily have been on the level, and you have to feel that Schuyer, and the “cover designer” Gretchen Mergenthaler, are messing with us.

Apologies for my own off-kilter photo of the book from my library; the copy I bought was the Kindle version. I think Harrison’s writing just the thing to quaff in small dollops while sitting on a plane, much as he himself would have done with some of his bespoke libations. And I don’t have to look at the photo to keep reading.

*The only mention of Mississippi in the book is a passing reference to the Ajax Cafe in Oxford. I looked at photos online and there is no evidence the cover photo was shot there. Tablecloths are gingham, and there are no wainscoted walls that would lend themselves to this setup.

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Recipe: Marinated Roasted Red Peppers

Marinated Roasted Red Peppers

Marinated Roasted Red Peppers

Red bell peppers have been showing up at more reasonable prices recently. Which is great, because marinated roasted red peppers are one of the supreme tasty and healthy pleasures of life on earth. If you haven’t made these at home, now is the time to get started. But don’t be tempted to substitute yellow bell peppers which are beautiful, but tasteless, or green bell peppers which have a completely different flavor profile. Serves 4 as a side salad.

Ingredients:
1 lb red bell peppers (usually 3 peppers, though if they weigh a little more that’s fine)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 t Kosher salt
1 T capers
1 T balsamic or red wine vinegar
3 T good olive oil

Method: char the peppers, turning until all sides and the ends are evenly blackened. (If the pepper has one of those SKU stickers from the supermarket, remove it first!) If you have a gas stove you can do this right over a burner. If your stove is electric, you’ll have to use the broiler. As the peppers are done, transfer to a paper bag and seal tightly. Allow the peppers to steam until they become cool enough to handle, about an hour. Remove the charred skin with your hands under running water and tear the peppers apart, discarding the stem and seeds and pulling the flesh into strips the width of a fork. Drain thoroughly then mix peppers with the other ingredients. Allow to marinate at least 2 hours, during which the peppers will give off delicious juice* that blends with the other liquids. Serve the peppers as a side dish on their own, not mixed into a salad, so you can enjoy them to the fullest.

*I was once in Roma’s, my fine Italian deli, when an old-school guy ordered a sandwich with (non-marinated) roasted red peppers. Did he want dressing, he was asked? “No… just the juice ‘a the pep.”

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