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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The truth about nitrites and “uncured” meat products

Piggery Uncured Bologna

The Piggery’s uncured bologna is delicious, but it’s not nitrite free

Go to your local Whole Foods or other source of virtuous and carefully vetted nutrition, proceed to the deli or meat section, and you’re likely to find a label that says something like

Except those naturally occurring in celery powder

Would it bother you to know that a/these products ARE cured and b/they DO contain nitrites, possibly in the same quantities as traditional “cured” meats? Then you’ll want to stick around for a somewhat circuitous history lesson.

The “uncured” label was introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1979. (The USDA regulates meat and dairy products; the Food and Drug Administration regulates most other processed foods.) I haven’t been able to find the inspiration for this new designation, but my guess is it was requested by the meat processing industry in response to the nitrosamide scare.

During the early 1970s, scientists discovered that the nitrate used to cure bacon could turn into a highly toxic and carcinogenic substance if the bacon was overcooked. Processing rules were changed so mass produced “pumped” bacon had to be injected with ascorbic acid, which neutralized the nitrosamides. Problem solved. But consumers had been freaked, and it would have been very beneficial to meat processors to be able to market their product as “uncured”.

According to Section 319.2 of CFR (Code of Federal Regulations), “any product, such as frankfurters and corned beef, for which there is a standard in this part and to which nitrate or nitrite is permitted or required to be added, may be prepared without nitrate or nitrite and labeled with such standard name when immediately preceded with the term “Uncured” in the same size and style of lettering as the rest of such standard name: Provided, That the product is found by the Administrator to be similar in size, flavor, consistency, and general appearance to such product as commonly prepared with nitrate and nitrite.”

“Natural and Organic Cured Meat Products: Regulatory, Manufacturing, Marketing, Quality and Safety Issues” a white paper published by the American Meat Science Association in 2007, points out that this definition is an oxymoron. (Access to this document requires registration on the AMSA site, which I believe is provided free of charge.) Unlike other meats, bacon, ham, sausage and similar products are substantially changed in the curing process and that change is produced through fermentation as lactobacilli transform nitrate into nitrite. Without nitrate/nitrite the meat cannot be cured and will not have the characteristics of cured meat.

In order to create cured meat that could be labeled uncured, producers would have to find another curing agent that would not be identified as nitrate or nitrite. And that’s exactly what they did. The AMSA described a study of 56 “uncured” products purchased at retail that found “38 products included sea salt, 33 listed evaporated cane juice, raw sugar or turbinado sugar, 19 included a lactic acid starter culture, 17 had natural spices or natural flavorings, 14 added honey and 11 included celery juice or celery juice concentrate.” 16 also contained lactate, which we’ll talk about later.

Another study reported by the AMSA analyzed “4 selected commercial brands each of natural or organic bacon, hams and frankfurters [and] showed that all samples except one sample of bacon contained residual nitrite at concentrations ranging from 0.9 ppm to 9.2 ppm. Residual nitrate was found in all products at concentrations of 6.8 ppm to 44.4 ppm” although these proportions were in most cases lower than the amounts found in “cured” products.

I first encountered “uncured” meats when writing a website for Niman Ranch about 2008. Their uncured bacon and ham were the only products from this high-end butcher that were allowed into Whole Foods, since the rest contained nitrites. I recall that the bacon, while it had a nice smokey taste, would not crisp up in cooking and the ham did not have the salty muskiness you associate with cured ham.

If you pick up a package of “uncured” sausage, bacon or ham in 2015, however, you’ll probably find that the appearance, taste and cooking properties are very similar to “cured”. That’s because the meat processors have figured it out. They use celery powder. According to the AMSA paper, “celery juice and celery powder appear to be highly compatible with processed meat products because celery has very little vegetable pigment (as opposed to beets, for example) and a mild flavor profile similar to raw celery that does not detract greatly from finished product flavor.” Celery powder also has a high initial nitrate concentration at 27,462 ppm.

Another benefit of curing with celery powder, for the meat processor, is that it fits under the separate “natural” designation which, according to the USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book of 2005, means the processed meat product “…does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative (as defined in 21 CFR 101.22), or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed.” Nitrates and nitrites are clearly excluded, but not celery powder and other vegetable cures because they are defined as “flavorings”.

Sodium lactate and potassium lactate, which can aid in curing, were originally permitted under the “natural” label but were disallowed in 2006 after a petition claiming that even though they have a natural source their purpose is create a chemical reaction in the foods. Of course, the same could be said of celery powder and other “natural” cures.

The party bringing the petition to restrict the “natural” definition was not Aunt Sally’s Farm Raised Happy Meats, but the giant Hormel meat processing concern. This tells you something about the politics of these food designations which, in the interest of promoting healthy eating (and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that) also create enormous profit opportunities in marketing to the growing audience of consumers who are willing to pay premium prices for the product.

So enjoy your “uncured” and “natural” bacon, salami or ham because it’s probably delicious. Just don’t think you’re eating an uncured or nitrite-free product.

Coming up: Why Nitrites Are So Bad for You. (Or Are They?)

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Hotel room kale salad

Kale Salad Fixins

Ingredients for my impromptu hotel room kale salad

So I’m staying in a hotel room and needed to bring a dish to a potluck. The solution was a variation on my Wilted Kale Salad using the following improvisations:

Step 1: purchased a 1 lb bag of chopped kale at Target grocery. This was intended for juicing, according to the label; the size of the chopped leaves was fine but I had to go through and tear many of the pieces off their bits of stem.

Step 2: distributed 1 t salt (from a shaker) over the trimmed kale; worked it in and rubbed for 2 minutes until kale became shiny and was reduced in volume by 1/3.

Step 3: scrounged the following ingredients from breakfast buffet bar: about 2 T each dates (which I chopped), walnuts, golden raisins and pumpkin seeds. Also had access to some red onion so I mixed in about 2 T.

Hotel Kale Salad Finished

The finished product

Step 4: add 1 T olive oil and 1 T vinegar (I had some available, but you could borrow from the cruets in the coffee shop) to the kale. Toss; add the mix ins; serve immediately or refrigerate an hour or longer. I brought along some blue cheese but served it on the side out of consideration for some vegans at the party.

The result wasn’t 100% as good as the original but was surprisingly close, considering the total lack of preparation time and planning. And the guests at the potluck liked it a lot.

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From the floor at Winter Fancy Food Show 2015

Nancy Silverton

Nancy Silverton works the crowd at Fancy Food Show

It was easy to spot the hot trend at the Winter 2015 Fancy Food Show in San Francisco: high end ice cream/gelato/froyo in every imaginable configuration. There was coconut gelato (with coconut cream substituting for dairy as the thickener), agave ice cream, non fat ice cream, pancakes and syrup flavor froyo with rice crispies caramel sauce (those are flavors for sale to froyo shops) and even gluten-free ice cream. (That last is marketing hype, since there’s no reason for ice cream to contain gluten except in a mix-in.)

My bite of Honeycomb ice cream

My nibble of Honeycomb ecstasy, from L.A. Artisan Creamery

My favorite taste, and my favorite item at the show, was Honeycomb from L.A. Artisan Creamery, a new venture from Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and Mozza fame. So rich and honey-laden thanks to an interesting formula in which egg yolks , cream and buttermilk are used for flavor intensity and then natural thickeners (bean paste and guar gum) contribute texture. Like her bread, this is rolling out nationwide and will be available at your nearby overpriced gourmet store soon. (At $10.99* a pint it’s at least as expensive as Jeni’s, but they’re both worth it.)

Some other items from my notes:

  • The predicted peanut butter onslaught did not materialize, or maybe it’s an east coast thing. Just a couple of peanut butter vendors at this show.
  • The best Parma Prosciutto is better than the best Serrano, at least in my book.
  • What’s with cheese straws/sticks/crisps? I decide I would do a horizontal tasting and couldn’t find any that actually tasted like cheese.
  • No matter how creative you get with air-popped popcorn, it still tastes like cardboard.
  • I ran across one of the few barbecue sauces I’d actually put on my brisket… it had the bitter flavor intensity of Franklin’s espresso sauce in Austin. These good folks are going to send me some samples to investigate and I’ll have much more on this soon.

* I took a closer look at the literature I picked up, and the $10.99 is for “Nancy’s Fancy”, a line extension with higher-end ingredients that wasn’t presented at the show. The Honeycomb has a suggested price of $7.49…. now that’s a real bargain, relatively speaking!

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Last chance (really) to get Albany Wine Fest tickets

Lamb Breakfast Sandwich

Lamb “breakfast sandwich” from Treviso at last year’s event: maple braised lamb leg, asiago, smoked bacon and shaved frozen egg yolk on french toast

The 2015 Albany Food & Wine Festival is coming up this weekend, but don’t wait any longer to buy tickets. As of this moment EVERYTHING is SOLD OUT with the exception of the Friday Afternoon Grand Tasting.

However, that’s my favorite event of the weekend and well worth leaving work early for. I attended last year on Friday and was impressed by the complexity and presentation of many of the samples. At Albany Wine Fest it seems like many of the chefs are trying to one-up one another in how imaginative and generous they can be with the foods they put forth… as opposed to some other festivals in which the participants are simply providing samples (not that there’s anything wrong with that) of what you can find at their restaurants.

Creo Pork Belly

Pork Belly from Creo with pickled red onions, cotija cheese and micro cilantro

There is also a huge amount of alcohol on offer… both as cocktails and straight samples of obscure brands and products. (It was at last year’s event I discovered the White Pike Whiskey and McClure’s Bloody Mary.) Which is why I recommend you take advantage of the discount rates being offered on the festival’s website for overnight lodging at the Albany Hilton (host venue) or the Hampton Inn around the corner. Discount codes are at the bottom of the ticket purchase page linked above.

Moroccan from Tara Kitchen

The event also features new venues, like Tara Kitchen’s Moroccan fare last year

This is the sixth year of the event, which was started by Yono Purmono and friends as a way to give back to the community, and proceeds go to support a number of local arts organizations. I’m missing it this year because I’m on the West Coast at the Fancy Food Show… was going to post about that but it will have to wait till after you buy your tickets for the Friday Afternoon Grand Tasting. Do it right now!

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What’s cooking at CES 2015 in Las Vegas

Anova sous vide gadget

Anova Bluetooth sous vide cooker at CES

This is the year of the “internet of things” at the Consumer Electronics Show, but in two days prowling the aisles I did not see many things for the adventurous cook. An exception is the Anova sous vide cooker shown at left, which compares in features and design to the Sansaire and, at $179 is $20 cheaper… and it has Bluetooth! Okay, that’s mostly a gimmick because of the short range (I guess you could keep an eye on your sous vide while you’re in the next room watching the game). But a future release will have wireless and that really will be useful: you could control your cooking from the road and lower the heat when the food’s done (while still keeping the bath at a food-safe temperature, obviously).

Picobrew gadget in its CES booth

Picobrew brew maker/sous vide maker at CES

I also ran across the Picobrew Zymatic, a gadget that is essentially a sous vide cooker with a filtration system that controls the temperature changes needed when making beer, then runs it through baskets of hops and into a vessel where you’ll pitch the yeast and ferment the wort. It’s also advertised as a sous vide device though at $1799 it’s less cost effective than the Anova or even the more expensive cookers that have their own vessel. What it does that others don’t is allow you to cook with a liquid other than water, which would foul an exposed heating element. I am interested in how the Picobrew manages this and also wonder if Anova has a filtration system and the not-very-knowledgeable booth guy didn’t know about it; their website mentions a dishwasher safe sleeve and why would you want to wash it if it had not gotten mucked up in some way?

Samsung LED virtual flame

LED “flames” give the reassurance your food really is cooking on induction rangetop

I did not see apps for turning on ovens and ranges from your smartphone as there are for defrosting food or doing the wash. Maybe that’s for safety reasons: make a mistake and you could remotely burn down your house. I talked to the Samsung rep for the high end induction ranges (which have embedded LEDs to give the appearance of a gas flame even though there isn’t one; it’s supposed to be user feedback that it’s cooking) and he said there are no plans to bring Asian ovens with steam baking (for bread) to the U.S. A couple of ovens advertised a steam cleaning cycle but that involves you pouring a little water in the bottom of the oven, as it turns out. For the several thousand dollars they charge for these units, seems like they could at least throw in a spray bottle.

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Recipe: Texas-Style Greens

Cooked collards with hard boiled egg

Your finished collards should look like this, tender but not cooked to death

This prep is very similar to black-eyed peas in that the secret to flavor is starting with a rich broth that has a good amount of fat. Unlike some, I don’t like to drown my greens in broth and I don’t like to cook them to death. And I especially don’t like to add sugar or honey. Serves 6.

1 bunch collard greens or turnip greens, about 1 lb, washed, ends trimmed and coarsely chopped
1 c chicken or pork stock
2 T bacon grease or other fat
1 egg in the shell (optional; omit if using turnips along with their greens)
¾ t Kosher salt

Method: Steam the collards in the fatty liquid for about 20 minutes, covered, occasionally stirring so all surfaces are equally exposed to the liquid. I like to add an egg in the shell which is hard boiled by the time the collards are done. I then plunge it into cold water, peel, chop and add to the greens before serving. Serve with pepper sauce.

This recipe works equally well with turnip greens, with or without the turnips. If using turnips, omit the egg.

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Bonehead food idea of 2014 comes from Vermont Maple Syrup

Everybody’s doing end of year “best of” lists so here’s mine. The award for the silliest food-related news of 2014 goes to… Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. We’ll let them explain it in their own words:

New and old VT maple grades

Courtesy of Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association

For years, Vermont maple syrup has been divided into one of four grades based on color and flavor. As consumer preference has changed over the past century, so too has the grading system evolved to provide a more accurate description based on consumer preference. The names of each grade, however, did not necessarily provide a meaningful description of the syrup. For instance, with no prior knowledge of maple syrup grades, Grade B does not mean much other than suggesting it would be a lesser quality than Grade A.

Beginning in 2014, Vermont maple syrup producers will start using a new grading system that will provide a better description of each grade, or class, of syrup. Each grade will state a color and a flavor descriptor:
Grade A: Golden Color with Delicate Taste
Grade A: Amber Color with Rich Taste
Grade A: Dark Color with Robust Taste
Grade A: Very Dark Color with Strong Taste

I kid you not. This is not a transcript from the Jon Stewart Show. Those are the association’s own words on their website. And, since all syrup is now Grade A, they have to spell out the distinctions on the labels resulting in the ridiculous complexity shown above. One can also see how the old names were so much simpler, more descriptive and in general superior. “Fancy” is the perfect name for the version of the product that is most refined and least flavorful. And Grade B has always been the delightful secret code for “best”.

Being in New York, I prefer our native syrup to Vermont’s though truth to tell I find the taste very consistent from one brand to the next (of course, I always buy Grade B). Seems like our state could seize a competitive advantage simply by keeping the old system but it’s apparently not to be.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Agriculture Canada, the USDA’s counterpart in Canada, also are expected to change their grading systems in 2015 to mirror the ones adopted in Vermont, says USA Today. Which means meaningful syrup labeling will go away in the coming year and our food lives will be just a wee bit more confusing. Happy New Year.

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Recipe: Texas-Style Black-Eyed Peas

Black Eyed Peas

Black-eyed peas for New Years are supposed to be lucky.

The key to good black-eyed peas is a flavorful cooking liquid, ample allium components, and a generous amount of fat. I use dried beans (vs frozen or canned) unless fresh are available. Serves 6-8.

½ lb dried black-eyed peas or 1 lb fresh
Chicken or pork stock
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic
¼ c bacon fat, lard, olive oil or other flavorful fat
1 t Kosher salt

Method: Cover dried peas with water in a saucepan; keep adding water till it’s an inch above the beans. Swirl the water with your fingers and pick out any broken bits that rise to the top. Cover, bring to the boil, turn off heat and soak at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. Omit this step if using fresh peas.

Drain off the water then add all other ingredients with enough cooking liquid to cover the peas. Cook 40 minutes until tender but not falling apart (the example in my picture is just past that point), adding more liquid if needed. In Texas we serve this with pepper sauce and maybe some scallions, whole or chopped, for diners to enjoy along with the beans.

Note: In rural east Texas in the summertime, many porches feature a lineup of family members patiently shelling peas, which are then sold in bags at roadside. Cream peas, crowder peas and purple-hull (considered the finest) are seen along with black-eyed peas, but the taste difference is subtle. However, fresh black-eyed peas of any ilk are a treat worth buying if you should find them at your local market.

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What happened to the carrot and onions in Julia Child’s boeuf bourguinon?

About to add the wine... note vegetables on top. If this is wrong, I don't want to be right!

About to add the wine… note vegetables on top. If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

I decided to make Julia Child’s boeuf bourguinon this weekend, following the recipe in my 1973 copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

She’s got a nice technique for working the flour into meat: brown the meat first, then mix it in the dry casserole with the flour and seasonings; give the uncovered casserole a little time in a hot oven, which incorporates the flour and adds a nice crust to the meat.

The recipe also contains an anomaly: after we’ve browned the meat, Julia tells us to saute a sliced onion and sliced carrot in the same oil, then throw away the oil. The carrot and onion are never mentioned again. My guess is that the vegetables go in at the beginning of the slow oven cooking which is what I did: they’ll cook away to nothing and add to the flavor.

Assuming this error might have been corrected in later editions of the cookbook, I went online and googled the recipe. Several bloggers had reproduced it–and every one repeated the non-instructions for the carrot and onion. One wonders what value they’re adding, if they don’t even read the recipes they’re copying. (There were also some bloggers who had done their own riffs on Julia’s boeuf borguinon, which is absolutely fine with me.)

On Burnt My Fingers, I don’t think we’ve ever reproduced a recipe without adding to it or modifying it in some way. (A possible exception is out-of-print cookbooks where you’re not likely to find the recipe on your own.) Even if the recipe is the same or almost the same, we create our own instructions since, although recipe formulas are are in the public domain, preparation descriptions are the property of the author under copyright law. Which means we’d be very unlikely to repeat an error or omission in the original author’s recipe.

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