Sussing out Saratoga Restaurant Week 2016

Squash Soup, Meatloaf Sandwich

$10 lunch special for Saratoga Restaurant Week at Salt and Char

We’re at the midpoint of Saratoga Restaurant Week 2016, and I’ve made an earnest effort to review the meals that are on offer at $5 or $10 for lunch, $10, $20 or $30 for dinner. Some restauranteurs complain about restaurant weeks because they feel they draw the bargain hunters who are unlikely to return. But it’s also an opportunity to be creative and show what you can do at a price point. Diners who might not have tried you previously get a good taste of what to expect and may come back at full price.

That’s what is happening at Salt and Char, an extremely expensive steak house that opened last year on Broadway. The $10 lunch special is a meatloaf sandwich on focaccia, accompanied by a bowl of cardamon-scented butternut squash soup. Brilliant idea to grind the scraps from those expensive cuts (the cheapest steak on the regular menu is $68) and serve with a rich tomato jam. I didn’t like the soup as much and in any case it didn’t go well with the meatloaf: heavy complemented by heavy. A salad (maybe the impressive iceberg wedge I saw on other tables) would have been better. That told me something about the new crew in the kitchen, the original world-renowned chef (Gary Kunz) having stepped back from daily operations. But my wife had the $24 prix fixe which delivered a bowl of French onion soup under a puff of cheese accented pastry, followed by a nicely sautéed chicken breast. The hanger steak is available for a $8 upcharge, allowing diners to sample a signature dish at less than half the usual price. (That’s an ongoing lunch special, not just for restaurant week.) Now I know what the restaurant is like (plusses and minuses to the decor, all minus to the blaring soundtrack which is unfortunately way too common in local places) and what the kitchen can do. I’ll return for that hanger steak.

At the other end of the spectrum are any number of establishments which are serving burgers, sandwiches or other entrées that come close to the price point on the regular menu, and tossing in a cookie or a beverage. That’s not trying hard at all, but better than some folks that can’t be troubled to post their menus: we’ve got something for Restaurant Week, but you’ll have to come in to see what it is. If they don’t bother to plan ahead, one expects that they will not try very hard when you get there.

Tonight I’m headed for the Barrelhouse, a place in the “Arts District” which I tried and didn’t like when it first opened. A $20 special with that lettuce wedge and a mixed grill has caught my eye. With a modest price cut and some creativity, they’ve got me back for a second chance. That’s what Saratoga Restaurant Week is all about, or should be.

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How to know when a recipe is going to suck

Bang Bang Turkey

Bang Bang Turkey, after tossing

The New York Times failed me. I looked at their collection of leftover Thanksgiving turkey recipes and plucked out Bang Bang Turkey by Nigella Lawson. I followed it to the letter except for making a couple of strategic substitutions in the aromatic herbs. The result was beyond mediocre—a waste of 1 ½ cups of shredded turkey breast (luckily, I had divided the recipe in half). But when you take a closer look at the recipe, there are several red flags.

  1. The recipe isn’t dated. Only when I clicked this link did I discover it was originally published in 2002. That’s significant because tastes change with the times, and availability of ingredients also changes. I have some vintage cookbooks I love to work from, but I always know what I’m getting into.

  2. The recipe contains suspect ingredients: shredded lettuce, “Chinese chili-bean sauce” and superfine sugar. It was shredded iceberg lettuce back in 2002. The NYT doubtless eliminated the specificity because no self-respecting foodie eats iceberg lettuce any more, but the result is just confusing. How do I shred micro greens? As to “Chinese chili-bean sauce” there are any number of sauces at my Asian market that contain both chilis and beans, so one suspects Nigella Lawson was simply referring to whatever was in her pantry which isn’t helpful. And superfine sugar? How about regular sugar, which most folks have on hand, dissolved in the vinegar as you start to bring the recipe together?

  3. The recipe has appeared in other versions over the years, which suggests Nigella was simply winging it. Googling uncovers recipes (usually for Bang-Bang Chicken, not turkey) without the sesame oil, heated on the stove, and subbing watercress for the lettuce. All may have merit, but don’t present the current recipe as canon.

  4. The recipe is needlessly fussy. Back in 2002 Mu Shu Pork was a thing, and the table assembly aspect of that dish may have informed Bang Bang Turkey/Chicken. You are supposed to spread out the shredded lettuce on a large plate, drizzle some sauce on, mix the turkey separately with more sauce, then finally garnish with scallion and cucumber. And, pass more sauce for diners to add to their liking. But the sauce is viscous so you’re going to immediately mix up the ingredients to distribute it before serving. Now you have a tossed salad, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s skip the needless foreplay.

Of these #2 is probably the most egregious and also the easiest to spot. I should have known better. Any time the ingredient list is either vague or esoteric, ask yourself if the author had a hidden agenda or was simply lazy.

P.S. If you feel like making the recipe in spite of my outrage I would advise more peanut butter, more heat and the substitution of Napa cabbage for lettuce.

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The tyranny of leftovers

Annoying leftover pickled sausage

Annoying leftover pickled sausage

Tired of turkey? Sick of stuffing? I’m writing this on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and, if you’re still struggling with leftovers, I hereby give you permission to a/pick the remaining meat off the carcass and freeze in a zip-loc bag; b/make a stock with said carcass; c/throw everything else in the trash. (I love stuffing and have frozen it in years past, but it does not reanimate very well.)

Now for the hard part. If your refrigerator is like mine, it’s full of esoteric condiments and ingredients purchased for a specific use that will sit there hogging shelf space until we deal with them. Today is the day we will end the tyranny of leftovers. Your choices:

*Eat them. That’s what I did with the aji panca sauce I purchased for anticuchos, Peruvian grilled beef hearts. I am sure there’s some other application for this mild chili paste, but I don’t know what it is. For now I just made another recipe of the same stuff.
*Consolidate them. If you’re like me, you have several partly filled jars of sliced pepper rings you use on sandwiches. Put them together in one jar and pour off excess juice. There: you’ve just created a new condiment.
*Conceal them in other dishes. I am sick of the pickled sausage I picked up at Oscar’s Smokehouse for my kid, who showed no interest in it. That quart Mason jar is taking up major real estate on the refrigerator shelf. So I will take the last few sausages, chop them fine, and mix into burgers or meat loaf.
*Throw them in the garbage. After the virtuous steps above, you should feel fine if you simply discard items which are too unappealing to eat. As a bonus, some of them will probably be spoiled anyway.

See all that shelf space you’ve just liberated? Let’s go shopping and buy more stuff!

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Recipe: Thanksgiving Morning Omelette

liveromelette

Thanksgiving Morning Omelette. Not the best picture, but you get the idea.

What to do with the liver that comes in that bag of parts inside the turkey? It’s too strong tasting to use in stock or gravy, so most folks toss it away. Thanksgiving Morning Omelette is a much better solution. Inspired by a classic prep called Omelette Chasseur*, but using garnish bits left over from the stuffing. 1-2 omelettes.

Ingredients:
2 eggs for 1 omelette, 4 eggs for 2 omelettes
1 turkey liver, cleaned to remove the connective tissue between the lobes
1 T chopped onion
1 T chopped celery
Butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Method: sauté the liver until lightly browned in a good amount of butter, along with the celery and onion. Chop the liver. Beat eggs and pour into a hot buttered pan and cook until just set; add 1/2 the chopped ingredients and fold for serving. You can use the rest of the chopped ingredients for garnish, or to make a second omelette.

*The original Omelette Chasseur includes chopped sautéed mushrooms, which is fine, and a Madeira flavored demi-glace, which is way too much trouble for Thanksgiving morning.

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The secret to foolproof turkey

Foolproof Turkey

When it’s done, your foolproof turkey will look like this. (Photo courtesy of extension.oregonstate.edu, licensed under Creative Commons.)

The guests are coming, you’re onstage to host the holiday meal, and you’ve never cooked a turkey before. But never fear. Foolproof turkey is a lot easier than almost any other showpiece dish as long as you avoid the single most common mistake: overcooking the bird.

A too-done turkey will have well done dark meat but the breast will be dry as paper, and that’s the part everybody sees when you start carving. The secret is to protect the breast until the last hour of cooking time, so it cooks slower than the rest. I use a piece of cheesecloth, paper towel or clean dishrag which I’ve soaked in butter. Simply drape it over the breast and continue to moisten with pan juices as they develop. You can also make a tent of aluminum foil over the breast, or even use the soak rag and foil in combination.

There are a few things you’ll need for foolproof turkey which you may not have on hand if you don’t cook a lot. First, a meat thermometer. You can get an instant read digital or an old-fashioned chef’s pocket thermometer for under ten bucks and it will last you forever or until you misplace it. You should also get a baster but a long handled spoon will do in a pinch. And you’ll need a pan to fit the turkey. Take your biggest roast pan to the market when you buy your bird and if that isn’t big enough, invest in a disposable aluminum pan.

To brine or not to brine? Stuffing inside or outside the bird? I will refer you to my Thanksgiving clips post which has useful links answering all these questions. If this is your first effort, I recommend you skip the brine but consider putting stuffing inside the bird as well as making extra in a pan. The stuffing inside the bird will absorb the juices as it cooks for a moist, tender treat.

Now to the oven. We’ll assume you’ve got a thoroughly defrosted turkey* which is slightly chilled. (It’s more pleasant to handle if you take it out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before it goes in the oven.) Dry it inside and out with paper towels. Rub the outside with a stick of butter and salt and pepper the skin. Stuff loosely, as the stuffing expands while you cook. Take the giblets (if you have them) out of their bag and simmer with a couple of cups of water to make turkey stock that you can use for cooking vegetables and possibly gravy. (Your stock will be better if you put in some vegetables and seasonings, but today we’re keeping it simple.)

Notice I haven’t mentioned a cooking temperature. It actually doesn’t matter all that much since a turkey is very forgiving because of its size. My favorite sfgate.com recipe wants you to roast at 400 degrees. Joy of Cooking says 325 degrees. In my house we generally start at 400 then turn it down to 350 if we get concerned it’s cooking too fast. Allow 12-15 minutes per pound for a family size (over 15 lbs) turkey, a bit more if it is stuffed. You are going to determine doneness not by time but with your meat thermometer. It’s ready to take out when the thermometer stuck into the thigh (but not touching the bone) reads 165 degrees. A stuffed bird is done when the stuffing reads 165 degrees. So we’re talking 4-6 hours of cooking time.

Along the way, at about the two hour mark, the turkey will start to throw off pan juices. Ladle or baste these periodically onto the skin to keep it moist and help it cook to a nice rich brown. Take off the breast protector the last hour so it will brown to match the rest of the skin. When you’re done, remove the turkey to a rack with a pan underneath it to catch the juices. You can use those juices plus what is in the roasting pan to make some wonderful gravy, but since this is your first time you’re allowed to use store bought gravy. Let the bird sit for at least half an hour, and up to an hour or more, while you set the table and prepare side dishes.

And now you’re done…. How hard was that? You’ve got a bird that looks like the one in the photo, and you don’t have to let anybody know it was your first time.

*I’m guessing the second biggest turkey mistake is not allowing enough defrosting time for a frozen turkey, so you end up with an unevenly cooked bird or you give up and buy prepared turkey from Boston Market. You need to allow three days in the refrigerator to defrost a large turkey, or one day if you’re willing to do a diligent soak in the sink where you frequently change the water. Or you can simply cook the frozen turkey, following this method. I’m going to try it one of these days with a heavily discounted supermarket bird.

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Recipe: Fried Oyster Po’ Boys

Po Boy Sandwich

Fried Oyster Po’ Boys!

Thanksgiving is a good time to make fried oyster po’ boys because jarred oysters are often on sale. I experimented with both a buttermilk soak and an egg soak and found that buttermilk has more flavor but eggs make for a more adhesive batter, so the solution is to use them together. Makes 4-6 individual sandwiches.

Ingredients:
4-6 hoagie rolls, hot dog rolls or po’ boy rolls
Butter

For the tartar sauce:
1 ½ c mayonnaise
½ c chopped celery
¼ c chopped onion
¼ c chopped dill pickle
2 T capers
½ t Tabasco sauce

For the oysters:
32-oz jar shucked oysters
2 eggs, beaten
½ c whole buttermilk
1 ½ c all purpose flour
½ c cornmeal
1 T paprika
2 t salt
½ t ground black pepper
Oil for deep frying

Method: Split the buns and toast them in a skillet or on a griddle. Warm the tops first on a dry surface, then remove from the heat, add butter and melt, then toast the insides till they are lightly browned.

Drain the oysters and soak a few minutes in mixed beaten eggs and buttermilk. Make the sauce while the oysters are soaking: combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.

Deep fry the oysters: heat 1 ½ inches corn or other oil to 375 degrees in a saucepan. Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly. Dredge the oysters so they are coated on all sides and deep fry, 2 or 3 at a time, turning after 30 seconds and removing after a minute. They should brown quickly but will be tender inside.

Spread a generous amount of tartar sauce on each side of the roll. Add oysters, 4-6 per roll depending on how big they are. Serve open faced or closed.

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Life imitates art at Soup Man

Soup Man

Soup Man says, “no soup for you!” to shoppers in Market 32, Wilton NY

Does this strike anybody else as weird? A character modeled after Ali “Al” Yeganeh, the crotchety proprietor of the International Soup Kitchen in midtown Manhattan, was featured in the famous “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. In order to be served his delicious broth, customers must follow a strict set of rules about how to stand in line and order. Of course, George Costanza screws up and is told “no soup for you!”

Al Yeganeh subsequently put his name behind a franchise operation called “Soup Man” which dispenses gourmet soups from beneath a sign with his glowering countenance. I have stood outside the door of one of these establishments (near Wall Street, as I recall) and contemplated the menu but not entered because the prices were quite high, close to $10 for a bowl of soup.

Soup Man Box

My Soup Man soup, which I am not allowed to eat.

Soup Man is also available in shelf-stable tetra packs at a growing number of retail stores… which brings me to the weird part. About a year ago Soup Man contracted with Larry Thomas, the actor who played the Soup Nazi on the Seinfeld episode, to go on tour for them. He appeared at my local supermarket the other day, in his soup server’s costume, and was available to his picture taken with customers or simply with a box of soup, which he was happy to autograph.

So here we have an actor playing the part of the guy who is pictured on the Soup Man box, and he is selling soup by telling retail customers they can’t have any. Life imitates art.

The soup’s pretty good, by the way. I tasted the lobster bisque and brought home a 16 oz box. (I paid $3, much more reasonable than at the restaurant.) But I can’t eat it because it says “no soup for you” right across the front with Larry Thomas’ signature underneath.

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Toné Dehydrated Onions

Toné Dehydrated Onions

Tone Dehydrated Onions

At one time I made frequent car trips between the San Francisco Bay Area and southern Oregon. I’d always stop at the same Arco station for food. It offered those terrible pre-cooked wrapped cheeseburgers, but with an irresistible topping: dried onions that had been soaked and reconstituted. Somehow this process of reanimation added complexity beyond anything you can get in a fresh sliced raw onion, and I’ve been thinking about those onion burgers for years.

Now, I have a way to make my own: Toné Dehydrated Onions,  available in a giant jug that should last close to a lifetime. Spoon out some dried onions into a little bowl, thoroughly moisten with water (about 2x the volume of onions) then microwave 30 seconds and you’re good to go. These onions are also great added to soup, baked beans or meatloaf without reconstituting, which means they’ll pick up the flavor of the surrounding liquid.

Toné Dehydrated Onions, as well as their shelfmate Toné Chili Powder (which Snow’s uses in their ethereal baked beans) are available at Sam’s Club. If you don’t have a Sam’s near you, or you’re not a member and don’t care to join, you can get them mail order from Spice Place. Its not the sleekest website; look for search box and drop down list of manufactuerers at left and you’ll find what you need.

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Rolling with the Bad Boys, Broads and Bootleggers Tour

Craig Gavina at Silver Fox

Craig Gravina discourses on Albany Ale at Silver Fox Salvage, during the Bad Boys, Broads and Bootleggers Tour. Mike Bellini of Real McCoy Brewing is leaning on the cooler behind him.

There was no finer way to decompress on the Saturday before Election Day than an afternoon wandering the neighborhoods of the Capital District on a chartered CDTA bus (we don’t do blackened-window Google land yachts here) for a touristic adventure sponsored by All Over Albany. Bad Boys, Broads and Bootleggers was actually two tours happening in parallel, one conducted by journalist Duncan Crary and the other by historian Craig Gravina.

Mary Darcy at Speakeasy

Mary Darcy of All Over Albany used a secret token to get us into the speakeasy below Albany’s City Beer Hall.

The Crary tour was about mobster Legs Diamond, who was a local hero until he was murdered in 1931, the night after he was acquitted in the Troy courthouse on a charge of kidnapping and torture. As things unfolded we saw the barbershop where Legs would get his grooming (Patsy’s in downtown Albany, a wonderful and still operating old-school place) and the courthouse where the trial took place. It turns out that Crary’s great-grandfather, also a journalist, was the likely the first to happen on Legs’s body and that a sponsor of the tour was the E. Stuart Jones Law Firm, helmed by the great-grandson of the attorney who got Legs Diamond acquitted (and did it for free, since he declined a stack of twenties outside the courthouse and said “pay me in the morning” which of course Legs was unable to do).

Eric Paul with Albany Ale

Eric Paul of Cheese Traveler paired classic Albany Ale with a sweet goat gouda to cut the bitterness.

The Gravina tour was mostly about beer. There is a growing number of craft breweries (and distilleries) in the area today, but in colonial times Albany was a veritable Milwaukee, brewing strong (8-11% ABV) “liquid bread” to sustain the Dutch through the brutal winters. In the 19th century, large scale breweries had easy access to barley and hops which they used to make ale, and later lager, which was shipped down the Hudson and around the world. The Albany Ale Project is dedicated to recreating some of those beers, using a recipe that was fortunately passed down intact from John Taylor, a brewer who was fined for using water with dead horses in it during the 1840s.

We tasted a rendition from Real McCoy brewery in Del Mar, made with 6-row barley, Cluster hops and honey and horse-free water. I told Craig it was fine but a bit muddy in flavor and he corrected me that it was more a cereal taste, characteristic of 6-row. He and I then descended into the usual debate about 6-row vs 2-row among New York State beer drinkers: 6-row grows better in our climate, which makes it the smart choice for brewers who are looking to comply with the only-local-ingredients edict of the New York Farm Brewery Act, but brewers prefer 2-row because it is more efficient and because mass-consumption brewers use the 6-row.

Nine Pin Sampling

We sampled the modern version of Albany Ale, along with some cider, at Nine Pin’s tasting room.

(Craig pointed out that the original Dutch beers were actually made with wheat, which grows better than any barley in our warmer (and getting still warmer) climate. Maybe that’s where brewers should be focusing their experimentation: hoppy wheat beers.)

At the next stop we tried a modern version which Real McCoy’s Mike Bellini had crafted with 2-row and Cascade and Citra hops. Of course, one wants to try them side by side which will require some careful planning since Real McCoy is only open 10-2 on Saturdays. Friend their Facebook page to find out when the two Albany Ales will be on tap together.

There was quite a bit of drinking and eating associated with this tour, as well as the history lesson; pictures are available here. The Bad Boys, Broads and Bootleggers Tour is an annual event, happening about this time of year, and it sells out very quickly. Mark your calendar for November 2017, and I’ll likely see you there.

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Salting away shiso

Salt Shiso Pickles

Salt Shiso Pickles: not much to look at, but easy to love.

Success! A few weeks ago I wrote of my scheme to make salt shiso pickles by sprinking a bit of salt on each of my homegrown shiso leaves and stacking them up in a jar. The leaves were then pressed down with a wooden spoon and salted away in the back of the refrigerator.

I had my first taste this morning and happy to report they are non-moldy and taste just like shiso. I wouldn’t wrap one of these unlovely leaves around a lobe of uni, but they’d be fine to mix into some chirashi rice or maybe a sushi roll. And I have enough to last all winter long.

By the way, I have recently encountered fresh shiso leaves at two sushi restaurants in the 518, Kinjo in Saratoga and Sushi Tei in Albany. Kinjo’s owner told me he simply orders from his supplier. So exciting to see this distinctive herb gaining some traction.

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