Finlaggan: the Two-Buck Chuck of Islay single malts

Finlaggan Old Reserve

My Islay collection grouped by price point with the Finlaggan on the left.

I picked up a bottle of Finlaggan Islay Single Malt Scotch at Trader Joe’s on a recent trip to California. (TJ can’t sell liquor in New York, one of many challenges living in this arctic region.) I was fascinated, assumed it would be awful at its $17.99 price tag, tried it, liked it, kept trying. As you can see, nearly the whole bottle is gone and I still can’t find out what’s wrong with it. It has peatiness, the bite of the salt air and a disruptive sensation when it hits your throat—all the qualities I value in an Islay. It’s not up with the best of Bowmore, my favorite distillery, but at 1/5 the price it’s definitely a great value for what you’re getting and, I’ve finally decided, a damn good dram of its category.

Not confident of my own tastes, I went online this morning and was surprised to discover quite a secret society of Finlaggan lovers—including some who seem to mark it up significantly and sell it where there isn’t a Trader Joe. says “it’s not terribly complex, but neither was The Big Lebowski, and that didn’t stop it from being spectacular… So the finish isn’t long. Go suck an egg. This is a fantastic Scotch.” Another perspective comes from Anonymous who calls it “absolutely disgusting…essentially what I would imagine the water from a fire hydrant would taste like after it’s been used to put out a gas station fire” but that’s an indictment non Islay lovers might make of the category in general.

There is quite a bit of mystery about where this inexpensive potion comes from, much of it promulgated by the alleged distiller, Vintage Malt Whisky Co Ltd which tells us “Finlaggan is very much the SECRET Islay, as the name of the distillery from which it comes is a closely guarded secret and known to only a select few. Only those who have sampled Islay malts over a long period and who are familiar with the subtle differences of nose and taste, could begin to guess at the pedigree of this true son of Islay.” I ran across a nice discussion on Reddit including one guy who points out that there’s a Finnegan castle on the north end of Islay and if it’s made by Lagavulin then “Finlaggan” would be a nice bit of wordplay.

Anyway, I can’t wait to get to a liquor-selling state to get more of this. Check it out.

P.S. A comment about the other bottles in the picture. Next to Finlaggan is Bowmore Darkest which is expensive garbage—an Islay especially formulated for those who want a “smooth” whisky. Then comes one of several cask strength bottles from K&L Wines, which buys the casks and bottles them, and the magnificent 1991 Port Matured, which alas is too majestic to drink.

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Recipe: Carol’s Brussel Sprout Slaw

Brussel Slaw

Carol’s Brussel Sprout Slaw

My wife improvised this very well balanced recipe. The interplay of the Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil is particularly nice. Serves 4.

2 c Brussel sprouts, shredded with a knife or mandoline
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1/4 c red onion, finely chopped
1 T lemon zest, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
2 T grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 t Kosher salt
1/4 t ground black pepper

Method: combine all ingredients and toss well to mix. Allow to rest at least 30 minutes to develop flavors. Goes well with a hearty piece of fish or poultry.

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Recipe: Nair’s “National Dish” Feijoada

My friend Nair Wolf, a chef who hails from Brazil, has shared her recipe for this legendary one-dish meal. The following is a restaurant-size prep that will serve 15-20 people but because there so many ingredients I’d advise you to just make the whole recipe, then freeze what you don’t eat. This “bean” dish contains a huge amount of meat, including some items you may not have at your fingertips, so feel free to substitute.

2 lbs black beans, dried
½ lb dried Brazilian smoke meat (not the same as Brazilian dry meat; I’d substitute any lean smoked beef)
10 oz bacon
1 ham hock
1/2 lb smoked sausage
1/2 lb smoked pork chops
1/2 lb Brazilian dry meat (can substitute beef jerky)
1/2 lb fresh spiced sausage (I’d use a couple mild Italian sausages for this)
1/2 lb fresh pork loin, sliced
1 lb beef tri-tip, sliced
2 c onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup of cahuaça sugar cane liquor (can substitute 1 c tequila)
2 bunches of collard greens (julienne)
2 bay leaves
4 oranges, sliced

Method: Soak beans overnight. If using Brazilian dried meat which is very salty, soak that as well and then drain the next morning. Rinse the beans and put to cook in big pot with the bacon, ham hock and bay leaves. After one hour add Brazilian salt meat.

Meanwhile, in another pot sauté onions, the remaining meats, the sausages, and the smoked pork chops. Add water as necessary to cover the meat. Slice the pork loin and tri-tip and cook until the meat is done, removing any froth that forms on the top. Add the pinga or tequila. Now, combine the bean and meat mixtures.

Meanwhile, prepare the collard greens. Cook bacon in a sauté pan, remove to a paper towel leaving 2 T bacon fat. Add garlic and and julienne cut collard greens. Saute 1-2 minutes until limp; remove to a serving dish and cut bacon into small pieces and serve on top of the collard greens.

Serve the meat/bean mixture and collard greens in two bowls so guests can combine as they like. Serve with feijoada sauce.

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Recipe: Nair’s Feijoada Sauce

This is a necessary accompaniment for Nair’s “National Dish” Feijoada.

Juice of 3 lemons
1/4 c orange juice
1/2 c feijoada juice (cooking liquid from the feijoada)
3 T green onion
2 T fresh cilantro, chopped
3 T Italian parsley, chopped
1 c fresh tomatoes without seeds, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Method: combine all ingredients and mix or blend thoroughly. Serve with feijoada. Nair notes that feijoada is a favorite dish of the Cariocas of Rio de Janeiro, the second capital of Brazil.

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The burger rant (it’s all about the bun)

Burger House cheeseburger

Burger House cheeseburger

Behold the perfect burger*, from Jack’s Burger House on Hillcrest in Dallas, TX. Notice how the meat is a thin yet cohesive layer that curves around a much thicker strata of condiments (sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, coarsely chopped onion and pickle chips) just below and is kissed with just the lightest mustache of cheese. Observe how the bun, in spite of visible depressions from rough handling, maintains its integrity and easily contains the ingredients instead of bursting apart. Note the absence of the treacle-y red streaks that that indicate the presence of ketchup, though the rich warmth of yellow mustard is not visible in this example. It’s a symphony of synergistic (one of the rare instances in which this word is appropriate) flavors and textures.

Classic Smashburger

Classic Smashburger

Now, compare a burger I purchased recently at Smashburger in Saratoga Springs, New York. This is not a bad burger, in fact I gave the restaurant 4 stars on Yelp though that was for the sides. But observe how the sloppy lettuce overwhelms the other ingredients. And if I had taken this picture a minute later you would have seen the whole thing had disintegrated due to a fragile bun.

It’s time to blow the whistle on bogus burgers. If you can’t hold it between your fingers while managing another task (like playing a hand of poker, or driving down the interstate), or if you have to wipe your hands on a napkin or your pants after each bite, then it’s not a sandwich and therefore not a hamburger.

Brady Burger

Brady Burger at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs, NY

I don’t have a gripe with fine dining places that put a $16 “burger” on their menu and take quality meats and garnish them with a few well chosen toppings. The Brady Burger from 15 Church in Saratoga, shown here, is a good example. Note that it has a substantial bun, but still you eat with your hands at your own risk. It’s a wink to the simple food that inspired it.

No, my beef is with places in the $5-10 range that broil an oversized hunk of ground meat, carelessly apply vegetables since it’s going to fall apart anyway, then finish with a tiny bun that’s like a clown hat. The whole thing is out of whack. Even worse is the idea of one burger chain, run by a bunch of wise guys, that wraps the concoction in foil before serving. If you get takeout, your burger will have turned to pudding by the time you eat it.

Such establishments have taught a generation of gullible diners that a luxurious burger is by definition something that self destructs as you are enjoying it. (Actually, wasn’t there a Carl’s Junior commercial a few years ago on just this theme?) The current hostility to gluten may play into this; the fragile puffballs served by so many burger places seem to be made of low-gluten pastry flour, often with a no-gluten mix in of potato flour.

If you’re making burgers at home, buy or make quality buns, then toast before serving for an extra measure of tensile strength. If you don’t have another reason to go to Dallas, an excellent and widely available stand-in for Burger House is an In-N-Out cheeseburger with extra onions, mustard instead of sauce and pickles. You’re welcome.

* Photo courtesy of Yelp.

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Eating Local (ish) in Saratoga Springs, New York

Black River Piggery Demo

Tish Agagnos, of Black River Produce, filled in at a demo of meats from The Piggery

When my family moved from San Francisco to upstate New York in 2008, we tried to ease the transition by visiting a few farms. It was disconcerting to meet farmers who drove from Washington County or Columbia County straight down to the Greenmarket in New York City and never thought about finding local markets for their food. There were upstate farmers’ markets but they were small and boutique-y, with prices much higher than the city. The only local slaughterhouse processed meat into strange non-standard cuts.

In 2015, things are quite a bit better. Farmers’ markets are everywhere and the local farmers attend them. We have a meat processor everyone seems to like, Eagle Ridge of Cambridge. Local goods are also showing up in our supermarkets including my favorite, the pricey but passionate Healthy Living Market. And we’re seeing some sustainable economies of scale as distributors find it worth their time to source product from a number of small producers and bring it to market, working over an area that extends from Ithaca (home of Cornell and all the agricultural activity that program inspires) to Vermont (our next-door state and the home of Healthy Living Market.)

A good example of this principle in action is the “uncured” meats from The Piggery which I encountered at Healthy Living. They’ve got deli ham, capicola, a soft salami and the first bologna I’ve ever liked. The cure is light (and it’s celery powder, which they’re more than happy to admit contains nitrites) and the taste has notes of mace and other mild, slightly sweet spices. (The pigs are raised on acorns, which also contributes to the warm, full taste.) Farmer Heather Sanford told me that the goal is to replicate the deli meats that moms are used to buying for kids’ lunches in a natural way. The charcuterie products are sold at a number of outlets in the New England area and well worth seeking out. They have a much bigger range of products at their store and at the Ithaca farmers’ market.

I’d planned to talk with Heather in person, but she was waylaid by the flu and her demo station at Healthy Living was manned by her distributor, Tish Agagnos of Black River Produce. Black River is another piece of the puzzle, providing a full line of products to retail stores (including meats, slaughtered and packed in their own plant) while offering small farmers an economically viable way to get their products to market. Farmers’ markets are fun, but they’re not very scalable because the farmer can only be in one place at a time, and when you’re behind the counter you’re not working with your plants or animals. An efficient distribution network, as an alternative or a supplement, can make running a small farm practical.

The above isn’t exactly the same as locavore eating, in which you pledge to eat only things grown in season within a certain radius of your home in order to support the local economy and reduce carbon footprint. For me, right now in winter, that would involve a lot of cabbages and rutabagas. I rely on the Healthy Living folks to be diligent in sourcing responsibly (they were going to stock Kewpie mayonnaise until they discovered it contains MSG) and tell myself a truck barreling down the road from Ithaca or Vermont loaded with specialty foodstuffs is probably laying down less carbon than the battalions of curious or desperate foodies who would otherwise be foraging the countryside looking for something to eat.

We still need uni, and fresh ramen noodles. But we’re getting there.

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Recipe: Easy Korean Fried Chicken

Tyson KFC

Korean Fried Chicken made with Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips

As irresistible as the sweet/spicy chicken from a Korean market, but made with ingredients from your kitchen and your local supermarket. Serves 4-6.

1 24-oz package Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips (original flavor)
3 T fresh ginger, peeled
3 T fresh garlic, peeled
3 T soy sauce
3 T catsup
3 T white vinegar
1 T Asian sesame oil
1 T sugar
1 t chili powder
Lettuce leaves for serving (optional)

Method: Heat chicken strips according to package directions, 18-20 minutes in 400 degree oven. Meanwhile, chop ginger and garlic in a mini-food processor then add other sauce ingredients and pulse until pureed. When chicken is done, cut into serving size pieces and toss in a bowl with the sauce. Allow 20 minutes for chicken to soak up the flavor. Serve as finger food, with toothpicks, or Korean-style with lettuce leaves which your guests can use to scoop up the chicken for mess-free enjoyment.

NOTE: I whipped this up for a contest sponsored by the Tyson chicken folks. I wanted to see how close I could get to my original recipe using supermarket ingredients and was gratified by the result. You could also make it using leftover Popeye’s or other quality fried chicken. Just be sure to give it enough time in the sauce to soak up the flavor.

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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) which defines the “uncured” designation, “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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