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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Gun Hill Silvis: why good beer costs more

Gun Hill Silvis

A beckoning pour of Gun Hill Silvis DIPA

The guys at my local beer store finally got me trained. They shoot me a text and I hop in my car like Pavlov’s dog’s chauffeur  to go stand in line half an hour for a rare release, and end up paying more than I swore I ever would for a sackful of cans or the rare growler fill. And you know what? At $54 a 16 oz. can*, it’s totally worth it.

When I think of why Gun Hill Silvis double IPA tastes so good, it’s a matter of breadth. There is that initial hit of the hoppy citrus aroma, the welcome bitterness with the first sip. But then it expands. There’s a lot to chew on, an abundance of depth and flavor nuances. It’s like, instead of making a burger just out of ground chuck, you add in some short rib or brisket, maybe a little finely chopped onion or garlic. Your guests will wonder how you made it so different and complex.

I have never made beer from scratch (though I do have a few bags of home-grown hops mouldering in my freezer) so I have no idea how the Gun Hill folks achieve this magic. They describe Silvus as “a coniferous creation dense with resinous hop aromas and flavor. Miles of pine, musty pineapple, herbaceous earth, and black currant. Sticky. Hops Used: Chinook, Simcoe, Denali, Equinox.” Yeah, I guess that’s it. STICKY.

In researching this beer, I found out the brewery is in the Bronx, which is a lot more convenient for me than Brooklyn where all the other flannel-wearing hipsters are. There may even be street parking. Who’s up for a road trip?

*Turns out the $5/can stuff was from Finback, also excellent. A 4 or growler of Gun Hill was a bargain $15.99.

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Recipe: Morkovcha (Russian-Korean Carrot Salad)

Morkovcha

Morovcha (Russian-Korean Carrot Salad)

This Morkovcha (Russian-Korean Carrot Salad) prep is a hybrid of best practices from the wide variety of home cook recipes I’ve run across. It has a complex, distinctive flavor profile that holds its own on a plate with several other sides. The dish has an interesting pedigree: it originated in Siberia with Korean transplants, but then these immigrants were relocated by Stalin to central Asia, many thousands of miles away. In its current version it makes a frequent appearance on Russian tables and has very little to do with Korea other than the name. Serves 4-8 as a side dish.

Ingredients:
1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks*
1 T salt
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/8 t (a pinch) cayenne
2 T coriander seeds, crushed, or 1 T ground coriander
3 T rice wine vinegar or white vinegar
1/4 c neutral cooking oil (not olive oil or sesame oil)
1 small onion, peeled and sliced into half-moons (about 3/4 c)
Salt to taste (possibly 1/2 t)
Honey to taste (possibly 1 T)

Method: dissolve salt in 2 c water and add carrots; soak for 4 hours or more. Drain and press out excess water. Mix carrots with vinegar, cayenne and garlic. Heat oil to a low simmer and add onion and cook a few minutes until translucent; add coriander for 30 seconds at the end to intensify the flavor. Immediately pour the hot oil/onion mixture over carrots and mix well. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and taste for seasoning; add salt and honey as needed.

Options: rub the carrots with the salt and let them sit until a good amount of liquid is produced, then wash and drain; this will produce a less crisp, more pickle-y carrot. Sauté the garlic with the onions, rather than adding raw. (Actually I did this because my garlic was particularly pungent.) If you want a more Asian flavor profile add 1 t soy sauce and 1 T toasted sesame seeds.

*Several of the home cooks I ran across use a Thai tool called the “Kiwi” to make their carrot matchsticks by hand. It’s also used for making green papaya salad. If you get this (the picture is an Amazon link) be careful not to cut your fingers!

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Food for Thought: Koreafornian Cooking

Koreafornian Cooking is the website of Tammy Quackenbush, a food writer and promoter based in San Francisco. It’s loaded with articles about the fusion of Korean and California culture through California kimchi makers, snack-of-the-month programs for hungry Korean expats and reviews of and articles on restaurants, products and trends.

However, for our purposes the most exciting part of the site is the “Secret Recipe Club” where, as she puts it, “I have this obsession of taking every non-Korean recipe and trying to put a Korean spin on it. When I have a ‘eureka’ moment, the result is published here.” Take a look at Raspberry Ssamjang which is essentially the Melba sauce served in upstate New York taverns modded with Korean spice… who wouldn’t like to dip a fried mozz stick in this stuff? There are also non-secret recipes that work in reverse, hacking Korean dishes with American ingredients. Tuna Kimchi Jjigae is a good example: the comfort-food Korean stew is made with a can of albacore from the supermarket, for an alternative to tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. Check it out.

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What’s wrong with fast food burgers? The lettuce, that’s what!

Dave Single

Dave’s Single from Wendy’s

I have been holed up after foot surgery which for some reason has given me an unnatural desire for fast food burgers. With a bit of scheming I was able to procure the Dave’s Single shown above. It’s not bad, thanks to my wise decision to leave off the mayonnaise (yes, the sandwich comes stock with mayo which can add nothing but grease and heaviness) and replace it with mustard. But while I was eating it, I had a revelation about why so many fast food burgers are so un-foodlike.

Mis En Place Wendys

Mise en place at Wendy’s

But let’s back up a minute, because we need to define fast food burgers. Compton’s and Triangle, two diners in Saratoga Springs, New York, can put an excellent burger on my table faster than my order was filled at Wendy’s on Congress Street. But it’s not fast food because it’s made by an actual short-order cook. Fast food places, by definition, are staffed by employees who don’t need to know how to cook, and in some situations (because of age, for example) may not be allowed to cook. McDonald’s is the most obvious and extreme example that comes to mind, and I do think Wendy’s is a lot better, but hear me out.

Daves Deconstructed

Random, horsey lettuce slice on my Dave’s Single

It does not require any particular skill or artistry to slather dressing on a bun and stack the ingredients (in this case a cheeseburger, slice of onion, pickle and tomato). But then we get to the LETTUCE. I like iceberg lettuce on my burger: it adds loft and crunch. But when we leave it to the untrained counterperson (or someone who does the prep earlier) to make decisions about how to tear up and deploy the lettuce section or sections, splayed over the top of the meat and condiments, disaster can result. The whole sandwich can be thrown off kilter. If there’s an unevenness to the lettuce slice, it can create a lump in the top of the sandwich which causes it to shoot out when you take your first bite or, worse, break open the usually fragile bun.

burger House Shredded Lettuce

Shredded lettuce on a Burger House double cheeseburger*

One has to wonder: why don’t they SHRED their lettuce, like they do at Burger House in Dallas which makes the best burger that I’ve found? Now it becomes a willing partner to the other components, instead of antagonist. And no skill is required other than the ability of the employee to tear open the bag (I’m assuming the shredded lettuce can be made available pre-packaged) and grab a handful of the proper volume.

However, I also know the answer to this question: they use the irregular, messy lettuce leaves precisely because they make the preparation seem more like real food. So this isn’t going to get better. Unless you are able to get to In-N-Out, where they seem to treat their lettuce deployment with the same artistry that applies to everything else.

*Photo by Ewan Macdonald on Serious Eats. Hopefully they will not get mad at me if I link to their review of Burger House.

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Food for Thought: Emily Contois

Thank you internet, for bringing me Emily Contois. (Actually, thank you WordPress, which featured her blog on a showcase page.) Here is a Brown PhD candidate who has written her dissertation on “Dude Food” and blogs about such topics as “Food Themed Protest Posters” (actually that post is an interview with the author of the equally fascinating Food and Resistance site). In short, someone who delves into all aspects of the relationship of food and our social fabric… exactly what we need.

For me, the most interesting stuff is at the bottom of the page, from the blog before she got serious about her graduate studies. That’s where you’ll find such articles as “Tofu & Tapenade? The Unspoken Food Rules of Football” and “Food & Chefs as Sexual Metaphor in Romance Novels” which in turn contains a link to “Porn Sex vs. Real Sex: The Differences Explained with Food” on YouTube. (Be warned, that last is an autoplay… extremely NSFW.) Check it out.

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Hepburn’s Choice is my choice in single malt scotches

Hepburn's Choice

A couple of majestic examples of Hepburn’s Choice bottling. More on the way.

Hepburn’s Choice is a private label bottled by Langside Distillers, which despite the name does not operate its own distillery. It is marketed exclusively in the U.S. by K&L Wines, and the bottles are always cask strength which means somewhere north of 50% alcohol. The buying team seems to go for outstanding specimens of a particular distillery or region which can be sold as an excellent value, especially with the current USD/pound exchange rate.

Since I no longer live in California, I keep my eye out for Hepburn’s Choice releases and order a bottle or two which, now that New York’s liquor police have clamped down*, must be put on hold for me until I can make it back to California. I used to stick to Islays but took a flyer on the Dailuaine at right above, which chief buyer David Driscoll described as “so fruity and delicious that we practically jumped across the negotiating table to get our hands on it.” Now I realize I trust these guys so much that I’ll try any Hepburn’s Choice bottle within my price range ($60 or so tops, a bit more for older casks).

I called K&L (877-KLWines) yesterday to let them know I was going to be past the 90-day deadline in picking up my latest purchase (“no worries,” said the very friendly chap on the phone, “we’re terrible about enforcing it”) and ask if there was any Hepburn’s Choice on the way. By chance, he said, David Driscoll was sitting next to him. A bit of back and forth and it was confirmed a container is on the water right now with new announcements expected very soon.

Notice the numbers on the labels: these really are limited quantities, in the few hundreds for each bottling. If this blog had thousands of daily readers I wouldn’t share this news because there wouldn’t be any left for me. We’ll keep this as our little secret, okay? If you are lucky enough to live near a K&L store, or if you live in a state that accepts liquor shipments, I recommend you bookmark their site then check back often.

*As far as I can determine, if your are the producer of a wine or spirit, you are allowed to ship it to New York but if you are a retailer you are not.

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Food for Thought: No Place Like Kitchen

I was tumbling down a rabbit hole in search of a recipe for morkovcha, which is a Korean-style Uzbek carrot salad, when I landed on the wonderful No Place Like Kitchen website. Not only does Olga provide some of the most accessible Russian home-cook recipes I’ve found, but she writes like Boris and Natasha talked on the old Bullwinkle cartoon show.

Here, for example, is her description of the mysterious “Olivie” which according to my friend Leo always makes an appearance at Russian ex-pat picnics: Salad Olivier was named for a French chef Lucien Olivier [aha!], but this is not his original recipe (it was lost). Soviet cooks simplified the similar recipe and now this is the most popular salad for a exUSSR holiday tables. Variation with chicken meat is called Stolichniy Salad (Capital Salad). Some add onion, fresh cucumber and sour apples, some put on top shrimps or crab leg. Even carrot is latest edition for this plain winter salad. Here are some rules: number of potatoes equal number of eaters, never mix hot and cold foods.

Now you’re in love with Olga, right? And you will like her even more when you see her photo on the About page, where she is inexplicably balancing two small pumpkins above her head like Mickey Mouse ears. And I haven’t even tried the recipes yet. Check it out.

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