Healthy mail order meat from ButcherBox

Butcherbox Ribeye

Nicely trimmed 10-oz ribeye from ButcherBox

I tried ButcherBox because of a special offer from ChefSteps (which may still be available… read on). I give them a thumbs up for shopping if you’re in an area where healthy meat (humanely raised and free from antibiotics and hormones) is not readily available. Prices are reasonable and they seemed to have learned from the experience of the many mail order meat companies that have preceded them.

ButcherBox box, ready for unboxing

There’s currently a choice of five boxes: Mixed Box, Beef & Pork Box, All Beef Box, Chicken & Pork Box and Beef & Chicken. Beef is grass fed/grass finished, pork is “heritage breed” (not further specified) and chicken is organic free range. I chose the Beef & Pork for $119 (a $10 savings with the offer) which included 2 10-oz. New York strips, 2 lb ground beef, 4 6-oz top sirloins, 4 8-oz pork chops and a 1-lb pork tenderloin. So that’s a total of about 7 pounds.

ButcherBox Tote

Nifty ButcherBox tote

What did I like? The product was delivered not in a Styrofoam chest, but a zip-up tote that had dry ice and cooling bags inside. Much more efficient use of packaging. ButcherBox doesn’t promise to deliver frozen meat which reduces the shipping requirement; it’s shipped flash-frozen to reach you nicely chilled. This allows ButcherBox to offer “free” (i.e. included) shipping vs the painful overnight delivery charges you often see. My package was shipped two-day UPS from the Midwest and then sat on the porch an extra day because I was out of town when it arrived. The meat was still cold when I opened the box.

ButcherBox innards (can’t see the meat, sorry)

I also liked the trim on my meats. Somebody really has a good hand with the trim knife. The steaks were nicely shaped with just enough fat to define the edges. The steaks were fine: they were lean without being chewy, my usual criticism of grass-feed beef. The pork program seems less successful. The chops were shoulder blade chops, a less-tender cut. And a 1-lb tenderloin turns out to be really tiny.

And I especially like the ButcherBox website which is just the right mix of advocacy and information, with a very robust FAQ. Some of the much bigger and more established mail order meat companies could learn from these guys.

About that special offer: use this link and if it works you can get $10 off plus two free 10-oz. ribeyes. Definitely worthwhile. You do have to sign up for regular deliveries to get the deal, but the ButcherBox customer service department advised me to choose “every three months” which allows plenty of time to cancel if you don’t like it.

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Wok-Fired Croutons!

Turns out the wok is the perfect vessel for making crispy, garlicky croutons. Who knew?

Wok Fired Croutons

Wok Fired Croutons

The method and benefits:
*Start by heating olive to the smoking point, turn down a bit, add chopped garlic and toss, away from the heat, until the oil is infused with the garlic taste.
*Add your cubes of stale bread (a wok will accommodate a large baguette) and toss so the oil evenly coats all sides.
*Return to the heat and, using a wooden spoon, spread out the croutons up the sides of the wok so each gets some contact with the hot surface.
*Like parmesan with your croutons? Add a couple of tablespoons now. Toss a few times and, again, distribute the cubes up the sides of the wok.
*Turn off the heat. The croutons will continue to crisp in the residual heat. When they return to room temperature, store in an airtight container unless you are using immediately.

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New York Bakery Bites at Queens Day in Albany

Lt Gov at Queens Day

New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul at Queens Day

Last Monday I attended the first ever Queens Day in Albany, sponsored by the Queens Chamber of Commerce and a number of Queens-located businesses. (Queens is one of the seven five boroughs of New York City.) A busload of Queens business stakeholders came up on a bus to spend the day with their elected representatives in the State Capitol, concluding with a reception at the Egg.

Food Bev at Queens Day

List of food and beverage partners at Queens Day 2017

So what was I doing there, you may ask? Well, the reception featured two dozen providers of Queens food and beverage products. My friends at Yelp thought that food bloggers might be interested in sampling, and I rose to the bait knowing that Queens features some of the greatest culinary diversity to be had anywhere. I was not disappointed.

The tasting highlights for me at the event were a/crema tamales from Tortilleria Nixtamal; b/sea bass dumplings from Dumpling Gallery; and c/the chance to drink pricey Finback IPA without paying for it. However, there were also goodie bags and the opportunity to take samples home, and that’s how I discovered Push Cart Pretzel Chips from New York Bakery Bites.

New York Bakery Bites

Product lineup from New York Bakery Bites as presented at Queens Day

What do you get when you mix crunchy pretzels into chocolate chip cookie dough? A product that has the taste of a good chocolate chip cookie, but a consistency closer to nut brittle. It resists your bite just enough that you are forced to eat your cookie in nibbles instead of gulping the sweet, gooey confection all at once. And this turns out to be the perfect way to enjoy a chocolate chip cookie.

The good news is that you can order Push Cart Pretzel Chips from the bakery’s website, and you don’t even have to pay shipping, so your cost is the same as if you bought them at the source. You do have to ordered four bags at one time at $5.99 each, which should not be a problem. I got two of the pretzel chips and one each of two other flavors, Big City Lemon and Double Dutch Chocolate.

Finback Queens Day

Free Finback IPA at Queens Day

Back to Queens Day, the event was deemed a success and we were promised it will be back. There’s also a Brooklyn Day and a Bronx Day with a similar format. I have no idea how one gets invited to one of these things but there didn’t seem to be a gatekeeper; as long as you are genial and well kempt you will probably be welcome. If you’re local, watch the Albany news media for the next one.

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Recipe: German-Style Head Cheese (Souse)

German Style Head Cheese (Souse)

German-style head cheese, ready for your eating enjoyment!

A friend gifted me half a pig’s head so, naturally, I decided to make head cheese. It was already out of the freezer a couple of days when I picked it up so I had to move fast. I started with this recipe but tweaked considerably as I went along. The result is really satisfying—slightly sour (that’s the German influence) with a flavor profile built around savory herbs rather than the usual clove/nutmeg/mace. Makes enough to fill 2 4×8 loaf pans—that’s a lot of head cheese.

Half a pig’s head, minus tongue and cheek*
1 1/2 T Kosher salt
1 ½ t white pepper
1 ½ t hot red pepper plates
1 T herbs de Provence or Italian mixed herbs (I didn’t have any h de p on hand for the rub so used a packaged oregano/fennel/marjoram blend)
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
1 leek, sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 cups white wine
4 bay leaves
2 T herbs de Provence
½ c roasted red pepper, cut into ½ inch dice
½ c cornichons or gherkins, cut into ½ inch dice
2 T white vinegar, or to taste
1 ½ t Kosher salt, or to taste
½ t ground black pepper, or to taste
¼ t crushed red pepper
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin (70 g each)

Method: remove eye, brains and any visible yellow lymph nodes (my head didn’t have any, but apparently these can really foul the prep so look carefully). Rinse the head, dry thoroughly, then rub in the first four spices. Place in a plastic bag and cure in the refrigerator for 48 hours, turning occasionally. Transfer the head to a very large pot (you may have to hacksaw it in half to get it to fit) and add wine, onion, carrot, leek, garlic, bay leaves and 2 T herbs de Provence. Add water to cover the head and bring to the boil. Lower heat to simmer and cook until meat is falling off the bone, about 4 hours. Remove from heat.

Pig Head in Pot

My half pig’s head was a bit too large for the pot… fortunately, I located a larger pot after this pic was taken.

When the head is cool enough to handle, dissect it with your hands and examine the meat. The best part is the cartilaginous snout and jowl meat and the endearing, feathery ear. There will also be a lot of scraps of muscle meat and some fat. Discard the fat and cut the rest into ½ inch cubes, trimming off any spots of rough skin or bony bits as you go. My pig yielded about 2 lbs of meat, and that was without the tongue or cheek.

Meanwhile, strain the stock and return 48 oz of it to the stove, saving the rest for another use. Reduce by a third, to 32 oz. Add the vinegar, salt, black and red peppers and taste. Adjust the seasoning as necessary; the broth should taste slightly tangy with a meaty flavor, like something your German grandmother might have made for you when you were sick. Remove a cup of the broth and chill in refrigerator then sprinkle on gelatin and stir to dissolve. Return this to the cooking pot and add meat, roasted red pepper and pickles and heat until it is steaming but not to the boiling point, which would reduce the gelling properties of the gelatin.

Pour into molds (I used the two mini-loaf pans I bought for Josey Baker’s Adventure Bread) then chill overnight until firmly set. In the morning, run a knife around the inner edges of the pans to loosen the finished head cheese then turn it out onto a plate. (If you’re the cautious type, set the pans in hot water for a few minutes first.) Admire your beautiful head cheese, then cut it into smaller loaves as you like and freeze what you’re not going to use right away. Serve a slice of head cheese on your deli sandwich, or present it with a dollop of mustard (preferably a grainy German one) as an appetizer.

*My pig was missing his tongue, and I had removed the cheek to make guanciale.

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Burger Boo

Jumping Jack Jack Burger, cut

Cross-section of Jack Burger at Jumping’ Jack’s, prior to my visit to the condiment bar

My blogging colleague Daniel B had an interesting idea: a tasting tour of seasonal burgers served at the food stands of upstate New York’s Capital District. Winterizing is expensive in this harsh climate, so many food places open only from early May through Labor Day. They attract a crowd of outdoors lovers who mostly come for ice cream. But we had done ice cream on a couple of other tours, hence the burgers.

Jacks Cheeseburger

Jack’s Cheeseburger

We were asked to come up with a tasting strategy so we could try an equivalent seasonal burger at each of five establishments, and judge them fairly at the end. My partner and I decided to taste cheeseburgers as the establishment serves them when you ask for a cheeseburger, period. Sounds simple enough. And it worked great at the first stand, Jack’s in Wyantskill, which is known for its intense, greasy grilled onions. Ask for the basic cheeseburger at Jack’s and you’ll get that condiment plus some ketchup which helps to lubricate the onion and distribute it across the patty. It’s a more feral version of the “dirty water” hot dog sauce served on Manhattan’s sidewalks.

Macs Cheeseburger

Mac’s Cheeseburger with requested additions

But at the second stand, Mac’s in Watervliet, we ask what comes standard and they said “just the burger and cheese, but you can add whatever you want.” Oh crap. We did not want a bare burger so we added my favorite standard garnishes: mustard, lettuce, tomato, raw onion and pickle. The result is photographed for your inspection. It looks like a clown hat. The individual ingredients were fine but it broke apart when eaten.

OTF Cheeseburger

On the Farm Cheeseburger

On to On the Farm in Latham, where they not only feature a bare burger but will charge extra to put most garnishes on it. Is there ANYTHING we can add for free? Yes, pickles and raw onion. So that’s what we got, plus a squirt of mustard at the condiment counter. My tour buddies who ordered loaded burgers got the same treatment with the onions in the separate cup, and they were chopped rather than sliced which means they tumble off the burger when you eat it.

CDI Cheeseburger

Country Drive Inn Cheeseburger

I had high hopes for Country Drive Inn in Clifton Park because I’ve sampled their stellar onion rings—in fact, CDI was my preseason pick for the eventual winner. But the burger was totally unremarkable. Again, it’s bare until you ask for condiments. Feeling a little desperate, at this place I requested grilled rather than raw onions, along with LTO, mustard and pickles. (I believe as at On The Farm one had to squirt on one’s own mustard.)

Jumpin Jack Jack Burger

Jack Burger at Jumpin’ Jack’s

The final stop was Jumpin’ Jack’s in Scotia. This stand really is jumping. It’s several times as big as any of the others and was packed with kids in softball and baseball uniforms who had just come from the game. I had decided to go out in a blaze of glory with the Jack Burger, a cheeseburger+hamburger+extra bun layer+a scoop of cole slaw. And what else comes on the burger? You guessed it, nothing. But they had a felicitous condiment bar which included sliced onions and some really nice red hamburger relish.

Jumpin Jack Grill

Fun fact: the grill cook at Jumpin’ Jack’s cross-hatches the patty with the edge of the spatula to indicate how it will be used (cheeseburger, hamburger, double etc)

Now, I know what you are thinking: by the end I had totally abandoned my original ordering and scoring strategy. However, I was able to give myself a mulligan. There was a blank line on the scorecard that allowed us to insert an X factor to compare across the seasonal stands. And I decided my X factor would be “choice”, as in how well does the place accommodate the customer’s desire for options. Mac’s and Jumpin’ Jack’s were tied for the broadest range of options and also tied for the highest (though not very high) score. The latter was my pick for winner, and also as the (only) place I’d return to, drawn by that Coney Island atmosphere.

Jumpin Jack Cole Slaw

Jumpin’ Jack’s sells these little cups of cole slaw for $1.50. Next time I’ll buy one plus a regular burger and mod my own Jack Burger at lower cost.

So what do we learn from this experience? The same thing we learned when we explored why you don’t order steak in a seafood restaurant. In the absence of such curation, I realized how important it is to have my burger prepared by someone who knows the meat and bun the establishment uses, knows the griddle or grill, and knows (or has been trained) how to combine garnishes and serve customers a consistent and satisfying result.

I suspect the workmanlike nature of these burgers is accentuated by the necessity to rely on seasonal help. My burger assemblers, who will soon be back to school or off to the military, have little incentive to build me an exceptional ground meat sandwich. I will not ask them to do it again.

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Recipe: Cherry Hummus

Cherry Hummus

The cherries are not going to break up when blended, so this cherry hummus is a little coarser than usual.

I remembered the cherry hummus that was served at Michael Mina’s Middle’terranea and, when I got my mitts on some dried Rainier cherries from Bella Viva Orchards, I resolved to make my own. The result is a nice change of pace and a solid addition to a mezze platter. Makes about 3 cups, which is a lot, so feel free to cut the recipe in half.

1 c dried chickpeas, cooked to produce 2+ c
½ c dried cherries
2/3 c tahini
4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 T lemon juice
2 t Kosher salt

Method: drain chickpeas, reserving the liquid for another use. Measure 2 c cooked chickpeas and save the few remaining for garnish. Chop the cherries fine in a food processor then add garlic; chop fine. Add other ingredients and blend until thoroughly mixed (you may have to do this in batches). Allow to rest 45 minutes then taste for seasoning and add more salt or lemon juice as needed. The hummus should have a mild taste with a sweet note from the cherries. Garnish with a few whole chickpeas and serve with pita triangles or veggie spears.

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Bella Viva Orchards: the Steph Curry of dried fruit

BellaViva Dried Fruit

My $69 box of dried fruit from BellaViva Orchards

The other day I was in San Francisco and stopped by the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to, as is my custom, stock up on dried fruit from Bella Viva Orchards. Sadly, they were out of unsulfured white nectarines. This prompted me to go online where I discovered that white nectarines were ON SALE, plus if I could get my order total to $69 I would get free shipping. The result is the package you see in the photo, a dozen types of dried fruit that will keep me and my family happy for the next several months.

I don’t know why dried fruit gets a bad rap, much like fruitcake. Eating it, and especially giving it, is just not cool. I have known the Bella Viva folks for a good 20 years and feel they make superior dried fruit… growing the good stuff and carefully dessicating it so the flavor stays in even as the moisture and potential for spoilage is lost. They really are at the top of their field. Even if you don’t care about basketball, to make an analogy, you possibly respect Steph Curry for his dedication and the resulting purity and beauty of his game. Bella Viva is like that.

Full disclosure, I once did a small marketing project for Victor Martinez who was actively involved at the farmers market stands but now has, I assume and hope, moved up in the company so he is able to stay home and gaze at the fruit trees instead of getting in the truck at 3 am. At that time Bella Viva was a “transitional” grower, moving to full organic which most of their products are now (though you can still buy conventional versions of some fruits). Best root stock, best cultivation, careful drying then and now produced the best quality dried fruit.

I highly recommend you give these guys a try. It’s fine if you are tempted by some of the gift selections, which aren’t great value but will quickly push your order toward that free shipping minimum. But whatever you do, include some unsulfured white nectarines in your order. You’ll thank me later.

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Recipe: Short Ribs, your first Instant Pot meal

Instant Pot Short Ribs

Instant Pot Short Ribs

There is much love for Instant Pot, yet it’s hard to find straightforward newbie instructions for what to do with this rather imposing device (which reminds me of a North Korean missile canister) when you first pull it out of the box. So here you go. Assemble it, wash and dry the cooking insert, then dig in. You are going to make an excellent rendition of  Instant Pot short ribs in under two hours, start to finish. Serves 4-6.

2 oz bacon or pancetta, chopped
5 lbs short ribs, bone in
Ground black pepper
Kosher salt
All-purpose flour, for dredging
1 T olive oil
3 medium onions, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 T tomato paste
1 c dry red wine
1 1/2 t dried thyme
1 t dried oregano
1 t dried rosemary
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
4 cloves garlic
2 c or more water or beef stock

Method: turn on the Instant Pot to the Sauté setting and add chopped bacon or pancetta. Very shortly it will start to sizzle. Stir with a wooden spoon till meat is crispy then remove and reserve. Add olive oil and begin to brown the short ribs: sprinkle each with salt and pepper, dredge in flour, then fry a few pieces at a time, turning till they are brown and crispy on all sides. (This took me two batches for 5 pounds of ribs.) Remove and reserve ribs, then add onions and cook, stirring, until softened. Add celery and carrots and stir 5 minutes or so till they are softened as well. Note: the Sauté setting has a 30 minute timer so may turn off toward the end of this process. Simply turn it back on (press the button) and continue.

Now, return the ribs and bacon/pancetta to the pot and dump in spices then liquids. There should be a generous amount of liquid but it doesn’t have to cover the ribs. Cover the pot and turn to lock it: it will take you a few tries but this is a safety feature, to make sure the pressure cooker seal really is tight. Flip the lever on top of the lid to the “Sealed” position. Press the Soups/Stews button and adjust the timer (press the + button in the center of the dial) to 40 minutes. Very shortly an “On” message will appear. You are done here; go do something else for the next 50 minutes or so.

When the 40 minutes are up, the Instant Pot will switch to the Keep Warm setting which it can maintain for many hours. During this time it is slowly releasing its pressure. After 10 minutes it is safe to manually release the pressure by flipping the release lever. Now open the lid and discover the magic: falling-of-the-bones short ribs in under two hours.

This is a good starter recipe because it demonstrates two of the Instant Pot’s core functions, and the result is delicious. Enjoy!

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Amazon’s Prime Sweets Button

Dash Prime Sweets Butto

Dash Prime Sweets Button

What if you could press a button and, two days later, a box of delicious ribs and brisket showed up at your door? And each box was from one of America’s finest pitmasters? Would that be something you could get behind?

Well, it ain’t happening. But Amazon appears to be experimenting with something similar: Amazon Prime Sweets. To quote the email I received, “you can be one of the first to try the new Prime Surprise Sweets, a box of curated artisan treats you can request with the push of a Dash Button. We’ve scoured the country for the best artisan treats and every time you push the button, we’ll deliver a new box that now has at least four full size items!”

This seems like an idea that is very much in the beta stage: you can’t actually sign up for the program, just request an invitation which “will be sent within one week and contain a link to purchase your Dash Button.” And they warn they won’t be delivering chocolate during the summer months, which may be a deal killer. But near-instant gourmet gratification is an interesting concept, much better than the Dash buttons for ordering detergent or toilet paper.

The button costs $5 (refundable with your first order) and the box itself is $18 (with free two-day Prime shipping, of course). If you want to get on the invite list, here is a link. Warning: it may work only for folks whom Amazon has pre-qualified through their email address.

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Why I hate restaurant coupons

Horse Mackerel at Unagi

Horse Mackerel at Unagi in Troy NY: a rare good restaurant coupon experience where we ate so much sushi that the value of our Groupon could have been a rounding error

I’ve pretty much stopped using restaurant coupons—those pay-in-advance online purchases through Groupon, LivingSocial or LocalFlavor which typically take 50% off the price of your meal. Part of the problem is the bad juju fostered by LocalFlavor, which I’ve written about previously. But there’s more.

I guess there must be a lot of fraud nowadays, because when I present the coupon the server whisks it away for a tense conversation with the manager. There’s usually no acknowledgement or reassurance once the document’s authenticity is established, so I enter the ordering process feeling like a low life penny pincher (perhaps separated at birth from Chef Colose’s Restaurant Week patrons) rather than an adventurous diner who wants to save a buck or two. Often, the server treats me throughout the meal as if I’m getting away with something (possibly because they are worried about their tip, which I always base on the full value of the meal). It turns eating out into a joyless affair.

Granted, I’ve also had restaurant coupon experiences with none of the aforementioned negativity (most typically with Groupon, but caveat emptor because they’ve started reselling LocalFlavor deals). The server is polite and gracious, the meal is excellent, and I leave feeling like I’ve had a great deal and will be back for more at full price. But you don’t know this will happen till it does.

In fact, when I use one of my dwindling supply of deals (usually from LocalFlavor since they seem to have taken over the space) I now go in with the assumption that the coupon will NOT be honored and I’ll still have my meal since I entered the restaurant with the notion of dining there. Thus, in the worst case scenario instead of saving 50% on my meal I’ll pay 150% of the retail price—what’s on the menu plus the cost of my coupon which is now worthless. I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to work.

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