So On And So Forth…

7 01 2008

Great ingredient label? Or Greatest ingredient label?

Sorry for the poor image quality, cell phone camera and all that. Plus, I may have been shaking with the absolute giddy pleasure of having found something so freakin’ awesome.

For those who can’t read it the ingredients are: Fresh Fruit, Salt, Etc.

Etc.! Thank you Asian Markets for the many joys you bring my life. Etc.


Golden Brown & Delicious

6 11 2007

Who doesn’t like French Fries?  And if you say you don’t, you’re a liar, a god-damned liar.  (Or crazy.)

When it comes to making fries at home, most of us suffer through those pallid frozen varieties–which aspire to acceptable at best.  Even then, acceptable seems a lofty goal.   Since most of us aren’t Paula Deen, deep frying at home is something of a chore.  To make the best fries, it’s actually a two-fry process and requires some temperature control.  First, you blanch the fries in 260 degree oil for about ten minutes, which cooks the potatoes through.  Next, you fry them in 370 degree oil for about three minutes, which makes them golden and crispy.  You can rest the potatoes in between or not, apparently the subject is under debate.  At any rate, this process is more than I want to undertake at home.  Perhaps it is the difficulty in maintaining a temperature in a pot of oil on an electric stove, perhaps it’s my basic distrust of thermometers.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeffrey Steingarten, famous epicurean curmudgeon, and Joel Robuchon, Culinary Genius and Food God.

I recently read Steingarten’s book “The Man Who Ate Everything“, it was a great read–and it has an entire chapter dedicated to the “French” fry, or Pomme Frite.  They are, of course, not French but Belgian–that’s neither here not there.  I owe this debt of gratitude because Steingarten includes a brilliant and simple method for creating fries that produces delicious results.

First peel and cut about two pounds of potatoes into batons.  Robuchon prefers the irregular and rustic quality of a hand-cut fry.  Next, rinse the cut potatoes under cold water to remove starch.  Then blot the potatoes dry–wet potatoes will absorb more oil.  Place the potatoes into a wide pan at least four inches deep and add just enough oil to cover.  I used peanut oil which is well regarded as a fry oil for its high smoke point and neutral flavor.  Put the pot on the stove over your highest heat.  As the oil heats it basically takes the potatoes through the blanch and then the fry in one easy step.  No thermometer necessary, just keep your eye on them and remove the fries when they are golden-brown.  Salt them as soon as they come out of the oil.

I’ve tried the recipe twice.  The first time I used a mandoline to cut the fries.  I used the largest cut available but the batons were smaller than the 3/8″ cut that Steingarten recommends.  The fries were crispy and delicious, but there was a little too much crispy outside and not enough soft inside.  I also salted them only with fine sea salt.  The next time I used a larger hand-cut fry–closer to the 3/8″ cut, but I don’t keep a ruler handy and can’t be sure.  At any rate, this cut produced a much superior fry.  The outside was golden and crispy and there was a pleasing amount of creamy potato inside.  I used a Russet, and your results will vary depending on which potato you use.  Steingarten said the Russet produces the crispiest fry, but the insides were mealy and slightly bitter.  I cannot agree with Steingarten on this call, the insides were creamy and there was no bitterness that I detected.  Robuchon likes to use two salts–a fine salt and then also a coarse salt which he likes for the crunch.  I tried this approach also the second time, using a fine sea salt and then also a coarse Grey Salt.  I can’t say I really noticed the crunch of the grey salt, but then I also noticed much of it still sitting on my plate.  Nevertheless, these were great fries.

So thank you Robuchon for developing this fantastic technique, and thank you Steingarten for sharing it with us in your book.  This will be the technique that I employ for my fries for now on.  I will only deviate–I imagine–if I get a quality deep fryer with a trustworthy thermostat.

Frank Pepe’s and the New Place in my Heart

24 10 2007

I’m reading Jeffrey Steingarten’sThe Man Who Ate Everything“.  In it he mentions that the White Clam Pizza from Frank Pepe’s in New Haven is one of the best pizzas in the country and certainly the best thing in New Haven.  It rang a bell–Frank Pepe’s, wasn’t that the new place that just opened by the Buckland Hills Mall?  The next time I drove past I confirmed that, yes, that was the place and, Holy Shit! look at that line out front!

Not too much later my wife and I had to drive down to New Haven to exchange a piece of our Tobo TV stand at Ikea.  It would be around dinner time and I mapped it out, you could stand outside Ikea and hit the original Frank Pepe’s with a Krumvat, or whatever Ikea would name a rock.  So after shopping we swung over to New Haven’s surprisingly vibrant Little Italy.  We fought our way through the narrow, traffic-choked, one-way street and slowly found our way out front of Frank Pepe’s.   That line that I saw out front of the new Frank Pepe’s by me in Manchester?  To call that a line would be to insult the dignity of the epic queue lined up out front of New Haven’s Frank Pepe’s.  There also appeared to be no parking in Little Italy, but I was pretty sure I passed a spot on the way there so I circled back around to find it.  Sheila was pretty sure it was driveway, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t.  Since it was a driveway and it meant that there was no parking in Little Italy, we gave up on Frank Pepe’s and instead settled on a mediocre meal at Panera Bread, which may or may not have made me sick.

Today I’m reading through some old Hartford Advocates, and there’s an add for Frank Pepe’s with a glowing review from Zagat’s “Frank Pepe’s white clam pizza is one of the best pizzas in the know universe!”  Hyperbole, of course, but damn I gotta try this place.  It wasn’t in the plans tonight, though, I wanted to See Lust, Caution and its last showing was at 7.  Sheila seemed on board till I mentioned that it was 2.5 hours long.  We ditched those plans but then I thought, “hmm, how busy could Frank Pepe’s be on a Tuesday?”  We drove up to find out.

There was a line (dammit), but it wasn’t outside this time.  At least it wasn’t outside until we got in line, we had to wait outside.  We slowly worked our way to the front of the line and I got excited as the waitress headed our way.  The delicious smell of pizza was thick in the air.  And now the waitress would tell us…”We have to shut the oven down once or twice a day to refresh it, It’ll take 45 minutes to an hour for it to heat back up.”  My thoughts lost cohesion for a brief moment.  I wanted to eat there, but I was also already very hungry.  However, we had some errands to run so we’d just do that and return.  A half hour later we returned to a shorter line and quickly got our seat.  We ordered a large Tomato Pie with Mozzarella and some Root Beer.  The pizza, we were informed, would still take about 25 minutes.  The soda was all we had to tide us over.  We were brought a liter bottle of Foxon Park Root Beer, a fun name and a delicious Root Beer, made with real Sugar and not High Fructose Corn Syrup.

From my seat I could see the Pizza Oven.  It was huge–pizza peels that must’ve been ten feet long were used to navigate pizzas through its cavernous interior.  At one point they also opened up the coal door.  Huge blue flames shot out and and licked the white tile walls around it, and beyond could be seen the golden glowing embers of coal.  From this vantage point I could also see when the first pizzas started going back in to the oven.  When the pizzas started coming out, I could see that the Large we ordered was rather…well, Large.   I could also see the blackened crust edges typical of pizzas cooked in coal-fired ovens.  They looked delicious, and the smell in the restaurant was shooting straight into the pleasure center of my brain.

And then, Lo, I did see the Angel floating over from the kitchen, our golden pie delicately draped on a silver platter!  Or maybe she just carried it over on a sheet tray, I dunno, I was pretty excited.  She placed the pizza before us and…boy, was it sliced oddly.  I’ve seen pizzas usually cut in one of two ways: wedges, or squares.  This pizza looked like Zorro closed his eyes and randomly slashed at it.  It did, however, look delicious.  The edges of the crust were black, but only the edge, the rest was a lovely golden umber.  The cheese was well melted with just a few occasional brown bubbles.  I had to will myself to not shovel it into my eager maw.  I didn’t want to burn my mouth and deaden my sense of taste.  I gently eased the slice onto my place–after brutally separating it from the rest of the poorly cut pie.  I cut a piece and readied myself, was it worth the hype?

The crust was crispy, yet chewy–the benefit of the high temp coal-fired oven.  It was thin, but not too thin, just right.  It was perfectly sauced, not too thick–nothing squeezed out, but not dry either.  The flavor of the sauce was also good, not overbearing, not competing with the crust and cheese.  No odd sweetness or overpowering herbs, just a good cooked tomato flavor.  Then the cheese–well melted, not stringy, just the right amount of grease.  The three essential elements of the pizza were in perfect balance and the pizza had an almost buttery quality about it.  It was fantastic, it was worth the hype.  I had no regrets about the long wait or late hours I would up eating it.

I was worried that I might not find good pizza in Connecticut, but instead I found one of the best I’ve ever had.  I may not have had the White Clam Pizza that Steingarten and Zagat rhapsodized over, but I still found something to sing about.  Welcome, Frank Pepe’s, to a special corner of my heart.

The King of the Fruits?

10 04 2007

What is the king of the fruits? According to some misguided individuals with, I’m guessing, some sort of sinus issue, it is the Durian. So, what is the Durian? It is a large, armor-plated fruit native to southeast Asia.

I first heard of this fruit while watching “Bizarre foods of Asia with Andrew Zimmern”. The Uncle Fester looking epicurean traveled through several countries eating things such as bugs, bats, bird’s nests and the still-beating heart of a frog. He did it all with enthusiasm and aplomb. That is, however, until he encountered the Durian. Practically the moment his mouth closed on the Durian, he spit it onto the ground–right in front of the proud farmer. He described its flavor as “onion that was left out in the sun for a week”. I was definitely intrigued. How could a fruit be that offensive weighed against the other foods he graciously consumed?

The next time I saw the Durian was on an episode of “No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain”. He called the Durian “the stegosaurus-shaped stink-fruit of Asia”. Stink fruit? One of the recurring things that you will hear about Durian is its peculiar odor. I’ve heard its smell described as “compost”, “sewage” and “dirty nappies” among other things. Bourdain noted the smell and how, because of it, the Durian is strictly forbidden in many enclosed public spaces (at least in Indonesia where the episode was shot). Bourdain bought a Durian and a machete to open it with and found a wide-open public space to enjoy it. And he did enjoy it, unlike Zimmern.

I was more than intrigued, despite the slew of mostly negative press I’d heard on the fruit, I wanted to try it. I also wanted to test my culinary cojones–after all, if a man who could eat grubs couldn’t eat it, could I?

I did some research on the fruit to see if it could be gotten in America. According to what I was able to read, it could occasionally be found, but no easily. I decided to put “Try Durian” on my list at I kept my eye open but assumed it might take awhile to achieve this goal.

Not too much later I found Durian-flavored bubble tea in Toronto. It was pleasant, but mild. I knew, obviously, this wasn’t exactly having durian, even if it’s flavor were stronger. Plus, how could anything bubble tea be bad? (Actually, red bean bubble tea rather sucked.)

This past weekend I was shopping up in Rochester and decided to check out a new Asian market that I’d read was the biggest and best in Rochester. Near the entrance was a decent produce section, already better than Rochester’s other Asian markets. I began wondering if perhaps they ever got in Durian. I thought I might ask, it never even occurred to be that they might have them in stock. But after a quick scan, and to my complete surprise, there they were, three volleyball-sized, rather threatening looking Durian. I couldn’t freakin’ believe it. I’d found them and it was easier than I thought. Plus, they were only 1.59/lb, which was cheaper than I was anticipating. I picked up the smallest of the the three and brought it up to my nose, ready to experience the miasmic odor I’d heard so much about. It smelled…rather…pleasant. I was oddly disappointed by that. Instead of sewage it smelled more like melon and pineapple. Still, freakin’ durian, man. While most people will talk about its smell or unusual taste, few mention how dangerous this thing feels. I could see people going into battle with these–a durian on a chain, perhaps. It was heavy and the spikes were quite sharp. I’d imagine that if you took a shot to the head with this bad-boy it would be brains on the pavement. I bought the fruit and tied it tightly in a bag before I put it in my trunk, just in case its odor turned to the dark side.

The car did begin to smell like the Durian, but again, it was the unexpectedly pleasant fruity odor.

Once I got the fruit home I took it out of its bag and noticed that it had leaked some juice. The smell was…unpleasant. Finally. If it were any other fruit I would have assumed it was rotten. Now I felt as if I were getting a bit more of the Durian experience. I was going to wait to eat the Durian, but because it was leaking I thought I should try it before it went bad. Because, while I did want the Durian experience, I also didn’t want my apartment to smell like a week’s worth of bad trash.

Considering that the Durian looked as easy to crack as an Enigma Code I decided to break out the big guns, my Joyce Chen Asian chef’s knife. This turns out to have been a proper assumption. I had to go Lizzie Borden on the Durian to break through its spiky exterior. Whack whack whack. It was quite a bit of work to get into, it was almost as if it was warning you, telling you not to eat it. Unfortunately for the Durian and my taste buds, I was determined.

Once I was finally able to get it split in half I was presented with pockets of custard-like fruit. It looked remarkably like vanilla pudding, but there were a couple of red spots in it that looked like it was bleeding. Having gotten this far I wasn’t actually much sure what to do with the fruit. My wife and I looked it up online and found that it was the custard stuff that we were supposed to eat, and that the red spots were seeds that are located in each of the pudding pockets.

I was now at the threshold of the moment of tasting. The moment that Bourdain enjoyed and Zimmern couldn’t handle. It was time to put that goo in my mouth. It still smelled fruity, but not as nice as when I first picked it up in the store. It was starting to smell a bit more like trash. I was a little nervous, but undeterred. I grabbed a spoon, scooped up some goo, and into my eager maw it went.

I admit, I wanted to like it. I wanted to find the best of this fruit. I wanted to throw my arms up into the air and declare, “Huzzah, it is the king of fruits!” So, how did it taste? I read that someone once described it as eating a fine vanilla custard off a latrine. I would say that it was more like eating a vanilla custard (notice I dropped the word “fine”) off a rotten onion. It was remarkably onion-y, as Zimmern described it, but unlike Zimmern, I ate it. In fact, I had another scoop. My wife, who was watching and helping, picked up a spoon and had two scoops herself. I think her expression accurately describes its flavor.

Two scoops each was enough. We tried it. It was fun and it was worth it. While I can’t say I liked it, that either of us liked it, I’m quite glad I did it. In fact, I’d recommend it. It’s a unique food and a unique experience. Would I try it again? Absolutely, actually. Considering it didn’t stink nearly so badly as it should, I’m not sure I got the full-on Durian experience. Plus, I’m stupid.

The remaining Durian was bagged up and I quickly ran it out to the trash, just in case its mythic odor decided to rear its noisome head.

So, Anthony Bourdain, I know you don’t like non-religious vegetarians, but c’mon, gimme love. And Zimmern? Suck-it, wuss.

Raw Revalation

21 02 2007

When I was kid, Sometimes my family would get fresh, un-homogenized milk straight from the farm. It’s a fond memory for me since I’m quite a lover of dairy. I’ve been looking for that same experience here in my bucolic burgh. I’ve asked around, but sadly, no-one seemed to know anyplace this could be done.

Today at work, I was helping our price check coordinator research whether a certain milk was UHT or not. It got me talking about fresh farm milk and about Raw Milk which I’ve read about on several food blogs. Once I was done helping Julie I thought I would do a search to see if there were anywhere I could buy Raw Milk. First I googled “raw milk western ny” but it occurred to me that milk isn’t something you’d want to take on a long drive so I thought I’d narrow my search. Next I googled “raw milk hornell”, Hornell being the largest local town. I got a hit for a local oxygen bar that served raw milk. Once I got over the shock that a redneck wonderland like Hornell had an oxygen bar I was able to find out they got their Raw Milk from an Organic Dairy Farm right in Alfred, NY. The very town in which I live! It was under my freakin’ nose this whole time!

The Dairy farm has a website, so I was able to find out a couple of helpful details.  Things like, where the farm was, how much the milk would cost, and a phone number because the map they provided wasn’t very good.  I was also able to find their hours, only 2-5 on Tuesdays and Fridays.  I couldn’t just drop by anytime, today was the day and I was going to have to leave work a little early.  I called to confirm the location and set out to get my milk.

I was able to find the farm without any difficulty, but once I got there it was on both sides of the street and I wasn’t sure exactly where to go next.  Fortunately for me, the farmer was walking up the driveway (perhaps because he noticed my slow, uncertain driving) and he directed me to where I needed to go.  He introduced himself and seemed to recognize me from the phone call.  He walked me to the counter as he talked proudly of his operation and the quality of his product.  He told me what he was legally required to about raw milk and had me sign a waiver.  This is standard practice necessitated by New York State law.  He sold me a half gallon Ball Jar (who knew they came so large) and led me across the road to the milking barn.  He asked if I would like to see the operation, which I was quite happy to.  At the entrance was the large milk holding tank and past that the entrance to the barn.  There were a few cows in there, mostly lazing about since it wasn’t milking time.  The cows are grass fed and pasture freely and only have to come in for milking.  Most of the cows were outside eating grass through the snow.  He led me back to the milk tank past three cats sleepy quietly in a pile of hay.  He grabbed my shiny new ball jar and filled it right in front of me (also required by law).

He told me that Sunny Cove Farm was a closed system.  They breed and raise their own cows, the pasture them in their own fields which are fertlized with their own manure.  He showed me an award he had won for quality and described the store front he was building and where he intended to put the facade (which he pronounced with a hard C like Nicollette Sheridan in Noises Off).  He pointed out where he intends to build a sugaring house (the farm does organic maple products, organic meat and organic apples in addition to the milk).

This, I thought, is how it is supposed to be.  How often do we get to talk with the people who make our food?  To see where our food is coming from?  It’s good to see the pride someone takes in their product.  It’s good to see that the animals are being well-treated.  It’s good to see cute kittens sleeping in a barn.  I hope I can find more places like this where I can buy locally grown food.

Now, to the milk itself.  Raw milk, in case you didn’t know, means that it hasn’t been homogenized or pasteurized.  I suppose they use the term “raw” since pasteurization requires heating the milk, which alters its flavor.  And since it isn’t homogenized, the cream will settle on the top.  I poured myself a tall, satisfying glass of cold milk.  The conclusion? Best milk ever, and not shipped from some crappy factory farm.  Even if it were only as good as the regular milk I buy from the store, it would still be worth it.  But the milk is better–richer, creamier, tastier than any milk I’ve had before.  I guess, like Old Dirty Bastard, I like it raw.

Wait, Beer Cheese Tastes Like Beer?

21 02 2007

I admit, I bought this cheese because it looked so funky. It looks like tortoiseshell cheese, or something. I threw out the label and I can’t remember the name of this cheese. Something something Porter. Porter referring to the beer which is what I suspect the dark marbling is from. It was a bit on the pricey side, this small chunk was about $3.50 (It’s a pretty small chunk).

So, how did it taste? Hmm, I know this might sound a bit…asinine, but it would’ve been much better if it didn’t taste so much like beer. Yes, I know I bought a cheese made with beer. Still. The curds themselves were fairly mild with just a bit of sharpness/muskiness to it. Above, behind and around that flavor, though, was the bitterness of the beer.

I don’t regret buying it, but I probably wouldn’t buy it again. I just don’t care for the flavor of beer. I could recommend this cheese to anyone who does.

[Edit:  I checked back on this one.  It’s called Cahill’s Porter Cheese and (at Hornell Wegmans at least) costs $14.99/lb.  This is the same price, incidentally, as Parmigiano Reggiano, a far superior cheese.]

Reasons Why

28 01 2007

Over on 43things I had put down “Eat Organically, Locally and Seasonally” as one of my goals. Its something that, as a food person, I knew was a good thing even if maybe I didn’t know all the reasons why. I was reading one of my favorite blogs, The Accidental Hedonist, and just a couple of click away I came upon the following guide that gave me more of the reasons why:

10 Reasons to Eat Local Food

Eating local means more for the local economy. According to a study by the New Economics Foundation in London, a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy. When businesses are not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction. (reference)

Locally grown produce is fresher. While produce that is purchased in the supermarket or a big-box store has been in transit or cold-stored for days or weeks, produce that you purchase at your local farmer’s market has often been picked within 24 hours of your purchase. This freshness not only affects the taste of your food, but the nutritional value which declines with time.

Local food just plain tastes better. Ever tried a tomato that was picked within 24 hours? ‘Nuff said.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables have longer to ripen. Because the produce will be handled less, locally grown fruit does not have to be “rugged” or to stand up to the rigors of shipping. This means that you are going to be getting peaches so ripe that they fall apart as you eat them, figs that would have been smashed to bits if they were sold using traditional methods, and melons that were allowed to ripen until the last possible minute on the vine.

Eating local is better for air quality and pollution than eating organic. In a March 2005 study by the journal Food Policy, it was found that the miles that organic food often travels to our plate creates environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic. (reference)

Buying local food keeps us in touch with the seasons. By eating with the seasons, we are eating foods when they are at their peak taste, are the most abundant, and the least expensive.

Buying locally grown food is fodder for a wonderful story. Whether it’s the farmer who brings local apples to market or the baker who makes local bread, knowing part of the story about your food is such a powerful part of enjoying a meal.

Eating local protects us from bio-terrorism. Food with less distance to travel from farm to plate has less susceptibility to harmful contamination. (reference)

Local food translates to more variety. When a farmer is producing food that will not travel a long distance, will have a shorter shelf life, and does not have a high-yield demand, the farmer is free to try small crops of various fruits and vegetables that would probably never make it to a large supermarket. Supermarkets are interested in selling “Name brand” fruit: Romaine Lettuce, Red Delicious Apples, Russet Potatoes. Local producers often play with their crops from year to year, trying out Little Gem Lettuce, Senshu Apples, and Chieftain Potatoes.

Supporting local providers supports responsible land development. When you buy local, you give those with local open space – farms and pastures – an economic reason to stay open and undeveloped.

Now I just need to find a list that details when every piece of produce is in season and I’ll be in luck!

Oh, and if you’re a food person like I am, a.k.a. “foodie” in the popular parlance, check out this site!