31 January, 2009

Tiger Beer by Asia Pacific Breweries

While at a party last week, I was looking for a beer and Tiger caught my eye - must have been the cool 1930's-style font on the label and embossed above the shoulder of the bottle, I'm a sucker for prewar graphic design.

Tiger is a fairly middle-of-the-road American-style lager (despite it's Asia-Pacific origins.) It pours yellow with a pure-white head that settles down to a thin foam layer. Not too hoppy - I'd describe the taste as grainy with a touch of corn. The malt really comes through, and overall I'd say the taste is pretty similar to Miller High Life (but not as sweet.)

It would probably be a decent ice-cold quaff on a hot summer day, but to be honest, I'll probably never know: The package store charges import-beer prices for Tiger, but Tiger is definitely domestic-suds quality. I can get beer that's just as good or better for a lot less coin.

30 January, 2009

Red Star Erguotou - Chinese Firewater

Several years ago, my brother-in-law Bob and I were selling at a flea market in early November. Like many of the vendors, we had set up a small camp behind our sales area; we would be there for three days and two nights, so we had a camper van, a canopy and a small cooking area.

On the first night, after the gates had closed, we decided to walk around the market grounds and see what some of the other guys were selling. The market was at a local racetrack and was kind of an automotive swap meet, and we thought we might find some tool or parts sellers, or maybe some who were selling stuff like ours: car-related toys and collectibles.

About a hundred yards down from us, some Chinese vendors had set up a "dollar store" with rows and rows of boxes filled with hardware, inexpensive tools, tarps, bungees, and just dozens of small, indispensable things that everyone likes to pick through and buy. There were six or seven of them sitting in a circle around a big campfire, and they were passing around big half-gallon bottles of some kind of clear liquor. We smiled and waved at them as we walked by, and they all smiled back and waved us over to the fire. We sat down with them and shared the bottles as they passed along - none of our new friends spoke very much English, and Bob and I didn't speak any Chinese, but that didn't matter. We all spoke the universal language of Drink, and within an hour or so we were all half-popped, telling jokes (Bob and I in English, and our hosts in Chinese) and laughing like idiots. I don't remember much else that night. In the morning I woke up and found myself warm and toasty in my van with my propane heater running, so I must have had enough on the ball to find my way back and get ready for bed. I got the camp stove going and put on a huge pot of coffee, and while Bob rummaged around the cooler in search of bacon and eggs I went over and invited the Chinese crew to breakfast. Breakfast was alcohol-free, but we still had a great time, laughing it up as we managed to communicate in broken English and hand signals.

Bob and I never ran into those guys again, but we've never forgotten them, either.

I never knew just what we were drinking that night, only that it was strong and a little harsh and reminded me of very strong, very cheap vodka. It wasn't until years later, when my friend's daughter Stephanie brought me back a bottle from China, that I found out what it was: Erguotou ( 二锅头) an inexpensive 112-proof firewater distilled from sorghum and popular with blue-collar workers in northern China.

These days, Steph speaks fluent Mandarin and has a degree in Chinese Studies and lives in Shanghai teaching English in a Chinese school. She recently came home for a visit during the school's Spring Break, and brought me a small 100ml bottle of Red Star erguotou, bless her.

Red Star Erguotou is extremely popular in Beijing. It's cheap and strong. Stephanie likens the aroma to gasoline, but I don't think it's all that bad. It is indeed quite vaporous, but it reminds me more of the purple-printed mimeographed sheets we used to get in grade school than it does of petrol. Despite the aroma, it has little or no flavor, but it does have quite a burn! 112 proof would be strong enough on its own, but erguotou is harsh and raw-edged, too, and a big swallow burns all the way down. I enjoy the hell out of it, and when I have a bottle of it handy I always have the first drink from it to the health of the anonymous Chinese flea market vendors Bob and I met those years ago.


Red Star Company's website (English language version) - uses Flash and loads kind of slowly, even with a broadband connection.

Stephanie In Shanghai is Steph's blog about living in China. Stop in and enjoy her perpective as an American ex-pat in China as she recounts her adventures (and her mundane everyday life, too.)


29 January, 2009

Bacon-Chocolate Truffles

We were going to a party last weekend and wanted to bring along a batch of munchies that everyone could enjoy. My daughter, an experienced hand at making candy, suggested chocolate truffles, so that's what we did...with a twist: we added crispy bacon bits to the truffle filling. Not only did the smoky, salty bacon and smooth creamy chocolate flavors compliment one another, but the contrast in textures added another layer of interest. The other partygoers were delighted by our creation - a 24-inch platter filled with truffles was empty in no time.

Bacon-Chocolate Truffles

1 3/4 to 2 pounds slab bacon
1 1/2 pounds milk or dark chocolate
1/4 cup butter
2/3 cup evaporated milk
dipping chocolate

Try to get unsliced slab bacon if you can and cut it into 1/4-inch dice. Brown the bacon very crispy in a skillet and watch it carefully! Tiny dice can go from "brown" to "burnt" in a heartbeat, and they do get tiny as they cook. When the bacon is done, remove it from the skillet with a slotted spoon to absorbent paper and allow it to cool. It will get crispy and crunchy as it cools.

Meanwhile, prepare the truffle mixture. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate, butter, and evaporated milk together, stirring until the warm mixture is completely combined. Use as good a chocolate as you can afford, because the quality of the truffle is directly related to the quality of the chocolate you use.

When the truffle mixture is smoothly blended, fold in the bacon bits until they are evenly distributed in the chocolate.

Spread the bacony truffle mixture on a heavy ceramic plate and refrigerate for a few hours until well-chilled. The mixture is soft even when cold, but at room temperature it will be almost unworkable. When completely chilled remove the plate from the fridge and use a small melon baller to scoop out small amounts of truffle mixture and roll them quickly into balls. Set the balls aside on a lined baking sheet as you go. Work quickly - the mixture can only be rolled when it is very cold, and heavy ceramic plate will help keep it cold while you work. After all the mixture is rolled, put the baking sheet full of truffle balls back into the fridge and chill thoroughly again.

Melt the dipping chocolate, then allow it to cool until blood warm - too hot, and the truffle centers will melt as you try to coat them. Dip the chilled truffle centers into the chocolate to coat, and set them aside in paper candy cups to cool and harden. Keep refrigerated until an hour or so before serving. At room temp, the coating will be hard but when bitten into will release the luxuriously creamy centers filled with crunchy bacon bits.


28 January, 2009

High Fructose Corn Syrup

You've seen the High Fructose Corn Syrup Propaganda ads that attempt to counter the rising public opionion against HFCS. Apparently, the Corn Refiners Association wants to tell us that people who oppose HFCS's ubiquity in American food are morons.

Let's rewrite the dialoge in this common commercial featuring Woman-1 and Woman-2.

WOMAN-1: Wow. You don't care what the kids eat, huh?

WOMAN-2: Excuse me?

WOMAN-1: That has high-fructose corn syrup in it.

WOMAN-2: And?

WOMAN-1: You know what they say about it?

WOMAN-2: What? That's it made from corn? That it doesn't have artificial ingredients? and that, like sugar, it''s fine in moderation?

WOMAN-1: No, the other stuff. Like although it doesn't have any artificial ingredients, HFCS doesn't occur in nature but is a manufactured product created by treating corn starch with enzymes. Or that the FDA's regulations don't allow products containing HFCS to be labeled as "natural."

Or that a study led by Dr. Chi-tang Ho, chairman of the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University, found that a single can of a HFCS sweetened soft drink contained five times higher concentration of reactive carbonyls than the concentration found in the blood of an adult with diabetes (reactive carbonyls are strongly linked to nerve and tissue damage in diabetics) and that ordinary sugar contains no reactive carbonyls at all.

Or that the fructose raises triglyceride levels - a study by University of Minnesota professor John Bantle MD has shown that people using HFCS instead of sugar elevate their triglycerides 32% compared to people who only use sugar.

Or that it's nearly impossible to enjoy HFCS "in moderation" when nearly every processed food sold today contains it, thanks to government subsidies of the corn industry and import tariffs which keep the price of cane sugar artificially high?

Or that HFCS has now been found to contain measurable levels of mercury, perhaps because of contamination of the industrial materials used to process it?

WOMAN-2: Oh...uh...Hahahahaha! You're right! I don't give a shit what my kids eat!

Actually, with regards to the mercury thing...modern instrumentation has made the term "measurable levels" nearly meaningless. I've seen lots of press releases about this latest mercury scare but no actual research. I'd welcome links to the real studies if anyone has them.

That doesn't mean, however, that HFCS isn't Satan's semen.


27 January, 2009

Osem Meals-On-The-Go Instant Mashed Potatoes

When I was a kid, my mother always had a box of instant mashed potatoes in the cupboard. Most of the time, she cooked from scratch, but she wasn't above convenience if she was pressed for time or someone showed up unexpectedly at meal time and another couple of servings of spuds were needed (whip up a short batch of instant, stir 'em into the real thing, and no one's the wiser.)

I keep instant mashed on hand, too, because they're cheap and fast, but also because I just like them. None of them will ever replace the real thing, of course, and some brands are better than others, but they have a place in my heart nonetheless.

And that brings me to Osem Meals-on-the-Go instant mash in a cup. Made in Israel, they come in several varieties including mashed with mushrooms and mashed with vegetables. Each cup contains dehydrated mashed potatoes, flavorings, and a small but rugged spoon. The vegetable variety has bits of parsley, onions, celery, and carrots. The mushroom cup contains tiny bits of dehydrated porcini mushrooms. They're very easy to prepare - identical to cup noodles, actually: Just peel back the lid, add boiling water to the line, stir, cover, and wait a few minutes. Stir once again to fluff up the spuds just before eating, and you're good to go.

It doesn't seem that a small cup of mashed potatoes would make a very good lunch, but the serving size in an Osem is almost a full cup. The added flavors of the veggies and mushrooms also add to the experience, and with a handful of celery sticks or a piece of fruit, it's a satisfying and filling lunch.

As with many other quick prepackaged foods, a little bit of fiddling with the preparation can make a big difference, and bump up the quality quite a bit. I found that stirring in a lump of butter with the boiling water kicked up the flavor and texture much more than I would have expected. Also, thinning out the spuds a bit with milk or half-and-half (even better!) was also an improvement. (Notice the common element in both of these techniques is the addition of fat. Hardly a surprise, right?)

I found these Meals-On-The-Go at Ocean State Job Lot and laid in a supply of them because they aren't available at other stores in my area. If you have a Wegman's near you, though, you can get them there.


Osem's website (takes awhile to load)
Osem Meals-On-The-Go at Wegman's


26 January, 2009

Not Very Good Wine, But Very Good Bacon

Made by B F Clyde's Cider Mill in Mystic CT, Clyde's Yellow Jacket is an apple wine with orange concentrate added. It's put up in clear glass bottles, through which one can admire the rich, cloudy amber of the wine and the thick layer of yellowy sediment choking the bottom.

The label says to SHAKE WELL and so I did before pouring. Shaking it, of course, distributes the orange concentrate throughout the wine and gives it the appearance of water pulled from a peat bog with a bucket.

Despite this appearance, the wine is thin, with very little body. The citrus is absolutely overwhelming to the point of throwing the flavor out of balance, and in fact the stuff is almost unbearably sour. Orange concentrate in this wine equals epic fail. I found it unpleasantly acrid; comments from other tasters included "horrid," "bitter," (okay, so the actual comment was much less kind: "it tastes like earwax") and "what the hell were they [meaning the cider mill] thinking?" No one - including me - finished the short pourings I'd provided. It really was that bad, and letting it breathe improved it not one microscopic bit.

Note: The sour acidity was purely the result of the orange concentrate. The wine had not corked or started to turn to vinegar - there was no taste of acetic acid at all, so speculation that the wine had somehow "turned" is misguided.

Allowing the sediment to settle back into bottom-of-the-bottle sludge, I carefully poured off some of the less-adulterated (but still somewhat cloudy) apple wine and found it somewhat less disagreeable. It was now identifiable as an apple wine, though it was still not as good as the other apple cider/wines we tried from B F Clyde's.

By the end of dinner, I still had a good 2/3 of a bottle remaining. Well, not really "good," if you know what I mean. But it's still many ounces of 34-proof undrinkable beverage, and I wasn't sure what to do with the rest.

But it so happened that I had a couple of chunks of pork belly in the refrigerator, waiting to be made into bacon. And so it was decided to use the remainder of the Yellow Jacket to flavor the bacon, because the whiskey-cured bacon I'd made previously was so good.

The pork belly pieces spent three days marinating in the apple wine. Then I poured off the wine, patted the meat dry with paper towels, and rubbed it with a mixture of two parts kosher salt to one part brown sugar, with a dash of Morton TenderQuick added. After three days in the rub, I rinsed off the excess cure with a touch more Yellow Jacket, and put the pork over apple smoke at 200 F for three hours to make a Russian-style "hot smoked" bacon.

The result was excellent. The finished bacon has a sharp apple-wine aroma accented by the smoke. Eaten in the Eastern-European manner - sliced without further cooking - the wine flavor nicely complements the salt and smoke flavors in the pork. When fried, the apple smoke becomes more prominent and the wine flavors fade. But best of all, the sour citrus flavor is not present at all in the bacon.


B F Clyde's Cider Mill Official Website - Clyde's is the oldest steam-powered cider mill in the United States, and they produce a number of hard ciders and apple wines. The other ciders we tried - Lucky Lion and Old Fashioned Hard Cider - were very good.

25 January, 2009

Little Mark's Big BBQ, Vernon CT

In an area known more for chain restaurants and fast-food joints, small eateries often get lost in the crowd. Thankfully, this isn't the case with Little Mark's Big BBQ, an authentic barbecue restaurant on Route 83 in Vernon, CT. Offering some of the best barbecue you'll ever eat, their slow-smoked ribs, brisket, and chicken put chain restaurants to shame.

We’ve always visited Little Mark’s at dinner time when the place was crowded and jumping, so it was quite a surprise when we stopped in for lunch the other day and found the dining room deserted. Happily, we soon found that it was empty because Thursday is just a slow lunch day – the food was just as good as always.

Our friendly waiter met us at the door and followed us to our choice of table, then dropped off menus and took drink orders. Little Mark’s has a great selection of imported and domestic beers both bottled and on tap, and we ordered beers to enjoy while we looked the menu over.

We kept it simple – meat, fries, cole slaw – and everything was excellent across the board. Pork back ribs ordered with a vinegar-based mop were fall-off-the-bone tender, with a crispy flame-broiled crust on the very surface. The sauce was perfect: flavorful without being overpowering and just enough vinegar to enhance the pork. Beef ribs were massive and meaty, pot-roasty tender with deliciously chewy cartilege and bits of fat. The sweet sauce ordered for it was, again, a well-balanced flavoring sauce that was applied in just the right amount for the ribs. Teriyaki chicken breast was just a tad overdone to my taste, but had a wonderful teriyaki flavor and smokiness provided by the fire. All our fries were done perfectly, with a crispy exterior filled with moist inside. We ordered regular fries, sweet potato fries, and cajun fries which were spicy but not overwhelming.

Special props for the cole slaw, though, which is usually nasty when ordered out. Little Mark’s slaw is nearly perfect – it tastes homemade, and when I asked the waiter he assured me that it is indeed made in house, fresh daily, using their own recipe. The only cole slaw I've ever had that was better is the stuff I make myself from my mom's recipe.

Little Mark's Big BBQ
226 Talcotville Road
Vernon, CT 06066
(860) 872-1410


Little Mark's website


24 January, 2009

Last Restaurant Standing Season 2 Coming to BBC America

One of my favorite food-related reality shows, Last Restaurant Standing (broadcast on BBC 2 in the UK as The Restaurant) is returning for a second season on BBC America.

The premise of the show is simple: Nine couples who dream of running a restaurant but who have little or no experience are given an opportunity to earn their dream come true. Restauranteur Raymond Blanc (owner and chef of the two-Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons hotel-restaurant in Oxfordshire) gives each of the couples a restaurant and puts them through a series of inspections and challenges. Over the run of the series, teams are eliminated one by one and their restaurants closed until one couple remains. The victorious duo open a full-fledged restaurant with the financial backing of Chef Blanc.

The first season aired in 2007 in the UK and in 2008 in the US. It was endlessly entertaining, especially as we became interested in the participants and tried to guess each week which of them would be locking their doors after the challenges. My wife and I are looking forward to the "new" season (which aired in 2008 in the UK) when it starts on BBC America on Tuesday, January 27 at 8 pm.

To my UK readers: Please don't leave spoilers in your comments.


BBC America's website
Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons - Raymond Blanc's Two Michelin star Restaurant and Luxury Hotel in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, UK
Raymond Blanc's website

Links to BBC 2's website will be added after the show has finished its US run because the site is one big spoiler.


23 January, 2009

Making Capicola Update: Mold

It's been two weeks since we hung the capicola up to age in the cold attic. I've already had to tighten the cable ties that bind them three times - the meat has shrunk by almost an inch in circumference, and the process is continuing nicely. Some changes we're looking for now as the aging goes along:
  • The meat is done dripping. If you have pans or newspapers under your capicola, you can remove them.
  • The casing's outer surface will no longer be tacky. It should feel cool, firm, and supple, and be almost - but not quite - transparent. You'll be able to see the dark red areas of meat and the creamy ivory areas of fat that were part of the pork loin.
  • With the casing dry, the small bits of peppercorns that were clinging to the outside will be falling off if they aren't all gone already. Usually, handling the capicola to pull the straps tight knocks most of the peppercorns off by the end of the first month.
  • A fine white mold will start to develop on the outside of the casing. It will first appear as tiny white spots, and you might mistake it for dried-out casing, but it will spread to larger patches. This mold may or may not end up covering the exposed areas of the casing. If you're making capicola "with me" and you're noticing this mold: RELAX. It's not harmful - in fact, it's expected. Slight variations in this mold are what give aged sausages their distinctive flavors, and why the capicola I'm aging in my attic will be subtly different than the ones my brother-in-law is hanging in his wine cellar.

22 January, 2009

Mama Jok Cup

Yes, of course, what self-respecting food blogger with a taste for the unusual and a puerile sense of humor can possibly resist the allure of Mama brand Jok Cup, an instant rice porridge/soup concoction from Thailand? Not me, I can tell you, even though I know that Thais pronounce the word as "joke," not "jock."

I had no idea what to expect when I put this in my cart at the Asian supermarket, but thought it would make a decent fast lunch at my desk. Alas, it was indeed fast, but also about as contrary to my taste and preferences as I could possibly have chosen.

I hate almost all cooked cereals. Oatmeal, cream of wheat/farina, cream of rice - I loathe every milled particle of those vomitous vile masses. And Jok Cup is simply a very thin and runny form of cream of rice. ::gag::

It's as simple to make as cup noodles: all one needs to do is open the lid, pour in boiling water, and allow the cup to stand for a few minutes while the soup rehydrates. Mama makes it as convenient to prepare and eat as possible - when the the foil lid is peeled back, one finds a small plastic Asian-style spoon inside.

The ingredients are wholesome enough for an instant cup - rice flour, chicken flavoring, bits of leek and ginger root, pepper, and garlic - and I admit that the flavor wasn't so bad. But the texture. Ugh. Baby food. Nasty runny stuff, it triggers my gag reflex every time. I tried to eat it, I really did, but I just couldn't do it. This shit is not for me - I'm sticking with Mama's noodle varieties.


21 January, 2009

There's One Born Every Minute...

Times are tough right now, and that's even being reflected in the food press with stories about 2009 being a year for comfort foods, more cooking at home, and more economizing in the pantry. And that makes me wonder how an outfit like TSP Spices can stay in business.

TSP's name pretty much says it all. They sell organic spices in single-teaspoon pouches which in turn are packaged in fancy little tins. The tins retail for $9.00 and up, and each of them contains a dozen pouches.

Yeah, you read that right. 12 teaspoons - a quarter of a cup! - of herbs or spices for nine dollars.

TSP claims that their single-teaspoon pouches keep their organic product fresher, and that having pre-measured spices are more convenient. I'm sorry, but I just can't swallow such a huge chunk of bullshit. Tightly-sealed jars in a dark cupboard will keep bulk packages of herbs and spices fresh and flavorful, and annoying little rip-open pouches will never be more convenient than a handy set of measuring spoons.

There is also a distinct odor of hypocrisy here, what with all the cozy speech about "organic" foods and "supporting local farmers." One of their pages says, "but if you trace your food back to its source, you get a sense of what it really means to be good global citizens and conscientious stewards of environmental resources" Somehow, I doubt that putting tiny dabs of spices into petrochemically-manufactured tubes and then further packaging them into tins with paper inserts, labels, boxes, and shrinkwrap is an example of good environmental stewardship. I'm sure all that industrial crank contributes to the astronomical price tag, too.

"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."
-- H L Mencken

TSP's Website. Check them out and make up your own mind.

20 January, 2009

Seasonings Part Three: Maggi Seasoning, My Secret Ingredient

I have a secret ingredient that I use in my soups, stews, gravies, and sauces: Maggi Seasoning, grey-market-imported from Switzerland. This particular Swiss version of Maggi contains an ingredient no other Maggi Seasoning has: extract of lovage (an herb related to celery.) As awesome as slowly-simmered homemade soup is, Swiss Maggi makes it even more awesome.

Maggi is made by the Nestle Company, and they tailor many of their products to appeal to mysteriously-defined arbitrary demographics. Right now, in my kitchen, I have four bottles of Maggi Seasoning. Each of them is from a different country, and every single one of them tastes different from the others. The bottle at right is a 500ml bottle of Swiss Maggi. The lovage extract in it makes the flavor rich, deep, and more complex than many of the other Maggis in my cupboard. A few shakes of it in a pot of chicken soup awakens a dimension of flavor which is otherwise unavailable.

This is the Maggi I find most commonly in American supermarkets and Asian markets here in the US. It tastes a lot like soy sauce, although there's no soy in it - just wheat gluten, wheat bran, yeast extract, and MSG. It's lighter in color than the other Maggi sauces. I don't like it as much as I do the euro versions, though it has it's place. Because it has a lighter taste than most standard soy sauces, I use it to season stir-fries and fried rice.

Some friends traveling to Germany brought back a couple bottles of the German Maggi version for me, thinking it would be the same as the Swiss product I'd been using. The flavor was close - very close - to the Swiss, but not the same (saltier for one thing) and there isn't any lovage extract on the ingredient list. It's my second favorite Maggi.

This version is made in Poland. The ingredient list on the label shows salt, MSG, glucose, yeast extract, and artificial flavorings. The flavor of this variety is less soy-like than the American product, more hearty and "browner," kind of like a half-way compromise between the saltier German variety and the lovage-flavored Swiss product. It's particularly good in beef and pork gravies and as a seasoning in onion soup.


My Love For Maggi Seasoning Sauce - a blog post on Eat Drink & Be Merry featuring an extensive selection of Maggi sauces from different areas.

The Swiss Food Store - Here you can buy the original Maggi, the one with the lovage extract, and you can enjoy using the same secret ingredient I do. They also have a wide selection of other Swiss foods.

Links to other Dave's Cupboard posts in the Seasonings category:

Part One: Seasoned Salts
Part Two: Bacon Salt Without the Hype


19 January, 2009

Snyder's Hot Buffalo Wing Pretzel Pieces

I've always been a little suspicious of "pretzel pieces" snacks. Unlike the little "pretzel bites" thingies, these are chunks and bits of broken pretzel. Like some loss-prevention guy at the factory took a look at all the busted pretzels spilling off the conveyors and said, "Hey, get someone to sweep that shit into bags and sell it, we're losing money there."

Needless to say, I don't buy them very often.

But then, who can resist a flavor like "Hot Buffalo Wing?" After all, what do you think of when you think of hot wings? Tasty, juicy fried chicken wings doused in sharp, fiery sauce - my mouth is watering just writing about it! So I gambled a buck in the vending machine at work on a package of Snyder's of Hanover Hot Buffalo Wing Pieces.

They're completely bizarre to look at: irregular shards of pretzels, with a thick coating of coppery orange powder on the broken ends and kind of an orange staining on the shiny pretzel surfaces. They turned my fingertips kind of salty red-orange, but not to the extent that Cheetos do.

The flavor is interesting. There's a strong, sharp vinegary tang and a rough-edged cayenne heat that never quite turns into the strong, irritating "back of the throat" heat I usually associate with cayenne. Snyder's has managed to capture the flavor of hot wing sauce fairly well (though it would have been better if there had been some buttery elements.) There's also a savory hint of umami, thanks to the autolyzed yeast extract in the seasoning ingredients. I found myself wishing they had put some powdered chicken bouillon into the mix, though, because the flavor could have been outstanding if the "wing flavor" had tasted more like wings and less like a bottle of the wing sauce.

I have to admit, they were pretty good, especially in the single-serving package that was offered in the vending machine. Towards the end, though, I started to find the vinegar taste a little too strong and annoying. And I still think the idea of selling busted fragments is kind of oogy.

18 January, 2009

Ramen Review 11: Nissin Chicken Ramen - Imported

Nearly all the ramen I've reviewed so far has been pretty simple fare - instant noodles, seasoning packet, boiling water. This one is different. It's possible, of course, to just add boiling water and enjoy the noodles, but to be at it's best, a little more effort is required.

The "serving suggestion" on the front of the label shows the ramen served with a sunny-side up egg on top. The package instructions show how to prepare the noodles both with and without an egg.

Ease of Preparation: 4/10
There's a bit more to this than just adding boiling water. The ramen is round to fit a bowl and has a round indentation on the top to hold a raw egg. The egg is cracked into the depression and boiling water is added to just come up to the top of the noodles. Then the bowl is covered with plastic wrap, supposedly to steam for three minutes and poach the egg. That doesn't actually work, though - there just isn't enough residual heat once the water is in the bowl to cook the egg. Using a sharp knife, we made a small hole in the membrane covering the egg yolk, replace the plastic film over the bowl, and microwaved the bowl for about a minute and a half. The result was a perfectly cooked egg atop perfectly cooked chicken-flavored ramen noodles.

Vegetable Packet: N/A - No vegetable packet is provided.

Seasoning: 10/10
Nissin ramen has always had one of the best chicken flavors anywhere. In this case, it's not in the form of a packet, but already incorporated into the ramen. For added flavor, the ramen is also toasted.

Taste: 10/10
To serve, we stirred the cooked egg into the ramen and enjoyed the noodles. They were excellent. The egg added an additional flavor layer to the bowl and added textural interest. The toasted noodles cooked up al dente and delicious, and provided a chickeny broth at the bottom of the bowl. Overall an excellent bowl of noodles for lunch.

Overall: 9/10 - Recommended

17 January, 2009

The Humongous Carrot

I have four "absolute staple" vegetables in my kitchen: garlic, onions, celery, and carrots. Those are the Big Four, the items I always have on hand. They're pretty much the same ones that my mom always had, as well, so I guess I know where one of my big culinary influences lies.

When I was a kid, my mom would always buy the slender carrots that come packaged in a plastic bag - the three-pound size. She would never buy bulk carrots, and she would never ever buy big carrots. She said they were "woody" and tasted bitter. Since I was a kid, I never questioned her judgement.

One day, though, I took a chance at my local produce store and bought a couple of really massive carrots because they were really, really cheap and I wanted some big carrots that would cook at about the same rate as some potatoes I was putting in a stew. See, that's the problem with slender little carrots - you put them in a stew or a pot roast with the potatoes, but they're smaller in diameter than the spuds, and they cook to disgusting mush long before the spuds are done.

Anyway, I bought these huge carrots and took them home and decided to try one to see just how woody and bitter they were. I peeled one, and cut a piece off the thickest and toughest-looking part, and tried it out.

My mom was wrong. This carrot was as sweet as could be, with a strong carrot flavor, and as tender as you could imagine a raw orange root could be. Delicious. Cut into potato-sized chunks, it worked out perfectly in the stew because it was done just right when the potatoes were cooked. It was a winner.

Since then, I've pretty much stopped buying the slender little carrots in the plastic bag. The produce store nearly always has these big carrots on hand (they call them "cutting carrots") and they're consistently excellent. Give them a try! They may not be what you've been led to expect.

16 January, 2009

Munchy's Fun Mix Cookie Assortment

Munchy's is Malasia's largest domestic cookie and snack manufacturer, and they have recently started a big international sales push. We found their "Fun Mix" assortment in our local Asian Supermarket, labeled as "Fun Mix - Hilarious Mix of Assorted Biscuits." Who can resist a slogan like that?

The cookies are of very good quality, perhaps a little dry for American tastes (they are much more "crackery" in texture than the typical flaky/tender "shortbread" style that most American associate with the word cookie. But they're flavorful and quite delicious, and even within the big reusable steel tin that they're sold, they're wrapped in small packets to ensure they stay fresh.

It turns out that there is a bit of hilarity in the cookies, after all. One of the sandwich cookies in the package is called "Lexus Calcium biscuits." They seem to be a fairly average sandwich cookie - two flecked cookies with a chocolate layer holding them together. Hilarity ensues when the ingredients are read; the list includes spinach and cheese. The spinach isn't noticeable (the taste getting lost behind the chocolate) but the cheese flavor is definitely distinct, lurking there below the chocolate with every bite!

There are also rectangular sandwich cookies imprinted with a face in the center and a name in the border below the face. There are "Nicholas," "Martin," and "Sophia," and I bet they're siblings because they all look pretty much alike. And they're random, as well, imprinted into both the chocolate and white sandwich cookies without distinction and not necessarily matched when put together either.

Munchy's website. Not much content, but the colors are bright and attractive.

15 January, 2009

Making Capicola Update - Visiting the Capicola

It's been four days since the pork loins were seasoned, cased, and hung in the attic to begin their journey toward becoming capicola. It's time to check on them and see how they're doing.

On the left is what the capicola looked like when we first hung them: the casing was opaque and very pale, and the salted pork loin was quite yielding to the touch. The outside of the casings always picks up some of the seasonings when you're stuffing them, so you can see little bits of the pepper clinging to the outside.

Although the capicola has only been hanging for a few days, the appearance has already changed. The difference is quite dramatic at this phase - from now on the changes will be much more subtle and hard to distinguish. Take a look at the picture on the left and you can see the difference: The casing has begun to dry and is now more transparent. Lean and fat areas of the pork inside can be clearly seen, and so can the pepper covering the surface of the meat. The meat is taking on a rich, chestnut brown color which will deepen and become more mellow over time. The casing is just slightly tacky to the touch, especially on the bottom bits from which meat juices had been dripping. The capicola feels more rigid when pressed - although it yields a bit, the meat has actually become quite firm, and this will also continue as time goes on.

By this time, the capicola is no longer actively dripping, but it is still losing moisture via evaporation. Many of the plastic cable ties are loose and it's time to tighten any that need it, using a pair of pliers. As I tightened the straps, I noticed that some of them pulled tighter by almost half an inch!

Once the tightening is done, I close the closet door, turn out the lights, and return to the warmth of the living room and the bright fire of the pellet stove. For at least this first month, I'll be stopping in to check on the capicola every few days. It will be time for another photo update in three or four weeks.


Making Capicola - A Short Q&A Post

On another online forum, Jim Weller of Yellowknife NWT had some questions related to the preparation and aging of my capicola. He's given me permission to reprint the questions and answers here.

. . .the excess salt has to be removed before they can be aged. . .
a cup or two of cheap white wine over them (the stuff they sell
for six or seven bucks a gallon is perfect.) Bathe the loins well
in the wine, wiping down the loins with the wine to be sure the
salt is removed. After each couple of loins are cleaned, dump the
salty wine down the drain and use fresh wine to clean the next pair.
As even cheap wine here is $12 per 750 ml bottle, can the used wine not be retained for cooking purposes? Would a mild (diluted) vinegar work?

A: Personally, I would not retain the wine. The salt is pretty concentrated, and it becomes fouled with pork blood that has been drawn out of the meat by the salt. When I was pouring the used stuff down the drain, it was a milky pink in color and pretty disgusting.

That being said, however, a full gallon of wine was sufficient for us to wash 10 whole pork loins. You'll need vastly less to do a single loin, or even two loins - just a couple of cups.

I don't see any reason why a diluted vinegar wouldn't work. To tell the truth, the wine doesn't add any flavor to the finished product. I have a feeling Mike learned to use wine in the old country because they used wine for everything - and produced their own, actually.

To age the capicola properly, you need a cold, dry place to hang them. A cold attic is ideal. . . It takes 2 to 3 months for the capicola to age completely. A good guideline is generally to hang it in mid-January and cut it down on Easter weekend . . .
How cold does it get in Connecticut in January? How warm in early April? How well is your attic insulated? Is it heated indirectly through the floor boards and does your capicola ever freeze? And does that harm it?

In other words what is the temperature range inside your attic?

A: According to climate data from the Connecticut State Climate Center, the mean temperatures at the official weather station closest to me are:

January - 25.4 F / -3.7 C
February - 28.7 F / -1.8 C
March - 37.7 F / 3.1 C
April - 49.0 F / 9.4 C

This doesn't take into account the frequent cold snaps we have in January and February - for example, the outdoor temperature here for the past few days (12 January - 15 January) has been about 15 F ( -9.5 C) with nighttime temps even lower (single digits.)

My attic is a "semi-finished" walk-up. There is no heat up there or electricity save a couple of pull-chain light fixtures, but there are two rooms with closets and lathe-and-plaster walls. Parts of the attic under the eaves are walled off as crawlspaces and have some insulation, but I have no reason to believe that there is any insulation between the ceilings in the attic rooms and the roof sheathing. It is heated only indirectly through the floorboards, and a bit up the stairway (but I keep the door closed.) It is generally cold enough up there to see your breath but not cold enough to freeze anything. Last night when I was up there tightening the straps on the cappie, I brought a thermometer up with me and it showed the temp to be about 36 F.

Even though the outside temperature will be on the rise over the coming months, my attic maintains a cool temperature until daytime temperatures start creeping over 60 F. Then, of course, in the summer it becomes unbearable up there, even with windows open. By that time, however, there aren't any more capicolas hanging. (And that's the reason why I've never tried making my own prosciutto - I don't have a spot that remains at the proper temperature for the 18 to 24 months that a proper prosciutto would take to age.)


14 January, 2009

Remember Real Dried Beef?

Dried beef is not what it used to be. Oh, the little jars are the same - small vacuum-packed tumblers with the snap-off lids - but the meat inside has changed. Once upon a time, dried beef used to be sliced from a real cut of meat; it looked like thin slices taken from a dried roast beef. Today, though, it's all "chopped and formed." Hormel and Armour make their dried beef out of some kind of dessicated hamburger.

A few years ago, when this changeover to cheapness was first happening, I found a bunch of jars of Beardsley brand dried beef in a local job lot store and bought every one of them I could grab. When my stash was all gone, though, I thought that was the end of good dried beef forever. I refuse to buy the chopped and formed stuff.

But joy has returned! Poking through the packaged-meat section of Food Zone International in Springfield, I found refrigerated envelopes of Knauss Dried Beef. I couldn't see through the packaging, but there was nothing on the label that indicated they were chopped and formed, so I took a chance and bought a couple. And to my joy and delight, I found that Knauss does indeed make the real thing (as shown on the left.)

Probably because it's not meant to be entirely shelf-stable, the Knauss brand is not as salty as the Hormel stuff in a jar, so it needed no rinsing or pre-soak to take some of the saltiness away. This morning, I enjoyed a delicious breakfast of that time-honored classic "Shit on a Shingle" - also known by the less-colorful name "creamed chipped beef on toast" and it was great.

I am entirely convinced that the bad reputation this wonderful breakfast has is due to ignorant people who have only heard it referred to as "Shit on a Shingle" or "SOS" and have decided that if it's called something so awful, it must not taste very good. So, here's my recipe.

Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast
Serves 2

1 generous tablespoon of butter
1 package (3 oz) of Knauss Dried Beef
2 tablespoons flour
1½ cups of milk (approximately)
Pepper, nutmeg, and Worcestershire sauce to taste
4 slices of toast, buttered lightly

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat until it is foamy. Add the dried beef, breaking it up into little bits as you do so. Stir the beef around in the butter to sizzle it deliciously, and when it is all nicely coated with butter and just starting to brown and curl at the edges, sprinkle it all over with the flour. Stir the flour into the beef thoroughly, then turn the heat down to low and cook for a few minutes until the flour begins to color a bit - just enough to get rid of the "raw flour" taste.

With the heat back up to medium-high, stir in the milk all at once and continue to stir until the mixture bubbles and starts to thicken into gravy. You won't need much salt (and if you do, use celery salt!) but season with a good shot of Worcestershire sauce, some nutmeg, and as much freshly ground black pepper as you like - I like lots of it in this! Keep stirring until the gravy is thickened and delicious - taste and adjust the seasoning if you like, and if the gravy is too thick stir in more milk, just a wee bit at a time, until it's got the consistency you like.

Serve on toast - but if you happen to have a few freshly-made flaky and mouth-watering homemade biscuits on hand, split them and ladle the SOS right on top for heavenly delight.

UPDATE - 30 March 2009:

E. W. Knauss & Sons, the world's largest producer of dried beef, was acquired by Alderfer Inc. in 2004. Click here to go to Alderfer's website; there you will find a search function to help you locate a retailer near you that carries Knauss dried beef. And if you can't find it locally, Alderfer offers an online purchasing option and full contact info so you can write to them if you like.

13 January, 2009

French Onion Soup

On a cold winter's night, is there anything so comforting and satisfying as a delicious bowl of French onion soup? Its rich, beefy broth and bubbly cheese, served right out from under the broiler, is a perfect way to snuggle in to dinner; sleet and snow don't seem so bleak outside when the woodstove is glowing and there's onion soup on the table.

It's easy to make, too.

French Onion Soup
Serves 4

6 tbsp butter
2 pounds yellow onions, sliced thin
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, or 1 rounded tsp dried thyme
1/4 cup dry sherry or sake
8 cups of beef stock

1 baguette, sliced
1 clove of garlic, roughly broken
Extra virgin olive oil
Sliced or grated gruyere cheese or deli-sliced Havarti and Muenster cheeses

Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet and cook the onion and thyme over medium heat until the onion is softened and amber in color (about 20 minutes.) Bring the heat to medium-high and continue to cook for 15 minutes, until the onion caramelizes and becomes dark amber, stirring now and again to prevent sticking. Add the sherry or sake and deglaze the pan at a simmer, then add the stock and bring to a boil. Season to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the baguette slices on both sides under a broiler. Rub the toasted slices with broken garlic and drizzle lightly with a bit of olive oil. Top each crouton with some cheese and run them back under the broiler just until the cheese has melted and is a bit bubbly. Set them aside.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Top each serving of soup with one or two of the croutons, then top these with some additional cheese - I've found that a slice of Muenster and a slice of Havarti, slightly offset from one another atop each bowl, is favored by my wife and daughter. Run the bowls under the broiler until the cheese topping is bubbling and slightly browned, and carefully lift them to the table to enjoy.


1. Take your time cooking and caramelizing the onions. A rich, dark amber coloring can take some time, but you're repaid with a wonderful, flavorful, fragrant final product.

2. You can use any kind of beef stock you like - reconstituted from bouillon or soup base, canned, or freshly prepared. I've made this soup using many different kinds of stock, and my favorite is still "from scratch."


12 January, 2009

How to Make Awesome Beef Stock

Good, flavorful stock is the foundation for so many wonderful things in the kitchen - gravies, soups, sauces - and can add rich, marvelous flavor to other things, like vegetables, as well. Although it can take some time to make, it's easy. If you're going to be home on a Sunday afternoon in January anyway, you might as well use the time to make a batch of beef stock. Then you'll not only be ready to make delicious French onion soup, but the kitchen will smell heavenly, too.

Start with a large, shallow roasting pan. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil onto the bottom of the pan. Add a couple of pounds of beef bones. Chop up some carrots, a few celery ribs, and a couple of onions and add them to the pan, too. Optionally, you can add a few quartered tomatoes and one or two sweet red peppers. Toss the ingredients around to coat them a bit in the oil, and then put them in the oven at 350 F to roast.

It'll take a couple of hours, but don't be in too much of a hurry. The secret to the flavor of a good stock is in the deep brown caramelization of the meat and veggies in the pan. Let heat and time work their magic, and don't try to rush things. Every half hour or so, pull the pan out and stir things around, turning them and flipping them so they brown evenly. Eventually, you'll see that everything is done.

Remove the nicely-browned bones and vegetables to a Dutch oven or stock pot. Add water to the pan and deglaze it thoroughly, then pour it off into the stock pot with enough additional water to cover the bones and veggies. Bring the pot to a simmer, and add a few peppercorns (whole or crushed as you desire,) a bay leaf or two, some parsley, and a bit of thyme. Cover the pot and let it cook.

In about an hour, you should start to smell the wonderful aroma of simmering stock. Check on the liquid level in the pot and add water now and again as needed.

In about four hours or so, any meat tidbits will be falling off the bone and the stock will be ready. Strain out the veggies, bones, and meat bits, and season to taste with salt, Vegeta, Maggi seasoning, or whatever secret ingredient your grandmother used to tell you about. You can skim the fat off the top of the stock now, but it will be easier if you chill it overnight - then you can just lift the solidified fat effortlessly from the top of the stock. (Leave a little bit of fat behind, though, for best flavor.)

There you have it - awesome homemade beef stock. An afternoon well-spent.

11 January, 2009

Making Capicola Update - Seasoning and Casing the Pork

Sorry about being so late with this update - this step takes some time, and we were at it for about four hours today.

Before the pork loins can be put into the casings for aging, the casings have to be prepared. I use natural beef casings which are about 30 inches long, about 3½ inches in diameter, and closed on one end. They come packed in salt, so they have to be cleaned and refreshed before using. First, rinse any clinging salt from the casings under cool running water; then, put them into a pot of cold water to soak about half an hour.

To thoroughly clean the casings, hold the open end of the casing over the faucet and fill it carefully with water - but not so much that it blows up like a water balloon and bursts! Turn the casing inside out and wash it well in running water. You'll notice a long line of fat running from the open end to the closed end of the casing. Take a sharp paring knife and carefully remove the fat - be especially careful to do it without putting any holes in the casing. Each casing will be enough to cover one whole pork loin (well, two halves, since we cut all the loins in half for ease of handling before we salted them.) Oh, I should probably mention that they're pretty smelly. It doesn't mean that they're spoiled. That's just the way they are.

With all the casings cleaned and the fat removed, put them in a bowl with just enough water to keep them supple and moist. When they're refreshed and wet like this, they're very soft, flexible, and stretchable. You'll have very little problem getting the loins into the casings as long as you keep them wet until ready to use. Set them aside and turn your attention back to the loins.

The pork loins have been sitting in salt and brine for two days, and the excess salt has to be removed before they can be aged. Put the loins into shallow aluminum pans and pour a cup or two of cheap white wine over them (the stuff they sell for six or seven bucks a gallon is perfect.) Bathe the loins well in the wine, wiping down the loins with the wine to be sure the salt is removed. After each couple of loins are cleaned, dump the salty wine down the drain and use fresh wine to clean the next pair.

With the casings prepped and the loins washed down, we're ready for the next step.

Sweet capicola is seasoned with coarsely-ground black pepper. Hot capicola is typically made with ground cayenne or hot red pepper. Other than the seasoning, the process is identical, so we'll go through the steps demonstrating sweet capicola.

Put the pork loin in a shallow pan and pour in some black pepper. Rub the pepper all over the pork, adding as much as you need to thoroughly and evenly cover the meat. Make sure you coat the cut ends as well.

Putting the loins into the casings is easier with a helper. One of you can hold the end of the casing open while the other sort of squeezes the meat into a round shape and fits it into the opening. Carefully pull the casing over the meat (although the casing will stretch, it will tear if you're too rough with it, and the goal is not to have any large holes or rips - the pork should be completely enclosed. When the first loin half goes all the way to the bottom of the casing, use butcher's string or a hog ring to close off the casing just above the end of the meat inside. Then, an inch above that, tie it off again and use a pair of kitchen shears to cut between the ties. The empty part of the casing will now have a closed bottom, and you can put the next pork loin half into it. When that casing is stuffed as well, tie off the top and trim any excess casing (there may be as much as several inches excess.)

Once stuffed into the casing and tied at both ends, the capicola is ready for strapping and aging. It will look something like the one at right when you're done. It's kind of a messy process, and you shouldn't worry if you get some pepper on the outside of the capicola too.

At this point you're almost ready to start aging the capicola. Aging is a slow drying process during which the casing dries and stiffens and shrinks around the outside of the pork. Meanwhile, the pork loses much of its own moisture and transforms magically into dry aged ham. Compression helps the process along and greatly improves the texture of the finished product, which is very reminiscent of prosciutto. Traditionally, the compression is provided by tying the outside of the casing tightly with butcher's string. In Italy Michael Massa, the genteman who taught me how to make these, would put bamboo splints along the sides of the capicolas and tie them tightly with string. But string needs to be continually tightened and retied, and he always looked for an easier and more efficient way of doing it - and eventually he decided on using plastic cable ties, which could simply be pulled tighter every few days during the aging process.

Since I don't have ready access to bamboo, I use wooden splints instead. The loins average about 14 inches long each, so I start by cutting a common 2 x 4 into 14-inch lengths (use a plain 2 x 4, not a pressure-treated one.) Then I rip each 14-inch lengths into ¼-inch thick slats.

Enclose each capicola between four slats, and fasten the slats at each end with the long, wide 24-inch plastic cable ties. Once you have the end ones on, add a couple more between them, spacing them as evenly as possible. Pull them all as tightly as you possibly can to really squeeze the capicola - a pair of pliers is handy for that. You can then cut a few inches off the ends of the cable ties, but leave plenty of end sticking out - remember that as the weeks pass, you'll need to have enough "end" to grab onto with pliers and pull on to tighten the ties as the capicola shrinks. Once the large heavy ties are on and tight, I supplement them with the narrower, standard ties. Since the bulk of the compression is already done by the heavy ties, you can use shorter 14-inch ties between the big ones. When you're done strapping the capicola, it will look something like the picture above, and it is ready to hang to age.

To age the capicola properly, you need a cold, dry place to hang them. A cold attic is ideal. Tie butcher's string in a loop around the capicola from end to end, and leave plenty of loose string on the top. Use that loose string to hang the capicola from a bar or rod in your aging location (I have a closet in the center of my attic that is ideal.) Make sure you spread newspapers or put pans under the capicola when you hang it - under the compression, it will drip a little bit for at first.

And now, the waiting begins.

It takes 2 to 3 months for the capicola to age completely. A good guideline is generally to hang it in mid-January and cut it down on Easter weekend, but that's not always the right amount of time (it might be this year, though, because there's 90 days between now and Easter in 2009.)

We're done for now...periodically over the next three months we'll visit the capicola and tighten the cable ties and check the progress it's making. I'll post photos so you can follow along.