Monday, December 29, 2008

The Bacon List--Kirkland Hickory Smoked

Kirkland "Natural Hickory Smoked" bacon from Costco is my current everyday bacon. That being the case, and since I already had some in my fridge, it's going to be the first bacon that I review as part of this epic, sweeping project that I have dubbed The Bacon List.

This Kirkland is a pretty good bacon. It's respectable. It doesn't shrink up too much when cooked, renders a decent amount of fat, and yields a finished product that has a nice balance of salty, sweet, smoky, and porky flavors.

It should be considered for what it is--a pretty good grocery store bacon. It's a mass-produced product and it looks, feels, and tastes like one. But that's ok--it sells for $8.99 for a four-pound pack. It's not trying to be something it's not. It wants to be your everyday use bacon. It's certainly fine for sandwiches or to cook with. We also use it when we want to just eat some bacon with breakfast, but we're not too fancy over at our house. The kid likes it fine. If I'm making a nice breakfast or having guests over, I'd probably break out the Neuske's, Nodine's, or Broadbent's, but that's only for once in a while, since some of those run up around $10/pound.

Ok, let's get to the rundown:

    Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Grocery Store--One look at this bacon (it's pretty wet) gives away the fact that it's a 'wet cure'. It has somewhat of a bloated look and feel. Kind of mushy. Here's what I'm talking about:
    Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $2.25/pound. (Sold in four-pound packs)

    Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... See picture above. Color is pale, washed-out looking. Texture is on the mushy side...spongy and very wet. This is a sloppy bacon to handle. All this is typical of bacon that has been injected with solutions containing phosphates and other chemicals which aid in speeding up the curing process. The meat is "pumped up" with liquids as a way to cram as much flavor in to it in as short a time possible. To be honest, the pre-cooking appearance made me think it would be a pretty bad bacon.

    How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... The Kirkland bacon cooks up well. Not much shrinkage (maybe 15-20%), no curling, crisps up nicely. Considering how wet the bacon is, it's somewhat surprising that it didn't shrink up more when cooked.

    Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. Looks much better cooked than raw. Nice thick pieces hold their shape and texture well, color darkens nicely to a nice brown-red. Very consistent shape and thickness of slices.
    How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Nice balance of flavors. You get sweetness, saltiness, smoke, and pork in nearly equal doses. It's got a decent melting quality in the mouth, but it's more meaty than it is really redolent of melting fat. Some have compared it to pancetta, as the salt is probably the more prominent note, with the smoke being the least evident. The package declares this to be "Naturally Hickory Smoked", but I'm not sure I'm buying that. Maybe they inject a little Hickory smoke into the giant stainless steel cooking chamber, but this stuff has certainly spent zero time hanging up over a hardwood fire, I'll tell you that much.

    Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. Overall Rating: 6.0

Some notes:

a) Regarding bacon's cooked appearance--this is largely dependent upon the cooking method chosen, the medium utilized, and the temperature/length of cooking. As such, it's very subject to variance. I am attempting to limit my comments to those that would apply regardless of the cooking technique used.
I usually cook bacon in a 325 degree oven, on a rack over a sheet pan, so the fat can drip away and the bacon can get crispy. In the spirit of doing an honest comparison, I will try to use this cooking technique for all the bacon I review for The List.

b) As with restaurants, the numerical rating system is a bit wonky, since a hot dog stand will never garner a four-star review, no matter how perfectly they dress your dog and cook your fries. Likewise, a grocery store bacon will probably never get anything more than a 6.5 or 7 review. It's just not possible. Really, it's not even fair to compare a dry-cured, wood-smoked product like the artisanal products I mention above with a grocery store product like the Kirkland stuff, but I'm doing it anyway. So, just so you know, the 6.0 above is a pretty damn good number for a mass-produced product.

c) Damn, I love bacon.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Das Caramelini Salted Caramels

French-style salted caramels seem to be everywhere these days. I just saw them begin to crop up in specialty stores and high-end candy makers a couple years, ago, and now they're ubiquitous enough to be available at Trader Joe's, frozen into ice cream by Haagen Dazs and are even being melted into Starbuck's hot chocolate.

So, yes, fancy sea-salted caramels are officially mainstream.

As someone who's a self-proclaimed nut for the sweet/salty combo (chocolate covered pretzels are among my favorite snacks, and I've been known to indulge in a peanut-butter and bacon sandwich on toast drizzled with honey), I've repeatedly been drawn to these sea-salted caramels, but have been perennially disappointed.

I've tried them in France and loved them, but I've always found the versions I've found here at home to be lacking in salt. They just taste like regular caramels.

Then my wife goes and stuffs my Christmas stocking with a couple boxes of these little caramels made by Das Foods, a locally-owned high-end salt and caramel company up in Highwood. Whoa. Now I see what all the fuss is about.

These little blobs come wrapped in plain parchment paper, but don't let their decidedly un-fancy looks fool you. Put one in your mouth and you're immediately blown away by how buttery and soft it is. The morsel seems like it just starts melting and liquifying the moment you put it in your mouth. It's sweet but not jaw-lockingly so, and then after a couple seconds of chewing, you get the salt, which balances the sweetness well and allows you to really taste the butter and the caramelization of the sugars. Salt always hightens flavors; it's really an eye-opener to see how the salt in these caramels can really push everything else forward.

Even better, Das uses all natural ingredients and sources it's milk, butter, and honey locally, and donates 10% of their profits to the Aids Foundation of Chicago. Very cool.

Once I decided to do a blog entry about these great little caramels, I googled around a bit and it appears that Das Caramelinis have gotten quite a bit of press. Good for them! I especially enjoyed Mike Sula's piece in The Reader and the accompanying video footage they shot. Very interesting and great to see such a worthwhile producer being featured.

My wife was also savvy enough to give me the chile pecan flavor, which, I have to say, freakin' blew my doors off! Like with the salty candy, I've tried a lot of these hot spicy candies and found that they're just not very spicy and you can't taste the chile flavor. That is most decidedly *not* the case with these. They're damn spicy, but in conjunction with the sweetness of the caramel, the heat dissipates fairly quickly, and then you get nice strong smokey dried chile flavor to go along with the heat and sweet. I love that they're being bold with the flavors, but they've also achieved an excellent balance. They light up my mouth.

They're available at stores like Whole Foods, Sam's Liquors, and Binny's, along with some smaller gourmet and fancy food shops, and, of course via mail order on the Das website.

Oh, and if all that's not decadent enough, my brother upped the trendy sweet/salty food quotient by gifting me a bag of bacon brittle. Haven't tried it yet, but keep reading...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sicily Pictures

These were taken, for the most part, at Il Capo market in Palermo.

Enjoy. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year.

Making ricotta


A cheese and salumi vendor

A friendly fruit-seller

Butchering a chicken

Chanterelles (not sure what they're called in Italian)

I swear, this was a real butcher stall in Palermo--it's not a scene from a Scorsese movie.

Old guy with crates

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Bacon List--Intro

I'm a fool for bacon. Who isn't, I guess? It's much-beloved and there are probably dozens of blogs that devote themselves exclusively to bacon.

This isn't that blog. But, being the food-obsessed maximizer that I am, I have spent a good amount of time (and money) searching for the ultimate, holy-grail, smokiest, fattiest, crispiest bacony-est bacon that can be had.

First, let me just say that I haven't found it. Yet. But I have found some very good bacons. And I have also found a few really excellent bacons. I've also eaten some pretty bad bacon. Which, all things considered, is still not that bad. (Insert obligatory joke about pizza and sex here)

The beauty of not having found The Bacon is that I get to keep looking, buying different bacons and comparing and contrasting their pros and cons. The Bacon List is my attempt to document this (probably) never-ending process.

To be fair, it should be noted that there are really two drastically different types of bacon that are readily available in the marketplace; there's commercial, mass-produced stuff that you usually find grocery stores like Jewel, and then there's artisanally-produced stuff that's available at high-end markets, butcher shops, ethnic markets, and through mail order and the internet.

It's not fair to compare the former (which I'll refer to as "grocery store bacon") to the latter (which I'll refer to as "fancy bacon"). So I won't. While I will write about both types, and both will be well-represented on The Bacon List, I don't believe it's fair to compare them, given the vastly different processes by which they're produced, and the fact that there's usually a pretty big difference in price between the two types.

They're different products, so they will be talked about as such.

All bacon (with the exception of stuff that calls itself 'bacon' but is really some sort of dreadful soy-based tofurky product) is made from pork bellies. All bacon goes through a three-step process in which it's trimmed, cured, and thermally processed (ie cooked and/or smoked).

How those three steps are carried out makes the difference.

Step One--The Belly

Grocery store bacon is made with pork bellies that are procured from massive pork raising and processing plants and are usually brought in frozen. Fancy bacon is often made with pork bellies procured from heritage or heirloom breeds of pigs. More care is taken during the raising, slaughtering, and processing of these pigs, and the product isn't likely to arrive at the producer frozen. The skin is sometimes left on the bellies.

Step Two--The Cure
Pork bellies destined to become grocery store bacon are often "tumbled" prior to curing. The tumbling process is intended to soften the meat and allow it to more easily accept a cure. The grocery store bacon is usually given a 'wet' cure, or a brine, which is injected into the bellies. The brine consists of salt, sugars, sodium nitrates, and sometimes liquid smoke flavoring. In addition to curing salts (like sodium nitrate, or "pink salt"), grocery store wet-cured bacon often includes sodium phosphates (which allow the meat proteins to more easily bind with the liquid cure) and sodium ascorbates (which accelerates the curing process). The cure is when other flavors, like herbs, spices, or flavors like maple or honey are added, although grocery store bacon usually involves artificial versions of these ingredients. Brining or wet-curing bacon takes only a few hours.

Fancy or artisanal bacon is dry cured. This involves rubbing the pork belly with a cure that consists of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, and any flavorings that are being added. The bacon is then hung and allowed to cure for anywhere between a few days to a month.

The difference is obvious. Grocery store bacon is paler in color, wetter, pumped-up looking, and usually shrinks a lot more when it's cooked.

Here's a short youtube video showing the production process for mass-produced grocery store bacon. This is obviously not indicative of all brands, but you get the picture.

Step Three--"Thermal Processing"

I'm not calling it smoking because grocery store bacon isn't always smoked. It's sprayed with liquid smoke and other flavorings and cooked--sometimes smoke is injected into the cooking unit--to an internal temperature of about 130 degrees F. After this, it's cooled down and pressed so as to give it more of a 'block' shape, before being sliced.

Fancy bacon is always smoked. With real smoke made by burning wood. Artisanal bacon is slow smoked for between one to three days over hardwood fires, during which the meat contracts, shrinks, and loses moisture content, which results in a lower finished product weight, but results in less shrinkage in the pan when it's cooked and delivers a stronger, more concentrated flavor. The long, slow smoking process also intensifies the natural pork flavor which yields a sweet/savory taste explosion that can only be described as "porky".

Various producers use different woods for the smoking--hickory and applewood are commonly used--and everyone throws their own little personal touch into the process, which is, of course, the beauty of artisanal production.

Now, all that being said, it's probably pretty clear which type of bacon I prefer. Artisanally-produced fancy bacon is certainly a treat and I'd eat it exclusively if money were no object. But it is. And these hand-crafted bacons sometimes run $8-$10 per pound or more, and often have to be ordered via the internet, which involves shipping fees.

If bacon were an occasional treat, that might be fine. But it's a staple. We eat it pretty often with breakfast and I cook with it all the time as well. So, despite my clear preference for fancy bacon, I do use grocery store bacon on a regular basis.

The Criteria

How to measure and describe this stuff? Read around those blogs I linked to above and you'll soon see that it's difficult to quantify porky goodness. Here's how I'll attempt to do so:

Each bacon I place on The Bacon List will be rated, described, and categorized using the following criteria:

  • Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store?
  • Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon?
  • Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc...
  • How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter...
  • Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture
  • How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness"
  • Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. That would mean I'd have to stop looking for The Perfect Bacon. And the journey's really the point of the whole thing anyway.
I'll kick off The List with my first entry sometime in the next week and try and do at least one new bacon every month or so. Suggestions welcome! Tell me who makes what you think is the best bacon and I'll get some and write an entry about it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cheap Stuff that Works Vol.2--Benriner Japanese Mandoline

Stuff that works is good. Stuff that lasts a long time and works is really good. Stuff that works, lasts a long time, and costs less than twenty bucks is worth blogging about. (Although some people seem to think their bellybutton lint is worth blogging about).

At any rate, I will now sing the praises of the Benriner Japanese Mandoline Slicer (pictured above). This little gem does everything the big, expensive, stainless steel mandolines do, for a fraction of the price. Plus, it's easier to clean, easier to change/replace the julienne teeth on, and....did I mention how friggin' cheap it is?

Ok, some background; basically, a mandoline is a device that houses a very sharp blade in a body that allows the user to slide a piece of food (like, say, a potato) across it, yielding a very thin, even slice (like, say, for a potato chip). Most have additional attachments that add teeth to the blade so that the thin slice can also be cut cross-wise at the same time it's sliced, producing uniform julienne strips. They're widely used in restaurant kitchens because they allow cooks to do things more consistently and faster than they could do with their knives.

Most restaurant kitchens use this mandoline. It's French, made by a company called Bron, and costs about $200. It works well, although it's kind of tricky to configure--you have to flip the base/support thingy around a few different ways to get it to stand the way you want--and also, the teeth tend to get bent after a while. But it's a good product. It works.

I will now digress with a story; when I was in culinary school, I landed my first real restaurant job. I was making $6.50 an hour at a now-defunct place called Spruce here in Chicago. I had never worked in a restaurant before and had been in culinary school for about 9 months. This was where I first encountered a mandoline. Of course, the moment I first encountered this device, we were deep in the shit, way behind, and the fire-breathing Napolean running the show was screaming for something--I can't quite remember what--but I do know that it involved cutting some sort of root vegetable razor-thin on a mandoline.

So I ran to the cooler, plunged my hands into buckets filled with ice cold water and the root vegetable in question, neatly peeled in quantity ahead of time, ran back to my station near the fryolator, and set up the mandoline as quickly as I could, after which, I began slicing, frantically, the desperately-needed root vegetable (I think it was taro...or maybe yucca) so that chips could be made. Chips on which, I was led to believe, the entire success of the restaurant depended.

Victory! As my hand worked the root vegetable across the blade of the mandoline in a blur, a pile of paper-thin slices began to accumulate beneath the device. Another cook swept them into the fryer as fast as I could slice them and the highly in-demand chips were produced. Crisis of the moment averted. The fate of the restaurant was secure! "Don't forget to season them, you stupid piece of shit!", the little genius chef barked as his beady little eyes spotted them emerging from the fryer. "Yes, chef!", I replied, pleasantly surprised by his acknowledgment of my hard work. He was clearly impressed by my speed and prowess.

But as the emergent situation resolved itself and the yucca (or taro) chips were placed perilously atop the dish for which they would serve as the essential garnish, I noticed something strange. Why was my cutting board all red? What's all this mess under my mandoline.....? that....?

Yep. Blood. My blood. A lot of it.

These mandolines are sharp. Sickeningly, frighteningly sharp. So sharp was the blade of this brand-new mandoline, that I had run my four fingertips, along with the side of my thumb, across the blade multiple times without even feeling it. Of course, once the heat of the moment passed and I saw the blood, my brain stem finally re-connected with the nerves in my fingers and the pain hit me all at once, blindingly.

Suffice to say that I worked the rest of the shift with two rubber gloves on my hand and my fingers looked like wooden matchsticks because the tips kept bleeding and the blood built up in the fingertips, reservoir-tip style, and balooned up. Cuts inflicted by really sharp blades take forever to stop bleeding.

That little story is intended to serve as the disclaimer for this piece of equipment. Warning--blades are sharp. It's written on the box too, but I think my anecdote makes a stronger impression.

Getting back to the subject at hand, the Benriner's blade is equally sharp. Did I mention it's twenty bucks? Less, even. I saw one at H-Mart the other day for like fifteen.

So what's the difference between the cheapie and other mandolines like the $400 Shun model, the above-mentioned Bron, or the as-seen-on-tv V-slicer?

Not much. The Benriner can't do gaufrettes (aka "waffle-cut"). So, if that's a deal-breaker, you can shell out the extra $180. That'll buy you a lot of trips to Arby's. Or, you could just buy yourself an old fashioned krinkle cutter for five bucks and use the $175 you have left to buy like 700 pounds of potatoes. Is anyone really making waffle-cut fries at home anyway?

Other than that, the wonder-cheapie does everything the big, heavy, shiny mandolines can do. Seriously. The expensive ones almost certainly have better blades that will last longer, but you can buy ten Benriners for the same price as one Bron, and I guarantee that the Bron's blade won't last ten times as long. I've had the same Benriner for about four years now and it's fine.

What else? Well, the plastic on the lil' cheapster gets stained. Mine's kind of an ugly red/orange color from doing carrots and beets on it, and it won't wash off. The color is somehow kind of impregnated into the plastic. What. Ever. Again, if this bugs you, toss it and buy another. They're twenty bucks. But it doesn't bug me. I don't need my kitchen tools to be shiny. Or even clean.

What else can I tell you? You'll lose some of the teeth, but you can buy replacements for about five bucks. DO NOT lose the screw that adjusts the slice thickness. I worked with a guy once who always lost the most important little element of any machine and he always tried to jimmy it up with wooden skewers. I spent way too much of my life adjusting the broken bits of skewer that he'd jammed into the lid of the robot coupe, the screw adjustment on the mandoline, and the ice cream spinner. Just don't unscrew it all the way.

Common sense. Such is life. Why spend $200 when you can get almost the same thing for $20? You'd be surprised how many people would when the $200 version is shiny, French, and the only one they sell at Macy's, Williams-Sonoma, or wherever. Don't do it. Buy the cheap little Benriner and use the money you save to buy more root vegetables.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

(Relatively) Inexpensive Vanilla Beans

I've been finding these vanilla beans at my local Costco recently--they come in glass tubes with six beans (or pods, as they're sometimes called) per tube. The package comes with two tubes and I think it's $13 or so. This means that using vanilla beans is not much more expensive than using vanilla extract.

A lot of people probably don't know what to do with whole vanilla beans, but they're super easy to deal with. They can be easily used in any recipe where liquids are involved--creams, custards, puddings, and the like. The main thing to know is that you need to split the bean lengthwise and then scrape the inside part with the back of a knife to extract the pulp, which consists of lots of little black specks--the same little specks (or grains) you see in good quality vanilla ice cream or in creme brulee.

So, in any recipe where you're scalding milk or cream, simply toss the black pulp into it as it comes up to temp. Throw the spent pod in there too, for good measure. It's still got lots of flavor in it.

Or don't. You can also save the scraped bean and bury it in a container filled with granulated sugar, and in a week or so, you'll have some really nice vanilla sugar. You could also slip it into a bottle of vodka. Nice.

The thing about having vanilla beans available for such a good price, is that you can use them to add a little decadence in spots where you wouldn't have thought to do that previously. I've taken to using them in oatmeal. I use half a bean for a pot of oatmeal that will serve the three of us (Nora's only four months old, so she's not quite ready for oatmeal). And the vanilla really adds a lushness and richness to a bowl of oatmeal.

Having them around has also served as inspiration to cook things I don't usually make. I just up and decided to make creme brulee one day, just because I stumbled upon the little torch someone gave me for Christmas one year and I knew that my trusty vanilla beans would be up to the challenge. Take a look:

This week, I'm planning on making chocolate pudding from scratch and I'll certainly be adding some of my wonderfully fragrant vanilla to that as well.

I'm not being paid by these people or anything. I just like finding a good product that sells for a good price. It's a thrill. I almost feel like I should stock up while I can--that they can't possibly keep selling these things for the price they're asking. Get'em while you can, especially now that we're full-on into holiday baking season.

For those who are interested, I found them at the Costco in Niles off of Touhy. They're marketed by a company called Rodelle Vanilla, which, I see after Googling them, is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. The beans are being sold as "Bourbon Madagascar" Vanilla beans and the package looks like this:

Incidentally, for those that care about this kind of arcana, "Bourbon" doesn't refer to the alcohol, but to the specific cultivar that is grown in Madagascar, which produces almost 60% of the world's supply of vanilla. Interestingly, the orchids from which the vanilla beans are harvested are indiginous to Central America--more specifically, Mexico and Guatemala--but today, although Mexico still cultivates vanilla orchids to produce the beans for market, some 85% of the world's vanilla is produced by Madagascar and Tahiti.

Vanilla is a subtle flavor, and it's one that's nearly ubiquitous in processed sweets, but real vanilla flavor isn't nearly as common. Artificial vanilla products contain artificial vanillin, a synthetic substance that's produced as a by-product of paper production and also in the coal-tar industry. Vanillin is the lead note of vanilla flavor, but while artificial vanilla contains only a few flavor components, natural vanilla contains more than 200 organic components in addition to vanillin.

So it's worth going the extra mile and getting the real deal. You probably won't be knocked over the head by the difference, but the flavor of the finished product you use it in will seem to be richer, rounder, and more fully-developed. It's one of those flavors that everyone is completely familiar with, to the point of thinking of it as bland, boring, and, well...."vanilla", yet very few people have actually stopped to consider it--to really taste it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Photos--Boqueria Market, Barcelona

These are photos I took while visiting the Boqueria market in Barcelona. It is perhaps the best market in Europe. Just an amazing place to eat, buy, watch people, and be. I spent a LOT of time there when I lived in Barcelona in '97-'98, and learned a lot about the local ingredients and how to best prepare them. I only wish we had markets like this in Chicago.

Food can be so beautiful. Enjoy!


Fruit Vendor

Snap Peas



Drying sardines in a hoop basket


My son, Henry, wanted me to make latkes. More, I believe, as a vehicle for sour cream and applesauce than anything else. But I take my inspiration where I can get it.

So I improvised a recipe this morning and it turned out pretty well.

Now, here's my take on recipes; they're more or less useless because of the variables involved--cook, type of oven/burner, type of pan, how high is the heat, ingredient variables, etc, etc... So when I do post recipes, I usually won't give quantities or exact temperatures, because....well...I don't measure and I pretty much just wing it when I do stuff like this.

That being said, here's how I did this morning's pre-Hanukkah latke fest:

You must use russet potatoes (as opposed to redskin or yukon gold) for latkes, because they are higher in starch content and lower in moisture. This allows the shredded potatoes to stick together. I used one sweet onion, about eight medium-sized russet potatoes, two eggs, about a half a cup of flour, plus salt and pepper.

I grated the onion and potatoes on the shredder attachment on my Cuisinart. After you shred, you'll need to put the potatoes/onion mix into a strainer or colander and squeeze out some of the moisture. Then add the other ingredients and mix. Mix it by hand--don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. Also, fingers give you a more thorough mix without breaking up the shredded potatoes. Oh, and season it well with salt and pepper. Potatoes take a lot of salt.

I used a heavy french steel sautee pan over medium high heat, which, on the 22K BTU burner of my Bluestar range, is pretty hot. I also pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees and set a cooling rack over a baking sheet in the oven. Once the latkes are browned well on both sides, I transfer them into the oven to ensure the inside is fully cooked and to keep warm while I'm cooking the rest of them.

Make sure your oil (I used olive and vegetable oil) is hot by tossing a bit of potato into it. It should bubble immediately and brown within 30 seconds or so. Oh, and this is a pan-fry, not a sautee, so you should have about a half-inch depth of oil on the bottom of the pan. If you wanted to really be authentic, you could fry your latkes in schmaltz. But most people don't have that just hanging around the house.

Once your oil is ready, form the mix into a patty--give it another squeeze to get out any excess moisture--and then plop it down into the oil. Once it's in the pan, smash it down a bit with your fingers or a spatula to spread it out into a nice even patty. Depending on the size of your pan, you should only do two or three at one time. Don't overcrowd your pan--this will lower the temp too much and you'll end up steaming rather than frying and you won't get that nice golden crust. I'm using a 14" frying pan and you can see in the picture above that I'm only doing three latkes at a time.

So...that's it, really. Fry'em up. Once they're done, serve them with applesauce and sour cream.

Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hot Chocolate--A Microanalysis

In his excellent book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, author Barry Schwartz relays the idea of two distinct personality types with regard to consumer activity--maximizers and satisficers.

A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. (This last paragraph is lifted from the Wikipedia page about the book).

As you may have already deduced, I am a maximizer, especially with regard to food. I have the compulsion to ensure that whatever I'm cooking or eating is the best possible incarnation of that thing that can be had for the money I'm willing to spend and the time/effort I'm willing to put in.

Working as a chef for a dozen or so years has only served to increase that tendency. After working somewhere that bakes 20 dozen chocolate chip cookies every day, and spending hours of my week walking by said cookies right as they come out of the oven, having multiple opportunities to eat them free of charge while they are at their most perfect state, gooey and still warm from the oven, how can I possibly be expected to eat a three day old cookie? Especially when the person who made that cookie probably didn't compare thirteen different types of chips and work on the recipe for weeks before settling on The One.

Same with bread. Restaurants get fresh artisan-quality bread delivered daily. It's around all the time, readily available, cut up and ready to be slathered with delicious house-made garlic-herb butter. I almost never eat bread that hasn't been baked that day. I'm spoiled for bread.

Recently, since I have a three year old son and we're doing various outdoor winter activities, I've started making hot chocolate for us to have when we come inside. I don't think I really ever had hot chocolate before, at least since I was a kid. I kind of always looked at it the same as tea--it's a hot beverage, but it's not coffee? So what's the point? Does it have caffeine? No? Ok, then...I'll stick with my coffee.

So, for my first taste of hot chocolate, I just had whatever we happened to have in the house, which was Safeway Select hot cocoa mix from Jewel. It was bleh. Not bad, mind you, just not the blast of chocolately, creamy goodness, the intensely thick and rich cup that I envisioned that hot chocolate *could* be. *Should* be. If I applied myself.

Now, some improvements are easy. My wife made that first batch, and I found out later that she used water, not milk. So for batch #2, I used milk. Skim. Which is what we had around. Not much of an improvement.

Next try, I used half and half. Much better. A marked difference. Now we were getting somewhere. We also had some whipped cream that someone brought over (the kind that comes out of a can), which we happily discovered melted nicely into the hot chocolate, improving the texture dramatically. I took note. Whipped cream needs to go on top of the idealized version of hot chocolate that I was now officially seeking.

But the flavor provided by the Safeway select stuff was lacking. It had that distinctly powdery flavor that you get from using cocoa powder rather than actual chocolate. It was also very difficult to get fully dissolved into the hot milk, even when I whisked it in a pan on the stovetop, making a thick paste at first and then diluting with more hot milk. No matter how much I tried, it would always have those dark globs of the hot cocoa mix floating around in the cup. Bleh.

As luck would have it, reinforcements were on the way. I had mentioned my quest for the perfect hot chocolate to my equally-maximizer-minded father, and the next time he dropped by, he graced us with a canister of ridiculously expensive Williams-Sonoma hot chocolate mix. Now, this is more like it, I thought as I checked the ingredients--bittersweet Guittard chocolate, soy lecithin (a very commonly used emulsifier) and pure vanilla. Better yet, this mix wasn't a powder at all, but consisted of little curls of actual shaved chocolate.

The package calls for a shamefully decadent five tablespoons of these micro chocolate shavings for each 8 oz. serving, which means that the entire twenty dollar canister makes eight servings. For the mathematically-challenged, that's $2.50 per cup just for the mix. Once you add in the milk, cream, and/or marshmallows, you're talking upwards of three bucks for a cup of hot chocolate that you make yourself. So this stuff had better be damn good.

It was. It melted almost instantly into the hot half and half and yielded a very smooth, rich, creamy finished product. It lacked that 'powdery' flavor that I noted above, and delivered a wonderfully velvety feel. And it tasted good. Chocolatey. But it didn't give me that 'smack-me-in-the-face' hot fudge flavor that I was dreaming about.

So my quest must continue.

I'm thinking what I need to do is simply buy some good quality chocolate--I'm a big fan of Lindt--and use my microplane to create shavings similar to the WS mix. Better quality chocolate, especially if I use chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa, should result in a stronger chocolate flavor.

I'm also interested in trying to do a Mexican-style hot chocolate, using the abuelita tablets (or similar products) that you can find in the Hispanic foods section of most grocery stores. This is basically chocolate with cinnamon and sometimes ground almonds added. Even the mainstream brand (which is made by multinational food mega corp Nestle) contains only basic ingredients like sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, emulsifiers, and flavorings, so if I hunt around for some more artisanal brands, I should be able to find something pretty darn good.

So, the quest continues. My maximizing urges will not permit me to settle for packets of Swiss Miss or spoonfuls of Quik. I will view each and every post-winter-fun mugful as an opportunity to improve my recipes and techniques until the ultimate hot chocolate formula is achieved.

I know...I'm nuts. Believe me, my the eye rolls I get from my wife as I arrive home from the Mexican market with a pack of Moctezuma tablets or the bemused eyebrow raises I receive as I peruse the internet for some fancy French hot chocolate mix ensure that message comes through loud and clear. But...there are worse things to spend one's time and energy doing. And, look! There are people out there as crazy--perhaps even crazier--than I am!

I'll keep you all posted on my progress. And, in the meantime, I should probably start a concurrent obsessive search into the world of fancy gourmet marshmallows. (Actually, I'd probably just be better off making my own.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Not to Get Me for Christmas

I'm a chef.

For some reason, people, knowing I'm a chef, like to get me kitchen gadgets for gifts. Why? I really have no idea.

Would you get a carpenter tools? Would you get an photographer a camera? No, of course not. You'd assume that: a.) they already have this stuff, and, b.) they have a very specific set of criteria for the tools that they use in their trade.

So it never fails to amaze me when I receive stuff like a "mango cutter" for a gift. I already have a mango cutter. It's called a knife.

Ok, stop right there. Maybe you think I'm being arrogant or ungrateful. I'm not. A mango cutter is just plain impractical. Take a look at the picture in that link. The device is used by lining it up and then pushing down onto the mango. Now, when you eat a good mango, what's it's main characteristic? A ripe mango is soft and almost mushy. If you place this oxo good grips guillotine collar type thing over it and press down, what's going to happen? Are you going to get nice, clean, ready-to-eat mango halves? No! You're going to get a smashed mango.

News flash, people; I get paid because I know how to take apart a ripe mango so that I can get all of the juicy fruit off the pit and skin and cut it into even, pretty pieces.

Here are some more classics:

An avocado cutter, herb snips, a corn "zipper", a $30 electric potato peeler, a garlic roaster (tin foil accomplishes the same thing) and what's got to be the dumbest of the dumb gadgets, a banana slicer. Is slicing a banana even slightly difficult for anyone over the age of six? You've *got* to be kidding me. I already have a dozen or so banana slicers in the drawer. They double as butter knives.

This stuff makes me sad. It attempts to take people's lack of knowledge about how to cook or prepare food and parlay that into sales of stupid made-in-china garbage. If people would just read up and get themselves a good sharp knife, 95% of this stuff would disappear overnight.

So, please....DO NOT get me this kind of stuff for Christmas.

Cheap Stuff that Works Vol. 1--Reversible Grill/Griddle

Allow me to wax rhapsodic about my twelve-year-old well-seasoned heavy cast anodized aluminum reversible grill/griddle. It rocks. I have a ridiculous number of expensive pots and pans, such as a bunch of AllClad LTD that I got as gifts for my first wedding, a few Le Creuset pots, and some fancy French blue steel pans that I discovered when I cooked in Europe. Yet I use this grill/griddle almost every day.

I have a 30" range with only four burners, yet this thing sits spanning two of them and almost never gets put away. It cost me twenty bucks.

Now, they're a bit more than that today, but you can still find these guys for less than forty bucks all over the web. I cannot recommend these things highly enough. In fact, this simple slab of metal works so well, and costs so little, that it should be considered an island of sanity amidst a churning sea of single-use kitchen appliances and implements. In its honor, I'm going to begin a segment I'm calling "Cheap Stuff that Works".

Stay with me here, because there's two sides to this coin. On the one hand, stuff that works the way it's supposed to, lasts a long time, and isn't expensive is hard enough to find and should be celebrated in its own right. But the other side of this coin is that there's so much useless garbage being marketed to home cooks that it's sometimes hard to take a step back and realize that the best stuff is sometimes the simplest.

For instance, a friend of mine's wife has an electric appliance called a "quesadilla maker". These handy-dandy things retail for twenty to thirty bucks and when you plug them in, they....uh....apply heat to tortillas that you've placed cheese in between. Whoa! Talk about re-inventing the wheel. It's a plasticky piece of garbage that's made in China and has snazzy thematic southwestern decorations and chile pepper-shaped handles. Odds are, the thing'll break within two years.

Needless to say, you can see where I'm going with this. I get to save my twenty five bucks because I already have a "quesadilla maker". It's pictured above, where it's functioning as a cornmeal-ricotta pancake maker. AKA, a griddle. Twenty-five bucks buys a lot of flour tortillas and cheese, not to mention the counter space that's freed up.

But wait...there's more. If you act now, your cast aluminum (or cast iron--they're great too) reversible grill/griddle can replace other small appliances that manufacturers, marketers, and department stores will try and convince you are essential. Yes, folks, this thing does it all; it's not just a pancake maker and a quesadilla maker--it's also a panini maker, a "griddler", and an indoor BBQ and grill. It replaces literally hundreds of dollars worth of these "unitaskers" (with respect to Alton Brown), and is easier to clean, has no moving parts, no electronics, and will never break.

There are a few tricks to using this versatile gem; first, it needs to be seasoned in order to attain that nice black nonstick coating. There are plenty of sites that'll fill you in on how to season cast iron, but you can also just start cooking on the thing. It'll season itself pretty decently over time. Seriously...cook a griddle full of bacon on it twice and you're done.

Another great tip for use on both the grill and griddle sides; have a large metal bowl or a square metal baking dish available for use as a cover. If your grilled cheese or chicken breast is browning too quickly and the outside's getting done before the cheese is melted or the chicken is fully cooked, just dome it. Pop the bowl or baking dish upside down over the food and you'll get a nice convection action which will act as a small oven, allowing the inside of the food to cook more quickly and stay even with the outside.

Oh, and know your burner strengths. I have a range where some burners are stronger than others, and my grill/griddle sits astride a 22K BTU burner in the back and only a 15K BTU burner in the front. So, if the burners are set at the same level, the back will run hotter. I like it this way, as it gives me two different cooking 'zones', but it's important to know how your cooktop's burners are configured, especially front-to-back.

Other than that, sky's the limit. In our house, it's most frequently used for pancakes, bacon, eggs, hash browns, grilled cheese sandwiches, and....yes, quesadillas. I rarely use the ridged 'grill' side, unless it's super-freezing outside, but I've used it for chicken breasts and the occasional burger in the past. Works fine. The grease and juices drain off the meat via the large channels and grease troughs built into the sides allowing for a good char and browning.

In short--it's a cheap thing that works. A rare and valuable thing. Something to be appreciated. Celebrated, even.