Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Starbucks VIA Giveaway (or How I Rationalize Being a Corporate Shill)


I am giving away four Starbucks VIA gift packs!

Four lucky winners will receive the handy-dandy tumbler pictured above along with six three-packs of Starbucks VIA Colombian and Italian blends. The mug is specially designed to hold six individual VIA packets, so you will, according to their website, "never be without great coffee again". Whatever. It's a package valued at $22.95!

How to enter and win:
Simple. Comment on this post and tell us all about your favorite coffee--where you get it, what kind of drink you like best, how it's made, what makes it so good, your individual coffee quirks...whatever.

After a week or so, I'll choose the four comments I like best and send out the Starbucks swag to the lucky winners.


Now, to address the larger issues and ramifications of such a shameless display of symbiotic mutual self-promotion.

I've referred briefly in the past to my policies about reviewing stuff that comes my way for free, from PR companies, event organizers, or whoever, but I haven't ever codified an actual policy. Maybe now's a good time.

Basically, my driving guideline is that the credibility of this blog means far more to me than a free book, dinner, or pound of coffee, so I err on the side of caution. For example, I will always indicate when products or services came my way for free when reviewing them, and I always tell people offering freebies that my acceptance of the goodies in no way guarantees a positive review.

That said, I try and keep this blog relatively positive, so unless something is just egregiously bad, or I'm in the mood to rant, I would probably be more likely to simply not write the piece. This is my general tendency whether I've paid full price or not.

This wasn't much of an issue at first, but as this site has gained traction and generated more traffic, I've started getting frequent unsolicited emails from folks who would like to see their products (or the products of their clients) featured.

It all seemed fairly small-time and manageable until a PR guy representing the supposed evil empire known as Starbucks Coffee came knocking at my Gmail address . All of a sudden, entertaining the option of taking a mug and some free coffee made me feel like I was on the brink of becoming a complete corporate sell-out whore. What would be next, I figured--crowning some corporate PapaDomino'sHut pizza franchise the new Barnaby's? Hell, no!

But, crazy coincidence; I got some free samples of VIA from a Starbucks a few months ago when they first came out. They sat in a drawer until a couple weeks ago, when I brought them with on the camping trip I took with Henry, and at 6:45 in the morning, after sleeping fitfully through a night of thunderstorms and then escorting a four-year old through the mud to utilize a horsefly-plagued outhouse, this new "gourmet" instant coffee seemed like an acceptable option.

I drink iced coffee when it's warm out, so I just mixed two VIA packets with about 8 oz. of cold milk, some ice cubes, and a Sweet-n-Low.

The verdict? It was damn good. In fact, under the circumstances, it was fantastic.

I mean, it's not espresso good. Not anything like the nectar I generate with my Rancilio Silvia and the Adam's Blend I get from Casteel. Nor was it as good as an iced latte at Starbucks (which I find fine; acceptable in a pinch, if overpriced).

But for something I can make on the go--on a road trip, or camping, or as an alternative to the garbage that sits outside hotel-room bathrooms--it's pretty damn good. I can definitely see situations where this would be a welcome alternative to driving around hoping to find a place to get a decent cup of coffee, when I'm not willing to drop down to a gas station or Dunkin' Donuts level-brew.

Not a ringing endorsement by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly something that makes sense in certain situations.

This is the conclusion I'd already reached when the PR company goons tried to strongarm their way into my inbox, with their fiendishly courteous emails proffering their tantalizing freebies.

So, I figured....why not?

Bottom line; I'm going to take free stuff and go to free dinners and events sometimes, but I will always disclose when whatever I'm reviewing was a freebie, and I will always inform the party offering the freebies that there's no guarantee of a favorable review.

I'll try not to let if effect my opinion of the product, service, or event being reviewed, but whatever...I'm human. Sometimes, despite my attempts to approach the review from the perspective of someone who paid full price, I'll probably be unduly influenced by the tiny "thrill" that getting free stuff brings. The flip side of this of course, is that, depending on how the exchange is handled (sometimes people can be really crass and pushy about this kind of stuff), it might have a negative impact on my opinion of whatever's being reviewed.

That's that. I'm human, this is a blog, not Journalism, and, in the great scheme of things, you'll still probably see far more PR-agency-generated material in your daily newspaper or evening news than you'll see here.

See? You can trust me. I am not a corporate shill.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Finchville Farms Bacon Shots + More Ham

I had so many pork porn shots from my Finchville visit that I'm doing a second post just to show them off.


More bellies

Cured bellies

Ham slices ready for the store.

Hams in stockings.

I'm probably going to get more static from vegans for this. Oh well.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Country Ham--Finchville Farms, Kentucky

At a dinner party hosted by Sky Full of Bacon's very talented Mike Gebert a few months ago, I was served (among other delicacies) ham biscuits. Which, if you just do a quick google and look at, say, cooks.com, you'll see are just simple little biscuit sandwiches of sliced ham.

These were not just simple little biscuit sandwiches of sliced ham, though. They were amazing. Biscuits made with lard Gebert had rendered himself, part of his homemade bacon process, a country ham from Father's in Kentucky, and home-canned preserves to slather on the delicate yet rich biscuits before adding a thin slice or two of the smokey, somewhat funky ham. This elegant little sandwich literally melted in my mouth, and the ham made a strong impression on me.

I managed to latch onto the tag from Gebert's ham, which sat on my desk for a couple months. My intention was to order a ham from the same purveyor and try and replicate it for myself. I never got around to doing that, but as part of a recent road trip, I incorporated a visit to a different producer of country hams named Finchville Farms in Finchville, Kentucky.

Finchville Farms is a small, family-owned operation run by Bill Robertson, whose family has been operating it since its inception in 1947. I sat down with Mr. Robertson before we embarked on a tour of his facilities and, as we talked about ham, we both eventually asked the same question aloud, incredulously--"why not?"

See, we were taking about country ham as opposed to European cured ham products like Italian prosciutto or the Spanish jamons Serrano and Iberico. And we both wondered why American country hams haven't yet attained the same success or recognition as their European counterparts. I didn't have an answer. Part of the reason it's taken me a month or so to write this article is that I've been trying to come up with one.

For me, as a chef, I was always somewhat bewildered by country ham. I never worked with it, so didn't really know the process. I knew it needed to be soaked in changes of water for a few days, and then roasted like a "regular" (read; saline-injected commercially processed) ham, and the resulting product would have a firmer texture and a more pronounced flavor than the standard spongy salt nibbles that turn up in our everyday omelets and deli sandwiches.

But I'd never tried it, so I just wasn't sure. And could it be thinly sliced, raw, and used in elegant presentations as a homegrown stand-in for prosciutto? I'd never seen it done that way and it seemed like everything I read about country ham was a cooked preparation like Gebert's , so, again....it remained a mystery.

Bill's answer (that's him to the right, in his office at Finchville) was, yes. "Sure, you can eat it raw, thinly sliced, like prosciutto," he said. "But nobody does. "

Country ham is most often seen as "steaks"--thin leg cross-cuts with a round slice of the bone in the middle--and these are cooked quickly on a griddle or in a pan and served alongside eggs, toast, and hash browns for $3.95 at gritty little neighborhood diners throughout the South and Midwest. When I've had it this way, though, I haven't cared much for it; it's usually kind of tough and stringy and too salty.

So that's more or less where I've always been on it; I'm a big fan of the European cured ham products, sliced thinly and draped over cool, juicy melon slices or ripe figs, but I haven't been much for American hams, whether the clove-studded, pineapple-ringed, Dr. Pepper-glazed, spiral-sliced Easter variety, or the more gourmet-sounding, but still disappointing country ham.

I appreciated Mr. Robertson's hospitality and generosity, for sharing both his time and products (My intention was to purchase a whole ham, like the ones seen sitting on his store countertop, but Bill steered me towards the ready-to-eat or cook products and laid a trunkload of samples on me). I've tried a bunch of different ones, but I'm still don't think I'm fully appreciating or understanding the appeal of this product. The only really amazing experience I had with it was at Gebert's dinner party.

Maybe part of it is how Gebert cooked his ham, I don't know. Another factor to consider is the varied styles of curing and processing. Bill at Finchville doesn't use any nitrates or nitrites in his hams, only salt and sugar. Some producers add spices or herbs, or use different types of sugar like brown sugar, molasses, or maple. Oh, and Finchville hams aren't smoked, either. Most that you'll find are, like the Father's ham I had at Gebert's gathering.

The process varies enormously from one maker to the next, but the essential steps are that a fresh or "green" ham is dry cured for a period of 3-5 weeks, then is rinsed and hung for a longer period--usually 8 to 12 months. At this point the ham can be used, or it can be smoked. The smoking can also be done prior to hanging. Some ham producers wrap the hams in muslin during the hanging process, others leave them naked to the air.

Obviously this process was developed prior to refrigeration and these methods were originally motivated by the desire to preserve fresh meat. Pig slaughters were usually at the beginning of the cold-weather months as a way to further prevent spoilage, and the various parts of the animal would be cured, cooked, smoked, and/or hung so that the cooler temperatures would prevent spoilage during the crucial point, and once the warmer weather arrived, the hams would be sufficiently cured to last through hot summer.

In fact, the summer is said to be beneficial to the flavor of the country hams. Like cheese and wine, ham is a product of its environment. As they hang, the hams are exposed to hot temperatures on summer days, but cooler evenings, and this temperature fluctuation is said to be beneficial for the flavor of the meat. Locals speak of the "July Sweats" as crucial to a country ham's flavor development. Native molds form on the outside of the hams as a reminder that this is a living process, and white specks of concentrated protein, similar to what's found in superior long-aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, appear in the meat. Essentially, this is controlled spoilage.

But, hey, controlled spoilage is where it's at. Beer, wine, stinky cheese. Spicy kimchee, sauerkraut.

So the ham I got from Finchville is more or less exactly the same as what they make in Parma, Italy...I'm thinking. Why can't it be served more like prosciutto di Parma is typically used?

Well, I'm not entirely sure that it can't. But the intended end use needs to be considered while the product is being processed. That is to say, if a country ham producer set out to make Kentucky Prosciutto, they'd have to employ a different process. The current products are heavily salted, because the end users are going to soak them in changes of water, and then either roast or boil in more water. If the ham were going to be served raw, sliced paper-thin, the salt content would have to be scaled way back, so as to allow the end product to be less salty and also softer and more full of moisture than current country hams, which are like rocks. Typically, prosciutto is left to cure for 15-20 days, while country ham sits soaking up salt for 35-50 days.

The other thing is that Finchville uses commercial pork. I asked Bill about it when I noticed some Swift boxes near the dumpster, and got a waved a hand in the air as a response. This appeared to be Bill's way of acknowledging to the heritage pork movement, so other than mentioning some of the attention heritage breeds are getting from Chicago chefs, I didn't press him about it.

European hams are all made from pigs from the particular region, and the pump-it-full-of-hormones-and-saline-and-get-it-to-market-weight-in-half-the-time American factory farming model has, for the most part, been rejected in Europe. So, like with heritage breeds, the meat of the European pigs has a more fully developed flavor. It's fattier, and of a superior quality.

Now seems like a great moment to mention La Quercia, which appears to be doing just exactly what I just described over in Iowa, and their products are now being carried and touted by just about every pork-loving chef in Chicago.

So, after plunging headlong into this project, I find myself with more questions than answers. I'm kicking myself for limiting my experience with Finchville's products to the pre-fabbed steaks and ham biscuit slices, wrapped all tight and shelf-stable in their cryovack packs, and not bringing home a whole ham, as I'd planned.

Is the main reason that country ham isn't utilized similarly to prosciutto simply that it hasn't traditionally been done? American country ham producers have always included pre-cooking as a part of their process, and almost always market convenience products, like the ones Bill graced me with. As a result of the cooking being such a prominent part of their process, the USDA requires all uncooked country ham products to carry a label bearing cooking instructions, including the suggestion that pork always be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°.

So partly, it's a matter of it's always been done this way, and the government suggests that it continue to be done this way.

Technically, however, the USDA has no opinion about whether country ham can be eaten raw. They have not taken an official position. And the country ham producers haven't asked, for fear of having some stringent requirements slapped on them. So the mystery continues.

So, the next logical step for me is to buy a whole ham. Whether from Finchville, Father's, or somewhere else. There are now tons available through internet mail-order. And then maybe get one from La Quercia and do a taste test to compare how the various hams taste raw. Oh, and I'll need a profressional deli slicer to do these fine products justice.

Yup. Next time I've got a spare thousand bucks laying around, I'll be sure to do that. I guess that's part of the reason there hasn't been more experimentation with these products...the entry costs are high.

S0, there you go. Lots of valuable info about a traditional American product, some taste tests, a visit to the producer, an interview with the guy who runs the company, and still, the answer to the question that Bill and I asked in his office remains elusive.

"Why not"? I don't know.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alber's Ice Cream/Union Dairy; Freeport, IL

I took my four year old son, Henry camping a couple weekends ago. Ever been camping with a four-year old?

Anyway, he loved it and we more or less accomplished my goal, which was to give him his first real overnight camping experience so when we start doing longer trips, he'll be used to it. After doing a few backyard campouts, this was our first real foray out into the wild world.

We ventured out about an hour from the city, to nearby Rock Cut State Park, which is a very nice little state park that I've visited and camped at before. They have two lakes--one that's used for fishing, another with a sandy beach, and the campground where the tent campers (as opposed to RV campers) set up is situated nicely between the two lakes. Henry, however, in his typical assertive-for-no-apparent-reason-about-things-he-doesn't-even-have-the-faintest-clue-what-he's-talking-about way, told me early and often that he did "NOT want to ride in a paddle boat. NO. WAY. DAD."

I've learned not to try and convince him that paddle boats are fun, or to even ask what he's got against them, anyway, since he's never been on one. No point to it. Mmm hm. No paddleboat. No way, no how. Check.

After getting an early start, setting up camp, and loading up on firewood and worms for fishing, we were ready to get something to eat, and I was determined to avoid the campground hot dog stand and the endless highway exit fast food options.

We cast about for a while, then found ourselves in the nice little old town of Freeport, Illinois, which just happens to be one of the sites where Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas in 1858, as the two stumped around Illinois in their respective campaigns to become the state's next US senator. The debates all centered around the issue of the day--slavery, and are said to be where Lincoln's mettle was proven and his chops were honed for his presidential run just two years later.

More importantly, though, directly behind Debate Square, where the historic event is commemorated, there's a really cool old ice cream parlor.

I saw the art deco facade when I turned a blind corner and knew that my aimless wandering had paid off. Sometimes when you're hungry it's tempting to give in and just hit the Denny's or the Culver's off the exit ramp, but then you find a sleeper like this place just loaded with old time character and charm.

I was hoping for a patty melt or something similarly diner-minded, but we found out that the "grill" portion of this establishment is closed on Sundays, so we had no choice but to eat massive ice cream sundaes for our lunch. Here they are:

Mine was the turtle sundae, that's it on the left, and Henry is all about the mint ice cream, so he got what they were calling a mint meltaway sundae, which had mint chip ice cream, hot fudge, a ton of whipped cream, and a bunch of crushed Andee's mints all over the top and sides.

The ice cream in this place was good (it's Cedar Crest), and they appear to be doing a nice job jazzing it up with their sauces, toppings, and all the fixin's, but the reason this place is worth an hour drive (or at least a detour if you're heading west) is its perfectly preserved condition. It's beautiful. Pristine. It could (and probably should) be in a museum, but it's not; it's still functioning as this town's little local restaurant and ice cream parlor, the counters are staffed by local high school girls, and honestly, most of the people in there looked at me like I was nuts for taking pictures of the shiny chrome and Formica, the amazing soda fountain set-up that runs down the center of the long oval of counter seating, and their sweet old jade green Hamilton Beach spindle milkshake mixer.

But I'm NOT crazy. THEY'RE the ones who are crazy for not recognizing beauty and art when it's right under their noses! Look at that setup!

The ice cream dipping cabinets are still working, they're using those pumps for their syrups and flavorings, the hot well holds the hot fudge and caramel at just the right temperature, and there's not a speck of dirt or a bent piece of stainless to be found. Do people realize how rare that piece is? How incredible it is that no one ripped it out during all these years?!

Remember what I said about camping with a four year old. I'll just say this; no matter how many times they tell you they want to "help", they really don't. Oh, and we now know that four is not old enough to apply Deep Woods Off. But if you let'em get really hungry and then promise them a big ice cream sundae, they're putty in your hands.

Henry doesn't understand why they would prepare and bring the dad's ice cream sundae a full ten minutes before they prepare and bring the kid's. I didn't get it either.

Anyway, after a couple of big ice cream sundaes, our stomachs were cooled down and full, our faith was restored in the world, and we headed back to the campground for some short-attention-span fishing and a few good hours of playing with the pump (endless fun, apparently).

We did our campfire dinner, had the obligatory s'more or two, strummed the guitar a bit, and then settled down in our sleeping bags for some flashlight play and, eventually, sleep. I'm fairly sure I slept at least a little.

Whoa! Camping with a four year old! No one ever said it was restful. Remember what I said earlier about training Henry for longer camping trips? Maybe I'm the one who actually needs a warm-up outing or two.

I won't say the ice cream sundaes at Alber's/Union Dairy were the highlight of the trip...but let me just put it this way; I'm glad I know it's there in such close proximity to the campground for next time.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Summer Break

Just wanted to touch base quickly and offer an explanation, of sorts, for the long gap in posting. Most of my energy these days is going into enjoying the weather, taking care of the kids, and other endeavors, so I haven't been posting much of late.

But, not to worry. I'm anticipating having some quality time on my hands soon, and have posts about Korean barbecue, my first crack at making duck prosciutto, the best bagels in Chicago, a perfectly preserved 40's era ice cream parlor, and my tour/interview with a Kentucky country ham producer working their way through the process.

So stay tuned!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Healthy Kids Cook-Off

There's a great event this weekend that I was invited to attend and unfortunately won't be able to get to (Henry and I are going camping!) but it's not too late for you to plan on attending and bringing your kids.

It's an Iron-Chef style cook-off where kids will team up with Kendall College students as well as local well-known chefs like Michael Kornick, to see who can whip together a tasty and nutritious snack using "secret ingredients".

The finalists will compete in what the press release calls a "fast paced" cook off in front of a live studio audience "just like on TV". Snacks and prizes are provided, and the whole thing is also done in conjunction with something called the Healthy Living Fair which features demos, free samples, and lots of other cool stuff. You'll also get the opportunity to check out Kendall College's amazing new facility on Goose Island.

The whole thing promises to be plenty of fun, but it's also pretty important; when school lets out, 8 out of 10 kids who receive free school lunches during the year don't get any assistance over the summer. This event is geared towards raising awareness about child hunger and also teaching adults and kids alike how to prepare simple and nutritious meals and snacks.

It takes place this Sunday, June 7th from 12:00 noon to 5pm at Kendall College--900 North Branch Street (on Goose Island near Chicago Avenue and Halsted) in Chicago.

So, go! Bring your kids. Cook, watch, feast, and have a good time.