Friday, March 17, 2017

Saint Patrick's Day Surprise

So it's Saint Patrick's Day and I did what a lot of people in the area do today. After dinner, we piled into the family truckster and head over to Stewart's for a 50 cent single scoop. Kids went with Firecracker in a cup and Mint Cookie Crumble in a cone. I tried out the limited time Carrot Cake and my wife went with Peanut Butter cup.

We sit down at one of the tables and we're eating our ice cream and my wife notices the pink, Inside Scoop sales flyer on the table.

Then she says, "Hey, that's you."


On the flyer is a tweet taken out of a conversation from last year. I'm part of the first tweet under the Sweet Tweets heading.

How cool is that?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Making Dinner with Stella

Anyone that knows me isn't surprised by the idea of me grilling straight through the winter. Most years, I try to grill burgers during the first snowfall. I forget what was going on this year, but grilling dinner wasn't an option that day. That hasn't sat well with me. If you don't do them, they're not traditions.

My last night of league curling was Monday and after leaving the club I stopped by a Hannaford to pick a few more things to have in the house during a blizzard. There was plenty of produce left after the pre-storm grocery store rush. Unless you wanted a banana. Then you were out of luck. The only bananas left were going to be ripe next week. I knew eggs, milk and bread were storm necessities. Bananas are new one for me.

We woke up to everything being closed. Around noon, I looked at a deck rail and it looked like there were about 4 inches. In reality, the wind was blowing the snow off the railing and there was about a foot outside. Off I went for Round 1 on snow blowing. The tent/tarp system I have over the oven didn't look happy about the weather. Hell, even on a nice day, that pop up tent doesn't look that good. It was not meant for this kind of abuse. Hang in there tent. You can do it.

A little after 5, I cleared a spot in the driveway for the grill and lit a chimney of coals. It took a little doing but the coals finally caught.

The nice thing about cooking burgers in crappy weather is that the don't take too much time. It also helps if you can duck into the garage between steps. Dump the hot coals out of the chimney and spread them around, pop the top grate on and give it a few minutes to heat up.

Throw the burgers on.

Flip. When I flip, I also throw a pan on the grill to heat up. Bringing the burgers into the house on a hot pan keeps the burgers hot.

I usually flip again and add the cheese. Once the cheese is on, I put the lid back on the grill. In 20 seconds or less the cheese will be melted.

Dinner is served. Lately I've been using Stewart's buns for burgers. They are the best cheap white bun in my book. If I'm going all out, I'll use a Prinzo's hard roll as a bun.

In the middle of grilling a contract plow truck drove by to clear a neighbor's driveway. I got a "You are out of your freakin' mind" look from the driver. The burgers were good. The look was priceless.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Thoughts on the Birthday Weekend

Every year, my side of the family gets together for a Birthday Dinner. It's tough to get together all the time some one weekend a year, it’s everyone’s birthday. We make a cake like our grandmother used to make and sing "Happy Birthday to Us" after coming back from a restaurant dinner. It’s a good time.

In recent years the party has moved from Connecticut to the Albany area leaving me in charge of picking the venue. No pressure. If I’m counting correctly, this was the 4th time I was the only member of the Birthday Dinner Restaurant Selection Committee. The restaurant I chose last year would have earned a return trip from the family, but they closed so some research was needed. The restaurant needs to meet a few conditions:

It has to be nice enough to feel celebratory but not so nice that it becomes cost prohibitive for a party of 10.

It has to have an accessible wine list. If the cheapest bottle is $50 or $60, you end up being cost prohibitive again.

It has to be good for a vegan and people that don't eat beef/pork/chicken.

It needs to take reservations. We’ll show up around 5 and be out of your way before the real Saturday night dinner rush start.

It needs to have offerings that two 11 year olds and a 12 year old will eat.

And finally, it needs to be relatively close to my house. I’d say within a 20 minute ride anyhow.

I don’t want this to turn into a restaurant review mainly because I don’t enjoy writing them. Everything was good, this place met all of the above criteria, service was very friendly and accommodating and the bread was freshly made - I wish I could make rolls like the ones being served. So the two discussions I’m starting aren’t specifically about this restaurant but more about my general experience in restaurants that meet the above criteria and reside in the greater Albany area.

1.     More often than not, I think the appetizers are better than the entrees.  Maybe it’s because a lot of appetizers are deep fried. Maybe a chef feels they can be more creative with a small plate that is priced at about half as much as an entrĂ©e. When my immediate family goes out to eat, we rarely get an appetizer. I'm starting to think we should just get a parade of appetizers instead. Is it just me?

2.    When we dine out, the kids almost never get a soda. As parents, that’s our judgment call. There are plenty of calories in a restaurant meal, no need to add a sugar bomb. Since this was a special occasion, all three kids went with Shirley Temples. Now combining the way parents and kids were spaced around the table with my youngest daughter finishing her Shirley Temple first, a server asked her if she would like another one. Not quite sure how to handle the question, she kind of timidly said, “yessss?” knowing her mother and I were in earshot and would stop the transaction if we disapproved. Special occasion, knock yourself out, kid. I’m not exactly sure what happened (because it was the other end of the table), but my brother wasn’t thrilled when his son got a second soda. I later explained that we had allowed the second soda so the server, most likely in the interest of fairness, refreshed the other two sodas when the first round was gone. There was a happy hour thing going on and the second round of sodas were not on the bill. So in this instance, cost wasn’t in the equation. Here’s the question: should a server ask the parents about a refill? I’m not sure. I think the question should be asked to the kid and the parents have veto power. In this case, it felt like one set of parents made a decision for the table and that might not have been best thing, but what do you think? I’ve been encouraging my kids to respectfully and politely communicate their order in a restaurant. A quick eye glance/head nod communication between a parent and child should result in a “Yes, please” or “No, thank-you.” Just my two cents.

Friday night my wife was running late so she caught up to my mother, my two kids and me at a different restaurant (I usually don’t get out this much). I got an “I’m on my way order something for me” text. So I looked over the menu and came up with a plan for two dishes for us to split. As luck would have it, she got to the restaurant moments before the waiter arrived to take the order. For the first time in 25 years (we’ve been a couple since ’92) I ordered for her in front of her. Felt completely different from picking something out for her when she wasn’t there which has happened many times in those 25 years. While I didn’t actually say, “And the lady will have…” it still felt weird. I didn’t like it. Men should never do it. If you do, I will judge you. Unfavorably.

On Sunday, we celebrated my youngest daughter’s birthday. She turns 11 today. In an effort to make her birthday party all about me, I baked 11 pizzas in the wood oven and giggled after launching each one.

Happy 11th Birthday, Casey.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Pierogi and RIb Day

Also known as Summer In's an annual gathering of family to have a big summer style indoor picnic in the middle of February. It's been going on awhile. It started as a get together in a summer camp once the camp had an oven that could heat it up in the winter and evolved into more of a winter festival. Looking back, I have posts from:

2010 this post says the tradition is already 5 years strong. it's also nice to see not much has changed making it an actual tradition.

2011 only a brief mention here, but the quest to find Ron the Wet Saw was ongoing way back then and the post included some sketched of the oven that bare no resemblance to the actual oven.

2012 made the sausage myself and tried some SPAM in the pit

2013 looking back at this post, I seem to have already written the first paragraph of this post.

2014 Summer in February was technically Summer in March in 2014.

2015 We definitely had it in 2015, but apparently I was too full to write about it.

2016 Back at it again.

I suppose I could write about "Rib and Pierogie Day breaking up winter" again. Only real change this year was abandoning the pit. The blocks are pretty broken up and tending the fire is much easier when the ground isn't frozen. The frost thaws and the freed up water is constantly putting the fire out. Gave fancy pants sous vide ribs a shot (ribs were sealed in vacuum bags and submerged in 165 degree water for 12 hours). They came out pretty good with basically no effort so the day was much more relaxed for me.

Absurd amounts of food were eaten, weight was gained, and once again it was a fun day.

And now, pictures of food (a couple shots were taken by my sister-in-law).


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Politics imitating art

Remember back in the 80's when every good comic strip published books of all the comics? Far Side books, Bloom County books, Calvin and Hobbs books. In our house we also had pile of Doonesbury books. And while I might not have gotten every joke at the time I was reading Doonesbury, a few of the strips stuck with me. Probably most of what I know about Watergate is from Doonesbury. Not sure what that says about our education system or me, but there you have it.

When the brand new White House Press Secretary called a press conference to spend a few minutes complaining about crowd size, I was immediately reminded of Doonesbury cartoon from one of those books. Not sure why this particular cartoon stuck with me, but it did. Through the magic of the internet, I was able to look it up. Would you believe there is a Doonesbury search engine?

I remembered it was at the White House, I remembered the last two panels distinctly. And without too much effort I was able to find it. The strip originally ran on Sunday, April 7, 1974. Unfortunately, the image isn't very clear.

Here's a link to it:

I had no idea who the two men were when I read this in the early/mid 80s. The voice on the left is White House reporter Hugh Sidney and the voice on the right is Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler.

Panel 1: Okay, who'd like a press briefing?!

Panel 2:

Panel 3: sum, the information available to me at this time does correspond to my knowledge at the time of my previous statement.

Panel 4: That was beautiful, Ron.           Any other questions?

Panel 5: Yes. I have one, Ron.                Yes, Mr. Sidney?

Panel 6: Ron, sometimes I imagine you get up in the morning, look in the mirror before you've shaven, and think to yourself, "Ron, you're about to begin another day of evasion and deceit."

Panel 7: Here's my question, Ron: What do you do after you've come to such a realization?

Panel 8: I shave.

I have no idea why out of books and books of cartoons I remember that one so clearly. It's probably pretty obvious as to why it currently came to mind. In the last reporting I saw on the press secretary, when he said, "No, I'm not confused" it felt like he was channeling Martin Short's character Nathan Shurm.

 Image result for nathan thurm snl quotes

"I know that! Why wouldn't I know that? It's my company, I'm quite aware of that! Is it me? It's him, right?"

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Another Pizza Oven Update: I’m busting, Jerry! Busting!

We last left off with the first curing fire. I did several small fires and then they started to get a little bit bigger. I have a temperature gun and I was keeping track of the inside and outside temperature of the oven. As the fires progressed you could see the color of the top of the oven change as the refractory concrete lost water. During one fire, the outside dome temperature was in the low 200 degree range and steam was visible. There was actually a low hissing sound too.

On Sunday, I started with a small fire and slowly built it up. I noticed a little bit of steam leaving the oven, but not much. After an hour or two, only one spot on the wall had a little steam still coming out of the concrete. The weather wasn’t bad so I went ahead with the insulation planning to do this steaming spot last. When I got the board insulation for under the oven floor, I also picked up two boxes of ceramic blanket. The blankets were rolled up like a sleeping bag in the boxes. Each blanket was 1 inch thick, 2 feet wide and 25 feet long. Through an absurd amount of estimating, re-estimating and estimate checking, I calculated that 2 rolls should give me 3 inches of insulation around the oven. I had read that this can be nasty, itchy stuff. I was as covered up as I could be – long pants, crummy work jacket zipped up all the way, gloves, eye protection, and a dust mask.

The first layer was the learning layer. I probably made too many cuts, used smaller pieces and generally made a little bit of a mess. Once that layer was on, I saw how I could cover most of the oven with 3 bigger pieces and then fill in the missed spaces with trimmings. It worked out pretty well. I got three inches of insulation around the dome and a little bit of scrap in case I need to fill some extra space when making the oven door – the current oven door is a stack of bricks.  Sunday night at 8:00 the dome temperature was just under 450 degrees. I stacked the brick door up and left everything uncovered for the night since the weather was supposed to be cold but precipitation free. Monday morning, the temperature was about 320. Not bad.

On Martin Luther King Day (1/16/17), I started another fire and was able to get the inside oven temperature to hold around 600 degrees.  Around 3:30, I used a scrap piece of 2x4 to move all the coals from the center of the oven toward the left side of the oven.  I added another small log and kept the fire going. The right side of the oven was holding in the mid 600s. Around 4:00, I soaked a crummy towel with water and used a garden rake to clean the ash off the oven floor not covered with coals and burning logs.

You remember the Puffy Shirt episode of Seinfeld? The other story line in the episode is George getting a job as a hand model. Toward the end of the episode everything is going right for George and in his excited happiness he exclaims, “I’m busting, Jerry! Busting!”

Just after 4:30, I slid a pizza into the oven. I was busting.

 First pizza

 I made 8 pizzas. They were pretty good. I am confident they will get better. My usual dough came out a little crisper too. I’ll have to mess around with the hydration to see what that does. Also, I should have gotten the dough a little warmer before I stretched it. All in all, a good first run. No one left hungry. 

Apple Pie dessert pizza cooking and finished

I left the oven door open so it could cool off before I covered everything up. The dome temperature this morning was about 250. Not quite cool enough to close everything up, but precipitation is in the forecast. I’ve got everything covered except the door of the oven. The canopy should be enough protection until the oven cools to ambient temperature. Now I’ve got to figure out how to build a permanent enclosure.

About 24 hours later, I’m still busting.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Asking a Legend a Question

Sure, the internet can be a horrible place. But sometimes it is amazing. I am astounded at the level of access to people it provides. I imagine that access can and regularly is abused. And then sometimes it isn't.

I had a weird question about gluten. I tried to find the answer online but couldn't. Then I wondered if I'd be able to ask an expert. The first person that came to mind was Harold McGee. He occasionally writes for the New York Times when food science comes up but more importantly, he basically wrote THE cooking science book. I bet you can't find a chef or culinary student that hasn't read it and kept On Food And Cooking around as a reference. Hell, even I have it.

So I sent Mr. McGee an email.

Hello Mr. McGee-
I have a odd question that combines science with food and since you literally wrote the book on that and were also foolish enough to leave a contact email address on your website, I'm bothering you with it.

Both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law have celiac disease and are on strict gluten free diets. I tend to be more careful than they are when preparing food. I have some pans, utensils and other kitchen tools that I keep strictly gluten free. There will be no cross contamination getting them sick on my watch. I am also a pizza freak in the process of building a wood fired oven. I have a little propane fueled pizza oven to play with until the brick oven is finished. My long term plan was to get the propane oven a new stone, clean everything thoroughly and make the propane oven gluten free so they could eat a decent gluten free pizza.

So here's my question: at what temperature would high gluten pizza flour burn up and no longer contain gluten? The oven would be heated up to a minimum of 600 degrees F and often hotter depending on the style of pizza I'm making. My thought is that if I fired the wood oven hot enough and long enough, any residual flour on the oven floor would become gluten free ash. If I cooked a few gluten free pizzas before making traditional pizzas using a separate, gluten free pizza peel they could enjoy a wood fired pizza too. If you think the risk of cross contamination would still be present, I'll move ahead with just the separate, gluten free propane pizza oven plan. It pains me to see the frozen gluten free pizza they eat at parties. I'd like to change that this summer.

I hope you are enjoying the holiday season and have a very happy 2017.

Thank you

I wasn't sure he'd get it. Of if he did get it, he's got to be a busy guy that doesn't have time to field questions from random people. He's Harold Freakin' McGee.

Just under 24 hours after I sent the email, I got this.

Hi Jon,
Thanks for your good wishes. About gluten: it does seem reasonable that temperatures high enough to char flour would completely eliminate the immunological reactivity of gluten. But I've been unable to find any studies that have actually demonstrated it. And I suppose it's remotely possible that some flour aggregates could char on the outside while insulating the interior. If you go ahead with one oven, I would just be sure to give it plenty of time to mineralize any residues from the last batch.

A great 2017 to you as well--


How amazing is that? I thanked him and invited him over for pizza should he ever find himself in the area. I mentioned that I'm the pizza snob but I know beer and wine snobs so it will be a good time. I hope he takes me up on the offer. I’m assuming the beer and wine snobs know who they are. I’m sure they do.