Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I grew up in southern Connecticut. In the late 80's, my older brother lived in New Haven on Wooster street. You are probably wondering, "Why would anyone care where your brother lived in the late 80's?" This Wooster Street apartment was in between Sally's APizza and Frank Pepe's - two very well known places in the pizza world. My father preferred Sally's. I preferred Pepe's. There were many night I'd call in a pizza order from my parents house, drive the 20 miles to New Haven, hang out with my brother for a little while, and then walk up the block to get a white clam with bacon pizza. It is fantastic pizza. Their pizza is good with anything on it, but the white clam and bacon pie will blow your mind.

Closer to home, was a restaurant called The Brick Oven. This was just a great restaurant. Everything was good and it was priced right. Someone from my family was here weekly. We told my parent's that we were having another child here. (Side story: We printed up a fake specials sheet with hints that they were getting another grandchild and the owners placed it in the menus given to my parents.) They had a spicy chicken Scarpiello that makes me drool thinking about it.  Their pizza was also excellent (they used a wood oven compared to Pepe's coal). I sadly use "was" because the restaurant has been sold and is under new management. The quality of food there is a mere shadow of it's former past.

I have been living in the Capital Region since 1996. So far, I haven't found pizza that I really like here. There have certainly been pizzas I have enjoyed, but nothing as good as those pizzas in Connecticut. There are a few places I still have to try after reading about them in the 2009 AOA Tournament of Pizza. Specifically Marissa's and Marino's.

Sadly, I don't think the pizza places that I love would be profitable in this area. None had a 12 or 24 cut pizza. These were roundish pieces of dough cooked on a hearth. And it turns out, that everything I love in a pizza gets complained about up here - seriously wtf?!?

So way back in December, I started reading. The first book was  Build Your Own Earth Oven. I read the 3rd edition cover to cover. I had flipped through the 2nd edition before. This time, I had purpose. I want to build a wood fired oven.

The next book was The Bread Builder's. One of the authors is the late Alan Scott who built a lot of ovens. This was a good book too and describes building a traditional brick oven. (Both of these books, by the way are available through our local public library system.)

There are also a ton of websites devoted to wood fired ovens. You can buy various plans, kits, have people build them for fact there is one mason routinely posting on Albany's Craigslist.

I think I would like cooking in the brick oven better. It seems more suited to pizza as well as other things like breads and roasts or anything you would put in an oven. The earthen oven seems more suited to baking and a little harder to work for pizza. But don't get me wrong, you certainly can do pizza in an earthen oven. The main draw to me toward an earthen oven, besides the lower cost, is the oven's lack of permanence. A hose,  a shovel, and a wheel barrow could take one down in no time. I'll probably live in this house for a few more years, but I doubt I'll be living her in 10. (There is one full bath in this house, in 10 years I'll have 16 and 14 year old girls, we're moving.) On the other hand, a brick oven would be a huge selling point to the right person.

Then last night I found this awesome piece of ingenuity.

and this

I'm on the Pizza Hacker's mailing list now, but I don't think he has anything to sell yet. Maybe he never will. I would think Weber would be interested. This would be perfect for me. Wood fired pizza without a summer of construction. And then I thought, I could build this myself! And then I found this: cue sad Price is Right music.

But, the main reason for my current pizza excitement is happening tomorrow. The annoying crab apple tree that tortuously plops apples down onto the deck at random intervals with a thump, fills the gutters with muck and hangs over part of the house becomes firewood tomorrow. More specifically, wood for future BBQ. The tree is also in the spot that would home to any future oven project.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hot Dogs Part 1a - Dog Selection

I wish I knew how to take a decent picture. I kind of fried this one with the flash. So I took a few without the flash. Turns out it looks better fried with a flash. Maybe this blog is the excuse I need to get new coutertops. How can I take a decent picture on white tile?

Anyhow, here's a close up of the sauce. I divided what I had into 3 containers. One container is in the fridge, the other two are in the freezer. We are having hot dogs for a quick dinner tomorrow night before the girls go off to gymnastics class. That's what the sauce in the fridge is for. The sauce in the freezer will have to wait a little while (not too long hopefully) to be part of a Kuhn's Chili dog feast. I'm going to try to make chili dogs as close to the original as possible. The first step is dog selection. Any brand recommendations are welcome. I was in a Hannafords today and nothing grabbed me as "The Chosen Dog."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hot Dogs: Part 1

This weekend, we packed up a car a went to my parents house in Connecticut. We drove down on Friday. Saturday after lunch, the wife and I dressed up to go sit in traffic on I-95. When traffic cleared, we made it a wedding. It was at a really nice place called the Branford House. Right on Long Island Sound and Saturday was a beautiful day for a wedding. The band was good, but I have always found wedding song selection weird. For example, when we were at Chris and Sue's wedding, the DJ actually played Run around Sue. Yes the song has the bride's name in it, but it also says she "goes out with every guy." Last nights odd wedding songs included I Will Survive, Staying Alive, and two from Michael Jackson: Billy Jean and Wanna be Starting Something. Maybe Wanna be Starting Something is appropriate, I don't know the lyrics. But Billy Jean is about be accused of fathering a illegitimate child. "The kid is not my son" and congratulations to the happy couple. With the exception of the traffic it and a few odd songs, it was a really nice time.

Sunday morning, with my parents still willing to watch the kids, we went to Trader Joe's and to follow up on something i had seen online. I like Trader Joe's and if one should show up in the Capital District, I'd shop there occasionally. They have some nice things, but I think most of them can be found in another form here already. If one were closer, I would try more of their refrigerated and frozen products. Today's list included dried apricots (for a friend),  almonds, pistachios, juice boxes, grape jelly and one or two more things I am currently blanking on.

And this brings us to our last stop of the morning and a discussion about hot dogs. Hot dogs have been showing up on blogs I follow. And when I think of my dream hot dog, I remember a place that is tragically gone. In Fairfield, Connecticut there used to be a place called Kuhn's Corner. It was a burger and dog joint. It was heaven on earth.  See those cars parked in front of the strip mall? It used to be there. Progress, huh.

Instead of the meat sauce topping found in the Albany area, Kuhn's had a Chili Dog. It wasn't a typical chili dog - which is a hot dog with a bowl of chili dumped on it. They had a secret chili sauce. It sat in a bowl on a hot plate. Simmering for days. All the hot dogs also came with bacon in the bun. So a Kuhn's chili dog was a toasted bun, bacon bits at the bottom of the bun, a hot dog (custom recipe made just for them), chili sauce, and then most people added raw onion. But lets not forget how the hot dog was cooked. The dog was deep fried before going on a well aged griddle to become part of you meal. Yes, deep fried.

The chili sauce, similar to Srirachi sauce, was spicier when at higher temperatures. So ordering it on top of their french fires was an exercise in self abuse. It was delicious, but by the 5th fry, your mouth was on fire with with what can be described as a pleasurable pain. So after reading about other people's hot dogs, I searched for Kuhn's online. Every now and then some place buys the sauce from what I am guessing is the owner's grandson. And during this search, I won the Kuhn's Chili Sauce lottery.

A small shop called Five-O Food Store, ironically located in one of the 3 buildings across the street from the strip mall's parking, sells the sauce on hot dogs. They also sell the sauce by the quart. I couldn't pay for a quart fast enough.

In the past, other places have had it and it was close, but not exactly. I tasted it cold. It tastes like the real deal. There are some old school Kuhn's Corner Style Chili Dogs in my future. I've been smiling since I bought it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cows Part 4: The end of innocence

Last week, my older daughter made the connection between meat and animals. Her younger sister may get it a little, but not all the way.

This part of the story is second hand. It started with the two sisters playing. The younger made a joke about serving her sister a plate of cooked cat which  made the older sister cringe with disgust. My wife tried to explain that there are some cultures that would eat a cat. The older sister said, "I would never eat an animal." Well, she was surprised to find out her favorite food, cheeseburgers, came from cow. And bacon came from a pig. And chicken comes from.......chicken.

On Saturday during the vacuum sealing chaos, the older daughter was the only kid there (4 were of an age to kind of help/be interested in what was going on) that helped. And she helped a lot. She labeled many (probably 100) bags of ground beef and cut vacuum bags to size.

She's getting a little too big to fit in those little battery cars, so while some kids played with those, we took a walk down to the lake. On the way back, we could see the cows out grazing. She knows that last month, Papa had 4 cows. Now there are only 2.

While walking and holding my hand she asked, "Daddy, did you kill a cow today?"
"No honey, the two big cows were killed a few weeks ago. Today we turned those cows into the food we eat. Like steaks, and roast, meat for cheeseburgers."
"Oh," she said.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Cows Part 3: Packing

Saturday was a busy day that began painfully early. But before I get into that, I'm going to jump back to slaughtering the cows two weeks ago. Here is a picture of the hoist used to raise a cow while it's hide is being removed.  It was built because my father-in-law's tractor couldn't raise a cow high enough. The system worked well. Getting power to the hoists was a little annoying and that will be changed in the future.
Another thing I got a picture of this weekend is a butcher's saw. It is a essentially a cross-cut saw, but on steroids. The saw's main job is splitting the cow while it is hung on the hoists. The tool box the saw is sitting on is filled with the knives that are brought to the slaughter.
The cows are quartered on the hoist and put into the back of a pick up truck. The meat is driven to the butcher's workshop. A hoist raises the meat and it is placed on a hook that runs on a rail system. The rail goes to this scale. That tractor in the back was just completely rebuilt and painted. The butcher is very proud of it.
After a side is weighed, the meat rides on the rail to this cold storage room. Our meat aged in this room for two weeks. Also in this picture: in the back by the racks are two pigs, the slightly darker meat in the middle is four lambs, on the right is the butcher's girlfriend's cow (she runs a farm), and kind of centered is some of our beef. Just out of the picture is a really big meat grinder.
Which brings us back to 5:15 Saturday morning. That's when I had to get up. The meat packing started a 6:00. On the way out, I took some before shots of the freezers.
The only thing more impressive than the knife skills used to remove the hide and quarter the cows are the knife skills used to break down the large quarters of beef into the typical cuts we are familiar with. It is really impressive. Most of the work was done with two knifes and a band saw. We started at 6 and were finished before 1. That's two cows, broken down, and wrapped in freezer paper in under 7 hours. I wish I had more pictures, but between the decision making during my half of cow (How do you want this cut?) and the wrapping when it wasn't my side of beef, and the occasional "you're really taking pictures?" look, here's what I got:

The large piece on the right will be cut in chuck roasts. The piece on the left gets cut into a really old-school London broil with a round bone in it. I vaguely remember seeing a cut like that in a diner in the late 70's.

If I had written this on Saturday, I could have told you what you were looking at. Behind the beef is a larger stuffer. It holds a full lug filled with ground beef. I guess about 80 pounds. The switch is activated with your leg. You can kind of see it on the boxy part of the stuffer just below and to the right of the meat. The meat is pushed though the tube on the left into small bags.

This picture shows off the butcher's knife skills. If you saw how quickly he removed that piece of meat, you'd be impressed. I believe the missing piece was cut into sirloin steaks, but don't hold me to that. The joints and bones are very white. They seem whiter than the bones in a supermarket meat case.

During the processing, the butcher would occasionally take a quick bit of the meat. I was the only one in the group that joined him. My father-in-law almost hurled. It was funny. He and the butcher go way back and constantly harass each other and tell the same 5 stories every year. A little comic relief makes the morning go by faster.
After the meat was wrapped and brought to my in-law's house, the packages were vacuum sealed.  I didn't notice, but someone that wasn't me mispelled brisket (bottom of the first picture). Needless to say, I will be giving them shit about it in the near future. In the lower picture, the white tubes with red on the bottom are packages of ground beef.
 The weather is supposed to be nice tomorrow. I'm going to grill a steak.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Chickens, again

When I first stumbled into the food blogging world, the first thing I found were some short films on how to use a whole chicken. Since then, I have only purchased chicken parts twice. Once was for a party where I was slow cooking a lot of drumstick and thighs. The other time was on a vacation with a few other families. We bought a really big and cheap package of boneless skinless breasts. The difference in quality of the pre-packaged chicken breasts to meat taken off a $7 to $9 whole bird was astounding.
I've tried a few different brands of chickens - Plainville Farms sold at Price Chopper, BJ's all natural brand, Murray's that I got at Cardona's, and the Nature's Select at Hannafords are the brands that come to mind. From these, I prefer the Nature's Select brand.

I'm not kidding myself that these are all natural free range chickens that roamed outside searching for bugs. I'm pretty sure they are all commercial farmed birds, but I believe they are a slightly better class of commercial farm. I might be kidding myself there.  While pricier than the cheapest chickens you can find in a supermarket, they are clearly superior in quality. They smell better, look better, and taste better. I imagine a $20 chicken from a farmer's market is great. Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, I am too cheap to buy a $20 chicken.

I used the last of our chicken last week so I picked up two from Hannafords. The cost was about $18.

When I break the birds down, I start with the legs and thighs. The legs and thighs from both birds get frozen together and usually end up on the grill. The breasts and tenderloins from each bird are frozen separately. I used to save the wings and when I had enough, there would be a wing dinner. The kids wouldn't eat it (I'm not positive they are related to me). The wings, the rest of the bones and skin go in a bag for making stock. Homemade stock will greatly improve anything you cook using a box or can of stock. It is amazing how much better stew gets with some of that stock. If my a visit from my brother is coming up, I save the livers and some fat for chopped liver. Here are the chickens broken down.

Before we butchered our first cows, every family got a FoodSaver. I seal the legs & thighs and the breasts before they go into the freezer. The more I do this, the faster I get. Last night, the time from opening the packaging of the first chicken to all cleaned up with meat in the freezer was just under an hour. Above average meat for three meals for a family of 4 (usually with leftovers) for about $6 a meal. Plus, that stock goes into a lot of other meals. Not too bad.