Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Watertown Adventure

Last week I got/had to spend two nights in Watertown. I had only been once before and my impression wasn't that good. While it is true I have not explored Watertown thoroughly (it is tough to get around town when your only vehicle is a big box truck and the hotel didn't have a shuttle), the area surrounding the Salmon Run Mall - Exit 45 of of I-81 if you are keeping score at home - is Everytown, USA or Generica. Every store was a chain store. Sure, some of the chains were smaller than others, but chain stores.

The gym in the hotel was an elliptical and a bad treadmill. I'm not sure if it is operator error, but the belts on treadmills in gyms don't seem to slip on me while almost all treadmills in hotels do. Nothing like feeling you are going to blow your knee out while jogging. All the roads around the hotel were wide state highway type roads, not exactly fun to jog on. I noticed a Planet Fitness across the parking lot and stopped in to ask about a day pass. They said sure, it's $20. I said isn't that the same price for a month? They said, yup. I said, buh-bye and hit the roads.That just seems ridiculous to me.

Workers at the site we were visiting recommend the Texas Roadhouse and the Tilted Kilt for dinner. I didn't want to go to a chain steak house so we set off walking the half mile to the Tilted Kilt.

This place is like, well, it's like going to Hooters except probably offensive to some Scottish people. All the servers women and they wear a short kilt, short top/bra. The few men that work there are also wearing kilts. If the staff is going commando under their kilts, I've got to hope it is a health code violation. Here's the uniform proudly displayed on the menu.

Classy, right? I should have gotten a burger. I knew the burger was the way to go. But I had eaten a burger the night before. I asked our server for a recommendation and she suggested the Gaelic Chicken dish. It was one of the house specialties. I'll say this about the Gaelic Chicken dish...the chicken was tender. I've got nothing else good to say about it. It was boil-a-bag boneless-skinless breast with a weird white sauce poured over powdered mashed potatoes.

I think the weakest aspect of this chain of all things Scottish is that they didn't have anything Scottish other than wall decorations. They had posters for McEwan's Scotch Ale but they don't serve it. You could get Dos Equis though. The Scotch selection was weak too. They had more Irish Whiskey than Scotch.

Yelp informed me of a dive bar (and I mean "dive" with nothing but respect and love) called the Time Warp Tavern. My phone said it was another mile and a half up the road. What the hell, we didn't have anything else to do. So we set off up Arsenal Street. About halfway there, I saw this.

We left town on the 21st and I wonder how the party went. Think the police got called?

The Time Warp Tavern isn't the dive-iest dive bar, but a place with good character and everyone there knew everyone else. Beautiful, old wooden bar. A hockey game was on and we were having a good time. Before we left, we heard about a local band playing in the bar the next night and started our 2 mile trek back. Walking back, we stopped in at a bar with Frog in it's name. I can't find it in YELP. They had a lively ladies dart league going having a inter-bar match. In this bar I got to see a guy spit up a little on his way to full blown retching in the men's room. Don't worry about him, he kept drinking once he came out of the bathroom. From there, we finished the hike back to the hotel and called it a night.

The next day, we got up, headed to the site and came back to the hotel around 6:00. We washed up and started our two mile trek to the Time Warp Tavern. They had a small menu and we thought we'd give it a try. They were running a $2 pounder special ($2 for 16 oz. cans of a handful of beers). I ordered some wings and a beer when I noticed a bottle of Basil Hayden behind the bar. I switched the beer order to a bourbon. A very healthy pour of Basil Hayden was $5. I'm home.

For wings, they had the standard flavors - Buffalo, bbq, a few different glazes and one called Black Betty. We were told it was a local favorite. Black Betty style wings are fried, coated in a combination of bacon fat thinned out with a little ranch dressing and then grilled for a little char. Holy shit these were good. I tried to get a picture but it was too dark in there.

Full of wings and bourbon we started the long walk back. The NBA game 7 was still going on so we popped into the Buffalo Wild Wings next door to the hotel to watch the end. There we met two Olive Garden waitresses that had just gotten off their shift. Hearing their take on their customers was interesting. Older couples are cute, a lot of people that throw temper tantrums in there, and the kitchen apparently has absolutely nothing to do with unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks. And just to make me feel old, one of these waitresses was born in 1989, the year I graduated high school.

But my favorite part of the conversation was when one of the waitresses declared the talent level of Weird Al Yankovic was equivalent to Kim Kardashian. Sure she's wrong, but  my co-worker Harry is a fan and recently met Weird Al. I plan on reminding him of her declaration regularly. I'm laughing just thinking about it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Stronger than the storm?

New Jersey has an ad campaign running continuously on our local TV stations and the website, Facebook page to go with it. The campaign's slogan is "Stronger than the storm."

When I was a kid, I went to a Met's game down at Shea. A friend's father took a bunch of us. In the middle of the game, it started to rain a little. Then the rain got harder. And then the game went into a rain delay. Being stupid and young, we made fun of the people that sought shelter inside the stadium. We jumped up and down and yelled things at the sky like "C'mon! That's all you got!" and "You call this rain?!?" As if on cue, the wind picked up and a torrential rain soaked us to the bone. The rain was coming down so hard it hurt. After a few more minutes of pretending we were tougher than the weather, we too slunked inside the stadium in retreat. Since that day, I have treated Mother Nature and her weather with respect. Lesson Learned. This lesson was reinforced with a number of trips to the Outer Banks. Every year, there were fewer houses on the ocean side of the road. The houses kept disappearing. The ocean wanted to be there and it didn't care who was paying the property taxes.

I'm glad New Jersey is recovering from Hurricane Sandy. And they should get the word out that the Jersey Shore is open for business again. But don't mess with Mother Nature. Don't taunt her. Don't tease her. Don't call her names.

You are not stronger than the storm. Remind me- what was that super strong thing you did that evacuated the east coast and caused over 50 billion dollars worth of damage in a few days?  Your drunkest, craziest "Hangover" style week in Atlantic City couldn't touch that tab.

Happy you are on the upswing, Jersey. But if you keep singing your "Stronger than the storm" song, you might want to have an evacuation plan ready this hurricane season in case Mother Nature decides to ask, "Are you stronger than this?"

Don't fuck with Mother Nature. You won't win.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Capital District Bacon Challenge

Attention Capital District: I challenge you to start makin' bacon.

Makin' bacon isn't hard to do, and when you are done, you have a lot of pretty damn good bacon. Plus just saying the words "Makin Bacon" is fun. Go ahead. Say it out loud. I'll wait.

Fun, right? There are two minor obstacles you will need to overcome to start makin' your own bacon. They are finding pork belly and getting Cure#1 locally. So here's what I am going to do. I'm going to describe how I made a recent batch of bacon. Then I'm going to give you links to a bunch of bacon recipes followed by several options to buy pork belly locally. The only remaining challenge is getting your hands on some Cure#1. I haven't seen it for sale locally. I've got a plan for that too. Stay with me and before you know it, you'll be makin' bacon.

The first time I made bacon, finding pork belly was tough. I've been around the bacon block a few times and getting pork belly got much easier. This batch of bacon started with a pop-in to Adventure in Food in Menands to pick up an almost 11 pound pork belly.

Once the belly is thawed, I took the weight and portioned out the cure. The main ways of curing a pork belly are in a brine or a dry cure. Brining is faster, lately I've been leaning toward the dry cure. To brine it, you dissolved your cure ingredients in water, submerge the pork belly, wait awhile, dry it off and smoke the meat. To dry cure, you combine the cure ingredients, rub them all over the pork belly, wait awhile, rinse it, dry it off and smoke the meat. Sorry I'm being a little vague about the cure ingredients, but salt and sugar are the only constants. Feel like adding maple syrup - go for it. You could even go with savory ingredients. The Moderinst versions adds pepper, corriander, star anise and mace to the salt/sugar cure. Hell, pancetta is just seasoned bacon without the smoke. (Side note: once you've made bacon, making your own way-better-than-anything-you-can-buy-in-a-store pancetta is a very easy possibility.)

I've been tinkering with my cure each time I make bacon. Here's what I used this time around for a 4860 gram pork belly.

Pork Belly
Kosher Salt
Cure #1
Sodium Erythorbate

It looks confusing but it's pretty straightforward. You take the weight of you the pork belly and multiply by the percentage. 4860 * 0.0226 = about 110. Just multiply the percentages by the weight of your pork belly (in grams), work your way down the column, and weigh the ingredients out. Just to be a little fancy and appease my compulsive tinkering needs, I used two kinds of sugar, regular sugar and some turbinado, in this batch. I went 90 grams sugar and 40 grams turbinado. Also, the sodium erythorbate isn't necessary. I started using it after looking at the Modernist Cuisine bacon recipe. My understanding is that is is kind of like vitamen C and speeds up the cure. Here's what Wikipedia says about the stuff. I've got it so I've been using it but I'm not sure 3 grams out of 283 grams of cure is really going to do much. Hell the scale is only accurate to half a gram. But none of this is important. If you want to tinker with sodium erythorbate, I've got a plan for that too. Keep going. Since I was being all arsty fartsy with the turbinado sugar, I whirred the rub in a food processor to make the sure a little finer and easier to dissolve. Probably not necessary and definitely not necessary if you are using only granulated sugar.

Rub the pork belly with the cure. Get it all over.  Then place the belly in a large ziploc - you may need to cut the belly up. I should have because while this belly fit in my bag, it was too big for how I planned to air dry it and I cut it in half later.  In the past, I've wrapped in plastic wrap, 2 gallon ziplock bagged, vacuum sealed it. They all work fine. Just get good coverage with the cure. Put the whole mess on a rimmed baking sheet and put it in the fridge. When you think about it, give the belly a rub to try and maximize the contact between the meat and the cure. This process will draw liquid out of the pork belly. The rimmed baking sheet is to catch any spillover or leaks and prevent a mess in your fridge. A mess in the fridge is no fun. Ask me how I know. Here's the rubbed pork belly ready for a 7 day chill.

After a week, I washed the belly and air dried it for 5 days. This is another Modernist Cuisine holdover that isn't really necessary. You should dry the pork belly before smoking it. Overnight on a rack in the fridge would certainly work work well enough. I put a little hole in the belly, run some butcher's twine through and hang it from an S hook in a basement fridge.

Once it is dry, smoke the bacon. You could do it like me a wait for a night that includes tornado warnings and a monsoon. I suppose a nice day would work too. Smoke at about 200 degrees until the internal temperature is 155 degrees. The weather didn't cooperate and it was getting late so this batch of bacon got smoked for about 4 hours and got finished in a 200 degree oven for about 30 minutes.

Just loaded in the smoker

Smoking nicely

And her it is from the deck after and inch of rainfall during a really strong thunderstorm but just before the sky turned a very creepy shade of yellow

Finished slabs of bacon

I wrapped the bacon up in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. Cold slab bacon is much easier to slice. I have a slicing knife, but I didn't always have one. Chef knife will work. So will the carving knife that you only use at Thanksgiving. I also have a itty bitty Waring slicer that I have effectively stolen from my mother-in-law. It's too small to slice the whole width of a slab so when using it, I can only get 5 to 6 inch slices of bacon. Not as pretty to look at next to you eggs, but perfect for BLTs and wrapping scallops (which is really just an excuse to eat bacon with a toothpick).

Started slicing with a knife

The Waring slicer that I'm pretty sure is older than me

Some long slices, some short slices and some trimmings

Three quarters of a pound portions for packaging

Once everything was portioned, I vacuum bagged it. The bacon freezes quite well. Save the trimmings. they are great for bacon bits or any recipe that calls for diced bacon.

From that almost 11 pound piece of pork belly, I got a little over 8 pounds, 4 ounces of bacon plus another 10 ounces of trimmings. We had some bacon with tonight Breakfast for Dinner.

I thought it was really good. One of my better efforts. My daughter Allison loved it. I think I might replace all the sugar with Turbinado next time. Maybe even increase it a little. Once you've made bacon, there will be a next time. But take a look at that last picture.

Now that I've typed all this, I can see where it looks intimidating. Do let it be. I started simple and over the course of a few years of playing with the recipe, this is my latest effort. The easy version is weigh the meat, portion out some salt, sugar and cure, rub it on meat, wait a week, wash/dry, smoke and eat.

And even the smoking is simple. You can use a gas grill - dial in a 200 to 220 temperature and put some wet wood ships in a homemade foil boat over the burner. Put the bacon on the top rack and throw a Dollar Store foil tray underneath to catch dripping and prevent a flare up. A very small fire in a Weber kettle would do it. If you have a grill, you can get some smoke on the bacon and the finish it in the oven. Just light a small pile of coals, add some chips to smoke. Then put it in a 200 degree oven until you get an internal temperature of 155 degrees. Dun. Slice it up and you can freeze whatever you aren't going to eat that week.

Don't be affraid. Look at these posts:

Saucisson MAC wrote and photographed a much better call to bacon arms than I did here.

Michael Ruhlman wrote this during Charcutepalooza.

Alton Brown did this while making fun of a show he ended up hosting.

Don't have a scale? If you are using Morton's Kosher Salt - take 1/4 cup of salt, 2 tsp of Cure #1, and a heaping quarter cup of sugar and mix it all up. That should be enough cure for a five pound piece of belly. If you are using Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, up the 1/4 cup of salt to 1/3 of a cup (the salts have different sized crystals). And, no, the irony of using kosher salt to make bacon is not lost on me.

Still worried, I am a tweet (@JonInAlbany) or an email away and willing to help.

Now that you are relaxed, confident and excited to make your own bacon, here are some places you can get pork belly.

Adventure in Food Trading: (518) 436-7603
Depending on their inventory and needs, they can carry pork belly from a number of suppliers. One of them is local and part of the Empire 87 program they have going. Of all the pork bellies I have used, they have sold me the best ones. This almost 11 pound pork belly was about $70.

Rolf's: (518) 463-0185
Rolf's makes their own bacon. But if you call them before Wednesday, they will save you a whole belly or as much as you want to buy. If you call Wednesday afternoon, the pork belly may already be in the brine. Also, if you are interested in skin-on pork belly, you can occasionally get it from Rolf's. If you do use skin on pork belly, the skin will be much easier to remove while the bacon is still hot. The skin can be a very good shield if you are smoking the bacon a little too close to the heat source. You'll scorch the skin and not the bacon. And while you are picking up the pork belly, get some Teawurst to eat while the bacon is curing.

Adam's Fairacre Farms - website
There are several locations for Adam's and I have only been to the Newburgh store. They almost always have some pork belly available in Newburgh, I'm assuming it is the same in other stores. During a recent store visit, $12 would have gotten you a 5 pound piece of pork belly. Not a bad price for a first attempt at bacon if you happen to be near a store.

Restaurant Depot
You need to know someone with a Tax ID (or have one yourself) to shop here. I don't remember the prices, but they had pork belly in stock both times I've been to the store.

The Asian Super Market on Central Ave.
This is hit or miss. When they first opened, I bought pork belly here a few times. Now, sometimes their meat counter doesn't look as clean or fresh as it should. Also, they typically sell large chunks of pork belly with the ribs still attached so you may have to do some butchery to remove the bones.

The Meat House: 3 Area Locations
I haven't been impressed with this chain, but they are one of a few local places selling pork belly so they are on the list.

Now that you have the knowledge and a slab of pork belly, all that's left is the Cure #1. You've read this far and I promised I had a plan if you just stuck with me. Well, I do. Here it is:

Get in touch with me in the comments or send me an email (the address is in my profile). Tweet me (@JonInAlbany). In exchange for a promise of a photo of your to-be-cured bacon for the blog, I will give you enough Cure #1 (aka pink salt or Prague Powder#1) to make it. If you want to mess around with a few grams of Sodium Erythorbate, I'll give you that too. I'm in Trader Joe's all the time. I can meet you there. Wherever. We'll figure it out and get you started.

C'mon Capital District. Start Makin' Bacon!