Role Models for My Daughter

I just watched “Dawn of Humanity,” a documentary about the dig that uncovered a new species of hominid and made discoveries that could change how we think about human evolution. I hope the six women scientists who traversed the impossibly narrow cave to extract the fossils get all the attention they deserve. What great role models for my 2-year-old daughter (who is definitely small enough to fit through tiny crevices).

 

Make Sausage. Your Inner 12-Year-Old Will Thank You.

Oh, sausage. Was there ever a more innuendo-laden food? Its shape is suggestive enough, but try making it at home and you’ll find yourself cracking jokes that Beavis and Butthead would find too obvious.

To start stuffing your sausages, for instance, you need to grease a long, cylindrical funnel with Crisco, using some pretty suggestive hand motions. Then you’ll wish you’d paid better attention in health class, because you’ll need to slip the thin, white, translucent, rubbery casings over the funnel. When you start stuffing the meat through the grinder, it’ll emerge as a bulbous red tip at the end of the funnel, which will then lengthen and expand, and if you’re able to keep a straight face at this point, you’re a lot more stoic than I am.

Try to watch this video and keep your thoughts pure. Just try.

Seriously, sausage-making is a lot of fun, dirty jokes aside, and with a little practice you can make some really tasty links. Our first attempt was a colossal failure. We started too ambitiously, with blood pudding, and turned our kitchen into a pig’s-blood-splattered war zone in the process. The second time around, with the help of the excellent (and innuendo-free) book Home Sausage Making, we managed a more-than-tolerable basic Italian sausage that worked well atop pizza. The third time, we made some rockin’ Chinese sausage using a recipe from Home Sausage Making. Traditionally, Chinese sausage is hung out to dry until it’s dense and shriveled, but this sausage was so tasty fresh that we couldn’t stop eating it.

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Some tips we found most useful:

·         You can find cheap sausage casings (and pig’s blood, if you’re daring enough to try blood pudding, or just need an alibi) at Asian markets.

·         Chilling the meat and fat makes it easier to grind.

·         To avoid making a large air pocket, let the meat emerge from the funnel before you tie off the end of the casing.

·         If your sausage turns out too dry, next time, add more fat to the recipe.

·         If you don’t have a mixer, you can stuff casings using just the funnel . . . but you’ll miss out on some of the raunchy fun.

 

A Taste of Britain (Devonshire Delight Clotted Cream)

England’s not a country synonymous with decadence, but the Brits have got one treat so rich it calls to mind a Roman-era banquet: clotted cream. This thickened version of heavy cream boasts a fat content so high that in the U.S. it’s classified as butter. Served atop scones, accompanied by jam, it’s roll-your-eyes-heavenward good. Warm your scones enough and it melts slightly, blending with the scone for lipid-saturated mouthfuls of pastry, sweeter and more unctuous than butter could ever be; dollop it on heavily enough and you’ll experience bites of cream-laden jam that press all the caveperson buttons that respond to sweet and fatty, leavened with fruity tartness.

This wonderful condiment’s available in the U.S., but mainly in ultrapasteurized versions that have been rendered shelf-stable enough to survive the trip across the pond. It’s still good stuff, but not quite the same as the fresh version; even when properly softened, it’s drier and lacks the properly rich mouthfeel.

But if you’re lucky enough to live in the Triangle, you can enjoy the real thing—with a local twist. The Blakemere Company, run by British-born Amanda Fisher out of Chapel Hill, makes clotted cream and a variety of British baked goods. The clotted cream, called Devonshire Delight, runs $7.95 for a 6-oz. jar.

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The cream has a slightly different consistency than it does in Britain.: It’s smoother, and forms soft peaks when spread. It’s equally delicious, with a local twist: Since it’s made with milk from grass-fed cows in a farm in Greensboro, the cream’s got a delightful grassy undertone, something I didn’t detect in any of the clotted cream I tried in the U.K. Maybe now the Brits have a reason to be jealous of us at teatime.

 

Christmas Eve Specials: Turducken and Christmas Pudding

We tried a couple dishes that we hadn’t sampled before for our Christmas Eve dinner last weekend. For the main course, we ordered a turducken — the weirdly wonderful and obscenely opulent creation where you stuff a deboned chicken inside a deboned duck inside a deboned turkey. I had been intrigued by this feast of fowls since seeing John Madden carve one up during a Thanksgiving football game a few years ago. We were inviting my parents over for dinner on Christmas Eve this year, and they had already served us turkey for Thanksgiving, so we needed an appropriately meaty main course that wasn’t turkey. We figured we’d kill two … umm … three birds with one stone.

We ordered our turducken (or Tur-Duc-Hen, as the label read) from Cajun Grocer. looked like a buffed-up turkey with a very square, broad chest. It was delivered to us frozen, already seasoned with creole seasoning, and stuffed with a load of cornbread dressing. All we had to do was unwrap it, throw it into a baking pan with some water, and put it in the oven for about five hours. It came out of the oven a nice golden brown. One cut across the breast and the bird pretty much busted open and an enticing aroma burst forth.

After some digging around, I was a bit disappointed to discover that this particular turducken did not involve a triple stuffing. Instead of being a meaty nesting doll of fowls, it was just a deboned turkey stuffed with duck breast meat and chicken thigh meat. Flavor-wise, however, the turducken was terrific. My favorite part was the chicken and turkey meat at the bottom, which soaked up all the sauce during baking. The duck breast meat, while tasty, was very dense and coarse and a tad on the dry side. Still, the turducken as a whole gets a thumbs-up. It also gave us a week’s worth of leftovers.

For dessert, we served a homemade Christmas pudding. You’re supposed to let this thing sit for six weeks after first preparing it, so we made our pudding before Thanksgiving. It involved a lot of dried fruits, some flour, a little bit of suet (which we lucked into thanks to one of the butchers at the meat section at a local Harris Teeter), and a healthy helping of brandy. We mixed everything up in a big bowl, covered it, and put it into a pot to steam for about five hours (see the recipe we used).

After that, it sat covered up in a cool place for more than a month, getting periodic infusions of more brandy. With each passing day, the rich aroma of sweet, savory, and alcohol intensified. On Christmas Eve, we resteamed the pudding for an hour, and Courtney made a sweet pudding sauce to accompany it.

As tradition dictates, you must pour more brandy on the outside of the pudding and set it ablaze before serving. Our pudding didn’t quite hold its dome shape when we took it out of the bowl (must remember to grease the inside of the bowl more next time), but that didn’t stop us from igniting our little volcano of deliciousness:

After the fire went out, we dug into our pudding. The flavor of the brandy was very pronounced, especially since it had just been set on fire. This was a very rich and heavy dessert, but was well worth the weeks of waiting.

Adventures in the Land of Chocolate

The video above (skip to the 40-second mark) pretty much describes our visit to the chocolate bar at the Langham Hotel in Boston. We had seen a Travel Channel clip about this all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet and had been itching to try it when we go up to Massachusetts to visit family.

We got our chance a few weeks ago when we went North for Thanksgiving. We made reservations for the chocolate bar for us and Courtney’s family a couple months before the trip and were giddy about it in the days leading up to the main event.

The Langham Hotel was as swanky as you would imagine an upscale hotel in Boston to be. Upon entering the hotel, we were greeted by a member of the staff, who guided us to the elevator leading up to the restaurant. One look at the buffet spread had us salivating. There were about eight to ten tables covered with platters of mini chocolate desserts, a big chocolate fountain for dipping, a cotton-candy station, and a crepe station.

Before getting to the food, I should mention that the service at the restaurant was terrific. The waitstaff was attentive and spent quite a bit of time trying to entertain our 1-year-old nephew, Nicholas. Our waiter made him an origami X-wing fighter, and later Santa Claus, who was on hand to provide post-Thanksgiving merriment, asked us if we wanted to him to sneak up behind Nicholas and pose for some surprise pictures. Nicholas turned out to be unimpressed with St. Nick as he was preoccupied at the time with the paper cone from his cotton candy, but still, it was a nice gesture.

Anyway, back to the main event. Wary of stuffing ourselves with too much chocolate too quickly, Courtney and I devised a gameplan: On each trip to the buffet, we would fill our plates with different items and split each item so that we would be able to sample a greater variety of items. Even with that strategy, however, we were only able to each put down about three plates each before being overcome by the avalanche of sweets.

By my estimate, we probably only tried about one-third to one-half of the multitude of desserts. I was doing pretty well until I inadvertently ate one of the gluten-free desserts, which was so dense that it really messed me up. After that, my chocolate-consumption capacity diminished quickly, though I did manage to stave off chocolate overload long enough to make it over to the crepe station.

You can see some of the selections we sampled in the pictures below. My favorite was the mini-tarts with chocolate, banana, and bacon. I thought it was an odd combination at first, but after a couple bites, I could tell that the combination definitely works (it didn’t hurt that even the bacon was sweet). The little cups with the mango cream filling were outstanding as well. The crepes were ok, though I think they would have been better if they used fruit compote instead of pieces of fresh fruit, as the crepe fell apart once you started eating it. Still, that was a minor complaint in this wonderful land of chocolate.

Tacos So Good, They Must Be Offal

We went to Carrboro last Friday night to take in a terrific performance of Guys and Dolls at the ArtsCenter. Before the show, we walked over to the taco truck parked next to the ArtsCenter to grab some dinner. Although we’ve seen that truck a few times before, this was our first time patronizing it. I’ve been itching to try it since the last time we walked past it, when we saw a menu listing tacos containing tripe, tongue, and pig skin. We were not disappointed.

The tacos were small (I think they were 6-inch tortillas), but they were also very cheap. We got four for $7. After being wowed, we walked back to the truck and got four more. We tried X types in all: tripe, pig skin, lamb, tongue, chicken, and barbecue, and they were all terrific. Our favorites were the tripe and lamb, as both delivered a nice explosion of warm, fatty flavor on our first bite. I was curious about the pig skin taco. It turned out to have a nice sweetness to it, along with a bit of heat. The chicken carried the smoky aroma of meat from the grill.

 

A Polish Treat: Halgo Deli

Our trip to Baltimore this spring, where we visited the Polish district of Fells Point, left us craving Slavic fare. We loved the smoky, flavorful kielbasa made by the Krakus Deli, so we were happy to discover a similar place right in our own hometown: the Halgo Deli on Alston Road.

We almost drove right past the unassuming deli, which resides in a cute green contemporary building. Once inside, it was déjà vu: the smell of kielbasa in the air, and sacks and boxes of E. Wedel chocolate on the shelves. We hit up the charcuterie section first, where the friendly proprietor shaved off samples of meats for us to try. There was ozorki, or jellied tongue: meaty, with a delightfully unctuous mouthfeel; headcheese, pleasantly garlicy and fatty; kielbasa, smoky and salty; and much more that we didn’t sample. The kielbasa was even better accompanied by sharp Polish mustard that carried a tinge of horseradish.

We got lunch to go from the deli: two oversized paninis stuffed with generous amounts of ham and bacon, served with Polish cheese, mustard, mayo, lettuce, and tomato. Every ingredient was quality (okay, maybe not the jarred pickle, but everything else). They cost $6.85 apiece but kept us both full until a 9 o’clock supper.

Dinner that night was more Halgo goodies: kielbasa, ozorki, and mushroom pierogies. Halgo’s carries pierogies from Kasia’s, a small Chicago manufacturer, and, let me tell you, they are sensational. The dough is light and the filling restaurant-quality, which, in the case of the mushroom variety, means strongly flavored, umami-rich, savory wild mushrooms.

Halgo also offers chrusciki—bow-tie-shaped cookies—and sweets baked by the woman who co-owns the shop with her husband. We didn’t try them as we’re still well-stocked with leftover Halloween candy, but they looked delicious.

We’re thrilled to find a local place where we can get our Polish food fix.

 

 

Cead Mile FAIL; Or, Why All Meats in Tube Form Are Not Created Equal

I have many happy memories of the hearty traditional English breakfasts I enjoyed back in the U.K. These oversized platters feature a bounty of delights: savory bacon, minerally-rich black pudding, “bangers” (sausages to us Yanks; and why is it that both the words “sausage” and “banger” sound naughty?), baked beans, zesty tomatoes, eggs (which I let John have as I’m not an egg person), and some variation on bread, whether fried or toasted. I’ve been missing those breakfasts, and especially the black pudding, since leaving England So I was psyched to hear that Kildare’s Pub in Chapel Hill offered a similar Irish Breakfast featuring both black and white pudding.

Well, I should have known something was amiss when the waitress didn’t know what an Irish breakfast was (they had a new menu, she claimed). Turns out the kitchen didn’t know either. The dish the menu described included eggs, bacon, bangers, toast, beans, tomatoes, and the aforementioned puddings. The dish I got consisted of eggs, toast, two quarter-sized rounds of black pudding and two of white, and . . . a grilled hot dog. I suppose a hot dog technically can be considered a “sausage,” in the same way that the fermented juice that collects at the bottom of that container of raspberries you left out overnight can be considered “wine,” but really, it was a substitution worthy of Sandra Lee. Now, I know Kildare’s is a small chain of U.S.-based Irish-themed pubs, so I wasn’t expecting an amazing experience, but I hoped for at least a mediocre approximation of what was on the menu. Instead, out of eight items I was supposed to get, three were missing, two were skimpy, and one was counterfeit. 

When John asked the waitress—a very nice young woman–about the missing pieces, she brought back a tomato that had apparently been placed whole under the broiler. Would it have been that much trouble to slice it and sprinkle some token salt or herbs on it? She also offered to bring me macaroni and cheese as a replacement for the beans, but it never arrived.

John’s meal was also disappointing. He ordered corned beef and cabbage and got warmed up cold cuts of corned beef, the kind that usually appears on a Reuben sandwich but not as an entrée by itself. The “parsley cream sauce” that accompanied it? Tartar sauce with some parsley mixed in. 

The friends who were dining with us had a vegetarian boxty (a potato pancake, rolled up like a crepe), which they described as satisfactory, and a burger, which they thought was pretty good. It looks as though Kildare’s can do decent bar food, but when it comes to their Irish offerings—the very thing that’s supposed to set them apart from every other Chapel Hill watering hole—they’re embarrassingly bad. To be on the safe side, treat this “pub” as a bar with cutesy décor.

 

 

Great Bowls of Fire

Happy China, the latest incarnation of Pao Lim/Red Zen/Kimonos, has a new look, a new chef, and a new commitment to all things Sichuan and spicy. If the strings of red chili peppers hanging outside the patio don’t clue you in to the intensity of the dishes, a look at what’s coming out of the kitchen will: dishes drenched in fiery hot oil.

One Tuesday night, we opted to try a sit-down meal at Happy China after a pleasant experience with their take-out menu. We were the only customers in the place during most of the meal (though several people came in for take-out), which wasn’t the best omen, but our waitress, Jamie, was friendly and knowledgeable. When I told her I liked heat and Sichuan peppercorns, she steered me towards the Sichuan Spicy Fish Noodle Soup. What came out of the kitchen caused a double-take: a giant bowl of tender white fish, bean sprouts, wood-ear mushrooms, and noodles bobbing in spicy oil and red with angry chilies. A chilihead’s delight, this soup packed intense heat tempered by the numbing effect of the peppercorns.

We also ordered the crispy intestines. “Intestine” is a scary word, but this dish was more state fair than Bizarre Foods: The perfectly-fried skin of the intestines gave way to a rich, fatty underlayer. Think Peking duck skin without the gaminess of duck. This dish, while tasty, is best consumed as an appetizer by several people. It’s so rich and fatty that two or three slices is plenty.

We also tried the tripe and ox tongue with chili sauce. This cold appetizer boasted the classic Sichuan flavor profile of garlic, sesame, and chili. The meaty taste and flexible texture of the ox tongue contrasted nicely with the less pliant preserved tripe.

On the night we visited, we received complimentary sushi—in this case, a volcano roll, or a roll of whitefish and other ingredients lightly battered, fried, and served with a duo of sauces, one sweet and one spicy. The combination of flavors and the warmth from the frying treatment made this a memorably tasty piece of sushi.

In short, we were wowed by every dish. We hope this little slice of authentic Sichuan cooking outlasts its predecessors, so we can experience more of its menu’s fiery delicacies.