Don’t Be a Sourpuss

kitten-g45661d27c_1920 2I put sauerbraten on the menu a few weeks ago. It’s not my favorite dish, but it is one of Janet’s, so I try to make it for her at least once each winter. If you’ve ever made sauerbraten you know two things. First, it takes at least three days to marinate. I learned that lesson the hard way. Second, it calls for the cheapest cut of beef you can find…I use chuck roast. It took three weeks of searching through half a dozen grocery stores before I found something under $6 per pound. I would have settled for a sirloin or round roast, but they too were crazy expensive.

It shouldn’t be so hard to find a cheap roast. I refuse to blame COVID related supply chain shortages. The supply chain between the national meat packing plants in the Midwest and the grocery wholesalers here on the East Coast hasn’t had any trouble getting truckloads of that double digit dollar per pound USDA Prime Certified Angus stuff to the grocery stores. In fact it’s all you can find some days. USDA Prime represents just 3% of all beef sold in this country, most of which…supposedly…goes to the restaurant industry. With restaurants having been closed for the better part of two years guess whose getting it now?

Enough whining and sounding like my parents. After three weeks of searching I finally found a chuck roast at Food Lion for $5.49 per pound so I put sauerbraten back on the menu. And I made it. And it was good.

In the weeks I spent searching for a cheap roast, I became curious how other people cook their family’s version of sauerbraten. I put the question to my Facebook friends, asking especially for family recipes with a German connection. I got about half a dozen responses, some with really touching backstories to go along with them. That’s the thing I like most about food and cooking…the smells and the flavors they result in evoke the best memories.

I went in search of the history of sauerbraten as a dish and in the process found a great online source for traditional German recipes. The website presents two recipes for sauerbraten, the “classic” Bavarian style sauerbraten (their words not mine) which they describe as a traditional Swabian dish, and a Rhenish recipe from the Rhineland. When I looked at the recipes my friends sent me, indeed they were one of those two styles.

Sauerbraten is meant for whatever kind of meat you have available that is tough by nature, or that you pulled out of your freezer after it sat there for who knows how long. The dish supposedly originated from the Romans, when Julius Caesar moved in to conquer Europe. As the war and work animals his troops used for the conquest died along the way, particularly horses, soldiers would butcher the meat and preserve it in crocks of salt, pickling solution and wine…whatever they had on hand at the time. The long marinade time kept the meat from spoiling, tenderized it to make it edible, but left a decidedly sour flavor to it. Sauerbraten remained popular in Germany where horse meat continued to be the favored source of protein. By the time the dish caught on in this country it was most often made with some of the tougher cuts of beef like the chuck roast I use. You can even use pork if you prefer it to beef.

I did a side by side comparison of recipes for both the Swabian and the Rhenish versions of sauerbraten that I found on the traditional German cooking website and they are almost identical. The ingredients for the marinade are the same for both recipes, but the Swabian version has you add the meat to the cold marinade without boiling it up. The Rhenish version has you boil the marinade before adding the meat, to unlock to flavors from the root veggies and the pickling spices. I suppose at a molecular level there is some difference in the flavors that get into the broth from boiling as opposed to the acid extraction caused by bathing for a week in vinegar. But can you taste it?

The other difference between the two sauerbraten styles is that after marinating the meat, the Bavarians add six tabespoons of honey to the marinating liquid before cooking the meat in it, while the Rhinelanders only add four. Wars have been fought over smaller differences. Rhinelanders also add 3-4 ounces of crumbled pumpernickel bread to their marinade just before cooking it up which the Bavarians don’t add, or at least don’t admit to adding. Again…can you taste the difference in the finished dish? Maybe a Michelin star palate could tease it out, but not mine. Of course the raisins the Rhinelanders add to their gravy that the Bavarians don’t would give it away. Both styles are in agreement on one point…you thicken the gravy with a roux. Gingersnaps have no place in a traditional sauerbraten.

Like the Rhinelanders, I boil my marinade before adding the meat to unlock the flavors of the veggies and spices, but unlike either of the traditional styles I also brown my meat first, before I put it in the marinade. I figure if it makes sense to boil the marinade up front to unlock flavors from the veggies, then it makes sense to brown the meat too and incorporate the fond in the marinade. Once I have it browned on all sides I set it aside and then saute the veggies in the same pan, which I then de-glaze with the marinade liquids and scrape up the fond from when I browned the roast. I bring the whole thing to a boil, stir it up a few times, then drop the heat down to low and let it simmer for about 15 minutes before taking it off the stove to cool. Once it is cooled I add the meat back in, cover it, and stick it in the fridge for three to five days, turning it and sloshing the liquid about once or twice each day.

The other differences between my recipe and the traditional recipes come when I use the marinade to make the gravy.  I don’t add any pumpernickel crumbles to the marinade before I cook the roast up, but I do add sugar. The nutritional value of the amount of sugar I add is roughly on par with the 4 tablespoons of honey added to the Rhenish style of sauerbraten gravy. What sets my recipe apart from the traditionalists is that I use gingersnaps to thicken my gravy rather than a roux. I like the flavor and texture I get out of it. OK I’m not going to lie…I also like snacking on the left over gingersnaps. I usually add raisins to the gravy just before I serve it but I didn’t have any in the pantry this time, so I substituted what I did have…some dried cranberrries. It worked.

Sauerbraten is one of those dishes where you can’t mess with tradition. Except…I do. I do it with just about everything I cook because I like exploring flavors and textures. You can’t do that by cooking the same thing the same way every time. My recipe, as it turns out, didn’t come from one of Janet’s family cook books. I took it from Alton Brown, which is really just an Americanized version of the Rhenish recipe that uses gingersnaps in lieu of pumpernickel and the roux. I’ve made a few changes over the decade and a half since I’ve been making it, but not many. This year I made a few more changes, thanks mainly to some ideas I took away from my friends’ recipes, and I have a few more things to try the next time I make sauerbraten. I’m through with it for this year, but we’ll see what next year brings!

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No, No, Bavette!

As eager as I am to learn about food, when it comes to beef there are times when I am ready to shout ENOUGH! I only eat beef once every week to ten days and I have no shortage of preferred cuts. The last thing I need is another obscure cut of beef that tastes just like all the other obscure cuts of beef I enjoy. But then I get interested in specifically why it is different, and before I know it, I find myself falling back down the rabbit hole in search of knowledge.

It happened to me again last week, after I ran across a social media post from Roseda Farms. The post highlighted a cut of beef called the Bavette steak, which it described as “an excellent choice for fajitas.” It came with a picture that looked like my hanger steak. And my skirt steak. And for that matter, my flank steak. Initially I ignored it, but the more I tried not to think about it, the more it kept taunting me: what’s the difference? Roseda’s social media post included a hook that said, “Have you tried our Bavette yet?” Well no, I haven’t. I didn’t even know what a bavette was. And then there I was…back down the rabbit hole.

The bavette is a French term for a cut that we call the flap steak. I know what a flap steak is, and where it comes from on the cow. So how does it different from the other “excellent choice for fajitas” cuts of beef? Not much. All four of these fajita cuts…the flap, the flank, the hanger, and the skirt…are long fiber muscle cuts. They are different to be sure, but not in ways that most people will be able to detect as long as you take special attention to prepare, cook, and carve them.

The flap steak, which is what sent me down the rabbit hole this time, is located at the bottom of the loin primal sitting above the back end of the cow’s belly just in front of the hind legs. The flank steak comes from the adjacent flank primal. Both cuts tend to the tough side as both are high-use muscles. The main difference is that the flank steak has a higher blood flow, giving it more of a sharp or even harsh beefy flavor, and the flap steak being located at the bottom of the loin, has more fat marbled through the muscle giving it a softer, buttery beef flavor as the fat renders out into the muscle tissue.

The other two cuts popular with fajita makers, the skirt and hanger steaks, are cut from the plate primal which is situated in front of the flank primal. The skirt steak is part of the cow’s diaphragm and is in constant use. The hanger is not a high use muscle. It just hangs out, doing its job as a supporting muscle for the skirt. Of these four cuts, the hanger is naturally the most tender because it does the least amount of work. Still, because it is a long fiber muscle you can’t just slap it on the grill and expect good results.

Let’s get one thing straight…you’ll pay as much or more for any of these four cuts of beef than you will for a USDA Choice rib eye or NY strip steak. That’s because while each cow gives up 48 premium steaks, you’ll only get maybe 4 flap steaks, 4 skirt steaks (2 inside and 2 outside), 2 flank steaks, and one hanger steak. I think I got that right. If you are going to go to the trouble of getting one of these high demand cuts you should know how to get the most out of them. The best way to treat them is marinate them, preferably overnight. According to Kenji at the Serious Eats website, you should use a marinade that contains an oil, an acid, and a salt to get the most tenderization. I discovered my marinade recipe, and perfected it, before I found the Serious Eats website. I use components that add pleasant flavors as they tenderize the meat…olive oil, soy sauce, and lemon juice. I also add some honey because it clings to the surface of the beef and enhances the Maillard reaction I get when I sear the meat on my grill. You can toss in some aromatics if you wish…I use onion and garlic.

Why soy sauce and not just kosher salt? Soy sauce brings an extra tenderizing process to the marinade. It is full of proteases that come from an edible mold used to make it, and soy sauce is also rich in the flavoring agent glutamate. The proteases work enzymatically to break down the muscle fibers in a manner complimentary to the salt it also contains, and the glutamate adds an umami component that enhances the beef flavors.

This trip down the rabbit hole wasn’t as bad as others. Mainly because as it turns out I already had half the answer. I just needed someone to translate the question for me. Once I climbed out of the rabbit hole, I headed straight to Roseda Farms, picked up a bavette steak, and cooked it up for dinner. I’m a fan, and now I have another cut in my arsenal of beef dishes that work well for fajitas. When it comes to flap, flank, hanger, and skirt steaks I would pick any one of them…cooked properly they’ll each come out with a similar flavor profile and texture. Go with what you can get, and what’s cheapest.

So to answer the question Roseda Farms posed in their social media post…Yes, yes, Bavette!

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A Travel Post That’s Not About Cruising

Travel is getting back to normal. Or at least as normal as we can hope for two years out from the most devastating pandemic in over a hundred years. The return to normalcy has been a chaotic, uneven path that is as ugly as the weeds in my flower beds in August after I’ve once again surrendered to the inevitability that I can’t keep up with them. Where are the deer when I need them? Oh yeah…mowing down my Black Eyed Susans and hydrangeas…grumble.

This post is not going to get into whether it is safe to travel…for most people it is. Nor am I going to address whether you should travel…only you can make that decision. This post is about what it will be like if you choose to travel during this spring and summer’s peak tourism season. I hope to follow-up in a bit with another post describing what you can expect if you test positive for COVID while abroad. Fear of a positive COVID test shouldn’t keep you from traveling to most destinations, as long as you are prepared for it. Also…important disclaimer… I am not passing judgement on the efficacy of any of the requirements I lay out in this post. They are not necessarily what I would do to protect myself from COVID, but whether I agree with them or not, they are the necessary cost to travel. Accept them or stay home, that’s your decision and it’s another decision I can’t make for you. As for me…I’m not staying home folks!

Common Expectations
In addition to a passport, most nations require proof of full vaccination against COVID-19, they require some form of a negative COVID test report prior to arrival, and they require masks in public indoor spaces. I know COVID vaccination and masking are hot topics in this country, though for some reason  having to get a stick shoved so far up your nose it touches your brain hasn’t been so controversial. When you travel abroad you have to go by the rules of the places you visit, and unless you want to endure a lengthy quarantine or repeat COVID testing that interrupts your vacation time, you’ll have to be vaccinated.

The definition of “fully vaccinated” does not yet include getting a booster shot for most countries. That is changing and our recommendation to avoid any uncertainty if you want to travel abroad is to get boosted before your trip if you are eligible, and make sure it gets entered on your CDC COVID card. As far as masking goes, increasingly countries are expecting travelers to wear the disposable surgical or N95 masks. They are now readily available, and there are a number of studies showing them to be far superior to reusable cloth masks. Some international airlines already required them, and I expect more to follow.

Until very recently the testing requirement could be quite burdensome…some destinations only accepted a PCR test, and it had to have been taken within 24 hours of your arrival. That was a challenge at a time when it was taking most test centers in this country two or three times that long to get the results back. Now you can get a rapid antigen or PCR test at most large international airports and get the results back within 15-30 minutes. In this part of the country, BWI, Philadelphia, and Dulles airports all offer 3rd party COVID testing that will satisfy most international entry requirements. Some take appointments and medical insurance but not all do, and clinic hours vary so check it out in advance and plan your arrival time accordingly.

Europe
Nowhere do travel restrictions reflect the most and least restrictive human efforts to control COVID than in Europe. While some nations are beginning to remove COVID-related travel restrictions entirely (Denmark, UK) others like Austria are doubling down on theirs. Even the W.H.O. has said enough…their International Health Regulations Emergency Committee recently called for all COVID related travel bans to be eliminated. Not because they think they’ve won, but because they surrender. It is an admission that the well-intended travel restrictions levied at the start of the pandemic have been ineffective at controlling the spread of COVID, as demonstrated by the incredibly fast global spread of the Omicron variants.

Regardless of the reason, nations are taking note and taking heed. Even though travel restrictions are being removed, you’ll still need to comply with each E.U. member nation’s entry restrictions. When the European Union announced it was recommending member nations remove travel restrictions, they went on to note they were recommending nations rely on the E.U. digital COVID-19 certificate for entry (the CDC COVID certificate is accepted as an equivalent). There are exceptions. Unvaccinated travelers can still go to some countries in Europe, Greece being one, but they’ll have to run a gauntlet of testing and in some cases endure a short period of isolation before being permitted unrestricted entry.

Vaccination is still the coin of the realm for being allowed to enter most European nations without having to quarantine, but once there it can also be the key to the city. The most popular indoor tourist attractions throughout Europe require proof of vaccination for entry, and you can’t count on being able to hop on line and get in. Entrance to many of Europe’s prime attractions is now timed to enable social distancing to the extent that can happen in a place like the Louvre. It means a bit of advanced planning on your part to register with the attraction and schedule an arrival time. Don’t think that will get you out of having to wait. Even with assigned time slots, social distancing only makes things worse and those skip the line tours will be even more effective at getting you in ahead of the socially distanced crowds.

As we head into this next peak travel season for Europe, projections are that tourist travel will substantially recover, reaching about 90% of the rate prior to COVID. That doesn’t mean traveling to and throughout Europe is “back to normal.” It isn’t, and may never be what it was before the pandemic. Even though it will be easier to get into most European nations this summer than it was last year, you’ll still need to carry proof of vaccination, and in most indoor areas you’ll need to mask up with a disposable surgical or N95 type mask.

Asia and Down Under
As uneven as travel restrictions have been in the western world, they have been and remain brutally consistent throughout much of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It remains very difficult for a tourist to travel to most areas in that part of the world, and where you can it often requires a lengthy period of quarantine. That’s on top of requirements to be vaccinated and show a negative COVID test result. Janet and I are closely watching the state of play for tourists in Japan as we plan to be on one of the first planes we can book after restrictions are lifted to visit our kids and grandkids. For now, it looks like that won’t happen before summer.

South America
Travel restrictions are hit and miss for South American nations, but for the most part if you are vaccinated, you’ll be allowed in. Some South American countries still require pre-admission negative COVID testing while others are relaxing that requirement. Best to check before you book anything and make sure you work any COVID test requirements into your travel plans.

North America
The U.S. and Canada are the among the most difficult countries to enter in this part of the world. Foreign travelers need to be vaccinated and show proof of a negative COVID test result, taken within 24 hours for entry into the U.S. and within 72 hours for entry into Canada. The testing requirement for entry into the U.S. also applies to reentry for US citizens, but that requirement can be satisfied with a monitored rapid antigen test kit like the monitored test kits available over the internet and in many retail stores like Walmart, Target, and at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens. Just be sure you get the monitored test kit, like eMed’s BinaxNOW. Unmonitored self-administered BinaxNow COVID test kits don’t generate the result report you’ll have to show at the immigration checkpoint.

As difficult as it is to get into the U.S. and Canada, there are no COVID-specific restrictions for entry into Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Neither country requires COVID vaccinations or COVID testing, all you need is a passport…bienvenido a México i Dominica! U.S. citizens will still need to have a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of their reentry into the U.S.

The Caribbean is every bit as chaotic as Europe in terms of their COVID entry requirements. Some, like Trinidad, still don’t allow tourist travel. Others are more open but most require vaccination and some form of negative COVID test, and of course as noted the DR doesn’t require anything. The island of Barbados has one of the strictest COVID test requirements. In order for a tourist to be allowed to enter the country, in addition to showing proof of vaccination you must show proof of a negative COVID test from a PCR test with the sample taken within 24 hours of arrival, it can’t be self-administered, and it must be of the nasopharangeal (ie brain tickling) type and not the more common mid-turbinate (bottom part of the nasal passages) swab. Barbados has only recently begun accepting rapid PCR tests, which is virtually the only way to meet their timeliness requirements. Other nations such as The Bahamas will let vaccinated travelers in with a negative rapid antigen test and they don’t care if it is self-administered or how far up the nose the swab goes. If you are in a transit status (staying for less than 48 hours) you won’t even need that. As long as you are vaccinated.

I don’t know what the path of recovery from COVID will mean for the world. What I do know is that if you want to travel and are comfortable with the risks, which vary depending on how and where you travel, things are getting easier. If you’ve been putting off traveling because of COVID this is probably a good time to start thinking about planning again. Find your CDC COVID vaccination card, dust off your passport and check that expiration date…the State Department passport office is still taking 12 weeks to process renewals and new applications alike. Check with your doctor if you have any medical concerns to make sure the local conditions where you want to visit are appropriate for your individual risk situation, then give us a call. We’ll get you back on the road, in the air, or on the seas again.

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“I’m Taking a Cruise” … Are you Crazy?!?

 

“Passengers stuck at sea after Norwegian cancels Caribbean cruise mid voyage due to COVID-19” – NBC News

“Woman describes ‘cruise from hell’ after operator cancels sailings for ‘COVID-19 related circumstances’ and holds passengers at sea for days” – Business Insider

“’Not the cruise I signed up for’: 30-fold increase in COVID cases upends industry” – The Guardian

“CDC warns travelers to avoid cruise ships, ‘regardless of vaccination status,’ amid COVID outbreaks” – ABC7News

Those aren’t headlines from March of 2020, back at the beginning of the pandemic. They’re headlines from earlier this month…January of 2022. Wow. Cruise ships have only been back to sailing since June. They aren’t even yet back to sailing at full capacity and already this. How can the CDC let cruise ships continue to sail with headlines like that? And who would want to sail on one? Well, to answer the last question, me! And plenty of others like me who love to cruise and have the ability to apply critical thinking skills to those headlines. Because when you view them critically, you find the headlines are just click bait.

The CDC is finally getting a clue as well. Earlier this month they allowed the mandatory regulations and restrictions they levied on the cruise industry to expire. The regulations that were in place before the CDC rules expired didn’t actually go away…the CDC just made compliance voluntary. To their credit, the major cruise lines quickly opted in, so effectively nothing has changed there.

Can you contract COVID-19 on a cruise ship? Yes, and the cruise industry has always accepted that as a risk they needed to manage. When headlines were splashing across the internet about cruise ship cases of COVID with the coming of the Omicron variant, you didn’t hear anything about how the national positivity rate was skyrocketing at a much greater rate. No state was immune, and the reality is a cruise ship was statistically one of the safest places you could be.

Cruise lines require three things of crew and guests to comply with the CDC’s regulations and to reduce their risk of contracting COVID while on the cruise ship: vaccines, testing, and masks. All crew members are required to be fully vaccinated, and a requirement for boosters is being phased in. When onboard, all crew members are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces. And lastly, all crew members must be tested weekly. If a crew member tests positive, and most that do have been asymptomatic to date, their positive test gets reported to the CDC and the crew member is put in isolation.  Increasingly cruise lines are transferring COVID positive crew members off ships until they test negative, and they aren’t permitted back onboard until they test negative.

The requirements for guests are similar. All guests eligible to be vaccinated must be fully vaccinated, and some lines are beginning to phase in a requirement for booster shots. Four cruise lines, Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, and Royal Caribbean, permit a small number of unvaccinated children under age 12 to cruise with their families, with the specific details varying by cruise line. The total number of unvaccinated children allowed on any given cruise is limited by the CDC to under 5% of the total number of guests on that cruise. So if you have kids and you want to cruise, you can. If you prefer cruising on a ship with only vaccinated people aboard, you can. We’ll help you sort through your options based on your individual risk tolerance and cruising preferences.

Cruise lines have adjusted their testing requirements for guests since the Omicron variant appeared. Testing, either antigen or PCR, is still required…the changes involve minor adjustments to when you have to get tested before cruising. Masking requirements have also been dynamic. When you cruise you should be prepared, and willing, to wear an approved mask anytime you are indoors in public spaces except when you are actively eating and drinking. If the local conditions on your cruise ship are more relaxed you can still opt to wear your mask while in public spaces if you feel more comfortable doing so…plenty of people do and at all times all crew members are masked indoors.

If you test positive for COVID while on a cruise the line will take care of you, whether you require medical attention or are asymptomatic. There has been some pretty lousy reporting on this topic in the media lately similar to the headlines I opened this post with. Let me just say a guest testing positive on a cruise continues to be the rare exception, but when it happens the cruise lines bend over backwards to accommodate guests while maintaining CDC required isolation and quarantine protocols.

So how effective have the cruise lines’ measures been at protecting passengers from COVID? In a post from November, I mentioned Royal Caribbean had reported just 150 people tested positive for COVID on their cruise ships since cruising resumed worldwide, with only a handful being symptomatic and no deaths. That was out of over 600,000 guests that cruised during the timeframe. That’s pretty impressive. Well I think it is anyway. But what about now with the additional risks posed by the Omicron variant?

Breakthrough COVID cases on cruise ships have increased since the beginning of the Omicron wave, but they remain disproportionately lower as compared with land-based locations. From the end of December through the first two weeks in January, at a time when the Omicron variant drove positivity rates around the country up to 25-30%, cruise ships were reporting positivity rates under 1%. The worse cases were a few ships that reported positivity rates between 1-3%. Most of the COVID positive cases involved crew members, and most were asymptomatic. In terms of specific numbers, Royal Caribbean has been the most transparent at sharing their COVID stats with the public. A representative recently reported 1,745 guests tested positive for COVID since they resumed sailing operations in June. That’s out of over 1.1 million guests who sailed during that time, which is a positivity rate of 0.162%.

Travel comes with some measure of risk as do all things in life worth pursuing. COVID presents additional risk, and as travel agents we appreciate that not all of our clients are ready to accept those risks. My hope with this post is to counter some of the alarmist headlines I’ve seen lately with facts. So here are some facts. Since cruising resumed in June, no cruise sailing with passengers has been cancelled because of COVID. Absolutely no cruise passengers have been “stuck at sea” because of COVID. What about the woman who described her experience as being the “cruise from hell?” She was unhappy because she couldn’t spend the last two days of her cruise sunbathing by the pool. The reason for that? She cruised out of New York City…in January! Passengers on that same cruise described it as “an absolutely amazing cruise.” There’s always someone on every cruise that probably should have thought twice before booking.

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My New Old Grocery Store

Today I made the first weekly shopping trip in over ten years to a grocery store that wasn’t Wegmans. I’ve popped into other stores from time to time to pick up odds and ends, but not to do my weekly grocery shopping. I go to Wegmans for that. I used to go to Wegmans for that. Now I’ve gone back to doing my weekly grocery shopping at Kleins/Shoprite, what I call my new old grocery store. I call it that because I just started shopping there this week (the new part), but I used to shop there for many years before Wegmans opened back in 2011 (the old part).

I wish I could say on my first trip back to my new old grocery store the clouds parted and angelic choirs sang “Welcome back old friend” as I arrived, but it wasn’t like that. The store is no better than Wegmans and in some respects it is worse. It’s not like I’m saving money…prices are about the same. So why do I go there now? Because it is one mile from my house and Wegmans is three miles. I’m very lucky to have a choice. It sounds like such a small thing, two miles, yet that pretty much sums up the difference between the two stores. Well, that and the fact that as old and dingy as my new old grocery store is, I’ve never encountered piles of dog shit up and down the aisles as I did on my last trip to Wegmans. Which is why that was my last trip to Wegmans.

Divorcing your grocery store is a difficult thing to do, no matter the reason. I loved shopping at Wegmans. There were things about Wegmans that I didn’t care for from the outset, but that I tolerated just the same because I loved it. I did not love the layout of the store…it seemed as though someone sat down and plotted out the least logical way to organize things from a shopper’s perspective. I got used to it, even organized my grocery list around it. Every six months they would move things around, put the rice in aisle 17 instead of 18, just to make things difficult. Still I tolerated it because I loved the store.

One thing I never got used to about Wegmans was how people treated it as more of a social outing than the serious business of grocery shopping. They would clog up the aisles as they formed their in-store coffee klatches, reaching for their Starbucks lattes from the cup holder Wegmans conveniently built into their shopping carts. I used the cup holder for flowers, or bug spray. I’d find a way around the klatchers only to encounter yet another group in the next aisle. And so it went. I won’t miss that. They’ve been replaced since COVID by the Instant Cart shoppers, who in their own ways are just as bad. I didn’t encounter any during my first trip to my new old grocery store but I’m sure I will.

Maybe I’m the problem. I’m too intolerant, I’ll certainly admit to that. I take my food too seriously for shopping to be a social event. Maybe I should do my grocery shopping on the internet…I’m halfway there already. I order all of my seafood online and have it shipped to my house from Alaska, I get my beef from Roseda Farms which I can order online if I don’t feel like making the 17 mile drive to the farm, I order my cats’ food from Chewy, I get my fresh produce from the local CSA eight months out of the year, and I order specialty food items from Amazon.com whenever Wegmans doesn’t have it for more than two weeks in a row. I never thought Old Bay would be one of those items, but for too long of a stretch last year it was. Months. It’s not like you can’t get Old Bay in other Maryland grocery stores…just not at Wegmans apparently. I ordered it from Amazon and got two large cans the next day.

That was the kind of thing that began happening too often, and it wasn’t limited to Old Bay…it seemed like every trip I made something on my grocery list was out of stock. It had me wondering why I still shopped there. People are quick blame it on “supply chain” problems and I can accept that some of the time. For the longest time…months…none of the grocery stores in the area had caffeine free diet Pepsi. Not my drink of choice…Janet’s. I’m fortunate to have half a dozen or so grocery stores within 15 miles of my house, and when they are all out of the same item, then I can accept the supply chain excuse. But when I can go to any other grocery store in the area and find that they have what Wegmans doesn’t, the supply chain argument doesn’t wash. It just means their supply chain failed. Wegmans is particularly vulnerable to that because they own their distribution system, unlike most other grocery stores that use a third party distributor. Of course as I discovered this week, there are still items my new old grocery store doesn’t have. At least they have Old Bay.

I would say I’ll miss the fresh produce, seafood, and meat. Those were the things I liked most when I first started shopping at Wegmans, but if I’m being honest I won’t miss them at all. The products aren’t as fresh as they used to be, they don’t source as much locally as they did, and they no longer staff the departments with people that know a thing or two. The produce department no longer has the equivalent of a green grocer, the fish mongers left the seafood department years ago not to be replaced, and the butcher is barely hanging on since Wegmans started getting most of their meat pre-cut and pre-packaged from the fourth largest meat packing plant in the country. The fresh food departments are now staffed with shelf-stockers. They aren’t as knowledgeable as the people that came before them, nor are they as transparent. They’ve told me things recently about the products in their respective departments that I know to be wrong…what I don’t know is whether they know them to be wrong. Either way, it’s not a good situation for someone as serious about food as I am. Which is why I now get my fresh food products directly from the source as much as I can.

Aside from the bright and shiny new-store feel Wegmans offers, even still at 10 years old, it has little else to offer me these days, and plenty of reasons for me not to shop there. I’ll get used my new old grocery store again, but it will take time. My first return trip there for weekly shopping reminded me of all the things I didn’t like about it before I started going to Wegmans. The fact is I would find something to dislike in any grocery store, so I need to suck it up, go through my list, fill my cart, and then get my ass out of there. That internet grocery shopping is looking better all the time!

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It Was the Stove’s Fault!

What a difference a year can make! I found a source for my beef that I trust…a farm just 17 miles from my house that raises a herd of beef so tasty and tender it practically cooks itself. If my takeaway from last year’s prime rib was to place more importance on the quality of the roast I start with, my takeaway this year is that once I get that quality piece of beef, how I cook it matters a great deal.

Not to brag, but if I’m being honest my holiday dinner skills have progressed considerably over the past few years. Let’s see… I didn’t end up in the ER needing stitches, the fire department didn’t show up although I did set off the smoke alarm…again…and I didn’t have to break out a chain saw to carve the roast. I’ve made great progress!

The Set-up

This year’s holiday prime rib was a thing of beauty. It was a 3-rib roast from Roseda Farms that was everything I could ever want in a prime rib. I took pictures of it when I got it home, that’s how beautiful it was. It was richly marbled, and it looked to me like it came from the chuck end of the rib primal. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t…it would be unusual for a 3-rib roast to be cut from the chuck end, but if I am being honest the chuck end is what I prefer. It is more tasty, and this prime rib was nearly 10 pounds of bovine perfection in a vacuum sealed package.

Anytime I tackle a major cooking project I develop a plan, and this year my plan was simple…follow the Ridiculously Simple Recipe for cooking the prefect prime rib as I described in my last post. I was confident that this year my holiday meal would be a success. I had a quality piece of beef and a proven plan. What could possibly go wrong?

The Tools

I consider my stove to be the equivalent of a blunt instrument. I have so many tools in my kitchen that allow me to cook with more precision than I could ever get out of the stove, I rarely use it for anything beyond boiling water. I thought about using my sous vide cooker to do the heavy lifting and using the grill to sear it off at the end, but I was concerned my sous vide cooker wouldn’t be big enough. It’s one thing to cook a couple of steaks that way, it works beautifully by the way, and quite another to use it for a 10-pound roast. I went with the oven.

Though I consider my stove to be a blunt instrument, it is the consumer version of a high-tech professional commercial model. To say I’m not on altogether the best of terms with my stove would be an understatement. My stove has a back mounted control unit, an electronic brain as the salesman described it. What he didn’t tell me is that the brain they gave my stove, the oven in particular, was the electronic equivalent of a petulant, adolescent teenager’s brain. In other words, my oven has moods. The salesman called them modes but I know better. It’s supposed to be a model that you set and forget, but no. Like a teenager, it doesn’t always do what it is told to do.

I have a couple of high-tech precision temperature monitoring gadgets from ThermoWorks to help me maintain control over my oven. I used a ThermaPen MK IV instant read thermometer, and a ChefAlarm oven safe temperature probe and display unit. Both performed admirably and helped keep the oven part of my stove from throwing a tantrum.

The Plan

My plan for this year’s prime rib was quite simple. Start with the best quality roast I could both find and afford, and then follow the Serious Eats’ reverse sear cooking guide with a few added tweaks of my own. I did both, and the results were incredible. The roast came out juicy, flavorful, and with the perfect balance of toothful tenderness. Which is to say the tenderness of a filet but the flavor of a ribeye.

I read a food science journal article recently…because I’m a food nerd…that presented an analysis of the effect of heat on the breakdown and reconstitution of fat and muscle tissue at the molecular level of post-mortem beef. In other words, why does a dead cow taste so good after you cook it? Those guys must be fun to have over for a BBQ. The article listed 27 different chemical compounds perceived as desirable by human taste buds that are formed as fat and muscle tissue break down when heated and then come together in different ways to form new compounds. It’s like the molecular equivalent of a swingers party. I think I was able to taste 25 of them, that’s how good this roast came out. Just don’t ask me to name any of them…they have multisyllabic names with numbers and symbols, and I darned near flunked high school chemistry. Might have had something to do with that cherry bomb incident in class #itwasntme…I wasn’t exactly the best-behaved kid at that point in my life.

I seasoned my roast with kosher salt and white pepper powder two full days prior to cooking it, and left it in the fridge uncovered to absorb the salt and tenderize. I pulled it out of the fridge on Christmas Eve morning, sprinkled some fresh cracked black pepper all around and popped it directly into the preheated 200-degree oven. We planned to eat at 4 PM and I counted on an 8–10-hour cook time, so I started cooking it at 5:30 AM. I was going for a finish on the upper end of medium rare and estimated I’d get an additional 10 degrees of carryover cooking, so I set my ChefAlarm for 125 degrees. When the alarm went off I took the roast out of the oven and made spot checks all around the roast with my ThermaPen MK IV. It confirmed a consistent 125 degrees with no cool spots. My roast was ready to rest.

As the roast rested I prepared for the finishing sear by resetting the oven to 500 degrees, and gave it an hour to get there. It only took half an hour to heat up but that was after the half hour it took me to realize I hadn’t turned the oven back on, so it took an hour. Once the oven let me know it was at 500 deg, I put the roast back in for six minutes to sear off the surface and form a nicely textured crust.

I pulled the roast out of the oven again, this time setting off the smoke alarm in the process because smoke happens when you take a well-marbled hunk of beef out of a 500 degree oven with an attitude. I reset the alarm system so the fire department wouldn’t show up, because that tends to happen when I cook. I checked the internal temp of my roast and it was 141 degrees…bit more done than I was aiming for but close enough for my oven. Honestly with a roast this tender it’s a crap shoot whether it is better cooked to medium rare or medium.

I checked the clock to see the time…10:20 AM. Oops. We didn’t need to leave for Chris and Kelly’s for hours! How did that happen? Well…I forgot to account for the fact that when I use my oven’s convection mood things cook much faster. In this case MUCH faster. Could be the oven snuck a Red Bull while I wasn’t looking, I don’t know. Teenagers…what can you do? Not to worry…I had an over/under plan.

I carved the roast into individual portions, vacuum sealed the portions in sous vide bags, and tossed them in the fridge until it was time to go to Chris and Kelly’s place. They live just 15 minutes away so I brought along my sous vide cooker and once in their kitchen, used it to gently reheat the prime rib portions. I set the water temperature to 135 degrees to warm the meat without cooking it any further, then put the baggies in for an hour.

We sat down for a nice family Christmas Eve dinner and I plated up my extra juicy perfectly cooked medium prime rib portions, which were now an ugly shade of brown…over done, and dry. What in the hell happened? The beef was still tasty, but it had lost much of the tenderness and almost all of the juice it had when I bagged the portions up.

As with last year there weren’t many leftovers so it couldn’t have been that horrible, but I knew. I knew how much better it could have been…how much better it was when I tasted it straight from the oven.

What I Did Wrong This Year

I didn’t worry too much about what went wrong while we were at Chris and Kelly’s, but I did think about it the next day, when I got up at 5AM on Christmas morning. It didn’t take me long to figure it all out. I had carved the roast into individual serving sized portions straight out of the oven. It didn’t need to rest since it was already rested and I hadn’t heated it enough to draw moisture back out of the muscle tissue. But the roast still had significant residual heat coming out of a 500 degree oven. By carving it right away and then sealing the individual portions in sous vide bags I trapped all that residual heat and steam in the bag. With the meat. By the time the fridge cooled the meat enough to stop the cooking it was too late. My perfectly cooked prime rib slices were well done, bone dry, and an ugly shade of dark brown.

Right about now all of my Texas friends are cringing mightily and shouting at their computers, “FTC!” Mea Culpa. One even posted the suggestion to me on social media, before I went the sous vide route. I should have paid attention. FTC, for those who don’t know, is the way BBQers have been keeping large cuts of beef warm for generations. Or at least for as long as Reynolds has been making aluminum foil and Coleman has been making coolers. Foil, Towel, Cooler. You wrap the whole hunk of meat in foil, then wrap that in some beach towels, then pack it in a cooler stuffed with even more beach towels stuffed all around it…bottom, top, and sides. FTC. It keeps meat warm for hours without cooking it further. This is one time I should have believed what I read on Facebook! I should have listened to the pros.

What I Did Right This Year

Even though this was yet another holiday meal that didn’t turn out as perfect as I wanted, it was good enough, which is a testament to just how good the beef was before I nearly ruined it. And my antics were once again entertaining for the whole family. The effort validated all of my objectives with using the Ridiculously Simple Recipe to cook a prime rib in the oven, and since I sampled it as I carved it, I know how good it was straight out of the oven. Those were the best few bites of prime rib I’ve ever tasted. I now know what I did wrong, but what did I do right? What worked?

Choosing a reliable source for my prime rib and selecting a quality roast worked. I learned my lesson last year. Roseda Farms has been my go to source for beef since spring, and this year’s prime rib is yet another reason I keep going back.

Using a dry brine approach to seasoning worked. Just as I will forever brine my Thanksgiving turkey, I will now be using a dry brine on all of my Christmas prime rib roasts. While Serious Eats said to let the salt set on the roast for up to four days, I gave it two and I’ll probably dial that back to just one day or maybe a day and a half the next time I cook prime rib. As long as I am dealing with beef of the quality I get from Roseda Farms, one day of tenderizing is enough and I’m hoping it leaves the meat tasting a tad less salty.

Skipping the “let the roast come to room temperature before cooking” bit worked.  The internal temperature of my roast when I took it out of the fridge was 31 degrees. An hour later my roast had warmed just six degrees, to 37 degrees. That wasn’t after sitting at room temperature, it was after an hour in a 200 degree oven because I skipped the sitting out bit. Looking at the results I got it would have been an utter waste of time to let my roast sit out on the counter for an hour or two, or even three. Is it too late to return that Wolfgang Puck guide to the perfect prime rib? Going straight from the fridge to the oven had no negative impact on how it turned out. It was tender, juicy, and flavorful.

The reverse sear method worked. I had a nice tasty crust on the outside of the roast, and below that the meat was tender, juicy, and tasty. I did not get a perfect edge-to-edge finish but I didn’t expect to. There wasn’t enough of a fat cap to insulate the cap muscle and balance out the insulation the ribs gave to the bottom of the roast. No matter…it was all juicy, tender, and delicious. And then I ruined it.

As NASA described the Apollo 13 mission, this year’s holiday rib roast was a successful failure. Now all I need to do is stick the landing. I’ve got 359 days to figure it out.

Happy New Year to all!

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The Mutant Cow I Served for Dinner Last Christmas

I served a prime rib from a mutant cow last Christmas Eve. I didn’t mean to…I didn’t know the cow was a mutant until I carved the roast. By then I had no backup, so I had no choice but to serve it. Fortunately, I was just feeding my family. Shhh…don’t tell them!!!

I wanted last Christmas to be special since both Rob and Chris and their families would be with us for the holiday, but serving mutant cow was not exactly what I had in mind. Nobody complained, likely because they didn’t realize the cow was a mutant, but I knew.

I ordered a USDA Prime grade standing rib roast, a Prime prime rib, from a local butcher shop I was using at the time for special orders. I arranged to pick it up a couple of days before Christmas, and since it was a pre-order the roast was already cut, trimmed, and wrapped up in butcher paper when I picked it up. I should have asked the clerk to unwrap it so I could inspect it, but I didn’t.

Everything was fine at first. I mean it wasn’t really. I could see as soon as I unwrapped the roast that it wasn’t USDA Prime grade, but by then the butcher shop was closed for the holidays so I cooked it. It left my whole house smelling yummy, just like every other Christmas before, and that’s the part that was fine. Then I started to carve it, which was about the time all hell broke loose. As I started carving off the first big juicy portion of prime rib I got about two or three inches into the meat and my knife stopped. It had struck an impenetrable object and would go no further. I had already removed the ribs so I knew it wasn’t bone, but beyond that I didn’t know what it was.

I tried muscling my way through it with my general-purpose, usually-sharp-enough-for-prime-rib carving knife but that didn’t work. I switched to my ultra-sharp J.A. Henckel precision German steel carving knife and tried sawing my way through, but that didn’t work. I grabbed my blade-so-big-and-sharp-meat-parts-like-the-Red-Sea-out-of-fear-of-it Chef’s knife and tried hacking my way through it, but that didn’t work either.

At this point the profanities were coming out of my mouth fast and furious. I had to get something on the plates for Christmas Eve dinner, so I decided to change tactics. I traded in the big knives for my fileting knife and took a deep cleansing breath to center myself. And to stop the profanities…the grandkids were within earshot now that everyone was sitting at the table waiting for me to finish up in the kitchen. No pressure. With the skill of a surgeon I used my fileting knife to probe the margins of the obstruction and then neatly cut around it to carve off enough decent sized portions of prime rib to serve my family.

As I lifted a portion of prime rib off the roast to plate it, I got my first good look at the mutant bovine anatomy and that thing that kept getting in the way of my knives. It looked like the cow’s aorta…that was my first thought anyway. Once I was finished carving, I realized I had laid bare a two-inch-wide piece of something white, thick, sinewy, and as tough as the toughest shoe leather I’ve ever encountered. It ran the length of my roast and it didn’t belong there. My rib roast came from a mutant cow.

After the holidays I tried getting in touch with the butcher with a WTFO but I never heard back from him. I gave up on that shop and went back to Wegmans for my beef. I had several decent conversations with the Wegmans butcher after I went back, and not long after Christmas I asked him if he had ever run across any mutant cows. As I explained what I had encountered, the butcher nodded knowingly and sympathetically. He knew right away what it was. Not a mutant cow he told me, just an old one. What I thought was the aorta was a piece of connective tissue that is found in every prime rib from every cow at that spot. Normally you don’t notice it because you can cut right through it, but in an older cow or one with poor genetics it can get thick and tough and, well…impenetrable.

I pictured my holiday roast coming from an overworked cow on an Amish farm sold for meat after a long life of hard labor pulling a plow for the Yoder family. That thought made me sad. Most likely it was just a regular cow from a regular herd that got sold as ungraded beef destined for a local budget restaurant to be served as the $4.99 Tuesday night all you can eat prime rib special. For reasons I’ll never know, this budget special from the shallow end of the bovine gene pool found its way to the butcher I no longer use, who sold it to me as USDA Prime.

The Lesson Learned

I was on a quest last Christmas to find the perfect recipe for the perfect holiday prime rib and I failed miserably. I discovered that the decisions you make at the meat counter are far more important than the decisions you make in your kitchen. There isn’t much a recipe can do if you are starting with beef from a mutant cow. Find a store that is reliable and get to know and trust their butcher. Then you can think about the recipe.

I now buy my beef from two places I trust: Wegmans, and Roseda Farms. I discovered Roseda Farms’ beef sometime this past spring and fell in love with it. It has a unique flavor that appeals to me, and the farm’s backstory does as well. My Christmas prime rib this year comes from Roseda Farms and I can’t wait to get it in the oven!

A Ridiculously Simple Recipe for Perfect Prime Rib

I found a ridiculously simple recipe on a website I go to for cooking tips, Serious Eats. The recipe is from my favorite food writer, Kenji. He developed the reverse sear prime rib recipe that I now use for prime rib and my steaks. It works, and it isn’t complicated. In fact, it is ridiculously simple.

Start with a quality rib roast with both the rib rack and fat cap on. Use a roasting pan that has a rack to elevate your roast so the drippings have some place to go. From there, all you have to do is remember four numbers: 4, 200, 125, and 500.

4 — The number of days to season the roast before you cook it. And by seasoning, I mean salt. Nothing else. You can use some fresh cracked black pepper later but at this point use just salt. I start by removing the rib rack and fat cap so I can season the entire roast…salt can’t work through bone and fat. Once the roast is seasoned I tie the ribs and fat cap back…the roast gets a more even edge to edge finish if you cook it with the ribs and fat cap in place. I put the roast on a rack and put it back into the fridge. It takes at least one full day for the salt to work its osmotic magic, and longer is better up to four days. After that the muscle tissue starts to break down.

200: The temperature to set your oven to for the start of your roast. Forget the recipes that have you cranking the heat up to 500 degrees at the beginning and then dialing it back. The reverse sear method is, well, the reverse of that. It is safe to cook meat that low…I’ve done it and lived to tell. There’s no need to let the roast sit out and “come to room temperature.” Stick an oven safe temperature probe in your roast, pop it into a 200-degree oven, and go watch football.

125: The internal temperature of your prime rib when it’s time to remove it and let it rest. After a 30 minutes rest period your roast will have continued to cook until the temperature reaches the perfect range for medium rare…132-135 degrees. If you like your prime rib closer to medium, set the temperature alarm to 127-128. If you prefer your meat cooked any more than that, save some money and buy a chuck roast. You won’t know the difference.

500: The temperature to reset your oven to after you take the roast out to rest. By the time your roast is rested, 30 minutes minimum, your oven will be up to temp and ready to put the crispy finish on your perfect holiday prime rib roast. It should only take about 5-10 minutes to get the perfect finish on your roast, at which point you can take it out of the oven and go straight to carving. It doesn’t need a second rest period after this short high temp finish.

That really is all you need to do to cook the perfect holiday prime rib roast. If you want to know the science behind why it isn’t any more complicated than that, check out Kenji’s prime rib Q&As. He even takes Wolfgang Puck to task, though not by name, using science to prove him wrong about the need to let your roast come up to room temperature before cooking. You don’t…myth busted!

I hope you’ve found something in this article useful, or at least entertaining. If you get the chance to try the ridiculously simple recipe for perfect prime rib, let me know how it turns out.

Merry Christmas!

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Jeff’s Test Kitchen: Thanksgiving Turkey Taste Test

Mandatory Health Dislaimer: I will not burden this post with repeated references to the USDA’s guidelines for safely handling turkey. Ya’ll know the drill, and if you don’t…go to the USDA’s turkey safe handling web page.

The Set-up

As small business owners, Janet and I support local small businesses any chance we get, especially farmers. But…there is a limit to how much more I’m willing to pay to buy local. After noticing how much more the turkeys I’ve been getting from a local hobby farmer cost as compared with what I can get at Wegmans, I decided it was time for a taste test. While the taste of the hobby farm turkey I cooked up for Thanksgiving was still fresh in my mind, I picked up a fresh, never frozen turkey at Wegmans a couple of days after Thanksgiving and set to work.

The Birds…Let’s Talk Turkey

Except for a modest difference in weight, and the source, the two birds were identical, and I prepared and cooked them the same. The turkey I picked up from the hobby farmer weighed in at 16.5 pounds and cost me $75 ($4.55 per pound). The turkey I picked up from Wegmans was a generic, store brand bird that weighed in at 19 pounds and cost me $13 ($0.69 per pound).

Both turkeys were the same breed…broad breasted white, the most commonly sold breed of turkey in this country by a huge margin. Both were fresh, never frozen, and both were hormone and antibiotic free. Neither were sold as self-basting, neither had injected moisturizers, fat, butter, MSG, or any other flavoring agents. They were both 100% turkey. There was one difference…the Wegmans turkey came with a pop-up timer, the hobby farmed turkey did not. I don’t use the pop-up timer to determine when my turkeys are done, so that was inconsequential to the taste test.

To Brine or Not to Brine…That is THE Question

I brined both turkeys. I’ve tried turkey both ways and have found that brined turkeys come out more tasty and moist. Brining uses osmotic principles to bring moisture and flavor from your brining solution into the insides of every cell in the bird. I used Bells Turkey Brine for both birds in this taste test, and I brined them both for about 12 hours.

I don’t stuff my turkeys but I do put aromatics into the body cavity to enhance the flavors a bit. For both birds in this taste test I used a couple of sprigs each of rosemary, sage, and thyme, and added a sliced apple, orange and onion along with two cinnamon sticks. The steam generated as the turkey cooks will pull out the aromatic flavors from the herbs and infuse the turkey meat with flavor from the inside out. At least that’s the theory. If I’m being honest, it only contributes to the flavor of the bird a little…most of the flavor a turkey gets comes from the brine. The reason I bother to dress my turkeys is that it makes my kitchen smell like Thanksgiving, and that makes me happy.

I didn’t mess with fancy trussing for my turkeys…I tucked the wings under the body of both birds to keep them out of the way. The local hobby farm turkey’s legs were loose so I used butcher’s twine to tied them together…the Wegmans bird had a plastic retainer holding the legs together which I left in place. I coated the skin of both birds with duck fat then sprinkled rubbed sage, and a proprietary blend of poultry spices I got from a special source. Mostly it is dried sage, thyme and rosemary with some paprika and powdered garlic.

Feel the Heat

I set the oven at 450 degrees for both birds for the first 30 minutes to start the skin crisping. After 30 minutes I reduced the heat to 325 degrees and left it there until the birds were done. My hobby farm turkey at 16.5 pounds was ready to come out of the oven after 2 hours 30 minutes of cooking, the 19 pound Wegmans bird took 3 hours 25 minutes to cook. I used an oven safe constant read temperature probe that I stuck into the deepest part of the turkey’s thigh with the alarm set to 160 degrees. When the alarm went off I used an instant read thermometer to spot check in the breast and thighs and when I got temps at or above 160 degrees all around, the turkeys came out of the oven. The turkeys’ temp continued to rise as they rested, and I gave both birds a 30 minute rest period. By they time they were ready to carve the lowest temperature was 165 degrees and some spots read as high as 185 degrees, which is a good range for ensuring safety while maximizing moistness.

And the Winner Is…

The hobby farm turkey was good…nice and moist and the meat tasted like turkey with rubbed sage and thyme and maybe a hint of citrus. The rosemary didn’t come through specifically, but I’m sure it was there in the overall flavor profile. The Wegmans generic store brand turkey was a bit better. It was more moist and had a slightly stronger flavor in a pleasant way. As with the first bird, the sage and thyme flavors came through, the apple, onion, orange and rosemary not so much. I really noticed the difference between the two birds when it came to next day leftovers…the Wegmans bird retained more moisture than the hobby farm bird, but that could be because I got it into the fridge sooner.

On balance, as good as the hobby farm turkey tasted, it was no better than the Wegmans generic store brand bird. And at 5 times the price on sale, definitely not worth the extra cost. Even had I paid full price for the Wegmans turkey, which I would probably have to do to get it before the holiday, I would still have paid about a third less than I did for the hobby farm turkey, and the Wegmans bird came out a touch more moist and tasty. Considering the price differential, the Wegmans generic store brand turkey was the clear winner of this turkey taste test.

Footnote

After tasting the difference between the Wegmans turkey and my local hobby farmed bird, I did a little homework on where Wegmans sources their turkeys. I didn’t trust that any generic store brand turkey would beat out the local hobby farm bird in a head to head taste test like this one. Wegmans sources their turkeys from a local farm just outside Allentown, PA…the same farm that the White House chefs use to source the turkeys they cook up for the President’s official Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah…the whole pardon the turkey thing is nothing more than typical political smoke and mirrors. While over aged too tough to eat turkeys get “pardoned” and sent off to live on a petting zoo, the young gobblers from Allentown with extra moist and tender meat end up on plates embossed with the Presidential seal. Anyway, the turkeys come from a small family owned and operated farm that has been raising and selling turkeys for several generations. They are fanatics about caring for the turkeys they raise, at least as much as you can be in that business and still make a profit. They’ve even grow the grain they use for their turkey feed. It makes a difference, one that I definitely tasted and I’m getting next Thanksgiving’s turkey from Wegmans.

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A Gastronome’s Review of The Milton Inn: Three Hits and a Miss

My birthday and Janet’s are separated by three weeks and occasionally we decide to celebrate with a combined birthday dinner out, as we did this past week at The Milton Inn. Our previous visit to The Milton Inn was in November 2007. Back then Chef Brian Boston was owner and Executive Chef. He poured his heart and soul into the place, and it showed with each meal we had there. The food was good, elevated without being trendy. And though pricey, I always walked away feeling like I was getting the better end of the deal. I was sorry to hear that COVID forced him out of business.

When I learned the Foreman-Wolf group purchased The Milton Inn I had mixed feelings. I was happy to see it reopening, but I have a love-hate relationship with Foreman-Wolf. There is no question that Cindy Wolf is an accomplished Chef with a long list of well deserved accolades to her name. She and business partner (and ex husband, and ex co-chef) Tony Foreman draw an almost cult-like following that worships the stove tops they cook on. That alone is enough to turn me off, but there’s the cost to value consideration. I’ve eaten at three of their establishments: Charleston, Cinghiale, and Petit Louis, with food experiences ranging from pretty good to horrible. None left me feeling like I got my money’s worth.

The food at Chef Wolf’s flagship restaurant Charleston was my biggest disappointment. I went in with high expectations and came out having been served food that was just OK and deeply flawed in places it shouldn’t have been. That was in 2014…based on today’s menu prices at Charleston that same dinner for two would set me back close to $450. As many times as I’ve considered going back to try again, I haven’t been able to talk myself into it with that much money at stake.

Friends of ours with similar, though decidedly more refined, preferences in food and wine dined at The Milton Inn earlier this fall and gave it a thumbs up, so I decided to give it a go for our combined birthday celebration this year. I’ll skip to the chase and say our 2021 birthday meal at The Milton Inn was good…probably better than our last meal there in 2007. I took to social media later that evening and gave it my enthusiastic thumbs up. But…as I started to write this review several days later, I found myself oddly disillusioned and at odds with the sentiment I expressed on social media.

Rather than lingering over the memory of a delicious meal, which it was, in a romantic and historic colonial era building, which it was, I found myself disappointed.  Disappointed because as I worked to pull back the curtain on our experience at The Milton Inn I discovered that what we got was Petit Louis. I mean…darned near a carbon copy. From the menu selections to the prices, to the Executive Chef…all the way to the unapproachable Tony Foreman curated wine list where wine isn’t wine unless it comes from France and the more obscure the label the better…it was Petit Louis. That will make the legion of Foreman-Wolf fans happy, but not me. It shouldn’t have surprised me since Chef Scanga was Executive Chef for Petit Louis for eight years before joining Foreman-Wolf as co-owner in their newest venture. They even use the same supply chain, which I suppose makes sense since they copied everything else.

I had read reviews that credit Chef Scanga with making the most of the creative space allowed him in his new position as Executive Chef and co-owner of The Milton Inn, and that’s what I was hoping for. Someone fresh and new that could tap into the culinary mastery of Cindy Wolf and express it in a style that I find more appealing to my palate. Chef Scanga is talented there’s no doubt about that, but he’s only ever worked in various capacities under the Foreman-Wolf umbrella. I so wanted his food to be expressed with a unique voice in keeping with the history and tradition of the Milton Inn, but I didn’t get that. I got Petit Louis North.

If you’ve ever dined in the Milton Inn at any point during its history as a restaurant, you’ll appreciate the charm of the converted 281-year-old colonial era building. The front of house staff that we encountered were pleasant and the server assigned to our table, located in the more intimate front room, was good. She was responsible for the entire front dining room which, if I counted right, consisted of three tables for two, one table for four, and a single table for six. That’s not an excessive server to guest ratio for a competent server. Our server was competent, but her assigned tables were full and everybody arrived within 30 minutes of each other. She had some help, but only from lesser experienced staff who were still learning the ropes. It was even busier in the two larger main dining rooms, both of which were packed.

The only service issue we experienced was that it took about 10 minutes after our entrees were served for Janet to get the glass of wine she ordered…a wine she ordered to be paired with her entrée. The only reason we got it when we did was that I flagged down the server and asked for it…she was oblivious to the fact that our entrees had been delivered and that we were just sitting there waiting. That’s a pretty big gaffe when you consider the upside-down importance Foreman-Wolf places on wine, and specifically wine-food pairings. The wine was perfect Mr. Foreman…if only the food had been a bit warmer.

Alright enough about that…let’s get to the food. Janet and I shared a starter and dessert but went our separate ways when it came to the entrée. I sampled Janet’s entrée and got enough of it that I can speak to both. I’d characterize our dinner as three hits and a miss with the miss being my entrée. It wasn’t horrible, it just could have been better. It should have been better.

We started with the Velouté de Choufleur, described on the English side of the menu as a cauliflower and apple soup with thyme oil. It was a classic French velouté…silky, rich, and creamy, finished with a few chunks of diced apple in the center, surrounded by a thin ring of thyme oil. The presentation was unapologetically simple, the apples adding a bit of texture to the otherwise smooth velouté base. The thyme oil was a nice touch…truffle oil would have been tempting but too heavy. As good as this dish was, and it was quite good, I would have liked it better if it had more cauliflower flavor. It was there, but only just barely. Still, it was a warm and welcoming hug on a chilly fall evening and a great start to our dinner.

Janet ordered the bronzino for her entrée and it was served with honeynut squash purée, roasted local broccoli and cauliflower, marcona almonds, and lemon beurre noisette. As this was Janet’s dish, I only got a few bites of the fish to taste and only a schmear of the puree…none of the other components so I couldn’t really tell how well imagined the dish was with all components together. What I got of the puree though was delightful…smooth, sweet, and earthy… a nice fall frame around an otherwise all-season fish. Because it took so long to get Janet’s wine, by the time we started to eat the puree had begun to set a bit. You can see it in the pictures I posted on social media. It detracted from the texture a bit, but not the flavor which was still spot on.

The bronzino was amazing. Bronzino is a fairly forgiving fish to cook and difficult to ruin, though I’ve managed to do so on more than one occasion. That leaves a lot of room for mediocrity which is what I usually get when I order bronzino in a restaurant, but not this time. Whomever cooked it in The Milton Inn’s kitchen absolutely nailed it. The skin on Janet’s bronzino was crisp without being greasy, and what impressed me more was how evenly the fish was cooked edge to edge. The flesh came out like it had been cooked sous vide, yet the skin was so nicely crisped it had to have been cooked in the skillet. It was well seasoned and couldn’t have been prepared any better. My only disappointment with this dish was that I didn’t order it…it was Janet’s entree and that meant I would only get two bites!

I wanted to try the beef tenderloin. I don’t usually order beef when I eat out because it is expensive, and I have yet to find a place that can cook it better than I do in my own kitchen and on my own grill, but I was tempted to see what Chef Scanga might be able to do. Tempted enough to ask our server where they sourced their beef from. When she told me Creekstone Farms, I decided to pass. Creekstone Farms is a respected premium beef supplier located in Kansas. Chef Wolf uses them for Charleston, but having had their beef at Charleston, I didn’t find it to be particularly noteworthy.

I find the choice of Creekstone Farms as the source for beef at The Milton Inn curious. The marketing pitch for The Milton Inn notes that they make extensive use of locally sourced ingredients. Local sourcing was part of the unique “voice” I was looking for from The Milton Inn and I was disappointed to find it doesn’t extend to their beef. Why source your beef from Kansas when you can get it a little closer to home, from like…oh, I don’t know…say, Roseda Farms? At less than three miles down the road from the Inn, Roseda is so local you can almost hear the cattle lowing from the restaurant’s kitchen. And it is good…really good. But Chef Wolf has to know that…Roseda has been around since before she came on the scene. Which makes the choice of Creekstone all the more puzzling.

I ended up ordering the guinea fowl. Not particularly exotic, but it is a protein that I can’t routinely get my hands on to cook in my own kitchen which made it a better choice than the chicken or duck. It was roasted and served atop pommes puree with some carrots on the side and a generous amount of several mushroom varieties scattered about the plate. I count it as the one miss of our dinner because there were some things about the dish that I didn’t particularly care for.

I’ll start by saying the meat was tender, moist, and well cooked. The thigh had a bit of red meat around the bone but that was just from the usual marrow and myoglobin extraction that you get when frozen poultry, or this case guinea fowl, is thawed. To have cooked it out was unnecessary and would have left the rest of the meat insufferably dry which thankfully they didn’t do. As nicely cooked as the leg and thigh were, I expected the breast meat to be overcooked and dry. It was not. In fact, it was so juicy I checked to see if the two quarters of the bird were separate, which would tell me they may have been cooked separately. There would have been nothing wrong had that been the case, but it wasn’t. I was impressed, and it is hard to impress me when it comes to food.

My problems with this dish were skin and fat. Visually the dish looked amazing…the skin was golden brown and looked crispy. Unfortunately, there were patches on the leg and thigh where despite the golden color, the skin was soft, flaccid, and downright rubbery. And there was enough unrendered subcutaneous fat to be texturally unpleasant. Considering how lean guinea fowl usually is, I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t usually have to discretely spit out a wad of chewy skin with a glob of unrendered fat in a restaurant at this level, yet that’s what I found myself having to do. I usually leave most of the skin on my plate anyway, so no big deal…just not perfect and a source of potential disappointment for those who do like to eat the skin.

The real problem for me was the flavor. It’s been awhile since I’ve had guinea fowl, but this didn’t taste anything like what I was expecting. Guinea fowl is supposed to be a pretty lean bird, but that wasn’t my experience with this plate. I didn’t get much flavor out of the meat, but what I did get was the strong flavor of poultry fat. I suppose it might have come from the game bird reduction. More likely the kitchen went overboard with duck fat on the skin to get that golden color without drying out the meat. Wherever it came from, it was an unwelcome presence that delivered an unpleasant flavor to my palate and limited my enjoyment of the bird.

There were some high points with the rest of the plating. The mushrooms were incredible. I’m not much on mushroom identification but to me it looked like a few whole chanterelles along with some beech mushrooms and maybe cremini buttons or portobello portions. They were delicious…earthy and cooked just enough to leave a bit of crispy texture. The mushrooms too suffered a bit from excess fat but in this case it was butter and it tasted good so I didn’t mind the little bit of excess. There were also a couple of roasted carrots on the plate that were well cooked, crisp and with just the right touch of sweetness. The pommes puree was the best part of the dish. It was smooth with just the right amount of butter, cream and salt. I wish I could have gone back for seconds! Someday I’ll master the art of making pommes puree as smooth as what was on my plate without leaving it gummy. Some day.

I usually skip dessert, but when Janet pointed out Meyer lemon cheesecake was on the menu…cheesecake and Meyer lemons are two of my favorite things in the world…I had to order it. We agreed to split a serving, which meant I got just two or three bites, but that was enough. What I like about Meyer lemon is that it isn’t a true lemon…it is the result of a hybrid between lemon and Mandarin orange. It gives the fruit a nice balance of sweet and sour. This cheesecake was so rich and creamy it could have used more of the acidity you get from a true lemon to cut through it. That isn’t a complaint or a flaw…just a fleeting thought I had as my tastebuds wallowed in the decadence of it, quickly chased away by my next bite of the rich creamy cheesecake heaven. The edible flowers on top gave a nice visual pop to the dessert. Gosh, I hope they were edible…I ate them! At this level of dining if its on the plate its meant to get ate. Our server added two candles in celebration of our joint birthdays, which I found to be a nice personal touch.

What made this dessert particularly interesting for me was the use of an oat streusel as a non-crust crust. It was strewn around the plate, lolling about in a Meyer lemon anglaise. It added an interesting texture that was chewy with an occasional crunch. In between the rich cheese filling and the sweet and sour of the anglaise, the oat streusel tasted like a freshly mown hayfield after the first cut of the season. It evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for me as I still mark the passage of seasons by smells, often with my head hanging out the car window taking it all in like a dog, and the sweet smell of first cut hay is one of my favorites. All of that is to say the oat streusel was a pleasant addition to the plate all around and like many tastes and smells, it evoked some strong but pleasant memories. A bite of the cheesecake with a few bits of the anglaise covered streusel put me in my happy place for the rest of the night. Just the memory of it as I write this has my mouth watering. The ribbon of white chocolate the cheesecake was topped with probably didn’t hurt. So yeah, order the cheesecake.

Now that I’ve eaten at Chef Scanga’s Milton Inn once, I have no reason to go back. I pulled the curtain back on what I hoped would be a new and unique culinary voice brought in to run an iconic establishment. What I found instead was the homogeneity of the Foreman-Wolf brand as executed by a talented chef who hasn’t yet discovered how to express his own voice, or if he even has one. What I found was Petit Louis North in a hunting lodge. That’s not what I was hoping for at The Milton Inn.

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Holiday Travel Helps

Traveling in connection with a holiday, particularly flying, is a mix of joyful anticipation and anxiety-laden fear of disruptions. Janet and I have been flying somewhere every month since May, and over half of our flights have either been cancelled or rescheduled, and that’s before the added load of holiday travelers. This year presents some unique challenges…major airlines like American and Southwest scheduled flights and then filled them with paying customers, knowing they didn’t have the flight crews to operate them. They have been relying on flight crews taking on as many extra flights as the FAA allows, but their flight crews are tired and are beginning to refuse the extra hours. That has resulted in an unprecedented number of cancelled and rescheduled flights just when the peak holiday travel season is upon us.

If you are flying this holiday season there isn’t much you can do to avoid the risk of last-minute schedule disruptions. However, here are a few things you can do to soften the impact if you find yourself staring at a text message telling you the flight you are waiting to board has been cancelled:

1. Once you’ve booked your flights, assume they will be cancelled. Look at alternatives that, while not your first choice, would still work for you. A back-up plan can substantially reduce your risk of missing out if you face last-minute changes, and it will definitely lower your stress.
2. If you find yourself with a cancelled flight, your airline will automatically rebook you. That isn’t for your convenience but for theirs. You don’t have to accept their choice, which will probably be worse than any choice you would make. Go through the options that work best for your schedule. You may not get your first choice, and maybe not your second or third choice, but you won’t know until you ask.
3. Be sure you enter a current cell phone in the contact information field when you book. You’ll be the first to learn about changes that way, and if there is a schedule change that doesn’t work for you, you’ll be at the head of the line for more acceptable options.
4. Download your airline’s app and if the airline changes the schedule on you, don’t wait for them to rebook you. Once you learn of a change, use the airline’s app to check options and at the same time call the airline so you get into the queue ahead of everybody else on your flight.
5. Think outside of the box. When the airline changes their schedule and your preferred alternatives aren’t available, look at other airports. We are fortunate to have four major international airports within a 3-hour drive: Philadelphia, BWI, Dulles, and Reagan/National. Don’t worry if you have to fly out of one airport but return to another if there is an option that otherwise works for your schedule. You can book an Uber, take an airport shuttle, or get a one-way rental car, though you’ll want to consider costs.
6. The days of an airline rebooking you on a competitor are long gone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it on your own. Chances are it will cost you more…there’s a reason you didn’t book with that other airline and the reason is almost always cost. You also must think about whether to cancel first or rebook first. But when your trip is on the line, you might find the extra cost and risk of cancelling and booking with another airline are worth it.
7. Just say no. If the airline has changed your schedule or cancelled a flight and rebooked you on an alternative that doesn’t work for you, think about whether you might be better off cancelling your plans or putting them off until after the holidays. If that is an option, refuse the change and demand a refund.
8. Don’t fly. It sounds trite, but do you really need to fly to get where you want to go? Maybe you can take the train, or drive. We’ve been able to avoid flying several times since we resumed our travels by driving and taking a train.

It would be nice if you could book your holiday travel plans without having to worry about delays or cancellations, but that isn’t going to happen this year. The only thing you can do is pack your patience and have a plan of action in the event your flights are cancelled or delayed. And it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway…get to the airport early. Plan to arrive at least two hours before your scheduled departure for domestic flights and three for international.

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