Christmas in April

Click for a larger version

Godfrey Daniel! My buddy Carl, who owns one of the five best cheesesteak places around – his brothers own the others, and all are open for pickup only – felt bad when I said his subs were foremost of the three things I miss the most, and said on the phone today that he’d drop off a pita Western cheesesteak along with some cryovac packages of the special cuts of steak that are sliced each morning in a specific manner, a stack of cheese, and some of their custom recipe sub rolls that I can freeze and cook at will. Now that is a good friend.

No need of a diner

Click for a larger version

I’ve got everything right here, really, including the 2-½-pound 13″ oval plates, but that’s been the case for years. Nothing new.

When I do visit diners, my litmus test is this morning’s breakfast above, corned beef hash and poached eggs (I don’t expect marmalade and blackberry jam to be available). Some fail, most commonly for lack of a crust on the hash, a minor flaw, and/or refusing to poach eggs outright or poaching them as if they don’t know how, both full-stop errors that require head-shaking and tut-tutting.

Years ago, meatloaf would be another test of a diner’s goodness for me, but I forever gave that up when I started with the Manhattan-based Comfort Diner’s already excellent softer-textured meatloaf recipe (its secret: oatmeal instead of bread crumbs), ran with it, and made it really excellent – my enhanced version at the link. I guarantee without a second thought that all other meatloaf pales in comparison, so there’s no point to me trying some random diner’s meatloaf. I mean, c’mon:

Go ahead, click it

“Lovely clams! Wonderful clams!”

Click for a larger version

Gorgeous cirrus uncinus (“curly hooks”) clouds – sometimes called mares’ tails – over the Essex Salt Marsh in Massachusetts adjacent to Route 133. I took this picture on a hot day in July and it was oddly pleasing to know that’s snow falling at 25 or 30,000 feet.

The Essex marsh is part of the 20,000-acre Great Marsh that extends from Cape Ann in Massachusetts north into New Hampshire (map at the link). The nest platform just visible at the lower left of the top photo is one of a few dozen set up in the Great Marsh for ospreys. The shot below, which I took in April 2012, shows mom and pop (one high, one low) getting some grub for the two chicks in the nest. The year after I took that photo, the Greenbelt conservation trust set up their OspreyCam next to this platform for a few years, later moving it to another nest in Gloucester.

Click for a larger version

Ospreys are cool, but marsh wildlife is not my chief interest at that location, nor are esoteric clouds.

Click for a larger version

Click for a larger version

I’ll probably be internally hearing the Vikings from the Monty Python Spam sketch singing the title of this post for the rest of the day now, but I don’t mind too much.

An Essex boy at heart

Essex, Massachusetts, that is.

My view of the salt marsh during tonight’s dinner at J.T. Farnham’s; click for a larger version

This year’s menu:

I got my usual clam plate with fries and onion rings, plus a quart each of clam chowder and haddock chowder to bring home. Market price on the clam plate was US$24, lower by a few dollars than last year.

I was more interested in eating than taking pictures, so here’s a plate they made earlier. They look this scrumpdillyicious every time. This is what I think of whenever I use or hear the phrase “golden brown and delicious”.

In praise of (the) Arnold Palmer

For the last few years, and year-round, my favourite drink – other than the occasional margarita or three at the Border Cafe – has been the Arnold Palmer (the non-alcoholic version, that is). Contrary to the 1:1 iced tea to lemonade ratio places most often serve under that name, Palmer himself preferred 2:1 tea to lemonade, as do I, except that I use a freshly-squeezed lemon-limeade.

My tea of choice for a couple decades now has been Luzianne quart-size tea bags for iced tea, the brand most often served in the Southern US. I like a strong tea whose taste doesn’t water down quickly in ice, so I use five quart bags to make a gallon of tea.

I go through about a gallon-and-a-half of this mix about every five or six days, which would normally involve a rather large bowl of simple syrup; instead, I use a sucralose solution. In the past several years since its patent expired, pure sucralose powder has been widely available at far cheaper prices than, say, Splenda packets – about one sixth the price in the end. It’s not a supermarket item, though, because the pure powder is 600 times sweeter than sugar; because of this, Splenda uses dried corn syrup powder as filler, which is why you see dextrose in its ingredients. I make a solution of 4g sucralose powder to 2 oz/60 ml of water and use a lab eyedropper bottle to dispense – 3 drops for coffee, 9 for a single 12-ounce lemon-limeade, and so on. It’s even simpler for the iced tea – exactly 1/16th teaspoon of the powder is perfect for a gallon. My lemon-limeade is the juice of half a lemon and half a lime plus 10 ounces/300 ml of water.

As to citrus squeezing, this is the best tool – great for both lemons and limes. I made a half-gallon of lemon-limeade earlier today, and squeezing every last drop out of twelve lemon and lime halves with this, leisurely, took maybe five minutes total. By the way, the bad reviews of this device you might see are from people who don’t know that you put the cut face down in the juicer. Yeesh.

Chef’n FreshForce Citrus Juicer. Dumb name, but it’s the best.

Instant stock fine-tuning

Yesterday, the addition of fresh sage plus maybe 50% more carrots than usual to my instant turkey stock recipe helped it produce the finest turkey gravy I’ve ever had. The magic mix:

I also tried my hand at producing a sweet potato casserole, which I’d never made before, using the best ideas from a handful of recipes after reviewing a few dozen online. I measured nothing and decided on quantities by taste alone as I added each ingredient. Of course, when you combine sweet potatoes roasted at 400F/200C for 80 minutes, dark brown sugar, molasses, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, toasted pecans, oats, and double cream – now available in the Jersey cow variety near me – it really can’t help but taste good, but this, too, was the best example of the dish I’ve had. My visiting best mate said, “Oh, my. This is the only way I want sweet potatoes from now on.” I’m not one to argue with impeccable taste.

If I were to add an egg or two, I think I’d then call this sweet potato pie filling

James Martin’s Croissant Butter Pudding topped off the evening quite nicely.

Cheap at half the price

This silly little Amazon Treasure Truck notice popped up on my tablet earlier tonight:

Amazon knows I live in Massachusetts, right next to one of the most prolific and sustainable lobster environments in the world, but maybe they don’t also know that, for a few weeks now, the Market Baskets around here have been selling live lobsters for US$4.99 a pound, as is their wont in the summer. Yes, you’ll have to buy about three pounds of lobsters to net a pound of meat, but that’s still only $15. And it’s fresh.

I know there are some lobster farms in Asia – rock lobster, because other species don’t survive farming attempts – but wild-caught is what you get here. No need to farm:

I think the wholesale price is what’s represented in the chart, so you can see that Market Basket has a mighty slim profit margin when they drop lobster down to $4.99, unlike other area supermarkets that continue to price theirs at up to $9.99 a pound (pffft!).

120 million pounds of lobster is the equivalent of eighteen fully-fueled Saturn Vs. As is the case with size of Wales or Olympic swimming pool comparisons, this helps the reader not one whit, of course, but at least the writer is amused. And now craving lobster, so there’s my comeuppance.

At Market Basket, ten bucks for this much lobster, two for the tarragon; maybe ten cents for the Luzianne sweet tea


“Here, put this in your bag”

17,545 scanned, searchable menus from 1850-present at the New York Public Library, including lots of airline, train, ship, and hotel menus.

Here’s the à la carte and suppers back page of the Parker House Boston menu for Thursday, 28 September 1865. Those were the days, eh? Tenderloin with truffles, a buck-thirty. Gimme one of those widgeons, too, wouldya? By the way, what is a widgeon?

At the end of this post is a menu I borrowed around 1980 from the original Mimi’s Cafe, in Anaheim, California – the first of just two or maybe three branches at the time. Consistently the best breakfast restaurant I’ve ever visited, with sticky honey bran muffins to die for – still true in this century. I would most often order the Oeufs et Pain Perdu that featured a sourdough French toast stuffed with cream cheese and orange marmalade, which I believe dreams are made of.

There are 145 Mimi’s these days, but their expansion has been limited to the southern half of the US, so I have to make do with my own not-quite-so-great version of those muffins. I can tell you that all the people on the web who claim “I finally made honey bran muffins just like Mimi’s!” are optimists at heart, sure, but I’ve tried their recipes – most of which feature a too-small proportion of bran and a pre-bake brown sugar-honey glaze deposited in the tin before the batter that incorrectly hardens on the bottom of the muffin – and have decided that they either have exceedingly poor memory or can’t help fibbing because they so want it to be true. None of them are even close to Mimi’s, which is rich in earthy bran taste and whose bottom glaze may simply be diluted honey drizzled on after baking when the muffins are inverted hot from the tin. I’ll publish my recipe when I further refine it to the point where it really is close. It’s not there yet.

Edited to add: Shortly after I wrote this post, I tried Nancy Silverton’s bran muffin recipe and immediately abandoned mine.

Founder Arthur Simms, an Army Air Force bombardier and navigator in WWII who later directed the MGM Studios commissary in the late 1940s and 1950s and opened other restaurants before Mimi’s, is said to have named the restaurant after a French woman he met at a party celebrating the liberation of Paris in August 1944. That was probably in England since there were no Army Air Force bomber crews in France in 1944. This conflicts slightly with the PR-embellished version, which one restaurant reviewer passed along like this: “A WWII veteran ace flyer, Simms dedicated Mimi’s to a fetching French woman whose town he liberated from Nazi occupation.” Ahem.

This menu has been tacked up in my kitchen in its folded form ever since those first visits during a week-long trip to work with a customer in Cerritos, a prominent electrical contractor that had done the electrical work for, among other large projects, Anaheim Stadium and the iconic Bonaventure Hotel in L.A. – that one with five circular glass towers seen in the opening montage of a lot of TV shows. I went to Mimi’s every morning after my first breakfast there and returned each time I visited Kirkwood Electric in the following years. I recall one visit when the women on the Kirkwood staff took me out to a nice dinner, but precious few details past the – ten, was it? – kamikazes they bought me over several hours. The other place I frequented was Polly’s Pies near the Kirkwood office because they had a rather glorious tuna melt on thick-sliced whole wheat bread that they baked on the premises. They haven’t expanded much and are still in Southern California only.

Click either image for 1920-wide.

Better than no clams

Before picking up the repaired Boop standup this week, I was disappointed to learn that J.T. Farnham’s closed for the season on Christmas Eve, but the nearby and year-round Woodman’s, more touristy but in relative terms quiet as a ghost town in late December, is a helluva lot better than no clams. Their combination plate of clams, buttery soft scallops, shrimp, cod, onion rings, and fries (US$31.99) was huge, nearly three times what you see here, so I saved some and had the leftovers just now.

The informative part of this post: I usually reheat fried food in a convection toaster oven at 225F/110C for 30 minutes, more or less, after taking it out of the fridge an hour ahead. The fan heat at a low temperature restores a good amount of the crispness without drying the food out. To be sure, it’s not like fresh, but it’s half to two-thirds of the way there – again, better than no clams at all.