Saturday, November 26, 2011

An Albany Holiday Story From My Past

Thanks for the pic Daniel B.

Have you been to Ragonese Imports over on New Scotland? Well I haven't, at least not in about 20 years. I hear it still has good food, but that is not where I am going with this post. This is a little holiday story from my family history that came to mind last night. I thought I would share. I don't feel I am too off topic here because it is the holidays, Ragonese has food, and the story takes place in Albany. I trust you won't mind this short little sentimental trip into my murky past.

Ragonese has always been one of my Albany childhood landmarks as it was right near my elementary school (School 19, I don't know what all they are calling the place now). That was also the neighborhood that I grew up in. As with most other children, I wasn't too interested in Italian specialties back then. My parents used to go in from time to time for a sandwich or cold cuts. My father has always enjoyed good food.

Do you remember the Cabbage Patch doll(many were produced in Upstate, NY don't you know?) craze of the mid-eighties? Albany was hit every bit as hard as the rest of the nation and my older sister caught an itch for one in the worst way. My mother took upon the mission of obtaining one of the plastic-noggined things with a sort of grim determination.

I have a fairly vivid memory of being toted along to Toy"R"Us over on Wolf Road with my Ma and standing in a hectic line waiting. But alas, we were not among the lucky chosen. The dolls were all gone. Leaving the store, I am sure my mother felt a disappointment that I only now understand as I have a darling daughter of my own.

Some days later, as my mother tells it, she stopped into Ragonese for some cold cuts and as she came to the counter to pay do you know what she saw? Several true blue Cabbage Patch dolls sitting on a shelf in their boxes, for sale, right there in the middle of a local, independent Italian deli. This was at a time when you could absolutely not find the dolls anywhere. Of course she purchased one along with her salami and cappicola and it must have warmed her heart to know that she would not have to let my sister down on Christmas morning. Nobody has ever been able to explain to me how or why the Cabbage Patch dolls were at Ragonese Imports, maybe it is a question that shouldn't be asked.

So there you have it folks. A little ol' Albany Christmas miracle from my family history. So when you are muscling through the hordes of humanity at the mall and exiting into the bleakness of an Upstate winter day this year, when you are fighting traffic on a road lined with piles of dirty snow, always remember that there are still tiny miracles out there in the world. You just have to recognize them, put them in your pocket, and take them with you throughout your life.

By the way, I know it is horribly commercial of me, but I may or may not have bought an absurd amount of presents for my little ones this year. I know that these are tough times and I should be saving my money (or giving it to someone who needs it more), but there are tiny faces in my household that simply must have ear to ear smiles on them (at any price).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Lore of Our Grandmother's: Dr. Pepper Ham

You know those stories wherein an indigenous tribe in the Andies has been rubbing some sort of tree bark on their cuts since time immemorial, then later it turns out that the bark was really a super antiseptic? Well, I like those sorts of stories. I tend to think that a lot of these sorts of situations happen in the recipes of the past.

You see I have a sort of fetish for all of the 1950s and 1960s era strange and wonderful recipes to be found in various periodicals and branded cookbooks. Something about the bizarre mishmashes of ingredients and the horrid food photography of those days just tickles me pink (go poke about the venerable Gallery of Regrettable Food for some examples).

Anyhow, sometimes I think there is method in the madness of our Grandma's. Take Dr. Pepper Ham for instance. You can poke about and find various recipes for this out there, the one I use is fairly simple. A bone in shank ham, pineapple, and brown sugar is all you need. Sounds pretty strange (even a bit vomitous) right? Maybe there is something to it. As I had been tasked by the in-laws to "bring ham" for Thanksgiving this year,  I thought I would experiment on them.

As you all know, pineapple contains Bromelain which is a protease enzyme that acts as a tenderizer and can break down meat fibers. That pineapple on top of your Al Pastor is no accident, it serves a function. Maybe there is a strange interplay between the acidic Dr. Pepper and the enzymatic action of the pineapple that results in some sort of delicious, tender ham. I just don't know.

The process is simple, stake those pineapple rings (make sure you use fresh, the canning process destroys the enzymes) into your ham until it looks like some sort of horrible, monster larva then douse it with the Dr. P. Throw it covered into a slow oven for a couple hours, then uncover and cake with brown sugar. Throw it back in for a bit and that is all she wrote.

I cooked it yesterday, and will be serving it today. I am not going to reheat it, just gonna let it come up to room temp I think. I will let you know if everyone's favorite raisin flavored beverage, along with the pineapple makes for a delicious ham. I kind of think it is going to taste like ham-candy, but we shall see.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Bear's.

It has always been my opinion that the tradition/process/ritual of a culinary experience is often more important than the actual morsels of food that you chew up and swallow into your gullet. It isn't the taste of the lame-o over-grilled hamburger on a Freihofer's bun that makes a summer cookout enjoyable, it is the entire process. With the venerable Duanesburg institution that is The Bear's Steak House, this is the rub. From beginning to end, the entire meal is a sort of strange (but thrilling) ritual. 

Go to your phonebook, look for a phone number for The Bear's. Go ahead, search the internet. See if you can find a website... You will eventually track down the needed information, but this is only due to the much lamented (by me) advent of "yelpers" and other idiot, internet, restaurant documentarians. Before this was the case you kind of had to know someone who had been there and had the phone number handy in their rolodex. Also, it is still comically difficult to find a street address other than "Route 7, Duanesburg" for The Bear's. Use the Google map directions and you will find yourself taking a scenic tour of Duanesburg as the map is very wrong. 

You have to make reservations at The Bear's, and for a weekend evening you should probably call a week or two out. You may want to talk to someone in the know before making your reservation as you will be asked the question, "Chateaubriand or prime rib?" You don't have to pre-order either as The Bear's has a (sort of small) menu, but I recommend  that you go with the Chateaubriand for your party on the occasion of your first visit. While the Chateaubriand is probably not the best item on the menu, it is necessary for your traditional and classic visit to The Bear's. Make sure you have the number in your party firmed up and don't even think of canceling without a good amount of notice. Once you have committed to the Chateaubriand, there is no going back. You risk a verbal lambasting by the staff at the very least, possibly the denial of meaty delights in the future. You just never know.

After finding the phone number, making your reservation, securing your Chateaubriand, and obtaining a general idea of where the place is you must, along with your merry band, depart into the night. To Duanesburg! For me it is a long, lonely drive down good ol' Route 20 through Guilderland. The Bear's seats only twice per eve, at 5:30 and 8:30. I prefer the later seating and I usually make my visits in the fall. There is something very clean and crisp about a fall night in Duanesburg. 

After your long journey a house will appear out of the night. You will see the silly, portly bear on the sign and a pleasant sort of tingly anticipation will skitter up your spine. You will park, muster your merry band, and make for the door.

Hang up your jacket, take your seat, sigh and gaze upon the vivid blue wall paper. You will soon meet your waiter/waitress.

Order your beer or wine secure in the knowledge that the mental burden of deciding on a meal has been lifted away. You have already made that decision by pre-ordering a Chateaubriand. This is a set meal that includes bread, soup, meat, veg, and tatties. You must only trouble yourself with deciding on an appetizer.

The fist thing to arrive will be a roll. This will be a simple affair, nothing more than a plain, work-a-day white flour roll with a pat of butter. But look at the plate. Take in the pattern.

Of course, this is indigenous New York China. Just in case you haven't figured it out by now, at The Bear's you are in the middle of a definitive Upstate New York experience. I am not just talking about the food here folks. I can't think of another way to spend an evening that is so undeniably (and undefinably) Upstate-ish. If my whole person and being were expressed by a meal, this meal would be it. The stoic and the cranky, the ol'timey and the classic, the unflinching (and unapologetic) desire to be unchanging, all combined with a kind of shy warmness emanating from under the surface of the whole deal.

For your appetizer you will have a few choices. Below we have tomato and mozzarella.

Also offered are herring, salmon, and the most popular (traditional) choice which is shrimp cocktail. All of these were represented at my table and all were declared worthy. I had the shrimp.

Offered for the soup course that night were chili made from the trimmings off of the tenderloins...

as well as beef and barley soup.

I tasted both. The chili was well spiced and the beef and barley had some nice wine-y undertones, sherry or port I thought.

At this point, enjoy the lull. Have another glass of wine, mayhaps some sparkling water. In any event, gird your loins for what is to come. For soon to arrive will be the below pictured vision. Your Chateaubriand.

There she is folks. Meat on a platter. Does it ever really get better in this life than rare meat on a big, metal platter? If it does, I just don't want to know about it. They don't even ask you for a temperature for the meat when you reserve it as the staff of The Bear's assumes you aren't stupid and take your meat on the rare side of medium rare. I think I remember disclaimers on the menu deriding well done meat.

Pictured below are a couple slices unadulterated by anything save the white and blue Syracuse China. Look at that meat. Meat such as this surely honors the cow.

You get potatoes and carrots with your tenderloin but they are almost unnecessary.  However, a way of taking your tatty that I thoroughly endorse is to grasp one with the hand, break it in half, and run it through the lake of meaty juices on the bottom of the platter. Then devour it whole.

Here is the destruction wrought by 7 hungry souls. Hah! I just realized that I was at The Bear's with a party of 7. Twas a fortuitous and worthy number.

After the coming of the platter and the ensuing feast you will want to linger a bit and sigh until you summon the necessary willpower to leave this happy place and reenter the black and cold Duanesburg night. You will find yourself loosening the ol' belt and smiling out your window at the passing farmland as you head home.

You don't feel bad about how much you drank, how much you ate, or how much you spent. You feel somehow as if you have been quietly whispered a secret.  You have now been to The Bear's and you will already be thinking of your next visit. Maybe reservations for next weekend. Resist, for it may be too soon. Give it a little time, maybe until a clear crisp January night comes around and the memories of your meal have faded.

Only when you can just barely recall the pattern of the wall paper and its particular shade of blue should you venture out into the cold night again, Duanesburg bound.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Chicken Riggies Reloaded

A while ago I did a post on the Utica, NY specialty that is Chicken Riggies. As it turns out, this has become one of my most popular posts of all time, and is among of the top Google searches for the dish. I felt a little bad about this because that batch of Riggies was kind of weak, health-ified version. So when the wife asked me to prepare some Chicken Riggies the other night I decided to document a heartier version of the recipe.

To oversimplify the matter, Chicken Riggies is rigatoni and chicken with a spicy tomato/pepper cream sauce. There are endless variations and any Utican granny worth her salt is bound to have her own notions about what constitutes a dish of Riggies.  They even have annual "Riggiefests" out there in the strange and wonderful land of Utica. The following is merely my own preferred way of taking the dish.

To begin, as I stated before, Riggies is a "Grandma" dish. You don't need to hunt around in your specialty  Italian grocers for ingredients. This recipe is best served by using your standard grocery store items. You are going to need chicken, cream, tomato sauce, chicken stock, parmesan, cherry peppers, roasted red peppers, onion, garlic, rigatoni, whatever "Italian" herbs you like.

Maybe a little bit of Utica Grind red pepper flakes for kick.

There is something about a jar of pickled cherry peppers that I find extraordinarily visually pleasing.

I use two large, plump cherry peppers in my recipe (one red, one green). I find the cherry peppers to be the true essence of a Chicken Riggies. Some use Cubanelles or Italian frying peppers, I prefer the cherry peppers.

With the cherry peppers I use two large-ish roasted red peppers, 3 cloves of garlic, and 1 medium onion. Some favor a rough chop, I like to put a fairly fine dice on everything.

Saute the veg a bit in equal parts olive oil and butter.

Throw in you chicken, a couple pounds of browned, 1/2" diced should do nicely. Pour in a cup or two of chicken stock and a jar of decent pre-made tomato sauce (thickish if possible), a teaspoon of Utica Grind, and whatever herbs you choose. Let this all simmer for about 45 mikes and then remove from heat and stir in whipping cream until you have reached a pleasing pinkness. Throw in a handful of parmesan and that is all she wrote.

Pour in your nice, fat, ridged rigatonis and let it sit for a couple minutes.

There are those out there who finish this with black olives, I don't approve of this. I like a bit of parsley, nothing more.

So there you have it, a big pot of Chicken Riggies. I first encountered this dish in a cheap hotel in Oriskany (in hotel pans, at the complimentary dinner) and have had a soft spot in my heart ever since. The wife has also taken a liking to it, and we rarely share affinities for the same food stuffs. Chicken Riggies has become on of our infrequently consumed "family meal" kind of things and I have tailored it to our particular tastes. That is to say, what is described here is not an attempt at a definitive Riggies recipe. I find Chicken Riggies to be a very personnel experience.

Anyhow, hooray for Utica.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ryan's Farmers Market. Even if You Have No Other Reason to, Go for the Nibble With Gibble's (Lard Chips)

I have found that a lot of locals have driven by this place and are vaguely aware of it, but have never actually gone in. I am speaking about Ryan's Farmer's Market over on Fuller Road in Albany. Ryan's is a pretty no frills operation, the space is a little spare to say the least. My wife inexplicably says that it smells funny and won't go in with me (she is a strange one). But I have found that they generally have some decent produce items (at least as good as anything you are going to find in our local grocery chains), as well as all sorts of random and unexpected items that I like to peruse.

For one, they have Nibble with Gibble's potato chips.

You want to know why Gibble's (a going concern out of PA) chips are so good? Look right there at those ingredients. These chips are cooked in lard! If you are going to eat chips, you must trust me, take the drive and get some Gibble's at Ryan's. They are unctuous, salty little flakes of joy.

Ryan's also has a reasonable selection of Upstate farmed meat, mostly frozen beef and pork. I picked up a pork roast care of Gemini Excursion Farms in the Heldebergs. I think I am going to cure and smoke it for a canadian bacon kind of deal.

At Ryan's you can also get wine grapes/wine making supplies, cheeses, dairy products, deli meat, snacks, etc... To tell you the truth, I am so disgusted as of late with our local farmers market situations that I would  almost just rather just go over to Ryans to poke about. At least they actually sell meat and veg.

First the Troy market became a giant, obnoxious extravaganza and now the Delmar market (which sort of sucked to begin with) is even worse. I went there yesterday and there was probably about 1 grocery cart full of edible material in the entire place. It was pretty much an overcrowded, mediocre craft fair. I did actually see a few small and plump pumpkins at a stand and was going to buy them to do up some pumpkin butter, but I got so frustrated by being jostled by a pair of pushy silver foxes that I gave up and left with the family in a huff. But what is there to do? You have to take the world as it is and not as you wish it to be I guess... sigh.

Anyhow, I like Ryan's. It ain't D'Artagnan's, but I kind of like the joint.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day Post: Dehydrated Egg Mix, Butter Flavored, Pasteurized, Uncooked.

In honor of Veteran's Day, and in my tradition of sharing with you examples of military rations (see my MRE review, Heater Meal too), today I bring you breakfast items. As a veteran, I find that there is something of a disconnect between members of our country's all-volunteer military and the public in general (probably especially the food blog reading/writing community). I think these small glimpses into the life of a service member help us all gain some perspective.

So today, I bring you Dehydrated Egg Mix, Butter Flavored, Pasteurized, Uncooked. This is an item taken out of a breakfast Unitized Group Ration (UGR) which is meant to feed about 50 Joes. It comes in three big ol' cases which include everything you need for a meal (beverages, utensils, condiments, etc...). These are generally consumed in the field during training, deployment or any other time when a dining facility is not readily available.

In that foil bag you have 50 servings of egg divided between two "boil in bag" packages, all in a shelf stable, easily prepared, and portable form.

Inside you have two big sacks of dehydrated egg with caps. You simply follow the idiot proofed instructions to prepare. There are two methods of preparation, you can either add the water and boil the whole bag for 50 minutes, or add water and then utilize as you would any other egg mixture sort of thing. The boil in bag method results in a giant, spongy, egg loaf sort of thing that you can eat in slices. I went for the second method which is bit more manageable for the home kitchen.

 Make sure you slosh it around good, you wouldn't want to bite into a big hunk of dried egg, now would you?

Before we get down to egg cookin', here are some other items that come in a UGR.  Here is some "Butter Flavored Grill & Topping Oil." I think the cooks use this stuff to grease the griddle when they are making french toast out of bread and the afore mentioned egg mixture. What other mysterious and buttery uses there are for this stuff I know not.

This is a giant carton of "Shredded Hash Brown Potatoes." I am sure all of my fellow veterans are familiar with the limp, flavorless, soggy hash browns that result from improper preparation of this stuff.

You rehydrate the "hash browns" right in the box and then dump them out on a griddle to crisp up, this step never seems to be done thoroughly.

Usually there is good ol' American Ketchup included, but sometimes you get wing nut stuff like "Buffalo Bob's Extra Spicy Everything Sauce." This is pretty much just slightly spiced ketchup.

 Now back to the eggs. Pour a goodly amount of the gloup into a hot pan.

Pretty soon the egg mixture will congeal into something that looks very much like scrambled eggs.

There you have it, pictured below is what a standard breakfast of this type would look like. You would also have breakfast meats, and probably grits, but you get the idea.

You know what? As with MREs and most other Army chow you will find that the stuff really isn't that bad at all. These are obviously not farm fresh eggs, scrambled with care. But they are good enough for government work and I actually kind of like them. They are packed full of all sorts of familiar taste memories and nostalgia.

Anyhow, while everyone is enjoying a day off and getting all drunk, take a minute to remember what the day is truly meant to be.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Gallery of Stewart's Signage: Part 2

A Gallery of Stewart's Signage: Part 1

I have accumulated a few more interesting examples of Stewart's Shops advertising since my last post on the subject (linked above, a slightly more exhaustive collection). But I was cleaning off the old iPhone today and thought I would share a few more.

Check out the above, don't know why hunters wouldn't be welcome at Stewart's but I think it is nice that this location went out of its way to make the shooters of deers feel extra welcome. I also like the coffee cup with antlers, that is a nice touch right there.

Something about the sandwich board always makes me laugh. Look at the upper lefthand corner. Advertised is a "Bread Sandwich." I know that they meant a sandwich on white sandwich bread but I still think it is funny. I imagine them giving you two slices of bread with a third mayo smeared slice in between. It is also kind of funny that they use a picture of an egg salad sandwich as this is the least attractive sandwich of them all. It looks like a pigeon drank a 1/2 quart of Stewart's nog and then pooped it.

Now this here is just a good deal, plain and simple. 2 Deli Dogs with meat sauce and fixin's for less than 2 greenbills? You can't argue with that value. I love deli dogs with mustard and meat sauce, this is one of my dearest shameful pleasures. The sight of those two anthropomorphic, siamese twin hot dog guys in their sweet binary apron never fails to make me smile. Did I mention fixin's!?!

So there Hershey's, you can suck it.

Not really a sign per se, but I always thought that this thing was awesome. You get a wee, perfect scoop of Stewart's Ice Cream (#1 Best in the World!) in a tiny sized cone. Excellent for cranky 3 year old maintenance or for personal snacking. A much more attractive free sample display than this-

This made me chuckle endlessly, I even posted about it a while ago and someone else posted about the phenomena on Reddit. Stewart's was offering free samples of bread in individual slices in small ziploc sandwich bags clipped to a weird little pole. Anyone else find that to be the funniest thing of all time? Maybe it is just me.

Anyhow, I would like to become something of a clearing house for weird things seen at Stewart's. Email them to me at and I will think of a way to perserve them for posterity.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Stewart's Nog Battle: Premium vs. Light

Before I get into this, I want to head something off at the pass. I know that Stewart's Egg Nog is not necessarily the Platonic ideal of nog. It is made with all sorts of nonsense (HFCS, gums, dies, etc...) and is a bit on the sickly sweet side. I am not saying that Stewart's nog is perfect nog. Before you all get all indignant and start telling me how to take my nog, I happen to make my own nog too. As a nog fanatic I will discuss the finer points of nogology with you any time. It is kind of like how I love exotic and wonderful brews, but also happily swill Utica Club. My fascination with Stewart's Shops (click for my numerous rambling posts on the subject) and my unhealthy obsession with egg nog make it impossible for me to resist the appeal of the gold and silver cartons of sweet, sweet noggy nectar.

The dietary footprint of a glass of high test egg nog is fairly large. In light of the steady nog consumption I participate in during the holiday season I thought it might not be a bad idea to see if the Stewart's "light" nog is truly a suitable facsimile of the real thing. You save about 100 calories and 8 grams of fat per each 1/2 cup serving which is something like the nutritional impact of a tablespoon of butter.

Here we see that the two nogs appear superficially similar, maybe the Premium a bit more yellowish.

First we have the light version-

The light stuff pours fairly thick and noggy, not too shabby. Taking a sip you are hit by a distinct "whole milk-y" kind of flavor. You have all of the expected artificial nog-like flavor, and there exists a fair imitation of the mouth feel that is the hallmark of a good nog. But alas, the truly rich flavor and buttery feelings do not alight on one's tongue. A sporting attempt by Stewart's (no doubt using plenty of artificial thickeners and emulsifiers) but thoroughly unsatisfactory in my opinion.

Now onto the "Premium" (i.e. the high test)-

This stuff pours like cream, thick and silken. It pleasantly coats the tongue with a film of sweet nog-taste. It goes down with a saccharin punch to the throat and just the vaguest hints of egg and nutmeg remain in your mouth after a swig. I absolutely love the stuff, but I really understand why many can't stand it. Drinking this egg nog is something of an experience.

As I said before, I make my own nog at least once a season. When I drink a batch of my own I always feel just a bit of shame and self-hate over the fact that I know I would rather be drinking some Stewart's nog (out-the-carton no less). This is an inarguable fact that I cannot deny. But it takes all kinds I guess, takes all kinds...

Anyhow, I think I have successfully passed my gene for nog-mania to future generations as my beloved 2.9 year old (female type) has been demanding that I put some "neg nog" in her sippy cup. No matter, nothing would please me more then to breed a further one-hundred blonde, nog-swilling little viking children to terrorize the community. Wouldn't that be precious?

In conclusion, go Premium or don't go at all. Oh by the way, I hope you had a happy International Beginning of Nog Season Day!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Nog is On

I have decided to try my hand at holiday making and am declaring today (November 6th) as "Beginning of Official Nog Season Day." This is due to the fact that today was the day when I entered my friendly neighborhood Stewart's Shop and was confronted with the beautiful vision that is a shelf in the cold case fully loaded with golden and silver cartons of Nog, sweet, sweet, delicious nog. Not that you can't get nog at Stewart's year round (in little plastic bottles), but to see the whole shelf display is truly a harbinger of the joyous holidays to come.

If you haven't noticed, I am afflicted with a horrible Egg Nog addiction (read through my numerous posts on the subject). So the occasion of the wholesale reappearance of the golden nectar on store shelves seems to me to warrant celebration. November 6th seems to be an arbitrarily wonderful day to chose as the official "Coming of the Nog" occasion.

Anyhow, happy Nog Day! I, for one, will be celebrating with hearty swigs from the carton. I am also going to do a side by side comparison of the high test nog and the "light."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Goodbye Andy Rooney, Oh Fuzzy Eyebrowed Son of Albany

 Photo Courtesy of (Cindy Schultz / Times Union)
So Andy Rooney is gone, eh? That makes me a little bit sad. Did Albany ever have a more fitting mascot?

I often find myself going off on crotchety, Rooney-esque rants concerning simpler times and the way things used to be (ubi sunt, Where is the horse gone? Where the Rider?) much to the chagrin of my wife. But looking through his biography this doesn't seem so strange.  Rooney and I seem to have haunted many of the same haunts around Albany (albeit, during different decades). We were both born and bred in Albany, received our educations Upstate, and had a war and military service as the defining experience of our early adulthoods. I think all of this adds to the strange kinship I have always felt with the man (even though I haven't always agreed with everything he has had to say).  Where you are from gets in your blood, you know?

None of this is to say that I, as a hack blogger, am putting myself on the same journalistic plane as Andy Rooney. Sigh, anyhow, it is just kind of sad. Maybe one day far in the future when we all have passed, Andy Rooney, William Kennedy, and I can get together and haunt Albany Academy. I think there would be some good conversations (if either of them would talk to me).
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