Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tinkering With My Capital Region Style Hot Dog Sauce Recipe...

^ looks gross, I know... ^

So, I have been working on my personal recipe for Capital Region Style Hot Dog Sauce (click for my earlier recipe) again. Many will have no idea what I am talking about here, so a bit of peremptory explanation is probably in order. Frequent readers you may disregard as this will be a review. 

You see, the greater Capital Region of New York is home to a "hot dog micro-region" where small 3" wieners with mustard/raw onion/meat sauce (the "works") are the norm. Check out these bad-boys from Hot Dog Charlie's --

There are several venerable establishments which are particularly famous mini-dog vendors. I refer to Gus', Famous Lunch, and Hot Dog Charlie's as the holy mini-dog triumvirate (Charlie's is my personal favorite).  

The meat sauce is the major player in the mini-dog with the "works" experience and the relative quality of the sauce is usually what swings your average wiener-muncher's loyalty towards a particular hot dog joint. The Capital Region style sauce is a kissing cousin to Michigan sauce and both were developed by Greek immigrant vendors. 

I have endeavored for years to perfect my very own version of this beloved sauce with varying degrees of success. If you will remember, some years ago I shared a recipe that I had come up with. That was a decent version of the sauce... But age and wisdom have made me realize that there was much room for improvement in that recipe. I will attempt to impart some updated knowledge of the current state of my household hot dog sauceology.

The first and most important thing you should concern yourself with when starting your hot dog sauce is the final texture of the meat in the sauce. You really aren't going for a chunky "chili" sort of thing here. The crumb of the meat (can meat have a crumb?) should be very fine and have become almost one with the liquid of the sauce. Consult the video at the beginning of this post of the sauce for an idear of the texture I am speaking about. Note that at this point the sauce has not been tightened with a bit of cornstarch (explained later).

In my earlier recipe I advocated obliterating your cut of meat in a blender... This is fine, but perhaps unnecessary. You can go ahead and grind some chuck, brisket, or whatever else you have through a fine plate (85% lean is probably best, I used to go fattier). Here is the rub though. How you cook the meat at the outset is most important thing in the whole process. 

For 1 pound of meat you are going to need about 1/2 cup of finely diced onion. Take that onion and sweat it out in some fat (lard, suet, or butter) until translucent over moderate heat. No browning. I repeat no browning. When the onion is soft throw that meat in and get to smashing and smooshing. I use a wooden spoon myself, but some Michigan sauce recipes that I have seen advocate using a potato masher. It doesn't really matter as long you obliterate any chunks that would ruin the saucy end texture.

Also, no browning of the meat. I repeat, no browning of the meat. You are just looking to knock the pink off of the beef before adding your spices. Caramelized flavors are not really what you are looking for in this particular sauce. I have tweaked my spice mix a bit over the years and I think I have reached a good stopping point.

For 1 pound of meat I go with 2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. pepper, 1 tsp. mustard powder, 1 tbsp. paprika, 1 tbsp. chili powder, 1/2 tsp. cumin, 1/2 tsp. garlic powder, 1/4-1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, and 1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon. Throw the spices onto the smashed meat and onions and let them cook along at moderate heat for a couple of minutes. Raw spice flavor is pretty characteristic of a lot of hot dog sauces, but I think it is best to cook them off a bit... Use the cheap spices for this though, nothing too fancy. I actually think the muted flavors of cheap, grocery store spices give the final sauce a more traditional/authentic taste. Mini-hot dogs are a cheap (39-75 cents each) food and we need not put on airs.

At this point you cover the meat with water and bring to a bare simmer.

It is now time for a couple of small additions. A deviation from my original recipe is the addition of some acid. I have agonized here over what is best. I have tried -- cider vinegar, malt vinegar, lemon juice, ketchup, tomato paste, and I can't remember what all else... After all of this experimentation, I am sticking to my traditional "no tomato" stance in regards to this sauce. Tomato, even in small amounts, throws off the whole flavor in my humble opinion. To tell you the truth, I think what works best is a bit of plain ol' white vinegar. I throw in about 1 tbsp. to start with and sort of ratchet up the amount by tiny increments until I get where I want (somewhere between 1 and 2 tbsp.).

Also, I still don't use stock/broth as a liquid but I have come to enjoy the addition of a bit of good quality chicken base. Not enough to impart a real chicken soup sort of flavor, maybe only a teaspoon or so. This adds a bit of pleasant umami and some nice meaty undertones.

The whole mess simmers away for 2 or 3 hours covered on the range. Another slight deviation from my original recipe is that I have found that adding a little cornstarch slurry at the end to tighten up the sauce just a hair is not a bad idea. I use a titch less than 1 tbsp. dissolved in water.

There you have it folks. I think I am honing in on my own Platonic ideal of what a hot dog sauce should be. This is not necessarily an attempt at imitation of any of the big, local players' sauce, but more of my personal taste built under the framework of their storied offerings. I take a couple of small departures from tradition but nothing too grave.

Also, I must say that I have left my secret ingredient out of this recipe. Muhaha. I will never tell. The sauce is quite good without it so don't worry so much. We must all have our small secrets and intrigues, now don't we? The world would be absolutely no fun without them...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mountains, Cookies, Funerals...

See those cookies? Those are some good cookies right there... Oatmeal-y, chocolate-y, buttery little bastards. I ate about 4.

So where did I get them? It is enough to say that I aquired them, the hows and whys aren't really too important... They were made by the Bruderhof down in Rifton (Town of Esopus). The Bruderhof are a religious group originally hailing from Germany that have settled in several communities including one right here in the Hudson Valley. The delicious cookie making matter aside, if you have ever had dealings with the Bruderhof then you will know that they are generally some of the nicest people you are ever going to want to meet.

Some time ago I had the occasion (and honor) to be present for the funeral of one of the elders of the community. Every time I taste a Bruderhof cookie (probably once or twice a year) I am reminded of this event as I found it particularly moving. Have you ever been to Esopus? It is a very pretty town filled with forests, hills, and winding roads. The honored man was carried by members of his community (children singing the whole time) in plain pine through this setting to a simple clearing in the woods. His friends, family, and neighbors put him to rest right there in that honest dirt, laid down fresh pine boughs, and then took turns covering him with shovel-fulls (children singing the whole time). I don't think that I have ever seen a more simple and beautiful expression of loss and I sort of treasure the memory.

Why am I telling you all of this? I guess one of the central themes of this hack blog has always been about the power of food to conjure up deep and powerful memories and these cookies certainly do that for me.

Also, it is an example of why I love the great state of NY (most of it at least). I bet a lot of you have never even heard of the Bruderhof, Rifton, or even Esopus. We have so many treasures hidden in the nooks and crannies of our little corner of the world. There is power and mystery up on our mountains and untold glories squirreled away in our vallies. I will concede the point that it is sometimes necessary to search a little harder for the gems in Upstate NY then elsewhere, this is only part of its charm...

In any event, food, memories, blah, blah, blah... I will stop now. As I am always on about Proust and his madeleines, I will leave you with variation on the theme from a song-

Over and over again

I keep tasting that sweet madeleine

looking back at my life now and then
asking: if not later then when?

   -Pet Shop Boys, "Memory of the Future"
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