Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Production of "Artisan" Food Products at Home

Bear with me here, I will get to the point after some blathering about the above pictured cheese...

Here we have a cheese that I make with some regularity. I don't really know what I should call it, I guess it is a "provolone style" cheese as I have heavily adapted the traditional sort of recipe to my own needs and purposes. To make this cheese I use 3 gallons whole milk + 1 quart of half and half (Meadow Brook Farms, Clarksville, NY). I use both mesophilic and thermophilic cultures, it is a pasta filata cheese of the Italian school, and is brine soaked. 

The resulting cheese can be eaten at any point during its lifespan. Eaten young it is vaguely reminiscent of the standard low moisture mozzarella that you would find at any grocery store. After 4 months or so of aging it acquires some character. This cheese is great for snacking, melts well, and is fairly mellow in flavor (i.e. acceptable to children as it reminds them of string cheese). Due to the high quality dairy that Meadow Brook Farms churns out (and the fact that I don't use any adulterants) there is a freshness to this cheese that makes it thoroughly enjoyable.

So, why am I telling you all of this about the stupid cheese I make? It is because I would like to share a bit of my philosophy on the home production of "artisan" food stuffs (mostly charcuterie and cheese in my case). 

You see, when many of us set off on the road to becoming budding salami makers, cheese makers, or kraut-meisters we tend to set our sights unrealistically high. A novice cheese maker decides that he/she might like to give Roquefort cheese a go, or an aspirant of the meaty art of charcuterie might go after a large diameter, cold smoked, dry cured number... There is always the urge to produce the rare, exotic, and exciting -- the sweaty, gooey, stinky, moldy cheese that will impress your friends and scare the neighbors. 

During these lofty pursuits I think that many of us kitchen alchemists lose sight of what I believe to be the primary goal of home production -- taking quality ingredients and crafting them into foodstuffs that you and your family will actually consume with some regularity. Trying to recreate items that are made by veritable artists with hundreds of years of tradition behind them (not to mention a full compliment of facilities/equipment) is a foolish pursuit and will often result in miserable failure (and waste).

That is why I brought you through the example of my provolone-esque cheese. That cheese is a no nonsense, pedestrian affair that is not going to knock the socks off of your learned cheese aficionado. But guess what? As un-complex as it is, it is made from excellent local dairy products, isn't full of chemicals, and I actually enjoy eating it! I can produce a giant log of it relatively effortlessly and inexpensively and the stuff fulfills a good amount of my cheese eating needs.  

That is the rub I think. Master the basics of your craft, start churning out agreeable results that you can integrate into your daily diet, and then maybe move on to a novel/difficult recipe or two to spice it up a bit. Forsake the urge to make fermented Nepalese raw yak milk cheddar for the novelty of the whole affair and just go ahead and do up a nice wheel of Monterey Jack (w/milk from your local dairy) instead. 

Taking the production of a couple food items out of the hands of the mass purveyors and bringing it home is a pursuit worthy in and of its self. If you can make even half of the cheese /salami/ pickles/ sauerkraut/ bread (or whatever else) that you consume at home yourself than I think that is just the bee's knees. If you can go a step further and do all of this whilst using responsible local products than you are knocking it out of the park.

All this being said, there really is nothing better than crafting then eating/sharing your own stuff. After many years of trial and error (and the construction of Franken Fridge, my meat curing chamber) I can finally consistently produce my own small diameter, dry cured, snacking salamis like these -

These lil' salamis pretty much satisfy my salami snacking needs so I no longer have to pay the exorbitant prices charged by many purveyors of this sort of thing. After about 10 years of meddling with salamis, I am only now moving on to fancier, large diameter sorts of stuff like this pork/beef jobber with walnuts -

I have high hopes that soon I will be providing for my own sandwich salami needs, we shall see...

Ever since buying my house I have been getting increasingly involved in kitchen gardening as well. I have two big giant raised beds filled and prepped for this growing season and I look forward to finding ways to deal with all of that produce (if everything doesn't die or get eaten by Delmar's hordes of cheeky deers).

So to sum it up -- make stuff at home, but maybe try to keep it simple.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Butter Hard Rolls

I have taken a sort of sojourn away from writing about the foods indigenous to our great Upstate New York homeland as of late. So I thought it might be nice to examine an item that is maybe not absolutely unique to Upstate NY, but is so ubiquitous here that it is worthy of mention. 

Who likes butter hard rolls? I try to think of white carbohydrates as a treat to be enjoyed sparingly lately so my butter hard roll intake is pretty slight. But I have eaten more than a couple of these bad boys in my life. The borders of the area of butter hard roll availability seem to be pretty consistent with those of breakfast sandwich land, i.e. New York and New Jersey. Of course you see the butter hard roll elsewhere... but I would arge that New Jersey and Upstate New York are the true butter hard roll spiritual homelands.

A butter hard roll, very simply put -- is a hard roll... with butter... Not too overwhelmingly complex of a concept but the devil is always in the details. I am going to put this out there right out front -- A true Upstate NY butter hard roll is often a very disappointing experience. They have most likely been left at room temperature for indeterminate lengths of time which leads to a host of problems. A stale hard roll or rancid butter are two of the main issues and a pet peeve of mine is when the maker tries to spread cold butter on a soft roll and tears up the crumb. That is the move of a rank butter hard roll amateur.

In any event (and for better or worse) butter hard rolls are available at most gas stations, convenience stores, bakeries, and diners 'round these parts. The specimen we will examine here today was obtained at my beloved Stewart's (click for an unnecessary amount of posts that I have made about Stewart's). I forget how much they cost at Stewart's but I think they are around a buck.

Here you have your standard Stewart's hard roll, which are OK, but not my favorite. They are a bit soft crusted with a crumb that is a little denser than one would like. The roll is split, given a hearty smear of butter (Stewart's uses Cabot butter), rolled tightly in cellophane, adorned with a "BUTTER" sticker written in Stewart's trademarked font, and parked in a basket next to the register awaiting your grubby mitts. 

There she is folks. Bland, buttery, and cheap sustenance.

Butter hard rolls of this ilk have their purpose. This purpose is mostly to settle your stomach after a night of heavy drinking and this is a purpose most worthy when you think about it. In fact, during my wife's first pregnancy she could stomach little and I remember buying these for her a time or two. So my two cents is that Stewart's should market its butter hard rolls towards pregnant ladies and drunks.

To sum it all up, butter hard rolls are widely available in Upstate NY, often bad, but sometimes good. Fiorello's over on Western Ave. does a pretty good version for a buck and I think the McCarroll's at the Delmar Market will make you one with a Prinzo's roll if you ask... A good hard roll with good butter actually really is a simple and splendid thing when done right.

I will not get into a discussion of hard rolls here as that is a topic all of its own, but I will tell you that I favor Prinzo's Bakery's hard rolls. I live off Delaware Ave. in Delmar so Prinzo's is pretty much right up the road from me. I can generally obtain their hard rolls at peek freshness which is most likely the reason I favor them over any of the other usual suspects in the local bakery world. Below is an example of their product-

As I just made a metric butt-ton of delicious 'Ndjutica Butter I thought it might be nice to treat myself to a bit of a spin on the classic butter hard roll. I cut and smeared that roll with a lordly amount of delicious, spicy, fatty, 'Ndjutica butter...

This was glorious.

Monday, April 1, 2013

My "'NdjUtica" is A Success! I Made 'Ndjutica Butter!

If you will remember, some time ago I posted about a charcuterie experiment that I had thrown into my curing chamber (Franken-fridge). I had whipped up a version of the Calabrian spreadable salami 'Nduja which I named "'Ndjutica" in honor of the Utica Grind Pepper that I used in the recipe. Here she is pre-curing-

I put this chub to cure in early January (I didn't get around to publishing the original post until late January) so this puts the total cure time at around 6 to 7 weeks. I had planned on letting the chub cure for several months -- but as expected -- curiosity got the better of me and I pulled it early. I was anxious to know whether my 'Ndjutica was a success or not (6-7 weeks is enough to get the jist) so I could get to making subsequent batches to satiate my meat-spread hunger...

I was immediately encouraged upon slicing off an end of the 'Ndjutica as it appeared to have dry cured pretty evenly throughout the entire chub. It pretty much looked just like the (overpriced...) Boccalone 'Nduja that I ordered and sampled quite some time ago.

I pulled a hunk out of the twisty end bit and warmed it up between my fingers. The texture was perfect! I.e., not sliceable like a traditional salami, but fatty and maleable like 'Nduja is supposed to be. I tasted a bit of the 'Ndjutica and thought it was delicious. The salami was salty, fiery (but not intolerably so), smoky, with a fair amount of fermented funkiness. I was just pleased as punch with my creation.

My mind immediately began racing with ideas for ways to utilize the fairly large amount of 'Ndjutica that I had on hand (aside from eating it straight). Generally you eat the stuff warmed and spread on bread, or you can throw it into a pasta sauce. I also recalled having seen a neat idea to make a sort of 'Nduja compound butter. I thought this would be a worthy purpose for a nice bit of my 'Ndjutica. I got to work post haste.

Using a rolling pin and some cellophane I fashioned two large rectangles (one of butter, one of 'Ndjutica). Just look how nicely the spicy stuff spread out -

Afterwards I carefully rolled the two fatty squares together into a sort of meat/butter jelly roll. I threw the beautiful cylinder of spicy charcuterie and butter into the fridge to chill down and meld flavors for the evening.

This morning I had the wife pick up a loaf of Prinzo's Bakery (Delaware Ave., Albany) bread. To me Prinzo's bread is the perfect "blank canvas" sort of thing when you really want to enjoy the accompaniment without another strong flavor getting in the way. Prinzo's bread is also my favorite vehicle upon which to enjoy my other treasured meat spread -- Rolf's Pork Store's Teewurst.

Ain't the below a pretty picture if there weren't ever one? Just look at that fatty red 'Ndjutica rolled within that yellow butter. I almost cried.

And here she is spread lightly on a thin slice of bread.

I spread the stuff cold which was not ideal, but I could not wait. A hunk of the 'Ndjutica butter at room temp. with an ice cold beer and a nice slice of fresh bread is going to be really very good. I am going to wait until the weather gets a bit better so I can enjoy this experience outside unsullied by the crap weather we have been receiving. I will let you know how that goes...

In any event, the 'Ndjutica was everything I could have hoped or dreamed for in a homemade meat creation. There are precious few times in my life where I would put up one of my own home-crafted food items against any commercially available version of the same -- this is one of them. I can't find too many flaws with this recipe and given a few minor tweaks I am going to put 'Ndjutica into regular home production. I can't restate how thoroughly satisfied I am with this project.

OK, my arms are sore from patting my own back. That is all.
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