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Wednesday
Jul312013

Rib Fest 2013

Never touch another man’s grill!

The most formal, yet informal tasting of pork ribs I’ve ever had. Six different styles of pork ribs, plus The Cured Ham/Lamb’s contribution of lamb riblets and a snack of pork skewers rounded out the selection of barbeque fabulousness last Saturday afternoon at The Mermaid Lounge.

An amateur and professional exhibition/competition pitted Green Egg Zealot, Fresno Bites versus a slew of Weber Kettles, a BBQ Pro and even one gas grill against each other for the 2013 Rib Fest Champion. Competitors cooked pork baby back and St. Louis style ribs.

Our host, Tony, would often come through the BBQ Garden, the space of grass and concrete designated for pork products, for a Belushi inspired speech about the German’s attacking Pearl Harbor or a more Chris Farley channeled rant focusing on the finer points of the Brotherhood of the Grill or some such thing. Regardless of the comedic performance, Tony and his wife Linda are the inspiration for the gathering of friends and lovers of barbeque and we all thank them for it.

A note on my lamb; I only used Colorado and Sonoma County lamb; nothing from New Zealand. I know a few people mentioned it didn’t taste gamey or too strong. Additionally, I season my lamb heavily with a variety of spices, including nutmeg, turmeric, paprika, freshly ground coriander and fennel seed and a wide variety of dried herbs.

The broad brush stroke on barbeque is the need for time and smoke. But what about the little flourishes and what defines great barbeque? Wrapping in foil? When to sauce if at all? The application of dry spices and the length of marination? How often does one open the lid of the barbeque? What types of wood? One thing that was noticeable at Rib Fest 2013 was the type of rib used by the competitors, St. Louis versus Baby Back.

The top two vote getters were trimmed St. Louis style ribs cooked by Fresno Bites and Tops BBQ. All the other competitors chose to use baby backs. I personally chose, by secret ballot, #4 Fresno Bites offering, the winner of the competition. My second choice happened to be #5 Tops BBQ, the runner-up.

Why? Texture, the “pull” of the meat from the bone, flavor, smoke flavor and moisture.

What put Fresno Bites over the top was a hint of sweetness combined with a whisper of heat.  Fresno Bites chose to wrap his ribs in foil and press in some brown sugar near the end of the cooking process; again, the little flourishes and attention to details beyond just general technique.

Tops BBQ in terms of smoke quality was A+, but just missed on that “saucy” quality I was looking for; otherwise, the pull and texture was spot on. I will say, Tops "Dexter" gloves kinda creeped me out.

I gave honorable mention to coffee aficionado Leo from Café Corazon for his #6 ribs for using mustard in his sauce. Some people in the crowd didn’t like mustard, I happen to like it. Leo always pays attention to details and was sampling and observing Bites and Tops.

It was a great afternoon and evening with friends, fellow lovers of pork (and lamb), and an educational experience on what defines barbeque.

And not one mention of tri-tip all afternoon...AMEN!

In fact, I learned what starts a great barbeque fire...old phone books!

Wednesday
Jul102013

East Side Bake Shop, Mammoth Lakes

The East Side Bake Shop @esidebakeshop is closer to Crowley Lake than Mammoth Lakes, despite the address.

I know how to get to the East Side Bake Shop...take the McGee Creek exit on Highway 395 and take an immediate left on the Crowley Lake frontage road and it's on your left hand side of the road...where all the cars are parked.

To be perfectly honest, we stumbled upon the bake shop after doing some late afternoon activities on BLM land nearby.

I'm always on the quest for baked goods, pies, crumbles and scones tend to top the list for me. The Great Basin Bakery in Bishop is one of the better, albeit, less famous bakeries on the East Side. Schaat's in Mammoth and Bishop are the big bakeries on and off Highway 395.

The East Side Bake Shop is only a couple months new, but the quality speaks to someone baking a little longer than a couple months.

I felt immediately relaxed and at home inside the Bake Shop. The light was perfect, the log cabin feel, rustic; the smell of freshly baked goods permeated the room. A Siren Song of baked goods and savory treats...

The peach and strawberry crumble, fresh out of the oven was my immediate choice. My brother, looking for something more substantial, chose the quiche. My father, smartly chose the fresh fig bar.

My crumble was still warm when served in my deep, white bowl. I seriously thought twice about the dollup of whipped cream placed on top of my fruit dessert; almost wondering if I had fruit served with my whipped cream. Wonderfully satisfying crumble, not too sweet, hinted with spice, but only to accent the fruit. Delicious.

To test if the baker spices her baked goods similarly, I tried my Dad's fig bar. Totally different spice profile. A hearty fresh fig bar, the sweetness was more pronounced than my crumble, but balanced. I easily could have eaten one or taken one for later consumption.

My brother's quiche, the savory item for the afternoon, was equally well balanced. The salt profile was good and the eggs weren't overcooked. My brother and I tend to cook frittata 99 times out of 100, simply because we don't want to make a pie crust, but the same principles apply to both frittata and quiche, don't dry out the eggs and season more than you think.

Based upon my first experience at the Bake Shop, I went back again for a sample of two different scones, apricot and pecan spice.

The apricot, I snacked on during my drive from Mammoth over Tioga Pass and through Yosemite Valley back to Fresno. Scone two, the pecan spice, I ate for breakfast the next morning. Both scones had a crumble to them, not overly dense or "cake-like". Scones should have a certain lightness; credit to anyone who can bake at altitude.

I can say with confidence and ease that the East Side Bake Shop is one of the best bakeries on Highway 395 and worth the drive from Mammoth Lakes to grab breakfast or a mid afternoon snack. 

Truly a great bakery.

East Side Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Wednesday
Jul102013

Black Velvet Coffee, Mammoth Lakes

When you head to Mammoth Lakes, you have exactly five (5) choices for coffee: The Looney Bean, Stellar Brew, Starbucks, Black Velvet Coffee, and the back of my XTerra.

I have been a long-time Looney Bean and Stellar Brew patron. Stellar Brew has great sandwiches and Looney Bean has their Black Diamond and Black Russian dark roasted coffee.

However, when you're looking for an absolutely exquisite espresso, there is no other choice in Mammoth Lakes than Black Velvet.

There's a lot that goes into a simple espresso and nothing for the average bystander. Yes, the espresso at Black Velvet takes longer than an average bar in Florence and yes, the line at Black Velvet is probably longer than other coffee lines in town, but when the outcome is near perfect espresso (because nothing is perfect), I'll happily wait in line for something this good.

Otherwise, I'll just head back to the Old Shady Rest Campground and make coffee myself.

Black Velvet Coffee on Urbanspoon

Tuesday
Jul022013

The Italian American Omnivore

The Cured Ham had a lot of fun writing about the superiority of bacon over tofu. I would like to thank Homo Sapiens 200,000 years ago for their HUNTING (you don't hunt soy, you hunt feral pigs) and gathering skills and of course, upright, bipedal locomotion. Although, the last 10,000 years we’ve sort of settled down and improved our agricultural prowess by developing things like tofu and high quality wine.

Condescending? Not at all. We as a species are omnivores, plain and simple. Veganism is a fascinating First World, moral, spiritual, religious debate, nothing more; angels on the head of pin to emphasize my doctrinal studies.

Humans, Josh Tehee of The Fresno Bee and I, are omnivorous, which includes vegetarian cuisine. Things like gnocchi pesto, linguini in red sauce, cheese pizza, eggs on toast and cacio di pepe are all a form of vegetarianism, omnivorous, and delicious.

I, like Josh, eat a wide variety of foods and not all of them are animal flesh. Cheese is a regular part of my diet. But I wasn’t always so lucky.

Growing up, I had a severe lactose intolerance or milk allergy as it was called in the 70s. Josh, I know more about soy products than you can possibly imagine. IMO, the original imitation sour cream is how I participated in baked potato night. Nucoa, the only margarine without dairy in it and the substitute for butter in chocolate chip cookies. Mocha Mix, my breakfast milk till I was age 12 and the only soy milk available in Fresno till probably 1985. Let’s not forget another fan favorite, Cool Whip, non-dairy whipping cream (it has dairy in it these days). When the other kids were eating real whipping cream, I learned to love whipped hydrogenated oil. I even remember trying some of the first soy milk ice cream on the market, horrible; which is why I developed a love for Daiquiri Ice from 31 Flavors; because sherbet in the 70s also had milk.

I haven't touched any of these products since I was about 14. All substitutes for the real thing.

I couldn’t have a pepperoni pizza until I was 12 years old because American pepperoni contained non-fat dry milk solids, (soy fillers are also used) which is why I exclusively ate Italian imported products as a child because they were cured without additions, only salt and natural seasonings.

My mother and I were reading ingredients on packages as a matter of habit and safety since the early 70s. We knew more than the doctor when it came to dietary restrictions.

Substitute is a word I grew up with. And let me tell you, Cool Whip is no substitute for real whipping cream. I love whipping cream, probably because I couldn’t have it for so long and was forced to eat the substitute for so many years. I relish every finger licking experience I can get these days.

It’s the same with bacon versus tofu. Tofu will NEVER substitute for bacon. Tofu is in a class all by itself.

In the world of food Josh, I totally agree, the “vegetarian option” can be horrible. However, a beautifully crafted mushroom risotto with truffles is sublime and 100% Vegetarian (and we can thank the pig for finding those truffles). I’ve had risotto at Schoolhouse, Trelio and Lela’s all vegetarian or pescetarian and all quite satisfying. And on a side note, each of the chefs at the aforementioned restaurants created very different styles of risotto.

Since you mentioned the generic pasta option for vegetarians, I’d like to expand on that topic. I was fortunate to live in Southern Italy, specifically, Puglia. Pasta is eaten daily. One such dish is orrechiette with rapini and grated cheese. Vegetarian, yes. Normal part of the Puglian diet, yes. It’s simply what you eat, it’s the staple pasta dish of Puglia. I continue and my family continues to eat that dish in Fresno. But we would never label ourselves vegetarians, it wouldn’t even occur to us to do so. Pasta with rapini or red sauce is just Southern Italian, nothing more.

I hate to break it to vegetarians…you’re not that special. You’re omnivores with a label. Good for you and the vegetarian marketing department. Please stop reminding me of your vegetarian ways. I like the same food you do and probably prepare most vegetarian dishes with a greater sense of tradition, culture and place than you do, not to mention skill.

Speaking of protein in Puglia, rabbits and game birds are far more likely to be on the table than a rib-eye. Beef is a heavily Americanized item. Secondly, the Puglian-American diet, that which my mother and grandmother grew up with in Fresno, was more heavily influenced by cheese, eggs, and vegetables than beef or pork. I recently posted a picture of a completely vegetarian meal of fried eggplant, fresh cheese, tomatoes, Italian curly peppers, bread, olive oil and wine that will rival any meal, anytime, anywhere on the planet!

My 92 year old grandmother would still rather eat swiss chard, cheese, bread, and olive oil than a steak. My grandmother is certainly not a vegetarian sympathizer. If you tried to tell my 92 year old grandmother that she was vegetarian, she’d say “No, I’m Italian, I eat what I want and I eat good food…and today I want a steak…what’ya think of that?!”

Being a vegetarian IS congruous with being an omnivorous human. Eating soy products is part of the omnivore’s diet. I agree with Josh, tofu will never be a substitute or compete with bacon, chorizo, steak or meatballs; and it shouldn’t.

I follow the same philosophy as my grandmother. Eat whatever you want, just eat well and never substitute for quality or the original product. 

Because Cool Whip will NEVER be whipped cream and tofu will NEVER be bacon.

Monday
Jul012013

Energy Bars: Saving the Planet! (But do they taste good?)

I’ve eaten a lot of energy bars recently. A lot. At this point, I’m an expert on three particular brands and 4 different styles. But before I reveal what I’ve been eating, I want to give you the bullet points listed on the packaging of these bars:

  1. All Natural
  2. Non GMO
  3. Gluten Free
  4. No Sugar Alcohols
  5. Low Glycemic
  6. Very Low Sodium
  7. Dairy Free
  8. 1% for the Planet
  9. Certified Organic by QAI

Delicious is not a bullet point. Delicious is a word used in the narrative or small print to describe the trail bars. From a marketing point of view, all of the exceptions seem to be more important than tastes great which I find interesting for a food product.

Now that I know all the things that some of these energy bars ARE NOT, what are they?

Mojo from Clif Bar uses Organic Pretzels in their Peanut Butter Pretzel Bar. Not a big marketing point for me. They also use several other ingredients to make what are basically glorified Rice Krispie treats with peanuts. My jaw usually hurts from eating a Mojo Peanut Butter Pretzel bar and without the nostalgia value of a Rice Krispie.

Suffice it to say, the Clif Mojo Peanut Butter Pretzel Bar is not my favorite.

Mojo Chocolate Almond Coconut bar is better than the peanut butter type. I can taste the coconut and the bar is a little softer and easier to chew. But not much easier to chew. I think it would be nearly impossible to eat either Mojo Bar near freezing temperatures, which makes it difficult to take for certain types of climbing or hiking. Forget about it in winter.

Readers have to understand, I’m hungry when I’m eating these energy bars. I’ve been hiking at 10,000 feet for the better part of 2 or 3 hours and I want a snack. I’m not really thinking “Save the Planet” right now, I’m thinking, “hungry, sweet, calories, tasty, big hill coming up”.

Kind bars I’ve been enjoying since I was flying around the country in airplanes 200 days a year. Kind is better than the inflight meal and they fit in your bag better, last longer and with less potential mess than Panda Express. I can recognize everything in a Kind Bar and they taste wonderful. They seem to be bound together by honey and taste like it too.

I like Kind Bars and have liked them for several years.

Not exactly a modern energy bar, Walkers Butter Cookies always makes it in my backpack. That’s right, good, old fashioned butter cookies from Scotland since 1898 and made with all natural ingredients. In fact, I will list the ingredients because I understand what they are: wheat flour, butter, sugar, salt. Simple and delicious. The Scotts behind these cookies didn’t get the memo back in 1898 that all of the ingredients listed in their delicious shortbread seem to be the scourge of the modern world. I’m sure if Walkers wanted to, they could make an organic shortbread cookie and kick back 1% to Scottish Salmon for all I care. And they could probably charge twice as much.

I love Walkers Shortbread and often eat them before bedtime in my tent.

So why are Energy Bars marketed with an exception list, rather than a “tastes great” logo?

Because most energy bars are not for backpackers, climbers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

My theory; Energy Bars are marketed to people who live in cubicles and airport lounges who know they need to eat, but probably shouldn’t eat the full buffet at the hotel early in the morning before their flight or simply aren’t inclined to cook at home, so they skip breakfast.

Remember, I was the guy sitting in an airport for 10 years deciding between another Panda Express, Subway, or the United Inflight Meal. Or, eat a Kind Bar and ask the flight attendant for a big glass of milk, fall asleep and try to hold out until I got to a city where I could have a real, sit-down meal.

So next time you’re on a day hike at 10,000 feet, pack a ham and cheese sandwich, one Kind Bar and two Walkers Shortbread cookies for dessert. You’ll be a lot happier.