Archive for August, 2008

The First Rule of Meat Club Is…

Monday, August 25th, 2008

This year’s BOMB party was a blast (no pun intended).  You may recall from last year’s post that BOMB stands for Boys Only Meat Bash.  The sagacious party-organizer, Mark, designed this mono-gender meat-up meet-up this way because he felt that excluding the ladies was the only way to have a truly hassle-free party.  Now now, let me explain on his behalf; he adores the company of the fairer sex (as do we all), but he knew his wife could not tolerate a party where plates are absent, napkins are scarce, cigar smoke abounds, manners are frowned upon, personal hygiene is optional, disorderly conduct is encouraged, and swearing is mandatory.  Once you invite one wife; they’ll all want to come to see one another, and before you know it, we’ll have to shave before we go.  As the unsightly gang of shabby, work-clothing clad, oafs arrived with the food, it became apparent that any effort that would have been wasted on a well-kempt appearance was instead directed at the food. 

Naturally, I had my camera with me.  Here is a short video I took of us guys milling about at the party while Mark learns how to use a cooking utensil:

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Ok, for real, the party is held at our friends’ (Sue and Mark) place at the southern edge of Albany county; the drive out is quite scenic.  My soon-to-be-famous friend Ryan and my already-infamous-friend Mitch came along with me.

This year, I made grilled shrimp with Asian pesto (thanks again for this terrific recipe, Celinabean*; it was a big hit) and jerk-marinated** chicken breasts (also a crowd-pleaser).

We saw the return of the butterflied lamb with freshly-made mint salsa/chutney (I’d have to say it’s my favorite; it’s so simple and so good). 

Also, there were boneless barbeque pork-ribs (good but tough to avoid drying out on the grill).  I thought the grilled tomatoes went really well with the ribs. 

Local sausages (we could have used some German lager to wash ’em down) and skewered flank steaks rolled with cheese.


A giant marinated beef roast with assorted barbeque sauces for dipping.

A massive bluefish filet.

 
And a super succulent double-skillet roasted chicken that was phenomenal.

Also, the meat-only rule was relaxed a bit this year and we had some delicious roasted fingerling potatoes, beets, and the uber-talented Jessie went so far as to bring a pizza and roasted garlic bulbs (??).  The potatoes were so good we all started eating them immediately as they were pulled off the grill and we all burned our mouths a little.  That just slowed us down– it didn’t stop us.  They were smooth and buttery which is interesting because there was no butter added– good stuff.  The beets were great too.  What can I say?  I’m a root-crop guy. 


Each item was pulled off the grill, or from the smoker, put on a tray and set on the table along with a carving knife.  Then all of us guys just picked at the food (while clutching our beers).  We ate while standing around gabbing.  There was also a keg of ale and a pool tournament. 

As for my pool tournament performance, I lost early and often– but whatever; it’s all politics [pffft]. 

The night wound down with unnecessary (but unstoppable) eating, listening to music, talking history, playing pool, sipping beer, and enjoying the pretty-much-perfect weather of the night. 

The title of this blogpost and the song below are references to the 1999 David Fincher film Fight Club

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*Yes, I am aware of the irony at play here.  I realize that I took my recipe for this men-only testosterone-fest from a foodblog with a very feminine voice.  I guess you could say her blog is strong enough for a man but pH balanced for a woman.  [wink]  Make the Asian pesto and see how good it is for yourself.

**Jerk, in this case, refers to the marinade and less-so to the marinater.  [wink]

Ham, Pastrami, and Turkey (3 of 3).

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

We went to Troy Night Out last month (July) to see our local-celebrity-artist friend’s work on display at The Captial Region Arts Center.  If you’ve traveled recently, you may recognize Ken Ragsdale’s work from the Albany International Airport’s B-terminal.  We always enjoy looking at his somehow sterile-yet-sentimental works at galleries.  At the same show was another one of Abraham Ferraro’s interactive man-meets-machine contraptions.  The last two pieces we have seen from Abe have been these fascinating and complicated “motion transducers” that create printouts related to his movements (like rock-climbing or signing his name).  This is accomplished via cables and springs that are connected to markers on paper—you gotta see one in action.  If you haven’t been out to a First Friday in Albany or a Troy Night Out, hurry-up and check them out.  Go before these evenings start getting lame by showcasing art from high school and grade school students (as they’ve already begun doing at some venues in both Albany and Troy).  [sigh]

After we checked out various galleries, we headed to Ali Baba for dinner. 

You might think that the dearth of ethnic food in the Capital Region would skew our judgment a bit, but we feel we can say the food at Ali Baba is terrific by any standard.  The owners are from Turkey (Boy, I wonder if they’re from Batman).  The menu features familiar Mediterranean dishes like dolmas, hummus, and baba ganoush, as well as distinctly Turkish dishes like döner kebabs and Turkish coffee.  One of the coolest features of the restaurant is the always-blazing oven from which toasted-sesame covered lavash “beach balls” (my name for it; not theirs) are prepared.  They are served with a plate of yogurt sauce and go great with a large sampler platter.  The lavash bread actually deflates when punctured (watch for steam burns) after which pieces of the bread are torn from the loaf (is it a loaf?) and used for dipping into all those fantastic Turkish delights.   


 

Cati and I have noticed a few good signs whenever we visit Ali Baba:
 
1) It’s like a mini-U.N. in there.  The clientele often comprises such a mixed-bag of ethnicities (and languages) that you might think you’re on a subway platform in Flushing, NY; there are people from everywhere in there– it’s great.
2) Students love it.  The food is relatively inexpensive.  Also, they serve no alcohol, which will help keep the bill down.  Not much attention is given to ambience.  I imagine that a large percentage of their business is from the sale of take-out wraps that are devoured during study breaks a few blocks away at RPI. 

The main drawback, if you’re not taking your food to go, is the service.  They are never rude or anything like that (quite the opposite, actually); they are just slow and inefficient.  If the place is crowded, it gets worse.  They just need to spend some effort in systematizing their processes; they are obviously just shooting from the hip.  I don’t think this is atypical for a family owned and staffed place and it hasn’t stopped us from going back– and we go back often.  
 
On our most recent visit, we ordered the large sampler platter for the table.  Armed with our still-hot pieces of lavash bread, we dipped into the colorful sauces, salads, and spreads– commenting on our favorites all the while. 

For entrees, I ordered the beyti sarma kebab; Cati, the chicken curry iskender; my mother, a beef dish; and my dad, the lamb shish.  My dear sweet mum thought her dish was too spicy (pfft, it wasn’t) so I switched with her.  Her dish– the beef and tomato sauce– was only okay; I thought there was too much sauce, which wasn’t very interesting.  It just seemed like wet steak, but the pickled onions were excellent.  To be fair, she did ask for it “not spicy,” so they probably held back on the seasoning.  Apparently, the lamb was excellent as my dad made quick work of it; I didn’t get a photo.  Cati really enjoyed her chicken curry and thought the spice-level and seasoning were just right.  She also found the pieces of bread that were in it to be excellent flavor sponges for the curry sauce.  My mother tells me that my estranged beyti sarma was as delicious as its presentation was attractive and that she enjoyed it thoroughly.  She did let me have a bite– just one– and she parsimoniously controlled the quantity.  I’m not bitter about it though; really; I’m not; not even a little.  [wink]

If you haven’t heard of this place before, consider yourself enlightened and go.  We were so full when we left, we didn’t buy any pastries from the glass case on our way out (that’s rare for us).  We all just waddled to the car and headed home like a group of stuffed Thanksgiving tur…I think I’ve milked this pun enough; I’ll just stop now.

Enjoy this Middle-Eastern sounding electronica track from some French guys:

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Ham, Pastrami, and Turkey (2 of 3).

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Pastrami and corned beef are related, but differ from one another in that pastrami undergoes a smoking step during its preparation.  Initially, the “pickling” of these meats was done as a food preservation technique (before refrigeration was readily available), but the unique flavor and texture imparted by these now-unnecessary steps are still popular today.   

I finally got around to trying the food from Old World Provisions on Westerlo and Pearl St. (about 2 blocks north of the dreaded DMV) here in Albany.  They have an interesting business model; they do take-out sandwich fixin’s. 

On our visit we bought a loaf of deli rye, a jug of pickles, a jar of mustard, and 1 lb of pastrami.  Let’s start with the pastrami.  It was like no pastrami I had ever had.  The thick juicy slices were richly marbled; they looked more like slices of succulent prime rib than the dried out paper-thin slices we have come to expect from grocery store deli-counters.  The rye bread was soft to the touch and flavorful.  It went perfectly with the tangy mustard.  To call the pickles the champagne of pickles is more than a metaphor; they were actually effervescent.  They tingled on the tongue with each crispy bite and were neither overly sour nor salty.  My folks were in town (helping with baby-prep) and we wondered aloud, “How’d they do that?” as we chomped away.  Assembling the sandwiches was a breeze and we had everything we needed for a perfect little meal.  The food is artisan crafted.  By the way, if any ladies out there should ever try to win a guy’s heart via his stomach, a box of gourmet sliced-beef, a perfect loaf of rye bread, and a jar of gourmet mustard will likely do the trick; throw in a six-pack and he’ll be writing you love poems within a week.  [wink]

Also, a group of us went to Washington Park on Monday August 4th and caught a free show by Lez Zeppelin (an all-woman Led Zeppelin cover band from NYC).  I was impressed with how talented they were, and of course, I enjoyed the music.  The lead singer’s voice boomed with passion, the guitarist effortlessly peeled off the guitar licks, the drummer flailed about like a crazy person (in a good way), and the bassist handled those Zeppelin time-changes masterfully.  It was just a fun way to spend a pleasant Monday night in the park; I don’t think it’s meant to be taken too seriously.  Here’s a short video I took during “Black Dog;” enjoy:

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Ham, Pastrami, and Turkey (1 of 3).

Friday, August 8th, 2008

Humans have been husbanding pigs for 11,000 years (Cati– for only two [rimshot]).  Some pigs are apparently bred for size; others more so for flavor.  The most flavorful ham I have ever tasted is jamón ibérico de bellota from Spain.  There is jamón serrano, pata negra, jamón de jabugo, jamón dulce, jamón cocido, etc.  If you’re from Spain, these classifications might be simple to figure out, but if you’re a guiri* like me, it can be confusing. 

Let me help; let’s start at the top.  Iberian pigs are indigenous to areas near the Mediterranean Sea.  They are black, hairless pigs that have a high intramuscular fat content.  The high-end ham is called “jamón ibérico” or “pata negra” (black hoof).  There are three general subclassifications of jamón ibérico (in descending order of quality and price):

  • jamón ibérico de bellota: Acorn-fed, cured 36 months.
  • jamón ibérico de recebo: Grain-fed, finished on acorns, cured 24-36 months.
  • jamón ibérico de pienso: Grain-fed, cured 24 months. 

Free-range, acorn-raised, jamón ibérico de bellota from Jabugo is considered the best of the best (often rated “cinco j’s,” although I’m not sure by whom; perhaps the Spanish version of the USDA).  “De bellota” designates that these pigs are raised on a diet of nothing but rich and nutritious acorns from a variety of oak trees (primarily cork oaks) in Southwestern Spain.  These pigs are truly “free range” and spend their lives foraging for acorns.  Each pig eats as much as 20 lbs of acorns per day.  Producing this type of ham in any other country is problematic when you consider that more than 100,000 sqft of acorn-yielding oak forest (called la dehesa) is required per pig.  The exercise and diet has a significant impact on the flavor of the meat.  The ham is cured in salt brine; never cooked.  Jamón of this caliber is typically eaten all by itself, as thin slices, from a plate or you could make one heck of a sandwich with it.  Jamón ibérico de bellota recently became available in the U.S. from tienda.com for $96-162/lb.  For this reason it’s more common to have this ham at high-end parties or around the holidays rather than everyday.  Below are some jamón photos I have taken through the years.  Note the ruby red color.  I wish there were a way to communicate the oily, salty, nutty, flavors and dense texture via photos, but alas, you’ll have to try it:

 

I’m not the only one who really likes this stuff; here’s a cute Mac spoof ad for iJam:

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Down a peg on the quality scale from the jamón ibérico is the prosciutto-like jamón serrano (mountain ham).  Jamón serrano comes from white Landrace pigs that are grain-fed; it’s also known as jamón reserva, jamón curado and jamón extra.  This ham is cured by hanging the brine-treated legs in drying sheds (secaderos) that are usually built at higher elevations (hence the name, “mountain ham”).  Jamón serrano is available locally at EATS in Stuyvesant plaza.  Buy a bottle of Marques de Riscal from Empire Wine, Delaware Plaza Wine & Liquor, or Niskayuna Wines and Liquors; buy some marcona almonds, and a hunk of manchego from the Honest Weight Food Co-op, and you’re all set for a Spanish picnic. 

Last, and possibly least, there is jamón cocido.  This is the boiled pink ham that we all know from “and cheese” fame.  Good, but not nearly on par with the oily, salty, nutty flavors of its upscale cousins. 

Oh yeah, Cati and I saw The Police** play at SPAC this past Friday.  They played all their hits.  Stuart Copeland stole the show.  Andy Summers looked every bit of his 65 years.  Sting’s biggest fan is Sting.  And it’s true; you really can’t go back again.  It was fun all the same.

Also, Cati and I were trying to figure out how to use the Babybjorn we received as a gift for our forthcoming baby (thanks, Ruth) and we needed a test subject.  Looks like we missed the arm-holes– probably because we were giggling like school kids and taking pictures of poor Nacho.  

Next up– pastrami.

*They don’t use the word “gringo” in Spain; they call us non-Spanish white-westerners “guiris.”  It’s not even derogatory really; it’s just a generalization– like “yuppie,” for example. 

**The fact that the musical group The Police is mentioned in a post about ham is purely coincidental.  We in no way intend to employ or endorse the application of a porcine moniker to law enforcement officers.  We love cops– a lot.  And, in the future, if we should ever be pulled over for exceeding the speed limit (say, in Malta or Bethlehem), a warning is punishment enough.  We are REALLY hard on ourselves; fines and court appearances are nothing compared to the shame and guilt afforded by a stern warning.  ;)