About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Obsessing about Cheese Cloth (The Good Stuff)

We had a great visit earlier this week with Niki D'Andrea, the Managing Editor for PHOENIX magazine, and her folks.  She came to the Ranch to interview us and take some pictures for an article coming out this fall.  After the Grand Tour (goats, cows,  pigs,  sheep, solar & wind power sources, garden, greenhouse, doe barn, buck barn, milking parlor) we ended up in the cheese kitchen.  There we did some cheese, fudge and Spiced Pecan sampling and I talked about cheese making.  We were discussing how we make fresh cheese and were looking at the beautiful cheesecloth bags full of fresh curds from this morning when Niki innocently asked “What kind of cheese cloth do you use?” So, I told her...

The cheesecloth we use for hanging our fresh curds, draining our feta and for lining the molds of our pressed aged cheeses is a special type of cheesecloth.  It’s not at all like that coarse, open-textured stuff they sell in the hardware store as “cheesecloth”  Our cheesecloth is 100% cotton.  It’s a very fine weave called a 90 count.  The correct technical name for it is “butter muslin” and good butter muslin can be very hard to find.

We had been getting our butter muslin from the same source for about 8 years when we started noticing a change in it.  The nice neat weave started seeming more crooked and uneven.  There was a lot more “frass” (bits of loose thread etc) in the cloth and we were seeing more and more pills/knots/stitch drops/slub/barriness (various woven-cloth manufacturing defects). The cloth was also more frail and fragile, only taking a few washes before it was completely shot.  If you’re REALLY interested in the subject of fabric defects here’s a pretty good slide show on the subject: http://www.slideshare.net/sheshir/knitted-fabric-faults-and-their-remedies.

We contacted the owner of the company where we were getting the cloth and spoke to her at length on the phone.  I think she thought we were a bit loony-toons or maybe just OCD about it.  She was nice enough but didn’t really grasp how different it was.  She didn’t know how she could help but said she’d look into it.

We started thinking maybe we were wrong.  I mean, cheese cloth is just cheese cloth, right?  Fortunately, just about this time, we found a small remnant of the old, high quality cloth and compared it side-by-side with some from a new box we’d just opened.  Night and day!  We were not crazy (or at least not about the cheese cloth!).  We packaged up the two samples and sent them off to our supplier.

A week or so later the owner called us.  She said she had looked at the two samples and could not believe the difference.  She now understood exactly what we were concerned about and that she was in the process of tracking down the manufacturer (somewhere in the mid-west) to try and find and answer.

More time passed and we suffered along with the inferior cloth until one day she called again.

“I have some news for you. I spoke with the owner of the cloth manufacturing plant and he told me that earlier in the year he had begun out-sourcing production of his butter muslin overseas.  He was aware of the quality differences but didn’t think anyone else would notice or care.”

We reemphasized that WE CARED and was there any chance he had any of the good-old-made-in-the-USA stuff available?  Puh-leeeeese?

She said she would ask him.

A few days later she called back again.  She’d had a long conversation with the plant owner, who had gotten in touch with one of his foremen, who had checked with his guys on the factory floor.  The word was that  yes, “somewhere around” there was indeed some of the USA-made cloth still at the shop.  It hadn’t been bleached and finished or boxed but they would be willing to do that for us if we would buy a full master case of it.

A master case is a LOT of butter muslin.  We figured it would probably last us 10 years, maybe longer.  And it wasn’t cheap!

Oh what the Hell. You only live once and life is too short to use crappy cheese cloth!  We told them to go for it!  Imagine that... BMR was having it’s cheese cloth custom made!

We had to pre-pay, of course, and it took maybe a month before our intrepid UPS driver Joe staggered up the front deck steps with a huge box.  It was finally here!!!

With great joy we tore open the master case and broke out one of the boxes.  We opened the box and....

Our jaws hit the floor. NO! It can’t be!  It was the same CRAP we’d been having to use for months!  WE’D BEEN ROBBED!

Of course we called our cheese cloth supplier immediately and told her.  She couldn’t believe it either.  “Impossible.  I saw to that order myself.  As soon as your cloth came in I had it sequestered in my office and...”  Her voice trailed off.   “Oh.”  “Oh my.” “Ummmm... I seem to have your case of cheese cloth still sitting here in my office.”

She apologized profusely and said she would get it out to us on the next shipment, which she must have done, as a couple of days later another huge box arrived.  This time it was the good stuff.  We actually started calling it that.  We still had some of that foreign-made junk around but made sure to use it for cleaning the tractor or something.  Cheesemaking ALWAYS gets The Good Stuff.

This all happened about 5 years ago and we’re still going strong with The Good Stuff.  I don’t think we’ve even gone through half of it and we still treat it like royalty so I’d say we have at least another 5 years of supply left.  Still, even the thought of having to find good cheesecloth again in 5 years is more than a little daunting.  Maybe we’ll just have to retire when we run out of The Good Stuff.

I’m not sure if Niki and her family were impressed with the story or overwhelmed but they were kind enough to tell us “That was very interesting”.  On the other hand, they did leave rather quickly after that!

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Day in Flagstaff (Part 3): Criollo

After getting my Sam's Club big-box shopping done, and barely fitting it all into the truck (I can't believe how many times I have said "I need a bigger truck" since upgrading to my current 1-ton, crew-cab, Chevy  dually) I headed over to meet with Chef Dave at Criollo.
Dave and I have been doing business for years, since he started at Criollo's sister restaurant Brix. He and some of his crew have visited us at the Ranch but I had never had the chance to visit Criollo until today.
Dave had informed me that, based on reservations and the previous night's numbers, that tonight was shaping up to be their busiest night of the whole season so, even thought it was still pretty early, it was with some trepidation and guilt that I entered the restaurant and asked if Dave was available.  Within seconds he emerged from the kitchen and after a firm handshake and greeting asked if I'd like a tour.
Of course I did but certainly didn't want to impose on such a big night.
"Bah".  he said "Let me show you around".
The kitchen was humming with activity.  Every station was manned and every person was busy working on the various tasks at hand.  The pace of the room was frenetic but organized and focused.  Nobody was running around.  Nobody was yelling. People were moving with great speed and efficiency but there was no sign that the coming deluge of orders would be met with anything less than professionalism and expertise.
And it smelled great in there! 
As we passed through the main line area and into the back, we moved carefully.  Nearly every flat surface was covered with plates and pans and trays of prep and mise-en-place.  This crew was ready to rock.
Dave showed me the bakery/prep area and we ducked into their big walk-in cooler (as much to get out of the kitchen's bustle as anything, I think) and he pointed out where they had actually joined together what had been one walk-in refrigerator and one walk-in freezer to make one very big fridge.  Being a restaurant that makes everything from scratch and primarily from fresh local ingredients, they had no use for the big freezer, and had desperate need for more cooler space.  Even so, it was still stocked from floor to ceiling with shelf after shelf of absolutely gorgeous produce, meat, fish and dairy products.
Dave was living a chef's dream by obtaining all of these exceptionally fine raw materials to work with. I spotted several 4 lb tubs of our BMR Fresh Goat Cheese on a shelf and couldn't help but smile at the good company they were keeping.
Tour over, Dave asked if I could stay and have a bite to eat.
"Seriously? What about the busy night ahead"? I asked
"We've still got a little time before the rush hits" he allowed, "Just sit at the bar and we'll fix you up".
And fix me up they did.
The bartender asked me what I wanted to drink.  Automatically (and rather foolishly as it turned out) I asked what he had in a good Pinot Noir by the glass.  [Note to self: When trying out a new restaurant for the first time at least take a look at the wine list before ordering].
Criollo, while having a very nice, well considered and constructed wine list, does not have a single pinot noir to offer.  As a matter of fact, there were none of the come-to-be-expected wines one typically finds.  No wines from France, Italy or even California.  This is a "Latin inspired, hand-crafted, local food" restaurant so, quite rightly, the wines are primarily from Spain.
Knowing virtually nothing about Spanish wines I put myself at the bartender's mercy.  "Well, you know the type of wine I'm thinking about.  What do you recommend?"
Without hesitation he pulled up a bottle and poured a healthy glassful.  "Here.  Try this".
Zowee! Not a pinot noir at all, and yet similar in many regards, it was perfect.  To my shame I did not note the vineyard, grape, or year of it.  I'll chalk that up to it being the end of a long day.  I ended up drinking two glasses of it and now have a piqued interest and new appreciation for wines from Spain.  I will definitely be trying more of them as the opportunity presents itself.
Soon after settling in with my first glass of wine, a server brought me a delicious plate of food.  It was their Pork Belly Tacos.  While the menus changes almost constantly, there are a few things that have earned a regular place there.  The Pork Belly Taco plate is one.
It is described on the menu as "slow roasted Heritage Foods pork belly, cabbage, house pickles, mild salsa, jalapeno glaze" and is served with the crispy pieces of pork nestled in freshly-made tortillas.  The house pickle slices were not overly vinegary and provided a sweet, cooling counterpoint to the spicier components on the plate.  Definitely finger-food I built up each soft taco using a little bit of everything offered on the plate, saving a thick dab of the house-made salsa for the top.
Oh my!  Good eating!  Everything melded together and yet it was easy to pick out each part as it contributed to the whole. 
The salsa was a real surprise.  I was delighted to find that it was much warmer on the tongue than I had expected from the "mild" description on the menu and yet sweet with an amazing depth of flavor.  I poured a bit more on the taco, and then a bit more.  Completely addictive.  Realizing that I had almost used my entire allotment and was only half way trough my dinner, I embarrassedly asked it it would be possible to get another small bowl of it. Of course it was!  I later learned from Dave that, among other ingredients it included fresh habañero chiles and that raisins provided that alluring touch of dark sweetness.
Nearly done with my dinner, Dave returned with a friend and introduced me to Steve, the chef de cuisine at Brix restaurant.  We've been selling cheese to Brix since they opened over 6 years ago.  The owners Paul and Laura visited the Ranch even before they opened while exploring possible ingredient sources for their first menu.  Anyway, I've worked with Steve for years, trading emails and phone calls, but had never met. Unfortunately, we were only able to chat briefly as he was just passing through on an "anchovy run" and on his way quickly back to Brix, where they were also expecting a record-breaking night.
After that wonderful plate of tacos and that great wine, I was certain that I didn't need anything else but when the bartender asked If I wanted dessert, I had to ask.  "What do you recommend?"
"Banana Rum Bread Pudding".  Not even a beat of hesitation.
"That good"?
"That good".
"OK, I guess I'll have to try it then".
And he was right.  Again.  Served hot with Vanilla Whipped Cream and a very tasty Caramel Rum Sauce it was just right.  Moist without being gummy; sweet without being cloying and with a punch of fresh banana that said that the cook who made it actually knew the difference between a black-ripe banana, and a black-rotted one.  A fine line many cooks do not understand.
With the day gone and a long drive back to the ranch still ahead of me I reluctantly asked for my check.  I could have settled in at Criollo, very comfortably for the rest of the night. 
I am often offered discounts at the restaurants where we do business.  It's a perk of doing business with good people.  At Criollo they wouldn't take any of my money at all so I tipped shamelessly and, after waving a heart-felt good-bye to Dave (who was starting to get a bit busy by then), left and headed home to unpack the day's purchases and eventually to sleep.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Day in Flagstaff (Part 2): New Frontiers

NOTE:  The New Frontiers Natural Marketplace in Flagstaff was bought-out by Whole Foods Markets in 2014. We continue to supply them our cheeses & confections and they continue to be great customers.

Next stop on the Flagstaff trip was my big debut at the fancy natural foods grocery store New Frontiers
I'd never done a table at one of their events, despite having been a supplier for years.  This was an "Arizona Day" event, where the store had invited about 14 small, farmstead and local suppliers from across the state to do a meet-and-greet with their customers and supply samples for them to try.
It was about 11:45 when I arrived for the noon event, hoping I wasn't going to be late, but in wandering through the store on my way back to the cheese department, I saw at least 5 or 6 empty tables in different departments, waiting for their producers to arrive. I guess this was a "laid back and casual" noon starting time.  
In the dairy department I quickly found a small table with a "Black Mesa Ranch" sign on it.  There were two other tables awaiting producers near mine.  One was for a local bread baking company and the other, was for Fossil Creek Creamery, another goat dairy located in Strawberry AZ. We'd gotten to know the Fossil Creek proprietors, the Bintners a little over the years and they had visited our ranch and dairy as they were making their plans to start their own.  I was looking forward to seeing John again and see how his products had improved since our last meeting over a year ago.
I had plenty of time to set up my table.  I'd brought a 4 lb tub of or Fresh Goat Cheese and another tub with cubes of our Feta Marinated in Sundried Tomatoes and Basil. As soon as the lids were off, I had eager customers waiting for samples and I stayed busy like that for several hours.
Sales throughout the day were brisk for Black Mesa Ranch cheeses.  The poor guys in the dairy department were working double-time to keep the case stocked and they almost ran out of fresh cheese.  Fortunately, I had brought along an extra tub to sell them in case of just such a situation.
It was a pretty intense day (I was hoarse from talking so much by 3pm) but it was nice to see how well recognized our cheeses were among many of the New Frontier customers and then have the chance to introduce our products to so many more.
The folks from Fossil Creek never did show up (the kid behind the dairy counter kidded that my being there probably scared them off) but the couple representing the bread company at the table just down from mine came over several times for cheese to go with their wares and it was nice  chatting with them for a bit.
By 4pm things were definitely slowing down and I still had some big-box shopping to do and hopefully see a couple of my chef/customers before I could head back to the Ranch so I packed it up, said good bye to the guys in the dairy department (leaving them with my few remaining samples to give out) and headed off to my next stop.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Day in Flagstaff (Part 1): Diablo Burger

My recent trip to CT not withstanding, neither of us gets off the Ranch much.  It is my personal curse to have to go into town (Snowflake, AZ) once a week to pick up mail at the P.O. (we don't get any mail delivery out here) and buy supplies.  Kathryn only leaves the Ranch when absolutely necessary.  As a matter of fact, she's only been off the Ranch 5 times since January (8 months), and this is a bit more frequent than is her norm.  A trip into the "big city" of Show Low (pop. 12,500), about 30 miles/1 hour drive, to go to Home Depot or Walmart, is a major outing!
Anyway, I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to go to Flagstaff AZ (pop 66,000, 130 miles/2.25 hours driving time) to participate in and "Arizona Days" promotion at the New Frontiers Natural Foods Market there.  On AZ Days, the store invites small, farmstead and local suppliers from across the state to come, set up tables and sample-out their wares.  New Frontiers has been a good customer of both our cheeses and seasonal candies for many years and I'd never been able to attend one of these events and was happy to be able to this time.
When I need/have/want to get off the Ranch like this I always try to cram in as much stuff as possible, in addition to the main event.  My big chore this time was a stop at the Sam's club in Flagstaff to stock up on various big-box items we keep in inventory for the dairy.  I'd also hoped to be able to stop in and visit with one or two of the many area chefs whose restaurants we supply. The New Frontiers event was scheduled from noon to 4pm.  I got on the road soon after AM milking and got into Flag a little too early to set-up at the store so I took the opportunity to swing by Diablo Burger.
Diablo Burger
Diablo Burger is located right on vibrant Heritage Square in Flagstaff AZ and specializes in (surprize!) burgers.  Whoopee, right?  Well, actually... whoopee indeed!  These are really, really special burgers.
The burgers themselves are made 100% from local, open range-raised, antibiotic-free and growth-hormone-free beef from the Diablo Trust ranches (more on the Trust and their ranches in a minute).  The super-thick patties are char-broiled & served on a branded (that's right, branded - just like a steer) English muffin.
Each burger (and they have about 10 on-menu burgers plus build-your own and blackboard specials) comes with, with seasonal greens, tomato, pickle, and their signature Belgian-style Fries.  I thought that the prices were pretty reasonable, all things considered, running from $8.75 for a plain burger (the "Monk") to about $12 for a specialty burger, loaded. 
After chatting for a while with the boss Derrick, with whom I'd exchanged numerous emails and phone calls but had not met in person until today, I ordered the "Marilyn" - their cheese burger ($9.25), with Black Mesa Ranch Chèvre ($.50 extra).  Here's a link to their full menu 
I generally cook my burgers at home "black and blue" (charred on the outside, still cold on the inside).  Our ranch burgers are made exclusively from steers who are conceived, birthed, range-raised, grain-finished and butchered all on our own ranch so I am completely comfortable eating this beef raw and I really enjoy the full flavor of our excellent beef best this way.
Because their beef is about 95% lean (typical of whole-animal, grass-fed beef burgers), Diablo Burger recommends that their burgers be cooked medium-rare.  I figure they know their beef better than anybody so I deferred to their expertise.
The burger and accoutrements arrived after a short wait.  Trays of condiments graced all the tables - indoors and out, as well as the counter seating area, where I was perched.  It was very nice to see that, despite their being extremely proud of their meat and their sometimes elaborately concocted specialty burgers, the folks at Diablo Burger are not above letting their customers pour on a little ketchup,  if they wish. 
I opted to eat mine just as it came out of the kitchen and I'm glad I did.  It was delicious; hot, moist, perfectly cooked and with truly wonderful meat flavor.  I told Derrick that his burger was as good as the ones we made at home but I saw in his face that he didn't know me well enough to realize what a huge compliment I was giving him.  Only after my explaining to him that we raised and butchered our own beef did he "get it" and allow a big smile to cross his face.  "That's the kind of compliment we like to hear!",  he replied.
I'm sorry to say that the Black Mesa Ranch Fresh Goat Cheese - the cheese I had made earlier that week with my own hands, got a little lost on the burger.  Too many full flavors competing for my mouth's attentions, I guess. The fresh cheese certainly added an nice smooth and creamy textural element to the whole that I found interesting and pleasing, but without much discernable flavor, which surprised me.
I wish I could have sat there enjoying that burger all day but, unfortunately, I was already running late for the big shin-dig at New Frontiers and I was not able to stay long.  Probably just as well for the Diablo folks because by 11:30 they were filling up fast and already had a line of customers out the door.  They surely didn't need me taking up a prime seat, so I scurried off but not before Derrick comped my lunch!  I will definitely be going back to Diablo Burger the next time I'm any where in the Flagstaff area and am proud to count them as one of our very good customers.
Here's a little bit about The Diablo Trust and the Diablo Trust Ranches...
Diablo Trust is a collaboration of ranchers, environmentalists, federal and state land managers, scientists, recreationists, and other volunteers, with a common vision of the American West — a place of grandeur and diversity, filled with wildlife, prehistory, and pioneers.
The team is working together on more than 400,000 acres of private and public lands to achieve a variety of shared goals, including...
  •  Sustaining open space
  •  Living in balance with biodiversity
  •  Producing high quality food
  •  Restoring watersheds
  •  Creating stable, living soils
  •  Achieving community
There are two Diablo Trust Ranches, the Flying M and the Bar T Bar and all of the beef for  the Diablo Burgers comes exclusively from one or the other. 
These are both big, serious working ranches in addition to the educational and research commitment that comes with their association with the Trust.  How big and serious?  The Bar-T-Bar alone, at any given time runs about 800 commercial cows, 800 replacement heifers, and 400 registered cows. 
The Bar T Bar Ranch infrastructure includes:
  • 587 miles of fence
  • 41 miles of buried pipeline
  • 73 steel and concrete drinking tubs
  • 47 miles of canals and ditches
  • 286 earthen reservoirs and stock ponds
  • 19 working corrals and shipping facilities
  • 5 line camps
  • 68 pastures, 3 cell-grazing systems with 34 paddocks
  • 15 holding traps
  • 19 deep wells (450–1,000 feet)

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 3 (part 7)

 July 30 2011, Day three (and four)of  "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour"  continued...
 (go back to part 6)
Salem Valley Ice Cream
Having eaten up (so to speak) much of our extra time before needing to head up to Beltane Farm by the unscheduled clam shack stop, and in light of the growing traffic situation along the scenic coast road we had planned to take, we re-evaluated the situation.  Cynthia found the perfect solution... another near-by food stop!
Salem Valley Ice Cream is often described as one of Connecticut's very best but their location (in Salem of all places) had never been convenient to our travels.  Fortunately us, Cynthia discovered that they also have an outlet right in Niantic, just a few blocks from where we were.
So we navigated our way to the Gumdrops and Lollipops Ice Cream and Candy Shoppe
We eventually located the little ice cream window off to one side of the main building.
After studying the menu, and confirming that they, indeed sold only Salem Valley Ice Cream (for some reason that fact was not promoted or otherwise to be found anywhere there), we ordered.
Cynthia was overjoyed to have finally found a place that served Orange Pineapple ice cream and ordered a small cone.  I couldn't make up my mind and so enlisted the help over the phone of Kathryn way back in AZ.  Despite it being just 9am for her there (still a bit before ice-cream time), she was very helpful and we eventually decided on a small cone of Ginger ice cream for me.
My indecision and conference calling time turned out to be strategically positive events because after Cynthia got her cone the designated scooper-girl inside apparently changed.  Mine cone was almost twice the size of hers!  At least C&J were good sports helping me finish it
My Rating: 8 out of 10.  My ginger cone was really quite good with a nice peppery ginger punch.  C was less than thrilled with hers (part I'm sure because it was so scrimpy) and none of us thought it was as good as the ice cream we'd had yesterday at Wentworth's.
Beltane Farm
Having now completely used up our extra time, we hit the road, traveling via the most direct route we could find. to Beltane Farm. 
The navigating was superb and we pulled into the farm driveway with 2 minutes to spare before our appointment.  As it turned out, we needn't have hurried.
This farm, like all the others we had visited, was absolutely gorgeous.  Lush green pastures, picturesque barns, majestic trees, bucolic animals.
After some exploring around and a lot of hollering, I finally located a young man working in one of the barns. I introduced myself and told him I had a 1pm appointment with Paul.  He said Paul had gone to the dump but should be back soon.  Paul had not mentioned our visit to him but he did not seem surprised at that or the fact that he was not here.
So we wandered around for a while, checking out the cute little tasting house, visiting with some of the animals, eventually just sitting the shade to wait. We noticed that there were a lot of nice little sitting areas, and hammocks and such and I wondered if they were there for visitors.  I can remember the last time I kicked back in a hammock - the dairy business just isn't very conducive to lazy afternoon naps.

Paul arrived about 30 minutes later and seemed, at first, puzzled by our presence.  I jogged his memory a bit and he quickly turned quite gracious and invited us to sit at a shady table and chat for a while.  We exchanged general descriptions of our operations but then he had to take off for a few minutes to help a worker get ready for a farmers market he was he heading to.  We played with the cat.
Soon Paul returned and we talked more about his set-up.  He is currently milking 12 goats.  Apparently it is his partner-farm, Oak Leaf Dairy, about 9miles up the road, that is the more intense commercial operation milking about 100 does.  Never the less, Paul says he keeps very busy, despite having about 6 other workers at this location.
Paul then offered the tour and off we all went.  We started with the tasting house and then did a short walking tour of some of the grounds as he moved a few cows to a different pasture. 
Most of the time Paul was the very picture of the laid-back farmer (I could easily imagine a blade of grass languidly rolling around his mouth as he talked).  He would pull at his bare chest hairs absent-mindedly as he spoke, and pause to slowly scratch an itch as he considered an answer to a question.
Then there was the other Paul.  Every once in a while there would be a spark as he told a story or discussed a common situation (especially when talking about regulators and the like).  A twinkle would come to his eyes and he would become animated for a few minutes before the mood would subside again.  He switched quickly and often between topics over the course of the tour, from cheese to goats, from milk to markets, from regulators to pricing, from history to future plans.
We then moved inside and toured some of the cheese-making facilities including the milking parlor, milk room, cheese room,  aging "cave", and finished product storage areas.

He then took us outside again and back to see some of the goats.  They looked very contented and relaxed (kind of like Paul, come to think of it).

A well-weather man drove up in an old truck while we were speaking to Paul and began pumping liquid from a large plastic tank next to the dairy barn into another one in his truck.  Paul introduced us to his "pig man" who carts off his whey in exchange for some pork form time to time. I'm embarrassed that I didn't catch his name or that of his farm, but he was a fascinating character.
His current project is the development, through breeding, of a very specific type of hog that would be used in the production of an all-American Spanish-style dry-cured ham.  This ham, he said, brings upwards of $200 a lb in Spain and he is hoping, within about 5 years, to have perfected the animals and partnered with a company to do the processing.  Look for it soon in a specialty foods store near you!
As we wrapped up our visit with Paul I asked if he had some cheeses we could buy.  I told him that Kathryn would never forgive me if I came home from a goat cheese diary empty-handed (and bringing home a goat was out of the question!). He took me in the back, handed me several pieces and refused when I reached for my wallet. Thanks Paul!
Paul's operation and his approach to his dairy and his animals  is quite different from ours back home at the Ranch and it was very interesting to see things from a different perspective. It was a very interesting and worthwhile visit and we are all glad we made the trip.
Essex Steam Train
For Jim, no vacation would be worthy of the name without including some form of train watching or riding and the Essex Steam Train depot was only minutes off our planned route.  Coincidentally, we also needed to get fuel for the rental car so I dropped C & J off to see the train and check out the gift shop while I got gas.
The timing was about perfect because just minutes after as I got back to pick them up the big steam train pulled out of the station and Cynthia was able to record a video of its departure on her I-Phone.  Preserved for posterity, again.
Johnny Ad's
Just 15 minutes from the train station we found our next food stop - Johnny Ad's in Saybrook
Johnny Ad's bills itself as "An Original American Drive-In" restaurant and it's exactly that and while the menu offers all the great drive-in specialties including hot dogs, we are here today for the clams.
"Big-Belly" whole fried clams are desperately needed as it has been nearly four hours since our last meal.  We order a "small" to spilt plus a few beverages and go wait in the indoor seating area until our order number is called.
Once again, the clams are gorgeous.  Served still sizzling with a good-sized side container of tartar sauce and a wedge of lemon we dig in...

...and polish of the platter in an amazingly sort period of time.
My score: 9 out of 10.  Why not ten? I don't know.  I still feel that to get a perfect 10 something needs to be extra special.  Besides, I'm mad at them for not being interested in opening a location in Snowflake Arizona.
The Clam Castle
While the clams at Johnny Ad's were excellent, how do know that the next place won't be even better?  Of course we won't unless we try them.  Less than 30 minutes down the road we come to The Clam Castle in Madison and yes, believe it or not, we're ready for more.

We follow two large groups in from the parking lot and find that there is already a fairly significant line crowded into the ordering area.  This could take a while.
Or not.  We notice that everybody (and there has to be at least 25 people in there) is staring at the rather complex and detailed menu board and talking amongst themselves.  Nobody is actually ordering from either of the waiting cashiers.
"Is ANYBODY ready to order!?" hollers out one of the sweaty and frazzled-looking young women over the din.
Well, hells bells, WE ARE so I stepped right up and ordered our small basket of whole fried clams etc, paid, and got our number all within a few seconds.  We were comfortably settled into one of the booths across from the order window, sipping our drinks well before the next people in line had figured out what they wanted.  Amateurs!
Here come the clams!  And AGAIN they are exquisite!  Huge moist bellies, tender "rubberband" (mantle) parts, golden brown, crispy, hot and wonderful.  How can every place we go to have clams be so good when we've been having such a hard time finding even a decent hot dog?  How hard can that be? The clam shacks of Connecticut are restoring my faith in road food again.
Served in the typical paper tray with the ubiquitous cup of tartar sauce and a wedge of lemon this basket could have been served at any of the previous stops we've made.  But wait, there IS something...
I don't catch what it is right off the bat but I am aware that this platter is definitely different. I  like it, but what the heck is it? Then it hits me.  It's the tartar sauce. 
All of the previous sauces we've had have been pretty much the same.  Basically mayonnaise, pickle relish, lemon juice, and maybe a touch of parsley.  If any of them have had capers (actually more typical in "remoulade sauce" than tartar but he difference is often obscure), they were used in such judicious amounts as to be undetectable.  This sauce was very similar with one small but important change.  All of the others had used sweet pickle relish in the recipe while this one had used dill pickle relish.  Who knew such a small change could make such a big difference?  It was an epiphanic moment.
My rating: 10 out of 10. A perfect pile of clams in a classic fry-house atmosphere, bumped up a notch by the surprisingly good tartar sauce.  I was tempted to knock off a point for not being right on the water but heck, I'm the guy who wants to have a clam shack in his little town in AZ so I can get my regular fix.  Besides, water-front property is so expensive I'm not sure I could afford these same clams served there.
Goat Wine
Having accomplished what we wanted to along the shoreline we begin to make our way back in the general direction of our motel.  We come across a lovely little town (completely missed the name of it, however) having something of a festival.  Lots of booths and tables on the sidewalks, strolling entertainers here and there, lots of people.  There is supposed to be a good chocolate shop somewhere along there and Cynthia say's she needs a little "walk". This is code fordoing a little shopping so we find a place to park and go strolling.
Jim ducks into a book store while C and I continue on to the chocolate shop.  It turns out to be more of a gift shop that happens to have a small case of assorted chocolates on display - it is certainly not a chocolate shop. Oh well, were here so we work on putting together a little box of assorted pieces.
I notice that most of the pieces on one tray of dipped chocolates in the display case are badly "bloomed" (damaged by heat or humidity with a very unappealing grey pallor to them), and point this out to the girl working the counter.
"Oh, I know.  They're really funky looking, aren't they? Don't worry I won't put any of those in your box".
No she certainly was not going to put any of them into our box, but I explained that I brought it up because I thought she might consider removing them from the display.
"No, they're fine.  They won't hurt anything" she replied. 
Alrighty sweet pea, whatever you say.  They're not going to hurt anything but sales, and it's none of my business.
Back on the street we meet up with Jim again and notice a wine shop having a major inventory blow-out sale (I assume they are going out of business) with everything at least 25% off and several racks and bins at 40% or more off.  We all spot some amazing deals and lament that our travel plans do not let us take advantage.  One bin catches my eye and I can't resist taking a snapshot to send Kathryn back home...
Having shopped sufficiently, we head back to the car to resume our journey
It's about 7pm and we're back in Cheshire, where our motel is, but there is one more hot dog place we all really wanted to try.  Blackies in Cheshire isn't open on Fridays at all.  It has something to do with Catholics formerly not being allowed to eat meat on Fridays and the tradition being continued here despite the church's change of policy.  So anyway,  Saturday (today) was our one shot at getting to this iconic dog joint.
After getting some help with directions we head out of town on Waterbury Road and eventually come Blackies.

Ordering at Blackies couldn't be easier.  Just tell them how many you want.  We ordered two.
The dogs at Blackies are Hummel Bros hot dogs, a local CT brand.  They are deep fried until they burst.  One of Blackies main claims to fame is their special "house secret" pepper relish so, naturally I slathered mine with plenty of that plus a little mustard.
I was impressed.  That was one very tasty dog!  The deep-frying really crisped up the dog and despite having burst it seams, it still had a good snap.  It was darned hot too.  The relish really was something special and unlike so many "secret sauces" etc, it was actually a positive addition to the dog.  A unique combination of sweet and spice, it was good enough to eat plain and I found myself putting on more the one would for just another hot dog condiment.
Blackies was pretty busy and it was fun watching the regular locals come in and listening to the good natured banter running around the room  .  Recognizing them, the counter man would simply ask "5 or 6 tonight?" as they approached the counter.
My score: 10 out of 10.  Being a bit punchy and bloated from the previous two days' (over)indulgences I'm pretty sure I would not have scored Blackies so highly as we walked out their doors.  I don't think I even finished my one dog, but it was through no fault of theirs.  In retrospect, there is no question that it was a great dog.  I suppose the most telling fact is that sitting here 2000 miles and more than a week away from my Blackies visit, the remembrance of that pepper relish is still making me salivate, just a little.
It's 8:30 PM and we've finally gotten back at our motel.  We're pretty much wrung-out from our excursions and SO not looking forward to that 4:45am wake-up call we would be getting in order to get me to the airport in time for my morning flight back to AZ. 
On the other hand, it IS Saturday night and our last night of vacation.  Maybe we should go out to a nice dinner, get a bottle of wine...?  Oh, what the hell, let's do it!
We had noticed what looked to be a nice but casual seafood restaurant just down the street from the motel so we put our shoes back on and walked the couple of blocks down to YellowFin's Seafood Grille.
The restaurant was not crowded so we were immediately seated in a nice booth.  We ordered a bottle of dry white wine (can't remember what it was) and a plate of fried calamari as a starter.
The calamari was served with a light marinara sauce and was sprinkled with crumbled blue cheese - a fairly bold and different approach to this classic appetizer but it really worked.  It was very good blue cheese and I found myself eating way more than was my share.
For entrees I ordered a Lobster pasta dish, Cynthia ordered Swordfish, and I'm not sure what Jim ordered.  Somewhere right around this point in the meal my blogging/reporting skills completely turned off.  Maybe it was the wine or fatigue or a combination but the rest of the meal is a blur.
I know that my pasta dish was very tasty and remember picking all of the lobster out to eat but leaving most of the angel hair and cream sauce untouched.   I think Cynthia did a pretty good job on her swordfish but was unable to eat even one of the beautiful asparagus spears that accompanied it (fortunately Jim helped out there).  Having finished all we cared to the waitress, looking at our unfinished plates, asked how many doggie-bags we wanted and when told that we were traveling and could not take anything, whisked the pates away without making us feel any more disappointed then we already were.
We were most of the way back to the motel before we realized that none of us had taken a single picture, or made a single note after the appetizer had appeared.  The vacation was definitely over.
My Score: "I'd go back". In fairness to YellowFin's, that's the best I can offer.  Maybe someday I really will have the opportunity to go back and do it right!
One More Dog
Sunday 7/31/2011
It was a long day of traveling that started very early but the travel Gods were smiling, TSA was efficient (but definitely NOT smiling), the weather was good, and everything went smoothly.  After one plane change in Chicago I arrived in Phoenix around 1PM local time.  With several hours to kill before my puddle-jumper commuter flight up to Show Low and stomach that thought two bags of peanuts and a few Oreo cookies was not enough for 12 hours of being awake, I found myself sitting in the sports bar restaurant in Terminal 2. 
What's on the menu? Among other things a bratwurst sandwich with roasted peppers and you know what? That sounds pretty good, so I ordered it.
Sorry, no pictures, but it wasn't bad for airport food and it definitely beat the heck out of some of the other dogs I had consumed on this trip.
My Rating: 6 out of 10. About the worst ambiance I can imagine and priced high for because of the captive audience factor, it was still a pretty good sandwich.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 3 (part 6)

 July 30 2011, Day three of  "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour"  continued... (back to part 5)
Athenian II Diner
No need to get up at the crack of dawn this morning as our first scheduled stop (a sheep's milk cheese dairy) doesn't open until 10am, so we get up when we feel like it and head to North Haven to the Athenian II Diner for a leisurely breakfast.
I'm kind of a stodgy traditionalist as far as "diners" are concerned, I guess.  To me diners  are basically supposed to look like old art deco railroad dining cars.  The Athenian II looked to me pretty much like your ordinary, every-day run of the mill, site-built, brick-and-mortar modern family restaurant - outside and in.
I said as much to Jim and he immediately told me I was a complete idiot.  Of course he didn't come right out and say it - he is WAY too nice a guy to be so brutally honest (besides, I was doing the driving and had the rental car keys in my pocket and he probably didn't want to get left there).
What he actually did was educate me, reading from a guide book all about the company who manufactured it, how the modular pieces were constructed, transported and assembled, concluding with a full architectural review of the style in which it was built. OK, OK!  I give up! It's a real DINER!
Having settled the building's pedigree, we moved on to the business at hand: breakfast. The menu offered pretty standard faire with a bit of eclectic ethnicity here and there but (for a place called the "Athenian") no real Greek influence I could discern.  I ordered Challa Bread French Toast, Cynthia had a griddled cheese Danish with a side of sausage, and Jim asked for 2 eggs scrambled, toast and home fries.
The food came out fast and looked good, if a bit sanitized.  I don't know what I was expecting but it all seemed very plain and boring. 

Perhaps the problem stemmed from the inevitable comparisons to yesterday's outstanding breakfast at O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown. Definitely no soft-shelled crab on this breakfast menu!
Regardless, we tucked into it hoping for the best.  Cynthia was the first to comment.  She said that her Danish was "weird".  It looked pretty good - nicely browned but she was right, it tasted flat.  We came to the conclusion that we had expected it to be sweet and it wasn't.  Not even a little bit.  How very strange.  Her sausages were the skinless type.  OK flavor but they had been cooked a while ago and I thought held too long.
I was also disappointed with my French toast.  I found it undercooked.  Here my dining companions again disagreed with me completely.  Both C&J thought it was very good French toast and, in fact, ended up eating most of it off my plate.  I don't like well-done, dry French toast either but this was just plain snotty to me.  What I called "snotty" they called "custardy".  Different strokes for different folks. 
I was also seriously off-put by the fake butter that accompanied my breakfast (GROSS!!) and the little packets of Smucker's "breakfast syrup" on the plate.  I admit that I am a total Maple syrup snob.  I grew up watching my grandfather make the real stuff and nothing else ever appeared on our tables at home.  While I can fully appreciate that most restaurants can't just put jugs of real maple syrup on their tables without going out of business within a week, there is no reason why it can not be offered as a paid upgrade option for those of us who care.  This affront seems more egregious when one has traveled thousands of miles to a region that makes some of the best maple syrup in the world.
Jim said his breakfast was "fine" but most of the pasty home fries were still on his plate when we left.
My Score: 5 out of 10.  I would (kind of ) like to go back and give them another shot, but not enough to do anything about it.  Too many other fish in the ocean.
Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm
Mark, the cheese maker at Cato Farm where we had visited yesterday, suggested that we try and make it to Sankow's farm in Lyme if at all possible.  Officially known as Beaver Brook Farm, the Sankows,  who have kept the 175 acres in the family since 1917, have developed it into a multi-faceted agricultural enterprise.  Largely a sheep operation now, they are known for their sheep and cow's milk cheeses as well as wool products and meat.
It was a gorgeous back-road drive to the farm through cute hamlets and breath-taking New England scenery.  The amount of greenery and vegetation was all but overwhelming to this desert rat and I admit to making some uncalled-for comments about deer ticks and Lyme disease.  Give rattlesnakes, tarantulas and scorpions any day! 
Upon our arrival at the farm we were greeted by a classic Connecticut farmstead scene: White clapboard house, red barns, big trees, rolling grass lands etc. 

And sheep.  We were greeted by two very curious young sheep.

Knowing it was a long shot (it was Saturday morning after all and we didn't have an appointment) I proceeded to the cheese shop in hopes of meeting one of the owners or cheese makers.  Unfortunately I was out of luck.  Everybody was at the various farmers markets they work and the only one left on the farm was a very nice, if somewhat clueless, intern who had been working there just 2 weeks.
She said for us to feel free to wander around but could not give me permission to go into the cheese-making rooms (completely understandable).  I did get a couple of photos of the cheese room through a window.

We also checked out the milking parlor and the wool store.
With nothing much more for us to do there, I bought some cheese from the store and we headed to our next destination.
Bobby's Place
We were running a little ahead of schedule (not that we actually had a firm schedule) and got to Bobby's Place in Niantic about 30 minutes before it opened at 11am.  Cynthia immediately spotted some "shopportunities" and ducked into one of the nearby gee-gaw shops while Jim and I parked ourselves at the sidewalk umbrella table of a little café-bakery.  It was already getting quite warm and soon Jim went in and bought a donut from the bakery. I'm not sure if he did this to get cool, because he felt guilty about taking up their table space (not that it was needed) or if he was still needing more breakfast.
With a good view of Bobbies, we waited and watched a woman working inside and then come out to open the umbrellas on their picnic tables.  Eventually we saw a couple approach the order window and leave with some food so we headed on over.
Bobby's Place is a real hot dog STAND in the truest sense.  This is because the single, solitary person squeezed into the tiny kitchen has to STAND all the time.  There is barely room to turn around, let alone sit down.  Bobby's is located in a converted drive-through Photo Mat kiosk.
Cute as a button, Bobby's is a testament to Yankee ingenuity and logistical planning.  I've worked in some small kitchens before but this is amazing.  This is obviously not a place were a lot of from-scratch cooking is done but it looks like a perfect adaptation for a hot dog joint.
The menu is pretty standard for the area but we don't really need to look any way.
Cynthia and Jim split a plain dog, I order a kraut one and we settled in at one of the tables provided.  It's a lovely morning and we're less than a block from Long Island Sound, with a good view of the water.  Most excellent ambiance!
The dogs came up and we head around to the side of the little building to the condiment bar (mustard, relish,ketchup and paper napkins) to load up.
C&J's dog looks good but mine is scary.  The dog itself looks alright but the sauerkraut is nasty looking.  It's kind of a dark grey color and very unappetizing.
It almost looks like it was made from purple cabbage - but it wasn't.  I take a sniff... nothing.  No characteristic sour/salty/fermented aroma.  I'm not sure if this is bad or good.  At least it didn't smell rotted.  I go to take a small taste.  Cynthia: "Are you NUTS?" Me: "I just want to try it".  Cynthia: "It looks gross!"  Me: "I don't want to waste it".  Cynthia: "Its a $3 hot dog...THROW IT AWAY!"
Well, she was right and I did chuck it but not before eating most of the meat(which was pretty good) and taking another small sample of the kraut.  It was as tasteless as it was scent-less. I'm not even sure how one could get sauerkraut to taste like shredded paper, let alone achieve such an unnatural color. My best guess was that kraut dogs must not be very popular here and this kraut had been around a very, very long time.
Just couldn't eat it.  Yuck.
My score: 4 out of 10.  Cute only gets you so far.  Despite the outstanding ambiance, it was only an  OK bun, OK dog.  The disgusting kraut was a deal killer.
Our next scheduled stop was at Beltane Farm, a goat cheese dairy in Lebanon CT at 1pm.  With an hour and a half left to make the 45 minute drive, we selected a scenic route  that would take us a ways along the coast and then up along the west side of the Connecticut River.
Ahh, the best laid plans...  We left Bobby's, drove a block down to the water, made a left turn and there, staring us in the faces, was our first official clam shack of the trip.  I immediately pulled in without asking the others, feeling the need to put something in my mouth to make up for that kraut.
We'd arrived at Skippers.
Skippers was right across the street from the water with plentiful seating, about half outside and half in.  Brightly lit and sparkling clean it sported an extensive and colorful menu board featuring primarily fried seafood.
Without hesitation I ordered the Fresh Whole Clam Roll.  Cynthia and Jim got drinks only.
I took my number and we went outside to enjoy the view. Traffic along the coastal road was picking up steadily, sometimes moving at only a crawl.  Not unexpected for a mid-summer  Saturday morning. Soon my number was called and I picked up my plate at the window.
Now THAT'S what I'm talking about!  The over-abundance of calms spilling out of the bun were accompanied by a little cup of tartar sauce and some potato chips.  Grabbing a clam off the plate, a quick pass at the sauce and into my mouth. Mmmmm ouch, Ouch, OUCH!  OK, I maybe should have waited for it to cool a little but oh my, what a delicious clam.  By the time I had gotten to the third or fourth one they stopped burning my mouth but it was hard to slow down.  Sweet, salty with a perfect breading crunch. All-around excellent. Even Cynthia, who has never been a big whole-clam eater, tried a few and thought them very good.
I always think of the bun on a clam roll as being superfluous. Ordering a roll is an easy way of getting a small order of clams, but I had to laugh outloud in this case.  The bun was the flat-sided, New England-style kind and it had been perfectly griddled in a little butter.  At last, I'd found the exact hot dog bun I'd been looking for and there wasn't a hotdog in sight!
The tartar sauce was tasty and it was a relief not to have been given those awful little portion packets that so many places have taken to using.  Even the chips were good - thick waffle cut and crispy.
My Score: 9 out of 10.  Skippers put on no airs of pretension and did exactly what a clam shack was supposed to do.  Provide great food at reasonable prices with a casual shore line atmosphere.
(To be continued)