Aside from the annoying commercials and mediocre food, here’s another reason to stop giving your money to Olive Garden. They’re bullshitting you. To your face. Why reward them for it? Unlimited volumes of low-value bread and pasta?

As consumers, we really need to start looking at chain restaurants more critically. McDonald’s tastes the same around the world because they engineer the meals for consistency. It’s “fast food” so we accept that lack of wholesomeness in exchange for convenience. But we should also be questioning how places like Olive Garden and Red Lobster manage that same consistency from PA to Kansas to California. We live under an illusion that all sit-down restaurants with waitstaffs have big kitchens run by skilled chefs. More likely, there are huge regional facilities using corporate-designed recipes to premake and portion sauces, breadsticks, desserts, etc. They freeze and ship the food hundreds of miles to the franchises to be thawed, reheated and assembled per some laminated card full of plus signs and pictograms.

Remember, you are eating for you and your family’s nourishment – to live long, healthy lives with strong bodies and minds.  Corporate restaurants are trying to turn a profit. That’s it. They’re run by executives in big cities far away and don’t know you or care about you or your community – no matter how many smiling families they put in their commercials. Twenty years from now, you’ll be suffering the effects of their cheap carbs, fat and preservatives. And Olive Garden will be long gone with your money.

We just downloaded the entire camera card for the first time in a while and it gave me a chance to scan all the pics in iPhoto. I found some random food stuff that I might as well share:

Salted pumpkin caramels I whipped up for Thanksgiving.

Bûche de Noël with cocoa and almond meringue “mushrooms” for Christmas dinner dessert. The cake was rolled up with a filling but i can’t quite recall what it was – buttercream with almonds maybe.

Bang Bang Shrimp from Bonefish Grill. My dad’s fave. Very tasty but a little greasy. We think they toss them is some mayonaissy sauce while they’re still hot.

Klein Farms had beef shanks at a really good price so I bought a bunch and made some osso buco. I then shredded it, blended in lots of Parmesan cheese and turned it into whole wheat raviolis. A couple hours of work and we had enough for a dozen meals-for-two.

I was watching Bacon Paradise on the Travel Chanel the other week and was inspired to make some bacon waffles a la Hash House a go go. Three strips of thick cooked bacon laid across the waffle iron after the batter is poured in. If I make them again, I won’t cook the bacon so crispy.

I planted heirloom Touchon carrots last year and left them in the ground over the winter. I dug them up at the beginning of March. They were never thinned out so they stayed kinda small, but it was quite a bounty of 2-4 inch carrots.

The unseasonably beautiful weather last Friday demanded that we find some outdoor dinner downtown. My wife has been bugging me to go back to Valenca in Centre Square but I’ve weaseled my way out of it for the past year or so. We’ve had way too many odd experiences there – mostly problems with the service. But they have a nice patio setup and tasty sangria so I was ready to give them another shot.

We started with the “meat and cheese plate” – more meat than cheese, but it was good nonetheless. A nice variety of meats and, simple presentation, and tasty candied walnuts to balance the saltiness of everything else.

My wife went with the Greek Salad and Margherita Pizza, and I had the Chorizo Penne. Everything was fresh and well-prepared.

We saved room for dessert and decided to share the lava cake with hazelnut chocolate ice cream (from The Purple Cow Creamery – excellent).

We weren’t surprised by the quality of the food – that was never our problem. The service was our concern and I’m happy to report that we had a great waiter. He was attentive and friendly without being overly chatty. We’d had one server there previously who wanted to have a conversation with every visit to the table. Awkward and frustrating. It’s too soon to be sure that Valenca has upgraded its waitstaff overall, but this visit has definitely recolored my opinion of the place. Plus it’s hard to resist the vibe of their patio and the great light as the sun sets on the square.

A few words from Laini Abraham about our town.

I had a bit of email dialogue with Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, authors of Charcuterie, to try to solve a problem with my first batch of saucisson sec. The flavor, color, and texture were great. But most of the links had air pockets running through their centers. On each of the three pieces below, you can see how the fibers stretch across the gap, as though the denser areas on either side of the gap pulled away from each other as the top and bottom collapsed inward.

Brian felt strongly that my auger-style sausage stuffer (a KitchenAid attachment) was introducing air into the sausage. He recommended switching to a plunger-style model or pressing the links like one would press sopressata. Since part of my reason for starting charcuterie (and cheese- and winemaking) is to save money, I don’t think i’m going to shell out for a $200 stuffer. I’ll keep my eye on Craigslist though.

Having used the KitchenAid stuffer a few times, I’m stubbornly convinced I’m not introducing air into the sausage. Trying to be scientific about it, I’ve made a second batch, changing only one aspect of my process. The sausages shown above were cured in 25-30% humidity, and I should have had it near 70% for the first week to slow down the drying. I really didn’t think it would be a problem with such small-diameter links.

I hesitate to set up the humidifier in such a small room in case I overdo it, so I’ve set up several large buckets of water and have been misting the room and the links several times a day and have been able to get the humidity to 50%. They’ve been hanging for a week and don’t seem to be shrinking quite as quickly as the previous batch. And no mold from the excess moisture so that’s good. I added a splash of vinegar to the spray bottle to keep the pH down and inhibit any undesirable microbes.

I’ve also started a nice piece of Bresaola. It will be in the fridge for another week before I hang it. The diameter is closer to 3 inches, so I’ll have to get the humidity up near 70% to prevent case hardening.

Just got a rave review of Half Moon Restaurant & Saloon in Kennett Square, PA from my pops. Lots of Belgian beer and wild game. Sounds good to me.

We were heading over to the Regal Cinemas on 248 to see Black Swan last weekend and were looking to grab a quick bite. We stopped for gas at the Wawa just on the other side of Rt 33 and noticed Cici’s Pizza in the little strip mall next door. A couple slices of pizza takes no time at all so we zoomed over. As we walked in we realized Cici’s is a pizza buffet. Perfect! This will be even faster – no perusing the selections or waiting for the slices to heat up!

It wasn’t until after I happily handed over $15 for the two of us that I noticed all the kids. There is generally an inverse relationship between the quantity of children and the quality of the food. Still, as we hit the buffet line, the pizza looked really good (though I was starving). I grabbed 4 different slices and hurriedly sat down so I could get my fill as the movie time ticked ever closer.

The pizza wasn’t awful. But it was bad (which is better than awful in my precise rating system). Spongy and bland are the two best descriptors. Some slices were better than others – the sausage (with preformed meat marbles) and the Sicilian spinach alfredo had a bit more flavor. I know that you get what you pay for and that I shouldn’t expect quality from a cheap buffet seemingly run by 15-year-olds.

My guess is that the company’s goal is to offer pizza that is interesting enough for parents yet soft and palatable enough for kids. We took a chance and now we know better. And so do you.

Weighed the cheeks today and they’ve each lost about 15% of their weight after hanging for 6 days. I also made 12 links of saucisson sec, a basic French dry sausage, on Saturday night. Simply seasoned with black peppercorns and garlic, Ruhlman describes it as tasting “like the French countryside.” Sold.

I picked up 4 pork cheeks (along with some shoulder, fatback, and sausage casings for my next project) from Baringer Bros. meats at the Allentown Farmer’s Market last week. I’ll do 2 cheeks to start and the other 2 in a couple months. Apparently the flavor is intense and a little goes a long way. Here is a condensed version of my prep. Consult Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for detailed instructions.

Step 1 – The obligatory and clichéd wearing of the cheek on your face like Hannibal Lecter.

Steps 2-4 – Trim off the skin, any stray sinew and fat. Combine with salt, sugar, garlic, pepper and fresh thyme. Refrigerate for 6 days.

Steps 5-6 – Remove from fridge, rinse off seasonings and pat dry. Punch a hole near the top and loop a string through for hanging. I had seen a preparation where the cheek was trussed with a sprig of rosemary so I copied it. Looks nicer and smells better. You can see that they’re firmer as they’re not laying flat onto the cutting board. Each lost an ounce of liquid during the curing. We’re looking for an overall loss of 30% of the starting weight.

Step 7 – Hung in the cellar. I attached tags onto which i can write the weights every 4-5 days. The aroma is a little pungent right now but it will get better as the water leaves. I’m hoping these are edible by New Year’s.

I really appreciate the drive to DIY before reaching for the credit card. There are certainly plenty of house/yard projects I have to hire someone for, but my first thought is always “Can I do it myself?”

When it comes to food, I understand my limitations and have enormous appreciation for skilled chefs and a good restaurant experience, hence this blog. That being said, I’m also somewhat frugal and am always looking to have a home dining experience that feels a step above the norm. It’s not only the result that I love – enjoying the process is key. And while cooking and baking can take up to a few hours per recipe, long-term recipes offer a whole different level of satisfaction.

Three time-intensive foods – wine, cheese and cured meat – also happen to be our idea of a heavenly meal. And I’m excited to say I’m close to achieving that trifecta at home.

I started winemaking a few years ago and have made cheese the last couple summers. Wines take a good two months from fermentation to bottling – plus at least 6 months of aging if you so choose. I’ve only attempted fresh cheese so far (mozzarella, chevre, feta and ricotta) which take a few hours to a few days. The next step would be aged cheeses (maybe brie or bleu) but the kits I’ve seen are a bit pricey. So I’m skipping ahead to salted, cured meats – aka charcuterie.

Inspired mainly by watching too much Anthony Bourdain, I started some research a couple months back and found that my basement conditions in winter are close to perfect. It’s an uninsulated stone foundation and sits right around 57º through March. We have a tiny room in the basement that had once housed a toilet and maybe a sink. The room had been partitioned with paneling that had taken on a fair amount of water damage at the base over the decades. We knew the whole setup was a mess but hadn’t touched it since we moved in almost 5 years ago. Now I had the perfect motivation.

I tore the walls down and poured a concrete slab on top of which the new walls would sit. This is the lowest spot in the basement and I don’t want any leaks damaging the new walls or spawning mold or mildew. I put up new studs and concrete backer board, and painted the brick wall and floor with mildew-resistant masonry paint. The new walls are covered in glossy white tile. The ceiling was the challenge. I originally wanted to enclose the pipes to keep the room as clean as possible. I decided the pipes were OK and hung a pine ceiling in 3 pieces to fit snugly around them. Twenty steel hooks were the final touch and I’m ready to hang some meat. I received Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for my birthday last month and have decided to start with guanciale.

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