It’s a yogurt, silly :))

Last night was the first time in a while that I made something that actually required a recipe. Seared salmon, Uncle Ben’s Rice, H-E-B frozen tuscan style vegetables, bacon — all those of course were straightforward — with a cream sauce for the salmon. That last one was made from a recipe by (IG handle) @LittleSunnyKitchen.

It was Teak who had suggested salmon. I always like the concept of eating fish, but H-E-B sells salmon for between $10.99/lb and (for organic, never-frozen salmon) $15.99/lb. Translated into beef terms, we are getting pricey. Go to Wahoo, which I love, and the price is practically double. Don’t get their shrimp unless you want to live high on the hog using your 529 Plan.

Nevertheless, we needed to eat healthily. (I was going to write “…eat healthy.” But the latter, being an adjective, is incorrect. It can’t modify the verb “eat.” It would be more correctly used in this sentence: “We eat only healthy salmon, organic and never frozen.” To “eat healthy” leaves off the thing that follows the adjective that is both healthy and also eaten. But to “eat healthily” means that the act of eating is healthy. Of course, I might have confused things because while “eat” or “eating” are verbs and would be modified by adverbs, the “act of eating” used as a whole phrase is a noun and would be modified by the adjective “healthy.” But also “the act of eating healthily” could be correct if you understood it to be that the eating was being modified rather than the act of it. I could go on — I actually could, so don’t tempt me — but suffice it to say, “We needed to eat good.”)

So off to the big H-E-B I went.

There’s something about entering the parking lot of the big H-E-B on Main street, slowing up for slow (and generally unhealthy) pedestrians who are crossing in front, when — Dear Reader, let’s confess this together — there is with some pedestrians the teeny-tiny urge to inch the car gently into their right thigh, rendering them either bruised, immobile or sufficiently frightened enough to move more quickly. And there’s something about, for me, finding a spot way out in the Hinterlands (so you get in a good walk), and then entering the foyer with all the big shopping carts, which makes me think, “It would be a crying shame to use this big cart and buy only enough items to go through the self check-out” — where actually more than two big carts don’t fit anyway — there’s something about all of that, that instead of getting only the ingredients I need to make dinner, I indulgently stop first at the olive bar just inside to the left. Why, you ask? Same reason someone climbs a mountain. Because it’s there.

Now…I love H-E-B, as you know. The title of this website honors a section of the old H-E-B. In fact, it honors a section of the long-gone Iteration 1 of the store that fed any self-respecting Texan or NYC blue-blood who aspired to be a self-respecting Texan: the biscuit section. In further fact, the old store’s biscuit aisle was replaced with an extensive yogurt aisle, indicating a cultural shift toward eating good from eating not-really-that-good-at-all-if-we’re-honest-with-each-other-remember-being-honest-about-maiming-slow-pedestrians?-let’s-keep-that-honesty-between-us-going.

We’ve had a new cultural shift.

We’ve moved away from Yoplait — tell me you didn’t enjoy the tactile sensation of peeling back that foil top, and tell me you didn’t lick it — and even away from Greek yogurt toward Icelandic yogurt in particular. My favorite is a brand called Umferðarmiðstöð. One time I wanted a mixed berry Umferðarmiðstöð. It caused a bit of a stir, followed by 12 weeks of intensive marriage counseling in San Antonio.

Since then, I have switched to Hill Country brand yogurt, so that we were able to recently celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Splurging on a Tuesday night

It was easy enough to gain a solid five pounds over Christmas weekend. And, for that matter, it was fortuitous that Christmas fell on a Saturday morning, because I’m slack about eating healthy on the weekends anyway. Of course, Boxing Day is always a favorite holiday of mine to cast cholesterol concerns aside. And, with Epiphany coming up, and falling on a Thursday at that, it’s clear that I’ve had and will have many justifiable excuses to eat and grow fat.

Last night was cause for constraint, however. It was a Tuesday evening after all. And it wasn’t Christmas or Epiphany or Groundhog’s Day, another favorite culinary holiday of mine.

So I ate lunch with a friend at Antojitos — making sure to dominate the shared and free chips and salsa (I mean, I was picking up the tab, which entitles me to a majority control of the chips) — consuming both corn tortillas that came with the meal. By the way, I had huevos rancheros, and far be it for this gringo to point this out, but I’ve always had my tortillas sitting underneath the huevos, not on the side. They came as a side dish. I will say that the ranchero sauce they put on the huevos was excellent, as were the refried beans. The rice was typical of that which comes with most Tex-Mex meals: if you were to take cotton candy and shape it into sepia-colored rice, that’s what a mouthful would feel like.

Unless I’m forgetting a meal or snack somewhere in the afternoon, the next opportunity to eat would be at the movie we were going to, “House of Gucci” at the AMC in Boerne.

At the movies, I’ve been known to have both popcorn and Twizzlers, but never on any day except Christmas, Boxing Day, Epiphany, Thursdays or the occasional Friday (Wednesday too, but only if Thursday happens to be a holiday).

It was Tuesday night, which called for extreme constraint. The kind of constraint as practiced in 1996, when Christmas fell on a Wednesday, and I have a firm belief that eating wildly should never be done on a Tuesday except when that Tuesday is Christmas Eve, which this past week fell instead on a Friday and which, as I have stated, can be among the “occasional” variety when caution is thrown to the wind.

So we ordered a large popcorn to share and two drinks. (There was a time when we shared a large drink, too, but let’s be reasonable. There comes a time when one needs his own gallon of Cherry Coke Zero.)

I noticed a couple changes in the movie-going experience, which has eluded us or we it for about two years. The last movie we saw outside the house was “A Star Is Born” at the Rio 10 here in Kerrville. After that, there was a gunman who holed himself up in the theater and was removed only after the cops used tear gas, which took a while to clean the theater of, and then COVID hit. (In its own inimitable way, COVID was also a good excuse to eat a lot.) Coincidentally, that last movie starred the same actress as the one last night: Lady Gaga. I thought she looked familiar, and in my opinion was quite good in her role, as she was in “A Star Is Born.” (If you disagree, fine. But know that you are not welcome for dinner, not even for the traditional feast I prepare on St. Patrick’s Day.)

The popcorn… All I can say is that there is still nothing like movie popcorn. It’s the best.

One of the changes in movies now is that before the previews, guests are encouraged to download an app called Noovie Arcade, which allows the patron to use their phone to play an augmented reality game on the screen. I have to admit, it looked fun.

Another change is that they have increased the number of previews from three or four to approximately 26. That’s only my guess; I lost count after they were still previewing movies from 2019 that had come and gone without wide distribution but which are now on-demand on Hulu.

On the way to the theater, I remarked to Karen that this would be the first movie in two years that I couldn’t hit the pause button on. In fact, with “House of Gucci” having a 140-minute run time, I did have to run to the bathroom at one point.

Yet, no pause and dozens of previews notwithstanding, it was a pleasant experience. Sitting in the dark with strangers enjoying a shared experience. Having no say whether the movie continued with or without me, allowing me to be at its mercy.

In those times, one can lose oneself into the story. And I did.

But by the 18th preview I had already finished our popcorn.

Cardamom

What ended my chances to be on a reality cooking show that had a grand prize of $100,000 probably came in the third round of interviews when the culinary expert asked me, “What’s your favorite condiment?” and my answer after a rambling monologue was “cardamom.” I talked about other “condiments” like curry (“My wife doesn’t really like it.”) or standards like rosemary, thyme and other “condiments” that might have featured in a Simon & Garfunkel song. Sure, cardamom is not only not found in most recipes but is found in “my favorite recipe for pancakes,” something I’d pointed out after this verbal adventure of about thirty seconds, which is a lifetime in a “job” interview for a spot on a TV show where 30 seconds might cost tens of thousands of dollars if you are car company whose Lincoln Navigator is being driven by Matthew McConaughey. But the salient point — really the only point — is that cardamom is a spice. It is not a “condiment.”

Ketchup. Mustard. Mayo. Whatever-the-fuck.

Those are condiments.

She was asking me about mayo, when I had thought we were going to talk about why cardamom makes my pancakes so much better.

No.

Answers like these during a 15-minute phone interview on October 12 with a producer (a culinary expert who helped produce the show) I believe ended my chances to be a contestant. The next step would have been a trip to Albuquerque on November 27, and filming until December 11 depending on how well I did. The winners of each round in this competition of home cooks wins cash, and the final winner gets a hundred grand.

But getting cut?

It’s all good.

I mean, I have a load of darks to wash that’s not going to wash itself.


A nice woman had approached me on October 1 through Instagram. A direct message. These days, when you get a DM on Instagram, it shows up in “Requests,” and these are usually spam, or people promising they can increase the number of my followers, or college-age women asking if I want to see them lose their virginity on video. (No joke; it’s pretty messed up.)

But there were several things that tipped me off that this might be legit:

  • The writer addressed me by first name
  • She identified herself with her whole name and identified the company she worked for
  • She used paragraph breaks in standard fashion along with proper punctuation
  • She ended the first paragraph with the words “$100,000.” (Sure. I know that that’s one word, and it’s not even a word. But I tend to see each zero as a thing. You know: 0 = debt repayment. Another 0 = new chef’s kitchen. Another 0 = put it into Karen’s business, etc.)
  • She wrote — in successive paragraphs with appropriate breaks — how she came across me, what she wanted to discuss and closed with her name again and title.

I looked her up on LinkedIn, and she seemed legit.

I replied later that day that I’d like to talk, and so we did.

They were going to start a new streaming show, through a “major food network,” that was a competition of home cooks who have short-cut hacks on making meals quicker. The hacks could be food prep or cooking techniques, or they could be how to use a kitchen tool in a new way that made meals easier.


The initial approach had come on a Friday morning. I responded late that day, and over the weekend we scheduled a call for Monday. It went fine enough. She asked me what I would do with the $100,000. (I’ve seen Chopped forever and they ask this on the show; I surmised that they ask this early on so that my reasons would sound compelling on camera.) I said, “I’d probably get a new chef’s kitchen. I’d put some money into my wife’s art business. I’d help my kids with their educational and career goals.”

All true.

Not the whole truth, of course. Because somewhere in there would be a new surfboard. And I’ve needed a new pair of brown slip-on leather shoes, because my Maddens have a slice in the bottom of the right one, and if I was walking to appointments instead of driving, most surely my socks would be soaked on rainy days. So: new shoes. I didn’t mention that to the nice woman, because she probably lives in L.A., where you also drive and where it doesn’t rain. And if it does rain, nobody drives.

I digress.

Killed the interview.

She said she definitely wanted me to go to the next step and scheduled a video interview for me with another casting agent for the next day. Hell, I thought, I’m rocking it. Shoes, here we come.

The Zoom interview was about 45 minutes long, and the young casting agent, a man in his late 20s or early 30s, informed me that this video would be shared with producers, along with my answers from the previous day and the written application I’d had to fill out, and their decision would be based on those.

I got this, I thought. Zoom is where I live. I use Zoom all the time for work with strangers and colleagues and I can kill this. I know how to look into the camera even though I’m not looking into the person’s eyes and I can come across as personable. I can totally do this.

This was a little different, because I was not interviewing specifically for the casting agent but rather auditioning for some unseen person or persons in Los Angeles who saw hundreds of interviews like this. He said that although the interview would take a little time, they would edit it down to a couple minutes and present it to the show’s producers. You know, those people who drive on non-rainy days and have more than one pair of work shoes.

He coached me along the way on how to say things to appear excited. He had me repeat a couple answers here and there, rephrasing things, giving shorter answers, looking more excited. This was around 4pm, and frankly I was a little tired. I needed to snort some cayenne pepper to get myself going. And so I did. Just kidding. I said I needed to. But I didn’t do it.

It was a day or two later maybe when the first casting agent called me to schedule the next call, the third one that I mentioned above, which would be a “culinary expert” on the show. I actually just now found her on LinkedIn, and she’s a beast. Serious background in chefery and culinary education. (Chefery is as much a word as cardamom is a condiment by the way. Chefery has those squiggly red lines under it, indicating it’s not a condiment. And I’m going to fucking leave it as is.)

She was all business. She peppered me — you knew that pun was coming — with questions like, “What four ingredients must you have to cook with?” (I answered garlic, onion and a couple other things.) “What oil do you use?” Olive. “What’s in your dry pantry?” I had to ask for clarification; she said, “Anything not perishable.” Hence, drypantry, airhead. I mentioned pastas, and realized that didn’t make me stand out. Rice, pinto beans, canned goods… (Should I mention that they are Del Monte, a brand I hate?) None of these made me stand out. I forgot all about the large bag of chia seeds I bought from H-E-B, which will probably last me until the canned goods perish after the apocalypse. That answer was probably a fail.

She asked me, “Do you do more baking or cooking?” “What’s your go-to dish?” “How much do you spend on groceries each month?” “If you had an hour’s notice, what kind of meal would you make?” I answered all these relatively well.

Then she asked, “What’s your favorite cuisine?” Oh, man, here I’d hit it out of the park for sure with the prowess that got me all the likes and praise on Instagram. I told her all the dishes I had made: the pastas and smashburgers and healthy options with fish and chicken casseroles, and I even made sure to outline my secret weapon: spaghetti-western food. People hadn’t heard of this: not Hollywood, not the streaming TV-viewing public, not even that fruity-hairstyle-driving-a-Lincoln-probably-running-for-governor-of-Texas guy. I was killing it. Killing. It.

Until she repeated the question: “No, I mean, what’s your favorite cuisine. Like: Italian, French…”

This was not going well. I said meekly, “Probably Italian.” Which was probably the favorite cuisine of 90% of those interviewed, too.

And yet those 90% knew cardamom wasn’t a condiment.


I inquired several times with the original agent whether they’d made a decision. I got a note on November 2 — that was Election Day in case you weren’t paying attention. Yeah. Election Day. — that informed me that I had “not been selected to move forward with the show.” It was a gracious note. A single paragraph. (I myself might have made it two, just for readability’s sake. But hey, she wasn’t auditioning for my upcoming Reality Grammar Show. I’m serious, by the way. Still pitching it to the perpetually-shoed Hollywood types.)

There came a point between my final interview and when I got word of being cut — a span of only three weeks — when I started to cook occasionally with methods and a mindset that were geared to being the kind of cook who might win on a show like this. Not the kind of cook who cooks to enjoy cooking.

Hey, I’m all for winning $100,000.

But there really is a truth to how different it is between doing something you enjoy for the love of it versus for the money, and perhaps having it spoiled. (This is why famed surfer Laird Hamilton doesn’t compete: surfing is not a competitive activity in his mind. It’s a relationship between the person and the ocean.)

I’m ok having a dry pantry that has things I forgot to mention during the interview because they are pushed to the back when I bought the 10-pound back of white rice at the beginning of COVID. I’m ok even calling cardamom a condiment, because I’m still going to use it in my pancakes despite its category. I did so this past weekend. Everyone loved the pancakes.

I’m still ok thinking my spaghetti-western cuisine is a thing. She didn’t ask about that. The culinary expert, that is. And she’s a freaking culinary expert. Pfft. Right.

It is a thing. And I’ll turn it into an even bigger Thing. And there will be food trucks and restaurants and t-shirts and key chains.

Maybe not key chains. Who buys key chains at a restaurant?!

I’ll have to noodle on that one.

This might just be NOT “not your grandmother’s peach pie”

Because there’s in fact nothing wrong with grandmother’s peach pie. Nothing at all. That’s why they call it “grandmother’s peach pie” — it’s a bit of a cliché, and this cliché has survived two generations of pie-makers in your family. That’s why your mother bakes it the way her mother did. And let’s face it, your father, if he was born before 1955, probably didn’t bake anything, so I assume it’s your mother’s mother and not even your aunt’s mother, because then it wouldn’t be your grandmother’s peach pie but rather your great-aunt’s peach pie, and it’s your cousins who cook their grandmother’s peach pie and not your grandmother’s peach pie. And that’s fine. This is the way we avoid fights at Thanksgiving.

But this peach pie has the crust and filling of a very simple pie, like that of grandmother, and the ingredients and a couple key techniques seem to make this special.

The ingredients

Good ingredients give you a head start with any dish, and just like your grandmother used ingredients that were more farm-based and less grocery store-based, so you would do well to adopt this practice. This goes without saying.

Peaches, I’ve learned from being married to a Texan, are better in Texas than from, say, Georgia, even if that’s not verifiable because taste — like anything related to the five senses — is subjective. Texas claims the best peaches, and therefore it is true. Even if I was married to a woman from Georgia, her imaginary sister, who moved to Texas in 1988 to be with her imaginary outlaw country music boyfriend would try to convince you that Texas peaches are best, especially if it’s in the Hill Country at Fredericksburg’s Jenschke Orchards.

Jenschke has been family owned and operated since 1961. There was a store by that name in Kerrville owned by a family cousin as I understand it, but that location was shut down as H-E-B expanded. I’ve heard they still make deliveries to local outlets.

Karen and I went to Fredericksburg a couple weekends ago, because I had a hankering to bake a peach pie that every same day, and it was this that ended up as good as “grandmother’s peach pie.”

I should be quick to add a couple caveats:

  • Neither of my grandmothers cooked peach pie.
    • One of those grandmothers, a well-to-do New England lady, had a housekeeper who also cooked, and to my recollection she made only a cherry pie, which would pass muster with my grandfather, whose opinion carried the weight of a Supreme Court Chief Justice on all matters culinary (and hunting, and hunting dogs, and basically anything related to being alive).
  • I had made only two pies previously, an apple with fruit picked from Cider Hill Farm when we were living in Massachusetts, and a strawberry-rhubarb pie with rhubarb given to me by a colleague who got it from her family’s farm in Vermont.
    • I should note that both of these pies, especially the latter, kicked major ass.
    • But both of these pies were made prior to 2007, and I was a bit intimidated to bake another now, 14 years later, having been focused lately on the improvisational art of cooking and not baking, which truly is a science. (Yes, baking certainly has its artistic side.)
    • Which reminds me, as a college senior majoring in English with two housemates who were civil engineering majors, I’d be up late writing a term paper, in which all I needed to do was outline my perspective and then justify it with selective texts from the source material — this is the “cooking” form of study — while my housemates were cussing their way through thermodynamics — the “baking” form of study which, if not followed to the decimal point, will cause the bridge to fall like a failed merengue. I think you get the point: I could fake my way through an essay, frankly. You can’t fake baking.

You can see from the photos that to eat a ripe Texas peach, I needed to bend over to keep the juices from running down my chin.

I purchased discounted “seconds,” ripe and ready to eat or bake with that same day. Otherwise, you can get peaches that will ripen in two or three days’ time. Being ripe as they are, whatever peaches I didn’t bake, we made sure to eat relatively soon.

The process

Here I’ll share a couple things that helped me turn what would have been a mess into a crowd-pleaser. It comes down to (1) a good crust which, I think I can make even better next time, and (2) a key spice in the filling.

THE CRUST

In some ways it’s the crust that makes all the difference.

Being the pie’s public face, so to speak, either it attracts you or you start eating with a grumpy attitude. Only then, once you commit to it with a fork, does its flakiness count.

I used the pie crust recipe HERE from Cookies and Cups. Again, ingredients are important just as is one key technique that I learned from a colleague who had cooked many a pie.

One of the ingredients called for is, of course, butter. First, as the recipe says, make sure your butter is cold. While an experienced baker can give a more detailed explanation why it should be cold, common sense says it would be more likely to produce the “coarse sand” texture called for, rather than a mush that would surely result from using warm butter. I used Plugra butter, which is now the go-to butter for my serious cooking and baking.

The technique I first learned, also from a colleague in Massachusetts — apparently many of us talked about baking when we should have been working — and that I applied to the apple and strawberry-rhubarb pies, was that one should NEVER OVERWORK THE DOUGH. Most of you reading this probably know that, but it was news to me back in 2005. This means, in practice, to not over-knead it or roll it too much, and if it tears or comes apart, simply use your fingers to gently press back the torn piece onto the larger piece. I.e. don’t use the rolling pin to roll it out again.

What I didn’t do which I will next time was to wrap the dough (I did that part) and chill it longer than I did.

THE FILLING

The nutmeg was in my opinion that item that made for a successful filling, for which I used a recipe HERE from Taste Of Home.

Everyone expects the standard things: sugar, corn starch, salt, lemon juice, butter…even the cinnamon and brown sugar aren’t eye opening. But for me it was the nutmeg, even though it was only 1/4 teaspoon’s worth — in combination with the other ingredients like the brown sugar and cinnamon — that gave it that catalytic “oopmh.” And perhaps it was also that you’re cooking the reserved juice from the peaches, because this means that you’re using the juice from the aforementioned Jenschke peaches, which I’ve already pointed out are the bomb.

And, to be honest, having these peach “seconds” meant that they were ripe THAT DAY, and to wait even a day longer would have produced a different taste. As it was, the juiciness and sweetness of the fruit were optimal.

In sum

If I had to point to four things that made this peach pie a success, and even though I can improve for the next one, I’d say it was the (1) quality peaches, which also positively impacted the reserve juice, (2) dough technique, (3) quality butter, and (4) the nutmeg.

I might be wrong on the nutmeg, since it was such a small amount, but it seemed to jump out at me. And it still jumps around in my memory.

This was indeed somebody’s grandmother’s peach pie.

First time smoking a brisket

This past Saturday evening into Sunday midday was my first time smoking a brisket. As I mention in the standard introduction to my podcast, also called “Biscuit Aisle” on Spotify, I come from the land of pizza and bagels. The main thing that’s smoked there is salmon from Zabar’s and now weed in Times Square. (Apparently, it’s a bit like Woodstock but with fake Spidermen shysters and without Jimi Hendrix.)

Smoking a brisket

Smoking a brisket falls into a cooking category referred to as “low and slow”–low temperature over a long time. Like sous vide but in a smoker rather than a pot of water. Incidentally, in an upcoming podcast episode, I speak to a Danish man who longs for a smoker to make dishes such brisket and pulled pork but, because his neighbors would throw a fit about the smoke, must satisfy himself with sous vide cooking. (Not a bad second at all.)

That’s one of the natural and, I should add, delightful aspects of smoking a brisket: to stand near the smoker and feel and smell all the smoke of the meat becoming more tender and flavorful.

There are of course different kinds of grills, and I have owned three: (1) charcoal: everything from a $25 cheapie you throw out at summer’s end to a quite decent $200 grill we had on our porch in NYC; (2) gas, which I had in Massachusetts and grilled all kinds of meat and fish and veggies, year-round and which I thought I missed; and now, replacing my former love, (3) a Traeger.

Traeger as a brand is near synonymous with the type of grill it is: wood pellet. And it has a following with a hashtag that always says everything about the brand itself: #traegernation. (The only thing that has a fan base as devoted but no similar hashtag is Texas, which is already a nation.)

How I got mine

Family and people I had met through Instagram had talked about Traeger, but somehow the mechanics of it eluded me, and I also didn’t know what the big deal was. Deciding to get a Traeger was more of a discipleship process than actually buying and setting it up. Which, since it came assembled, wasn’t an issue. (More of an issue was getting in it the back of our Hyundai Santa Fe, which we did gingerly.)

I first heard about Traeger from an Instagram foodie friend named Angela Schweikert, who was a pescatarian until she met a pitmaster boyfriend who converted her not only to eating meat again but also to cooking everything on a grill from meat to seafood to something she calls “Bambi Bites” (you can guess) and even pies. You can make in a Traeger anything you can make in an oven. She told me about the grill–as had my brother-in-law Brian some time back, but it didn’t stick–and she referred me to another devotee, an authority named Pat (@Traeger.rage.BBQ) on Instagram. (He plays a role later in the narrative.)

I continued to research Traeger and finally got a Pro Series 34 at Home Depot here in Kerrville, Texas.

I have to say, it is impressive, and my first meal was chicken kabobs, which cooked in about 8 minutes. I like the idea, also, of burning wood and not charcoal or gas. It of course gives it a more pure flavor, and while the fumes are not as clean as real wood, it’s better than standing over a charcoal grill.

First time smoking a brisket

As I mentioned, I first made kebabs on my Traeger, which turned out not only respectable but rather quite good. I then tried smashburgers, which were just ok. I cooked something else which I now can’t remember. But it was time for me to try what a grill/smoker is known for, at least in the nation of Texas, which is brisket.

I must say, I was quite intimidated at first.

Brisket seemed the meat dish that required the most patience, finessing, time and know-how, not to mention a Texas passport. I had only the patience, which came in handy.

I was going to go to a butcher called Bernhard’s Meat Processing up Junction Highway between Kerrville and Ingram, Texas. It’s known for high quality, but I ended up getting mine from H-E-B, which has a 25-yard long waist-high refrigerator with nothing but brisket. I chose a 9.5lb job, and there were choices at least in the 16+lb range. As it was, we still had enough left over after two ravenous sons dove in to give a chunk to my mother- and sister-in-law and also make ourselves chopped brisket sandwiches for two meals. Homemade macaroni and cheese (cheddar and gruyere) accompanied the meat.

I can see how brisket would be the perfect choice for a large group of people.

There are a lot of nuances about brisket that I didn’t know and won’t go into here, such as differentiating between the fat cap and thin end, and other essentials as what kind of rub, and a myriad of variations in how to cook it.

Jedi Masters are real and they sometimes suck as friends

One of the people I had met on Instagram was a well-known devotee within the Traeger fan base, and I sought his counsel on a number of fronts early in my use. I knew I’d need to ask his counsel during this maiden brisket voyage.

He was super helpful until… I was following a recipe on the Traeger iPhone app and also using this man’s basic framework. That was a mistake. There is the Jedi way — which must be the Jedi Master’s way — and there is everything else: the dark side. For example: those who use foil or butcher paper to wrap the meat toward the end, admittedly resulting in different outcomes, each defend their way to the hilt. Especially butcher paper, which is the Jedi way. My sense was that foil users feel less strongly about their way and could be coaxed to the butcher paper Way, but once you are in that camp, to go back is true apostasy.

When I chose to use foil toward the end, because the app said I should and because I didn’t have butcher paper to follow Master’s way, I asked a question related to the app instructions, and his text back to me was curt:

Sounds Like A Good Enough Process.

I don’t do that.

Ciao Brother.

– my “Jedi Master”

Some might write that off. “Guy’s an asshole” and all that. But this was my first brisket and when you get right down to it, I trusted him more than the 27,813 reviewers (really; there were that many) who gave the recipe a 4.8-star rating. Because it’s all too possible for 27, 813 people to follow a recipe and be merely satisfied, giving it a high rating, rather than follow a Jedi Master and get proven Jedi results.

I wanted to learn the Jedi mind tricks necessary to please my eaters. And I did. They were overcome with the result and apparently forgot I was a Yankee making the national meal of Texas.

18 hours and 4-5 N/A beers

Traeger instructions are quirky. In a good way. As you read through the set-up and initial firing up steps, each step is accompanied by the icon of a six-pack of beer, with individual bottles disappearing along the way, showing you how long each step and the entire process should take. Likewise, recipes often have that same time-to-beer pacing icon.

Since I drink only non-alcoholic beer, the metrics would no doubt be different.

Or so I thought.

I found myself, at around 3AM, pacing through my six pack of non-alcoholic Bitburgers. I had probably drunk 4 or 5 since 6PM the previous day. I had never, and I mean never, had more than two at any one sitting. (Which is telling for a guy who calls himself a recovered alcoholic.)

And though I nearly finished off “a six” while cooking, there was no hangover the next day.

Only the smell of smoke permeating the living room (next to the patio and the grill), which I didn’t notice since I’d been breathing it in for more than 18 hours.

“Name this burger”

Some readers might know that Biscuit Aisle is creating a new cuisine called “Spaghetti-Western Food.” People fuse all kinds of cuisines for diners who will pay top dollar for tiny dollops. Like the photo to the right, it’s “Big Plate, Small Bite, Big Bill.” Wolfgang Puck pioneered this format of paying a lot for a little, and outcomes have been heresies like “pad thai taco,” “kimchi quesadilla” or “sushi pizza.” (These are real examples.)

But, as has been said by orthodox Christians about “Christian Science,” it’s neither Christian nor Science.

I love all those dishes separately, but together…? Not so much. In fact, it’s adjacent to scandalous.

Fortunately for Biscuit Aisle, “spaghetti-western food” is not an invented fusion but rather is a mealtime companion to the eponymous film genre whose most famous director is Sergio Leone and whose most famous examples are movies like Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” or his “Dollars” trilogy (e.g. “Fistful of Dollars.” And notice that it’s a fistful, not a pinky’s worth, of dollars).


Lee Van Cleef was the “Bad” in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” He now has a burger named after him. (Though I mixed him up with the “Ugly” character, played by Eli Wallach.) Nevertheless, my hunt for the ultimate ugly burger continues. And the journey must end, of course, with the ultimate spaghetti-western burger, which would be one named after either Clint Eastwood, the star of many movies in that genre–though, notably, not in the most famous “Once Upon A Time In The West”–or director Sergio Leone.

On the occasion of my 100th Instagram post (at bottom), I decided to crowdsource the name, knowing that someone would come up with the favored moniker for the simple but still ugly burger. (I don’t recommend this process for newborn humans, and you will shortly see why.)

Here are the entries, and after that I’m going to ask a favor of you that will come with a reward:

  • Black Forest Bacon Double Trouble Burger
  • Cheesecon Burger
  • Tuscan Baconator
  • Upchuck Corral
  • The Good, the Ham and the Patties
  • Under the Tuscan Bun
  • Grand Canyon Massacre
  • Patty Capone
  • Sundance Burger
  • The Killer B Burger
  • Double Hop-Along Howdy, with bacon
  • El Corozanary
  • Il (capital “I” lower case “l”) Cuoronary
  • Burger You Can’t Refuse
  • The Eastwood
  • The Widowmaker
  • Congo
  • T-shirt Burger

In the COMMENTS section below, please list your TOP 3 FAVORITE NAMES. The person who first suggested the winning name will win a FREE t-shirt–sent to them anywhere in the U.S. at my expense–and I will also send a t-shirt to one of those who pick the winning name.

Honor system: don’t read through the comments to see how the voting is going. :))

So vote today and win a chance at a free t-shirt for yourself or for a foodie friend!

“We are happy to serve you,” said the coffee cup to the world.

When designing what is now not only an iconic coffee cup but perhaps the iconic one, Leslie Buck introduced a simple concept to start New Yorkers’ caffeinated daily grind: “We are happy to serve you.”

Buck, born Laszlo Büch in 1922 in Czechoslovakia, survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in WWII, though the Nazis killed his parents.1 He moved to America and ultimately sold cups for Sherri Company, breaking into the large NYC market of Greek-owned diners by designing a cup that appealed to them. In fact, the coffee cup that Leslie Buck designed in the early 1960s was so iconic that now, even after the cup is no longer being mass produced, the company still prints them on demand.

“Service” is not exactly a New York thing, or is it?

My first job out of college was with John Wiley & Sons, Publishers. In the mid-1980s, the global company had its headquarters in two buildings facing each other off 40th Street: 600 and 605 Third Avenue. I worked in 600 Third, the building on the west side of the avenue.

In the lobby of my building there was a coffee shop. Most of us would stop there on our way in and get a coffee and either a muffin or bagel with something on it. The cashier was an older lady, probably around 60 at the time and now probably turning a ripe 130 years (that’s not true).

Truth is, she was ripe then, maybe a bit past ripe, for her remarks were acerbic and you didn’t want to be on the butt end of them.

One morning as I was waiting to pay for my coffee and toasted corn muffin with butter, a delivery boy came back to the cashier and said that Mr. Jones on the 9th floor complained his toast was too dark.

While counting change for the customer in front of her, she said, “Go tell the kitchen to make another order, and tell Mr. Jones that next time, send a swatch.”

“We are happy to serve you” only sounds different in NYC

This might give you the impression that New Yorkers are gruff, mean-spirited people. On the contrary, they are deeply intimate, in-your-face people. They have to be. They ride nose to nose on the subway; they walk shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk; they have jousting grocery store carts in the narrow aisles. (Hence the name for this blog when I first encountered H-E-B.)

For example, many corner delis in New York City are run by Korean immigrants and are highly efficient purveyors of morning meals-to-go, in particular, to the New York white collar customer. One such place was famous for having a cashier, a Korean lady of about 40 or so, expedite the long line of customers getting their breakfast orders, with a clipped and accented, “Step DOWN! Step DOWN!”

Her service sounded quite different from that of a southern diner, for example — “What’ll you have, hon’?” — and was all about getting people into the deli and back out to their workplace which, for a New Yorker, is where they want to be. Her “service” was a function of the location.

Therefore, while it’s unlikely you’ll hear many in the food industry there say out loud, “We are happy to serve you,” they really are.


1 The New York Times

2 PHOTO CREDIT: “Peddler

“Hands-up” the number 1 best hamburger recipe

Many of us go online to find recipes — rather than looking in printed cookbooks — and when we go online we want to find family-friendly recipes. For kids of all ages, including 57-year-old men, one of the best hamburger recipes is the one I’ve included below, which is not mine, but which I’ve tweaked to near perfection.

First, to get the juices flowing, let’s take a quick survey of the burgers found on Instagram today:

  • best hamburger recipe

My recent big win

My recent Van Cleef Ugly Burger pleased the hometown crowd big-time, and I used the special ingredients I mention below. (P.S. Yes, while this burger was inspired by the movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and while Lee Van Cleef played the “Bad” character and Eli Wallach the “Ugly,” I wanted a Van Cleef burger, but calling it a “Bad Burger” wouldn’t play.)

what a burger recipe

Here’s the “secret-not-so-secret” recipe

The secret of my recipe is pork and egg. So, right out of the gate, this might not be the recipe for everyone. You can’t claim to have an “all-beef” patty with this recipe, of course. And if you don’t eat pork as a rule, or if you have an egg allergy, then this is not for you. I will tell you, however, that even without the pork or egg, I have found this somewhat basic recipe to be absolutely the best one I’ve tried.

But having made killer meatloaf with pork (and veal, which is not included here), I think it gives it superior taste and juiciness.

Technique

The following techniques are things I did on my most recent burger, which seemed to help the taste quite a bit. One of the tweaks — smashing the burger — was suggested by my son, who worked at a Culver’s restaurant for a while.

  • SMASH THE PATTY. I never wanted a burger to be so thick it would never get well-done (as I like it) before charring the surface. But I also never smashed down the patties. Once I tried it this time, though, not only did I find that it stayed juicy — I attribute that in part to the pork, as I mentioned above — I found it easier, of course, to offer my hungry home diners double patties with whatever toppings they wanted.
  • TWO CHEESE SLICES per patty, placed 45 degrees off center. I rotated the two slices 45 degrees off one another, to give it a more dynamic look. I also used a variety of cheese with my Van Cleef Burger: cheddar, white American, and of course Manchego, since we were going with a Mexican theme.
  • THE BUN: Most of us overlook the bun. First, I’m not a fan of sesame seed buns. I like the concept of sesame seeds in general, but on bagels and buns, they get stuck in my teeth. So, no. I use Dave’s Killer Bread buns, which are hearty and made by an awesome company. I butter the insides of both halves and then broil them briefly, blackening the edges only slightly. They don’t need a lot of crisping–they’re already firm and feel toasted. But warm and crisp them a little more, and you have the ultimate hearty bun to hold together your handful of heaven.
  • GET CREATIVE. With thin-ish patties and a hearty bun, you can add almost anything in between. (I myself would not recommend corn, as pictured above, but that’s just me.)

Enjoy!

The “Lee Van Cleef”: What a burger recipe!

The “Lee Van Cleef” is a burger based on the classic spaghetti-western film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and Lee’s character as the “Ugly” one. I wanted to create a burger for each of the three main characters. “Ugly burgers” are kind of thing now, so we named one after his character, and what a burger recipe it is!

[EDITOR: since publication of this article all-too-recently, we have been reminded by Emily of @smalltowncook that in fact it was Eli Wallach who was the “ugly.” Lee was obviously “bad.” You’ll see clearly why in the slideshow just below. I mean, the dude just looks bad. We knew this. We really did. But we obviously need a fact-checking crew. If you want a job, we can’t pay you, but we can guarantee free “ugly burgers” and no “bad ones.” Thanks, Emily, for setting us straight!]

In addition to the patty, we’ll discuss the onion rings and bacon, the special sauce (which is kind of the secret ingredient here), the cheeses and even the bun. You can’t overlook the bun: it’s the first thing you bite into.

The bun

Most people think, “Eh. What’s the importance of a bun?! Just make sure it’s not Wonder Bread.” Well, my criteria for buns is its having an al dente texture, ability to brown or get crisp, and density. I also happen to prefer a bun that’s made by my favorite bread company: Dave’s Killer Bread. Dave is an ex-convict, and the company hires many people who were formerly incarcerated.

There’s a nonprofit I’m familiar with that employs ex-convicts and markets itself with this tagline: “How’d you like to be known for the worst thing you ever did?” We look at convicts only as “murderer,” “rapist,” “drug dealer” or the like and rarely as “Employee of the Month” who’s also not a “felon” in our unspoken thoughts.

Whoa, whoa whoa. This post is about burgers, dude!

True.

But as we eat, there are realities upstream from our dining room table, aren’t there? We talk about sustainable farming practices, organic foods, local businesses, ergonomics and worker protection. Professional development. Team-building. Performance reviews and incentives. I believe that a company’s ethos in how they hire employees is naturally integrated with how they produce their products or offer their services.

I buy Dave’s breads not just because they’re delicious and stuffed with protein (contrasted against other breads) but also because in buying their products I know I’m supporting employment of people who I would otherwise know “for the worst thing they’ve ever done.” I’d like to know them now for helping produce the bread I love.

Here’s a snapshot of their company:

A WORD ABOUT THE BUNS THEMSELVES

What I like about the buns is that they feel substantial. When you bite into this burger hugger made of unbleached flour, with some of it still dusting the top, you simply feel…healthy.

I butter my buns on the inside and briefly broil them. (I should have stated that, still without a grill, all my prep is on a stove, an electric one at that. Don’t judge.)

Onion rings and bacon

We’re working our way down the burger. We’re now at the onion ring and bacon “upper mezzanine” level. It’s not the upper deck nosebleed seats of the bun crown, but rather starts to get a better view of the meat. (I really have no idea why I’m using a baseball stadium analogy; perhaps because a good burger seems so American.)

The bacon is a basic Central Market brand (made by H-E-B grocery store). I typically get the Cherrywood, not the Hickory smoked shown here. My druthers is to get the Jalapeño thick-cut, but I didn’t want to overdo it on the burger.

For the onion rings, there was no way I wasn’t going to make them myself. That’d be like putting Swanson’s brand tater tots on top. I used the recipe HERE. The one and very important tweak I would make to the recipe is to cut the onion rings thicker than the “very thin slices” called for. These onion rings burned easily and gave me a result that felt more like fried batter than onion.

Creamy avocado sauce

Although we are still in the mezzanine, we are in the lower mezzanine and have a better view of the action happening in your mouth. Because, there’s actually a rock concert going on. Believe me: bring earplugs.

The creamy avocado sauce truly is the “secret ingredient” of the Lee Van Cleef burger, though it’s not really a secret and I just gave you a link to prove it. Once you take the first bite, this sauce alone will make you exclaim “What a burger recipe!”

It’s smooth and creamy, soft enough to apply to the burger easily, yet firm enough to not squirt out all over the place when biting into this 4-inch tall creation.

The cheeses

Since this was a mash-up of Italian and western, I used a bit of Mexican cheese — Manchego, for Mexico was one of the main areas these Italian directors used to film; they also filmed in Granada as well as other areas of Spain — and white American and cheddar. This color blend of white and orange, plus using the cheeses liberally, provided a photo-worthy “cheese pull” (as I’ve come to know it’s called when the cheese drips over the side of a burger and onto a top Instagram post).

The patties

Now we’re in the field-level seats. And, quite honestly, this is an aspect of this otherwise near-perfect burger recipe I’m going to need to change.

For the last couple burgers I’ve made, I’ve used this mixture:

  • ground beef (two-thirds of the meat)
  • ground pork (one-third)
  • one egg per 2lbs of meat
  • Worcestershire sauce (2 tsp per pound of meat)
  • salt and pepper
  • a swipe of butter on each burger (on the side that goes on the griddle first)

But if I want to say “all beef” in my description later on — and I do — I have to lose the pork, even though I think it makes the burger taste better and even though the home crowd loved it. Besides, some people might not eat pork, or they might have egg allergies. So that’s going to have to go as well.

Now, you might think I’m crazy, but until this burger, I never smashed them down in the pan. I thought it would be better to have thicker burgers. Cooked through and through of course — I like mine well-done — but thick nonetheless. Thin patties had always meant “fast food” to me and were therefore undesirable. But I found that smashing them down to between 1/4 to 3/8ths of an inch not only cooks them more quickly, obviously, but also allows for a truly ugly burger to take shape. Without smashing, the burgers would be too thick to stack and, if stacked, would cause even more jaw dislocations and additional lawsuits.

And without stackability, I can’t add in extras like onion rings on top or cheeses in between that can create those beautiful cheese pulls over the sides.

All in all: “What a burger recipe!”

This burger stampedes through your mouth. From the initial crispiness of the Dave’s bun buttered and toasted to a tastiness honoring its neighbors below, to the juicy patties topped with creamy sauce, this is a burger I’ll make time and again.

Please visit our advertisers and keep Biscuit Aisle free to visit and enjoy!

Cuisinart burger smasher

Misen Knives: “Yeah. No.” My 3-minute review

After seeing a fairly amazing demonstration of Misen knives on Instagram, I thought, “I must have one!” Now, a solid nine months into it, I think, “Yeah. no.” Not worth the price nor the hassle of having to track down my shipment.

That said, I’ll take a brief look below at its pros and cons.

This is the video that convinced me to plunk down my credit card.
The knife was disappointing, and I was frustrated at myself for buying the sizzle and not the steak.

The “pitch” got me

Perhaps the most effective thing Misen knives does is to slice through competitive noise with awesome demonstrations of their tools’ sharpness — nay, beauty — as the video above shows. They truly “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

For a home cook like me who wants a great utensil that can make up for my average technique or a knife that can make me “look” like a chef –c’mon, all of us home cooks want to look like the real deal! — this seemed like a good investment. Well, the second part is for sure, since my “investment” is now subject to a buy-and-hold strategy, and I’ll bequeath this knife in near-mint condition to one of my three offspring.

The Pro’s

It’s pretty. I’ll give it that. It will win in a beauty contest. Unfortunately it’s sitting at home, in its basement room without paying me rent, watching anime and eating sour patch kids. (Or something like that.) What counts — the sharpness of the blade and its ease of use — is equalled or bested by other, more affordable brands like Dexter and Victorinox, both of which I review here on Biscuit Aisle.

The Con’s

There are really only two negatives, but one is something I should have known about through better research, and the other is now inconsequential after its resolution.

THE UNIMPORTANT NEGATIVE: CUSTOMER SERVICE

I ordered the knife on July 20, 2020. USD $65.

This, we all recall, was when we were still stir-crazy and everyone wanted new ways to spend time at home on lockdown. For me, cooking was one of them.

misen knives

The first knife they said they shipped was mysteriously lost, which I found out about ten days later. They said they were processing another order, but after a week of back and forth emails, I still had no new shipment confirmation. (Their emails, however, have a real nice design.)

I got an email saying the second knife — who knows where the first one went; it apparently did arrive somewhere here in little Kerrville, Texas — would arrive on a given date. It did finally on August 13.

I’ll put this in perspective, I was able to order things that were supposed to be sold-out nationwide and still get them within 48-72 hours due to the awesomeness of some companies. Misen has a long way to go in the department of Customer Service, which is more than pleasing email design.

THE NEGATIVE THAT COUNTS: WEIGHT

Since ordering the Misen, I have bought a Dexter and a Victorinox that both excel in what I need them to do, and a big part of each of those knives’ virtue is in its lightweight but durable handle, without sacrificing a superior blade.

As you can read in those reviews, the handle — a lightweight, grippable plastic that’s also durable — makes the knife easy to cut with. The blades of each, both of which are far lighter than the Misen’s — since the Misen’s extends through the handle — are great for dicing and mincing, which is difficult with the Misen because the latter is less versatile. My quick review on the Victorinox has a table I created with some knife weights, so you can compare while shopping.

Safety

In the end, the sexiest feature of any knife is not how it looks slicing a grape that was probably superglued onto the cutting board anyway but is its safety. I feel much safer handling my Dexter or Victorinox for the reasons stated above.

Whether we’re talking low digits to the left of the decimal point or maintaining the ten on your hands, I’d go with something other than Misen.