Thursday, November 19, 2009

Miracle Whip Match Up

I guess the advertising paid off. After reading about last week's war of words between Miracle Whip and Stephen Colbert, I ran out and bought a jar of Miracle Whip. This was my first Miracle Whip purchase.

I'm not a huge fan of mayonnaise. First of all, it's hard to spell. Secondly, I prefer mustard. I do, however, recognize its place in my culinary and sometimes medicinal world. Did you or a loved one ever spend the night wearing Hellmann's and a shower cap?

The dictionary states that a condiment is a "substance" used to flavor or complement food. I don't entirely agree. Sometimes I choose to eat a particular food simply because I feel like having ketchup. In other words, I think that food is a stage in which to celebrate the condiment.

As you may remember, during high school I worked as a sandwich maker and waitress at a local deli. It was there I realized that people are fanatical about their condiments. This concept dawned on me when one of our regulars ordered a bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread, mayo on the cheese side, mustard on the bologna side. WHAT?!

You can tell a lot of thought went into that request and the sandwich played second fiddle to the condiments that allegedly complemented it.

That brings me to today's challenge. To get in the mood, I turned on Itunes and cranked up Bill Conti's Going the Distance. I'm a Philadelphian and any competition always turns my thoughts to Rocky.

When I first thought of the Miracle Whip/Hellmann's challenge, I considered conducting a survey by making a couple of dishes and asking my family and friends to taste them. I still might do that but for today, I decided that, since I'm the Loco Diner, it is my opinion that matters. To showcase both products, I settled on a mayo must: boiled ham and American cheese on toasted white bread paired with Herr's Ruffles and a Diet Coke.

I opened the Miracle Whip and got my jumbo jar of Hellmann's out of the refrigerator (sorry, MW, I didn't want to make too big of an investment just yet.)

Goliath and David

I judged the products on aroma, appearance, spreadability, taste and a bonus category. I first took in the aroma of each product and tasted them individually on spoons. This was difficult for me since, as I said, I'm not a mayo lover. I do think that fact makes me a fairer judge.

Miracle Whip and Hellmann's: Straight off of the spoon

Both products were easily distinguishable by sight and fragrance.

The Miracle Whip was much whiter than its counterpart and, upon inspection, you could see flecks of the spices in it. The aroma was sweet and lemony. It reminded me a lot of a prepared tartar sauce.

The Hellmann's was a buttery yellow color. I mostly noticed the vinegar when I took in the aroma. The smell just triggered mayonnaise in my mind but, to be fair, this is my brand of choice.

As for the taste, the most prominent flavor in the Miracle Whip was the sweetness. It reminded me a lot of sweet pickles. The texture was smooth whereas the Hellmann's was richer. As for the taste, Hellmann's first punch was salt followed by vinegar.

While I felt like I had to taste both products individually, I think the sandwich test is the most important. I toasted the bread, cut it in half and made two individual sandwiches. I'd like to mention here that one of the most notable differences in the two products is that Miracle Whip is significantly creamier than Hellmann's to look at. Hellmanns appears lumpy while Miracle Whip looks more like a sauce. This difference was easily seen when spreading the two products onto the sandwich halves.

Apollo Creed vs. Rocky

I tried the Miracle Whip half first. It was good. There was a definite sweetness that came through. This sweetness was enhanced when I added the "bonus" category. I like to add chips to my sandwich and the sweetness played nicely off of the salty chips.

after the first bite, I added Herrs Ruffles

The Hellmann's half was good too. As in the other categories, there was a definite difference. I feel that the Hellman's definitely enhanced the flavor of the sandwich but took a more behind-the-scenes role. You notice the ham and the cheese and it's pleasant but you might not know why. I think the why would be the Hellmann's.

I guess the bottom line is that these are two entirely different products. It comes down to what you like. Miracle Whip is center stage. If I had to pick an analogy, I'd call it a diva. It wants to be noticed and will be. Hellmann's fills the role of a good director, you don't see him but you know he's there by the quality of the work in front of you.

I'm not finished with the Miracle Whip/Hellmann's show down. I plan on trying Miracle Whip in other dishes and seeing how it works or changes them. I have to go. Since I made lunch my afternoon's activity, it's time to start dinner.

To be continued...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Antoine Amrani Chocolates

When I arrived at Antoine Amrani Chocolates today, they were anticipating a visit from a celebrated New York Times food writer and her crew. I found this out later. Let me start from the beginning.

Antoine Amrani Chocolates is located in an industrial park in East Norriton, Pennsylvania. It's absurdly yet logically situated next to Bouncetown. Today I had errands in the area and decided to make AAC one of my stops.

The industrial park is quite easy to drive past, and I did, even though I had been there before to shop another oddly placed, culinary hot spot, Tallutos.

I followed two customers into the small storefront. The room was inviting and was reminiscent of a tasting room at a Napa vineyard. I was greeted by a friendly woman who asked if this was my first visit. After stating that I had experienced the chocolates but had never been to the store, the samples started to flow.

I was immediately served three samples on a white, frosted glass plate: a Dark Chocolate Orange Rind, a Truffle, and a Cinnamon Cardamom Caramel.

Each sample, while unique, shared one common characteristic. The varying and unusual flavors worked together perfectly while unfolding in layers on your tongue. The flavors were so unique that they are almost indescribable. Take the intense and beautiful Coffee Sour Cherry. Almost too pretty to eat, the strong coffee flavor is enhanced by a Grand Marnier soaked sour cherry. To add even more kitsch, I learned that Antoine Amrani personally hand pits the cherries, as many as thousands at a time.

During my visit, I struck up a conversation with Fred Potok, the CEO of Antoine Amrani Chocolates. He enthusiastically shared chocolate samples and the stories to go with them (that's how I found out about the cherries). Fred accompanied me to the back and I was able to have a glimpse of the behind the scenes workings of Antoine Amrani Chocolates. I was struck by the quiet efficiency of the employees at work. I even got to see Antoine himself. He was busy and indiscernible from the other workers. As I looked on, I couldn't help but wonder how a seemingly ordinary man could produce such artistry.
Antoine at work

As you may have surmised by now, I have little tolerance for pretense. I honestly did not know what to expect when I entered Antoine Amrani Chocolates. Given the lavishness of their product, pretense was a definite possibility. Now remember, while all of this was going on, they were awaiting the arrival of the New York Times and company. I'd say, for a small company, that a visit from the New York Times is not something that is taken lightly. Given this fact, the way I was treated was quite unbelievable. To call the people at Antoine Armani gracious would be an understatement. And it wasn't just me. The clientele varied from a mom with a food blog, to senior citizens, to business men (and a couple of, dare I say, pretentious foodies as well). Each customer was treated like a guest of honor and indulged with delicious samples and delightful conversation. For that reason alone, Antoine Amrani Chocolates is a special place.

It is ironic that such a unique business is camouflaged in a nondescript, industrial complex. Chocolate itself is a ubiquitous product we often take for granted. In this case, Antoine Amrani has taken something ordinary and camouflaged it in art.

Their chocolates have character. From the exquisite packaging that hints that you are about to experience something special to the stunning product inside, each chocolate appears as its own individual work of art that the recipient will experience on every sensory level. I think the character of the product mirrors the character of the employees and artists who are Antoine Amrani Chocolates. There's a symmetry to the place that falls between the extravagance of their product and their down-to-earth customer service.

I realize that my descriptions may seem exaggerated and even ridiculous. How can chocolate be that good? How can candy be that beautiful? How can a business be that amazing?

Brace yourself. It is.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Pheasant in Every Pot

Yesterday, as I drove up my street, my dog-walking friend, Ed, flagged me down. Still clad in his neon orange, hunting vest and cap, he proceeded to hand me two bags containing pheasants. Talk about fresh!

I should tell you that I have issues with little birds, particularly cornish hens. I won't eat them. My cornish hen phobia is a source of much debate at our house. I am constantly being challenged about my anti-cornish hen stance because, after all, it's just chicken, right?

Regardless of this logic, I still refuse to eat them. Pheasants are another story. I've never cooked a pheasant nor have I tasted one. I was open to the idea though and couldn't wait to get them into the oven.

Since I have never seen a plucked and prepped pheasant, I had no idea what to do with them. My first instinct was to prepare it just like my usual roasted chicken. Before I did this, I decided to consult one of my family's favorite cookbooks, Leone's Italian Cookbook by Gene Leone of the famed Leone's Italian Restaurant. The restaurant was recently mentioned during an episode of AMC's Mad Men entitled The Fog. Sorry, I love Mad Men and like to find reasons to start talking about it.

Back on topic, Gene Leone came through. There was a recipe for Small Game Birds. By consulting the recipe, I averted a potential game bird catastrophe. Game birds are supposed to be prepared sanguante which is a fancy way of saying cooked on the rarer side compared to your standard chicken. After the birds were rinsed and dried, the recipe called for the birds to be covered with thinly sliced salt pork (fortunately, I always keep a package of this in the freezer) then rubbed with olive oil, black pepper and rosemary and subsequently roasted. I roasted them on a rack fitted into a foil lined roasting pan.

The pheasants were not without challenges. Since the birds are on the small side and varied in size, it was difficult to get accurate and consistent temperature readings. Also, when carved, there were portions of the meat that were tinged red which discouraged some would-be diners.

Even with the challenges, the birds roasted to perfection and smelled wonderful. When it came time to sample the finished product, I was a little nervous but tasted the meat. At risk of being cliche, it tasted like chicken but a richer and more flavorful chicken. Perhaps that was gaminess but that's not how I interpreted the flavor.

It was so good that I made Ed a platter complete with roasted asparagus and sweet potatoes and delivered it to his door. Hopefully the meal was good enough that Ed remembers me after his next pheasant hunting trip to Hamburg, PA.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Italian Hot Dogs

Italian hot dogs might seem like an oxy moron but just bear with me.

My Grandmom Lena owned Lena's, a bar in the Philadelphia neighborhood of East Falls. Lena's was a thriving business from the 1930s until the 1970s. Grandmom was a legendary cook. She would make a couple of lunch specials daily and feed hundreds of people without the luxury of an automatic dishwasher or large workspace. She also never used recipes. The construction of the "twin bridges" over the Schuylkill helped keep Lena's bustling as workers and locals would pour into the "tap room" to sample Grandmom's delicious lunch specials. Family lore carries on stories about the bar such as their annual St. Patrick's Day party featuring a spaghetti and meatballs dinner. It's said there was always a line to get in.
My great-grandparents (behind the bar at left) and customers at Lena's. Oil painting.

For me, Lena's is a distant but vivid memory. I remember taking the R bus with my mom down Ridge Avenue and going there for lunch. Italian hot dogs is one of Grandmom's inventions; and it is definitely inventive.

This morning, I set out early to pick up rolls from the Conshohocken Bakery. From there I ventured to my mom's house for an Italian hot dog lesson. The Eagles-Chargers game was scheduled to start at 4:15. The dogs had to be simmering and ready to go by kick-off.

For the first time ever, here is Grandmom's Italian Hot Dogs in the form of a recipe.

Please Note: "You need good rolls or it's not even worth making them." My mom, November 15, 2009

Italian Hot Dogs
This is really easy to make. It's not so easy to explain. I found the best way to tell you how to make them is to break the process down into parts. This should feed at least 4-6 people.

Part I: The Topping
2 medium green peppers, cut into pieces
1 large onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, smashed
olive oil
salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste

Simmer the green peppers in water until they are tender but not soggy. Drain and set aside.

Heat pan and add 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion and toss to coat with the oil. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the precooked, green peppers. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder.

A dusting of salt, pepper and garlic powder

When the onions and peppers are tender and begin to caramelize, remove from the pan and set aside.
The onion and pepper topping

Part II: The Hot Dogs
2 lbs of hot dogs (use regular hot dogs, not natural casing hot dogs)
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 28oz can of tomatoes (your choice: crushed, puree or sauce)
1 onion, sliced
olive oil
dried red pepper flakes (optional but highly recommended)

Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a pot. Add the onions and garlic. While they saute, slice the hot dogs. One hot dog should yield about 5 bite-size pieces.
Add the hot dogs to the onions and saute until they start to caramelize. Keep heat at medium high but be careful not to burn them. After about 5 minutes, dust with garlic powder and stir. At this point, it's really going to start to smell good. Once the aroma hits the windows, your neighbors are going to be dying to know what you are cooking.
Finally, add the canned tomatoes and 1/4 cup of water. Stir to combine. Simmer on medium to medium low heat for a couple of hours. At this point, you can also pour the hot dogs into a slow cooker set to high until it starts to bubble at which time you can set it to low.
Ready to simmer.

Part III: The Sandwich
To assemble, spoon the Italian hot dogs onto an Italian roll and top with the sauteed peppers and onions (from Part I). Sprinkle the sandwich with dried, hot pepper flakes. This is a great make-ahead meal for a game day or tailgate party.
Grandmom Lena's Italian Hot Dogs

As for a beer-pairing, I'm going with a Yuengling Lager. It's cold and crisp and just perfect for a great sandwich like this.