Fix your lifeless cider

As Epic Meat Weekend was drawing down, I cut up some cheeses and poured some apple cider to enjoy during the fourth quarter of the game. Problem: I discovered on tasting the cider that this batch was dull. It was sweet enough for my tastes, but not at all tart, and I love me a tart apple cider.

Science to the rescue! Back during my cheese ball obsession I ordered a pound of malic acid online, and had not yet had occasion to open it up. Malic acid is what gives properly tart cider its taste to begin with, so basically this was a matter of adding in what the apples themselves had failed to provide. So I sliced open the bag and took about half a plastic spoonful of the stuff, and mixed it in with about 12 oz. of cider that I had left in my cup. The result was not 100% as tart as I like it, but it was much closer to what I wanted. I could have kept going a little more but didn’t see the point, as it was good enough. I did however add a couple of spoonfuls to the half-gallon jug it came from.

So if you should ever find yourself wishing your cider had more bite to it, pop in some malic acid and stir it up well, and if it’s not enough, pop in a little more.

Malic acid can be hard to get online—I had to run a gauntlet of canceled orders on Amazon before someone finally came through and actually had some as advertised—but it’s worth having around for these occasions.

Citric acid also has its place if you want to tarten up some lemonade, and it can be found in the canning section of any good grocery store or Walmart. If you want to add tartness to something orange flavored, try mixing in about 6:1 citric to malic acid; I read some time ago that oranges contain 15% malic acid out of their total, so maintaining that ratio should provide for a more authentic orange flavor.

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In search of low-carb chicken parm meatballs: Mark II postmortem

For Epic Meat Weekend I made two half-batches of chicken Parmesan meatballs, as planned. I made two discoveries.

First, when Wegmans is out of the good Purdue ground chicken, don’t buy their store brand organic stuff. Not only is it ground way, way too thin, it’s much slimier and stickier. I had to throw out an entire batch because it just wasn’t coming together, and make a last-minute run out to Price Chopper for the good chicken. I still have another pound of the crap chicken I have no idea what to do with.

Second, I found out that almond flour works just as well as pork rinds when it comes to a binding agent in place of bread crumbs. Which is to say, it’s crap. Parmesan and mozzarella leaked all over compared to my control batch. I’m not giving up, however. The problem may be that a strict 1:1 substitution by volume is not appropriate. I did add a teaspoon of Italian seasoning, since I was replacing Italian bread crumbs, but I used the exact same amount of almond flour as I would bread crumbs. Maybe this was a mistake. Instead of 1/3 cup for a half batch, maybe I should up it to ½ cup next time.

This was my first time cooking with almond flour. I almost wonder if it’s not dry enough, either, and would benefit from some kind of pre-toasting. It has a consistency much more like wet sand than I would like. Maybe some people who are more familiar with it could give me a heads-up on what I need to do to make it work.

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How I cook chicken wings

I’ve mentioned my love of chicken wings on game day a few times, but it occurs to me I’ve never shared my method. The first time I tried cooking wings on my own I was pretty intimidated, and had to rely on a lot of help from the Internet, so for all the novice cooks out there, from a slightly less-novice cook, here’s what I do.

You will need:

  • 18 large chicken wings, frozen
  • Marinade
  • Cookie sheet
  • Instant-read thermometer
  • Aluminum foil
  • Oven
  • Tongs
  • Medium serving bowl
  • Protection from hungry pets

First, I prepare the night before. I use frozen wings; the 5 lb. bags of Tyson ice-glazed wings in the freezer section are my go-to choice, because they’re huge, and they’re also easy. From the bag I take out 18 wings—that’s how many will fit on one cookie sheet, as big as they are—and put them into a 1-gallon freezer bag with a zip top. If any are badly stuck together, don’t worry too much about it yet, but separate any you can. Then I pour in a generous helping of my marinade of choice, which is usually either straight Kikkoman teriyaki or a mix of their regular and garlic versions.

Get as much air out of the bag as possible, put it on a large plate (paper will do) in case of any mild leaks, and pop it in the fridge. Marination time should be at least 12 hours, but 24 is better. After 12 hours the wings will still be slightly frozen, which makes for longer cooking times. Nothing is exact about this; I always cook with a thermometer.

Come game day, I like to start an hour before unless I’m planning the wings for close to halftime. Preheat the oven to 375°. Get out two sheets of aluminum foil, each one big enough to fit the cookie sheet; make at least one of them with a little excess you can grab. Take the smaller one and press it down so it fits, then pick it up again and set it aside—it will be used later. Place the other sheet of foil onto the cookie sheet. (You don’t need cooking spray.) Then grab some tongs and remove the wings from the bag, and place them skin-side down on the sheet. I usually get seven along each long side, and four in the middle if I turn them sideways.

When the oven has preheated, put in the wings. Set a timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, pull out the cookie sheet. Carefully grab the edges of the aluminum foil you have been using and lift it, wings and all, off the cookie sheet. Put the second sheet of aluminum foil in its place, and put all the wings back but this time skin-side up. (Why I do this: it prevents the teriyaki sauce from burning and the chicken skin from sticking too much late in cooking.) Return the wings to the oven for at least 20 minutes. If, like me, you usually start with them still partially frozen after only an overnight marinade, make this 25.

Once the timer is done, you need to check the wings for doneness. The goal is 165° at the bone. I stick the thermometer into a few of them, especially the big pieces, and wash it off each time after I’m done checking (just to be safe). If they’re not done, return them to the oven for a few more minutes and repeat.

When it’s all finished, grab a bowl big enough to hold the wings. I recommend lining that with foil too, just for easier cleanup. Put all your wings in there, and enjoy. Pro tip: wherever you place the bowl, make sure your over-excited cat can’t knock it down with his tail when he jumps from the couch onto the floor.

The only thing I’m missing here is that after both rounds of cooking, each of the pieces of aluminum foil is covered in nice rendered chicken fat mixed with the marinade, and darn it I want to figure out a way to put that to use. A cleverer cook, especially one who likes sauces, would probably pour that into a pan along with some liquids and other spices to create a fantastic dipping or serving sauce. But I’m not much of a dipper and not a sauce guy, so this idea hasn’t ever much appealed to me. I wonder if maybe it could be put to work on some fried potatoes.

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Epic meat weekend!

Football season is here! For my team’s first game of the season, a feast is in order. However my grill has been getting sad from neglect, and I need to make amends for that this weekend too. And the other night I got struck by Bad Idea Mode, where I realized it had been a while since I made chicken parm meatballs. The result of all this is that I’ll be cooking many kinds of meat this weekend.

First up, I’ll be marinating a sirloin steak in teriyaki sauce Friday night and grilling that up Saturday, alongside some chicken for my wife. There will also be mushrooms. When I do a steak this size, I have leftovers for some time. This is a problem because I’ll also have leftovers from my other dishes, but as the wise man said: those are good problems.

Saturday night, I plan to make two half-batches (1 lb. each) of the meatballs. One I intend to make straight. The other I’m making for my wife, who is not only eating low-carb but has discovered a childhood wheat sensitivity has come back. (Wheat appears to be the reason she was getting nosebleeds when taking vitamin D3.) In place of the seasoned bread crumbs I’ll be substituting almond flour mixed with Italian seasoning. I tried this before with pork rinds, but pork rinds didn’t bind well enough and the meatballs oozed cheese out all over; I’m hoping almond flour will do the trick, though this will be my first time cooking with it.

After making the meatballs, and eating some of course, I’ll get my wings marinating—also in teriyaki, which I’ll probably have to buy more of—and then on Sunday I’ll cook them up for the game. Once those are ready I’ll also nuke a few leftover meatballs to go with them, because why not? And late in the game, I plan to cut up various cheeses and enjoy them with some apple cider.

The Fair is over, but protein binging goes on. As another wise man said, the only thing better than meat and potatoes is meat and meat.

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Sous vide steak tips: an experiment

I have not been blogging as much in the last few weeks, owing to a software release that was coming up and has now finally happened. New lesson learned: Never, ever release software two days before a three-day weekend. Also, I was enjoying the Great New York State Fair.

Last year I discovered the awesomeness of Pickle Barrel Steak Tips at the Fair. I am pleased to report they were every bit as awesome this year, both for their steak and for their mushrooms. This year I discovered I could stretch out the Fair experience by ordering a half-order of tips and mushrooms to go, which gave me a bowl full of awesome to devour the following day.

For the last day, though, I opted to stay home. Although the Fair had one-dollar admission all day, it was warm and humid and I had a little work to do anyway. But as evening came on, I decided I wanted to try to give steak tips a try on my own—mostly so I would know how to handle them in the winter. Naturally, I made a few mistakes, but it came out relatively decent for a first try.

First off, steak selection: I bought a half sirloin, about ¾ lb., because my options were relatively limited. Apparently a gang of determined sale shoppers hit Wegmans like a friggin’ tornado this weekend and cleaned them out of most of the steaks, all of the good butter, and various other sundries. In addition they seem to be shrinking the bulk food section, which if true upsets me greatly. But anyway, I got sirloin for the sirloin tips, instead of the more common top round or some other cut. This resulted in some of the pieces being chewier than I wanted, though maybe that was unavoidable.

For the cooking method, I went with a short sous vide treatment to start. My goal was to get all the tips in a plastic bag and in hot water, and keep it around 130° the whole time. It ended up probably closer to 125°. Without a proper sous vide setup it’s really hard to maintain temperature. I would have preferred to do this for an hour, but time was running short (I was hungry) and I decided on half an hour instead. The short time and lower temp led to a bloodier flavor, I think, so next time I’ll know to start early.

After that, I made my biggest mistake: I put a little vegetable oil into a frying pan before adding the mostly-cooked tips, planning to add butter later and sear them the rest of the way in that. If I had a brain in my head I would have realized the vegetable oil wouldn’t taste all that good, and just stuck with butter. The result gave the tips a bit of an “off” taste that, though I quickly got used to it, was nowhere near the buttery goodness of the tips I get from the Fair.

I also underseasoned the steak dramatically. I needed way more salt and way more pepper than I used. I can’t give a good estimate of how much salt I used, except that I took a container of kosher salt and gave it a good sprinkle all over the pan—three times overall—and for pepper I gave it about ten grinds when it probably needed more like twenty. Also, and I should have realized this too, seasoning them before putting them in the bag and doing the sous vide was probably a better option. No garlic was involved; I wasn’t going for a garlicky flavor.

I made mushrooms alongside the tips; they didn’t come out all that terrific either, but that’s how I’ve been batting lately. Still, I know how to do better mushrooms in general and consider that a one-off failure. For the steak, this is what I learned:

  1. Use a fattier or more tender cut.
  2. Stick with about the same size—it fills my 10″ pan well and served a good amount for me and my wife together.
  3. Season before sous vide, and generously. Use a crapload of salt and much more pepper.
  4. Do the sous vide for a full hour and do a better job keeping the temperature up at 130°.
  5. Don’t screw around with oil; go straight to the butter.

As for what worked in this experiment, the size was just right—of the cut of meat, and also of the tips I cut off it. In spite of several missteps the flavor wasn’t bad; the steak was fairly tasty. The tips did not smoke up the kitchen like I would normally get from pan-frying meat, which I think I can credit to pre-cooking them in the water bath. (Would this work out if I decided to marinate the meat in teriyaki during the sous vide? I suspect not. The flavor would be fine but I’d expect a lot of burning.)

The upshot is I think I can do better when I make this again as the weather gets colder. But for now, my grill has been getting sad and there isn’t a lot of good weather left to use it in.

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Get it together, Mark

One of the rules I strive to live by, and consistently fail at, is to never underestimate human stupidity. If somebody responds to a news article or some reality show flub with “Nobody could really be that stupid”, my go-to response is that yes, they can. And yet I’m somehow still amazed on a consistent basis in spite of that.

Yep, this post is about Facebook.

When I signed up for Facebook, I did it using an e-mail address I pretty seldom check. There’s a reason for that: I don’t give two wet farts about what Facebook sends me. (Another reason is that I didn’t want any risk whatsoever of being looked up by e-mail.) I can’t tell you how many times I turned off e-mail notifications for various categories, which was an annoying and laborious process at the time. But recently, I logged into Facebook and received a message that my e-mail address was invalid. I tried to re-confirm it, but nothing worked at the time, so I shelved it for later—but I did find where they had a setting that sent me e-mails to tell me I had pending notifications, and disabled that so it would stop happening. Then I got the same message again today, and I can’t find any way to re-confirm.

The entire reason this happened was that I went on vacation. Nevermind that I’ve done this before and it hasn’t been a problem. This year, for whatever reason, Facebook sent me one of those “Hey, all kinds of notifications are waiting for you!” e-mails and I didn’t read it right away, which I wouldn’t have done even if I was here. And there weren’t even that many notifications—it was like seven. So I leave the country for five days (not even five full days), and this time they freak? At what point did Facebook become an obsessive girlfriend who needs to check up on me at all hours? My social network of choice (well, actually I was just coerced by my family) has turned into a cloying parody of a character I wrote.

I didn’t sign on to Facebook for four days. That’s it. I checked in on a Sunday, left Monday morning, came back Friday afternoon, and signed into Facebook that evening. It was less than 120 consecutive hours, more than 96, and in any case there’s no reason to flip out and decide after I don’t immediately respond to one e-mail (which, again, I wouldn’t have anyway because I hardly ever check the box) that my e-mail must be broken.

This level of stupid wouldn’t be so bad, but they keep confronting me with this box that says “Your e-mail is invalid.” And they give me a box to update it, and a big Update button. I re-enter the exact same address, because it’s not invalid at all, and they say there’s a problem and they can’t use that address. Yes, I get that you’ve flagged it as broken, guys. I’m saying it is valid, and the least you could do is offer me a way to confirm that and remove that stupid flag.

I sent in a bug report. The word “moronic” came up, because this is a multi-billion-dollar entity that ought to have their ducks in a row. I’m hostile to bad design, especially when a very large team of people is capable of fixing it and it’s not a difficult thing to take care of.

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Steaky popcorn seasoning experiment, Mark II

My previous post about trying to come up with a steak-like popcorn seasoning led me to finally try making that recently. Over the weekend I blended up the spices in the proportions I wanted for Mark II using a coffee grinder, and the other night I tried some on a little popcorn.

Results: inconclusive.

Tasting the seasoning only on its own, it seems like doubling the black pepper was a mistake, and the onion powder even in a lesser quantity was too much, but it might otherwise serve as a proper steaky seasoning.

On the popcorn, however, I had different results. I used the Nordic Ware microwave popcorn bowl for this purpose; I’ve never had much luck with it in the past when using coconut oil in it, which all the videos I’ve seen say should be possible (it might be my crappy microwave), but I discovered if you give it enough time it can cook popcorn dry well enough. I made 1/8 cup (unpopped) of popcorn and then added a small amount of margarine (2 tbsp.), mostly so the spices would have something to adhere to.

The popcorn came out nice, but the margarine somewhat dominated its flavor profile. I found that when I sprinkled on what I thought was a generous amount of seasoning, I couldn’t taste it very well; adding more, it didn’t help much. I got a vague hint of pepper and I definitely picked up the savory quality of the MSG, but it was all muted. The smoky flavor all but disappeared.

I’m not sure Mark II is broken as such; except for scaling the pepper and onion powder back, I think it’d probably work dandy on something like a potato chip that’s already salty. But with popcorn, I’m completely reconsidering.

Taking this just as a popcorn seasoning, I think I need to put much more of it on my popcorn and readjust the proportions. I put on maybe a teaspoon worth, and it clearly needed more, but I think something much closer to the Mark I experience is called for. So for Mark III, I propose:

Steaky popcorn seasoning experiment #3 (proposed)

  • 1 part onion powder
  • 2 parts alder smoked salt
  • 2 parts black pepper
  • 8 parts granulated garlic
  • 8 parts MSG
  • 16 parts popcorn salt

I think the extra saltiness is very much the way to go when it comes to popcorn seasoning.

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