Food and Cooking, Pie Crust, and Way More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Sake

I love food. A bit too much as you would see immediately if you met me in person. I also love to cook. And I’m pretty good at it. But for years now my nemesis has been the pie crust. I couldn’t turn out a decent pie crust for anything. I tried all of the tips and tricks that people and cookbooks recommended. Nothing worked. It either turned out soggy or hard as a rock, or the flavor was bad.

The problem is, of course shortening. Shortening is basically plant oils that are normally liquid at room temperature. They are heavily processed, modified chemically and altered to make them solid. And despite the push to eliminate hydrogenated vegetable oils from our food because the health problems it causes, the stuff is still in most shortenings because it’s difficult to make a shortening that is solid at room temperature without it.

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Mmmm…. yummy, yummy lard…

Once upon a time the fat used in cooking came from animal sources. The type of fat used specifically for making pastry was leaf lard, which was rendered from specific areas of pigs. It was favored because of it’s texture and because it had very little flavor of its own, and it resulted in tender, flakey pastry. There are all sorts of reasons why people switched from lard to vegetable shortening. I could write a whole series of articles just about that so I won’t get into it. But we now know that the hydrogenated vegetable oils that the advertisers have been telling us for years were so “healthy” for us, are a serious health risk and should be avoided.

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My home made chicken pot pie. The edge of the crust looks rough because I misjudged the size and had to “back fill” with extra dough to seal it, but wow it tasted good.

To make a long story short, I’ve given up entirely on shortening and found a pie crust that uses butter instead of shortening, a food processor to do the mixing, and wow, what a difference. I experimented on the family (come on, if you cook, you’ve used your family as test subjects too) and the results were unanimous, the butter crust was a hands down winner over shortening. The texture, flavor, appearance, the butter crust won in every single category.

Okay, so yes, it’s a lot more expensive than shortening. Butter is currently going for around $4/lb. for the generic brands around here, so that means there is about $2 of butter alone in a pie crust. But pie is a treat. It isn’t something we make more than once a month or so or during holiday seasons. A pie is supposed to be special, savory, flakey, delicious. A good pie isn’t just food, it’s part of a celebration. So I’m more than willing to spend the extra money to get the results I want.

And then there’s this new sushi restaurant we went to in Green Bay the other day, Sushi Lovers. Well, it isn’t new, it’s been around for a while now, but it’s new to me, and it was actually pretty good. And it had Hakutsuru junmai draft sake.

If someone had told me about 30 years ago that I’d be eating sushi and drinking sake and enjoying it at this point in my life, I’d have thought they were nuts. And if someone had told me that here in the land of deep fried cheese, beer and whiskey sours and sausages, that sushi restaurants would be popping up all over the place and a lot of grocery stores would be selling it in the deli section, I’d have suggested they need therapy. But that seems to be the case.

The problem is finding a good sushi restaurant. We have all manner of them around here. Some are pretty high end, where each table has it’s own individual chef who makes everything right there in front of you, to places where you sit at a counter with a water trough in front of you and pieces float past you on little boats, to the “chinese buffet” style places that seem to have moved into all of the old Hardee’s fast food joints that closed down a few years ago. And price has little to do with the actual quality of the food. Some of the cheaper places we’ve found have better sushi than some of the over the top fancy places. There are one or two up in the Fox Valley where a party of four won’t get out the door for less than $400 -$500 and the food they crank out there isn’t any better than Sushi Lovers where they charge $18 per adult for all you can eat, plus drinks.

But I really wanted to talk about sake. And like a lot of things dealing with drink, it gets complicated, so bear with me.

First of all, sake is not rice wine as many people call it. Sake is actually brewed from rice like beer, and traditional sake making is a very lengthy and labor intensive process. If you want to see what it’s like, click here for a Youtube video. Like everything else, though, making sake has become industrialized in order to reduce costs and increase quantities, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune for a bottle of traditionally made, hand crafted sake if you want good sake.

There are two different types, junmai-shu and honjozo-shu. The first is made only from rice, water, yeast and koji, which is the same mold that is used in the fermentation of miso. The second type is brewed in the same ways, but has a small amount of distilled alcohol added to it. Some people prefer the honjozo type, claiming the extra alcohol makes the sake more aromatic, while some prefer the junmai type.

Until a few years ago, junmai meant that at least 30% of the rice kernel had been polished away before the rice was used in brewing. So, you ask, why would you polish off that much of the rice? Because when brewing sake what you want is the rice starch, and most of that is concentrated in the middle of the kernel. The outer layers of the kernel has most of the minerals, fats and proteins that can introduce flavors that some people don’t like.

But the polishing requirement for junmai has gone away now, it seems. The major sake brewers convinced the government to change the definition. Junmai style sake still has only rice, water, yeast and koji, but it no longer needs to be polished to meet the legal definition, I’ve been told. Most brewers still adhere to the old 70% rules, but you have to check the bottle to make sure.

There are other terms as well that refer to how much of the rice is lost in polishing or milling. Ginjo means it’s polished to 60%, and seimaibuai and daginjo are milled to 50%, and are usually labeled junmai gingo and junmai daiginjo. (If it says honjozo instead of junmai it means some distilled alcohol has been added.)

And there is a difference in flavors. Junmai sake tends to be less aromatic and more, oh, earthy than the gingo and daginjo style, and goes better with richer, heavier food.

Oh good grief, listen to all that guff, I’m starting to sound like one of those wine snobs, aren’t I? And there is still a lot more, like whether it should be served hot or cold. And the answer to that is: well, maybe?

Traditionally sake was served hot for the same reason we serve beer ice cold here in the U.S., to disguise the fact it doesn’t taste very good. Until about 50 years ago, sake was often very woody, with heavy flavors that were often unpalatable, and heating it helped to mask this. But that has changed and the sake produced now often has very pleasant, lively tastes and aromas, and heating would destroy the flavor and fragrances that the brewers work hard to create.

Generally speaking, better quality sake should not be chilled, but should be cool, a bit below room temperature. Some of the sakagura will list on the label the temperature they feel will bring out the best of their product. But it all depends on the individual drinking it and what they like.

Now, to get back (finally!) to Hakutsuru. The company has been around since something like 1740, and they are now a major brewer in Japan. And while it’s mass produced it is still a pretty good product. It’s considered to be well balanced, a good match for a lot of different foods, with a slightly earthy aroma that isn’t overpowering. It’s one of the better sakes that is available locally.

I can’t believe I’ve babbled along about this for so long. Here’s a picture of the last rose of the season to make up for boring you with all of this guff.

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Meal Kits? What the heck is a meal kit?

Yesterday I ran across an item over at Mother Jone’s website talking about meal kits, which are supposed to be the hot new thing in the food service industry. These things started up a fairly short time ago, offered by companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and many others, and according to the press (some of it anyway, not all) meal kits are the best thing ever.

So what exactly is a ‘meal kit’? The idea is this: Every day a box arrives on your doorstep. Inside of it are all the raw ingredients to make a dinner. Everything you need from the entree, to side dishes, to seasonings,to condiments are pre-portioned and individually packaged. And a recipe telling you how to make it.

And that’s it. You get a box full of raw ingredients and a recipe.

You still have to cook it. You still have to use a stove, oven, etc. You still have to mix and stir. You still have all of the dirty dishes to deal with.

Well, they at least deliver it to your door so you don’t have to shop, right?  Uh, well, no, because these are only dinners. Unless you’re eating breakfast and lunch at a restaurant every day, you still have to go shopping for food.

So you still have to shop. You still have to mix, stir and actually cook. You still have to clean up afterwards and deal with the dishes. So this is useful for, well, who, exactly? People who can’t plan a meal, I suppose?

Then there is the cost. These things seem to be just a wee bit on the pricey side. We’re looking at anywhere from $9 to $50 or more per meal, per person depending on the service you’re talking about. Now I don’t know what restaurant prices are like where you live, but around here that basically means you’d be paying more for a box full of raw ingredients that you have to cook yourself, than  you would pay for a comparable meal at a restaurant, even at the low end of the meal kit price structure. I took a look at some of the menus from these places and figured that one chicken based meal they were sending out for $9 per person could be made for about $3.75 per person.

So just what is the point of all of this? Apparently the only thing this service does is relieve you of the horrible responsibility of — of planning what to have for dinner?

The ads for these places tout the ‘freshness’ of their ingredients. They wax poetic about ‘sustainable’ this and ‘environmental’ that, about how their “chefs” partner with “trusted farmers”. And all of that means pretty much nothing because all of those terms could be applied to just about anything.

The Mother Jones article linked to at the start of this turned up some rather troubling information about these meal kit companies. It seems that I’m not the only one who looks at meal kits with a skeptical eye. Apparently their own customers do as well.

According to independent marketing data that MJ dug up, half or more of the people who sign up for these things cancel the service within the first week. And only 10% or less kept the service after six months. Despite massive injections of venture capital, none of these companies have managed to achieve a positive cash flow from the scanty data I’ve tracked down. They’re continuing to exist only by burning through hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital as they desperately try to attract new customers to replace the customers who almost immediately cancel the service once they’ve tried it.

The companies themselves vehemently deny that their customers abandon them in droves after trying the service for only a brief time, but refuse to show any data that supports their claims.

Still, the hype goes on. Celebrity chefs are hooking up with these places, the food service press waxes poetic about the ‘potential’ of meal kits. There are services that offer specialty kits, like strictly vegan, or “all organic” or vegetarian or, hell, places that only ship their product in ‘free range’ cardboard boxes, I suppose.

I don’t know, is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this whole concept is, frankly, ridiculously silly?