Friday, May 28, 2010

What Do You Intend to Do with that Flour?

So many times we purchase groceries without having a clue. We have just set ourselves up for either failure or a Ho-Hum dish before we even get home with them.

This is one phrase you will find that is so true in baking. To avoid some of those pitfalls, I highly encourage you to make a copy of this article and the one I recently wrote, “Hamburger: Everything You Wanted to Know.” Simply take the articles with you and use them as a guideline in what you purchase until you remember the information like the back of your hand.

The one item that people buy regularly is “FLOUR.” If you are one of those who think any type of flour is okay to keep in the pantry for when you need it, then your views may change after this article.

The first rule of thumb:

When you are standing at the shelf containing Plain, All Purpose, Self Rising, Cake Flour, and more versions of flours than you thought possible, you need to do one thing. STOP! Ask yourself what am I going to do with this flour?

If you ask some people where flour comes from, you will get a look that says, "That’s a dumb question. It comes from the farmer. Where else would it come from?"

However, I am proud to say, this is not the case with my regular readers. I have found you have the skills that match or exceed many of the Food Network's Culinary Stars. Being a member of a very elite group that knows flour comes from many different sources such as wheat, rice, millet, flax, corn, nuts, legumes, vegetables, and know one type of flour does not have all the properties to give you the best results of every baking need, you stand out above the mass of humanity.

Studies indicate you have an above average intelligence, are better looking or prettier than most, your children are well behaved and have honorary adoption papers in the Walton Family, with a table seat at the right side of John Boy. Best of all you have a higher income range of most Americans, and if you do not at this time, just the knowledge gained here will have the direct effect of increasing your future income.

Of all the flours purchased, All PURPOSE FLOUR is the flour that goes in the grocery cart the most. To make this flour they simply blend soft red winter and hard red winter wheat having about a 10-12% protein content. But then did something that made it even more confusing, they made it either bleached or unbleached. Bleached means treated with chemicals while it ages and Unbleached means allowed to bleach naturally as it ages.

What is the difference?:

If you are in the mood to make a Pie Crust, Cookies, Quick breads, Pancakes or Waffles then use bleached as it has less protein than the unbleached. (Some taste tests say bleached flours have a slight flat or metallic taste.)

If you are hankering to make Puff Pastries, Strudels, Éclairs, Popovers, Cream Puffs or Yeast Breads then unbleached is your pick.

Why can’t I use the All Purpose Flour or Self Rising Flour for cakes if I have it already? The answer is you can and the cake will be good. But if you really want to put on the dog and make a cake that puts you up there with the pros, then get a bag of CAKE FLOUR. The difference in the cake will amaze you as this flour is milled from soft wheat, has a finer grind with a greater starch content, and a protein percentage of 9%.

It is then chlorinated to make the flour more acidic causing the cake to set faster. This hedges against the cake falling during the first 20 minutes of baking time, and allows the fat to distribute more easily throughout the batter.

This not only improves the texture but also balances the moisture within the cake. The end result will be a very soft, moist cake that feels light on your fork and in your mouth. There is one thing you need to remember, once you open the bag, put what you don’t use in a Zip Lock Storage Bag to keep the humidity out.

BREAD FLOWER has more gluten and a protein level of around 12 %. This style of flour gives a chewy texture and sturdy dough to work with. The flavor is more intense with the outer crust having the ability to be a little crispier.

WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR is a great subject to have available to discuss with perfect strangers. It is good vetting tool to weed out the individuals who do not match your superior intellect. The question to ask is, do they know the three elements of the wheat berry? If they know the answer, then I highly suggest you invite them home because these folks know their stuff. Just to refresh your memory, the answer is the outer bran layer, the germ, the heart of the berry, and the endosperm.

To make traditional whole wheat flour the entire berry is ground, unlike white flours where only the endosperm is used. This flour does not store well after one month, so if you do not use it all within 30 days of opening, put it in the freezer.

I hope you have become so enlightened the next time you go to the grocery store you can stand by the flour section and tell all within hearing distance why they should pick one flour or another. By the time you are through they will be wanting you to come home to cook for them.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Rice Box - Seven Points Shopping Center

I had read several comments on the TimesDaily Food Talk Forum about the Rice Box. Comments such as, “Best Egg Foo Yung,” “Best Asian food in town,” “Packed all the time,” and others gave us the indication we could expect at the least an average meal if we decided to give it a try.

After receiving e-mails requesting an evaluation, I put it on the list as one of my future places to try. I have been on the road for the past couple of weeks and had not had the time to complete some of the evaluation articles I had already started. I had no intention of starting a new evaluation without finishing the others first, but as you all know life often does change your time frame on things.

I had gotten in late Saturday afternoon from Chattanooga and did not feel like slinging pots and pans. So it didn’t take much arm twisting for E to accept my offer of eating out, and off to the Rice Box we went. She was hungry and I was really hungry, which in my book means anything will taste good if it has sauce on it. The Rice Box is really not hard to find if you are familiar with North Florence. If you aren’t, simply head North on Wood Avenue from downtown Florence until you come to the Seven Points Shopping Center on your left. Turn into the Center and you will see The Rice Box on your right near the street.

The Arrival

As we entered, a young lady met us at the door. She inquired about how many were in our party and informed us there was a wait or we could go to the Sushi bar area, implying we would be waited on a lot quicker. We decided to take her suggestion and selected two seats at the bar just down from the sushi work station. We started watching the Chef as we waited to be asked for our drinks and given a menu. We waited, waited, and then waited some more. Several waitresses and a waiter walked by, with one even backing up to the bar next to us, yet never inquiring if we had been waited on.

After a lengthy time of waiting, I went over to the young lady who met us at the door and asked for a table, since we had no luck in getting any attention at the bar. We were directed to a small table for two and it was not long before the menus were placed on the table and our drink orders taken.

The Atmosphere

Let me stop here and make you aware that if you are expecting to enter a place that creates thoughts of Romance and lots of A’more” for dessert back at the old home place, this AIN’T it. There is no soft oriental music or any culturally clad waitresses to settle your nerves down for the evening. Instead what you are going to experience is a toned down Décor that matches more of a small diner with the exception of a few oriental figurines displayed here and there.

One Food Talk reviewer stated this restaurant is always packed, and I believe that statement, as it was most certainly busy during our visit. Unfortunately that comes with the one thing that will be your constant companion if the interior has not been designed to absorb noise. The din of conversations, with each person attempting to talk louder and faster, creates the same atmosphere as if you were sitting in the middle of a packed college sports bar on steroids. Thus you get this magpie of sounds that ricochet off the interior walls like an 8 ball rack shot. All they needed was a bucking dragon and you would have just experienced the atmosphere of the Sundance Saloon at the same time.

The Drinks

E ordered an Asahi Japanese beer ($2.50), which according to history was first brewed in 1892. It is now one of the most popular beers in Japan and over the recent years has gained a following in America. This brew has a light straw color with a very thin body taste. Being made from rice, corn and light grains it has a grassy hops flavor with just a slight hint of apple. The finishing taste that lingers is a slight crisp dryness on your tongue. If you like the taste of lite beers you will love this one. It goes well with most oriental dishes, and in my thinking is more suitable for that category of food. If you lean toward a robust, deep bodied beer that can stand on your tongue and dance an Irish jig, then I suggest you don’t turn the cap on this one.

It was not long before the waiter brought our drink orders and set the Asahi bottled beer down without offering a cold or frosted glass along with it. My Sake was also set down on the table, and without a word the waiter left. Just so you can discuss the history of Sake at your next Sunday School Class I have taken the liberty of giving you a little information that will make you seem like a genius. The earliest recorded history of Sake being made was in the 3rd Century BC. The Japanese have a word for it--Nihonshu, meaning Japanese Sake ($5.99) which in English we call Rice Wine. The traditional Sake is the end product of a fermentation and filtration process using 100% rice, rice koji and water.

However, since World War II, the Japanese have started adding alcohol to it to increase its volume due to the reduction of rice being grown during that time. This process has continued with some brands today. In fact, you have a whole class of Sake’s listed as Special, Premium, etc, with each being classified on its quality of taste just as our spirits are. You can order the Sake two ways, cold or hot. I prefer the hot as to me it activates the intense flavor of the rice and gives you a warm glow as it hits the stomach. It is served in a small ceramic container to maintain the temperature of the drink as long as possible. You simply pour small amounts in a ceramic holder similar to a demitasse cup and sip it during your meal.

What really caught my attention was the fact the waiter had set the drinks down and walked off without waiting to see if the temperature of the Sake was correct, or if E needed a cold glass. (When you see this poor display of service, it falls back on the lack of wait staff training given by management.) Picking up the Sake, I poured a cup full and took a sip. The “Luke Warm” liquid caught me by surprise. In fact, another sip indicated that no real attempt was made to heat up the Sake as requested and was more room temperature than warm.

The Menu

When you open the menu, you find a slew of dishes all named and items designated as T-4 or P-5. Your choices are almost endless in nature, which will take you a while to read through. Most of the items are ala carte, meaning priced separately, so you have the choice of just how much you want to spend on your meal. Be careful though, because in a lot of ways this is an extremely good way for a meal to cost you more than when certain side items are listed with the dishes main meat.

The Appetizer

E ordered as an appetizer a small cup of Hot/Sour Soup ($1.59). There are many versions of this style soup--Chinese, Thai, etc. They usually start with a chicken broth, then add red rice vinegar, white rice vinegar, Tofu, Shredded Pork, Egg, Sesame Oil, Mushrooms, Bamboo, etc. It is very spicy in nature and is used to clear the lungs and head if someone has a cold.

When it was brought to the table it was neither Hot in temperature or Spicy. I would label it as one, if not probably the saddest versions of Hot and Sour Soup I have ever seen offered at any oriental place. In fact it was so bad, as you see the picture, we left it on the table. I was now getting the feeling things were headed down hill fast.

The Main Meals

E ordered the The Moo Goo Gai Pan Dish ($5.95) which is slivered slices of sautéed chicken, mixed with snow peas, watercress, slices of mushroom, carrots with a white sauce with the sides of fried rice and spring roll. She took a bite, and I could see by the look on her face that things were not going well. She pushed the plate to me and said, "You try it." I selected a portion and felt the “Luke Warm” white “GOO” of a sauce start to spread over my taste buds.

To describe the taste I have to give you something to compare it with. Take a tablespoon of cornstarch and mix it with tepid water until it is a thin sauce. Do not add anything to it, now take a big spoonful and place it in your mouth. That, my friend, is how you get to experience the same thing we experienced with this dish. It was totally tasteless and unappealing in any shape or form.

But in an attempt at being optimistic, she said, "Well, at least I have the spring roll," and took a bite. The spring roll piece she had bitten off, hit the plate at the same time she laid the larger piece back down. I thought, it can’t be that bad and took a bite myself. I was totally wrong and laid the remaining portion of the spring roll back on the plate. The roll was cold, and the inside ingredients were similar to soured grass.

I had ordered the Spicy Yellowtail Roll ($5.25) and in the process stressed to the waiter to tell the Sushi Chef to make the roll very spicy. I did this to offset the high oil content of the fish which tends to dilute the spicy sauce somewhat. Basically the Roll is yellowtail minced, mixed with minced scallions, slivers of cucumber, then blended together with wasabi and a spicy sauce. A sheet of Nori (Seaweed) is laid on top of a bed of sushi rice and the mixture is spread on the Nori and pressed down. It is then rolled in the sushi mat into a tight roll. Most Sushi Chefs, after making their cuts, will then place a drop of spicy sauce on each piece for additional flavor and looks.

What I actually got was a Yellowtail roll that had very little spicy sauce within the roll itself, and none placed on each individual piece. While the portions were adequate and the freshness was there, the taste of the roll in general would be considered bland in nature when compared to the same type of roll I have gotten at other sushi bars. In fact, the taste was so bland I had the waiter bring some extra spicy sauce for the dish, and he brought around approximately a tablespoon full in a small dish.

My second Sushi Dish was the Rainbow Roll ($10.95). The Rainbow is a standard among Sushi Chefs and is fairly easy to make. The foundation for the Roll is usually a mixture of a California Roll which mainly consists of shredded fish cake (imitation crab), avocado and cucumber. Once the foundation is tightly rolled, the top of the foundation is layered with salmon, tuna, avocado and a mild white fish of choice. The Japanese refer to this as Tazuna Sushi. The presentation of the roll is very colorful, thus the name “Rainbow Roll.” I had also requested that the rainbow roll be made very spicy, which is normally not done. As in the yellowtail roll, the word spicy was apparently left out of the order and it didn’t happen. The freshness was there, and in fact it was a good quality Rainbow Roll.

By the time we (or let's say I since E does not like Sushi) finished eating, E was about to starve. Not willing to order anything else she just wanted to get out of there and go get a burger.

The Service

I would say something about the type of service you could expect from the wait staff, but they never came back to the table after they delivered our orders, so I guess in a way I just did. I am one of those people who tip according to the quality of service that is given. Being in the food business myself at one time, I am very aware how hard these people work, so always use that as a guideline as to the amount of the tip. Thus, I will allow you to guess the percentage of the tip.


Needless to say, the possibility of A’more went out of the door about the second bite of the Moo Goo whatever it was. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I ever suggested coming back to this place I would be in a for a tongue lashing. If you ask E, the $35.00 spent was money wasted. So! I believe you can probably figure out and write my recommendation for me.

Their Hours

Their posted hours are 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. week days and 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.


When I took on the responsibility of writing about the food experiences at the many places I visit, I made the decision to be truthful in my assessments. The above review was not a joy to write, as I had much rather have told you how good the Rice Box was and give it a glowing recommendation. I still could have done that, but that would not have been an honest viewpoint based on my one experience. The end result would have been that I was unfair not only to you but to the Rice Box management also. Keep in mind this could have been an off night due to many circumstances and this might not be the standard quality of service or quality of food they offer. This was just our experience, and you should give it the no more or less weight than it deserves.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sparky's Drive-In

We all have our certain places that helped create the golden memories of our childhood. Sparky’s is one of those places, started by an unassuming man named Blanton Sparks who just wanted to put out good food and make a living at it.

My first recollection of going to the drive-in is when I was around the age of six. I remember we would have to park down the highway because the parking lot was already full and people were standing in line at the window placing their orders. At that time, Sparky's had two windows to place the orders and one pickup window. My dad would get the order from the window and hand it to me in its big brown paper sack.

As I write this, I can still see the white wax paper that was used to wrap the pork sandwiches that were stacked up to the brim of the sack. The smell of the smoked meat would drive my nose crazy as I lugged that heavy sack back to our 1945 DeSoto. I would crawl in the back seat and place the sack between my legs as we drove home, all the while wanting to grab that top sandwich and bite into that tender meat with the charred bark around its edges.

We would get home and Mom would spread the numerous sandwiches on the table like Christmas Gifts under the tree. Placed at each chair would be a cold glass bottle of Coca Cola, which if you drank too fast would shoot out your nose and onto your shirt. That combination with Mom’s homemade French fries dipped in Hunt’s Ketchup rendered a meal fit for Royalty.

Then along came the one item that has kept Sparky’s order windows busy long after “Sparky” left this world for the other side. He came up with a combination for his hot dog which has created a reputation among “Hot Dog Enthusiasts" as a hot dog that once you are bitten by it you will be addicted.

It is a well documented fact that these addicted souls will drive many a mile, walk bare foot through snow, suffer unbridled thirst across the Sahara Desert just to be bitten once again. I will have to make a confession here, as I am one of those tortured souls. During my years of travel throughout these wonderful states, I have yet to come across a “Hot Dog” that creates such a desire to be bitten again and again as the one we fondly refer to as the “Ole Sparky.”

The Million Dollar question is what is it about this dog that creates such a following that has put this little town of Tuscumbia on the map as one of the best places to get a “Southern Style Hot Dog.” Is it the Slaw, the Chili, the Dog, the Bun, or is it a combination of all? Let me tell you what I found out in my little tests.

The first test was when I bought the slaw thinking that it was what made the difference. I placed the all beef National Hebrew on the bun, put some chili on it with cheddar cheese and took a bite. To my surprise all I got was a whimper, no bite, not even a growl. I then tried my second test and used their chili separate on another dog, this time using a regular Ball Park weenie with a lackluster taste.

This is when I came to the conclusion that it was the entire combination of the style of bun, type of dog, their homemade chili, the sloppiness, the smell , the soft hot feel as you unwrap it and a slaw so unique that I promise you will not find it on any other hot dog. This combination renders a flavor that somehow maximizes each ingredient at its best and slams the taste buds with such an intense flavor you come to the conclusion that, after all these years of searching, you have finally found the “Holy Grail” of the Southern Style Hot Dog.

As age caught up with Sparky, he could no longer maintain the hours it took to run a business as laborious as this. In 1994, Karen Smith took over the drive-in and was smart enough to recognize the style of dog she was putting out was one of the major things that kept her customers coming back to this little building at 701 Old Lee Highway in the small community of Valdosta southwest of downtown Tuscumbia.

It is not unusual for her to see people who have been coming to her order window for several generations. They all tell her stories about Sparky who at around 5’10” was physically not a large man, but he created a Hot Dog that has a reputation bigger than the State of Texas. I am sure never in his wildest dreams would he have known his name would become a legend because of an old household standby called the “The Hot Dog.”

While this location used to set on the main highway to Memphis, it has been bypassed by the Four Lane 72 Highway approximately one mile to the south, but that has not kept the loyal customers from turning down Hook Street and getting their hot dog fix on a regular basis. Karen over the years has been very careful not to change a thing about the dog, and Sparky has on occasion showed his appreciation by cutting off the lights for her when she asks.

Location: 701 Old Lee Highway, Tuscumbia, Alabama 35674

Hours: Closed on Sunday & Monday and after 6:00 p. m.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Hamburger: Everything You Always Wanted to Know

Failure Starts At The Beginning

How many times have you said to yourself on the way home, "I think we will just have burgers tonight," all the while thinking of that juicy burger you always get at your favorite place. What you probably have not thought about is why their burgers stand out above all others. If you think that you are about to create the same burger without putting some effort into it, then you are going to be disappointed in the end result.

As you stand in front of the meat counter looking at the ground beef, ground round, ground chuck or ground sirloin you think, which one of these will give me the quality of burger I am expecting?

If you choose the GROUND ROUND package, you just set yourself up for a burger that is going to be chewy and have less flavor. This meat comes from the rear, upper portion of the leg and rump area of the cow. These areas tend to have less marbling with a fat content of about 15% at most. A beef patty with less fat gives you less flavor.

If you choose the REGULAR GROUND beef package, the meat is going to be more mushy and greasier with a flavor that is more in line with boiled beef. The reason is the ground beef package contains beef cuts taken from all different areas of the cow. The beef will be lean in nature, thus having to have fat added to it during its grinding process. What you end up with is an inconsistency of flavor and never the same amount of juiciness within the end product.

If you have chosen the GROUND SIRLOIN package, you made a good choice as the meat will be tender and have a hearty beef flavor. The content is about 10% so the meat will have a tendency to be a little dry but you can offset that by brushing with a Beef Consommé or combination of Beef Broth and Butter. This meat comes from the midsection and near the hip; therefore it has the tendency to be not as tough.

However, if you want an even better quality burger, then the GROUND CHUCK Package will end up in your basket. You have now started with the best ground beef you can purchase for burgers. You are going to find the meat rich in beef flavor, and with a 20% fat content you will find the meat moist with the right texture to make it stand out above a normal ground beef burger. This meat comes directly from the shoulder area.

As for me, I use a combination of GROUND CHUCK AND GROUND SIRLOIN. I think it just gives me a better beef flavor and the combination tends to have a better texture to the bite and renders a juicier burger.

Tip: One of the problems when cooking a hamburger is crowning. This is when it comes off of the grill the patty is oval shaped. This has the tendency to allow your toppings for the burger to slide off of the meat. How do your counter that? Some people will just press the heck out of the meat which does make the burger flat, but void of the natural juices, as they just pressed the entire flavor out. To avoid this, simply take your thumb when you make the patty and press down in the middle, making an indenture. This indented space will fill back up as your cook the meat and at the end will again be level with all of the juices still retained in the burger.

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