Bacon sliced and ready for frying

Makin’ Better Bacon

As the proud owner of a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker, I have been searching for more “projects” to tackle since one can only eat so much BBQ Spare ribs, Pastrami, Smoked Meat Loaf, Beef Brisket and pulled pork. With the popularity of bacon rising to near cult like status, it struck me as natural to try to improve upon the substandard product proffered by todays producers.

Weber Smoky Mountain smoker
The Smoker assembled

Most commercial bacon is made using the pickling method which involves injecting the pork belly with a mixture salt, water and sugar and other curing and flavoring agents. One of these flavoring agents is the “smoke” as many commercial products never see the inside of a smoker. Traditional bacon is made using a dry cure mixture of curing ingredients rubbed on all surfaces of the “green” pork belly. The primary advantage of dry cured bacon is since no added water is injected during the curing process, the amount of shrinkage experienced when cooking the bacon is greatly reduced. The water cooking off is actually boiling your bacon and toughening it and remember, you paid for that weight cooking off. When you cure and smoke your own bacon you also have the advantage of personalizing your cure to obtain your desired flavor profile. The bacon will also absorb less salt during the curing process than that commonly found in commercial bacon.

Cured bacon at the start of smoking
Cured bacon at the start of smoking

Bacon can be made from any cut of pork but the most common is belly. Uncured pork belly is popular in many cultures but in America nearly all of it is made into bacon. As a result, belly can be hard to find. If you can’t find belly, use boneless pork butt to make backboard bacon. As a native of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, I enjoy my bacon cured with maple sugar, but feel free to substitute brown sugar if necessary.

MAPLE CURED BACON

Cure: (Amount given is based on a 5Lb Pork Belly. Ratio appropriately for larger and smaller amounts of belly)

1/4 Cup of Maple Sugar

1/4 Cup of Kosher Salt

1/4 Cup of Good quality Maple Syrup

2 Tsp of Insta Cure #1, Prague Powder (Insta Cure #1 can be order online from http://www.sausagemaker.com/ Required if you will smoke your pork belly to prevent botulism.)

If you can’t find Insta Cure, here is an alternate recipe:

Alternate Cure

1 Tbs of Morton’s Quick Cure per lb. of Belly

1 Tsp of Maple Sugar per Lb. of Belly

1 Tsp of Maple Syrup per Lb. Of Belly

Curing Process

Mix cure ingredients well and spread over all surfaces of the Pork Belly. Place into a Zip Lock Bag or Foodsaver Bag and remove as much air as possible and seal. Place in a refrigerator for 7 days. If using a Zip Lock Bag place it into a container to hold any leakage. Every day turn the package over (called overhauling). After a full 7 day cure check the belly. It should feel firm. You should also observe fluid drawn from the belly from the curing process. If the belly is not firm over the entire surface place it back in the refrigerator for an another day and recheck.

When the curing process is complete, remove the belly from the bag and rinse well. Then soak in cold water for 30 minutes. Change the water and soak for another 30 minutes. The belly is now cured. You can slice off a small piece and fry to check the saltiness. If too salty soak for another 30 minutes in fresh water. Continue this process until satisfied. Place the belly on a wire rack over a pan and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours uncovered to allow a pellicule (sticky coating) to form. This enhances the smoking process by allowing more smoke flavor to adhere to the Belly. You now have fresh Bacon.

Smoking Process

You can use a variety of methods to smoke the Bacon. In all cases you want to use indirect heat, maintain temperatures below 200 degrees F to reduce the amount of fat that renders from the bacon. You may use the smoke wood of your choice. I prefer apple wood. For a “stronger” smoke I suggest hickory. Smoke the bacon until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees F. On my smoker this takes about 3 hours. Some sources recommend placing the bacon into the smoker at a reduced temperature without smoke for 45 minutes to 1 hour then add your smoke wood and raise the temperature to less than the 200F degrees. This reportedly further aids the smoke to adhere to the bacon.

Bacon after smoking
Bacon after smoking

After the bacon has reached the finish temperature of 150F degrees, remove it from the smoker and allow to cool. Place into the refrigerator for 24 hours to allow the bacon to set. Slice and fry to your heart’s content and enjoy the best bacon you may have ever had. Use a low temperature to fry this style of bacon remembering that you have none of the excess water in the product that commercial bacon has.

If your pork belly comes with the skin attached you have a choice. You can skin it before the cure or after smoking it or you can leave it alone and enjoy bacon with rind. If you choose to skin it after smoking make sure you do it when the bacon is still warm. Reserve the smoked skin as flavorings for soups and such.

If you are hand slicing your bacon you will find it difficult to evenly slice the last ½” or so. You can chunk this potion using it as a seasoning for green beans, other vegetables or for soups. You can also fry the chunks and make cracklins. If you are unable to source pork belly you are not out of luck. You can follow the same process using boneless Boston Butt extending the cure stage to 10 days. Trim the excess fat from the Boston Butt and butterfly or section the meat so no part of it is thicker than 3.5″ . Frying this style of bacon takes about one half the time of regular bacon.

Pig trotters for scrapple

Slow Cooker Scrapple

Regular readers may have noticed I have a bit of an obsession with scrapple, but up till now I’ve only written about the scrapple served in restaurants. That changes today with the formalization of my method for preparing my favorite breakfast food in a Crock-Pot®.

Why use a slow cooker? For one, it is not necessary to watch the pot during the initial stock making phase. I can start the process before I go to work in the morning or before bed at night and have the stock ready when I’m prepared to proceed. The stock can also be held on the WARM tempertaure setting waiting for use. But the most important reason is the ease of cooking and cleanup after the cornmeal is added. Anyone who has ever made scrapple, polenta, mush or anything else with cormeal knows what a pain it is to constantly stir it to avoid scorching and that even the most minor sticking is difficult to clean up. The even heat of the ceramic cooking vessel makes this concern a thing of the past.

Scrapple fanatics can skip this next paragraph, but a few words are necessary for the neophyte scrapple heads.

Scrapple in America originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch or German) residing in the farm country near Philadelphia. In the late fall or early winter the hogs were butchered and processed into hams, sausage and other products. Wasting nothing, the farmers took everything that was left over from the butchering (heads, feet, organs, etc.) and cooked them all together, removed the inedible parts and thickened the mixture with cormeal and flour. The mixture was then poured into molds and when cooled and set was sliced, fried and served primarily as a breakfast meat.

Scrapple making was a lot of work and my goal with this recipe was to create a process to cut down on the labor but still create an authentic product. The key to this authenticity is the quality of the stock, and  unless you have a commercial kitchen or a huge outdoor kettle that can accommodate a pig’s head, your only option is pig trotters (or feet). One possible exception are fresh hocks, but these are rarely found as they are reserved for smoking. DO NOT use smoked hocks. Recipes on the net that call for chicken stock and ground pork will NOT create a quality product. What the trotters provide is gelatin. The gelatin creates a rich stock that sets up firm when cold. This allows the use of less cornmeal and thereby a moister product with a creamy interior when cooked. In the spirit of frugality, I do not purchase meat speciffically for scrapple. My method is to buy a bone-in pork butt and break it down for another dish (today Segedínský Guláš ) and then use the scraps and bone in the stock. Any cheap cut of pork will suffice though if you choose not to buy a whole butt. When it comes to liver, the historical choice is pork, but I have made scrapple with beef, veal and even chicken in a pinch with good results. Naturally beef gives a stronger offal flavor. One final ingredient that is significant is the buckwheat flour. The brand of scrapple I grew up with was made with buckwheat so I prefer it but you could easily substitute all purpose flour. It should be noted buckwheat flour is gluten free so keep that in mind if gluten is an issue for you.

SLOW COOKER SCRAPPLE

 

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 pig trotters(feet), cleaned and split
  • 1 lb pork meat and scraps (add bones if you have them)
  • 1 lb liver , cubed
  • 1 onion, medium size cut in half
  • 2 sprigs fresh sage (substitute 1 Tbs dry if not available)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 Tbs whole dry)
  • 2 celery tops
  • 1 Tbs black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbs whole allspice
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 1 ½ Tbs Sea salt
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 3 C yellow cornmeal
  • 1 C buckwheat flour

 

PROCEDURE:

Make a bouquet garni of the sage, bay leaves, thyme, celery, allspice, peppercorns, allspice and cloves tied in cheesecloth.

Place all ingredients in a large (minimum 6 Qt. ) slow cooker and cover with water.

Cook until pigs feet or falling apart (6 to 7 hours on high or 10 to 12 hours on low)

Strain through a fine sieve.

Skim fat (reserve if desired)

Measure 3 Qt of the remaining stock (add water if necessary) and return to the slow cooker. Turn heat to high.

While the stock is coming to a boil, pick through the scraps reserving the edible portions and discarding the rest. Chop finely by hand or food processor.

Return reserved meat and liver to the slow cooker and bring to a boil.

When boiling, SLOWLY add the cornmeal and buckwheat flour stirring constantly. (You’ll note in the photo that I slipped a bit adding the cornmeal which resulted in a few yellow patches in the finished product)

Cook the mixture for at least 1 hour (after returning to a boil) stirring occasionally. The scrapple will begin to pull away from the sides of the crock when properly cooked.

At this point you may optionally add additional fat in small quantities and stirring until well dispersed. This is the old time way of using the reserved fat which I dispense with for health reasons. If you choose to add it, stop when you see fat collecting on the surface.

Taste and correct for seasoning. You may need more salt as the cornmeal absorbs a lot. I try to watch my salt intake so you may find the recipe a bit light on it. I always add some fresh ground pepper and a bit more cayenne, but season to your taste.Scrapple in freezer containers

Pour into greased molds of your choosing. Most people use loaf pans. I use pint freezer containers as they are a more convenient size for a single guy and I can pop them right into the freezer when cool.

Scrapple and eggs
Scrapple ‘n eggs

One final note on cooking scrapple. The goal is to get a crispy crust with a creamy moist interior. By far the best utensil to achieve this is a cast iron skillet. Nothing conducts as well for browning and the cooking surface is always dead flat. If you don’t have cast make sure the skillet is heavy and very flat. The preferred grease is lard or bacon fat. Butter works too but do not cook scrapple in oil. In addition, I always flour my scrapple slices to help with creating a nice crust. You’ll find may ways to serve scrapple on the net. As a kid I always ate mine with REAL local maple syrup but now prefer it with eggs. If you plan on doing something with this scrapple other than slicing it, I would add a bit more corn meal or cook it longer to tighten it up a bit.

Pickled peppers for hot sauce

Impromptu Hot Sauce

This morning  used the last of my home-made hot sauce on my scrapple and eggs. It had been a great season for peppers and this batch was one of the best I’d ever made. Short of making a trip to the grocery store I appeared to be out of luck. Then I remembered the quarts of pickled peppers I had also put up this summer. Thus was born this Caribbean inspired sauce. I’ll probably play with it some more but here’s the first attempt.

 

IMPROMPTU HOT SAUCE

 

INGREDIENTS:
2 Qts assorted pickled peppers

3 Cups reserved pickling juice from peppers

2 carrots, peeled and dice

½ C chopped onion

10 garlic cloves

2 oranges, juiced

2” piece of fresh ginger

½  tsp turmeric

1 Tbs dry mustard

½ tsp cumin

Salt

Xanthan Gum (optional)
PROCEDURE:
Drain pickled peppers reserving juice. Stem and remove seeds.
Bring 3 cups of the reserved juice to a boil with carrots, onions and garlic. Simmer till tender. Remove from heat and cool.
Cool, transfer carrot/juice mixture to blender along with all other ingredients EXCEPT Xanthan Gum.
Process until smooth adding more reserved juice if necessary to reach desired consistency.
Taste and correct for salt.
If you would like to keep your sauce from separating, add very small amounts of Xanthan Gum while the blender is running. If you are not familiar with Xanthan Gum PLEASE read the note below.

YIELD: About 6 cups

Notes on Xanthan Gum
Xanthan Gum is a natural food additive useful for stabilizing emulsions (like salad dressing) or suspensions (like this hot sauce). It is a VERY powerful thickening agent and is particularly useful because the thickening is not dependent on cooking and does not vary with temperature (think cold gravy). The viscosity DOES vary with agitation. Think of a bottle of commercial salad dressing. It is thick enough in the bottle not to separate but guts thinner as you shake the bottle. It then returns to the original viscosity on your salad. When using Xanthan Gum add very small amounts while mixing vigorously. Stop the mixing and let the product sit undisturbed for awhile to check for thickness. Add more as necessary. To give some idea how powerful Xanthan Gum is, I used less than a teaspoon to thicken this batch (6 cups) of sauce. Be careful!

Tall Cedars-Donegal PA

Tall Cedars Restaurant-Donegal PA

Tall Cedars Restaurant in Donegal is one of those old-time bar bars which I’ve drunk in many times but never ate in save for a few late night refueling stops.Tall Cedars dining room In fact, I had never set foot in the dining section of the restaurant until last week. I arrived about 8:30 AM on a Saturday morning to find myself the only patron seated. Usually this is not a good sign. The building is of log construction and the dining room is paneled in wood with a large, genuine stone fireplace dominating one wall. Heavy wooden Captain’s chairs and tables completed the décor which could have been very homey and welcoming if maintained with a bit more care. Perhaps my biggest complaint regarding the atmosphere was the pervasive odor that appeared to emanate from the heating system. Instead of the aroma of food cooking, I was assaulted by the fumes of a poorly vented oil furnace. The menu was presented and it listed only standard breakfast fare with no items of a local nature included. I ordered eggs (over easy), sausage, home fries and toast at $5.95. The food took a bit longer to arrive than I would have expected given I was the restaurant’s only patron, but I’d still call the wait acceptable. Tall Cedars breakfastThe sausage was two large patties about the size of a McDonald’s burger, probably close to 2 ounces each. Although clearly a pressed product, it was well browned and remained very juicy. The home fries were made from fresh potatoes with the skin left on and were well cooked if a bit under seasoned. The eggs were the only real problem in that they were cooked medium, well on their way to hard, instead of the over easy as requested. Not a bad breakfast, but it’s hard to recommend a place that can’t cook an egg properly. Later in the day I was still in the area so I dropped by for lunch, this time stopping in the bar. If you’re the type of person who is intimidated by a local crowd who can be a bit rough, I would suggest eating in the dining room. This is the type of bar where they have a stainless steel mirror in the restroom to replace the glass ones that kept getting punched out. The beer selection is mediocre, offering only national domestic brands with a sprinkling of imports. No premium or craft brews are stocked and the draft system has been out of commission on my last few visits. The lunch menu is more extensive than the breakfast menu with a heavy emphasis on Pizzas, Stromboli and Cal zones. Taking this as an indication of what I should order, I settled on a small cheese pizza ($5). It didn’t take long for the four slice pizza to appear and my initial impression was that there would be issues with the crust. It looked dry, under cooked and somewhat pasty looking. My first bite confirmed my initial impression. The crust was bland and somewhat “biscuity” in texture. The dough exhibited some kind of an issue with the yeast that I couldn’t quite pin down. It appeared either the yeast was old and inactive, or the dough had been stored too long after it was made. In addition, I found the sauce overly sweet for my taste, although I recognize many people prefer it prepared in that fashion. The cheese was of an acceptable quality, but was over browned. Simply a substandard pizza in my view. Sometimes I’m frustrated by Urbanspoon’s insistence on giving a restaurant a ”like” or “don’t like”, but at other times being forced to choose neatly sums up the writer’s true opinion. In the case of Tall Cedars, although I have been a patron of theirs for many years, based on my two most recent visits, I’ll have to choose “don’t like”.

Tall Cedars sign

Tall Cedars on Urbanspoon

Green Gables Restaurant, Jennerstown PA

Just north of the hamlet of Jennerstown, Pennsylvania lies Green Gables Restaurant and the Mountain Playhouse. The restaurant has been on the site since 1927 and was started as a sandwich shop Green Gables, Jennerstown PAby a local farmer, James Black Stoughton, who decided he had enough of milking cows. The restaurant grew section by section over the years in a rustic, eccentric style that is a testament to Mr. Stoughton’s vision. The year 1939 saw the opening of the Mountain Playhouse, a summer stock theater, which is housed in a reconstructed log grist mill moved to the site from Roxbury, PA. Most of my previous experiences with the restaurant have been of the banquet variety, the quality of which had never impressed me enough to prompt a return trip for an á la carte meal. Regular readers will recall my attachment to the classic brunch, and hearing that Green Gables offered the same, I decided on a recent Sunday to give them another go. My son Miles and I arrived about 11:30 AM and found ourselves the first arrivals of the morning. We were seated at a nice window table appointed with fresh flowers and were presented the brunch menu along with a separate drink menu featuring “summer cocktails”. No wine list was offered which surprised me, as the restaurant is listed as a Wine Spectator award winner. I inquired whether a Mimosa was available, as I did not see it on the drink menu. The server replied in the affirmative and informed me that I had been given the wrong drink menu. The drink soon arrived, and even at the rather steep price of $12, it proved to be the high point of the meal. The juice was clearly fresh squeezed and exhibited a slightly reddish tint making me think perhaps a few blood oranges had been used in the juice. If not blood oranges, I detected no other flavors that would account for the color, but possibly it was nothing more than a splash of Grenadine. Opening the menu, I found to my disappointment, that the restaurant’s idea of “brunch” was to simply add two egg dishes to a sandwich menu, one of which was really just breakfast. Green Gables, Jennerstown PAThe sole brunch choice offered was a Greek Omelet ($10) which I ordered, having no other options. In addition, in spite of the chilly morning, I ordered a cold Port Pear Soup($4). I’m not really sure why a cold soup was offered on a cold morning, but there were no other starters offered other than a few salads which appeared to be a bit more substantial than I was up for. As spinach in an omelet did not appeal to Miles, he settled for a sandwich, ordering what was billed as a Lamb Gyro ($9). The soup soon arrived and I was a bit surprised to see no garnish of any kind. Frankly, the color of the soup wasn’t striking enough to stand on its own. I could live with the lack of presentation if the soup had exhibited a solid flavor, but sadly that was not the case. I found the soup oddly flat, a fact that had me puzzled until I found a piece of incompletely puréed pear in the bottom of the cup. The fact that this piece was crunchy made clear the flatness of the soup was due to under ripe fruit. The rest of the meal took a bit longer to arrive than I would have expected given that we were the first order of the day. When finally presented, I was shocked by the appearance of both the omelet and the gyro. Green Gables, Jennerstown PAI’m not even sure how to describe the incongruity of sitting at a table with a white tablecloth, drinking a $12 Mimosa and seeing a sandwich being served wrapped in a piece of aluminum foil as if it had been purchased from a low-class food truck. The omelet served was so brown, I immediately knew I was not going to be enjoying this meal. I probably should have just refused both dishes on sight and just walked away, but that would make for a pretty short review. With trepidation, I took my first bite, and I can say without equivocation that this was the sorriest excuse for an omelet I have ever eaten in my life. I’ve had better omelets prepared on an open flattop in greasy spoon diners than what was served here. An enormous amount of liquid (milk?) had been added to the eggs, and the mixture had been cooked without any movement of the pan leading to a product more like custard than an omelet. The overcooking of the exterior left a dry skin which could be peeled from the omelet in sheets. The spinach was watery and even the sharpness of the feta could not mask the lack of seasoning in the filling. The skillet potatoes exhibited a pervasive scorched flavor which made them inedible and the toast was served dry with no butter being presented or offered. The food truck pedigree of the sandwich was confirmed when the so called “lamb” turned out to be nothing more than commercial gyro meat, a “mystery meat” product which generally is prepared with about 15% actual lamb. However, the restaurant’s heating of this “lamb” was so inept that even the food truck vendor would be embarrassed to serve it. I honestly was puzzled over how the kitchen could have some pieces of this “meat” completely fried to a crisp (as if it was bacon) and other pieces barely warm but with crisp edges. I can only surmise that they took a block of this pre-sliced product from the freezer and threw it in a deep fryer, hence the two outside pieces being totally overcooked and the inside pieces having only crisp edges. Regardless, it was awful. In addition, the yogurt-mint sauce was grainy and lacking in flavor. I will say the lettuce, cucumbers and onions in the sandwich were fresh, but that single positive note could not redeem the disaster that was the rest of the sandwich.Interior of Green Gables Restaurant Miles ordered herbal tea with his meal, and like the toast situation, not sweeteners of any kind were served with the tea nor were they offered. Neither of us bothered to finish our meals, and not one employee bothered to inquire if we had enjoyed it. I’m almost glad there was no inquiry as I was upset enough that I probably would have made a scene that I would have later regretted. The total tab for this fiasco was $51, not a paltry sum for two people. Excepting the Mimosa’s, I would not be willing to pay $5.10 for this garbage in the future.
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Ottos Pub-State College PA

Otto’s Pub-State College PA


On the way into town on my recent trip to State College, I passed the new location of Otto’s Pub and Brewery on Atherton Street. Since I’m a sucker for brew pubs, I vowed to make it my lunch stop on the way back out-of-town. On my return, the first thing I noticed was a red vintage stake bed truck parked outside. Definitely an eye catcher. Upon entry into the building you find yourself in a gift shop. I have nothing against a little marketing, but I found it odd that a nondescript retail space would be the first impression the owners would want to make on a patron. This is especially puzzling given the rest of the building is so richly appointed with wood, brass and vintage Pennsylvania brewery signs and photographs. Two gorgeous and personable young ladies were at the hostess station and after a brief conversation, I proceeded to the bar.

Ottos smoked chicken thighs
Smoked chicken thighs

Being noon on a Sunday, the restaurant was just beginning to attract a crowd, allowing me to converse with the bartender. He informed me they were currently offering 14 of their own brews on tap and recommend the Nittany Mountain American Pale Ale after I had described what style of beer I was looking for. An Indian Pale Ale would have fit my description a little better, but since they were out of their IPA the APA filled in nicely. The color was a bit darker than one would expect from an APA and the nose was a bit light, displaying just hints of spice and citrus. The finish was clean with a moderate, bitter after taste. Over all, well-balanced and a good choice to serve with food. In fact, it was clean and light enough to drink without accompanying food. While enjoying the first ale I checked out the menu and saw quite a few interesting items. The restaurant has made a commitment to local producers and feature numerous ingredients from the area, even listing their names on the menu. I settled on In House Smoked Chicken Thighs ($6) as a starter and a Smoked Brisket Cheesesteak ($11) sandwich. Several sides were offered with the sandwich and I settled on the fresh-cut fries, just to see if they knew how to make them properly. The chicken thighs arrived with the habañero-mango sauce as ordered, accompanied by celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. The thighs were awesome, having a deep smokey flavor yet remaining moist on the inside with crisp skin. However, the habañero-mango sauce was a bust. It exhibited none of the distinctive habañero taste and the color was red rather than the orange you would expect from an item made with mangoes. Unless the chef is familiar with xanthan gum, I feel fairly confident in stating this was a commercial bottled sauce and is simply not worthy of being served with the thighs. At least the celery was very fresh and had no dried or browned ends.

Ottos Smoked Brisket Cheesesteak
Smoked Brisket Cheesesteak

The “cheese steak” arrived shortly and I was surprised to see a total lack of presentation. When all you see is the brown from bread and fries and there are pieces of onion on top of the bun, it doesn’t exactly get the juices flowing. All they would have had to do is uncap the bun or throw a pickle on the plate to give it a little color. Fortunately the sandwich tasted better than it looked. The locally baked roll was fresh, warm and had a slight crust. The peppers and onions were fresh and nicely cooked if a bit haphazardly cut. The brisket was flavorful but slightly overcooked so that it came across as shredded beef rather than sliced. One of the joys of a properly cooked brisket is the slight chewiness it normally has but was lacking here. I could clearly taste the locally produced sharp white cheddar, but it would have made more sense to place in on top of the meat rather than below where it couldn’t be seen. I’d give the fries a 5 out of 10. The cooks clearly know how to blanch the potatoes unlike some restaurants I’ve been to lately. However, they were cut from very small potatoes, leading to very few fries over an inch or so in length. They also had sat too long after frying (likely under heat lamps) so they lacked the texture of a freshly fried potato. Unlike many frozen commercial fries, fresh-cut ones cannot sit very long after cooking. The conception of this restaurant and menu is great but the execution shows a lack of attention to detail, a fact which is surprising given quality of the beer. Any brew master knows that attention to detail is crucial to maintain quality and consistency. Someone needs to teach this concept to the kitchen staff.
Otto's Pub & Brewery on Urbanspoon

Highwaters Grill, Mill Run PA

Low Tide at Highwaters Grill

Highwaters Grill, located on Mill Run Road (RT 381) between Mill Run and Ohiopyle would appear to be a winning concept. Casual barbecue located a few miles from one of the highest volume rafting rivers in the country seems like it should be a sure bet, but the only winners here are the owners at the expense of the customers. My first stop at this restaurant was for some quick take out on my way home one evening from Falls City Pub. The menu was a rather confusing chalkboard located to the side of the ordering window. I ordered a half rack of ribs ($12.50) and was informed that a choice of two sides were included. When I inquired what sides were available, I was told rather rudely to “look at the menu”. Now, if there were a dozen sides offered or if there were other people in line waiting to place orders, I could understand a bit of impatience on the part of the employee. However, only five sides were listed and there was no one else waiting. Menu at Highwaters Grill, Mill Run PAWould it really be too much to expect the girl to simply say “corn, slaw, fries, onion rings, or beans”? Anyway, the order arrived in a flash and I was off to home with the ribs, corn on the cob and cole slaw. The ribs were slathered with a nondescript commercial sauce, the brand of which I couldn’t identify. The ribs appeared to cooked okay, but were oddly lacking in taste. I thought at the time perhaps they were simply overpowered by the sauce. The corn was fresh and sweet, but I found the slaw to be as tasteless as the ribs. I was willing to cut some slack on the slaw as it had sat in a box with the ribs and had warmed up. I wasn’t happy with the meal, but it wasn’t so bad that I wasn’t willing to give them another shot. About a week later I made another trip down the mountain, arriving shortly after 6:00 PM. There was a server there, but she was busy talking to a table of friends. When she finally acknowledged me, I was informed that since “no one was in town”, no food was available, only ice cream. Needless to say, I wasn’t overly thrilled with this turn of events. I made one last attempt several weeks later, this time ordering the Combo which is a ½ rack of ribs with ½ a chicken at $22.50. For those of you a bit slow with math, that means they’re charging $10 to add ½ a chicken to the rib dinner! And this from a “restaurant” that is basically self-service. I ordered the meal sans sauce, so that I could taste the meat and took a seat on the deck where I noticed they were giving away draft beer, hence the “free Solo cup” on the sign out front. BBQ sauce at Highwaters GrillI also spotted the 5 gallon buckets of BBQ sauce, so the brand they used was no longer a mystery. My meal soon arrived, and naturally it was covered in the Ken’s Sauce, so I had to send it back. The corrected order arrived promptly and before even tasting it I could tell there were problems. It was clear from just looking that both the ribs and chicken had been cooked hours earlier and had been held in an overly moist environment. The ribs had been grilled off first, but the holding had completely robbed them of any residual crispness the charring had provided. Upon tasting them, it seemed as if they had been held in water as they were soggy and tasteless. If they had been rubbed or marinated, it was no longer apparent as all the flavor had leached out. In addition, the membrane had not been removed from the ribs. This is a mistake I can often live with, but in this case since the ribs had been charred, the membrane split and left unappetizing blackened shreds on the underside of the meat. The chicken was as tasteless as the ribs and also was totally lacking in crispness, which was a shame as I could tell that at one point it had been properly cooked. Both the ribs and chicken were barely warm, leading me to question how they were held prior to service. The slaw was as bland as the first time I tasted it and the beans appeared to be straight from a can. After taking only one bite of each item, I simply got up and left. I honestly cannot think of a single positive thing to say about this meal, and at $22.50 it is clear the customer is being taken. The best BBQ joint I know, Big Mike’s in Smithfield, charges $15.99 for the same meal, and at Mike’s it’s REAL BBQ. I really cannot even imagine a sorrier excuse for BBQ than what is served at Highwaters Grill.
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Berkey-2

The Venerable Berkey Creamery

Penn State University has certainly had more than their share of scandal lately. However, it is important to remember that for every Michael Mann or Jerry Sandusky there are hundreds of dedicated alumni who fill the world with good deeds. Two of these are the late Jeanne and Earl Berkey, formerly of Somerset, PA. In addition to their local works such as Laurel Arts, the Berkeys are perhaps best known for their $3M gift to PSU to aid in construction of the Penn State Food Sciences building which houses the famous Berkey Creamery. Previously known as the State College Creamery, it is the largest university creamery in the nation. The Creamery’s Ice Cream Short Course, first offered in 1892, has instructed generations of ice cream makers, including both Earl and Jeanne Berkey and a couple of obscure guys from Vermont known as Ben and Jerry. 4.5 million pounds of milk pass through the stainless steel tanks at the creamery and are turned into processed milk, cheeses and of course ice cream. The ice creamed produced here is of premium quality, with a butterfat content of 14.1%. All ice cream must have at least 10% butterfat and super premiums like Ben and Jerry’s can reach 16%. Berkey CreameryThe butterfat is what gives the ice cream it’s richness and mouth feel. On my recent visit, I naturally had the Paterno Peach, named of course after Jo Pa. The ice cream had the richness and mouth feel one would expect from a premium product. The chunks of peaches had enough acidity to keep the ice cream from being cloying. I was tempted to order a second cone, but my waist line forbid me from doing so. Keep in mind, it’s tradition that you cannot order two different flavors on one cone, a rule that has been broken only once, and that by a President of the United States, Bill Clinton. The ice cream can also be purchased in half gallons, packaged appropriately in plain blue and white containers reminiscent of the spartan uniforms worn by the football tem. The store can assist in packaging the ice cream for take home, even supplying dry ice to keep it frozen. I opted instead for several packages of cheese curd for the trip home, thinking it a better match for my Labatt. For the uninitiated, cheese curds are the solid part of curdled milk which is the first step in the cheese making process. They are milder and softer than the cheese which it would become if pressed and aged. The store also sells a limited selection of sandwiches and snacks if you’re not in an ice cream mood. If you visit State College the Berkey Creamery is a must stop, but if you go on game days be prepared for a long wait as they sell several thousand cones on these days.
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Breakfast at Befdord Diner

Bedford Diner, Bedford PA


My recent PSU road trip brought me through Bedford, PA and to the Bedford Diner for breakfast. They are located on Route 222 just off of the Bedford exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and are easy to spot due to the huge sign out front and equally huge letters on the building itself. Bedford Diner, Bedford PAAlthough the building is not of typical diner construction, the interior layout is, having counter seats, booths and lots of stainless steel. White boards above the back counter advertise the daily specials, most of which are “all you can eat” and feature local favorites like ham pot pie. The breakfast menu is a bit larger than most as evidenced by the four varieties of pancakes served. I spotted country ham on the menu and had hope that since the menu also offered a ham steak I might have actually found a restaurant with the real thing. I ordered it along with eggs over easy, home fries, and toast ($6.95) accompanied by a side of scrapple ($1.60). Alas, the restaurant was out of country ham, so I must continue my search for the real deal. I settled for sausage, lowering the price of the meal to $4.95. While waiting for the breakfast, I scoped out the array baked goods, all of which appeared to be house baked as advertised. The pie safe didn’t contain those impossibly high meringue pies traditional in diners, but there were numerous other pies along with some huge cakes garnished with fresh fruit. My meal soon arrived and I was immediately struck by the scrapple which was a massive, thick slab that had been deep-fried. I’d heard of deep-fried scrapple before but this my first experience of eating it. I found it surprisingly good. The outside was very crisp and it was cut thick enough that the inside remained moist and creamy. The rest of the breakfast was not quite as successful. The sausage had a good flavor, but it had been cooked ahead and it had dried out from the holding. I had ordered the eggs over easy, but they arrived medium and were on their way to hard. The potatoes, although fresh, were cut so thin they fell apart into tiny pieces. Overall this was not a bad breakfast, but they clearly need more attention to detail. Cooking an egg properly is a basic skill that no diner can neglect.
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Eggs Benedict at Kitchen on Main

Revival of Brunch at the Kitchen on Main

There was a time when the term brunch had a completely different meaning than it does today. If you go to a restaurant advertising brunch now, what you expect is a pig-out buffet which just happens to have a few pedestrian breakfast items offered in addition to the standard offerings. Previously brunch consisted of an á la carte selection of elegant egg dishes typified by the classic Eggs Benedict, and accompanied by libations such as Bloody Marys and Mimosas. This traditional version of brunch is getting harder to find, but a new restaurant in Ligonier has stepped up to fill the void. Kitchen on Main is savvy enough to use the term breakfast as opposed to brunch, eliminating the endless questions from confused patrons such as;”Where’s the buffet?” In addition to breakfast, Kitchen on Main also serves lunch, but it’s the egg dishes that makes the trip to Ligonier worthwhile. The restaurant has an open kitchen design, so I selected a seat at the counter where I could check out the action. Like their sister restaurant Out of the Fire Cafe, Kitchen on Main is a BYOB establishment.Bloody Marys at Kitchen on Main BYOB at Kitchen on Main means Build Your Own Bloody ($4), as they offer tomato juice and the ingredients to make your own Bloody Mary, or in my case a Ruddy Mary (made with Boodles Gin). The menu and Bloody Mary “fixin’s” were swiftly delivered by a friendly server and I immediately decided on the traditional Eggs Benedict ($10) from the four Benedicts offered. In addition, the menu lists several omelets, egg tacos ($11) and a smoked salmon hash ($11), which is made from the salmon smoked at Out of the Fire Cafe. The diner can also order standard breakfast items such as eggs, waffles and pancakes along with a few items for kids age 10 and under. My Eggs Benedict arrived in a flash due to the old restaurant trick of pre-poaching the eggs and then re-heating them to order. This process may sound strange to the home cook, but it is really the best method for volume cooking poached eggs. The supremely fresh eggs were perfectly poached and sat atop what was billed as country ham, but sadly was not. This is the second restaurant I’ve eaten in this month that appears to be unaware that country ham refers to a specific type of ham which is cured and has a distinctive taste. I was a bit disappointed, but the ham served was quite good and in no way detracted from the dish. The English muffin, which the eggs and ham were perched on, was clearly fresh-baked and instead of the usual toasting, it was browned on a griddle, giving a nice buttery crust. The Hollandaise sauce was nearly perfect, needing only a bit more lemon juice to make it so. The consistency of the sauce was perfect and it exhibited no signs of breaking. The Benedict was accompanied by “homefries”, a moniker which seems inadequate to describe what was served. These “homefries” were perfect, tiny rounds of fingerling potatoes fried with fresh sweet red peppers and onions, and were easily the best potatoes I’ve eaten for breakfast in this area. I think a different name should appear on the menu so the diner doesn’t assume they are getting what other restaurants call “homefries”. I finished my meal and was sorely tempted by the freshly baked Pecan Sticky Buns ($4 for 6) which had been staring at me all morning, but I didn’t think they would go well with the horseradish laden Ruddy Mary I was still working on. A few reviewers have suggested Kitchen on Main is over priced, but to make that statement a diner would have to be totally unaware of what they were eating. This was easily the best breakfast (or brunch) I’ve eaten in years and the 20 mile drive to Ligonier will pose no barrier to many return trips.
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