The life of a food critic is not all white tablecloths and fawning service and foie gras for breakfast. Take it from me, folks, sometimes I do these things so you won’t have to.
Occasionally it becomes necessary to follow a food trend wherever it takes us, even when it takes us down a road that I would just as soon avoid.
Let us consider, then, the corn dog nugget.
As I reported in our State Fair feature in August, I feel a once-a-year craving for corn dogs that can only be satisfied with one, annual dog-on-a-stick. OK, maybe two.
But what if these crunchy, fatty delights were available year-round, as close as a familiar fast-food spot?
Enter A&W Restaurants
. These good folks have rolled out a new and seductive confection … itty-bitty corn dogs in bite-size form so you can, to borrow a phrase, buy ’em by the sack.
“A&W takes mini hot dogs, coats them in a sweet cornmeal batter and fries them golden brown,” claims the fast-food company’s Web site, www.awrestaurants.com. “They’re sure to have you reliving those great childhood memories of fairs, carnivals and amusement parks.”
I can hardly believe this, but I actually find this idea strangely appealing, in a sick, addictive kind of way. I learned of the concept one morning, and by lunchtime presented myself for duty at the New Albany A&W (2140 State St.), which shares space with Yum!’s Long John Silver’s.
The pleasant gent at the counter asked if I wanted five or eight. I inquired about the price, and we discovered, to my amusement and his somewhat agitated concern, that the system was pricing five nuggets for 99 cents and eight for $1.99. He impressed me by immediately recognizing that this was wrong … and understanding why. He offered me 10 for $2, and I said, “Sold!”
In a burst of co-branding, they came out in a Long John Silver’s logo box within an A&W paper bag. Just as advertised, they really were golden brown, sizzling ovoids about the size of … robin’s eggs? I need something more recognizable. Kumquats? Not that, either. Umm … let me get back to you on this. I munched about six of them and brought the rest home for analysis. (For the record, a typical nugget weighs 3/8 of an ounce and contains a tiny, perfectly formed hot dog within a thick corn-batter breading. A naked dog, shorn of batter, weighed in at just 1/8 ounce, so they’re about two-thirds corn and one-third dog, if you care.)
They really do replicate the State Fair experience in taste and texture, and if anything, they may be a little better because they’re made in a controlled kitchen setting as opposed to being fried by in tubs of old grease by cigarette-smoking carnies on the Midway. This results in a creditable lack of old-grease flavor and a good, crispy brown crust. They have no sharp pointy stick, so you can run with one in your mouth if you want to. And again, like the State Fair original, they make a splendid vehicle for ballpark mustard.
As long as I was on this tack, I was seriously jonesing on unhealthy, salty, fatty and delicious fast food, and swung by a handy White Castle (105 E. Market St., Louisville) to try a batch of Chicken Rings, thinking in terms of putting together an article about “Fast Foods Never Found In Nature.”
I was hoping for the Tabasco-scented version but was disappointed to learn that WC Lounge has discontinued that delectable as well as the less well-conceived Ranch Dressing Ring.
I made do with regular, a box of six or eight rings for $1.89, planning to eat a few and bring the rest home for dissection. Chicken Rings are shaped like rather flat mini-donuts, approximately 2 1/2 inches across and about 3/8 inch thick, with a 5/8-inch center hole. A randomly selected Ring weighed 5/8 of an ounce.
Rings are breaded with a not-too-crunchy fried-chicken coating mix that may or may not contain 11 secret herbs and spices, but it certainly bears a resemblance to KFC. The meat within does indeed taste like chicken, but then, so does rattlesnake.
Chicken Rings appear to be pressed out of an industrial substance (no, not Soylent Green) that, in the era of deregulation, is actually permitted for human consumption. Allow me to quote from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:
Mechanically Separated Poultry (MSP) is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue. Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since the late 1960s. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it was safe and could be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as “mechanically separated chicken or turkey” in the product’s ingredients statement.
Aren’t you glad you know this?
I carefully shaved off the breading so I could examine one more closely under a strong magnifier, and it certainly does appear to be the output of some industrial process. It has a soft, mushy texture with no long fibers, almost like an organic, edible bite-size piece of particle board.
But OK, a hot, crispy ring does taste like fast-food fried chicken. There’s no use denying it. And like all such crunchy, salty things, I can eat a lot of ’em. But somehow it all seems vaguely wrong and basically against nature.
Splendid salad at Primo
I’m a great fan of Bim Deitrich’s Primo (445 E. Market St., 583-1808), and will often schedule a business lunch there because the food is good, the mood is relaxing and I can generally dine without worrying that the proprietor, who’s been around the block enough times to have pretty much seen everything, is going to run around fretting about whether I’ve sneaked in to do a semi-anonymous review.
I’ve pretty much sampled everything on the menu by this point, but for lunch the other day I landed on a winning number that I can’t believe I hadn’t tried before. The Insalata di Mare (“seafood salad,” $13) is a remarkable assemblage designed to make the heart of a shellfish lover like me go pitty-pat.
It’s an artful, compact mound of mixed shellfish — tiny, sweet bits of scallop, earthy brown mussels, thin slices of oxymoronic jumbo shrimp and lots of chewy chunks of squid (including, for the wary, quite a few tentacly bits), neatly formed from a turban-shaped mold and served with a tart lemon vinaigrette and a piquant dose of black pepper over a small ration of salad greens. Rabbit-food lovers might complain that the greens-to-seafood ratio is high, but I’m fine with that.
Meanwhile, Primo has just unveiled its seasonal menus for autumn, featuring too many goodies to enumerate in this limited space. I see a bunch of items that I need to try, ranging from Penne Integrale alla Contadina ($18, whole-wheat short pasta with broccoli rabe, roasted garlic, purple radicchio lettuce and tomatoes) and Pappardelle alla Piemontese ($21, a Northwestern Italian-style dish of wide ribbon pasta with braised lamb ragu and Kentucky Sheltowee Farms Wild Mushrooms) to Pollo al Forno ($23, a crispy free-range chicken with balsamic butter sauce, pancetta and a wild mushroom bread pudding) and Braciola di Maiale ($26, a grilled pork chop topped with foie gras butter and fig demiglace and accompanied by an Indiana Capriole goat cheese potato gratin). There’s more, much more. I’m looking in my foodie’s crystal ball, and I see myself dining at Primo soon.
Every now and then, the good folks at Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve offer special bourbon bottlings in their high-end “Master’s Collection” series. One of these items — called “Four Grain” because it adds wheat to the usual bourbon recipe of corn, rye and barley — sold out its limited supply in just a few days last year. Four Grain, a 92.4-proof spirit “triple-distilled” in Woodford Reserve’s copper-pot stills, sells for $80-$90 per bottle at retail, and last year’s collectibles have been going for $140 on eBay, Brown-Forman publicists say.
Get ready, collectors! This week, Brown-Forman is rolling out another batch of Four Grain, and chances are it will sell just about as fast. The 2005 batch was sold only in Kentucky, while this year’s 750-case allocation goes to major metro markets in 16 states.
We acquired a small sample for preview, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a quality sippin’ bourbon indeed, smooth as silk, redolent of caramel and butterscotch and maybe a whiff of maple syrup.
It goes on sale this week. If you’re in the market, we suggest you line up early.
Speaking of Woodford Reserve, there’s no better time to visit the picturesque distillery than an October weekend, when you can enjoy a leaf-peeping tour through the Bluegrass and end up at Woodford Reserve just in time for brunch at its Dryer House Conference Center. Woodford’s Chef-in-Residence David Larson puts together a fine Fall Harvest Brunch buffet based on the local harvest. Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays, Oct. 7-Oct. 29, from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at the distillery, 7855 McCracken Pike, just off I-64 and U.S. 60 near Versailles, Ky. The toll is $21.95 per person; you can make reservations at www.woodfordreserve.com/reservation or (859) 879-1953.
Wine vs. breast cancer
Speaking of Brown-Forman, its Five Rivers Winery marks National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October with a reprise of the Save A Local Goddess campaign that it rolled out in Kentucky last year to raise $10,000 for the Kentucky Breast Cancer Alliance. For every bottle of Five Rivers wine sold in Kentucky this month, Brown-Forman and wine distributor Republic Beverage Company will donate $1 to the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington. They’re taking the program national this year, with a separate breast cancer-related beneficiary in every state.
Can you taste the innovation?
The IdeaFestival is coming up next week, and there’s a place in it for foodies with big ideas. A program called “Taste of Innovation: Taste Changers Who’ll Feed Your Mind,” will feature top local chefs, products and artisans in what organizers call “an energy-packed café” on Thursday, Oct. 12, from 4:30-7 p.m., in the Second Floor Exhibit Hall at the Galt House East. Chefs Peng Looi of Asiatique, Gerard Hampton of Buck’s, Brian Riddle of The Flagship, Jim Gerhardt of Limestone, Anthony Lamas of Seviche and Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia will “collaborate to produce food fusions across their different skills and techniques” in a program that sounds sort of like “Iron Chef” but without the competition. Admission is $10 ($5 for students), and tickets are available at the door, from the IdeaFestival Web site, www.ideafestival.com, or by calling (800) 743-3100.
Contact Robin Garr at [email protected]