Friday, December 26, 2008

Rock Out with Your Cock Ale

Trup: Nay, nay, no more sobrietie than will do us good; but that's all one. Look ye, Mr. Spruce, for your wine I don’t love it; and for your ale ye have not a drop in London worth drinking; that's the short on’t.

Spr: How Mr. Trupenny, not a drop worth drinking? Did you ever taste our cock-ale?

Trup: Cock-ale? no; what's that?

Spr: Why there you shew your ignorance. Look ye, sir, I lay ye five pound you shall say, ye never tasted the like in the country.

~ The Woman Turned Bully (1675)
Attributed to Aphra Behn

With a recent post on a 300-year-old drink called negus, I intended to reach back into the misty past of drinking history. Rick Stutz over at Kaiser Penguin has stretched just a bit further with a recipe for Cock Ale. Yeah, with a real cock. Well, a chicken, anyway. The farm-to-table crowd argues about just such semantics.

As an erstwhile homebrewer and incorrigible book hound, I know that recipe well. My thoroughly annotated college-era copy of Charlie Papazian’s old Complete Joy of Homebrewing and its infernally bad index is dog-eared from once-constant reference. Papazian lifted it from Edward Spencer who yoiked it from Eliza Smith whose The Complete Housewife was the first cookbook published in America. The recipe’s been around.

Until Rick’s post, though, I hadn’t known of anyone actually making it. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m leery of flesh in my cups—bacon-infused bourbon and whatnot—but anyone setting a mug of cock ale in front of me will soon be faced with an empty mug. By all reports from the 17th and 18th centuries, the stuff was eminently quaffable.

The inclusion of animals in beverages is an old, old practice (whole or parts, live or dead), but has faded almost entirely away. Brewers weren’t the only ones in on the game: When Smith’s book was printed, personal stills were already popular both in North America and England where, in fact, one of the duties of a responsible wife was managing the household still. Cock water was a natural. Also snail water, but we’ll let that one slide.

The practice may be on the ropes, but it hasn't faded entirely away. Del Maguey released, as part of its single-village bottlings of Mexican spirits, Pechuga, a triple-distilled mescal distilled with a chicken breast suspended in the still. The stuff is pricey when you can find it, but I admit I’m curious.

Until I score a bottle, I have this recipe, typical of the mid-18th century, from a handwritten household recipe book once in the collection of Chef Fritz Blank, but now at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I included it in Moonshine, it was primarily as an historical curiosity. Might have to rethink that after prodding from a Penguin…

Cock Water

Take a red Cock from ye Barn’s door, pull it, take out ye Intrals & break all ye Bones, have in readiness of Rosemary, hops and Broad Time each 1 handful, red Pimpernel 2 handfuls, Raisins of ye Sun ston’d half a pound, Dates pick’d and ston’d a qtr of a pound, Currans wash’d and rubb’d dry a pound, Canary sack 2 qts; first lay most of ye herbs in ye bottom of ye still, then put in ye Cock, lay the fruit all about it, put ye rest of ye herbs over it, & pour ye sack in by ye sides, cover and past it close, begin the fire betimes & keep a constant heat under it. You may draw somewhat above 3 pints of very good; mix and sweeten if with Sugar-Candy to yr Liking.

Goes well with:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gift of the Negi

Hogsheads of honey, kilderkins of mustard,
Muttons, and fatted beeves, and bacon swine;
Herons and bitterns, peacocks, swan, and bustard,
Teal, mallard, pigeons, widgeons, and in fine
Plum-puddings, pancakes, apple-pies, and custard:
And therewithal they drank good Gascon wine,
With mead, and ale, and cider of our own;
For porter, punch, and negus were not known.

John Hookham Frere (1817)
Prospectus and Specimen of an Intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket in Suffolk, Harness and Collar Makers

~ ~ ~

In 1817 when Frere gushed on about a Christmas feast set before King Arthur in his mock-heroic Prospectus and Specimen, porter, punch, and negus were all the rage among his English audience. Two hundred years on, you have your pick of porters at any well-stocked bottle shop while punch—whether milk, planter’s, or Hawaiian—is hardly in danger of extinction.

The preparation of negus, however, though not wholly unknown to savvy imbibers, has fallen into neglect. Like eggnog, the port wine-based tot is a seasonal affair, creeping out of its obscurity once the veil of winter has descended, letting us know that Christmas is on us.

With the nation vexed by inclement weather and even sunny San Diego beset with cold nights and biting showers, when bamboo freighted with rain arcs nearly to the ground, what’s called for is liquor. And why not a mug of hot wine to send warming tendrils of boozy nutmeg goodness throughout the body? A mug? Make a Thermos full if you’re feeling punchy.

Through my early drinking years, port was linked in my mind inextricably to the English who, especially in the works of Dickens, seemed to guzzle the Portuguese fortified wine with alarming frequency. As far as I was concerned, they could keep it. Too sweet, too strong, it called to mind overpriced Mad Dog.

I’ve since learned two things. First, I had been sampling crap port—less porto than wino. Second, it turns out that, just as sweet tea explains itself best in the complementary presence of vinegar-based barbecue sauces, port shines in the company of other things—England’s justly famed Stilton cheese, for instance, or mellow cigars. As the British lieutenant-colonel Francis Negus* (d. 1732) discovered, port marries handsomely with citrus and spices. For three hundred years, the drink bearing his name has been almost an exclusively British concern. According to Oxford University Press’s 1894 The Dictionary of National Biography,
It is related that on one occasion, when the bottle was passing rather more rapidly than good fellowship seemed to warrant over a hot political discussion, in which a number of prominent whigs and tories were taking part, Negus averted a fracas by recommending the dilution of the wine with hot water and sugar. Attention was diverted from the point at issue to a discussion of the merits of wine and water, which ended in the compound being nicknamed ' negus.'
There are other origin stories, but all surround this same Francis Negus. A majority of 19th-century texts, while allowing for variants, go on to concur that a proper negus calls for five ingredients;
  • A large measure of port wine
  • Lemon
  • Sugar
  • Boiling water
  • Nutmeg
Lemon is occasionally supplemented with orange and nutmeg with cinnamon (or more exotic ambergris). Unlike glögg, Glühwein, or mulled wine—revitalizing hot nips from northern climes—negus is made hot by the addition of boiling water rather than heating the wine itself. Wouldn’t want to lose all that Brumalian ethanol to the open air, after all.

So there you have it—wine, lemon, and sugar mixed together, heated with the addition of boiling water, and dusted with nutmeg. As ancient a yuletide beverage as you’re likely to find—And its health benefits are not to be denied: in The Gentleman's Magazine (1822), John Sinclair recommended negus on sea voyages to lessen "the puking."

I offer you two personal negi here, and no puking: one in the style of Mrs. Isabella Beeton (who presented a weaker negus intended for drinking “at children’s parties”—way to go, Mrs. B.) and another after M.E. Steedman, writing for more manly constitutions. Though Beeton’s recipe is the more widely disseminated, Steedman’s is the better. Both are sweet by modern tastes, so feel free to ease your foot off the sugar pedal. Their original recipes and proportions follow.

Negus in the Style of Mrs. Beeton
for a Brace of Victorian Children

4 oz. port (Sandeman Founder’s Reserve)
a wide swath of lemon peel (no pith)
½ oz. lemon juice
1 oz. sugar (demerara if you’ve got it, white if not)
8 oz. boiling water (plus extra for heating the mug)
fresh nutmeg to taste*

Pre-heat a sixteen-ounce ceramic mug or other container by filling it with boiling water. Toss the water once the mug is warm to the touch. Add the lemon peel, lemon juice, and sugar and muddle together. Add the port, grate in a dusting of nutmeg, and top off with boiling water. Cover or close until slightly cooled, then dish out into separate smaller mugs.

Yield: 12 oz

Negus in the Style of Steedman
4 oz. port (Sandeman Ten Year Tawny)
a wide swath of lemon peel (no pith)
½ oz. sugar (demerara if you’ve got it, white if not)
4 oz. boiling water (plus extra for heating the mug)
fresh nutmeg to taste*
1-3 drops vanilla extract, optional
(alternately, one or two of essence of ambergris, if you’re feeling flush)

Yield: 8 oz

Pre-heat a ten-ounce ceramic mug by filling it with boiling water. Toss the water once the mug is warm to the touch. Add the lemon peel and sugar and muddle together with a splash of port if necessary. Add the remaining port, grate in a dusting of nutmeg, and top off with boiling water. If using the vanilla or ambergris, now’s the time to add it. Give it a stir and drink when it’s cool enough to down.

Nutmeg: The prodigious amounts of nutmeg called for in older recipes don’t necessarily indicate a fanaticism for the taste (“Oh, them old-timey cooks spiced up everything really high ‘cause the meat was rotten.”). Consider another reason—We’re accustomed to fairly high turnover in spices, but in 1723, 1891, and even 1958, a nutmeg could be years old by the time it reached our ancestors. Quite simply, much of the aromatic oils had dissipated by the time they reached the kitchen or bar, so it was necessary to oomph up the volume to wrest much taste from old dry spice. Feel free to de-oomph it to your own preferences now that we have access to less vintage provisions.

Pronunciation: Everyone familiar with it is agreed that the port wine-based drink is pronounced nay-gus. Everyone except William Makepeace Thackeray who informs us, by way of Edwin Hewett and W.F. Axton in Convivial Dickens (1983), that it’s nee-gus. Nay-gus seems more likely, but given the British penchant for surprising pronunciations (even of my surname among blood relatives in those parts), I wouldn’t rule it out at this juncture.

Original Recipes

Isabella Beeton (1861) Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
To Make Negus

1835. To every pint of port wine allow one quart of boiling water, ¼ pound of sugar, one lemon, grated nutmeg to taste.

Mode. – As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to ¼ lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar in the lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled little, it will be fit to use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but it is more usually made of port than of any other beverage.

Sufficient. – Allow one pint of wine, with the other ingredients in proportion, for a party of nine or 10 children.

19th Century bon vivant Jerry Thomas—as near to a patron saint of cocktails as Americans come—steals his negus recipe verbatim from Beeton’s Book of Household Management (though, to be fair, so did dozens of writers: recipe plagiarism is an old and well-honed craft and poor Mrs. Beeton has been shamelessly plundered; she may, in fact, have done some negus plundering herself).

William “The Only William” Schmidt, however, gives a few takes on it in his 1891 bartending guide The Flowing Bowl, one with port and another with claret (the English term for red Bordeaux wines):
394. Negus.

This beverage is of English origin, and there very highly estimated; it derives its name from its inventor, the English Colonel Negus.

Put the rind of half a lemon or orange in a tureen, add eight ounces of sugar, one pint of port wine, the fourth part a small nutmeg–grated; infuse this for an hour; strain; add one quart of boiling water, and the drink is ready for use.
395. Another.

In other countries they are used to take lighter wines. The recipe follows: put two bottles of claret, two sticks cinnamon, six cloves, a little pulverized cardamom, a little grated nutmeg, and a half a pound of sugar, one which you have previously rubbed the rind of a lemon, on a slow fire; cover well, and heat to the boiling-point; strain through a hair-sieve; add one pint of boiling water, and the juice of one and a half lemons, and serve in strong glasses, that are first warmed. [all sic]

M.E. Steedman (n.d. c 1890’s) Home-made Beverages and American Drinks gives us a more fortified version:
Rub 3 oz. of loaf sugar on to the rind of a lemon, pound it, and add to it a pint of port, a quarter of a small nutmeg grated, a pint of boiling water, and if liked one or two drops of essence of ambergris or rather more of vanilla. Serve hot.

Jerry Thomas also offers bubbly version:
Soda Negus
A most refreshing and elegant beverage, particularly for those who do not take punch or grog after supper, is thus made:

Put half a pint of port wine, with four lumps of sugar, three cloves, and enough grated nutmeg to cover a shilling, into a saucepan; warm it well, but did not suffer it to boil; pour it into a bowl or jug, and upon the warm wine decant a bottle of soda water. You will have an effervescent and delicious negus by this means.

George IV’s Negus

Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictum regarding port comes to mind: “Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” And if one commingles port and brandy? Surely such a drinker must aspire to majestic heights of masculinity. From the premier issue of the The Portfolio of Entertaining & Instructive Varieties in History, Literature, Fine Arts, Etc. (1829) comes this blurb about a massive negus made for the Hanoverian King George IV.
ON Monday last the magnificent wine cooler manufactured for his Majesty by Messrs Rundell and Bridge, was, with his Majesty's approbation, filled with port negus at the manufactory in Dean-street that the workmen employed in its construction might toast his Majesty's health on the completion of their work.

This splendid vase weighs 6950 ounces, and contains 38 gallons. There were used in making the negus sixteen gallons of old port, one gallon of brandy, eight dozen lemons six dozen nutmegs, and 20 lbs of loaf sugar.
What's interesting to me about this one is the addition of the brandy—and the lack of any mention of boiling water. Perhaps it merely assumed, given the not quite double capacity of the vessel compared with the volume of the listed ingredients, but knowing a fair number of workmen myself—and the seeming absence of the king during the toasting—I wouldn't be shocked if it had been omitted entirely. Tuesday last might've been a painful day for those toasters...

The Academy of Ancient Beverages
Negus isn’t the only venerable Christmas drink around. Short of milking a cow right into the syllabub bowl, here are some others to get your yuletide motor turning...


Sunday, December 14, 2008

M’Harry’s Holland Gin

In 1809 Pennsylvania distiller Samuel M’Harry published his Practical Distiller, a small tome intended to set forth, as plainly as the language of the time allowed, directions for American distillers using the materials available to them to create American spirits and, in some cases, to emulate spirituous liquors from abroad. The book was, in not very subtle ways, very pro-American.

At the same time, M’Harry sought to clear away the myths and secrecy surrounding distilling and to advance it as an understandable science rather than a mysterious process that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. His techniques and recipe styles—even if improved upon by later advances in still designs—informed American moonshining for the better part of two centuries.

His recipes for working with corn, rye, apples, and peaches would be as familiar to Appalachian moonshiners even into the 1970’s. They can be forgiven if his buckwheat spirits failed to continue in American folk distilling. I’m curious about it myself, but have not yet come across even modern home distillers who are experimenting with buckwheat. Perhaps it was a Pennsylvania thing.

His recipe for “Holland” gin—that is, the jenever or genever coming back into tentative vogue—gives an idea of how distillers these 200 years ago sought to emulate popular foreign liquors with very local ingredients (remember, Pennsylvania has long been rye country).

How to make a resemblance
of Holland Gin out of Rye Whiskey

Put clarified whiskey, with an equal quantity of water, into our doubling still, together with sufficient quantity of juniper berries, prepared; take a pound of unslacked lime, immerse it in three pints of water, stir it well—then let it stand three hours, until the lime sinks to the bottom, then pour off the clear lime water, with which boil half an ounce of isinglass cut small, until the latter is dissolved—then pour it into your doubling still with a handful of hops, and a handful of common salt, put on the head and set her a running; when she begins to run, take the first half gallon (which is not so good), and reserve it for the next still you fill—as the first shot generally contains something that will give an unpleasant taste and color to the gin. When it looses proof at the worm, take the keg away that contains the gin, and bring it down to a proper strength with rain water, which must previously have been prepared, by having been evaporated and condensed in the doubling still and cooling tub.

This gin when fined, and two years old, will be equal, if not superior, to Holland gin.

The isinglass, lime water and salt, helps to refine it in the still, and the juniper berries gives it the flavor or taste of Holland gin.

About thirteen pounds of good berries are sufficient for one barrel.

Be careful to let the gin as it runs from the worm, pass thro’ a flannel cloth, which will prevent many unpleasant particles passing into the liquor, which are contracted in the condensation, and the verjuice imbibed in its passage thro’ the worm.

* Yeah, yeah: the genever bottle label is from the wrong century. It's one I picked up for a pittance at a paper ephemera show a few years back. It is, however, the kind of label that would have been printed in bulk and slapped on—gasp—American emulations of foreign spirits.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Criminal Matt and the Bitter Bidders

It’s 5:09am and here I am again at the airport, wrapping up another work week in Florida on a complex project with a tight turnaround and lots of moving parts. Long days, not nearly enough sleep, barely any time to answer personal emails. A folder marked with the topic and my name seemed especially to fit my mood: How can an entire week go by without committing some kind of crime?

But there have been a few great moments: eating some fantastic meals in Kansas City on the way here in a Calvin-Trillin-let’s-pick-up-something-to-eat-on-the-way-to-lunch type of approach; a mouse barreling into a meeting leading grown women to shriek and, quite literally, jump onto chairs, and a whole “free” afternoon one day (tip: do not “peek” at your email before an anticipated nap unless prepared to deep-six plans for said nap).

An then a linguistics lesson—I’ve been reminded that Americans are not as precise in some pronunciations as we’d like to think. Years ago, a friend from France pointed out that Americans often pronounce T’s as D’s. Take, for instance, the word “little.” Many Americans seem to pronounce it as “liddle” but we almost all understand the meaning.

Now take “bitters.” As are more and more people these days, I’m a fiend for cocktail bitters—even dosing my morning orange juice with Angostura and making many of my own batches. In the midst of a procurement analysis, talk of “bidders” is fast and loose. It’s testament to my drinking geekery that talk about “the most qualified bidders” still gets my instant attention followed immediately with the slightest of fallen crest.

With all the smoke breaks folks take, I’m thinking a cocktail break is much better suited to conducting bidness in Florida. With a splash of bidders—the most qualified, if you please.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bookshelf: Pickled

A popular conceit holds that only the freshest in-season foods should grace our tables for proper, healthful and, let’s face it, morally sound meals. Unchecked, such policies might leave us bereft of such preserved pleasures as martini olives, colonial-era rum shrubs, country hams, lowcountry atjar, chow-chows, and pickled okra to grace bloody mary cocktails. Lucy Norris soundly plugs this philosophical bunghole with Pickled, her paean to the brined, fermented, and otherwise mildly rotten foods we can’t live without.

Pickled weaves oral histories gathered for New York’s NY Food Museum project among some eighty family recipes documenting ethnic picking traditions. The celebrated pickles of Eastern Europe’s winter larder—dills, beets, sauerkraut—bob to the surface, but Norris successfully dips deeper for fried dills, watermelon flesh (the other watermelon pickle), Korean kimchis, pickled fish, and preserved lemons.

Whether you regard them as summer in a jar or corruption in the cupboard, do yourself a favor: Make pickles before winter sets in for good. None of Norris’ recipes holds universal appeal—pickled duck tongues, anyone?—but the book is a gem for sensible cooks willing to buck a trend that implies pickles are déclassé, too much trouble or, worst of all, just plain make you a bad person.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Barkeeper’s Favorite Weapon

Incidentally, in my youth the bung starter was the barkeeper’s favorite weapon. Most whiskey was sold from barrels, so at least one was to be found behind every bar. Time after time, when the unmistakable sounds of riot came from the saloon next door, I have looked on the scene from the safety of the rear entrance—our store and the saloon shared a back porch—and watched one of the Wolf brothers in magnificent action, conquering the field with a bung starter. By the time the police arrived, only an ambulance was needed.

By and large, I’m content with my bar gear—copper pans, strainers, funnels, a fancy-ass mandolin, zesters, shakers, two-liter jars for infusions, and an array German, French, and American knives deck the kitchen walls and cabinets. As the collection metastasizes into the living room, there are julep cups, brandy snifters, bottles for homemade bitters, cordials, and ratafias, and several shelves of cocktail books. Honestly, it’s more than anyone truly needs at home.

But I’m missing one tool: a bung starter.

You heard me: a bung starter. Before aluminum beer kegs, barkeeps kept an oversized wooden hammer for removing the wooden bung that plugged the, um, bunghole. Quit your sniggering. With a barrel on its side and facing up, this little maul would be tapped on the outside around the bung to drive it, bit by bit, up out of the round hole so a spigot could be inserted to dispense the precious liquids within. Sometimes bungs eased out peaceably. Other times, they blew off explosively with a spray of beer. Eyes were probably lost, maybe even widows created. Whiskey and vinegar barrels got the same treatment.

I want one.

It’s not that I have any wooden barrels around the place needing their bungs popped. Nah, it’s more mundane than that. Because mint juleps are nearly our house drink, we go through a fair amount of crushed ice. And if it’s not for a julep, crushed ice comes in handy for a variety of other drinks, not least of which is the Painkiller, a rum and fruit juice concoction that likely has caused as much pain as it supposedly relieved.

As it stands, I’ll put whole ice cubes in a canvas bag not unlike a small pillowcase. Fold over the top. Wail on it with a rolling pin. Some folks use the gripping end of a big muddler (I’m looking at you, Thomas Waugh). Others use a household hammer, though I find too much risk of its edges ripping the bag. A rolling pin is—meh—an ok workaround. A fleischklobber for flattening meats could work, but I'm trying to avoid meat/cocktail cross-contamination these days.

Both David Wondrich and New Orleanian Chris McMillian have ice mauls that would make Thor flush with envy. While McMillian may wax lyrical over a mint julep as he reduces his ice to submissive little shards (see below), I’ve seen Wondrich thunderously hammer away, shattering ice into into submission as he worked into a maniacal sweat to keep up with demands of thirsty revelers.

That’s what I need: a broad surface to avoid inadvertently ripping the bag, wood with a touch of malleability to it, and enough weight that the whole thing swings like a dream.

Chris tells me that his source has dried up. Any woodworkers out there up for the task of a custom order?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: Gumbo Tales

When you consider that brown liquor
defined my childhood as much as, say,
snow days and sunburns did,
my predilection for the Sazerac
begins to look predestined.

~ Sara Roahen

During Tales of the Cocktail this past July, Mike McCaw and I mosied up to a table where a lithe young woman was talking to all comers and mixing Sazeracs and brandy old fashioneds for any who cared to sample. Bottles of brandy, whiskey, bitters, and the local anise spirit Herbsaint were at the ready, though running low, as the hordes of reveling attendees wound down Cocktail Hour.

Suddenly, she went wide-eyed. “Oh my gosh! Did that guy just steal my book?” Sure enough, the russet-and-red hardback she had authored with its cover of a time-worn cocktail sign was now nowhere to be seen, nor was the unsteady admirer who had been thumbing it moments before. That week, with the Hotel Monteleone was awash in premium swag, some thieving cad absconded with Sara Roahen’s personal copy of Gumbo Tales.

Just because the thief was in his cups doesn’t mean he was wrong. In fact, he might have made off with one of the choicest take-aways in the hotel. If New Orleans has ever been good to you, then take his lead and beg, borrow, or steal buy a copy of Gumbo Tales without delay.

Roahen, a Wisconsin transplant, has proven her food chops—as a line cook, restaurant reviewer for the New Orleans weekly Gambit, board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and, tenaciously, in her attempts to trace Wisconsin’s brandy old fashioned cocktails back to the Sazerac through an anonymous Mississippi riverboat captain.

She has written a book at turns both gut-wrenching and bust-out-loud funny about finding her place at the New Orleans table (and, apparently, not a few bars). In the process, she wrestles with defining gumbo, boiling live crawfish, the city’s seeming disinterest in vegetables (unless breaded, fried, cooked down, or dressed up with crab, ham, sausage, and cheese), its cult-like following of Hansen’s sno-balls, its robust St Joseph’s Day feasts, po-boy sandwiches, and an influx of newcomers, learning how and why, as she does, to remain in that postdiluvian city.

Those of us interested in the drinking and food cultures of New Orleans savor classic cookbooks such as Lafcadio Hearn’s 1885 La Cuisine Creole for shedding light on the origins of creole cooking. Others help explain the growth of both creole and Cajun cookery, such as Paul Prudhomme’s 1984 Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen or John Folse’s recent encyclopedic tomes on South Louisiana cookery (all of which, by the way, contain an abundance of recipes for alcoholic beverages, sips, and nips from absinthe drips to brandy milk punches).

Roahen’s book belongs on the same shelf, though it is something else. For one, it has no recipes. Like the city itself now, Gumbo Tales is defined by what some have called the federal floods, but which many just call Katrina. Here, the floods are both a lens for examining, and a touchstone that unites, everyone with connections to the city.

Katrina doesn’t mean just the 2005 hurricane itself, but also its evil twin Rita. It means the broken levees, the flooding, the deaths, the harrowing devastation, the political ineptitude, the broken families, and displaced lives that followed the storm and which continue to affect daily life in the city. All of that is enough to make even courageous constitutions turn to drink.

Listen to her take:

Earlier this week, from my car, I saw a man walk past a water-stained sofa that someone had hauled to the curb weeks ago. He got a few feet beyond it and then doubled back to arrange two of the sofa’s cushions that had gone askew. My throat tensed at this small gesture toward fixing our overwhelming mess.
Your throat may tense while reading Gumbo Tales, too. Mine did. It also prodded me to mix a Sazerac, made my mouth water, my stomach growl, and the walls echo with belly laughs as she readily points out her own foibles and outright lies:

No one but my kindergarten teacher flinched when at six years old I mentioned my desire to become a cocktail waitress when I grew up.
Or, in an effort to convince a reluctant Vietnamese restaurant owner that she was a seasoned trencherman:
I eat duck blood all the time.
Concerning a certain New Orleans fascination with a revered sno-ball queen:

Most of her followers do not want to date Ashley Hansen. We want to be her.

Some have said “Let New Orleans sink. It’s their own fault for living there.” The first chapter alone lays open that imbecilic rationale that could only be meant by those who’ve never been or, having been, never left the French Quarter and who know it only as a modern Gomorrah of tacky t-shirts, cirrhotic livers, hustles, and corruption.

To think that way is to say that humans are all teeth, toenails, and elbows. Yes, of course, we have those things—and what would we be without them?—But that’s so laughably far from reality nobody could seriously believe it.

Intentionally or not, the book is an eloquent argument for why the Crescent City is worth saving. Even after the storms, it remains one of the most vibrant cities in the United States (I’m not unbiased: my own mother recently referred to the place as “your beloved New Orleans” so take my endorsement with a grain of rice). Read the book, but when you’re done, put it away and high-tail it to New Orleans. Go for the first time, go for the tenth time. Just go.

Though she denies Gumbo Tales is a guidebook, a newcomer to the city or an inquisitive visitor who wants to get to know the place more intimately than a casual conventioneer does could do worse than to get a map, a highlighter, and a notebook to mark out, neighborhood by neighborhood, a hit list of po-boys, sno-balls, esoteric cocktails, bakeries, miscellaneous eateries, and watering holes.

New Orleans is one of the world’s great culinary destinations because of the people who love it so much. Roahen nailed it when she writes that people love the city as they love a person. And few have captured its residents’ obsessions with eating and drinking more poignantly and lyrically than a transplanted Midwesterner who has embraced the New Orleans table with the zealotry of a convert.

Sara Roahen has found her place.

Goes well with:
  • As I mentioned, the book has no recipes, but I buy the argument that they don’t fit, that they might derail the narrative flow. Sara Roahen has collected them, however, and you can email her for those. Check out for her blog, new photos, and contact info. Signed copies are available here, but she'll even personalize inscriptions for you if you email her.
  • In this KCRW interview, Roahen offers this morsel: “Once you respond well to someone’s cooking, you are a friend of that place for life.” [Scroll down to the bottom of the linked page for the whole thing].
  • If gumbo is your thing, check out The Southern Gumbo Trail, a Southern Foodways Alliance oral history project that profiles a mess of the cooks and places mentioned in Gumbo Tales.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Earl’s Obituary

Earl (c.1994-2008), a grey domestic shorthair cat, was found dead Saturday, November 8th after a brief and wasting illness in San Diego, California. He is survived by Rowley and Morpheus, neither of whom particularly likes cats, but both of whom were inordinately fond of this one.

We picked up Earl at a Philadelphia animal shelter when he was about three years old and slated for euthanasia. For the next eleven years, he was our constant and pathologically affectionate companion who nosed his way into laps, onto chests, under blankets, and anywhere a warm body would tolerate him. He was practically a poster critter for the argument that—with attention and care in a good home—shelter animals respond with seemingly boundless love.

He was as dumb as a trunk of mittens. He cried incessantly in the morning when he wanted to be fed, even when his bowl held plenty of food. As often as not, he came away from the litterbox smuttynosed, with four or five grains of litter stuck to it. The pronunciation of his name bedeviled our friends from Colombia and Mexico who didn’t get the feeble and unoriginal pun of naming a grey cat Earl. At bedtime, he went completely apeshit, running through the house, sliding into walls and attacking feet, paper, and gym bags with his soft little clawless paws. The only trick he almost mastered was not to go outside when we left the door open.

But he was our cat and we loved him.

I’m writing this in North Carolina, en route to a two-week gig in Florida. The hours will be long and will not lend themselves to posting much here. Once I’m home and back to my bars, I’ll toast him with that New Orleans obscurity, the Obituary Cocktail. For this, I’ll finally crack open my single bottle from the first commercial run of Lance Winters’ St. George absinthe. I'd been saving it for a special occasion. Now seems right.

(Earl’s) Obituary Cocktail

2 ounces gin (Bluecoat or Plymouth, gins that won't fight the absinthe)
¼ ounce St. George absinthe verte
¼ ounce dry vermouth

Stir well with cracked ice until, like an earthquake, the drink turns opalescent; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. I don’t garnish much and neither should you. Certainly not here.

Failing that, I’ll go full-bore maudlin Paddy on him and break out the Irish, neat.

We miss you, old man.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

If I Had a Hammer: Ratafia aux Noyau Just in Time for Christmas

God bless Michael McGuan.

McGuan, our neighborhood wurstmacher at the San Diego restaurant The Linkery, emailed not long ago to say that he had collected a container full of peach pits for me. Unfurl that brow—this is hardly on par with saving last week’s Penny Saver or a clutch of candy bar wrappers. This was an actual favor, something that would have taken me a whole season of snarfing down cobblers, pies, crumbles, grunts, slumps, betties, smoothies, ice cream, and sangria. On a restaurant scale, however, such a collection of peach pits doesn’t take nearly as long. And, as they were destined for my house, they were wed with alcohol once they got here. Naturally.

Peach pits, also called stones and bunkers, have more value than might seem obvious at first blush. In a variety of forms—charred, split, still adhering to fruit flesh, fresh, dried, etc—they have long been added to moonshine, brandy, whiskey, and other distillates for the amber color and peachy-almond flavor they can impart.

Even more appealing are the kernels once those pits are cracked open. Peach kernels (noyaux in French) taste and even look a bit like small almonds. The smell strongly suggests both almond extract and fresh marzipan. That almond taste is readily surrendered to alcoholic solvents for a cordial with a decidedly old-fashioned taste of almonds and vanilla. Recipes for noyau, ratafia aux noyau, and crème de noyaux abound in older American household account books, recipe books, and homemade beverage collections where they almost always go by the French name. One still finds them in contemporary French cookbooks.

So, let’s make a batch!

Oh. Wait. Forgot something. Peach kernels, along with those of apricots, plums, cherries, and other members of the extensive family Rosacea, contain cyanogenic glycosides. Big whoop, you say, I need a drink, Pops, not a chemistry lesson. I hear you. Lord knows I’m not an environmental chemist, but those who know about such things say that on ingestion, these glycosides break down into prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide (HCN), a substance listed under Schedule 3 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Right there, smack dab on your bar cart.

You might recognize hydrogen cyanide as the primary component of the German gas chamber extermination agent Zyklon B. So, no fooling, crème de noyaux carries an element of danger.

Now, do you want to make a batch? I do. In small doses, noyaux does not seem to have ill effect—New Orleans Creoles have reputations for many things, but regularly keeling over from cyanide poisoning with a cocktail glass in hand is not among them. As Erik Ellestad writes over at Underhill Lounge in regard to apricot kernels, “Please take anything I say here as simply conclusions and choices I have drawn for myself. Make your own choices and draw your own conclusions.” I couldn’t agree more.

From the 4th edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1910), here’s the original recipe and proportions for this old New Orleans classic:
Peach Kernel Ratafia
Ratafia aux Noyau de Peches ou d’Abricots
¼ pound each of peach or apricot kernels
4 pints of brandy
2 ½ pounds of sugar

2 pints of water

Pound the peach or apricot kernels – some also pound peach stones – steep them for one whole month in four pints of brandy in an earthen jar, and at the end of that time add a syrup made of two and a half pounds of sugar and 2 pints of water. Mix all well together, and then filter as directed above
[sic: below], and bottle and seal, and keep in a cool, shady place.

Ratafia aux Noyau is one of the standing Creole drinks, that is most agreeable, the taste being of a delicate vanilla and almonds combined.

A note on procedure: Peach pits are hard and cracking them takes some force. I use a hammer and rap the bunkers firmly on concrete outside until they split in half, then just pry out the kernels. Hammer the pits on a cutting board and you'll just deboss their images into the wood. I heard someone might have done that one time. If you like, put them in a towel before hitting to contain any flying bits, but controlled smacking should prevent peach shrapnel.

I cut the recipe in half (not for lack of brandy, but for the limited amount of kernels) and am macerating the crushed kernels and half their stones cracked and crushed into small bits in a brandy bottle. Come December, I'll add the syrup, let it mellow bit and see what we get. Here's hoping I don't take a big dirt nap...

Also from the same edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book:
How to Filter Cordials and Ratafias.

The filtering is of the utmost importance. A good home-made filter may be improvised by fitting pieces of felt into a funnel, very closely. Some use flannel, but the felt is far better. Filtering paper is sold by all druggists. Put the funnel in the mouth of the bottle, fit in the paper, pour in the mixture and let it filter slowly. Again, others use the ordinary brown or white paper, but this allows the aroma to evaporate, and the taste of the paper clings to the cordial. If you wish the cordial to be very transparent, take very dry, clear, transparent isinglass, and cut it very, very thin. Then dissolve it with white wine until it is perfectly liquid. Put it into bottles and preserve for use. When needed, coat the inside of the strainer with this, using a light brush or sponge. It will form a glue around the funnel. Pour the cordial or liqueur through this, straining several times, again and again, until it becomes perfectly transparent. Strain it the last time into bottles, and seal very tight. You will then have a clear, limpid cordial or liqueur that will not have lost its aroma by evaporation.

This simple method may be understood by even a child, and homemade cordials are not only very delightful, but far less expensive than the imported ones. Always have the Cognac as old as possible.

Goes well with:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Two Loves Don't Equal a Happy Marriage

A few weeks back, I mentioned that, unlike other cocktail enthusiasts, I declined to contaminate my finest bourbons with bacon.

Odd, right? I mean, I dote on bacon. In fact, tonight's dinner will be BLT sandwiches since the local tomatoes are still good. Hell, I've even cured my own bacon. And bourbon? Don't get me started. It ain't just patriotism that keeps me stocked up with a robust inventory of that most American of commercial spirits. You'd think the two would go together like a hand and glove.


On seeing Don Lee's video of making a Benton's old fashioned, Morpheus said "Man, that sounds delicious." So, in a moment of weakness, and in the spirit of experimentation and camraderie, I snagged a bottle of Four Roses yellow label Straight Bourbon and cooked off a batch of some of Allan Benton's sublime bacon. Following Lee's instructions, I made a batch of bacon-infused bourbon.

I feel like I've woken in a stranger's bed, one arm pinned beneath a smokey, booze-breathed hound sawing logs, and uncertain of how to extricate myself. Brother, I'm here to tell you, don't believe the hype of bacon-infused bourbon. The saddest part of this errant tale is that a perfectly good bottle of bourbon was ruined.

I admit that I liked the second sip more than the first. But as a thumbnail sketch of a choice between two evils, sip #1 and sip #2 do just fine.

However, all is not lost...the entire bottle of Four Roses was not graced with the porcine kiss: I decanted about six ounces before introducing the bacon fat. Had some straight, some over ice, some with a splash of water, and some, gloriously, in a proper old fashioned. For those who know 4R as a low-end bargain brand, the spirit seems to have undergone an upgrade in the last few years.

Now, it's true that I keep a lot of bourbon around. But there's always one or two bottles of what I consider the current "house" bourbon that balance drinkability and price for overall value. Over the years that's been Maker's Mark, Bulleit, and Eagle Rare. Four Roses, you have earned the place of honor. What a delicious whiskey. And at $19.99, it's worth snagging a bottle for cocktail experimentation.

Just keep it away from the swine.

The cheapest I've seen this whiskey is Hi-Times Wine Cellar.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review: In Praise of Poteen

Throughout the book
I have spelt the word ‘poitín.’
This is the correct Irish spelling;
the reason for the emasculated
‘poteen’ on the cover
is my publisher’s idea.

~ John McGuffin
In Praise of Poteen

During the Troubles (Na Trioblóidí), those tragic years not so long ago when Ireland nearly tore itself apart in armed conflict, Irishman John McGuffin penned a lighthearted tribute to that most Irish of spirits, whiskey poitín. In light of the armed and bloody conflict going on, McGuffin’s sly humor comes across as almost subversive in its ability to appeal to audiences on either end of the conflict as he weaves together anecdotes about illicit distilling.

Among Americans, even American distillers, a popular notion holds sway that the illicitly-made poitín is nothing more complex than fermented and distilled potatoes, which Ireland has in great abundance. No doubt, it can be, and has been—I’ve met Irish distillers who related convincing methods for wresting liquor from spuds—but potatoes are not the easiest thing to convert to spirits, and authentic poitín has been made of barley, oats, and other grains for centuries before taters put down rootlets in Irish soil. Barley recipes are particularly venerable. But a lack of grains doesn’t mean it’s not the real McCoy. As with American moonshine, now very old recipes call for sugar, either granulated or as treacle.

McGuffin knows this all too well. In fact, in one “grain bill” he gives us:

At least four stone of oranges
8 pounds of sugar (brown)
1½ ounces yeast
10 gallons of water
“When properly made,” he assured us in 1978, “it doesn’t taste too bad.” Looks like there was at least a gallon of the stuff to go around once all was said and done. As anyone who has made a custom of sampling clandestine liquor since then can tell you, McGuffin admits that some poitín is rubbish, while other examples clearly outshine “parliament” (that is, tax-paid) whiskey.

I had heard while traveling in Ireland that the Troubles were hard on the moonshine trade. McGuffin elaborates. Distributors hauling illicit whiskey in carts, wagons, and—later—cars and trucks have always used subterfuge to slip the product past guards, into towns, in markets, and even courthouses. The Troubles and the violence they entailed changed the way that the Gardaí (the police) looked at suspicious vehicles and behavior. Routine search-and-seizure gambits gave way to more serious investigations into suspicious activities. Autos and lorries on the roads were more likely to be searched, especially near the border with Northern Ireland, since the contraband might just as easily be arms and explosives as a drop of home-distilled whiskey. Hauling a load of empty bottles? Who’s to say they are not for Molotov cocktails rather than homemade liquor? Across the border, local constabulary and the British Army were also on the hunt as vehicles were examined with dogs and mirrors on poles. Under such scrutiny, many haulers decided the time was right to get out of the business.

If it’s straight-up recipes and detailed how-to you’re wanting, this isn’t the book. The few recipes included serve as embellishments to stories about Irish whiskey, its illegal production, its history, and the cat-and-mouse games of diversion and detection between distillers and Gardaí who pursued them. Overall, his rueful tale is one of a craft in retreat except in remote areas long known for an appreciation for “the cratur.” Given the importance of Irish folk distilling in shaping the tenor, methods, and even vocabulary of American moonshiners, however, it’s an important read for understanding the parallel rise of folk distilling on these shores.

Buy it: Appletree Press released a new printing in 2002 that is available from Amazon and Amazon UK. Or, if you're in Dublin, drop by the massive Hodges Figgis (56-58 Dawson Street, Dublin 2) and score a copy.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Brandy, Smokes, and the Queen of Jam

The past two weeks have been ultrabusy with work. Just how busy? Until last night, I hadn’t had a proper cocktail in almost two weeks. No after-dinner eau-de-vie, no splash of bourbon, no swizzle, corn ‘n’ oil, or absinthe drips. Sadly, not even a snifter of Calvados before bed. [Edit 10/25: there may have been some single malt moonshine—let's not get carried away, after all, with this idea of a hooch-deprived pity party]

Late yesterday afternoon, cocktails and I got reacquainted at bargain pricing.

This Thursday found me—mirabile dictu—completely done with work by 10am, so I embarked on some inconsequential personal errands. A half-gallon of Trader Joe’s milk was last on the list. Well, but then I wanted a bar of dark chocolate for a cake I intend to make this weekend (using the cream soured—on purpose—Tuesday), and the TJ wine selection is always engaging. Time to grab a little hand basket. On reflection, some beef marinated in red wine would be good on the grill with an armload of the feral rosemary that grows nearby, so I got some low-cost bottles (nothing over $14) and then started wending my way to the register.

That’s when my freakishly acute peripheral vision picked up an unfamiliar color pattern in the liquor section. I turned, leaned down, and saw a double row of Jepson’s “Rare” alembic brandy. I remember thinking “Huh, that’s kinda high-end for Trader Joe’s” —and then noticed the price: $19.99. Quickly, I glanced to both sides, suddenly as furtive as if I had found a wad of cash on a barroom floor, and tried as best I could to block that section of the shelf so nobody else could see while I worked out the next steps.

For $2 less than a bottle of Absolut vodka at the local BevMo, I could snag a 750ml bottle of California brandy that normally retails for around $34. In two trips to the store that day, I bought enough to last us the rest of the year...Which year, I’m not saying.

Straight up, the nose of this alembic-distilled brandy is noticeable from about two feet away. And what a lovely nose. The taste is mildly sweet, but rounded, and reminds me of vanilla, honey and, faintly, cinnamon with some oak to it. It’s a smooth, very drinkable California brandy made of Colombard grapes (a Cognac varietal) and aged in Limosin oak. Although the label doesn’t specify, the 80-proof spirit averages about six years. It's lovely at $34, but at about 40% off that? It's a steal.

Fancy talk, but how does it hold up in one of my favorite brandy drinks, the sidecar cocktail? Just hands-down delicious. That’s the drink that sent me back to the store for more (see below for the sidecar recipe).

But before that, I decided to enjoy a lazy moment and pulled a chair to the patio table under the bamboo, clipped and lit a stogie, then cozied up to Mes Confitures, an amazing book on jam- and jelly-making by Christine Ferber, the Alsatian chef dubbed “la fée des confitures” by the French press. “The Confiture Fairy” doesn’t quite work for me, so I willfully mistranslate it as the Queen of Jam. If your French is so-so, Michigan State University Press issued a translation in 2002. If you are at all into making your own jams and jellies (blood orange marmalade sours, remember, are frackin’ delicious), do yourself a favor and score a copy of her book.

Once another slow day rolls around, her gelée à la bière et aux épices (that’d be a spiced beer jelly to you and me) looks like it would be a mighty tempting afternoon experiment.

I’m the meanwhile, I’m up to my gills in brandy for cocktails and chi-chi rumtopf. Now that I’ve bought as much as I ought to, it’s safe to tell you Californians (Trader Joes, inexplicably, doesn’t ship) to score a bottle or three.


Squeeze lemon juice into a bowl. Dip the rims of the glasses you intend to use in this, then rim in granulated sugar (demerara, white, bar sugar, whatever suits your taste). Mix and shake with ice equal portions of strained lemon juice, brandy, and Cointreau (one ounce of each makes a manageable size, but feel free to scale up), then strain into the rimmed glass. Down it before the blush of ice is off.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Santa Maria Tri-tip

Donner? Party of 12?
Your table is ready.

As the Smiths song has it, meat is murder. According to a recent verdict in a British court case from Yorkshire, it is apparently delicious, cannibalistic murder. It seems that a former Mr. Gay UK had been convicted on charges of murder, and of cooking and eating at least a portion of another man. One can't be too careful about those offers to come for dinner.

I do my part to keep human flesh consumption to a minimum. Even so, we don’t eat as much meat as I did growing up in Kansas City—where any meal without a bit of flesh seemed like we got stiffed—but we are far from vegan.

Since moving to California, one of the area’s dishes I’ve come to appreciate is Santa Maria barbecue. This variety from the central coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco uses tri-tip, a vaguely triangular piece of beef cut of beef that is infrequently found in the US beyond the state's borders. Cooked Santa Maria style, tri-tip is bathed in a marinade of salt, pepper, garlic, and occasionally other spices, and then slowly grilled over red oak.

Now, because it’s grilled and not smoked slowly for hours, it’s not barbecue as we understand it when we eat in places such as Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, or nearly anywhere in the Carolinas. California is far enough away from those other places, though, that those living there shouldn’t get their backs up about it.

The seasoning I use when grilling tri-tips is your standard Santa Maria spice mixture, except that because lemon trees are so common here, I include dried, powdered lemon peel that I make myself once a year when concocting my annual batch of fish house punch (that calls for a quart of fresh, strained lemon juice).

If you don’t have tri-tip, you’re not out of luck. It turns out that the seasoning works very well with flank steaks, tenderloins, and other beef cuts as well as pork cuts you would normally grill.

As for manflesh? I shall leave that and its preparation to your discretion. As with moonshine and home-distilled liquor, it is prudent to obey local laws.

Santa Maria Tri-tip

For this, I used a mild canola oil because an assertive olive oil taste would throw off the flavors of some great beef, but do as you will. The beef itself should not come very fatty, but trim off any huge hunks of fat, leaving enough to help the marinade along as it slowly cooks over the coals.

1 small handful of garlic, peeled
½ cup canola oil
2 Tbl coarse sea salt
1 Tbl whole black peppercorns
2 tsp powdered dry lemon peel
3.5 lbs tri-tip, trimmed of outrageously excess fat

Put the ingredients (except the beef) in a food processor or blender and blend until the mixture is emulsified and fairly smooth. It is not necessary to make a completely smooth and homogenous mixture. Smear the mixture all over the tri-tip. Place the meat in a zip lock bag or a nonreactive bowl and let marinate in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.

About an hour before grilling, let the meat come to room temperature.

Sear the fatty side over direct heat, then the other side, about 3-4 minutes per side.

Cook over indirect heat about 20-25 minutes (it’s to an internal temperature of 120-25 Fahrenheit). Let the tri-tip rest 10 minutes and slice thinly against the grain.

Note that the traditional accompaniment to this is a small dish of the small ruddy pinquito beans one finds up the coast. I'm lucky since I can get them at our local farmers market. But they can be tricky to find outside California. As you can see in the photograph here, sometimes I just throw some vegetables on the grill for the last several minutes of cooking.

Goes well with:
  • Rancho Gordo's pinquito beans. Check out their website and if you like the look of these little buggers, order a few pounds. They also sell Christmas lima beans, vaqueros, borlottis, red nightfalls, and other tricky-to-find beans.
  • Peter Greenaway's 1990 film, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover in which Michael Gambon's despicable Albert Spica gets a mouthful.
  • Ravenous (1999) starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, and the inestimable Jeffery Jones. A tale of meat in California.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pork and Pumpkin, Part 1

With the notable exception of succulent, succulent swine, pumpkin is just about my favorite thing to eat in the Autumn. Snuggle those up together and you’re onto some serious good eats.

Consider pork & pumpkin posole with a dollop of crema and a scattering of minced raw onion and cilantro; or, for tacos or burritos, shredded pork shoulder in a puckery tomatillo/chipotle sauce with chunks pumpkin flesh; what’s not to like about creamy pumpkin soup studded with pork meatballs, laced with smoked paprika, and spiked a with a dash of sherry vinegar?—these are the things that get my motor revving on brisk fall days.

Not, of course, that it gets terribly brisk in San Diego, except in the few hours before dawn. But the winds this time of year are enough to make me crank the oven and churn out a succession of stocks, stews, soups, and other savory hot dishes.

Last night we grilled some pork tenderloins (the usual method, with a simple marinade of garlic, black pepper, salt, lemon juice, and oil) and dropped down a side of pumpkin, the second time plying pork and pumpkin in as many nights.

The seasoning for the squash is one I use a lot for flanken-cut pork ribs, but it worked pretty damn well with a firm-fleshed pumpkin. I snagged a flat, ribbed French variety at our neighborhood farmers’ market, but any sugar or “pie” pumpkin will do, just avoid those big jack-o-lantern jobs as they are too stringy and watery for eating.

Half-Slab Pumpkin

2 lbs pumpkin
½ cup honey
5 Tbl oyster sauce
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp crushed red pepper
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper, coarse grind
5 star anise, whole

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Peel the pumpkin and use a spoon to scrape out the inner fibers and seeds. Set aside that sloppy mess if you feel like toasting the seeds later. Cut the pumpkin into thumb-sized slices.

In a 9”x13” Pyrex baking dish, combine the remaining ingredients. Toss with the pumpkin slices. Bake about 40 minutes, or until the pumpkin is tender, giving it a gentle stir now and then to turn the pieces over and distribute the syrup. Serve hot. With pork, natch. Or, if you’re not down with swine, rice.

Also, since Morpheus is on the road for a week as of 5am today, Chez Rowley is now officially a bachelor pad and I'm indulging in swank bachelor grub (i.e., leftovers eaten over the sink). First up was breakfast this morning: cold grilled tenderloin, sliced on the bias and topped with a bit of cooked half-slab pumpkin. I call it Bachelor's Brushchetta. It might just be lunch, too, if I fish out some bitterballen from the freezer.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Poitin Fails to Induce Rowley Coma

My family is not a whiskey making family, but we are, in large measure, Irish; that is, we are a whiskey drinking family.

After years of tracking down modern American home distillers and old-school moonshiners, I jumped at an unexpected opportunity not long ago to visit Ireland and look into poitíners, transatlantic cousins to our own whiskey-makers.

Making poitín, as homemade whiskey is known in Ireland, is a dead or, at least, a dying craft. Everyone I spoke to about moonshine in Belfast and Dublin confirmed it. Eccentric old men, they allowed, may tend dubious and antiquated mountain stills, but nobody actually drinks the stuff.

Then I went out west.

Within four hours of arriving in Sligo on the island’s western fringe, I had been offered local whiskey by my cab driver, two men in the first pub, a musician in the second, and the owner of the third. By night’s end, two men who initially maintained they knew nothing of poitín shared recipes and revealed a suspiciously savvy knowledge of distilling techniques. In western Ireland, it seemed, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without knocking over a bottle of white mule.

Just as with moonshine, misunderstanding, hearsay, and outright lies regularly obscure truths that a simple round or two of fieldwork would reveal. Much of passes for hard facts is absolute twaddle passed on from one gullible non-distiller to another, neither of them able to tease fact from folklore or just storytelling embellishments. Take, for instance, this from the BBC:
'Oh, my God I Think my Throat is on Fir...' These were the last words of a foolish man after drinking a small tot of poitín. If you ever drink it, which you should not, do not drink more than a thimble full. After drinking a lot of poitín, it is possible to pass out and stay passed out for a few days. Those that do this will have a frightful headache and should not drink anything in the morning, as that will just get them drunk again without doing anything for the headache.

Drivel. Of course you should drink homemade liquor if you trust the source, though, as with any strong alcohol, moderation is key to staying vertical (and, let’s face it, sources are not always to be trusted). But home-distilled spirits are not some magical potions that induce comas. Refusing a drop of whiskey would have been rude. Missing that drop would have been a shame: as clear as water, smooth, with polished notes of barley, the work of an artisan.

If, in your travels, profession, or avocation, you should come across homemade spirits, do try some. Be aware that not all of it is good, but some examples are near nirvana.

Variant spellings

Poitín, which refers to the "little pot" in which clandestine spirits may be made in Ireland, is an Irish word pronounced roughly "put-cheen." In English, you are apt to find it spelled potcheen or poteen (though feisty Irishmen have referred to such spellings as "emasculated"). Commercial examples do exist—though, being made and sold openly, they could hardly be called the real McCoy, whatever merits they might otherwise possess.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Brandy Stew

Fending off a bit of a head cold right now and craving soup. Which is weird because the days are unseasonably warm here in San Diego and hot soup seems out of place. Most likely, I'll pull some stock from the freezer, brown off some brisket, onions, and carrots, then add barley, sherry, chiles, and some dried mushrooms. That and a loaf of bread will drop me like an ox.

I am tempted, however, by an old New Orleans "infallible cure" for a cold. This brandy stew, from the fourth edition of The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook (1910), is part of a collection of "cooking for invalids" recipe file I began after throat surgery a few years ago left me unable to eat solid food for several days and the thought of more ice cream, gelato, and sorbetto made me shudder.

Brandy Stew (Cognac Chaud a la Creole)

1 Glass of Fine Old French Brandy [2 ounces]
1 Tablespoon of the Best Butter
3 Tablespoons of Sugar
1 Teaspoon of Ground Cloves
¼ Teaspoon of Grated Nutmeg
½ Teaspoon of Ground Cinnamon and Allspice

Have a nice porcelain-lined saucepan. Melt the butter and sugar over a clear fire, blending well, and adding almost immediately the ground cloves, cinnamon and allspice. Let it stew slowly and add the brandy or good old Bourbon or Rye whiskey very carefully, so that it will not take fire. Stir well and let it bubble up once or twice, and then take off the fire and add the grated nutmeg.

This is a very delicate stew, and is offered to the sick and those suffering from severe cold. It is held as an infallible cure for a cold in twenty-four hours.

Hot Stews of Whiskey, Rum, Gin, Claret, Sherry, Madeira or Port Wine may also be prepared the above ancient formula.

Hot spiced port is on the same page. Sometimes it's good to be sick.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Revenuer Memoirs

Sheriff said…
“Kotex hell, Lizza,
you can eat oatmeal
like the rest of the prisoners.”

~ Joseph E. Carter,
Retired Special Agent
Damn the Allegators

I’ve been called a Yankee, which is not entirely unreasonable if you listen to my accent, though that’s so hard to pin down that I’ve been taken for a local in places as diverse as New Orleans and Amsterdam. I’ve also been taken for a law enforcement agent because of my close-cropped hair and lines of inquiry that tend to deal with illicit liquor.

Neither is true.

Some distillers, though, have assumed—because I am sympathetic to illicit whiskey and folk distilling and because I like a drop of home-distilled beverage on occasion—that I surely must despise cops. Not as rule.

In fact, if it weren’t for active and retired law enforcement agents who put me on the trail of allegedly retired moonshiners, I would have had a much tougher time writing about American moonshine. Cops tend to be great storytellers, especially when it comes to the cat-and-mouse games of wily distillers whose sheer audacity sometimes stymies belief.

Revenue agents, empowered since the 1860’s to “protect the revenue” of the US, have a long history of writing down their stories, sometimes in journals that have been squirreled away in attics, basements, and closets across the country. Along with them are photos, posters warning of poisonous moonshine, and other memorabilia from the days when hunting moonshiners was a priority.

A few revenooers have published their stories as books or articles in “I remember”-type columns in local papers about tax-dodging moonshiners. I’ve been trying to track down as many as possible, hunting not just bookstores and online sources, but museums, archives, libraries, historical societies, etc. A few to get you started if, like me, you’re interested in both sides of the argument that rendering unto Caesar isn’t a practice universally beloved.

Atkinson, George (1881) After the Moonshiners. Frew & Campbell, Wheeling, WV.

Carter, Joseph E. (1989) Damn the Allegators. Atlantic Publishing Company, Tabor City, NC.

Kearins, Jack J. (1969) Yankee Revenoer. Moore Publishing Company, Durham, NC.

Stapleton, Isaac (1948) Moonshiners in Arkansas. Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, Independence, MO.

Weems, Charles H. (1992) A Breed Apart. Atlantic Publishing Company, Tabor City, NC.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Rowley Down with Swine, Lard

Even to two Southern boys like us,
it was a shock.
Lard seems as outdated as
a wood-burning stove,
as risky as a quart of moonshine…
Today, most Americans would sooner
smoke unfiltered Camels
while riding a motorcycle without a helmet
than eat lard.

~ Matt and Ted Lee

Pigs are intelligent animals, prolific, curious, and, from a distance, adorable. But more than anything, from trotters to tail, pigs are delicious.

Though I refrain from contaminating my finest whiskeys with rendered bacon fat as some inexplicably do (see below), a bloody mary tarted up with a rim of Allan Benton’s cooked and pulverized bacon is a meal in itself.

In fact, I am so down with swine that I make my own lard in a big cast-iron Dutch oven. Turns out, the stuff is not nearly so deadly (except to pigs) as nutritionist thinking has led us to believe, so when James Temple’s article came out in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle praising that very essence of piggy deliciousness, I was happy to see what he had to say on the subject.

But my jaw dropped at the inexplicable waste included in a lard-rendering recipe from Staffan Terje, executive chef at Perbacco in San Francisco. Terje’s recipe as reported goes like this:

In a large pot, add about 2 quarts of water and the [five pounds of] ground-up fat. Bring to a simmer over low heat. Continue to simmer for about 6-8 hours over very low heat, about 170°. Add water when necessary so that there is 1-2 quarts of water in the pot at all times. This ensures that the fat does not burn.

So far, so good, though the water forebodes something sinister. He continues:
Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth and into a large glass bowl or transparent plastic container. Discard solids.

Discard the solids? WTF? In rendering lard, discarding the “solids” is tantamount to wasting one of the best parts. The solids, also known as cracklin’s or grieben (if rendering duck, chicken, or goose fat), are crisped bits of skin and flesh that make delicious additions to salads, to sandwiches (John Thorne turned me on to duck skin po-boys), and to breads when folded into the dough.

Easiest thing? A chef’s treat that might, in fact, never make it out of the kitchen: strain the solids cracklin’s from the liquid fat, drain them on a paper towel, and toss them while still hot with salt. Get fancy and drizzle it with cane syrup if you like.

Alternately, toss them in the batter the next time you crank out a batch of cornbread. Don’t have a favorite recipe? You may notice the Southern pedigree in this one, given its lack of sugar and lardy deliciousness. I’ve adapted it slightly from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s sour milk cornbread recipe in The Gift of Southern Cooking:

Cracklin’ Cornbread

1 ½ c finely-ground cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 ¾ c buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½-1 cup pork cracklin’s
2 Tbl homemade lard*

Preheat the oven at 450°F/230°C. When the oven comes to temperature, combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl large enough to allow some vigorous stirring. Add the buttermilk and eggs and stir to create a smooth batter, free of lumps. Fold in the cracklin’s.

Add the lard to an 8” cast-iron pan and place on the middle shelf of the heated oven. When then lard melts, take out the pan and swirl it gently (this is hot, hot, hot) to cover the bottom and sides of the pan, then pour the excess lard into the batter and listen to it sizzle. Give it a few stirs to fully incorporate the fat, then pop it back in the oven. Cook about 30 minutes (maybe a little more) until the top is golden and it pulls away from the sides.

Cut in to wedges and serve hot.

*Use butter if all you have is processed snow-white store-bought lard: I wouldn’t feed that stuff to a hog.

Goes well with:

Lastly, one of the most cherished provisions in my fridge is the occasional package of Allan Benton’s bacon or country ham

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 Hwy. 411
Madisonville,TN 37354
Phone (423) 442-5003