Saturday, May 31, 2008

Distiller: Chuck Miller

(image by VOA)

We're making a traditional American product
and preserving a little bit of America as we do it.

~ Chuck Miller
Master Distiller
Belmont Farms

What a difference a few days makes. Wednesday I was in steamy, sultry New Orleans, the culmination of a week of work for the Museum of the American Cocktail and looking into the local distilling scene. This morning, I woke to the sight of the Hollywood Hills from fifteen stories up at chichi hotel. The panoramic view is impressive, but the breakfast hardly compares...

In catching up on the emails, I saw that Chuck Miller is in the news. Mr. Miller makes corn whiskey in the Appalachian tradition at his distillery in Culpepper, Virginia and has been doing so legally for about twenty years. His Virginia Lightning is pure corn liquor, unaged. The Kopper Kettle is a newer development made with corn, wheat, and barley, pot distilled, then then aged on oak and apple woods.

Miller was one of the pioneers that has fueled today's uptick in interest in American folk distilling and about four years back, I was fortunate to interview him for a section on legal distillers in my book Moonshine.

One of the points I was trying to make at the time was that, while I know full well that most of the distillers I've met have no intention to go into licensed production in part because they eschew even the idea of selling their makings, some had gone legit or were exploring the process precisely because they saw a business opportunity. Getting properly permitted is neither quick or cheap, but microdistillers across the country are (finally) doing it and starting to turn out vodkas, whiskeys, and gins in quantity.

Voice of America broadcasted a decent short piece on Miller (available here). So cheers, Chuck, for preserving a little bit of American tradition.

Goes well with:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion

Rowley clearly enjoys thinking about spirits
as much as he does imbibing them...

~ Anne Brockhoff

Love the free airport wifi. I'm killing time in San Diego waiting to board a plane to New Orleans and came across Anne Brockhoff's piece in the Kansas City Star about cocktail reading, Spirits & Cocktails: Good reads on the rocks. If you're a home distiller new to cocktails, it's a decent little primer about what's out and relevant from an imbibing rather than distilling angle.

If you're a cocktail enthusiast, however, she notes a fantastic little book on the history and practice of distilling that you should add to your bedside reading. Yeah, I'm a dork: it's my own book, Moonshine!

But it's not just me that likes it. Micahel Dietsch over at A Dash of Bitters said about the book:

...I kinda understood what a still does, but it wasn’t until I read this book, with its intricate diagrams and instructions, that I really started to get it. There’s something about seeing the parts, illustrated, and how they work together, that helps me understand it.
I'll take that as a mission accomplished. Thanks for the plugs, guys.


Walking to New Orleans

Well. not walking exactly.

In about ten minutes, I'll be walking to the car that's driving me to the airport. I'm headed to New Orleans for a week to help get the Museum of the American Cocktail ready for its July 21st opening (right after Tales of the Cocktail).

Of course, I'll also be visiting some of my copper-bending friends. Before Katrina, New Orleans moonshiners and home distillers, like those in San Francisco, showed a penchant for making absinthe. Now that absinthe is legal again and the floods (but not the devastation they left in their wake) are gone, it's time to see what some of my old blue flames are up to.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Moonshining in the Blue Ridge

Much of what people think they know about moonshining
is shrouded in folklore and myth.

~ James Kelly
Director of Museums
Virginia Historical Society

First, there was the Indiana exhibit The Stills of Dubois County and now from the Virginia Historical Society comes Moonshining in the Blue Ridge, exploring the cultural and economic history of illicit distilling in the Old Dominion.

The press release reads in part:

In an effort to explore the 20th century more fully, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) is hosting an exhibition about illegal alcohol distilling in southwest Virginia in defiance of the federal excise tax. Moonshining in the Blue Ridge, produced by the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College, opens at the Society on Saturday, May 10, 2008, and explores more than a century of moonshining traditions in the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Items on display in Moonshining in the Blue Ridge include actual stills, a full-size diorama of a still operation, still makers' tools, dozens of period photographs, video interviews with moonshiners and federal agents, documents, jars, and other memorabilia.

If you’re in or around Richmond, drop in and let me know how it is.

28 North Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia 23220
Mail: P.O. Box 7311, 23221-0311
Phone: 804.358.4901
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10-5 / Sunday 1-5

Thursday, May 15, 2008

You've got your music in my alcohol! Well, you've got your alcohol in my music...

Music 'can enhance wine taste'

~ BBC News

Who knew? Listening to certain types of music might affect how you regard the taste of what you’re drinking. Wait, did I say “who knew?” I think I meant “duh.”

Now, I’m no wine aficionado. Oh, I like the stuff and have plenty of bottles around the house (heavy on Champagne, malbec from Argentina, and old vine California zinfandels), but those who know me know what’re really bending the shelves are bottles of spirits — whiskeys, rums, brandies, gins, and liqueurs from around the world.

So I was tickled to see a BBC News article about a study from Heriot Watt University that suggests that playing certain types of music for university students affects their appreciation of certain wines.

The marketing implications are interesting. Professor Adrian North said "Wine manufacturers could recommend that while drinking a certain wine, you should listen to a certain sort of music." Montes Wines (known in part for its eccentric playing of monastic chants to maturing wine) even provided music recommendations for the article:
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: All Along The Watchtower (Jimi Hendrix), Honky Tonk Woman (Rolling Stones), Live And Let Die (Paul McCartney and Wings), Won't Get Fooled Again (The Who)
  • Chardonnay: Atomic (Blondie), Rock DJ (Robbie Williams), What's Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner), Spinning Around (Kylie Minogue)
  • Syrah: Nessun Dorma (Puccini), Orinoco Flow (Enya), Chariots Of Fire (Vangelis), Canon (Johann Pachelbel)
  • Merlot: Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay (Otis Redding), Easy (Lionel Ritchie), Over The Rainbow (Eva Cassidy), Heartbeats (Jose Gonzalez)

Me? I’ve always found pairing music and drink to “enhance” appreciation is a bit of a no-brainer. Some music just fits with certain drinks and elevates the entire experience of drinking them (ethnopharmacologists, when considering the expectations and surroundings of consumers, might refer to this as the "set and setting"). With tongue planted firmly in cheek, I'd like you to consider some options:

  • Who are you going to listen to with that snifter of Armagnac when the lights go down low? Barry White’s Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe or Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law?
  • For that sidecar after work when your dogs are barkin' and you want to be left alone? Billie Holiday’s slow and sultry Stormy Weather or Fischerspooner’s frenetic Emerge?
  • An old fashioned? This one's a little harder, but take your pick: a montage of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, the Gypsy King’s Spanish version of Hotel California (from the Big Lebowski’s must-have soundtrack), or Lil John's Get Low?
  • What about straight bourbon? Tom Waits’ Chocolate Jesus is a nice complement, but so is the Editor’s cover of the Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere. Take your pick of those and compare them to the Hambone Kneeslap. It's not which one makes you want to drink more, but which one allows you to enjoy your drink more.
  • Vodka and Red Bull? Lemon Demon’s Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny or the opening salvo of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana? (it's Lemon Demon, preferably poolside with all the other college students).

Any party host can tell you that some music goes and some doesn’t. So, turn on some Cole Porter, stir up some martinis, and let the witty repartee flow. Or maybe Magnetic Fields. Hell, turn up the drum n bass, house, or ambient tunes if that’s your thing. Crack open a beer and turn up the Skynyrd. Spare me the showtunes, though: Ethel Merman I don’t need in my ear when I’m watching the sun set with a dose of rye in one hand and a Brazilian hottie cigar in the other…

And, because it's a fun video that makes any drink taste just fine: Morcheeba’s Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day:


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Moonshine School Redux

To give you some perspective on the rarity of moonshine stills, the Georgia Department of Revenue Alcohol and Tobacco Division shut down only five stills statewide in 2007.
Of course, those are only the ones it knew about.

~ John Madewell

Raban County’s moonshine school is back in the news. The school, which I mentioned last month, is a training ground of sorts—and the only one I know of—for law enforcement agents from around the United States to learn first-hand the sights, sounds, smells, and (I presume since I haven’t attended) tastes associated with making illegal liquor.

And I don’t just mean tastes of the finished product; part of successfully tracking larger-scale moonshiners who make their liquor outdoors is the ability to taste a fermenting mash and be able to tell how far along it is—whether, for instance, a mash will be ready in one day or three, given the weather (when you're making outside, warm weather means a faster ferment). Knowing what a mash tastes like as it goes through its fermentation stages helps determine when to be in place to watch a currently unoccupied still site, nabbing the operator when it’s time to return for the run.

WTVC in Chattanooga’s In-Depth Look at Moonshine Making discusses the school and has two linked videos called Lessons in Makin' Shine here. Featured are Randall Deal, who has received a presidential pardon for his distilling and Tony Gallaway, who ran some shine back in the 1970’s but is now a county marshal.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bar Food: Rowley's Bitterballen

Bitterballen are the quintessential Dutch bar food. Hot, crunchy, salty, meaty; they are tastier (and more appetizing) than dried little bar pretzels that everyone at the bar has been pawing at before you. The size of small meatballs, these snappy little hors d'oeuvres are miniature croquettes (kroketten in Dutch) which are, in and of themselves, particularly beloved by the cloggies. Plus, a bar manager’s delight—they drive you to drink, hence spend, more.

If you’ve been taken with Genevieve, Anchor Distilling’s take on genever, but aren’t quite sure what to do with it, the most approachable way to introduce it to your guests is with a batch of these little buggers. A dollop of hot mustard (Dijon, for instance) is standard.

Rowley’s Bitterballen

Béchamel/White Sauce
2 Tbl unsalted butter (30g/1oz)
3 Tbl flour (1.25 oz/35g)

1 cup milk or stock (250ml) (I like to use a 1:1 mixture of the two)
Salt, pepper, and whole nutmeg freshly ground to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Make a very light roux by melting the butter in a saucepan, then adding the flour. Cook the roux, stirring until it just starts to turn golden.

Add the liquid, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, stirring the sauce until it’s smooth, using a whisk if necessary. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring often, until the mass is thickened.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Stir several ounces of the sauce into the beaten eggs to temper them, then add the new mix back to the remaining sauce. Cook the whole thing just to the boiling point, stirring all the while.

Take off the heat, add several gratings of fresh nutmeg, correct the seasonings, and set this sauce aside while making the filling.

½ c minced onion (60g)
2 Tbl. unsalted butter (30g/1oz)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1.5 cup ham, minced or ground (180g/6oz)
1 cup cooked chicken or veal, minced or ground (120g/4oz)
1 Tbl flat-leaf (aka Italian) parsley, finely chopped
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp dried thyme
¼ tsp hot sauce such as Tabasco, Crystal, or Texas Pete’s
Salt and pepper to taste

Dried bread crumbs (or panko for greater crunchiness)
2 eggs, beaten

Melt the butter in a skillet, and sauté the onion until it’s soft. Add the garlic and sauté until it’s fragrant, but not browned. Add the meats and heat through. Add remaining ingredients, including the roux, but excluding the eggs and bread crumbs, and set aside to chill.

Scoop about a rounded tablespoon of filling and shape each into a ball about an inch across. Repeat until the filling is used, setting each aside. Roll the entire batch in breadcrumbs, then dip the balls into the beaten eggs and roll once more in breadcrumbs. Allow to rest 30-45 minutes for the breading to dry some and adhere better once they are fried. Freeze any you don’t intend to use within the next day, then deep-fry the rest in vegetable oil at 350°F/177°C until they are a deep golden color. Serve piping hot with mustard and ice-cold shots of genever.

Makes around two dozen.

Goes well with:
  • Het Jenever Museum
  • Het volkomen krokettenboek, a comprehensive book of croquette recipes (in Dutch) by culinary journalist Johannes van Dam. Van Dam may contradict me, but many croquette recipes may be converted to bitterballen simply by making the shape smaller and round. Lobster bitterballen, anyone? Country ham?
  • Chef John Folse is a juggernaut of Cajun cookery. His recipe for boudin balls isn't all that dissimilar to bitterballen and would fit in just fine in a bar food snack-off.
I gotta go. I'm hungry.


Tasting Notes: Anchor's Genevieve, an American genever

…don't quit your job, but do make whiskey and genever.

~ David Wondrich, out of context

The last time I started writing about Anchor’s Genevieve, I ended up mangling my left hand. Here’s to keeping knives sharp: catch my fingers in raking light and you can tell where parts are missing, but I’m amazed at how well they’ve healed. Understandably, I haven’t been keen to approach these tasting notes since I felt they needed to be accompanied by a recipe that called for wielding the same knife.

Ah, but what the hell.

Anchor Distilling in San Francisco has made a limited release of a Dutch-style genever (also spelled jenever in Dutch) called Genevieve. Make no mistake: this is cause for celebration, not just among cocktail geeks whose clamoring for the stuff only hit fever pitch after the publication of David Wondrich’s Imbibe!, but for spirits enthusiasts in general and expat Dutch who have groused about the imports recently available in the US.

A little background: Genever is sometimes called “Dutch gin” but that’s a misnomer. While it shares some qualities of gin—notably a healthy dose juniper berries as flavoring—calling it Dutch gin is akin to saying a mint julep is akin to a mojito “only it has bourbon.” There’s more to it than that. It’s the gastronomic and cultural precursor to gin, the drink on which English distillers based their famous spirit. As such, it’s an earthier, less refined-tasting spirit. I once wrote that I’d kill someone in his sleep—in front of his mother—for a regular supply of good genever. A minor exaggeration. Seriously, though. In front of his own mother.

For our purposes, genever can be separated into two primary categories; old-style (oude jenever) or newer-style (jonge, or “young” jenever). The names have nothing to do with the age of the spirits, but with the manufacturing process. Oude jenever methods predate modern distilling techniques that allow for greater separation of ethanol from other flavorsome components in a still. Pot-distilled oude jenever, therefore, is heavier, tasting more of malted grains. Jonge jenever, on the other hand, may be made with sugar from beets or molasses and only a small portion of the moutwijn (“malt wine” in Dutch) that characterizes an oude jenever. Korenwijn ("grain wine" often translated as "corn" wine, but not necessarily made of maize) is a third category that helps inform our tasting and we’ll get to that in a bit.

I started off by pouring Anchor’s 17th-century style oude jenever two ways: room temperature and straight from the freezer. Each dose came in a small traditional schnapps glass known as a borrel or tulp (for its tulip shape—tulp in Dutch).

The nose is unmistakable. My regular sidekick, Dr. Morpheus, studied oncology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and his reaction was immediate and the same as mine: “Yep, that’s genever.” Score one for Anchor.

Looking like any uncolored gin, vodka, or white rum, the spirit is clear but has a slight oily sheen that glistens on the surface. Chilled, it gets a noticeable haze. Both room temperature and ice-cold, Genevieve’s taste is strikingly different from the American and British gins you may know. It’s got a round, full-bodied feel to it and a delicious nose-crinkling funk. The base grains—especially rye—pop. I love that. They even hit my nose before I took my first sip. Score another.

My favorite way to have jenever is straight up and chilled. If you're going Dutch, you can serve the borrel filled to the brim. In fact, when it's filled just barely bulging over the brim, the surface tension keeping it in the glass, it's what's known as a kamelenrug (a camel's back). Genevieve does nicely here. Bitterballen, the classic accompaniment, are little meatball-sized croquettes found throughout Holland, but rarely in these parts. Stay tuned: recipe's a-comin'. [edit: recipe is posted here]

For those who want to try their hands at recreating 19th-century American cocktails, this is a fantastic gin to incorporate in your drinks cabinet. In fact, that’s what Wondrich exhorts drinkers to do in Imbibe! Modern gins, he explains, are too light and crisp to properly capture the experience of the types of gins available in the US prior to the late 1800’s. See recipes at The Cocktail Chronicles and The Underhill Lounge.

There’s a bite, though, to this spirit, a hotness that I’m not wild about, that catches at the back of my throat. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate it. Far from it. But I did pull a little moue at the taste of what I found to be the lone fault of the spirit itself.

This is such a good product and I am delighted to have (about half) a bottle, but I can’t help think that putting some of the Genevieve up in oak barrels would do wonders to round off the rough edge (surely 17th century spirits were stored in barrels—I’ve seen the gaugers’ pocket vademecum guides that allowed excise men to estimate their capacity). Korenwijn, which I mentioned earlier, is in the same class, but is often aged in wood. That could be what’s called for here.

Kudos to Fritz Maytag and the distillers at Anchor for putting out Genevieve. If you can score a bottle, do it. At around $30 retail, two is better. Keep one in the freezer at all times. I’ve only seen one bottle at a bar in San Diego, but it’s around San Francisco and Los Angeles. New Yorkers seem to have the best luck finding it on retail shelves. I was in Kansas City twice last month. Nobody's heard of it there.

If you live in KC, or any other place with no retail access, order Genevieve online.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mint Abomination

I no longer doubt the existence
of the human soul
because I just felt mine shrivel and die.

~ Kat, commenting on

Ok, I have seen horrible things done in the name of making drinks (remember, I am, quite literally, the guy who wrote the book on moonshine). But the video here has got to be one of the most horrific.

Of course I made juleps on Derby Day. Lots of people do when they're playing the ponies. Around our house, though, juleps happen to be one of our regular year round drinks, but especially in the summer. I was nosing around, seeing what my friends and colleagues had to say on the matter, scanning an old postcard, researching julep cup prices and availability, digging up yellowed articles when I found How Not to Make a Mint Julep on Jeffrey Morgenthaler's blog.

Now, admittedly, tempers and voices have been raised over the years concerning the proper constitution of an authentic mint julep. But all those sparring colonels, newspapermen, and expatriot Southerners would have to concur: This is no mint julep.

In fact, the drink this poor girl makes is such a shudderingly bad misrepresentation of what a mint julep is that it approaches kitsch. The first time I watched, I was quite literally speechless. Limes? Rose's? Sprite? Just awful. And what a waste of bourbon! Call it something else—an Eight Belles Down, for instance—but salve me from benighted bartenders.

Next time you feel like ordering one of these out (an iffy proposition), do what I do and say, in a nonthreatening and noncommittal way, "Tell me about your mint julep." If it's not what you want, order something a little less controversial. Like an old fashioned.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Bar Food: Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Eggs

(Pickled eggs after one day: note the the pink color hasn't yet penetrated the entire white.)

Luke: I can eat fifty eggs.
Dragline: Nobody can eat fifty eggs.

~ Cool Hand Luke (1967)

It’s a bit disingenuous to call the startlingly scarlet pickled hens’ eggs of Pennsylvania “bar food.” After all, these are more home-style cooking typical of Amish country than the pickled eggs Charles Bukowski might’ve wolfed down in nameless demi-fictional California watering holes.

But, man alive, I’d love to see ‘em in more real bars. That is, assuming the kind of joints that serve pickled eggs don’t fade into memory under an onslaught of appletinis, Jäger bombs, and vodka whatevers. You can tart them up if you want to with chichi toppings or fancy presentation, but the plain fact is that pickled eggs have been drinkers’ fodder for centuries and they don’t need fancification. These are a particularly delicious example.

The Linkery, one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, has a small bar where you can plop down, order some of the house-made sausages and local beers and wines (keep in mind that “local” in these parts might well include wines from Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe) and—if the night is right—you can order an egg from a big-ass jar of brine behind the bar. Now if only they were beet-pickled…

Growing up in Kansas City, I knew about foods such as Lebanon bologna and scrapple that weren’t indigenous to the land of steaks and barbecue because my father’s family hailed from Philadelphia and he brought a taste for Philly food with him. Beet-pickled eggs were one of those odd things my dad made that nobody else ever brought in their school lunches.

The recipe below is derived from my father’s and that of Fritz Blank, a former microbiologist turned chef who ran Deux Cheminees for many years in Philly. From Fritz I learned a simple method of cooking eggs to get them to just the right point.

A common—hell, nearly ubiquitous—problem with hard-boiled eggs in the US is that they are, in fact, boiled. We shouldn’t boil eggs—it’s too easy to overcook them, giving that characteristic dark green mantle to the yolk and a sulfurous stank “like dog farts,” Blank says.

Hard “cooked” is another way to put it. In French, it’s oeufs dur (“hard” eggs). Just taking away the word “boiled” could do wonders for improving the cooking methods of cooks everywhere. The easy way is to bring the eggs to a boil from cool tap water, then pull them off the heat, let them sit in the hot water until cooked through at just the right texture, and plunge them in an ice bath. See the bottom for the full skinny on Fritz’s hard cooked eggs method. Since I started making eggs that way, I’ve never overcooked a single one.

If you’re serving the pickled eggs home-style, cut them into quarters lengthwise and scatter among salad leaves for a purple and yellow, but tasty, protein boost.

Fancy bar style? Impale one all the way through with a bamboo toothpick, suspend it in a large crystal shot glass, or precious raku dish, then sprinkle the top with freshly-cracked Tellicherry black pepper and coarse fleur de sel, hand-harvested from the saline pools of the Breton coast. Charge $1.50. Better make it $3.

Dive bar style? Serve on a paper napkin, maybe a clean shot glass. Salt shaker on the side. Charge no more than six bits.

Bachelor pad style? Sprinkle with salt and eat out of hand, or squirt it with Sriracha or another hot sauce that won’t overwhelm the taste of the pickle and eat them over the sink when nobody’s looking.

Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Eggs

You can switch this recipe up by swapping out the rice vinegar for malt, sherry, or raspberry vinegars, throwing in a habanero pepper to the solution, adding bruised lemongrass, strong tea, star anise, garlic, etc. Those may or may not be delicious contributions to the art of pickling eggs—but they don’t make Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Eggs. For those, this is the method to use.

Peel and place two dozen “hard-cooked” eggs made according to the directions below in a large jar covered with water ~ keeps them from drying while you prepare the pickling solution. Procede with the pickle.

Pickling solution

14-16 oz jar of sliced beets—beets and all
2 cups white wine vinegar (I’ll use Marukan rice vinegar or Champagne vinegar)
1.5 cups water
2 three-inch sticks of cinnamon
4 or 5 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns roughly cracked into 2-3 pieces each
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
5-6 peeled small red shallots (optional)

Place all the ingredients except optional raw shallots in a nonreactive pot, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to bloodwarm. Drain the eggs and add the crimson liquid and shallots (if using) to the jar with the eggs. Refrigerate.

Eggs are ready to eat after full day and keep refrigerated up to three weeks, during which time the reddish color will more deeply penetrate the white. After that, they’ll grow kinda rubbery and too firm.

Once pickled, the shallots are tasty with a piece of decent cheddar cheese and a chunk of good bread. Bit of a ploughman’s lunch as a treat for the cook.

Hard-Cooked Eggs—Notes by Chef Fritz Blank
  1. Place the fresh whole “extra large” chicken eggs in an accommodating sauce pan and cover with cold water exactly one-inch above the tops of the eggs.
  2. Place the pan over HIGH heat and bring quickly to a full rolling boil.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and cover it with a lid.
  4. Set a timer for 10 minutes (NB below). Prepare an ice slurry bath using plenty of ice and just enough cold water to allow the ice to move freely.
  5. After the eggs have steeped for ten minutes, remove them quickly from the hot water with a large slotted spoon or a “spider,” and immediately plunge them into the ice bath.
  6. Keep in ice water until ready to peel.
NB: The size of the eggs will determine the steeping time.

USDA “Jumbo” = 12 minutes
USDA “Extra Large” = 10 minutes
USDA “Large” = 8 minutes
USDA “Medium” = 7 minutes
USDA “small” (aka “pullet eggs”) = 6 minutes

Helpful Hints Regarding Hard Cooking Eggs:

If the number of hard cooked eggs wanted is 12, start with 13, and subtract one minute from the steeping time. So for example, when cooking USDA “extra-large” eggs, set the timer for nine minutes rather than ten. When the timer goes off, quickly remove ONE egg and place it onto a carving board, and deftly cleve it in half, shell and all - Wack!! This will serve as a test to determine whether to remove and plunge the remaining 12 into the ice bath, and immediately stir them about, so that the ice bath shock is quick and complete.

If the yolk of the test egg is still runny, allow the remaining 12 to steep in the hot water for another minute, before proceedng with the ice bath shock.

Eat the hot test egg with a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper - an epicurian pleasure reserved exclusively for cooks!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Salad Spinner Moonshine

So if I write about the Dutch more than is seemly for an American known for an appreciation of American foodways, it’s because the cheap, cheap flights to Amsterdam I used to be able to score when I lived in Philadelphia gave me an appreciation for Holland ($180 got me there and back one weekend). Plus—a little-known secret—though sex and drugs dominate tales of Amsterdam, it really is a great food town.

Now, say what you will about the famous Dutch reputation for being cheap (Dutch treat, anyone? And just watch a bar in Amsterdam empty three minutes after happy hour), but that concern with eking out every bit of value from something has led to some remarkable inventions.

One of my recent favorites is this video of a value-minded Hollander making 60 proof alcohol at home without a still, just using wine ("from a friend"), a freezer, and a salad spinner. It's a variation of an old technique called freeze distillation—or, if you want to get fancy, fractional crystallization. If, when you’re reading the instructions, you are stymied by the word “latish” that appears onscreen, say it with a Dutch accent…“lettuce” is what’s meant. Then check out the Austin Powers link at the bottom of this page.

Goes well with:.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Creole Sassafras Mead

I started off yesterday intending to make a little pot of gumbo. But, honest now, who can ever make a little pot of gumbo? By the time I'd made a roux of duck fat and flour, added the onions, peppers, celery, spices, chicken, sausage, and stock, about two gallons of the stuff was looking up at me out of my biggest Dutch oven.

The only thing left to do to it is add the filé once we dish it up with a bit of rice. Filé is nothing more than the leaves of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), dried and ground into a powder. If the historians are to be believed, it's a gift passed on from the Choctaw Indians to Spanish and French settlers in Louisiana.

Hmmm...maybe "pounded" is a better way to describe it rather than "ground." Some years back, I spent a little time with Lionel Key, a Louisianan who puts out first-rate filé by adding dried leaves to a hollowed cyprus stump and then pounds them with a double-sided maul made of pecan wood. In pounding rather than grinding, Mr. Key was easily able to separate the unwanted stems and veins from the pulverized leaves, which thicken the kinds of gumbos I like to make.

It's an acquired taste—easily acquired. My gumbos come out differently every time I make one, so there's little point in sharing recipes. But thinking of filé made me reminisce about sassafras in general. I especially got to musing about the sassafras nip recipe shared with my by Chef Fritz Blank for my book Moonshine. It's one of those old-time recipes that has to be homemade because the sassafras berries that give the drink its mahogany hue just aren't commercially available.

Sassafras mead, on the other hand, you can make even if you have no access to a sassafras tree because dried roots are generally available from herb companies. This venerable recipe comes from the Picayune’s Creole Cookbook (4th edition, 1910). It's not strictly a mead since there's more "Louisiana molasses" (or you could use cane syrup) than honey and it doesn't undergo the long fermentations typical of mead (the French boisson really is a more accurate term), but it's still a tasty summer drink.

Boisson au Sassafran (Sassafras Mead)

4 Bunches of Sassafras Roots
1 ½ Pints of Honey
3 ½ Pints of Louisiana Molasses
1 Tablespoon of Cream of Tartar
½ Teaspoon of Carbonate of Soda

This is a noted Creole summer drink, and is prepared as follows: Take the roots of sassafras and make about two quarts of Sassafras Tea. Strain well. Set to boil again, and when it boils add one and one half pints of honey, and three and one half pints of Louisiana Syrup or Molasses. Add a tablespoon of Cream of Tartar. Stir well and set to cool. When cool strain it. Take about a dozen clean bottles and fill with the mixture. Cork very tight, and put in a cool place. In a day it will be ready for use. When serving this Mead, take a glass and fill half full with ice water. Add a tablespoon of the Mead and stir in half a teaspoon full of Carbonate of Soda. It will immediately foam up. Drink while effervescing. This is a cheap, pleasant and wholesome summer beverage in our clime. The above recipe has been in use in Creole homes for generations.
Goes well with:
  • Uncle Bill's Spices, Lionel Key's mail-order filé source. Root around on his site for recipes.
  • A Chef & His Library, an exhibit on Fritz Blank's cookery library I developed for the Van Pelt Rare Books and Manuscript department at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Steen's Syrup, the iconic yellow cans of thick, dark Louisiana cane syrup (yeah, they've got molasses, too).