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
E-Mail Info@bentonshams.com
Madisonville,TN 37354
Phone (423) 442-5003


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Instant Pineapple Pickle

Korean and Indonesian cooking will stop me in my tracks, though I am forbidden from making kimchee at home and, in San Diego, it’s the occasional soto, rendang, or sambal on a supposedly Chinese menu that hint at an Indonesian influence in the kitchen.

At one of our occasional shindigs, both Mama Charlie and Dr. Smokesalot (whose respective mothers are Korean) brought bulgogi for grilling. Some call bulgogi Korean barbecue. I call it a very good night for me. The thin-cut sirloin was marinated in garlic, rice wine, sesame oil, red pepper, soy, sugar, and lords knows what else. Rice was a given.

Last night, with a batch of bulgogi waiting for the grill to heat, I veered off-course and cranked out an Indonesian-inspired pickle to go with the beef. You could just as easily call it a sambal. The recipe is loosely adapted from Rosemary Brissenden’s classic South East Asian Food and is best in the first 24 hours. If you buy your fresh pineapples trimmed and cored, this won’t even take five minutes to throw together.

The stuff goes great with bulgogi, of course, but it turns out also grilled chicken and fish, carnitas, and pork chops. It's lightly salty, kinda pungent, but sweet at the same time. Break open a beer or three while you're at it.

Don’t be scared of the fish sauce; it is an essential foil to the sweetness of the pineapple. I’m tempted to say it’s optional, but if fish sauce skeeves you, eh, just skip the recipe and open a can of pork and beans.

Instant Pineapple Pickle/Pineapple Sambal

One pineapple, peeled, cored, and diced into ½” to 1” chunks, plus all its juice
1 Tbl crushed red pepper*
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
one ½” piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 Tbl brown mustard seeds
1 large pinch turmeric
1 tsp coarse grey sea salt
1 Tbl Thai fish sauce
4 oz white vinegar (rice, champagne, or plain ol’ Heinz)

Grind the red pepper, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, and salt together, using a bit of vinegar if necessary to make a loose paste. Combine the paste with the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

* I used Crushed Aleppo pepper from Penzey's: hot, slightly oily, but not so pungent that you can't taste that the pepper is actually a fruit.

Goes well with:
  • Korean Favorites—Bulgogi, a YouTube video laying out the basics for a marinade. After a rest of a few hours to a day or two, beef prepared like this would be grilled over high heat to give it a hint of char.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Lime n Shrubb

It's the day of the week when the odds for red beans and rice are most in the house's favor. It's not every Monday that I make red beans, nor do I raid the pantry for beans always on a Monday, but today the kitchen is filled with the smell of simmering sausage, tasso, peppers, onions, and a thick, gelatinous stock I made from a ham bone (the green ham itself endured an overnight marinade in pineapple and chipotle and was shredded for tacos and whatnot).

I had my hands full with dinner prep, so didn't build, shake, or stir any fancy cocktail, but the red beans put me in a creole state of mind, and Clement's creole shrubb, their 80-proof rum-based orange liqueur that I'd used in a blackberry daiquiri, caught my eye. Half a lime and ice were all I needed for a tasty nip—not a cocktail, but smoother and more tasty than many cocktails that've been put in front of me.

Lime n Shrubb

2 oz Clement Creole Shrubb
Juice of 1/2 Persian lime (about 1/2 oz)

Combine shrubb and lime in a rocks glass with 3-4 ice cubes and the lime shell. Give it a shake or a brief stir.

Ta da.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

You Heard Me: Your Bracciole is Showin'

During Tales of the Cocktail, some of the good folks over at Yahoo Distillers asked whether the distilling session that Mike, Ian, and I presented had been recorded. It hadn't (note: secure video gear next year), but I said I'd look into something for the people who couldn't make it to New Orleans.

As a first step in that direction for the blog, I made an audio recording of yesterday's post. Big whoop, you say. Yes, and to a certain extent, I concur. But in thinking about what I wanted to post, memories of volunteer work I used to do in Kansas City surfaced.

My friend Mary Lynne Dolembo has been executive director of the Children's Center for the Visually Impaired for almost as long as I can remember. While I lived in KC, I volunteered sporadically over the years, working with kids whose visual impairments might range from extraordinary sensitivity to sunlight to perhaps a complete lack of eyes.

The lessons I learned there about adapting design and content for audiences other than able-bodied, six-foot tall men have informed the way I've designed museum exhibits, structured talks, and even how I write so that, if my essays were read aloud, I hope the stuff would be at least engaging if not actually illuminating. They've made me focus on issues such as font shape and size, signage placement, color contrast, tactile experiences—hell, even pinch hazards.

Most of you aren't going to endure much tactile experiences with me, much less pinch hazards, but some audio might be a little more engaging, especially for those who have trouble reading the written word.

And we'll get back to more distilling stuff before long. But for now, click on the link to try out an on-the-fly audio of yesterday's post Yo, Coombs, Your Bracciole is Showin'.

If you like it, I'll do some more. If you don't like it...I'll probably do some more.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yo, Coombs, Your Bracciole is Showin'

In south Philadelphia, bracciole (spelled a variety of ways, but almost always pronounced brah-ZHOLE) has a few meanings, some more savory than others. In cooking, it’s a rolled piece of meat—often beef—stuffed with, well, nearly anything: sausage, cheese, greens, onions, red peppers, even hard-cooked eggs.

As with long, fat pieces of meat anywhere, the phallic connotations are self-evident, so offers from cheeky vendors in, say, the 9th Street Italian market to show you their braccioles should be countered with equally sincere offers to, oh, I don’t know, whip out a magnifying glass for better viewing or tweezers for more delicate handling. Extending the overstuffed concept, it can refer also to a full-figured young woman wearing clothes better suited to a significantly smaller frame.

We’ll leave aside the last two meanings—those are for someone else’s blog—in favor of the first.

I laid hands on two nice pork tenderloins recently and realized that I was craving a bit of South Philly. So I braccioled them and, lacking any broccoli raab, dished up a side of okra and tomatoes from the garden.

Spinach and Artichoke Bracciole

8-10 oz fresh goat cheese
3 cups fresh baby spinach, chopped
5-7 marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Hot sauce

2 pork tenderloins, trimmed of silverskin

Mix together the goat cheese, spinach, artichoke hearts, garlic, and a fat, juicy dollop of hot sauce (Crystal, Tabasco, Cholula, etc.). Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Butterfly each tenderloin by slicing down the center almost to the opposite side, but do not cut all the way through. The tenderloin will resemble, to the extent that it can, an open book. Then, starting at the center (the “spine”) and slicing toward the edge of the meat, butterfly each side longways again and open the new flaps so that, with a mere three cuts, the whole tenderloin lies flat in a long, pointed oval.

Line a 9”x13” baking dish with foil (not strictly necessary, but it makes cleaning up easier) and preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cut four or five pieces of kitchen twine (about 6” each—depends on the circumference and length of the meat) for each bracciole. Stuff each flattened tenderloin with half the mixture, tie with twine, and place in the baking dish. Drizzle/brush with olive oil then season with salt, pepper, and cayenne.

Roast for 30-40 minutes and serve with a side of some braised or sauteed vegetables.

[Edit: the audio post of the blog is posted here]


Monday, September 15, 2008

The Liquid South

We use Mississippi State cheese
whenever we can...
only because there is no Rebel Cheese,
which would surely be more
tasteful and refined.

~ opinionated Chef John Currence

I’m missing the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium next month and I couldn’t be more bummed. It is, hands down, one of my favorite organizations in the country. It doesn’t hurt that John T. Edge, Mary Beth Lasseter, and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture staff and students throw one hell of a party every year under the guise of like-minded people coming together for serious discussions of what happens when southerners (displaced and in situ) come together at the table.

That I’ll be missing some of John Currence’s cooking is enough to drive me to drink. Oh, yeah ~ David Wondrich will be making punch, Ted Breaux is hosting an absinthe hour, and Junior Johnson will be...well, Junior.

Did I mention that it’s a hell of a party?

From the SFA symposium brochhure:

Dr. Nut was the favorite drink of Ignatius J. Reilly, the antihero of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulizer Prizewinning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Photograph, from 1949, by Charles L. Franck, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 1979.325.58.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Potted, Plotzed, and Corned: An Overdrinker's Thesaurus

This weekend we say goodbye not just to summer (a largely meaningless gesture in San Diego), but also to our good friends Dr. Fidel, Mama Charlie, Awesome Rob, and Mrs. Awesome. They’d been renting a nice little house for the last week in Pacific Beach, an oceanside community where the surfers, college kids, and stoners get along (mostly) while sun-bleached baby Lebowksis are just as likely to call you bra as bro, or—increasingly and annoyingly at my age—sir.

Last night we showed up with beers to feed the cooler just before the sun went down while preparations for a seafood feast got underway. I popped open a can, applied a Texas Dent, and strolled out to the patio.

And that’s when I saw him. The neighbor. Spread eagle on the ground, face up, and flat as a slab of turf, keys in one hand, cash and ID in the other. A quick check proved he was breathing and there was no blood—our friends confirmed he had been swerving drunk as he wound his way up the footpath. There was talk of rolling him over to avoid his aspirating dinner if he hurled, but, since he continued to breathe, we just kept a wary eye on him from our side of the footpath.

In the end, his roommate emerged, took a swig from his beer can, poured a long stream of beer on his prone buddy’s face from about six feet up, and went back inside. Sleeping Beauty spazzed, sputtered, arose, and started throwing down rhymes to anyone who would listen. Us? Our arms-length supervision was over. We turned to Dungeness crab, shellfish, and corn on the cob.

In the course of writing Moonshine, I chronicled so many terms for being drunk that I compiled them into what I like to call the Overdrinker’s Thesaurus, an ever-growing list, part of which made it in the book. From the merely tipsy to the flat-out annihilated, I offer the following alternatives for describing what condition your condition is in.

Please do drop a comment if your favorites are not here….

An Overdrinker's Thesaurus

Blind drunk
Bottle fever, to have or be afflicted with
Cocked and loaded
Drunked up
Floored or floor-hammered
FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition)
Fucked up
Gathered a talking load
Getting your drink on
Getting your swerve on
In your cups
Jugged, in the jug
Knee-walking drunk
Liquored up
Lit up
Loopy or looped
On a bender
On autopilot
Put a load on
Spins, to have the
Staggers, to have the
Staying afloat
Stinking drunk
Tanked up
Tied one on
Torn up
Under the influence
Wiggity whacked
Wiggity wiggity whacked [NB the progression]

Friday, September 5, 2008

PluTonic Cocktail

Pluots, those succulent little plum/apricot hybrids, are still in season, so I snagged a half dozen or so of the mottled ones that show up at our local farmers’ market the other day. This batch is extraordinarily sweet and lends itself to eating out of hand. Is my mom around? No? Then I’ll clarify—eating out of hand over the sink.

But in a house where a battery of fantastic liquor seductively whispers your name every day, why not gild lilies? Philadelphia’s Bluecoat American Dry Gin whispered sotto voce so convincingly—and turned out an outstanding foil to the stone fruit; grapefruit bitters and tonic rounded out the drink nicely.

It’s not terribly strong (or, so it might seem at first), but this gin n tonic variant is perfect for a lazy Friday afternoon as the sun shimmies up to the horizon.

Rigid purists will tell you that the PluTonic cocktail, since it contains no citrus, dairy, or eggs, should be stirred or built rather than shaken. Meh. The pluot pulp is so thick that it ought not be built (i.e., all the ingredients assembled in the glass in which the cocktail will be served—who wants to pick all that pulp out of their teeth?) and stirring doesn’t commingle the ingredients as well as they deserve. Do as you like, but if you use a shaker, deploy a Hawthorn strainer when straining so the pulp doesn't clog your shaker.

I don't generally garnish my drinks, but feel free to use a pluot slice, a mint sprig, ramen noodles, or whatever it is the kids are using these days.

PluTonic Cocktail

½ pluot
2 oz gin (Bluecoat)
½ tsp grapefruit bitters*
Tonic (Fever Tree)

Muddle the pluot half in a shaker. Add bitters and gin. Shake with ice. Strain into a highball glass over fresh ice. Top with tonic and give it a swirl.

*A half teaspoon might seem like a staggering overdose of bitters, but Chuck Taggart's recipe (which I modify only slightly) is not as bracing as, say, Angostura, so a heftier dose is not as startling as it might seem at first blush. You might try Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters in their stead, but since I don't have a bottle on hand, I didn't use 'em.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

He Gurgled When He Walked

Charlie over at Modern Mechanix sells stuff on eBay. Cool stuff. Seems like old magazines, mostly. Don't know him, never met him. But I'll be keeping a closer eye on his blog after he posted pdfs of a 1930 article titled Tricks of the Rum Runners by Pat Roche, a one-time Treasury agent.

Here's Roche on Prohibition-era adulteration techniques:
The cutting plant buys large quantities of genuine liquor from the runners, opens the bottles, and adds an equal part of alcohol and an equal part of water, making three cases out of one. Flavoring and coloring matter also are added to bring the taste and appearance up to the original. Bottles, either purchased new from glass plants which make them to order and duplicate any foreign product in shape, size and appearance, or bought from old bottle dealers who have built up a market for empties, are used. The finished product can not be told from the original.
If it's just flavoring and "coloring matter" drinkers were lucky. But what flavor? What matter? The scan here is from a Prohibition-era moonshiner's secret hand-written notebook in my library and gives a clue to how one might cook up a batch of "whiskey essence"—butyric ether, rectified fusel oil, extracts of musk root, orris (root) and vanilla and others in a Cologne spirits base. Yum.

Check out Charlie's post for the full text of Roche's article and four pages of full-page pdfs. The caption on the picture at the header reads:
A unique method of liquor transportation via hot water bottles. The culprit was captured by a detective curious as to why the negro gurgled when he walked.
Given the profits margins of faked whiskey in 1930's Chicago, I wouldn't be surprised if every man, woman, and child gurgled just a little as they walked. Of course, if you're stuck using hot water bottles to transport liquor, the trick is to secure both ends.

Goes well with:

Monday, September 1, 2008

Rum, Blackberries, and the Lash

Last week our buddy Dr. Noggin hosted a margarita competition. I like a margarita well enough, but more so when someone else makes it, so it’s not a drink I tend to concoct around the house. Not surprisingly, we didn’t win the grand prize—but the experience did lay the groundwork for a handful of cocktails better suited to using our “secret” ingredient.

With a bag of blackberries in the freezer, some possibilities began to surface. Those seedy little knobs go especially well in drinks—the blackberry julep at Seven Grand in Los Angeles is a winner and even a nonalcoholic lemonade can benefit with a judicious addition of them—but when muddled berries befoul the bottom of the glass, there are only so many seeds I can pick out of my teeth before it becomes obvious what I’m doing. A tequila gargle could fix that, but then I’ve tossed all decorum out the window.

So…A syrup, but a light one, not meant to be kept very long. To give a little extra dimension, some thyme-infused water. An alcohol-based thyme tincture would probably work even better and give more control over the syrup’s final flavor, but this was very last minute, so hot water and dried herb it was.

In the end, the margarita was just ok—came in second place I think—but it turns out I was using it with the wrong spirit. Rum is what’s called for. In particular, I wanted the haunting velvet goodness of Clement’s oak-aged VSOP rum (or, rather, rhum vieux agricole) from Martinique.

VSOP is a designation used by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac to mean “Very Superior Old Pale” for a cognac has aged at least four years. The application here makes sense: Clement ages its French-style rhum agricole in both Limousin and American oak barrels, topping off occasionally with rhum from the same vintage because, given the tropical heat, the loss of spirit though the porous barrels runs 8-10% per year. Four years in the barrel equals a lot of lost liquor. Around here, the bottles themselves are prone to losing 8-10% of their volume on any given night.

When we cracked open the VSOP, here’s how it went down:
Blackberry Agricola

1 ½ oz Clement VSOP Rhum Vieux Agricole
¾ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz blackberry-thyme syrup*
1 egg white

Shake vigorously with ice until frothy, the drink goes from purple-black to pinkish, and the sound of clinking ice is muted. Strain into a cocktail glass. Repeat as necessary.
You could bump up the syrup a half an ounce. You could leave out the egg white. You could sink a fancy skewer of three blackberries into the glass or even sugar-frost the rim. But the combination of the very smooth Clement and egg white makes this goes down easy as is with no more garnish than an immediate desire for another.

Scrapping the egg white, and adding a bit of Clement’s rum-based, orange-flavored Creole Shrubb, led us to what I’m calling a

Blackberry Daiquiri

1 ½ oz Clement VSOP Rhum Vieux Agricole
¾ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz Blackberry-thyme syrup*
½ oz Clement Creole Shrubb

Shake with ice then strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass.
And, here's the recipe for the syrup that ties them together and that could just as easily flavor a fat dollop of whipped cream for a super-quick berry/toasted poundcake dessert. Or breakfast. I'm easy.

*Blackberry-thyme syrup

1 Tbl thyme, dried
½ c/120ml hot water
1 lb/450g frozen blackberries
¼ c sugar plus 1 cup

Pour hot water over thyme in a small bowl or cup and let infuse about ten minutes. Put berries in a saucepan, strew with ¼ c sugar, and add thyme-infused water. Bring almost to a simmer and crush berries with a muddler, the back of a spoon, or an immersion blender once they begin to soften. Put on the lid and let the hot slurry sit twenty minutes off the heat.

Strain the warm mixture through stainless steel mesh strainer, pushing through as much liquid as possible with the back of a spoon. Measure the liquid (I got 500 ml) and add the remaining one cup of sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Bottle and refrigerate.