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.