Friday, July 30, 2010

Capuchin Capers? Them's Just Pickled Nasturtium Pods

The first I’d heard of capuchin capers was in John Evelyn’s 1699 Acetaria. Subtitled A Discourse of Sallets, the book details the types and uses of plants destined for grand salads of 300 years ago. In recent years, we’ve become accustomed to more eclectic salads than those of, say, the mid-20th century. When once iceberg lettuce ruled America, we now don’t give a second glance at arugula, mâche, radicchio, and perhaps torn herbs tossed in the bowl.

Nasturtium seed pods
17th and 18th century salads — or, rather, sallets, salats, and such spellings — could be a riot of colors, vegetables, fruits, flowers…and seeds. Capuchin capers were nothing more than the seed pods of nasturtium plants preserved in the manner of more exotic — and pricey — Mediterranean capers.

Although many older sources mention the striking similarity between pickled nasturtium pods and actual capers (also a pickled bud), I gave them short shrift; it seemed just one more example of a foodstuff born of scarcity while users convinced themselves it was just as good as the real thing.

Turns out, capuchin and Mediterranean capers are surprisingly similar. The color is not quite the right green (too light), the covering (ridged and grooved) is off, but the smell and — more importantly — the taste is close enough that after running an experimental batch earlier this summer, I went into the fields to gather enough buds for a few pints.

Fence row nasturtium flowers and seed pods in San Diego
Evelyn notes nasturtiums ought “to be monthly Sown: But above all the Indian, moderately hot, and aromatick, quicken the torpent Spirits, and purge the Brain, and are of Singular effect against the Scorbute [scurvy]. Both the tender Leaves, Calices, Cappuchin Capers, and Flowers, are laudably mixed with the colder Plants.”

“Monthly sown” because nasturtiums are in their entirety such useful plants and a supply throughout the growing season makes good sense. For using the plants’ “hot and aromatick” properties into winter, Evelyn recommends candying the buds as strewing herbs (that is, strewn on the floors of homes to keep down the stink in pre-modern England). Haven’t tried that. But those capers are another story.

Evelyn’s cappuchin capers (also capuchin, capuchine, capuccin, etc) are named after capucine, the French word for nasturtium. One presumes the French name for the flower comes from Capuchin friars who may have grown them as medicinal plants in their monasteries. One is not, however, a scholar of French etymology, and will leave that that shit alone for now [edit 2 Aug 2010: see Tammy's note below for confirmation of my inexpert use of French].

Adapted from The River Cottage Preserves Handbook’s recipe for Nasturium “capers”, here’s

Capuchin Capers

5 tsp salt
7 oz nasturtium seed pods
2 bay leaves (see "Notes on aromatics" below)
2.5 cup white/rice wine vinegar

Add the salt to 2.5 cups distilled or bottled water. Stir to dissolve. Rinse and drain the seed pods, then add them to the brine. Allow to stand 24 hours at room temperature.

Drain and dry the pods well. Pack into sterilized small jars, add the bay leaves (and/or other aromatics, if using). Leave about half an inch of headroom, then top with vinegar. Seal with vinegar-proof lids and leave in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks.
Notes on aromatics: Poke around old receipt books and you’ll find seemingly unending recipes for nasturtiums and their buds. They do have a peppery bite and go well in salads, with steaks, etc. Historically, a broad range of aromatics have complemented that bite when preserving the seed pods: dill, tarragon, chervil, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, cloves, bay leaves, etc. I used bay leaves only, but play with the flavors that suit you.

Strew the “capers” in salads, use them in tartar sauce, make compound butters, season tapenade with them. They’re versatile, they’re cheap, and they’re a bit of the 17th century you can bring to your own table as easy as pie. Or, rather, pye.

Goes well with:
  • Evelyn, John (1699) Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. Prospect Books out of the UK has issued a handsome printing edited by Christopher Driver and with a forward by Tom Jaine — Powell’s in Portland carries it. (Prospect also released C. Anne Wilson’s laudable history of distillation, Water of Life).
  • My take on The River Cottage Preserves Handbook.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

An Evening with Hollis Bulleit

Sassy broads drink bourbon
~ Hollis Bulleit

Dressed to the nines, a line of Los Angelenos was already snaking from the velvet rope outside the bar into the nearby alley. The companion on my elbow strode confidently to the front of the line in a 1920’s style flapper outfit and feathered hat. As she handed her card to the doorman, I caught a flash of a familiar burnt orange logo. Moments later, one of his colleagues rushed to the door sporting a well-cut shirt and one of those scarves adopted in recent years among the self-consciously hip in Los Angeles and New York. “Well,” he exclaimed, “I thought I was fabulous…until you showed up.” With that, the rope was drawn aside, the line left behind, and we were whisked into the iron and velvet bosom of the underground bar within.

Hollis Bulleit had arrived at the Edison.

Tonight was the once monthly Radio Room at one of Los Angeles’ destination cocktail bars and even with the crowd dressed in their interpretations of Prohibition-era couture, Bulleit stood out. She alone, of all the patrons, rocked the flapper look like she was born to it. Hollis and her father Tom are those Bulleits — the family that makes frontier whiskey — and she was holding court tonight with a large table of friends. The waitstaff brought out sliders, grilled cheese sandwiches, even milk and cookies (Hollis had ordered one of everything), but the Edison crafts some of the better drinks in Los Angeles and I was there to see what they were doing with the Bulleit family’s bourbon.

See, Bulleit isn’t just any bourbon for me: it’s our house bourbon. At any given time, I’ll have dozens of bourbons around the house, from a variety of Four Roses offerings, handles of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark to Booker’s, Evan Williams 12-year, and a host of corn-heavy sipping whiskeys aged in charred oak. Bulleit, with its hefty dose of rye in the grain bill, has a mellow bite that lets it mix well in a lot of cocktails. But perhaps one of my favorite ways to enjoy it is on its own with maybe a single ice cube or a splash of water, especially if I’m retiring to the patio for cigars and the day’s papers.

Testament to our fondness for the bourbon, many of the homemade syrups, tinctures, and pre-batched cocktails around the Whiskey Forge are put up in old Bulleit bottles. With its distinctive oval footprint, the bottle looks almost like an oversized hip flask. Hollis tells me that the design was inspired by bottles found on antiquing trips with her father. Me? I like their old-timey look and especially the satisfying tttthhhwunk each time I prize out its cork.

As an ambassador for the family’s bourbon, Hollis is on the road about 180 days a year. Occasionally, she gets to appear with Tom, but tonight she’s solo. Her father’s popularity, she tells me, means that he gets to travel to Las Vegas while Hollis works Reno. “But they love me in Reno,” she beams. I can see why. I’m starting to myself.

Earlier that evening when I asked her to tell me about the bourbon market out West, she eagerly broke out a pen a paper and began constructing an xy axis to place Bulleit in a dreamcatcher graph of competitors’ bourbons. “Here it’s hot and spicy.” She writes in two well-known brands. “But these are more mellow at this end.” Maker’s Mark goes there. More points get filled in. I ask her about Bulleit. Veering from the bourbon data points I suspect were provided by the marketing team, she looks up with a quick smile, then back down almost bashfully. “Bulleit is somewhere,” she says, “between Mae West and Marilyn Monroe.”

“So women drink bourbon?” Two can tease. I know full well women drink bourbon. My own mother taught me how to craft a Manhattan when I was just old enough to know such things.

“Of course!” Her eyes flash.

“What sort of woman would do such a thing?” We’re on a roll.

“Sassy broads,” she informs me, “drink bourbon.”

I’m no sassy broad, but some of my best friends are. I’m seeing Hollis again this week in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail and I’m eager to see the sass she and her father have cooked up.

Bulleit Frontier Whiskey
$19.99/750ml at Trader Joe’s in San Diego (higher elsewhere)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Coming to Tales? Stock up on Books

Like salmon swimming instinctively upstream to their ancestral homes (or, perhaps, elephants to their fabled graveyards), the world's alcoholists have begun descending on New Orleans for the city's annual Tales of the Cocktail celebration.

From Tuesday through Sunday, thousands of bartenders, liquor writers, distillers, beverage managers, culinary historians, tiki fanatics, absinthe enthusiasts, and drinks aficionados will be hunkering down to sessions and seminars about the spirits we drink, where they come from, and how they're used both now and over the last few hundred years.

It's pretty much awesome.

But in the lobby of Hotel Monteleone (host venue and ground zero for all these shenanigans), there's a little room just to the left as you come through the main entrance off Royal Street. For the next week, it will be a bookstore featuring the texts, tomes, rants, and recipes of the speakers and presenters at Tales. It's operated by Octavia Books, an independent local bookstore — certainly worth the trip uptown if you have the time to get away from Tales. If you can't, they'll have on site (unless they sell out) titles such as:
  • Ted Munat and Michael Lazar's new Left Coast Libations
  • Phillip Collier's Mixing New Orleans
  • Difford's Encyclopedia of Cocktails
  • Tony Abou-Ganim's The Modern Mixologist
  • Sara Rohen's Gumbo Tales
  • and loads more
For a more complete list, click here. Or, grab a cab with a buddy and to to their store for an even wider selection of great books, local authors, and New Orleans titles. Check the posted schedule in the lobby for which authors are autographing books when at the Monteleone.

Octavia Books
513 Octavia Street  (at the corner of Laurel)
New Orleans, Louisiana

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kitchen Kwento

In the space of two days — during the windup to Tales of the Cocktail next week — this week has gone from normal-busy to crazy-busy. For good measure, dozens of liquor PR reps from LA to London have been calling with invitations to parties, launches, after-hour shindigs, and meetings with various distillers, spirits brand reps, burlesque artists, and...I...I think one pitch today had me meeting Bruce Willis in Los Angeles. It's all a bit of a fog. Friends are visiting with four kids (or is it five? I lose count), and several interviews, including one with a film crew here at the house doing a piece on home distilling, have me feeling like a need a drink and a home-cooked meal.

Yes, things are moving briskly here at the Whiskey Forge.

My usual practice of juggling 5-7 books at once and devouring all the blog I can is on hold. But one new blog did catch my eye: Kitchen Kwento. Subtitled Recipes & Stories from a Pinay Kitchen, the blog is written by Aileen Suzara, a San Francisco Bay-area Filipina American who tackles — as she puts it — "connections between food, memory and place through a Filipina/American lens."

Growing up in the American Midwest, my exposure to Filipino food was limited to a few family friends. I got more of a taste for it in Philadelphia and once had a wild ride in London after being rescued from a predatory drag queen by a trio of Pinoy sailors who adopted me for the night and hauled me from restaurant to restaurant feeding me the food of their youth. Settled now in California, I have the great fortune to have become close with a few groups of Filipino friends. I have learned never to say no to lumpia and that Filipino bartenders make some of the best tropical drinks out there.

So I was happy to run across Aileen's site. I'll continue to check in now and then, but as I ready myself for the boozefest that is Tales of the Cocktail, I'll be mulling over one of her lines: "When was the last person in your family a farmer?" 

I have no idea. But now I'm curious.  

Goes well with:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sweet New Orleans: Calas

If we don’t eat them, how are we going to save them?
~ Poppy Tooker

Sure, surviving New Orleans’ annual Tales of the Cocktail takes a defiant liver, iron kidneys, and a healthy dose of prudence. But the Crescent City’s liquid offerings aren’t all that require heroic constitutions — its pervasive sweets are anything but trifling.

Since Katrina, the obscure little fried cakes known as calas have undergone a revival. Definitely a fritter, arguably a donut, and with a lineage that reaches back to Africa, calas are little wads of rice held together in a custard-like batter, deep fried, and — more often than not — dusted in confectioners’ sugar.

A street food, calas were sold by women of African descent, but by World War II, they had become less common. Enter food preservationist Poppy Tooker who, as head of Slow Food New Orleans, championed the little fritters and who continues to make them in cooking classes and demonstrations. Savory versions do pop up on local menus and in Louisiana cookbooks now and again; the WPA-era Gumbo Ya-Ya listed calas made of cow-peas and modern chef Donald Link makes a version with corn. But hot, sweet calas are what you’ll most likely find.

This is a very flexible recipe. Once you bite into a cala, you realize that it’s not unlike deep-fried rice pudding. Then, suddenly, you understand that it practically begs to be tinkered with. Cook the rice in water? Yeah, you could do that. You could also cook it in milk. Or coconut milk. Lighten the batter with yeast, give it an overnight ferment, or use the more modern baking powder. Season with vanilla and nutmeg? Why not? But…what about cinnamon? Soak currants in Old New Orleans Rum, and fold them into the batter. Make the batter, chill it, cut it into cubes, and then fry? Sure. The end result won’t necessarily be 100% authentic, but it might be pretty damn tasty.

Here's Tooker talking about calas (recipe below the video)

Here’s a version I put together that combines recipes from Tooker and historian Jessica Harris. It yields about 18-20 calas.

3 cups/480g cooled cooked rice
9 Tbl/90g flour
4.5 Tbl/60 sugar
1 Tbl/10 baking powder
.5 tsp/5g salt
Nutmeg — a few scrapes
3 eggs, beaten
.5 tsp/2.5ml vanilla extract
Canola oil for frying (lard if you've got it)

Combine the rice through nutmeg in a large bowl. Add the beaten eggs and vanilla and gently mix into a homogeneous mass.

Heat oil to 360-375°F. Working with two large spoons, make loose balls of batter from heaped tablespoons (about the size of a ping-pong ball). Drop each one as it’s made into the hot oil, being careful not to splash. Fry until golden brown (or darker, for a more pronounced crackle). Drain on paper towels and dust them with confectioners’ sugar like you're trying to hide a crime. 

Eat them as soon as you can stand the heat.
Goes well with:
  • Poppy Tooker's site
  • The full text of the 1945 classic on Louisiana folkways, Gumbo Ya-Ya
  • An earlier post bringing together Jessica Harris and my homemade watermelon pickles

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Distiller Wanted

What happens to a dream deferred?
~ Langston  Hughes

I enjoy writing, I truly do. Yet in idle moments, I mull over other career paths, things that might've been — or may yet be. Sausage maker and distiller are two that regularly surface. Generally, I suppress these thoughts. Fine as avocations, but vocations? I'd probably lose a hand or burn off all my hair. 

Then, of course, calls for distillers often come my way and set those mullings in motion again. Crown Valley Winery south of St. Louis put out such a call recently. I'm committed to San Diego, but for a distiller in — or willing to relocate to — Missouri, here's a job opportunity:
New start-up Distillery is looking for creative, energetic, team building leader, located in Southeast Missouri, only one hour drive from St. Louis. Applicant must have a minimum of 3 years of experience or have a qualified degree in Distilling. Products to be produced using a Carl Christian pot still with a filling capacity of 119 gallons with 2 side columns one 21 plates and the other with 5 plates. Applicant has rare experience to be involved with a diverse established manufacture of beer and wine with state of the art equipment and facilities. Position includes competitive salary, health insurance and possibility of local housing. All applicants may send resume to
I've got no connections to Crown Valley Winery, but I do like the way they're thinking.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

TheZenchilada and a Corn Whiskey Cocktail

TheZenchilada launched yesterday. The New Mexico-based online journal aims to use food as a “vehicle for better understanding ourselves and one another.” First issue is all about corn. Yes, there’s a body/mind/spirit angle — New Mexico, remember? — but don’t let that scare you off. It’s also a really enjoyable read, at turns both erudite and funny.

Ronni Lundy (who once quipped “If God had meant for cornbread to have sugar in it, he’d have called it cake”) meditates on what it means to be a Corn Tortilla Nation and provides a recipe for Shrimp and Grits Tamales; Diana Del Mauro writes about the role of a corn cake in kinaaldá, the Navajo rite of passage for girls; and Matt and Ted Lee also tackle shrimp and grits — as well as corncob wine.

There’s Sarah Fritschner’s Corn Smut, her take on huitlacoche, the black fungus that I love on tacos and Bill Smith’s honeysuckle sorbet. I haven't had Bill's sorbet, but his cooking at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill remains one of the highlights of my time in North Carolina. And, oh, hey. Know what else is there? My piece Corn Whiskey Makes a Comeback, including a discussion of current brands American corn whiskey (there aren’t many — but that’s changing) and recipes.

My notes on a corn whiskey cocktail:

When I’m not drinking corn straight up, I’ll sometimes make a Corn Tassel, an original drink that started as a whiskey sour but morphed into a more complex short drink with a distinctive corn nose. If you don’t have a bottle of Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters knocking about, you can substitute Angostura bitters, available in most grocery stores. But the former, from The Bitter Truth, are worth seeking out.
Corn Tassel

1.5 oz Mellow Corn 4-year old whiskey
1.25 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz Cointreau
2 tsp orgeat
1 dash of Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters

Shake with ice in a cocktail shaker, strain into an old fashioned glass, and serve up. If you go for frou-frou, give it a lemon twist. Don’t even think about a baby corn garnish. That ain’t cute; that’s just nasty.

Thanks to Ryannan Bryer de Hickman for the Corn Tassel shot. For the rest, go to

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Firing up the Preserves Pot

Helping me move to college when I was 18, my father lifted one appliance, stopped, and put it on the floor. "Matthew Rowley," he sighed, "You are the only person I know who would move a vacuum cleaner full of dirt." 

The lesson stuck. I remain, to this day, one of the most streamlined travelers you're likely to meet. With very rare exceptions, if it doesn't fit on carry-on, it doesn't come with me.

When it seemed we were moving to Louisiana, I put my tendency to can, bottle, and preserve on hiatus. After all, moving suits and kitchen knives to another state is one thing. Moving heavy, fragile jars of marmalade, of young ginger in syrup, of BBQ sauce, and piquillo ketchup...that's just foolish.

Now that we're committed to San Diego and summer is on us, I've fallen back to my old ways. This week, I made syrups from strawberries, cantaloupe, and Thai tea.

I also finally got around to making what 17th century texts called "Capuchin capers" from nasturtium buds. San Diego is blanketed with nasturtium plants — their flame-colored flowers running up and down canyons and fencerows. In the Spring and Summer once the flowers wilt, the crawling vines are spotted with hundreds of bulging little pods. In French, nasturtiums are called capucines, presumably after capucins, the Capuchin friars who — I'm stretching here — may have grown them in monastic medicine gardens.

Suspect francophone etymology notwithstanding, it turns out that, like capers, nasturtium buds may be brined, pickled, and used just as imported Sicilian capers. In fact, they're freakishly similar. Same peppery bite and very nearly the same smell. I plan to use them in salads over the course of the Summer.

The biggest obstacle to a little wild harvesting? Rattlesnakes in our canyons. Something those austere Capuchin friars never had to worry about in Europe while gathering nasturtiums.