Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crystal Head Vodka Cut Down to Size

“Oh, well, would you look at that?”

Dan Aykroyd is holding my skull in his hands. A genuine smile of surprise seems to play across the actor’s face. I admit that he’s not the first to cradle that heavy orb. His touch, though, is more gentle than that of the craftsman who had taken a saw to it a few days earlier. Right through the forehead he had cut it, a freehand slice that took the top clean off.

Finished mug
Of course, it’s not my own actual head the Ghostbusters star is holding: it’s his. Or, rather, it’s one of his brand. He was in town this weekend signing skull-shaped bottles of Crystal Head, his 80-proof Canadian vodka. The bottles are shaped like human skulls and are so solid you could bludgeon opponents with one in a bar fight. Unlike those who were snapping up bottles from the store's stock, I’d brought my own, slightly altered by a local company that does such things.

I was expecting a crowd. I was not expecting a crowd of hundreds queued up outside a San Diego grocery store, waiting for a chance to plunk down $45 (it was on sale) for a bottle. The line stretches further past a Crystal Head RV than I can make out. When I ask him about its popularity, Aykroyd says that Crystal Head had recently produced its millionth bottle. That’s a lot of glass skulls knocking around the planet.

A matronly woman buys eight. Aykroyd signs them all and poses for pictures. A younger man asks him to sign one for his brother’s upcoming 21st birthday. Done. The former Saturday Night Live comedian is all smiles and charm, working his way patiently through the line while support staff break sweats to open cases, maintain displays, and keep order. I don’t think to ask how many bottles are on hand. Hundreds, surely. A thousand? Possibly.

On the table at BottleHood
But I don’t see any others like mine. Earlier that week, I’d taken an empty Crystal Head bottle to Steve Cherry, co-founder of the San Diego company BottleHood. Cherry’s firm cuts glass bottles and fashions them into drinking vessels, lighting fixtures, candy dishes, candleholders, and even jewelry. He’s a regular at my neighborhood farmers’ market. I’d given him empty bottles before and wanted to see what he could do with one of Aykroyd’s.

His crew turned it into one of my favorite new tiki mugs.

Of the hundreds of brands of cut BottleHood sells — the jelly jars made from Dublin Dr. Pepper bottles, the Patron candy dishes, the drinking glasses of Mountain Valley water — Crystal Head is one Cherry can’t keep in stock. You want an 18-oz Crystal Head drinking vessel? You have to bring him the bottle.

Unless Aykroyd pulls up in that RV with a skid of empties.

Goes well with:
  • BottleHood shows up every week at San Diego markets, so we locals are fortunate enough to browse the rotating offerings. but if you're nowhere near, check out their website. They ship. 
  • Crystal Head's website.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chartreuse Hot Chocolate

In Southern California, some stereotypes hold true. Some of us do keep surfboards at the office. Our local produce is, generally, fantastic. We do eat avocados and oranges right off the trees. Our temperate weather means the grill operates year-round. But it’s a mistake to think that we have no seasons here, as some assert. We have them. They are more subtle than in other places, perhaps, but we have them.

Our recent spate of bracing, wet weather was a reminder of that. In particular, it made me reminisce about foods I used to eat when I lived places with more distinctly unpleasant seasons. Last week’s egg noodles and pork ragout were one outgrowth of that nostalgia. Another has been hot chocolate spiked with Chartreuse.

The Pères Chartreux — the Carthusian monks who make Chartreuse — currently make several varieties of spirits, including genepi, walnut and fruit liqueurs. Although an 80 proof yellow version of their famous herbal liqueur is available, the monks’ green Chartreuse is most commonly mixed into drinks. At 110 proof, this ancient liqueur packs a punch and lends lovely vegetal notes to drinks. Since moving to California, I have never been without a bottle of the green. Never. The yellow? Harder to find on store shelves here.

I was prodded to add Chartreuse to hot chocolate on reading Madeline Scherb’s A Taste of Heaven. The book is part travel guide and part cookbook of meals one may find in abbeys — and convents — around the world. Given the brewing and distilling/rectifying traditions of many monasteries, it’s not surprising that abbey beers and a few liqueurs show up in recipes; beer soup with Achel, chicken livers over apples with an Orval reduction, caramelized bananas with Westmalle tripel and dark rum.

Chartreuse is such an assertive spirit that I can identify it by smell even from several feet away. I happen to love the smell and the taste. If you’re not certain you will, don’t use the whole amount called for below. Instead, start with less. If you like it, add more. Scherb calls this Christmas Cocoa. I’ve tweaked her proportions just a bit, but I say there’s no need to restrict it to Christmas.

Chartreuse Hot Chocolate

8-12 oz good quality hot chocolate
1 oz green Chartreuse (or less, see above)

Warm a mug with hot water. Toss the water and pour the hot chocolate into the warmed mug. Add green Chartreuse and stir. Breathe deeply as you drink. Let the aroma get into your lungs. Not the drink, of course. Chartreuse is fantastic, but there's no call to drown in the stuff.

Madeline Scherb (2009)
A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns
240 pages, paperback
ISBN: 1585427187

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cold, Rainy Weather Yields Homemade Noodles

The last two weeks in San Diego have been cold — San Diego cold, mind you, not Schenectady cold — and nearly constantly raining. It’s put me in the mood for nearly forgotten cold-weather cooking I used to do in the Midwest and East Coast.

In particular, I had a hankering for the sort of thick, German-style egg noodles my mother used to serve. Stroud's, a fried chicken restaurant, used a similar thick noodle in their chicken noodle soup. In Kansas City when I was young, a respectable frozen version of the noodles could be had in grocery stores. Respectable version? Ha. I’m being disingenuous. In my middle years, I was a fat little porker and, if given the chance, would have devoured them at every meal.

The recipe I use, however, came to me from my sister who found it among our grandmother’s papers after her death. It is perhaps her own mother’s. In the fat, black book I use to record successful recipes, I call them Noodles for Soup and Buttering. In another house, perhaps one of my more German cousins, they might be called hausgemachte Nudeln — homemade noodles.

I made a batch a few days ago, tossed them with butter in a cast iron skillet, and served them under a slathering of a Stroganoff-style ragout of pork and chanterelles spiked with dill. Every bit as good as I recalled. There’re only four ingredients and the noodles are quite simple to make. Sometimes I use more eggs and cut back on the water, keeping total liquid volume the same.

For the fat little porker in you, I offer
Homemade Egg Noodles

2.25 cups/330g all purpose flour
1 tsp/15ml salt
1 egg
2-6 oz/60-180ml cool water

Sift the flour and add the salt. Mix in the egg with a fork and add enough water, mixing with the fork, to bring the dough together to a ball. Dust a cutting board with flour and roll out the dough to a disc. Allow to rest a few minutes. Dusting as needed, roll out the disc to a roughly rectangular shape a little less than .25”/.5cm (slightly less than a standard No 2 pencil).

Using a long knife, cut the rectangle of dough down the center lengthwise. Then cut each half into many long noodles, each a little wider than it is tall. Separate them as you cut (see the photo).

You may either cook them right away or allow them to rest and air dry slightly on parchment paper or a clean towel for a few hours. When you’re ready to cook, bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add half the noodles. Cook 5-8 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep them separate and to prevent them sticking to the bottom of the pot. Drain, set aside, and repeat with the remaining dough.

At this point, you may butter them, toss them with buttered breadcrumbs, cut into smaller pieces for soup, toss with toasted caraway, or simply plate and eat with the rest of the meal.

Guten Appetit!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bookshelf: Asian Dumplings

I have lost count.

I have simply lost count of the number and variety of potstickers, lumpia, shuijiao, shaomai, mandu, har gow, and ridiculously tasty xiaolongbao I’ve devoured since Andrea Nguyen’s book Asian Dumplings showed up at the Whiskey Forge this summer. That last one, known sometimes as soup dumplings, Shanghai soup dumplings, or even cryptically as juicy pork buns, is one of my all-time favorite Asian dumplings. The little steamed pocket of dough holds not just pork, but a small puddle of rich soup. Bite a small hole in the bottom, slurp out the soup, dip the rest in a chili sauce, and down it. I knew in theory how to make them using a gelatin-rich stock, but the particulars had escaped me…until now.

With thousands of food books around the house, some inevitably are used more than others. After spending a week plucking through Asian Dumplings, I knew that if I had to trim down to 100 cookbooks, this would be one of them. In fact, it’s one of maybe five cookbooks I use in the kitchen. I try to keep it clean, to keep it away from splatters and spills, but like a good knife, this a tool, not an heirloom for future generations. If future generations want to make dumplings, they can find their own damn copies. This one is mine and I’m guarding it with my good knives.

Pork dumplings at the Whiskey Forge
It’s true that there are a half dozen different dumplings in my freezer, all made with my own hands using Nguyen’s straightforward directions. Her master shapes sections show clearly how to make crescents, half-moons, pleats, and other common shapes. Some get slightly more complicated, but nothing harder than tortellini. Those dumplings I made following her instructions are for when I want to make a quick and easy dinner.

But I’ve been going out, too, using Nguyen’s book as a sort of field guide, ordering trays of dumplings at area restaurants. As a child growing up in the Midwest, the range of Asian dumplings available to me was limited — egg rolls, potstickers, wontons, and sometimes spring rolls. My tastes, budget, and exposure to new foods have evolved, but I still learned new styles and names from Nguyen. After reading the book, it’s reassuring to enter a new restaurant, review the dumpling offerings, and know exactly where to start.

Fry them? Why would you not?
Both Asian and dumpling are defined broadly in the book, so we have the expected wealth of Chinese pan-fried, deep-fried, and steamed dumplings, but also samosas and moong dal vada from India, Filipino lumpia, Spring rolls, and Indonesian lemper ayam (spiced rice and chicken wrapped in a banana leaf). There are snacks from Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal, Japan, Mongolia, and Korea — stuffed buns, pastries, various rolls, and sweet dumplings. Eat them plain or dip them in the flavored oils, sauces, chutneys described at the end of the book.

The recipes represent a transcontinental dim sum feast from India to Japan. Whether you follow Nguyen’s recipes to the letter or use her clear techniques and line drawings to develop your own fillings, folds, and doughs, there is enough inspiration here to last months. Or, in my case, years.

Come over and have dumplings if you like. Shoot, have a seat and help me make a few dozen, but if you want the book, you’ll have to get your own copy.

Andrea Nguyen (2009)
Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More
240 pages, hardback
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 1580089755

Goes well with:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Egyptian Punch, An Untried Recipe

The milk punch family is divided into two main braches: whole and strained. The sort of milk punch you’re likely to encounter in New Orleans is what I call a whole-milk punch. Such a punch might be made with cream or milk, but the result is creamy, boozy, and takes on the color of the dairy that goes into it. Egg nog, brandy milk punch, bourbon milk punch, or even LSU Tiger’s milk punch are fair examples. In rare cases they are aged, but generally are served soon after mixing the ingredients.

The other sort is a strained milk punch. These have fallen from fashion and you’re less likely to encounter one. These are generally aged and mixed with high-acid citrus (such as lemon) that curdle the milk. They are then strained through filters such as flannel, cheesecloth, or paper. Fernand Point’s Liqueur du Grapillon is one example. Old American recipes for English or Italian lemonade call for the same technique: Mix sugar, lemon, milk, and sometimes spirits, let it stand to curdle, then strain and age the liquid. When it’s ready to drink, the resulting beverage is clear — though possibly colored by the spirits or other ingredients such as hibiscus.

Thumbing through the 1915 Pan-Pacific Cookbook, I came across a recipe for such a strained milk punch. I haven’t tried it yet, but the recipe is certainly older than 1915 and not particularly Egyptian. For the record, here’s
Egyptian Punch

Pare the thin rinds of eighteen lemons into a stone jar and cover with five pints each of Jamaica rum and whiskey; cover and let stand for thirty hours; add the lemon juice, three pounds of loaf sugar, two grated nutmegs, four quarts of water and, last, two quarts of boiling milk. Let it stand for half an hour, then mix well and strain — first, through a flannel bag and then through filter paper. Pout into bottles and cork tightly. The punch will be of light amber color and very clear. It improves with age.

Goes well with:
  • Erik Ellestad has written about about strained milk punches at Underhill Lounge. He's not the first to write about Rum Hibiscus Milk Punch, but I do like his photos.
  • Fernand Point’s Liqueur du Grapillon
  • Bourbon House in New Orleans once served cantaloupe bourbon milk punch. It's not an everyday offering, but check in during warm weather and you might just find it churning away in the freezer behind the bar. 
  • A brochure from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition — the Pan-Pacific in the cookbook's title — held in San Francisco (from the Museum of the City of San Francisco).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Donnie’s Spice Mix and Louis Szathmary’s Chef’s Salt

Cooks around the world — and companies that cater to them — create seasoning mixes to speed and streamline cooking. It’s so much easier to reach for a jar or a shaker holding a mix than to try to measure a teaspoon of this and a quarter-teaspoon of that while the stove is on and the pan spattering.

Donnie's, not yet mixed
Of course, there are foreign mixes with familiar names that aren’t necessarily part of our everyday cooking. Think of France’s quatre épices, Indian garam masala, ras al hanout from North Africa, or Chinese five-spice powder. Closer to home, we have Lowry’s and Mrs. Dash with their respective seasoning salts, while Tony Chachere spices Louisiana dishes in homes far beyond his own, and it seems that California serial restaurateur Juanita Musson barely knew a dish that couldn’t benefit from a dash of Vege-Sal.

Poke around my cabinets and you’ll find a few such mixes. I’m partial to several from Penzey’s, the Midwestern spice monger. Two jars in particular I never let go empty: chef’s salt from a recipe by Hungarian chef Louis Szathmary and — a recent addition to the larder and a bigger jar — Donald Link’s mixture he calls Donnie’s Spice Mix from his book Real Cajun.

This chef’s salt is one I’m likely to use to season roast beef, to strew on hot candied pecans, or to spike potatoes roasted in duck fat or (as my great-grandmother called it) goose grease.
Louis Szathmary’s Chef’s Salt

1 cup of salt
1 Tbl Spanish paprika
1 tsp black pepper, ground
¼ tsp white pepper, ground
¼ tsp celery salt
¼ tsp garlic salt

Mix and store in a dry place. In The Chef’s Secret Cook Book (1971), Szathmary notes: “Be sure to use garlic salt, not garlic powder. If you use garlic powder, a small pinch is enough.”
Link’s seasoning mix, on the other hand, has no salt at all. It’s a more pungent mix with a warm, mellow bite. If you use it, you’ve got to add salt separately. I tend to double the recipe each time I make it and it helps my budget that I buy spices in bulk at a nearby market with a substantial Middle Eastern customer base.
Donnie’s Spice Mix

4 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder

Again, mix and store in a dry place. For the chili powder, I use pure ground New Mexican red chile rather than a commercial chili mix. It's your kitchen: use the powder you want. Just make sure it's long on flavor and has some oomph.
This one I use on eggs, in gumbos, in various soups, meats for the grill, and vegetable dishes. It’s the spice mix I reach for when I open the cabinet door and am not sure what I want. I’ve grilled great lamb chops by mixing this in equal measure with ground cumin then adding salt and a small dash of oil. Despite the cayenne, it’s not a blistering hot spice mix. I’m lavish with this stuff. When the paprika costs about $8 a pound, I can afford to be.

Goes well with:

Monday, October 4, 2010

If It’s Monday, We're Eating Red Beans

Around New Orleans, respectable bowls of red beans and rice may be had any day of the week. It’s been that way since before my grandparents were born. The combination is so interwoven into the fabric of the city that hometown son Louis Armstrong declared his loyalty to the place by signing off his letters red beans and ricely yours.

Many aficionados of the local legume maintain that Monday — blue Monday, the old traditional washing day — is the proper day for red beans and rice. With minimal up-front preparation, some spicy meat and almost Spartan seasoning, a pot of beans can bubble away on the stove quietly while housekeepers tend to other household chores.

It’s true that I’ve made red beans on Wednesdays, Fridays, and other heretical times of the week. So bet it. Calendrical orthodoxy is not one of my virtues. But tonight, a large cast iron pot of red beans and another of South Louisiana medium grain rice will grace our table for dinner. There will be sausage and hot sauce as well.

Below are two recipes: one from Camellia, the go-to brand found in nearly every New Orleans grocery store, and one the way I (more or less) do it. More-or-less because I tend to eyeball ingredients rather than measure them in neat teaspoons and ounces, so the taste is always familiar, but rarely exactly the same. I like mine more aggressively seasoned than the company’s recipe, but not so much that I obscure the taste of the beans themselves.

Red Beans Rowley Style

1 lb red kidney beans, rinsed and soaked overnight
1 lb heavily-smoked andouille sausage*, diced

The Sofrito
Vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced
1 handful (less than 1 cup) celery, diced
5-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced

The Seasonings
2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp onion granules
½ tsp hot chile powder (cayenne, Aleppo, or pasilla de Oaxaca)
2 bay leaves

Preheat a large Dutch oven, add a splash of oil, and add the andouille. Brown the sausage and set it aside. Add a bit more oil, then sauté the sofrito ingredients until limp. Add the soaked beans and the browned sausage, all of the seasonings and enough water to cover by 1-2 inches. Bring the pot to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring now and then, until the beans are soft and creamy, but still hold their shape. This will take an hour and a half to two hours. Something like that. Serve over hot cooked white rice and toss on a grilled or sauteed pork sausage if the feeling grips you.

The recipe that appears on bags of Camellia red beans is a stalwart washday recipe, a little more streamlined than my version.

Camellia's Famous New Orleans Style Red Beans

1 lb Camellia Brand Red (Kidney) Beans
1/2 lb ham or seasoning meat
8-10 cups water
1 onion, chopped
1 toe garlic, chopped
2 Tbs celery, chopped
2 Tbs parsley, chopped
1 large bay leaf
Salt to taste

Rinse and sort beans. Cover beans with water and start to cook over low fire. Render meat in skillet, remove and set aside. In skillet, sauté onion, garlic, parsley and celery in meat drippings. Add meat, bay leaf, salt and pepper to beans. Boil gently, stirring occasionally for about 1-1/2 hours, or until tender. Add water while cooking if necessary. Serve with long grain rice.

Goes well with:
  • In her book Gumbo Tales, Sara Roahen devoted an entire chapter to red beans and, specifically, to New Orleans author and raconteur Pableaux Johnson who makes something of a fuss about them. Johnson (whose red beans I’ve had at a great big table filled with guests) offers yet another version with canned red beans. Check out his recipe at Red Beans Roadshow
  • When I'm in South Louisiana, I often hit the town of LaPlace, about a half hour west of the New Orleans Airport, to load up on heavily smoked andouille sausage. If you can't get there yourself, Jacob's will ship. cajunsausage.com
  • I am a Meat Wagon — a story about getting stopped smuggling andouille after a trip to LaPlace.