Tuesday, November 19, 2013

San Diego Bartender Challenge

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages: be advised that tonight and tonight only, a cohort of San Diego bartenders are going mano a mano in the fourth annual Bartender Challenge.

Held each year at El Dorado cocktail lounge, the challenge pits bartenders making drinks against each other in elimination bouts until only one remains, a champion bestowed with $200 in walking around money, the coveted Otis Buffalo Memorial Trophy, and a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon.

The twist? Each round a new secret ingredient, Iron Chef style, is introduced to the mix. Bartenders mix a drink on the fly using the secret ingredient and an arsenal of bitters, modifiers, juices, garnishes, and whatnot in four minutes.

Come on down; the Bartender Challenge is always a fun time and a chance to meet up with staff from some of the city's great watering holes in one place. I'll be there, taking a rare weeknight break from a handful of book projects while projecting the mien of a sober and stoic judge.

For the first few rounds, anyway. Judging cocktails is thirsty work.

2013 Competing Bartenders:

Sarah Ellis — Jayne's Gastropub
Ryan Kuntz — El Dorado
Leigh Lacap — Craft & Commerce
Eric Johnson — Sycamore Den
Hass Mahmood — Lion's Share
Anthony Schmidt — Noble Experiement (2 Time Champ)
Christian Siglin — Banker's Hill Bar & Restaurant (Defending Champ)
Christy Spinella — Polite Provisions

And the judges:

Trevor Easter — West Coast Brand Ambassador for Beefeater/Plymouth Gins
Lindsay Nader — Brand Ambassador for Absolut Spirits
Brooke Arthur — Brand Ambassador for House Spirits Distillery
Levi Walker — Craft spirits manager at Young’s Market Company
Matthew Rowley — Oh, hey, that’s me. Historian and author.


Fourth Annual Bartender Challenge
7pm Tuesday, November 19th 2013
El Dorado Cocktail Lounge
1030 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tabasco Sauce in the Applejack

All but the most degenerate boozers reach for some drinks before others. Nothing wrong with having our favorites, although the punctilious zealotry of the martini and mint julep crowds can get overbearing. Throw all the juices, syrups, tinctures, spices, and whatnot at the modern bartender's command into the equation and folks can get downright obsessive about what works in their cups and what doesn't. "Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves," wrote opinionated Kentucky bullshitter Irvin S. Cobb, "would put scorpions in a baby's bed." Exaggeration. Probably. Who knows? Cobb lied like it was his job. Because it was his job. But scorpions, though? Best to keep that old corn guzzler away from babies and not chance it.

Hot sauce is where I usually put on the brakes when it comes to cocktails. All things being equal, a dose of cayenne, chipotle, or tabasco peppers in the glass will generally make me pass. The heat's no problem. In fact, we bust out homemade hot sauces for weekend breakfasts and weeknight dinners often.  On a hot day, a round or three of micheladas hits the spot. When the temptation to mix chiles and liquor occasionally does strike, it's liable to take the guise of a Snapper, that vastly superior Bloody Mary cousin that replaces vodka with gin. We've used Cholula to good effect in a Caesar-type concoction titrated with the barest volume of absinthe. A sangrita with blanco tequila is not the worst option for daytime drinking. The common element? Tomato. Paired with and tempered by tomato, hot sauce might — just might — bring a drink together, but otherwise in most drinks the stuff is just gimmicky, an exercise in machismo, in how much heat one can handle. 

Or it's a prank. 

Back in Philadelphia, cheesemonger friends collected the oily drippings from fifty- and hundred-pound aging provolone cheeses in eight-ounce plastic tubs. After weeks or even months, they'd label the cloudy, yellowish — and pungent — accumulation Prank Juice. At some point, some jackass who needed taking down a peg was going to swallow that nightmare fluid. 

Hot sauce in so many drinks is kin to that South Philly prank juice. And the joke is old, old, old. From 1904 to 1908, cartoonist H.C. Greening penned a comic that featured Uncle George Washington Bings, Esquire, a literary descendant of cannonball-riding Baron Münchhausen and forefather of 1960's blowhard Commander McBragg. In the strips, Bings was a small-town braggart, forever telling tall tales about his exploits around the world. The Los Angeles Herald ran a six panel strip in 1905 which Bings belittles a fire-eater to villagers sitting around a bar's pot-bellied stove. "Why," he claims, "I could make that bluff look like a December frost." As he warms up to some choice braggadocio, the mischievous bartender dashes hot sauce in his applejack.

His reaction? Just about what you'd expect from anyone who'd been given a well-deserved dose of prank juice.

Too small? Click it!
Goes well with:
  • Allan Holtz's thumbnail on Greening and Uncle George Washington Bings in Stripper's Guide.
  • Clam Squeezin's, Absinthe, and the Bloody Fairy Cocktail — that Cholula thing I mentioned.
  • Applejack in the church lemonade? Sure, why not?
  • More apples. I wrote a piece on American apple spirits (including applejack, cider royal/cider oil, apple-based absinthe, and more) for Distiller magazine last Summer. Here it is.
  • More properly meant for mixing with pulled and chopped pork, the North Carolina barbecue sauce we make around here is not much more than vinegar and ground chiles. Nevertheless, it's great on eggs, red beans, and even the occasional gumbo. You're on your own if you put it in drinks. Here's the complete recipe
  • Historically, saloonkeepers and bootleggers might add hot chiles to alcohol to give the liquids a kick or bite and mask the taste of poorly made or adulterated beverages such as the swipes of 19th century Hawaii.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ivan Orkin on Hanjuku Tamago, Half-cooked Ramen Eggs

As I mentioned, I like buying things — whether they are kitchen tools, boots, whiskey, brandy, meals, or even writing gear — from artisans who pursue ideals with single-minded focus. In particular, I’ll revisit cooks and chefs who obsess over details. I’ve never visited one of Ivan Orkin’s restaurants, but when he dedicated the bulk of his recent book Ivan Ramen to the proper preparation of one single bowl of shio ramen (at least, the way he makes it), it was as if I’d stumbled across a lost cousin.

Orkin, a New Yorker who founded the small Tokyo noodle soup joint Ivan Ramen in 2007, has made a name for himself not just as a curiosity — a gaijin who makes ramen — but as a cook and restaurateur who makes proper Japanese noodle soup with meticulous attention to technique and ingredients. His book opens with a short biography and is sprinkled with a few interviews of ramen enthusiasts, then dives into recipes, over 40 pages of which detail the construction of a bowl of shio (“salt”) ramen. Forty. One bowl of noodles. Makes Julia Child’s recipes seem terse.

That’s not to say that the recipe for making the bowl of ramen as he makes it in his shop is difficult. Aside from the logistical obstacles a cook in London, Munich, or St. Louis might have finding the exact same chicken or flour, the recipe is straightforward; it’s long because Orkin gives the recipes for rendering chicken fat, for stock, for noodles, for making sofrito and shio tare (the mélange of salt, sofrito, and water that gives a salty flavor to Orkin's “salt” ramen).

And then there are eggs. Some weeks, I’ll slurp down three or four bowls of ramen and, when they are an option, I’ll include cooked eggs either in the bowl or on the side. Shops rarely get the eggs right. Often, they are so overcooked that a greenish-grey ring with more than just a whiff of dog farts surrounds the yolk. You shouldn’t even use those for egg salad or deviled eggs. Maybe for feeding the dog before letting her out of the night. But there’s another way to do eggs: hanjuku tamago, eggs with softly set whites and semi-liquid yolks.

Now these are eggs worth making.

David Chang in his Momofuku cookbook recommends cooking eggs at 5 minutes and ten seconds exactly. Orkin takes slightly longer in his Tokyo shop: six minutes and ten seconds. Get a timer if you don’t have one. Try these eggs. Find a time that works for your elevation, the size of eggs you use, and the degree of gooeyness you like in your yolk. Six minutes works for me about 200 feet above sea level in San Diego.

“My search for perfect eggs, Orkin writes in Ivan Ramen, “took me to innumerable egg farms.”
After an extensive search, I found one that tasted great, had the most brilliant orange yolks, and peeled easily. (Believe me, when you have to peel two hundred eggs a day, that's an important criterion.) Then I spent almost as much time figuring out how to cook the eggs properly as I did perfecting the noodles. But I've got it now: punch a pinhole in the bottom, boil for 6 minutes and 10 seconds, stirring gently for the first 2 minutes, then ice immediately. Once they're cool, the eggs are peeled and soaked in a light shoyu tare...Sliced in half and served at room temperature atop the ramen, the eggs are a perfect supporting cast member for the soup and noodles, adding an extra touch of color and unctuousness to the bowl.

Hanjuku Tamago, Half-Cooked Eggs for Ramen 

50 milliliters (3½ tablespoons) sake
50 milliliters (3½ tablespoons) mirin
200 milliliters (1¾ cup + 1 tablespoon) soy sauce
30 grams (2 tablespoons) sugar
40 grams (3 tablespoons) garlic, chopped coarsely
75 grams (2½ ounces) fresh ginger, chopped coarsely
6 room-temperature fresh large eggs
1 liter (1 quart) water
Simmer the sake and mirin in a saucepan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes to cook off a bit of the alcohol. Reduce the heat to low, then add the soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and ginger and simmer and stir for 10 minutes. Let come to room temperature; you can store the mixture in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. You want a big pot so that when the eggs go in, the temperature won't drop too drastically, and the water will quickly come back to a boil.
Poke a small hole in the bottom (larger end) of each egg with a pushpin.
Gently slide the eggs into the boiling water. Start your timer. Stir for the first 2 minutes. Prepare a large bowl of ice water to shock the eggs.
The total cooking time for a large egg in Tokyo is 6 minutes and 10 seconds. You might decide to adjust that time depending on the size of your eggs, how many you're cooking, or what the chickens were thinking about when they laid them.
Remove the eggs after 6 minutes and 10 seconds, and immediately place them in the ice bath. Stir until there are no pockets of hot water. 
In a large bowl, combine the shoyu tare with the liter of water. When the eggs are cooled completely—after about 15 minutes—peel and soak them in the seasoning liquid for 2 hours in the refrigerator. The eggs will hold in the soak for 3 days.
When it comes time to slice the eggs and add them to the ramen, a taut nylon fishing line gets the job done without losing any of the precious yolk.
Ivan Orkin with Chris Ying, forward by David Chang (2013)
Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint
224 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 978-1-6077-466-7

Goes well with:

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Since the early 1990’s, I must have seen writer/director Jûzô Itami’s 1985 film Tampopo a dozen times. Just recently, I watched it again on a flight from Berlin to London. Like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, it is a touchstone for me, something to revisit every few years, a work of humor, love, and obsession. Several vignettes ostensibly unrelated to the main plot nevertheless touch on it and its themes. One of my favorites involves a shopkeeper and his troublesome visitor...

Until that trip from Berlin. I had not fully appreciated how much the film had grown to inform and shape some of my own values. In it, the truck driver Goro meets Tampopo, a widowed mother who serves mediocre noodle soup in her small shop. Goro and a growing cohort of accomplices embark on a mission to turn Tampopo’s shop into the very best ramen joint around. An old ramen master joins, a canny chauffeur wise in the way of noodles, and a contractor with a secret. Competitors are tricked into revealing their methods and outright spying goes down. Along the way, viewers gain insight into what may make a proper bowl of Japanese noodle soup.

Ramen, as central as it is to the plot, is also a red herring. The movie is a celebration of the dish, sure, but more so it’s about single-minded pursuit of an ideal and that's something I can get behind. My taste is simple; I buy good things. There’s little point in laying out hard-earned money for cheap tools, clothes, food, furniture, or gear of any kind. Not everything has to be deluxe all the time, and I appreciate good value and the occasional quick-and-dirty fix to a problem, but in general I patronize artisans, distillers, designers, and cooks who buy into the pursuit of ideals, too, people and firms with tightly focused skills, whether that’s in barbecue, spätzle, blankets, knives, boots, whiskey, rum, or even paper and pens.

Over the next six to eight weeks, I’ll be kicking out ideas for holiday gifts. Not for me, mind you; I’ve already got most of this stuff. Rather, they will be things I’ve used and like — some booze, some books, a bit of gear and kit, a few ingredients worth having around.

First up: Tampopo. Netflix has it as a DVD or you can score a copy of an all-regions, letter-boxed release with English subtitles through Amazon

Monday, November 4, 2013

Southern Foodways Short Film Grants Announced

A note came over the transom today from the Southern Foodways Alliance announcing grants of $750 for professional, amateur, and student filmmakers to make short films related to food and drink of the American South. Notice the theme of inclusion and exclusion at the Southern table. Maybe something on bourbon, moonshine, or mountain tonics?

Although I was a board member of the SFA for several years, I'm not actively involved in this project, just passing on the news. Here're the details from the SFA, including contact information:

The SFA wants to hire you to make a short, web-ready film (2–5 minutes) about Southern food and drink for our Greenhouse Films series.

Visit our film and oral history archives to get an idea of the sort of documentary work we already do. We are interested in commissioning films that highlight under-represented people and places. This is especially true as we move into 2014, when SFA programming marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and examines inclusion and exclusion at the Southern table.

Appropriate lenses through which to explore this theme include, but are not limited to:
  • Race relations 
  • Sexuality/gender
  • The role of new minorities in the evolving landscape of Southern foodways
  • Nutrition and food access, especially as they relate to socio-economic class 
This call is open to professional, amateur, and student filmmakers of all ages and backgrounds. Greenhouse films carry a stipend of $750. Filmmakers whose ideas are accepted will be paid $250 upon delivery of satisfactory proof of concept, and receive the remaining $500 upon delivery of a finished film of 2–5 minutes. We are unable to offer any equipment, technological assistance, or travel expenses beyond the $750 total.

**A satisfactory proof of concept will include ONE of the following:
  • Trailer of 30 seconds to 1 minute, specific to your proposed SFA project.
  • Description of your proposed SFA project, accompanied by a previously completed short film that demonstrates your capabilities.
Please begin by sending us a brief e-mail introducing yourself and your project. Do not “blind submit” large files or links to file-sharing sites without contacting us first.

Applications are due by Monday, December 2.

SFA staff will choose projects based on director’s technical skills, narrative ability, and promise of topic. Successful applicants will be notified by December 16. SFA will work with accepted Greenhouse filmmakers to determine a reasonably prompt timeline for production.

To apply, please write Sara Camp Arnold at saracamp@southernfoodways.org.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bookshelf: Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook

“Can I ask you,” the clerk pressed, “as one American to another, why on Earth would you buy a British barbecue book?” For the past thirty minutes, I’d been pulling down books from the shelves of the Notting Hill bookstore where she worked and had set aside the lurid orange/red cookbook from the local Pitt Cue Co. on my ‘maybe’ stack. “Why waste your money? I mean, how are the Brits going to do barbecue better than anything than we can get back home?”

She had a point. When one thinks of the great barbecue centers of the world, Kansas City comes to mind. Austin. Memphis. Charlotte. American places, all. Pitt Cue, on the other hand, is a thirty-seat joint smack dab in central London; seat of an erstwhile Empire, sure, but cultural backwoods when it comes to barbecue.

Yet here’s the thing; you can find some good ‘cue in the backwoods.

Pickled Hot Dogs
The authors of the book — restaurateurs Tom Adams, Jamie Berger, Simon Anderson and Richard Turner — capture the spirit of barbecue better than some places I’ve sampled it in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and, yes, even places like Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky where they know good ‘cue. The reason the book interested me — and why I bought it a few days later at another store — is that they start with a strong framework and adapt it to local tastes and ingredients. These guys know full well that good barbecue involves smoke and long, low cooking.

Recipes include pulled pig’s head crubeens (normally made only pigs’ trotters and not smoked or nearly so spiced), Buffalo pigs’ tails with Stilton sauce, porger sausage (made with bacon, pork belly, dry-aged beef rib-eye, and pork shoulder), duck giblet sausages, mutton ribs, crumbed pigs’ cheeks, habanero pigs’ ears, mashed potatoes tricked out various ways (with whipped bone marrow, burnt ends, or lardo and rosemary), and plenty of pickles, slaws, and sides.

The recipes in the Pitt Cue Co. cookbook may not be what old-timers expect of smoked meats in the bastions of American barbecue, but many techniques and flavors will be familiar to Americans, even if the details are not quite what we’d expect. Avid eaters will find a lot to like — and you boozers will notice that the boys aren’t shy about lashing whiskey and other spirits around with someone approaching abandon. The drinks chapter alone is 37 pages. Recipes for ‘sweet stuff’ call for bourbon, Pimm’s No. 1 (used both in a sorbet and in a meringue-and-fruit Pimm’s Mess), and Grand Marnier. In a nod to the wine jellies once so popular in the UK — but sticking with the pig and whiskey themes — there’s an old-fashioned jelly, made old-fashioned not with wine but with the ingredients one would find in an Old Fashioned cocktail.

Fennel Cured Scratchings
The only caveat — and this is not a negative, just a bit of a heads up — is that the Pitt Cue Co. book, while drafted for home cooks, is very much a product of a kitchen geared for commercial cooking. Many recipes link to each other and rely on precursor sauces, condiments, or other preparations. What looks like a fairly straightforward recipe may, in fact, call for prunes soaked in whiskey for a month or brine from pomegranate pickles or for chicken, hot sauces, deviled pigs’ trotters, barbecue rubs and sauces, etc.. All it means is that you’ll want to read each recipe all the way through before starting it…but you do that anyway, right?

The next time you tackle a pork shoulder for sausage making, don't you dare toss out that skin. Use it in the sausage, drop chunks of it into baked beans, or season it and roll it into a tight cylinder, cook it, slice it, and deep-fry it for a quick bar snack or appetizer. From Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook, here’s crunchy, salted pork skin with the faint Italian-sausage nip of fennel. The only change I'd make it to include a bit of crushed red pepper (such as Aleppo) in the dry cure.
Fennel Cured Scratchings
250 g pork skin, from a whole skinned pork shoulder
15 g Dry Cure (see below)
Oil for deep-frying 
Sprinkle both sides of the skin with the dry cure, then roll up the skin into a sausage (like an Arctic roll) so that the fat side remains on the inside. Place the sausage on a long length of clingfilm and roll it up very tightly. Tie off each end so that the roll is watertight and leave in the fridge for at least 24 hours. 
Bring a medium pan of water to a gentle simmer and add the roll of skin. Weight it down with a heatproof plate and simmer over a low heat for 1 hour, until the roll is squidgy and soft to touch. Remove from the pan and leave to cool, then refrigerate until you are ready to cook. 
Unwrap the skin from the clingfilm and slice the roll of skin into 5mm rings. Heat the oil to 180°C in a deep-fat fryer or large saucepan and fry the rings for 4-5 minutes, or until golden and crispy. The scratchings should not need seasoning.
For the dry rub, the authors suggest a 50:50 mix of Maldon sea salt and smoked Maldon sea salt. While we like using flaky Maldon salt, there’s no particular need to search out that and only that salt if it means paying exorbitant import prices. In the US, plain kosher salt is fine — and if you can get your hands on good smoked salt, do as they say and work it in as half the quantity. This version omits the 150 grams of brown/molasses sugar called for in their regular dry rub.
Pitt Cue Co. Dry Cure 
1 kilo/2.2 lbs salt
10g cracked black pepper
1 star anise, finely ground

10 g fennel seeds, toasted and crushed
Mix all ingredients in a bowl until they are thoroughly combined.
Tom Adams, Jamie Berger, Simon Anderson and Richard H. Turner (2013)
Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook
288 pages (hardback)
Mitchell Beazley
ISBN: 1845337565

Available from Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, or Books for Cooks.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Swipes, the Pruno of Territorial Hawaii

"Honolulu's Queer Dope"
Omaha Daily Bee
30 September 1900
Swipes may sound like some modern cleaning product, but, in fact, the term refers to a style of intoxicating drinks from mid- to late-nineteenth century Hawaii. We are fortunate, perhaps, that swipes seem extinct.

An analogy for those who have spent time in the California penal system; swipes were the pruno of territorial Hawaii — by all accounts, low-alcohol brew made, at its best, from sweet potatoes, honey, sugar, molasses, bread fruit, and other produce or cane products brewers and bootleggers could get their hands on. The ingredients, however, were classic moonshine ingredients; anything fermentable, nearby, and cheap went into the pot. At its worst, the stuff was a toxic slop adulterated by unscrupulous bootleggers for desperate classes of drinkers.

A 1900 article on 'Honolulu's Queer Dope' (see right) reports that drinkers develop a "terrible thirst" but that the water they drink brings on fresh waves of intoxication. "It is said that four or five glasses of doctored swipes will keep a man drunk for two or three days if water is taken after awakening from the drunken sleep."

I mention swipes because they wander into some of the territory normally reserved for the rhetorical excesses of moonshine opponents. The adulterations especially — the cayenne pepper, and kerosene, and whatnot — that were added to fake potency resonate with the adulterations attributed to moonshiners and bootleggers on the Mainland. The reputation of swipes parallels that of modern inner-city moonshine: only a fool or someone too poor to afford properly made alcohol would drink it.

An 1899 article sets up swipes, garnished with the paternalism and racism of the time:
Swipes cause the police more trouble than all other police court factors put together. If you ask an experienced police court magistrate what the stuff is made of he will reply by asking you what it isn’t made of. In its purest state it is fermented from taro, rice, bread crust or anything else that contains starch. But fermentation from such materials is too slow a process to meet emergencies in which swipes are called on. The native in his domestic and primitive social life hasn't the forethought to set his taro fermenting against the time when he will be called on to extend hospitality to some chance visitor, or provide a luau for his neighbors who unexpectedly call.

The emergency arises and to meet it he goes to some Chinaman or renegade Hawaiian who has descended to the degradation of avarice and for a quarter gets a generous bottle of as vile a compound as ever wrecked a sound constitution or deranged nervous system. To a basis of fermented taro has been added kerosene, cayenne pepper, fusel oil and methylated spirits, till [sic] an oblivion of intellect, accompanied by maniacal combativeness, quickly follows its use. 
It is a most disastrous drink, as many of the soldiers who stop here on their way to Manila and accepted the hospitality of chance native Hawaiian acquaintance found to their sorrow.
~ Omaha Daily Bee, 17 January, 1899

Normally, I like to share historical recipes. You'll understand if I skip it this time.

Goes well with:
  • The 1900 article above mentions pineapple as a sometimes-ingredient of swipes. That's not what we use it for around here. More likely, we'll make vinegar out of pineapple (especially after using the hollowed-out fruit for tiki drink mugs) or pickle them. 
  • Visiting sailors and desperate drinkers aren't the only ones to his the sauce in Hawaii. In 1911, the Hawaiian Star printed a tall tale of feral hogs getting into a batch of the local moonshine known as okolehao.
  • What's pruno? You don't know? Aren't you sweet? Eric Gillin explains