Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Quick Small-Batch Half-Sour Pickles

It has been a common saying of physicians in England,
that a cucumber should be well sliced,
and dressed with pepper and vinegar,
and then thrown out, as good for nothing.

~ ascribed to Samuel Johnson in
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
James Boswell (1785)

Small, knobby pickling cucumbers are generally sold unwaxed so that, with little more than a scrub and a trim, they’re ready for the pickle barrel. But who has the space or need for a whole damn barrel of pickles? Not me.

Unlike 19th century Americans or Soviet-era Russians, I don’t put up summer’s bounty to survive harsh winters. I make them because I like the taste. Instead of a big barrel or crock, I tend to make pickles—watermelon, jicama, eggs, carrots, lemons, beets, peppers, whatever looks good at the market—in quart-sized batches. Many can ferment on the kitchen counter and may be ready to eat within just a few days.

Half-sour pickles are one of those counter pickles. It’s worth pointing out that half-sours aren’t half-done or half-ready; they’re cured quickly in low-salt brines. More salt, longer ferment and you’ve got sours. Different recipe. We’ll tackle those some other day.

Food writer John Thorne suggests an easy method to combat the air exposure that can cause the pickles to go bad. In his 1984 pamphlet The Dill Crock, Thorne recommends a plastic bag filled with brine to exclude air from a fermenting pickle. If it leaks at all, the brine inside is the same strength as what’s in the container, so the pickle doesn’t get diluted. I use a Ziploc bag to the same effect.

Final note: we trim the blossom ends of the cucumbers. It’s not strictly necessary, but the blossom ends may contain enzymes that could cause the pickles to go all soft and mushy. Not what we’re going for.

Quick Half-Sour Pickles
1 quart of pickling cucumbers

Brine for one quart of pickles
2 Tbl kosher salt
3 cups water (filtered or distilled)
½ tsp black pepper, coarsely crushed
½ tsp coriander seed, coarsely crushed
I head of fresh dill
½ tsp crushed red pepper (Aleppo if you’ve got it)
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

Gently scrub the cucumbers under running water to remove dirt and any particularly prominent spines on the nubs. Drain. Trim a thin slice from the blossom end and pack the cukes into a one-quart non-reactive container, such as glass or food-grade plastic.

Stir the salt and water until the salt dissolves. Add the aromatic/seasoning ingredients to the container with the cucumbers. Put the container on a plate to contain any possible dripping once fermentation begins.

Pour in enough brine to cover the cucumbers. Push a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag into the container’s aperture, fill it with the remaining brine, and seal. Cover with cheesecloth and secure it with a rubber band to keep out fruit flies or other flying little beasties you may discover are drawn to this stuff.

After a few days, the brine may begin giving off tiny bubbles. Keep an eye on it and skim off any white foam that rises to the surface, giving the bag a rinse if necessary. The cucumbers will begin turning darker and to taste, well, brined after just two days. Let them go for a week and they should turn olive green throughout. Remove the bag, skim any new foam, close container fast, and put in the fridge.

These are meant to be eaten in fairly quick order and are not intended for long storage. Make yourself a sandwich, grill up some burgers, or snack on them Russian style, with shots of vodka.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Beer: Gateway to Whiskey

At a cocktail conference, a certain amount of rejiggering is expected. With Tales of the Cocktail only two weeks away, it's high time to see what needs rearranging. Wouldn't want to miss a free drink, now.

Needless to say, I'm excited about the upcoming annual event, but one session in particular made me certain not to miss it this year. Chris Sule, distiller at Old New Orleans Rum, has put together a panel discussion called "From Brewer to Distiller" that explores the sensibilities brewers bring to the game when they turn to distilling. Check out the preview here.

Last year Chris pulled out the stops for Mike McCaw's workshop on operating a small modern column still (in that case, a PDA-1 from the Amphora Society). Given the concerns of the NOFD (something about...explosions?), Mike wasn't allowed to distill on site, but Chris brought in waves of foreshots, heads, tails, and hearts to pass around and illustrate the smells and tastes typical in various stages distilling process. It was, perhaps, the most rank smelling room in the hotel that week. And an absolute delight.

Mike, Ian Smiley, and I followed with a panel talk on what we called, tongues in cheeks, nano-distilling: that is, very small batches typical of modern home distillers. Needless to say, we weren't the only distillers there.

As the three of us talked about our backgrounds, it came out that we all began as homebrewers. Maybe it's the experimental bent of brewers or the small batches that encourage much tweaking and adjusting and succumbing to the temptation of strange ideas. But it's undeniable: There's something about making your own beer—once you do it enough—that just says whiskey is the most natural next step.

Sule joins Ray Deter (d.b.a New Orleans and d.b.a. NYC), Jess Graber (Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey), and hos won brother, noted home brewer Charles Sule, for a discussion about what brewers bring to the craft once they catch the distilling bug.

Hosted by Old New Orleans Rum, the 90-minute session will include tastings of whiskey mash as well as several spirits made by former and current brewers. Expect an enthusiastic examination of the “new state of American beer and spirits, drawing parallels, crafting contrasts, and telling the story of where we were, where we’re at, and where we’re going.”

Thursday, July 9, 2009 2:30-4:00 PM in the Riverview Room at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. A review of the calendar suggests I'll be in that same room all day...


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bread and Butter Bar Eggs

This Spring, my bread and butter pickles took a hard left turn. Bread and butters, after kosher-style dills, are arguably the most well-known cucumber pickle in the US. My recipe is pretty consistent from batch to batch, but this time I couldn’t leave well enough alone and got chickens involved.

As I’ve mentioned before, pickled bar eggs are a particular favorite of mine, even if they are a bit old fashioned (or just plain divey). Here and there, you still find bars that have a large glass jug with pickled eggs bobbing around in vinegar and bay leaves. Whether they really rise and fall with changes in the barometric pressure—as some flannel-mouthed bartenders claim—is a question for another day.

Some of my pickled egg experiments don’t turn out as well as hoped (the Cape Malay masala version needs work). Overall, though, eggs make great spiced pickles, exactly the kind I’d like to see more often grace back bars for hungry drinkers. The smack and tang of vinegar also make them a good mid-day snack when I’m peckish, but don’t want to eat a whole meal. A pinch of salt, maybe some Sriracha hot sauce, and I'm good.

When the latest batch of bread and butter cukes was down to just a few slices, the jar still held nearly a quart of pickle juice flavored with seeds of celery and mustard and the ubiquitous turmeric (the rhizome that turns ballpark mustard yellow). Rather than pitch it, I cooked a batch of eggs, slipped them into the spiced liquid, and pushed the jug to the back of the fridge. After two weeks, the eggs firmed, turned a luminous turmeric yellow, and took on the definite sweet-and-sour tang of the original pickle.

Here’s the shortcut to make them without the cucumber prelude. Remember, hardboiled eggs are a mistake. If you’re boiling them, you’re doing it wrong. See here for easy instructions on cooking eggs without that sulfurous, stanky green ring.
Bread and Butter Bar Eggs

2 dozen hard-cooked eggs, peeled
1 lb onion
1 ½ Tbl kosher or sea salt
1 ½ tsp celery seed
1 tsp powdered turmeric
¼ tsp cracked allspice (or 1 tsp pimento dram)
1 Tbl each brown and yellow mustard seeds
4 cups cider vinegar
3 ½ cups light brown sugar

Peel and slice the onions into half-moons, about ¼” wide. Toss with the salt in a nonreactive bowl and set aside for an hour. Rinse and drain.

In a nonreactive pot, add the remaining ingredients (except the eggs) and bring to a boil. Stir as needed to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer 3-5 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let cool to room temperature.

Place the eggs in a nonreactive container, such as a big glass preserving jar or food-grade plastic, and pour the liquid over them. Cover and refrigerate. The eggs should be fully pickled in two weeks, but even a few days will make a dramatic difference.
Serve with beer, whiskey, boilermakers, a pinch of salt, and a grind of pepper. Get all fancy if you like and slice them into quarters lengthwise for adding to salads. Toss them in a picnic basket or a shoebox lunch.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Felony, She Wrote

Sutton, who favored a long, unkempt beard and overalls,
typified the American moonshiner. Devoted to his hobby
and fiercely opposed to the law that prohibits it,
Sutton produced high-proof spirits at home.

~ Eric Arnold

If Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton was a hobbyist distiller, then I'm Angela Lansbury. This week forbes.com published Eric Arnold's short piece Moonshine: More than a Hobby. It seems that Arnold's heart is in the right place, but he didn't quite get his head around the concept. Starting off with the recently-deceased Popcorn Sutton was a clue that yet another article was about to flub the home distilling story.

Sutton, who seemingly killed himself this Spring, was indeed a moonshiner, but for him moonshine was a business. Max Watman, writing for Gourmet, says that when Sutton was busted by authorities (again), his three stills each had a capacity of 1,000 gallons. That's not a hobby. Joe Blow or Jane Smith making a gallon of brandy or whiskey at a time for family and friends—that's a hobby.

Both moonshining and home distilling draw on long traditions of folk distilling—and both are fine by me. But let's keep our terms straight. Sutton got busted because he was making massive amounts of illegal liquor and flaunting his activities through a book, interviews, and even an Emmy-nominated documentary by filmmaker Neal Hutcheson. Trying to sell nearly 850 gallons of shine to authorities just isn't on the same scale as trading baseball cards. That's a capitalist venture of a shrewd self-marketer.

Goes well with:
  • Max Watman's book, Chasing the White Dog, will feature more Popcorn stories—as true as one can get with Sutton, I imagine. It's scheduled for a 2010 release and I, for one, can't wait. Subtitled An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine, Watman does indeed look into the business end of making illicit liquor—which is solidly where Sutton's story belongs.
  • Paul Clarke, writing in Imbibe, gets the hobbyist distilling story right. His 2009 article New Moon Rising is one of the more articulate and accurate portrayals of what's going on in home distilling these days. That is, it jives most consistently with what I've been seeing develop over the last 20 years.
  • Renee Davidson's piece Whiskey Geeks Keep Moonshine Tradition Alive for wired.com was one of the first modern articles that set aside outdated notions about mountaineer moonshiners and concentrated on what was really happening in the field.

Monday, June 15, 2009

MxMo XL: Bai Nai Punch

In Thai, bai nai means "Where are you going?" For my friends Barry and Rebecca, who have spent some time in Thailand and just married last month, the common greeting seemed a fitting name for a drink to mark their wedding day.

Since this month’s Mixology Monday's theme is ginger, it’s doubly fitting. More than that, maybe: Matt "Rumdood" Robold is hosting MxMo XL: Ginger this month, so it'll be worth checking in later in the week to see what cocktail recipes have been delivered to his door. The Bai Nai punch uses ginger syrup as well as falernum, a Barbadian syrups flavored with cloves, lime, and other ingredients, including ginger.

The drink is particularly suited to large gatherings such as weddings, pool parties, beach outings, or backyard cookouts. The recipe for the Bai Nai—based on Dale DeGroff’s Perfect Passion from his 2009 book The Essential Cocktail—yeilds a single serving. The syrup recipes that go into it, though, have large yields because they are particularly versatile. While I like DeGroff’s original recipe with its muddled ginger, strawberries, and lychees, it would have been a monster hassle to make it one drink at a time for 180 guests. Instead, I scaled it, made some substitutions, rejiggered the measurements…and added an ingredient.

Lychees provide an exotic but elusively familiar element—the taste is something like table grapes, but clearly not just that, and the aroma is unmistakable (once you know what it is). To give the recipe an additional lychee flavor and aroma boost, I added a small amount of Soho, a lychee liqueur imported by Pernod Ricard. Use it with a light touch—it's tasty, but it doesn’t take much to be too much.
Bai Nai Punch

1.5 oz vodka or 40-45% abv neutral spirits
1 oz. strawberry/lychee syrup (see below)
.75 oz lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
.5 oz falernum
.25 oz ginger syrup (see below)
.25 oz Soho Lychee liqueur

Shake with ice. Strain into stemmed cocktail glass. Garnish with a paper umbrella anchored with an orange slice.

The Syrups

Ginger Syrup
4 oz fresh ginger root, peeled, and cut into small dice
24 oz water
.5 oz fresh lime juice
1 tsp lime zest
1.5 c Demerara sugar

Bring the water almost to a boil in a pan. Add ½ cup to a blender with the ginger. Process briefly to shred the ginger. Rinse out the blender with the remaining hot water, then transfer the ginger mixture back to the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and add the remaining ingredients. Leave at a bare simmer for an hour (do not boil). Let cool and strain.
Yield: about 24 ounces
Strawberry/lychee syrup
6 pints fresh strawberries
6 12-oz cans of lychees
2.5 quarts simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water)
The light syrup from two lychee cans

Wash and hull the berries. Add them with the lychees to a large plastic container. Add half the simple syrup and roughly chop with an immersion blender. Add the remaining syrups, cover, and let sit overnight in the refrigerator. Strain.
Yield: about 90 ounces


Tales of the Cocktail 2009

In the last two years, I’ve spent more time in New Orleans than in any place other than my own home. Now it’s time to head back.

Tales of the Cocktail, the annual homage to mixed drinks, kicks off July 8th in the French Quarter. Headquartered at the Hotel Monteleone, Tales brings together bartenders, distillers, writers, cocktail bloggers, and the public from around the world for five days of seminars, workshops, talks, panels, dinners, and sampling.

Lots…and lots of sampling.

For a preview of what’s to come, check out the collaborative Tales Blog. Entries from cocktail bloggers around the world present interviews, snapshot of upcoming sessions, suggestions for surviving such copious amounts of alcohol (hint: just because it’s paid for, tasty, and in front of you doesn’t mean you have to drink it).

Chris Sule, distiller at Old New Orleans Rum, has spearheaded a session I’m particularly excited to attend. In fact, it’s a big reason why I’m coming this year. From Brewer to Distiller takes a look at what happens when beer brewers get their hands on a still. It is also a chance to examine what unique sensibilities—if any—brewers bring to the table when they start making rums, whiskeys, absinthes, brandies, and other spirits. My preview of the session is on the Tales Blog here.

Thursday, July 9 from 2:30-4:00 PM at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans.

You bet I’ll be there.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bookshelf: Tiki Mugs: Cult Artifacts of Polynesian Pop

The fact that many of the mugs
were purchased (or even stolen)
by our parents and grandparents,
during nights of naïve debauchery
their heyday,
was just cool.

~ Holden Westland

When I was a kid, my mother’s expression tiki-tacky captured her disdain for vulgar kitsch of any kind. Around our house back then, the faux-Polynesian escapism of mid-century drinkers was the epitome of bad taste; outside a velvet Jesus, tiki was about as lowbrow as you could get.

These days, tiki’s star is looking a lot more polished. If you are too young to have caught it the first time around, you’re in luck—tiki is on the rise again in America. Enthusiasts up and down the west coast and across the nation are donning Hawaiian shirts, digging out Martin Denny music, and cracking open rum and homemade orgeat to blend some of the best tropical drinks we’ve seen in a very long time. They’re also hunting down the right mugs in which to put those drinks.

Even in the Whiskey Forge, a growing little herd of ceramic tiki mugs graces the copper-topped dry sink where my grandfather mixed his nightly manhattans. Two of them, orange-lined matte black Miehana mugs, are birthday presents to Morpheus from…my mother.

What a difference a few decades make.

One or two mugs doesn’t make a collection. But a little herd—especially a growing one—starts to sound suspiciously like something that would benefit from a guide or a handbook to explain what’s what. Stepping up nicely is Jay Strongman’s Tiki Mugs: Cult Artifacts of Polynesian Pop.

Strongman spends nearly 60 pages laying out the origins and evolution of tiki, an American construct and romanticized mashup of South Pacific designs, architecture, food, art, history, natural history, anthropology, and sex brought together brought together under the umbrella of drink.

In its heyday in the 1950’s-70’s, tiki was everywhere. More than any other aspect of tiki culture, the mug is perhaps the best known and most widely available. A recent tiki revival centered in California has created a broader demand for old mugs and inspired modern artists to produce original designs. Some are eye-popping.

Unlike your everyday coffee mug or teacup, tiki mugs are figural representations of humans, idols, monsters, and fanciful animals. Heads usually dominate the design. The mugs draw on Polynesian arts, but also tap other traditions. So, mugs styled after Hawaiian, Maori, Rarotongan, or Easter Island Moai patterns and carvings are clearly tiki, but skulls and Amazonian Jivaro-style shrunken heads are popular. Monkeys and apes, too. Even spaceships, aliens, and robots. Some you can put in the dishwasher—others deserve spots in museums. [This is not idle/idol praise: with degrees in anthropology and museum administration, I am a curatorial collector by inclination, training, and practice.]

By the time I learned about tiki as a kid, it was already passé and the mugs were practically cast-offs at garage sales, flea markets, and swap meets. The larger bowls meant to hold communal drinks were sold as planters for ferns and aspidistra. These days, you can still collect some without breaking the bank, but be aware that particularly rare mugs fetch hundreds of dollars and limited releases sell out quickly.

With hundreds of color photos over 175 pages and an introduction by Tiki Farm’s Holden Westland, Strongman’s enthusiasm shines through on every page. Tiki Mugs guides the would-be collector and casual enthusiast though the major producers and designers, lists websites for buying and trading mugs as well as covering tiki culture more broadly, and breaks mugs down into easy-to understand categories.

Quite simply, each and every tiki enthusiast from San Clemente to Vladivostok should own a copy.

Tiki Mugs: Cult Artifacts of Polynesian Pop
Jay Strongman (foreward by Holden Westland) (2009)
Korero Books
ISBN: 0955339812
Buy it here.

Goes well with:
  • For tiki aficionados on the go, the canny Beachbum Berry has introduced an iPhone app that presents—with photos—nearly every drink recipe from four of his books. Use it. Repeatedly.
  • An old clip of Martin Denny playing his classic "Quiet Village" in totally, absolutely, not-at-all-idealized and 100% authentic Hawaiian village:

Oh, and for my birthday? It’s in August. Tiki mugs. Just sayin’.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Smuggler's Cove: Fall 2009

I don't usually rely on press releases. Not when sitting down to actually write, that is. But this one is so big that it's going on the Forge verbatim. Martin Cate, formerly of Forbidden Island tiki bar in Alameda, California, is opening a new rum bar in San Francisco this November named Smuggler's Cove. Martin's a master with sugar cane spirits and, as much as anyone alive today, captures the spirit of tiki.

Mahalo, Martin.




SAN FRANCISCO, CA- This fall, San Francisco will become home to Smuggler’s Cove, a new bar designed to celebrate the incredible diversity and versatility of the world’s most exciting spirit: Rum. Smuggler’s Cove offers a whole new approach to rum by featuring a vast array of traditional Caribbean drinks, classic libations of Prohibition-Era Havana, and famous exotic cocktails from legendary tiki bars- all under one roof. In addition, Smuggler’s Cove will offer an unparalleled selection of rare and premium rums from around the world carefully selected for enjoying on their own or skillfully blended into cocktails. For over a decade, owner and creator Martin Cate has been passionate about rum & tropical cocktails. He was the co-creator, designer and chief mixologist for Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda, CA. He has judged in international rum competitions, met with over a dozen rum distillers in five countries, and lectured at Bourbon and Branch’s Beverage Academy, Tales of the Cocktail, and Tiki Oasis. “I am very excited to help showcase this wonderfully varied spirit both on its own and in delicious cocktails. A great rum drink can be simple and elegant, or complex and dynamic, but it must always be balanced, approachable, and just a pleasure to drink,” says Martin Cate. “Too often, people associate rum with syrupy and artificial drinks and we’re here to change that.” Martin has traveled the world to learn the rich history and explore the traditional spices and regional ingredients of the world’s rum producing countries in order to feature them in the cocktails of Smuggler’s Cove. As an award-winning mixologist and member of the United States Bartenders Guild for the last four years, Martin is committed to using only the best quality spirits, fresh-squeezed juices, and housemade ingredients. But while Martin is serious about the drinks, he knows that people are looking for a memorable and fun experience as well. “Smuggler’s Cove will be more than just a tiki bar, but it will feature the kind of dramatic, mysterious, and escapist atmosphere that makes a tiki bar so special- and makes rum taste better!” Smuggler’s Cove will include waterfalls, vintage nautical décor and rum memorabilia, and relics from some of San Francisco’s most famous historic watering holes. Smuggler’s Cove will open November 2009 in San Francisco, CA.

You best your ass I'll be there.


Bookshelf: Sips & Apps

Should we finish off the beluga
or should we have
some smoked salmon and nibbly things?

~ Edina Monsoon
Absolutely Fabulous

Its cover notwithstanding, a books’ title does reveal something about what’s inside. Kathy Casey’s Sips & Apps trumpets its approach from the very first word. Who else other than those “in the biz” would refer to cocktails as “sips” or, more pointedly, to appetizers as “apps?”

The title lets you know that this writer—and, by extension, her readers—are busy and efficient people who simply don’t have time for superfluous syllables. Furthermore, Casey’s accomplishments listed in the back—celebrity chef, mixologist, TV and radio personality, author of nine cookbooks, founder of a food and beverage consulting firm, owner of cafes and a specialty food line—anchor the book firmly in the realm of multitasking food professionals. Those who aspire to emulate such professionals will find much to like here.

If your tastes run to Martha Stewart-style presentation, Sips & Apps is going to be right up your alley. The book is clearly laid out with straightforward instructions and some inspired recipes. Be warned, however, that a strong sense of precious pervades the pages, both in names and execution.

Take, for instance, the Lemon Meringue Puff cocktail with an actual baked meringue garnishing the drink. Or the Douglas Fir Sparkletini based on a Douglas fir-infused gin. Other than, perhaps, Kaiser Penguin, even the geekiest of cocktail geeks I know will balk at baking meringues for the sole purpose of floating on a cocktail.

And that…that sparkletini? The ingredients sound fine but its vapid “fun” name is deeply off-putting. Call the drink a Lumberjack and I’m much more likely to want one, even to make a batch myself. Check Casey’s instructions below and decide for yourself.

Overall, the recipes seem designed to elicit little gasps of pleasure and delight. Rather than say, a tailgate party, the appetizer recipes suggest special occasions such wedding receptions, bridal showers, gallery openings, and other catered events. Possibly holiday dinners, brunches, or cocktail parties that call for signature drinks and snacks.

Among the food recipes, highlights include lamb sliders on homemade rosemary buns; bacon, blue cheese & pecan cocktail cookies; sausage olive poppers, and croque monsieur puffs. Spiced nuts, salmon, and shrimp show up, too. Teriyaki chicken wings. So maybe, with a little retooling, there are some tailgate ideas here after all if I just loosen up and decide to make it…fabulous.

Who should score a copy? Sips & Apps makes a solid hostess gift for anyone who does even occasional entertaining at home. Your gay uncle or coworker could very well dig it. On the professional side, catering managers, bar managers, and anyone charged with developing a beverage program will appreciate the creative takes on familiar drinks (the Tuscan Rosemary Lemon Drop, Bistro Sidecar, or Grapefruit Negroni) as well as some more adventuresome (the Blue Thai Mojito, Strawberry Shag, or the Fortunella—simply a lychee-infused vodka garnished with a lychee).
Douglas Fir Sparkletini

1½ oz Douglas Fir Infused Gin (recipe follows)
¾ oz white cranberry juice
1½ oz fresh lemon sour (1:1 lemon juice and simple syrup)
Splash of brut Champagne or dry sparkling wine
Garnish: tiny Douglas fir sprig and a fresh or frozen cranberry

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Measure in the infused gin, cranberry juice, and lemon sour. Cap and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass and then top with a splash of Champagne. Garnish with Douglas fir sprig and float a cranberry in the drink.

Douglas Fir Infused Gin

1 bottle high-quality gin, such as Aviation
A 5 – 6" sprig Douglas fir branch, rinsed

Place Douglas fir branch into gin and let sit 24 hours. Then remove branch and discard.

Kathy Casey (2009)
Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers.
Photos by Angie Norwood Browne
Chronicle Books
ISBN 978-0-8118-6406—0

Goes well with: