Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pickled Shrimp, a Lowcountry Ceviche

It’s hot in San Diego. Miserable hot. Playing in the hose hot. To escape the worst of the heat, I turned on the stove—briefly—yesterday morning to blanch shrimp for an old version of a cold ceviche that South Carolinians would recognize simply as pickled shrimp.

The recipes for both the shrimp and the spice mix for the boil are adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, though I altered the proportions for a bigger batch. In heat like this, I’m firing up the burners as infrequently as possible, so the bigger batch gets us through two days with minimal extra hotness. Most of the batch got toted along to a poker game last night with a mess of sangria, but there’s still a few to throw in a green salad for lunch or a light dinner. They're snappy little appetizers for cocktail parties and handy to have on a picnic. Better with beer than wine, though: the residual acidity in the shellfish can clash with red wines in particular.

An ingredient note: the original recipe calls for sour oranges, but those are infrequent finds here. The mix of fresh juices below is an attempt to recreate that Seville/naranja agria taste. If you have blood oranges, then by all means use them for the orange juice component in the juice blend. They make a better-tasting pickle and I regret we had none on hand. Still, though, this was tasty. And house is cool as a cucumber today.

Pickled Shrimp

First make the pickling solution.

3 large dried bay leaves
1 oz pimentro dram or 5 whole allspice berries
1.5 oz coriander seeds, dry toasted for 30 seconds until aromatic
1.5 Tbl black peppercorns
1 Tbl kosher salt
1 Tbl sugar
1.5 tsp Aleppo or other red pepper flakes
1.5 cups rice vinegar
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1 cup fresh Valencia or blood orange juice
  1. Grind the bay leaves, allspice (if using), coriander, peppercorns, salt, and sugar in a mortar or spice mill into a rough powder. Add this powder to a 3- or 4-quart nonreactive container.
  2. Add the vinegar, juices, red pepper, and pimento dram (if using) to the container and set aside.

Second, blanch the shrimp.

1 gallon water
4 Tbl shrimp boil (see below)
3 lbs medium shrimp, heads off, peels on
  1. Heat the water and shrimp boil spice mixture in a large stock pot. Rinse and drain the shrimp while the water heats.
  2. Let the water boil 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the shrimp (in two batches if necessary) to the water, turn off the heat, and let it rest one minute. The shrimp will turn pink and firm.
  4. Using a strainer, scoop out the shrimp and throw over ice to stop the cooking.
  5. Peel the shrimp, slip them into the pickling solution, and cool.
The cooled shrimp are ready to eat within four hours and are best if eaten with 24.

The shrimp boil spice mix is also from the Lee brothers’ cookbook, though I prefer to make mine more of a powder than the rough grinding they call for. This is a decent all-purpose seafood boil and would be fine for crabs, crawfish, and other shellfish as well as broiled or grilled fish.

Shrimp Boil

1 Tbl peppercorns
1 Tbl celery seeds
6 bay leaves, snipped with scissors
½ cup kosher salt
3 Tbl ground cayenne

Place all ingredients in a spice mill (I use a Krups coffee mill for spices—and nothing but spices). Grind to a medium powder. Store in a jar.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rowley's Raspberry Syrup

Two bottles of raspberry syrup are in the fridge and all I think of is liquor and Joe Satan.

Haven’t laid eyes on Joe in twenty years, but he was a regular at the Kansas City home of my friend Pete Helmkamp. Pete played metal and breathed fire on stage. Still does, but I'm not sure about the fire-breathing part. Joe appreciated that. No idea what his last name really was—just Joe Satan. Nice enough guy, but he had a habit of making one-word proclamations. While some metal aficionados might raise their fore- and small fingers to proclaim “Metal!” Joe would declare the initial letter and pronounce the remainder of the word. “Capital M!” he might throw down, then follow it sotto voce with “Lowercase etal.” Or, on returning from a beer run, announce to the living room crowd “Capital B! Lowercase eer.”

As I regard these corked bourbon bottles filled with fresh raspberry syrup, I can’t help but think to myself “Capital M. Lowercase oron.”

Not because the syrup’s bad. Far from it: Because it’s so good. For years, I’ve avoided 19th- and early 20th-century cocktails such as the Knickerbocker that called for raspberry syrup. Expensive, fey, pain-to-make syrup—who needs it?

But with raspberries on sale this week, I broke down and got a flat. Expensive? Nope: a lot cheaper than buying the stuff at a gourmet shop. Pain to make? Barely more difficult than opening a beer. Fey? Meh ~ that was just me hunting for excuses not to make it.

I suppose you could drizzle it over pancakes, ice cream, or poached peaches, but it’s particularly good with rum. As I said: lowercase oron.

Old recipes for raspberry syrup are all over the board with proportions of fruit to syrup and even sugar to water in the syrups. Jerry Thomas (The Bartender's Guide, 1862) even insists that the fruit mash ferment for about three days to prevent it from jelling before adding sugar. I went with a 2:1 syrup, knowing the water in the berries' cells would dilute the final concentration somewhat and I didn't want to start any spontaneous fermentations. Thomas' recipe follows my own.
Rowley's Raspberry Syrup

32 oz fresh raspberries
32 oz white sugar
16 fluid oz water

Gently wash the berries under running water in a colander, taking care not to crush them. While they are draining, pour the sugar then the water in a pan. Heat the sugar and water, stirring frequently, over high flame until the sugar dissolves.

While the syrup is heating, transfer the berries to a bowl (about 4-6 quart capacity) and mash with a potato masher or the back of a spoon, being careful not to splash. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, pour it over the mashed berries.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow it to cool. Refrigerate and, after 24 hours, strain, first through a metal strainer, then (if you want to remove even finer particulates) cotton or cheesecloth. Using a funnel, pour the final strained syrup into two 750ml bottles.

Yields about 47 oz/1.4 liters.

And from his classic 1862 The Bartender's Guide; or How to Mix Drinks; or The Bon-Vivant's Companion, here is
Jerry Thomas' Raspberry Syrup

2 pints of filtered raspberry juice
4 1/2lbs of sugar

Select the fruit, either white or red. Having picked them over, mash them in a pan, which put in a warm place until fermentation has commenced. Let it stand for about three days. All mucilaginous fruits require this, or else they would jelly when bottled. Now filter the juice through a close flannel bag, or blotting-paper, and add sugar in the proportion mentioned above; this had better be powdered. Place the syrup on the fire, and as it heats skim it carefully, but don't let it boil; or you may mix in a glass vessel or earthenware jar, and place in a pan of water on the fire. This is a very clean way, and prevents the sides crusting and burning. When dissolved to the 'little pearl' (see No. 12) take it off; strain through a cloth; bottle when cold; cover with tissue-paper dipped in brandy and tie down with a bladder.

12. Little Pearl

This is when you separate the thumb and finger, and the fine thread reaches, without breaking, from one to the other.
The "little pearl" Thomas talks about is also known to confectioners as le petit perlé — 110-112°C or 230-233°F


Monday, August 24, 2009

Syrup of Violets, Three Ways

“My God, have mercy upon me! " and, uttering a fearful cry, Barrois fell back as if he had been struck by lightning. D'Avrigny put his hand to his heart and placed a glass before his lips. "Well!" said Villefort. "Go to the kitchen, and get me some syrup of violets."

~ The Count of Monte-Cristo (1893)
Chapter 79: The Lemonade
Alexandre Dumas

Given the number of bottles laced with violets at Tales of the Cocktail this summer, smart money says we'll be seeing more floral drinks mixed at some of our favorite watering holes. Obscure-spirits wrangler Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz already imports a 20% abv Crème de Violette made from Alpine Queen Charlotte and March violets. Rob Cooper—whose St Germain elderflower liqueur has achieved such popularity that it’s been called “the ketchup of bartenders”—showed his Crème Yvette, a liqueur that also incorporates violets. It should be hitting shelves this fall.

Violets have an aroma that reminds some of old ladies’ perfume. Yet Crème Yvette is a core ingredient in classic cocktails such as the Blue Moon of which Ted Haigh waxes to eloquently in his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Marleigh Riggins over at Sloshed! teases us with a sampling of Blue Moons which—for a while at any rate—will be difficult to create at home until Crème Yvette achieves wider distribution. She presents a version with Crème de Violette.

Until then, I offer a workaround: Syrup of violets. Alexandre Dumas knew of violet syrup over a hundred years ago, but this erstwhile kitchen staple has an older history in English cookery. Though I haven’t tried these recipes, I suspect adding spirit to a violet syrup base may make an interesting addition to the bartender’s arsenal, especially if the spirit is Grand Marnier or another orange liqueur, vanilla-infused rum, or other liquors with more character than vodka or plain neutral spirits. Clearly, these aren't substitutions for either Crème Yvette or crème de violettes, but nonalcoholic bases from which to experiment.

First off is Eleanor Parkinson who gives this 1844 version in The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-cook, and Baker:

Syrup of Violets—One pound of violet flowers, one quart of water, four pounds of sugar. Put the flowers cleared from their stalks and calx, into a glazed earthen pan; pour on the water boiling hot, and stop the pan quite close; let it remain in a warm place for a day, then strain off the infusion through a thin cloth; add the sugar, and place in the bain-marie: stir it well and heat it until you can scarcely bear your finger in it; then take it off, and when cold, bottle.

English botanist Nicholas Culpepper offers us in his Complete Herbal (1814) a recipe that’s essentially the same—down to the glazed vessel—but without heating.

Syrupus Violarum

Take of Violet flowers fresh and picked, a pound, clear water made boiling hot, two pounds, shut them up close together into a new glazed pot, a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pounds of the liquor dissolve four pounds and three ounces of white sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling.

Going back another two centuries, Elinor Fettiplace, in her handwritten 1604 recipe book, gives directions To Make a Sirrop of Violetts:

Elinor Fettiplace’s Sirrop of Violetts

First make a thicke sirop of sugar and clarifie yt well, then take blew violets and picke them well from the whights then put them in the sirrop, let them lye in yt 24 howres keepinge yt warme in the meane time, then straine these violets out and put in fresh, so do 4 times then set them on the fire, let them simper a good while but not boyle fast put in some Juice of limonds in the boyleinge then straine yt and keep yt to yor use.

Both Fettiplace and Parkinson hit on a detail sometimes missed by those who don’t often make floral infusions: they remove parts of the flower before infusing. Naturally, the stems have no place in a delicate syrup such as this, but neither does the whole petal. The “whights”—or white part of the flowers—are removed before the infusion. Rosewater and rose syrup recipes often call for the same procedure. The idea is to eliminate bitterness that can result from including the white parts of the flowers.

Now all I need is a gallon or so of unsprayed, aromatic violets and a pair of sharp scissors.

Goes well with:

  • Hilary Spurling (1986) Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking. Viking Press, New York. Spurling, wife of a modern relation to the 17th-century Fettiplace, has admirably presented the cookery styles, concerns, patterns, and recipes of a housewife at an age when England enjoyed immense power and wealth (yet still had trouble putting down those pesky Irish). The book is out of print, but well worth tracking down for an understanding of household management, including the products of stillrooms.
  • Diane Ackerman's Natural History of the Senses includes a discussion of violets and their peculiar effect on human smell: unlike, say, the aroma of steak or cigar smoke, humans' ability to smell that of violets is not constant. Our perception of their smell comes in waves. Ionone, one of the flower's components, temporarily short circuits our sense of smell. After a few minutes, we can smell violets again and their aroma comes on clearly and strongly. Buy Ackerman's book here or check it out in your local library. Then get some flowers and try it for yourself.

Blue Moon photo courtesy of Marleigh Riggins.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Nothing Says "I'm from Here" Like a Jug of Shine

Moonshine has become a point in our identity.
It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m from here.’

~ Anonymous Tennessee moonshiner

Making moonshine in California is not the same as it is in the American South. During the years I spent years tromping through the South, illicit distilling was emerging from its dormancy and becoming an even stronger symbol than it had been of the what it means to be a Southerner. Unlike, say, the Confederate flag, homemade liquor cut across ethnic and class divides. It was a potent symbol of the South that nearly everyone (well, except maybe church folk and other upright citizens) could get behind. College professors, chefs, musicians, publishers, janitors, fishmongers, and farmers agreed: drinking moonshine was part and parcel of being Southern.

Out here in California, the moonshiners are more likely to call themselves “home,” “artisan,” or “small-batch” distillers. The stills they quietly use to crank out whiskeys, brandies, and sugar spirits are often more compact than copying machines; some would fit in a desk drawer. But any Southern moonshiner would know exactly what those little devices do and how to run one.

More and more authors are getting the modern moonshine story right. A handful has stopped writing about the “dying art” of the 1970’s and started writing about what’s going on now. Donovan Webster, in last month’s edition of Garden & Gun magazine, gets it right, including the bit about drinking shine as a shibboleth of Southern identity. Check out his article here.

Photo originally posted at Garden & Gun.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Elixir Pro

Work has kept me away from the Whiskey Forge recently, but there are some fun writeups in the pipes, including a healthy dose of bitters and an overview of this past weekend’s Tiki Oasis in San Diego. What a blast that was.

In the meanwhile, I offer Elixir Pro, a boozy recipe that predates America’s commingling of Polynesian idols, rum, and little paper umbrellas. Admittedly, I haven't tried it but offer it as an historical curiosity.

Note that the recipe calls for brandy or "N.E." rum. Given the Connecticut origins of the tattered old pamphlet in my library, this isn't a pun on "any" rum but instead refers to old New England rum, distilled from molasses shipped from sugar-producing Caribbean islands. Of these, Medford rum's reputation reached well beyond the boundaries of its native Massachusetts. For an overview of Medford rum, see Wayne Curtis's And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails.

Elixir Pro is a useful family medicine for digestive disorders. Pulverize one ounce of saffron, one ounce of Myrrh, one ounce aloes. Steep the myrrh in a half pint of brandy or N. E. rum for four days. Add the saffron and aloes: let it stand in the sunshine or a warm place for a fortnight, shaking it twice a day. Then fill up the bottle with brandy or N. E. rum. The longer it stands the better.

~ The Pocumtuc Housewife, A Domestic Guide to Cookery as it is Practiced in the Connecticut Valley (1906)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Robert Carlyle Could Sell Me Matches in Hell

Update 17 August 2009: Apparently, the video has been pulled due to pending legal action. Sigh...the only thing I've liked about Scotch recently and it's gone. Initial searches for alternate sites are not fruitful. If I can find another source, I'll repost it.

Hey, piper! Shut it.

~ Robert Carlyle
The Man Who Walked Around the World

Robert Carlyle is a joy to watch. Liked him in Trainspotting. Delighted with his over-the-top, man-eating performance in Ravenous. Without him, 28 Weeks Later would’ve been a snore.

And now he’s shilling Johnnie Walker whisky. I like to tease scotch drinkers about the unsuitability of their beverage of choice for human consumption less because I dislike scotch itself than I enjoy watching them defend their erudition. It turns out that I do enjoy particularly aged single malts. But I enjoy razzing orthodoxy more.

Put Carlyle, however, in a 5-plus minute short film (ok, ok, a long commercial) telling Johnnie Walker's brand story on a brisk walk through the Scottish highlands? I am all ears.

Whiskey firms—unlike, say cola, energy drink, or vodka firms—rely on history and age to convey authenticity. Think “Old Forester,” “Old Overholt,” and the rich browns, ambers, and reds in endless whiskey color palettes that suggest dark, aged woods and Autumn’s falling leaves. Or of sepia-toned photos in print ads we’ve all seen of coopers hard at work, handcrafting barrels in which whiskey will slumber for years. Yes, “age” is the unspoken (or—“Ancient Age”—not so unspoken) shibboleth of authenticity for whiskeys.

How fitting that Carlyle’s first words after emerging from the mists (of time, naturally) seemingly push aside the Scots history we think we know with his dismissive words to the traditional bagpiper. Frankly, the Scottish actor echoes my own thoughts with a brusque "Hey, piper! Shut it." But he’s not dismissing history. Just stereotypes. In fact, he launches into a monologue about Johnnie Walker that's the most compelling corporate history I've seen in years. Bravo, sir.

It’s a beauty of a little film. I heard the shot only required 40 takes.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reasons Why Men Drink

William “The Only William” Schmidt stands out among early bartenders not merely for his huge moustache, but for his occasionally voluminous hot air. It’s only fitting, then, that I came across one of his passages in the course of researching passenger air balloons (a side project for the Autumn; liquor’s not involved—yet).

When I pulled Schmidt’s 19th-century bartender’s manual The Flowing Bowl off the shelf, I broke out smiling at his explanation of men's motivation for partaking of the drink:

Reasons Why Men Drink

MEN drink to quench thirst, on account of a drink's effect, to get an appetite, to promote digestion, to enjoy its taste, for curiosity, from habit, because of discouragement, on account of ambition, to forget poverty, to show their riches, because of sickness, because they do not feel well, for the purpose of learning, to dispel sorrow. This one wants to warm himself; that one is overheated and wants to get cool; one has lost in Wall Street; another's shares have gone up; one man's best girl went back on him; another is going to marry the best girl in town; one drinks behind the door; another in a public place. Some men will drink out of pure style; they want to show their diamonds and jewelry, their costly clothes, and mainly their money. But most men will drink because it is “business.”
~ William (The Only William) Schmidt
The Flowing Bowl (1891)

We’ll set aside for the moment the reasons why women drink. Presumably, it has something to do with ice cream since drinks featuring it show up with some regularity in his pages. Of all his reasons, I like this best: men drink for the purpose of learning. I daresay women do the same. Enthusiastic and curious drinkers learn about history, they learn how tastes and ingredients interact, and they learn their own preferences: This one prefers Scotch whisky, that one rum. Sweetness appeals to some as much as it repels others.

By drinking widely and aggressively and by asking questions, we learn not only our tastes, but the tastes of our friends and guests. While I don’t mind a well-made Lemon Drop, for instance, it’s not my go-to drink. I do keep a frozen batch for friends, however, who adore it. And that, perhaps, is the most enjoyable reason why we—men and women alike—drink: to enjoy the companionship of those dear to us.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sassafras-Smoked Ham

In 1932, Baltimorean Frederick Philip Stieff published Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Maryland, a collection of hundreds of recipes from handwritten recipe books for which he has scoured the state. He also talked with old cooks to record their recipes and methods before they were lost in the onslaught of modernity.

The book includes Mid-Atlantic classics such as soft crabs, shad roe croquettes, diamondback terrapin, and marsh rabbit (that’s muskrat to you and me, a specialty still occasionally enjoyed in New Jersey church dinner fundraisers—if "enjoy" is the right word). It also covers a number of preparations we tend to think of as part of southern foodways: smothered catfish, sea bass sauté meunière, chery bounce, and mint juleps.

Cured meats are not overlooked. Brined, smoked, and pickled pork is here in abundance as well as sausage and scrapple. One of the many ham recipes really caught my eye, however. John B. Gray of Calvert County contributed his recipe simply for “Curing Hams.” It calls for smoking a brined country ham with sassafras wood.

Now, I’ve had hams smoked with apple, oak, and other hardwoods, but never with sassafras. I’ve talked about sassafras before and it’s a flavor I like—especially as filé to thicken and season gumbo. I haven't yet tried this recipe since my ham-curing operation is decidedly small-scale. More importantly, we just don't have sassafras wood in San Diego. When I get my hands on some, though, I fully intend to try a variation of this recipe for smoking bacon.

Sassafras-Smoked Ham

½ bushel of salt, 2 ½ teacups of saltpeter, 1 teacup red pepper, 2 teacups black pepper, 3 cups brown sugar. Mix thoroughly and rub on pork, when not frozen, next day after killing. Lay hams in bulk on shelf for six weeks or longer. Then hang up and smoke, using sassafras wood, if possible, for the fire—smoking until light brown. Then bag, dipping the bagged ham in lime or whitewash solution. Hang until ready to use. Hams are better if not used for one year. Receipt cures about 20 hams weighing 10 or 12 pounds.
The bag to which Calvert refers would have been a cotton/linen bag like a ham-sized pillowcase into which the cured and/or smoked ham would be placed and sewn shut to help keep the ham's shape and to keep out insects.

Goes well with:
  • Maynard Davies’ adventures as a bacon-curer in England. His books, Maynard: Adventures of a Bacon Curer and Maynard: Secrets of a Bacon Curer, are reviewed here.
  • Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Maryland has been republished by the Johns Hopkins University Press as a paperback that retails for $19.99. If it's something you think you might want, original copies are still around and can be had for about the same price.