Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking a Tiki Shortcut with Simbre Sauce

Last summer, I uncovered a stash of underpriced Zaya Gran Reserva rum in a coastal mom and pop liquor store. I rolled away with a single drink in mind and half the stock in my trunk. This aged rum from Trinidad and Tobago is big-flavored, slightly sweet, and a lot of my friends use it as a sipping rum. In my book, though, Zaya shines as a mixer, especially when it’s one of multiple rums in a drink. In fact, the odd snifter and Mai Tai aside, we’ve used almost all of it mixed in a Depression-era tropical concoction: The Nui Nui.

The drink dates back to the late 1930’s and is credited to legendary self-promoter and tiki forefather Don The Beachcomber. How much do we like the Nui Nui? So much that we’ve downed three bottles of Zaya since this summer — and each drink, the way we make it, calls for only an ounce. The other ingredients are just fruit juices, Appleton rum, and a syrup we’ve dubbed Simbre Sauce.

We came up with Simbre Sauce because of the sheer volume of Nui Nuis we were downing. The sauce has perfectly legitimate non-boozy uses and sometimes gets drizzled on ice cream or yogurt and granola around here. But its real purpose is to cut down the time it takes to make a drink. Rather than pouring the various syrups and tinctures called for in the original recipe every time we wanted a batch, our friend Douglas pre-batched them as a single syrup to streamline the process. I dubbed the result Simbre (SIM-bray) Sauce after an old name in his family.
Simbre Sauce

350ml cinnamon syrup
175ml vanilla syrup
175ml pimento dram (an allspice liqueur)
5ml Angostura bitters

Mix, bottle, and store under refrigeration.
Ingredient notes: I use homemade syrups in the concoction above, but Trader Tiki’s range of tropical syrups make blending something like this a snap. If you do use Trader Tiki syrups, be aware that the cinnamon is strong and you may need to use a little less. This is good: it leaves more to go around. If you want to make your own, add 6 4” cinnamon sticks to 2 cups of water and 2 cups of sugar in a pot, simmer about 2 minutes and allow to cool before straining and bottling.

Trader Tiki himself crafting Nui Nuis
For the pimento dram, unless you're the sort to make your own, use St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz has been importing the stuff and since I bought my first bottle, I’ve never been without some.

And now, the Whiskey Forge variation of this old tropical drink. It lacks the traditional long orange peel and uses block ice rather than crushed ice. If you want to make one that adheres to the old method, see Kaiser Penguin’s take on it below.
Simbre Nui Nui

3 oz Appleton Estate V/X
1 oz Zaya
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz fresh orange juice
1 oz Simbre Sauce

Combine the ingredients in a shaker and shake with ice. Strain into ice-filled mugs. Sip. Smile.
Goes well with:

Monday, December 27, 2010

Salted Ginger Cookies

Every year around Christmas, we make batches of pliable, chewy ginger cookies. In addition to fresh and powdered ginger, the cookies are spiked with white pepper and coarse sea salt, then covered in sugar before baking. When they come out of the oven, they’ve spread from jaw-breaker sized balls to 2-3” flat discs. They keep well enough, but freeze whatever’s not eaten within four days.

We’re on day No. 3 and I don’t think there will be any call for a freezer.

Salted Ginger Cookies

½ cup/110g brown sugar
½ cup/100g white sugar
½ lb/226 g unsalted butter
1 egg
1/3 cup/80ml molasses
2 ¼ cup/280g all purpose white flour
1 Tbl fresh ginger, grated
2 tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
½ tsp powdered allspice
¼ tsp white pepper
½ tsp coarse sea salt, mounded*
2 tsp baking soda
Additional sugar for rolling dough balls*

Cream the butter and sugars together in a stand mixer. Mix in the egg, then the molasses. Then add the remaining ingredients (except rolling sugar) and blend thoroughly until it forms a stiff dough.

Preheat the oven to 325°F/165°C/Gas mark 3.

Chill at least half an hour, then roll pieces of dough in your hands to form into 1” balls. Roll these in granulated sugar, then arrange on a greased sheet pan (or, as we do, one lined with a silicone mat). Bake about 12 minutes. Cool on a rack.

* Note on the salt and sugar: Free-flowing table salt isn’t what you want here. Part of this cookie's appeal is its random distribution of small, irregular chunks of grey sea salt. If it’s too large, crush it a bit, but you don’t want the salt completely pulverized. We usually use white table sugar for rolling the dough balls, but demerara would be nice and possibly even large-grained German hagelzucker (though I use that one for other cookies, I haven't tried it with these). 

Don't feel like making ginger cookies? Make ginger pie

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Distiller Ralph Erenzo in Car Accident

I'm not the praying sort. If you are, though, you may want to keep Ralph Erenzo and his family in your prayers. Earlier this week, the New York distiller was in a car accident and remains in critical condition at St. Francis in Poughkeepsie.

Ralph is a tireless promoter of good spirits and his distillery, Tuthilltown Spirits, has earned international accolades. He and I haven't always agreed on the value of home distilling, but those disagreements have been always cordial and minor. Members of the American Distilling Institute will know him as a firebrand advocate for small craft distilleries and one of our finest representatives.

No, I may not be a praying man, but my thoughts are with Ralph, his son Gable, and the rest of the Erenzo clan. Ralph is a genuine American treasure and we hope he pulls out of this soon.

If you'd like to keep tabs on his progress, see the page his family set up with updates here.

Meanwhile, here's a short film of Ralph and Gable. It's a good introduction to those who don't know him and may bring a smile to those who do.

Cheers, old man.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Moonshine's Original Intro

Distiller: "What are you doing with that book?"
Me: "I wrote it."
Distiller: "No shit?! Dude, will you sign it for me?"

Rummaging around for something else this morning, I found the original introduction I wrote for my book Moonshine! Now, even though that intro got cut, I'm perfectly happy with how the book turned out and both touched and pleased how it's been taken up by amateur and professional distillers as well as a growing urban homesteader movement as well as folks who just are curious to know how spirits are made.

It's on sale at Amazon but it seems like Powell's in Portland sells more copies of that book than any other free-standing bookstore in the US. Hats off to Powell's — and especially to Tracey, whom sources tells me wrote a very nice review of the book and posted it right there on the shelf.

This, then, is for Tracey: The original introduction for Moonshine!, which has never been printed anywhere. Cheers!
I’m walking in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, musing over a dinner conversation with my waiter. Jesse is twenty-six, maybe twenty seven, a transplant from Pennsylvania. And he’s a moonshiner. Not a home distiller, as a New Yorker or Californian might call himself, but a moonshiner. We are, after all, in the mountain South where in some circles a certain degree of pride accompanies the term. As I pass a grizzled old man on a bench, he looks me right in the eye. “That boy,” he announces, “cain’t hold his liquor.”

Who cain’t hold his liquor? I cain’t hold my liquor? Why would he say that? Do I give off some fear-like pheromone that tells drunkards I cain’t hold my liquor? Jesus. Can cops smell it? Maybe it’s Jesse who cain’t hold his liquor. The old man could have overheard our conversation at the restaurant. Was he warning me to stay away from the waiter? No. No, this is not a restaurant kind of guy. It’s his own weakness he’s throwing on to others, a conversational sleight of hand to confuse anyone who suspected him of upending too many bottles himself.

In the end, the disjointed pronouncements of a chronic drunk say more about my state of mind than his. Moonshine has infected my thoughts more than I suspected. I’ve become so attuned to signs of illicit distilling, interpreting codes, and listening to the spaces between words that a blush of moonshiners’ natural paranoia is coloring my regard for other people.

Moonshine is back. Here’s what I know about it.

Snag a copy for Christmas from Powell's. I'm pretty sure cops can't smell it. Unless they can smell cool.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fat Lips Spill Sips

Hey, bartender! You spilled something...

I don't drink coffee, so I use my Bodum French coffee press for tea. The press is elegant, it’s a perfect size, and it can withstand the shock of boiling water I pour over loose leaves. It also usually stays in the cabinet because when I pour from it, it spills. Every time.

When we spill liquids, we do so for very specific reasons. We are drunk, for instance, or clumsy. I myself am stranger to neither state. But even the most steady and sober imbiber can end up with a spreading wetness when pouring from a vessel that has the wrong kind of lip. As much as I like the Bodum press, its lip — thick, rounded — is the wrong kind.

I’ve been reading up on the physics of pouring lately to learn how best to avoid dribbling hot tea on my hands and the counter. The search led me to India, physics journals, and that bar-raising Canadian, Jamie Boudreau.

Any number of videos online may be found showing Indian chai wallahs “pulling” or “throwing” tea for their customers (see, for instance, this one). Bartenders may recognize the move as first cousin to the back-and-forth tossing of high-proof whiskey needed to create a Blue Blazer. Well, minus the flaming whiskey. Some think that thick mugs able to withstand high temperatures are de rigeur for bartenders and home enthusiasts wanting to recreate the 19th century Blue Blazer. But it turns out that they may be handicapping themselves by using clunky old pewter mugs.

In their book Mangoes & Curry Leaves, Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid describe the long arcs of hot liquid Indian tea sellers pour to froth their tea:
“Throwing tea” is a subcontinental tradition. A person making tea will often pour the milk and tea mixture from one container to another and then back again, over and over, in order to blend and froth the tea. You’ll see people do this all over the Subcontinent, but nowhere as dramatically as in South India where a tea maker will have an arc of tea that is three to four feet long flying through the air. An expert thrower never spills and can work with the smallest of containers, even while gazing in a completely different direction…
They go on to say, almost in passing, that one of the tricks to learning the move is to use containers with thin lips. This is an important note. It turns out that fat-lipped containers are particularly prone to dribbles and spills. In fact, there’s a name for the phenomenon: the teapot effect.

The teapot effect is as old as creation, but it wasn’t explained until 1957, when Joseph B. Keller of New York University tackled the problem of why tea dribbles from the spout of teapots rather than pouring without incident into cups. In his later essay, Spilling, Keller explains why liquids tend to dribble at the point of the pour:
It is simply that at the pouring lip the pressure in the liquid is lower than the pressure in the surrounding air, so that the air pushes the liquid against the lip and against the outside of the pouring container.
In a pouring container with a thick, fat, or rounded lip, this actually can cause the liquid to flow backwards along the rim of the pouring container and along its outer surface. That’s where the dribble comes from and why I end up with tea on the counter. There’s more — much more — to be said about the teapot effect; streamlines, flow rates, atmospheric pressure, velocity vectors, etc. Jearl Walker offers a more detailed examination of the forces at work here.

The take-home points for bartenders, drinks enthusiasts, and those who would practice throwing tea with minimal spillage, though, are:
  • Use containers with thin lips. Most two-part Boston shakers, for instance, are perfect. But pouring from the metal canister rather than the glass is less likely to cause spills.
  • Pour from containers that are only partly full. Once it hits the lip, the liquid from a partially full glass is moving at a greater velocity and is less likely to spill along the outer container. Also, in order to spill, the liquid would have to turn a large angle — which is unlikely.
  • Increase the angle of the pour as much as possible. Poured at a right angle (90°), a liquid has far more opportunity to travel back along the outer surface of the pouring vessel. Increase that angle, and you’ll end up with a cleaner pour. 
  • Pour quickly. Liquids traveling at greater speed is more apt to go where you want it. 
Jamie Boudreau demonstrates a Hot Toddy done Blue Blazer-style below. Notice that the lips on his metal mugs (1) are relatively thin and (2) actually angle away from the mugs’ apertures, thereby increasing the angle the burning liquid would have to overcome in order to spill along the outer surface. Seems especially important when dealing with flaming overproof rum, no?

I still use the Bodum press — after all: perfect size, can withstand boiling water, and all that. But after reading Keller, I now know why it's better not to fill it quite so much and to pour quickly. There's nothing I can do about that lip, though.

Goes well with:
  • Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid (2005) Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent. Artisan Books, New York.
  • Joseph B. Keller (1957) Teapot Effect. Journal of Applied Physics, Vol. 28, No. 8, pages 859-864.
  • -- (1988) Spilling. In Kurti, Nicholas and Giana (ed) But the Crackling Is Superb: An Anthology on Food and Drink by Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society. Adam Hilger, Philadelphia. I mentioned this book a few weeks ago in a confession for my love of port wine.

Adobo, Pfeffernüsse, and a Game Called "Filippino"

I woke this morning thinking about adobo and Pfeffernüsse. No, it's not some lame odd-couple cop movie. They're two different foods. My brain runs that way, holding simultaneous parallel thoughts that have nothing to do with each other. It's not always for the best.

Adobo is a particularly Filipino way of preparing chicken, but also beef, pork, fish, and other animal proteins that often incorporates vinegar, garlic, black pepper, bay leaves, onions, and sometimes coconut milk. It's amazingly good and my life is better both for knowing how to make a few varieties and for having stellar Filipino friends who introduced me to it

Pfeffernüsse, on the other hand, hail from Germany. They are tiny cookies (literally "pepper nuts") that are more or less heavily spiced. They're good with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, hot spiced wines, and other winter warmers. Spices may include black pepper, anise, mint, ginger, cloves, etc. One also finds them under similar names in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Scandinavia. I first had them in graduate school in Kansas where a large Mennonite population still consider them part of traditional — almost obligatory — Christmas baking.

See? Simultaneous parallel thoughts that have nothing to do with each other.

Then, as I mulled over the morning's news with hot tea, I pulled a book on Pfeffernüsse off the cookie shelves. Page 25 of Peppernuts Plain and Fancy holds this little gem contributed by Johanne Reynolds of Hong Kong:
In Denmark pebernødder (peppernuts) were very much a part of our Christmas celebration. Not only did we children bake them, but also played a peppernuts game — 'filippino' — guessing how many pebernødder an opponent held in his hand. If you guessed correctly, he forfeited his handful to you. If wrong, you shared from your "store" the same number he held in his hand. That's the nearest we ever came to gambling in our Lutheran home!
A simple game for simpler times. Maybe 'filippino' was just one family's game, maybe it was more widespread. I'm not Danish, so I don't know. I do wonder, though, how it came to have the name. No answers today, just questions.

Norma J. Voth (1978) Peppernuts Plain and Fancy: A Christmas Tradition from Grandmother’s Oven. Herald Press, Scottsdale, Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rejoice, O ye Boozehounds: Beachbum Berry's Tiki+ App is Back

I’m happy with my iPhone again and it’s all Jeff Berry’s fault.

Earlier this year, I upgraded the old phone’s OS. And regretted doing so every single time I used turned the thing on. When once it was blazing fast, it had become maddeningly slow. There were other problems, but the most annoying of those was that my backup failed during the upgrade and all my apps just…vanished. They were not on my laptop, not on my phone, not anywhere.

I’m a Mac guy. That day, though, I learned to distrust Apple.

I’m digging it again. Tonight, the iTunes store is once more offering Beachbum Berry’s Tiki+ app. Tiki+ is a fantastic application. It’s a searchable database of tropical drinks recipe drawn from years of Jeff Berry’s field work sussing out the secret mixtures of old tiki bartenders. It’s the single best source of information about tropical drinks that will fit in your pocket. The next best option would be Berry’s books themselves.

When the old app disappeared, I went to download it again, only to find that it was no longer available. Berry told me that they were retooling the app and it had been delisted from Apple's online store. Well, now it’s out in a revised format. It’s $3.99 on iTunes and if you are at all interested in the rum-heavy drinks of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations — plus a few dozen new concoctions from the Bum himself — it’s the wisest $4 you’ll spend all year.

The deets:
  • Over 150 drink recipes
  • Mark your favorites for easy-finding
  • Photos and old menu illustrations
  • Add your own notes to the recipes
  • Thumbnail histories of the drinks
  • Like a recipe? Hell, yeah, you do: email it with a tap

Here’s Martin Doudoroff on the differences between the old and new applications and why the change.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


What’s nastier than finding a worm in your apple?
Finding half a worm.

Several friends recommended a breakfast restaurant in San Diego. Two had decidedly suspect tastes in food, but the third was a local home distiller who dabbles in charcuterie and who hadn't steered me wrong before. I dropped by the place this morning.

There’s no need to return.

My iced tea came to the table with a long metal spoon already in it. The spoon was encrusted with…something. Melted plastic? Caked excrement? A kelp encrustation? I don’t know. It was vile.

It got me thinking about other nasty food encounters I’ve had and how our food supply can be contaminated by the whim — or policies — of a single individual. There was the kid in my high school who bought fried chicken at lunch, only to find an intact brain from some small animal lurking under the crispy crust. That one seemed like employee sabotage at the fried chicken factory that supplied the school.

Sometimes, though, corruption comes from the top.

Take, for instance, two food wholesalers I knew, both with a moth problem. Each supplied gourmet and specialty foods to restaurants, hotels, caterers, and other food professionals. While visiting the warehouse of the first wholesaler, I noticed workers opening bags of rice, grains, and flour and either sifting the contents or picking through them by hand.

When I asked what they were doing, they explained that warm weather had led to a moth infestation, so — on the owner’s orders — they were removing as much as the visible evidence as possible before repacking and resealing the plastic bags. They were picking out maggots, moth larvae, and whatever waste products they could see. Once resealed, the packages were destined for unsuspecting customers. After all, those exotic grains, flours, rice, and beans were a substantial investment.

The second wholesaler had moths as well, but he carried few grains. Instead, the moths had gone after his dried fruit. His solution? Every single box with any evidence of moth activity went into the Dumpster. Turkish figs, 20 pounds at a time, into the trash. Candied pineapple, entire boxes, thrown out. Enough raisins to make a half-tonne of Waldorf salad. And all the boxes next to the boxes that were infected? They were thrown out, too.

It wasn’t quite Sherman’s march to the sea, but the devastation was impressive. The cost of the rubbishing was obviously painful, but here was a man who was so concerned with his reputation and the quality of his goods that he ordered his employees to rout out ruthlessly anything that could harm his customers and, therefore, him.

I continued to buy from the second wholesaler. The first one? There’s no need to return.

I've eaten — and almost eaten — a lot of nasty things over the years, but the image of those writing pale larvae getting sifted out of food destined for tony restaurants is maybe the one that made the most lasting impression.

So. Nasty food. What's the worst you've encountered?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Free the Shine

This past summer, Zach Weissmueller and Paul Detrick from Reason TV stopped by the house to talk about home distilling in the US. The 6-minute segment they produced is, in its own way, a call for legalizing personal stills.

It's a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse.

The video features Max Watman (author of Chasing the White Dog), Yuseff Cherney (co-founder of Ballast Point Brewing Company and now a full-fledged distiller), and a seriously chunky me. I was so appalled on seeing the video, in fact, that I tuned up the bike, hit the gym with renewed vigor, and started shedding pounds that very week. Much happier now with the shape I'm in.

I'm also seen pouring whiskey samples from a plastic sports water bottle labeled simply "Whiskey." This is something I've gotten grief about from distillers who don't know me. What clown keeps whiskey in plastic? Well, damn it. It's not my whiskey. That is the only plastic bottle in my entire liquor library and that's the way it came to me, so that's the way I'm keeping it. It had no other label and came — as such packages often do — in a plain brown box left at my door.

So for all those who think I make and store liquor in plastic: nope. Everything else is glass.

Now, I'm off for a breakfast of hot tea and oatmeal (though I'll be thinking of Senator Tyding's Kentucky breakfast...).

Monday, November 29, 2010

You Can Go to the Store and Get You a Bottle of That There NyQuil

Several years ago when I was spending a lot of time on the road and in the field in search of home distilled liquors, I pulled over in Baltimore to take a call from documentary filmmaker Kelly L. Riley. Riley was director of Moonshine. (note the period — it comes into play in the narrative), a short documentary about distiller Jim Tom Hedrick who makes and consumes moonshine in the North Carolina mountains.

Riley and I never did meet up in person, but we compared a few notes and he sent me two VHS copies of his film. One I gave to John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi since it seemed like the kind of thing that ought to be shared and preserved. The other I kept and watched with many nods and smiles as I recognized familiar distilling methods, accents, and distillers’ outlooks, even if the people were new to me.

Though Jim Tom Hedrick is ostensibly retired from the distilling scene, that’s just the cover story — and a thin one at that. Moonshiners' secret: few of them ever really retire. They just become more secretive or make less often, but distilling is hard bug to shake. Jim Tom looks completely at ease talking about making liquor, drinking it, scrounging parts for his stills, Jesus, and blowing into his truck’s built-in breathalyzer to make it start.

That’s right: Jesus. In the clip below, sidekick Gilford Williams holds forth on the role of ethanol in the time of the Nazarene. Take this backyard philosopher with a grain of salt…or a dose of honey. The recipe he gives for his father’s cold remedy is one I’ve found from New England to California.

Both Moonshine. and its follow-up Still Making Moonshine are available now on DVD.

Goes well with:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Culinary Library: What Good Does It Do?

[I intended to call this post Julia Child, Dorie Greenspan, and the Coke Fiend in my Bed, but then decided it would be disrespectful to Ms. Greenspan, to the memory of Ms. Child, and to whomever is in my bed. The story has those elements, but it’s about how I use — and want others to use — my culinary library. So. Boring title rather than the titillating one.]

 * * * 

In the final days of the last century we had a home in Philadelphia. It was a little three-story house in Bella Vista, a neighborhood that included the city’s bustling Italian Market. Eventually, I came to work in the market, but before then when I was a museum curator, I was a regular at the shops, buying cheeses, fresh bread, olive oils, charcuterie, and all sorts of kitchen equipment that I use to this day. Food and cooking were a big part of my life.

I also had cookbooks. Thousands of them. And not just cookbooks, but bartending guides, ice cream manuals, corporate histories of food and drinks companies, biographies, sausage making texts, and many more. The books were in English, French, German, Spanish, and Dutch and spanned three centuries. I used them every single day for research. In the decade we spent in Philly, I nearly doubled the size of my culinary library. For much of that time, though, I didn’t allow anyone else to use the books — as I mentioned, it was my library. That changed, though, when I met fellow collector Chef Fritz Blank and when someone made off with my copy of Baking with Julia.

Baking with Julia was a gift. As such, it held additional importance to me beyond its utilitarian use. Written by Dorie Greenspan, it was an offshoot of a Julia Child-hosted PBS series. Its well-crafted recipes for savory and sweet breads, pastries, flatbreads, pies, tarts, cakes, and the like kept me company for a few weeks one summer: I kept it on a nightstand for reading at night and toted it to the kitchen in the morning. It was, in short, a keeper.

Until it disappeared, that is. We’d driven to Montreal for a week or so and came back to find the book wasn’t where I’d been putting it. Looked around. Nope. Not anywhere. Gone. When I asked if he’d seen it, our houseguest mentioned that he’d had a friend over one night while we were away. This friend, he explained, had slept in our bed and was a bit of an amateur baker.

Yes, it's bad to store books this way

I went to change the sheets and found a black plastic straw under a pillow. It had been cut down to about 2 inches, one end dusted in a white residue.

Fantastic. A stranger in my bed, snorting cocaine, and poaching my library. The humorist in me mused “You can only have two of the three, Rowley” but the truth is, I wasn’t amused by any of it. Bastard probably snorted the coke right off the book’s cover. Poor Julia.

My cocaine-dusted Baking with Julia had been a gift from Blank, the chef I mentioned. Before he retired, he was owner of a high-end French restaurant in Center City named Deux Cheminées. At 10,000 volumes, his culinary collection was certainly larger than mine. In fact, his massive library made the 2,000 books in my own home seem…not the least bit crazy. It seemed to reflect the perfectly reasonable efforts of a connoisseur, not a lunatic hoarder. There was an important difference, though: while I kept my books to myself for research and pleasure, anyone who knew about it could ask to study in the dark quiet library on the second floor of his restaurant.

His openness got me thinking about my own miserly — and typical — approach to book collecting. The thief made me want to lock away my own library and keep it from anyone other than my family and me. I hated that fucker. People, clearly, were not to be trusted. Even friends with the best intentions had occasionally forgotten to return books I’d let them borrow.

What's behind those books? Oh. More damned books.
On the other hand, the library would be useful to others in the field. Why should I be the only one allowed to use it? Despite my smoldering resentment at the thief (I never replaced the book, just so I can squint my eyes and seethe a little every time I see a copy), I realized that I could open my library to others without losing books. Well, not likely lose them, anyway.

The thief brought into sharp focus how I want my library to be used. First and foremost, it’s my collection. I use it at all hours of day and night for myself. As far as I know, it’s the most extensive culinary library — private or public — in San Diego.

Secondly, though, I want others to use it. For the last ten years, I’ve let chefs, cooks, writers, historians, graduate students, journalists, culinary students, bartenders, charcutiers, and others come to my home and research whatever it is that interests them. No one may borrow books (remember — even friends, best of intentions, and all that), but those in the business of food and drinks may pull up a chair, take notes, and find answers to questions they sometimes didn’t even realize they had.

I once helped a chef rejigger her churros recipe by letting her compare recipes in a dozen books. As thanks, she assured me that I could come to her restaurant as often as I liked for free churros and chocolate. Another time, a meat curer came to research sausage recipes and ended up with ham cures he didn’t know he had wanted. More than one distiller has come to use the English and German distilling handbooks on my shelves.

I like this so much better than my earlier book-hoarding ways. By using the library here, researchers aren’t taking anything from me. It’s not like they’re using all my sugar or drinking down my whiskey (though both sometimes happen). My pleasure in my collection is not diminished by their use of it. In fact, it’s not uncommon for visitors to bring samples and gifts. I don’t demand or even expect it and I certainly don’t charge to use the library, but how nice is it to receive bottles of spirits made by the distiller standing in my living room? Likewise, a box of benne wafers, a loaf of rye bread, a few dozen Amalfi lemons, homemade sausages and cured meats, a box of homemade beers, or even books inscribed by their authors make me glad that I’m making new friends and helping others.

French confiture books wrap around the case
Libraries ought to be used. If you have one, even if it’s not as large as mine, let others use it. In my experience, they’re not likely to take advantage of you, steal your books, rip out pages, or use bacon as bookmarks (talk to public library librarians sometime about what they find as bookmarks and take appropriate cautions). Set reasonable rules about what users may and may not do with the books and be clear about what those rules are. You will help others, you will earn new friends, and if you’re as interested in your subject matter as much as I am in mine, you will learn as much from your guests as they learn from you.

I may no longer be a curator, but I still think like one.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Do it to Julia! Pink Cloves and Gin at the Chestnut Tree Café

Under the spreading chestnut tree
When I held you on my knee,
we were happy as can be
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I'll kiss you and you'll kiss me
Oh how happy we will be
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

~ traditional British song

Some months ago my friend Scott Heim asked me about pink clove cordial. He is, in his own words, a bit of a gin purist and his interest in this old obscurity was an outgrowth of his cocktail-centric tippling habits. I confessed I had none. We agree on the virtues of good gin, but I’m slightly leery about adding cloves to it. Since I had not seen the cordial in the US, I sent him for advice to London boozer Jay Hepburn writing at Oh Gosh!

Turns out that pink clove cordial is common enough in the UK where J.R. Phillips makes — among its several cordials — a 5.3% abv clove version. Of this one, writes it is “…still one of Devon's most popular imbibes. Pink Cloves adds a rosy hue and great flavour to punches, gin or vodka.” Seems most British online shops sell it for around £8/700ml.

I admit a certain degree of interest in the stuff, though — honest to god — a little clove goes a long way.

Scott’s question sprang to mind recently because I’ve been pecking at a first British edition George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on and off for a few weeks. Because I like to attack a topic from a few angles, I also watched the 1984 film adaptation with friends. At the end of the novel, Heim’s gin and cloves show up as the habitual drink of protagonist Winston Smith. It’s a taste that’s been knocking around, it seems, since at least the middle of the last  century.

After Smith’s brutal torture in the bowels of the Ministry of Love, he settles in at the shabby Chestnut Tree Café, where broken traitors and thoughtcriminals go to eke out their days. In the film the café’s grubby and disinterested waiter delivers room temperature government-issue gin — and three dashes from a bottle. I expected the little dasher to be bitters at first, but the book reveals it’s “saccharine flavoured with cloves.”

Smith getting his dose of gin and cloves
In that dark and drab 1984 film version of the story, John Hurt plays Smith and Richard Burton plays his nemesis and savior O’Brien. It’s a harrowing view of humanity. You may or may not care for the Eurythmics musical score. But after reading the entire novel, Orwell’s original description of Smith in the café is chilling:
The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A tinny music trickled from the telescreens.

Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass. Now and again he glanced up at a vast face which eyed him from the opposite wall. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavoured with cloves, the speciality of the cafe.
By dragging Orwell into it, I don’t mean to suggest that Phillips’ pink clove cordial is anything less than good and wholesome. The serendipitous connection between Heim and Orwell — two writers I admire — amused me, is all. In fact, I hope to get my hands on several varieties of Phillips cordials one of these days for experimentation…and studiously to avoid any place even resembling the Chestnut Tree.

Goes well with:

Oh, rats. Do it to Julia.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hungarian Sour Cherry Cake

On her blog Edible Living, Sarah Copeland writes about the sour cherries one finds in Hungary during the summer. As it happens, both cherries and Hungarian cookery have been on my mind lately, so I was all ears and pupils when I came across her family recipe for a Hungarian sour cherry cake. I’ve tweaked it to accommodate a standard 9” x 13” Pyrex baking dish and to take advantage of a 2-pound jar of sour cherries I’d put up in the brief period we get them here in San Diego.

Whole wheat flour is not something I use much around the Whiskey Forge, but I’m very glad not to have substituted white flour as was my original intent. It provides a sturdy — but not too heavy — framework for the cherries. Sweet, but not too sweet. The day I made it, I had some for tea n the afternoon. What was left of it the next night, we had with a cardamom-orange ice cream I’d made the week before.
Hungarian Sour Cherry Cake

2 lbs/900g pitted canned sour cherries, drained
8 oz/230g unsalted butter
1.5 cups/200g sugar
3 Tbl/45ml brandy or kirsch (I used the Jepson’s Rare Alembic Brandy)
1 tsp/15ml vanilla extract
1 egg
2.25 cups/350g whole wheat flour
1 Tbl/15ml baking powder
.75 tsp/3.5ml kosher salt
1 cup/250ml milk
Butter and flour for the pan

Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter a 9” x 13" Pyrex baking dish and dust with flour; set aside. In a Kitchenaid mixer or large bowl, beat together butter, sugar, brandy/kirsch, and vanilla on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add the egg; beat until incorporated.

In a medium bowl, whisk together whole wheat flour, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer running on low speed, alternately add flour mixture and milk in 3 batches to make a batter. Spoon the batter onto reserved baking sheet and smooth evenly. Sprinkle cherries over the top and press slightly into the thick batter. Bake until cake is golden brown, 40-45 minutes. Let cake cool 30 minutes, then cut into squares or bars.
Goes well with:
  • Sarah Copeland’s story about the cake
  • Saveur magazine published Copeland’s recipe for this short cake dotted with cherries

Batida Paulista from The Zenchilada

The newest issue of The Zenchilada is out with two articles by yours truly. One is on using raw eggs in drinks and the other about Lancaster-style beet pickled eggs (there’s an egg theme at work for the entire issue). I’m pleased to have worked one more with photographer Douglas Dalay for the pickled egg shots. He’s the one who captured this fireball while barman Martin Cate made punch at the 2010 Tiki Oasis.

The cocktail article has three drinks; a batida Paulista, a golden fizz, and a fantastic smoky drink from New Orleans bartender Danny Valdez called “That Night a Forest Grew…” with Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, a brace of hot sauces, and Pedro Ximenez sherry.

In the article I specify Leblon cachaça, a widely available sugarcane spirit from Brazil, for the batida Paulista. If you have access to other brands, feel free to use another or even a young rhum agricole. From The Zenchilada (Fall 2010 issue):

During the Truman administration, Brazil’s ambassador to the United States was Mauricio Nabuco…Margarette de Andrade credits him with this São Paulo cocktail in her 1965 Brazilian Cookery: Traditional and Modern. It’s exactly the kind of drink, made one at a time, that suits small gatherings. The batida (or “beaten” drink) calls for cachaça, a sugarcane spirit from Brazil gaining popularity in the US. A rhum agricole from the French West Indies makes a passable substitute.
Batida Paulista

2 oz cachaça (Leblon preferred)
1 tsp egg white
1 Tbl superfine sugar
.5 oz fresh lemon juice (or lime)
Sugar for rimming

Wet the rim of an old fashioned glass with fresh lemon juice and dip in sugar. Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and shake hard until blended. Strain into the prepared glass.
For the rest of the article (and the issue), check out The Zenchilada. You may also want to check out the Corn Tassel cocktail, one I made featuring white corn whiskey, orgeat, and Cointreau.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Easy Shrimp

I'm stuck at the house today. Leg injury. This involuntary immuration is driving me to the edge of sanity. It's a beautiful day, not a cloud in the stunning blue heaven that arcs above. Yet here I am, confined to the couch and those places I can reach in short, zombie-like shuffles. But I take comfort in this fact: Today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better yet.

I'm not an optimist, you understand: I just refuse to be sick.

Standing to cook, though, is a pain. So I rummaged through the fridge, pulled out a bag of boiled shrimp (Louisiana style, naturally), and piled them on a plate. I tipped about a tablespoon of sea salt on the plate, ground some black pepper on it, and squeezed lime juice over the little pile.

Peel a shrimp, dip it in the mixture, and pop it. Easiest lunch in a week.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gretchen Worden’s Fish House Punch (and a Funky Manger)

My first encounter with a bowl of punch — not the frat house version slopped together from whatever alcohol is cheap and plentiful, but a more stately Philadelphia Fish House Punch — left me positively besotted.

Gretchen Worden was a friend, but she was also director of the Mütter Museum. Housed in Philadelphia’s College of Physicians, the Mütter is a museum of medical history and pathological anatomy. I’d moved to Philadelphia as a young curator with a few freshly minted anthropology degrees for the opportunity to work with that collection.

Just before Christmas 1996, Gretchen hosted a gathering at her home for friends and employees. Our holiday chit-chat was less about Santa and his elves than disease and deformities. At this party in her home were two things I‘d never encountered. The first was a little manger scene that had grown over the years to spread over most of her fireplace mantle. In addition to the traditional stable, shepherds, wise men, and whatnot, it included toys ranging from a dollhouse refrigerator and microwave to Star Wars action figures. There were plastic fly larvae (“Gift of the Maggots,” she wryly quipped out of the side of her mouth. Leaning in closer, she placed her hand on my arm and confided: “They glow in the dark.”). Joseph was holding a camcorder, R2D2 had joined the shepherds’ flock and I think — though certain memories of the evening are less reliable — that the manger itself was occupied by either Yoda or one of the brown-frocked jawas.

The other thing I’d never seen before was a big bowl of Fish House Punch, a compounded drink that dates back to Philadelphia's colonial past. I didn’t realize anyone made it anymore, but it turned out that for years Gretchen had been whipping up and aging batches of it using an 1950’s recipe. The technique isn’t what you might see in high-end bars today, but the effect is no less potent. She advised serving it very cold so that one did not have to dilute it with ice. Wicked, wicked woman.

As an experienced homebrewer of beers and ales, the tiny punch cups (little more than demitasses, really) that accompanied the bowl seemed, well, stingy. Used to quaffing homemade beverages in great quantity, that’s exactly what I did. Frequent refilling required us to gather around the bowl. As a result, the conversation flowed like punch.

I do not recall how I got home.

I do not recall whether any Fish House Punch was left.

I do not recall whether I dreamed of baby Yoda or glow-in-the-dark Yule maggots.

I do not recall, most pointedly, wanting another drink for several days.

Gretchen’s recipe is not a wholly authentic recreation of 18th Century Fish House Punch, but it is sly and potent. The peach brandy I used to make it was sheer bootleg — and really good — but drinks writer David Wondrich has suggested elsewhere that a 3:1 blend of bonded applejack to “good, imported peach liqueur” might work as a substitute. You may try commercial examples from Peach Street Distillers or Kuchan Cellars.

From my 2007 book Moonshine!, here’s
Gretchen Worden’s Fish House Punch

1 quart lemon juice (about 4 dozen lemons, squeezed)
1 ½ lb sugar
1 pint curacao, tangerine brandy or orange flavored liquor
1 pint dark rum
1 pint Benedictine
1 quart peach brandy
1 gallon bourbon
1 pint strong cold tea.

In Gretchen’s precise words, “Put the above gut-rot in a three-gallon jug and shake the hell out of it. Place the jug in a cool place and shake it once a day for at least three weeks; two months is better. Do not cork it tightly and keep it cool or chilled or else the lemon juice will cause the whole thing to go off. Serve chilled, not over ice.”
I might add: serve it in small cups.

Gedörrtes Hundefleisch: A Swiss Recipe for Dogmeat

A popular belief is that dogmeat, cat meat, and rat meat 
have been eaten in Europe as an extreme measure
only during periods of war-induced famine. 
I hate to put an end to that fantasy.

Calvin Schwabe
M.S.D.V.M., M.P.H., Sc.D.

The Atlantic today has a piece from San Diego area philosophy instructor Adam Phillips in which he argues that eating pig is a moral equivalent of eating dog. His article is a response to Nicolette Hahn Niman’s argument that eating pig and eating dog are not the same thing at all.

I’ve eaten snails, scale insects, cow, mutton, squab, elk, deer, reindeer, raw oysters, squirrel, snakes, goat, suckling pig, frogs, jellyfish, eels, ass (oh, ok, donkey), horse, goose, chicken eggs, catfish, yogurt, cheeses, shellfish, and any number of animals and bugs that would appall one or more people around the world. Don’t even get me started on all the fermented, pickled, and brined fruits and vegetables I’ve got in the house even now. Olive, anyone? Maybe some boozy cherries?

The only reason I haven’t eaten dog is that I’ve never been in a place where it was either offered or, I felt, prepared by someone who knew how to do it properly. Seriously, if I’m going to eat dog, I want it to be very good dog indeed, and not just the kitchen experiment of some cruel bastard throwing Lulu or Old Yeller on the grill.

You may have heard that westerners simply don’t eat dog. In fact, Ms. Niman makes the point that doing so would be akin to eating a family member. We’ll set aside the anthropological concept of endocannibalism — eating one’s own people — and the Fore tribe’s well-known endemic brain disease contracted from eating the infected denkorgans of deceased family members. Family member or not, westerners have long eaten dog. Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology Calvin Schwabe even provides a recipe for pressed dog from those most proper of Europeans, the Swiss.

In Unmentionable Cuisine, Dr. Schwabe presents a number of European preparations for dog and points out that numerous European countries have had laws — and special shops — for preparing such delicacies. Lest you think he's merely a quack, his book has been praised by Craig Caliborne, James Beard, and MFK Fisher. Here is his Swiss recipe for dried dog meat.
Gedörrtes Hundefleisch

Hang a dressed dog carcass for 8 to 10 days at about 36°F and then debone it, retaining as large pieces as possible. Pack these in oak barrels in the following salt mixture for 7 days at 45° to 50F: for each 20 lbs. of meat, use 7 oz. salt, 1/6 oz. saltpeter, 1/3 oz. sugar, 1/3 oz. cracked black peppercorns, and ½ bay leaf. Repack the pieces after two days, putting those pieces which were on the bottom on the top. Liquid will be drawn from the meat. After 7 days, add some red wine containing crushed garlic to the brine that has been formed and leave for several more days. After this curing, wash the meat in warmish water, but don’t soak it. Run a piece of binging cord through the end of each piece of meat and press it between two boards in an open press (that is, with free air circulation between the pieces) in a drying room at a room temperature of 50°-55°F and 72 to 75 percent humidity for 5 to 6 weeks. After this pressing process, hang the pieces of meat freely in the same drying room for another 1 ½ to 4 ½ months (depending on their size).

Traditionally, dried dogmeat is served as paper-thin slices.

On a side note, I am pleased to have known Dr. Schwabe whom I found soft-spoken, charming, gentle, and erudite. He kindly agreed to speak on food prejudices for a speakers’ series I arranged at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002 where he held the audience in the very palm of his hand. He died in 2006 and is missed.

Calvin W. Schwabe (1979)
Unmentionable Cuisine
476 pages (paperback)
University Press of Virginia
ISBN: 0813911621

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Excess of Port

I am inordinately fond of port wine. Tawny, ruby, vintage, late bottled vintage, Portuguese, Australian, even those of my own state, California. Whatever is at hand, I’m game. I was, nevertheless, taken aback that this weekend’s inventory revealed that fully 27% of our home wine stock is port. The numbers skew high because we’ve been drinking the other wines and not replenishing the supply. Plus, frankly, I’d lost track of how much port I’d laid down in the first place. But still. Damn.

I’m acquisitive, sure, but no hoarder. It’s time to reduce the stock. The inventory made me think, naturally, of grabbing a wedge of Stilton cheese, port’s classic postpriandal sidekick.

It also got me thinking of a fantastic little tome in the back library called But the Crackling Is Superb. The book is a collection of essays by members of The Royal Society (Britain’s long-standing academy of sciences) dealing broadly with the intersection of food, drinks, and science. If you read Harold McGee with pleasure, you’ll like this volume. In the collection, we see one of the earlier public displays of what’s now called molecular gastronomy and mixology. I’ve had it nearly twenty years and still find surprises in its pages.

Contributor John Postgate was Professor of Microbiology at the University of Sussex. His essay "Two Aperitifs" deals with concocting compounded drinks on a base of cheap British port. That’s the essay that popped into my mind as I mulled our port situation. Fresh out of cheap British port, I’m considering using his recipe for Corsican Aperitif, but deploying some of our stash of proper port — which he warns works less well. Hmm. We’ll see if Professor Postgate and I have similar tastes.

The recipe was developed with his father as the two of them sought to create something akin to French aperitifs such as Dubonnet, Byrrh, and Cap Corse. Postgate’s notes are included in brackets.
Corsican Aperitif
(John Postgate)

Take 1 bottle of British Ruby or Tawny Port wine, sometimes marketed ‘of Port character’ [1]. Add 2 to 4 drops of quinine bitters [2]. Insert a vanilla pod [3] and leave to steep in the bottle at room temperature for at least 3 weeks [4]. Decant from the pod (which can be re-used) and serve with ice, with a slice of lemon, or straight.


[1] Gratifyingly, the cheaper the British wine, the better. Real port and Cyprus port-type work less well.

[2] A thimble of Campari, not available at the time of our researches, is ideal.

[3] Nonsense, Use 2-3 drops of vanilla essence and skip the decanting. My parent was rather against essences.

[4] Chemists will find this difficult to believe, but 3 weeks at domestic room temperature transformed it from vanilla-flavoured port into a drink with its own character. I’ve kept it for six months longer without further improvement.
Postgate goes on to offer Solace, “a good cheap aperitif” that “goes down well for elevenses with cake.” It is nothing more than a bottle of (again, cheap British) white port flavored with a swath of orange peel (sans pith) and decanted after two days. Postgate warns not to use orange essence which would make the aperitif “surprisingly nasty.”

Well worth tracking down:
  • Kurti, Nicholas and Giana (ed) (1988) But the Crackling Is Superb: An Anthology on Food and Drink by Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society. Adam Hilger, Philadelphia.

Monday, November 8, 2010

North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

Sundays are my lazy days, a weekly chance to read papers, enjoy of cup of tea or five, and do kitchen tasks. Sharpen knives, clean the fridge, refill containers — inventory and maintenance type stuff mostly. For a few hours this past Sunday, I had the house to myself, so I pulled out all the spices and dried herbs from the cabinets, washed the shelves, and took stock of what was there.

Plenty of kala jeera, but not enough barbecue sauce.

Simple enough to fix. After making ice, it's one of the easiest recipes I know. The vinegar-spiked red pepper sauce I’d learned to make in North Carolina was nearly gone. Unlike the thick, tomato-based Kansas City-style sauce we see today, the stuff I came like so much in North Carolina has no tomato, onion powder, or other such embellishments. Other than vinegar, in fact, it has only four ingredients; chile powder, salt, pepper, and a touch of sugar. Some recipes call for “crushed” red peppers. Wrong. You don't want the stuff that goes on pizzas. What is needed here is powdered chile, preferably Chimayo red from New Mexico.

I’d come to appreciate the style at a BBQ place called Bullock’s in Durham, North Carolina while living in the area. It was also at Bullock’s where I had the epiphany that heavily-sweetened iced tea perfectly matched the tart vinegar sauce on the pulled pork. The less-sweet tea of my Kansas City youth made sense as well: not as much vinegar in the sauce there, so it doesn't need sweetness to balance the meal.

When I was leaving North Carolina, I pulled up to Bullock’s, ate my last pulled pork and hush puppies plate, and bought a liter of barbecue sauce on the way out the door. I’d brought my own bottle. I doused eggs with it, dashed it over collards and kale, drizzled some over fish, and, naturally, paired it with slow-cooked pork.

This isn’t Bullock’s recipe (I didn’t even bother asking), but it does put me solidly in a North Carolina state of mind. It's fair to say I haven't been without it for 15 years.

This stuff’s been known to eat through metal caps, so I store it in glass bottles with plastic screw-on caps. Some refrigerate it, but I hardly see the point. Mine stays in the cabinet where I can grab a bottle without rummaging around.

North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

4 cups/1 liter vinegar, divided (see below)
4 Tbl/60ml New Mexico chile, powdered
2 Tbl/30ml salt
2 Tbl/30ml black pepper, freshly ground
1 Tbl/15ml sugar

For a little over a liter/quart of this thin, piquant sauce, combine all the spices with 3c/750ml vinegar in a large measuring cup, jar, or pitcher. Whisk thoroughly. Before it has a chance to settle out, pour through a funnel into a clean glass bottle. Add the remaining cup/250ml of vinegar to the mixing container, swirl it around to get any spices that might be adhering to the sides, then quickly pour it into the bottle. Cap and set aside to cure for a few days (though, in a pinch, you could use it right away).
Which vinegar to use? Plain ol' grocery store distilled white is fine. Better still, use cider vinegar. That's the stuff I like. You can certainly use rice wine vinegar, but I wouldn’t waste the money on champagne vinegar. Balsamic is the wrong flavor entirely. Might be good in some other BBQ sauce. Not this one.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Beam's Red Stag. I Confess, I...I Kinda Like It

Let me be quite clear: I do not, in general, approve of commercial flavored whiskeys. That’s not to say they don’t have their place. Leopold Bros, for instance, make a Georgia peach-flavored whiskey I like having around. And there are plenty of worthy infusions made in homes and bars across the country.

The problem with most whiskeys that come out the bottle pre-flavored, on the other hand, is that their tastes are artificial, their sweetness cloying. I’d no sooner pour one of these for guests than I would spit in their drink.

Yet at 9am Sunday morning, I stood in line at a local drug store with two bottles of Red Stag, a new(ish) cherry-flavored whiskey from Jim Beam. I blame The Tractor Room for this…uncharacteristic move.

We like to hit The Tractor Room for breakfast on weekends. The full cocktail list — one of San Diego’s better drinks menus — is available even at that early hour. Several weeks ago, we sat on the deck, powering through rabbit, biscuits & gravy, and a fried chicken benedict and basking in the mid morning sun. As the sun climbed in the sky, my habitual iced tea just wasn’t as cooling as I liked. So I ordered a snowball. A boozy one.

The Tractor Room’s snowballs are coupes of shaved ice, blessed with alcohol, that change as the menu switches out. That day, the offering was a cherry snowball made with Red Stag, housemade cherries, simple syrup, and lemon zest. What the hell, I thought. Let’s get one. I’d been seeing Red Stag around for the better part of a year, but my prejudice against flavored whiskeys stopped me from buying any.

It turned out to be surprisingly tasty. Red Stag is by no means a sophisticated sipping whiskey — it’s just not in the same league as Booker’s, Old Fitzgerald 12 year, George T. Stagg, or any of the van Winkle offerings. But as a mixing whiskey, I’m beginning to like the way it enlivens some drinks with dark cherry notes. From now until New Year’s, liquor will be on sale at heavy discounts. Red Stag retails for around $20/750ml. I’m not particularly interested at that price — for that, I can get 1.75L of regular Beam at Costco — but when it’s on sale at $13 and some change? I’ll lay in a small supply on a Sunday morning.

The Tractor Room staff make enhooched cherries in house for their cocktail menu. Sometimes the drink comes with lemon zest, sometimes not. It's better with. The fire engine red maraschino cherries so readily available aren't the same. If you don't have any, here’s my recipe for making them over at Tuthilltown Spirits.
Tractor Room’s Cherry Snowball

2.5 oz Red Stag cherry flavored whiskey
.75 oz boozy cherry juice from house made cherries
.25 oz simple syrup
2-3 house made boozy cherries
Lemon zest
Crushed ice

Fill a shaker with ice cubes and shake the whiskey, cherry juice, and simple syrup in it. Mound crushed ice in a coup, then slowly pour the iced mixture over it. Garnish with house made cherries and a few strands of lemon zested right over the stop. Serve with a short straw.
Purely on a whim one night, we swapped out Red Stag for the bourbon we’d normally use in an Eastern Sour. Hey, we’ve got to do something with it, right? The Eastern Sour was one taught to me by Jeff Berry at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans and I’ve been making them on and off ever since. It's one of the few tiki drinks not made with rum. According to Berry, it's a 1950's recipe traced directly back to Trader Vic. Red Stag lends an additional layer of exotic-seeming fruitiness while still making sure there’s a definite whiskey kick. From Jeff Berry’s Beachbum Berry Remixed, here’s a twist on the Eastern Sour.
Cherry Eastern Sour

2.5 oz fresh orange juice
.75 oz fresh lemon juice
.25 oz orgeat
.25 simple syrup
2 oz Red Stag (original calls for bourbon or rye)

Shake with plenty of crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass or short-stemmed goblet. Sink spent orange and lemon shells into the drink.

The Tractor Room
3687 5th Ave
San Diego, CA 92103-4218
(619) 543-1007

Jeff Berry (2009)
Beachbum Berry Remixed: A Gallery of Tiki Drinks
248 pages, paperback
SLG Publishing
ISBN: 1593621396

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).