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