Sunday, February 27, 2011

That's MY Hammer

Two years ago, I wrote about wanting a bung starter, the wooden mallet Paul M. Angle called "the barkeeper's favorite weapon." Several people emailed or commented on the post with suggestions of where to get a big ass ice crushing mallet.

My father just cut to the chase and made one.

A US quarter placed for perspective
In his basement workshop, he cut and sanded down a massive wooden mallet then mailed it to me to assemble. The hammer's head measures 4" high and is a whopping 6" square. A 1" square hole in the center accommodates the handle that's held in place by a wooden crosspin.

It was one of the best gifts I could have gotten.

The idea with a maul of this size is to fill a canvas bag — called a Lewis bag — with ice and smack it with the hammer to crush the ice within. I actually blew out the seams of the first Lewis bag I used it on until I learned not to put my all into it. The ice can be merely cracked into several pieces or pounded into snow-like consistency, depending on how hard and how much it's smacked.

I'm back in business with new Lewis bags. Although it's not the only option we have around the house for crushing ice, gripping the handle of that enormous maul and bringing its head down on a bag of ice remains my favorite.

Thanks, Dad.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Bookshelf: The Tex-Mex Cookbooks of Robb Walsh

My favorite food is Mexican food.
I used to be a waiter in a Mexican restaurant in Indiana.
Now that's where you go for Mexican.

~ Jim Gaffigan

Time was, Americans considered a chicken enchilada combo plate (with rice and beans) solidly Mexican. Then along came Diana Kennedy’s 1972 The Cuisines of Mexico, a book that raised Americans’ understanding of, and appreciation for, regional Mexican cookery. But in publishing it, she also dismissed our familiar Texas-style “mixed plates” as ersatz and debased Mexican, not worthy of our time and attention. After Kennedy, Tex-Mex was to real Mexican as ReaLemon was to an actual lemon.

To this day, nearly forty years later, some folks look down on what we’ve come to call Tex-Mex cooking. “That’s not” they can be heard to sniff “real Mexican food.” Well, they have a point. Tex-Mex is not Mexican per se. Kennedy was right. The food you find in restaurants and homes throughout Texas and at “Mexican” joints in the Southwest and Midwest is sometimes nothing like what’s eaten in Oaxaca, the Yucatan Peninsula, or Michoacán. This is not news — but it doesn’t stop the supercilious regard some hold for a sizzling plate of fajitas.

Good lord. How can anyone look down on a well-made plate of fajitas?

In The Tex-Mex Cookbook (2004), Houstonian Robb Walsh lays out how Kennedy actually did us a favor and helped define an American cuisine:
We can all thank Diana Kennedy for inadvertently granting Tex-Mex its rightful place in food history. By convincing us that Tex-Mex wasn’t really Mexican food, she forced us to realize that it was something far more interesting: America’s oldest regional cuisine.
Walsh makes the case in The Tex-Mex Cookbook for this “debased” Mexican as a very old and perfectly legitimate amalgam of cookery traditions from Mexico with influences from German, Native American, and even Canary Islander sources. He reminds us that San Antonio’s famous “chili queens” were selling bowls of spicy red goodness to hungry Texans around the time Vincent van Gogh killed himself and H.P Lovecraft was in diapers.

The Tex-Mex Cookbook is an invaluable source of information on this regional American cookery. Really. If you know nothing about Tex-Mex other than it involves chili, tequila, enchiladas, nachos, bean dip, and Frito pie, this is the book that explains what it is, where it came from, and why it’s not simply low-rent Mexican, but born of a tradition that both sprang from and parallels Mexican cookery. Walsh digs into archives and newspaper morgues, pulling old photos and interviewing old-timers. This is solid scholarly research. Naturally, there are chapters on chili and tacos, but there’s substantial ink devoted to enchiladas, tamales, breakfasts, sweets, and, for you boozers, the margarita (including the story of how Mauriano Martinez saw kids getting Slurpees at 7-11 in the early 1970’s and — bing! — had the idea for a machine to make frozen margaritas which theretofore had required blenders). Yes, recipes are included.

Made it this far? Good. Pour yourself a michelada, a lightly spicy lime-and-beer concoction that can be pretty damn refreshing with a plate of grilled oysters.

½ Key lime
coarse salt
2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp (5ml) of Tabasco or other hot red pepper sauce (more to taste)
12 oz light Mexican beer (such as Corona)

Salt the rim of a chilled beer mug by rubbing it with the lime and dipping it in the coarse salt. Squeeze the lime into the mug. Add the Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. Pour in the beer and serve.
Walsh picks up the Tex-Mex story in The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook (2010) that focuses on grilling and smoking techniques you’ll find in restaurants, backyards, and various ho-downs in the Lone Star state. Yeah, there’s some repeated material from the earlier book (There’s Martinez and his frozen margaritas again).

But there’s also barbacoa de Borrego, beef short ribs in an ancho-molasses sauce (we use cane syrup), sweetbread tacos, grilled baby goat, rack of lamb with red pepper glaze, posole, and a long section on fajitas — what they are, where they come from, how they became popular, and why they’re sometimes mushy (tenderizing enzymes). Recipes abound for goat, pig, beef, game, chicken, seafood,  burgers, and the drinks and sides that go with them. We are especially fond of a recipe that doesn’t appear in the index: page 201’s cilantro cream.
Cilantro Cream

1 cup sour cream (we use a more liquid and pourable crema)
juice of one lime
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 Tbl chopped green onions

Mix in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.
It goes especially well with puffy tacos or a big ol’ plate of freshly grilled fajitas — like the one below just begging for onions and peppers. Thanks, Robb, for the pointers on making them.

Robb Walsh (2004)
The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos
288 pages, paperback
Broadway Books
ISBN: 0767914880

Robb Walsh (2010)
The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook
256 pages, paperback
Broadway Books
ISBN: 0767930738

Goes well with:
  • Robb Walsh: Texas Eats. The man has a blog. Buy his books, but check out the free stuff, too. Click on the “books” tab once there for a rundown of his other titles. 
  • Texas Tea, a Punch in Disguise — a bit inspired by an offhand comment in a 1960's Texas cookbook. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

What is that White Film on My Silicone Ice Trays?

Talk to enough cocktail types and eventually the name Tovolo comes up. Not, it’s not the name of a pre-Prohibition bartending genius or an obscure Italian amaro. Tovolo is the international housewares division of ICI USA and it makes, among other things, a nifty silicone ice cube tray that makes dense cubes — actual cubes with equal sides — of ice.

Talk to enough people who use those trays, though, and a common complaint arises. After some time in the freezer, the trays may develop a persistent white surface film.

 The film forms on the interior and exterior surfaces of the trays, is transferred to the ice, and gives an off taste and smell to drinks as the ice melts. There’s even a waxy residue on my tongue after getting Tovolo ice cubes from trays that have the film.

What the hell is this stuff? And how to you get rid of it?

It doesn’t seem to be caused by mineral-heavy hard water (otherwise, we’d likely see it only on the side of the trays, but see below for a contrary finding). It seems, rather, to be some reaction of the silicone itself. One thing that makes me think this is that of all my kitchen utensils, the silicone spatulas — and only the silicone spatulas — develop a different, almost greasy feeling, surface coating. Now, I do keep those next to the stove, so perhaps they attract minute particles of airborne cooking grease that the wooden and metal utensils don’t. When I expand my consideration to kitchen gear more broadly, the Silpat silicone baking sheets acquire that same slightly greasy feel if I haven’t used them some time and I keep those in a closet away from the stove. Both of those films wash off easily with a soap and hot water.

This is not the same film the ice cube trays develop; that all of my silicone eventually behaves oddly is the only connection I’m making. I’m not a chemist and don’t know what’s going on.

So I threw out a question to members of the Cocktail and Spirits Online Writing Group: anyone else notice off-tastes from these cubes and, more to the point, have luck restoring these trays?

Yes, writers noticed the film as well. Not everyone, but several had. There was no consensus on what caused it. Suggestions for restoring the trays ranged from using toilet bowl cleaner (um, pass) and boiling the trays in water to scrubbing them with vodka or vinegar and running them in the dishwasher.

I have tried all those suggestions (well, not the toilet bowl cleaner) and am here to tell you that none of them works. At least, not for very long.

Soaking and rubbing the silicone ice cube trays with vinegar and vodka (separately) initially eradicated all traces of the white film, but it bloomed on each test tray again within a week. I boiled a tray for five minute: no dice. Ten. Same. A twenty-minute boil did nothing to remove or reduce this persistent film.

Finally, I wrote to cookware doyenne Mariella Esposito of Fante’s kitchen supply shop in Philadelphia. She got in touch with a silicone tray manufacturer who wrote this:
We have heard this type of feedback before on the ice trays and have tested them extensively. We test both the original raw material, the catalyst, as well as samples of trays that have been used and been returned to us by customers.

We actually did a chemical breakdown test on this white residue from a tray that we rec’d back from a customer and the result of that test is below. The compound associated with the residue is Calcium Sulfate – meaning basically the residue is associated with the chemicals in hard water. Like a mineral deposit. The minerals from the water calcify and adhere to the walls of the silicone and are then transferred to the surface of the next ice cube to be made.. etc.. etc.. etc..

We have found a dilute solution of vinegar and water to be a great solution. Simply soak the trays in this for about 20 minutes, rinse them and you should be ready to go. Most soap based cleaners can also leave trace amounts of milky residue on the ice trays. You ‘ve seen those old dishwasher detergent commercials where they take the glass out of the washer and it has a white residue on it… viola.
So, there you go. A suggestion that calcium sulfate is at play on at least one tray tested and may be cleaned with vinegar. My guess is that probably does work with some trays. But not mine.

Any chemists out there have recommendations on what else this stuff may be and how to eradicate it?

Otherwise, I’m left with the words of Nathan Lutchansky, a cocktail enthusiast in Pittsburgh:
Yeah, that happens after a while with those Tovolo trays. At that point they're worn out enough that we just throw 'em out and buy new ones. They're pretty cheap.

Goes well with:
  • Tovolo sells their trays on Amazon. Despite my questions and frustrations, I do still like their trays. You can find some of their selection here.
  • If you'd like to reach out to members of the Cocktail and Spirits Online Writing Group yourself, check out the group's website here and drop in the Mixoloseum chat room on Thursdays for themed nights of drinking, mutual heckling, and frequent visits by brand reps, authors, bartenders, and distillers.
  • Fante's Kitchen Wares Shop, one of my all-time favorite cookery stores in the entire United States — and, yes, that's exactly the sort of place I visit when traveling. A sprawling warren of rooms filled with knives, copper pans, mixers, juicers, pepper mills, cake pans, bread baskets, pickle grabbers, meat mallets, food coloring gels, and, yes, ice cube trays.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bookshelf: The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

Want to cook Asian food at home, but aren't quite sure which cookbook to get? Got one for you: The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.

Pan-Asian cookbooks exist and some are great starting points to explore recipes or learn about ingredients. But in the end, many are disappointing because they are little more than catalogs of recipes from diverse cultures sometimes thousands of miles apart. Patricia Tanumihadja's book also draws from widely separated cultures, but anchors recipes to specific grandmothers and great-grandmothers whom she profiles in succinct little oral histories. It's these stories and their ancillary headnotes in the various recipes that really make the book shine.

We learn, for instance, about Kimiye Hayashi from Bellevue, Washington. Born in Pueblo, Colorado to Japanese parents from Hiroshima, she lived in Southern California at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When Japanese Americans were being rounded up for relocation camps during the war, she fled to an abandoned farm, but was eventually put into an Arkansas camp with her family. Tanumihadja writes that while Mrs. Hayashi cooks hamburgers, fried chicken, and other typically American foods, she also scoured Japanese cookbooks — especially those from church groups — for recipes. "You want to eat something you want," she says, "you just learn how to do it."

She's hardly alone. Asian-American grandmothers from Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Burmese, Lao, Indian, Nepalese, Indonesian, and other cultures contribute recipes for dishes that are representative not only of their ancestral homes, but of the American influences in their families' cooking. Somen salad, for instance, isn't traditional Japanese cookery, but the noodle dish with shredded lettuce and barbecued pork is a popular at many Japanese American gatherings. Then there's the leftover Thanksgiving turkey rice porridge.

The familiar and the tantalizing are there, too: Thai basil pork (pad gkaprow mu); chicken adobo; potstickers; caramelized pork belly braised in coconut water; marbled tea eggs; lumpia, lechon, and sinangag; there's shrimp toast, shiu mai, and (my personal weakness) the Shanghai soup dumplings known as xiao long bao; mulligatawny soup from India; and sai oua, a Lao pork sausage with cilantro, culantro, lemongrass, chilies, garlic, etc. — perfect for grilling.

There's banquet food, appetizers, comfort food, and more. I'm lukewarm about the recipes in so many cookbooks, but nearly every one in the Asian Grandmothers Cookbook makes me want to change dinner plans and fix that.

Well done, Ms. Tanumihadja. This one's a treasure.

Patricia Tanumihadja (2009)
The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian Kitchens
368 pages, hardback
Sasquatch Books
ISBN: 157061556X

Goes well with:
  • Want to get in touch with Ms Tanumihadja? Visit her website. She claims, and there's every reason to believe her, that she'd be happy to hear from you.

Matthew Rowley, Superdiner

The San Diego Union-Tribune has launched a new weekly feature in which local food and drinks types — some professional, some avocational — opine about the area's food scene. When I moved here years ago from Philadelphia, I would have found the concept laughable. Philly, after all, was such a food town that heated arguments regularly arose in which locals championed the best cheese steak, pork sandwich, cheese shop, butcher, kielbasa, brewery, etc, while disparaging their opponents' clearly delusional choices. Threats of violence were used and people's absent mothers brought into it.

Mr. Rowley and the Foster Bros would like a word with you. 
Compared to that vibrant, pervasive food scene, I thought San Diego has almost none. It turns out that there is a deep appreciation for food and drink here: San Diegans, on the whole, are just not as argumentative as Philadelphians.

We have fantastic Mexican cookery. Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai are all here in a respectable showing. I found my first local moonshine still within two days of moving in. Some of the local produce stands up to the very best I've had on any continent. You want feta? I know a place that sells a dozen varieties. Same place also sells dry tea leaves out of a metal trash can for under $5 a pound. I grew up in Kansas City and am a bit of a beef snob, but a place in La Jolla taught me that San Diegans can source, age, and cook very good steaks indeed.

Yes, San Diego has a completely respectable food scene; it just takes a little more work to suss out very good eats in this town than it does in, say, New York, Montreal, New Orleans, or Philadelphia. So when Keli Dailey of the U-T asked me to be one of their Superdiners, I said sure.

I don't for a moment think of myself as a "super" diner — that's the U-T name, not mine — but I'm happy to jump in, provide some historical context, and talk about where I've been chowing down. Keep an eye out Thursdays.

Goes well with:
  • An introduction to the others in our group, including Noble Experiment bartender Anthony Schmidt (who makes one of the very best classic mai tais in town); Ricardo Heredia, executive chef at Alchemy Restaurant; and Charles Kaufman, whose bakery Bread & Cie is my first choice for great breads — well, when I'm not baking myself, that is.
  • Meet the Superdiners, Dailey's introductory piece in which we're asked about our choices for great local, but very small, restaurants. I chose Mama Testa, a taco joint near my old house. See what the others say here
  • Thanks to Nelvin Cepeda of the Union Tribune for the photo above. I'm as squinty-eyed as ever, but he did a good job of capturing that 1970's b-list samurai look I was going for. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bookshelf: A Taste for Absinthe

In the mid-1990’s, resources for drinkers were nothing like what’s available today. Unless you were a collector of out of print booze tomes and bartenders’ guides, Mr. Boston’s little red book was about as good as it got. If your tastes leaned to the esoteric — moonshine, say, or absinthe — you were especially hard-pressed for reliable information in the United States. At least good moonshine could be found. Recipes for making ersatz absinthe, on the other hand, yielded universally wretched results.

I know. I tried as much of both as I could get my hands on. Most of the moonshine I kept. Most of the absinthe I gave away.

Now that absinthe is once more readily available in the US, it’s been showing up for the last several years in homes and bars that value in well-crafted cocktails. Some serve venerable cocktails, culled from the pages of pre-Prohibition bartenders’ guides. Others also pour more recent creations. R. Winston Guthrie and James F. Thompson’s A Taste for Absinthe examines them both and starts to answer the unasked questions: what the hell is this stuff and what do I do with it?

Guthrie is an absinthe expert and founder of Asbinthe Buyers Guide (see below). The book holds little new information for absinthe aficionados, but for curious novices it's accurate and truthful. Don't dismiss the value of that. With absinthe largely unavailable to them for most of the 20th century, Americans lost what little we knew about the stuff. As remaining stocks dwindled, myth and misinformation took hold. It was, rumor said, a poison. It caused hallucinations and madness.

The truth is far more mundane. Levels of thujone, the chemical said to drive men over the brink of sanity, were claimed by prohibitionists to have been outrageously high in pre-Prohibition absinthes. Modern forensic analyses of unopened bottles show that they weren’t. Whether or not thujone broke minds, it wouldn’t so do in the concentrations found in either classic or modern absinthes. The authors write:
In extremely high doses, thujone is dangerous, but the concentration of thujone actually found in the beverage absinthe is nothing to worry about. You would need to drink seven liters [!] of the undiluted spirit to have any adverse effect directly from thujone. The alcohol, and even the water [if you diluted it] would kill you before!
After dispensing with history, defining characteristics, tools and accoutrements, A Taste for Absinthe dives into 65 recipes of old and new drinks featuring the green fairy. The book wraps up with a buying guide — somewhat dated, but still a good place to start — for brands widely available to American shoppers.

Its recipes come from professional bartenders such as Jason Littrell, Neyah White, Daniel Hyatt, Eric Alperin, and Jeff Hollinger. You’ll find suggestions of mixing absinthes with mezcal, Lillet, fruit juices, egg whites, rum, honey, bison grass vodka, vermouth, rye whiskey, genever, gin, apricot brandy, bitter orange marmalade, and even sweetened condensed milk. Ok, I erpped a little at the last one, but, honestly, if Jason Lograsso mixed a Strutters’ Ball and put it in front of me, I’d give it a go.

Meanwhile, I’m mixing just enough absinthe with some of the newish 45 proof Crown Royal Black into a whisky cocktail the authors dub North of the Border.
North of the Border
.5 oz simple syrup (1:1)
.5 oz fresh lemon juice
.5 oz fresh orange juice
.5 oz absinthe
2 oz Crown Royal Black
Angostura bitters

Pour the simple syrup, lemon juice, orange juice, absinthe, and whisky into a cocktail shaker. Shake well, and pour the drink into a Collins glass filled with crushed ice. Add two dashes of bitters, and serve.

R. Winston Guthrie with James F. Thompson (2010)
Photos by Liza Gershman, foreward by Dale DeGroff
A Taste for Absinthe: 65 Recipes for Classic and Contemporary Cocktails
176 pages, hardback
Clarkson Potter Publishers
ISBN: 0307587533

Goes well with:
  • Absinthe Buyers Guide, Guthrie’s website with history, articles, and reviews of absinthes both for the US and international markets. 
  • Amazon sells A Taste for Absinthe here

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bookshelf: My Sweet Mexico

My entire life — other than occasional stints in Europe — has been spent in the company friends whose families hail from Oaxaca, Baja California, Sonora, and other parts of Mexico. Even today, I live a mere eighteen miles outside Tijuana. Some ascribe the affinity between Irish- and Mexican-Americans to similar Catholic upbringings. While not denying that possibility, I prefer to think that it is testament to how susceptible those of us with freckles are to the siren call of Mexican cookery.

I have, for instance, dispatched an incalculable number of pigs in the form of tacos, guisados, sopas, tortas, enchiladas, chorizos, and various antojitos. My lust for fresh, dried, and smoked chiles leads to eating amounts that would shock (and likely render ill) my pale ancestors. Yet Mexican sirens are not all chiles and pork. Some of them sing songs of sweetness.

One such sirena is Fany Gerson, a Mexican-born pastry chef and author of My Sweet Mexico. Oh, sure, you may know about caramel-topped flan or the long, ridged donuts known as churros, but there’s a wealth of desserts, candies, sweet beverages, and snacks that, while ingrained in Mexican culture, just don’t get much play in the US. Gerson’s here to fix that. Rightly.

Traveling around her native country, the author gathered recipes for dulces de convento (sweets from convents), dulces de antaño (“heirloom” sweets) pan dulce (the ubiquitous sweet morning breads), fruits, various desserts, and frozen treats such as margarita ice, rose petal sherbet, and sorbets made of quince, tamarind, lime, and cucumber.

If you’re the slightest bit interested in Mexican food or sweets in general, Gerson’s book is a knockout. It has recipes for both traditional sweets (want to make your own Mexican chocolate tablets? Instructions included) and more complex modern desserts such as an original lime tart with tequila-plumped “drunken” cherries.

My Sweet Mexico brings together in one place a trove of the kinds of recipes you would have to cobble together from dozens of English-language cookbooks devoted to Mexican cooking. The tone is light, erudite, and engaging: the voice of an expert and one whom I would want to have over for dinner (and not just because she may bring dessert). 

Drinks are not ignored. Sure, there’s an entire chapter devoted to bebidas, but pastry chefs, after all, are used to judicious use of spirits in their work. Gerson puts a Mexican spin on that tradition. Consider her recipe for gaznates (“windpipes”), light, cannoli-like shells filled with Italian meringue: the shells are made with brandy or rum — and the filling? Spiked with mezcal.

Don’t like windpipes? Try the jamoncillo de leche, a fudge-like milk confection that can be flavored with chocolate, lime, coconut — or reposado tequila. 

Gerson’s recipe for pasita, a raisin cordial, was inspired by a bar in Puebla that serves its namesake tipple in a shot glass topped with a skewer of salty cheese and a raisin.
(a raisin liqueur)

1.5 c/340g sugar
1 c/250ml water
3 c/750ml brandy
2 c/300g dark raisins

Combine the sugar and water in a pot over medium heat, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Pour into a large container. Stir in about 1 cup of the brandy, add the raisins, and let macerate until the raisins plump, about 20 minutes. Add the remaining 2 cups brandy and cover tightly. Store in a dry, dark place for 2 weeks, Stain through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth and store in a sterilized jar.

“Although this drink is typically served,” she adds “at room temperature, I like it a bit chilled. It will keep about 2 months in the refrigerator.”

~ Adapted from My Sweet Mexico to include metric measures.
Though well-researched throughout, Gerson tips her scholarly hand at the end by including a bibliography of nearly thirty titles, most from Mexico and nearly all in Spanish: a goldmine for those who want to read more.

Fany Gerson (2010)
My Sweet Mexico: Recipes for Authentic Pastries, Breads, Candies, Beverages, and Frozen Treats
224 pages, hardback
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 1580089941

Goes well with:
  • Fany Gerson’s site My Sweet Mexico
  • Amazon sells the book here
  • Gerson’s soon-to-open paleta company, La Newyorkina. Paletas are typically Mexican and often fruit-heavy popsicles that sometimes come in arresting flavors such as mango/chile or roasted corn. Try them: the good ones are very good indeed.

Jim & Rocky's Barback Pro-Am

Last week, Rocky Yeh — bartender at Seattle's shuttered Vessel and no slouch in the consumable vice department — emailed asking if I'd like to barback on screen. He and coworker Jim Romdall are traveling down the West Coast to throw down the barback gauntlet wherever they alight to local liquor types. The resulting videos will be posted on the Small Screen Network.

Now, I'll put my mug on camera here and there: for news crews, documentaries, and various broadcast and academic hoo-haws. In fact, if you look closely at the movie In Her Shoes, you'll see me in an uncredited role as a cheesemonger. That shoot was a lot of standing around, bullshitting with Toni Collette and Brooke Smith in between takes, and not doing anything particularly taxing.

Jim & Rocky dispatch a pig
Rocky would have me compete with actual bartenders to see how long I could keep up. That'd be like shooting fish out of a barrel — with me as the fish. So, while I politely declined, I did like the idea of catching up with the boys while they're in town. Next Sunday, February 20th, they'll be at El Dorado in San Diego. Look closely and you may just see me as in an uncredited role as the whiskey drinker.

Jim and Rocky write:
Come watch (and follow) Geoff Kleinman (@drinkspirits), Jennifer Heigl (@dailyblender), Quinn Sweeney(@M_Quinn), Humuhumu Trott(@humuhumu), Ron Dollete(@lushangeles), Tatsu Oiye(@toiye), Chuck Taggart(@sazeracLA), Marleigh Riggins Miller (@nerdling), Stevi Deter (@smd) and Paul Clarke (@cocktailchron) compete in their respective cities! 
You can follow their shenanigans at the Jim and Rocky Barback Challenge Facebook page.

Pro-Am Schedule and Locations

Portland (Jen Heigl and Geoff Kleinman)
Irving St. Kitchen February 13th 6pm-10pm
Pope House February 14th 8pm-close

San Francisco (Quinn Sweeney and Humuhumu Trott)
Cantina February 16th 6pm-10pm
Cantina February 17th 6pm-10pm

San Diego / Orange County (Ron Dollette and Tatsu Oiye)
El Dorado February 20th 6pm-9pm
320 Main February 21st 6pm-11pm

Los Angeles (Chuck Taggart and Marleigh Riggins Miller)
Bar Kitchen February 23rd TBD
Caña February 24th TBD

Seattle (Stevi Deter and Paul Clarke)
Rob Roy February 27th 7pm-Close
Needle & Thread February 28th 6pm-Close 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Honey Loquat and Elm Syrup to the Rescue

We're sick.

And by we, I mean everyone in the house except me.

There's coughing, sniffling, snoring, tossing, turning, couch-sleeping, daytime nap-taking, walking-in-a-room-and-forgetting-why, and slack-jawed 15-second stares at nothing. I'm keeping everyone at arm's length. Sympathetic, but cautious. Make them tea? Yes, of course. Cook dinner? Duh. Yes. Drive everyone to get pho? Pile in, boys.

I'm also dispensing doses of Pei Pa Koa, a sore throat syrup from Hong Kong. I learned of this honey loquat syrup years ago in Philadelphia from Ben Robling — the same erstwhile cheesemonger who provided inspiration for a Dumpster grappa recipe in my book Moonshine. Ben and I were shopping in an Asian market when he spied a display of red boxes and seized on them as the best cough syrup he'd ever known. He, in turn, had learned of the stuff from an opera singer who took a preventive spoonful before performances as a throat-soother.

What the hell? Why not try some? It was South Philly where colds in the winter were more common than parking spots and anyone with a cough was to be avoided as if she had the zombie plague.

It turned out to be one of the best the best cough syrups I've ever known. I've never seen any in a Wal-Mart, Duane Reade, or Walgreen's, but the decorative red boxes are commonplace in US Asian supermarkets. The dark, almost molasses-colored, syrup has a hint of amber if you hold it up to the light, and tastes strongly of honey. Peppermint jumps out with noticeable licorice and ginger notes. There's a longer list of esoteric ingredients that reads like a Jerry Thomas bitters recipe, but the one that excites herbalists is elm bark, widely regarded as a demulcent — that is, a throat soother. It means nothing more than a medicine that makes sore throats feel better.

I have no illusions that Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa (Nin Jiom is the Hong Kong manufacturer) will actually cure the stricken in my house, but if it makes them feel even a tiny bit better, they will continue to have some.

Amazon sells 300ml bottles of the stuff for a little over $15. Sure, you could buy it online. Or you could venture into the nearest Asian market and find some yourself. The 300ml bottle I picked up yesterday was less than $6.

And — me being me — you know I'm eyeballing that bottle and mulling over drinks ideas. There is, after all, that whole list-of-esoteric-ingredients-that-reads-like-a-Jerry-Thomas-bitters-recipe feeling that's hard to shake.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Distillers to Gather Once More in Portland

Gather 'round, ye distillers of brandy and gin, ye wranglers of whiskey. This April, the American Distilling Institute holds its 8th annual Craft Spirits Conference & Vendor Expo in Portland, Oregon.

As usual, there will be tastings and judging. Vendors to the distilling industry will show off bottles, labels, yeasts, grains, and even barrels for stowing away slumbering spirits.

Granddaddy of the American craft distilling scene, Steve McCarthy (Clear Creek Distilling), Lisa Laird of Laird & Company (we absolutely adore her 100 proof bonded apple brandy, even though a bottle hasn't been seen on San Diego shelves since last year), and Henrik Mattsson, author of Calvados, will speak.

Bill Owens, president of ADI, also promises hands-on distilling classes at Portland distilleries: Whiskey at Bull Run Distilling, brandy at Stone Barn Brandy Works, infused vodka at New Deal Distillery, and gin at House Spirits Distillery (transportation and lunch provided).

ADI 8th annual conference
April 4-8, 2011
The Benson Hotel
Portland Oregon

For full information, see the American Distilling Institute's site.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chocolate Pie with Dos Maderas PX Rum

Leftover dessert? An alien concept. Put before me a cupcake, a slice of pie, a cobbler, crumble, grunt, slump, cookies, ice cream, cake, tortes, tarts, stolen, krapfen, baklava, cannoli, pudding — or, face it, nearly any sugar-egg-flour combination — and I will eat it down to the plate. None of this “just a taste” nonsense.

The flip side is that, because I know I’ll devour sweets, I don’t keep them around the house. If we bake cookies, friends, neighbors, and co-workers taste the bounty. Red velvet cake? Half of the last one I made was claimed by a friend 30 minutes after it was frosted.

The chocolate pie should have followed the same path. It didn’t. Naturally, everyone in the house got a slice, but then we repeated until all that was left was a pie pan smeared with chocolate and tiny black crumbs.

This was originally a Martha Stewart recipe and, except for the liquor, a pretty typical diner-style pie, but I tweaked it a bit and swapped out her suggested whiskey in the pie with Dos Maderas PX, a flavorful blend of aged Barbados and Guyana rums. After basking five years in used bourbon barrels under the Caribbean sun, it’s shipped to Jerez, Spain for five more years in two different sherry barrels. Score a bottle if you see it. I often sip it just neat. And because a rum-laced pie’s not enough, I spiked the whipped cream with some of it as well.

Is it any wonder we ate the whole damn thing?

Chocolate Pie with Dos Maderas PX

6.5 oz/185g chocolate wafer cookies (about 30)
1 Tbl sugar or vanilla sugar
6 Tbl/85g unsalted butter, melted

Pulverize the cookies in a food processor. Transfer the resulting fine crumbs to a medium mixing bowl and stir in the sugar. Add melted butter and mix with a large mixing spoon or spatula until the entire mixture looks and feels like soft, wet sand.

Turn crust mixture out into a 9-inch round pie plate. Using the back of the spoon, press the mixture evenly into the bottom and up the sides. Transfer crust to freezer.

½ c sugar (4 oz/100g)
3 Tbl malted milk powder (35g/1.25 oz)
1 tsp salt
¼ cup cornstarch (35g/1.25 oz)
5 large egg yolks
2 c/500ml whole milk
½ c/125ml heavy cream
5 oz/140g dark chocolate (60-70% cacao), coarsely chopped
1 Tbl aged rum (Dos Maderas PX)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, malted milk powder, salt, and cornstarch. Add the egg yolks and whisk until combined; mixture will look like a thick paste.

Slowly pour in milk and cream, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly; let boil for 30 seconds and immediately remove from heat.

Add chocolate, rum, and vanilla; whisk until well combined and mixture has cooled slightly. Let stand, at room temperature, for 15 minutes. If a thin skin forms on the filling while cooling, whisk until skin is gone. Remove the pie crust from the freezer and pour the slightly cooled filling into the crust. Refrigerate for 4 hours before serving.

Serve with whipped cream lightly sweetened and dosed with additional Dos Maderas PX. If you’ve got leftover chocolate wafer cookies, now is a good time to crumble one or two and sprinkle them over the whipped cream-lashed pie slices.

Goes well with:
  • Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers — these dark, almost black little buggers are not always easy to find. Amazon sells a 12-pack of them which is more than I'd ever need, but maybe you've got a buddy who would go halfsies with you. Or have a bake sale...

Friday, February 4, 2011

America's New Distilleries at Tales of the Cocktail

This summer, Max Watman and I will be joining boozy forces in New Orleans for the annual Tales of the Cocktail celebration. Max is the author of Chasing the White Dog and me — well, I wrote a book called Moonshine that advocates an America where craft distilleries are as commonplace as craft breweries.

Our topic? What else might it be? An overview, analysis, and samplings from America's new distilleries. All across the United States, new distilleries are cropping up. Some enjoy international success while others merely dream of such distribution. We'll take a look at who's who, where they are, what they're making — and where it's all going.

And we're trying to do something new: throw open an unusual sponsorship opportunity for those same distillers who usually wouldn't be able to sponsor a seminar. Each year, sponsorships for sessions at Tales are snapped up by large liquor companies to showcase their portfolios. That's great. I love those sessions. Learn about the history of Cointreau? Sure, I totally want to. Sample unusual whiskeys from Heaven Hill before they're rolled out to the public? I'd be a fool to pass up the chance.

But smaller distilleries typically couldn't afford to be single sponsor. Unless, that is, a small band of them joined to form a consortium or a, hell, let's call it a syndicate where each contributed a smaller portion. If ten distillers got together and split the cost, each could come to Tales and help get their stories and their products in front of an audience thirsty for information on spirits.

I posted a more detailed discussion about this on the forums of the American Distilling Institute. If you're interested, check it out here.

America's New Distilleries (abstract):
In the last ten years the number of American distilleries has grown from a few dozen to over 200. All around America, people are re-inventing gin, delivering exciting new brandies, expanding the spectrum of American whiskey. At the same time, the industry is full of paper tigers, false starts, and vanity projects. We’ll separate the wheat from the chaff in the current scene, and look out in to the future. Big spirits companies have started buying the little guys: what will that do?