Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricane Season

Photo: Ryannan Bryer de Hickman
As Hurricane Irene bears down on the Eastern seaboard, I understand the concern that friends and family back East feel. Powerful cyclones can be frightening and this one looks like a doozy. At last word, New York City hospitals were being evacuated. My advice? Get to a safe and secure place with whatever supplies you need. Then turn on some music, break out the rum, throw yourself a little New Orleans-style hurricane party, and wait it out — with the appropriate cocktail.

In the Winter 2011 issue of The Zenchilada, I wrote a column about an iconic New Orleans cocktail, beloved by visitors, if not necessarily by each and every local.
It’s not true, as some claim, that Crescent City natives neither eat Lucky Dogs nor drink Hurricanes, but that drink is a decidedly tourist affair aggressively seasoned with dark rum. After that, opinions diverge on ingredients. If you order a Hurricane in New Orleans today, you likely will be served a strong red drink. None of what you’re likely to get is particularly good. Whether from a bar or a clandestine street vendor, the rule for concocting one seems to be “Make it red, make it rum”—but that’s not how it started, and that’s not what growing numbers of drinkers around the world are mixing when they want to evoke the French Quarter and Mardi Gras.
The article traces the history of the drink and gives five recipes from the original 1940’s version (that was not red, though it was rum) to modern interpretations and quotes from tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff, and Matt “RumDood” Robold. Rounding out the pack of drinks authorities is Tiare Olsen, the Tiki Queen of Sweden, with her “Funky Hurricane” bolstered with Smith & Cross, a funky, funky pot-stilled Jamaican rum.

For the article and recipes, go to The, and navigate to page 32 of the Winter 2011 issue about carnivals and feasts. Or download the PDF here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Legal Moonshine? You've Been Conned

Craft distilling and moonshine do not have shared goals.
~ Max Watman

[Edit 29 August 2011 — I've been wretchedly sick for weeks without the concentration or stamina to write as coherently as I might. What follows should more properly have been two separate essays rather than the mashup I put together. The core idea was that very concept of "legal" moonshine is flawed from inception: If laws permitted the manufacture of moonshine, it would cease to exist. I ought to have stopped there. Instead, I plowed on with — and didn't finish — a second idea: that moonshine carries with it unavoidable connotations of unwholesome corruption. Marketers who seek to tap the mystique of illicit liquor must understand that such spirits don't simply signify positive traits such as independence and cultural identity, but are a red flag of danger and, if they want their brands to be more than novelties, must be willing to invest money and hard work into countering generations of negative connotations. Piedmont Distillers in North Carolina does an admirable job of that with celebrity endorsements, a festival centered on 'shine, aggressive public appearances, and high-profile placement (and, full disclosure; they helped sponsor the session on America's new distilleries at this summer's Tales of the Cocktail). 

See my full comments in the comments section below.]

Moonshine has, and will always have, a soiled reputation.

That hasn’t stopped a growing number of American distillers from developing brand identities and marketing plans based on that rattiest of American spirits. Yes, I know. Such distillers may hope to tap into American ideals of freedom and liberty (moonshine is, if nothing else, rebellion in a jar). Some evoke regional pride, others the history of a particular time or place, or a sort of pre-Prohibition Nirvana when the smoke from still fires wafted over countless thousands of American homesteads. I admit, these are appealing images.

Moral objections — and they are strong and widespread — to moonshine notwithstanding, the stuff has posed a very real danger to drinkers for generations. Customers, quite literally, have died from drinking what passes for moonshine and continue to do so around the world.

One may object and say “Well, that’s poison, not real moonshine” or “That’s the fault of bootleggers, not moonshiners,” but the truth is that the general public — presumably one’s customer base — doesn’t readily make such distinctions. Only absinthe comes close to offering the temptation and trepidation held forth by that good old mountain dew, a mistrust that’s been with us for most of the last century.

In his 1971 survey of Southern cookery, bon vivant Eugene Walter devoted an entire chapter, naturally enough, to beverages. A devotee of the charred barrel, Walter was not shy about sharing his opinions on the region’s drinks. “Most of America’s hard liquor — the best and the worst — comes from [the South],” he wrote.

He went on:
The worst, or at least the roughest, is moonshine, that bone-shattering, unaged, illicit variety of corn whiskey also known as com likker, or white lightning. Its familiars drink this powerful brew without batting an eye. You will see one of them turn a jug up to his lips, take a big pull from it and wipe off his mouth with the back of his hand, and you will think there could hardly be anything in that jug stronger than tea. But then you take a swig yourself, and it knocks off the top of your head. Tears come to your eyes; your vocal cords seem to be paralyzed; you gasp for breath and your inside feel as though they are on fire.
The humorist Irvin S. Cobb sounded an even more strident warning in the 1939 WPA guide to Kentucky:
It smells like gangrene starting in a mildewed silo, it tastes like the wrath to come, and you absorb a deep swig of it you have all the sensations of having swallowed a lighted kerosene lamp. A sudden, violent jolt, of it has been known to stop the victim’s watch, snap his suspenders, and crack his glass eye right across — all in the same motion.
If you’ve read my book and previous writing on the subject, you know that I champion good moonshine and those who make it — in truth, I dote on the stuff — but actual moonshine may not be purchased at liquor stores, through websites, or in other legal venues. Yet here we are: “moonshine” is on offer in stores across the country.

Positioning what otherwise might be perfectly acceptable commercial spirits as “moonshine “ or “legal moonshine” is a willful corruption of the scofflaw folk distilling traditions that inspire them. They are artificialities, oxymora on par with “original copy” or “living dead.”

They are also, if one has a philosophical bent, simulacra. That is, they are copies much as Colonial Williamsburg, parts of Las Vegas, or Disneyland are, things that simulate the real world, but which are, in fact, fakes. Think of Jim Carey in The Truman Show and you’ve got a snapshot of the legal moonshine customer, conned — perhaps willingly — into thinking he’s got the real deal.

Last May, I went on, admittedly, a bit of a rant after reading an execrable moonshine article in Time magazine. I wrote, in part:
The single, universal, and defining characteristic of moonshine is that it is made outside the law…That’s your litmus test. If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine.
Other drinks writers and journalists have picked up that baton. Quoting Chasing the White Dog author Max Watman, Craig LaBan writes in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the new crop of “white” whiskeys and their relation to moonshine:
Such sophisticated spirits don't necessarily jibe with the hillbilly marketing that clings to much of the white whiskey genre - a contradiction Watman thinks is potentially troubling for the longevity of the movement.

"Being able to access a little bit of outlaw-dom . . . is a very tempting angle for people," he says. "But associating yourself with a product people don't inherently trust is not a recipe for long-term success. Craft distilling and moonshine do not have shared goals."
In The Atlantic this week, Clay Risen comes out swinging even harder against “fake” moonshine. He takes particular aim at Moonshine® Clear Corn Whiskey, but that’s just the exemplar:
Moonshine may be a tasty dram; I've never had it. But that's not the point. The problems are all in the name. First: If there is one thing that drives whiskey nerds nutty, it's the often-willful misuse of the word "moonshine." If it's sold on liquor store shelves, it's not moonshine. If it has a fancy website, chances are it's not moonshine. If its owners were ever arrested by the ATF, it might be moonshine. Something tells me that the folks behind this product, "serial entrepreneur" Brad Beckerman and "Internationally renowned barbecue chef" Adam Perry Lang, are not, nor ever have been, wanted by the feds.
Not many people get moonshine right. Watman and Risen nail it every time.

If you have legal moonshine on your hands, you have been conned. But perhaps you already knew that when you plunked down your money at the liquor store. Did you use a debit card? Was it a state store? Well, honey, pack your bags: we're going to Disneyland.

Goes well with:
  • It’s a Nice Day for a White Whiskey, a bit about the schizophrenic regard in which Americans hold moonshine.
  • As Surely as Thunder Follows Lightning — a talk I gave last year for the American Distilling Institute about the state of American moonshine.
  • Even the Ten Dollar Whore Sneered at Me, an anecdote revealing just how very low moonshine is in some peoples' eyes.
  • Walter, Eugene et al. (1971) American Cooking: Southern Style. Time-Life Books, New York.
  • Federal Writers' Project (1939) Kentucky: A Guide to the Bluegrass State. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Feasting on Bones

Once every two months or so, I make a huge pot of beef stock, some to be used within a few days, some for freezing. If I’m ambitious, some gets cooked down even further with additional ingredients into a tiny amount of thick demi-glace. There’s sautéing of vegetables and roasting of bones involved. It’s kind of a pain. It’s not that it’s hard; it’s not at all. It’s just mindless work. Doing it correctly means we eat well.

So I bribe myself to get it done by sliding into the oven — while the bones for stock roast — an extra pan of sawed-off little leg bones. As the stock simmers, I end up with a few spoons of delicious roasted beef marrow: something to snack on, the sort of treat for cooks that never makes it past the kitchen door.

If you’re not into marrow, or offal, or “variety meats,” “the fifth quarter,” or whatever you care to call suspicious animal bits, I can understand skipping this little lagniappe. But you’d be missing out.

By the time I take the pan of sizzling marrowbones from the hot oven, I’ve drizzled a bit of olive oil on rough chunks of bread and lightly toasted them. With the end of a long wooden spoon, I’ll nudge plugs of softened, hot marrow from each bone and press them, crushing them just the slightest bit to make them stay in place, onto the toasted bread. A quick grind of coarse grey sea salt between my thumb and the side of my forefinger over the whole thing and it’s ready.

I'll spare you the infantile onomatopoeia of a degrading "nom nom nom," but forgive me if I wish you...bone appetit.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hit in the Boing Loings

Someone got hit in the boing loings.
Hit in the boing loings.
Boing loings.
Boing loings.
Somebody got hit in them.

~ Ice King

After a burst of work earlier this month, I dropped from sight: my Twitter and Facebook accounts fell quiet and the blog showed nothing new at all. That sore throat I wrote about had turned into a raging upper respiratory infection that knocked me flat out for two weeks. I'm still, as the kids say, a bit stoopid.

I was just trying to show you how many weeks you had
I've missed my own birthday, rescheduled for sometime next month, and, with almost no appetite for either food or drink, I've lost about eight pounds (but, hey, there are worse things that could happen to a guy). Today I've started to catch up on emails. If you've tried to get in touch with me, I'm sorry for the delay in answering — there have been times this week I wasn't even sure what language I was using.

I watched movies and documentaries, read snatches of a few books, and absolutely fell for Adventure Time, a Cartoon Network show about the surreal adventures of a 12-year old boy named Finn and his flexible dog Jake. It has nothing to do with whiskey, moonshine, cocktails, or cured meats, but when I've felt so crappy, exhausted, befuddled, and weak these past two weeks, Adventure Time made me smile almost every day.

Three cheers to Pendleton Ward for creating such a fantastic show and making me forget, at least for a while, that I've often felt as if I'd truly been hit in the boing loings.

Peace out. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Elise Hannemann's Liverwurst

Even though one of my Irish grandfathers' families hails from Cork, a city known for its appreciation of offal, and the other from County Mayo, my wurstlust is traceable to another side of the family entirely.

As a child, if I were particularly antsy, my mother would rebuke me with an exasperated "Sitzt du!" and I would know to sit and immediately unfuss myself. Asked what I wanted for my birthday dinners, I declared the tedious "rouladen" more often than she probably liked to hear, and in my grade school, I was one of the only children — certainly the only freckled one — who toted Braunschweiger and mustard sandwiches for lunch. To this day, if you startle me, you're as likely to get a German expletive as an English one.

The unavoidable conclusion is that somewhere in the woodpile lurks a beer-drinking, sauerbraten-making, spätzle-simmering subject of the Kaiser. Suspicion falls squarely on my great grandmother whose maiden name, depending on which relative you asked, was either Schultz or von Hasenberg. As a small child, I once asked why some of our cousins had German names. She konked me on the head with the back of her hand and chided me. "We are not," she insisted, "German. We are Prussian." Years later, I think it may have been a joke...but, then, Lily von Hasenberg (if that was her real name) was not known for levity, so who knows?

That Braunschweiger above is a spreadable pork liver sausage, a subcategory of the wider liverwurst clan, and one likely to be found at family gatherings at my great-grandmother's massive lawn parties in the 1970's. To be honest, the kids generally eschewed it; those who didn't like it really didn't like its mineral bite. To me, though, it was one of the perks of no-class summer diversions. Broadly, Braunschweiger — known as BS to some of its admirers — is ground pork liver mixed with finely ground bacon, stuffed in hog bungs, simmered, then smoked. Because lately I've been both on a liverwurst kick and struck with bouts of insomnia, I've been digging up recipes that elucidate the whole category of liver sausages — and make sense of my childhood snacking.

On a hunt for Braunschweiger recipes in particular, I came across one in my library for "Leberwurst" from Elise Hannemann's 1904 Kochbuch. The book is dedicated to Hannemann's patron, Ihrer Majestat der Kaiserin ["your Majesty the Empress" (i.e., Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, wife of Kaiser Wilhelm II)] and is a revealing look at middle class German cookery in the years before World War I. Although Hannemann does not call this particular sausage "Brauschweiger," the bacon and optional smoking would make recognizable to American Midwesterners as exactly that.

Klicken Sie hier
My somewhat free translation is below. Following that is my transcription of the original — as always, feel free to correct my translations. The original recipe's Fett- oder Krausedärme refer to slightly different natural hog casings. Those sold as 2.5-3-inch "bungs" (no snickering) in the US are just fine for a finely ground and simmered sausage like this. Wurstkräuter are simply herbs and spices for seasoning wurst. Although Hannemann doesn't specify, white pepper, marjoram, nutmeg, allspice, and even cloves would not be out of place. Start with a 3/8" plate, then grind twice more with a 1/8" plate.

Very Good. In winter, it will last three weeks.

500 g liver
400 g of cooked bacon
1 whole egg
Sausage herbs
Dried truffles or fresh anchovies

Run the liver and bacon through a grinder three times, then thoroughly mix in the herbs, salt, pepper, finely sliced truffles or chopped anchovies. Stuff this mixture loosely into hog bungs and let cook slowly for a half an hour* in boiling water. Then remove them immediately place in cold water.

The sausage for slicing and is especially good if they are smoked two days. 
*Note that some modern authorities suggest cooking liverwurst until its internal temperature is 165°F. 

Transcript of the above image:


Sehr Gut. Im Winter 3 Wochen haltbar.

500 g Leber
400 g gekochter Speck
1 ganzes Ei
Getrocknete Trüffeln oder frische Sardellen

Die Leber und der Speck werden dreimal durch die Fleishhackmaschine genommen, mit den Krautern, Salz, Pfeffer, kleingeschnittenen Trüffeln oder gehackten Sardellen gut vermischt, lose in Fett- oder Krausedärme gestopft und ½ Stunde langsam in kochendem Wasser ziehen gelassen; dann werden sie herausgenommen und sosort in kaltes Wasser gelegt.

Die Wurst wird zum Ausschnitt verwandt und ist besonders gut, wenn sie zwei Tage gerauchert wird.

Goes well with:
  • I am a Meat Wagon —When I say "wurstlust," it's not a joke. I crave sausages and cured meats; my last stop out of New Orleans was at Butcher where I scored two types of bacon we can't get in San Diego . I even tempt the TSA in a story about getting stopped smuggling andouille after a trip to LaPlace, Louisiana. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Even the Ten Dollar Whore Sneered at Me

These days, it's not uncommon to find white whiskeys in the fanciest of American cocktail bars. These clear, unaged (or minimally aged) whiskeys were little more than curiosities 10 years ago. Even five years ago, you generally had to know someone with a connection to a distillery to get a taste of one. The stuff was a little too close to moonshine for most drinkers' tastes. Now you can walk into almost any well-stocked liquor store and make your selection.

What a difference a few years make.

In 2005 I was spending a lot of time on the road interviewing moonshiners, home distillers, federal agents, and anyone else with a connection to illicit distillation in the United States. Naturally, I spent a lot of time in the South. Whenever I found myself near New Orleans, I would find an excuse to drop in for a few days or a even few weeks at a time. Cooling my heels one afternoon at the Bourbon Pub, I was approached by a hustler.

I knew he was a hustler from the very second I laid eyes on him. Handsome, mid-20's, jeans, white tank top, muscled but skinny. He was leaning against a brick wall, scoping out the room. Given my line of research, a certain amount of criminality is expected. This guy was screaming it. I avoided eye contact. That is, until I forgot about him and happened to look across the bar directly into his eyes.

Shit. Within seconds, he had disengaged from the bricks and appeared at my side. I rested my forearm on the wallet in my front pocket. He clearly figured me for a mark. I glanced at Kevin, the bartender I had known for more than 15 years, and flicked up an eyebrow. Kevin glanced at the hustler, gave an almost imperceptible shrug, and went back to cleaning a glass. Ok, so the guy wasn't dangerous.

He introduced himself, and launched into a well-oiled anecdote about how his mother and father — a nun and a priest — had met when their motorcycles crashed on a Guatemalan mountaintop during a rainstorm. It was all bullshit, of course, but the kid had a gift for storytelling. He finished his beer. I bought him a new one. What the hell: It was a great story and happy hour beers were cheap. After I bought him the beer, he tried so hard to get me to admit I was a cop. Convinced, finally, that I wasn't, he shifted closer and had a proposal.

Ah, I thought with the familiar lump of my wallet under my arm, here it comes.

"You know, I can get us some weed."

"I'm cool," I told him. "And I'm still working on the beer."

"Yeah, that's cool." He paused a few beats. "You know, if you want something harder, I know where we can get some cocaine." That's not how I thought the sentence was going to end.

Kevin was watching while not, you know, watching. "Naw, seriously," I demurred. "I'm good."

"Yeah," he agreed. "That's cool."

But he wouldn't drop it. "I've got a place nearby. It's not my place, but we can go there. I know a guy who can get us some heroin if you want." Yeah, ok. "We" can get some heroin. After turning down weed and coke from a complete stranger, I'm going to shoot for heroin. When I declined, his demeanor changed.

Kevin came over and placed his hands, palms down, on the bar. "Everything ok here?" I asked for another beer. "Just one."

The hustler edged a little closer. I found myself ready to strike while trying to look very casual. "Look." He was trying a different approach. There was a plaintive softness in his voice now, as if on the verge of a confession that everything up until now was all just a smokescreen. "I just got out of lockup yesterday." Probably a lie, but maybe not. "I could really use some money." There. This was beginning to sound true. He was also getting fidgety. I saw no track marks on his bare arms, but his toes were likely another story. "I do have a place we can go. We can't stay there. It's kinda like an alley by where my friend stays. But if you want" — and here he looked down and away before plowing on — "but if you want, I'll let you fuck me there for ten dollars."

The proposal didn't shock me. The price, though, was breathtaking, the desperation almost heart-wrenching.

"No," I said as gently and quietly as I could. Even junky hustlers have dignity. "No, I'm good right here."

He sat back on his bar stool, deflated. "I don't understand. What do you want?"

I cocked an eyebrow. "Honestly?"

He perked up, leaned in again, and started to bring the beer bottle back to his mouth. "Tell me. I can make it happen."

"I'm looking for moonshine." The bottle stopped cold inches from the hustler's face. He turned to face me, his lip curled in a snarl of disgust. He let out a grunt and heaved himself away from me: "Ugh. Nasty!"

The kid who held forth promises of weed, coke, heroin, and — for ten measly bucks — his own body had standards after all.

When I see so-called "legal" moonshine in chichi bars serving white Manhattans and other such concoctions, I can't help but think of how far our American white spirits have traveled in just a few short years.

Shoot, these days, whatever else it may get you, ten bucks might not even cover the cost of your drink.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hot Whiskey Punch for a Torn Up Old Man

My everyday speaking voice is low, quiet, and soft. Making myself heard over high-pitched squeals and laughs in packed bars means I have to talk louder and louder — almost a low yell  — in order to get my baritone voice to carry.

I don't like yelling, so I tend to avoid clubs, dance crowds, and packed venues. Sometimes, though, that's exactly where friends want to meet. I go because I adore my friends.

Over the last year or so, though, my hearing has started to change. I can still hear quiet, subtle sounds around the house or office just fine. That hasn't changed. But in those loud settings, the background noise seems to have grown into a Phil Spector-style wall of sound. The voices and music just ooze together into an unintelligible roar, a constant crescendo.

The result is that, unless I'm huddled in a conspiratorial ring, I miss big chunks of conversation. So I watch the crowd, observe the bartenders, say hello to passing friends. And, when I do follow the conversations, I yell to be heard in response. Last night, I yelled on and off for three hours. This morning, my throat feels like someone took a bottle brush to it. Raw, red, sore; hurts to swallow, hurts to draw air across it.

Time to deploy my mom's recipe for soothing sore throats. I realized earlier this year (only because I'd never really thought about it) that the sore throat/chest cold remedy my mother used to recommend was nothing more than a portion-controlled 19th century Irish whiskey punch; hot black tea, honey, lemon, whiskey. Proportions to taste. Vague memories of a clove floating in there, but it was strictly optional — as was everything but the whiskey.

We are, after all, Irish.

Goes well with:
  • Poitin Fails to Induce Rowley Coma, in which I write about the hunt for homemade Irish whiskey and open with "My family is not a whiskey making family, but we are, in large measure, Irish; that is, we are a whiskey drinking family."
  • I bit I wrote when everyone in the house was sick about Pei Pa Koa, a honey-loquat sore throat syrup from Hong Kong.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Salsa de Chile de Arbol

The weekend is nearly on us. Given the current heat wave and our local drinking habits, that means beers, margaritas, chips, and salsa. Anything that keeps the kitchen from getting needlessly hot.

We're loaded up on fresh limes, Cointreau, Combier, and Grand Marnier, so the margaritas are under control. Beers are cooling and chips acquired. I just tossed a double handful of green tomatillos on the grill and made a batch of green salsa with tomatillos and dried chiles de arbol, those pencil-thin, long red chiles so common once you know to look for them.

Tomatillos, also called tomates verdes, resemble hard green tomatoes in husks, but the resemblance ends there. Though the tart little fruits can be used raw, I like them best cooked and have been known to give them a quick boil or to char them a bit on the grill. I'm particularly fond of the tomatillo/chipotle combination and have made quick stews of little more than chicken, squash, roasted tomatillos, lime, salt, chicken stock, and smoked peppers.

The idea for this salsa came from Patricia van Rhijn's La cocina del chile. This isn't as smoky as chipotle versions, but packs a pleasant heat. If you don't like tart tastes, you won't dig this, but if you do — tuck in. Want a stronger garlic kick? Don't roast it with the other ingredients. Make sure everyone eats some, though; you don't want to be the only one with superhuman garlic breath.

My interpretation and quantity tweaks are below. Her original follows that in case you'd like to double check my imperfect Spanish.
Salsa de chile de arbol

8 dried chiles de arbol
8 tomatillos
6 cloves garlic
1 tsp (cider or pineapple) vinegar
Dash of salt 
Clean and wash the tomatillos. Grill them with the chiles and garlic.

Once the ingredients are roasted, remove and discard the hard core of the tomatillos, grind everything in a blender with vinegar and add salt to taste. I like to leave discernible chunks of garlic and chile in mine.

And here's van Rhijn's original directions:

Salsa de chile de arbol

Ingredientes (para 1 taza)

6 chiles de arbol secos
6 tomates verdes
3 dientes de ajo
1 cucharadita de vinagre


Los tomates se limpian y lavan. Se ponen a asar junto con los chiles y los ajos. 

Una vez que los ingredientes esten asados, se muelen con el vinagre y se agrega sal al gusto.

Patricia van Rhijn (2003)
La cocina del chile
Introduction by Laura Esquivel, photos by Ignacio Urguiza
Editorial Planeta Mexicana
Hardback (191 pages)
ISBN 9706908684

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kenny Shopsin, "Orange Julius," and the Tennessee Caviar Scam

Years ago, I knew a guy who sold caviar: Ossetra, Sevruga, and Beluga, as well as plump red salmon eggs, Tennessee paddlefish eggs, whitefish roe, tiny grains of tobiko, and more. He even imported Scandinavian kelp-based pellets that, given dim light and enough aquavit, might come off as caviar-like. That inky kelp imposter notwithstanding, his fish roe was good, he cared about keeping it under the right conditions, and, when you recall that lightly salted fish eggs are a luxe dish in the first place, his prices were reasonable.

I learned a lot tasting his products. I learned that I prefer Ossetra to the more expensive Beluga; that salmon roe less than excellent is shudderingly vile; and that Southern paddlefish roe — while I wouldn't mistake it for the Caspian Sea article — is worth tracking down. I also learned that the contents of his carefully packed tins were not always what the invoices declared.

Oh, if you were a regular, you’d get what you ordered as long as he had it in stock. Most people did, in fact, get what they ordered. The owner of a football team who regularly had big tins of Beluga shipped to him certainly got the real deal. But if the Caviar Guy was out of something and he thought he could get away with it…well, the Sevruga sometimes shipped out with a definite Tennessee accent.

I hadn’t thought of that asshole in months.

But the memory of him and his various cons washed over me when I was reading Kenny Shopsin’s book Eat Me. Shopsin, the Greenwich Village cook and subject of the documentary I Like Killing Flies, writes about Morris, a purveyor from whom he used to buy turkeys:

One day Morris was bragging to me that he had been on that corner for fifty years. Way back in the ‘40’s, he said, chicken was really rare. When he couldn’t get it, he used to take veal cutlets and sell them as chicken cutlets. He said nobody ever noticed the difference. I don’t know how he expected to inspire trust in me by telling me he sold veal for chicken. He was telling me the story to show how times had changed, but what I got from it was that he was a liar and a crook.

I had seen I Like Killing Flies a few months ago, but the strength of that passage right there is what made me buy the book. It told me that Shopsin didn’t just understand the extent of the sneaks, cons, cheats, and shorts endemic to the restaurant business, but that, like him or not, and despite his protestations to the contrary, he was one of the good guys.

His own restaurant, Shopsin’s, was a New York institution for decades. It's since closed and he's moved on to a new, smaller location on Essex Street. While I knew it existed at the original spot, I always got distracted when I was in New York and never visited. Pity. The menu was about 900 items long and the dishes were, well, not classics since so many bore Shopsin’s own imprint on what they should be, but they were familiar — pancakes and French toast, but also Mac and Cheese Pancakes and Bread Pudding French Toast. Not just ho cakes, but Slutty Cakes as well. One mugshot lineup of griddle cakes in the book includes varieties such as chocolate peanut butter, coconut, cinnamon raisin, oatmeal, cranberry orange, brown sugar banana, bacon, chorizo corn, and a few more. Shopsin is particularly good at running with a basic concept.

The recipes are strong on breakfast foods — or, at least, the sorts of things I like to eat for breakfast. But there are plenty of salads (“I think a lot of salad eaters are dishonest people — people who eat for reasons other than sating their true desires.”), soups (“I put something like forty soups on the menu all at once, and from there I kept adding them, one at a time or ten at a time.”), and sandwiches (“In addition to sliced roast beef, turkey, shit like that, I also had pork loins, smoked ham, bacon, Canadian bacon. You could get roasted chicken, grilled chicken, fried chicken, red onions, grilled onions, fried onions, fresh tomatoes, roasted tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, fried green tomatoes.”).

Shopsin’s writing is vulgar, opinionated…and sounds a lot like me in my own kitchen.

Here’s his take on an orange drink I myself had seen when I was a kid, but was never allowed to have:

“Orange Julius”

When I was a kid, Orange Julius was strictly a California thing. I didn’t discover it until late in life, and then I fell completely in love with it and had to have it at my restaurant…Legally speaking, I am probably not allowed to call this an Orange Julius because the name must be copyrighted or some crap like that, which is why I put the name in quotation marks. I could have called it an Orange Julius-ish. Or maybe I can get away with it if I just say that this is my idea of what an Orange Julius is. The truth is that mine is different from the original. It’s better because we squeeze the orange juice fresh.”

1 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon powdered egg whites
½ cup powdered sugar
2 cups crushed ice (or 3 cups ice cubes)

Put the orange juice, egg whites, and sugar in a blender and blend quickly to combine the ingredients. Add the ice and blend until the ice is finely crushed and the drink is frothy. Do not overblend, or the ice will begin to melt and the drink will start to flatten.

Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreño (2008)
Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin
ISBN: 0307264939

Monday, August 1, 2011

How About You Drink China Instead?

One street behind San Diego's pan-Asian supermarket 99 Ranch Market, beyond banners announcing its perpetual grand opening and the all-you-can-eat $18 hot pot, lies Mr. Dumpling, one of my default lunch joints.

I am enamored of Mr. Dumpling's xiao long bao (called on the menu "pork juicy buns" and elsewhere known as Shangahi soup dumplings). The steamed dumplings are little more than tiny pork meatballs and a splash of stock wrapped in a thin caul of dumpling wrapper. The trick to eating them is to bite a small hole at the bottom edge, slurp out the stock, and only then tackle the rest of it. Invariably I dunk mine in a soy/chile/black vinegar concoction I mix at the table. Sure, I'll order other things once I'm there, but those fat little rascals are the reason to go.

Naturally, the staff have come to know me. Small dishes sometimes appear unbidden on our table; pickles, boiled peanuts, little pancakes. One day when eating alone, I was engrossed in Chris Bunting's book Drinking Japan. When the waiter brought dumplings, I set the book aside and he read the title.

"Drinking Japan?" he exclaimed, in (mostly) mock indignation. "How about you drink China instead?"

"Sure, ok." You see, I'm agreeable about these things. "Where can I get Chinese liquor in San Diego?"

"Hmm. Maybe 99 Ranch Market."

"Yeah, I saw their sake and shōchū, but I didn't notice any Chinese spirits."

"They also have umeshu," he offered, naming a Japanese plum liqueur.

"Chinese umeshu?" I pressed.

He smiled, caught. "Yeah, Chinese stuff is pretty hard to find. Maybe it's ok if you drink Japan sometimes."

And so I do.

Mr. Dumpling
7250 Convoy Court (not Convoy Street)
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 576-6888

[Edit 10.9.12: With a change of staff for both the front and back of the house, the quality of the restaurant has suffered. I can't in good conscious recommend a meal here any longer. Pity. Those were great dumplings]

Goes well with:

Bookshelf: Thai Street Food

In any provincial town, and in many crowded areas of Bangkok, there is always a place — a corner or two, a few blocks or a square — that is brightly lit well into the night. These are the night markets of Thailand and they are filled with people, food and noise, as flames lick around woks and wood smoke from charcoal grills lingers in the still night air.

~ David Thompson

We’ve come to expect big things from Australian writer and Michelin-starred chef David Thompson, but let’s just get the obvious out of the way. Thompson’s Thai Street Food is enormous. The book is over 13” tall, racks up 372 pages, and weighs almost as much as three liters of good Kentucky Bourbon. It’s big.

It’s also gorgeous. Years ago, my in-laws gave me Thompson’s earlier book, the opus Thai Food, as a birthday present. Although a more manageable height, it, too, was huge. 674 pages. Hell, the introduction was almost as long as my entire book Moonshine. It taught me more about Thai cookery than all the other Thai books in my library combined.

Sure, you could use it in a bar fight as a formidable weapon, but Thai Food’s length is justified by the scholarly and eminently readable copy. Thompson goes into exquisite detail from historical and gustatory angles on how big and complex Thai flavors come together into harmonious wholes. Likewise, Thai Street Food makes sense when you consider the topic. Huge, full-page color photographs by Earl Carter evoke the hustle and bustle of Bangkok markets and street vendors on a scale that isn’t possible with a smaller, shorter book. A guide to Bangkok’s street vendors might fit in your pocket, but it’s not going to prepare you for the vibe of what’s there when you hit the streets.

I’ve been cooking out of Thai Street Food for a few months now and it’s just a stunner. I’ve a soft spot for street- and market- type takeaway in the first place, but when it’s flavored with hits of fish sauce, garlic, basil, chiles, ginger, galangal, bitter greens, coconut, lime, cilantro, tamarind, and more — ah, man, my knees go weak.

Bags of sweet chile sauce (photo: Earl Carter)
The book is broken down into three main sections following the arc of the day and the street foods one might find sold then; Morning (with breakfast and morning snacks as well as some noodle dishes), Noon (lunch, curry shop, snacks and sweets, and more noodles), and Night (made to order, Chinatown, and desserts). For those unaccustomed to Thai cookery, an appendix includes ingredient and basic technique descriptions.

Recipes cover the expected such as Pat Thai (even if Thompson’s ambivalence about this ubiquitous Thai restaurant dish — invented for a WW II-era noodle recipe contest — is obvious) and mangos with sticky white rice. But don’t shy away from sour orange curry of fish, banana rotis, deep-fried dried beef with a chile-tamarind sauce, prawns and chile jam, sour pork sausages, barbecue or roasted pork, and…well, all the recipes I’ve tried simply work. Don't shy away from any of them.

One of Thai Street Food’s strengths is Thompson’s consistent hand-holding for those unfamiliar with Thai ingredients or techniques. This isn’t some best-hits collection of Thai restaurant favorites, but clearly a work of someone who has eaten and cooked these dishes time and again and understands the variations that can come into play and why one might choose to do one thing over the other.

Thompson is not adamant that readers use unfamiliar ingredients, but describes them in a way that certainly makes me want to. Take, for instance, his description of maengdtaa fish sauce that goes into the above chile-tamarind sauce. Now, I like fish sauce as much as the next guy, but blink and you may miss what makes this one special: “I like to use maengdtaa fish sauce (made from rice roaches, bugs that scurry through the paddy fields), for its haunting aroma, but any good-quality fish sauce will do.” Out came my shopping list: M-A-E-N… No luck so far finding it in San Diego, but I still look.

Muu Bing (photo: Earl Carter)
We’ve taken a shine to Muu Bing, simple grilled pork skewers akin to Indonesian or Malaysian sate. Thompson calls for using an optional pandanus brush, so some explanation is in order. Pandanus (also called pandan, duan pandan, rampe, bai toey, lu dua, or screwpine) has been called the vanilla of Southeast Asia, but perhaps only for its ubiquity; its flavor and scent are all its own. Fruits and flowers of some species are edible, but recipes that use the plant more frequently call for the long, thin, green leaves. Torn or crushed and tied in knots, they are not generally eaten but are removed after cooking much like knots of lemongrass. Fresh leaves are scarce in the US, but  may be found frozen in many Asian grocery stores.

Muu Bing (Grilled Pork Skewers)

Thompson writes “I am addicted to these.” Try them; you’ll see why.

300 g (9 oz) pork loin or neck
50 g (2 oz) pork back fat (fatback) — optional

1 teaspoon cleaned and chopped coriander roots
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons shaved palm sugar
Dash of dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

12-15 bamboo skewers
3 pandanus* leaves (optional)
about ¼ cup coconut cream

Slice the pork into thinnish pieces about 2 cm (1 in) squares. Cut the pork fat, if using, into small rectangles, say 2 cm x 5 mm (1in x ¼ in).

Next make the marinade. Using a pestle and mortar, pound the coriander root, salt, garlic and pepper into a fine paste. Combined with sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce and oil. Marinate the pork and the fat in this mixture for about three hours. The more cautious can refrigerate this but, if doing so, then it is best marinated overnight.

It’s a good idea to soak skewers in water for about 30 minutes. This prevents them from scorching and burning as the pork grills. Some cooks like to use a brush made out of pandanus leaves to baste the pork. To make a pandanus brush, fold each pandanus leaf in half then trim to make and even edge. Cut up into the trimmed ends four or five times to make the brush’s “bristles.” Tie the pandanus leaves together with string or an elastic band to make a brush. Of course a regular brush will do too.

Prepare the grill. Meanwhile, thread a piece of fat, if using, onto the skewer first followed by two or three pieces of the marinated pork. Repeat with each skewer. When the embers are glowing, in fact beginning to die, gently grill the skewers, turning quite often to prevent charring and promote even caramelisation and cooking. Dab them with the coconut cream as they grill. This should make the coals smoulder and impart a smoky taste. Grill all the skewers.

On the streets, they are simply reheated over the grill to warm them through before serving, although this is not entirely necessary as they are delicious warm or cool.

David Thompson (2010)
Thai Street Food: Authentic Recipes, Vibrant Traditions
372 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 158008284X