Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Granizado de Michelada

A discussion arose yesterday among colleagues over what, exactly, a michelada is. Everyone acknowledged that it was Mexican, but after that, there was some...confusion. Despite the protean ingredient list one finds in bars from El Paso to Tijuana, a michelada is a simply cold beer that’s been hacked.

The embellishments of a michelada may be as straightforward as a squeeze of lime and dash of salt or may involve more complex iterations involving chile, Worcesterchire sauce (called salsa inglesa or "English sauce" in the Mexican idiom), Maggi seasoning, tomato juice, Clamato, shrimp, etc.

In the same way that something as straightforward as iced tea morphs from a sweet North Carolina specimen to a passion fruit-laced California example (or a bloody mary changes between bartenders), a michelada in Veracruz will not be the same as one in La Paz — or Dallas. With little effort, one may drift from the safe and familiar harbor of, say, a Corona-and-lime into more exciting territory of drinks a lot like seafood cocktails.

Add to this mix Fany Gerson’s granizado de michelada, a frozen concoction more akin to an Italian granita than a San Antonio thirst-quencher. Gerson, author of My Sweet Mexico, has written a complementary book called Paletas about Mexican ice pops, shaved ices, and aguas frescas. It’s a cool little book and, despite the obvious appeal to parents with young kids, bartenders and cocktail types would do well to crack it open; more than a few of the recipes include sugar, water, and spirits — the very definition of a classic cocktail. Well, minus the bitters.

Gerson’s main topic — the paleta — is a typically Mexican popcicle. You’ll find easily approachable ones everywhere, flavored with strawberry, tamarind, mango, or coconut. But you won’t have to scratch around long in Mexico to find varieties with corn, hibiscus flowers, berries, melon, rice, chiles, chamoy, and more.

In addition to lime-and-chia, rice pudding, strawberry-and-horchata, coconut, lime pie (with crushed graham crackers pressed into its surface), avocado, grapefruit, watermelon, and other kid-friendly flavors, frozen alcohol-spiked varieties in the book include:
  • Paletas de crema y cereza con tequila (pops with sour cream, cherry, and tequila)
  • Paletas de sangrita (with a tequila-laced spicy tomato base)
  • Paletas de donaji (mezcal-orange ice pops)
  • Paletas de platano rostizado (roasted bananas with rum)
  • Paletas de rompope (rum- or brandy-spiked egg nog)
For my friends in Pennsylvania who may not have ready access to such things, here’s Gerson on her frozen michelada:
Micheladas, often called cheladas, are drinks made with beer, fresh lime juice, and sometimes chile. Micheladas especiales, or cubanas, use the same foundation but add Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and Maggy sauce, a popular seasoning that has a salty, caramelized, deep flavor. This raspado is inspired by these popular beverages.
Granizado de Michelada
(beer with chile granita)

2 small piquin or arbol chiles
3 cups water
½ cup sugar
Zest and juice of 3 limes, plus juice for wetting the rim
¼ cup chile powder
½ tsp salt
2 cups cold medium-dark beer

Combine the chiles, water, sugar, and lime zest in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Let cool to room temperature, then stir in the lime juice. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a shallow nonreactive pan and put it in the freezer.

Once the edges start to freeze (about 1 hour), scrape lightly with a fork, bringing the ice crystals from the edges to the center. Return to the freezer and continue scraping every 30 minutes or so, until the mixture is completely frozen and looks like small ice flakes.

Place the chile powder and salt in a bowl and stir. Wet the rim of a glass with lime juice, then dip it in the chile powder. For each serving, place ½ cup of the granita in the prepared glass. Pour about ¼ cup beer over the granita and serve immediately.

Note: It's always best to serve granita as soon as it's ready. But if you leave it in the freezer and it hardens, simply take it out of the freezer, let it soften for 5 to 10 minutes, and then scrape it with a fork again.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to slip off to get some chamoy for tonight's round of mangoadas.

Fany Gerson (2011)
Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas
128 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 1607740354

Goes well with:

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Vanderbilt Fugitive

In issue 41 of The Southern Foodways Alliance’s quarterly newsletter Gravy, co-owner, bartender, and extraordinarily nice guy Bobby Heugel writes “At Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, we believe in the narrative power of a great menu. Our Summer in the South menus approaches each cocktail-character as an advocate for Southern traditions and ingredients—few of which are more iconic than buttermilk.”

Set aside for the moment — careful, now, don’t jostle it — the notion of a cocktail-character and instead cast your eye on the concoction Heugel presents in the piece: the Vanderbilt Fugitive.

The original Vanderbilt Fugitives were a group of early twentieth-century writers and poets who came together at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Counted in their ranks were Southern men of letters such as Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), Allen Tate ("Ode to the Confederate Dead"), William Ridley Wills, and others. You can just feel bourbon dripping from the walls at the evocation of their names.

But this isn’t a bourbon drink. If you recall, it’s a buttermilk drink. Oh there’s rum, yellow Chartreuse, Averna, all kinds of delicious things — but it’s the buttermilk that gives it that special je ne sais what?
The Vanderbilt Fugitive

1.75 oz El Dorado 5 Year Demerara Rum
1 oz rich, acidic buttermilk
.5 oz Yellow Chartreuse
.5 oz Averna Amaro
.5 oz maple syrup

Combine all ingredients with ice and shake for at least two to three minutes, allowing cocktail to expand in volume. Strain into a Collins glass with cubed ice. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
~ by Yao Lu and Anvil colleagues

Goes well with:
  • The SFA’s “foodletter” Gravy. Download it here.
  • When in Houston, drop by Anvil. If you’ve more than six in your party, make certain you all order a Ramos gin fizz — and on no account tell them I sent you.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Masala Chai

On dark, chilly weekend mornings, I shower, quietly slip on soft old jeans and the frayed (but so comfortable) thick white Oxford I wear only at home, putter around the kitchen, and plan the day’s chores.

Before hitting the day’s punch list, though, I usually brew an oversized mug of steaming hot masala chai. Masala chai — or, simply, chai or a chai latte in the United States — is an Indian take on hot, spiced tea, almost always tempered with milk. It's enough to hold me over until the rest of the house is up and we tackle a proper breakfast. With a huge cup of it in hand, I’ll mosey out to the front patio, brush the fallen bamboo leaves from my garden chair, and catch up on international news.

Unlike my iced tea recipe, which is fairly set, my chai recipe oscillates between simple and, admittedly, overly complex. Procedures and ingredients shift around to accommodate my moods. Sometimes I dump everything in a pot and just cook the hell out of it. Other times — like this morning — I use a three-step procedure that’s still pretty simple and still just uses one pot.

Depending on what I feel like, I may include fresh ginger, fennel seed, black pepper, a bay leaf, or even vanilla. But I always use cinnamon, cloves, turbinado sugar, black tea, whole milk, and — the core of any good chai for me — cardamom.

Here’s this morning’s batch. It's not nearly as heavily sweetened as commercial concentrates such as Oregon Chai. Want more sugar? Hell, you're an adult. Add more sugar. 
Masala Chai

2 cups water
1 4” stick of cinnamon, broken into several pieces
8 whole cloves
8 green cardamom pods, crushed
2 cups whole milk
2-3 Tbl turbinado sugar
1.5 Tbl loose leaf black tea, such as Assam

Bring the water through cardamom to a boil in a pot. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and let burble away about ten minutes. Add the milk and sugar. Bring almost to a boil, add the tea leaves, then cover and let rest about 3 minutes. Strain. Drink it as hot as you can stand it.
Goes well with:
  • Fat Lips Spill Sips. Ever wonder why some cocktail shakers, cups, and pots just always seem to spill while others don’t? It might be a trick of physics called the Teapot Effect first identified in 1957. 
  • Hot Cocoa for a Chilly Morning. When San Diego gets cold and clammy in the late winter, I'm more likely to break out a mug of hot cocoa than hot tea. This is the recipe I use.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rum-Fueled Blackout

Earlier this month, San Diego lost electricity when a power line from Arizona failed, leaving almost 5 million people without power. Normally, my neighbors are calm, quiet types, but when the flow of electricity just stopped that afternoon, their hooting and hollering sounded as if someone had tossed bags of wolverines and bees in their living rooms.

Rumors were rife and nobody seemed to know exactly what had happened. We weren’t sure how long we’d be without power, so we loaded bags of ice in the freezer and avoided opening the refrigerator to eek out as much residual cold as possible.

Hours later and still with no power, we realized that some frozen foods might not make it, so we decided to break out the most ephemeral food in there: a mango/maraschino sorbet.

I’d lifted the recipe almost verbatim from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop, except that I swapped out the dark rum he called for with slightly larger dose of lower-proof maraschino liqueur. Maraschino — not to be confused with the lurid red maraschino cherries one finds on ice cream sundaes, fruitcakes, and certain Manhattan cocktails — is a clear, aged liqueur made from Marasca cherries. It has an old-world affinity for fruit salads, so mango seemed a good fit.

It was.

But we didn’t forget Lebovitz’s original call for rum, so I hauled out a bottle of Coruba, a dark Jamaican rum, for drizzling over the sorbet in our candle-lit living room. I drizzled — at most — a tablespoon over the softening deep yellow sorbet.

The boys had other ideas. They turned their small bowls into drinking vessels by sloshing in several ounces of rum over their scoops. We each squeezed lime over what we had. I had lime-rum sauce on my maraschino/mango sorbet; they had slushy maraschino/mango daiquiris.

Everyone went to bed happy.

Mango-Maraschino Sorbet

2 fat, ripe mangoes (2 pounds, just shy of l kg)
2/3 cup/130 g sugar
2/3 cup/160 ml water
½ oz fresh lime juice
½-1 oz maraschino liqueur
Pinch of salt

Peel the mangoes and cut the flesh away from the pit. Cut the flesh into chunks and put them in a blender with the sugar, water, lime juice, maraschino, and salt. Squeeze the mango pits hard over the blender to extract as much of the pulp and juice as possible. Puree the mixture until smooth. Taste and adjust lime juice or maraschino.

Chill the mixture thoroughly, then freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Goes well with:
  • For the maraschino, I used Luxardo brand. Maraska is another good choice.The former, wrapped in straw, is easier to find, but online merchants sell both if you don't come up with either in your local stores. 
  • Blackouts aren't the only thing to cause us to drink in SoCal. Earthquakes do, too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Recycling Revisited: Isang Litrong Liwanag

I mentioned last week that I no longer put our empty bottles in the recycling bin behind our house because an intruder used them as cover when he broke into our home. But that doesn't mean that I'm against recycling or repurposing used bottles.

Here's one of my favorite uses of empties:

In the Philippines, the used bottle issue doesn't involve intruders, but poverty and darkness. Millions of homes are without electricity and daytime darkness is commonplace. Using an appropriate technology innovation from MIT students, MyShelter Foundation has launched its Isang Litrong Liwanag (A Liter of Light) campaign that converts discarded bottles into stunningly elegant solar bottle bulbs.

In a nutshell, a one-liter bottle is filled with a water and bleach solution, sealed, then secured in the roof of a home, school, or warehouse with no electricity. A simple hole in the roof would admit rainwater and a mere shaft of light. Not very useful. The solar bulb, though, emits light in all directions.

Hell, I have electricity and I'm mulling over the idea of installing a few — in the garage, a tool shed, wherever.

From Liter of Light's tumblr post:
MyShelter Foundation has spearheaded a daunting project. Through the “Isang Litrong Liwanag” (A Liter of Light) campaign, the foundation seeks to provide sustainable lighting to a million households by 2012.
For more about MyShelter Foundation and the Liter of Light campaign (with more images and video), see its website.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bookshelf: Odd Bits (and Brain Fritters)

I have licked the inside of a dead man’s skull, yet cannot bring myself to eat brains.

Brains don’t disgust me; it’s not that they are icky, yucky, or gross. After all, I dote on sweetbreads, said to be of similar consistency. No, it’s that, of all an animal’s odd bits, the brain is so clearly the seat of cognition. It’s not for nothing that a German word hammers this point; the brain, the human one, anyway, is das Denkorgan, the “thinking organ.”

Surely, I have eaten brains, given all the scrapple, brawn, and brei I’ve downed since childhood, but I’ve never actively pursued a hot platter of grey matter. I could chalk up my eschewing brain to mere caution. After all, transmissible encephalopathies such as mad cow disease and other pernicious, degenerative brain disorders, no matter their rarity, can be traced to a heady diet. But the truth is that I hesitate at the idea of devouring thoughts — even a lamb’s.

I’ll eat livers, lungs, trotters, and tongues, but no one — not Fergus Henderson, not Mrs. Beeton, not Charles Ranhoffer of Delmonico’s, or even Escoffier himself — has come as close as has Jennifer McLagan to convincing me that my thoughts about brains ought to be reconsidered.

McLagan’s new book Odd Bits covers brains as well as beef cheeks, liver, tongue, heart, Bath chaps, guanciale, pig ears, haggis, kidneys, sweetbreads, testicles, ribs, lungs, marrow, and more. After writing about the culinary use of bones and fat in two earlier well-received books, her latest subtitle (How to Cook the Rest of the Animal) pretty much sums it up. In this troika of titles, McLagan has firmly established her expertise in converting cast-off bits of mammalian anatomy into tasty dishes. Hair, I suppose, or eyeballs may remain unaddressed, but when she’s covered even toenails, her expertise in offal is unassailable (really, now, what is blood orange calves’ foot jelly but quivering red essence of toenail?).

Continuing hard times and a growing taste for stronger flavors means you’re going to be seeing a lot of what polite company once referred to as "variety meats" on menus. You could do a lot worse than sitting down with Odd Bits and reading up to understand what you’re seeing when you’re out — and how to make some of those toothsome morsels at home.

Taking her inspiration from Australian chefs and food writers Greg and Lucy Malouf, McLagan presents a cocktail menu snack: cheese and brain fritters. She writes:
Frying and the addition of cheese often help persuade people to try something they think they don't like. I serve these as appetizers with drinks—that way guests only have to try one, but I'm pretty sure you won't have any left. The recipe is very straightforward; just make sure the cheeses are very finely grated, a microplane is the ideal tool.
Cheese and Just a Little Brain Fritters

3 eggs
½ cup/¾ oz/25 g very finely grated Gruyere, packed
¼ cup/⅓ oz/10 g very finely grated Parmesan, packed
2 Tbl finely chopped chives
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
½ tsp fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 sets poached lamb's brains (see below)
1 Tbl cornstarch
1 cup/7 oz/200 g lard

Preheat the oven to 200°F/100°C. Place a baking sheet lined with paper towels in the oven.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs, then slowly whisk in both the cheeses and the chives, orange zest, and salt, and season with pepper.

Slice each brain lobe into ½ -inch/1-cm slices and toss them in the cornstarch to coat. Transfer them to the batter and stir to mix; you will have something resembling a lumpy pancake batter.

Melt the lard in a heavy frying pan over medium heat; you should have about into ½ -inch/1-cm of fat. When hot, drop a little batter into the oil, it should sizzle and rise to the surface. Now add a few spoonfuls of brain batter mixture to the fat; don't overcrowd the pan and adjust the heat so the fritters bubble gently. Cook the fritters about 3 minutes, or until set and golden on the underside. Using a slotted spoon, gently turn them over and cook for about another 3 minutes. As they finish cooking, transfer the fritters to the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Serve right away.
Cleaning Brains

The general method for cleaning brains involves removing any remaining skull fragments, then soaking them in a light brine (about 1 teaspoon of salt per cup of cool water) both to draw out blood and to help firm the lobes. After soaking, the membrane is removed and then the cleaned brains often poached in water or stock.

Jennifer McLagan (2011)
Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal
256 pages (hardcover)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 158008334X

Goes well with:
  • McLagan's blog where she's got some behind the scenes materials and roundups of what others are saying and writing about her books. 
  • Feasting on Bones

Monday, September 19, 2011

On Licking a Human Skull

Hamlet: That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once

~ William Shakespeare
Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1

I tell you this today — a slight foray into topics broader than food and drink — in order to tell you something tomorrow without miring us in macabre details [edit: it's been told].

Hamlet, Yorick, et al by W.G. Simmonds
While in graduate school, I studied physical anthropology. At the age of 25, I knew more about human osteology — the names of bones, their shapes, their characteristic bumps and markers — than did any of my friends who had chosen a career in medicine. Recent or ancient, intact, disarticulated, or fragmented beyond laymen’s recognition, I learned to identify and analyze human remains.

Of course, there was any number of widely taught techniques for doing so. One quick-and-dirty field trick, though, sticks with me. This isn't something you'd want to do with recent remains, but for older bones, it was a method of revealing which fragments of parietal bones are which. The parietals are two squarish bones forming the arched dome of your skull. Whole, the right and left sides are determined easily at a glace. They fit together like the fingers of two clasped hands. But if the head has been broken or shattered, right from left is not always so obvious.

Unless you lick the skull.

You heard me: lick it.

Pronounced grooves run along the inside of each parietal bone, unmistakable channels that, in life, accommodate vessels on the exterior of the brain. These channels in the bone branch like a shrub; few and thick near the front and lower interior surface, but dividing into more, and more delicate, grooves toward the top and rear of the bone. Alternately, they resemble river tributaries in reverse.

Parietal Bone from Gray's Anatomy
When such fragments are dirty or dusty, those grooves can become indistinct. Some physical and forensic anthropologists — not all, by any means — borrow a move from the archaeology crowd and dab parietal pieces on their moist tongues to reveal obscured details. An archaeologist might do this with, say, a dusty pottery shard to determine its composition.

Now, to be sure, anthropologists don’t slather head bones with drool, working every nook and cranny clean. These are not reliquary fetishists, but you can understand why they don’t put this one in the brochure. The dab of moisture dries quickly, but before it does, the grooves’ size and direction becomes apparent. Couple those details with the curve of the piece and the correct placement becomes apparent.

Did I lick the inside of a man’s skull? Bet your sphenoid I did. Like everyone else who got an A.

Why is this on my mind? Check back tomorrow. It comes round to food again.

[edit 9/20/11: that post is up here]

Goes well with:

Secret Ingredient

"Ahhh, a secret ingredient!" my admirer exclaimed. Fingers walked their way up my chest as he pulled nearer. "What could it be? I'm dying to know what you added. Could it...Oh, my god. It's garlic."

Yeah. I do that.

In fact, my father and I do the same thing — when it comes to garlic, anyway. If the cookbook recipe calls for 3-4 cloves, we'll each make it with 5-6. If the dish could take more without becoming unbalanced, I'll write it up in my notes as 8-10 cloves (come on now; this is probably some gumbo, chili, or shrimp thing we're talking about: dishes than can absorb — to a point — a lot of garlic). Next time I read my notes, I'll know that 8-10 is merely my own suggestion to myself. I probably meant a whole head.

And so it goes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Don’t Recycle Bottles

I don’t recycle bottles. I won’t, in fact, recycle bottles.

In 21st century California, the idea is almost indefensible. Some would argue that it smacks of sociopathy. Recycling is, after all, a duty of responsible citizens, of those who care about our environment and who want to leave the world in a better condition than they found it. Of stewards.

My guess is that those who think so have never apprehended an intruder in their homes, an intruder who used innocuous bottles as part of his break-in strategy.

I have. Unarmed and in a towering rage, I cornered a man who had broken into our bedroom. It changed how I handle arms and home security. Not recycling bottles is one of the new things I do.

I'll soak a bottle. But recycle? Fuck that.
Earlier this year, while working in my home office, I heard a noise about 9:30 one morning, a sort of clumsy crash and a muffled thud. At first, I thought the cat had knocked over something. Odd. She’s usually quite graceful. I rose from my desk, but then saw that the cat, her tail all bushed out, was staring intently down the hall. I knew immediately that she hadn’t caused the noise...and that something was wrong. Furtive sounds in the bedroom told me that whatever was wrong was also alive. I paused to isolate the sounds, pictured exactly where they were coming from, and stepped in.

Say what you will about the appeal of finding an unfamiliar man in your bedroom, but if you haven’t invited him, understand that whatever is about to happen is not good.

A crackhead, his clothes blackened with grime, had popped the screen to one of our windows and used it to get in. Broad daylight. Bennett was his name. He’s in jail now. The detective handing the case told me that Bennett had a long history of breaking and entering homes. His favored access point was the series of alleys that run behind so many San Diego houses. All of these alleys have trash and recycling bins. One of his routines was to pretend to scrounge for bottles, while in reality, checking to see if anyone was home. The bottles gave a reasonable cover for someone who had no legitimate reason to be there.

Got him.
Not long after, I caught another man. Again, broad daylight. Again, filthy and unkempt. As I approached the back of our house after the gym one morning, the gate slammed and a guy bolted, his head down, a sudden speed walker. A quick scan confirmed that our windows were still shut, our door unforced. Then I hauled after him, yelling. I wanted every neighbor to hear me and I wanted him so rattled that he never came back. Chased him for a block and a half. Afterwards, I found the Dumpster lunch he had stashed outside the gate and, a little further away, a thick branch, freshly torn off a small tree, tucked against our wall. A tool? A weapon?

Yeah. I know. We should move. We’re looking at houses. Have been since the break-in.

But in the meanwhile, here’s the deal: recycling bins attract scavengers who cull bottles and cans to get the cash deposit. While I didn’t love the idea of strangers rummaging through ours, I could sympathize. That’s a hard life and, until this year, I never begrudged the clearly needy the meager forty or fifty cents they’d get by taking our empty whiskey bottles. The overwhelming majority of trash pickers want nothing more than to take away our discards and to do so in peace.

The day I realized, however, that a bin of bottles provides perfect cover for an intruder — even one — to scope out my home was the day I decided our bottle recycling was over.

I reuse bottles. I repurpose them. I give some to a local business that turns them into useful things. I’ve cut down on the number of bottles we go through. And I’ll recycle all the cardboard and paper that comes my way.

But I’ll be damned if I ever put another bottle out behind our house.

Goes well with:
[Update 10/13/12: Last December, I bought an old Craftsman home near Balboa Park in San Diego.The new house has a dedicated recycling bin behind a secured gate. We're recycling again, fulfilling a civic duty. I do, however, still sleep with a weapon handy. That's not likely to change.]

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The California Gimlet

We drink gin year-round at the Whiskey Forge, but — to my taste, anyway — warm weather has always been a better fit for really gin-forward drinks. In fact, the hotter it is, the more gin seems to temper the heat. In the height of summer, for instance, a bracing gin & tonic shines. Recently, we have become enamored of the California gimlet, a simple, three-ingredient drink we picked up from Dale DeGroff’s book The Essential Cocktail.

A gimlet is classically made with bottled lime cordial such as Rose’s or Angostura. Swapping out fresh lime juice for the bottled cordial yields very a different, nearly daiquiri-like, cocktail.

We have made these with Beefeater, Beefeater 24, Hendrick’s, and Beefeater Summer Edition gins. In fact, we killed all of the bottles except for the 24 making this particular cocktail. What can I say? We like Beefeater. Each gin, however, made a delicious drink and I look forward to wrapping up the summer with more of these.
California Gimlet

2 oz gin
¾ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
Lime wheel, for garnish

Combine the gin, lime juice, and syrup in a mixing glass with ice and shake well. Strain into a small cocktail glass or serve over ice in an old-fashioned glass, garnished with the lime wheel.
I include the lime wheel garnish from DeGroff’s original recipe but, as those who drink with me know full well, there are about 5,197 things I care more about than cocktail garnishes at home. He also suggests that a dash of Rose’s lime cordial may “remind the drinker whence their [sic] potation came.” Your call. The drink’s just fine without it.

DeGroff, Dale (2008)
The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks
272 (hardback)
Clarkson Potter
ISBN: 0307405737

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shake Dem Bones

This weekend, I stopped by Pigment, a neighborhood store specializing in...well, green hipness, perhaps. I drop in about once a month to paw through birthday cards, books, and design-heavy preciousness. Sometimes I buy things, sometimes not.

There are art tomes aplenty, a selection of cookbooks for  urban homesteader and DIY kitchen crowds (though, oddly, not even one DIY distilling book), whiskey rocks, thick felt drink coasters, letter press greeting cards, cool kids' toys, garden seedlings, ceramics, heirloom produce and flower seeds from Baker Creek, odd hand towels, and loads of eco-globes and wall-mounted terrariums.

Lots of knickknackery I may want, but nothing I truly need. In other words, it's fantastic place to find gifts for someone else.

This Sunday, a set of ceramic salt and pepper shakers shaped liked stylized bones caught my eye. With two salt cellars and a workhorse of an old pepper mill at home, I have no use for something like this, but the set of shakers (made by California designer Chris Stiles) called to the mischievous meat eater in me. I may just have to reconsider the salt cellars and slide back over there before the week is out.

Hang on, though. Now that I...yeah, now that I think about it, I may just need a cinnamon shaker for those tiki punches we make around here...

3827 30th St
San Diego, CA 92104
(619) 501-6318
Mon-Sat 11-7, Sun 11-5

Stiles in Clay salt and pepper shakers: $32 for the set.

Goes well with:
  • Should you find yourself with a batch of actual bones, I suggest you roast them and  feast on them.
  • And if you're in San Diego, check out The Cookbook Store's going out of business sale. Word is, it'll all be gone before Christmas.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bitter Disappointment from Japan

I’ve been working on a documentary project that requires a comprehensive representation of cocktail bitters. Given the burst of interest in the field and ever-increasing new producers, that imminently manageable — and largely historical — project has metastasized into a monster.

Monsters, I can handle. Work goes on. Heartbreak, however, wasn’t part of the plan.

One of the last bottles of Hermes Orange Bitters
When I discussed the project earlier in the year with San Francisco barman Neyah White, I asked him whether Suntory still made Hermes brand orange bitters. Stocks had seemed to dry up both online and in bricks-and-mortar stores. As West coast ambassador for Suntory whisky, White was in a position to know the status of the company’s products.

The brand was dead, he reported. There had been discussions in Japan to revive it in light of America’s resurging interest in cocktails, dice. It had become an extinct ingredient. Some time later, he wrote that he had secured for me a single bottle, used, only partially empty, but with a broken cap.

He wrote:
Last night in Tokyo, we hit the best Whisky Shop in the City...totally solid shop, vintage Chartreuse, vintage whisky (as in things bottled in the 50's and 60's), tons of Amari, 13 Ichiro's Malts, rums I have never seen, 5 Pimm's, etc., etc.. I ask politely about Hermes and the owner smiles sadly, goes to the back brings out his last bottle, it has a slightly broken top so he set it aside and never sold it. He says he is sad it won't come back and is hanging on to this as a sample. I say that is great.

We keep poking around and showing our appreciation for things we find and he grabs some glasses and pours all drams of Wild Turkey bottled in the 70's. Not crazy good, but very cool. One of the guys with us is Lincoln Henderson (former Master Distiller for Jack Daniels) and tells the owner how he is an old friend on Jimmy Russell and how this is some of the first stuff that Jimmy both made and bottled, pretty important really. The next thing I know a bottle of medicinal rye from 1927 gets opened and each get a nip of that. shockingly good, very maple-y.

To say thanks, I pull out .375 of St. George's Grappa that I had lugging around (I brought gifts for the Suntory folk, had extras) and present it too him. He promptly turned around and grabbed the Hermes Orange and gave it to me.

Where do I send it?
I’m no fool. I told him. When the package didn’t come, I assumed White simply hadn’t shipped it yet. But, in fact, he had. The shippers had misplaced it and the package languished for months. White eventually tracked it down.

I was so happy when that box finally arrived. Happy that I had my hands on such a thing and that Neyah White had thought enough of me to send his only bottle — and one with such a great story. This truly was passing on a kindness. I brought the small brown box inside, opened it, and carefully pulled back its first two flaps.

A potent orange aroma arose from the box mixed with something...else. Was it cardamom? Cloves? I closed my eyes and tried to place it. Almost instantly, the smell registered as “wet cardboard." My eyes shot open and I sucked air in through my teeth. Brad Pitt's line from the film Se7en springs to mind: What’s in the box? I grabbed a bone folder from the counter and, with trepidation, shifted packing peanuts aside. What’s in the fucking box? Even stronger smells of warm, wet cardboard and orange wafted out. Underneath the top layer: shattered green glass, a torn label, packaging material that had shriveled and shrunken into hard little knobs.

The only bottle of Hermes orange bitters I’d seen in years was splayed out, utterly destroyed. During its time in courier limbo, the bottle’s broken cap had slowly trickled bitters — drip, drip, drip — onto biodegradable packing peanuts. The peanuts did what they were designed to do; they began to shrivel and dissolve. With the padding reduced to a fraction of its original size, the bottle was freed to bang around within the box. All it needed was rough handling to crush its precious cargo.

Life, as it must, goes on, as does the bitters documentary project. But not with Hermes. Not today, anyway.

Goes well with:
  • A look at Chris Bunting's Drinking Japan. If I visit Japan any time soon, I'm taking his book.
  • And I'll probably do some more studying of Mark Robinson's Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook
  • If you are a modern producer of cocktail bitters and we haven't spoken about including your products, shoot me an email (moonshinearchives at gmail dot com) and I'll give you the skinny.

Monday, September 5, 2011

It’s All Going to Biscuits

Summer slurs into Autmn subtly in Southern California, but there's no denying that cooler weather is creeping upon us.

With the onset of light blanket nights, I’ve begun drinking more hot tea and resumed baking — pies mostly, but buttermilk biscuits as well. These are for me comfort foods and lately I’ve been craving a bit of comfort.

Biscuit, butter, and peach preserves
But hot buttermilk biscuits cry for some kind of...something, even if it’s just butter or honey. So, before Summer slipped way entirely, I scored one last flat of peaches and made a big jar of preserves for slathering on my steamy little indulgences.

There had been vague plans for using these peach preserves in a barbecue sauce, as a base to sweeten and flavor juleps, with roast pork, or maybe even to complement a batch of bitterballen, but at this rate, I think it’s all going to biscuits.
Peach Preserves

About 2.5 pounds ripe peaches
2.5 cups sugar
2-4 oz fresh lemon juice
one half teaspoon unsalted butter

Plunge the peaches in boiling water for about 1 minute to loosen the skins. Remove them with a skimmer to an ice bath and slip off the skins. Cut the skinned peaches in half, remove their pits, and cut each half into small, bite-sized pieces. Place the pieces in a large, heavy, nonreactive pan (I use a big old enameled Le Creuset Dutch oven). If you prefer an even more fine preserve, use a pastry knife to cut pieces into bits a little larger than grains of rice. Add the sugar and lemon juice. Let stand about ten minutes.

Turn the heat to high, add the butter (to help tamper down foaming) and cook about 10-14 minutes, until it holds its shape on a chilled saucer.

Ladle into jars and either process or keep in the fridge.

Makes about a quart of preserves.

Goes well with:

Friday, September 2, 2011

Yeah, Like I Need Another Cookbook

Now that I've plundered the place and plucked what I've wanted for my own shelves, it's safe to tell you about a San Diego cookbook store that's going out of business.

I've been shopping at Barbara Gelink's secondhand cookbook store since moving to town. Tucked away in a little Kensington strip mall behind a liquor store, it's always been easy to overlook. There's no particular reason to peek down the narrow parking lot if you didn't have business there. Do so this week, however, and you'll notice a bright yellow banner announcing her going out of business sale. Her goal? Liquidate the stock and close shop by Christmas.

Grilled Fogas from József Venez's 1958 Hungarian Cuisine
As of September 1st, her entire inventory of secondhand cookbooks is half off. I understand there will be steeper discounts next month. For now, though, the shelves are still laden with culinary books from around the world. There's the 1948 Malay recipe book for $25 (er, rather, $12.50) I considered (twice) but left behind. Though her stock is mostly in English and heavily focused on the United States, there are cookery books in Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and more. Some Charles H. Baker, some Trader Vic. I saw several copies of the Oxford Companion to Food, each marked at under $20. Less than $10 with the sale.

I didn't pay retail for my copy, but, damn; it wasn't that cheap.

The thing about secondhand American bookstores is that I've been prowling through them for years. Decades, actually, at this point. In casual hunting, many of the titles I find that grab my attention already sit on a shelf somewhere at home. Those secondhand books I do buy tend to be unusual, old, or esoteric. In the Kitchen with Rosie? Absolutely no interest; every thrift store from here to Rochester has copies to burn. At Gelink's, a fat overview of Austrian cookery, however, caught my eye. I picked up Das große Sacher-Kochbuch and four others for a total of $19.

For the next few days, I'll pick my way through a history of die österreichische Küche, some startling recipes from Hungary, a catalog of brumalian sweets, and, predictably, even more on German and Southern cookery.

What will you get?

The Cookbook Store
4108 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
(619) 284-8224

Goes well with: