Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smoked Bacon, Apple, and Cabbage

BC: Before Cabbage
This time of year, the pantry is loaded and the fridge is full. We’re working our way through it all, but we’ve had our fill of rich dishes and heavy meals. My last hurrah will be a huge pot of grillades we’ll cook off this afternoon for a New Year’s breakfast tomorrow. Otherwise we’re winding down the holiday season and have started picking at leftovers rather than cooking many full meals — carving off a few ounces of smoked ham for hash, sandwiches, or snacks; killing off the gravlax, tucking into roasted sweet potatoes from two nights ago; using the last bits from open bottles and jars.

A fridge purge, in other words. Good to do a few times a year, anyway, but eating up everything in what's been a fridge full of rotating food makes me feel — just a bit — virtuous. Either that, or I'm a sensitive about how much money we tend to blow on the holiday feasting and it's time to reel in the spending.

Part of the purge did involve a bit of cooking, but a hot dish of pork and apples — and a few other odds and ends lying about the place — was quick and barely any work at all. The juniper berries give it a whiff of gin; just the thing for a chilly night.

AD: Already Done
Smoked Bacon, Apple, and Cabbage 
8-12 oz smoked bacon, sliced and cut into finger-width pieces
1 green/white cabbage, cored and sliced coarsely
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cooking apples, cored and cut into slices or small chunks 
6-8 juniper berries, crushed
1 tsp sea salt
2 long peppers, crushed (or 1 tsp black pepper)
1 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 Tbl brown sugar
a knifepoint of ground mace or a few gratings of nutmeg 
Heat the oven at 350°F/180°C. 
In a heavy cast-iron pot with a lid (I use a big-ass Le Creuset), cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and just lightly crisped at the edges. Add the onion and cook until it softens. Add the apple chunks and stir them around until they’ve got a bit of color, then stir in the seasonings and the cabbage. Add the remaining ingredients and cover. Pop it in the oven and cook 30-45 minutes until the apples are cooked through, the cabbage is softened, and the whole thing is piping hot.

Goes well with:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Home Fires: The State of Home Distilling in the US

Lew Bryson, editor at Whisky Advocate, asked me write about the current state of affairs for home distilling in the United States. A blanket federal ban on the practice is in place, but a few states are bucking those laws with more permissive laws and regulations of their own. Regardless of the laws, sub rosa distillers from the East Coast to the West are making an awful lot of homemade liquor for themselves, their families, and friends. No, I didn't forget you, Alaska. In fact, I'd be surprised if we don't see a new reality show called something like Alaska Bootleggers or Ice Road Moonshiners in the near future. From the Fall 2013 issue of Whisky Advocate, here's a piece originally titled Home Fires.

Casual observers often assume that home distilling, like wine making or beer brewing, is legal in America. Zymurgy Bob knows better. According to federal law, distilleries are never permissible in homes. His advice? “Do everything you can to reduce your visibility to the law,” he exhorts. “Conceal what you are doing.” The pseudonymous author of Making Fine Spirits, a guide to building and operating home-scale stills, closes his introductory chapter with modern home distilling’s most ironclad commandment: Thou Shalt Not Sell.

Alcohol distillation in the United States is highly regulated and federal judicial code is uniformly severe with those who skirt the rules. Once federal prosecutors bring charges against a suspect for illicit distillation, they are forbidden by law from dropping the case without express written permission from the Attorney General. If found guilty, violators could face up to five years in prison and be fined $10,000. Because illicit distillation, the argument goes, is a tax dodge, those who defraud the United States of tax revenue through such clandestine distilling shall forfeit (not may or mightshall forfeit) the land on which the distillery is located as well as equipment used to make spirits and all personal property in the building and yard.

Running off a few liters of whiskey or ultra-pure vodka in the basement may seem a harmless pastime to some, but are they perverse enough to risk losing homes, land, and nearly all their possessions by actually firing up a still?

For thousands of Americans, the answer is yes. Across the country, hobbyists buy and build small stills for making spirits in secret. Profit is beside the point; these distillers do not sell their products. Compared to the output of Chivas or Beam, their covert batches of gin, rum, seasonal brandies, whiskey, and hausgemacht absinthe are miniscule. Tuthilltown Spirits alone loses more in angel’s share than what most hobbyists produce in a year. Their enthusiasm, however, burns no less brighter than that of professional — and legal — craft practioners.

One California hobbyist, Navy Frank, grows wormwood in his yard and keeps glass jugs of homemade spirits in his dining room. Home distilling, as Frank describes it, is a facet of a larger DIY ethos. “It’s a maker mentality that drives people to make homemade cheese or beer or build something with their own hands or garden. There’s all this wonderful cross-pollination. If you sketched the connections of what people like us get excited about, they would form the most overlapping Venn diagram ever.”

Frank — not his real name — is a Navy veteran and an engineer by trade. In his cellar he makes rum, neutral spirits, absinthe, honey distillates, and a peated single malt. “That’s probably my favorite, but after sharing, and sampling, and more sharing, I’m down to just one bottle.” His modular distillery system uses three separate pots that can be rigged with different heads and condensers that vary with what, and how much, he is making. The largest boiler could hold a child. The smallest, no bigger than a rice cooker, is for extracting botanical essences.

I mention a New York distiller who created a flavor library of over 200 botanical extracts, including angelica seed and rare agarwood. “Oh,” he smiles. “Ramón!” Despite the continent between them, the two distillers know each other through online hobbyist groups. In this, they are typical. Hobbyists regularly turn to online forums such as Yahoo Distillers and Artisan Distiller for guidance. Like Frank and Bob, Ramón prefers a pseudonym, but because he works in the distilling industry, his concern goes deeper than their straightforward desire to avoid legal attention. While it’s not uncommon for craft distillers to have learned the basics of their trade at home, and even continue to refine it there, the majority who do so will not admit that on the record. Like them, Ramón assumes investors, concerned that federal liquor violations could ruin a licensed distillery, might jettison a partner or employee accused of illicit distilling. “If TTB keeps making it easier to open distilleries,” he muses, “then maybe the hobby side of the equation could finally become legal. I’d happily pay for a permit to make ten gallons or twenty each year for myself. I bet 90 percent of home distillers would do the same.”

While it’s true that several hundred American craft distilleries have opened in the last decade, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) does not issue permits for home distilling for any price. Some states, though, allow noncommercial production to varying degrees. Alaska, for instance, excludes “private” manufacture of spirits from its alcohol control laws...except in quantities that exceed federal limits. In other words, Alaska allows zero liters for home distillers. Missouri is more explicit, asserting that “No person at least twenty-one years of age shall be required to obtain a license to manufacture intoxicating liquor...for personal or family use.” Such use in the Show Me State, it may be noted, is up to 200 gallons per year. Go, Missouri. Arizona expressly permits personal distilling of spirits such as brandy or whiskey if owners register their rigs with the state’s Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. According to DLLC, however, none has done so.

Mike McCaw, distillery consultant and publisher of Zymurgy Bob’s book, argues that as governments are forced to examine all spending, “We may, just may, be at a political inflection point where [legalizing home distilling] could happen...it is simply not cost effective to chase down people with ten gallon stills.” Bob himself is less sanguine. Speaking by phone on his book tour, he says that pursuing people with ten gallon stills “does make sense if they’re selling it and there is tax evasion going on. And that is one of the main points of the whole “do not sell” prohibition. There is no money and so no tax being evaded there.”

“I hope — I hope — that’s giving me a margin of safety.”

I hope so, too. Good luck, Bob.

Goes well with:

  • First things first. If you have legal questions about distilling in your country, state, or province, please get in touch with consultants and/or attorneys who know your local laws. The discussion forum of the American Distilling Institute is a good place to start. In the UK, check in with the Craft Distillers Alliance
  • The business about unregistered distilleries and distilling with intent to defraud leading to forfeiting  one's property in the United States is addressed 26 USC § 5615. The full text is here
  • Zymgurgy Bob's book, Making Fine Spirits, is available here. Mike McCaw, distillery consultant, still designer, and publisher of Bob's book, can be reached through The Amphora Society
  • Whisky Advocate magazine is here. An earlier piece I did on white whiskey — and what to do with it — for the magazine is here
  • Even the Ten Dollar Whore Sneered at Me, in which a New Orleans...ahm... independent contractor disapproves of me.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bookshelf: The Big Con

Never be untidy or drink with a savage. 
There is nothing worse than drinking 
when you are trying to tie up a mark. 
You've got to have your nut about you all the time. 
You need what little sense you've got to trim him—and 
if you had any sense at all, 
you wouldn't be a grifter.

~ anonymous roper in David W. Maurer's The Big Con

Today, we've got something on the fringes of saloon culture and the sporting life. I've spent uncounted hours — years, even — in the company of criminals. Moonshiners, mostly, but thieves, embezzlers, enforcers, bad cops, and felons of various stripes. One connected mook I knew in Philadelphia had $80,000 stolen from his closet and didn't report it because, well, it wasn't the sort of stash one wanted to explain to the 5-0. After nearly three decades of hearing and hearing about cons, the patter of confidence games, scams, and rip-offs spike in the conversational landscape like flashes of lightning.

Short cons, designed to separate a person from the money he is carrying on him, seem particularly obvious. In fact, on my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, the short con was ubiquitous; vendors, waiters, taxi drivers, fixers, and others tried to shave a bit of trim from tourists. Here, someone "forgets" to give the right change, there someone else pads the bill with an entree nobody ordered. For the locals, it must be like shooting fish in a barrel. The short con is not always a terrible thing. In New Orleans, if a little kid bets you a dollar that he can tell you where you got your shoes, take the bet, lose a buck, and walk away with everyone smiling. A con, sure, but also a dollar's worth of entertainment.

Then there's the big con. Almost nobody walks away from a big con with a smile. In 1940, University of Kentucky linguist David W. Maurer published The Big Con, his study of confidence men, suave criminals who, from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, bilked marks out of enormous amounts of money. By the time Maurer wrote his book, this particular style of grift was already in its decline. Nominally concerning the language of these mostly nonviolent criminals who gained the confidence of newly-made millionaires, well-to-do farmers, wealthy businessmen, and others who could get their hands on lumps of cash, the book is simply fun reading.

Maurer introduces grifters such as the Yellow Kid, Crawfish Bob, Limehouse Chapppie, the Big Alabama Kid, Slobbering Bob, the Postal Kid, Queer-pusher Nick, the Hashhouse Kid, Fifth Avenue Fred, the Indiana Wonder, the Jew Kid, Tear-off Arthur, Devil's Island Eddie, and the High Ass Kid. You'll learn about the blow-off, the cackle-bladder, the wire, the rag, the pay-off, and a whole lot more of the language you might expect to hear around Prohibition-era saloons, joints, and hangouts.

In the world of criminals of the period, con men were talked about as the aristocrats of crime. Insidemen who maintained big stores (fake betting parlors, brokerages, and gambling dens where mark were fleeced one right after the other) traveled widely, stayed at the finest hotels, dined well, dressed impeccably, sometimes had drivers and avoided socializing with 'lesser' criminals such as second-story men, pickpockets, and heavy racket types who resorted to violence. They leveraged and worked with crooked cops, hoteliers, circus managers, train conductors, detectives, judges, district attorneys, and saloonkeepers. They almost never worked their home town or anyone who lived in the town in which they operated. Rather, they worked over travelers on ocean liners and, especially, trains.

Writes Maurer:
The ease with which people make traveling acquaintances may account for the great number of marks which are roped on trains or ships. When a mark is off his home ground, he is no longer so sure of himself; he likes to impress important-looking strangers; he has the leisure to become expansive, and he likes to feel that he is recognized as a good fellow. The natural barrier to friendships come down. He idles away time chatting and smoking in a way he would not do at home. And the roper knows how to play upon the festive note which is always latent in a traveler away from home.
Cities such as New York, Denver, Chicago, and New Orleans had hundreds of ropers working the trains feeding the city. When they found a mark they felt could be taken for $10,000, $50,000, or more, the roper befriended the 'savage' and brought him into town to meet the insideman who would propose a sure-fire way to make money...illegally.

And the whole con hangs on that. Con men felt that they could never cheat an honest man because he wouldn't take the bait of a crooked way to make a killing by, say, delaying the results of a horse race by a few minutes to place a bet with the help of a disgruntled wire operator. But, writes Maurer, the first world war "brought a crop of millionaires and sub-millionaires whose purses swelled out of all proportion to their knowledge of investments. As soon not these men had made the money slightly on the shady side and to them the rag and the pay-off [two types of con games] appeared as very logical methods of taking profit." These were the marks on whom con men preyed.

If you've enjoyed movies such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, David Mamet's House of Cards, The Sting, and — especially — The Grifters, do yourself a favor and check out Maurer's book. Nicholas Cage in Matchstick Men is a lesser contribution to the genre, but even bits of Django Unchained seem lifted from its pages. It's back in print with a forward by Luc Sante from Random House's Anchor Books imprint.

Goes well with:
  • Gene Siskel's and Roger Ebert's takes on the 1990 film The Grifters

Monday, December 2, 2013

John Egerton (1935 -2013)

When news of John Egerton’s death came last week, I was moments away from meeting friends camped out on a Puerto Vallarta beach. I left the condo stunned, numbly descended a long and treacherous staircase the regulars dubbed The Exorcist Stairs and made my way to their group mere feet from the surf. Sitting under a palapa with a bucket of ice and beers with my toes in the sand should have been the start of a fantastic week. Instead, heartache spread from my chest, down my arms, and settled into my very bones. I was sick with sorrow.

What's in that glass, John Egerton? Tea? (Photo from the SFA's site)
John was co-founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and in the group’s early years I served with him on its board. John Egerton was good. He was kind. He was fiercely smart, deeply self-deprecating, and possessed of a burning sense of justice. When he wrote and spoke about the American South with such affection, he didn't shy from pointing out its flaws...and sometimes a way forward from its tangled and occasionally painful past.

Without John, there may not have been an SFA. If there had been no SFA, I might never have met people who became some of my great friends and favorite sidekicks. The might never have been a moonshine book which I wrote primarily at the insistence of author Ronni Lundy, another SFA co-founder. The ripples of Egerton's touch continue even today when I listen to music I know only because a friend from North Carolina stayed with us in July and relentlessly plied us with new tunes on Spotify. The friend? Dean McCord, VarmintBites on Twitter and a current SFA board member. Dozens of others have made my life better, people I know mostly through our connections to this singular gentleman.

Last summer, I wrote about his book Southern Food and included an anecdote about his power as a storyteller. I have so many fond memories of John Egerton, but this  — after a long bus ride and too much whiskey for everyone — is one of my favorites.
In the summer of 2004, I threw a small get-together in Birmingham, Alabama. I was on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance then, a group dedicated, in a nutshell, to celebrating the food and drink of the changing American South and the people who made it. Maybe a hundred of us were there for a small conference. After two long bus rides that day, the group was beat, so I invited a handful to come up to my hotel suite for restorative drinks and food once they'd recovered from the sun, the bourbon, and the rides.
One of those was historian John Egerton. 
A few restaurateurs showed up. Several editors from papers, magazines, and broadcast news were there. Bartenders and writers rounded out the group. A half-dozen different conversations rose and fell until one voice—one kindly, avuncular voice—dominated the room: Egerton's. 
Egerton is a charmer with a ready smile and (almost) always a kind word to say. He so mesmerized this group of experts with his tales that they soon gathered around him in a loose semicircle on the floor and spilled onto beds and chairs, absorbing warmth from the Promethean fire of his insight and wisdom.
The hole he left is gut-wrenching, but John Egerton helped to bring together uncounted strangers and make them friends. I like to think he'd chalk that up as a win.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Squayrill Stoo

Accretion of Squirrelly Evidence
Our neighbor has been feeding the squirrels. Now, I like our neighbor and have no beef with squirrels...in the abstract. Watching them frolic in the park has always given me a smile and I've bottle-raised scads of Midwestern grey squirrels back in my days as a nature center volunteer.

These days, however, I own a home and the footing is far less certain for those little red-tailed beasts. The current crop of chattering rodents raids the garden, gets under the eaves, and digs holes all over the yard. They're not nearly so charming when they turn destructive. Yet they come to gorge themselves on peanuts laid out just over the fence by our well-meaning neighbor. As they feast, they drop spent shells over the ground. The shells don't particularly bother me. Easy enough to shovel up every week or so, but the destruction is getting out of hand and if they start chewing on wiring, we could have some serious safety problems.

It occurred to me that peanut-raised squirrels might —like hogs finished on acorns, peanuts, or chestnuts — be delicious. Smoked is, of course, one way to go, but with so little fat on them, they'd need wrapping in bacon or some other basting arrangement. Stewed squirrel has always been popular in parts of the American South. Brunswick stew, though mostly made with chicken these days, was often made with squirrel — and is a great accompaniment to pulled pork barbecue. A bit more than I want to tackle today, though.

With that in mind, I pulled out a South Carolina recipe for 'squayrill stoo' or, rather, squirrel stew. The unusual spelling stems from the fact that the recipe is from a book of Gullah cooking called Bittle en' T'ing: Gullah Cooking with Maum Chrish' by Virginia Mixson Geraty. The Gullah are an African American people who have long lived in coastal South Carolina and Georgia — heavy on the "African." Gullah speak a creole language derived from Sierra Leone Krio, tell African folktales, make African handicrafts, and are largely descended from slave laborers who worked on rice plantations in the area.

Here's Geraty's take on what to do with the little buggers — first in Gullah, then in standard American English. Remember to sabe de tail fuh de mens weh on dem hat.
Squayrill Stoo (Squirrel Stew) 
Tek cyah wen de squayrill skin. Nail de hide up fun dry fuh mek colluh. Sabe de tail fuh de mens weh on dem hat.
Clean de squayrill en' rub'um wid pot-salt en' peppuh. Dreedge'um wid flowuh en' browng'um een bakin greese. Sametime chop uh laa'ge onyun en' pit'um 'long de squayrill. Kibbuhr'um wid watuh, pit uh lead 'pun de pot, en' set'um back fuh cook tell de squayrill meat tenduh en' de graby t'ick.
One squayrill specify fuh mek stoo fuh fo' head.
Maum says:
Be careful when you skin the squirrel. Nail the hide up to dry for a collar. It makes a nice fur piece. Save the squirrel's tail for a man to wear on his hat. 
Clean the squirrel and rub it with salt and pepper. Dredge it with flour and brown it in bacon drippings. 
While the squirrel is browning, chop a large onion and have it ready to put in the pot. Add enough water to cover the squirrel, and add the onion. Put a lid on the pot and set it back on the range to cook until the meat is tender and the gravy is thick.
One squirrel will make enough stew for four people.
Goes well with:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

San Diego Bartender Challenge

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages: be advised that tonight and tonight only, a cohort of San Diego bartenders are going mano a mano in the fourth annual Bartender Challenge.

Held each year at El Dorado cocktail lounge, the challenge pits bartenders making drinks against each other in elimination bouts until only one remains, a champion bestowed with $200 in walking around money, the coveted Otis Buffalo Memorial Trophy, and a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon.

The twist? Each round a new secret ingredient, Iron Chef style, is introduced to the mix. Bartenders mix a drink on the fly using the secret ingredient and an arsenal of bitters, modifiers, juices, garnishes, and whatnot in four minutes.

Come on down; the Bartender Challenge is always a fun time and a chance to meet up with staff from some of the city's great watering holes in one place. I'll be there, taking a rare weeknight break from a handful of book projects while projecting the mien of a sober and stoic judge.

For the first few rounds, anyway. Judging cocktails is thirsty work.

2013 Competing Bartenders:

Sarah Ellis — Jayne's Gastropub
Ryan Kuntz — El Dorado
Leigh Lacap — Craft & Commerce
Eric Johnson — Sycamore Den
Hass Mahmood — Lion's Share
Anthony Schmidt — Noble Experiement (2 Time Champ)
Christian Siglin — Banker's Hill Bar & Restaurant (Defending Champ)
Christy Spinella — Polite Provisions

And the judges:

Trevor Easter — West Coast Brand Ambassador for Beefeater/Plymouth Gins
Lindsay Nader — Brand Ambassador for Absolut Spirits
Brooke Arthur — Brand Ambassador for House Spirits Distillery
Levi Walker — Craft spirits manager at Young’s Market Company
Matthew Rowley — Oh, hey, that’s me. Historian and author.


Fourth Annual Bartender Challenge
7pm Tuesday, November 19th 2013
El Dorado Cocktail Lounge
1030 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tabasco Sauce in the Applejack

All but the most degenerate boozers reach for some drinks before others. Nothing wrong with having our favorites, although the punctilious zealotry of the martini and mint julep crowds can get overbearing. Throw all the juices, syrups, tinctures, spices, and whatnot at the modern bartender's command into the equation and folks can get downright obsessive about what works in their cups and what doesn't. "Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves," wrote opinionated Kentucky bullshitter Irvin S. Cobb, "would put scorpions in a baby's bed." Exaggeration. Probably. Who knows? Cobb lied like it was his job. Because it was his job. But scorpions, though? Best to keep that old corn guzzler away from babies and not chance it.

Hot sauce is where I usually put on the brakes when it comes to cocktails. All things being equal, a dose of cayenne, chipotle, or tabasco peppers in the glass will generally make me pass. The heat's no problem. In fact, we bust out homemade hot sauces for weekend breakfasts and weeknight dinners often.  On a hot day, a round or three of micheladas hits the spot. When the temptation to mix chiles and liquor occasionally does strike, it's liable to take the guise of a Snapper, that vastly superior Bloody Mary cousin that replaces vodka with gin. We've used Cholula to good effect in a Caesar-type concoction titrated with the barest volume of absinthe. A sangrita with blanco tequila is not the worst option for daytime drinking. The common element? Tomato. Paired with and tempered by tomato, hot sauce might — just might — bring a drink together, but otherwise in most drinks the stuff is just gimmicky, an exercise in machismo, in how much heat one can handle. 

Or it's a prank. 

Back in Philadelphia, cheesemonger friends collected the oily drippings from fifty- and hundred-pound aging provolone cheeses in eight-ounce plastic tubs. After weeks or even months, they'd label the cloudy, yellowish — and pungent — accumulation Prank Juice. At some point, some jackass who needed taking down a peg was going to swallow that nightmare fluid. 

Hot sauce in so many drinks is kin to that South Philly prank juice. And the joke is old, old, old. From 1904 to 1908, cartoonist H.C. Greening penned a comic that featured Uncle George Washington Bings, Esquire, a literary descendant of cannonball-riding Baron Münchhausen and forefather of 1960's blowhard Commander McBragg. In the strips, Bings was a small-town braggart, forever telling tall tales about his exploits around the world. The Los Angeles Herald ran a six panel strip in 1905 which Bings belittles a fire-eater to villagers sitting around a bar's pot-bellied stove. "Why," he claims, "I could make that bluff look like a December frost." As he warms up to some choice braggadocio, the mischievous bartender dashes hot sauce in his applejack.

His reaction? Just about what you'd expect from anyone who'd been given a well-deserved dose of prank juice.

Too small? Click it!
Goes well with:
  • Allan Holtz's thumbnail on Greening and Uncle George Washington Bings in Stripper's Guide.
  • Clam Squeezin's, Absinthe, and the Bloody Fairy Cocktail — that Cholula thing I mentioned.
  • Applejack in the church lemonade? Sure, why not?
  • More apples. I wrote a piece on American apple spirits (including applejack, cider royal/cider oil, apple-based absinthe, and more) for Distiller magazine last Summer. Here it is.
  • More properly meant for mixing with pulled and chopped pork, the North Carolina barbecue sauce we make around here is not much more than vinegar and ground chiles. Nevertheless, it's great on eggs, red beans, and even the occasional gumbo. You're on your own if you put it in drinks. Here's the complete recipe
  • Historically, saloonkeepers and bootleggers might add hot chiles to alcohol to give the liquids a kick or bite and mask the taste of poorly made or adulterated beverages such as the swipes of 19th century Hawaii.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ivan Orkin on Hanjuku Tamago, Half-cooked Ramen Eggs

As I mentioned, I like buying things — whether they are kitchen tools, boots, whiskey, brandy, meals, or even writing gear — from artisans who pursue ideals with single-minded focus. In particular, I’ll revisit cooks and chefs who obsess over details. I’ve never visited one of Ivan Orkin’s restaurants, but when he dedicated the bulk of his recent book Ivan Ramen to the proper preparation of one single bowl of shio ramen (at least, the way he makes it), it was as if I’d stumbled across a lost cousin.

Orkin, a New Yorker who founded the small Tokyo noodle soup joint Ivan Ramen in 2007, has made a name for himself not just as a curiosity — a gaijin who makes ramen — but as a cook and restaurateur who makes proper Japanese noodle soup with meticulous attention to technique and ingredients. His book opens with a short biography and is sprinkled with a few interviews of ramen enthusiasts, then dives into recipes, over 40 pages of which detail the construction of a bowl of shio (“salt”) ramen. Forty. One bowl of noodles. Makes Julia Child’s recipes seem terse.

That’s not to say that the recipe for making the bowl of ramen as he makes it in his shop is difficult. Aside from the logistical obstacles a cook in London, Munich, or St. Louis might have finding the exact same chicken or flour, the recipe is straightforward; it’s long because Orkin gives the recipes for rendering chicken fat, for stock, for noodles, for making sofrito and shio tare (the mélange of salt, sofrito, and water that gives a salty flavor to Orkin's “salt” ramen).

And then there are eggs. Some weeks, I’ll slurp down three or four bowls of ramen and, when they are an option, I’ll include cooked eggs either in the bowl or on the side. Shops rarely get the eggs right. Often, they are so overcooked that a greenish-grey ring with more than just a whiff of dog farts surrounds the yolk. You shouldn’t even use those for egg salad or deviled eggs. Maybe for feeding the dog before letting her out of the night. But there’s another way to do eggs: hanjuku tamago, eggs with softly set whites and semi-liquid yolks.

Now these are eggs worth making.

David Chang in his Momofuku cookbook recommends cooking eggs at 5 minutes and ten seconds exactly. Orkin takes slightly longer in his Tokyo shop: six minutes and ten seconds. Get a timer if you don’t have one. Try these eggs. Find a time that works for your elevation, the size of eggs you use, and the degree of gooeyness you like in your yolk. Six minutes works for me about 200 feet above sea level in San Diego.

“My search for perfect eggs, Orkin writes in Ivan Ramen, “took me to innumerable egg farms.”
After an extensive search, I found one that tasted great, had the most brilliant orange yolks, and peeled easily. (Believe me, when you have to peel two hundred eggs a day, that's an important criterion.) Then I spent almost as much time figuring out how to cook the eggs properly as I did perfecting the noodles. But I've got it now: punch a pinhole in the bottom, boil for 6 minutes and 10 seconds, stirring gently for the first 2 minutes, then ice immediately. Once they're cool, the eggs are peeled and soaked in a light shoyu tare...Sliced in half and served at room temperature atop the ramen, the eggs are a perfect supporting cast member for the soup and noodles, adding an extra touch of color and unctuousness to the bowl.

Hanjuku Tamago, Half-Cooked Eggs for Ramen 

50 milliliters (3½ tablespoons) sake
50 milliliters (3½ tablespoons) mirin
200 milliliters (1¾ cup + 1 tablespoon) soy sauce
30 grams (2 tablespoons) sugar
40 grams (3 tablespoons) garlic, chopped coarsely
75 grams (2½ ounces) fresh ginger, chopped coarsely
6 room-temperature fresh large eggs
1 liter (1 quart) water
Simmer the sake and mirin in a saucepan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes to cook off a bit of the alcohol. Reduce the heat to low, then add the soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and ginger and simmer and stir for 10 minutes. Let come to room temperature; you can store the mixture in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. You want a big pot so that when the eggs go in, the temperature won't drop too drastically, and the water will quickly come back to a boil.
Poke a small hole in the bottom (larger end) of each egg with a pushpin.
Gently slide the eggs into the boiling water. Start your timer. Stir for the first 2 minutes. Prepare a large bowl of ice water to shock the eggs.
The total cooking time for a large egg in Tokyo is 6 minutes and 10 seconds. You might decide to adjust that time depending on the size of your eggs, how many you're cooking, or what the chickens were thinking about when they laid them.
Remove the eggs after 6 minutes and 10 seconds, and immediately place them in the ice bath. Stir until there are no pockets of hot water. 
In a large bowl, combine the shoyu tare with the liter of water. When the eggs are cooled completely—after about 15 minutes—peel and soak them in the seasoning liquid for 2 hours in the refrigerator. The eggs will hold in the soak for 3 days.
When it comes time to slice the eggs and add them to the ramen, a taut nylon fishing line gets the job done without losing any of the precious yolk.
Ivan Orkin with Chris Ying, forward by David Chang (2013)
Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint
224 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 978-1-6077-466-7

Goes well with:

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Since the early 1990’s, I must have seen writer/director Jûzô Itami’s 1985 film Tampopo a dozen times. Just recently, I watched it again on a flight from Berlin to London. Like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, it is a touchstone for me, something to revisit every few years, a work of humor, love, and obsession. Several vignettes ostensibly unrelated to the main plot nevertheless touch on it and its themes. One of my favorites involves a shopkeeper and his troublesome visitor...

Until that trip from Berlin. I had not fully appreciated how much the film had grown to inform and shape some of my own values. In it, the truck driver Goro meets Tampopo, a widowed mother who serves mediocre noodle soup in her small shop. Goro and a growing cohort of accomplices embark on a mission to turn Tampopo’s shop into the very best ramen joint around. An old ramen master joins, a canny chauffeur wise in the way of noodles, and a contractor with a secret. Competitors are tricked into revealing their methods and outright spying goes down. Along the way, viewers gain insight into what may make a proper bowl of Japanese noodle soup.

Ramen, as central as it is to the plot, is also a red herring. The movie is a celebration of the dish, sure, but more so it’s about single-minded pursuit of an ideal and that's something I can get behind. My taste is simple; I buy good things. There’s little point in laying out hard-earned money for cheap tools, clothes, food, furniture, or gear of any kind. Not everything has to be deluxe all the time, and I appreciate good value and the occasional quick-and-dirty fix to a problem, but in general I patronize artisans, distillers, designers, and cooks who buy into the pursuit of ideals, too, people and firms with tightly focused skills, whether that’s in barbecue, spätzle, blankets, knives, boots, whiskey, rum, or even paper and pens.

Over the next six to eight weeks, I’ll be kicking out ideas for holiday gifts. Not for me, mind you; I’ve already got most of this stuff. Rather, they will be things I’ve used and like — some booze, some books, a bit of gear and kit, a few ingredients worth having around.

First up: Tampopo. Netflix has it as a DVD or you can score a copy of an all-regions, letter-boxed release with English subtitles through Amazon

Monday, November 4, 2013

Southern Foodways Short Film Grants Announced

A note came over the transom today from the Southern Foodways Alliance announcing grants of $750 for professional, amateur, and student filmmakers to make short films related to food and drink of the American South. Notice the theme of inclusion and exclusion at the Southern table. Maybe something on bourbon, moonshine, or mountain tonics?

Although I was a board member of the SFA for several years, I'm not actively involved in this project, just passing on the news. Here're the details from the SFA, including contact information:

The SFA wants to hire you to make a short, web-ready film (2–5 minutes) about Southern food and drink for our Greenhouse Films series.

Visit our film and oral history archives to get an idea of the sort of documentary work we already do. We are interested in commissioning films that highlight under-represented people and places. This is especially true as we move into 2014, when SFA programming marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and examines inclusion and exclusion at the Southern table.

Appropriate lenses through which to explore this theme include, but are not limited to:
  • Race relations 
  • Sexuality/gender
  • The role of new minorities in the evolving landscape of Southern foodways
  • Nutrition and food access, especially as they relate to socio-economic class 
This call is open to professional, amateur, and student filmmakers of all ages and backgrounds. Greenhouse films carry a stipend of $750. Filmmakers whose ideas are accepted will be paid $250 upon delivery of satisfactory proof of concept, and receive the remaining $500 upon delivery of a finished film of 2–5 minutes. We are unable to offer any equipment, technological assistance, or travel expenses beyond the $750 total.

**A satisfactory proof of concept will include ONE of the following:
  • Trailer of 30 seconds to 1 minute, specific to your proposed SFA project.
  • Description of your proposed SFA project, accompanied by a previously completed short film that demonstrates your capabilities.
Please begin by sending us a brief e-mail introducing yourself and your project. Do not “blind submit” large files or links to file-sharing sites without contacting us first.

Applications are due by Monday, December 2.

SFA staff will choose projects based on director’s technical skills, narrative ability, and promise of topic. Successful applicants will be notified by December 16. SFA will work with accepted Greenhouse filmmakers to determine a reasonably prompt timeline for production.

To apply, please write Sara Camp Arnold at saracamp@southernfoodways.org.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bookshelf: Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook

“Can I ask you,” the clerk pressed, “as one American to another, why on Earth would you buy a British barbecue book?” For the past thirty minutes, I’d been pulling down books from the shelves of the Notting Hill bookstore where she worked and had set aside the lurid orange/red cookbook from the local Pitt Cue Co. on my ‘maybe’ stack. “Why waste your money? I mean, how are the Brits going to do barbecue better than anything than we can get back home?”

She had a point. When one thinks of the great barbecue centers of the world, Kansas City comes to mind. Austin. Memphis. Charlotte. American places, all. Pitt Cue, on the other hand, is a thirty-seat joint smack dab in central London; seat of an erstwhile Empire, sure, but cultural backwoods when it comes to barbecue.

Yet here’s the thing; you can find some good ‘cue in the backwoods.

Pickled Hot Dogs
The authors of the book — restaurateurs Tom Adams, Jamie Berger, Simon Anderson and Richard Turner — capture the spirit of barbecue better than some places I’ve sampled it in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and, yes, even places like Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky where they know good ‘cue. The reason the book interested me — and why I bought it a few days later at another store — is that they start with a strong framework and adapt it to local tastes and ingredients. These guys know full well that good barbecue involves smoke and long, low cooking.

Recipes include pulled pig’s head crubeens (normally made only pigs’ trotters and not smoked or nearly so spiced), Buffalo pigs’ tails with Stilton sauce, porger sausage (made with bacon, pork belly, dry-aged beef rib-eye, and pork shoulder), duck giblet sausages, mutton ribs, crumbed pigs’ cheeks, habanero pigs’ ears, mashed potatoes tricked out various ways (with whipped bone marrow, burnt ends, or lardo and rosemary), and plenty of pickles, slaws, and sides.

The recipes in the Pitt Cue Co. cookbook may not be what old-timers expect of smoked meats in the bastions of American barbecue, but many techniques and flavors will be familiar to Americans, even if the details are not quite what we’d expect. Avid eaters will find a lot to like — and you boozers will notice that the boys aren’t shy about lashing whiskey and other spirits around with someone approaching abandon. The drinks chapter alone is 37 pages. Recipes for ‘sweet stuff’ call for bourbon, Pimm’s No. 1 (used both in a sorbet and in a meringue-and-fruit Pimm’s Mess), and Grand Marnier. In a nod to the wine jellies once so popular in the UK — but sticking with the pig and whiskey themes — there’s an old-fashioned jelly, made old-fashioned not with wine but with the ingredients one would find in an Old Fashioned cocktail.

Fennel Cured Scratchings
The only caveat — and this is not a negative, just a bit of a heads up — is that the Pitt Cue Co. book, while drafted for home cooks, is very much a product of a kitchen geared for commercial cooking. Many recipes link to each other and rely on precursor sauces, condiments, or other preparations. What looks like a fairly straightforward recipe may, in fact, call for prunes soaked in whiskey for a month or brine from pomegranate pickles or for chicken, hot sauces, deviled pigs’ trotters, barbecue rubs and sauces, etc.. All it means is that you’ll want to read each recipe all the way through before starting it…but you do that anyway, right?

The next time you tackle a pork shoulder for sausage making, don't you dare toss out that skin. Use it in the sausage, drop chunks of it into baked beans, or season it and roll it into a tight cylinder, cook it, slice it, and deep-fry it for a quick bar snack or appetizer. From Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook, here’s crunchy, salted pork skin with the faint Italian-sausage nip of fennel. The only change I'd make it to include a bit of crushed red pepper (such as Aleppo) in the dry cure.
Fennel Cured Scratchings
250 g pork skin, from a whole skinned pork shoulder
15 g Dry Cure (see below)
Oil for deep-frying 
Sprinkle both sides of the skin with the dry cure, then roll up the skin into a sausage (like an Arctic roll) so that the fat side remains on the inside. Place the sausage on a long length of clingfilm and roll it up very tightly. Tie off each end so that the roll is watertight and leave in the fridge for at least 24 hours. 
Bring a medium pan of water to a gentle simmer and add the roll of skin. Weight it down with a heatproof plate and simmer over a low heat for 1 hour, until the roll is squidgy and soft to touch. Remove from the pan and leave to cool, then refrigerate until you are ready to cook. 
Unwrap the skin from the clingfilm and slice the roll of skin into 5mm rings. Heat the oil to 180°C in a deep-fat fryer or large saucepan and fry the rings for 4-5 minutes, or until golden and crispy. The scratchings should not need seasoning.
For the dry rub, the authors suggest a 50:50 mix of Maldon sea salt and smoked Maldon sea salt. While we like using flaky Maldon salt, there’s no particular need to search out that and only that salt if it means paying exorbitant import prices. In the US, plain kosher salt is fine — and if you can get your hands on good smoked salt, do as they say and work it in as half the quantity. This version omits the 150 grams of brown/molasses sugar called for in their regular dry rub.
Pitt Cue Co. Dry Cure 
1 kilo/2.2 lbs salt
10g cracked black pepper
1 star anise, finely ground

10 g fennel seeds, toasted and crushed
Mix all ingredients in a bowl until they are thoroughly combined.
Tom Adams, Jamie Berger, Simon Anderson and Richard H. Turner (2013)
Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook
288 pages (hardback)
Mitchell Beazley
ISBN: 1845337565

Available from Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, or Books for Cooks.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Swipes, the Pruno of Territorial Hawaii

"Honolulu's Queer Dope"
Omaha Daily Bee
30 September 1900
Swipes may sound like some modern cleaning product, but, in fact, the term refers to a style of intoxicating drinks from mid- to late-nineteenth century Hawaii. We are fortunate, perhaps, that swipes seem extinct.

An analogy for those who have spent time in the California penal system; swipes were the pruno of territorial Hawaii — by all accounts, low-alcohol brew made, at its best, from sweet potatoes, honey, sugar, molasses, bread fruit, and other produce or cane products brewers and bootleggers could get their hands on. The ingredients, however, were classic moonshine ingredients; anything fermentable, nearby, and cheap went into the pot. At its worst, the stuff was a toxic slop adulterated by unscrupulous bootleggers for desperate classes of drinkers.

A 1900 article on 'Honolulu's Queer Dope' (see right) reports that drinkers develop a "terrible thirst" but that the water they drink brings on fresh waves of intoxication. "It is said that four or five glasses of doctored swipes will keep a man drunk for two or three days if water is taken after awakening from the drunken sleep."

I mention swipes because they wander into some of the territory normally reserved for the rhetorical excesses of moonshine opponents. The adulterations especially — the cayenne pepper, and kerosene, and whatnot — that were added to fake potency resonate with the adulterations attributed to moonshiners and bootleggers on the Mainland. The reputation of swipes parallels that of modern inner-city moonshine: only a fool or someone too poor to afford properly made alcohol would drink it.

An 1899 article sets up swipes, garnished with the paternalism and racism of the time:
Swipes cause the police more trouble than all other police court factors put together. If you ask an experienced police court magistrate what the stuff is made of he will reply by asking you what it isn’t made of. In its purest state it is fermented from taro, rice, bread crust or anything else that contains starch. But fermentation from such materials is too slow a process to meet emergencies in which swipes are called on. The native in his domestic and primitive social life hasn't the forethought to set his taro fermenting against the time when he will be called on to extend hospitality to some chance visitor, or provide a luau for his neighbors who unexpectedly call.

The emergency arises and to meet it he goes to some Chinaman or renegade Hawaiian who has descended to the degradation of avarice and for a quarter gets a generous bottle of as vile a compound as ever wrecked a sound constitution or deranged nervous system. To a basis of fermented taro has been added kerosene, cayenne pepper, fusel oil and methylated spirits, till [sic] an oblivion of intellect, accompanied by maniacal combativeness, quickly follows its use. 
It is a most disastrous drink, as many of the soldiers who stop here on their way to Manila and accepted the hospitality of chance native Hawaiian acquaintance found to their sorrow.
~ Omaha Daily Bee, 17 January, 1899

Normally, I like to share historical recipes. You'll understand if I skip it this time.

Goes well with:
  • The 1900 article above mentions pineapple as a sometimes-ingredient of swipes. That's not what we use it for around here. More likely, we'll make vinegar out of pineapple (especially after using the hollowed-out fruit for tiki drink mugs) or pickle them. 
  • Visiting sailors and desperate drinkers aren't the only ones to his the sauce in Hawaii. In 1911, the Hawaiian Star printed a tall tale of feral hogs getting into a batch of the local moonshine known as okolehao.
  • What's pruno? You don't know? Aren't you sweet? Eric Gillin explains

Sunday, October 27, 2013

1950 Paraty Cocktail: An Old Style Dry Shake for an Old Style Cachaça

In 1723, Jacques Savary des Bruslons informed readers of his Dictionnaire universel du commerce that native Brazilians — before Europeans came on the scene — were the most robust of all men, seven feet tall, and at the age of 100, they were no more decrepit than Europeans aged merely 60 years. However, he noted, ils ne vivaient que de maïs, d’oranges et de sucre — they lived on maize, oranges, and sugar. French merchants made fortunes on that Brazilian sugar and, in the process, some developed a taste for a Brazilian cane spirit called paraty (par-a-CHEE).

Over 225 years later, the 9th edition of Henri Babinski Gastronomie Pratique (1950), gives a recipe for a paraty cocktail "particularly appreciated in Brazil," but which is too strong, presumably, for more refined French palates. Paraty we would recognize today as cachaça and the technique he recommended for taming it as a variation on the dry shake so popular in recent years.

The dry shake, as practiced today, is a straightforward technique used to emulsify egg whites in drinks. Some think it’s new; it’s not. First, some portion (and sometimes all) of the cocktail’s ingredients is put in a shaker with the egg white. Then the bartender seals the shaker, shakes hard to emulsify, then re-shakes with ice, and pours the drink in a glass. It may or may not be strained into the glass, depending on the drink — and the bartender. The result is a velvet-textured drink with a foamy head made of very fine bubbles.

The technique Babinski (or Ali Bab, as he was known) recommends is different. Paraty — named for a colonial-era town of the same name in the state of Rio de Janeiro — was rough stuff for drinkers used to fine French brandies (though God knows some calvados could strip the paint off a barn door). It had what Ali Bab referred to as l’odeur empyreumatique, a “burned” smell, possibly from using direct-fire stills.

As anyone who has ever truffled eggs in the shell, refined homemade wines, or cleared soup stock or boiled coffee knows, egg whites can be used to absorb odor and trap particulates in liquids for easy removal. This is the same idea. Mixing egg white with the “burned” spirit, then straining the mix before using it in a cocktail, helped to remove some of the objectionable odor — which, seemingly, native Brazilians did not mind, even those who lived to a hundred years and stood seven feet tall.

Once softened and strained, the spirit was approachable for goût francais and could be blended with lemon juice, pineapple syrup, and bitters.

Cachaça imported today in the United States and western Europe generally does not need such taming. Leblon, for instance, works just fine without the strained egg white treatment. Some of today’s moonshine, though, could benefit from a bit of last-minute polishing…

From Ali Bab’s 1950 Gastronomie Pratique:
Paraty Cocktail

20 grams of paraty,
10 grams of lemon juice,
10 grams of syrup of pineapple,
5 drops of Angostura bitters,
1 egg white,
Crushed ice,
Zest of one lemon. 
Mix the paraty and egg white in a glass, which has the effect of mitigating some of the paraty’s burned aroma: shake it all for a few minutes, then strain. 
Put the strained paraty in a shaker with lemon juice, pineapple syrup, angostura bitters, crushed ice, shake to chill; pour into a cocktail glass, squeeze the lemon zest over the drink and serve with small straws.
And the original for those whose French is better than mine:
Cocktail au paraty 
Le cocktail au paraty est particulièrement apprécié au Bresil. Sa composition intégrale nous semblerait trope forte. En voici une adaptation au goût francais. 
Pour chaque personne, prenez:
20 grammes de paraty,
10 grammes de jus de citron,
10 grammes de sirop d’ananas,
5 gouttes de bitter angostura,
1 blanc d’oeuf,
Glace pilee,
Zeste d’un citron. 
Reunissez dans un verre le paraty et le blanc d’oeuf, qui a pour effet de mitiger un peu l’odeur empyreumatique du paraty: agitez le tout pendant quelques minutes; filtrez. 
Mette dans un shaker le paraty filtré, le jus de citron, le sirop d’ananas, le bitter angostura, de la glace pilée; secouez pour glacer; passes dans un verre à cocktail, ajoutez le jus du zeste d’un citron et servez avec des petites pailles.