Sunday, August 30, 2009

and I don't care

Fried chicken

To fry chicken:

Marinate for a day or two (in buttermilk with or without hot sauce, sriracha, or Old Bay, or in undiluted Louisiana hot sauce).

Put a mixture of flour, self-rising flour, cornmeal, and seasoning in a sack -- I never measure, but I can tell you it's not more than a few spoonfuls of cornmeal and that there's more flour than self-rising flour.

Heat oil in cast iron.

For each piece of chicken, go through this procedure: shake in the sack until well-covered.  Let rest on a plate for twenty minutes to hydrate the flour.  Shake again right before putting in the oil.  Cook for about 8-10 minutes depending on size, flip over and cook for that amount again.  (I tend to cook one or two pieces at a time, and don't use a huge deep fryer with gallons of oil -- because if I did, I wouldn't get around to frying chicken very often.)  Let rest ON WIRE RACK with plate underneath to catch the dripping oil.  Fried chicken will retain heat pretty well, but even apart from that, this particular fried chicken is good cold or room-temp.

Remember when deep-frying -- even "shallow" deep frying like I do -- that the first thing you fry will not be as good as the third or fourth.  Oil has a lifespan, and it doesn't do its best work in infancy.

Thighs here, drumsticks in the country captain.  You might could guess leg quarters were on sale.

To make "fresh grits":

Scrape corn kernels from cob.  Pulse in Cuisinart until pulpy.  Fry up a little bourbon bacon in a pan, with some chopped tomatoes.  Add corn and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Salt and pepper.

With sweet corn, this is a very sweet side dish -- in fact, I made it to use up some Mirai corn that'd been sitting in my fridge over a week, and it's still very sweet.

City chefs call this "fresh polenta," but fuck them.

at last

Tomato and bourbon bacon

Tomato and bourbon bacon

It had been a terrible, dismal season, stormy and misfortunate.  Too little sun and too much damp.  Time and again we had been denied the crimson bounty.  The crew had near given up hope, when at last we spied it --

A tomato.

Ripe on the vine, not yet split by rains nor wracked by blight.

We set upon it like jackals.

Tomato sandwich, bourbon bacon, pepper.  The tomato isn't from my garden, but from my mother's -- my tomato plants were almost completely destroyed by blight this year.  The tomatoes I can get aren't nearly as good as last year's, but they're still better than the tomatoes that'll be available the rest of the year.

Things that benefit the most from using good fresh tomatoes: tomato sandwiches (pointless any other time of year), tomato pie (prebake a pie crust; add sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper, top with a mixture of shredded cheddar cheese, optional dry mozzarella, and enough mayonnaise to make the cheese stick together; bake for 30 minutes), tomatoes and okra, tomatoes and scrambled eggs, pasta with minimally cooked tomatoes, and presumably tomato juice (of which I'm not really a fan).

There is also the classic hamburger:


My prescription for a good hamburger is very simple: add little or nothing to the meat (though ground bacon mixed in with the beef is a good variation), knock it off with the enormous patties, salt the surface of the patty, cook it on hot cast iron to develop a good crust, let it rest for a few minutes before putting it on the bun (Martin's potato roll) or, in a pinch, the bread.  George Motz is right -- mustard is better on hamburgers than ketchup, even if you love ketchup.

If you have some tomatoes that aren't as great -- or just too many great ones -- you can make homemade Catalina dressing, too: puree and strain the tomatoes (the straining is optional) and cook down until they start to thicken like a pasta sauce.  Add equal parts sugar and vinegar, season with salt and Worcestershire sauce until slightly too salty, add a good dose of smoked paprika, and then toss in the Cuisinart and slowly add oil until it's the consistency of salad dressing (expect to add about twice as much oil as vinegar).  Ideally, refrigerate for a day or two before using.

Underused tomato condiment: soy sauce, especially the lighter Japanese style soy sauce used with sushi.

And of course, there is the simplest tomato sandwich in the world: split a baguette, butter it, broil it, and rub a split tomato on the broiled surface, squeezing the tomato guts onto it.  Top with coarse salt.

Tomato bread

Saturday, August 29, 2009

some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain


Isn't the Punt e Mes logo a lovely thing?

I actually discovered cocktails, real cocktails, in Indiana of all places.  After I'd rediscovered whiskey at the Irish pub in Bloomington, I started paying more attention to the drink menus, and ordered a Negroni because I didn't know what it was, and reading the ingredients -- Campari, gin, vermouth -- didn't exactly enlighten me.

Oh Campari.

You little devil.

I don't know how to explain Campari to you if you haven't had it.  Have you had Sanbitter soda?  Well there you go.  But most of you just said no, so like I said, I don't know how to explain it to you.  It's bitter.  It's sweet.  It's red.  It's too strong -- both too bitter and too sweet -- to drink straight, though dammit I'll do it if I have to.  Gin cuts it wonderfully, and I've made a ton of vermouth-less Negronis in the past, which aren't Negronis at all, but whatever, I was out of vermouth.  

I always tell people you need to try Campari three times before you decide what you think of it.

A Negroni made with whiskey instead of gin is a Boulevardier.  So this drink -- more or less equal parts wheat whiskey, Punt e Mes vermouth, and Campari -- is basically a Boulevardier, but Punt e Mes deserves special note.  Just like Campari did.  And the whiskey, yesterday.  This cocktail is all about special notes.  I should call it the Mezzanine instead.

Vermouth is a fortified wine, meaning you start with wine and add distilled liquor to it, like port and sherry.  Unlike those, vermouth is seasoned with herbs and spices.  Forget anything you've heard about using epically small amounts of vermouth in a martini ("tap the bottle against the glass," those vermouth misters, etc), it's all horseshit.  Vermouth is good.  If you want a glass of gin instead of a martini, ask for one.  If you want a glass of vodka, go screw.

Punt e Mes is an especially bitter vermouth, and is different enough from my usual vermouth selections -- Noilly Prat or Lillet Blanc (Lillet isn't vermouth, but it's similar enough that I sub it a lot) -- that to me, using Punt e Mes makes a drink distinctly different.  Maybe not enough to need a different name, but it's definitely noticeable.

By the way, the burnt peach garnish (which seemed to suit both the drink and the weather) will slide down the rim of the Mason jar and bump you in the face, turns out.  Sorry about that.  This is why I don't monkey around with that sort of frippery very often.

oh captain my captain

It's dim, rainy, and chilly today, and country captain seemed like the perfect remedy.

Country Captain

Country captain is the curry of the South, a dish that owes its origins to the spice ports of the Low Country.  I've always seen it made with tomatoes or a tomato sauce, though I don't think that's universal.  For me, though, it's chicken on the bone, browned in a pan and then braised in a sauce of tomato, curry powder, onions, and raisins.  Everything else is optional.

Lately, for curry powder I've been using the Vadouvan blend from the Spice House.  You're probably a big fan of Penzey's for your mail order spice needs.  I totally understand.  I love Penzey's, and their curry powders, especially the rogan josh, are among their selling points.  I placed an order to the Spice House instead -- run by the brother of the owner of Penzey's, if I have that right -- because they had cassia buds and Penzey's didn't, and I've stuck with the Spice House since.  Their white truffle salt is a welcome addition to my kitchen, and the chili con carne seasoning is excellent.

So the sauce is garden tomatoes, pureed and strained and cooked until thick, with onions, a few cayenne peppers from my yard, Vadouvan curry powder, golden raisins, and a couple additions -- chopped sweetened dried hibiscus flowers, and chopped fresh apricots.  The tomato-raisin combination has always made country captain a sort of sweet/sour dish for me, so the additions add to that.  Some fresh peas and scallions would have been a good addition; I didn't have any.

Trader Joe's, where I got the hibiscus, is a good source for dried fruit.  Because of their "discontinue everything that isn't a bestseller" business model, anything you see today may not be there tomorrow, but they always have SOME kind of dried fruit (they did not have any more of the hibiscus last time I was there), often things you won't find other places -- dried orange slices, freeze-dried rambutan (terrific), dried dragonfruit, etc.

Friday, August 28, 2009

sexy girl air freshener, snacks and a pinwheel

Corn caramel

To make corn caramel:

1: Fill a lobster pot with corn cobs, corn silk, corn husks, etc., figuring there is no point wasting any part of the buffalo.  Let simmer for a day or so to make a nice strong corn stock for chowder and so on.  Reduce the resulting stock, and in so doing, notice how sweet it is -- far too sweet to use in chowder or any other soup except in conditions of serious dilution.  So sweet that the reduction freezes like an icy sorbet.

2: Think hmmm.

3: The following year, do that again.  Let it simmer for two and a half days instead.  Reduce it down slowly -- there's no choice but slowly, the stove doesn't like keeping an uncovered lobster pot hot -- while you write some articles for a science encyclopedia, until it's reduced enough to fit in a container for the fridge.

4: Once you get a day off, restrain that reduction into a pot.  Taste it.  It's dark-brown, the color of porter, but it still tastes like fresh corn -- not that terrible creamed corn taste, thank God -- a very vegetal taste, thanks to the silk and cobs.  And it's very noticeably sweet.  You could make soda with this.

5: Bill, stop, don't make soda with this!

6: Add a hunk of butter to the pot and twist the knob to high.  Come back and check once in a while.  Note, observer, that there is no added sugar.  All the sugar came from the corn.  This is just reduced corn stock and butter.

7: Pour it into a pan and cool it.  Sprinkle some salt.

It's a chewy, soft caramel -- it could've been a little harder, but this is pleasantly chewy while cold, a little too soft when warm, could probably be heated up for an ice cream topping or swirled into something (goat's milk ice cream would be swell).  The flavor is like a cross between familiar caramels and burnt popcorn, in a good way -- not bitterly burnt, but those slightly more-cooked kernels you get in a batch of decent stovetop popcorn.  It's very very dark, and definitely stands out -- you wouldn't mistake this for some other caramel.  You'd know something's going on here.

sandals in the snow

I know I know, you want to know what the mystery fruit is.  I didn't mean to leave you hanging.

Mystery fruit

This is a quenepa, which is called a million different things in different places.  It's a tropical fruit which looks a little like a lychee here, but what looks like a luscious solid fruit is actually a thin coating of fruit pulp around a thick seed that can be roasted like a chestnut (though I haven't done that).  You peel the fruit open (easily done, just like with lychees and similar fruit), pop it into your mouth, suck the pulp off, and spit the seed out.  Though there's very little pulp in the fruit, it's so flavorful that you don't notice -- it's as sweet and tart and intense as passion fruit, with a sort of "tropical punch" flavor.  I have, naturally, added a bunch of it to vodka to make liqueur.

Mystery fruit is mysterious

As for this mystery?

Fresh dates.

Dates go through various stages of ripeness, and at the khalal stage, they're crisp like apples -- though tarter and noticeably astringent.  Tasty, but you're not going to eat a bowl of them on their own.  These are specifically Mariana dates in the khalal stage.  They continue to ripen on their own, hitting the rutab stage, at which point they become so soft they're almost liquid, and melt in your mouth, tasting a lot like vanilla caramels.  I assume if I leave them long enough, they'll become the dry dates you're familiar with from the supermarket.

As for why I bought fresh dates, well.  That's what I do.  That's how I learn to cook.

oh whiskey, you villain

Three whiskeys

In my glamorous work as a writer, I sometimes say that I know more about science than most humanities people, but less than actual science people.  That's the position I'm in with regards to cocktail coverage on this blog.  There are some fantastic cocktail blogs out there; before I started reading them, I learned about cocktails from Chuck Taggart's occasional cocktail posts on The Gumbo Pages (see the sidebar on this page) and Ted Haigh's "Dr Cocktail" column (there is an Amazon link to the second edition of Ted's ridiculously great and groundbreaking cocktail book at the bottom of this page).

I know much more about cocktails and liquor than most people, even most other cooking-oriented people.  But I know significantly less than many of the people who maintain cocktail blogs (and many who don't), particularly those of my age or older.  (Looking through blogs linked by blogs linked by blogs linked by blogs I read a couple weeks ago, I found a cocktail blog that went on and on about recently available but still obscure ingredients and molecular gastronomy notions, before coming to a post about how the author had never had a gin and tonic.  While it was sort of interesting to see someone come at the idea of a gin and tonic from that perspective -- as something new and exotic to their palate -- it made me feel so distanced from the blogger that, rightly or wrongly, I didn't feel there was much we had to say to one another on the topic of drinks.)

There are a few factors limiting my expertise, aside from simply "other people know more than me":

1: I rarely have more than one drink, maybe two.  I'm not saying this is a bad thing or anything, but it means it takes me a week to try even basic variations on a drink, so my learning curve is slowed.

2: I even more rarely go to bars.  I've never understood this collegiate nonsense about drinking at home, by yourself or otherwise, being stigmatized.  It comes close to suggesting there's no reason to drink except to get drunk, which is like saying there's no reason to eat except to get fat.  I don't object to bars, I have no problem with bars, but for $20 I can get a bottle of premium liquor, or I can get two or three premium drinks, depending on where I am.  Come on.

3: For the last three years, I've lived in New Hampshire, which has state-run liquor stores and restrictions on alcohol shipping.  Though the shipping restriction only (I think) requires the shipper to have a state-specific permit, and though the state has the highest per capita alcohol sales (because the prices are low and Vermonters and Massholes bordercross to take advantage of them), it's only very recently that it's been possible to order cocktailian ingredients by mail -- and none of them are available in the liquor stores.

I see people online talking about how allspice dram, for instance, is already "over," and meanwhile you can't even buy maraschino liqueur in New Hampshire.

I buy things in Massachusetts or online -- has been good to me -- and I certainly give the NH stores their share of business.  Whiskey is good and cheap here, as is any domestic liquor.  It's been years since I've bothered with bottom shelf college kid bullshit.

So that's my cocktail background, my cocktail situation.  Right now I'm going to talk about whiskey, about three whiskeys of my recent acquisition -- none of these are available in NH: Bernheim wheat whiskey, Old Gristmill corn whiskey, and Baby Bourbon aged corn whiskey.

What I know about whiskey

Like beer, whiskey starts with fermented grain mash -- barley, rye, wheat, corn, there are a lot of possibilities.  Unlike beer, whiskey is then distilled, and usually aged.  Aged whiskeys are generally aged in oak barrels.  Aging in oak involves a flavor exchange -- the wood soaks up some things, and imparts others into the liquor, including vanillin, a flavor compound found in vanilla beans, roasted coffee beans, maple syrup, and oatmeal, and generally used in "vanilla flavoring."  (One reason vanilla flavoring is so weak compared to vanilla is because the real thing contains so much more than just vanillin.  It's like trying to express "chili con carne" with cumin.)

There is a LOT of variation within the possibilities laid out by that description, but whiskeys tend to fall into specific categories.  Bourbon whiskey, for instance, must be distilled from a mixture of more than half corn, aged in new charred oak barrels.  It doesn't have to be from Kentucky.  The mash generally includes wheat, rye, and malted barley in addition to the corn, and bourbons are often referred to as "wheat type" or "rye type" according to which is most prominent.  One of my standard household bourbons, for instance, is Bulleit, which is so heavy on the rye it can practically substitute for a rye whiskey in cocktails.

Rye, wheat, or corn whiskeys are whiskeys made with a mash dominated by that grain, by a minimum amount determined by labeling laws.  None of these are all that common, though rye whiskey is the most common -- you can find Old Overholt, Jim Beam rye, or Wild Turkey in most states.  Canadian rye is not the same thing as rye whiskey -- "rye" became the word for "whiskey" in Canada long ago, and is used synonymously there, but Canadian whiskeys are usually blended (meaning that the whiskey flavor has been diluted by adding neutral grain spirits).

Unaged whiskeys aren't found very often, though these days, as microdistilleries become the new microbreweries, you can sometimes find them sold locally by distilleries that need a way to generate revenue while they wait for their aged product to be ready for market.  The one type of whiskey often sold unaged is corn whiskey -- often called moonshine, though moonshine wasn't always made with corn.

If you tour a distillery in Kentucky, you'll get the chance to sample the unaged product after it's been distilled, on its way to the barrels.  It's interesting stuff, but harsh, and the flavor profile hasn't developed as much as it will in the barrel -- at least that was my one experience with it.

Okay, so that's whiskey.  It's a broad category.  

Bernheim Wheat Whiskey

This is, as far as I know, the only wheat whiskey in existence, and although I was curious how much it would stand out -- there are plenty of wheat-type bourbons, and the wheat pretty much overpowers the corn in them -- the difference is certainly there.  Oh, in a blind taste you might think it was bourbon, if only because "wheat whiskey" just isn't a category in your head.

What's interesting about the difference is how smooth and light and clean this whiskey is, almost crisp -- this, in an age when differentiating your product so often means going to Flavor Extremes.  It's nice.  It's very pleasant.  I'll be honest, I don't know if nice and pleasant are enough to get me to pay mail-order prices on it a second time, but it's a good sipping whiskey, so the fall may change my mind on that.  It's certainly very very drinkable.

Old Gristmill Corn Whiskey

This whiskey, good lord.  I am such a fan.

This is an unaged corn whiskey made from New York corn at Tuthilltown Spirits, one of the only (THE only, maybe? I don't know) distilleries in New York.  I've had several Tuthilltown products now, having bought one of their apple vodkas for a Remake The Appletini project I'll blog about in the fall when it's appropriate.  I'm hugely impressed.  Their stuff is expensive, especially by New Hampshire standards, so I'm trying to force myself to go slow ... but honestly, when I head into the bar part of the kitchen to make a drink, if I don't already have something specific in mind, Old Gristmill is one of the first things I reach for.

Though unaged, this is very unlike the white dog I'd sampled at Buffalo Trace a few years ago, and that may partly be because it's 100% corn, or it may be because the Buffalo Trace product wasn't meant to be drunk unaged.  There are probably proof differences, too -- I'm sure they told us the proof of the Buffalo Trace stuff at the time, but I didn't make a note of it.  Old Gristmill is 80 proof, about standard for a base liquor.

It's extremely flavorful, with a sweet nose that reminds me of cachaca more than whiskey, and of the few vodkas I've liked.  The flavor is slightly sweet, and not harsh at all, with surprisingly little burn.  I guess because of what it is, because of the moonshine associations, I was expecting something hotter -- but after all, it's 80 proof, not 151.  There's a fruit-like character to it which made immediate sense because this time of year, New England has finally given up the goods, and the farmstand has corn on the cob sweet enough to eat raw.  Raw liquor that hasn't had the flavor distilled out of it tends to have an earthiness to it, a funkiness, and that's what I get here.

I love this stuff.

Hudson Baby Bourbon

Another Tuthilltown Spirits product, this is an aged corn whiskey which I assume starts out the same as the Old Gristmill.  It's "baby" bourbon for three reasons: it's aged for only three months, in small charred new oak barrels, and sold in 375ml bottles (which cost more than I usually pay for 750ml of bourbon, so this won't be a frequent purchase).  

Unlike other bourbons -- every other bourbon, as far as I know -- the Baby is 100% corn, and that alone would be enough to make it markedly different.  This is one of those little conceptual pockets produced by labeling laws: bourbon must be at least 51% and aged in charred oak.  Corn whiskey must be at least 80% and, if aged, cannot be aged in charred wood.  Corn whiskey aged in charred oak, then, must be bourbon, provided it follows the other minor provisions (which have to do with the proof to which it's distilled and whatnot).  The smaller barrels make the most of the brief aging -- by increasing the ratio of surface area to the volume of the aging liquor -- which pushes the flavor profile pretty far from Old Gristmill.  

This is actually less smooth than Old Gristmill, believe it or not, which might in part be the higher proof (92 instead of 80).  There's a hint of burn, and lots of barrel flavor, but it's still mellow.  Not mellow like the Bernheim, but you certainly wouldn't guess this baby was only a trimester old.  There's caramel and pepper, some citrus flavors -- it's a very good bourbon, and though I've been having it mostly straight or in whiskey sours, I'm looking forward to trying it in cider when the weather turns cold.

I'd like to see more from Tuthilltown in the future.  They have a rum and several whiskeys I haven't tried, so that'll keep me occupied.  I'm hoping they have some longer-aged spirits in the works, and I'd definitely try unaged rye or multi-grain whiskey if it were available.

Whiskey cocktails

There are a million things you can do with whiskey, but there are a few standbys I always come back to, and use when trying out a new whiskey.

The Old-Fashioned

One of the oldest cocktails around, this gets fucked up all the time by people adding a handful of fruit and topping it with soda water.  That just isn't this drink.  The benefit to this drink is it's a good way to explore a new whiskey or a new bitters.  It also doesn't use anything fresh like citrus, so when you're out of everything, you can usually still make an Old-Fashioned.  Trust me on that.

Add a little icewater to a rocks glass.  Add a little sugar to it and swirl until it's dissolved.  Add 2 ounces of whiskey and 2-3 dashes of bitters.  Add ice.  Add a couple cherries -- either fresh tart cherries or alcohol-preserved cherries.

The Whiskey Sour

Still one of the best drinks around.

about an ounce of fresh lemon juice

a little sugar dissolved in the juice, to taste (I never measure this, you can figure it out)

2 oz whiskey

Shake with ice and serve on the rocks.

The Last Word variant

Normally this drink is made with gin, but you can sub in just about any other base liquor and you've got something nice.  It's a great example of an "equal parts" cocktail that manages a really fine balance.  It's also the reason I'm almost out of Chartreuse.

Maraschino liqueur, in many ways the central figure of the cocktail revival, may need an explanation.  Don't confuse it with maraschino cherries -- they're related, but don't taste anything alike (and maraschino is "mar a SKEE no").  Maraschino liqueur is made with Marasca cherries, the crushed pits of which contribute a funky almond-like flavor (almonds, like cherries, are members of the prunus genus).  Maraschino cherries, on the other hand, are in most cases made with sweet cherries that have lost most of their flavor and been partially candied in a dyed and artificially almond-flavored syrup.

Old Gristmill is especially good in a Last Word.  The Bernheim wheat whiskey becomes a little lost to the Chartreuse.

1/2 oz whiskey

1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice

1/2 oz green Chartreuse

1/2 oz maraschino liqueur

Shake with ice, strain.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

you've got to run for an hour and you're still not done


Where were we?

Fox grapes!

Okay, check it out: FOX GRAPES.  Right here and now.

This is my reward, arriving -- coincidentally -- on my table the very day after I finished an immense workload that occupied my month and kept me away from the blog.  And one hell of a reward it is.

Fox grapes are the wild ancestor of the better-known Concord grape, and like Concords, Muscadines, and Scuppernongs, it's a slipskin grape, meaning that the skin is tougher than that of supermarket grapes, and with a squeeze, the skin will pop the pulp right out, like the peeled eyeball hanging from the socket of some midnight movie victim.

Fox grapes

I dig Concord grapes.  They're great grapes, especially if you can buy them where they're grown, instead of in a produce case a few thousand miles from their home.  But fox grapes, man, fox grapes take it to another level.  The skins are thicker and tougher, like the muscadines I've known.  The taste, and the smell ... good lord.  Concords have a hint of wild grapes' "foxiness," but the real thing has it in spades -- this musky smell like, well, like a wet fox.  It's below the grape smell, but worth paying attention to.

I grew up with fox grapes, a million years ago when southern New Hampshire was still sorta rural instead of a big suburb.  I grew up around plenty of wild food, from wild strawberries, wintergreen, and blueberries up at the lake to the grapes, blackberries, chives, and rhubarb that grew around the house.  I would've said wild strawberries were the best of it all, but I don't know, these grapes are fantastic -- maybe I'm not giving enough credit to the wild grapes of my childhood.

To do much with fox grapes -- or any slipskin grapes -- other than eating them out of hand, you need to squeeze the pulp out of all the skins, rub it through a strainer to get the hard pebble-like seeds out, and then proceed with whatever it is you're doing.  Thicker skins usually benefit from some cooking to soften them up too.

Me, I kept a bunch of them aside for eating, made a small grape/huckleberry tart, two jars of jam (good grape jam is ridiculous), and a jar of "maraschino grapes" -- fox grapes with maraschino liqueur, sugar, and corn whiskey.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

this little piggy

Country bacon


Normal blogging will resume in about a week, I'm still buried in work.

"Pink" in the kitchen ledger means pink salt, i.e. curing salt, which among other effects keeps cured meat pink.

Yes, this bacon was cured with Bulleit bourbon.

Yes, it is awesome.

(The date in the ledger is wrong, since this bacon is from 2009.  Don't ask me how I screwed that up.)

Because the bacon was cured the same way country ham is, instead of with a briefer cure, it's intensely flavorful -- the maple flavor is actually pronounced (and you can smell it when the bacon cooks), as is the bourbon.  It's very salty, and the hot-smoking gives the smoke flavor a real raw edge to it.  The streaks of lean have the sort of flaky texture of country ham, while the fat has the same gamy funk.  Lord, this is some fucking good bacon, especially for something I was winging (you notice there are no proportions in the ledger, I just tossed things together until it seemed right).

Friday, August 7, 2009

science has shown that a person's character isn't really established until he's at least five years old

The final fate of the various boiled peanuts:

plain boiled peanuts in salted water

one pint smoked boiled peanut puree -- smoky, salty, fantastic, a soup base for some other time. The bacon of legumes. I might just thin it with broth and serve it on its own, or I might add dumplings or blue hubbard squash.

young peanuts cooked in coconut water with lime juice, ginger, and sriracha -- the winner of all the non-traditionals

peanuts boiled in Rogue chocolate stout -- fine but nothing to write home about, mostly a way to use up the stout

peanuts boiled with crawfish boil seasoning

young peanuts pickled with vinegar and Coca-Cola syrup

one pint or so, uncooked shelled green peanuts, frozen. Soup? Bean dip? Small portions of cassoulet? "Boston baked beans"? Chili? Refried beans? They're labor-intensive enough that I didn't want to shell more than this, so I can only really do one or two of the above.

Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention!

haiku (2)

Mystery fruit is mysterious

Mystery fruit is mysterious

no time to blog, doctor jones

working all weekend

but check out my awesome fruit

can you guess what all I've got?

(there will be no prize)

okay I love you bye bye

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

uh huh

Pickled boiled peanuts with Coca-Cola

Peanuts, water, vinegar, Coca-Cola fountain syrup, salt.

we've come a long way rising from the flame


I can't think of another American food as divisive as boiled peanuts. On the one hand, you have those who consider them such commonplace roadfood that requests for recipes are met for derision, while notices of mail-order sources are treated with contempt, as though the seller is trying to get away with something. Look around the internet and you'll find people who think it's silly to even talk about boiled peanuts, which clearly aren't "serious" food and aren't worth all the fuss of mentioning. On the other hand, you have the northerners, most of whom have never heard of boiled peanuts and who may react to them in much the same way that people react to the idea of eating insects. Boiled peanuts are everything roasted peanuts aren't -- wet, messy, soft, more pea than nut.

On top of that, you have the current brouhaha over peanut allergies, which even the AMA considers widely overreported among youngsters whose parents browbeat a diagnosis out of the pediatrician. To even point this out -- even with the necessary disclaimers about peanut allergies being perfectly valid and absolutely serious for those who do possess them -- is to invite criticism, of course.

What are boiled peanuts, though?

Peanuts go through a few stages. When they're first dug up, they're green -- not in color, but we call them green peanuts. (Southerners, bear with me while I walk through this.) After a little time passes, they start to dry out of their own accord, just like any other bean will. We call them raw peanuts at that point. Most of the peanuts you've eaten -- and the peanuts used in nearly any peanut product, like peanut butter or a Snickers bar -- are roasted, which develops the flavor in a particular direction. When you think "peanut flavor," if you haven't had boiled peanuts, you're thinking about roasted peanuts. That, and the crunchy texture of roasted peanuts, is exactly why boiled peanuts are so weird for people who haven't encountered them before.

I like peanuts. A few years ago, impulsively picking up a tin of Very Very Good roasted peanuts, I discovered that I REALLY like peanuts. I mean, Planters are fine, Trader Joe's blistered peanuts are even better, but if you can get some really high-quality roasted peanuts ... well, look, until then I didn't even realize there was a quality difference in roasted peanuts. This was part of my subplot, my discovery that there's a quality difference in damn near everything.

But you remember what I said in my first post. Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. To really grok peanuts, roasted wasn't going to do it for me. My aunt sent my family a gift package of various peanut things a couple Christmases ago. I selected the burlap bag of raw shelled peanuts (shelled is one of those weird words like inflammable that could be taken by your audience to mean either the thing it is or its opposite, so I mean peanuts without shells, all right, shellless peanuts) and played around with those. You can boil those, they'll soften up after a while. They make a good chili bean, actually.

But it's not the same.

Last year, as part of the same gardening experiment in which I declared that it would be possible to grow okra and black-eyed peas in the frigid north of New Hampshire, I planted some peanuts. They did okay; not as well as the peas and the okra. The yield wasn't high enough for me to do anything with them, though, and as a condo-dweller, I have only a handful of square feet of dirt to plant in.

So this year I ordered some green peanuts. Tom was very helpful, especially when the Post Office damaged the first shipment; they processed his claim and he was able to send me some replacement peanuts which took only two days to get here, still nice and fresh.

You boil peanuts in the shell, in a big pot of water. Seasoning is optional and some people frown upon it, much as a New Englander would frown at the idea of seasoning the lobster pot. After a couple hours of boiling in heavily salted water -- the cooking time depends on the age and size of the peanuts -- I had a bowl full of absolute delicious peanut heaven. Now, when you let somebody else do the work and the boiling for you -- especially if you buy pouches or cans of boiled peanuts -- your peanuts are somewhat homogenized. They're going to be roughly the same size, probably the large size people are used to. Larger, more mature peanuts result in soft peas inside the shell, but you need to tear the shell open with your teeth to get at them (along with a slurpable swallow of peanut brine). Somewhat younger peanuts can be torn open with the fingers. Younger peanuts still can be eaten shell and all. In the last few hours I've pretty much learned how to tell one from the other, and have been separating out my peanuts into categories while watching ESPN during my dinner break.

Green peanuts

See? Look at that one that I broke open; the shell is thick and spongy when raw, and edible when cooked.

The taste is still peanutty. But there is no doubt that these peanuts are legumes. While they cook, they smell a lot like black-eyed peas. The flavor is ... well, it's salty, of course, and rich in a way a lot of beans aren't, but you have to be prepared for how very very far-removed it is from roasted peanut flavor.

I haven't got much time to blog this week or next, but I'm doing a lot more with these peanuts, as I can. Green peanuts in the shell supposedly don't freeze well. I'm going to try to freeze some shelled ones for use as beans, but it's hell on the fingernails trying to pry uncooked green peanuts open (dry raw peanuts have more brittle shells which open easier). Most of the rest will be boiled -- some seasoned, some just salted -- and then what I don't eat right away will be frozen in Zip-Loc bags with their brine. But then, then, I have plans to pickle some of these little guys -- the young ones with edible shells -- in a vinegar sweetened with Coca-Cola fountain syrup.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


first ripe tomato of the year.

first ripe tomato

survivor of blight and rain

damn yankee summer

first ripe tomato

way too small for a sandwich

the frog is for scale

Sunday, August 2, 2009

there are maybe ten or twelve things

What will happen eventually is that someone will ask me, "Hey, that thing you made that time, that was good, how do you make that?" and I'll say "oh, check the blog."  This signature tag is for that.  These aren't necessarily things I've concocted myself, just things I make a lot, particularly for other people.  Mostly I meander, you know -- a month of Thai food here, a summer of pretending Indiana is the Low Country there.  But there are things I come back to, and things people ask me to make again.

One of those is vinegar chicken.  I don't even remember now where I first ran across it, some eight? years ago, but I immediately saw in it -- an Italian dish -- a probable ancestor of Buffalo wings, invented in the 1960s by the Italian-American owners of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo NY.  Though nobody gets Buffalo wings right anymore -- move around the country a bit and you'll see all sorts of things, some of them (the spicy wings served with tomato dipping sauce at The Italian Pie in New Orleans, for instance) good despite their utter nonresemblance to Buffalo wings, others (hydrogenated soybean oil concoctions on battered wings) just disappointing.  Buffalo wings should be unbattered, sauced with butter and cayenne/vinegar hot sauce (Tabasco, Louisiana, Frank's, Texas Pete).

Vinegar chicken isn't Buffalo wings, so nevermind that.  It is similarly spicy and tangy, forming an emulsified pan sauce of reduced vinegar, hot pepper, and a little chicken fat.  I'm not saying it's the definite ancestor of Buffalo wings -- I've never seen it mentioned in articles about their origin -- but whether the similarity is intentional or not, it certainly acts like that dish's rougher uncle.  There is an echo here, too, of Filipino adobo, which I will make when the weather is colder.

Vinegar chicken is crazy simple.  You could damn near make it by accident, tripping on a banana peel in your kitchen or something.  The hardest thing is the first step: with a good sharp knife or cleaver, you chop up a bunch of bone-in chicken parts until you have bite or two-bite sized pieces of chicken.  Chop right through the bone.

At that point, you heat a little oil in a pan -- not too much -- brown the chicken skin-side down, flip the chicken over, add crushed red peppers like you put on pizza, add vinegar until the chicken is covered, and cook until the vinegar has reduced to near-nothing and the chicken is cooked through.  That's it, that's it, that's it.

It lends itself easily to variation -- you can use various kinds of vinegar (I've always used whatever happens to be in the house), you can make much spicier chicken by using vinegar-based hot sauce instead of the vinegar, you can add other seasonings.  Fresh-ground black pepper is a good addition, but I have found that no source of spice is better in this dish than the crushed red peppers.  That was counterintuitive for me -- I was sure fresh chiles, or other dried chiles, would be better, or ground cayenne -- but comforting at the same time.  Growing up in exurban southern New Hampshire, the first source of spice I encountered was crushed red peppers, at pizza parlors with checkered tablecloths, Ramblin' root beer, and video jukeboxes.  As dumb as it may sound -- look, kids, we didn't have cable, we had six channels on TV and one of them was PBS and another one just showed Creature Double Feature and The Courtship of Eddie's Father -- I didn't really know spicy food EXISTED, for a long time.  Not as a genre, especially.  I understood that some varieties of salsa were spicier than others.  I knew that if you put a ton of crushed red peppers on your pizza, your mouth would hurt, and that you could get hot peppers with your steak bomb.  But this was sort of like "knowing rap exists" because you'd seen that Blondie video that time.  In the pizza parlor.  With your Ramblin' root beer.

All of which explains why, the first time I cooked with habanero chiles, I added about two cups of them, coarsely chopped, to my batch of chili.  You know, about the same amount I'd use of bell pepper.

Yeah, you don't make that mistake twice.

Tonight, though, tonight we're back to the crushed red peppers, but I'm switching up the vinegar chicken otherwise.  Despite what I just told you about chopping through the bone, I'm using boneless (skin-on) chicken thighs here, chopped up -- mostly out of curiosity (in the end, I think it's better with the bone in -- you get more flavor -- but using boneless thighs is a valid solution for people without a good knife).  There's black pepper in with the crushed red peppers, and I blended black garlic up with red wine vinegar for the vinegar component.

Black garlic is well worth pointing out.  It's an aged garlic which, simply through the process of aging, turns somewhat soft (not quite spreadable, I find) and solid black.  In the process, it becomes less sharp, sweet like roasted garlic, with a sort of soy sauce umami character to it.  Great stuff, but expensive compared to other garlic.  Use it when you can foreground it.

Because of the vinegar, vinegar chicken goes best with a starch to soak up the sauce, and/or some sort of minimally seasoned green vegetable (roasted asparagus, for instance).  I went with little fried patties of smoked potato (potatoes smoked in a stovetop smoker, mashed with cream cheese and bourbon-barrel-smoked paprika, pan-fried in patties).

Black garlic boneless vinegar chicken, and smoked potato patties

you better start from the start

August 2nd. Still no tomatoes. Crew fears all is lost, but we sail on.

There is fresh local corn, so that's something. My favorite corn dish is succotash, which you see various interpretations of but for me must have corn and lima beans.  It can have plenty of other things, sure, but corn and limas, those are the key.  Unfortunately we don't have lima beans here yet.  So I took the few shell beans my garden has produced - a mix of Burkina Faso beans and limelight beans (which are supposed to be like limas but more amenable to the north) - and tossed in some of that purslane.

Corn and purslane

Add a little salt and a little Louisiana hot sauce, and there you go, breakfast.  ... well, lunch, now.  I don't know where the day's going.

Last night I made a little working-all-weekend-dammit snack: Peppadews stuffed with beer cheese.


Peppadews are a brand name for a particular type of South African pepper and a particular way of processing it. The result is a pickled pepper that's crisp, well-suited to stuffing, and slightly sweet.  The hot ones are pretty reasonably hot, the mild have a little bite to them, the golden ("sweet and sour") ones go nicely with sharp cheeses.  I'm a big fan of Peppadews.  I grew up with pickled peppers as part of the local cuisine -- you get them on steak bombs, you may put them on your Italian subs, or stuff them with cheese and salami -- and Peppadews are the first that I like more than straight-up pickled cherry peppers.

Beer cheese, on the other hand, I didn't grow up with at all.  In fact, until discovering pimento cheese as an adult, I associated cheese spreads with jars of generic paste studded with who-cares-what.  

But pimento cheese ... aw man.  I'll post about that when/if my pimiento peppers come ripe.

There's a lot of overlap between my pimento cheese and my beer cheese -- most of the ingredients are the same, and I sometimes splash a little beer in the pimento cheese.  The main difference is that pimento cheese always has pimiento peppers and mayonnaise; beer cheese always doesn't.  So there you go.

Kentucky beer cheese is usually made with cream cheese as well as cheddar, but I skip that, which makes mine beerier.  You start with some sharp cheddar cheese -- and you can use amazing cheese here, but you don't need to, and I typically go with Cabot or Heluva, which are both about $5/lb.  Put chunks of cheese into the Cuisinart -- you don't really need to grate it -- with a little hot sauce, a little Worcestershire, and a fair bit of pickled ramp bulbs.  If you haven't got ramp bulbs, you can use pickled garlic.  Maybe a little pickled or raw onion, especially spring onion.  

Turn the Cuisinart on.  You'll probably have to scrape it down a couple times.  While it's whirring, add beer a little bit at a time.  You're thinning the cheese with beer until it's spreadable.  Check the cheese BEFORE you think it's had enough, because it'll go weird if you add too much beer.

Now, for this particular beer cheese, I used Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest Fresh Hops.  It's just what happened to be in my hand when I thought "hey, I should make beer cheese."  I've used Dogfish Head's IPAs, I've used various Stone beers.  I don't think I'd use a stout or a spiced beer, and definitely nothing sour, but there are few enough ingredients here that it's not too complicated to find a beer that'll work nicely.

Best as a spreading cheese -- on sandwiches, on burgers, etc.  If you go to melt in on or in anything, keep in mind that you've added a significant amount of liquid to it.  If you're going to use it in macaroni and cheese, for instance, or even in a grilled cheese sandwich, it's best to use it in combination with some normal cheese.

Once in a great while, if you misjudge the amount of beer to use and don't use up the cheese in a few days, you'll find some beer leaking out of the cheese.  This isn't a big deal.