Wednesday, September 30, 2009

loo loo loo


The appletini is horseshit.

I'm not denying it can be appealing.  It's essentially grain alcohol filled with the same artificial flavorings as a pack of Skittles, and some bottled sour mix.  It's candy that'll get you drunk.  That can be tasty.  But it's also horseshit.

It's a kiddie drink, like Yoohoo.  There's nothing wrong with adults having kiddie drinks once in a while.  But it shouldn't be your diet.

Like I've said, I sometimes attempt to make good versions of things I don't like, and the appletini in particular has plenty of potential.  There's no reason an apple cocktail can't be good ... and the Jack Rose is a plenty good applejack cocktail ...

... but the appletini, I decided, can't be an applejack drink.

See, that's the other reason the appletini is bullshit: this "tini" business.  You know, I once had a margarita that the menu called a Cowboytini?  What the fuck is that?  A martini is one drink with two versions, gin or vodka.  Serving something in a cocktail glass does not make it a something-or-other-tini.  That doesn't make any fucking sense.  This "tini" shit led to the marriage of neutral spirits, sour mix, and artificial candy flavors in one damn marked-up "cocktail" after another.  If I'm going to drink ridiculous shit like that, it's going to be a daiquiri in New Orleans.  

So here are the ground rules for my attempts at remixing the appletini:

1: There must be an apple component, and it must be the principal flavor.  I never said the ground rules wouldn't be obvious.

2: The base liquor must be gin or vodka.

Now, this probably means the Kte'pi Appletini is going to be vodka based.  Apple is a tricky flavor to work with when you're not using artificial flavors.  A little doesn't go a long way, like with lemon juice.  Gin could overwhelm the apple component.  I haven't even tried a gin version yet, because I'm going to start out with yet another Tuthilltown Spirits product: Heart of the Hudson vodka.

Tuthilltown makes two kinds of apple vodka: Heart of the Hudson, which is distilled twice, and Spirit of the Hudson, which is distilled three times.  Instead of starting with neutral spirits and adding Jolly Rancher flavorings, the Tuthilltown apple vodkas start with apples from the Hudson Valley (I don't know what kind, and it probably varies), which are fermented into cider and distilled in a pot still.  Because the Heart is distilled less, it retains more apple flavor, but it's all relative -- the apple flavor is very faint, very muted and transformed by the double distillation.  This is certainly not apple brandy or applejack.  This is an unflavored vodka, but not a flavorless vodka, you dig.  It's very good, with subtle whispery flavors when you drink it straight.  The trick is hanging onto the apple flavor when you mix it.

Now, a martini should also have vermouth.  Because this is an appletini, not a martini, I'm not making that a ground rule ... just in case the use of vermouth complicates things too much.  For now I'm using it -- Punt e Mes, the bittersweet vermouth I've mentioned before.

So here's Appletini Remix #1:

1 1/2 oz Heart of the Hudson vodka

1/2 oz Punt e Mes

1/4 oz St Germain elderflower liqueur

1/8 oz Allspice dram

The idea is that the ingredients all accentuate apple-like flavor notes.  Allspice dram is strong stuff -- too much more than this, and it's a spiced apple whatever.  Just a little, with the floral-fruity notes of the St Germain ... definitely triggers a lot of apple expectation in your head.  This is a good drink.  But I don't know if the apple flavor is strong enough.  I'd keep tinkering one way or the other, just to see, but I don't expect this to be the final remix, is what I'm saying. 

Adding 1 1/2 oz of apple cider -- unfiltered, unfermented, unpasteurized apple cider, from an orchard -- kicks the apple up a lot, obviously.  We're not there yet, but that's a direction to explore.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

where the skies are so blue

I have some long posts I haven't finished, and consequently I keep failing to make the shorter more manageable posts that I could be making, so sorry for not informing you of the chaurice and patatas bravas with paprika mayonnaise, which have now been et and were not submitted to the camera, but I will circle back round to patatas bravas when I make them with clams.

Meanwhile, pimento cheese.  This is pretty much my favorite thing.  I'm so devoted to pimento cheese that I grow pimiento peppers so that, for as long as they last, I can make extra-awesome-terrific pimento cheese, before having to go back to the jarred peppers.

Pimento cheese in progress

Those are the pimientos from my garden, roasted and peeled, in the Zip-Loc bag.  The summer was bad enough that I only got enough peppers for one batch of pimento cheese.

Pimento cheese

Roasted red bell peppers are not a substitute for pimientos.  Pimientos have a bad reputation because of their association with so much crappy processed food, but just because crappy processed pimento cheese exists doesn't mean pimento cheese must be crappy or processed, nor that it is authentically so.

There are a wide variety of peppers sold as pimientos, but as far as I'm aware, they're all members of the capsicum annuum family -- the same pepper family as bell peppers and Italian sweet peppers, Hungarian wax peppers, cayenne, jalapenos, and New Mexico chiles, as well as the various peppers ground to make paprika.  If I had fresh paprika peppers, that'd be the best substitute for pimientos, and in fact I'm not sure it's a substitute at all -- the pimientos I've grown remind me of the fresh paprikas I've bought, as well as of Italian sweet peppers and sweet cherry peppers.

Pimento cheese -- yes, you may notice I spell the word for the pepper differently depending on whether I am referring to the pepper itself or the cheese made from it -- is a spread made from pimiento peppers, Cheddar cheese, moderate levels of seasonings, and enough mayonnaise to make it spreadable.  Butter is a good addition, but if you use butter, it helps to bring the cheese up to room temperature before spreading it.

Ideally, you should make your own mayonnaise.  However, this is one of the only things I use mayonnaise for, and it only takes a few tablespoons, which is significantly less than the smallest reasonable amount of mayonnaise you can make (because it's made with eggs, and you would have to use less than one egg to make that little mayonnaise).  

You can make your pimento cheese "chunky," by shredding the cheese and mashing everything up with a fork, or smooth, by using a Cuisinart.  I use the Cuisinart but don't scrape the sides of the bowl, so that it's not completely smooth.  After shredding the cheese, I add it, the peppers, a couple pickled ramps (substitute pickled garlic, a little diced onion, or nothing), and sometimes a little bit of butter, and then while the Cuisinart is running, I'll add:

* A bit of hot sauce (Louisiana hot sauce, Texas Pete, Tabasco, or sriracha).  You can just give it a little zing, or you can make it real damn spicy.

* A bit of prepared or dry mustard (Zatarain's Creole Mustard is the best choice if you're using prepared mustard)

* Sometimes a bit of Old Bay or black pepper

* And then add mayonnaise, a little bit at a time, until the texture is right.  It will be softer in the Cuisinart than in the refrigerator, so make it slightly softer than you want if you want it to be spreadable while cold.

But what you want to end up with, see, is a fusion of Cheddar cheese and peppers with a little seasoning that highlights both.

What's it good on?  Sandwiches, ideally.  Hamburgers.  Hot dogs.  Biscuits.  Celery sticks.  Scrambled eggs.  Tomatoes.  Bacon.  Grits.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

oh my

First of all: user-friendliness.  This is a talking point I meant to introduce early on, but I keep changing my mind about whether I want to quantify it.  Obviously I think any food I blog about is worth eating, but some foods are more user-friendly than others, by which I mean they are less likely to alienate, confuse, or upset someone trying them for the first time. Just as obviously, what is normal to you depends on where you live and how you grew up, and when I make these generalizations I'm going to assume a typical American background, because it would be a pain in the ass to add a lot of qualifiers every time.  For instance, when I list "goat's milk cheese" under "might be bothered by," I realize that on the one hand, Americans whose parents skewed towards the hippie or the yuppie may well have grown up with goat cheese, and won't be bothered by it at all; and that on the other hand, if you come from a culture where cheese itself isn't part of the cuisine, any cheese becomes less user-friendly.

By and large I try to leave out user preconceptions when considering user-friendliness.  A kangaroo steak, for instance, is perfectly unremarkable until one starts thinking of it as kangaroo, at which point some people get all weirded out that they're eating an animal Grandma never prepared for them.  Those kinds of hang-ups are too arbitrary and unevenly distributed to account for.

Foods a first-timer will not be bothered by: peach crisp, buffalo, sheep's milk cheese, Asian pears, tomato jam.

Foods a first-timer might be bothered by: goat's milk cheese, pork belly, candied jalapenos or other uses of appreciable levels of spice in sweets, raw oysters, raw fish.

Foods a first-timer is likely to be bothered by: most organ meats, boiled crawfish (particularly if the first-timer has never had lobster or crab either), double-salted licorice, bitter liqueurs (particularly if the drinker buys something commonly available like Jagermeister, Campari, or Pimm's and drinks it straight, not knowing what else to do with it).

Foods that can be traumatic for the first-timer: durian, natto, uni, fermented shark, turkey soda.

Clearly many people will not be bothered by anything on this list, regardless of prior familiarity, or will be perfectly okay with everything up until "traumatic," or will have their own arbitrary list of foods they don't like for reasons that may make sense to them.  That doesn't mean the differences in these rough groupings don't exist, just as adult readers don't see significant differences between a third grade reading level and a sixth grade reading level.  It's still a useful way to generalize; if you're cooking for parties unknown, serving kidney and licorice is a different proposition than serving chicken and potatoes.

Food that isn't user-friendly isn't unpleasant, just unfamiliar or contrary to expectation.  Obviously you can become more friendly with it.

One reason to talk about user-friendliness is because of that divorce from hang-ups and preconceptions.  I don't give a shit if you think beef cheeks sound weird.  If I serve them to you as beef stew, it'd never even occur to you to ask what cut of meat it is, unless you're really food-literate, in which case you probably wouldn't be bothered by beef cheeks to begin with.  But I do give a shit that if I serve you pigs ears, the cartilage gives them a bit of an unusual texture, which is worth giving you a heads-up about.

Pigs ears are objectively weird in a way beef cheeks are not.

All of this implies a map, a paradigm, a frame of reference.  So.  On to the pie part thereof.


American cuisine includes the increasingly dominant national cuisine, the ethnic cuisines which may or may not be syncretized, and the regional cuisines which wax and wane but mostly wane in prominence.  

At the national level, sweet pies come in a small number of varieties: fruit pies using chopped fruit (almost always berries, apples, or peaches); custard or cream pies; and citrus pies such as key lime or lemon meringue.  There are four main types of lemon pie: cornstarch-thickened, lemon curd, sweetened condensed milk, and Shaker lemon pie, which isn't unique to Shakers at all and which uses whole sliced lemons.  Lime pie is never made that way, the rind and pith aren't palatable enough.

Then there are a great many regional pies, some of which may continue to enjoy mainstream popularity in their home region (particularly if, like huckleberry pie, they are compatible with the national-cuisine pie paradigm), some of which have become more rare.  Various examples include rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pie, bean pie, raisin pie, sugar-cream pie, shoofly pie, vinegar pie, pecan pie, and Derby pie.

Buttermilk pie is right about at the goat cheese level of user-friendliness.  It's a custard pie, but the tang of buttermilk puts it outside the normal paradigmatic experience of custard.  There's a long history of taking pantry staples -- milk, eggs, sugar, flour -- and turning them into a pie by finding something to add to contribute flavor other than just sweetness, whether it's the lemon or lime in citrus pies, the cinnamon and cloves in Bob Andy pie, the vinegar in vinegar pie, etc.  These are pies that predate the availability of sacks of frozen fruit or Chilean blueberries in the supermarket -- pies that could be made when there was no fruit to be had, though they also work well to complement the fresh fruit of summer and fall.

Closely related here is chess pie, which I consider the best of all year-round pies (as opposed to pies made with in-season fruit, a whole nother genre).  The key ingredient in chess pie is cornmeal.  We'll talk about it another time.  Like some time when we make chess pie.  Hold your horses.

Buttermilk was my favorite pie until I got my chess pie just right, and the truth is, I sometimes muddle the difference between the two, by using buttermilk in my chess pie.  Some people flavor their buttermilk pie with small amounts of lemon juice, cinnamon, or some other additive, and in fact if you google around, you will find plenty of people who think buttermilk pie is always made that way; as with any regional or niche food, people often don't realize that the variation familiar to them is not the only authentic choice.  I usually prefer it without such additives -- though I don't think I will ever be someone who drinks buttermilk, and I'm generally not even a fan of buttermilk salad dressings (my salad dressing selections are basically 1940s chophouse: vinaigrette, sweet and sour, Catalina, Green Goddess), in a pie I prefer the pure tangy taste of buttermilk.

However.  I had peaches to use, and it's the tail end of the fresh peach season, and I thought, hey, what about a peach buttermilk pie?  Normally I'd say the best use for a fresh peach is simply to eat it, but New Hampshire peaches ... well, they are perhaps best when they're cooked.  I'm spoiled by the peaches of, believe it or not, Indiana, which though still the north has a long enough growing season and hot enough summer for a lot of produce associated with the south to thrive there.  I ate a couple dozen delicious fresh peaches this summer, peaches so juicy you can't eat them in polite company ... but they were shipped from an orchard in Georgia.  The local ones, I cook with.

Buttermilk peach pie

I roasted two peaches, because I didn't want them leaking a lot of liquid while cooking in the pie, and making those weird pockets fruit can make when they're surrounded by custard.  Because I roasted them peeled at a high temperature without sugar, I lost about half a peach to charred bits that I removed before dicing the peach and combining with the buttermilk filling.  

This recipe makes slightly too much filling for the size of pie pan that I have, but that always happens with buttermilk pie.  There are all kinds of ratios you can use for a pie like this, a huge variety of proportions out there.  This is just one version:

1 stick butter, softened

1 1/3 cups sugar

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

spoonful of flour, dash of salt, dash of bourbon

Cream butter and sugar together, combine remaining ingredients, fold in diced roasted peaches, add to pie crust, bake for about an hour at 325.

Monday, September 21, 2009

take your protein pills

My third time using my juicer, I decided to juice the two bags of cranberries that were taking up needed space in the "so full you would not believe it" freezer (I mean, I don't have room for the ice cube tray).  They were there just in case I wanted to have Thanksgiving in May or something, you know, since my local supermarket only carries cranberries in the fall.  But it's fall now.  So they no longer needed to be saved.

I got a scant cup of juice.  Part of that is that my juicer isn't all that efficient, I think, but I imagine cranberries aren't terribly juicy either.  The stuff you buy in the store is usually sweetened and diluted.  This was ... dark as beet blood.  If beets had that.  And tart.

So it became cocktails, obviously.


3 oz unsweetened cranberry juice

3 oz gin

1 1/2 oz Campari

1/2 oz St Germain

(Play with proportions as you like.  I also made variations with Creole Shrubb -- any orange liqueur would work -- instead of the St Germain, but the orange flavor of that is pronounced enough that I felt it overwhelmed the cranberry.)

Hangover remedy:

2 Goody's headache powders

200ml Fever Tree Bitter Lemon

Thursday, September 17, 2009

bears battlestar galactica

I would suggest you get in the comfortable chair for this one, this meal's got a lot of ground to cover.

Let's talk about a few specific elements.


Corn is pretty great.  I don't know what I'd do without the foods of the New World.  Even apart from the fact that corn kernels are the best canned vegetable and the best frozen vegetable -- though they experience some loss of flavor and texture, it's not nearly as pronounced as in most vegetables -- the sheer variety of forms corn can take is fucking staggering.  Let's break it down:

Cob and kernels.  Self-explanatory.  As demonstrated, usable to make caramel.  Note in passing that corn is the most underrated of all chowders, capable of excellence with only three ingredients (corn, cream, salt), though five is better (+bacon, +hot sauce).

Cornmeal.  Ahhh, cornbread.  When the weather is colder, I'll show you some couche couche, a fantastic and criminally little-known cereal made with cornmeal.  Cornmeal is also the basis for corn chips, tortillas, etc., and while I don't share the enthusiasm for corn dogs that some possess, I am an ardent supporter of fried cornmush.  Cornflour, similar to cornmeal but finer, is found primarily in fry mixes for chicken or fish, especially in the South.

Grits.  Superficially similar to coarse cornmeal, grits are made from coarsely ground corn (ideally stone-ground).  If you're a Yankee or foreigner, you probably haven't had grits.  You're missing out.  Soft and silky when first cooked, grits solidify when cooled, and can be reheated for a texture that's hard to describe, though similar to fried cornmush -- sometimes crispy on the outside, softer on the inside, somewhat like a French fry.  Grits are often compared to polenta but aren't quite the same, if only because the varieties of corn themselves differ -- just as slightly different varieties of corn are used for all these other corn forms.

Hominy.  Especially big kernels of corn that have been nixtamalized (treated with an alkaline solution) and hulled, which makes the corn more digestively useful, and therefore features in the cuisines native to the New World which were dependent on corn, as opposed to those cuisines which have developed subsequently which typically rely on flour (or rice, in Louisiana and the Carolinas) for their principal starch.  It's no coincidence that hominy survives in Mexican and southern cuisine, where corn has historically been most important.  But nevermind that: hominy has a very light corn flavor and a sort of spongy texture that's hard to compare to anything else.  It's amazing at soaking up flavors, which is why it is the key component of posole, one of the world's great soups.  Dried and reconstituted hominy is far superior to the easier to find canned stuff.

Popcorn.  Come on.  Awesome.  I still vividly remember the introduction of Smartfood.  My brother and I regularly argue over who will inherit my mother's popcorn popper, a standalone electric unit which uses oil in a curved bowl to pop the popcorn.  Air-popped popcorn, which displaced such units in the marketplace, and microwave popcorn, absolutely suck in comparison to oil-cooked popcorn, whether popped in a standalone unit or on the stovetop. 

Huitlacoche.  Technically not corn, this is a fungus -- a mushroom, if you're a marketer -- that grows on ears of corn, to the consternation of some and the delight of others.  It has only really been adopted by Mexican cuisine, perhaps because they call it huitlacoche, while gringos call it "corn smut."  The flavor is actually very subtle -- a little earthy, like cocoa powder without the acidity.

BOLD BOLD BOLD HELLO THERE.  Lima beans.  BOLD BOLD BOLD SHAZAM.  God, so many people hate lima beans, but here's the thing: the dried ones are not very good; the frozen ones are only okay; the canned ones are terrible (get canned butter beans instead).  You want to get them fresh, and they have a brief season.  Ideally, lima beans are slightly sweet, with a creamy texture.  They get mealier if they get bigger, and since my limas come from my mother's garden, where generally things are let to grow as big as possible, the ones I'm using do lean in that direction.  But I'm an experienced and satisfied lima-eater, I'm okay with that.  They're just not what I'd consider conversion limas.

"Lima beans" isn't bolded because every time I bold it, my browser crashes, even when all I do is restart the browser, open up Blogger, open up this draft, and do nothing but highlight "lima beans" and then press the bold button.  True story.  What the fuck, Blogger?  Motherfuck.  Fourth fucking time in a row now!  Pisswhistler.  I have employed an alternate means of emphasis.

Beets.  It was a long time before I loved beets, because I had grown up with Harvard beets -- pickled beets -- and was never fond of them.  I discovered plain old regular beets in New Orleans, and for whatever reason they became my standard side dish with fried fish.  Beets have a sweet (remember Mrs Howell?) and earthy flavor, and are sort of potato-like in texture, though they neither fry nor mash as well as potatoes do.  They're very forgiving when you roast or boil them in their skins, which then rub or peel off easily.

The stems -- which have a similar flavor to the beets, but lighter -- and greens (sweetish, tender) are both edible.

Smoked grits cake; beets poached in duck fat; succotash

Lunch, then, consists of:

Succotash, which I have talked about before, a traditional dish of lima beans and corn.  I added tomatoes and sweet pepper in this case.

Beet "confit."  I covered slices of peeled beet in duck fat and cooked them at a low temperature until tender.

Smoked grits cake.  The grits were cooked in the stovetop smoker with salt and butter, and then combined with diced ham and my aforementioned "lactic corn," before being refrigerated.  A slice of the refrigerated grits was reheated in a pan with just enough butter to keep them from sticking.

the mayor of simpleton

Cherries, lemon.

This is a short post about a big area: candied fruit.  It's short because I can't improve on, nor claim as my own, these instructions for the basic two-week process of candying fruit.  That said, there are many ways to do it, and if some other method sounds better to you, go for it.

I've been candying fruit for years, and not to toot my own horn, but I play around with it more than I have seen others do.  So these are my comments on it in general:

1: Citrus performs terrifically.  Berries don't.  Apples, pears, and quince don't -- they become all sweetness with no flavor.  The basic process here replaces all of the water in the fruit with a very rich sugar syrup, which makes for a very sweet product, and not all flavors stand up to that.  Pineapple and cherries are the best non-citrus options.  I kinda think it's not coincidence that the typical mix of fruit in a fruitcake is ... citrus, pineapple, and cherry.

2: Chile peppers perform very well.  I've made several "tropical boomcakes" -- fruitcakes flavored with slices of candied habanero and pineapple, rum, ginger, and cinnamon.  Using habanero, it's not hard to make a fruitcake that's spicier than any commercial product this side of hot sauce.  But jalapeno and other chiles have great flavors that go well with sweetness.  Last year I made "jalapeno poppers," using candied whole jalapenos, filled with a ganache of caramelized white chocolate and Seville orange rind.

3: There is no reason the syrup cannot have flavor in it.

That's what I mean by doing more than I've seen other people do.  It started with saffron-flavored candied pineapple, when I was first experimenting with sweet applications of saffron five years ago (best results: saffron/vanilla bean ice cream, or saffron dulche de leche baked into the top of brownies).  I've used ginger in the syrup for candying habanero, and made a reasonable jar of sugar plums using "Christmas spices" to flavor small candied plums.

The above photo is of two examples: a lemon slice candied with tea infused syrup, which will probably find its way into a lemonade cake; and my pride and joy, the Coca Cola cherry.

Imagine the cherry orchard behind Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, some years after its acquisition by the Coca-Cola Company.  You pick a fresh, tart, Balaton cherry, and take a bite.  It tastes like Cherry Coke, but -- not quite.  Because the cherry element, the fruit flavor, tastes not like Hubba Bubba bubblegum but like a real, fresh cherry -- and somehow all the Coca-Cola flavor is there too.

It's pretty fucking great.  I just used Coca-Cola fountain syrup as my candying syrup, and boosted it with sugar until the cherries became candied.  Think of the soda that the leftover syrup will make!

You can also make very simple "sour patch" candies by taking candied fruit that has been taken out of the syrup and left to dry some, and then rolling it in a combination of granulated sugar and citric acid.

There's a lot of potential down this road.

Monday, September 14, 2009

got me going around

You go to the supermarket, and right away you're faced with thirty herb and spice options.  Various leaves, berries, buds, twigs, and seeds were picked somewhere, dried and ground somewhere, packed into little canisters, and they all serve the same basic purpose -- to add significant amounts of flavor to your food, with insignificant or negligible nutritional effect.  Ounce for ounce, they're many times more expensive than whatever you're putting them on, despite being much cheaper than they used to be.

Cuisines, though they also consist of cooking techniques and often substantial differences in the nature of that "whatever" that the spices are being put on, tend to become associated with a particular palette of spices, to the extent that you can pick up a jar of "Turkish seasoning" or "Tex Mex popcorn seasoning" or what have you.  That supermarket with all those canisters is a recent addition, after all, and it's only in the 21st century that cooks are starting to take advantage of the near-universal availability of ingredients and pair them according to chemical compatibility rather than older, traditional associations.

When it comes to produce and meat, availability has historically been determined mostly by environment -- one reason there are fewer beef recipes in the South, for instance, is because the land is not as suited for grazing, nor was ranching as suitable to the southern economy.  But long before modern transportation brought ground beef to Athens, GA, and Rangpur limes to Nashua, NH, the spice trade was impacting world cuisines by altering palettes not according to environment but in response to trade relationships.  Unlike meat, unlike even the sturdiest root vegetables, spices are almost imperishable -- and their per-ounce price makes them well-suited for importing.

It's a myth that people used spices to conceal spoiled meat.  They used them for the same reason you and I do: they fucking taste good.  And although we can get them cheaper, earlier eras were more profligate with their spicing, ignoring the "sweet/savory" divide that has developed more recently in the way we approach our spice cabinet.  Only in the cheap white sugar era does anyone consider the addition of chile peppers to chocolate a novelty.  Aztecs and conquistadors were combining the two centuries ago -- just as the Italians were adding rosemary to cakes, cooks in the Levant were stewing lamb with dried apricots and cloves, the British were making candied carrots and turnips, and the Greeks were adding cinnamon to meaty tomato sauce for pastitsio.

While some European countries may not have had access to cinnamon until much later, it was found in ancient Greece and Rome thanks to the trade routes from China, which passed through Persia on the way west (Persia's palette is deeply impacted by its position at the center of the East-West trade network).  Its fragrance and durability made it a real workhorse in the kitchen -- far from being limited to sweet applications, in parts of the world it became the most common meat seasoning, much like black pepper in medieval Europe (or today, for that matter) and paprika in Hungary.  (Much of the earlier cinnamon was actually cassia, which is a subject for another time.)

Pastitsio, like lasagna and chili, is one of the world's great casseroles.  The name -- well, you can probably figure the name out for yourself; it means "hodgepodge," the word pastiche having been derived from it (which is clearer in the "Pulp Fiction is a pastiche of pulp fiction" sense than the "The Mighty Ducks is a pastiche of The Bad News Bears" sense).  I imagine the dish is probably older than Greece's use of tomatoes, and was previously made with a brown meat sauce, but I don't know that for sure.

Pastitsio at first glance looks like a simpler lasagna: it's a baked layered dish that includes pasta, meat, tomato, and dairy.  Unlike lasagna's sometimes-frustrating flat noodles, pastitsio traditionally uses tubular pasta of one kind or another.  And very unlike most Italian or Italian-American cooking, cinnamon is a prominent element in the tomato sauce, which is often very strongly seasoned in order to stand up to the richness of the cream sauce.

I don't have a decent photo and I don't want to wait until I get one to blog this, so these are the elements:

Pasta: any tube pasta, cooked and mixed with the bechamel.

Meat sauce: lamb would traditionally be used, ground beef is a common substitute.  I used chopped pulled pork, having bought a pork picnic cheaply at the supermarket -- it's a handy form of protein, because the bone makes such good stock, and you get both cracklings and meat out of the deal, but after a couple pulled pork sandwiches I'm always looking for something else to make.  Now, like chili, the meat sauce for pastitsio invites complexity.  Tomato and cinnamon are traditional.  In addition to that, I used three kinds of oregano (Greek, Cuban, and Mexican, which are actually three separate species, not just varieties of oregano), a cup of Dogfish Head Red & White beer, a little pork stock, onions, sweet Italian peppers, a little allspice, significant amounts of fennel pollen, and just enough chile pepper to create a noticeable heat.

Bechamel: make a white roux of equal amounts of butter and flour, cooking for just a couple minutes; add milk and cook until thick.  Season, in this case, with cinnamon and fennel pollen, and then add shredded Pecorino Romano cheese.  Remove from heat and beat in a few eggs.  Not everyone uses eggs; some use more than a few, so that the top layer of the pastitsio becomes custard-like.

Layers, bottom to top:

A layer of half the pasta mixed with bechamel;

all the meat sauce;

the remaining pasta mixed with bechamel;

the remaining bechamel, if there's any to spare;

additional shredded cheese, such as more Pecorino Romano or a little low-moisture mozzarella.

Crazy good.

shiny boots of leather

Oh, I can only imagine how thrilled you must be that I'm going to blog about beets and lima beans this week.  But look, there is a weird divide in much of American culture, between meat and vegetables.  They're not enemies, for heaven's sake.  Eating animals shouldn't mean not eating plants.  We non-vegetarians are supposed to be more inclusive than that.

Creamed beet greens and stems

I'm a big fan of greens.  95% of the time, I make them southern-style -- cooked for a long, long time (sometimes days) in rich pork stock.  This is a dish from the other 5%.  You probably don't think of milk and cream as having a season, and that's reasonable -- because for most of us, most of the time, the milk and cream we buy ... doesn't.  However, if you have access to cream from an actual dairy -- you know, sold in glass bottles and everything, milked from cows down the road -- the peak of the season was a couple months ago, and what the cows are producing now (while they're still grazing and eating grass, not just winter feed) is still noticeably better and richer stuff.  So as counterintuitive as it seems, the warmer months are a good time to cook with cream.

There's a long tradition of serving creamed spinach in steakhouses, and a number of methods for making it.  Most home recipes seem to use roux, or to cook the spinach down in the cream; mine does neither.  You can do this with any young green -- beets, collards, Marlboro freshmen (that's a Vermont joke, y'all), whatever -- but be careful with the older ones, because the greens won't actually cook very long.  Also, keep in mind that greens cook down a lot -- I used the greens of three beets for one serving, along with the diced stems of one.

The main thing about this method is that you want to cook the cream and the greens separately, and then combine them, so that you don't have greens cooking forever while the cream reduces, and you don't have greens sitting in a pool of cream on your plate.  Within that, do what you like.  Nutmeg is the traditional flavoring; I used a little red chile powder instead.  Ginger is a common pairing with beet, and French four-spice would work well.

Cook the cream by reducing it in a pan, with your seasonings, until very very reduced -- I mean, some of the fat should start to separate out.  It doesn't matter if you start with heavy cream, light cream, half and half, whatever.

Blanch the greens by dropping into boiling water for a minute, dropping into ice water, and then squeezing very hard (squeeze small handfuls at a time) to mostly dry them out, before chopping up small.

You can do both of those steps way in advance.  A couple days if you like.  When you're ready to serve, heat a little butter in a pan until starting to brown -- add the diced beet stems if you're using them, or a little onion or garlic or what have you -- then add the greens and the cream, and stir until heated through.  Salt sufficiently.  You should end up with something both rich and fresh-tasting.  Tada.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Well hang on, one more thing on pizza, because if I hold it all for the big long pizza post, it's gonna be too long for anybody to read:

Umami Pizza Sauce:

Tomato base: Roast a quantity of good flavorful tomatoes until they have lost quite a lot of liquid; do not use salt.  Remove skins and puree; you can strain the seeds out, but don't need to.  If good flavorful fresh tomatoes aren't available to you, puree a can of San Marzano tomatoes and cook until thickened.

Aromatics, any or none of the following, diced and sauteed: onion, fennel, sweet pepper.

Aromatics, any or none of the following, pureed with the tomato base: garlic, carrot, charred onion, sweet pepper, hot pepper.

Umami/salt component: fish sauce to taste, or anchovies pureed with the tomato base, or soy sauce.  You can also simmer parmesan rinds (sometimes available cheaply at your supermarket) in the tomato base and then strain them out.  You should use a sufficient quantity of your umami component so that you don't need to add salt.

Let sit in the fridge for at least one day.  Include a hard grating cheese -- Pecorino Romano, aged gouda, Parmesan, etc -- in the cheese element of the pizza.

Always sauce your pizza lightly.  More heavily sauced pizza styles are perfectly fine if that's what you like ... but not when you're working with a home oven.

loo loo loo

A note on pizza, first: though I think flavored doughs should be approached with caution and reluctance, I made a nice one today with Pecorino Romano, grated sweet Italian pepper, and large amounts of ground black pepper.


Apple crisp

You must both forgive and get used to the terrible lighting (and my dirty thumbnail).  It's rainy and dark out, and there are no good places in my house with good lighting for food photographs. This situation will not improve until spring brings better light, so you will have to just deal with it through the seasons of braising and pumpkin-pecan pie and duck confit and roast beast and eggnog and Reubens, until we come at last to radishes and pea shoots and the last of the frozen cherries.

Apples.  There's so much to say about apples.  First, because it's the easiest place to start, this apple crisp: sliced Cortland apples, tossed with Grade B maple syrup, sorghum, wheat whiskey, and cinnamon; a topping of equal parts sugar (I used white sugar and sorghum) and flour, with butter and oats.  I often use crushed pretzels in apple crisp (and in general I cook with pretzels more than anyone I know; the pretzel-crusted pig tails predate this blog, but I'll do that again sometime), but today was an oat day.

Let's digress and talk maple syrup and circle back therefrom to apples.

From age 2 to 15, I lived on a splash of old-school New Hampshire land -- a Colonial farmhouse built in 1743, with a chicken coop (complete with chickens), wild and domesticated grapes, wild and domesticated raspberries, a little creek where I caught "crayfish" too small to eat, horse stables (no horses; we kept the gas generator in one, the riding lawn mower in the other), and, well, a gravel tennis court.  New Hampshire in the 70s and 80s was a place in transition, obviously.

One of the owners back in the day when this place's farm elements were more practical than decorative had planted sugar maples, and we tapped them for sap.  Maple sap has two active seasons: spring and fall, when the days are significantly warmer than the nights, causing the watery sap to run back and forth through the tree.  Hammer a spigot into the trunk, hang a bucket from the spigot, and every day the bucket will collect some barely sweet water.  Dump the buckets into a kettle, cook the sap down, and the water cooks off until you have maple syrup.

Naturally, when I was 8, I preferred Vermont Maid "maple-flavored syrup," but by my teens I had come back around.  Real maple syrup tastes like what it is -- something from a tree.  It has a flavor that's more developed than just "sweet."  Most of the pancake syrups on the shelf offer nothing beyond their texture -- they're just sugar in pourable form, either next to flavorless or packed with artificial flavor.  Ugh.

Real maple syrup is offered in various grades, depending on where you live.  Grade B is the "cooking" grade, while various Grades A are "table" grades.  Grade A is lighter in color and flavor, see, while Grade B is stout enough that if you add it to coffee, the maple flavor won't be overpowered.  The idea that Grade B is too strong for people to use as a condiment ... well, it's fucking ridiculous, frankly.  We're not talking about molasses here.  I understand that not everyone can handle straight-up molasses -- shoo-fly pie's a lot for me to handle.  But maple syrup never gets that strong, and it can be tough to make a gingerbread, for instance, with a strong maple note, without resorting to flavor extracts (which I try to avoid).

Anyway.  I use Grade B.  Even up here, you can't find it in the supermarket.  You buy it from the producer or from a farmstand that carries somebody's maple products.  It often sells out when maple season is over, unlike the large amounts of Grade A which are available year-round, so I pick up a big jug in the spring, a big jug in the fall (which I ought to do next month, come to think of it).

The other thing plentiful up here?  Apples.  Told you we'd be back round.  There is an equivalent divide in apples to the Grade A/Grade B issue in maple syrup.  People who aren't from apple-growing regions, and some of those who are, don't always realize the vast array of apple varieties, but they tend to be divided into "eating apples" and "cooking apples" (or "pie apples" or "cider apples"), the second category being those that are widely considered too tart for eating.

Now, this, again, is nonsense.  Yes, such apples are tarter than Granny Smiths, but apart from crabapples I have yet to encounter an apple that's unpalatable when it's ripe, and when I lived in Indiana a great many of the local orchards made their cooking/pie/cider apples available for the public to purchase ... always noting carefully that they weren't intended for eating out of hand, I guess out of fear that somebody would complain the apple was too sour.

The tartness of apples comes from malic acid, while that of citrus fruit comes from citric acid.  (Grapes have both malic acid and tartaric acid, though the tartaric is present mostly in the vines.)  This is one reason that even a very tart apple isn't tart in the same way as a somewhat tart orange or grapefruit, for instance.

The idea that cooking apples are too tart to eat must stem from the timidity of the British and New England palate, I guess.  That's my theory.

Now, apples are one of the few fruits that travels well all on its own, without needing all the flavor and interest bred out of it the way supermarket tomatoes do -- so if you don't live somewhere with apple orchards, there are plenty of perfectly good apples in your supermarket, for eating or cooking.  The real appeal (ha) of local apples is the sheer variety of them: Ginger Golds, Cortlands, Braeburns, Golden Russets, Winesaps, Northern Spies, and crab apples, for instance, are all excellent user-friendly apples which lack the marketing power and supermarket presence of Granny Smith, Red Delicious, McIntosh, and Fuji -- to say nothing of the hyperbranded varieties like Jazz and Zestar.

One of the nice things about having lived both here and in Indiana is that both areas had plentiful orchards -- Indiana had far, far more, New Hampshire having been largely paved over to put up an office park -- which led to my discovering that the same variety of apple can taste different when grown in different areas.  Arkansas Black, in Indiana, was a spectacular apple -- not just crisp but crunchy, with full flavor.  Up here... meh.  This has held true for tomatoes, too -- the Cherokee Purples I've had in New Hampshire have been fairly watery and bland, compared to the deep tomato flavor of those in Indiana.

Not that New Hampshire lacks good tomatoes and apples, obviously -- but the "hey, this was great there, why isn't it here?" varieties are the ones that have stood out.

So get out there, see what they carry in your neck of the woods.  There's a huge spectrum of flavor, texture, and acidity.

There's a lot more to say about apples -- apple varieties, crab apples, apple cider, apple butter, my remixed appletini -- in the future, but I'll leave that until later.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

you're never returning to the usa

We've talked about whiskey, we've talked some about vodka: let's talk about gin.

Gin is great.

... okay, I'll say more than that.

There are several kinds of gin, all of which have juniper in common as one of the primary botanicals -- though, just as Coca-Cola led to a spice-citrus combination's association with "cola" more than kola nuts themselves had, there are certain taste expectations that surround the idea of gin, and at least one spirit which is reputed to be very gin-like but doesn't actually contain juniper (and therefore can't be labeled as gin; I'm referring to Square One's rye-based Botanical Spirit), just as Coca-Cola and Pepsi no longer use real kola nuts.

Almost every gin you've ever heard of, almost every gin in your local bar or liquor store, is London dry gin, which starts with neutral grain spirits (vodka), infuses them with the juniper and other botanicals (citrus, spices, and anise-like flavorings are all common), and then distills the result.  Distilling smooths out and removes flavor, which is why vodka has so little of it -- it starts with something that has little flavor to begin with, and distills it multiple times, with most premium vodkas distilling at least three times.  In gin's case, because the infused mixture is strongly flavored, distillation acts more like a remastering, a graphic equalizing, chopping off highs and lows and smearing everything together.  Beefeater, Seagram's, Bombay, Tanqueray -- these are all London dry gins or London gins.  London and London dry are the same style -- the "dry" just means nothing, except in some cases a small amount of sugar, was added after distillation.  Not all ingredients survive distillation, so for example, a gin tinted with saffron is London rather than London dry.

The googlewhack of the gin world is another British style: Plymouth gin refers both to a distinct style of gin and to the only brand currently producing that style (which by law must be made in Plymouth, England).  The difference between Plymouth and London is not significant: Plymouth's botanicals are more pronounced, and it is the traditional gin used in cocktails, especially those associated with the British Empire and her Navy, such as Pink Gin, Gin and Tonic, and the Gimlet.

Several styles of gin are derived from British gins: sloe gin and damson gin are British-style gins infused after distillation with sloes or damsons; both are members of the Prunus family, aka the stone fruits, the same family as plums, peaches, cherries, apricots, almonds, and the Japanese ume.  Both are considerably difficult to find: several brands make sloe gin with artificial flavoring, but Plymouth (the brand) is the only manufacturer of actual sloe-infused gin widely distributed in the United States, and even it isn't that easy to find yet (not available in NH, so feel free to send me some).

Britain -- like the rest of Europe -- never developed the extensive cocktail culture that the US did, though contrary to what you're likely to hear on the Discovery Channel or some shit like that, this has nothing to do with Prohibition, American cocktail culture having been well-established in the 19th century.  Old school British gin drinks tend to have two or three ingredients, and often some practical purpose: the Gimlet, which must be made with Rose's lime cordial and not fresh lime juice (fresh lime juice is a Rickey), helped sailors combat scurvy; the Gin and Tonic made quinine-containing, malaria-fighting tonic water palatable.

Anyway, because of the lack of, for instance, a Gin Old-Fashioned in the British repertoire, Old Tom gin became popular.  Another member of the British gin family, Old Tom is sweetened more than London styles (the sweetness of which is barely noticeable) and is more palatable to many people straight.  The original Tom Collins -- gin, sweetener, and lemon juice -- used Old Tom.  Old Tom isn't in general production now; Hayman's is available in the US, but ... again, not in NH.

You think we're done, don't you?  WE'RE NOT DONE, BONKER.

Allll of these gins descend from Dutch gin, aka Holland gin, aka genever, the name under which it is most likely to be found in the 21st century.  While everything we've discussed so far starts the same way -- add things to neutral grain spirits and then distill them -- genever does not.  The Dutch popularized genever in Britain when Dutch prince William of Orange overthrew his uncle James II and became king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in the 17th century.  They lost a king, gained gin ... it all worked out.

Genever is made with malted grains, like whiskey.  There are, today, two styles of genever: oude, the original genever, and jonge, which is oude genever diluted with neutral spirits (like "blended whiskey" in the US and Canada).  Both are flavored with juniper, but the use of a non-neutral base spirit makes for a very different final product.  Genever has not been commonly available in the US; Bols, the leading importer of genever, discontinued importing it for several years before a highly publicized cocktailian-friendly relaunch.

Either genever or British gin can be aged.  Citadelle, a French gin producer of London style gins, produces Citadelle Reserve, which is aged briefly in oak; as far as I know, this is the only aged British style gin on the market.  Boomsma ages its Oude genever for "at least" a year.

There is an additional style, maybe two or three, that doesn't have a name yet -- I've seen suggestions, but none of them have caught on.  The 21st century has seen a revival of interest in gin, and a number of new gins have been introduced, often playing with new botanical blends (incorporating grape flowers, lychees, or spruce, for instance); some of them reduce the juniper to an afterthought, some of them play it up big and bold, and the most common complaint from old-school gin drinkers who don't dig this is that the botanicals lack the balance of older tried-and-true formulas.  Because so much of that action is on the west coast, few of the brands are carried in the US, so I can't really comment.  I've tried some of them, mostly before moving here, and few of them seemed worth paying an extra $5, $10, or more for, especially when my go-to brands (Plymouth, Bombay, and Citadelle) do so well.

Okay.  So.  Here's the gin I have in the house at the moment:


The aforementioned Citadelle Reserve, which doesn't taste drastically different from regular Citadelle but is certainly worth trying.  The effects of oak aging are pretty predictable -- there's a smoothness and the familiar vanillin presence from the oak -- but the aging is brief enough that much of that disappears in cocktails with strong supporting casts.

Plymouth is the cocktail standard, with good reason.

Boomsma Oude genever is one of the few genevers available in this country.  In addition to it and the (much more expensive) Bols, there is Anchor Distilling's Genevieve, but I've read that it's more "genever-like" than a genuine genever, so I decided that shouldn't be my first experience with this liquor.  The Boomsma ... it smells a lot like tequila when you open the bottle ... or more to the point, it smells like "tequila and...", where something uniquely genever follows the ellipsis.  The taste is a lot like whiskey.  British gins have a thickness to their texture, almost an oiliness, which is lacking here.  This is very very good, both familiar and new.

And the green stuff?  Because of the juniper, people who don't get gin say it tastes like a pine tree.  That doesn't taste like a pine tree, man.  Clear Creek's Douglas Fir eau de vie, which infuses an eau de vie with young fir buds?  That tastes like a pine tree. It's crazy expensive (eau de vie is resource-intensive to produce) and from what I understand, the proprietor of Clear Creek doesn't like his products being used in cocktails, so this probably shouldn't be here at all.  It's good, good stuff, and saying it "tastes like a pine tree" is a little misleading; this is no Pine-Sol.  It tastes a little like being in the woods in the morning.

Also pictured: Fever Tree bitter lemon, which is like tonic water combined with lemon juice.  I used to say tonic water was the best way to experience a new gin, but I'm no longer sure of that, because of the syrupiness of most tonic waters.  Fever Tree's product, however, while not widely distributed, is now carried on Amazon, and I have Amazon Prime so I get free shipping.

Postscript: I should make a real pizza post sometime, but in lieu this was lunch today: I used tipo 00 flour from Naples for the dough, very ripe tomatoes, cheap pepperoni, and a combination of fresh and dry mozzarella and Pecorino Romano. The danger of fresh mozzarella in home pizza -- the fresher, the more dangerous -- is the extraordinarily high moisture content and the inability of a home oven to reach the temperatures that real pizzerias rely on in order to dry that moisture out without interfering with the crust.  This pizza cooked for over fifteen minutes, which is ridiculous, but the mozz made me do it; you can see that the tomatoes are more cooked as a result.  I promise, I really will make an actual pizza post at some point, probably this month -- it may be later, because I realized I would probably be pretty good at developing and curing a sausage specifically designed for sausage pizza, which would take a little while and a little money that'd have to come out of my next paycheck, in October. Like hamburgers, cola, and oranges, it's a food I care a lot about: to eat great pizza is to sit in God's lap, hands on the wheel and eyes on the divine road while He works the pedals.


(Yes that sounds all fancy, "oooh you bought flour from Italy for your fancy schmancy pizza," but pizza is CHEAP, and the per-pizza cost of this flour is under a dollar.  It's made specifically for pizza, with up to thirty different wheats blended to achieve the desired results: dough that is extensible, not elastic.  Elastic means it will snap back when you stretch it; extensible means it'll stay put without either snapping back or breaking.  That said, this is my first time using the flour, and I don't have the dough where I want it yet, though the flavor is fantastic.  This is one of those pizzas with a crust -- cornicione -- that you will want to eat.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

mahna mahna


This is muhammara, a Middle Eastern red pepper dip.  More or less.

I didn't have all the traditional ingredients in the house, and even if I did, making authentic muhammara involves more quantum smearing than cooking -- as a dish made slightly differently in different countries, it is subject to the same debate as any other regional dish (pizza, barbecue), in which every version is wrong by someone else's standards and few things are universal and yet somehow all are still recognizably the thing in question.

In this case, I didn't have any walnuts in the house, nor olive oil.  For the walnuts, I substituted Brazil nuts; the nuts are not used in great quantities in this dish anyway.  For the olive oil ... look, every Mediterranean recipe that calls for oil will call for olive oil, unless some gourmet food vendor is trying to sell you some argan oil.  This isn't because of olive oil's superiority.  It's because of its convenience in the Mediterranean.  There are times when substituting will significantly change the dish, times when it won't, and times when a change does not mean the dish will be any worse.

I didn't have olive oil.  I used pecan oil and a little corn oil.

Some versions of muhammara call for bulghur wheat; many recipes in English cookbooks will call for breadcrumbs.  I used cooked wheat berries, which are pretty close to bulghur.

So anyway.  All told, what do we have here?  Roasted red peppers, both sweet and hot; I dried the hot ones (cherry peppers) out in the oven and used them skin and all, while roasting the sweet ones conventionally and peeling them.  A total in volume equivalent to four medium-to-large bell peppers.  About a handful of cooked wheat berries, and an equal amount of roasted Brazil nuts.  A few tablespoons of pecan oil and a drizzle of corn oil.  A few tablespoons of pomegranate molasses.  Whir whir whir in the Cuisinart.

The result is sweet, peppery, tangy, with a little bite.  The flavor will keep developing for a few days, which is good cause I'm almost out of chips and the dip will develop until I pick up some more.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

outlive all the septuagenarians

I don't like vodka. A quickie history of the deterioration of cocktails would go something like this: Prohibition puts some producers out of business and alters the availability of ingredients because of the different economics of the black market; the low quality of moonshine and increasing acceptability of drinking among women leads to favoring sweeter concoctions, a trend that takes off like a rocket in the 70s; faced with the difficulty of marketing an essentially odorless and tasteless product, vodka importers after WWII emphasize vodka's inherent mixability -- with no flavor, it won't clash with anything.  Before long, you have generations of drinkers who don't realize the vodka martini is a variant, not the default.  Horseshit fern bars popularize horseshit drinks designed to get you drunk without having to taste anything that might be unpalatable to a twelve year old, foreshadowing the twenty-first century's fruit punch flavored cigarettes, while horseshit sorority girls glug vodka and Diet Coke.

Vodka is more than a little ridiculous.

Good vodka is even less appropriate for cocktails, because the flavors are so subtle that almost any addition will cover them up.  It's like making a cocktail with mineral water.  This is something I'm struggling with in my remix of the appletini, which we will get to when we get to it.

I don't like tomato juice either.  Whether canned or fresh, it tastes like unseasoned soup to me, not like a beverage.  (And forget about Clamato -- although people always focus on hockey and poutine and the ou diphthong, the real divide between Canada and the US is that no one in the US has ever heard of a Bloody Caesar, which in Canada is so popular some bars will keep Clamato on the gun.)

So ... a Bloody Mary is really off my usual menu.

But from time to time I like to take a thing I don't like, and find a way I like it.  The tricky thing is to do this without violating the semantic boundaries that make the thing that thing.  If I didn't like steak, grinding it up to make a hamburger would be cheating.  If I didn't like pizza, putting pepperoni and mozzarella on a tomato sandwich would still be cheating.  Figuring out where those boundaries are is sometimes tricky.  Finding a way to make a lobster roll I liked was a challenge that took a long time, because if you do too much with a lobster roll -- if you make a bahn mi, if you season it too much, if you deep-fry lobster chunks and make a poboy -- it is simply no longer a lobster roll.

What is interesting and attractive about the Bloody Mary is that it is the only cocktail that encourages innovation and personal touches.  An Old-Fashioned with a bunch of other shit added to it isn't an Old-Fashioned anymore.  A Bloody Mary with a bunch of shit added to it is some guy's Bloody Mary.  You could argue this is true of the Pimm's Cup, I suppose, but it obtains only on the garnish level, whereas checking yes or no next to Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, bouillon, horseradish, and lemon juice is a common method of Bloody Mary personalization.

Clearly a Bloody Mary must have tomato as the principal flavor.  What is not clear is whether it must have vodka.  Yes, I know there are a million names for "a Bloody Mary made with bourbon instead of vodka" or the like, but I don't care about that.

I've had these issues in mind for a while.  You saw some Bloody Mary brainstorming on the August whiteboard.  A few days ago there was a post on Kaiser Penguin about making a Bloody Mary from tomato water -- made by pureeing tomato and straining it through a bag to get a clear liquid with strong tomato flavor, rather than the pulpy soup-like stuff -- and that solves the tomato juice texture issue for me.

So.  For my first Bloody Mary experiment, for Sunday brunch this fine Labor Day weekend: tomato water and Old Gristmill corn whiskey.  I'm not interested in all that maiden aunt horseshit with the seventeen garnishes and the skewer of blue-cheese-stuffed-olive-wrapped-in-prosciutto.  Is my name T.G.I. Chuckles McBennigans?  Do you see a bunch of shit on the walls?  Am I wearing any flair?  This is a goddamn drink.

The rim is celery root salt, from Fergus Henderson's recipe: you shred up celery root, mix it with salt, bake it until dry, and grind it back up.  It makes an amazing celery salt, great with eggs or potatoes.

4 1/2 oz tomato water

1 1/2 oz corn whiskey

squeeze of lemon juice

dash each of St Germain elderflower liqueur, Fee's whiskey barrel aged bitters, homemade cayenne vinegar


And the brunch to accompany this drink: Duck confit and fried egg, with tomato, roasted green chile (courtesy of Nikki and Bill's annual crosscontinental chile-apple exchange), and lactic corn.

I know.

You're thinking, Bill.  Bill.  Bill.  You're going on about this Bloody Mary, what in the name of the Great Gazoo is lactic corn?

Well, that's perfectly reasonable, because there's a greater than usual chance that I made it up.  You remember what we were talking about with the country ham.  What's the key chemical process in making country ham?  Right.  Lactic fermentation, the harnessing of friendly ambient wildlife in order to create and preserve flavor, which in addition to country ham is responsible for sourdough bread and sauerkraut.

Ah, there you go, you figured it out.

I immersed fresh corn from the cob in saltwater, left it on the counter for a few days until it turned sour, and boom.  Lactic corn -- crisp, tangy, deeeelightful.

As for the drink ... it's certainly better, to my tomato juice disliking palate, than the usual thing.  The ingredients I used in small amounts sort of boost and highlight aspects of tomato flavor, and unsurprisingly corn whiskey is a pretty good match for tomato water.  I don't know if we're there yet, though.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Again for the blog

Whiteboard update, September.


What I want from salsa is good fresh flavor, a little bite, and for it to stick to a tortilla chip instead of forcing me to use one as a spoon.  The way I get that is by using both cooked and fresh tomatoes, which is why I usually only make homemade salsa -- for chips and salsa, anyway -- in the summer.

This particular salsa takes half of the tomatoes, by volume, and dices them; the other half is roasted in the oven, peeled, pureed, and strained to get the seeds out.  If you leave the skin on and proceed to puree and strain, you'll get a more noticeably roasted flavor -- I did that with some of the tomato puree I've frozen for the long tomato-less year.

While the tomatoes are roasting, the diced tomatoes are combined in a bowl with diced chiles (cherry bomb peppers and cayenne in this case), diced onion, a little garlic, a little Cuban oregano (it's more similar to Mexican oregano than Italian oregano, though it is a third plant altogether), and a little salt.  That's it, you're done (though it will taste much better after a night in the fridge).  Easy as pie.  The puree, thickened by roasting, binds the fresh ingredients together and gives you chip-stick-ability.

Sometimes I add an acid like lemon or lime juice.  I never add vinegar, though I know many people do.  I think the combination of tomato puree, vinegar, and corn syrup in so many commercial salsas has a lot to do with why it's been outselling ketchup for almost twenty years -- it brings the products closer together.  I want the thickness, but not ketchup-like qualities.

I add diced cucumber to salsa pretty often, but didn't in this case because it's a fairly large bowl of salsa, and if cucumbers sit in an acidic medium too long, they'll begin to pickle.  I'll add cucumbers to this when I have little enough left that I know I'll use it up in a day or two.  Also, the spicier your salsa, the better a combination the cucumbers will make.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

damn thing gone wild

Cafe Brulot Lamb Ham

Cafe Brulot lamb ham.  Semi-boneless leg of lamb.  Cure: salt, pink salt, coffee, Seville orange peel, lemon peel, bourbon, sugar.

It's curing in the refrigerator.  Sometime in October it will be hung like the country ham, until sometime in the winter.  (This is a smaller cut of meat than a 30 pound ham, and doesn't need to cure all year.)