Saturday, January 30, 2010

the papa tomato said

Jax Brewery is a place in the French Quarter, near and I assume named for Jackson Square.  It was originally, obviously, where they made Jax beer, but by the time I moved to New Orleans, it was a touristy shopping center.  Upstairs is the Bayou Country store, as touristy as you can imagine, with alligator skulls on the wall, and talking Cajuns-in-your-pocket, and all sorts of knick-knack tchotchke crap.  But they also made the best pralines I've had, and had one of those big Walls Of Hot Sauce, with a rotating assortment of sauces you could sample on pieces of popcorn.  We used to go in pretty often and try whatever the new samples were.

One of the things we bought as a result of sampling it was this stuff called Banana Ketchup.  Banana ketchup is actually a fairly common Filipino sauce, but this brand wasn't Filipino, I forget where it was from.  It didn't taste very banana-ey, but when you think about it, Heinz doesn't taste very tomatoey.  The banana ketchup was great with chicken -- sort of similar to, but not mistakeable for, barbecue sauce.

Ketchup has become synonymous with tomato ketchup, though walnut ketchup and mushroom ketchup were originally much more common, and predate the tomato version by a century or so.  I suspect the visual appeal, the umami notes, and the timing of the popularity of hamburgers and hot dogs have something to do with tomato ketchup's ascent in North America, but I'm no food historian, that's just a roundabout guess.  I'm not sure you could come up with a formal definition of ketchup that would include all the non-tomato variants while excluding all those things that don't call themselves ketchup, but food tends to be that way.  The main thing is, when you hear "such-and-such ketchup," I think what you expect, and what you ought to expect, is a viscous homogeneous sauce with a little vinegar tang and a little spice.  (You don't think of tomato ketchup as having any spices because you think of it as ketchup-flavored, but the little bit of spicing they add is key.)

This was all on my mind today when I made macaroni and cheese.  Apparently Canadians often put ketchup on theirs.  I'm not Canadian, but I am pretty far north.  I usually put hot sauce on my mac and cheese.

Mac and cheese, ketchup

Four-cheese macaroni: bechamel sauce (with a little cornstarch and dry mustard), cooked penne (Trader Joe's "pennette"), Gruyere, aged Gouda, Pecorino Romano, cheese curds; baked with breadcrumbs on top.

Three-pepper ketchup: pickled cherry peppers, roasted piquillo peppers, Hungarian paprikash paste, boiled celery root, a little Spanish smoked paprika, a little allspice, a little thyme; pureed, strained, and squirted out of a sriracha bottle.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

holy roman empire

Cocktail grapefruit

Just as the Meyer lemon is not a lemon, the cocktail grapefruit is not a grapefruit: it's a cross between a mandarin and a pummelo.  Since a grapefruit is a cross between a pummelo and the sweet orange, you can see why there are some similarities.  But both the pummelo and the cocktail grapefruit lack the true grapefruit's characteristic bitterness: the cocktail grapefruit is instead a sweet, juicy, low-acid fruit with a mild grapefruit flavor.

(An easy way to cut supremes, as you can see, is to "carve" the grapefruit like you would a pineapple, and then slice the segments out in wedges.)


The cocktail grapefruit supremes were part of a composed salad, if you like that term: blanched charred chilled Savoy cabbage, lamb's lettuce, three hard cheeses (Pecorino Romano, gouda, cave-aged gruyere), bresaola, salami, cocktail grapefruit, cocktail grapefruit/lemon juice, hazelnut oil.

(Bresaola is sort of like beef prosciutto, though it's not especially salty: air-dried lean beef, sliced tissue-paper-thin.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

of course of course

Horseradish and Brussels sprouts are two of those ingredients that people think of as having strong, overpowering flavors, but which can be mellowed quite a lot by cooking.  In fact, horseradish can piss you off that way -- if you've ever made a roast beef with a fresh horseradish crust, you may have been disappointed to discover that it wasn't the western beef-based equivalent of a wasabi pea.

But it also makes these ingredients more widely usable.  Making Brussels sprouts inoffensive to people who don't like the cabbagey-ness of the sprouts is simple: separate the leaves and cook them quickly, whether by roasting or frying, until they start to brown.  The flavor is sweet, a little nutty, and nothing like the cruciferous flavor of boiled cabbage.

Horseradish, once it's mellowed by cooking, can nearly disappear next to other strong flavors, but can also blend with them to give you this nice flavor, sharp but not acrid or pungent, right in the middle.  

Some examples:

Special sauce

"Special sauce" for a hamburger: a mayonnaise made with bacon fat for the fat component and Tabasco sauce for the acid.  Grated horseradish was cooked in the hot bacon fat and then mixed in along with some of the crumbled bacon.

Trout and sprout

Trout and sprouts.  The trout was sprinkled with water and then dredged through freshly grated horseradish and a sprinkle of cornmeal, and fried in bacon fat.  The Brussels sprouts were sauteed in the same fat with a little horseradish and topped with a few bits of bacon.

Lamb chops, Brussels sprouts, Kopanisti

Lamb chops (they're small) with sumac, over sauteed Brussels sprouts with a very simple vinaigrette (malt vinegar, preserved lemon olive oil, sumac, thyme) and Kopanisti ...

... which brings us to Kopanisti.  This is basically Greek pimento cheese, using feta.  I'm not clear on whether or not there's a more traditional cheese used for it in Greece -- I've seen conflicting statements in blogs, and I am far from an expert on Greek food, much less Greek cheese.  All I know is it certainly works well with feta: feta, roasted red peppers, a little bit of hot pepper (I used hot peppadews), and garlic, blended together.  Because feta is so much wetter than Cheddar, this is a dip rather than a spread like pimento cheese -- it's pourable, really.  It's also tasty and tangy, with a little heat and a lot of pepper flavor.

Pita, Kopanisti, feta, piquillo peppers, pea shoots

The Kopanisti also made a good sandwich, on pita bread with a few strips of roasted piquillo peppers, feta, and a handful of pea shoots for sweetness and crunch.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

the hardest button to button

This post mentions some free stuff. Check out the free stuff policy here.

Marx Foods sent me some Sechuan Buttons to play with, and it's taken a while for me to write this post, because they're so damn weird and interesting that I wanted to do as much as possible with them -- even making single servings of things, or half-size drinks, just so I could explore as many possibilities as possible.  These are one of the most unusual new ingredients I've played with in quite some time.

The Sechuan Buttons from Marx are, I believe, from Koppert Cress -- that's what it says on my package, anyway -- and they're sometimes called sansho buttons when sold by other producers, or toothache plant in books on herbs and whatnot.  The Sechuan name conjures up the herb's similarity to Szechuan peppercorns, but the menthol-like cooling numbness of Szechuan peppercorns is nothing compared to the almost-electric zap of Sechuan buttons.

Sechuan buttons

These are the buttons we're talking about.  They're about the size of golf tees.  They have an herbal flavor, not bitter, but after a moment's contact with the tongue, they cause a tingling sensation, similar to the pins and needles you get when your hand falls asleep.  It's not painful, but it's a definite sensation, as opposed to a flavor.  Eating a Sechuan button by itself, it's very noticeable, and there's a lemony aftertaste to the herb.  Eating it in prepared dishes, there's often a lag to the numbing, and the buzz may be diminished -- but it's still there, especially if you eat slowly.  The stem has the same effect as the bud, but not quite as strong.

Sechuan Button taco

One of the first savory applications I tried was simply making a soft taco and adding chopped Sechuan button instead of chopped cilantro.  It was good, but the unique sensations really got lost in the mix, showing up only in the occasional bite, like the Z in the alphabet soup.  I have a feeling you could make a fantastic Sechuan button taco ... but you would need a lot of them.  It's not just a question of the flavor standing up to other flavors -- it's the, well, surface area of the food in your mouth, you need more Sechuan buttons so that enough particles come into contact with your tongue.

Ma la skirt steak

Both the numbing and the name kept reminding me of my bastardization/generalization of Sichuan ma la sauce.  "Mala" combines the Chinese characters for "numbing" and "spicy hot," and the traditional sauce simmers bean paste and garlic for hours with Sichuan peppercorns, chile peppers, and large amounts of oil.  Chinese joints in the United States usually have a mala-something-or-other on the menu (often pork).

I tend to use it as shorthand for "the combination of Sichuan peppercorns, chiles, and ingredients from Chinese cuisine" -- generally soy sauce and stir-fried onions and garlic, often with watercress added at the end.  I know, that's not much like the traditional sauce I just described -- but it's the peppercorn/chile, numbing/heating combination that I like, and shorthand is useful.

So in this case, I seared and sliced some skirt steak, and served it with a sauce of soy sauce, oyster sauce, a little vinegar, sriracha, a little demiglace for body, and Sechuan buttons -- all pureed in my Magic Bullet (yes, just like on the television).  I let the sauce sit in the fridge for a few days, because I wanted the buttons to mingle with everything else.

This was nice.  This worked well.  There's a noticeable flavor difference between Sechuan buttons and Sichuan peppercorns -- not to oversimplify it, but in addition to the difference in the palpability of the numbing effect in the mouth, the buttons are herbal while the peppercorns are, well, peppery.  

Dr Manhattan cocktail

Dr Manhattan cocktail

My friend Caitlin suggested the name of this cocktail, which I then had to devise.  This is a cocktail made along similar lines to the other cocktails I've seen made with Sechuan buttons, in which the button(s) are used as a garnish or muddled along with the other ingredients.

Since it's called Dr Manhattan, well, it had to be pretty close to a Manhattan (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters).  I make my Manhattans with Punt e Mes vermouth, which is different enough from your standard sweet vermouths -- it's really halfway between a vermouth and an amaro -- that my Manhattans are already kind of variant.  I used that as my starting point:

2 oz rye whiskey (18 year Sazerac)
3/4 oz Punt e Mes
1/4 oz Aperol
dash of St Elizabeth allspice dram
Sechuan button (roughly chopped and muddled with the Aperol)

This is a good cocktail, with or without the Sechuan button -- but see, the fact that I say "with or without" tells you the problem, which is that the Sechuan button is not really fully incorporated into it.  It definitely adds something, don't get me wrong.  Once in a while you get a fleck of shredded button on your tongue and it zaps you a little bit.  That's very cool.  But I felt like more could be done.  I wanted it to be part of the cocktail, not just floating in the cocktail.

Sechuan rum

Sechuan buttons in Prichards rum

So this was the next step, and the killer app.  When I buy more Sechuan buttons, the two things I will definitely do are to make this rum (or, I suppose, use some other spirit) and to make some sort of mala something or other.

I wasn't sure Sechuan button infused rum would work.  I don't know the chemistry of the Sechuan button -- I don't know what compounds contribute its flavor or the numbing effect, and whether they're alcohol-soluble.  Orange rind is perfect for infusions, for instance; apples, much less so, most of the apple flavor simply won't leave the apple that way.  Where were Sechuan buttons going to fall on the apples-and-oranges spectrum?

I dropped a few Sechuan buttons into a small bottle of Prichard's rum -- one of my favorite rums, made in pot stills in Tennessee and aged in new oak -- and waited a couple weeks.  I sampled some of it, liked it, waited a couple more to see if it would intensify.  It did.  I don't know if it will intensify further, but I can tell you that after a month of infusion, the rum is stronger than it was after two weeks -- though after two weeks, it was certainly perfectly fine and ready to be used.

What you get with this Sechuan rum is a rum that at first cloaks the Sechuan flavor because of the alcohol burn -- but then after the alcohol dissipates, it leaves behind a tingling tongue.  It's not a flavor you have to search for, you'll notice it.  At the same time, I wouldn't want to make anything too complex with this, like a tiki drink -- it could get lost in the mix.

But a rum and Coke?  That's another story.  I made two rum and Cokes, one very standard -- cold Coca-Cola, a little lime juice, and Sechuan rum.  Very nice.  Though because the rum is so diluted, if you drink it too quickly you don't notice the tingling until you stop.

So for maximum Sechuan button effect, you want to use this in a drink you'll sip:

Revised Sechuan rum and Coke

1 oz Angostura bitters
1 oz Rose's Kola tonic
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz Sechuan rum

The proportions here are based on the Trinidad Sour (which I believe originates with Giuseppe Gonzalez), a cocktail with a structure that fascinates me: equal parts sweetener and "nonpotable" bitters, reduced amounts of sour and strong.  It really does work best with Angostura bitters or Fee's whiskey barrel aged (though WBA varies by vintage), though the latter would be an even more expensive choice here.  I use "works well in a drink like the Trinidad Sour" as a target in developing my own bitters.

Kola tonic is hard to find; you can find it in well-stocked liquor stores in large cities, or online from South African food vendors.  It provides the "Coke" element here -- an equal amount of Coca-Cola would not do, and Coca-Cola fountain syrup isn't exactly readily available (if you want to find it, though, look online for Breakmate refills).