Friday, April 30, 2010

that's what I want

This post is about stuff I got for free.  Check out the free stuff policy here.


If you follow developments in the cocktail world, then you're aware of the explosion of bitters, the revival of defunct or obscure ingredients like Creme Yvette and genever, and at long last the availability of non-rotgut unaged whiskeys.  I strongly suspect in the next couple years you'll be hearing about the creation of "distinctly American" spirits.  Cocktails have always been a Tex-Mex/Japanese pizza sort of fusion of European spirits (gin, liqueurs, etc), medicinal products (tonic water, bitters), and citrus, in a uniquely American combination.  Some of those spirits have settled down and relocated on our soil -- bourbon and American rye are certainly much more common in cocktails than Scotch or Irish whiskey, there are distinctly American styles of gin, and distilleries like Prichard's and Tuthilltown Spirits have reclaimed rum distilling, once the most common distilled product in the US.

But what we're going to see is spirits that aren't just "American gins" or "American whiskeys," they're new things altogether.  Some will be base spirits, some will be liqueurs, I don't know.  Some of them will probably target the frat boy market and position themselves as "the American Jagermeister" or "the American peachtree schnapps."

Thankfully, Root hasn't.

Root is inspired by root beer, and there's probably nothing more American than that -- a beverage made with American ingredients, popular in this country in one form or another for a few hundred years.  

This isn't a root beer schnapps: the sweetness is very low, and the proof is base-liquor-strength. 

Root beer was originally made with sassafras, which Root lacks because of an FDA ban.  Now, any southerner knows you can get around that ban -- the ban is because of safrole, a potentially carcinogenic component in sassafras, but Pappy's Sassafras Tea Concentrate is sold in supermarkets throughout the south, and is safrole-free.  Pour that into an empty two-liter bottle, add 3/4 cup of sugar and a little yeast, fill with water, and cap, and in a few days you have root beer.

But I assume Art in the Age has a reason for avoiding sassafras in Root -- maybe whatever Pappy's does to get rid of the safrole isn't an option for them, I don't know -- and in any case, the product doesn't suffer from the lack.  The botanicals they do use -- birch bark, lapsang souchong, orange and lemon peel, allspice, anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, wintergreen, and spearmint -- do an excellent job of creating a deep, complex root beer flavor.  I admit I was more than a little gratified to see that they're using lapsang souchong, a smoked black tea which has been an ingredient I've occasionally included in my homemade root beer and colas for five or six years now.  (I also use Szechuan peppercorns pretty often, Root folks, if you're reading this.)

The flavor is just unparalleled.  Nevermind the fact that there is no similar product on the market to compare this to -- there is very little out there that's this complex.  One of the things we like about gin, after all, is that it's not just juniper vodka: it has a flavor that emerges from a dozen other botanicals in support of that juniper.  It's more interesting.  It's a muffuletta instead of a bologna sandwich.  

As a result of the pure sugar cane juice they distill for the base, it has just a little sweetness -- like rum.

It's a challenge to mix, though.  The Root website has plenty of recipes from bartenders, and it mixes well with, say, ginger beer (though strong ginger covers up much of the spice in Root).  But it's easy to hit a misfire when you try something new with it.  Now, I expect with those "distinct American spirits" I mentioned we'll see, this is going to keep happening -- you can't slot this simply into an existing niche, the way you can take a new orange liqueur and make a Corpse Reviver #2 with it, or a new bitters and make an Old-Fashioned.  Because it's so strong, mixing it with another base liquor can make a pretty hot drink, if you don't bring something else in to balance it out (it does go well with rye or Bulleit, though).  

I'm looking forward to trying it with Bonal or Cocchi (see upcoming post on bitters).  For the moment, my biggest successes with it have been Hot Buttered Root -- just hot buttered rum with Root instead of rum, which is a fantastic winter drink -- and Root on the rocks with a little ginger liqueur.  I'm finding I'm not crazy about it with acidic flavors, so a Root sour didn't work for me, and I haven't tried it in variants of the Trinidad Sour or Shaddock, drinks that I try with most new things if I can make them fit.

It goes well with Malta sodas, but because Malta is so sweet, so's the resulting drink, and I keep feeling like that destroys the point of Root's low-sweetness.

I've toyed with a Manhattan variant, with various proportions of rye, Punt e Mes, and Root ... just haven't found a combination that sings yet, and I only have two ryes to choose from.

The Root site includes a cocktail by Phoebe Esmon at Chick's Cafe that uses fig puree, and that has me intrigued -- when figs come into season, I'm going to use some of the last of my Root playing around with those flavors, and then hope that Root is carried in New Hampshire soon ... because while it's challenging to play with, I like the challenge, and hell, there's nothing wrong with drinking it straight.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

me and betty ross love green nuts

Green almonds

Green almonds.

Last year I picked up some green walnuts to tinker with, the notable end results of which were nocino, walnut bitters, and walnut-kola amaro.  The thing about green walnuts -- "green" with nuts means "immature, unripe, still developing," like with tomatoes -- is that you can't just eat them.  You have to either use them as a flavoring -- using them to infuse wine or liquor -- or laboriously process them to remove the inedible bits and the tannins.  This is, you know, basically why we leave them on the tree most of the time.

But green almonds are a horse of a different color, or a ... some different animal ... of the same color.  They're another thing.  Almonds are a member of the prunus family, like apricots, cherries, peaches (and their naked siblings the nectarines), and plums.  If you open up an apricot, the pit is almond-shaped -- so is the kernel inside a peach pit.  Not a coincidence.

Green almonds are in season in April and May, generally.  Depending on where you live, you may be able to find them at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, farmers markets (in California, where nearly all American almonds are grown), or Middle Eastern markets.

Green almonds

You can see in this superlarge photo especially -- which you may need to click through to really see -- that in a green almond we have a crispy fruit surrounding the kernel that will eventually become the nut.  There are two stages of green almond: the gelatinous stage, when the kernel is wet and juicy inside and the surrounding fruit is edible; and the later stage, when the kernel is firmer and the fruit can no longer be eaten.  These are from towards the end of the gelatinous stage.

The fruit is firm and somewhat tart -- not enough to make you pucker or anything, but tart.  It tastes nothing like an almond -- it tastes a bit like grass or alfalfa sprouts, a lot like snap peas, but with that tartness.  It's a little mouth-drying, so the wet kernel in the middle is welcome.  Traditionally green almonds are eaten cut in half and dipped in salt or sugar, which rounds out the flavors.

You can cook 'em.  They're served braised with lamb sometimes, and I've frozen some for that purpose at some later date -- it may be lamb season right now, but it isn't braising weather (despite the dips back down into the cold lately), and besides, I've got that leftover turkey.

Cooked, the green color quickly turns a sort of khaki-olive, and the raw-vegetable taste naturally turns to cooked-vegetable.  

Fried green almonds

Again a big photo.  Trying to show you these close-up.  Those are fried green almonds with salt and a little sumac.  Just straight-up fried in a little hot oil, and man, they are pretty damn awesome.  Addictive like a bar snack.

I'm candying some of them -- whole, pieces, and just kernels -- to see what happens.  Might could pickle some.

And this happened too:

Malted creme fraiche ice cream; fried green almond kernels; golden syrup; sumac

Malted creme fraiche ice cream, fried green almond kernels -- still warm, which is why the ice cream started melting while I grabbed the camera! -- a little Lyle's golden syrup, and a little sumac.  Terrific.

But I better tell you how to make the ice cream.

You remember I made creme fraiche to go on my homemade bagels.  That's real simple and much cheaper than buying creme fraiche at the store: bring a cup of heavy cream up to warm on the stove, dump it in a container with a spoonful of cultured buttermilk, and let them sit in a warm place (like the stovetop) for at least overnight, and maybe a day and a half.  The culture will thicken the cream, and you want it fairly thickened, like melted ice cream or thin yogurt.  Refrigerate it to bring it cool again.

Now, the thing about creme fraiche as opposed to most other cultured dairy products -- yogurt and buttermilk and all -- is that it still has all that butterfat, which means it's whippable, just like cream.  (Keep that in mind for frosting your carrot cakes and hummingbird cakes.)

Take equal amounts chilled creme fraiche and heavy cream -- this is my preferred ratio, taste-wise, but do whatever you like -- and whip them with sufficient sugar (it should taste a little sweeter than you want) and a few hefty spoonfuls of malted milk.  Freeze.  Super-simple.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

cream pies and seltzer bottles

Turkey, stuffing, gravy.

When I'm cooking for just me, any gravy I make tends to be pretty rustic.  There might be some shreds of meat in it, or displaced bits of stuffing that fell out of the bird while roasting.  And it's usually made the day after the bird cooked, which a) makes it easy to separate the fat out from the drippings and b) means I have some turkey stock to work with, which likely simmered all night.

Scoop the fat off the drippings and fond.  Make a roux with some of it and some flour in a pan.  Cook some thin sliced onions and ramps in the roux.  Add the drippings and turkey stock.  Simmer for five or six minutes.  Add a little cream.  Season with salt and summer savory.

Rustic, but ridiculously flavorful, and whatever's left will go into a pot pie.

Yeah, I said ramps.  More on ramps coming up, and fiddleheads, rhubarb, and green almonds.  It's spring!

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Failed dulce de yogurt

This would not be a very useful blog if I only told you about the successes.

What happens if we sweeten and jar some yogurt and cook it in a pot of simmering water the way you cook sweetened condensed milk to make dulce de leche?

Well, nothing worth repeating, that's what.  It took a long time for the sugar to caramelize -- I suppose I didn't sweeten it as MUCH as sweetened condensed milk -- and the yogurt became unpleasantly grainy and dry.

I should skim through McGee to see if there's a solution: at what temperature will yogurt do that, and is it a higher temperature than the temperature at which sugar caramelizes?  Maybe it could be cooked longer at a sub-boiling temperature, in other words.  I suspect not, but I feel compelled to speculate.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

in paradise

Celery bitters

I have a comprehensive bitters post coming up, but I decided I want to talk about this drink -- and these bitters -- separately from that.  This is a really spectacular drink I've got.

The key ingredient is celery bitters, from The Bitter Truth.  Celery bitters is one of those flavors that faded away after the 19th century -- I don't know if they were among the many casualties of Prohibition or if they were already gone by then, but they were never a big player.  They taste like, well, celery.  And citrus -- lime, maybe?  I think I get some lime rind.  And something else I can't place, but whatever it is is very present in the nose.

The overall effect is a lot of celery and a lot of what the hell am I going to do with this? I don't even drink Bloody Marys!

But I think it would go well with gin, and maybe in Pimm's Cups -- and maybe with tequila, especially with St Germain as the sweet.  Cynar maybe, but -- wait, let me go try that.  Okay yes, celery bitters go pretty well with Cynar.

And I decided, okay, if I'm going to play with a new bitters, let me take my Trinidad Sour template (which uses bitters as the base liquor, remember, and then tames it with lemon juice and syrup) and use that.  I tinkered with it a little, partly because I didn't have a syrup that would really fit, and didn't want to use plain simple.  Then I tinkered with it again, because it was a very good drink but everything didn't quite fall into place.

What I came up with benefits from a few drops of Elixir Vegetal, for which you can substitute Green Chartreuse (which is about a quarter the price), but the celery bitters are really the star, and man do they shine.  I have no idea how to tell you about this drink.  It's like a very complex lemonade if celery were a member of the citrus family.  It benefits from a number of compatibilities and sympathies, probably some I wasn't even aware of.  The maltiness of the genever goes very well with the St Germain I used for sweetener, and the lemon is definitely playing off whatever citrus rinds are in that celery bitters.  The Elixir Vegetal adds to the complexity of the celery bitters instead of muddying them, but I already think EV is some kind of quasi-magical ingredient, a relic even, the aqueous humour of some damn saint some damn where.

I'm going to call it the Fletcher Christian for no reason except that the Mekons' "(Sometimes I feel like) Fletcher Christian" was playing when I was tinkering with it.  Or because it seized command of my bounty, all right?

The Fletcher Christian

1 oz celery bitters
3/4 oz St Germain elderflower liqueur
3/4 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz Boomsma Oude genever
3-4 drops Elixir Vegetal (sub Green Chartreuse or omit)

Trust me.  Just trust me.  I realize this is a very nichey cocktail because four of the five ingredients are things you can't buy most places and that only cocktailheads have in their bar already.  But this is a terrific drink.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

float like a butterfly

Raw stinging nettles

For a month or two in spring, you can get fresh stinging nettles.  If you know how to look for them, you can forage for them around your neck of the woods -- if not, there are various places online where you can buy them.  (Check Localharvest, for instance, or Marx Foods.)

If you buy them, they won't be cheap, partly because they're a pain in the ass to harvest -- there's a reason they call them stinging nettles.  They're covered with little hairs, and each hair has a tip that falls off when touched, turning the hair into a needle that pricks you with a number of chemicals, depending on the species -- some nettles even hit you with formic acid, the same vicious little concoction that fire ants have.  This sucks.  This hurts.  It can last a few minutes, it can last a few weeks.  Your hand can swell up like a baseball glove.  It all depends on the species.

But the chemical is neutralized by cooking.  Very young nettles can be eaten raw, but having been stung by nettles, I can't see taking that risk.  Cooked, they're a bit like spinach -- but while most spinach-like wild greens can have a somewhat swampy flavor, nettles are full-flavored but very accessible and user-friendly.  If you told your kids or spouse or whatever that it was spinach, they wouldn't give you any guff.

All you need to do is put a little water in a pot, bring it to boil, and dump the nettles in until they're obviously cooked.  A little longer than blanching, to be safe. 

Steamed stinging nettles

They stay very green after cooking.  Even the pot liquor is dark green:

Nettles pot liquor

Look at that.  Think of how fucking healthy that is!

They're apparently extremely high in protein.  The dried leaves are used to make tea, and a cordial used to make soda is popular in parts of Europe -- I haven't tried that yet.

In American restaurants, you're likeliest to see nettles cooked in Italian contexts -- Alice Waters' joint has served nettles pizza for a while, and nettles pesto is around, or nettles with polenta, that kind of thing.

Nettle champ, smoked lamb, miso gravy

I was very happy with nettles "champ."  After steaming, I squeezed the liquid out of the nettles, chopped them up, and added them to a pan with mashed potatoes and butter.  Served it with smoked leg of lamb and miso gravy (which had actually been made for a pulled pork and mustard greens sandwich: roast pork fond and stock and maitake mushrooms simmered for a while, strained, with red miso whisked in).

Matt and I had a nettles stuffed pizza that came out very good: I put nettles, feta, mozzarella, and a shake of crushed red peppers on half the crust, folded it over and pushed the air out, let it rise half an hour, and then put sauce and cheese on top and blitzed it in the oven per usual.  Very nice.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Early spring whiteboard

Early spring whiteboard.  (The blurry red bottom right: Turtle soup, lamb stock in fridge, compare corned beef.)

I've been working on a project that'll be done Monday night, and have a passel of blog entries for the two weeks following that.  Ramps and nettles are already in the mail.  Elixir Vegetal.  Whiskeys and bitters that have been waiting for me to write about them.  Smoked lamb fat I need to do things with.  Maybe turtle soup, but that might wait till my birthday.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

do you know what it means

Red beans and rice

When it's made right, red beans and rice is one of the most satisfying meals there is.  It was also the first meal I made in New Orleans ... in a microwave, with boxed mix and canned alligator.

It came out better this time.

One of the things my meatless Lent did for me was give me a more developed sense of which dishes really need meat.  It's not always as clear-cut as you think.  You can make a perfectly reasonable vegetarian meal with red beans on top of rice ... but it's just not Louisiana red beans and rice.  The meat, even if you don't use much of it, makes too great a difference.

Traditionally you make this on Monday with the leftover ham bone from Sunday.  But I think ham hocks actually work better than a ham bone, because of the skin and the amount of gelatin they contribute -- that's what you can't replicate without meat.  That's what you need here.

I smoked my own ham hocks for this.  That helped.  Really they're not even ham hocks, in that they're not cured -- I just put pigs' feet in the stovetop smoker for the afternoon, and when they were smoked, I simmered them in a pot of water for a few hours, until the skin went from leathery to tender to totally falling apart.

At that point, you strain the pork out of the stock and put it aside to cool a bit.  Saute onion and a little celery in some pork fat in your bean pot, and add the stock, a bay leaf, a little sriracha, and enough Tony Chachere's seasoning mix to salt the beans, and bring to a boil; add red beans (I used Rancho Gordo's sangre de toro, which are perfect for this), cover, and boil for five minutes.  Toss in a 275 degree oven for an hour and a half or so.  After cooking, let sit, covered, for an hour or more.

Meanwhile pick the bones out of the pigs' feet -- there are lots of little ones -- and mince the meat and skin.  Add it back to the beans whenever -- while they cook, after they've cooked, any time is good.

Adjust seasonings once the beans are cooked.  Serve over rice with some Tabasco sauce.  Ideally you'd have some pickled onions here, but I didn't have any.