Friday, July 30, 2010

a little daube'll

First things first: this part has nothing to do with food.

Over there in the corner, as you see, it says I'm "a full-time writer who happens to cook."  I think this pretty much sums up the stance of the blog -- cooking isn't my profession, but it IS something I have a lot of time for.  Anyway, usually that writing involves things you don't want or need to know about, but this time I have a novel:

Low Country is NOT a novel about food.  It is not a quirky mystery taking place at a gumbo cook-off.  It is not Liquor, a really nice book you should read if you haven't.  The protagonist is a food writer until he retires to South Carolina to move into a haunted house, but I don't want to mislead you -- the only thing Low Country has in common with this blog is that I wrote them both.  Still, people who like haunted house stories are definitely a subset of people who eat food, so it may be something you're interested in, in which case, click on the picture there to be taken to the Amazon page.

Daube glace, baguette

Second things second: food.

Daube glace is an old school New Orleans dish, wherein you take leftover daube -- slow-cooked beef -- and solidify it with the addition of gelatin, and then serve it cold like pate.

It's extremely satisfying food.  I braised about a pound of chuck roast in the oven with some pork stock (it's what I had - obviously beef stock would make more sense), bay leaves, celery from my mother's garden (better- and fuller-tasting than supermarket celery), and onions; let it cool; shredded the beef and strained the stock; combined the stock with gelatin; and combined the stock and the beef with sauteed celery and onions, and seasoned with red miso, Louisiana hot sauce, smoked paprika, saffron, and pebrella.  The latter three ingredients were added to slightly inflect the Spanish elements in Creole cooking.

Daube glace, baguette

Served with a baguette.  Very nice.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

you eat, you drink, you wash your face


I have in these pages named too many favorite fruits -- satsumas, sour cherries, crunchy apples -- to expect you to believe another one, but watermelon is ALSO my favorite fruit.

The juice, freeze-concentrated once and then frozen in an ice cube tray, is great with rum, tequila, mezcal, or Cynar.  

The rind, well, you know about pickled watermelon rind (which is easy: peel the skin off, simmer until it's not hard anymore, and then use whatever pickling recipe you like), which I make with the addition of cherry or tropical punch Kool Aid and extra sugar.

The seeds are edible, and a snack in parts of Asia, though I'm not particularly a fan.

And the flesh, well come on -- you know how to eat a watermelon.  But you can do more than just the obvious.  If you happen to have a vacuum sealer -- I don't :( -- vacuum-sealed watermelon takes on a texture like raw tuna, and is often served the same way.  You can grill watermelon, which won't fall apart the way you might think.  You can use it instead of tomatoes as the base for gazpacho, barbecue sauce, or ketchup.  You can add a little salt, or a little salt and chile, or a little ground up worm powder, all of which enhance the basically bland flavor of the melon.  You can dehydrate it, but the truth is I don't find dried watermelon all that interesting, and it takes a long time -- watermelon is about 90% water.

And me, I add tropical punch Kool Aid drink mix and sometimes a little sugar.

There's no seedless watermelon per se -- the watermelon sold as seedless, which up here has chased seeded watermelon out of the store, simply has immature seeds -- and seeded watermelon tends to be a richer red, and have a fuller flavor, or maybe it's just my imagination.

The easiest way to chop up a watermelon that I know of: if it is the size of a schoolroom globe or smaller, cut it in half; if it's long and oblong, you may want to cut a section out of the middle as well in order to make three or four pieces.  Deal with each piece thusly: place it flesh-side down on the cutting board, and cut the rind off in pieces, from the pole to the cutting board.  You can make both horizontal and vertical cuts to chop up the resulting block of flesh.

If you want to use the rind, it's easier to peel the watermelon before doing this, although I find that there is usually one section of the watermelon which for some reason is easier to peel than the others, and stick to that and let the rest of the rind go to waste.  

Sunday, July 18, 2010

you've got to pick a pocket or two

Sea urchin roe

Uni is the Japanese term for what is commonly referred to as sea urchin roe but is actually the gonads of the sea urchin -- of which there are five, the only edible part of the little fellas, which like starfish and other echinoderms are pentaradially symmetric.  Uni has a reputation for being a love it or hate it food, which I think is owed to the fact that so much of what is available in restaurants is previously frozen Grade C.

Urchin is highly perishable, and the flavor degrades quickly.  It's eaten in most parts of the world where it's a local food -- cracked open and eaten straight from the shell with a little lemon in the Mediterranean and South America, served as sushi or sashimi in Japan, and Wikipedia (which was no help in checking my spelling of pentaradial) tells me that in the Orkney Islands it was once used like butter.

Grade A isn't all that much more expensive than Grade C: it's still less expensive per serving than steak, for instance.  I think the perishability has a lot to do with uni's off-putting reputation -- you can really only depend on its quality at a restaurant that sells it quickly and never gives it time to sit there getting old.  

A date and I had our first uni experiences this weekend.  (Well, I had a sandwich Thursday so I had some sense of what flavors would go with the uni - no photo of the sandwich, but I spread uni and cream cheese on rye bread, much like that open-face salmon sandwich, with much of the same appeal.)  It's definitely a strong flavor, but not in a bad way.  It's oceanic but not fishy, sharp, kind of tangy, kind of ozonic.  I don't really know what to compare it to other than itself.  It reminds me of trying to describe scallops - once you've said they're sweet and shellfish, you're sort of out of words, without having said anything yet.

El Quinto Pino in NYC serves (served?) an uni panini with soy sauce and a sharp Korean mustard oil, which I think must be meant to emulate the soy/wasabi notes of the sushi experience.  I liked the idea of the panini but went a different way with flavors:

Uni panini, fried chicken, local corn

The corn on the cob and fried chicken were partly in case we hated uni, and partly because it doesn't seem to me like a flavor you want to fill up on.  The sandwich is uni, butter, brown rice miso, and some shredded shiso leaves which were totally lost in the mix but also not really necessary.  The combination was rich but not overwhelming.  Really good.

Cucumbers, radishes, favas, with sea urchin vinaigrette

Today we had a pre-lunch salad using up the rest of the uni: radish, cucumber, and double-peeled fava beans with a vinaigrette that's just uni, barley miso, lemon juice, and olive oil, whisked together and then pressed through a sieve.  I wasn't a hundred percent sure how well it would work, although cucumbers go with damn near any flavors, which is why I love them so much in the summer (and this is very typical of my summer salads -- cucumber, radish, dressing, very little else; in the fall and spring I'm more likely to use lettuce).  But again, it was very nice.  The other vinaigrette ingredients cut the uni just enough that you could still taste the cucumber, but that beachy oceanicness was definitely present.

Friday, July 9, 2010

softly through the shadow of the evening sun

For a long time, I thought the reason tequila is so much more expensive in NH than domestic spirits was because of the difference between state taxes on liquor (which NH has less need for since it runs the liquor stores and therefore has a hand in the till anyway) and federal tariffs on imported liquor (which therefore wouldn't be reduced by a state situation).  That may still be relevant, but there are other factors, which I think also answer the question of "why isn't there an American tequila yet?"

Legally an American tequila couldn't be called tequila, but if it could be made and sold cheaply enough, I don't think that would be a barrier.  I'm sure some New York based company would do just fine marketing Jose Pepe Agave Shooters or some fucking thing.  But it can't be made cheaply, that's the problem -- tequila is as expensive as it is despite the cheapness of labor and resources in Mexico, so imagine how much more expensive it would be to produce on this side of the border, especially for a small-time operation that doesn't benefit from economies of scale.

It all comes down to the ingredients.  Both tequila and mezcal (also spelled mescal, no relation to mescaline) are made from the agave plant.  Now, while the sugar cane, grains, and grapes for rum, whiskey, vodka, and brandy are planted and harvested every year, the agave plant isn't harvested until it's 8 to 10 years old, at which point the pina (pineapple-looking fruit) of the agave is pressed for its sap, which is fermented into a spirit.

That's a lot of time.  A lot of waiting around.  Waiting is always relevant in spirit pricing, and rum and whiskey producers have the option of selling young versions of their products in order to generate revenue while the alpha dogs rest in the wood.

Maybe because of that, as much of the agave plant is put to use in Mexico as possible.  The leaves and roots are used for tea.  The fiber is used to make thread, not only for Mexico but throughout South America and Spain, a holdover of old Colonial trade ties. 

Agave syrup is used as a sugar substitute (with some growing popularity in the US).  When fermented, it becomes pulque, a thick opaque beverage dating to the pre-Colonial period and eventually mostly displaced by the beers of European immigrants.  When pulque is distilled, it becomes tequila or mezcal.

The differences between tequila and mezcal can be significant.  Tequila must by law be made with at least 51% blue agave, one of the three main agave species, and every liquor blogger in the world will tell you to only drink 100% blue agave tequila, which is basically every tequila on a shelf higher than your shin.

Mezcal can mean two different things.  For a long time, Americans were familiar with it only to mean "a distilled agave spirit which cannot be called tequila" -- any agave spirit, in other words, that is not at least 51% blue agave.  This meaning remains valid.  It is also this mezcal, not tequila, which is sometimes sold with a worm -- not because it adds anything, but because frat boys and tourists have heard about the worm and want in on it.

It can also mean an agave spirit which is distinctly different from tequila: one in which the pina of the maguey (agave americana) is roasted (in a wood-burning oven or over charcoal, typically).  If you've ever had my roasted pineapple, well, you understand how profound the difference can be between a thing and a thing roasted.  Okay, that's true of anything, pineapple just came to mind because of "pina."

Lately, this second kind of mezcal has become easier to find in the United States, thanks to a small number of devoted importers.  The Del Maguey single village mezcals, for instance, have hit the cocktail scene hard, and Del Maguey has recently introduced Vida, a blend which sells for about half the price of the $70-80 single village bottlings.  I also hear good things about Ilegal.

But the first mezcal I'm trying is Sombra, which is cheaper than Del Maguey's single village mezcals but still premium-priced.  It immediately answered my question of why so many mezcal cocktail recipes call for, for instance, only 1/2 oz of mezcal and 1 1/2 oz tequila: this stuff is strong.

I don't mean "strong like firewater," like it's going to knock you flat.  I mean the flavor is huge.  It's smokey like an Islay Scotch, but where smokey Scotches always remind me of smoldering wet haystacks, Sombra reminds me of a barbecue pit -- my first thought when I open the bottle is of that smell, driving up to a barbecue joint, that smokiness that permeates everything.

What are we going to make with it?  Well, you can substitute it for tequila, which would make a very smoky margarita.  But today I'm making something on Last Word proportions, though I backed off the maraschino at the last minute and used double Aperol: 2 oz Aperol, 1 oz mezcal, 1 oz lemon, shaken, over cubes of frozen watermelon juice.


It's not as sweet as you'd think, with that much Aperol, and the flavors of the mezcal emphasize the bitterness of the Aperol, which makes me wonder how it'd go with Campari.  All in all: cold.  Good.  Bracing.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

ooooh say it again


This is not a hot weather drink as such, but I have central air and a backlog of blog to get through.  A backblog.

First, about rye whiskey: now, we already covered the basics of what it is, which is a whiskey in which at least 51% of the mash bill is rye.  I think I probably also mentioned that rye means something completely different in Canada, where rye whisky typically contains very little rye.

There's much less rye whiskey on the market than bourbon, and that will continue to be the case for a long time to come -- the difference is so great that it would take several years for rye to catch up even if it were to begin doubling right now, which it can't do, because there simply aren't a shitload of ryes being prepared for market at the moment.  So.  You see how it is.  Furthermore, the rye whiskey market is less variegated.  You basically have the affordable ryes, the bullshit rye, and the sipping ryes.  The affordable ryes are Old Overholt, Wild Turkey, and Jim Beam -- one to three of those are available pretty much everywhere, though they may be hard to find (my liquor store regularly stocks American rye whiskey next to Canadian blended whiskeys, a completely different part of the store than the other American whiskeys).  These are $20 or less.  The sipping ryes start at $50/75oml and can go for triple that.  The bullshit rye, which I guess you're wondering about now, is ri(1) or (ri)1 or Ry-Ry-to-the-power-of-one or some fucking thing, and it's an expensive rye aimed at vodka drinkers who don't like whiskey that tastes too much like whiskey.  It's mild not in a "smooth, subtle way" so much as a "there's no there there" way.

I haven't had Wild Turkey or Beam's ryes, but Old Overholt is far and away the best buy in your liquor store.  It regularly sells for less than $15, and dollar per quality, there's just nothing that beats it, not this side of a clearance sale or product discontinuation.  There's nothing on any shelf that approaches its complexity and quality for the price.  Weirdly, Old Overholt -- in this sense "the best rye on the market" -- is made by Jim Beam, who also makes ri-the-power-of-one, clearly the worst rye for the price.

But I don't want to oversell it: the key there is for the price.

There hasn't really been a Maker's Mark of rye, is what it comes down to, or a Bulleit of rye (well, except Bulleit itself, in a lot of ways -- it's a very rye-heavy bourbon with a lot of body) -- a solid, $20-25, low-premium entry that you'd happily drink a glass of but can afford to mix with.  The closest that I'd encountered until recently was the baby Saz -- Sazerac, a whiskey distillery (owned by Buffalo Trace) which shares a name with the cocktail but should not be conflated with it, makes both a 6 year and an 18 year rye whiskey, and if you live somewhere that carries the 6 (the baby), I highly recommend it.  I haven't been able to get it in NH since about 2007.  There's also the Rittenhouse bonded (that is, the 100 proof; Rittenhouse also offers an 80 proof bottling) which is widely praised but which I've only had in bars.

But as you see in this photo, there's a new rye on the market.  According to Google, Redemption Rye is made by Bardstown Barrel Selections, about whom I know nothing except that they make Redemption Rye.  Redemption Rye guys, if you google yourselves and find this entry, please add New Hampshire to your distribution?  I know it's a pain in the ass to get carried in this state, but look, I have this big fancy blog, I will talk about you all the time, it will be great.


Redemption is made with 95% rye.  95%!  That's huge.  That's so rye-y.  That's rye to the power of BAM, not "1."  

And it's one of my favorite whiskeys, tout court.  Unlike a lot of the recent additions to the whiskey shelves, this is a fully aged product -- the same "over two years in new charred oak barrels" that our existing options get.  Now, as much as I love unaged whiskeys, which we will talk about again soon, there is a rawness you get in slightly aged whiskeys -- those 6 month old whiskeys new distilleries offer sometimes -- which can get in the way.  There's none of that here, obviously.  Just rye whiskey greatness, at a mid-level price ($30 on DrinkupNY, roughly the same price as Eagle Rare bourbon or the baby Saz).

This is a great, great whiskey.

So what are we going to DO with it?

Well, let's talk about Herbsaint.

Herbsaint is an absinthe substitute that was first made after absinthe's ban in the US.  It was originally called Legendre Absinthe, despite not containing any wormwood, but the government made J. Marion Legendre -- who had become a fan of absinthe while stationed in France during the Great War -- change the name.  He went with Herbsaint, which sorta kinda sounds like absinthe in New Orleans.  The aforementioned Sazerac Company later bought the brand.

The modern version of Herbsaint is a little sweeter than the original, 90 proof instead of 100 or 120 proof, and is either distilled after infusing, or is made by blending flavor extracts -- I'm not sure which.  For Herbsaint's 75th anniversary, they went back as close to the original recipe as they could, even working with an Herbsaint fanatic in order to compare their draft to a sample of the original decades-old stuff.  The Herbsaint Original anniversary bottling is 100 proof, less sweet, and is flavored by steeping the botanicals in the liquor, just like in, you know, yore.

Herbsaint's not quite the same as absinthe -- like I said, it lacks that wormwood -- though the definition of absinthe is being quickly stretched by the microdistilleries now that the American market is reopened.  It's very licoricey -- in fact, more than anything, the nose smells like black jellybeans.

So that's Herbsaint.  Now what're we gonna do with it?

Well, there's another New Orleans product, Peychaud's bitters.  And they're the key ingredient in Louisiana's state cocktail, the Sazerac.

I never measure when I make a Sazerac, but you don't really need to: you "rinse" a glass with absinthe (add a couple drops to the glass and turn it over and over until it's coated the surface), sprinkle the bottom of the glass with sugar, add enough Peychaud's bitters and a twist of lemon rind to dissolve the sugar, and then add a little rye whiskey.

I'm now going to try two small Sazeracs side by side, one with Lucid absinthe (the first absinthe to be carried in NH, though I intend to try a different brand when it's used up) and one with Herbsaint Original.

First, I need to mention that the nose of the Lucid Sazerac is actually more licoricey than the nose of the Herbsaint Sazerac, even though the Lucid by itself seems much less licoricey.  I actually double checked to make sure I hadn't grabbed the wrong glass.

All in all ... hmm.  Okay, the absinthe seems slightly more pronounced.  It also has a thicker mouthfeel.  Absinthe is higher proof than Herbsaint -- Lucid is 124 proof -- but in such small quantities, I don't know how much effect that would have.

The flavor of the Peychaud's seems stronger in the Herbsaint Sazerac.  Man, this is far and away the best thing to do with Peychaud's, though.  It just goes so well with rye whiskey, and the absinthe or Herbsaint, whichever you use, brings out so much character from the Peychaud's.

I don't know, I can't pick a favorite here, but I'm kind of feeling like the Herbsaint Sazerac is a more balanced, rye-forward drink -- a little bit of absinthe goes a long way, and the bitterness itself of the Peychaud's seems a little lost in the Lucid version.

All right, LeBron, you camwhore mook, bring it on.

i eat em raw like sushi


... and some hot weather drinking.

This rum is amazing.

This is the best rum in the universe.

I've had some great rums, I've had rums that cost two, three times as much as Smith and Cross, but oh my God, oh my God, THIS RUM.

It's worth reading about, but here is the upshot: first, as far as I know, this is the only rum in this category which is widely available in the United States (and "widely" is maybe an exaggeration). Second, the two rums used to make Smith & Cross are fermented with wild yeasts -- you know, like sourdough, like lambic, like kosher pickles -- which certainly has an effect here.

But the main thing is, this is a really bold, dirty rum.  Throughout so much of the 20th century, especially the milquetoast back half, the move was towards "clean" and "crisp" flavors -- not just the shift towards vodka, but Crystal Pepsi and Tab Clear, Snapple clear cola and root beer, the favoring of young/light/sweet flavors that you get from lighter rums or Canadian whiskey, and the use of calone to create oceanic/ozonic perfumes and colognes like Cool Water, Escape, Polo Sport, every beach/seabreeze/ocean scented deodorant in the world, etc.

This is not that.

This is a rum that rolls out of bed looking like Mickey Rourke in Barfly.  Or Mickey Rourke in anything else.  This is not a Kevin Costner kind of rum.  If this rum were a character in Weekend at Bernie's, it wouldn't be Andrew McCarthy, it would be Bernie.

It's so good.

It's also Navy Strength, which means 114 proof -- compared to 80-100 for most rums.  Navy Strength is called that because it's the level of alcohol content at which you can spill this stuff on gunpowder without keeping it from igniting.

Now, what are we drinking?  A mojito, an authentic mojito.  Well, as authentic as you can get without Cuban rum, anyway.  An original mojito doesn't use mint, it uses yerbabuena -- and while it's a perfectly good drink with mint, yerbabuena has a VERY different flavor, herbaceous and complex and without the menthol notes of mint:


I used the blunt end of a wooden citrus reamer to muddle some of the herb with sugar:


Add lime juice, add amazing rum, shake with ice, and boom:


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city

I think we could all use some hot weather food.

Whiskey-cured salmon, cream cheese, rye

For instance: whiskey-cured salmon.

Gravlax is salmon that's cured with salt, sugar, and seasonings like dill, caraway, juniper, or the old-school pine needles; sometimes a splash of gin or vodka is added.  This isn't quite gravlax.  But it is very simple.

Lay down a large piece of Saran wrap and sprinkle it with salt and sugar, about twice as much salt as sugar.  Lay a salmon fillet on it, skin down.  Sprinkle or spray the surface of the salmon fillet with a little rye whiskey and green Chartreuse, and then sprinkle with more of the salt-sugar cure.  Wrap in Saran wrap.  Place in dish.  Weigh down with something, like pickle jars.  Flip over every 12 hours, and drain any liquid that's leaked out (there will be a fair bit).  The salmon ought to be ready after about 24-36 hours, at which point you can knock off any remaining cure and slice it thinly -- I have it here with rye toast and plain cream cheese, and a little dill pollen on top (caraway seeds would have been better, with the rye in the bread and the whiskey).

It's a similar flavor combination to lox and cream cheese on a bagel, though not nearly as salty as belly lox.  If they were in season, I'd add a slice of tomato.

Now, Raspberry Coke I may have posted about last year -- one of my favorite things when raspberries are in season:

Raspberry Coke

Mash up a few raspberries in the bottom of a glass, with a little sugar and optional lemon or lime juice.  Let sit in fridge overnight.

Raspberry Coke

Add cold Coca-Cola.  Simplest thing in the world.