Thought Gumbo

I’m stealing the title of this post from my friend, Eric, over at Thought Gumbo because I think it’s a great idea, “Thought Gumbo.” It’s a great visual, it’s got a great connotation: something wonderful and delicious — a little spicy, a little southern…. mmmm, mmmm good.

(I’m stealing his topic as well.)

Eric mentions that he read somewhere that a successful blog should be focused. Keep the topics limited.

As he says, “Yeah… I’m not going to do that.”

Well me either!

Check out his blog! It’s great thought gumbo! It’s got music, computer topics, semiotics, and games!

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The Beer Hunter

Last week, a gastronomical giant passed away. Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter, died of a Parkinson’s related heart-attack at his home. He was 65.

There aren’t many celebrities who have had a significant impact on my life; I’ve never been much of a fanboy. There are actors and actresses I admire, musicians who move me deeply, writers who inspire me, and politicians who disgust me. But aside from one novelist who changed my life (and whom I still find as deeply disappointing as I do profoundly insightful), there aren’t many celebrities or artists whose work has had a lasting influence on my life.

Michael Jackson is one who did. (remember: the beer guy, not the pop-star super-freak)

I grew up in New Orleans and, as it is with most things when you’re young, I knew nothing and appreciated less. To be sure, I drank a lot of beer (more than I feel comfortable thinking about, actually). But it was the kind of cheap, watery beer that high-school kids buy. A lot of Milwaukee’s Best (doesn’t say much about Milwaukee), a fair amount of Coor’s Extra Gold (the highest alcohol content of any mass-produced beer), and even — during what must have been a particularly irritating pretentious period — a lot Michelob Dry (shudder).

We (I say we because I was never alone in my drinking. I had accomplices, who although they shall remain nameless, should at least share in some silent shame. You know who you are.) bought our beer by the case (and occasionally, by the pallet) and we drank it by the case (and occasionally, by the pallet). We weren’t so much interested in taste as we were interested in, well… not to put too fine a point on it, getting drunk.

Sure, we knew that we were drinking bad beer; we just didn’t really care. Every so often we’d splurge at Cooter’s and get a pitcher of something really good. Something like Heineken, or Foster’s, or Rolling Rock (it’s comical, isn’t it?). But more often than not, we’d head out to the Rendon for $5 all-you-can-drink nights (it boggles my mind when I think on it) and belly up to the bar for some more of the Beast. I did try some Guinness once… but that was a black-out night that I still don’t remember (although I’ve heard some good stories).

It wasn’t until I got to college that I got interested in good beer. And it started with Michael Jackson. He wrote about beer the way other people wrote about wine. It was majestic, subtle, and paired well with food. There were hundreds of varieties with different tastes. Some were rich and full-bodied, some light and crisp and refreshing. Some were sweet, some were sour, some were malty, and some were bitter. And best of all, beer was much, much cheaper than wine.

So my friends and I (again, you know who you are!) would buy good beer — now by the six pack — and have beer tastings. I fell in love with Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter and Young’s Chocolate Stout. We drank lambics and tried Belgian tripples and German weisbeers. And when I went to the liquor store, I carried my stained and dog-eared copy of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer with me.

I tried home-brewing and made some respectable (and some not-so respectable) brews. I read his column and learned about beer. And in the process, I learned about taste, and about food, and about cuisine. The first cookbook I ever got as a gift was a beer-lover’s cookbook. Michael Jackson did the introduction.

When I moved to Portland and discovered Beer-Vanna in my own backyard, I bought a new pocket guide and used it to compare styles and to see if he mentioned my favorites: Black Butte Porter, Widmer Hefeweizen, Bridgeport Porter, Alameda Stout, or Purple Haze. Some he did, and some he didn’t. I realized that he liked a different style of beer than I did. Where he favored the Belgian brews, I loved the English ales. And that was OK. Jackson always stressed that beer was to be enjoyed, not fussed-over, or worried about. It should be drunk heartily and happily, with few pretensions but much moderation (a lesson I’ve finally learned).

And he encouraged the same approach in food. Whenever I read him, he was never just about beer. He wrote about whiskey and about wine and about food — sometimes in detail, sometimes just in passing. But what he wrote encouraged me and inspired me to eat and drink better. And that’s a lasting influence that has brought me many happy meals, wonderful evenings, and more than a few perfect pints.

I wasn’t his biggest fan, or his most loyal student. But he was a wonderful teacher and an excellent guide.

You can find his site here.

Ceviche and Fajitas

This summer Jamie and I have been on something of a ceviche kick. (Ceviche is raw fish marinated in cold citrus juice until the acid “cooks” the fish.) Over the past few months I’ve made ceviche with haddock, cod, snapper, fish, shrimp, and scallops, all with varying degrees of success.

Early on, I’d actually cook the protein and then marinate it in citrus — but as the days got longer, I got more and more adventurous, and now I let the citrus do the work for me (although if I use shrimp, I’ll still boil them — raw shrimp is just too much for me.)

Lately, I’ve been focusing on scallop ceviche. (Actually, it started when Jamie and I went to Sabroso in Rhinebeck. They served a ceviche sampler with three different kinds of ceviche, and the scallop was outstanding; it’s been my inspiration.) In the past, I’d sear the scallops for ceviche because they’re thick enough that the citrus can’t penetrate all the way through to “cook” them, and raw scallop is about as appetizing as raw shrimp. Eyugh.

But hey, I have a knife! Thinly slicing the scallops works great — the pieces marinate all the way through and the texture is just what I want in ceviche: delicate, light, and delicious.

I often use fruit in my ceviche (I made an outstanding snapper ceviche with mango and raspberries a while back, but I didn’t write down what I did, so I don’t have a recipe. Argh!!), but when I first made the sliced scallop ceviche, I thought instead of putting fruit in with the protein to marinate (the fruit always ends up mushy) I’d try making a thick fruity sauce to accompany the ceviche. The market had some good-looking fresh Valencia oranges, so I tried those out.

I decided to try and keep the ceviche simple, to better accentuate the sauce. And I wanted the orange sauce to compliment the ceviche, so I tried to temper the acidity of the oranges (there’s plenty of acidity in the ceviche as it is) with brandy and sugar, and I wanted the orange sauce to be more than just orange juice so I decided to try for a sweet & spicy orange-ginger sauce.

The sauce turned out to be fantastic. It pairs wonderfully with the simple scallop ceviche, and there’s never any left over.

Since ceviche is really more appetizer than main dish, I also made chipotle-margarita marinated beef tacos with arugula and onions.

The ceviche (serves two):

1/4 lb scallops
1 small onion, diced
2 limes
1/2 orange
1 tbspn fresh cilantro
1/4 cup white wine or tequila
pinch Kosher salt
1 ripe Avocado
1/4 cup diced fresh tomato

Slice 1/4 lb of fresh scallops thinly and place in a glass bow with the onion. Put zest of one lime and juice of two in with scallops. Juice half the orange and put that in with scallops (reserve other half for orange sauce). Add salt and pepper. The Juice should completely cover the scallops and onion. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours.

Remove from the refrigerator and drain most of the liquid. Add cilantro and tequila/white wine, cover it back up, put it back in the fridge, and marinate for another 1-2 hours.

Remove from the fridge, drain again and serve with sliced avocado, diced tomato and the orange sauce (remember to lightly salt the avocado and tomato to bring out their flavor).

Orange-ginger sauce (enough for the ceviche):

2 1/2 oranges
1 inch fresh, cubed, peeled ginger cut into two or three large pieces.
1 whole clove garlic
1 tbspn honey
1 tbspn brown sugar
1 tspn brandy
1 small drop (no more!) Dave’s Insanity Sauce (or other ~amazingly~ hot Habanero hot sauce)

Zest one orange and Juice the rest. Put orange juice, zest, ginger, and garlic in small sauce pan and bring to a boil. As the juice boils, skim off some of the foamy stuff. Reduce the liquid down about 1/3, remove the garlic, and add the honey and the brandy. Continue reducing by about 1/2. Remove the ginger pieces, and add the drop of hot sauce. Stir and add the brown sugar. Reduce until the liquid gets syrupy. Remove from heat, transfer to a small bowl or ramekin, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold (the sauce will also thicken as it cools). Drizzle over ceviche.

The sauce is sweet and orangey and the ginger and hot sauce should give it a warm, tingly feel in your mouth, but it shouldn’t be too hot. It really is marvelous.

Chipotle-Margarita Beef fajitas

1 lb boneless beef steak, sliced
1 onion sliced
grated cheese
arugula
diced fresh tomato
tortillas
1 chopped chipotle pepper (I used the kind in a can that come packed in Adobo sauce)
1/4 cup tequila
juice of 2 limes
1 shot Cointreau/Grand Marnier
2 tbspn fresh cilantro coarsely chopped
3 tbspns olive oil
2 cloves garlic coarsely chopped
large pinch Kosher salt
fresh ground pepper to taste

Mix chipotle pepper, tequila, lime juice, Cointreau, 1tbpsn cilantro, 2 tbspns olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper in bowl with beef slices. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.

Sauté the onions in 1 tbspn olive oil until nearly caramelized.

When beef is finished marinating, grill the slices on a stove-top grill (since it was sliced, I couldn’t grill it on the grill outside — maybe next time I’ll try that?) until done. Pour rest of marinade into saucepan and reduce until thick.

When beef is done, assemble the tacos by placing arugula, then beef, then sauce, then cheese, then onions and tomatoes and then sprinkle chopped cilantro, and black pepper on top.

Marsala

So I thought that I might do a little food blogging here.

I’ve become something of a foodie in the past couple of years — to the point that I’ve even begun a small herb garden out back. But of course, I’ve always had a black thumb; I’ve tried keeping all manner of plants, but somehow I always end up under-watering the ferns and over-watering the cacti, and everything always ends up dead. So when I say “herb garden”, you should know that it’s really just a couple of pots with a few scraggly plants. But I digress….

I thought I’d do some food blogging, not garden blogging. I recently began reading Evil Jungle Prince, a wonderful asian food blog with a great design, beautiful pictures, and recipes that take three days of preparation. In other words, it’s a real food blog.

This isn’t.

At least, not yet. I don’t consider myself a great cook, just someone who’s enthusiastic about cooking and who would like, at some point, to become a great cook. So I’m going to blog about my progress. Mistakes and all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty decent cook. But I still make a lot of mistakes in the kitchen, and there are more than a few techniques that continue to elude me (hollandaise & croissants to name two). So don’t expect three-day fermentation recipes here. For that, go see the Evil Jungle Prince (Is that a great blog name or what!).

On to the actual food blogging.

A couple of nights ago I tried making Veal Marsala. It’s a dish that I often order when I’m out, and I always think that it’s an excellent test of an Italian restaurant. Any decent Italian restaurant should be able to make a good marsala sauce and a good marinara. But I’d never actually tried making it at home.

I’d made a bunch of wine reduction sauces, many with mushrooms, and many have been very, very good. But I’d never actually done the true marsala. So I bought some pre-pounded veal (so much easier), a bottle of decent dry marsala wine, and some good pappardelle nest pasta.

I began by putting the water on to boil and flouring the veal. I added 1 tbspn EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil — the topic of another post, I think. What’s your favorite brand of olive oil?) and 1 tbspn butter to my sauté pan on med-high heat.

When the fat got hot I added the veal. While the veal was browning, I began soaking 1/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms in hot water and sliced 10-12 cremini mushrooms.

At this point the veal had browned wonderfully on one side and I flipped each piece.

I then crushed and minced one clove of garlic and added it to the dried porcini’s. Next I chopped 1 tbspn fresh rosemary and set it aside.

At this point I realized that I’d made my first mistake. I checked on the veal and discovered that I’d over-floured them, and the flour crust was browning well, but wasn’t sticking to the veal. Fortunately, I didn’t despair. One side had turned out lovely, if the other side was a failure, I could live.

I finished browning the veal, and set the pieces aside. Then I removed the excess flour that was now only coating the pan and not the veal. Should I have left the browned flour in? I was afraid it would be too burnt, and would thicken the sauce too much. I added a drop or two more olive oil and all the creminis.

When the mushrooms had sauteed, and I had scraped all the little yummy brown bits up off the bottom of the pan (the mushrooms produce enough liquid on their own to deglaze the pan), I added the porcinis (with the water) and cooked that until most of the water had evaporated.

As the porcini liquid is being reduced, I see that my water is boiling. Actually, it’s been boiling for a while, but the pappardelle only take seven minutes, and I didn’t want the pasta to sit too long while I finished the sauce, so I’m only now getting to the pasta.

I add a pinch of salt and a dash of oil to the water, and in goes the dried pasta.

Now I add about a cup of marsala wine and the rosemary to the pan.

I let the sauce reduce and coarsely chop 2 tbspns flat-leaf parsley. I refill my wine glass, and notice that the marsala has reduced faster than I thought it would. I reduce the heat on the pan, and add about 4 tbspns softened unsalted butter. I salt the sauce to taste, return the veal to the pan to let it warm through, and my pasta is just about done.

I’m a little concerned because there’s not as much sauce as I would really like. (Jamie ends up thinking that it was just right — but she loves me and always says nice things.)

But I plate it up, and it turns out to be… wonderful! Rich & a little sweet, I’d have been very pleased if I’d ordered it out. A success! A lot of butter, and yes that’s kind of cheating. Adding 4 tbspns of butter should make anything good. But I’m full and happy.

Quara Torrontes
We had it with a very nice Argentinean white: Quara Torrontes. — “A beguiling wine with exotic aromas reminiscent of fresh crushed grapes and roses with a hint of spice. Bursting with fresh peach and pineapple flavors on a creamy background that is perfectly balanced by bright and lively natural acidity.”