Sunday, September 29, 2013

Offbeat Brews: The World of Uniquely Flavored Beers

(as contributed to Glassify Magazine)

It wasn’t too long ago that asking for a beer at a bar only meant choosing between a few simple options, most likely one light and one dark. Slowly, as the world’s economy continued to globalize and beer was less about what you could get locally and for a good price and much more about experimenting with variety. Imports from all corners of the globe have inundated the American market, which even more options coming from regional microbreweries. With stores, websites, and periodical publications all dedicated to homebrewing, it seems like everyone is getting in on the act. It seems inevitable, then, that creative minds would start tinkering with the basic formula for flavoring beers.

Beer is in essence a very simple fermentation of water, starch, and yeast. Historically, flavorings like spices, herbs, fruits, and even narcotic substances were added to beers with varying levels of success, but with the discovery of hops and all its inherently fantastic qualities, other flavorings feel by the wayside. Recently, however, experimenting in beer flavoring has begun again, and with renewed fervor.  

Theoretically, you can flavor beer with almost anything. Whether or not it will taste good is another story. Anything you add to your basic beer recipe should complement the flavors that already exist. Logic is a great tool here, but sometimes trial and error is key. Cheese, for example, is fantastic with beer. But cheese flavored beer? Maybe not.

Flavoring can be achieved several ways. If you adding fruit, for example, you can add whole, mashed, fresh fruit, fruit juice, or even fruit extracts. It is important that seeds and stems be removed from whole fruit, as they can cause bitterness, and that any additives be free of preservatives, which can kill yeast, stop fermentation, and ruin your entire batch. Opinions differ on whether flavorings should be added to the initial kettle, or during first or second fermentation; all methods work, with varying results. Again, success is subjective, and heavily dependent on the flavor and intensity desired.

Fruit is the most basic addition to beer, but there are certainly others. Herbs and spices are popular, and almost every microbrewery has come out with some version of a chocolate-laced stout. Some companies are thinking even farther outside of the box. More than one brewery has released an oyster-flavored beer. While drinkers may initially recoil, when you consider the popularity of thinks like vodka-based oyster shooters and Blood Caesar’s made with clamato, a blend of tomato and clam juices, perhaps it’s not so strange. Other flavorings attempted by breweries include pizza, bacon, milk, seaweed, chilis, tea, coconut, donuts, crème brulee, and mustard.

If you’re homebrewing, your options are only as limited as your time, budget, and imagination. Try brewing based on an upcoming occasion, such as pumpkin sage beer to accompany Thanksgiving dinner, or a vanilla wheat beer to wash down a big piece of birthday cake. Whatever you choose to experiment with, make sure your equipment is clean and set any preconceived notions aside – this might just be your eureka moment.

Demystifying Molecular Mixology

Molecular mixology is an offshoot of its precursor, molecular gastronomy. Both explore the scientific aspect of the food and beverage world, employing technical innovations to enhance traditional recipes or invent completely new ones. It combines modern thinking with social understanding, artistic license, and chemical prowess to create concoctions that boggle the mind and impress the palate.

Sound grand? Well, it is. Molecular mixology is a game of precision and details. It is not for slap dash bartenders who like to free pour booze into a glass and top it with jarred juices. It requires a deft hand, calculations, measurements, trial and error, and above all, a desire for progress and perfection.

Molecular mixology can take many forms, all of them intending to transform the texture, flavor, and/or temperature of ingredients. Some of the most popular:

·         Spherification – Famous chef Ferran Adria’s revolutionary restaurant El Bulli introduced the world to spherification, which is the controlled jellification of a chosen liquid into spheres. Depending on the size of the resulting balls, they can resemble caviar, marbles, eggs, or almost anything else in a correspondingly spherical shape. The most basic spherification recipe calls for dosing a primary liquid with sodium alginate and dropping it into a calcium bath. A chemical reaction forms a mutable shell around the original liquid, creating blobs that will hold their size and shape until popped.

·         Foams – Foams can be created using an immersion blender, or by forcing carbon dioxide through a special canister to create airy concoctions perfection for topping a martini.

·         Anti-Griddles – Anti-griddles take the look and functionality of regular griddles, used for frying eggs, pancakes and the like, and apply cold instead of heat. Temperatures of -30°F are used to rapidly freeze items, creating frozen discs.

·         Sous-vide – French for “under vacuum,” sous-vide cooking involves sealing food in airtight plastic bags and then submerging them in low-temperature water baths for extended cooking times in order to cook items to an even, juicy finish.

·         Liquid Nitrogen – Nitrogen reaches a liquid state when it is kept at a very low temperature. In such form, it will rapidly freeze other liquids allowing for impressive tableside (or bar side) preparations of food and cocktails.

There are numerous other applications for molecular mixology, and certainly more to follow. Imagine what can be done after learning a few techniques. A pedestrian margarita becomes pearls of sweet and sour lime juice suspended in tequila. In a fine dining setting, the palate cleansing course could be a mimosa made of orange sherbet frozen on an anti-griddle topped with champagne foam. Inspired by Chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli, restaurants are already making faux olives, made by dropping olive juice into calcium and forming egg-yolk like blogs eager to explode on the diners tongue.

So, in simpler terms, molecular mixology is bartending for science geeks. Overly simplistic? Perhaps, but taking the mystery out of the process is what will make it increasingly accessible, and accessibility breeds innovation. And when innovation meets liquor, friends, we all win.

Building Brunch: The Making of the Bloody Mary

(as contribute to Glassify Magazine)

Nothing says Sunday brunch quite like kicking back and sipping on a Bloody Mary. With its iconic celery stalk garnish and reputation for being a hangover cure, the Bloody Mary is one of the most widely consumed and easily recognized alcoholic beverages in the world.
According to the International Bar Association (IBA), which is considered one of the foremost authorities on traditional and contemporary cocktails, the official recipe for a Bloody Mary is as follows:
  • 1.5 oz vodka
  • 3 oz tomato juice
  • ½ oz lemon juice
  • 2 to 3 dashes of Worcestershire Sauce
  • Tabasco
  • Celery salt
  • Pepper
Stir gently, pour all ingredients into highball glass. Garnish with celery and lemon wedge (optional).

Just how this cocktail came to be is a little less clear. Numerous theories exist, but the one that seems most grounded in fact versus fancy has to do with a man named Pete. Fernand “Pete” Petiot was a bartender at the famous Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in the 1920s. After prohibition ended in the U.S., Petiot moved to Manhattan and the St. Regis Hotel’s King Cole Bar, and he brought the drink with him. Other sources attribute the Bloody Mary’s invention to Henry Zbikiewicz, who tended bar at New York’s 21 Club in the 1930s, or George Jessel, a comedian who frequented the 21 Club. According to a quote by Jessel in a July 1964 edition of The New Yorker, it’s also possible that Jessel invented a basic tomato juice and vodka cocktail to which Kessel added the lemon juice, Worcestershire, and other seasonings.
Then there are the more colorful claims. A favorite among history buffs is that the cocktail dates back to the mid-1550s, when it was invented in honor of England’s notoriously ruthless Queen Mary, whose nickname was Bloody Mary. Proponents of the Queen Mary connection also claim that each ingredient is symbolic, with the tomato juice representing blood and the vodka representing her fiery personality. Other popular Marys associated with the drink include silent film star Mary Pickford, who had another red cocktail named for her, and a cocktail waitress named Mary who worked at Chicago’s Bucket of Blood Club.
One thing that is crystal clear is that the Bloody Mary and its many derivatives are here to stay. Bartenders the world over have taken that initial simple vodka and tomato concoction and put their own creative stamp on it. Many recipes simply switch out the liquor. The Bloody Mary Martini is served Bond-style, with a dill salt rim, gin instead of vodka, and compressed tomato water. Sake-lovers have embraced the Bloody Geisha (or Bloody Ninja, depending on the bar), while tequila aficionadas drink Bloody Marias. The mixer can be changed up as well. The Bloody Caesar substitutes clam-infused tomato juice. A Bloody Bull infuses the tomato juice with beef bouillon, while the Bloody LeRoy, invented by the Reverand Horton Heat and Gibby Haynes, blends vodka and barbecue sauce for an undeniably Southern treat.
It could be argued that the brilliance of a cocktail lies not necessarily in its originality, but in its ability to be a blank canvas, something that amateur and professional mixologists alike can do more than just emulate, but also play with and help evolve. If that is indeed the case, then the Bloody Mary is a brilliant cocktail indeed.

The Making of Beer

(As contributed to Glassify Magazine)

With evidence of its existence dating back more than 6,000 years, it’s safe to say that beer is one of mankind’s oldest, and most delicious, innovations. A tablet from that time period was discovered in Mesopotamia, the area that is now Iraq, depicting the native Sumerians drinking what is believed to be beer out of communal bowl. A 3,900-year-old poem from the same area contains the oldest known recipe for beer, a simple brew made from fermented bread and barley. The poem was dedicated to the Sumerian’s very own Goddess of Brewing, Ninkasi, and is a clear illustration of the culture’s dedication to all things beer – and the Sumerians weren’t alone. Civilizations across Europe and Asia were taking advantage of locally grown resources to brew beer for consumption, trade, ritual usage, medicinal cures, and even payment for services rendered.

All you need to brew beer is water, starch, yeast, and some sort of flavoring, like hops. 

·         While water would appear to be the simplest ingredient, it’s not the same world over. Depending on where it’s sourced, the mineral make up or water can vary greatly, and has a pronounced influence on the flavor and body of the final product. For example, and Irish beer produced using water piped in from mountain springs in Wicklow would just not taste the same if brewed using soft water from a geologically disparate source.

·         Starch in a beer provides the base for fermentation, and contributes to the beer’s strength and flavor. Malted grain (usually barley) is the mostly common starch source, but wheat, rice, rye, corn, oats, and even sorghum can and are used.

·         There can be no fermentation without yeast. You need yeast to metabolize the sugars in grains, which results in the release of carbon dioxide and, more importantly, alcohol. Early brewers used wild or airborne yeasts, but modern breweries rely on cultured strains.

·         While early beer was flavored inconsistently if at all, in the 7th century monks in what is now Germany began adding hops to their brews. Hops, which look like green pine cones and are the fruit of the hop vine, were already being used in medicines and as a flavoring for food. Though other flavorings can be used, hops is prized because of its slight bitterness that balances malt’s natural sweetness. In addition, hops is a great preservative and helps create that foamy head that makes a just-poured beer so enticing.

While it’s quite possible the first beer was brewed by happy accident, today a lot of thought, planning, and practice goes into its production. The brewing process can contain any combination of the following steps: malting, mashing, lautering, boiling, fermenting, conditioning, and filtering. Each step contains multiple possible approaches, such as fermenting, which can be done warm, cool, or spontaneously. Even the choice of vessel to brew in, methods of conditioning (or aging), and how to filter the final brew is highly contested. Far from being a matter of right or wrong, all these options make the brewing of beer much less a formula, and very much a forever evolving art form.

Friday, May 10, 2013

An Evening with Charlie Palmer

Charlie Palmer's leaves me a bit confused. Why? Well, for starters, I'm just generally easily confused, but really it has more to do with having eaten here twice and the first time having a decent but not entirely remarkable meal, and the second time having one of the best meals of my life. Thank the great spaghetti monster that I attempted a second date, because now I'm a slight bit smitten...

Quick recap of Round 1 - took an out of town guest, and picked CP's mainly because it was a place I, as a local, hadnt been to yet, and also because, well, it's Charlie Palmer's and as an aspiring semi-snobby foodie, I must eat at all big name eateries and profess my thorough understanding of every nuance and then eat at a cheap no name "hidden gem" and proclaim myself a (wo)man of the people, right? Right. So we went. Absolutely no complaints about the impeccable service, but the filet I got (medium) was tough,dry and a bit flavorless, while my friends well done (sacrilege, but whatever) was actually far more delicious. Sides of rapini with garlic and french fries were certainly not bad, but not entirely memorable either. Dinner mate did declare his steak the best of his life, but he is English and used to boiled meat and ordered his cooked to perdition, so he's not really to be trusted...

So. I so sincerely wanted to try again, because I just knew CP had better food floating around in that kitchen somewhere and my favorite holiday, Restaurant Week, provided the perfect opportunity.

We (myself and three friends) arrived for our 8:15 reservation one person short, and so the three on-timers had a drink at the bar, which provided exceptional and attentive service, and they held our table without complaint the 10 or so extra minutes it took diner #4 to override her malfunctioning GPS and arrive at the actual location. I don't blame her, as the Four Seasons, which houses CP's, is a non-casino hotel on a strip full of gambling-filled monstrosities that dwarf this little gem. So we still let her sit down.

We got a lovely little corner booth, the table with which was pulled out so we could easily slide in and the waiter promptly offered us a choice in napkins - deftly switching mine from white to black to accomodate my new adorable LBD (which would have looked slightly less lovely covered in white napkin fuzzies). Bread plate and water arrive promptly, and oh oh oh, the bread plate.... There were many types of bread, from French to one speckled with olives, a whole wheat/mult-grain, etc, but the absolute star was the squares of warm, moist, sweet-but-not-too-sweet cornbread. Divine. Atkins wouldnt have lasted a day in the company of this carb-ridden revelation.

The meal itself was, as most Restaurant Week offerings are, a multi-course deal for a fixed price - in this case $50.09 person, with an optional wine pairing for another (I think) $22.09 per person - and yes, we opted. So the opening course was an antipasto platter, of which they brought a very generous double helping of. It contained a trio of cured meats (salami, sopressata, casalinga), a cheese advertised as robiola (though much milder than other  robiola's I have had), cured olives, tiny marinated zucchini discs and marinated mushrooms and peppers. All delicious and offset nicely by a slightly but not overly sweet Prosecco.

Next up was the salad course, a mix of frisee and endive with figs wrapped in prosciutto, blue cheese, white balsamic vinaigrette and paired with Italian white wine I was unfamiliar with - but again, quite tasty. The white was excellently balanced which made for a nice pairing with the perfectly ripe figs, salty cheese and prosciutto. It was a light and lovely salad course.

Pasta course came next, and as the only seafood eater I chose the bucatini with blue crab in red sauce and was rewarded with the most ideally al dente bowl of beautiful noodles dotted with a restrained amount of crab and a light tomato dressing that was fresh and flavorful without a pasta/crab dwarfing amt of herb or oil in sight. The fish-fearers had the bucatini with carbonara and truffles, again dressed lightly so the fresh pasta shone, and not so creamy that the truffle was wasted. Red wine for me, white for the cream eaters.

For entree we had some choices, and I was one of the four who chose the sea bass instead of the beef tenderloin. I don't know what possessed me, honesty, but order fish instead of meat I did. The sea bass came on a bed of lobster risotto with Meyer lemon, and for all you little Nemo lovers out there, fear not - this fish did not die in vain. He was expertly seared, resulting in a crispy skin that contrasted with the succulent and moist flesh of the fish. I was afraid the risotto would overpower, but no chance. The lobster was definitely present but confined to its indoor voice instead of shouting is shell-fishy glory all over the place, and if you haven't had Meyer lemon, well, its like lemon that has gone to refining school. Acid without too much bite, lightness without confusing your tongue. Divine.

BUT.......but.... oh dear, the beef tenderloin. It came out for all three other diners medium-rare, glistening a ruby/burgundy shade, tender as a really tender thing yet still possessing a crust that bespoke of a hot date with an even hotter pan. A piece of meat cooked like that requires someone who knows what they're doing in a kitchen, and boy, someone knew what they were doing. I none-too-stealthily stole a bite, generously dipped in the wine/jus and topped by the accompany pioppini mushrooms and had the best mouthful of cow I've ever had in my life. Seriously.

And now we're sweating - it's like food porn in an orgiastic setting, because we can hardly appreciate our dish without coveting our neighbors. It is wrong, and sinful, and delicious, and thank goodness it is dessert because we also cannot stop ourselves. We are presented with a frighteningly rich chocolate ganache tart with homemade and heavily minted ice cream. No wine, please... coffee. Some of us are already considering taking a short post-dinner nap in the booth...

Throughout the whole meal, the service was impeccable. One of us had to visit the "facilities", and the napkin he placed beside his plate was almost invisibly removed when he left and silently replaced upon his return. Water never got below the half-glass mark, wine was poured generously and complimented every course and the staff had smiles all around. It is not easy to pull of posh and welcoming, and they certainly did it. We felt spoiled, but also that we deserved it. Because, as that meal told us, we're worth it.

Check out Charlie Palmer's - and if you go back and the angry gastronomic gods inflict upon you a repeat of my first meal, try not to think too many nasty thoughts about me in your sad-steaked little heads. And if you're lucky enough to experience a little beefy bliss, feel free to post about it below. Gluttony loves company.