Embracing Diversity in Beer and Food

The diversified Bill Owens. (Source: switchimage.org, photo with permission by Guillaume Ehrenfeldt.)

Does the name Bill Owens sound familiar to you? It might, if you know something about the renaissance of craft brewing, or the emerging microdistillery movement, or publishing, or photography. Owens is man who can keep reinventing himself, all the while remaining in touch with his other personas.

Owens founded Buffalo Bill’s Brewery way back in 1983. He is the creator of that brewery’s well-known Pumpkin Ale, inspired by George Washington’s brewing methods. He explored publishing for 17 years, founding and running American Brewer magazine. More recently he established the American Distilling Institute as a trade organization for small distillers.

I think I first met Owens at the Mondiale de la Bière festival in Montréal about a decade ago. He was dressed in colonial period work clothes making a porter in an iron pot suspended over a wood fire. The next day (yes, the very next one) he ladled out barmy, fresh beer for me to try. It was, in a word, astounding. The only anachronism to the whole experience was the way his gray hair was cropped short on the sides and spiked high on his head. Spiked, like some sort of beatnik-punk retrograde. He intrigued me, but his constant leering at my girlfriend made me uneasy. It remined me of that Modern Lovers song…

Well some people try to pick up girls
And get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare and
So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

Was it mysogyny or ego or the fearlessness that comes from success? Or was it simply the photographer’s eye? I’ve seen him work through a group with a camera. Like other highly talented photographers I know, he has a disarming way of interacting that doesn’t effect the flow of events.

This morning I received an email from Owens. It referred to an article in Smithsonian Magazine last month. It was another commendation for his ca. 1970s candid images of American life in California’s burgeoning suburbs.

One of the most famous images was young Richie Ferguson, sitting on his Big Wheel, BB gun in hand, surveying his domain and looking for outlaws.

A kid in 1971. (Source: smithsonianmag.com, photo by Bill Owens.)

Twenty-nine years later Owens went back and found him. He lived less than a mile from where he was raised three decades before. Ferguson had graduated from Big Wheel to motorbike and finally to tricked out Harley.

Same kid in 2000. (Source: smithsonianmag.com, photo by Bill Owens.)

As I look at his face, his hairline, his furrowed brow and suspicious glare, I begin to contemplate to what degree we are formed early on and whether that upbringing causes unavoidable conclusions later in life. Yet I do believe we can enforce change when and if we so choose. Which brings me to today’s thesis on beer and food choices.

I don’t know what Richie Ferguson prefers for dinner or liquid refreshment. That isn’t the point. The point is that we can either go through life sticking with familiar choices or we can decide that while familiar is okay, sometimes we want a change of scenery.

Despite the layers of insight Owens’ images provide, I introduced him in the beginning of this article because of his approach to life. He is one of those people that can languish in the familiar for a while, but then the urge to explore rears its multifaceted head and he’s off again on another adventure. There is a lesson in this for us all. And don’t argue about personality types or economic means or Catholic upbringing. I’m suggesting no “degree” with which you have to adopt diversity. For some it will be a little, and for others of you, you don’t need to even hear this from me, you’re already there.

Then I get a text message from an old friend who is now a wine merchant in Maryland. When I asked him about it, he said it was told to him by another wine merchant, whose wife is herself a beer merchant in Wisconsin.

men who only drink hoppy beers are like women who only drink buttery chardonnay.

Ouch! But then, aren’t these the Richie Fergusons of the world? They found one little flavor niche and can’t or won’t make the small effort to explore. If you will only drink a hoppy beer and you came to that decision by open-mindedly trying many, many types of beers. Good for you. You have explored and now rest in your comfort zone.

But I think this is rarely the case. People who only drink hoppy beers have only made one step in life: from beer that doesn’t taste like much to beer that is overfull of flavor. This embraces the American ideal that excess is good. It does not represent any real risk taking. Same goes for the aforementioned chardonnays. For the longest time I have referred to these as “IYF,” meaning “in your face.” These are among the most unsubtle of wines.

The kind of beer (or wine) lovers I want to be around are unconditional in their love for beer (or wine) and diverse in their explorations of it. They want to try new ones. They are inquisitive about the story behind the drink, just like Bill Owens, who brewed his Pumpkin Ale because he was inspired by our Founding Father.

When I head out for beer and a meal I usually want to try something I haven’t had before. I am aware that by taking small bites out of fear I evolve. But if the beers aren’t that great, I’ll just as soon drink the hoppiest thing they have. Those hops can camouflage some of what’s wrong with a beer. And if the menu is not very inspired I can always default to my comfort food – buffalo wings – no relation to Buffalo Bill’s Brewery. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he invented those, too. Cheers. TPJ

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Fried Smelts with Risotto and Other Surprises

(Source: lotussutra.wordpress.com)

As promised, the recipes for the Feast of the Seven Fishes are getting more and more ‘out there.’ I make no apologies. This is a lengthy post and requires a cook with more hands than Shiva. There will be more fusion and more difficulty from here on out. Be an armchair cook or pony up, source the ingredients, and “make it so Number One.”

This recipe is number 4 in our countdown from 7. At the outset I will say that fried smelts are a traditional element in the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Traditional is great, but smelts can nevertheless be difficult to find, for of course they must be fresh, silvery, lithe and odorless. But fortune smiled and I found them in a diminutive fish restaurant cum market in West Brattleboro, VT – a place called Gillies.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought some unpopular product from a fish counter and have had the proprietor eye me askance, for just a moment, then a smile emerges, then the animated conversation about what’s for dinner. This is what I call connecting. It is a genuine human feeling that there is a commonality between you and another human being. Let’s just say I feel blessed when these moments occur.

Lithe and luminous - fresh smelts ready for action! (Source: italianhandful.wordpress.com)

And so, this jolly, round man weighed up my smelts for all of a couple dollars. He said “this time of year…” knowing that only a phrase meant a paragraph. I said “fried up with mushroom risotto.” His wife, I guess, trundled in and said “we serve ’em at the restaurant with chips.” I’m thinking she meant fries, but there was no English accent. I bounded out into a bolt of sun that broke through the gray sky of the day.

There is so much to write about smelts. Truly. But not here. I already have an entire essay on smelts that I hope to use in the introduction of my first cookbook. Indeed I will likely draw further conclusions from this codex. My late-in-life discovery of the marvel of smelts is a personal idiom, one about the importance of trying new things, eschewing prejudice. I encourage you to find your own smelts, or beef tongue, or cross-dressing, or fascination with crochet. We expand ourselves by taking small bites out of fear.

Dredge in flour, fry ’em, toss ’em on a pile of spinach. No problem. But that’s not my plan. No, now I must find my other difficult treasures: the porcinis (Boletus sp.), Arborio rice, the fennel bulb, and whatever else weaves its way into my fascination. I make myself laugh… it is a wicked web we weave… when a complicated dinner we conceive. Even more so, because pairing a beer with fried fish and fries is simple. With this recipe I’m forcing myself to find an all-rounder that will match the fish, the earthy savoriness, the acidity of lemon and the sulfur of Brussels sprouts.

Fried Smelts with Earth Vegetables, etc., etc.

Ingredients for Four

Time to Prepare: 36 hours     –     Time to Eat: 10 minutes

Porcini Risotto

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1-1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3/4 cup onions, chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 3 cups homemade beef stock with marrow, see note
  • pinch saffron threads, crushed
  • 1/2 teas marjoram, dried
  • 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese, finely grated
  • salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Note on beef stock: Sear 1-1/2 lb beef shank on all sides in 2 tbsp olive oil. Add 12 oz of low bitterness brown ale or porter and 2 tbsp barbecue sauce. Top up with 4-6 cups water and braise covered for several hours until everything falls apart. Cool enough to handle. Remove the shank bone, meat and any un-rendered fat, but push the marrow back into the liquid. Mash the marrow into the stock. Chill to solidify the fat, then discard the fat. Heat the stock to a low boil, skimming if required, and reduce to 3 cups. Keep warm for use in risotto. Note that for purists, the use of meat or dairy in a Feast of the Seven Fishes dish is forbidden.

Preparation of the Risotto

The risotto recipe is in a style called Milanese and this version is adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Rosso & Lukins (Workman, 1989).

In a small pan, heat the wine to boiling, add the dried mushrooms, then remove from the heat. In a heavy, straight-sided pot or cooktop-safe casserole heat the oil, add onions until soft, 5 minutes, then stir in rice for another 3 minutes. Adjust heat to medium-low.

With continuous stirring add 1/2 cup of the warm stock. When that liquid is absorbed, repeat with another bit of stock. You will be stirring gently like this for the next 30 minutes – do not let the rice sit in a pool of liquid. The classic way to know when you’re ready for more liquid is when the bottom of the pot comes into view during stirring. When half the stock has been added, switch to adding the warm wine-mushroom liquid. Stir in the crushed saffron and marjoram. Continue with the wine until all used, then finish with the stock. Taste for doneness. You want al dente with no pithy interior to the rice. A small amount of warm water can be added if you need to keep going. Milanese risotto should be creamy, but not runny, whereas risotto from southern Italy tends to be soupier.

Stir in the cheese and salt and pepper, using caution with the salt because of the saltiness of the cheese. Cover the dish and keep lukewarm until plating.

Fennel-Burdock Dice with Brussels Sprouts

  • 2 tbsp finely, uniformly diced burdock root (Jap: gobo), see note.
  • 1 teas whole annato seeds
  • 1/4 cup purified water, acidulated with a splash of lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely, uniformly diced fennel bulb, white part only
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 cup brussels sprouts
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Notes on burdock root. If unavailable you may substitute with parsnip and/or celeriac (celery root), but skip the annato infusion and add to the sauté with the fennel. Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a medicinal root that looks something like salsify, or, if you’ve never seen that, then like a three foot long brown, anemic carrot. It is most commonly used in sushi where the baby roots are pickled in orange dye and MSG – ick! It has a smokey, woodsy, faintly artichoke taste that is unique – yum! My preparation is designed to achieve the same thing without the unnatural additives. (Also, contrary to popular myth, annato is not just a colorant – crush some and smell for yourself.) This side dish embodies the three colors of the Italian flag, with the burdock/annato supplying the red. Warning: burdock is a stimulant that has a caffeine-like effect. Even handling it before bed last night kept me up most of the night! Who needs Red Bull?

Preparation of the Vegetables

Do not peel burdock, rather scrape the skin off with the edge of a paring knife or use a 3M pad. Cut into uniform fine dice (3 mm) and immediately submerge in the acidulated water to avoid discoloration. Grind the annato seeds in a mortar until you achieve an oily pigment. Now you’re ready to paint the Sistine Chapel. No, now add this to the burdock and liquid allowing same to sit in the fridge overnight.

Now, to get busy, sauté just the burdock (reserving the red liquid) in the olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes, gradually adding the red liquid. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the burdock is soft enough to eat. It is a fibrous root so let’s leave it with a little of that natural texture. Set aside.

In a clean pan, separate from the burdock, melt the butter and sauté the fennel until al dente. Meanwhile, in a small steamer, steam the Brussels sprouts for about 6 minutes, until the tip of a knife penetrates, but they are not mushy. Toss the Brussels sprouts into the fennel, then add the lemon juice, salt & pepper. At the last moment, stir in the reserved burdock and immediately plate beside the risotto, arranging to your heart’s content.

Fried Smelts

  • 1.5 lbs fresh, cleaned, beheaded smelts
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • salt & pepper to suit your taste
  • juice of 1 lemon

Final Assembly

Begin by heating the oil in a broad pan until it shimmers. Keep the temperature steady. Pat dry the smelts and check for things that might have been missed during evisceration. Coat the smelts with lemon juice, then dredge in the flour to which you’ve added the salt and pepper. This can be done in a baggie, Shake-n-Bake style. Fry the smelts in an uncrowded single layer in the pan for about 3 minutes per side.

Plate the smelts onto a mound of risotto. The burdock-fennel-brussels sprouts mix goes beside. Garish with a lemon wedge and some fresh, flat-leafed parsley. Due to the range of oily, nutty, woodsy, sulfury, acidic flavors, you are going to want a beer that is equally complex. I recommend the Italian beer Genziana, brewed in the style of a Belgian farmhouse ale. It employs gentian root (Gentiana lutea), the bitter and medicinal element in Angostura Bitters, and has a honeyish sweetness and flowery hop aroma backed by yeast-driven depth and a lingering bitterness. I found it to be excellent with this dinner. May you and your army of sous chefs enjoy! TPJ

Dinner is served!

p.s. Tasting notes for beers paired with this dinner follow.

Some beers that paired credibly with this dish.

  • Saison du Buff (collaboration between Stone, Dogfish, and Victory), 6.8%
    • beer itself: bitter, yeast aromatics, vulcanized rubber/sulfur, herbaceous
    • popped out fresh vegetable notes from the brussels sprouts et al, collaborated with the risotto, a little slick with the fried fish
  • Raison D’Être (Dogfish Head, DE), 8%
    • the beer: malty & sugary, cedar pencil shavings, warming, low yeast factors
    • really matched the risotto, softened the vegetables, and enhanced earthiness from the fish; a happy union, if not very surprising or synergistic
  • Maudite (Unibroue, QE, Canada), 8%
    • the beer: pronounced pepperiness, dried fruit, meaty yeast
    • passable but not exceptional, too much spice and alcohol warmth
  • Prima Pils (Victory Brewing, PA)
    • bright flor-herbal hop aroma, light grainy malt, crisp sweet/bitter finish
    • held up very well with all flavors and popped up the lemon flavors

The Countdown

So far:

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).
  • No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cold pilsner or the Classic Cocktail: the Pisco Sour.
  • No. 4 – Fried Smelts (Italian, with a mushroom risotto and fennel-burdock side salad), served with an Italian saison-styled beer.

On deck:

  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar – (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.

We’re more than halfway there – How’s your Christmas shopping going? TPJ

Ceviché Mixto – Raw yet Refined

Number 5 in our countdown in the Feast of the Seven Fishes, though this dish alone could have seven fishes in it! Ceviché, cebiche, escabeche and similar terms refer to a seafood salad made with mostly or entirely raw seafood pickled in lime juice. It is typically served as a first course, the acid and spice jump-starting digestion.

As with many food terms the etymology is disputed. I prefer to accept that the term derives from siwichi, the Quechua name for the dish. After all, it most likely originated in the Andes where this language predominates.

Hot and fruity, the ají amarillo chili is a key Peruvian ingredient. (Source: laperuanavegana.wordpress.com)

Years back I was dining in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. Dinner was at a Peruvian restaurant named Machu Picchu. It was one of those dinners that you never forget – it forms an immovable stepping stone in your life experience.

There they served three versions of the dish. Opting for the ‘mixto’ I was served a heaping portion of spicy, citrusy wonderfulness with sea bass, octopus, and probably abalone. The traditional piquancy in this dish comes from the ají amarillo chili and tiny sour limes called limónes verdes, or more commonly, simply limónes. Many dictionaries will tell you this term means ‘lemon,’ but in South America is refers to a tart green fruit that looks a Key lime, but is tart as a lemon. I’ll provide you with an alternative on case you can’t find true limónes.

An aternative for limónes (left) is a mixture of lime, lemon, and Valencia orange (right).

Alas, unable to find several of the traditional ingredients I have persevered to create a recipe with available foods that I think captures the delight of this dish.

I am also not immune to the idea the certain foods, like abalone, and to a lesser degree octopus, are not sustainable seafood products. You can check out recommendations from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

Ceviché Mixto

Ingredients for 4 Servings

  • 2 pounds of fresh seafood (not counting shell weight), could include: firm white sea fish, salmon, shrimp, calamari, octopus, scallops, or other bivalves such as mussels or clams
  • juice of 12 limónes verdes, or substitute, as follows:
    • juice of 2 regular limes
    • juice of 1 lemon
    • juice of 1 Valencia orange
  • 4 ají amarillo chilis, substitute 2 habaneros
  • 4 serrano chilis, or add more!
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, slivered into very thin rings
  • salt and cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • leaf lettuce or shredded cabbage garnish

After par-cooking, sea scallops can be sliced into two "coins," then again to make "half moons."

Preparation

You will improve the texture of the dish by par-cooking the shellfish or octopus. For sea scallops (the large ones), heat in butter for 2 minutes per side, remove, cool, and quarter. For clams or mussels, steam in their shell for 4 minutes, cool and shell them. For octopus, poach in boiling water until firm and opaque, about 2 minutes. For salmon or white fish, such as sea bass, swordfish, shark, or red snapper, simply check for bones and dice raw. Cut any par-cooked items into similar sized dice, except for mussels or clams, which you will keep whole. Keep cool while preparing the dressing.

Make the dressing by squeezing juice from the fruit and removing any seeds. Toss in the chilis, finely chopped, the garlic and the onion. Allow to meld for a minute, then taste for piquancy. Add a little salt and cayenne, stir, then try again until dressing borders on being too salty and too hot for your taste. This will be just right once the fish is added.

When you are about 15-20 minutes from serving the dish, combine the seafood with the dressing. Add the chopped cilantro and toss gently to coat everything. Keep cool until plating in a wide glass or a plate. Slice the avocado and dredge in the remaining dressing. Place lettuce and avocado around salad. Dig in! A dish like this will go well with a cold pilsner that has some hop character, including Tecate or Heineken, Singha, or your go-to German pils. You might also try the national cocktail of Peru, the Pisco Sour. ¡Salud¡ TPJ

Ceviché Mixto con Chili Habanero.

The Countdown

So far:

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).
  • No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cold pilsner or the Classic Cocktail: the Pisco Sour.

On deck:

  • No. 4 – Fried Smelts – providing I can find them (Italian, with a mushroom risotto and fennel side salad), served with an Italian saison-styled beer.

Thanks for following along – more soon. TPJ


Blue Hubbard & Pink Salmon Pizza

Tinky Weisblat, food blogger and author of The Pudding Hollow Cookbook, recently put out the call for variations on squash pizza. Here’s one you might try: winter squash with salmon, blue cheese, pine nuts and fried sage leaves.

The underappreciated Blue Hubbard squash (Source: Harlem Community Farm Share)

I first encountered this pizza in Ashland, Oregon at the Standing Stone Brewing Co. and I have made it many times since then. It can be made with the ubiquitous acorn or butternut varieties, but it simply defies gravity if made with blue hubbard squash.

Growing up in New England we often had blue hubbard at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. The blue hubbard is an heirloom cultivar of Cucurbita maxima, which originated in South America. Stories vary, but it seems likely that the squash was introduced to coastal Massachusetts in the late 1700s.

They are quite large and have a rind so tough that you’ll use a hatchet to open them up, or just as often, drop them from a roof. This is why it will keep for months in a cool cellar. In exchange for the difficulty of accessing the interior, one is rewarded with the creamiest, sweetest, and most carroty-colored winter squash.

A few days after Ashland, my companion and I stopped in Chico, California. Substantively, we were there to visit the famed Sierra Nevada brewery. But in the morning, after breakfasting in the restored Hotel Diamond, we stumbled upon the farmers’ market.

A young couple just starting a dairy operation was selling homemade cheese. A gentile farmer was selling fall root vegetables and winter squash. In the center of his big display was a ‘gourdious’ blue hubbard weighing eight or ten pounds, but by no means as large as they come. I marveled. He said he hardly grew them anymore. They were so big that people didn’t know what to do with them.

I imagine you’d need to be deft at canning or have a lot of hungry people at your disposal. Then again, you could be a fellow like me, struck by the scent of autumn leaves and the almost unnatural color of that knobby squash, images that triggered deeply embedded melancholy of shorter days and wood stoves. He dug it out of the arrangement and sold it to me for five bucks. I drove all the way back to Nevada with it sitting beside me. Then I made this pizza.

Blue Hubbard & Pink Salmon Pizza

Ingredients for Two 12-inch Pizzas

  • 1.5 – 2 lbs fresh pizza dough (many grocery stores now carry it, or make your own according a favorite recipe)
  • 2 cups blue hubbard squash in large rectangular blocks, say 1 x 1 x 2 inches

Cream Sauce

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 teas shallot, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • pinch nutmeg
  • salt and pepper

Toppings

  • 8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 8 oz. fresh salmon cut into 1/4 in thick slices
  • 8 oz. crumbled blue cheese
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • 12-18 fresh sage leaves
  • 1/4 cup canola or peanut oil

Preparation

Open the blue hubbard by your preferred means and remove the seeds and membranes. The seeds can be cleaned, salted and toasted for a great snack. Cut the squash into workable large chunks and, with all due safety in mind, hack the rind off with a cleaver. Reduce a portion of the squash to rectangular blocks for this recipe, and store the rest of the squash in the refrigerator until unexpected company arrives. Your goal with the squash blocks is to steam them until al dente, then you will slice them into domino-shaped pieces to put on the pizza. This will take about 15 minutes in the steamer.

Cream sauce nicely thickening.

Prepare the cream sauce by sautéing the shallots and garlic in the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan. Soften but do not brown them. Stir in the flour with a whisk and continue to stir until no longer smelling like flour. Slowly add the cream while stirring to create a smooth consistency. Still over medium heat, reduce slowly with occasional stirring until mixture coats the back of a spoon. Stir in the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.

Arrange your mis en place: prepare the cheeses, salmon, and pine nuts and have ready. Heat the oil in a small pan until a sage leaf placed in it crisps up in about 5 seconds. Fry the sage leaves and set on absorbent paper.

The colorful toppings ready for assembly.

Preheat your oven to 450ºF, or hotter. Roll or hand stretch the pizza dough into two rounds, each about 12 inches in diameter and possessing a raised edge to help retain sauce. Place the dough on a pizza peel or cutting board that has been sprinkled with a little corn meal to make transfer to the oven easier.

Dress the pizza as follows: spread the cream sauce evenly over the surface, followed by mozzarella cheese. Generously arrange the sliced, par-cooked squash over the surface, then the same with the salmon. Sprinkle the pine nuts over all, then lightly crumble the sage leaves on top. You can either put the blue cheese on at this point, it will disappear during cooking, or sprinkle it onto the hot pizza a minute or two before removing from the oven (better option).

Blue Hubbard Squash and Pink Salmon Pizza.

Bake in a hot oven for about 12 minutes, until the crust is crusty, the sauce is bubbling, and the salmon is opaque. Serve with a malty, yet hoppy autumn ale, such as Sierra Nevada Tumbler, Long Trail Hibernator or splurge for St. Bernardus Prior 8. Enjoy! TPJ


Moules à la Normande

Here’s recipe number 6 on my countdown to the Feast of the Seven Fishes: Moules à la Normande – mussels in the style of the Normandy region of France. Normandy is well-known for seafood, hard cider, and cheese. Sounds like a plan!

This version came from a fellow who used to live nearby. He was crustier than a stale baguette. We nicknamed him Barnacle Bob. Once a young Italian in New York’s garment business, he endeared himself to his future wife, a British fashion model in the 1960s, by defending her against the advances of a chauvinistic boss. Or was it his classy wool trousers, which never wore out and looked good even on his crooked octagenarian frame? Whenever we got together for a meal he made something with seafood. He did live up to his moniker, even if he couldn’t sail a ship.

This recipe falls into a larger group of expedient steamed mussel recipes often called moules marinière – loosely, “mussels, fisherman style.” Moules marinière typically calls for white wine, but broth, beer or cider are also used. The basic recipe involves heating chopped aromatics and herbs with a lightly acidic liquid, tossing in the mussels and steaming until done. Typically the resulting broth is poured over the mussels, with or without cream added.

When served in northern France, Belgium, or the Netherlands, the classic side dish is French fries, or pommes frites, as they are called. As for the name French fries, I don’t know. The Belgians invented them. Then again, the Dutch invented the Belgian waffle. If you haven’t any fresh, twice fried frites you can serve crusty French bread alongside.

Rope-grown Canadian mussels. (Source: http://www.confederationcove.com)

Moules Savior Faire

Before we get to the recipe, there is a lot to know about mussels. The mussels I prefer are the rope-grown blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) from aquatic farms in the bays of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Mussels grown in this manner are sustainable, do not require additives to the water, and are almost entirely free of silt, since they are grown above the sea floor. The water around PEI is of excellent quality and it is said the blue mussel is the sweetest of all mussels. The New Zealand green lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus) is larger and plumper, but I find them not as delicate and usually frozen.

Mussel pots are hard to find in the US, but they really make the experience more complete.

Beyond their aquaculture peculiarities, mussels have a tradition of special cookware and unusual eating methods. In Belgium I was amazed at the portion of mussels, typically about a kilogram. Curious, I counted the shells one time. Six dozen! Mussels are generally steamed in an enameled pot with a dish-shaped lid that fits tightly on top. The pot holds a kilo of mussels in the bottom while steaming and the lid holds the entire jetsam of shells.

Eating the mussels can be messy. The traditional way is to use an empty shell like a pair of tweezers, picking out the mussel meat from another shell while holding each with your fingers. You can try using a fork, but you’ll eventually drop a shell into the broth or fling one accidentally at your dinner companion. There’s a fun little hotel and restaurant called The Old Tom on the main plaza in Ieper, Belgium. There they promote a special fork for mussels.

Once the steamer ingredients are prepped, dinner is only a few minutes away.

Moules à la Normande

Ingredients for 2 Servings

  • 2 pounds fresh mussels
  • 1/4 cup celery, diced
  • 2 tbsp red bell pepper, diced
  • 4 teas minced shallot (1/2 small bulb)
  • 1 teas minced garlic (2 cloves)
  • 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 cup finest hard cider or apple wine
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled
  • white pepper to taste

Preparation

Remember: when mussels are raw they should be closed; discard any that aren’t. When cooked they should pop open; discard any that don’t. Begin by placing the mussels in a bowl of cold, unchlorinated water. Next, chop the vegetables as described. Melt the butter in a large enamel pot, add the celery for a minute, then the bell pepper, shallot, garlic, and parsley, stirring to lightly soften, about another minute. Add the cider and place the lid on. As soon as the cider boils, quickly add the mussels (discarding the soaking water). Place the lid on tightly and steam for about 4 minutes.

Arrange the mussels on two deep rimmed plates and keep warm. Immediately add the cream to the liquid in the pot and apply high heat until boiling. Stir in the cheese and bit of white pepper, then using a large spoon, generously divide the sauce over the two plates. Serve immediately with fries or crusty bread and more hard cider. And don’t let the amazing broth go to waste!

Voila! Moules à la Normande avec Cidre de Pomme.

The Countdown

So far:

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).

On deck:

  • No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cocktail I’ll list in my Classic Cocktails category: the Pisco Sour.

That’s it for now – stay tuned. TPJ


Feast of the Seven Fishes

Here's the Pike Street Market in Seattle. I'll have no problems shopping near Boston either. (Source: dailyvignette.wordpress.com)

Seven, nine, eleven – family traditions vary. But the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Christmas holiday tradition shared by millions of Catholics. Oddly, I’m not one, Catholic I mean. But when someone says “feast” and “fishes” in the same breath they get my attention.

In case you missed it, one of my readers suggested I elaborate on the traditional elements of the Seven Fishes. So here’s the short exchange from Bacalao con Patates Dulces.

for baccala part 2 can we look forward to a holiday discussion on the meal of the seven fishes? [BR]

To which I responded…

How can I say no to this? Okay, here’s the deal. I’ll prepare one fish/seafood dish per week for the next seven weeks. As I go I’ll write about the mostly Italian-American tradition called the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” The closest I get to being Italian is that my Dad grew up in Boston’s North End. I’m also a long, long way from being Catholic. But I do like the idea of “fasting” where one is stuffed with all these delicacies!

So… I will make seven dishes and they will use some traditional ingredients, but I will not be held to convention beyond that! These dishes will come from the world over, they will be difficult, and they will be freaky. Thanks for the idea, but I can’t help wondering were this will lead. La Vigilia (the vigil) begins! [TPJ]

So… just to chum the waters, so to speak, I am going to let you know what the next recipe is. I’ll have it up by this weekend. That will be my plan, to keep tally of the recipes posted to date and to let you know the next one to come. As I said, it is going to be multicultural and freaky! And it will get stranger and more difficult as we go along. Um huh, there is a plan.

So far:

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale

On deck:

  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French recipe. Steamed mussels in cider, cream, and bleu cheese), served with more hard cider

That’s it for now – stay tuned. TPJ

“New” Beer Style: East Coast IPA

Brewers and brewphiles have been clamoring lately about Cascadian Dark Ale, or Black IPA, as a new beer style. In that spirit I offer my proposal for a not-so-new beer style called East Coast IPA. Incidentally, I’m not the first to ponder this question. What is an East Coast IPA and how does it differ from a West Coast version?

One of the many full-bodied, malty/fruity East Coast IPAs.

In a nutshell, it is a malt-forward, moderately bitter ale, just a tad over average beer strength. Common flavors can include pronounced fruitiness, e.g. apricots, apples, or strawberries. Hop aromas and flavors can be a muddy mix of earthy, musty, or balsamy notes. And diacetyl, that wretched, oily butter flavor and sensation, is far too common. The last bit can be explained by the proliferation of the Ringwood strain of yeast on the oriental side of the continent. But as for the dearth of hops and the banal strength of these beers, the best answer is found by digging deep into the New England psyche and palate.

Now really, I’m a lover not a hater. I’m also a 9th generation New Englander, so bear with me as I make comments that could be viewed as specious. Some have speculated that the West Coast uses more hops because they are closer and fresher. I don’t buy that, what with FedEx and hermetically sealed bales of hops. It isn’t the water, because brewers adjust the water to whatever they want. The grains are from the Midwest or from Europe, so all American brewers have access to the same ingredients. Why the difference?

Think of it this way, the traditional foods around here are boiled vegetables, beef, and potatoes. There are no chilis and few tropical spices in this lineage. Excessive bitterness favors certain foods, including spicy foods. In New England you’d be surprised how many people think Taco Bell is good Mexican food. To me it is neither spicy nor good. That’s not to say things aren’t changing, but old habits die hard. Magic Hat amped up their IPA a couple of years ago and Otter Creek is launching a hoppy American black ale this fall. It is also colder, on average, than most of the West Coast. That’s why we like a little sweeter beer around here – we’re trying to burn the sugar to keep warm.

Not your average East Coast IPA!

I’ve come to the conclusion that IPAs are interpreted differently on the two coasts because of the breweries’ mindset, not that of the consumer. I believe in the axiom that if you brew it they will come. Stone and Dogfish should be evidence enough on that score. In my own instance, I find most East Coast IPAs (except for Smuttynose IPA and some occasional one-offs), to be fat, flabby, or weaker than what I have come to appreciate as an IPA. Others, like Ipswich and Harpoon are dreadfully austere. East or West, an IPA should be a hop explosion, an aromatic festival, and the bitterness should cling in the mouth while building appetite and excitement. After all, when I want wine it is chardonnay over chenin blanc. When I choose a whisk(e)y I want a Scotch single malt, not a Crown Royal. When I want a dull, buttery beer I’ll order an Abita. On second thought, probably not.

I decided to put my views to a simple test, relying on brewery websites and Beer Advocate for inputs. I tallied up ten major IPAs I can easily obtain when I’m in Vermont, and ten others that I would find if I were based in, say, San Diego. I stayed with the mainstream brands that are widely available in bottles and I didn’t list any of the IPA permutations: double IPAs, black IPAs, and one-off releases. In other words, I tried to avoid bias without getting too scientific about it. Here’s what I found (shown with 1 sigma standard deviation):

  • New England – 10 IPAs
    • strength: 5.8% ± 0.4% abv
    • bitterness: 51 ± 10 IBU
    • aroma: medium
  • West Coast – 10 IPAs
    • strength: 6.4% ± 0.7% abv
    • bitterness: 62 ± 18 IBU
    • aroma: strong

Not only do the West Coast IPAs use more bittering, they also put in more flavor and aroma hops. Since some of the New England examples relied on American hop varieties, it isn’t clear to simply say that East Coast IPAs are essentially English-styled IPAs, though many are.

Maybe it was the autumn chill, but I am hankering for an IPA with a bit more warming and a hop blast. I think I’ll pick up some Smuttynose on my next trip to the packy. Enjoy! TPJ

Bacalao con Patatas Dulces – huh?

Bacalao is salt-preserved codfish. (Source: mallorcaphotoblog.wordpress.com)

Bacalao or bacalhau, whether you use the Spanish or Portuguese term, is one of the ancient and divine foods I would undoubtedly put on my my desert island list. Matter of fact, if I were stranded on a desert island I would be making my own salted fish, whatever the variety, cooking it up with monkey milk, manioc root, lemon grass and wild ginger. Ever milk a monkey?

One classic dish is a gratin made of soaked and boiled salt cod with mashed potatoes. Not very salty and surprisingly not very fishy. It is creamy, umami wonderfulness. The fish adds protein, sure, but an almost indescribable savory quality as well.

Since I regularly malign recipes, and owing to some sweet potatoes I have on hand, my version is quite like the traditional version, except for sweet potatoes in place of russets. This is not that strange of a substitution, since many traditional recipes with salted cod use boniato, which is a white-fleshed, not very sweet, sweet potato used in Cuban and Puerto Rican cooking.  For related ideas using this tuber, check out Bacalao Croquetas or this simple Boniato/Bacaloa Mash topped with a complicated and pricey truffle sabayon.

Bacalao may be available at your grocer year round, but chances are even better you’ll find it right now. It is a traditional food from mid-autumn through Christmastime for many cultures, including the Italians, Spanish, West Indians, and Pacific Islanders. You will usually find it with smoked salmon and other refrigerated specialty seafood items. Sometimes it comes in a plastic bag, other times in a little wooden box wrapped in plastic.

The following recipe is very, very simple. It is the time required to rehydrate the fish that turns most people off. I start soaking the cod at least 24 hours before I prepare the dish. Anything else and you can end up with too much residual salt.

Bacalao con Patatas Dulces

Ingredients for 4 servings

  • 1/2 pound dried salt cod
  • 2 large sweet potatoes or yams
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • pepper to taste, white pepper preferred
  • 1/2 tbsp prepared horseradish, or more to taste
  • 1/3 cup cream
  • 1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teas paprika

Preparation

After soaking, cooking, and shredding, the codfish looks like crab meat and tastes just as mild.

At least a day before finishing the dish begin soaking the bacalao by covering it with water and keeping in the refrigerator. Change the water twice during 24 hours.

In a small pot, add the drained fish to 1 cup of milk and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and hold for 20-30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cod. Cool. Drain and discard milk. Flake the fish into fine pieces, removing any bones that you may find. The texture will be soft and fibrous, much like crab meat.

Peel and dice the sweet potatoes. As with the codfish, add the potatoes and garlic to a small pot and boil with 1 cup milk and enough water to cover by half an inch. Boil until soft, about 20 minutes. Pour off most of the liquid and set aside. Add the butter, pepper, horseradish, and cream and mash until smooth. Stir in the codfish and the parsley, adding extra potato water if the mixture is too thick. It should have a loose mashed potato consistency.

Spread into a 1-1/2 to 2 qt baking dish and sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 350ºF until top darkens, about 30 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and a hoppy ale with some malt backbone to marry with the starchy potato. Try an American-style amber or red ale, or a west coast India Pale Ale. Enjoy! TPJ

Don't be scared! When properly prepared, bacalao is a divinely subtle food.

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