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London: St John (pork, tarragon)

27 Oct

I got taken out (lucky me) to a special birthday dinner earlier this year in London at St John (at the more cheerfully informal St John Bread and Wine space– a bustling open room without tablecloths and various daily pork, greens, and cheese plates coming out whenever they’re ready). I have a huge food crush on them now:

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A plate of simply-named “lamb, bread, green sauce” was one of my favorite dishes in London– the sauce was a mix of a powerful dose of tarragon, mint?, other soft green herbs, maybe capers? And the “courgettes, lentils, yogurt, zucchini” (center of the image above) was another dish we both remember months later (also with tarragon). Lower left above was fried pig skin strips with a tarragon(!) aioli, and there was another crumbled pork and fennel dish I wrote down but can’t remember. All washed down with the intense, earthy St John Claret.

And for dessert, a plate of cheese instead of sweets. The Tymsboro(?– scribbled note in notebook) goat cheese via Neals Yard was euphoria-inducingly good– soft, salty, with a slow-burn spicy/funky/goaty rind.

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Homebrew #12: Milk Stout w/ Figs

25 Oct

A lead on a free crop of backyard figs with a few weeks until they fell triggered the preserving instinct… and instead of jam, how about my first homebrew aged on fruit?

The only fig beer I’ve had was a sour beer at Cascade in Portland, which I didn’t really like, so I tried to think of other combination… fig saison? figs and oatmeal? figs and cream? Hmm, how about a milk stout (a stout with lactose sugar, which yeast can’t ferment, leaving a sweeter beer) with figs?

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The grain bill combined basic 2-row barley with a little white wheat, Crystal 60L, chocolate malt, roasted barley, and the lactose, with Magnum as bittering hops and no aroma hops to keep this a very malt-focused beer (I’m skeptical that figs + hops would be a pleasant combination in any case). As I’ve been doing for most brewing recently, I kept this to a smaller batch size (about 2 gallons) to make it easy to brew in a single stovetop pot on a weeknight:

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I got a decent amount of wort out of the mashing process, and decided to boil it down farther than usual, bringing it to an original gravity of 1.080 — this should end up closer to an imperial stout in strength (though the lactose makes that gravity reading a little misleading, as some of that sugar won’t actually get fermented to alcohol).

About a week later, after primary fermentation was over, I picked and peeled a few pounds of fresh figs, caramelized them in a hot pan (a dual-purpose flavor enhancement + sterilization tip from an online forum), and deglazed with a bit of the beer in progress before adding them back into the fermenter.

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And after a few weeks on the figs, I carefully siphoned it out with a filter (trying to avoid fig seeds or residue in the beer), bottled it, and made a goofy label. And just yesterday I finally cracked one open and tried it:

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I was pleasantly surprised– it’s quite a good beer. An excellent smooth, roasted-but-not-too-bitter, rich, flavorful stout, with just a hint of some fruit under the surface (tasting opinions ranged from blueberry to fig). This might be good with food as well.

That was a lot of work for just 10 beers, but I’ll stow them away for special occasions, and the process is part of the fun…

Single Malt, Single Hop, Single Gallon (Homebrewing)

4 Oct

I’ve kept homebrewing a low-tech, visceral, hands-on hobby as a contrast to large engineering systems that occupy another part of my life.  Part of this has been focusing on the process, ingredients, and history more than the equipment.

Partial-mash brewing (mashing modest quantities of grain but depending on liquid barley malt extract for more of the sugars) is one way to more easily brew indoors on a small electric stovetop rather than having to manhandle 15lbs of grain through multiple kettles, and I’ve been happy with several of the beers I’ve made using this method.

But I’ve wanted to get down to the simplest kernel of brewing– whole grain, water, hops, and yeast, and try more experiments especially on the grain variety and the mashing process. And 5 gallons of beer goes a long way. So I tried scaling down to single-gallon batches, and it’s been invigorating– it’s unlocked casual weeknight after-work brewing as a possibility (even after-dinner before-bed brewing depending on timing– it’s about three and a half hours from beginning to end including prep and clean-up) and made stovetop all-grain brewing much more practical. Yes, it’s much more work per beer. But it’s still less work per batch, and only getting 8 or 9 beers out is still enough to sip over the following month / share with a few friends.

One week in August, I even brewed two batches in one week (with bottling/cleanup on the same day about a month later to save some time), both very simple / elemental beers to get to know some ingredient and part of the process.

Batch #10 involved only a single grain (Maris Otter, a particular English variety of 2-row barley) and a single hop (East Kent Goldings).

Here’s the “Brew In A Bag” setup: whole grains in cheesecloth soaked in very specific-temperature water (148F-155F depending what you’re trying to get out of the grain), easy to remove and drain after mashing (not shown: the lid and blanket used to insulate and maintain temperature, and the second pot of higher-temperature “sparge water” used to rinse wort off the grains afterwards to increase yield):

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For this beer, I mashed at the low end of the temperature range to try to get a drier, less sweet, less complex beer, hitting a post-boil specific gravity of 1.044 (on the low side, meaning I should expect a roughly 4% ABV session ale out of this, though I ended up around 5% ABV because it fermented all the way down to 1.006 — mashing at low temperature means very few of the less fermentable long-chain complex sugars are produced, so the yeast can ferment almost everything present). In this carboy it looks darker in color because of the thickness, but it’s the yellow second beer from the right in the line of glasses another photo down.

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Above, from left to right: two hard ciders I was fermenting at the same time, this all-Maris-Otter batch, and on the right, Batch #11: a reddish Munich-Malt-and-Fuggles (also a one-gallon, single-grain, single-hop) beer.

After bottling both batches a month later (Simple Beer experiments deserve a simple label):

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Another few weeks later I tried them. While they weren’t fully carbonated so should condition a few more weeks, they were both already interesting enough to declare this a success:

The Maris Otter ale was a pleasant, very mild beer, with a slight smell of straw, and a light barley/hay/nutty taste. It had almost no bitterness (just enough to give a hint) and no sweetness.

The 100% Munich Malt ale on the other hand had a caramelized malt nose almost reminiscent of a lighter doppelbock (one of my favorite styles), and a robust flavor of caramelized grain– not sweet in a sugary sort of way, but with the mix of flavors you get from Maillard reactions or a brown shiny crust on a nice loaf of bread. Again, it had almost no bitterness or hop flavor (by design), and wasn’t especially complex, but I would happily drink this any day. I’d mashed the malt for this beer at the high end of the typical temperature range (155F), which was supposed to result in “more complex sugars / resulting in lower alcohol content and a full bodied beer with a lot of mouth-feel”. What do you know, chemistry works…

Intense Flavors + Foraged Flowers: Elizabeth, Chicago

3 Sep

A phenomenal dinner, with about 15 small, interesting courses over the course of three hours. Tiny intense burst of flavor from small flowers, herbs, and berries (nightshade, queen anne’s lace, fennel pollen, and other flowers) on top of a range of creative and perfectly-seasoned dishes each highlighting a few beautiful ingredients (including malted barley, bear jerky, beets, a few kinds of mushrooms, tomatoes, and roe).

And by lucky chance they sat us right next to the kitchen. I do always enjoy that.

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My favorites were the greens and flowers on malted barley and hazelnuts, the tart sourdough, the smoked cabbage, the beet soup with a variety of accents (see the first photo), and the tomato sorbet with polenta and peaches and dried plums (one of the best desserts I’ve had in a long time), but I enjoyed pretty much everything. Very highly recommended if you’re in Chicago and it works with your budget.

I also liked the not-too-loud background music– mostly various good music from the 80s / early 90s, but I also noticed Parentheses by The Blow (2006’s Paper Television was one of my favorite albums).

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Last visit to Hot Doug’s (wild game sausages in Chicago, closing forever)

1 Sep

Hot Doug’s, the encased meat emporium in Chicago, closes for good at the beginning of October, after 13 years.

I’d been there once about three years ago, but only to get a basic dog before heading to Alinea, so news of its impending closing was enough to motivate a labor day weekend vacation back to Chicago…

The line was several buildings long, down the street past some neighbor’s yard (maybe four times as long as shown in the photo here):

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After an hour in line, a woman came out from inside and informed people in our part of the line that it was probably another three and a half to four hour wait. I’m not kidding. Yet, out of the entire line, only three groups gave up and left. The rest of us settled in (people with more forethought had brought chairs, but our group chatted, caught up on life developments since we’d last seen each other, and did three tricky NYtimes Thursday crosswords).

Finally, after almost exactly 5 hours in line (including the most amazingly patient 2-year old I’ve ever met), we were at the counter, and ordered seven different special sausages:

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And then there we were, in a brightly-lit, festive atmosphere, surrounded by tables of other people dedicated or crazy enough to have made that wait, eating ten different meats (elk, antelope, buffalo, venison, pork, beef, lamb, duck, steak, and chicken). Sausage after sausage was a tender, delicious combination of flavors.

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Thanks, Doug.

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SF Street Food Festival

16 Aug

I spent a few hours at the SF Street Food Festival, which is not just any collection of food carts but a fundraiser for La Cocina and showcase for its members (“The mission of La Cocina is to cultivate low income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market opportunities.”)

This year I tried to eat at “La Cocina member” booths I hadn’t heard of and mostly skip the known-good usual suspects… and dish after dish was delicious. The nine things I put in my mouth are below (I got the “small plate” option at every booth to keep going as long as I could…):

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From the top left: rose/basil/coconut water, a good chorizo / bacon / pepper taco from El Huarache Loco, an unassuming from the outside but deliciously moist beef and onion piroshki from Anda Piroshki, the Papdi Chaat from Rasoi (a small Indian street food snack– a few sauces and chutneys on crisp wafers, and my favorite of the day), amazing nopales from El Pipila, a mediocre thai iced tea, some pretty good sweet potato dumplings from Azalina’s Malaysian, a fresh summer vegetable tagine from Radio Africa Kitchen, and one of the best pork tamales I’ve had in a long time from Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas.

Strong, Dark, Old Beer

13 Aug

A one-of-a-kind evening of strong, dark, and old beers with friends.

Some of us had been hanging on to some beers for years without quite the right excuse to crack them open… problem solved. Not a wedding, new year, baby shower, or birthday, just a casual evening hanging out with lentil soup and bread.

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Goose Island Bourbon County Stout *2007*,  Westvleteren 12 and 8 eBayed from Belgium years ago, Half Acre’s special Sanguis beer brewed with oranges and beets for one specific dinner at Next, an excellent imperial porter from High Water, a 10.5% imperial stout in a can, homebrew, and more.

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