Umeshu-inspired Pluot Liqueur

20 Nov

This one’s a success– a slightly sweet, tart, fragrant liqueur made from unripe green pluots (in the vein of umeshu) that stimulates the taste buds. Good on the rocks or mixed with a bit of soda water:

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This wasn’t where I’d started– instead, this summer I was thinking about how I loved the flavor of Japanese pickled plums* (umeboshi). While I didn’t have a line on green ume plums in the Bay Area, Hannah had a tree covered in green pluots in her backyard– perhaps those could be used similarly? And once I decided to pickle some pluots, why not also try to make a pluot liqueur along the lines of umeshu?

 

I started from a few magazine articles and blog posts, including Umamimart’s past posts about making umeboshi and umeshu, but unfortunately, the salted pluots didn’t turn out well (too salty, not enough flavor– the much-larger-than-ume pluots may have drastically changed how the salt worked its way into the fruit)… while the umeshu side project was a surprise hit.

Starting off, the right three jars combine green pluots, sugar, and vodka, trying out ratios of 50% of the pluot weight in sugar, 25%, and 10% (50% is more traditional, but I like things on the less sweet side).

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After just a few days– the pluots were changing color, and to my surprise, appearing to naturally ferment (based on the smell and the bubbling), even when submerged in alcohol. (The left jars are the less successful pluot umeboshi with red shiso leaf.)

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A month or two later, the liquid around the pluots continued to deepen in color, though the vodka taste was still a bit harsh:

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Everything I read suggested you want to wait at least 6 months (and even better, a year) for the flavors to mellow and meld. Five months later I couldn’t resist giving the 25%-sugar-ratio one a try, and all the harshness was gone– it was balanced, delicious, even a bit floral. I’ll stow away some bottles to age for the next 6-18 months, and look forward to drinking it over ice next summer when the weather turns warm again…

 

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* I realize that Japanese ume are not technically plums, but are a distinct fruit in the Prunus genus, along with plums and apricots

Reverse Seared Steak

18 Nov

After years of successfully cooking steak in a traditional way (salted a few hours ahead of time, then high heat on a grill or a skillet on the stovetop followed by a 5-10 minute rest), I gave the “reverse sear” technique a try.

The general idea is to bake / roast the steak at lower temperature until it’s almost done, then rapidly sear each side on a hot grill. The slower, lower-temperature cook should uniformly get the steak to the desired medium-rare level, while the sear browns the outside for flavor– but with less of a gradient from the surface to the inside (and without requiring any special equipment like a sous vide).

After trying this a few times, a simple weeknight compromise in the level of effort that works for me is to set up a grill for indirect cooking (fire on one side, steaks on the other) at around 275, roast the steaks with the lid closed until they’re at about 115F internal temperature (20-30 minutes), take them out and let them rest 10-15 minutes while I open the vents and crank the grill up to high temperature (500F), then sear a minute or so on each side (internal temp 125).

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The end result of the best attempt– beautifully done, tender, and delicious:img_8659img_8663

I wouldn’t say I’m a convert to *always* cooking it in this way, or am convinced it automatically makes a better steak– but it works well and does give a bit more latitude in the timing, where plus or minus 1 minute doesn’t rapidly take you past medium-rare.

In the future I’m curious to combine this with some fruit woods as a way to lightly smoke a steak, since it’s in the grill for longer than a traditional hot-seared steak.

Homemade Gin from Foraged Sticks, Flowers, and Berries

13 Nov

This summer we spent 5 days backpacking in and around the stunning Caribou Wilderness.

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Inspired by my past brewing with foraged plants (yarrow, mugwort) in lieu of hops, an afternoon vermouth class, and following Pascal Baudar‘s photos– everywhere I looked I saw components for beer, gin, or vermouth– such as sap and wild yeast on freshly-opened pine cones:

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Or juniper branches and berries in gnarled old trees overlooking glacial ponds:

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dscf0944Back home a few days later, I unloaded my foraging bag:

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I decided to try to make both a vermouth (more on that in the future) and a gin, using only alcohol and things collected in the woods. Older methods of gin production involve alcohol that’s distilled so the vapor passes through a basket of botanicals (notably including juniper berries) before re-condensing– but not having a still I decided the simpler approach of a cold infusion into a neutral spirit was good enough.

I submerged eight potential components (coyote mint, pine sap, juniper bark and berries, green manzanita berries, fresh pine tips, not-yet-open pine cones, and yarrow flowers) in both jars of vodka and jars of fortified wine (white wine bumped to 19% ABV with brandy, for vermouth):

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I had no idea what would taste good and what would be distasteful or overly bitter, or how strong a flavor would come from of each component over time, so rather than throwing everything into a jar with vodka and hoping for the best, I decided to infuse each component separately and then blend them to taste later (accepting that I’d throw away some of the vodka from the stronger-tasting components). If I were planning to do this again, I could record the ratio that tasted good and then directly infuse that mix of components– but even then I’d expect every individual pine cone, branch, and handful of berries to be a bit different.

Every few days I smelled and tasted each jar, straining them at anywhere from 3 days to 4 weeks as flavors developed and before they got too bitter. The pine sap smelled and tasted horrible within days so I poured it out, but everything else produced a distinctive and interesting (if sometimes harsh or intense) flavor.

Finally, about three months later, I tasted each of the infused vodkas again side by side. Some had taken on significant color:

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I tried a few different mixtures at thimbleful scale to balance components with powerful aromas and/or tastes, and found a nice ratio that relied heavily on juniper berry and green manzanita berry, with a moderate addition of pine cone, yarrow flowers, and juniper branches, and just a touch of pine needles (harshly pine-y) and coyote mint (a lovely mint but very strongly flavored).

Without a re-distillation step it’s not transparent, but I think this is an attractive bottle of homemade alcohol– and it will always remind me of walking through those woods with a compass:

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Making Vinegar

11 Nov

Making vinegar is easy. At a simple chemical level, alcohol + bacteria from the acetobacter genus + oxygen + time -> acetic acid (vinegar).

There’s acetic acid bacteria floating around in the air, so red wine or cider left open over time will eventually turn to vinegar (the sugars in cider first fermenting to alcohol), but unpasteurized and unfiltered commercial vinegars may already contain “mother” (a significant amount of acetic acid bacteria + cellulose) that can be harvested to kick-start a new batch of vinegar (and ensure the acetic acid bacteria quickly becomes the dominant player and lowers the pH to a range where they are heavily favored).

In my case, I mixed a small bottle of organic unfiltered red wine vinegar and the remnants of a few bottles of left-open-too-long red wine, swirled/shaken together in a jar with cheesecloth over the top.

After two months of checking in, it finally tasted like a good red wine vinegar– so I tapped off two large bottles (one for now, one to age another year+ before using), and what’s left will be the starter for future bottles of unfinished red wine.

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Backyard Garden Bowl

10 Nov

From earlier this summer, a bowl mostly picked from our little urban raised-bed garden: Armenian cucumber, tomatoes, blistered Padron peppers, sliced jalapeno (along with a soft-boiled egg and some sardines).

I wish I ate like this all the time.

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“Caesar Salad” Popcorn

30 Oct

I had this once at The Dock in West Oakland as a snack– popcorn dressed with flavors similar to a Caesar salad– oil, anchovies, garlic, citrus, and parmesan. And I’ve been wanting to make something along these lines ever since.

I found a recipe shared by the chef who created it and generally followed that– utilizing coarse crushed garlic (a smoky, powerful heirloom variety grown by my father), anchovy paste, and the recipe’s tip to try a little citric acid in place of lemon juice (to get the tartness of lemon juice without making the popcorn soggy)– and it was an addictively delicious savory addition to our Halloween party spread.

I really can’t stop eating it. This will have to join the rotation for any future “movie night” we host.

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Smoked Trout, Homemade Bagels

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I threw a little brunch for friends, with homemade bagels, salmon and trout I smoked over alder wood, gravlax cured by H, dry farmed early girl tomatoes (so good…), salted cucumbers, and other accoutrements.

For the bagels, I mostly used the tried and true recipe, though I tried retarding the dough (letting it rise slowly in a cold place overnight) in both a typical 40°F fridge and a special 55°F fridge I had set up with a temperature controller for fermenting experiments. The 40° dough rose less, but then swelled up when baked (see left bagels below– perhaps I didn’t boil them long enough this time?) They still tasted good, like bagels– but the dough retarded at 55° had an especially nice crackling crust around a chewy bagel. I’ll keep playing around with rising times and temperatures…

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For the trout and salmon I followed a four day “hot smoke” process based on the Russell Smallwood / Naked Whiz recipe. This produces savory, rich, cooked salmon and trout with a bit of a chewy crust– not a smoked cold/raw salmon like lox.

Wednesday evening I made a plain salt brine (I wanted to start with the basics this time before getting into spices, herbs, or sugar) and immersed a thick 2lb block of salmon and 2lbs of cleaned trout fillets (both skin-on) in it under weights overnight.

Thursday morning before work I rinsed the brine off both and set them out uncovered in a fridge to air dry for 36 hours, in the hope of developing more of a skin/pellicle when smoked.

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Friday night I fired up the kamado-style ceramic grill/smoker with lump charcoal and a few chunks of alder wood and stabilized it at the low temperature of 180°F (this took some effort and required sealing every spare crack of inlet space with foil to control the airflow). After one false start when I closed down the vents so much that I snuffed the fire, I got a steady slow burn going and popped in the salmon and trout. I let them smoke until 2AM (about 6 hours), which led to a heavily cured toothy smoked trout with a great skin, and a moderately cured salmon that was fully cooked but still moist in the middle (the salmon was much thicker to start– but I didn’t want to be getting up all night to check on it– maybe next time I’ll try a 12-hour smoke).

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I chilled the fish overnight, and Saturday morning they were ready to go for brunch. Mmm.

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There were plenty of smoked fish leftovers (though not as many as I expected making 5 lbs of fish for 9 people), and mixing it in to scrambled eggs with feta is my favorite leftover use so far…

I think the trout turned out amazingly good and have been snacking on it for days– I wouldn’t change anything. The salmon was also very good, but next time I want to try some more herbs and spices in the brine and perhaps a little sugar– and try smoking a part of it even longer to see if I can get a bit more of a dry “salmon jerky” crust outside the moist interior.