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Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce

5 Feb

After reading an essay about Tabasco sauce, getting a Sander Katz book as a present, and taking a class at Preserved Oakland, fermented hot sauce was on my mind, and I like how my first batch (a blend of 4-6 week fermented jalapenos, Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers, garlic, and spices) turned out. In photos:

Jimmy Nardellos submerged in an 4-5% concentration sea salt brine with a few hot thai chilis, garlic cloves, black peppercorns, corianted seed, and brown mustard seed:

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Jalapenos, a few cayennes, and garlic and peppercorns submerged in brine:

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I left some peppers at room temperature for a few weeks, but also put some peppers in one of my temperature-controlled “fermentation fridges” (a mini-fridge retrofitted with a temperature controller, allowing me to hold it at 55-60F for a slow, long, 4-6 week fermentation even during warm weather). Also shown: a hard cider aging:

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Blending the various peppers and garlic and a bit of the drained now-probiotic / live cultures brine to make a fermented chili paste (or in a few cases, to strain to make a thinner hot sauce):img_3674img_3687

My understanding in more detail:

Traditionally, many cultures’ hot sauces were made through lacto-fermentation, the same general process behind sauerkraut, kimchi, half-sour pickles, and other live-cultured foods. Rather that using vinegar, this involves packing vegetables and spices in a salt brine, and letting a series of wild bacteria (most commonly from the skins of the vegetables) multiple and progressively transform the food and environment over the course of weeks to a few months.

There are good and bad bacteria (and molds and other undesirable microorganisms), so the name of the game is all about creating environments (salinity, acidity, oxygen or lack of oxygen) that favor the growth of the desired microorganisms and shut down the undesirables.

There are plenty of books about this so I won’t recap all the details here, but I’ve always found it fascinating. There’s not just one bacteria involved– one bacteria may thrive in a salty but neutral-pH environment and as it multiplies lowers the pH of the environment, making it more hospitable to a new bacteria that will then start to multiply and further lower the pH (shutting down the previous bacteria).

These intermediate modest-pH fermentation steps may produce strong, funky, and occasionally unpleasant smells that make you think it’s spoiling (mine did for about two weeks but then faded as fermentation progressed), and white cloudy yeasts and slimy fluids may also form from this complex colony of microorganisms. It takes some effort to get past a reflexive disgust– but given the right time and environment and vegetables well-submerged under the brine away from surface mold, these fermentations generally all end up dominated by lactobacillus, an especially low-pH-tolerant bacteria that defines lacto-fermentation and the particular (good-tasting) fermented vegetable tang. This web page has a more detailed step by step of the phases of fermentation and the microorganisms involved, and highlights how lactic acid bacteria are only present in small amounts on vegetables, but through this progressive environment change are favored to multiple and eventually take over.

There are a number of ingredients that also help prevent formation of mold and preserve the sauce, including traditionally spicy ingredients (garlic, hot peppers) as well as juniper berries and grape leaves– so fermenting hot peppers should be a bit easier than some other vegetables.

I took the approach of submerging peppers in a salt brine of about 4-5% (for every quart of water I used 2.5 Tbsp of a mix of coarse sea salt and a Japanese “moon salt” (also presumably a sea salt), but this is based on an estimated conversion between volume and mass— for future fermentations I used a scale to weigh out 4% salt).

I went through this roller coaster of smells, textures, and appearance on the first two batches of peppers– at 2-3 weeks they smelled fairly unpleasant, and I had to skim off some significant surface scum (mold?) on the room-temperature bottles (this seemed to be somewhat less of a problem for the ones in the 60F fridge). But after 4 weeks the smell had mellowed out, and at five weeks when I took off the weights and extracted the peppers they had a intense but pleasant kick of funky fermented tang, and made a good hot sauce when blended with the fermented jalapenos and garlic. I kept this hot sauce in the regular fridge after this to slow down any further fermentation.

 

 

Tacos, Tlacoyos, and other street food of Mexico City

22 Jan

In late 2015 I took a week-long vacation to Mexico City, and spent much of that time eating tacos, tlacoyos, and other food around the city (whether in restaurants or at street stalls).

I’d done some initial reading on others’ experiences with the tacos of Mexico city (e.g. Serious Eats 2014, Thrillist 2015, The Mija Chronicles) which gave me a list to start from, and I also spent a day just biking around the city looking for street food carts and taquerias. I can’t claim any deep Mexico City or Mexican culinary expertise as a one-week tourist with very poor Spanish, but I had a great experience and jotted down a lot of notes, for future trips or friends. A year later (when feeling under the weather at home one evening) I’m finally transcribing a few.

A quick summary of my favorites:

  • El Vilsito must-east al pastor tacos (evening/night only, Avenida Universidad in Narvarte)
  • El Jarocho tacos guisados (stew) on Tapachula at Manzanillo in Roma
  • A blue corn tlacoyo pop-up street stand I found on Av. Álvaro Obregón just West of Jalapa
  • Pop-up stall La Esquina del Chilaquil (or the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas) selling a “chilaquiles sandwich” (time it right– a line forms before 11AM and they will sell out)
  • Tacos Gus for more unusual tacos guisados (huitlacoche, chile relleno, etc) in Condesa / Hipódromo
  • El Califa bistec tacos and nopales (afternoon/evening, Condesa / Hipódromo)

THE VERY BEST

El Vilsito (neighborhood: Narvarte)

A++, best al pastor I’ve ever had (it’s not even close), beating my distant memory of the transformative first-amazing-al-pastor in Mexico a decade ago.

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Such crispy-edged, delicious pork. A nice piece of pineapple. A thin red salsa that covers it with a bit of heat and keeps it moist. M$14/taco (about US$1).

El Vilsito is only open in the evenings (and open until late)– they’re located in what by day appears to be a large auto garage / repair shop. It took a taxi to get here as it was a bit out of the way, on a strip that seemed mostly dark / closed other than it, but even at 11:30pm there were about 50 people milling about, ordering tacos from the three men working the spits, and more people arriving every minute by car, bus, foot– very bustling.

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Blue corn tlacoyo street stall (unknown name, Roma neighborhood)

I’d read a travel diary that included eating excellent made-to-order blue corn tortillas at a street stall in this area, but I couldn’t find any photos or a name or map, so I biked back and forth over a 5-block grid looking for something that matched the description.

At the intersection of Av. Álvaro Obregón and Jalapa I saw a stand that looked promising, with a woman scooping balls of blue corn masa out of a bowl into a tortilla press… (specifically, here, on Av. Álvaro Obregón just West of the intersection, in front of a sign that said “Salon Mercurio”)

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IMG_4823.JPGI give this a strong A grade. They were making a few different things based on blue corn including tlacoyos, but I had trouble understanding the options so pointed and got something like a quesadilla with “chicharrones” (in this case meaning pork sausage and chunks of potato) that was delicious– the toasted blue corn really stood out (the cheese was overkill– next time I’d skip it).

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This was a busy but social stand, with people dropping by, ordering food and eating standing up, all while laughing, chatting, making jokes with each other. A number of people bought one to eat on the spot and then another 2-4 to go for friends or coworkers.

Taqueria El Jarocho (Roma neighborhood, on Tapachula at Manzanillo)

I gave this an A+ in my taco notebook (doesn’t everyone have a ‘taco notebook’?). They primarily serve tacos guisados (filled with stews), with enough filling that they give you  a second tortilla on top of it.

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I got three of them for M$36 each, but they were big– I could have easily only ordered one or two. The sausage and egg taco was good, but the other two were the stars of the show.

The chuleta y papa special was amazing– hearty chunks of slightly chili-spiced pork with chunks of potato. So good.

And the Mole Verde was an A+, with chunks of tender pork starting to come apart into fibers, potatoes, and a savory green sauce (with I think tomatillos, some ground nuts or seeds, and some flavorful but not very hot chiles).

The salsas were also excellent– the red was tomato-based and not very hot, but the green was a perfect instance of a bright green, very fresh/uncooked-tasting hot salsa– I wonder if it was as simple as pureed fresh jalapenos, onions, and a little oil?

VERY GOOD

Still some of the best tacos or street food I’ve eaten.

La Esquina del Chilaquil (“the corner of chilaquiles”, Condesa / Hipódromo)

This pop-up stand (when I visited, located on the South corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas) sells a remarkable chilaquiles sandwich.

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But wait, you ask, aren’t chilaquiles already tortillas fried in sauce? They put that in a roll?

Even better– it starts with a soft roll with a crusty outside. Then they line it with a chicken breast pounded very thin, breaded, fried, and folded into a U, fill that with chilaquiles (very soft, tender chips soaked in either red or green sauce), and top it with cheese.

The chicken acts as a barrier between the sauce and the roll, keeping the bread from getting soggy and making this a very portable lunch. All for M$30. I preferred the red version but both were good.

Even before they arrive and set up a stall (around 11AM?) people start lining up down the block in anticipation since it can sell out. We got there just as they were arriving and waited about 40 minutes in line.

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El Califa (neighborhood: Condesa / Hipódromo, on Alfonso Reyes)

The bistec taco I ordered wasn’t messing around– just a thin, well salted, delicious piece of steak on a tortilla. It didn’t even need any toppings.

I ordered nopales (cactus paddles) and avocado to go with it not realizing I was ordering a plate of each…

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Tacos Gus (Condesa / Hipódromo)

Tacos Gus had a long bar of more unusual guisados (stews) for tacos, including chile relleno poblano (a chile stuffed with cheese, topped with guacamole and cheese) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) that was very savory and musky. I’ve give these both an ‘A’.

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GOOD

Tacos La Cazuelas (La Juárez neighborhood)

This was at the intersection of Havre and Londres, roughly here— there were two taco stands adjacent to each other,  but the one I ate at was closest to the corner with Londres.

At 4pm they were almost out of meat, so I got the chorizo, which was excellent– not too fatty, just a nice smoky red sausage.

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El Tizoncito Tamaulipas (neighborhood: Condesa / Hipódromo)

There are multiple El Tizincito locations within a few blocks of each other, but this specific one was recommended by our B&B host as the best of them. Looking back at my scribbled map and the geotag on some photos I took, I’m pretty sure it’s the one here, on the corner of Tamaulipas and Campeche, with a blue awning, (on the same side of the street and just 1 block west of El Kaliman).

I had a late night snack, with a good al pastor and a michelada (which came with ice, but I took the risk). Overall I’d say good tacos with a good salsa array. I spent M$120 total on dinner including the michelada.

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El Kaliman (neighborhood: Condesa / Hipódromo)

This is on Campeche at Ensenada, about here, with an orange awning and orange chairs. It was decent– I’d give it a B+ on the pastor (I didn’t think the beef adobado was as good). A nice casual inexpensive place for al pastor… and you can get any of their beers as a michelada.

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Another unknown-name pop-up street food stand on Av Moliere at Avenida Homero in Polanco (roughly here):

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There seemed to be a line of regulars waiting for them to set up, so we stopped and got a fried tortilla filled with pork and topped with cheese and a hot fresh green salsa. It was a decent midday snack.

NOT RECOMMENDED

El Farolito (Roma neighborhood on Alfonso Reyes)

At 2:30 pm no customers were inside, and employees were sitting idle, while a nearby taqueria was busy– this seemed like a bad sign so I skipped it.

Tacos Alvero Obrega (Roma)– I had a bad, flavorless al pastor taco and the stand felt dirty (and they weren’t wrapping everything in plastic bags the way they did at most stands).

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Overall, this was a great trip for tacos and street food…

Still to be posted: Mexico City Food Pt 2 (I wrote up notes a year ago but still need to dig up a few photos for it).

BBQ pork tacos with smoked salsas

1 Jan

For a small New Year’s Eve party, a meal cooked primarily in the smoker (tacos with pulled pork, homemade tortillas, and salsas made from smoked tomatillos and pineapples):

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23-hour slow-smoked pork shoulder:

  • A roughly 7lb chunk of pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt) from Niman Ranch
  • Dry rubbed with copious amounts of salt and mustard, smoked paprika, and black pepper and let rest in the fridge for 4-5 hours
  • Smoked very low-and-slow at 215-225F for 23 hours over lump charcoal with some fist-sized chunks of apple and pecan wood for smoke, until the internal temperature was in the 195-200 range (for overnight smokes I have a ‘baby monitor’-style wireless temperature probe I rest on the bedside so an alarm will ring and wake me up if the pit temperature gets too high or low and I can adjust the airflow or add fuel)
  • No intermediate basting, mopping, foiling, etc– just keeping it simple
  • Wrapped in foil and let rest for 45 minutes
  • It was so tender I could pull off strands by hand, and with a nice ‘bark’ and smoke ring…

img_20161231_134805It didn’t even need any sauce– I just squeezed a few limes over it.

Smoked tomatillo salsa, a puree of both smoked and raw ingredients:

  • 8 large tomatillos, smoked/roasted at about 225F for two hours
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 whole jalapeno
  • 1/4 of a large white onion
  • Juice of 1/2 a lime
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • Salt and minced cilantro to taste

I’ve tried a few ways of using smoked tomatillos and this is the highlight for me– I’ve even frozen excess in ice cube trays to save for later:

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Smoked pineapple salsa:

My friend judit turned me on to how well smoking treats pineapple– the low slow cook caramelizes it, and this sweetness helps balance the woody smoke.

I started by slicing two pineapples into discs and smoking / roasting them at 225F for two hours (at the same time as the tomatillos and pork– in the initial, smokier two hours). I pureed:

  • One of the pineapples
  • 4 cloves roasted garlic
  • juice of 1 lime

And then added for texture/contrast:

  • The other pineapple, somewhat coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 of a red onion, finely chopped
  • salt to taste

The meal turned out really well, if I may say so myself.

Plus, we had a lot of tomatillo salsa and pulled pork left over the next day for breakfast…

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 fillets or 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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The recipe I follow for about a gallon of popcorn, in case the above link breaks:

Blend together in a blender / cuisinart:

  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled (a flavorful heirloom garlic is ideal)
  • 4 anchovy filets and a little anchovy oil from the container
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup oil (I do either all extra-virgin olive oil or 50/50 olive oil and canola oil)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • zest of one lemon
  • a pinch of citric acid if available (or juice of half a lemon)

Then make popcorn: Heat oil over medium-high heat with a few “test kernels”, put a layer of kernels into it, cover the pot, and periodically swirl/shake especially once the kernels start to pop to prevent the ones on the bottom from burning.  When the rate of popping slows to a crawl take it off the heat, shake the pot to help the unpopped kernels fall to the bottom, then scoop out the popcorn into a bowl rather than pouring it out– again to leave any unpopped or stuck-to-the-bottom kernels in the pot.

Toss the popcorn in the above dressing, then add:

  • Minced parsley
  • Grated parmesan cheese
  • Salt to taste
  • If you want it to be more tart, some lemon juice (beware of sogginess)

 

Buenos Aires lunch “You Eat What I Cook”: Don Carlos

12 Mar

Looking back on our Buenos Aires trip a year ago (a few days after La Huella), the most memorable lunch was at Don Carlos.

After catching a cab across the city, we walked in to what felt like a casual family neighborhood cafe, empty except for two tables of older gentlemen chatting over food.

The grey-haired owner strode over to our table and brusquely said in English “You Eat What I Cook?”

It was half question, half order. We nodded, and without ordering over the next hour or so he and family members brought out dish after dish– excellent meatballs, a caprese-like salad, shrimp, steaks, pork chops, empanadas, bread, and for dessert dishes by his wife, including a flan that made me a believer.

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It was a hearty, cheerful lunch to sit and talk with friends over while passing plates around. And at the end of the meal he insisted on showing us the guest book of past visitors (including Francis Ford Coppola) and we took a photo with Don Carlito himself. Thank you for a great afternoon!

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Homebrew #29: Yarrow Farmhouse Ale

17 Aug

The result:

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Before hops became a key component of beer around the 14th century, beers were brewed with a range of herbs serving the roles of bittering agents and source of antibacterial / preservative compounds (a broad style, “gruit”, which has been enjoying a very minor revival).

Inspired by a chapter in The Brewer’s Tale, I picked up Stephen Buhner’s book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, which touches on brewing with herbs of various potencies and effects, which in turn inspired me to look for bitter herbs growing wild along local trails (such as mugwort and yarrow pointed out by H). Time to brew a few very small batches with individual local herbs in lieu of hops (whether or not the result was a pleasant beer– I’d be happy with “interesting”…)

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First up was a rustic all-grain light table beer (a mix of pilsner (barley) malt, wheat, and rye, with a target OG of 1.040 for a roughly 4% ABV beer) made with yarrow picked on a hike in the coastal hills North of Santa Cruz:

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Drying and then weighing yarrow flowers for dose:

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I tried using them like hops– with 0.3 oz / gallon 60 minutes for bitterness, plus a similar amount for “dry yarrowing” (e.g. thrown in the primary fermenter after cooling for more flavor/aroma than bitterness).

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The wort going into fermentation wasn’t terrible– a bit tart/herbal from the yarrow, a nice smell — this might not be a total disaster.

About 6 weeks later, after fermenting, cold crashing, bottle-conditioning, and the obligatory label-making (see above), I poured a small glass of the dark straw-colored, very effervescent beer, with a very distinctive woody, spicy smell (like sage? really, something of its own) and a complex herbal, slightly bitter, tart taste– almost like a pile of dry leaves and lemon peel. Fascinating! More than that– I’d even say I like this beer and wouldn’t be disappointed to pay for it. That’s an unexpected success– too bad I only brewed about 9 bottles of it.