Friday, June 27, 2014

Hoppin' to Heaven

The Hoppin' to Heaven is described by its brewery -- Hopping Frog -- as a "classic American I.P.A."  This is a rather odd description, given there is nothing really "American" about an India Pale Ale.  The style was born in England, not New England. Brewers developed this style to weather the voyage to India, not Indiana.  So, it seems odd to use the words "classic" and "American" when one talks about an IPA.

Still, American brewers have a knack for taking a style and making their mark on it.  Take the barleywine.  English brewers have brewed barleywines for a very long time.  Those beers had high alcohol contents, but were very malty in structure, taste and aroma.  When the barleywine style made it across the Atlantic Ocean, American brewers took the beer and gave it their own twist. American barleywines were set apart from their British counterparts with the use of hops.

With all of that said, perhaps that there is something "American" about this IPA.  It is representative of the urge of American brewers to hop their beers aggressively.  That is not a bad thing.  I consider myself a hop head and I love very hoppy beers.  The reason is that, for all of their love of hops, American brewers also know how to balance the beer so that enough of the aroma and the taste of the malt shines through.  The Hoppin' to Heaven IPA is a great example of how this balance can be achieved, with an aggressive hop profile in both aroma and taste, rounded out with a smooth malt character in the background.

The Hoppin to Heaven pours a golden brown to amber in color with thick, fluffy foam that persists for a long time.  The carbonation was quite intense with this beer, and the thick foam made the IPA seemingly impossible to reach.  Yet, with patience and time, the foam receded enough to allow for taking in the aroma and the taste of the beer.

Both the aroma and taste of this beer are very good.  The aroma was fairly well developed, with the hops providing both pine and floral notes. A little work produced some notes of the malt and even a little earthiness character.  The earthiness is something a little different in an Imperial Pale Ale, but it worked with this beer.  As for the taste of the beer, there is a nice amount of pine hop flavors up front.  Some spice notes and pepper also follow the pine elements, with a sweetness around the edges of this beer.  The sweetness is no match for the bitterness of the hops, which prevail and cling around the edges of the tongue as you drink the beer.

Overall, this beer is a very good India Pale Ale and, to the extent that it is an American interpretation of an IPA (that is, a hoppy version of an already hoppy beer), it is a very good example of that.  I found this beer at a local grocery store. It sells for around $10.99 a bottle (give or take a dollar or two).


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Spanish Black Grouper with Saffron Rice

For ichthyologists (those who study fish), it goes by the name of Mycteroperca Bonaci.  For everyone else, including fishermen and chefs, it goes by the name of Black Grouper.  Generally, grouper has been on my "bucket list" of fish to cook.  I have cooked with many different types of fish ... including bluefish, branzino, mahi mahi, pompano, red snapper, rockfish, and sheephead.  However, I have never cooked grouper before.

The reason why is that black grouper -- or any grouper for that matter -- is rare around where I live.  A search for the fish usually ends in failure.  Any sighting is usually found on the menu of a pricey restaurant or the seafood section of an upscale grocery store.  Those sightings are not only very rare, but pricey as well.  As a result, I have to wait for special occasions, like our recent vacation in the Outer Banks, to enjoy that fish.  (By the way, if you are there, you should check out the Diamond Schoals Restaurant in Buxton where they have a very delicious fried grouper sandwich on their menu.  They also have a seafood market where you can take some fresh fish "to go" and cook for yourself.)  That vacation really inspired me to cook with the fish; and, when I saw it in the seafood section of a grocery store, I took the bait and paid (a lot) for a pound of black grouper.

Photo is from Florida Museum of Natural History
The black grouper is a big, beautiful fish. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, black grouper can grow to more than four feet in length and over 170 pounds.  Most of this growth occurs over the first ten years of their life, but grouper can live for as long as thirty years.  As they grow, their skin develops interesting designs over their olive or gray bodies.  Dark rectangular blotches, and hexagonal bronze spots.  The fins have long black lines that offset and frame the large body of the fish.  These amazing fish are found along rocky bottoms and coral reefs between 32 to 98 feet in depth.

As with any fish, sustainability is an important consideration for me.  Sustainability is particularly important with respect to a fish like the grouper, which lives for a long period of time and, despite its rapid grown rate, its reproduction rate may not keep up with fishing pressures.  Fortunately, Seafood Watch notes that there are strict fishery guidelines that have helped to stabilize and even increase the black grouper populations near Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico.

With a pound of black grouper in my hands, the question quickly turned to how I should prepare this fish.  The fillets are thick and meaty, which, at least to me, means that they are perfect for a simple rub.  I decided to go with a Spanish-inspired rub.  I have always liked the combination of paprika and smoked paprika, along with other ingredients like parsley or garlic.  As the fish marinates in the rub, I decided that I would make a Spanish style rice ... starting with the basic ingredients of a sofrito -- bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and garlic -- and then cooking the rice with those ingredients.  I also decided to add a very special ingredient (to go with the special protein) ... saffron.  As the rice cooked, I decided that the grouper should be broiled rather than pan seared or pan fried.  The reason is that I did not want to burn the rub.  After all, my goal was to make a Spanish Black Grouper, not a Cajun Black Grouper.

The end result was very delicious.  The thick fillets, with the large flaky meat, was delicious. The rub worked well with the fish and the rice, which was also very tasty.  To round out this wonderful meal, I paired a Muga Rioja Blanco with the Spanish Black Grouper with Saffron Rice.  The crisp nature of this wine, with its aromas of almond and wild herbs works perfectly with this dish.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-4

Ingredients (for the Grouper):
1 pound of black grouper, cut into 2 to 4 fillets
1 1/2 teaspoons of paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of onion powder
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 teaspoon of dried parsley
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper

Ingredients (for the rice):
1/2 large tomato, peeled and diced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, de-seeded and diced finely
1/2 orange bell pepper, de-seeded and diced finely
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pinch of saffron
1 cup of rice
2 cups of water, plus more if needed
A splash of white wine
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sliced almonds
Fresh cilantro, chopped 

1.  Prepare the fish.  Mix all of the dry ingredients in small bowl.  Apply the rub to all sides of the grouper.  Cover the grouper and place in the refrigerator until about fifteen minutes before cooking the fish.

2.  Prepare the rice.  Heat the olive oil on high heat in a deep pan with a cover.  Add the bell pepper and onion and reduce the heat to medium.  Continue to saute for a couple of minutes until the onion begins to soften.  Add the tomato and garlic and continue to saute, stirring occasionally, until the onion and bell pepper have completely softened.  Add the rice and stir constantly to slightly toast the rice.  Add the water and the wine, stir to make sure that the rice is covered by the liquid and bring to a boil.  Once the liquid is boiling, cover the pan, reduce the heat, and let it simmer until the liquid is absorbed by the rice.  Check occasionally to make sure that the rice is cooked through.  If the liquid is absorbed but the rice is still not cooked, add more liquid, about 1/2 cup at a time until the rice is al dente.

3.  Cook the fish.   Heat the broiler in the oven.  Place the fish under the broiler.  While the fish is cooking, toast the almonds in a pan (without any oil or butter) over high heat for about a minute, shaking consistently to avoid burning.  After about seven minutes, flip the fish and cook for about seven minutes more or until the internal temperature reaches about 145 degrees Fahrenheit.   Remove from the heat.

4.  Plate the dish.  Place some rice on the bowl.  Place the fish over the rice and garnish with the almonds and cilantro. 


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Grilled Turkey Thighs with Lemon-Garlic Asparagus and Roasted Potatoes

Turkeys are tough birds.  This is a truism both while the birds are alive and after their death.  Both wild and domesticated turkeys have an aggressive disposition.  The bird's behavior has been documented numerous times, like the case of a wild turkey named Godzilla who harasses a homeowner in Detroit or the turkeys who chase after runners in the neighborhoods of Boston.  While turkeys may be beautiful in appearance, they are very nasty in character.  

Turkeys can be difficult in death as they can be when they are alive.  They can present a lot of challenges to cooks, who sometimes struggle to present a dish of juicy, tender meat for their guests.  This is especially true when it comes to cooking turkey breasts.  The breast meat can dry out very fast, requiring brines to ensure that the meat remains moist and flavorful.  

By contrast, turkey thighs are much easier to work with as a cook.  The main reason is that the fat content in the thighs is higher than in the breast, making the meat a little more forgiving when being cooked.  That fat also provides a lot more flavor than what can be found in the breast.  For these reasons, I have used thighs for a number of recipes, including Turkey Paella, Beer Braised Turkey Tacos with Chipotle Guacamole, and Turkey Biryani.

While I love all of those recipes, my favorite way of cooking turkey is using the grill.   I have grilled turkey thighs on a number of occasions, including when I made Batali-Style Turkey Thighs with Snap Peas and Agliata.   I prefer grilling to other methods of cooking, such as braising or roasting, because it is easier to get the skin to become crispy without drying out the meat.  For this reason, I am always trying to think of new and different ways to grill turkey thighs, which led to this recipe.

I started with the idea of creating a rub that has an Italian inspiration.  The combination of flavors -- onion, garlic, rosemary, thyme and crushed red pepper -- is perhaps a classic in Italian grilling.   It is one that can easily be used to grill steak or chicken.  It also works very well with turkey thighs. 

One cannot serve turkey alone, so I needed some sides.  Given I was using the grill, I decided to make some asparagus because grilling asparagus is my preferred way of preparing the vegetable.  I also made a potato dish, but, given that grill space would be taken up with turkey thighs and eventually asparagus, I chose to roast the potatoes in the oven while I worked on the rest of the course.  

Overall, this dish was a success.  The turkey was moist and the rub did its part to infuse flavor into the meat.  I would have liked to have gotten the skin a little crispier; but, the thighs reached the desired temperature before that could happen. When given the choice between crispy skin and moist meat, I choose the latter every time. 

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-4

Ingredients (for the turkey):
2 turkey thighs, trimmed
1 tablespoon of dried rosemary
1 tablespoon of dried thyme
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon of sea salt
1/2 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 tablespoon of onion powder
1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper

Ingredients (for the asparagus):
1 pound of asparagus
1 lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt, to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Ingredients (for the potatoes):
1 pound of small potatoes, washed and halved
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1/2 cup of olive oil
1 tablespoon of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Freshly ground pepper

 1.   Roast the potatoes.  Bring a pot of hot water to a boil.  Add the potatoes and boil until the potatoes start to become tender.  Drain the potatoes and allow them to cool.  Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, place them in a bowl with the olive oil and garlic.  Mix thoroughly so that the oil covers the potatoes.  Season liberally with salt and pepper.  Heat an oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and spread the potatoes out on a non-stick pan.  Roast the potatoes in the oven for about 7 to 8 minutes.  Flip the potatoes and continue to roast until they are fork-tender, yet crisp.

2.  Prepare the turkey and asparagus.  Grind the rosemary, thyme, black pepper and sea salt.  Place ground mixture in a small bowl and add garlic powder, onion powder and crushed red pepper.  Mix thoroughly.  Rinse the turkey thighs and dry them well.  Apply the rub to all parts of the turkey thighs.  Wrap and refrigerate for two to three hours.  Trim the asparagus and place in a ziplock bag with the olive oil, garlic powder and lemon juice.  Season with freshly ground black pepper and salt.  

3.  Grill the turkey and asparagus.  Heat the grill on medium high heat.  Grill the turkey thighs, skin side facing up for about ten minutes.  Flip the thighs and continue to cook for about eight to ten minutes, until the turkey approaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees.  During the last five minutes of the grilling, grill the asparagus, turning occasionally to prevent burning and remove the asparagus as soon as they have softened and crisped along the edges.

4.  Finish the dish.  Once the temperature of the thighs is between 160 to 165, remove the turkey thighs from the grill and tent with some foil.  Allow the turkey thighs to rest for about five to ten minutes.  Slice the thighs and portion out the slices on the plates.  Serve immediately with the some of the roasted potatoes (garnished with the parsley) and grilled asparagus. 


Friday, June 6, 2014

Good People

Legally brewed since 2008.  That's what it says on the can.  The story goes back to the Prohibition era, when many states -- such as Alabama -- passed laws prohibiting the brewing of alcoholic beverages in one's home, along with laws prohibiting the production of beverages with alcohol contents over a very low threshold.  If someone were to brew a beer, like an India Pale Ale with an ABV of 7.1%, that person would be violating not one, but two laws.  Laws that carried fines and prison time as punishment. 

However, Alabama is no different than any other state when it comes to craft beer.  There are people who want more than the High Life. They would prefer that it is Imperial.  In 2008, craft beer lovers were able to get the Prohibition era laws repealed, opening the way for craft brewers to begin brewing anything from a session beer to a Russian imperial stout.  This set the stage for Good People to emerge.

Good People sold its first keg on July 4, 2008.  Since then, the brewers have developed an offering that includes a pale ale, brown ale, an India Pale Ale, a double IPA, and a stout.  Recently, my beautiful Angel's father brought a six pack of the IPA for us to enjoy during our family vacation. 

The brewers at Good People produce the IPA with 2-Row malts and 5 specialty grains, along with 5 different types of hops.  The hops are Columbus, Willamette, Cascade, Simcoe and Citra.  Add a Californian ale yeast, and the end result of the brewing process is a beer with a hazy, golden color and a strong, thick foam.  The five hops make their presence known in the aroma and taste of the beer.  Citrus notes, such as grapefruit and tangerine, are in the nose of this beer.  Some malt notes can be detected in the background, but the aroma is hop driven.  As is the taste.  When I first tried this beer, I could easily detect the citrusy notes of grapefruit and lemon.  However, I also sensed a sweetness in the beer, which could have been the result of the grains used in the malt.  As I drank the beer, the hop-centric elements of the flavor became much more prominent and that sweetness faded into memory.

Good People beers are available in Alabama and have a limited distribution.  If you are lucky enough to have someone who can get his (or her) hands on a six pack of the IPA, it is definitely worth it. 


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Pan-Seared Bluefish with Rainbow Chard, Fingerling Potatoes and Oysters

During a recent vacation in the Outer Banks, I went on a fishing trip with my beautiful Angel and her father, Frank.  The charter took us fishing on the Pamlico Sound.  We were fishing for grey trout, flounder, redfish and bluefish. While I enjoy fishing for all of those species, the one that intrigued me the most is the bluefish. 

Bluefish are a migratory, open-water species of fish that can be found in every ocean and in many waterways.  The species goes by different names around the world ... they are called "tailor" in Australia, "shad" in South Africa and by other names such as "elf," "chopper" and "anchoa" in other parts of the world.  Chopper is an apt name for this species, because it has a reputation for being a voracious predator, striking at anything with its triangular, razor-sharp teeth.  Schools of bluefish -- known as "blitzes" -- have been known to relentlessly chase their prey, which includes butterfish, herring, weak fish and croakers.  In the Chesapeake Bay, bluefish feast upon bay anchovies, white perch, American shad, and alewife. 

The best way to catch a bluefish is by handline fishing, although that has proven tricky for me (because I have yet to catch one).  If one were to catch a bluefish, he or she would be greeted by a beautiful creature.  The bluefish has  a large head, compressed body and broad, forked tail.  The color of its skin starts as a greenish-blue and fades to a white tone on its belly.  If you come across bluefish in a store, you should look to see if it was caught by handline, as that is the most sustainable way of catching this fish.  However, Seafood Watch advises that bluefish caught by bottom gillnet or bottom-line trawl are a good alternative, although there are some concerns about by-catch. 

Once you have a bluefish in your hands, the fish provides very meaty fillets that are excellent for cooking.  Bluefish fillets are amenable to many different processes, such as pan-searing, broiling, baking, and even grilling.  They also provide a great palate for a variety of herbs and spices.  

This dish represents an attempt myself to create a special dish for my beautiful Angel. The centerpiece is pan-seared bluefish.  However, there are a few additional elements.  There are fingerling potatoes, which I sliced into coins to facilitate the cooking of the potatoes.  There is rainbow chard, which is wilted in a mixture of butter, oil and white wine.  Finally, there are raw oysters, which are added at the end of the cooking process so that they cook just a little before being served.  (Oysters can quickly overcook and become tough and chewy.)  

This dish truly challenged me, because I do not have formal training and the different elements have different means of being cooked, require different times for cooking and are difficult to put together in one combined dish.  This recipe remains a work in progress and I will tweak it based upon my subsequent efforts.   

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-4

1 pound of bluefish, cut into even sized fillets
1/2 pint of oysters
1 pound of fingerling potatoes, sliced thinly into coins
1 bunch of rainbow chard, washed, de-stemmed 
1 cup of yellow onions, diced finely
4 cloves of garlic, diced finely
1/4 cup of white wine
5 tablespoons of butter
6 ounces of olive oil
1 bay leaf
Several sprigs of thyme
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1.  Cook the potatoes.  Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 ounces of olive oil in a pan.  Add the onions and garlic.  Cook until the onions begin to soften, about three to four minutes.  Add the potatoes, bay leaf and thyme.  Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes begin to cook through.  Remove from the heat.

2.  Prepare the fish.  Season the fish with salt and pepper.  Heat 1 tablespoons of butter and 2 ounces of oil in a second pan over high heat. Place the fillet flesh side down in the pan and reduce the heat to medium high or medium.  Make sure that the fish does not stick to the pan.  Cook the fish for about three minutes and then flip the fish so that the fish is skin side down.  Continue cooking the fish until it is cooked through, with the flesh being opaque and the internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. 

3.  Cook the chard.  While the fish is cooking, return the pan with the potatoes to the heat.  Add the remaining butter and/or oil if necessary.  Add the chard and white wine and continue to cook for a couple of minutes.  As the chard begins to evaporate, add the oysters and cook only until the oysters begin to become opaque.  Remove the pan from the stove.

4.  Plate the dish.  Plate each of the dishes with the potatoes and shard.  Place the bluefish over the potatoes and shard, and, the oysters around the bluefish.  Return the pan to the heat on high for a couple of minutes to cook down the remaining pan sauce.  Spoon the sauce over the fish and serve immediately.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sam Adams' Sahti

Sahti.  For many a craft beer aficionado, it is a Norse legend.  A beer that one may have heard about, but has never seen on the shelves of the local beer store.  Yet, Michael Jackson -- the legendary beer writer -- has described the Sahti as "the only primitive beer to survive in Western Europe."   According to Brewing Techniques, the brewing process traveled from Western Europe to Finland and was in full swing by the 1400s, when the territory was part of the Kingdom of Sweden.

As Brewing Techniques further explains, Finland served as Sweden's strategic entrenchment against its rival during the 1400s and 1500s, which was Russia.  Sweden built castles, around which towns developed in localities of strategic importance. These towns were separated by quite a distance, which led to the building of a network of inns and royal estates.  These inns provided board and lodging for ordinary travelers, whereas the royal estates served those in royal service. Each inn and estate brewed its own beer on the premises, while the royal estates served as model farms for the peasantry.  This network provided the created the foundation for peasants to learn the craft of brewing beer.

Finnish peasants began to brew Sahti in the 1500s and the Sahti developed varying characteristics depending upon the part of Finland where it was being brewed. Despite its regional variations, the one thing that defines a Sahti is the use of juniper.  As Michael Jackson notes, the twigs from a juniper bush are used in the filter bed of the bottom of the lauter tun and are also infused in the brewing water.  Juniper berries are used in place of or alongside with hops. Today, many Finns still brew the beer, using the same equpment as their brewers in the past, namely, woodfire-heated kettles and saunas for mash tuns.  The result is that one could taste a beer today just as it looked and tasted back in the 1500s. 

I tried a Sahti once as part of a beer tasting hosted by Garrett Oliver and the National Geographic.  The theme of the tasting was Scandanavian beers.  Since that time, I have looked everywhere to find a Finnish Sahti.  To date, I have been unsuccessful.  However, American brewers have begun to brew this rather unique style of beer.  Dogfish Head has brewed a Sah'tea, which is a cross between the Sahti and Chai tea.  Although I have thought about reviewing that beer, I wanted to have my first Sahti review focus on a traditional Sahti.  I eventually found a beer brewed by Sam Adams that represents an effort to brew such a beer.  The beer was the Norse Legend.

Sam Adams brews the Norse Legend with a 2 Row Pale Malt blend, rye, special B and aromatic malts, along with Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops.  The brewers also use juniper berries during the brewing process and age the beer on those berries as well. 

The Norse Legend pours a reddish brown color, this a relatively thin foam that recedes gradually as the beer sits in the glass.  Given that the central characteristic of a Sahti is the use of juniper berries, those berries are featured prominently in both the aroma and taste of the beer.  The Sam Adams brewers use of the various malts add differing layers of bread and biscuit tones to both the aroma and the taste.  This work leads to Sam Adams' effort to resemble a more traditional Sahti.  (According to what I read, traditional Sahti's are not brewed with hops.)  For what I could find in the Sahti style, this was a very good beer.

I had hoped to pair this Norse Legend with a dinner featuring Finnish cuisine, but the dinner never materialized.  (As a result, the beer sat on our beer shelves for a while.) Nevertheless, the beer still exhibited the aromas and tastes that one would expect from a Sahti beer.  One does not have to prepare a Finnish dinner to enjoy the beer, as the brewers suggest that it would pair well with Scallops Eschabesh, Irish Red Brined Pork Chops and pizza.

Sam Adams is not currently brewing this beer.  If they start again, it is definitely worth a purchase for beer connoisseurs like myself, who struggle to find beers of very specific styles.