Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Sprecher Series: Part One ... the Enkel

My wonderful family and I took a little road trip across the Midwestern United States.  The trip took us through Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Chicago, Illinois.  However, our destination was Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where there happens to be a Sprecher Brewpub.  

We stopped by the brewpub for lunch and to sample some of the beers.  As we left, I picked up a four pack of Sprecher beers.   The four pack was the brewery's Belgian series.  The series includes an Enkel, a Dubbel and Tripel and a Quadrupel.  

It is the first time that I have seen a brewery package the beers in a Belgian series, so I decided that I would do a beer review for each one.  The Sprecher Series.  This is the first review, which is of the first beer in the series.  The beer is the "Belgian Enkel."

This, of course, leads me to a question: just what is an "Enkel."  As it turns out, an "Enkel" is the first in the series of beers brewed by Trappist Monks.  It is a light beer, made using the monks' basic recipe.  It is much lighter than the other beers in the series, such as the dubbel and the tripel.  Those latter beers are more well known because, as it turns out, Trappist Monks do not brew or sell Enkels anymore.   Instead, the monks brew beers like the Blonde (La Trappe) or the 6 (Rochefort).  Even if they did brew an Enkel, the monks would keep the beer for their own consumption, making an Enkel basically a patersbier.  

Sprecher's Enkel pours a bright, hay color, wiht a thin, milky foam.  That foam provides a persistent haze or cloud over the surface of the beer.  The aromatic elements are principally malty in character.  Light bread or biscuit notes, but little more.  The lightness carries through to the body of the beer, whose taste carries through the malt.  The taste of the beer does go beyond the traditional malt elements.  There are some notes of flowers or fresh grass in the flavor of the beer.  These additional notes provide some complexity in what is an otherwise straight forward beer, low ABV (5.3%) beer.

Overall, this beer is a good example of that first step in the Belgian progression.  It is definitely good for someone who likes a light, easy-to-drink beer.  The reviews of the other beers in Sprecher's Series will be forthcoming.  Until then ...


Saturday, December 23, 2017

La Vigilia and the Feast of Seven Fishes

My beautiful family will be celebrating the  Christmas holiday at home this year.  Both my beautiful Angel and myself have our Christmas traditions.  For example, my Angel's family incorporates Italian sausage into their tradition, something which is an important part of the Christmas tradition in the Italian community in Birmingham, Alabama. My family had a Christmas tradition of a multi-course dinner on Christmas Eve, with a plate of antipasta, Italian wedding soup, and homemade pasta and meatballs.   I love all of these traditions, which, over time, have built up a lot of good memories of fun times and great food. Given all of those memories, I have to admit that I thought about adhering to them for our Christmas holiday at home.

But, I am also someone who is willing to try new things and, perhaps, make new traditions.  This is why I decided to prepare the Feast of the Seven Dishes, an Italian-American tradition. The tradition derives from the Roman Catholic obligation of abstaining from eating meat on Christmas Eve.  Thus, Italians would eat a meal fish and other seafood.  If one was in Italy for the holiday, he or she would not hear Italians talk about the Feast of Seven Fishes.  They would speak of La Vigilia.

But, this post is not about the history of the feast.  Instead, it is about what I want to make for this Christmas Eve.  It will also serve as a culinary challenge, part of my personal challenge to make a main course as part of the Around in the World in 80 Dishes.  But I am taking this challenge to a whole new level.  Rather than make one main course, I will make 7 courses.  I have decided to make an Italian feast for La Vigilia.  This challenge involves the preparation of a course from 7 different regions of Italy featuring 7 different seafoods. The map to the right provides a guide for this challenge. I have spent a lot of time paging through my Italian cookbooks, as well as watching a lot of Iron Chef (Japan).  The cookbooks provided me with the actual recipes from across the country of Italy, while Iron Chef (Japan) filled me with inspiration to make culinary masterpieces so my cuisine will reign supreme.

One other note about this menu.  Seven dishes is a lot of food.   More than most people could eat.  Therefore, most of the courses will be prepared and served in a tapas style.  The final dish will be a main course and serve as the main dish that will satisfy the challenge.  So, without further ado, here is the (tentative) menu:

Polenta Pasticciata al Gamberi (Polenta with Shrimp)

The first course starts in the northeastern corner of Italy, in the region of Friuli Venezia Gulia.  The course will be a very simple dish of baked polenta with shrimp, surrounded by a sauce of garlic, mushrooms, parsley and white while.  While I could make the polenta, I bought some from the store to save time.  After all, I still have six dishes to make.  (Culinaria Italia 19)

Ostriche Arrosto (Broiled Oysters)

The second course takes us all the way down the eastern coast of Italy to Apulia (or Puglia).  The course will be Ostriche Arrosto or Broiled Oysters.  Freshly shucked oysters topped with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic and oregano.  A little lemon juice and olive oil are drizzled over the oysters before they are placed under the broiler to cook.  (Culinaria Italia 373)

Polpette di Pesce in Umido (Fish Meatballs in Broth)

The third course takes us inland to the region of Umbria.  It just did not seem right to simply make seafood courses from regions with coastlines.  So this course is a challenge: to take a traditional Umbrian dish -- polpette in umido  -- and make a seafood version.  Freshwater fish fillets would be made into meatballs and stewed in a broth made from seafood stock.  (Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy 196-97).

Cozze allo Zaffrano (Mussels with Saffron) 

The fourth course requires us to travel to Abruzzo, which has a coastline along the Adriatic Sea.  The course will be Cozze allo Zafferano or Mussels with Saffron.  This recipe is a nod to the Abruzzese region, which is the only region where saffron is cultivated.  Ironically, the Abruzzesi do not use saffron a lot in their cooking, and they often make Pepatia di Cozzi, or a version of this dish using diavoletto, or spicy pepper flakes.  (Food & Memories of Abruzzo 21)

Calamari Piccanti  (Spicy Calamari)

The fifth course takes us to the southwestern coast of Italy, to the region of Calabria.  The dish is a very simple one of spicy calamari, sauteed on a hot skillet and served with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and salt.  (Lidia Cooks form the Heart of Italy 339)

Insalata di Polpo e Patate (Octopus and Potato Salad)

The sixth course takes us to the island of Sardegna or Sardinia.  The course is an Octopus and Potato Salad.  The octopus is combined with gold potatoes, and, it is then mixed with flat parsley leaves and thinly sliced red onions.  The salad is dressed with white wine vinegar and olive oil, and finished with freshly cracked black pepper and celery leaves. (How to Eataly 240)

Cuscusu (Couscous with Fish)

The final course will be the main course, coming from the Island of Sicily.  It is a classic seafood dish of fish fillets served over couscous.  This dish brings together the myriad of culinary influences that have made Sicilian cooking what it is today.  (Regional Italian Cuisine 288-289)

It is an ambitious menu, but I've already got a couple of the dishes in the works and a whole lot of hacks and shortcuts to make the preparation easier.  I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Around the World in 80 Dishes: China

Although it may not seem like it, I have been working on my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes.  There are at least 3 challenges in the works, at various stages of research, planning and execution.  However, there was one that came out of nowhere and has reached completion before any other challenge.  It is China.  

Theoretically, the preparation of a main dish from China would be an extremely difficult challenge for me.  The reason lies in the research and planning.  Chinese cuisine varies greatly from region to region.  From Sichuan to Hebei or Gansu to Hunnan, China could present a complete challenge on its own.  The mere thought of choosing one main dish from a country that has multiple cuisines would bog down the planning for days, weeks and even months.  Yet, that did not happen in this case.  And the reason is simple: my beautiful Angel bought me a whole halal duck from Costco.  With that duck, I had my challenge ... to make Peking Duck, which is considered by many to be a national dish of China. 


The history of the Peking Duck begins, not in Peking (or Beijing), but in Nanjiang, the capital of the Jiangsu province.  The dish was first recorded as an imperial dish of the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled China from Nanjiang from 1206 A.D. to 1368 A.D.  The reference was made in 1330 by an inspector of the imperial kitchen, Hu Shihui, who noted the dish as an imperial dish in Yinshang Zehngyao (The Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor's Food and Drink).  According to the Oxford Companion to Food (page 594), the dish "originally meant a Nanjiang duck, of small size and black feathers, not artificially fattened."

When the Ming Dynasty Yongle emperor moved the Chinese capital from Nanjiang to Peking (and later Beijing), the roasted duck dish followed.  It continued to appear on the menu of the Imperial Court, and, eventually made its way out of the palace and onto the streets during the Jiajing reign, which was from 1522 A.D. to 1566 A.D., when the first roasted duck restaurant -- known as the Old Bianyifang Restaurant -- opened in Peking.  The restaurant changed the method of preparing the duck.  Previously, the duck was hung from the ceiling and roasted over coals.  The Old Bianyifang restaurant heated the walls of its ovens burning sorghum stalks and then cooked the ducks using the radiant heat from the walls.  The result was a roasted duck with whose skin was "crisp to the touch and golden brown" while its flesh was "tender and tasty."

Peking Duck (picture from East County Zoo)
The Old Bianyifang method of preparing the duck is not the only one.  While there are many ways to prepare Peking Duck (or Beijing Kaoya as it is known in China), the Oxford Companion to Food notes (at page 594) there are several common features to the roasting of the duck.  The first feature is the duck itself.  It must be a Peking duck (which is a species of Mallard Duck), two months old and fed a special diet until it weighs about five to six pounds.  The second feature involves the preparation of the duck.  After the bird has been dispatched, air is pumped between the skin and the body so that the bird is inflated.  The  internal organs are removed, the bird is blanched in boiling water, and coated with maltrose, which helps to give the skin a darker color.  The third feature of the process involves plugging the lower orifice of the bird and filling the cavity with boiling water to about 80%.  After that, the bird is ready for roasting in a special, wood-burning oven.  The wood used to roast the duck would often be date, peach or pear wood.  

Roasting Duck (picture from Robb Report)
All of these "common" features illustrate the rather laborious process of preparing the duck for roasting.  Fortunately, I found a recipe that included a few shortcuts.  Rather than blanching the bird or filling its cavity with boiling water, the recipe calls for pouring the boiling water all over the bird, including its cavity.  Once the duck is rinsed with the boiling water, a glaze is prepared and brushed over the duck.  I likened it to painting the duck, applying the glaze to both the exterior and interior of the bird.   After the glaze dried, I continued to apply coats of the glaze until there was just a few tablespoons left.  The bird marinated overnight and, prior to roasting, a final coat of the glaze was applied and the rest was saved for basting during the roasting process.  The final result was a beautiful bird, pictured above.   

As for service, Peking Duck is usually accompanied by thin, crepe-like pancakes known as heye bing or Mandarin-style pancakes.  I searched for those pancakes at a local Asian store, but was unable to find them.  While I could have perhaps made the thin pancakes myself, I decided to use shallot pancakes.  The shallot pancakes are definitely thicker than the Mandarin-style pancakes.  This thickness actually worked better for me because it helped to hold the duck with the sauce, scallions and cucumbers.

Recipe from Ching-He Huang
Available at the Cooking Channel
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the duck):
1 whole duck (5 to 6 pounds)
Sea Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Ingredients (for the sauce):
1 tablespoon corn starch
6 tablespoons hoisin sauce
6 tablespoons super fine sugar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 package Chinese/Mandarin-style pancakes
3 scallions, sliced into long strips for garnish
1 cucumber, cored and sliced into long thin strips, for garnish

1.  Prepare the duck.   Prick the duck all over with a small knife or fork.  Carefully pour hot water over the duck to rinse.  Discard the hot water.  Place the duck on a rack in a roasting pan and dry all over with salt and pepper and leave it in the roasting pan until ready to cook.  

2.  Continue preparing the duck.  In a small bowl, mix together the honey, 6 tablespoons water, five-spice, soy sauce and brown sugar.  Brush the duck all over, inside and out.  Let dry for about 10 minutes and then brush again.  Repeat this process until you have used all but 4 to 5 tablespoons of the glaze (reserve the remainder).  Ideally, let the glaze marinate on the duck overnight, leaving it uncovered in the fridge. 

3.  Roast the duck.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the duck in the oven and cook for 45 minutes. Flip the duck over, baste with the reserved glaze and cook until the skin is crisp and golden dark.  If it is getting too dark before half the cook time is up, turn your heat down and lower the rack in the oven.  When the duck is cooked,  remove from the oven and let rest while you make your sauce.  

4.  Prepare the sauce.  In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon cold water and set aside.  Next, heat a pan or wok over medium heat and add the hoisin, sugar, sesame oil and soy sauce.  When the sauce starts to bubble slightly, add the cornstarch mixture and stir will to thicken.  Set aside and let it cool.  

5.  Finish the dish.  Carve and slice some duck.  Place a teaspoon of the sauce in the center of each pancake, add a couple slices of duck, garnish with scallions and cucumbers.  Serve immediately.

*     *     * 

In the end, I think that the preparation of the Peking Duck was a success.  I was actually surprised at how much fat I was able to render off of the bird during the cooking process.  The finished duck had a nice color and the meat was tender.   Now that I have cooked the bird, I can turn my attention to making the Mandarin-style pancakes.  That will have to await another post.  Until then ...


Monday, December 11, 2017

A Brewery for the Working Class

For those who know me, a brewery for working people is just my type of brewery.  My day job consists of me fighting for the rights of working men and women across the United States.  So, when I heard about the appropriately named Working Class Brewery, which is located at Kamm's Corner in Cleveland, Ohio, I made sure that I would pay a visit.  Needless to say, the visit left me thinking I may have found a new place to hang out whenever I am back in C-Town.

The people behind Working Class Brewery are Richard Skains and Carmen Rusionello.   Skains was a teacher and band director for the Cleveland City School District, but his side passion is brewing beer.  As a home brewer, Skains won the Best in Show competition with his Smoked Bock made with Chipotle Peppers.  After that, Skains worked as a part-time, assistant brewer at Rocky River Brewing and Fat Heads Brewery.  (As followers of this blog know, Fat Heads is my favorite craft brewer.)  So, the working class motif along with the experience working with an expert brewer like Matt Cole of Fat Head's is definitely a combination that appeals to the beer lover in me.

The working class motif is evident throughout the tap room.  There are the black and white pictures of working people, separated by logos of various international and local unions, including the International Union of Operating Engineers, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, the Bakery, Confectionary and Tobacco Workers, and the International Association of Machinists.   The names of the beers further emphasize workers, such as the Bricklayer Brown Ale, the Oil Rigger Chocolate Stout, and the Pipefitters Porter.  

The beers also underscore what I think is the Fat Heads inspiration.  Working Class Brewery has a wide range of beer styles that pour from the re-purposed tap handles (which were anchor bolts from the brewing system). The styles that include, but are not limited to, an American blonde, a brown ale, a dunkelweiss, a pale ale, an IPA, a porter, a smoked porter, a chocolate stout, a Russian imperial stout and a tripel.  They even had a radler, which is a rarity on brewery tap lists.  

Given the wide range of beer styles, I decided to do a five beer sampler.  (I would have tried a ten beer sampler but for the fact that I had a beer or two at lunch.)   The five beers that I chose were the Snow Job Christmas Ale (which was released on the day that I visited the tap room), the Bricklayer Brown Ale, the Aviator IPA, the Pipefitter's Porter, and the Overtime Session IPA.

All of the beers were excellent, with each one fitting very well within its style.  I had to go ahead and try individual samplers of the two beers that could not be included with a five beer sampler.  These were the Bank Boss Tripel and the the Cube Done Russian Imperial Stout.  Once again, the brewers hit the mark for each of the style.

It is rare to go to a brewery taproom and leave with the conclusion that all of the beers sampled are excellent.   They exist, like Fatheads Brewery in Ohio, D.C. Brau in Washington, D.C. and Jailbreak Brewing in Maryland.  Now, I can add Working Class Brewing to that list.  If you happen to be in the Kamm's Corner neighborhood, the Working Class taproom is definitely worth the visit.  Until next time ...


Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Ultimate French Dip Sandwich

Without question, my favorite sandwich is the French Dip sandwich.  You can ask my Angel ... if the menu has a french dip sandwich, the odds are that I will order it.   There is something about a sandwich, piled relatively high with thin slices of meat, that is dipped in a bowl of warm au jus that appeals to me.  That is, if it is done right.

Most French Dip sandwiches that I have tried -- and I have tried many sandwiches -- fall short.  The beef is too dried and/or too processed.  The au jus is too watered down or too salty.  What is my favorite sandwich turns out to be one big disappointment.  Time and time again.

So, one of my cooking bucket list items has been to make the ultimate French Dip sandwich.  Before we go further, let's be clear ... the ultimate French Dip sandwich in my opinion.  I don't care about anyone else's opinion on this subject.  And I am not trying to recreate the original.  My goal has been to make the French Dip sandwich that I believe to be the best in my rather humble opinion.

In order to achieve that goal, I need to know what I am about to cook.  The French Dip sandwich originated, as the story goes, with the sandwich shop known as Philippe's the Original in Los Angeles, California.  Nearly 100 years ago, in 1918, the owner -- Philippe Mathieu -- was preparing a sandwich for a police officer when he dropped it in a pan with hot cooking juices.  The police officer ate the sandwich anyway and, the rest, as they say, is history.  Or is it?  At least one other restaurant claims to be the one who first made the sandwich.  That story is even older, going back to 1908.  The restaurant, Cole's, was serving a guest who had no teeth.  The cook dipped the sandwich in the hot cooking juices to make it easier for the guest to eat.  Whether it started with a police officer or a toothless guest, the French Dip sandwich has become one of the iconic American sandwiches. After all, Philippe's now serves 4,000 sandwiches per day.

There are three components to a French Dip sandwich.  First, the bread.  It should be a crusty French roll.  This is important because it provides a crispness on the outside, which holds the sandwich together.  It also provides a soft inside, which will absorb the juices.  Second, the meat.  Philippe's uses bottom round roasts, which are roasted with a sort of mirepoix -- celery, carrots, and onions -- along with a lot of garlic, herbs and spices.  Finally, there is the au jus.  Once again, Philippe's creates the jus by making a beef stock from bones, onions, carrots, celery, leeks, herbs and spices.   The jus is finished with the cooking juices from the roasts.   

In my quest to make the ultimate French Dip sandwich, I focused on all three components.  I first bought some freshly baked rolls for the bread.  The filling for these sandwiches would not be bottom round.  Rather, I decided to go for the top of the line ... ribeye.  I also decided that I would not simply roast the meat.  Instead, I would smoke it, using cherry wood.  This wood would impart a lighter smoke flavor to the meat, providing an additional dimension with respect to the flavor. My recipe for smoking a rib roast can be found here, all you need to change is the wood.  Finally, the au jus would be what I really like it.  There would be a lot of beefiness in the jus, as I started with some bone marrow, which I use in combination with a little butter to saute onions and garlic.  I then added some beef stock, fresh herbs (rosemary and thyme) and a little red wine (an inexpensive Burgundy works very well).  I cooked down the liquid to concentrate the flavors.  The end result is not just any French Dip sandwich.  It is what I believe to be, in my humble opinion, the ultimate French Dip sandwich.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the prime rib meat):
4 sub rolls, partially split lengthwise
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 cups thinly sliced smoked prime rib 
1/2 cups of au jus

Ingredients (for the jus):
2 tablespoons of butter
4 cups beef stock
1 cup red wine (burgundy, if possible)
1 onion, very thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
4 marrow bones, roasted

1.  Toast the bread. Adjust the oven rack to the middle upper position of the stove.  Pre-heat the broiler.  Brush the interior of the sub rolls with oil  Arrange the rolls, oiled-side up, on a baking sheet.  Broil until golden brown, about 1 minute. 

2.  Heat the meat.  Combine prime rib and jus in skillet over medium heat, about 5 minutes.

3.  Finish the dish.  Pile some of the thinly sliced prime rib upon the sub roll.  Serve with a small bowl of au jus for dipping.  


Friday, December 1, 2017

The 7 Locks of Maryland

If you live in the DMV (that is, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia), you should know about the seven (7) locks.  I knew that the 7 locks are locks of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal.  A lock is used to raise or lower vessels between different stretches of a river or a canal.  The 7 locks refer to Lock Numbers 8 through 14, which are located on a one and one-quarter mile stretch of the C&O Canal.  It begins with Lock 8, located just south of the Clara Barton Parkway in Cabin John, Maryland, and ends with Lock 14, which just beyond Interstate 495.  A walk along the paths that connect those locks provides one with an insight into a chapter of our transportation history that is truly remarkable.

But, this is not a blog about transportation.  It is about food and beer.  And, with respect to the latter, the 7 Locks refers to a relatively new brewery in Rockville, Maryland.  My beautiful Angel and I have visited the 7 Locks taproom a few times to sample its beers.  Standards (that is, year around offerings) like the Surrender Dorothy Rye'PA and Devils Alley IPA are very good.  However, during our last trip, we both decided to try the Oktoberfest.  Perhaps it was the season.  Perhaps it was the beer.  Actually, it was the beer, because we bought a growler of the Oktoberfest to enjoy at home.  

According to the brewers, the Oktoberfest is "[a]n American take on the traditional German Marzen style."  According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, a Marzen an amber orange to a deep copper red color.  The 7 Locks' take does not achieve ether of those hues, taking on a more golden color.

While the Oktoberfest may not meet the BCJP's expectations of the color, it hits the mark on both the aroma and taste.  The BCJP describes a Marzen as having aromatic notes that are rich, bready and toasty.  These notes come from the heavy emphasis on the malts.  The Oktoberfest meets this part of the standard.  As for the taste, the BCJP expects that bready, toasty nature to shine through, with a little bitterness from the hops (but no hop taste). The hops are meant to balance the sweetness that could arise from the malts.  That is what takes place with this Oktoberfest.  The beer has great malt tones, which provide some bready and toasty flavors.   While the brewers suggest "a hint of cherry wood smoke," I did not detect that in this beer.  

In the end, the Oktoberfest  may come closer to the BCJP's description of a Fest Bier as opposed to a Marzen.  But, who cares?  It is a very good beer and one that I'll be back for next year.  

Until next time....