Monday, December 27, 2021

Brother Thelonius

"If you want to understand the meaning of bebop, you have to understand the meaning of freedom." 

Thelonius Monk

For many years, Thelonius Monk wrote and performed music in an improvisational and unorthodox style. His music clearly and unquestionably demonstrated that he understood the meaning of freedom. That understanding gave rise to songs such as Straight, No Chaser, Epistrophy, Blue Monk and Round Midnight. As David Graham once observed in The Atlantic, Monk's "catalog - some 60 to 70 songs, many of them familiar to even moderately serious jazz fans - form the spine of contemporary repertoire." Indeed, Monk's song, Round Midnight, stands as the most recorded jazz composition of all time ... and, for good reason. 

Yet, not everyone was a fan of Monk's music.  One jazz critic described Monk as "an elephant on the keyboard." Yet, that is what makes Monk so special. He flattened his fingers when playing notes, sometimes hitting a single key with two fingers or splitting single line melodies with both hands. Yet, to some, Monk "adjusted his finger pressure on the keys the way baseball pitchers do to the ball to make its path bend, curve or dip in flight."  Sometimes there would be chord changes in Monk's music that seem wrong or out of place. To Monk, those chords were "the logical result of countless hours of musical exploration." 

For years, North Coast Brewing has honored the legendary jazz artist with a Belgian style abbey ale known as the Brother Thelonius. The beer is described as a "Belgian Style Abbey Ale," which does not lend itself to categorization in what is a realm of well defined beer styles - such as the Belgian dubbel, tripel or quadrupel. Perhaps that was intentional, a nod to an artist who sought to free himself from conventional labels.

As for the beer, I am reminded of a quote by Thelonius Monk: "the piano ain't got no wrong notes." The same can be said for North Coast's Brother Thelonius. The beer pours a reddish brown to amber, with a slight layer of foam as the beer is poured into the glass. The aromatic elements of the beer fit quite nicely into the Belgian styles. There are the yeast notes, which are accompanied by scents of banana and sugar. Those latter notes carry through to the taste, which has the  same sensory effects on the tongue as Thelonius Monk playing Sweet and Lovely. There are other elements in the taste of the Brother Thelonius, such as notes of figs and caramel, along with just a faint sense of the hops in the background.

The Brother Thelonious is very much the tribute to Thelonius Monk, as complicated and deep of a beer as Monk was a jazz artist. The beer sells for approximately $12.99 for a four pack of 12 ounce bottles or $8.99 for a 750 ml bottle. It is totally worth it, especially if you do what I do and enjoy the beer while listening to Monk playing in the background. 


Saturday, December 18, 2021

Fennel Rubbed Leg of Lamb with Walnut Romesco Sauce

Julia Child once remarked, "you don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces, just good food from fresh ingredients." That is what fueled this recipe. I was looking for a way to make a really good lamb dish, but I wanted a recipe that is easy to make. 

In the end, I used two recipes. The first recipe was for lamb meatballs with a Romesco sauce. I had no intention to make lamb meatballs.  I actually had a boneless leg of lamb, but the thought of pairing that meat with a Romesco sauce seemed to be the perfect idea.

As an aside, a Romesco sauce originated in the Catalonian province of Tarragona.  It is a sauce prepared by fishermen to be eaten with fish. The basic ingredients for a Romesco sauce include tomatoes, garlic, nuts (typically almonds, pine nuts, or hazelnuts), nyora peppers (a small round red pepper) and olive oil. Beyond those ingredients, there is no standard recipe. Romesco sauces vary by region, by cook and even by ingredients. Thus, one could easily swap almonds with walnuts, or substitute a nyora pepper with a standard red bell pepper or another type of pepper. That is the beauty with a Romesco sauce. One could also add other ingredients, such as sherry vinegar and chipotle pepper, to add additional layers of flavor to the sauce.

I decided to use the walnut Romesco sauce from the lamb meatball recipe; however, I still needed a recipe for the leg of lamb itself.  I found a recipe that had the rub I wanted to use: a simple mixture of fennel and garlic, combined with black pepper and crushed red pepper. I decided to include the parts of the recipe that called for carrots and added some potatoes to the roast. The rest of it is relatively easy: preheat the oven,  put the rub on the lamb, sear the lamb, stick the lamb in the oven, roast until it reaches 135 degrees Fahrenheit, pull it out to rest, and dinner is almost ready to be served. 


Recipes adapted from Epicurious

Serves 6-8

Ingredients (for the Romesco Sauce):

  • 1/2 tablespoon chopped walnuts
  • 1 small red bell pepper, halved, seeds removed
  • 1 medium tomato, cored
  • 1 garlic clove, unpeeled
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder or chile powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • Kosher salt

Ingredients (for the lamb):

  • Kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 4 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely grated
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 1/2 pounds small or medium carrots with tops
  • 1 bag of small mixed potatoes, sliced in half


1. Make the romesco sauce. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Toast walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Toss bell pepper tomato and garlic with oil on a clean rimmed baking sheet and roast until browned and softened about 20-25 minutes. Let cool.  Remove skin from bell pepper, tomato and garlic, discard.  Puree walnuts, bell pepper, tomato, garlic, oil, vinegar, chipotle chile powder, parsley and paprika in a food processor until smooth. Season with salt and ground black pepper. 

2. Prepare the rub for the lamb.  Using a mortar and pestle, coarsely grind fennel seeds and red pepper flakes. Transfer to a small bowl and mix in garlic and 3 tablespoons of oil.  Evenly rub lamb all over with spice mixture, making sure to work it into every nook and cranny.

3. Sear the lamb.  Reduce the heat of the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat remaining 1/4 cup of oil in a large heavy skillet over medium. As soon as oil is hot and shimmering, add lamb to skillet and cook, carefully pouring off fat as needed into a small bowl and until golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Trim tops from carrots.  Place lamb in the center of a roasting pan, pour reserved fat over the lamb, season with salt and pepper.  Place carrots and potatoes around the lamb. 

4. Roast the lamb. Roast the lamb until an instant read thermometer registers 135 degrees for medium rare, about 75 to 90 minutes.  Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 20 minutes.  Slice the lamb in 1/2 inch slices. 


Saturday, December 11, 2021

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Turkmenistan

The history of Central Asia and the culture of its peoples are, to put it mildly, complicated. For Turkmenistan, it is tale of brutal dictatorships, beginning with Russian Czars, then followed by Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin (the latter left a truly bloody mark upon the people as he did throughout the Soviet Union). When the Soviet Union collapsed, the dictatorship continued as the communist leader at the time - Saparmurad Niyazov - continued to exercise control with an iron fist. Niyazov gave himself the title of Turkmenbashi or "the Father of all Turkmen." As the "Father," he proceeded to suppress dissent violently and closed institutions like the opera and ballet (claiming they were not Turkmen). 

When the Turkmenbashi succumbed to the one thing he could not control (that is, death), the country was not spared. Niyazov was succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who is unofficially referred to as the "Protector." Berdimuhamedow has ruled as President over Turkmenistan for the past fourteen years. Little has changed over that period of time. The government continues to be a dictatorship that is so secretive and closed off, that it is likened to North Korea.

The golden statute of the Turkmenbashi.
(Source: Souvenir Chronicles)
Those who have visited the country have painted a tightly controlled picture. The streets of the country's capital, Ashgabat, are lined with marble, as are many of the buildings.  The capital holds the world's record for the highest concentration of marble buildings, as well as the largest concentration of public fountains. Statues throughout the city (including those dedicated to the Turkmenbashi and the Protector) are adorned in gold.  Ashgabat even boasts of the largest indoor Ferris wheel, which is encased in a building that looks remarkably like it is made of marble. 

Yet, Ashgabat and Turkmenistan are not a paradise. There is substantial darkness hiding within that controlled picture. A visitor is steered by guides to where they want him to go.  Oppression permeates all aspects of life for the Turkmen people and traveling in some areas is "fraught with frustration and nonsensical bureaucracy." For example, government officials deemed air conditioning units in windows to be "unseemly," and, despite the fact that temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, ordered the removal of the units. 

Waiting in line for food (Source: Asia News)

That darkness also hides significant problems, most notably the fact that a significant portion of the population outside of the capital is impoverished. There has been an economic crisis underlying all of the marble and gold, one that has been characterized by food shortages. In April 2021, there were reports of bread shortages in the southeast of Turkmenistan. It also seemed that it was not just bread that was in short supply.  There were shortages of eggs and other poultry products. As one seller recounted, "the flour comes from the capital Asghabad and we have to buy it at 600 manat per 50 kilograms instead of 400; we pay 3.5 manat for eggs, but above all we have to bribe the guards at the checkpoints, who want more every day." 

Thus, life in Turkmenistan is now defined by standing in line for food, skyrocketing prices at private markets and shortages at state owned markets. To make matters worse, the government subjects its citizens to forced labor, such as sending children and adults, including pregnant teachers, into the field to pick cotton. Meanwhile, the government denies that there are any problems. It brings to mind the adage, "the more things change the more they stay the same." Although having freed themselves from the Soviet Union and its history of abuse and mismanagement, the Turkmen people still deal with shortages of necessities and an abundance of governmental hubris all while enduring violations of thier human rights. 


It is against this backdrop that I approach this challenge to prepare a main course from the country of Turkmenistan. The cuisine shares many similarities with those of other central Asian countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The most notable similarity is the predominance of plov or pilaf (rice with meat and vegetables). There is the legacy of Russian control, as illustrated by shashlyk (kebabs). And then there are the truly Turkmen dishes, such as ishlykly (a Turkmen version of shepherd's pie) and chegdermeh (a mixture of rice, tomato, meat and onions).  

However, I chose to prepare Dograma, which roughly translates to "chopped up."  The name is fitting because it is a shredded meat and bread stew.  I chose this meal because of its simplicity, both in terms of ingredients and preparation. In so doing, I thought that this dish as a type of cucina povera, in which struggling people would use what little they have to make the best meal possible. (This is somewhat a fantasy given the current food shortages in Turkmenistan.) In any event, it is my nod to those impoverished Turkmen peoples who cannot be seen through the dark curtains that enshroud the country. 

In terms of preparing this dish, the principal ingredients are protein and bread. The recipe called for lamb, mutton or beef. I did not have easy access to mutton (which would most likely be the protein of choice), so I went with lamb, which would have been cheaper than beef.  As for the bread, Turkmen prepare corek, which is a leavened bread cooked in an oven  similar to a tandoor.  While I thought about preparing the bread, my lack of baking skills led me to the next best thing: a bag of pita bread.  The recipe advises that pita or naan could be used for a substitute. 

This simple recipe turned out to be a very delicious one. The boiling of the lamb resulted in fork-tender morsels that were relatively easy to shred. It also produced a rather rich broth, created by the melting of the lamb fat into the broth. Perhaps the next time I will make my own corek bread for this dish.


Recipe from Whats4Eats

Serves 4


  • Mutton, lamb or beef stew meat, cubed, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds
  • 3 quarts water
  • 2-3 tomatoes, seeded & chopped
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • Naan or pita bread, 4 to 5 pieces
  • 2-3 onions, thinly sliced
  • Salt, to season
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to season


1. Boil the ingredients. Add the meat, water, tomatoes and salt a large pot and bring to a boil.  Skim off any scum that rises to the surface and then reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is cooked through and tender.

2. Tear the bread. Tear the pita or naan bread into small (1/2 inch pieces). Add the pieces of bread to a large bowl, along with the sliced onions and a good grinding of pepper. Toss and set aside to rest and mix the flavors. 

3. Shred the meat. Remove the cooked meat from the broth with a slotted spoon. Use clean hands or a fork to shred the meat.  Add the meat to with the bread and onion mixture and toss well. 

4. Finish the dish. Pour the hot meat broth over the mixture in the bowl and then cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap and set aside for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the flavors and textures to meld. Portion out into bowls and serve. 

*    *    *

My personal culinary challenge takes me on some rather interesting adventures, even to lands where cults of personality reign supreme while the masses struggle every day. The lesson of these adventures is to focus on those who struggle, learning more about a particular culture and cuisine through their eyes, as opposed to those of the Turkmenbashi or the Protector. I think I did that with this particular challenge. Until next time ...


Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The IPA When the Earth Stood Still

For years, Kent Island was always a place where I would drive through, either to get to the Eastern Shore or to return back to Annapolis, Maryland and points beyond. I actually never stopped to visit the island. That all changed recently; and, I got an introduction to a really cool brewery that makes some very interesting and drinkable brews.

The brewery is Cult Classic Brewing.  As its name suggests, the brewery is motivated my old cult classic movies. The tap room is lined with old movie posters and the tap list hanging over the bar sports some brews with cult movie names, such as the Attack of the Strawberry Blonde and the IPA When the Earth Stood Still.  I stopped in to try the beers and grab a bite to eat.  When I left, I took home a six pack of that IPA with an intent to do a beer review. 

And, now, I shall go off the Deep End (1970) and begin the review:

The IPA When the Earth Stood Still does not Psyche Out (1968) anyone. It pours like a classic India Pale Ale. The beer has a deep golden hue. There is a good layer of foam, thick enough to hide The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  

When it comes to both the aroma and the taste, the beer takes the drinker to but not Over the Edge (1979). If I could point to The Thing (1982) about this beer, then it would be to how it plays to the genre of the west coast IPA. The aroma give hints of the Things to Come (1936), with both piney and citrusy hints.  The taste is a Fantastic Voyage (1966) through the finer points of what defines a West Coast IPA.  There is a good deal of hop bitterness, which sometimes veers between the pine and citrus (although, admittedly, at least for me, it tended to be more of the former than the latter).  There is also a good amount of astringency on the finish, which grips the tongue tightly, as if in fear of something, like Reptilicus (1961) or The Blob (1958). 

In the end, in a world of IPAs, this one truly stands like Gorgo (1961) or Konga (1961) above most of the rest. It stands as a reason, in and of itself, to make a stop on Kent Island and grab a beer.  Until next time ...


Wednesday, December 1, 2021

In Search of Orange Gold: Part Three - Gustav Brunn

Buchenwald, 1938. The site of what would become one of the largest Nazi concentration camps. However, at that time, the camp was just a year old, and it housed only male prisoners. One of those prisoners was Gustav Brunn. The person who created Old Bay.

Brunn was born in the town of Bastheim, Germany in 1893. Very little is known about his early years.  Most accounts pick up at age 13, when Gustav Brunn left school and entered into a tannery apprenticeship. (It was an opportunity to learn how to make leather.) He eventually started his own business, buying skins from local farmers to sell to tanneries. 

German advertisement for seasoning
After World War I, Gustav Brunn decided to enter another line of business.  He recognized that spices were in short supply in post-war Germany.  Brunn developed connections with  spice importers in the city of Hamberg and the country of Holland. With those connections, Brunn opened a wholesale spice business. He sold spices and seasonings to local businesses in Bastheim. He continued to build his spice company throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s. 

However, the story of Gustav Brunn changed in 1933. The Nazi Party, led by Adolph Hitler, seized control of Germany. The Nazis stoked anti-Semitism throughout Germany; and, as a Jew, Gustav Brunn felt the brunt of the racism. Brunn's spice business began to lose customers, as people voluntarily and involuntarily ceased buying his spices because Brunn was Jewish. In addition, his bookkeeper quit  Brunn's spice company out of fear that the Nazis would punish the bookkeeper for working with a Jew. As the hatred and intolerance grew, Brunn decided that it was time to move the family and the business.  

Gustav Brunn decided to move to Frankfurt, a very large city in the Hesse State. Frankfurt is one of Germany's larger cities, and it had a large Jewish population. As of 1933, there were over 30,000 Jews who lived in Frankfurt. Brunn believed that it would be better for him, his family and his business to live and work within that community.  

Frankfurt was not going to be the last move for the Brunn family.  Around the time the family settled in a second floor apartment in Frankfurt, Gustav Brunn laid the groundwork to get a visa. His goal was to emigrate to the United States. He contacted an uncle who lived in Baltimore and completed the paperwork. Everything was in place.  All Brunn had to do is wait.

Then came November 9, 1938, also known as the "Night of Broken Glass," or Kristallnacht.

The Nazis stoked anti-Semitic violence across Germany, including Frankfurt. The violence was even directed at the Brunn family; however, the Nazis ended up burning down the wrong house. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Nazis issued an edit for all Jews to turn in their firearms.  Gustav Brunn loved to hunt and he owned eight rifles. Brunn complied with the edit and reported to the nearest police station with his son. Gustav went into the station and when he came out, he told his son, "I am not allowed to leave." The Nazis detained Brunn and sent him to Buchenwald.

Jewish men arrested in the days after Kristallnacht standing for roll call
(photo from the Buchenwald concentration camp records
office and available at the U.S. Holocaust Museum)

At that time, it was still possible to "buy" someone's release from Buchenwald. There was a Jewish attorney in Frankfurt who could make the arrangements: 5,000 marks at the beginning and 5,000 marks when the prisoner was released.  The Brunn family paid that price, and, Gustav Brunn was able to leave Buchenwald.  Within one week of his release, Brunn moved his family, and his spice grinder, to Baltimore, Maryland where they settled in a small apartment located on the 2300 block of Eutaw Place.

After settling in the new world, Gustav Brunn tried to get a job. He first sought employment with a sausage maker and then with a spice company called McCormick. Brunn got a job with McCormick, but he lasted only a few days because he could not speak English. That is when Gustav Brunn decided to start his own spice company. He rented the second floor of a building located at 26 Market Place. The location was across the street from a wholesale seafood market. Brunn named his business the Baltimore Spice Company.  He began to sell spices to local Baltimore businesses, such as Attman's Delicatessen, as well as local meatpackers. 

Brunn also sought to sell spices to the local seafood wholesalers.  However, he ran into some resistance, as many of those businesses had developed their own private spice mixes.  They were neither willing to share their recipes nor try anything that Brunn had to offer.  Nevertheless, Brunn thought that he could make a better seafood seasoning than what these wholesalers used. He came up with his own spice mix and he eventually found a small crab steamer around the corner on Water Street. Brunn sold that steamer a five pound box of his new spice mix. The steamer used it and saw his business increase. Emboldened by this small success, Brunn returned to those seafood wholesalers.  He began to sell his spice mix to those wholesalers, who also saw their business increase.  

While Brunn's business began to take off, he still needed a name for his spice mix. He originally named his spice mix, "Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning." One of Brunn's friends, who worked in the advertising industry, suggested that Brunn come up with a different name. The friend suggested Old Bay. It was the nickname for the Baltimore Steam Packet Company. Packet ships were used to transport people where railroads could not take them.  Given the wide bay and its numerous inlets, it was difficult for railroads to establish direct lines. The Baltimore Steam Packet Company operated steamships that took passengers from Baltimore, Maryland to Norfolk, Virginia. It had operated this service since 1860.

Thus, by the time Gustav Brunn was naming his spice mix, which was most likely in the late 1930s or early 1940s, the Baltimore Steam Packet Company -- or the Old Bay Line -- was one of the oldest operating steamship companies in the United States. It operated overnight runs, with one ship sailing south to Norfolk while another ship sailed north to Baltimore.  Guests would go to the the restaurant or saloon on the ship to enjoy a dinner of traditional Chesapeake Bay dishes. After the dinner, the guests would retire to their state rooms until the morning when they could get breakfast and arrive at their destination.  These trips continued for years, until the voyage in 1962.  The Old Bay Line ceased operations, but Gustav Brunn's Old Bay spice mix would carry on the name for years and decades to come. 

With a spice mix in hand, now known as Old Bay, Gustav Brunn had to face other issues and challenges in the coming years. Some of those challenges related to the very composition of Old Bay itself. The history of that mix is the subject of the next post. Stay tuned and until then ...