Friday, January 28, 2022

Black Ankle's Chispa (2017)

Albarino has been called "Spain's quintessential white wine." While this claim may be disputed by others, such as those who love Verdejo or Txakoli, one can't seriously argue that an Albarino is a very good white wine.  And, as I learned recently, this varietal also makes a very good sparkling wine. 

One such varietal is Albarino. I have reviewed Black Ankle's Albarino in the past. My thoughts of that particular wine, which was the 2011 vintage, provide a little foresight into how the wine would work as a sparkling wine: 

The aromatic elements suggest grapefruit and perhaps some apple or a little lemon. The taste also features these elements, with grapefruit and citrus notes being at the forefront. There was definitely a little minerality and even a little hay or straw that followed in the background.  There is also a little tartness that grips the edges of the tongue long after the wine has been consumed....

I said a little foresight, because, as with what happens over time, things change.

The Chispa retains the citrus in both the aroma and the taste; however, there is one element that is far more pronounced than any grapefruit or lemon. It is apple, and, judging by the tartness, something more along the line of green apples.

To be sure, my nose and palate are far from trained, or even refined. Those with more well-trained  noses and tongues typically speak of citrus, like that grapefruit, or stone fruits, such as peaches and nectarines. Indeed, they speak of a wide range of fruits and nuts, from oranges to almonds. Apples are not usually included in the descriptions. 

Perhaps the turn to a sparkling wine influenced the aroma and taste of the Albarino grape. Maybe it is just my lack of experience tasting sparkling Albarino wines. Only time -- and possibly another bottle or two of this sparkling varietal -- will tell. Until then ...


Saturday, January 22, 2022

Pulpo en Purgatorio

Every once in a while, my beautiful Angel buys me a package of octopus from our local big box store. The package usually includes three to four large tentacles. Those tentacles are cooked, meaning that one of the most time-intensive parts of preparing activity of making octopus (boiling the octopus) is already done. That opens a wide range of opportunities to focus on different ways to present that ingredient.

I spent a lot of time looking for recipes to make with that octopus. I found three recipes: one from Peru, a second from Italy, and a third from Haiti.  I could not decide which one to make. So, I turned to my friends on social media and asked for their opinion. The results were closer than I expected, but the clear winner was this recipe: Pulpo en Purgatorio. The recipe is a specialty from Molise, where it is known as i pulepe 'npregatorie in the local dialect.

Molise happens to be the newest Italian region, having been established in 1970 after it split from Abruzzo e Molise. Despite the split, the cuisine of Molise remains substantially similar to that of Abruzzo. Both cuisines draw from the bounty of the sea, whether from the port of Chieti in Abruzzo or the port of Termoli in Molise. More significantly, both cuisines share the use of  peperoncini (a general label for a range of chiles) in many dishes.

Source : Tesori del Matese
It is said that Italians refer to peperoncini as la droga di poveri (the drug of the poor). The origin of this phrase comes from two facts: (1) that the pepper plants are cheap and (2) the chiles can grow anywhere. Thus, these chiles are available to the poor, who can purchase them and grown them on their properties. Thus, while the rich are able to utilize black pepper (which costs more given it has to be imported), the poor cultivate these chiles, dry them, and use them in very much the same way. For these reasons, peperoncini often finds its way into cucina povera. The chiles enable the poor to provide that spicy kick to bland dishes. And, the poor used these chiles in large quantities, especially in the southern regions, like Molise.

A relatively large amount of peperoncini (for some people) is called for when one makes pulpo en purgatorio. The word, "purgatory," is defined as a place of temporary suffering or misery. The heat and spice of the peperoncini are supposed to provide that suffering or misery. I guess that someone who does not ordinarily eat spicy food may find this recipe a bit "painful." However, as followers of this blog may recall, I revel in the heat and piquancy of chiles. After all, I created the Inferno Steak, a recipe inspired by Dante Alighieri's famous poem. The recipe utilizes nine different chiles, each one representing a circle of hell and each subsequent chile being hotter than the last. Italian peperoncini inflict little suffering or misery to my taste buds. 

As for the recipe itself, it calls for the use of a raw octopus, which requires some extra work. I kept those instructions in the case someone is using a raw, rather than a cooked octopus. I then added directions for pre-cooked octopus. When you used the pre-cooked variety, this recipe becomes very simple and quick to make. 


Recipe from Gusto TV and Serge the Concierge

Serves 4


  • 2 cups olive oil
  • 2 small onions, finely diced
  • 1 pound of fresh, large octopus tentacles
  • 4 red chiles, seeded and sliced (or 2 teaspoon crushed red pepper)
  • 1 chile, minced for garnish 
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped, plus more for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


1. If using fresh octopus. Heat half the oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat.  Add the onions, garlic, parsley and chiles (or crushed red pepper) and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions soften, about 6 to 8 minutes.  Put the tentacles in a pot and add the onion mixture and the remaining oil. Add enough water to cover just the tentacles and bring it to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to low, season generously with salt, cover and cook, stirring occasionally until the liquid has evaporated, about 2 hours. Serve immediately. 

2. If using cooked octopus.  Heat half the oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat.  Add the onions, and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions soften, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add octopus, parsley and chiles (or crushed red pepper), salt and black pepper, and stir to combine. Cook until octopus is heated through.  Transfer octopus with oil to platter, garnish with remaining parsley and red chiles. Squeeze juice of 1/2 lemon over dish. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Kitchen Pepper

For as long as there have been organized societies on this planet, there has been a spice trade. For most people, that trade is associated with the "silk road," which connected the Far East (principally China) with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa.  The silk road began around in the third century, B.C.E and continued until the Ottoman Empire effectively shut it down in 1453. What may be less known is the network of "silk roads" that date back to 2,000 B.C.E. This network facilitated the trade in, among other things, cinnamon from Ceylon (now, Sri Lanka), and cassia from China. These routes also gave rise to the trade in cloves and nutmeg from the "spice islands" (later conglomerated into what became Indonesia).

Other roads - or more appropriately, voyages - added to the spice trade by introducing ingredients from the "New World."  These ingredients included allspice from Xaymaca (now Jamaica), along with chiles and vanilla from Anahuac (the Nahuatl name for what is now known as Mexico). 

In sum, the spice trade introduced a wide range of new ingredients -- black pepper, cardamom, cassia, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, mace, nutmeg, saffron, star anise, and turmeric -- to cooks around the world. Cooks from around the world began incorporating these spices into mixes, adding new spices as they became available. These spice mixes include Berbere in the Horn of Africa, the masalas of the subcontinent, and Baharat in the Middle East. 

European cooks in the 15th century began to categorize (loosely) those mixes. They fell into three categories: powder blanche, powder deuce (sweet) and powder fort (strong). The mixes eventually were lumped together into one common term, "kitchen pepper." 

The story of kitchen pepper is not a uniquely European. The reason is that other voices have contributed to the narrative. These voices include the enslaved Africans, who worked in the kitchens on plantations in the New World and elsewhere in colonies across the globe. For example, Hercules Posey, the enslaved African who served as the cook (really, the chef) for George Washington, is believed to have used a kitchen pepper mix that featured nutmeg. James Hemmings, the enslaved cook (again, chef) for Thomas Jefferson is thought to have used a mix heavily studded with black pepper.  And, then there was Polly Haine, who may have used allspice as part of her kitchen pepper spice mix. Polly Haine went on to use that mix to create her Caribbean Pepper Pot soup, which she sold on the streets of Philadelphia in the late 18th century. Each of these examples underscores the primary characteristic of kitchen pepper: everyone has their own individual mix. All of those mixes that give rise to the story.

Michael Twitty
I first came across kitchen pepper while reading Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene, which won the James Beard award in 2018 for the best food writing and book of the year. The award is well deserved. The Cooking Gene is his personal mission "to document the connection between food history and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom." This book introduced me to Twitty's work.  As a writer, scholar, culinary historian and cultural interpreter, Twitty has dedicated his work to preserving and promoting African-American foodways. (A foodway is defined as the culinary practices and eating habits of a people, region or historical period.) Twitty's work, along with that of other writers, historians and interpreters, is bringing to life an important part of the culture and cuisine that has defined not only the United States, but the world for centuries.

Kitchen pepper is an example of this exploration.  Twitty's recipe apparently draws inspiration from the spice mixes developed by Hercules, James, and Polly by incorporating nutmeg, black pepper and allspice. Twitty builds upon that inspiration by adding other spices, including cinnamon, crushed red pepper, ginger, mace, and white pepper to his recipe. The end result is, at least for me, reminiscent of spice mixes that I have encountered throughout my years of cooking. Yet, this particular spice mix - the kitchen peppers developed by enslaved African cooks - is something that does not garner the same attention as those other mixes (like masalas, Berbere, etc.). I am thankful for the opportunity to learn more about kitchen pepper, and, it is an opportunity that I may not have had without Michael Twitty's work. 

If I had to summarize kitchen pepper, then I would do so in the following way: kitchen pepper is about the artistry of an untold number of individual, enslaved cooks, each of whom crafted his or her own spice mix. It is about an unspoken effort to assert one's individuality while subjugated in a brutal, dehumanizing system that was intended to deny that right and freedom to that individual. 


Recipe by Michael Twitty, available at Bittman Project 

or Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene, pg. 24


  • 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground mace
  • 1 tablespoon ground white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground red pepper flakes

Combine all of the ingredients and mix well.  Store in an airtight container. 


Thursday, January 6, 2022

Vietnamese Grilled Clams with Oyster Sauce and Peanuts

As I always say, cooking provides many opportunities to learn, whether it is about cooking processes, ingredients, recipes and even cultures and cuisines. At least in my cooking experience, and in my humble opinion, few dishes embody this principle more fully and completely that this dish: Vietnamese Grilled Clams with Oyster Sauce and Peanuts. The recipe provided me with a chance to learn about the concept of fundamental elements in cooking. It is a concept that the Vietnamese call, "Ngũ Hành" or "ngũ vi.

The Ngũ Hành is actually a site in central Vietnam, located just south of Da Nang.  It is actually the Ngũ Hành Son, consisting of five mountains, each representing a fundamental factor of the universe. The mountains are Kim (metal), Moc (wood), Thuy (water), Tho (earth) and Hoa (fire).  

The phrase, "Ngũ Hành" or "Ngũ Vi," has also been used by the Vietnamese to refer to other quintuples. There are the five fundamental tastes: spice, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. There are also the five fundamental cooking modes: raw, steamed, broiled, fried/grilled, and fermented. And, there is the five fundamental food textures: crispy, crunchy, chewy, soft and silky. Vietnamese cuisine has always intrigued me as to how it applies and balances all of these quintuples, that is, taste, cooking mode and texture. 

To be sure, the Vietnamese did not create the culinary philosophy of quintuples, it originated in China. However, in my humble opinion, the Vietnamese have taken this philosophy and elevated when it comes to food.  There is something about the dishes, from the North to the South and from the coast to the inland. It is hard to describe, but the dishes always appear to please the eyes, the nose and the taste buds. That is why when I saw this recipe for Vietnamese Grilled Clams, I had to make it. 

This recipe represents some, but not all, of the Ngũ Hành or Ngũ Vi balance. For example, a balance would include ingredients that are salty and sweet, or spicy and sweet. For this recipe, the ingredients include sugar (sweet), black pepper (spice), which is a balance on a very small level. A balance of textures could be a combination of crispy or crunchy with chewy or silky. The textures in the recipe for Vietnamese Grilled Clams include clams (chewy), fried shallots (crispy) and peanuts (crunchy), paired with the oyster sauce and oil (silky). Together, these balanced ingredients help to elevate the dish to something that is delicious and needs to be made over and over again.

This dish represents what I love about cooking: it is the opportunity to learn and expand horizons. I hope to be able to continue to explore these concepts in future recipes.  Stay tuned for more ....


Recipe available at Food and Wine

Serves 4


  • 3 pounds cherrystone clams or 1 pound mussels, scrubbed
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) or cilantro
  • 1/4 cup packaged crispy fried shallots (such as Maesri)
  • 1/4 cup oyster sauce
  • 1/4 vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons finely chopped peanuts
1. Steam the clams.  Preheat the grill to high (between 450 degrees and 500 degrees Fahrenheit). While grill preheats, fill a heavy bottomed pot with water to a depth of 1 inch, bring to a boil over high.  Add clams, cover and cook until shells open, 6 to 8 minutes, transferring clams to a backing sheet as they open.  Discard any clams that do not open. 

2. Prepare the sauce. Stir together the scallions, rau ram, fried shallots, oyster sauce, oil, sugar, and pepper in a small bowl. Remove clam meat from shells and coarsely chop. Discard top shells.  Stir chopped meat into scallion mixture; spoon evenly into bottom shells. (If using mussels, spoon about 2 teaspoons of the scallion mixture directly onto the meat inside each shell, leaving the top shells intact.)

3. Finish the dish. Place prepared clams on unoiled grill grates; grill, covered, until scallion mixture bubbles, about 2 minutes.  Carefully transfer to a platter; sprinkle evenly with peanuts, and serve. 


Saturday, January 1, 2022

In Search of Orange Gold: Part 4 - The Whole is the Sum of its Ingredients

Maryland has had a long history of spice mixes used in connection with its seafood, such as blue crabs. However, it was an immigrant, Gustav Brunn, who created the iconic mix known as Old Bay. According to Brunn's son, Ralph, that mix was "almost an accident."

At the time, Brunn was trying to establish a spice business, the Baltimore Spice Company, in downtown Baltimore. He initially sold spices to butchers and meatpackers. However, his business was ideally located for a different customer. The Baltimore Spice Company was located across the street from a historic seafood market, first known as the Center Market and later as the Fish Market. Brunn took the short walk to the market and tried to sell his spice blends to the seafood vendors. He encountered resistance, because each vendor had their own proprietary blend of spices that they used and sold with their seafood. None of the vendors were interested in a newcomer who sold only spices and not fish. While Brunn was turned away, he was not discouraged. Gustav Brunn believed that he could make a better spice blend for seafood. 

Mr. and Mrs. Brunn
Source: Jewish Museum of Maryland

As mentioned above, Gustav Brunn ultimately produced the spice mix that became known as Old Bay.  Brunn used 18 ingredients in his original recipe. Whether intentionally or not, Brunn used spices that Maryland cooks historically used to prepare seafood. These spices included

(1) allspice, 
(2) black pepper, 
(3) cloves, 
(4) mace, 
(5) mustard, and 
(6) nutmeg. 

Those traditional ingredients amount to only one-third of the eighteen herbs and spices that comprised the original Old Bay mix. As for the other ingredients, Brunn chose herbs and spices that, although not traditional, they would still work well with seafood. These ingredients include:

(7) paprika,
(8) celery seeds,  
(9) salt,
(10) celery salt, 
(11) bay leaves, and 
(12) crushed red pepper (or cayenne pepper).

These additional ingredients bring the total number to twelve ingredients, or two-thirds of the way to -Brunn's 18 ingredient mix. Many of the copycat recipes one could find on the Internet stop here. There is no effort to determine the identity of the remaining six ingredients used in Old Bay. 

But, stopping here is akin to quitting a half-marathon after running only 8.7 miles. In some ways, this is exactly Gustav Brunn wanted. 

As noted above, Brunn did not simply set out to create the best spice mix for seafood. He wanted to be the only person who could make that blend. Brunn did not want anyone copying what he had done; or, worse, someone who could make a better spice blend. 

To this end, Brunn chose ingredients for Old Bay that, in his estimation, would be difficult for others to identify. Herbs or spices that are neither used traditionally for seafood or obvious to the senses. Those items comprise the final six ingredients of Brunn's recipe. 

Yet, despite his best efforts, Brunn was not able to fool everyone. Some of those final ingredients have been identified over time. Despite his best efforts, some of those ingredients have been identified or revealed over time. They include:

(13) white pepper, 
(14) cinnamon, and
(15) cardamom.

The final three ingredients remain a mystery. 

This mystery continues to this day. No copycat recipe for Old Bay has more than the fifteen (15) ingredients listed above. No one has been able to identify ingredients (16), (17) and (18). Those final three ingredients are known only to those who have seen or own Brunn's Old Bay recipe. (As an aside, the current owner is the same McCormick Foods where Brunn briefly worked after coming to the United States.)  

With the history of Gustav Brunn and a good sense of the Old Bay spice mix, it is now time for me to  try my hand at making the blend. I will try to recreate Old Bay and, perhaps in the process, try to discover what may be the three remaining ingredients. Stay tuned and ...