adventures in craft beer and real food

Thursday, May 25, 2006

carne con chile colorado

It's 80° F in my kitchen right now and it's almost midnight, but just two weeks ago the temperature was still in the 40's and 50's. I warmed up with an interesting soup from Rick Bayless' cookbook Authentic Mexican. I've always had a singular fascination with Mexican cuisine because I feel that it's one of the truest examples of a truly American cuisine. So learning how to cook real Mexican cuisine has long been on my to do list... and it's remained there for a while. The way I see it, there are too many French techniques that I need to learn or improve upon first before embarking on "le voyage culinaire" as Daniel Boulud might put it.

But with cold weather, I thought that I'd take my baby steps into a cuisine about which I know bupkis. Paging through the book, I found one recipe that I had to try because it took something which is familiar to me (chili) and turns it into something both unfamiliar and authentic.

Regardless of what Bayless says, I like Texas-style chili. But still, I was left to wonder about the origins of this all American dish. Bayless' carne con chile colorado seems to be a good guess. It's a simple stew of new mexico chiles, onion, garlic, and pork. And yet it works out to be a sublime combination. Earthy, fruity, and absolutely delicious.

To make it, you'll need to find either new mexico/california chiles or chiles de la tierra. These are dried chiles. I didn't conduct an extensive search, but I was only able to find new mexico chiles at my local grocery store. When you cut open the bag, you'll immediately feel the room fill up with capsaicins. You know, the chemicals that make foods spicy. You'll feel it in your eyes and on your hands as you seed and vein eight chiles. Just make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after working with chiles (capsaicins are hydrophobic -- they dissolve readily in fat, but not in water).

Heat up a heavy pan to medium heat and toast the peppers, holding down on them so they have as much contact as possible with the heat. This will help develop complexity of flavor. As soon as their color changes a bit, plunge them into a pot of boiling water. After all the chiles have been toasted, prevent the chiles from floating by weighing them down with a heavy bowl. Half an hour later, much of the spiciness of the peppers is gone leaving only good honest chile flavor. Remove the chiles from the water and reserve one cup of the liquid.

Put a bit of olive oil in the bottom of a sauce pan and get the pan to medium heat. Place a good amount of freshly ground cumin and a pinch of dried oregano into the pan. Toast just until the room fills up with the aroma of the spices. Then immediately place the chiles, the reserved liquid, 3 cloves of garlic, and half an onion into a sauce pan. Puree with an immersion blender.

Rick Bayless calls for the sauce to be strained at this point, but I opted to leave it as it is. I attended a cooking class with Aarón Sanchez once and he said that Mexicans don't strain sauces as religiously as the French (a Mexican will look at it and say, "that looks good"). Although Bayless surely outranks Sanchez in his expertise, I at least had credible grounds for not doing so. Upon examining the final product, however, I found that straining might have eliminated the chile sediment that unattractively adorns the bottom of the bowl after you've eaten the rest of it.

Continue cooking the sauce, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently, until it becomes thicker and darker.

Meanwhile, cut some pork into a large dice. Heat some oil in your heaviest sauté pan and cook until there's good browning on all sides of the meat. You'll understand when you eat the dish, but believe me when I say that the development of browning is critical to the success of the stew. When sufficiently browned, add the pork into the sauce. Deglaze the pan you cooked the pork in with some water (or if you thought ahead some additional reserved liquid from earlier). Cook this stew until the meat is very tender. On a cold winter day, I'd suggest finishing the stew in the oven to simplify the process.

Correct seasoning and serve hot. By itself, I didn't find the dish to be entirely sufficient. As a result, I ate a sourdough baguette and a farmers' market salad with it -- both of which were remarkable partners. I'd serve the soup in warmed wide and shallow bowls as the pork feels lost in a taller container.

I'd drink brown ale or pilsner with this dish. You don't want anything to stand in the way of the honest chile flavor. Really, you'd just want something to clear the palate a little and provide a bit of contrast.

Monday, May 22, 2006

My first CSA box!

Months after other bloggers were able to proclaim "le printemps est arrivé," I finally feel like it's really spring here. Yes, I know, the Dane County Farmers' Market has been going for a month now. Yes, I know, the temperature has already gone past 80° F. But last week Thursday, I picked up my first CSA box.

This summer, Sarah and I will be getting much of our vegetables from Tipi Produce in Evansville, Wisconsin. Farmers Steve Pincus and Beth Kazmar are fairly well known in the region, seeing as how their produce is sold at many of the co-ops in Madison. A coworker of mine also says that they grow the best carrots she's ever had. I can hardly wait.

In the mean time, though, we got:
• a head of lettuce
• just as much spinnach
• arugula
• 1/2 pound asparagus
• ramps
• a bag of raddishes
• rhubarb

If I make anything interesting, I'll be sure to share it with you all.

I'll be thinking about raddish soup.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Tasting Notes: Capital Maibock

How time flies! I know that I've been somewhat negligent in keeping with my promise to review a maibock every week of May.

Well... maybe I'll still get around to reviewing four of them.

Our next stop on the Maibock tour bus takes us to Middleton, Wisconsin, home of Capital Brewery, which is one of the finest lager breweries I know.

The beer pours a beauiful light copper color that demonstrates extraordinary clarity. There was moderate carbonation that somehow managed to raise a monster head that lasted about three minutes in my pint glass. After that, a spotty, white film was all that was left of the head. No lacing was evident, as is consistent with the style of the beer.

The aroma consists of strong malt flavor, freshly baked sourdough, and steel. Surprisingly, no ethanol scent was observed.

But the real brilliance of the beer is exhibited in its flavor.

The taste seems like a kaleidoscope of flavors where as soon as you think you've pinned one of them down, it's turned imperceptably into something else. The first is a heavy hand of malt, which fades gracefully into sourdough bread, then before you know it is tangerine, and finally orange. Flavor hits the palate decisively and remains for a while before receding fairly quickly. The beer is slightly more viscous than I was expecting, which could contribute to the impression of completeness of flavor experience. Despite having light to moderate hopping, it was surprisingly easy to drink. Unlike the Sprecher Mai Bock, which I reviewed previously, this beer is not dry hopped. The Capital beer also differs from the Sprecher one in that this beer has no obvious yeast flavor.

There's definitely a big beer flavor to this beer, but I couldn't taste any ethanol. And that's despite the fact that I could sense the effects of the alcohol by the time I was half way through the glass. The alcohol by volume isn't reported on the bottle or online.

The taste of the beer is extremely elegant and focused, making the Capital Maibock a very refined beer indeed.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Blog Commentary: Eating Locally

I've been thinking about a recent post by Barrett Buss of Too Many Chefs fame. For those of you you don't know, this is a classic and established blog that's always unique and interesting.

Mr. Buss casts a critical glance at the virtues of eating locally. The title "Eat local? No thanks." says it all. He argues that eating things that have been produced locally is over-rated. First, he observes that food is not merely epicurean but also economic. He points out that empires have historically depended upon the trade of food to maintain their hegemonies. Second, he argues that this trade has played a transformative role in ethnic cuisines. Most people forget that the tomato is a new world ingredient, and yet it is a cornerstone of Italian cuisine today. And third, he argues that it is unduly restrictive and perhaps outdated to restrict one's diet to those foods that can only be produced locally. In Chicago, that would mean eliminating bananas, mangoes, and some hot peppers from your diet.

To be fair and balanced, he does make a case for local produce having a "freshness advantage" and presumably other factors of culinary superiority. He does encourage his readers to support local farmers' markets and to buy shares in CSAs.

However, as to the author's thesis that eating globally isn't a bad thing, to this I must steal Mr. Buss's verbage and say "Phooey!"

I'm obviously not prepared to enter into a debate about the economic factors influencing world empires throughout history. So, yes, I'll agree that food is a commodity whose trade has economic dimensions.

But I will contest Mr. Buss on the point that the addition of global produce to our diet is a good thing. I will freely admit that I a can offer no punditry on the subject of Italian cuisine. But to say that Italian cuisine depends upon the tomato seems like a myopic "spaghetti and meatballs" perspective. As Anthony Bourdain notes in his Les Halles Cookbook, Italian chefs wait for tomatoes with much anticipation. They don't use the flavorless supermarket fruits that most of us got confused for real, delicious tomatoes. The Italians eat many, many tomato free dishes as anyone who has paged through one of Marcella Hazan's fine cookbooks will tell you.

Secondly, Mr. Buss's comparison of Italian food without the tomato to German food without the potato (another new world contribution!) is literally comparing tomatoes to potatoes. Tomatoes are extremely fragile fruits that are at the peak of their culinary usefulness for a brief moment in the year and then disappear as quickly as they came. To eat a good tomato, you must savor it at the peak of their season. The tomato is savored for its brilliant fruity flavor. The potato is a horse of a different color. It is a root vegetable that can be stored for months in a dark cellar without any significant harm. The potato is enjoyed for its earthy neutrality, whose starch makes it easy to combine in any number of dishes. So it's not obvious to me that you can compare the role of the tomato in Italy to that of the potato in Germany.

Although these matters might be dismissed as minor details that evade the main point, Mr. Buss's seems to not have noticed that the Italians and Germans produce their own tomatoes and potatoes locally. Even if it can safely be said that these produce items have become fundamental to their national cuisines, they have cultivated them in their own fields instead of having them shipped thousands of miles. Thus, they have defined their national cuisines using local produce regardless of the botanical origins of each species. It would therefore be a mistake to argue that we would be following an Italian or German precedent in developing a cuisine based upon global produce.

Mr. Buss's final argument in opposition to eating locally is that it would be sad to forego such items as "mangoes and bananas and avacados and coconuts and oranges and lemons." Maybe it's the hour, but I don't see how this kind of argument has any kind of traction. Saying "no" to something because you don't want it doesn't correlate to an ethic. I, too, enjoy these ingredients too much to ever give them up completely. Lemon meringue pie is one of the most glorious desserts I know. But just because I like the pie doesn't mean that there aren't negative consequences to shipping lemons from who-knows-where to Madison, Wisconsin.

But therein lies an ethical line that everyone has to draw as an individual.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Asparagus Aspirations: spring noodles

I adapated Nouilles Printaniéres (spring noodles) from the FCI's Salute to Healthy Cooking. Surely the French will be calling for my extradition any moment now. From a purely technical standpoint, this dish is an exercise in timing. Different kinds of vegetables need to be done the moment the noodles are done.

In my interpretation of the classic, I sweated two ramps and scallions in butter until pleasantly aromatic and the ramps had lost much of their garlicy pungency. Meanwhile, I blanched peas and asparagus until the green colors became pronounced and were just short of being done. Then, I set the ramp-scallion mixture and cranked up the flame under my pan so that I could get a quick sauté. I threw in a large zucchini (julienned) along with the asparagus spears and peas that had just been blanched. Once slightly caramelized, I added a peeled julienne of red bell pepper. Just before serving, I added four mushrooms that had been thinly sliced into the pan and continued to sauté until the mushrooms developed an initial brown color. Finally, I added the ramps and scallions back in.

Meanwhile, I cooked egg noodles in water flavored extravagantly with tarragon. Ideally, one should use long straight noodles. I used short curly noodles instead to clean out my cupboards.

To complete, I added the noodles to the vegetable mixture and stirred until well mixed. I served it in shallow bowls garnished with a bit of chopped tarragon and a dash of EVOO.

I drank Wollersheim Prairie Fumé with dinner, which I found slightly overpowering. One would almost need to whip out a good German wine famed for its transparency to make the most of this dish. If a bit of Emmentaler or Parmesano-Reggiano cheese were grated on top, the combination probably would have worked better.

An authentic pilsner or tripel would probably be great matches, too. The former latching onto the bitter side of caramelized flavors, while the latter would pair with the sweet side of caramelization.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tasting Notes: Sprecher Maibock

In celebration of the month of May, Pint and Fork is pleased to announce that it's Maibock season. Every week this month, a different Maibock will be reviewed. For the non-beer crowd, you should still stick around. There's an interesting IMBB event planned for May 19.

It's also asparagus aspirations month, which will give me a chance to hopefully learn some new preparations. Such as making sauce hollandaise for the first time.

Enough with the commercials already!

Maibock is a type of bock beer that's brewed in celebration of spring. Bock beers fall into the lager category, and are typically characterized by moderate bitterness and full malted flavor. You probably have seen beers with goats on the label. That's a bock.

The style has an interesting history, as is recounted in an amusing story in Garrett Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table. Apparently the German city of Einbeck became famous for its bocks in the middle of the fourteenth century. The Bavarians didn't like being outdone by the north Germans, so they sought to regain respect as brewers. Beer, you have to remember, was a staple of life, and was therefore a key trading commodity. Duke Ludwig X of Bavaria hired a brewmaster from northern Germany to set up shop in Munich. It was there that the first Bavarian bock beers were brewed. Over time, the Bavarians became known for producing bock beer to rival that in the north. This victory was hastened by Duke Maximilian I who invited Einbeck's head brewmaster to Bavaria only to detain him there. By 1614, the Hofbräuhaus was selling bock beer to the public.

Maibocks are often confused with hellesbocks. Although both styles have much in common, Maibocks are usually lighter in color and body than hellesbocks.

Prior to Prohibition, nearly every brewery in the US served a credible bock beer. So what better place to begin on my search for good Maibock than in America's great brewing city of Milwaukee?

The Sprecher Brewing Company has been churning out this fine brew as a spring seasonal since 1986, just one year after starting out. Since then, the beer won a bronze at the 2004 American Beer Festival. As a result of the brew's longevity and awards, I had high expectations for this pint of beer. Like all of Sprecher's beer, this beer came in a 16 ounce bottle.

A variety of aromas burst from the bottle as soon as it was cracked open. A strong malt and yeast profile was most prominent, reminding me almost of hefeweizen. There's a strong bread aroma in there, too, followed by a much fainter smell of grannysmith apples. This only makes sense since the brewers put some wheat into the malt.

The color appeared copper in the ambient light of my room, but I quickly saw that it's a very pale yellow when held against the scrutiny of direct light. Really, the color is very appealing. Ample carbonation raises a moderate head upon the pour. The head persisted for a few minutes and then receded to form a beautiful ring around the glass. No lacing was visible as the beer was consumed.

Unsurprisingly, this beer reminded me of a helles ("light lager") as it has a distinct liquid bread character to it. All of the flavors seem to be in that same family. There is yeast dancing on a stage of solid malt. There's also a very slight earthy taste to the beer that becomes more apparent as the beer warms up. The taste experience is very lengthy, and the flavors become more profound but fainter the longer you wait. At 6% abv, this beer is of authentic strength and is surprisingly easy to drink. A moderate dose of hopping comes through to provide a hit of bitterness. Although I'm horrible at hop analysis, the most prominent hop seems to be Mount Hood. In all, this beer is very well balanced and holds true to the Maibock style. My only criticism is that the hopping is a tad too severe for the style, as are many American craft brews.

Because of the extent of the hopping, it's not obvious what would partner well with the beer. Although hamburgers with onions, or meatballs would make for a tasty combination. The bitterness of the hops would hook onto the meat, while the bready character would mirror the taste of the bun. I think Mexican dishes that involve beans would be worth a try. The earthiness would correspond to that of epazote, while the hops would be a good partner for brighter flavors that many Mexican dishes have.

Sprecher's Maibock is an excellent interpretation of the Maibock style. Assertive and true to form.