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What’s better than a donut?

Why, a donut infused with homemade hard cider of course. We were nearing the end of last year’s batch of cider (made from only the choicest hand-picked apples, you may recall) when I stumbled across this recipe. A perfect, autumnal ending to a fine hooch.

We woke early yesterday for Halloween, which is also my son Andrew’s birthday, in order to have fresh donuts. My thinking was that there is no better way to start a day (much less a holiday or one’s birthday) than to be greeted by the enveloping smell of deep-frying dough. Or deep-frying anything, really.

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So, the batter is made with the cider as is the glaze. You can certainly taste it, a bit like rum cake. One does wonder what it would have been like with some of the paint-thinning Applejack from last year. The 90-proof donut. Some key moments in the donut assembly line here.

The apple crop this year was pretty bad, so no cider in 2008. But the wild raspberries were many. We’re only a month away from bottling the brambleberry wine. Say, I wonder if there’s such a thing as Raspberryjack?

The Goblin Cock

Continuing the finest set of post titles in years, I now give you The Goblin Cock. It is, perhaps — nay, back up — it is certainly the finest culinary concoction I have ever come across.

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Some background. Thelovelywife and I pawned the midgets off on my parents in the ‘burbs, so we had a “free” night. Said wife had been hungover all day after sailing through the perfect storm of girl drunkeness the night before: lots of girlfriends sitting in a circle bitching about others where wine was plentiful. She was hurting 24 hours later and desperately wanted a burger. So my brother, who makes a career of going out and sampling what the city has to offer, informs us that the best burgers in the city are just a few blocks away at a bar called Kuma’s Corner.

The menu is a vegetarian’s nightmare. Consider only the Slayer: fries on top of a half-pound of beef with chili, cherry peppers, andouille sausage, onions, cheese, and anger. Presumably this last ingredient is actually a description of your digestive tract’s reaction to the dish.

All the burgers are named after heavy metal bands (death, nu, thrash … I’m not a student of the sub-genres). And this is all the bar plays, loudly. The waitstaff clearly loves it, though I’ll say now that it did not exactly help my wife’s pounding headache. Yet the promise of the food kept us there, despite the sonic assault.

So, back to The Goblin Cock. Read that chalkboard again. A half pound burger slapped together with a quarter pound hot dog (which is huge), pickles, peppers, cheese, bacon (!), pick de gallo, relish, onion, tomato and a side (in case you’re picky) of mustard. True to Chicago form, ketchup is not allowed since the monstrosity has a hot dog on it. (In fact, they can’t even spell ketchup correctly the thought of it on a hot dog is so troubling.) No Blister Nuts, alas, but if one were to suggest it to them I bet they’d not be averse.

Encased meat as a garnish. Does it get any better than that? Perhaps not, but I was not man enough and merely got a burger with a fried egg on it. Even now though, hours later as I wrestle with the consequences of such a gut bomb, The Goblin Cock beckons me back.

This bar is not for everyone. They have an angle and they grind it. An enveloping blanket of noise, no mass-produced beer (except PBR, bless their hearts), and food prepared angstfully. But the bartenders and waitstaff were very personable and attentive. Highly recommended.

The Blister Nut

I love cashews. Eat ’em daily. And, truthfully, I have never wondered why they are so much more expensive than other nuts. Nor have I ever wondered why you never see a cashew in its shell. But others have and it turns out the answers are related.

Botanically, the cashew fruit is related to poison ivy and the shell (though not the nut itself) contains a substance called cardol which is extremely caustic and will cause a nasty rash. This is why the cashew is also known as the blister nut. (Why god why does that not have an entry in Urban Dictionary?)

It is also why they cost so much since harvesting them is inherently dangerous and there is no good mechanical way of shelling them. Shucking is done by (presumably glove-wearing) manual laborers who have to deal both with the possibility of contact and the fact that the cashew fruit is just damn ugly, lewd even.

So you got two options if you really want to eat a cashew shell. The first is to say screw it, eat it, ulcerate your mouth and swell up. The second is to roast the hell out of the cashew. This boils off the poison, but be careful: apparently even the smoke can cause severe reactions.

But it isn’t all bad. Apparently the oil can be used as rocket lubricant. Oh, and I really enjoy saying blister nut. Blister nut. Blister nut. Try it, you’ll agree.

It is a damn good thing this little bit of trivia was not delivered to me earlier in the day. I’d have wasted even more time fascinated by it. (But thanks Juan!)

Do you kill people for hire?

If so, you might like this dish.

Spaghetti All’assassino (Spaghetti of the Assassins) is possibly the best pasta dish I have ever eaten. On our last night in Matera, we had dinner with friends and they introduced me to this devilish concoction.

Like many traditional Lucanian dishes it is simple with a twist. In this case the twist is heat — of all kinds. Basically you undercook a bunch of spaghetti then throw it into scalding hot oil olive. (Stand back, it pops.) This chars the outer “nest” of pasta and cooks the inner pasta to completion. As this is happening you dump in cooked tomatoes and peperoncino in powder. That’s it. A fiery combo of crunchy on the outside and al dente in the middle.

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I cooked the dish last night and screwed up approximately half of it. The tomatoes burned and I got the outer shell a bit too hard. But this is how we learn.

Here’s the recipe. It serves four.

400 grams of spaghetti
300g fresh baby tomatoes
virgin olive oil for frying (at least a cup)
peperoncino in powder to taste

  1. Cut the baby tomatoes in half and fry in very hot oil for about 6/7 minutes, they should get a bit mushy but not brown, add salt. You need to do this in a large deep frying pan.
  2. Cook the spaghetti until really ‘al dente’ – if it says 8 minutes on the pack, take them out at 5.
  3. Drain the pasta really well and pour into the tomatoes and boiling oil (if the oil is hot enough it will make a big noise). Add peperoncino and stir a little to get oil around all the spaghetti.
  4. Leave for about 2/3 minutes before stirring/moving around/turning the burned parts around and then leave again for another 2/3 minutes. If you stir continuously the crusty brown bits don’t get formed.
  5. DON’T add parmesan.

Thanks for Mikaela Bandini for introducing me to the dish and for the recipe.

“Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone.”

If you’ve seen the movie Big Night you’ll recognize that quote from the irascible chef Primo as he deals with 1950’s American restaurant-goers who think Italian food is spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs and nothing more.

Today of course Italian eateries are big business — from gourmet to fast food to just sucky (I worked there in college, trust me). In such a crowded space often the simplicity of homemade Italian food can be hard to find.

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Anna Maria Pasteria, a small trattoria in Wrigleyville, serves uncomplicated, traditional Italian dishes. No fusion, nothing exotic. Just amazing homemade pasta, veggies, and meats. Two sisters, Maria Spinelli and Anna Picciolini, run the place and pervade it with a warmth that really is the closest thing I’ve found to the way restaurants feel in Italy. Close, comfortable, happy. And the service matches the food. Not showy, but ample.

Anna and Maria are originally from Ripacandida, Italy a small, hill-topping down about 15 minutes from Barile, my destination on Friday. Though the menu runs the gamut of Italian dishes that just about anyone would recognize, the sisters do make southern fare. These plates are invariably simple: pasta, a light sauce with herbs, and a meat. (Try the Pollo ai pignoli or the Capellini carrettiera.) Anna Maria Pasteria also serves a heavenly Tiramisu. Lighter than air.

A great send-off dinner before we embark for Italy. Highly recommended.

Brambleberry

What did I do right after getting an iPhone? Took a quick day-trip to the only cell reception black hole I know about in these parts: my parents place in Galena, IL. No reception whatsoever. Let me say that a VOIP app on the iPhone would truly be killer (and would stick it to AT&T).

But I digress before I’ve even started.

My parents’ place is in rural Illinois, near the Mississippi. Their land is covered with wild raspberries. Technically they are called bramble raspberries, smaller than store-bought (of course) and black when ripe, though they are not blackberries. These little buggers are super-tasty.

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The window to get them is very narrow, though, since birds and chipmunks snatch them up. My uncle told me a story about how he was sitting on his porch one day late in the ripeness cycle of the berries and the chipmunks were gorging themselves. Apparently if the berries become too ripe their natural sugars will begin to ferment from airborne yeasts and they become little alcohol bombs. He said the chipmunks were actually staggering around. Not sure if I believe this, but it did give me an idea. Raspberry wine! Following on the success of the apple cider we made at Christmas, we’re embarking on the next fruit-based alcohol concoction.

They’re called bramble raspberries for a reason. They grow in dense, thorn-strewn foliage. After a short while it was hard to know where the juice stains ended and the bloody micro-cuts began. In a few hours we had a couple pounds. Here are some tips for you budding (yes!) raspberry hunters.

  1. The only ripe berries are the black ones. The red ones look good, but they don’t taste so good. Obviously this does not apply to wild red raspberries.
  2. A ripe raspberry takes nearly no effort at all to remove. If you have to tug, it ain’t ready.
  3. Unfortunately the ripe berries are so tender that trying to remove more than one at a time will likely cause one to burst. Go single.
  4. The berry bushes seem to prefer direct sunlight so look for places in the scrub that get good light at least part of the day.
  5. I found tons of ripe berries along a small creek bed. Not sure if they liked the water or the well of light access that the creek carved into the forest.

We won’t get to actually crushing/fermenting until after Italy. Luckily you have to freeze the berries and then let them thaw before crushing to prevent the seeds from spoiling the juice. So we have some time.

All it takes is one bad apple

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Luckily we found that one bad apple and removed it from the bushel before embarking on this weekend’s adventure to make hard apple cider.

It was a lot easier than making wine. And yet, so much more work than I anticipated. For one, it is difficult to find detailed information on cider-making. Sure there’s the Intarweb, but the info is suprisingly scarce, nearly always tacked on as an appendix to beer-brewing how-to’s. For another, virtually no cider recipe begins with actual apples which I suppose follows from the first point. I mean, how many beer brewing recipes instruct you on how to harvest your own barley and hops? (This is the biggest difference with amateur winemaking. People love starting with actual grapes.)

So we had all these apples. And they’re something like 93% liquid. But getting all that juice out is nearly impossible without a good masher and press. We had neither. So we sliced up all the Empire apples (which by sheer luck turned out to be good for cider-makin’) with one of them corer doodads. It was handy for sure, but every slice tossed up a reverse shower of apple juice into my face. By the end my face had hardened into a sweet citrus-encrusted mask.

The goal is mash up the apples enough so that squeezing the juice from them is easier than trying to squeeze a whole apple. (This is why apples are called a hard fruit. Yes, just got that.) We had a grape crusher from our stint as home vintners ten years ago which we thought would work perfectly. It did not work perfectly. Indeed, it did not work at all. The few slices that did get mulched in the gears merely created a slurry coating that prevented other slices from entering. So we abandoned that idea.

Ultimately we put the slices into a food processor with the grater blade in. This worked wonderfully, though it kinda technologized the romance out of the process. Just for a bit, though. The real manual labor commenced when we had to hand-wring the mashed apples through cheese-cloth to get the juice out. My kingdom for a fruit press! Imagine wringing several hundred delicate washclothes out. Our hand muscles were basically useless when it was all done.

Now, there’s only so much juice you can extract without the using of a simple machine. I tried to fashion a crude press from a cutting board and a pan. This failed miserably too. So we had no second run. Ultimately we had to add some fresh apple cider from local orchards to top off the carboy. Then we just added some yeast and sugar. It is cloudy but certainly looks like apple cider. In a few weeks we’ll apparently have hard cider.

At one point in this process my wife asked nonchalantly “Is there any possibility that this will kill us when we drink it?” I answered no of course. Potentially lethal apple-based liquor awaits the next step: applejackification. But that’s another post.

Full photo gallery here. Bottoms up.

A stroll through the Night Market in Beijing

America’s Chinatowns have plenty of crittermeat, but they just don’t offer the diversity of skewered (and fried!) insects that you can find in China proper, you know?

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I’d advise you to put down that snack you’re munching at your desk and view the full set of yummies!

Grappa power!

I’m a fan of the liqueur known as grappa. This pungent drink is literally the bottom of the barrel, the end of the line for wine. Once winemakers have sucked all the juice from the stems, skins, and seeds at the bottom of the tub there’s left a goopy sludge (called the lees). Someone somewhere was the first person to think hmmm, maybe I can distill that crud and make a drink. Hence grappa.

I remember when my wife and I first tried our hand at winemaking in 1996. I wanted to make grappa also, but didn’t quite remember that personal distillation was, well, illegal until I posted openly on Usenet asking where I might obtain a still. Ah, the folly of ignorance. A few backchannel e-mails later I was fully informed that I was a dumbass for posting this request publicly. The wine itself ended up a hellish swill, not alcoholic enough to compensate for its lack of taste. I should have made grappa, you see.

Many people think grappa is jet fuel. Like tequila, there’s a vast chasm of drinkability between the bad stuff and the good stuff and, true enough, the smell of grappa can singe the nasal passage. It is an acquired taste.

It turns out I can no longer precisely counter the argument that grappa tastes like gasoline. For grappa, I have learned, can be turned into ethanol without much effort. Wired mag reports:

From October until June, backhoes pick apart a pile [of lees] and feed the mulch onto a series of conveyors, which carry it to a series of presses and kettles. The resulting solution is further fermented to make both grappa, a potable (to some, anyway) alcohol, at one end of the distillery and biofuel at the other. Caviro [an Italian distillery] produces a relatively small amount of grappa compared with its nearly 793,000 gallons of ethyl alcohol. The potent fuel is sold throughout Europe.

Naturally most Italians are aghast at the thought of using precious wine grapes to power their cars. But I bet they’d have no problem mulching a few French vineyards for it.

[Tip: for a real kick in the pants add grappa to espresso to make a Caffè corretto, literally, corrected coffee. Ah, yes, now the coffee is correct! That’ll get you going in the morning.]

Culinary turntablism

Does anyone remember the scene in The Golden Child — maybe I should first ask, does anyone remember the movie The Golden Child? From 1986, with Eddie Murphy? Not one of his best. There’s this scene where he enters a Nepalese temple and encounters a ceremonial pillar that rotates around its vertical axis. Not knowing what to do, he scrubs it like a turntable DJ, making a scratching noise. Laughter ensues.

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I think of that scene when I eat out in China because of the mechanism known as the zhuan pan at the center of the table. Known in the west as a lazy susan, this rotating platter is a fixture at traditional tables in China. It is both an efficient delivery mechanism and a wonderful social lubricant. Everything is communal and by definition participatory as the platter rotates forth and back. You just reach in with your chopsticks as a dish you like comes by. If you can get beyond the sanitary issues of this particular disease vector it becomes clear that the zhuan pan is a marvelous thing.

There’s something musical about the whole process. The zhuan pan is a DJ turntable set up.

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The central rotating platter known as a lazy susan in the west. (My first foray in Google Sketchup.)

Consider it this way. The dishes are notes/chords/samples — discrete musical units of some kind. They appear at a point in time on the platter and rotate more or less consistently until they are removed or moved (more on this in a moment). So you have discrete units repeating in time from the perspective of a fixed point which in this case is me, the eater, but metaphorically is the armature of the phonograph. Units are added in time, layered in so to speak, and repeat at the same interval. Dishes leave the table periodically — their particular musical loops end. But the dishes return, smaller this time (the waitstaff transfers uneaten portions to smaller plates to make more room on the table) and they are placed closer in to the center of the rotating platter, allowing people easier access to the newer, fuller dishes at the periphery. In other words, the loops return in a changed state and with new, quicker intervals (rotating more quickly since their radial distances are now shorter). The zhuan pan rotates backwards too, but only quickly, a “scrub” if you will, to let someone grab a morsel that made its way by too quickly. The overall motion is forward.

Data visualization geek that I am I started considering the possibilities — which of course weren’t visual at all but more like data sonification (a field to be sure but not one much popularized). What would this meal sound like if the zhuan pan were a recording?

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zhuanpan.mp3 | 1.4MB | 1 min, 1 sec

So I recorded each dish as a separate track in GarageBand. Each measure corresponded to one minute of the meal starting with the arrival of tea, which is the downbeat bass drum that remains constant throughout, the engine of the entire affair. Each new dish comes in more or less as I recorded it on a timeline in my notebook during the meal. (My hosts graciously obliged my notetaking as the curiosity of a unaccustomed Westerner.) Some dishes are single notes, some are short phrases, and at least one, the fish “flower,” is a constant note modulating in time with the rotation of the table. Each unit repeats with a period of five minutes. This is an average based on the number of revolutions of the table, but it is almost exact for at least the first two rotations of the 50 minute-long meal. With the exception of the tea-beat, volumes fade out for each track based on the consumption of the dishes. As noted above, the period of at least one dish, West Lake soup (represented by the piano), speeds up midway through the meal as it was transferred to a smaller plate and move closer to the center of the table, rotating faster. The two vinyl scratches correspond to an extended counter-rotation of the table. At 60 BPM one second correponds to roughly one minute of elapsed meal time. I think the time signature is 5/4, but I’m rusty on my Brubeck so who knows.

It is not what I’d call a chart-topper, but it isn’t cacophonous, though at quicker BPM’s it does get a bit muddy. I clearly could have done more. Instrumentation could be made to correspond more closely to the food type. (But what does “silver agaric” sound like?) Discord could be used to suggest tastes I did not care for. But the general idea is clear. Maybe on the next trip I can videotape the whole thing for the time-lapse music video this cries out to be.

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In China you often encounter a circular jade plate known as a bi. It is ancient in origin and its purpose is not completely understood. The bi is flat and usually has a circular hole at the center. Movable type, gunpowder, paper. The recordable disc?