Fusilli alla Canapa Bio

Instagram Post 8/6/2018

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Dear friends returned from a trip to Italy bearing this gift: Fusilli alla Canapa Bio. Canapa? My Italian may be a little rusty but I was pretty sure canapa means cannabis. My thoughts immediately went to making a big pot of “pot pasta”, perhaps even developing a recipe called Pollo alla Canapa – you know, pot in every chicken – until I read the label a little more closely. This was organic hemp fusilli – 20% hemp seed flour, 80% organic durum wheat semolina. It tasted very much like whole wheat high fiber pasta – the only thing “high” about it. Not sure if the wheat was stone ground. And in case you’re curious, it did not cause the munchies.

Bummer.
 
 

An Eggnog Excursus

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That time when folks dust off words like ’tis and ’twas as Bing Crosby croons creaky, arthritic chestnuts with inscrutable lyrics like “Christmas is a-comin’ and the egg is in the nog….”

That one always baffled me. I mean, what else would be in the “nog”?

There is vigorous unresolved debate over the etymology of the word “eggnog” (or phrase “egg nog”, if you prefer), proof that anything so resplendent is worthy of detailed analysis and ultimately obsession. Investigation harkens back to the late 1600s and hypotheses range from the term for a strong ale or possibly the wooden mug it was served in to a scrambled portmanteau of colonial argot, “grog” (rum) and “noggin” (mug). Eggs and dairy never even entered the picture (or perhaps, in this case, the pitcher). A libation did exist, however, called “posset” that was prepared with alcohol, milk, spices, and sometimes eggs, quaffed by the Brits during medieval times, that persisted for centuries. The recipe underwent refinement (as all worthy recipes do) and was surely the forerunner of today’s glorious elixir.

Of course, there are those who refuse to be satisfied until they’ve added a little something extra to the standard issue brew: down south, eggnog is often spiked with bourbon, not to mention Southern Comfort, but sherry, brandy, cognac, whiskey, rum, and grain alcohol, individually or in combination, have all managed to stagger into America’s punch bowl. Of course, this wouldn’t be an ethnojunkie post without at least a nod to international mixology, so from Wikipedia: “Eggnog is called coquito in Puerto Rico, where rum and fresh coconut juice or coconut milk are used in its preparation. Mexican eggnog, also known as rompope, was developed in Santa Clara. It differs from regular eggnog in its use of Mexican cinnamon and rum or grain alcohol. In Peru, eggnog is called biblia con pisco, and it is made with a Peruvian pomace brandy called pisco. German eggnog, called biersuppe, is made with beer and eierpunsch is a German version of eggnog made with white wine, eggs, sugar, cloves, tea, lemon or lime juice and cinnamon.” The list goes on. (Speaking of far away places with strange sounding names for things, I have to admit a certain fondness for the French spin on the word for eggnog, lait de poule – hen’s milk.)

All of which raises the question of whether I favor mixing eggnog with alcohol. I was afraid you’d ask. My personal observation is that it’s a waste of good booze and a waste of good eggnog. Unless of course it’s homemade (the nog, not the hooch) but that’s a nag of a different color. This post is about commercial eggnogs, and we’re only considering dairy based entries at that – not soy, rice, coconut, or almond milk nor lactose-free rivals – simply because there would undoubtedly be winners and losers among those categories which would eventually be pitted against “the real deal” and that would only serve to complicate comparisons.

If you’ve read me, you know that I have a few (ha!) guilty pleasures when it comes to holiday food, and for me, nothing heralds the advent of the season like the first appearance of eggnog on supermarket shelves. And snatching it away precipitately as they do every year when the yule log’s embers have barely begun to evanesce only makes the anticipation and craving for next year’s batch more intense.

But which one(s) to buy? Fret not. I and my OCD are here to offer you the benefits of my research and experimentation regarding this happy holiday quandary.

You probably know that flavor variations among brands of eggnog aren’t like those of milk – milk tastes pretty much like milk regardless of the purveyor (there are nuances but they’re not worth considering in this context). The dissimilarities among brands of eggnog, however, are cosmic by comparison; they may as well be different beverages. And to complicate things, a few brands taste radically different from year to year. (My theory is that there is some sort of practice among smaller dairies where they acquire the flavor base from a third party source and blend it with their own milk, but sometimes, for whatever reason, the base changes – perhaps it’s sourced from an alternate supplier, perhaps it’s a mandated change in recipe – hence the extreme annual variance within a single brand. It’s all about that base.) Note also that some brands are local and unique while others are the regional offspring of a national food company that may provide the same product under varying names (see the Garelick and Tuscan cartons above, both brought to you by Dean Foods).

Having read dozens of reviews, I find it fascinating that there is absolutely no critical agreement as to which commercial eggnog tastes best; one reviewer’s nectar of the gods is another’s paint thinner, so it is evident that eggnog’s charms are very much in the mouth of the beholder. My own memories of the bewitching flavor of the Ethereal Eggnog of My Youth remain vivid to this day and are the genesis of the impassioned quest I am about to share with you. But even if you disagree with my personal preferences, you’ll be able to make use of the template I’ve devised in order to develop the ultimate eggnog of your sugarplum dreams.

The Great Nog-Off Schema

The strategy is to identify significant universal eggnog characteristics and rate how each contender performs in each category. Picture a table, the kind that folks use Excel spreadsheets for even though there are no numbers to crunch but that are ideal for sorting data. Headers across the first row are Brand, Vintage, Body, Creaminess, Artificial/Natural, Flavor Notes, Finish, Special Features, Comments, and Overall Rating. Let’s examine each:

• Brand – seems obvious, but might include subtitles like Hood’s brood of Golden, Caramel, Cinnamon, Sugar Cookie, Pumpkin Pie, and Vanilla flavors; the single column simplifies sorting.

• Vintage – the year you’re evaluating. This is useful for two reasons: Tracking by year can identify certain brands that vary annually. For example, in 2008 (yeah, I’ve been at this for a while), Farmland was rather good but lately it’s been running in the middle of the pack. It’s like waiting for this year’s vintage Beaujolais Nouveau to appear: Le 2017 Farmland Lait de Poule est arrivé! And some unpredictability can be welcome; after all, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some surprises. Farmland actually comes in handy, as you’ll see later.

The second reason is that some brands never change and that’s a good thing because it can make life easier. For example, in 2014, I sampled (and had unsurprisingly forgotten about) International Delight and observed that the flavor notes included butter rum Lifesavers (not in my nog, thank you very much). This year, 2017, I inadvertently bought it again and my butter rum flavor notes were identical to those from three years earlier. Since my comments ran along the lines of “worst ever”, “the word ‘egg’ never even appears on the label nor in the ingredients list so no surprise there”, and so forth, it’s obvious that I’ll never need to carry that brand home again. See? Makes life easier.

• Body – rated on a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is thinnest and 5 is thickest. You might not care for a super thick eggnog (or the yellow mustache that accompanies it), so maybe a 4 in this category beats a 5 for you, but it certainly shouldn’t be a 1, otherwise you’re just drinking eggnog flavored milk and what’s the point of that? But it’s all a matter of taste, as is everything in this post.

• Creaminess – different from body, this is about mouthfeel where 1 may very well be thick but not at all creamy (think Pepto-Bismol) and 5 coats your mouth with dairy cream.

• The Artificial/Natural continuum – where 1 denotes dominant artificial flavoring (usually ester-based) and 5 tastes like someone made it at home using only eggs, dairy products and sugar. Appreciation of this trait is idiosyncratic. Personally, I’m trying to recapture the Magical Eggnog of My Kidhood and that one had just a wee dram of that ester component. To understand them, you first need to know that there are many flavors derived from ester compounds. You’ll find them in artificial flavors of every stripe but probably the most universally recognized example I can describe is that artificial banana-y flavor of Circus Peanuts, those orange, oversized-peanut-shaped, marshmallowy candies that are an affront to the tastebuds of anyone over the age of five. That’s only one kind of ester (isoamyl acetate, C7H14O2, for my fellow science geeks out there) but there’s a common combination that screams “Eggnog!” to anyone whose tongue is half listening. I’m searching for just a soupçon of that in my nog.

• Flavor Notes – for example, descriptors like eggy, nutmeggy, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, carrageenan (a thickener often found in commercial rice puddings and a flavor easy to recognize once you’ve experienced it), cooked, nutty, or sugary sweet.

• Finish – you oenophiles will grok this. A food’s aftertaste is often different from its flavor (think artichokes) and it’s connected to whatever remains on your tongue plus the sense memory that you’re left with after taking a sip. I once had some eggnog that was sort of okay in the mouth but whose aftertaste was downright chalky. I’ve found that a few organic brands have a “grassy” finish.

• Special Features – categories like organic, lite (whatever that means), and if you must, soy/nut/coconut-based, lactose free, etc. This is the column in which I noted that SoCo actually provides instructions on its label, admitting, “Preparation: Mix with Southern Comfort” so perhaps it’s intended to work optimally in that application – as a mixer, not a beverage – since I don’t care for it as a virgin standalone. Again, that’s just me; YMMV.

• Comments – have fun with it. One eggnog I tasted (which will go nameless) inspired me to write, “tastes the way my parents’ plastic slipcovers used to smell when I was a kid.”

• Overall Rating – where 1 is worst and 5 is best; not to be confused with an average of any numerical ratings you may have assigned. Think of it as how many stars out of five you’d give the product.

Now as you buy particular brands of eggnog (I’ve been through dozens of brands and vintages), fill in the cells in the table. I recommend using a blind taste test form listing the aforementioned categories so that you’re not haunted by ghosts from Christmas past in the row above competing for your attention, but you don’t have to. (I did warn you that this was an OCD undertaking, right?)

So you’ve collected a mountain of data but how do you use it? Certainly there is no such thing as the perfect commercial eggnog as the lack of consensus among reviewers would suggest. I find those beverages always lacking in one feature or another and that’s where this chart comes into play. The best way I can demonstrate its application is to show you how I’ve implemented the information to recreate the taste of my Childhood Enchanted Eggnog.

Ronnybrook Farm Dairy’s eggnog is pretty darned delicious straight out of the (deposit) bottle (I gave it a 4.5 overall) and if you want to just buy one brand without all this folderol (or falalalalalderol perhaps) it would top the list, but its carrageenan and guar gum levels make it a little thicker (rated 5 for body) than the Nog of My Dreams. That’s where a solid middle of the road eggnog like this year’s Farmland (3.5 overall) comes into play. Farmland is a journeyman level nog, modest and nicely balanced in terms of flavor, and coming in at 3.5 on the body scale is the perfect addition to mitigate Ronnybrook’s viscosity while not overpowering its essence. But when I cut Ronnybrook with it, an ineffable characteristic was missing. Another sip. Ah, the ester component, of course – which was ultimately provided by Turkey Hill. Turkey Hill scores a 1 on my artificial/natural scale (way too estery for me) but a dollop of it added to the Ronnybrook/Farmland mix was all the recipe needed. Three parts Ronnybrook to one or two parts Farmland plus a good glug of Turkey Hill was the ratio I formulated. (Don’t forget to garnish with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg!)

Another time, when I couldn’t locate Farmland for my attenuation purposes, I was able to procure Cream-O-Land (whose slogan used to be “Made From Real Cows” before some marketing guru thought the wiser of it). This year’s batch was okay but nothing special (rated 3 overall), certainly not horrible, but its 2.5 score for body indicated that it could provide the tempering influence that was called for. Since Cream-O-Land is more artificial tasting than Farmland, bringing Turkey Hill into the lineup was unnecessary.

So there you have it. Yes, I concede that this venture involves imbibing an ocean of eggnog and ignoring a volcano of calories. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Needless to say, you shouldn’t feel that you need to slavishly follow my recipe proportions or recommendations. The takeaway here is for you to identify the special characteristics you’re seeking in the eggnog of your fantasies, and piloted by a little R&D as you navigate the nogosphere, come up with your own bespoke, personalized blend.

Incidentally, recounting your saga comes with the delicious bonus of dumbfounding your discriminating foodie friends. And perhaps your therapist. 😉
 
 
Happy Holidays!
 
 

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of…Fish?

You’ve undoubtedly seen these if you shop at Asian markets whether Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Southeast Asian because they’re a favorite everywhere in that part of the world. (Scandinavia has its own variant, but we’re not going to venture that far north this time.) There are even fish cake emoji like 🍥 (narutomaki) and 🍢 (oden). In local Asian markets, you’ll find fish balls and fish cakes in the freezer case packaged in bags or plastic wrapped in a small tray, but if you’re lucky they’ll also have bins of loose assorted varieties where you can cherry-pick as many or as few of whichever ones suit your fancy – my style of shopping, of course.

At their most basic, fish balls are made of fish paste: finely ground fish (pulverized and pounded), egg white, starch, plus a little seasoning. You may have also encountered fish paste as Japanese surimi which is used to make imitation shellfish like the crab stick you see in those ubiquitous California rolls. Incidentally, you can often purchase a few types of fish paste by the pound at the larger markets in the fresh fish/meat department. These are generally the stores’ own blends and are worth trying, but they’re easier to work with as filling for a dumpling or stuffing a vegetable, dim sum style, rather than for rolling your own fish balls, so I strongly recommend getting the ready-to-go frozen ones as an entry level fishy requisite.

Anyway, I was shopping at Jmart (136-20 Roosevelt Avenue in the New World Mall in Flushing, Queens) and fortuitously happened upon one such bin – fortuitously because I had just made a savory Chinese duck soup from a pair of carcasses that contributed their meat to a Thai duck salad I crafted and I had been trying to decide whether to put noodles or dumplings in it. This bounty made the choice easy – and now I had the perfect excuse to buy a few of each kind.

It’s difficult to rate them on some sort of 1 to 10 scale because they’re all quite good but the cuttlefish balls and all of the filled varieties were especially tasty; the shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber and the fish ball with pork filling were excellent. By way of identification, from left to right in the photo above:

Row 1: shrimp ball, fish tofu, imitation lobster ball, Chinese brand mini bite sausage

Row 2: beef tendon ball, fish dumpling with lobster flavored filling, fish ball with fish roe filling, cuttlefish ball

Row 3: fish tofu with shrimp filling, fish ball with pork filling, pork and chicken patty ball with pork filling, shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber

Preparing them is a piece of cake (no, not fish cake) because they’re already cooked. The easiest method is to simply drop them into boiling soup/water; they’ll float to the top when they’re good to go. Alternatively, they can be fried and served with just about any Asian dipping sauce; you’ll find them on skewers at some food trucks, and I’ve seen them served with a curry sauce as well. Obviously, they’re incredibly versatile.

The flavor is mildly fish-like (except for the ones made from meat which are mildly beefy or mildly porky) which partly accounts for their affinity for various dipping sauces and also for their adaptability in combining with other ingredients. The texture is tender and frankly springy/bouncy, but in a happy way.

The final photo was taken just before adding more soup since it would have completely covered them up; there are some greens in there for good measure.

So I’m curious: let me know if or how you’ve used these little wonders in the “Leave a Reply” box below! (If you don’t see it, click the reply button next to the title of this post.)

 
 

Ratcheting Up Sriracha

Fancy Food Show SrirachaIt is written in some ancient tome, or so my rather hazy understanding would have it, that during times of inclement weather the more sagacious among us hunker down in our kitchens and prepare mass quantities of pain perdu. Otherwise why would so many well-meaning mediarologists exhort us to make a beeline for our local supermarket in a frenzied quest for whatever remains on the shelves of bread, eggs, and milk?

So following the spirit of the law, although not the letter, I made the obligatory pre-disaster pilgrimage to stock up on essentials. I returned home and gingerly set my lumpily filled bags down outside my door. I was fumbling with the keys to my apartment when my neighbor, affectionately known to the denizens of my building as Windy, emerged.

Windy had a wiry frame and wore owlish Harold Lloyd glasses. His shaggy gray hair was usually half hidden beneath a weathered Australian cork hat. Somehow the corks were always in motion, even when Windy stood still, bobbing about as if propelled by some unseen force.

“Hey, Ethnojunkie! Got plenty of bread, eggs, and milk in there, right?”

“Um, yeah. I mean, no, not really. I’m not planning on making French toast.” The contents of my limp plastic bags were redistributing now, making themselves more comfortable on the dingy tile floor as I continued to grapple with the lock.

“All ready for the mother of all storms?”

“I thought that was Sandy.”

“Yep,” he continued, ignoring me. “The Blizzard of ’16. Snowmageddon. Snowzilla, they’re callin’ it. The blizzard to end all blizzards. Snowpocalypse….”

“Been watching a lot of TV, Windy?”

“…Gonna be a real snownami. A snowlapalooza.”

Windy himself could generate a gale greater than even the most virulent hurricane might ever aspire to. Having pretty much exhausted his supply of snowstorm metaphors, he went on to do what he did second best: pry.

“Got yer emergency preparedness kit ready?” He craned his neck and peered into my bags to inspect their contents. I slid them out of his line of sight with my foot.

“Sure thing,” I lied. “I’ve got wind-up batteries, sustainable “last-forever” wick-free candles, and solar powered #2 pencils, sharpened, of course.” At that moment, one of the bags shifted and my bottle of Sriracha tumbled out.

A bewildered look passed across his face as he squinted at the bottle with a gimlet gaze. “What kind of emergency were you expecting?” he sniffed. He was right. My idea of an emergency preparedness pack was somewhat skewed. “What’s in that bottle anyway?”

“It’s Sriracha. Like a kind of hot sauce,” I replied, stuffing it back into the bag and finally pushing my door open.

“That’s not Sriracha! Sriracha has a rooster on it! This one’s got a shark!”

“Right. Well, it’s a different brand. Sometimes I like it better than Huy Fong, the one with the rooster.”

“What’s the difference?”

Seizing the opportunity to go on about ethnic food, I began, “Well, they’re all chili, garlic, and vinegar, plus sugar and salt, but that’s where the similarities end. This one is a little sweeter….”

He interrupted, “No, no, I mean what’s the difference which one you get? Sriracha is Sriracha. Okay, I gotta go back inside and watch the storm.” He pivoted on one Birkenstock and marched back into his apartment, corks bobbling wildly, never allowing me to inquire as to whether he thought mayo is mayo or cola is cola.

I scooped up my bags and lugged them into my apartment, bemused by the interchange. But my reflection on our conversation wasn’t because of Windy’s dismissal of my brand preference. If Windy knows about Sriracha, everybody knows about Sriracha. Years ago the darling of a few culinary cognoscenti, the stuff is now ubiquitous.

Huy Fong brand (with the rooster imprint) was developed in 1980 in California by a Vietnamese-American; by 2010 Bon Appétit magazine had crowned it “Ingredient of the Year”. I’ve spotted it gracing the tables of diners and restaurants having no pretense of being Asian. It’s in every supermarket – they even sell it at Bed, Bath & Beyond. And now it’s available in individual packets like ketchup or mustard, not to mention their line of Sriracha popcorn and chips.

Shark brand, the favorite of Andy Ricker of Pok Pok fame, is a product of Thailand and is markedly distinct from Huy Fong.

So pitting the rooster against the shark, let’s examine the differences (with apologies to Windy).

Huy Fong is tangier and sharper (think horseradish kind of sharp) with a coarser texture and tiny bits of chili within. Shark is thinner, sweeter, more garlicy, more vinegary, a little herbal and significantly brighter.

Incidentally, Huy Fong also makes a chili garlic sauce, available in 8 ounce jars, that’s thicker than their Sriracha (you would spoon it out rather than squirt it); it’s earthier, more garlicy, less sweet and less vinegary. Just for kicks, I tried mixing the two Huy Fong products together and I thought the combination was great – not to mention that if you try this at home, seasoned Sriracha aficionados will ask you which brand you’re using. Simply smile coyly and say it’s your custom house blend; it’ll be our little secret.
Rooster vs SharkShark CloseupChili Garlic Sauce

Which do I like better? It depends on what I’m doing with them, but I lean more towards Shark for straight-out-of-the-bottle applications. And yes, there are plenty of other brands as well. Perhaps I’ll write about those when my emergency preparedness pack needs replenishing during the next Blizzard to End All Blizzards.

 

 

Lard A’mighty!

Bacon? Delicious.
Pâté? Of course.
Bacon Pâté? Um, yeah, okay. Er, I guess.

Not much to look at, I thought, peering through the thick plastic package. Still, it beckoned to me as I navigated the narrow aisle that bisects Polam International Market, one of the bright spots for Polish food in Greenpoint. Seems like an oxymoron: I think of bacon as having ribbons of fat interspersed with lean (the Jack Sprat recipe for marital harmony) and pâté as a paste, coarse or fine, but easily spreadable. I couldn’t be certain of course, but this looked like little chunks of fried bacon suspended in lard.

Bacon PateOn Bread

At home, I poured it into a bowl to get a better look.

It still looked like little chunks of fried bacon suspended in lard.

Because that’s precisely what it was. So I went online to learn more about what to do with it: Smalec po Góralsku translates as Mountaineers’ Lard. “Spreadable bacon goodness!” proclaimed the description. “Traditional simple peasant spread typically used as a substitute for butter – put it on the dark bread, add some salt and you will enjoy the Polish mountain village specialty.” Okay, I’m game. For starters, I had to get past the fact that I was about to wrap my lips around glorified lard supported only by a piece of excellent pumpernickel. (I had long since given up on trying to figure out an explanation for the “pâté” part.) I took a bite. I understood where it wanted to go, but its charms were eluding me. I felt that it had potential however. What could I do with it to make it delicious enough to write about? And then I remembered Zoltán.

Zoltán was an affable fellow of Hungarian descent who lived in the country. (When you’re a New Yorker, anywhere on the far side of a bridge leading out of the city is “the country”.) I hadn’t thought about him in years. His claim to fame was that every summer, he’d get a fire going in a little pit in his backyard and make Szalonna. He’d impale a hunk of Hungarian back bacon on a stick and hold it over the flames and just as the fat began to sizzle and render, he’d pull it out of the fire and hold it over a piece of fresh bread until the drippings dwindled. Then back over the flames it went for another round – repeatedly until the bread was saturated. Sometimes it was topped with onion, cucumber, or bell pepper. Neighborhood kids would come running to his yard as the heavenly, porky aroma filled the air. The Good Humor man had nothing on Zoltán.

So taking a tip from those ancient sense memories, I concocted a plan. Caramelize thinly sliced onions very slowly in the bacon pâté. While they grow sweet, slice an heirloom tomato and oven toast a slice of pumpernickel. When the onions are done, drench the toasted pumpernickel in the rendered lard, add the onions and bacon pieces, top with a slice of tomato, and sprinkle with wild mushroom sea salt.
Bacon Pate with Caramelized Onions and Heirloom Tomato

Looks good, doesn’t it? Tasted even better.

Of course, I had to go through several of these to make sure they were as wonderful as I thought they were on the first bite. Ah, such sacrifice.

 
 
Found at Polam International Market
952 Manhattan Ave.
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY
(718) 383-2763