Sunday, December 20, 2009

Inquisition Punch/Krunk Jewce

I have achieved the impossible. For this particular thing, I deserve a culinary medal of honor for going where no home cook has gone before. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have made Manischewitz palatable.

I will pause now so you can pick your jaws off the floor.

Upon divine inspiration - and by divine, I mean I read the NY Times - I came upon a recipe for a single drink made with Manischewitz, bourbon, lemon juice, and seltzer called the Drunken Pharoah. I thought to myself, hey, you can do better than that! And so I did. The Economical Epicurean was holding a holiday party, and this mysterious wine product steeped in so many years of tradition and punchlines came to me. Clocking in at under $8 for 1.5 liters of candied Concord grapey alcoholic bliss, it was certainly cheap. Instead of bourbon, I used Seagram's VO whiskey, a smooth if slightly boring libation that is my fallback whiskey of choice when price and the health of my gut are taken into equal consideration. The night before, I ventured into the local supermarket to get lemons. People, when the weather is supposed to be 1-2 feet of snow in an area where 1-2 inches can cripple a city, do not enter a supermarket. May the good lord help you if you need toilet paper, milk, eggs, or potato chips, because you ain't gittin none. But thankfully, lemons weren't high on the list of survival foods that night, and I got 4 fat, shiny, yellow specimens.

The morning of the party dawned steely grey, a thick cloud cover and swirling snow hiding the sun. I mixed up the punch, using the ratios the NY Times suggested just in much larger quantities:

2 c Manischewitz, the concord grape variety
1.5 c whiskey
0.5 c lemon juice

I tasted it. It had promise. I took a bit on ice and topped it with seltzer. Very promising indeed. Then I doubled the recipe because there were going to be 25 people there, and given the typical food and drink situation, not 2 feet of snow nor sleet nor ice nor rain would keep people from this party. When I doubled the recipe, though, I think I tweaked the ratios. I added the base amount of booze, but messed with the lemon juice. What I was going for was a sweet (but not syrupy), boozey, yet slightly tangy concoction that would benefit from chilling and fizz addition. Then I decided to add some thinly sliced lemon, and I also added a handful of fresh cranberries for decoration (note on fresh cranberries: they are resilient little buggers that you can freeze when you buy them fresh and use whenever you feel like cranberry relish, muffins, bread, etc. - there's a 3 lb bag in our freezer). Then I adjusted the ratio of Manischewitz to whiskey to suit my tastes, and I suggest you do the same! When you do that, just remember you're going to add ice and seltzer. When you chill things, perceived sweetness decreases. So if you're not sure, make yourself a mini cup of it, and see what it needs. The whole thing tasted bright and fruity, but I wanted more depth. So, I broke 3-4 cinnamon sticks in half, added in 4-6 whole cloves, and 4 whole allspice berries for some spice. It sat at room temperature on the counter for several hours, and the total volume was probably a little more than 3 quarts, pre-seltzer.

We packed it off into two nalgenes and an empty spare bottle we had, loaded them, bottles of seltzer, and the bowl into backpacks, put on our winter gear, and trudged out into the blizzard. Along the way we helped one guy free his car from a snowbank. The walk was beautiful. The snow was falling in fine cold flakes, swirling here and there, but the wind wasn't uncomfortably strong. We took pictures of some Xmas lights under the snow and admired the gobs of snow covering everything. Another nice thing about extreme beautiful weather like this is people come out to admire it. We saw more people walking around just looking at things, and there were those like us, walking instead of the usual driving. We walked maybe just over a mile to get to the party, but some of the other attendees' hikes were 2 or more. We all tramped in wearing snowpants, boots, and parkas, shedding clothing like snakes casting off old skin, and making a beeline for the food and drink.

The punchbowl was drained. Literally. Someone, I forget who, actually picked it up and poured the dregs, little bits of spices, lemon pulp, and all, into their glass. I can think of no better praise. We're still stuck on a name, although Inquisition Punch (bc, you know, sangria w/ Manischewitz?) has a good ring to it. The Hebrew Hammer or The Hebrews Get Hammered or Krunk Jewce were also in the running.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Melting onions.

Melted onions are my new favorite food. You thinly slice however many pounds of onions you want. For batches of onion jam, I've been going with 3 pounds. Have three garlic cloves, UNPEELED. That's right, don't peel 'em. Also, you can add whatever herbs you like. I found out that when Julia Child suggests a bouquet garni, it means that then you won't be picking out limp herb leaves from everything, but if you're like me, you'll skip the damn cheesecloth and leave it up to whoever's eating it to pick out the greenery if they so desire. I like a few sprigs of parsley and either some thyme or rosemary or a combination of the two.

To cook it, you heat up some olive oil in a pan, but not searingly hot, throw in the onions and a big pinch of salt, the herbs, and the unpeeled garlic cloves. Stir it often. Keep the heat lower than a normal sautee, like medium. When you see the onions go completely limp and translucent, turn the heat down even more because you want to achieve a very slow even caramelization without getting charred bits. The ultimate goal is to, well, melt the onions into a savory, sweet, limp mass of golden brown awesomeosity. This will take a while, like an hour. Do it while you're doing something else in the kitchen, stirring every so often to prevent burning.

Once the onions have achieved savory, sweet, limp, golden brown awesomeosity, it's up to you to decide what you want to do with them. You can leave them as they are and fill a smallish prebaked tart crust, topping it with some good anchovies and oil-cured olives for a pissaladiere nicoise. You can add a bunch of red wine into the onions, reducing it into an onion jam which is amazing with brie on whatever bread/cracker product you have lying around. Or you can dump them into mashed root vegetables to amazing effect. I mashed up a small rutabaga, a couple potatoes, and a few carrots and then dumped the onions in. It is extremely delicious. Melted onions are apparently also the base for onion soup, which I am oddly embarrassed to say I've never made.

The trick of leaving the garlic unpeeled prevents burning. Garlic burns much more easily than onions, and by leaving it in its paper, you get the garlic flavor with none of the burned bitterness. You can peel them after the onions are done and either eat it plain (because by this time, it's sweet and soft) or just give it a light chop and fold it into whatever you're making. Whatever you decide to do, melted onions are a lot of flavor for very little money and there's no cream or bacon involved. As far as flavor vectors go, it's healthy, vegan-friendly, and tastes awesome.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What is up with all that?

One thing I can't get over is why every soup recipe I see has to have cream and/or bacon or some similar greasy pork derivative in it. Does anyone else see soup as winterized salad? Do you glug cream all over your salad every day for lunch? Is the main flavoring in your salad fried bacon or sausage bits? Probably not. Well, ok, at least not in my case. Salad is a glorification of raw vegetables, and when I eat them, I intend to enjoy them as they are, not mask the flavor. Because they actually taste good, and the amount of flavor you can bring with raw produce is really nice if you know what you're doing.

I noticed this month's Bon Appetit was all about the fennel. BA, you are behind MY times. There is a Mark Bittman-esque salad you can make with very thinly sliced raw fennel and matchsticked apples, dressed in a super-simple mustard vinagrette and decorated with a bit of fennel fronds that is fresh, delicious, and can not only be a salad in its own right, but also dress what I consider as The Most Basic Salad. The Most Basic Salad is tomatoes, cukes, peppers, and lettuce. When you have tomatoes, cukes, peppers and lettuce that were grown well, you would be surprised at how amazing this simple mixture can be on its own. When peppers are grown for flavor and not, say, sugar content or wall thickness (wall = the part we eat), you can't believe how genuinely peppery they taste. The same goes for all the above. But seeing that we live in an era when tomatoes are grown for shippability (resulting in pink soggy styrofoam insides that taste nothing like real tomatoes), peppers are grown for size and sugar content, and cukes have morphed into giant, flavorless, oblong vessels of water and seeds, we need to take some other action to get the vegetabley flavor few people really know.

There are veggies that haven't been as tampered with, veggies that retain a greater degree of their true character. They aren't perfect, as anyone who's eaten a homegrown carrot right out of the ground after a brief rinse in the garden hose can tell you. After all, does biting into a raw supermarket carrot give you a slap-your-grandma carrot-y flavor? No. But carrots still manage to taste like carrots. Beets still manage to taste like beets. And red cabbage still tastes like cabbage, but it's purple! Little known fact: raw cabbage has a BUTTLOAD of vitamin C. Orange juice - while very tasty - isn't necessary when you toss a good amount of shredded fresh cabbage into a salad. Then there are the seasonal fruits that can be added and dried ones, too.

So when constructing a good salad, add some diced apples and raw thin-sliced fennel which has a gentle, fresh, anise flavor. If you don't like it, slice the rest of it and sautee it with onions and/or mushrooms to add to your next omelette. Sauteeing drastically ratchets down fennel's anise flavor. Grate some carrots and/or beets into the bowl. What I've been doing is making a giant bowl of salad for the week, scooping some out every day for lunch and adding things as I want them. Toss in some fresh grapefruit segments which are coming into season from Florida or raisins for some sweetness, some chopped fresh herb of your choice, and some balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. A big part of making the salad pop is combining sweet, sour, and salty in a way that you find appealing. You can do it with mostly fruits and veggies. I've been giving my salad more staying power by throwing chunks of roast turkey on top. Hardboiled eggs are a cheap good choice, especially with a high-quality feta.

My final tip for eating tasty salad is not refrigerating it all day. I know it sounds weird, but letting it come to room temperature at work makes it much more likely that I'll eat it because when it's chilly and wet out, eating chilly wet things is completely unappealing. But room temperature wet things? Fine. Anyway, I will soon add to the several soups on this blog that do not contain cream and/or bacony things.