January 15, 2013
Several food critics recently predicted barrel-aged hot sauce would be this year’s breakout condiment. The process originated nearly 145 years ago, when pepper seeds from Mexico and Central America took root in Avery Island, a salt dome in Louisiana. There, Edmund McIlhenny watched the red peppers grow, starting out green in infancy, then turning yellow, orange and finally deep red and ready for picking. He mashed them and mixed in salt from the island’s underground mines. Then, he dumped the mixture into white oak barrels, where it aged for three years, slowly fermenting.
Tabasco red pepper sauce was born.
When whiskey is freshly distilled, it is colorless and only tastes and smells like the grain and the alcohol. It gets its color and richness in flavor from aging in charred oak barrels. Hot sauce, like Tabasco, works much the same way—it soaks in flavor and grows deeper in color in the barrel.
In 2009, a former chef at Vesta Dipping Grill in Denver purchased an eight-gallon charred whiskey oak barrel to add some smoky flavor to the restaurant’s house-made sauces. Last year, Vesta’s executive chef, Brandon Foster, purchased two more barrels, and they sit in the restaurant’s basement, allowing the chiles to age and absorb wood tannins and hints of whiskey.
The first iteration, dubbed Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, became a Louisiana-style sauce made with red Fresno chilies and habaneros, onion, garlic, salt and vinegar. After the chilies are pickled for two weeks in cans, the barrel is rinsed with a bottle of whiskey, and the mixture ages for a minimum of four weeks. Around week six or eight
, the whiskey flavor really seeps in, says Foster, and the resulting flavor is smoky with an acidic punch and some background heat.
Vinegar and salt pull moisture from the barrels into the hot sauce, bringing flavor with them, Foster says.
“The barrel has sauce aged in it, it’s had whiskey aged in it,” Foster says. “It’s going to have excess moisture in it and I think that’s the salt and the vinegar, the macerated chilies, that are really just reacting with that wood and pulling out as much flavor as possible.”
The first barrel, which cost $130, produced eight batches of hot sauce before Foster noticed signs of wear and tear and feared leaking or mold. His two new barrels have gone through ten to 12 batches of hot sauce, and recently welcomed a new concoction—this time, using tequila.
The new recipe, created by one of Vesta’s kitchen managers, calls for Serrano peppers, roasted jalapenos, habaneros, onions, garlic and red wine vinegar mashed together and poured into a tequila-rinsed barrel. The green, Latin America-style sauce, which will be hotter and sweeter than Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, will debut at the restaurant in a few weeks.
What sort of volume goes through one eight-gallon barrel during its lifetime? A lot: 250 to 300 pounds of chilies, 60 to 70 pounds of onions, 20 to 25 pounds of garlic and generous helpings of salt and vinegar. Foster uses chiles from California for the current batch, as Colorado’s winter weather isn’t easy on pepper crops.
Once the sauces have matured, the mixture is pureed, but it’s not smooth by any means, Foster says. He drains the barrel by setting it on a counter above a bucket and shaking it back and forth, then tosses the mash into a high-powered Vitamix blender, after which it’s pureed further through a cap strainer. Some pulp remains to add viscosity to the sauce, which is seasoned, bottled and served at Vesta’s sister restaurant Steuben’s, alongside 20 to 30 other hot sauces. And since the barrels are replenished regularly, some of the flavor customers taste has been building for two years.
For Ronnie New, executive chef at Magnolia Pub and Brewery in San Francisco, barrel aging hot sauce is a new venture. He’s been making his own hot sauce, similar to Sriracha, for a year and a half, adding it to the restaurant’s wings and fried chicken. Magnolia has no shortage of barrels—its bar buys bourbon and whiskey by the barrel for its house cocktails—so tossing hot sauce into one of them seemed like a logical move.
By June, he’ll fill a 53-gallon Evan Williams bourbon whiskey white oak barrel with 200 pounds of locally sourced chilies, age the mash for six months, and bottle it by 2014. As the vinegar in the mash starts to denature the chilies, New says some natural sugar will be released, causing the mixture to ferment. When natural proteins are exposed to salt and changes in pH, their coils unwind, and they tend to bond together to create solid clumps, losing some of their capacity to hold water.
“Hot sauces tend to develop more and more flavor the longer they sit,” says New, who will monitor the flavor as the mash ages. “Every single environment is different, so there’s not an exact formula. The end product might be slightly different each time we do it.”
On the opposite coast, Sam Barbieri, owner of Waterfront Alehouse in Brooklyn, recently emptied a 31-gallon barrel whiskey full of hot sauce and added it to his restaurant’s wings and buffalo-style calamari.
“If you’re aging whiskey in a barrel and dump it out, there’s still about eight to ten percent retention in the wood from the whiskey,” Barbieri says. “I put the sauce in there, and all those beautiful vanilla and oak tones will come into my hot sauce.”
The sauce, made from chocolate habaneros, Bishop’s Crown peppers and Serranos, ages for two years. The end result is extremely hot, so Barbieri adds pureed carrot or apple cider vinegar to balance the flavor and arrive at his desired pH level, roughly 3.5, a number he says those in the canning industry aim for to create a stable product. Then, he heats the sauce at 192 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes before bottling it.
Unlike Foster, Barbieri doesn’t reuse his barrels. Instead, he throws its staves into his barbecue pit to infuse pepper flavor into roasted hogs, adding hickory and apple. He’s in talks with local distilleries about acquiring his next barrel.
“As soon as you age your whiskey, I will come pick up your barrel,” he says.
October 15, 2012
At about this time every year, Michelin begins releasing their vaunted series of international restaurant guides that highlight the best—and worst—places to sit down for a meal. While one of the best-selling dining guides on the market, they are not without detractors—notably British critic A.A. Gill who, in a Vanity Fair editorial, dubbed it an “assassin of the greatest international food” and finds the books to be limited in scope and guilty of food snobbery. Now, when I think Michelin, I think about cars and that charming little man made out of pneumatic tires. Their association with haute cuisine was something I just accepted and returned to my local newspaper/word of mouth/urbanspoon app for dining ideas. But why do we look to on automotive company to highlight the best in international cuisine?
The answer does indeed begin with cars. In late 19th century France, brothers André and Édouard Michelin were leading the pneumatic tire industry with their greatest innovation—tires that did not have to be glued to a wheel rim, but rather, easily removed and replaced—were outfitting bicycles and automobiles. Motor tourism was on the rise in and at the same time, there was also an increasing interest regional gastronomy, which was believed to contribute to the nation’s culinary richness. The Michelin grew out of this point of national pride, and when the guide first appeared in 1900, it provided information on how to change a tire, where to find Michelin dealers and a list of acceptable places to eat and sleep when on the go. But once car culture became more established, and repair places became easier to find, editions printed after World War I focused more on food and lodging, with it’s now-famous starred rating system introduced in 1931. In his book, Marketing Michelin, author Stephen Harp points out the following statistic: “In 1912, the guide had over 600 pages, 62 of which concerned tires. By 1927, however, the first section of the guide devoted to changing tires included only 5 pages, out of 990 total.” The flagship product took a back seat to people’s stomachs and with over a million copies of the guide sold between 1926 and 1940, it was clear that the tire company was defining quality French cuisine.
Both the restaurant guides and their tire industry has endured, the former being a wonderfully ironic piece of marketing that works keep the Michelin brand in the public eye. Plug food to sell tires—who’d have thought? But, as with any curated list, the question always arises as to whether said list is worth its salt. Personally, I find guides to be helpful, but only when I find one that seems to sync up well with my own personality. (For instance, when I took a trip to New York, I used the Not For Tourists Guide to the city and was able to find great food where the locals actually ate. It was a great way to feel like I fit in with new environs, and most of the places they recommended were spot-on with the cuisine.)
Do you think that the Michelin guide is a solid means to finding good food or do your sentiments fall with those of Mr. Gill and feel that it does more harm than good? Share your thoughts—or any experiences you’ve had dining in a starred establishment—in the comments section below.
January 31, 2012
From guest blogger Jeanne Maglaty
Earlier this month, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled a new portrait of Alice Waters, the legendary owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement.
In the photographic portrait, a mulberry tree looms over Waters, looking chic in black in the Edible Schoolyard, her organic teaching garden and kitchen project in Berkeley that connects kids to “real” food and encourages healthy eating.
“The thing that I love most is that I’m very small and nature is very big,” said Waters as she stood beside the portrait, teary-eyed.
Waters’ acolytes gathered around her as she spoke in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, some as teary-eyed as she. But hundreds of other hungry guests dared not move closer and risk losing their place in line for the food at the event.
Washington, D.C, culinary celebrities had prepared edible innovations for a glittery reception. Here’s who and what you missed if you weren’t there:
Chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve: Rappahannock River oysters with coriander migonette and green goddess vinaigrette
Chef Haidar Karoum of Proof and Estadio: Roasted winter vegetables with wheat berries and garlic and anchovy dressing
Chef-owner José Andrés of ThinkFoodGroup: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermin—Acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico ham; Selecciónes de Embutidos Fermin—Selection of cured Spanish sausages
Chef-owner Mike Isabella of Graffiato: Crudo of wild striped bass with kumquats, cranberries and arugula
Chef-owner Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora: Winter root vegetable & Mushroom gratin with Ecopia Farms microlettuces
Chef-founder Todd Gray of Equinox Restaurant: Lightly smoked duck breast with savory fig chutney and French baguette crostinis
Owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery: Mount Tam cheese—bloomy, rinded triple crème, mushroomy, buttery; Red Hawk cheese—washed rind, triple crème, unctuous, aromatic; Wagon Wheel cheese—pressed and aged cow’s milk cheese, medium strength, semi-firm
Bar manager Adam Bernbach of Proof and Estadio: Catoctin Creek Gin with Tarragon-Pear Soda
Who could resist a single morsel? My daughter and I went back for seconds.
Waters has espoused her culinary philosophy based on using fresh, local products for 40 years. I asked cheesemonger Adam Smith of Cowgirl Creamery if it was difficult to decide what to serve at a reception for such a prominent person in his field.
Not at all, he answered. He selected three cheeses that the Petaluma, California, creamery made from organic milk purchased from a neighboring dairy.
Nearby, Bernbach mixed cocktails using gin that was distilled (from organic rye grain) only 50 miles away from the nation’s capital in Purcellville, Virginia.
Dave Woody’s selection as the portrait’s artist came with his first-prize win in the gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition in 2009. You can see the new portrait of Waters on the museum’s first floor near the G Street NW entrance.
December 21, 2011
The custom of Jewish families dining out at Chinese restaurants, especially on Christmas Day, has long been a joking matter. “According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5749,” one quip goes. “According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4687. That means for 1,062 years, the Jews went without Chinese food.” Even Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan made light of the tradition during her Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Granted, Chinese restaurants are typically among the few businesses open on December 25th, but it turns out that there are historical and sociological reasons why these two cultures have paired so well.
In a 1992 study, sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine focused their attentions on New York City, where there are substantial Jewish and Chinese immigrant populations. No matter how different the cultures may be, they both enjoy similar foods: lots of chicken dishes, tea and slightly overcooked vegetables. For Jewish newcomers, Chinese cooking offered a new twist on familiar tastes. Then there’s the matter of how food is handled, a matter of great importance to observant Jews. Chinese food can be prepared so that it abides by kosher law, and it avoids the taboo mixing of meat and milk, a combination commonly found in other ethnic cuisines. In one of their more tongue-in-cheek arguments, Tuchman and Levine wrote that because forbidden foods like pork and shellfish are chopped and minced beyond recognition in egg rolls and other dishes, less-observant Jews can take an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy and pretend those things aren’t even in the dish.
Chinese restaurants were also safe havens, the sociologists observed. Jews living predominantly Christian parts of the city might have to contend with the longstanding tensions between those groups. Furthermore, an Italian restaurant, which might bear religious imagery ranging from crucifixes to portraits of the Virgin Mary, could make for an uncomfortable dining experience. A Chinese eatery was more likely to have secular decor.
There was also the sense among some Jewish participants in the study that Chinese dining, with exotic interiors and the strange-sounding menu items, was a delightfully non-Jewish experience. Furthermore, like visiting museums and attending the theater, Chinese restaurants were seen as a means of broadening one’s cultural horizons. “I felt about Chinese restaurants the same way I did about the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” one of the study’s unnamed interview subjects remarked. “They were the two most strange and fascinating places my parents took me to, and I loved them both.”
For a fuller explanation on how this dining trend came about, you can read Tuchman and Levine’s study online [PDF]. And if you have memories of a Chinese restaurant experience, share them in the comments section below.
June 27, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked you to share your favorite stories about dining out—your funniest, strangest, most memorable experiences, from the perspective of either the server or the served. Here are three of our favorite short items.
Assault With Menu
I was driving my mother and her friend from Florida to their home in Michigan. We picked up my sister in North Carolina and stopped for lunch. The four of us were taking our time going over the menu when my mother’s friend asked those at the table about grits because she had never had them. The waitress, who was not standing there waiting for our order, somehow overheard me when I quietly replied, “I don’t care for grits, they taste like wallpaper paste!” Suddenly, in a flash, the waitress flew up from behind, gave me one good smack on the side of the head with a laminated tri-fold menu, and said, “Honey, you’re in the South, everybody here loves grits!” I was pretty much dumbfounded! (By the way, it actually hurt and left the side of my face red!) After the initial shock, everyone in our group (except myself) politely laughed, then we ordered our meal. Later, back on the road, my sister made an excuse for the waitress (adding insult to injury) saying that the waitress probably recognized her from previous visits, which must have given her the inclination and liberty to land me a good one! Really?!
—By Judith Burlage, a registered nurse who comes from a huge family of great cooks
Invasion From The Deep
Several years ago I was an executive chef for a major oil company, managing food service on one of their offshore platforms. One night, one of the roughnecks asked my night baker if he could put a loosely covered can in the walk-in refrigerator. Thinking nothing of it, he said, “Yes.”
When I walked upstairs for work the next morning, I was horrified to find the world’s creepiest menagerie of alien-looking sea creatures wandering through my walk-in. Seems the loosly-covered can contained live critters that had been belched up from a pipe that was being cleaned and the roughneck though they would make excellent fishing bait if he could just keep them alive until he left the platform in a couple of days.
—By Rebecca Barocas, through our Food & Think Facebook page.
That’s Cancun Style?
Back in the 70s my hippie art teacher from college and I went to Cancun, long before it became the bustling resort you see today. We got to Cancun on a sketchy wooden boat that had at least 30 people on board. We’d been dining on rice, beans and tortillas all week to try to manage our sparse funds, but we decided to splurge on a real meal for a change and ordered a dish called “Red Snapper Cancun Style.” This was a quaint local establishment and I was looking forward to a nice local treat. We got our meal—and what a plate it was. It was a piece of fish with a half-cooked piece of bacon wrapped around it, skewered into the fish with so many toothpicks that the flavor of wood was imparted to the fish. Topping it were cold canned peas and mushrooms. Not what I expected! (We had a much better meal later that week in Cozumel in a beachfront restaurant that served langostinos sauteed with garlic that was just lightly toasted, and then a little lime juice. Perfect!)
—By Sue Kucklick, a mental health counselor who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.