Posts Tagged ‘alcohol


using what you’ve got

The October issue of Harpers has a wonderfully food-obsessed letter by Patrick Symmes, who spent a month in Havana living on an official Cuban journalist’s salary–$15. Though, as a foreigner, he lacks the ration book that would have made his life easier, he makes the connections he needs to procure most of what the ration book would have provided, without breaking the bank.

Good thing, too, as the rations aren’t nearly enough to live on for a month: 1 pound grain; 1 piece fish; 1 pound crude sugar; 4 pounds refined sugar. Everybody has some kind of source on the side.

But seriously, what to do with all that sugar? You can only put so much in your budget-busting coffee, can only cook so much expensive fruit in simple syrup. No way an American palate could figure out what to do with the rest, and even Cubans must find it a challenge. A Cuban contact told him the secret.

When your stash of foreign whiskey has run out and you find yourself “hard-pressed to enjoy [1,700-calorie-a-day] Cuba without a drink,” you start looking for yeast, purified water, and the clean tubing that will turn your government-issued pressure cooker (given out as part of an energy-saving scheme) into a still. Distillation complete, Symmes writes, “this pattern continued for the last week of my residence[: i]nstant stomachache, mild drunk; headache. The two or three hours in the middle were well worth it.”


sciencing the frozen margarita

Duke University Press’ blog post about Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s Jungle Laboratories says that the book “challenges us to reconsider who can produce science.”

In a much lighter vein, I was reminded of that challenge this morning while reading Robb Walsh‘s recounting, in The Tex-Mex Cookbook, of Mariano Martinez’s invention of the frozen margarita machine. In 1971, Martinez relayed his diners’ complaints about his restaurant’s inconsistent margaritas to his bartender. The bartender, “sick of squeezing all those limes,” threatened to quit. Martinez found inspiration at a 7-11 the next morning and decided to automate–but he couldn’t get his hands on a Slurpee machine. Instead, he bought a soft-serve ice cream machine and began experimenting–or holding “a lot of tasting parties,” as he put it. The problem was how to get the alcoholic mix to freeze. Adding enough water to cause freezing diluted the drink too much, but adding more sugar… It turns out that “with a high enough brix level (the scientific measurement of sugar content), you can freeze quite a bit of alcohol.”

Mexican campesinos can certainly produce science, and so can tipsy Tex-Mex restaurateurs. Martinez never patented or trademarked his method, but his first margarita machine does have a place in the National Museum of American History.

In more serious news, US federal courts have been voiding clauses of BP’s exploitative clean-up contracts with Gulf fishermen left and right, preserving the fishermen’s rights to sue BP for damages from the Deepwater Horizon disaster and to talk freely about the situation, even if they do accept clean-up work from BP.


on cooking in California: part 5

There are also things we’re using or doing differently in California. Our Massachusetts winter staple, Annie’s macaroni and cheese, is still on the menu, and so is our old summer staple, salad. During Boston summers, we would eat a big salad and nothing else for dinner each night until the lettuces from the week’s CSA ran out. We would be sick of salad by September, and pining for it again by January. In San Francisco, fresh, local salad greens are available year-round, and we’re not getting a CSA, so the incentives have shifted. We’re learning the arts of the side salad and the salad course.

In Boston, our kitchen windows were often hung with bunches of drying herbs and chiles. Even though we live in a relatively fog-free part of San Francisco, the air is still usually too damp for that method. We’ve learned instead to spread herbs on cookie sheets in a 100-degree oven to dry. How long do we leave them? As long as it takes to forget them, then sniff the air and realize how odd it is the house smells so strongly of thyme, or sage, or rosemary…

Then there’s the matter of alcohol storage. In Boston, we kept the bottles in a large basket on the kitchen floor. It was known as the “booze bucket.” In San Francisco, we’ve gotten classy. Our living room has a built-in cabinet, and when the realtor showed us the place, J-P and I exclaimed over the “bar.” The realtor demurred, saying it was probably meant as a china cabinet. Whatever. It’s our bar, and all of our alcohol lives there. The former booze bucket now holds the recycling.

Coffee is different, too. Boston’s cold and our building’s poor insulation posed problems for keeping coffee warm. Busy mornings belonged to the old, cheap drip coffee maker, which of course had its own heating element. But for late-in-the-day indulgences, we used the French press, on the grounds that it was smaller and would impose limits on our caffeine intake that we couldn’t trust to our self-control alone. Our first solution to keeping French press coffee warm was to wrap the press in kitchen towels and try to drink the coffee before it got too bitter. Later, we got an insulated carafe, which worked much better on both counts. Right before we moved, John-Paul walked the drip machine down to the trash can for, as he said, “piddling on the counter one too many times.” Since then, we’ve been devoted to the French press and the kettle. Our San Francisco kitchen is often warm enough that it’s feasible to dispense with the carafe for warmth, though I still think it’s worth it for flavor.

Speaking of heating water in a kettle, please don’t get me started on the electric stove. I understand that it’s a practical choice in a city that once burned to the ground when its gas mains burst in a major earthquake. This stove even has a flat top, which means that theoretically it’s easier to cook Spanish rice on it than on our leaning, dented gas stove in Boston. (That’s true in theory only; in practice, it hasn’t worked out so well.) It isn’t even that we’ve burned anything on it, despite my fears in that regard–very well-founded fears based on an embarrassing adolescent incident that started with trying to heat tortillas directly on the heating element of the first electric stove I ever encountered. I had to get over before using the one in this kitchen. My biggest gripes with it are how long it takes to heat up, and the fact that there’s no clear indication (read: fire) of which element I’ve turned on. We’ve been here since last July, and I still sometimes turn on the back burner when the kettle’s on the front.


East Austin urban farms tour

On April 11, I took a tour of four East Austin urban farms. At Boggy Creek, the grande dame of East Austin farms, I asked Carol Ann whether her eggs vary by season, and she said no–Austin grows yummy things for chickens to eat year-round, and in fact, winter’s cole crops make “fabulous” eggs. Carol Ann also protects her chickens from predators by stringing solar-powered red LEDs on their coop’s fencing. She says the lights make possums, raccoons, and other pests think “somebody else is already in there doing the job.”

At Boggy Creek I also learned about Treaty Oak Platinum Rum, which the tablers said is distilled in Austin from molasses processed in Texas from Texas-grown sugarcane, and available at Spec’s. They claim their rum is unique in its local sourcing and production, but a Google search turned up three other rums that may rival it. Railean Rum is distilled near Houston from “Gulf Coast” (though perhaps not Texan?) molasses and will be on the market July 1. And Texas-based Au Naturel Spirits distills two rums, also not yet on the market, under the Temptryst label: Cherrywood and Mesquite. No word on the source of Temptryst’s molasses–and no word from any of the companies about who works the cane fields, or under what conditions.

At Hausbar Farm, which supplies all of the eggs for East Side Cafe, I saw Jim Hightower roaming the grounds. At Shady Lane, I admired the clever use of spare parts from the Yellow Bicycle Project, especially this bamboo chicken tractor with a bicycle wheel:

But my favorite story of the day belonged to Springdale Farm, which the owners of Texas Trees and Landscape founded about a year and a half ago as their business began to suffer from the recession. The urban farm would give owners and employees alike something to do and, they hoped, a new revenue stream. In fact, the farm had to expand due to its success in selling its produce through a farm stand, CSAs, and contracts with local chefs. Although they at first feared that Boggy Creek would see them as interlopers, Carol Ann was happy to be their mentor, and sales at both farms have been brisk. Said a friend of the owners, “There’s a market here that just really wants this.”

And despite my strong misgivings about the disconnect between urban farmers and most farm workers, the phrase “my soul feels fed” crossed my mind and wouldn’t leave as I walked between Springdale and Hausbar, pausing to block a runaway soccer ball and kick it back to the kids playing with it in the street.

More pictures here.

Also, a belated thanks to Mission Local for yesterday’s link to Stuff White People Like.

Tex-Mix's Photostream