Sunday, June 29, 2008

New brews and fair judgment

I'm still trying to live up to my promise to steer clear of my favorite beers and styles, and focus on new beers -- or at least what's new to me.
As I said before, it's not easy. I have my favorites. And sometimes you want a beer, not a project. Nevertheless, I'm trying to stay on task.
So for my latest purchases, I focused on a brewery I wrote off (Magic Hat), the latest offering from a new favorite brewery (Lagunitas), and a rather expensive offering from a brewery that's burned me on pricey beer before (Rogue).
Some time ago, I wrote off Magic Hat. It's most popular beer -- by far -- is #9, an apricot flavored ale. Now there are few things in this world I hate, but fruit flavored beer is one of them.
You see, I like the flavor of beer. Mixing in fruit flavors (surprise!) changes the flavor of the beer and results in something I'd expect to mistakenly order in Belgium.
Fortunately, Magic Hat brews a number of beers besides #9. The Burlington, Vt., brewery also produces a Hefeweizen (Circus Boy), a light ale (Single Chair Ale), an amber ale (Roxy Rolles) and a couple India pale ales, including Lucky Kat.
As I said, Magic Hat's top seller is a fruited beer. And when your first exposure to a brewery is a fruity brew that tastes more like mead than beer, you (I) aren't all that eager to find out what its other beers taste like.
So when I came across the six of Lucky Kat my initial reaction was to grab whatever was next to it. But I'm trying to push outside my comfort zone. Admittedly, the fact that it was an IPA helped, but a terrible IPA could be worse than a fruit-flavored beer.
The good news is, it wasn't. It also wasn't the best IPA I've ever had. However, it was a solid, hoppy and very drinkable IPA that I'd happily have again. More importantly, it eases my concerns that everything the Magic Hat folks do tastes like a joint project with Del Monte.
The second beer I came across was Lagunitas Brewing Company's Lucky 13. I'm well aware of the adage that you should never judge a book by its cover, but the Petaluma, Ca., brewery's Lucky 13 has one of the coolest labels I've seen lately, sort of a Rockabilly Varga Girl.
The hoppy, amber ale inside was just as good as the packaging (take that, adage). And despite its 8.3 percent alcohol content, it wasn't overly strong or overly sweet.
The last, and most expensive, beer I picked up was Rogue's Brewer's Ale 2008, the Oregon brewery's once-a-year offering named in memory of the brewery's late mascot, Brewer. Sure, the overwhelming majority of Rogue's beers are great. But I bought the $24 beer because the image of Brewer on the bottle looks just like my family's beloved Labrador, Jezebel, God rest her porky soul.
However, this wasn't the first pricey beer I've bought from Rogue. A few years ago I picked up a $20 bottle of Rogue's Brew 10,000, a very hoppy, very good beer. Was it a $20 beer though? Not really.
But there was Jezebel, staring up at me from the front of the bottle. How could I resist? And in the end, I'm glad I didn't. Sure, $24 is a lot to pay for 750 ml of beer, but if I'd paid $12 for two pints of this stuff at a bar, I would have left happy.
The problem with the Brew 10,000 was it tasted like a very hoppy beer, which I can get at half the price. The Brewer's Ale 2008 is a dark ale with a strong, unique taste. It's not something I'd buy every weekend, but I'll certainly be looking for it next year.
How can I resist? They put Jezebel on the bottle.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Strange brew ... and gin

We all have our favorites.
Our favorite dish at our favorite restaurant. Our favorite cocktail. Our go-to beer when we grab a six at the store.
Here's a good -- if redundant -- day for me: Scarfing down a surf and turf sandwich (roast beef and crab with brie) with extra spinach and tomatoes at the Lost Dog Cafe in Arlington, Va. (As I did today). I wash it down with a Bell's Oberon (Actually I tried the El Jefe weizen ale from Hale's Ales Brewery & Pub in Seattle, which was awesome.). On my way out, I pick up a six of Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA for later in the week (Not this time, I had a new six waiting for me at home.). That evening, I fix myself a martini, Plymouth gin, of course (Except I tried a new gin, actually.).
OK, maybe it wasn't completely redundant.
I have a bad habit of criticizing folks who are either happy in their ruts or ignorant of them. Yet, I'm just as guilty. So for the past few weeks, I've been forcing myself to buy and try things I might have otherwise overlooked.
Now, this is more difficult for me than you might expect. I enjoy trying new things. So branching out isn't that unusual for me. Still, I realized that even when I try new things, like beers, I stick with familiar styles or brands (Instead of DogFish Head's 60 Minute IPA, I recently tried the Shelter Pale Ale. Yah, I was really reaching there.)
Endeavoring to change things up, I tried a few new things this weekend. Rather than my typical purchase of a local micro beer, such as Wild Goose or The Raven, I picked up a six of Quilmes, Argentina's favorite beer (according to the label). Rather than a bottle of Plymouth, I came across a bottle of Bluecoat, an American made gin I've never heard of. (Honestly, I was scared of this one. I drink my martinis very dry, so bad gin is murder.)
Could these purchases come back to bite me? Sure, especially the gin (see above). The six pack cost me about $8, so if it's bad (it's not) I'm not out much. The gin, however, cost about $30. If Bluecoat sucks (it didn't), I'm out $30 and I have a lot of bad martinis to get through (How do you make a martini? Good question. Check out my "Cocktails in my pocket" post.).
Regardless of the outcome, it's a good exercise. Not only does it open me up to new beers and spirits, but it might, just might, lead to a few new favorites.
Now I just have to make sure these new beverages don't become the same old beverages I head for at the store.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Having Elvis for breakfast

My latest column in today's Times-News.

French toast fit for The King: a twist on an old favorite

By DREW LONG/Special to the Times-News

I don't know if Elvis ate French food, but I doubt it.
Still, it was The King that I was thinking about the other day when I was thinking about French toast.
Ah, French toast. The fancy cousin to pancakes that doesn't seem as fussy -- or European -- as crepes and more accessible than waffles for those of us without a waffle maker.
Growing up, French toast was always more common in the Long household than pancakes. Even with the add-water-and-stir-mixes that have been around longer than me, dipping bread in batter will always be easier than mixing and fussing with a batter patty.
Sure, you can't turn French toast into an art project (cactus-shaped pancakes, anyone?), but who cares? It's all about the taste, right? And when it comes to taste, French toast wins hands down.
OK, that's not necessarily true. Naked and alone, pancakes can taste better than French toast. But when you start introducing additional ingredients, French toast takes the cake.
As popular as it is to stick bits of fruit and nuts to pancakes, flapjacks are not the best vehicle to carry off the extra ingredients. Rather than gelling with the pancake, the add-ins just sit there like trail mix stuck in Jell-O.
That's not the case with French toast, which can just as easily be considered a battered and fried sandwich.
And that's why I was thinking of Elvis.
Anyone who knows anything about Elvis Aaron Presley knows the man had a love affair with a sandwich: peanut butter and bananas fried in butter. Those among you who haven't tried "The Elvis" haven't lived. The deliciously staggering amount of fat and calories, which are as much a part of the sandwich as the butter it's fried in, would have done The King in if the pharmaceuticals hadn't gotten him first.
So how can you improve on such a sandwich? Add syrup and powdered sugar.
The Elvis is a natural candidate for French toast. Basically, all you do is dip The Elvis in egg batter, fry it in butter and cover it with syrup and powdered sugar. I threw in a couple breakfast sausages to give the breakfast the savory balance such a sweet meal needs. Besides, The King was a good Southern boy who loved pork like he loved his mama.
The dish is phenomenal. Hot peanut butter dripping from the crispy French toast into an amber pool of syrup and sugar tastes as good as it sounds. You might be tempted to tell yourself the bananas offer some redeeming value, but we both know it's a lie. The sweetness and soft texture of the warmed-through bananas are what's important, not the potassium.
With only sticky residue remaining on the plate, you'll feel more like bloated Las Vegas Elvis than svelte "Viva Las Vegas" Elvis, but you'll see my point. More importantly, you'll see French toast in a whole new light.
You'll begin to see its potential. You'll realize that instead of peanut butter and bananas, you could use preserves and fresh fruit, or Nutella, the addictive chocolate and hazelnut spread. Instead of cinnamon raisin bread, you'll mull the possibility of egg bread or plain old white bread, the way Elvis would've wanted it.
You'll also understand why the pancake is so very limited.
You might even want to thank me for opening your eyes to the world of possibilities that is French toast, but don't.
Thank The King.

Peanut Butter and Banana French Toast

4 slices of cinnamon raisin bread (or whatever bread you have on hand)
2 eggs
3 tablespoons of milk
2 tablespoons of butter
4 tablespoons of peanut butter
2 bananas, sliced into bite-sized disks
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
4 breakfast sausage links (or strips of bacon)

Take the sausages out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes ahead of time to allow them to lose some of their chill. Preheat a nonstick pan over medium heat and add the sausages. Cook the sausages for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness, until done.

While the sausages are cooking, prepare the egg batter by whisking together the eggs, milk, nutmeg and cinnamon. Also, prepare the French toast by spreading the peanut butter on all 4 slices of bread, placing the bananas on 1 piece from each pair, and closing the sandwiches.

Once the sausages are cooked, remove them from the pan and set aside. Add the butter to the still hot pan -- the leftover pork fat in the pan will add extra flavor to the French toast -- and move the egg batter and sandwiches close to the stove. When the butter is melted, dip both sides of the first sandwich into egg mixture, coating thoroughly, let some of the batter drain off and add to the pan. Immediately do the same with the second sandwich.

Cook the French toast for about 3 to 4 minutes per side until the bread is crusty. Remove from the heat, cut in half and place on the plate. Before serving, drizzle with syrup, dust with powdered sugar and add the sausages.
(Tip: If you use thick slices of bread -- like me -- the French toast might need a little extra help in the oven to finish cooking. As you're getting started, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If the sides of the sandwiches are still a bit moist with batter after cooking on the stove top, stick the pan into the preheated oven for about 3 minutes. Pull them out, cut them in half and add the syrup and sugar.)
Makes 2 hearty servings.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Smokin' on the water

Sure it's trite, but I was smokin' on the water. The missus and I spent the weekend visiting my step-brother and his family at their lakeside house near Frederick, Md. (Yah, rough life). A while back I'd promised to haul up my smoker and barbecue a pork butt (I don't know how pork shoulder became known as pork butt, but it sure is funnier to say.).
As promised, the missus, the pork butt (see?) and I headed to the lake. In addition to entertaining us for the weekend, my step-brother was planning on having folks over on Sunday for Father's Day and a birthday party for his wife (There are clunkier titles than step sister in law, but not many.). To have the pork ready for Sunday supper, I put the rub on it Friday night and popped it in the smoker Saturday morning. A mere 26 hours later I had several pounds of beautifully succulent smoked pork.
For the most part, that's it. Once the pork is in the smoker it doesn't need to be touched for the next 24 hours (I tent it in aluminum foil for a final 2 hour steam.). The smoker, however, is terribly needy. I don't have kids, but I do have an idea of what it's like to feed something every three hours, even throughout the night. Admittedly, my small smoker can't hold much wood at once, but I figure even the big ones need tending.
Regardless, when you're pulling apart that soft mass of juicy pork, all that time and effort spent tending and feeding the smoker -- not to mention the stink of smoke that permeates your skin and clothes -- will be well worth it, I promise. And when you mix that pork with your own barbecue sauce, you may well love that meal more than you love your kid. (It might also bring you more joy, but that's between you and your kid.).

Smoked pork

1 pork butt (Shoulders run anywhere from 5 to 8 pounds, but make sure to factor in the bone.)
1.5 cup of rub (As I've said before, I like Steven Raichlen's barbecue rub. But don't be afraid to play with the ingredients if it's not to your tastes.)
1 gallon apple cider
4 cups of barbecue sauce (I did a 60/40 split between my homemade sauce, which is a Memphis style, and a bottle of Eastern Carolina sauce. Use what you like, but consider making it yourself. It always tastes better when you cooked it.)
Enough aluminum foil to wrap the pork butt
Wood, lots of wood (or about four bags of large wood chunks and three bags of wood chips available at any hardware store in the barbecue section: we used mesquite and hickory)

The night before you get started, add the rub to the pork butt, cover and return to the fridge. The next day, pull the pork out of the fridge and inject it with as much apple cider as you can (should end up being about a cup of cider). When you're done, leave the pork on the kitchen counter and get started on lighting the smoker.
I like to begin with charcoal and then add the wood chunks. This gets the wood burning really well. When the fire is out and the wood coals are hot, fill the liquid tray 3/4 full of apple cider, put the top grate back in place, stick the pork in the smoker skin side up and close the lid. It will be the last time you see the pork for the next 24 hours.

At this point, all doors and lids should be closed and the smoker should be doing what it does (smoking).

I find that my smoker starts cooling off about every three hours. It's a long, slow cook, so you don't want the smoker to run very hot (250 degrees at most, or between warm and ideal if you have a gauge like mine.). When your smoker begins cooling off, add a few more big pieces of wood and a few handfuls of wood chips. Not only will this bring the temperature back up, but it will start the smoking again. Also, check the liquid tray every time you add wood. Using a baster or funnel, add apple cider and/or a mix of cider and water as needed (The apple cider keeps the upper area of the smoker humid and the pork moist.). Do not, under any circumstances open the lid.
(Tip: The smoker shouldn't billow smoke for the entire 26 hours. I find that mine smokes for about an hour and a half every time I feed it new wood. That amount of smoke is plenty. The smoker does, however, cook the pork for the entire 26 hours. Also, invest in bellows unless you like sticking your face in the smoker to blow on the embers.)

After 24 hours, remove the lid and wrap the pork butt in aluminum foil. Put the lid back on for the final two hours.

When the 26 hours are up, pull the pork off (it'll look like a soft lump of coal -- which is a good thing) and let it rest for about 30 minutes.

Once it's cool enough to handle, pull it, sauce it and eat it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Check out a great idea

Ever want to know if there is a great beer bar, brewery or beer store near you? How about when you're traveling? If so, check out the banner for The Beer Mapping Project at the bottom of the blog (where it will stay).
The Beer Mapping Project has to be one of the best ideas going. The bright folks behind it had the brilliant idea of using Google maps to pin point the location of breweries, beer bars, beer stores and home brewing stores across the United States and a handful of locations around the world.
I've been on this site numerous times and I still find new places to check out thanks to the new locations and updates users make to the site.
I can't say enough about this Web site. Check it out.
On a separate note, I picked up a bottle of Allagash Brewing Company's Hugh Malone Ale, part of the brewery's Tribute Series of beers. The Hugh Malone was an absolutely delicious hoppy ale. Although it was a bit pricey, $16 for 750 ml, at least $1 of every bottle sold will go the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the country’s oldest and largest state organic farmer coalition. I don't know why I care about organic farmers in Maine, but I have to tell myself something to justify spending that much on one bottle of beer.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cocktails in my pocket

Last weekend I volunteered to bartend for a friend's cocktail party. Not only do I like the idea of a cocktail party-- classy shin dig with liquor -- but I was at the last one she held. Again, I like the concept. It reminds me of the days when Hugh Hefner and Sammy Davis Jr. were tossing back highballs at Hef's Chicago mansion. Unfortunately, that's not how my friend's last party went down. She set out liquor filled punch bowls, mixers and recipe cards, and asked guests to mix their own drinks. They did ... for a while. In too short a time, though, they stopped mixing and went straight for the punch bowls -- the rest of the liquor and anything else they could get their hands on. Suffice it to say, the brunch plans we had the next day didn't happen.
When she mentioned that she wanted take another crack at a cocktail party, I volunteered to bartend, hoping that if the guests had to wait for me to make their drinks, they'd pace themselves better than before. They did and I had a hell of a time. Mixing drinks all night, busting folks' chops when necessary, getting to be the center of attention. What's not to love?
Not only was I happy, but I was curious to see what it would be like to play bartender for a night. From time to time, the missus and I thumb through our Mr. Boston cocktail book and try out new drinks or learn to make a few classics. The cocktail party gave me the chance to see what it would be like to do much the same on a larger scale.
Although I worked off a menu at the party, there are a few drinks I don't need help with. Blindfolded and standing on my head, I can make a martini, perfect manhattan, a mint julep and a white russian (because the dude abides). Sure, sure I can make cuba libres and screwdrivers, but they don't count. If you're going to keep a couple cocktails in your pocket, make sure they're a little more involved or a bit more classic than booze and soda.
While it's one thing to draw up and practice a menu for a cocktail party, it's very much another to know how to make a few drinks well. It also gives you a much better understanding of how these drinks should be made when you're paying someone else to do make them (I cringe most every time I watch a bartender shake the shit out of my martini).
So from me to you, here are two classic cocktails. Get to know them, they'll serve you well.

Classic martini

4.5 oz. of gin (use a good quality gin, like Plymouth, because it is the overwhelming ingredient)
.5 oz. of dry vermouth
lemon twist (or olives, as you like)

Carve out the lemon twist and drop it in the cocktail glass. Fill a shaker half full of ice, pour the vermouth over the ice, stir and strain out (The idea is to use the minimum amount of vermouth to flavor the gin). Add the gin, stir and strain into a cocktail glass (Most people mistakenly refer to cocktail glasses as martini glasses. Don't make that mistake.).

Perfect Manhattan

3 oz. of bourbon (Early Times, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey)
3/4 oz. of sweet vermouth
.5 oz. of dry vermouth
Angostura bitters
maraschino cherry

Add the dry vermouth to a cocktail glass, swirl and pour out. Fill a shaker half full of ice and pour in the bourbon and sweet vermouth. Add three shakes of bitters, stir and strain into the cocktail glass. Pop in the cherry before serving ... or drinking.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Odds and ends, but mostly odd in the end

Shillin' for Jews: Look at the idiot. Not an ounce of shame in him. He was named Shmaltz Brewing Company's fan of the week a couple months back. But what was the sacrifice? Pride? Humility? The mind reels.

Take that winos!: The Australian brewery that brought us the oil can, has classed it up by brewing a beer fit for a queen. In fact, it's fit for the queen. The first 5,000 bottles of Foster's new Crown Ambassador Reserve were sent to England to mark the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. Oh, I'm sure the queen has a nice wine cellar, but she'll be celebrating her big day downing a couple cold one's from down under. If that doesn't show that the blue-collar beverage can hold its own at blue-blood affairs, nothing will.

Haven't we done enough to these people?: Anheuser-Busch is bringing Budweiser to Vietnam. First napalm, now this. The horror. The horror.

That seems about right: A survey found that New Zealanders believe beer manufacturers are more trustworthy than the accounting profession, the rugby union or journalists.

Signs that things aren't all bad: There's more of my favorite craft beer in the world. Hook & Ladder Brewing Company, out of Silver Spring, Md., and Foothills Brewing based in Winston-Salem, N.C., are growing (i.e., making more beer). Hook & Ladder, which recently won a Washington Post taste test, grew 688 percent in 2007. Foothills is about to spend $250,000 expanding its brewery and distribution from about 2,330 barrels a year to more than 6,000 barrels. Wow, 6,000 barrels of Hoppyum. All I would need is a pool and a straw.

Tonga brewery for sale. Awesome! Where the hell's Tonga?: As if you didn't know by now, the Royal Beer Company of the Kingdom of Tonga (Slogan: Tonga's finest beer. More honest slogan: Tonga's only beer) is for sale. Yes, the South Pacific brewery that brought us IKALE, IKALE Gold and Royal Bitter is up to the highest bidder. Certainly owning an island brewery would be a dream come true. If only the coconut wasn't kicking the crap out of the dollar these days.

OK, so things might not be quite as good as I said: Apparently part of the reason Diageo (sounds like Diablo) is closing a couple of its Guinness breweries, selling off part of the main brewery in Dublin and turning its focus to international sales is folks in Ireland and the U.K. are drinking less beer. What?!! The countries that brought us the pub, the pint and liver disease are swapping Guinness for gewurztraminer? I'm all for diversifying tastes, but the next time I wander into the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese I want a Sam Smith's, not a wine list.

Yah, no shit: Moosehead Breweries conducted a very scientific study and found that men would rather drink beer, walk the dog or hit the gym than go see "Sex and the City." And get this, these same 500 guys told the beer brewer that they prefer beer over cosmos. I know, the survey was meant to be cute, but someone got paid for it. Surely, there was a better way to spend the money.

Art makes you look smart: GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading, Pa., is hosting one of the coolest exhibits I've heard of in a while. "Design, Drink and Be Merry: The Craft Brew Art Movement" features the labels, bottle caps and packaging from 14 craft breweries. If you don't think this is art, check out the side of a craft beer next time you're at the store. Flying Dog Brewery has been featuring the work of Ralph Steadman on its bottles for years. For those of you who don't know, Steadman was a close friend of Hunter Thompson, illustrating the covers of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72."

From the toilet to the tap: An Australian woman invented a beer for dogs. I've tried to hate this idea. Lord knows I hate putting clothes on dogs or carrying them around like a satchel. Naturally I should hate this too, right? I mean they'll eat another dog's feces as readily as they'll eat a $3 can of Alpo. But I can't do it. I love the idea of Dog Beer. Just the thought of spending an afternoon watching football and drinking beer with my best friend fills me with unbelievable amounts of joy. I hope Foster's saves a couple bottles of that fancy beer for Elise Schumacher. If this thing takes off, maybe Ms. Schumacher could expand her line into Vietnam.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Carpe diem or strike while the sardines are fresh

For ego and a shallow need for glory -- or at the very least a polite pat on the head -- I enjoy cooking for friends and family. Fortunately, I can cook fairly well, so the arrangement tends to work out for all involved. However, the missus is no slouch in the kitchen either. So on the odd occasion her rock beats my scissors, she takes over the cooking duties and I get to entertain the guests.
This was to be the arrangement today. A friend of ours was coming over to share photos of her recent trip to Croatia and hear about the missus' recent trip to Zambia (aside from the occasional trip to the throne room with the comics, yours truly hasn't gone anywhere lately). Come Friday afternoon, though, plans changed and the missus needed to cede the cooking to me -- an unexpected chore I was happy to accept (I've seen all the aforementioned pictures, some many, many times).
Being caught a bit flat-footed by the news that I'd be handing lunch, I decided to head over to a nearby Whole Foods to see what I could see.
I saw fresh sardines.
A sardine is a beautiful little fish that is easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. However, because they typically come canned, they get lumped into the same indelicate category as anchovies and other canned meats.
The merits of canned seafood aside (admittedly, I do love anchovies), fresh sardines are a great treat, especially if you can do them on the grill. And with a beautifully hot day on tap today, grilling isn't just an option, it's an obligation.
While at Whole Foods, I also picked up a 2 pound bag of mussels to steam in some beer, as well as some leeks, green onions and plum tomatoes to go on the grill. I would tell you that I planned to wash all this down with the Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse (a collaboration beer between Brooklyn Brewery and Schneider Brewery) that I discovered. However, the beer didn't make it past Friday night. For what it's worth, it's a hopped weisse, or wheat, beer. Fantastic.
For lunch, we ended up having a wonderfully crisp 2007 Coteaux du Languedoc. Like the sardines and the Brooklyn beer, it was a surprise -- and economical -- find at Whole Foods.
Like I said, this menu -- or most of it -- was designed for the grill. It was also designed to be incredibly easy. So here's how it went:

Grilled sardines with mixed vegetables and beer steamed mussels (gotta come up with a shorter title)
12 sardines (just over a pound, cleaned and scaled)
1 2 lb. bag of mussels (clean thoroughly, removing any beards, and toss out any that are already open -- they're dead)
2 leeks (clean and split in half)
1 bunch of green onions (trim the ends off)
2 plum tomatoes (cut in half for grilling, cut in quarters for serving)
1 yellow onion (chopped finely)
5 cloves of garlic (minced)
1 24 oz. can of beer (I bought Kirin Ichiban. Buy whatever you like.)
4 tbs. of olive oil
2 tbs. of butter
salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon
1 baguette

The key to this dish is to prep everything beforehand. Everything. The fish and mussels cook so fast that if you don't have everything ready to go, something is going to get screwed up. (A quick tip on cleaning leeks, which tend to carry the sand they're grown in. Leaving the root end in tact, split the leeks from the base of the bulb down through the dark green shoots. Wash the leeks in the same direction. When you're ready to put them on the grill, divide the leeks in two, but keep the root ends attached so the leeks don't fray. Before you serve, chop the roots off and dice up leeks.)

Pull the fish out of the fridge and coat in 2 tbs. of olive oil, and then salt and pepper to taste. Do the same with the leeks, green onions and tomatoes (olive oil, salt, pepper; you know, the same).

Once the grill is ready to go, start with vegetables because they will take the longest to cook (about 10 minutes) and then pull them off to a cooler side of the grill and throw on the sardines. They should take only about 10 minutes to cook over direct heat (5 minutes per side). Remember, they are delicate fish, so watch them. If they are cooking a bit fast, turn them at 4 minutes. Or, if you're coals have cooled, it might take 6 minutes per side. Keep in mind that cooking is an art, not a science. When the fish are done, pull everything off the grill.

For the mussels, pour the beer into a stock pot and set to boil. When the beer is roiling, throw in the butter, garlic and yellow onion and let it boil for a couple minutes. Toss in the mussels, cover and sit still. Mussels cook very fast (2 to 5 minutes max). After about a minute, peek in on them. Some should be opening up. When they're all opened, you're done. Using a big slotted spoon, scoop the mussels into a large bowl so they stop cooking. When you portion out the mussels, pour some of the cooking liquid into each bowl. Discard any that have not opened during cooking: they, too, are dead.

Plate the sardines and vegetables, making sure to drizzle some olive oil and squirt with fresh lemon juice, hand out the bowls of mussels and break out the baguette.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

U.K. in D.C.

It's so true that a flavor, smell or scent can evoke a memory more readily, more vividly than a hundred photos ever will. A whiff or a note can put you in a place you were, a place a many miles from the place you are.

Yesterday, hanging out at a buddy's place in D.C. I found myself back in the U.K. The missus was getting her hair cut nearby, so I took the opportunity to pay a visit and drink a couple beers with my college buddy Peter Falk (It's an alias. He lives next to the FBI.). On the way over, I swung through the liquor store/mob front and grabbed a six of Troegs' Sunshine Pils and a four pack of Abbot Ale (By the way, why does Abbot Ale come in four packs? It only has 5% alcohol. I completely understand why Dogfish Head's 9% 90 Minute IPA comes in a four pack -- a little goes a long way. But a 5% beer? Come on.)

Cracking open an Abbot and staring at the poor bastards in the office building across the alley still humping out their workday well into the 7 o'clock hour, I found myself thinking about England. That mouthful of Abbot tasted like every bitter I've ever had in the U.K. (Strangely enough, OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below does the same thing. The first time I listened to the album was driving around England in a rented Vauxhall with the missus).

Interestingly -- at least to me -- I've been hunting for bars in the D.C. area that have hand-pump taps. These taps are as common in the U.K. as carbonated beer taps are here. The hand pumps eliminate any carbon dioxide the beer doesn't naturally have because the bartender has to hand pump the beer out of the keg, rather than rely on a carbonated tap to do the work for him. The result is a very mellow -- some might say flat -- tasting beer. It also opens up the flavor of a beer because you're not distracted by the spicy sensation carbon dioxide creates in your mouth.

What I am really going for though is a memory, a reminder of a place and friends. While I've found a few of those taps around town, it was a couple cans of beer on a balcony next to the FBI building that got me where I was going.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Steak redux

I love to cook steak. Next to boilin' shrimp, it is the most rewarding dish that requires the least amount of effort going.
But I screw up from time to time. I can blame the steak, but I've cooked enough steaks to know how to do it right. And on Memorial Day I didn't do it right.
The wife and I grabbed a couple steaks at the grocery store the day before. I took them home and laid down a rub. When the time was right, all I had to do was pull them out of the fridge, throw them on the grill and cook them properly.
Unfortunately, in this case two out of three was bad.
Now, a lesser person would blame how thin and fatty these rib eyes were (and they were). Still, I've grilled steaks like that to crusty and juicy perfection. Last Monday, though, I screwed the pooch.
Alright, that's overstating it a bit, but they weren't my best effort. Nevertheless, I shrugged it off and moved on.
And then I saw it.
Wandering through D.C.'s Eastern Market on Saturday, I saw a 1.5 lb. porterhouse in the butcher's cooler. It was thick, bloody and beautiful. I knew right then and there that it would be the steak to redeem me.
I bought it, laid down a rub and several hours later, I did it right.
I feel better now -- not the least because I have a pound of Black Angus beef in me (I did share some of it). I feel better because I cooked a steak, a simple steak, and I did it right.
So here's how it went down and the damn easy recipe that I used to grill it.

Grilled steak

1 1.5 pound porterhouse or t-bone steak

1 tbs. of rub (I use a modified version of Steven Raichlen's basic barbecue rub) or a generous amount of cracked black pepper and a tsp. of sea salt

Put the rub on the steak and stick it in the fridge for at least four hours. Ideally, you want to let the steak (or steaks) sit overnight. If you're using a charcoal grill, pull the steak out of the fridge when you light the coals. If you're using a gas grill, pull them out 30 minutes ahead of time so the meat loses some of its chill.

When you're ready to cook, oil the grates with a bit of canola or vegetable oil to prevent the steak from sticking.
Cook the steak for 5 minutes directly over the coals or a medium flame. This will form a crust and partially cook the steak. Turn the steak and cook for another 4 minutes. Then, move the steak away from the direct heat and cook for another 6 minutes. (This amount of time will produce a rare steak -- when you're cooking a 1.5 lb. steak. And when you buy a high quality 1.5 lb. Black Angus steak, you eat it rare. If you want more of a medium rare steak, when you pull it away from the direct heat, cook it for about 10 minutes.)

Pull the steak off and let it rest for about 7 minutes.
The wife and I shared the 1.5 lb. Black Angus beast with a salad, some blue cheese and a couple Sea Hag IPAs from New England Brewing Co.
Frickin' delicious.
(Quick note on blue cheese: Many people melt the blue cheese on the steak, which is great. However, if you have a real soft and creamy blue cheese, serve it on the side. The cold and hot contrast between the cheese and steak is great. Plus, the flavor of the cheese isn't muddled by the juices of the steak, which can happen when you melt it on top.)