Cocktails, Confectionery, Science, Summer

Ever green.

Anyone who’s ever maintained a culinary herb garden is familiar with this problem: what does one do with all those herbs? Here’s how it usually goes. You decide to make something like a sauce gribiche, which requires four kinds of herbs, and by the time you’re done, you’ve spent $15 on a bunch of little plastic clamshells so you can have a tablespoon each of parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. A couple of months later, you discover the remains of those herbs, reduced to foul slime, beneath the celery in the vegetable drawer. In disgust, you seek out the spinning seed racks at the supermarket or home and garden center and buy half a dozen packets of seeds, anticipating fresh herbs at tremendous savings, not to mention plenty of pesto and crisp fried sage leaves. A few years later, the rosemary and sage are the size of shrubs, the mint and marjoram have spread to half the garden, and your freezer is filled with tubs of pesto. What to do, short of clipping great bunches and abandoning them in the office coffee room with a “TAKE ME” note?

Consider preserving their aromas in spirits. Countries with a Mediterranean coast share a tradition of anise- or fennel-flavored spirits and liqueurs, scented with local herbs. My favorite comes from the Balearics, where monks and nuns have been collecting wild herbs to prepare a strong and allegedly medicinal tincture to mix with sweet anise liqueur for a drink called hierbas mallorquinas. Our first encounter with hierbas was in the dining room of friends who had recently returned from a trip to Spain. While in Barcelona, they visited a small shop called Caelum, in the Barri Gòtic, specializing in products made by nuns and monks. The tiny glasses of hierbas mallorquinas our friend poured glittered clear green and tasted of sweet fennel, chamomile, lemon verbena, and rosemary. A year later, we sought out Caelum and returned with our own small bottle of hierbas. It didn’t last long, but a number of companies – most famously Túnel – produce it for retail distribution. According to Túnel, the seven herbs essential to hierbas are fennel, verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, lemon leaf, orange leaf, and chamomile.

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Túnel makes a special line – 14 Reserva – featuring fourteen herbs grown on the company’s family farms. The following recipe is inspired by that idea, and features all the herbs my husband has been growing in our back garden. The only one missing, in my opinion, is sweet cicely, which we aren’t growing right now but hope to have next year.

Hierbas

This is really a showcase for local herbs, so use what you’re growing in your garden. You can buy herbs, of course, but the point of this is to avoid costly herb shopping. Also, most of the really interesting stuff isn’t available in the market anyway. The recipe below sets forth the herbs from our garden (other than the citrus leaves); feel free to substitute whatever you have, in the proportions you like, as long as you include fennel, chamomile, and rosemary. A few caveats:

* Some herbs, like chives, dill, and Cuban oregano, are unsuitable in this liqueur. Consider whether you want the taste of the herb in your drink before adding it.

* Rosemary, cilantro, sage, and lavender are powerful herbs that can take over if you use too much. They are not out of place in hierbas (and rosemary is essential), but proceed with caution.

* For optimal results, the herbs and grain alcohol must infuse for at least a month. Stir or gently shake the mixture from time to time to redistribute the plant matter. After the first two weeks or so, the tincture will be bright green; with time, this brightness will fade to olive and eventually amber. This is normal.

A final note: true hierbas is distilled, not simply infused. Unless you have a still or rotovap, you’re not going to distill this. Once mixed, expect it to be slightly viscous from the sugar and cloudy, unless clarified, from herb sediment.

750 ml (1 bottle) grain alcohol, like Everclear (95% ABV (alcohol by volume))
1 head fennel, with flowers, stalks, and fronds
12 branches thyme
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks basil
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks mint
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks anise hyssop
6-inch rosemary branch
4 4-inch stalks of tarragon
12-inch stalk of lemon verbena
12-inch stalk of marjoram
2 12-inch stalks of lemon balm
12-inch branch of parsley
4 bay leaves
8 lime leaves
8 fig leaves
2 tbsp dried chamomile flowers or 1/4 c fresh
1/4 c Corsican mint leaves
4 inches of lemon zest (no pith)
1 tsp aniseed
4 juniper berries
1 tsp fennel seed

filtered water
white granulated or superfine sugar

In a nonporous, nonreactive container, combine all the herbs and the grain alcohol. Press down on the herbs so the alcohol covers them completely. Seal tightly with a lid or, if your lid is not tight-sealing, cover with plastic wrap, secure with a band, and then cover with a lid,

Infuse for at least 30 days. If the plant matter still appears green, not brown, continue to infuse until all the chlorophyll has dissolved.

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Strain the tincture through fine filters (such as a chinois, or several fine mesh tea filters stacked together) into a nonreactive clean container. The volume of the strained tincture will be greater than 750 ml, because the alcohol dehydrates the plant matter and adds water to the tincture. Measure the volume in ml. You should have nearly 900 ml. Do not add more grain alcohol to increase the volume; just note the amount so you can compute the ABV of the tincture.

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Make a simple syrup of 500 ml water and 500g sugar by combining the two in a pot over medium heat and stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Cool to room temperature. Measure the volume in ml and note the total volume so you can compute the sugar concentration in the syrup. Note: If you hated/are not good at maths or are lazy, you can skip the computation steps and just skip to the instructions to mix equal portions of tincture, syrup, and water.

C(a): 712.5/Total volume tincture

C(s): Total weight of sugar (in grams)/Total volume finished liquid sugar syrup

There are three formulations of hierbas: one sweet (dulces, about 30% sucrose by weight and 20% ABV), another dry (seques, about 10% sucrose by weight and 35% ABV), and another medium-dry (mesclades, about 20% sucrose by weight and 25% ABV), which once was simply a mixture of the sweet and dry. If you haven’t tasted hierbas mallorquinas before, it can be hard to know which option you will like the most, so start with the mesclades recipe set forth below, and decide whether you want to add more alcohol or more sugar.

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For a medium-sweet liqueur, combine about 291 ml tincture with 324 ml sugar syrup and 395 ml water. Start with 300 ml water and taste; increase as necessary. Note: to be precise, you should compute the ABV of the finished tincture and the concentration of the sugar syrup before mixing so you can mix them correctly. If this is too much measuring for you, try equal proportions of water, syrup, and tincture (33% each by volume).

Once you have mixed your liqueur, you can decide whether to clarify or not. The sugar syrup captures and suspends the fine herb sediment present in the tincture, so it will be rather cloudy. This is normal. If it bothers you, clarify using hydrated gelatin finings and let the mixture stand in the freezer for up to two weeks before straining. Note: the hierbas used in the following candy recipe has been clarified. The advantage to not clarifying, though, is a more pronounced herbal flavor.

Hierbas wine gums

At Heston Blumenthal’s influential restaurant, The Fat Duck, the final phase of the tasting menu includes Whisk(e)y Wine Gums, an ingenious take on gummi candy that showcases the flavors of five different whisky (or, in the case of Tennessee, whiskey) producing regions, mounted onto a map of those regions. These have tremendous appeal for me, not just because I love whisk(e)y, but because I have a lifelong mania for gels. Given a choice between a gel- and non-gel formulation of any product, I will always choose the gel.

Different hydrocolloids yield different gel characteristics. Gelatin and certain pectins produce relatively soft, clear gels that melt at around body temperature and are responsible for the consistency of jelly, aspic, and ketchup. Using agar-agar makes for brittle gels like the almond jellies popular in Asia; gum arabic, firm, chewy gels like gummi bears. In the recipe below, developed from Blumenthal’s Whisk(e)y Gums recipe (Fat Duck Cookbook, 304-05), gelatin and agar combine for a soft but highly elastic gel that lets the hierbas shine.

15 g powdered gelatin
2 g powdered agar
30 ml hierbas

100 ml glucose syrup
55 g caster (superfine) sugar
1.4 g tartaric acid (substitute 2.5 g cream of tartar)
40 ml hierbas

35 ml hierbas

Combine the gelatin, agar, and 30 ml hierbas and wait 30 minutes to hydrate completely. Bag and seal in a chamber sealer. Drop into a 185F/85C circulator or in a pot of water on the stove at the same temperature.

Combine the glucose, sugar, tartaric acid, and 40 ml hierbas to hydrate completely. Bring to a simmer and then to a boil. When the mixture reaches 255F/124C, remove from the heat. Whisk in the hydrated gelatin mixture. The mixture will foam and appear opaque. Take the temperature, which should have dropped considerably. At 212F/100C, stir in the remaining hierbas. The mixture should become clear. Note: this entire mixing process should not take more than a minute or two.

Transfer immediately to small polycarbonate candy molds (to ensure easy unmolding, you can wipe a very thin film of neutral vegetable oil in each mold, but this may not be necessary). Cover and chill.

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Unmold not more than 30 minutes before service (or unmold and keep refrigerated). These gums can be rather sticky from the glucose but are not brittle, so if you need to use the tip of a knife to unmold, any scars will self-repair. To prevent sticking to the plate, dust the base of the gums with caster sugar before unmolding.

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Pork Products, Quick Meals, Random Thoughts, Seafood, Spain

Uncanny.

I’ll stipulate that, when I travel, I like to buy stuff and bring it home. Some people like T-shirts and liquor; a long-ago secretary collected little souvenir spoons; an attorney on my staff favors novelty socks. When I was younger, I used to memorialize my trips abroad with the typical duty free booty – Hermès eau de cologne: check. Two liters of whisky: check. Giant bar of Toblerone: check. Boring!

Eventually, I realized I was failing to capitalize on foreign markets running out my exemption with discount Glenmorangie and enlarged chocolate bars, and, on a 1995 trip to Madrid and Córdoba, changed things up with a visit to the supermarket in the basement of El Corte Inglés. For those of you who don’t know, I am a great big supermarket junkie. When I travel, I insist on visiting the supermarket. Not that I don’t love the kind of market that’s been taking place once a week in the town square under a bunch of big stripey tents since the seventeenth century, but I’m actually more interested in finding out how people really shop in other countries. Years ago, before my husband and I were married, I dragged him into a Carrefour near Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, on our way to catch the local bus to the beach. After an hour inside surveying the goods during peak tanning hours, Nat was justly annoyed. Now, of course, he takes it as a matter of course that a trip abroad means doing time in one or more local supermarkets, preferably with a backpack. See? Marriage is all about flexibility.

Anyway, on returning to Minneapolis, I learned that my luggage had been lost. A day passed, and then a week, at which point I gave up on recovering the sacks of Marcona almonds, maíz gigante, Bomba rice, and packets of squid ink, not to mention certain favored articles of clothing and a list, made poolside and fueled by leisure and cocktails, ranking the best 50 episodes of the Simpsons in order of various criteria. In early June, more than three weeks after my return and by the time my Spanish tan had started to fade, my office phone rang. Northwest had located my bag. Would I prefer to receive it at home or at my office? When it arrived two hours later, the black wheel-aboard showed no signs of its exciting detour to Antananarivo (!), where I imagined it sitting at the end of an outdoor jetway for weeks, warmed by the Madagascar sun, lonely and stuffed with unclaimed Spanish bounty. And when I opened the bag, everything was intact.

On our most recent visit to Spain, last September – just one night in Barcelona transiting between Languedoc and London – we made a quick visit to the supermercado and filled up a backpack with treats like big cans of pimentón, olive oils, tinned pulpo (octopus), berberechos (cockles), navajas (razor clams) and chipirones (baby squid), various Spanish beans. Recently, after a quest for fresh octopus ended in failure, I remembered the tinned product in the pantry. Mostly I eat the tinned souvenirs as a snack in my office, but here was a good time to find out: could cooking make these canned products more, uh, uncanny?

Barcelona shopping haul.

The answer is yes. The pulpo became part of a play on the classic pork and shellfish combination, with house-made chorizo meatballs and sweet pickled green tomato. The chipirones joined other Spanish imports from the trip – Calasparra rice and squid ink – as well as an egg-cooking technique I picked up at the outstanding Hisop a few years ago.

Pulpo.

Octopus, chorizo, sweet tomato pickle

Obviously, if you can find fresh octopus, use that instead. I couldn’t in Baltimore, which surprised me, but I guess it shouldn’t have. Yesterday, I came upon fresh baby octopus at the Whole Foods on P Street in DC, but, you know, too little too late.

Unlike the true Spanish chorizo, a cured sausage that undergoes lactic acid fermentation, this sausage will be made and eaten fresh. To simulate the tang of the fermentation, this chorizo includes a small amount of sherry vinegar. The recipe makes about twice what you will need; freeze the rest, tightly sealed, or use it to stuff casings.

Chorizo:

1 lb fatty pork shoulder
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp pimentón de la vera agriculce
1 tsp pimentón de la vera picante
1/2 tsp piment d’espelette
3 cloves garlic
6 cloves garlic confit
1 1/2 tbsp sherry vinegar

Dice the meat about 3/4″.

Combine the salt and all the seasonings. Toss the meat, diced onion, garlic, and garlic confit with all the seasoning except the vinegar, and spread it on a sheet pan (lined with a silpat to reduce sticking) in a single layer (use multiple pans if necessary). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until half-solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus – the worm, blade, and die.

Grind the entire meat/garlic/onion combination using the coarse die, into a bowl over a pan or larger bowl of ice to keep it cold. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning. Add more salt, pepper, seasonings if necessary. Make sure the product remains as cold as possible and toss with the sherry vinegar.

Sweet tomato pickle:

2 lbs (about 3 large) green (unripe) tomatoes
1/2 lb (about 1 medium) yellow onion
1/3 lb (about 1 medium) red bell pepper
1 c cider vinegar
1 c sugar
1 tbsp mustard seeds
2 tsp celery seeds

Dice the tomatoes, peel and dice the onion, and seed, peel, and dice the pepper, all to about 1/4″. Combine with all other ingredients in a saucepan.

Bring to a simmer and stir, dissolving the sugar, and continue to simmer, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables have softened, given up their liquid, and the liquid has reduced to a syrup (the green tomato will be translucent as well). You should have a little less than two pints (4 c). If you like, can the pickle in a sterilized jars in a hot water bath. Otherwise, refrigerate and use within about a month.

Green tomato pickle.

To assemble:
contents of two tins of octopus in olive oil, drained

Put away half the chorizo for another use. Pinch off teaspoon-sized bits of the remaining chorizo and roll into balls. Place a large saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add the chorizo and fry on all sides until brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon. Do not wipe out the pan; increase the heat slightly. Add the octopus and fry quickly on each side. Return the chorizo to the pan and toss to combine. Serve garnished with the green tomato pickle.

[sorry – no photo. The whole thing got eaten before I could get there]

Xipirones, arròs negre

Baby squid with black rice. You wouldn’t believe how tender and delicious the baby squid were in Barcelona. I haven’t been able to find such small squid here – about 1 1/2″ long in the body – nor anything as mild. So I always bring it back in cans. Not the same, but it’s pretty good – the Spanish have a way with canned shellfish.

Xipirones.

The rice, pimentón, and squid ink in this dish also are souvenirs of our last trip to Spain. Choose a Spanish short-grained rice, if you can – I used Calasparra rice, because I had an open bag, but Bomba is even nicer – its grain absorb more liquid and become plumper on cooking. If you can’t, use Arborio – it’s far easier to find. I used a pork stock to cook the rice because I like the savory quality it imparts to the dish – seafood stock is far too fishy, I think, especially once you add the squid ink.

The egg preparation is a straight rip-off of a great component I had at Hisop in Barcelona, and is awesome because frankly, poached egg white is more of a bland nuisance than a welcome addition to any dish. This preparation can be difficult to pull off because the yolk is delicate and breaks easily when poached without the white, so you should have a couple of extra eggs handy. If you don’t want to make the two-part egg component, just poach or fry the egg. You want a runny yolk.

two tins chipirones en su tinta (baby squid in ink), or substitute 1/2 lb squid cut into 1/4″ rings and tentacles
1 small onion, fine dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp pimentón
1 1/2 c Calasparra rice
2/3 c dry white wine
2 packets squid ink
4 c pork stock
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

4 eggs, separated
2 tbsp panko
olive oil

Place a 12″ skillet (or the largest skillet available) over medium heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp oil. Pour the egg white into the pan and tilt quickly to coat the bottom of the pan evenly and thinly. Fry until crisp and golden, reducing heat if necessary to prevent burning. When the egg white is crisp, flip the entire egg white over and cook until golden on the other side. Turn it out onto a cutting board and mince. Return to the hot pan, adding a little extra oil if necessary, and add the panko. Fry until everything is golden brown. Set aside.

Place a saucepot holding the stock over medium heat and bring to a simmer; reduce the heat. Place a sauteuse over medium heat, and when hot add a little olive oil. Add the onions and sweat until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté a minute more. Add the pimentón and the rice and sauté, stirring, until the rice is coated well with oil and barely toasted (it shouldn’t take on any color). Add the thyme and bay. Add the wine and squid ink and stir well, evenly distributing the ink, until the wine is absorbed. Add stock a ladle at a time, stirring until absorbed. Repeat until the rice is cooked al dente. Add the squid to the pot and one final ladle of stock, heating through the squid and leaving the rice moist. Remove the thyme and bay.

Poach the egg yolks and drain on clean kitchen towels (be careful with this step; it is difficult to poach egg yolks without puncturing them).

Plate the arròs negre, top with the egg yolk, and a generous amount of the egg white/panko crumbs. When punctured, the runny yolk makes a great sauce to stir into the rice.

Arròs negre, xipirones.

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