Monday, March 31

Beer: The Sad Tale of Ommegang

It is with a heavy heart, on this beautiful finally-spring-in-Philadelphia day, that I write a eulogistic tribute to the Ommegang brews of years past.

Ommegang Brewery, located in Cooperstown, NY, exclusively brews Belgian-style ales. Particularly hailed for Hennepin, their farmhouse saison style, they are in fact owned by Belgian brewerey Moortgat (makers of Duvel), and brew a significant portion of their products across the pond. Since 1997 Randy Thiel has been the head brewmaster at Ommegang, and was evened knighted by the Belgian brewer's guild (Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs) for his accomplishments. He's turned out such delights as Abbey Ale (their version of a dubbel) and Three Philosophers (a dark strong ale blended with a cherry lambic). We've had both the latter selections on our menu on-and-off since I started at Tria, and I always thought of them as some of my favorite beers on the menu. Like superstars Hitachino and Russian River, I trusted that anything and everything coming out of Ommegang would be sure to please and delight.

However, times have changed.

As of February, Randy Thiel has relocated to his native Midwest. He is now serving as the Director of Quality Control at the New Glarus Brewing Company of New Glarus, Wisconsin. Back in Cooperstown, Phil Leinhart, former Director of Production at Ommegang, has assumed the title and duties of Brewmaster. His credentials are sound (over twenty years of brewing; study in England and Germany, as well as in the U.S.), but his products have left me shocked and dismayed. We blind tasted the Abbey Ale in training, and it tastes flat, limp, and dull. The rich flavors of dried fruits and malty depth are gone, replaced with a one-dimensional palate and overwhelming banana notes. Even more horrifying, I ordered a Three Phils at the South Philly Tap Room, and I actually made everyone at the table taste it to verify that I was served the right beer. The cherry sweetness and uplifting effervescence have been replaced, again, with a strong banana flavor and simplified mouthfeel. The fruity complexity of Ommegang's renowned ales seems to be a thing of the past.

Maybe Phil's time at Anheuser-Busch in Newark, New Jersey tainted his conception of great craft beer. Or perhaps his original function of increasing brewing capacity distracted him from the goal of producing truly quality products. 2007 was, in fact, a record-breaking brewing production at Ommegang--but the lesson many Americans have yet to learn rings particularly true here: "more" does not mean "better".

R.I.P. Ommegang. How I shall miss thee.

For more information read Beer Advocate's synopsis here.

Thursday, March 27

Faking It

Title credit shared between Jennifer Cruise, who wrote the novel before I wrote the blog post, and Rachel of Cheese or Death, who recommended the book to me (which I have yet to read).

Many non-vegetarians are perplexed by the vegetarian's desire to include meat substitutes in his or her diet. If you want a hamburger, the omnivore argues, just eat it. Why waste your time with a Gardenburger? The same goes for sausage, bacon, chicken nuggets, ground beef, turkey, and lunch meat. I have no desire to eat genuine meat (a longer post on that at a later date), but I do love some of the substitutes out there (except the fake lunch meat -- that's just too far.) However, one of my accomplices in supporting the vegan sausage industry recently forward a link to Mark Sisson's post on Processed Soy and Meat Alternatives. The gist of the article is that processed meat alternatives are just as unhealthy as processed meat products, if not more so, including a castigation of my beloved riblets. The main message of the post, which I think is actually rather valid is that:

...If you are committed to a vegetarian diet and we can’t convince you otherwise, we still encourage you to eat food and not food products.

I am committed to a vegetarian diet, and although I don't think I'll ever fully renounce the likes of riblets and veggie sausage, after reading Mark's article I retaliated by making a homemade version of soy nuggets: cornmeal-crusted tofu cutlets. I don't have a photo of these because my happy household devoured them so quickly. That said, I generally feel like my photo-less posts, while less visually alluring, have a certain appeal when you consider that there's no photo because the food was so tasty I couldn't even stop to grab my camera. And thus I present my stream-of-consciousness narration on preparing Tofu Cutlets with Saucy Cabbage

Buy a block of tofu. When you get home, put it in the freezer and forget about it for a few months. When you run out of food and are too lazy/poor/cold to drag yourself to the grocery store, dethaw tofu. Drain very well. (I like to make a sandwich where a cutting board and a plate are the "bread", and the tofu is the..."meat". A couple cans on top encourage a more thorough drain, or pressing down on either side can provide an often-necessary quick fix.) Slice tofu 3/4" thick and douse with soy sauce or tamari.

In a separate dish mix a healthy scoop of corn meal with seasonings of choice (I like a generous amount of ancho chili powder, black pepper, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds). Dredge tofu in cornmeal mixture (no liquids required!) and fry in a blend of sesame and olive oils (balance to taste). Serve with sriracha (or sauce of choice, e.g....ketchup).

I served my tofu cutlets with some saucy cabbage. I don't really like cabbage, but I wanted a side dish and needed to use up a leftover 1/2 head of cabbage in my refrigerator. This recipe exemplifies my cooking style (and perhaps demonstrates why this blog isn't really about recipes) --

Shred cabbage. Heat vegetable oil in wok. Go ahead and throw in a few shakes of sesame oil, too. Cabbage is bland. Add three cloves of crushed garlic. Aww, you like garlic -- make it four. Oops, that garlic is getting really brown, isn't it? Quick, add the cabbage. Stir-fry. This is going to need more flavoring, eh? Soy sauce is a good start. But only a start. How about some rice vinegar? Not that much! Now the whole kitchen smells acidic. Let that cook off for a minute -- mmm, see how the cabbage is getting toasty brown? That's good. What's that, you found half a container of sweet and sour sauce in the fridge? Go on, throw it in there. Yep, good call. Almost there...maybe a dash of onion powder? Perfect. That cabbage sure is saucy...

Sunday, March 23

By Meme

Stolen from Lucy over at Nourish Me

What were you cooking five years ago?

Five years ago I was finishing my freshman year of college and contemplating writing a book on cooking a multiple-course meal with only a hot pot and a paring knife. (I think someone beat me to it?)

What were you cooking 10 years ago?

Ten years ago (circa age 13), I had just discovered the joys of cooking, thanks to my ennui with my single father's reliance on deli takeout combined with our accidental subscription to Food & Wine magazine. From ten to twelve I went through a recipe mania, cutting and printing recipes from the newfangled internet and all the cooking magazines I could get my hands on, and cataloging them in a giant three-ring binder. By age thirteen I a) realized that I'd rather cook freestyle than per recipe; and b) recognized that I needed to cook in a way that my thirteen-year-old lifestyle (homework, sports teams, music practice, friends) could sustain. So I started making Sunday the cooking day, staying up until the wee hours pickling produce, boiling rice, baking pasta, freezing fruit, chopping vegetables, portioning snacks, and writing menus for the week. The Sunday frenzy dissipated by the time high school rolled around, but lately I've been craving that regiment and ritual.

Five snacks you enjoy:

Trader Joe's desiccated (I think) snap peas
Whatever leftovers are in the fridge
Vegan chicken tenders/nuggets/wings
Tea and toast
Wine/beer and cheese (which, I recognize, could be a whole category unto itself)

Five recipes you know by heart:

I don't really use recipes. But there are a few combos I keep coming back to:
Basic frittata (to be embellished as ingredients-on-hand permit)
Really great roasted potatoes
My signature bread-dipping sauce
Really great guacamole
My mother's dijon vinaigrette

Five culinary luxuries you would indulge in if you were a millionaire:

Five trips to exotic/exciting locales to enjoy the cuisine and appropriate local culinary training. My current list of destinations would probably be:
Southern Italy
And...Morocco? Israel? India? Greece? Oh, the possibilities...

My contribution to this survey -- Five culinary indulgences you crave, and can afford without being a millionaire:

Red siphon bottle from Williams Sonoma (see below)
Windowsill herb garden
Garlic press (for when I move and can't use my roommate's any more....see below again)
Turkish coffee set
Vacu-vin pump

Five foods you love to cook:

Eggs! One-hundred-and-one ways.
Pasta, but the end result is generally more sauce/vegetables and less noodle.
Tempeh, probably my favorite meat stand-in.
Greens, mainly kale, because of the constant cravings.
Fresh seasonal vegetables. This moment: asparagus. Recently: blood oranges. Etc.

And one more addition -- Five ingredients you simply adore:

Lemon juice
Olive oil

Five things you cannot/will not eat:

Red meat, since age eleven
Milk, cream (and/or ice cream, tragically), since age twenty
Foie gras, since my bioethics class/age twenty-one
Most dishes flavored with dill, a lifelong aversion
Pre-packaged desserts (e.g. Twinkies), since my roommate started spoiling me with daily deliveries from Metropolitan Bakery.

Five favourite culinary toys:

Cutco knives, from my Cutco saleswoman days, although, honestly, they really are a bit too sharp for regular use.
Red electric tea kettle. So darn many uses. And so pretty!
Red siphon bottle, that I don't own yet.
Magic Bullet. The blender.

Your turn?

Thursday, March 20

Who Doesn't Love Camel's Milk?

My best friend recently sent me this NY Times Article on Camelbert. Teehee.

To the Cheese Course, Prepare to Add Camel
Published: March 19, 2008
A brielike cheese with a bloomy rind and a gooey off-white center, Caravane is made in Mauritania at one of the world’s first camel milk dairies.

Tuesday, March 18

Emergency? Emergen-C!

For today's product focus I would like to tout the virtues of my favorite non-alcoholic beverage: Emergen-C. These little drink-mix packets -- available in several delicious (tangerine, cranberry) and a few repulsive (black cherry, tropical) flavors -- support a healthy immune system, provide a nice energy boost, and help replace depleted electrolytes. And it's fizzy -- I definitely have a soft spot for non-soda carbonated beverages. With 1,000mg of low-acidic vitamin C; vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12; and 32 mineral complexes, it's great for athletes, vegetarians, people who work the graveyard shift, small children, unwed mothers, pet owners, shoe salesmen, Hannah Montana fans, and, well, anyone and everyone really. I love it after a hard yoga class, and I drink it almost obsessively at work. Look what people are saying:

Well. Perhaps it's not a miracle drug, but maybe that's why I like it so much! I'm suspicious of many vitamin pills, as I'm not convinced the body digests, processes, and absorbs them efficiently -- or at all. Many nutritionists claim that the body can only absorb 10-15% of the nutrients in vitamin pills: the rest end up as expensive urine. Liquid nutrients are said to be more easily digested and absorbed, and thus more beneficial. I won't say that Emergen-C prevents or cures colds, or can replace caffeine, but I do think it's a great way to stay hydrated and add a few nutrients to your diet. There's also a few arguments out there favoring Emergen-C over Airborne, not just because of the variance in price point (Airborne is generally $7 for ten tablets; I get my 36 packets of Emergen-C for $10), but also because Airborne's excessive concentration of Vitamin A (5,000mg) could potentially put you at risk for vitamin poisoning (who knew?). I also prefer Emergen-C to other post-workout beverages, such as Gatorade, Powerade, and Crystal Light, all of which are full of sugar ("electrolytes") and pleasantries such as high-fructose corn syrup and Aspartame. At an even 25 calories per packet, I'll reach for my Emergen-C any day (and I do).

And in case there was any confusion:

Monday, March 17

St. Patty's Day Borscht

No, borscht is not an Irish food. I actually made this for my Potluck Book Club, which was meeting to discuss the Ukranian-set, fairly Jewish novel "Everything is Illuminated." We tried to stick to the cultural themes with our culinary selections, and despite my longing for blinis and latkes I decided I would tackle that neon hallmark of Eastern Europe: beet soup.

Oddly enough, while I was concocting my soup I couldn't help notice the similarities between Irish and Ukranian cuisine. Potatoes, cabbage, beef, your mouth watering yet? Well, mine wasn't. I had a hard time believing beets belonged in soup, particularly as I surveyed the rather drab-looking assortment of ingredients. However, I must say this soup turned out to be quite delectable. The vegetables were tender yet textured, and although my house still smells like vinegar the flavor lent a pleasantly refreshing acidity to the broth. Furthermore, the sour cream provides a creamy balance, and I couldn't resist adding a handful of micro-greens for an Americanized crunch -- not to mention some St Patrick's Day green.

Although I always pictured it pureed, borscht is in fact traditionally served as a chunky, broth-based soup. The main seasonings are usually caraway seeds (think rye bread) and dill, but since I couldn't find fresh dill I substituted chervil. Furthermore, most borscht recipes call for beef stock and a few beef bones, neither of which interested me. A few vegetarian recipes recommend a handful of porcini mushrooms to provide the missing meatiness (why are mushrooms the universal meat substitute?), but I instead opted for the remainder of the Harpoon Munich Dark Ale I enjoyed during my prep work. After tinkering with a few recipes, including this one from the Food Network's web site, here's what I ended up with:

5 fresh beets, unpeeled
1 parsnip, halved and thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons white or red-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 stalks celery, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
2 small onions, quartered and thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, cored, cut into 1-inch wedges, and shredded
A small handful fresh chervil
3 bay leaves
One 16-ounce can diced tomatoes (with liquid)
12-15 small fingerling potatoes, cut in halves or thirds
10-11 cups water
1/2 bottle stout beer
6 cubes vegetable bouillon
Sour cream and micro-greens, for garnish

In a large saucepan, cover the beets with cold water by l inch. Stir in 1/4 cup of the vinegar and 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, until very tender, about 40 minutes. Remove from liquid, cool, and peel the beets. Cut into 1/4" thick medium-sized rectangles, and set aside.

Add potatoes to the same pot/liquid and boil until very soft. Set aside, reserving one cup of cooking liquid.

Heat the oil in a very, very large pot over medium heat. Add the celery, onion, carrots, parsnip, garlic, and caraway seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the cabbage and beer and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 3 minutes.

Tie the chervil and bay leaves together with a rubber band and add to the pot with the beets, tomatoes, bouillon, and water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes to bring the flavors together. Stir in the beet liquid, potatoes, remaining 3 tablespoons vinegar, and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Season heavily with pepper. Chill.

Serve topped with dollops of the sour cream and handfuls of micro-greens. Pass additional vinegar at the table.

Serves enough to end the Irish Famine. Or at least 12 hungry people.

NB: You can serve borscht warm, too. But I like pretending spring is here, and thus cold soups are more appropriate.

And did you know borscht is considered a classic hangover cure? Try it. Maybe tomorrow, for all the Irish out there.

Tuesday, March 11

Bell's Brewery

Last night I helped polish 290 glasses, picked up 30 soft pretzels, and poured eight varieties of beer for 32 people. What was the occasion? A beer class with Larry Bell of Bell's Brewery.

Bell's started in 1985 as the Kalamazoo Brewing Company (in Kalamazoo, MI), with a very large soup pot in Larry Bell's kitchen. Twenty-three years later Bell's is producing 115,000 barrels of beer per year (NB: That's a LOT). Best known for the ever-popular Oberon, Bell's distributes to eleven states, including, obviously, Pennsylvania. Part of their success might be attributed to Siemans revolutionary Braumat precise temperature control system, a unique way for craft brewers to monitor the temperature of their fermentations. Here are my tasting notes from the class:

Winter Ale (5.0%) Unlike many winter ales, this beer was brewed without the addition of any spices. Reminiscent of a Belgian witbier minus the requisite coriander and orange peel, this ale had a hazy appearance, moderate carbonation, and a nice mouth feel. Notes of cat litter (gravel + urine) on the nose, but a very pleasant flavor overall.

Sparkling Ale (9.0%) Shockingly -- disturbingly -- refreshing for a nine percent ABV! More on the malty side with a nice citrus acidity and a little funk on the finish.

Batch 8000 (9.0%) Strong and complex, this recipe was brewed just once, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Bell's Brewery. A wheat ale spiced with orange peel, coriander, honey, and grains of paradise, the nose gives off tropical fruits and banana. The flavor is complex but a bit too sweet for my tastes. Still, how many "Imperial Witbiers" are out there? Props.

Lager of the Lakes (5.0%) An homage to the great Great Lakes. A pretty vanilla but well-executed lager, with a light, crisp finish. Lagers are notoriously difficult brew, so I can acknowledge the work it took to produce this.

Consecrator Doppelbock (8.0%) Probably my favorite of the line-up. Another lager, doppelbocks were traditionally made by fasting German monks (beer didn't count towards the fast). The Consecrator definitely didn't taste like it was 8% ABV, with a deep, complex palate highlighting nutty, slightly malty notes. And not only was this beer named for Beethoven's "Consecrator of the House" overture, but Larry Bell also used the phrase "Hegelian dialectic of art and science" to describe his masterpiece. You had me at 'Hegelian.'

Amber Ale (5.8%) What a disappointing follow-up to the doppelbock! The order of events seemed like bad planning to me. After the rich, deep flavors of the Consecrator, this amber ale tasted flat, thin, and pretty boring. That said, Larry pointed out at the end of the class that many of his more popular beers (e.g. the Two Hearted Ale, see below) are not "sustainable" beers: at the end of the brewing cycle, the yeasts are so inundated with hop molecules that they can't be recycled for future useage. That's why many brewers sell a few less-exciting beers at much lower prices -- they need the yeasts (and income) extracted from these less-adventurous ales to support other endeavors.

Two Hearted Ale (7.0%) I swear that ought to be hyphenated. A surprisingly well-balanced IPA that's dry-hopped for a little extra pine-y emphasis. I'm not a huge hophead, but even I could down a couple of these.

Kalamazoo Stout (6.0%) When I think of Bell's, I think of stouts. Their [Russian Imperial] Expedition Stout is nearly legendary, we're currently carrying the Double Cream Stout at Tria, and the Java Stout is my personal favorite. Still, the Kalamazoo Stout is one of the flagships of the Bell's brand, and tied the doppelbock for my favorite selection of this tasting. Roasty espresso and bittersweet chocolate flavors dominate the palate, and the brew provides a full, rich mouthfeel.

Near the end of the class we discussed the rising beer prices, which are largely due to international raw ingredient shortages. The prices of hops and barley have nearly tripled or even quadrupled over the last year, taking the hardest toll on craft brewers. Still, Bell said he would like more consumers to view beer as an "affordable luxury" -- many connoisseurs wouldn't dream of balking at an excellent $15-20 bottle of wine, so why the indignation at a comparable price for excellent beer?

Thursday, March 6

Why all the beer posts as of late?

Newsflash for those not in-the-know: Philly Beer Week starts tomorrow. Expect another deluge of beer-centric posts, links and events :)

Saturday, March 1

Appliance: Beertender

When I switched my focus to product reviews I definitely intended to include kitchen appliances in the mix, and today I found the perfect inaugural example. Krups, noted for their superior home espresso machines, has teamed up with Heineken to devise the Beertender, a home draught beer system. This has been available in Europe for a while, but it's making it's American debut via Williams Sonoma March 1 (that's TODAY). A more sophisticated model is rumored to hit shelves in April.

So what is it, exactly? Essentially, a pretty, digital, compact "dock" for a mini keg of beer. An LCD panel displays the amount of beer left, the temperature of the keg, and, as a nice touch, the number of days of freshness left. You can adjust the temperature, but I think the carbonation balance is preset. I recommend checking out Not Cot's nicely graphic review here.

While the Beertender is awfully pretty, I must admit I'm not so much in favor of the gadget. To begin, as far as I can tell you'll only be able to purchase mini kegs of Heineken, which might not be everyone's first choice (and certainly isn't mine). Other web sites claim Beertender's compatibility with "other premium European beers", but their availability (and premium-ness) is questionable. Furthermore, because the BeerTender uses internally pressurized kegs you can't fill up kegs yourself with homebrew or craft beer, and it's unlikely that small craft brewers will offer their beers in a compatible form. Craft beer enthusiasts are best sticking to cumbersome but versatile kegerators.


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