Sunday, December 27, 2015

FEASTING WITH FERGUS


A few happy hours were spent over the Christmas holidays leafing through this book Inside Chefs' Fridges, Europe: Top chefs open their home refrigerators, photographs by Carrie Solomon, words by Adrian Moore.


One of the small problems with it is that I’d only heard of two of the chefs included, though I know I lead a sheltered life.  And one of them was Marco Pierre White who doesn’t keep anything at all in his fridge.  The other was the mighty Fergus Henderson, of St John restaurant in London - more or him later.  


It’s fascinating to see what the pros have in their fridges, though the fridges all look suspiciously clean and well-ordered, which may be the mark of a professional chef or it may be the mark of knowing that somebody’s coming to photograph the interior of your fridge.


And one really big surprise is to see how many chefs keep lemons, soy sauce and canned anchovies in their fridge.  Do these things actually need refrigerating? Well not in my house they don’t.

Each chef offers a recipe or two, and one of Fergus Henderson’s is for Welsh rarebit.  Now the Welsh rarebit, often “rabbit” is one those odd thing that in some places, e.g. my parents’ house, was nothing but cheese on toast, but it gets much fancier elsewhere – Hannah Glasse has a recipe that involves soaking the bread in red wine.


Fergus Henderson’s recipe is as follows:

Serves four
2 tbsp butter

1 tbsp flour

1 tsp English mustard powder

½ tsp cayenne pepper

200ml Guinness

2 tbsp  Worcestershire sauce

450g mature strong Cheddar
 cheese, grated

4 pieces toast

Melt butter in a skillet, stir in flour, cook together until it smells biscuit, without turning brown. Add mustard powder and cayenne pepper, then stir in the Guinness and Worcestershire sauce, and gently melt in the cheese. When it’s all of one consistency, remove from heat, pour into a shallow container and allow to set.  Preheat broiler. Spread the sauce thinly onto toast and place under the broiler until golden brown.  Serve immediately with a glass of Port.

*
Here’s a photograph by Carrie Solomon of the end result:


Actually it’s pretty much the same as the recipe in Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating but there he says you should use a “knob” of butter, and rather improbably he says it serves six. 

I decided to make it the Fergus Henderson way, although it didn’t seem to me there was enough flour.  I couldn’t see it thickening much, but I followed orders, and sure enough it remained pretty thin.  It tasted fine, but it didn’t look at all the image in the book. It looked like this:


So I went rummaging through the Nicholson Gourmet Library, and indeed the internet, and found a great many versions of rarebit – many with no flour at all.  But a surprising number of online sources repeat the Nose to Tail recipe exactly, with many compliments paid to Fergus H. as the rarebit meister.  I don’t know where they get their photos, but this is how one accompanied a piece about the Henderson rarebit in Country Life magazine:



On the other hand when people actually post pictures of rarebits as served and eaten at the St. John restaurant, the results don't look like much like the version shown in Chef's Fridges nor like mine.  Here’s one from yelp:


Cooking, it’s an art, innit?  Food photography even moreso.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

CHUGGING WITH CHEEVER



Of course we all know that alcoholism is a terrible thing and that John Cheever suffered most of its worst effects.  And yet who can read his 1959 short story “The Scarlet Moving Van,” as I just did, and fail to be moved (in all kinds of directions) by a paragraph that runs:
“He was red-eyed and shaken next morning, and ducked out of his office at eleven and drank two Martinis.  He had two more before lunch and another at four and two on the train, and came reeling home for supper.”



Cheever is also the author of the very wonderful 1949 short story “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor,” about the ambivalent and confusing nature of giving.  Charlie, the elevator man in a New York apartment building, pretends to the tenants that he’s much poorer and more wretched than he really is, and in return receives an “avalanche” of food, drink and presents on Christmas Day.


“There were goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed scallops and oysters, lobster, crabmeat, whitebait, and clams. There were plum puddings, mince pies, mousses, puddles of melted ice cream, layer cakes, Torten, ├ęclairs, and two slices of Bavarian cream.”

And then it gets very Cheever-ish indeed:

“He had made almost no headway on the food, for all the servings were preternaturally large, as if loneliness had been counted on to generate in him a brutish appetite ... but he had drunk everything they sent down, and around him were the dregs of Martinis, Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds, champagne-and-raspberry-shrub cocktails, eggnogs, Bronxes, and Side Cars.”

He’s drunk, he gets fired from his job, but decides to “pay forward” the generosity he’s received, and gives the food and presents to his landlady and her children, which they don’t need either having also being on the receiving end of other people’s charity.  She decides she’ll pass on the gifts to those less fortune that herself.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she said, for it was dark then, and she knew that we are bound, one to another, in licentious benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over.’


What writer wouldn’t think they deserved a nice stiff drink after writing a like

that good?






Thursday, December 10, 2015

THE SAZERAC AND I


The plan seemed simple enough: to drink a sazerac, maybe two, in honor of the late Allen Touissant, a giant of New Orleans music, a top quality piano player, singer and songwriter, and a sharp-dressed man by any conceivable standard.


I’d never had a sazerac though I’d certainly drunk all the ingredients separately.  Recipes vary a little with time and place.  The Savoy Cocktail Book which I tend to regard as my bible, gives the recipes as a lump of sugar, a dash of Angostura bitters, 2 ounces of rye whisky, stirred and strained into a cooled (not chilled) glass, then a dash of absinthe added.



There are certain problems with that recipe, chiefly those bitters.  The story goes that the sazerac was invented in 1838 by Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary, who had created "Peychaud's Bitters." Peychaud supposedly made toddies for his customers, using a double-ended egg cup as a jigger, a thing known as a "coquetier," from which the word "cocktail" supposedly derives, thereby making this the first ever cocktail.  If you believe that, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.


Presumably the drink was not called the sazerac at this time, but by 1850 the recipe had become formalized to use Sazerac French brandy.  By 1873, the recipe had altered and the French brandy was replaced with American Rye whiskey, and only at that point was the absinthe added.

In 1933, the Sazerac Cocktail was bottled and marketed by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans (still very much in business), and the absinthe was replaced by "Herbsaint" – the New Orleans term for wormwood.  This at least is the story as told by the Sazerac Company website which may be not be entirely impartial in these matters. Still, we know that cocktail drinkers love a good story.

It was a Monday lunchtime when we set off in search of our Allen Toussaint-related sazeracs, and I can see that some might think that drinking whisky cocktails on a Monday lunchtime is a sign of appalling decadence. But I considered it a sign of restraint.  Drinking sazeracs at 3 am on a Saturday morning - that’s my idea of real decadence.

My companion in this small adventure was Lynell George, writer, photographer, and a woman with a deep attachment to New Orleans.  She knew a few places in downtown Los Angeles where we might get a sazerac.  First on the list was The Little Easy Bar.  Allow me to quote the website: “This intimate Gastropub takes you from the bustle of 5th street in DLTA to the heart of New Orleans.”  A picture on the website shows the interior looking like this:


I wouldn’t know, since when we got there it was closed, and is apparently closed every Monday.  Who’d have thought? Lynell had another, and she thought perhaps better, idea.  She had fond memories of the sazerac served in the bar of the Biltmore Hotel – apparently its official name is the Gallery Bar and Cognac Room, though I think few ever call it that.  So off we went, only to discover that it too also closed, and that a movie was being shot in the hotel – many trucks outside, a few miscellaneous crewmembers inside, though I can’t swear there was a direct causal link between the movie being made and the bar being closed.


And so we ended up at another place claiming to offer a taste of old New Orleans: Preux and Proper.  Their website says they have a “cocktail program.”  Really.   “Our drinks are creative, heavy handed, and garnished to look like the best gift ever … the gift of intoxication.”  Their cocktail list cites the sazerac recipe as “JP Wiser rye, Pierre Ferrand ambre cognac, simple syrup, herbsaint” which sounded authentic enough.  The place also had the great advantage of being open, and almost empty when we got there.

The bartender/waiter came over as soon as we sat down.  “Can I get you anything right away?”
         I said, “I hear you make a pretty good sazerac.”
         I think he bowed just a little and said, “Well I’m not going to deny that.”
         And so two sazeracs were ordered.  We were sitting some way from the bar and I can’t swear that coquetiers were used, although we could see that the drinks were obviously being made with some care, and they were delivered and looked like this:


My sazerac seemed perfectly OK.  It tasted of whisky, of course, and I got the aniseed-ish whiff of the herbsaint.  It was perhaps sweeter than I’d have liked but if you put simple syrup (or a sugar cube) in a drink what else can you expect?  My companion didn’t say much, though I sensed she wasn’t 100 per cent enthused.
A couple of minutes later the bartender came back to the table and said, “Are those sazeracs the way you like them?”
And I admitted that since I’d never had one before that was a difficult question to answer.
Then the barman said, “OK. Look. I know I made those drinks all wrong.  I just realized I put in twice as much sugar as I should have.”
A part of me was very glad to know this and the bartender insisted on remaking the drinks to the correct recipe.
“Thanks,” I said, “a man who cares.”
“Yep there are still a few of us left.”
New and improved drinks duly arrived and were happily consumed.  And yet we still weren’t quite satisfied.  My companion’s memory of the Biltmore sazerac still nagged at her.  A phone call to the hotel revealed that the bar was due to open at 4 (filming or no filming) and a little after the appointed hour, there we were.


The whole of the Biltmore looks and feels like a movie set, deliberately so I’m sure, and it’s appeared on screen in Chinatown, Catwoman, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Mad Men, to name just a few of the productions I’ve seen.


Behind the bar was Greg Guzuilian (that’s how his name is spelled on the menu though different sources use variant spellings), a man who obviously loves the kind of ritual that goes with making any cocktail, but especially the sazerac. “Templeton Rye, Absinthe, Peychaud's, Lemon Twist” according to the menu.  And there was indeed the trick with the two separate glasses, and the sugar lump was crushed with a pestle, and certainly eggcup-shaped jiggers were involved Just watching this process could be the basis of a short movie,   Another man who cares.  
The drinks were definitely superior to the Preux and Proper ones, but they were also smaller. They looked like this:


Mr. Guzuilian is a good man, and has a cocktail list of his own creations, thus:


I rather like the look of the Black Dahlia, named in honor of the Elizabeth Short who was murdered in LA in 1947, her body mutilated, cut in half at the waist, drained of blood and dumped on an empty lot near Leimert Park.  She was last seen hailing a cab outside the Biltmore.  
Here’s a photograph of Greg Guzuilian at work, though I can’t tell you what cocktail he’s pouring.

Photo by Christopher Reynolds/ LA Times  



And here’s the real beauty part: about 12 years ago a Japanese couple came to the Biltmore and enjoyed Greg’s service and mixological skills.  They then went home to Japan and … wait for it … opened the Greg Guzelian bar (another variant spelling) in Okinawa, a fact of which Greg is extremely and justifiably proud.  Having a cocktail named after you is honor enough, although it would be preferable not to have to be murdered first.  But having a bar named after you, in another country, in another culture – could it get any better than that?