Author Archive

Tenderness and restraint are key to pizza love

Executive chef Rosario Del Nero at Medford branch of Bertucci's
We had always assumed that good pizza required a certain amount of drama. Showboat pizzaiolos sometimes toss the dough into the air, spinning it to stretch to size. In Naples, guys slap the dough around back and forth on the counter as if they were Jack Nicholson working over Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (“she’s my daughter, she’s my sister…”).

That’s no way to treat a lady.

Rosario Del Nero shapes pizza dough “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” says Bertucci’s executive chef Rosario Del Nero, “Dough is a living thing. You must treat it gently.” He slips a bench knife under a half pound round of pizza dough and carefully transfers it from the covered proofing box to a bowl of flour. Turning the dough over to coat the surface, he moves it gently to a marble counter. He begins to prod the dough with his fingers, stretching the round into a flatter piece. “I’m transferring the heat of my body to the dough,” he explains.

“Once the dough is fermented and rested [see previous post], you can’t reshape it,” Del Nero explains. “It’s full of air. You don’t want to disturb the structure.”

With the heat of his hands, he pushes from the center out to the edges, turning the dough all the time. In seconds it stretches a little, then a little more. “It’s best when you use your body heat,” Del Nero says. “You can use a rolling pin, but the texture will be a little different.”

He scatters some semolina meal on a long-handled wooden paddle and lays the pliant dough on top. (Bertucci’s has three sizes of peels and three weights of dough to make the three sizes of pizza on the menu.) Then it’s time for the fun part: topping the pizza.

Getting dressed for the show


Bertucci’s has dozens of toppings, all neatly arrayed on the counter of the open kitchen. But Del Nero says, “When it comes to toppings, less is more. You don’t want to overwhelm your pizza.”

Rosario Del Nero slices pizzaHis personal favorite combines chunky tomato sauce, a sprinkle of pecorino Romano cheese (in part for its saltiness), freshly roasted thin slices of eggplant, and some small balls of fresh mozzarella crushed between finger and thumb. When it comes out of the beehive brick oven (about three minutes), he sprinkles it with a chiffonade of fresh basil and brushes the bare edge of the crust with olive oil. “The oil releases its aroma when it touches the warm bread,” he says. Bertucci’s uses an olive oil that volatilizes at 140°F—about the temperature of pizza crust as it comes from the oven.

Under Del Nero’s direction, we made a similarly restrained pizza with tomato sauce, artichoke hearts, crushed cloves of roasted garlic, and the same small balls of mozzarella. He guided us to wiggle the soft pizza off the paddle onto the oven floor, then to use a metal peel to retrieve it from the 600°F oven. The oven is so massive, he says, that it takes two days to get up to heat. At home, the best (though still not adequate) substitute is to use a pizza stone and make sure it is preheated a long time.

In the glass


Del Nero endorsed our artichoke and garlic pizza, bestowing the Bertucci’s black olive seal of approval. As we sat down to eat, he said that he prefers wine with pizza. “Beer is too yeasty,” he believes.

We tasted a few of the wines he was about to introduce with some new menu items. Both were from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The “Votre Santé” pinot noir is named for Coppola’s grandmother, who grew up in French Tunisia and always offered the classic toast when she raised a glass. The Diamond Collection “Claret” is a Bordeaux-style blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon and lightened by petite verdot. The fruitier pinot noir was spot-on with the eggplant, while the more austere claret cut through the unctuousness of the roasted garlic.

Given that both Coppola wines are widely available and reasonably priced, we may try the same combinations at home. They won’t be the same, of course, without the brick oven—or the passionate good company.

10

02 2017

Perfecting pizza, one ball of dough at a time

Melissa Surber delivers chicken marengo pizza at Bertucci's in Medford
Rosario Del Nero bites into a slice of pizza and savors it for a moment. “It’s not Neapolitan, it’s not Roman,” he says. “It’s rustic, provincial Italian pizza. It’s not as wet as Neapolitan, which is what most people have, or as thick as Roman.”

He is not even considering the toppings. Del Nero focuses on the dough that cooks up into the crust. It must be just so. “Flour, water, yeast—it’s simple,” he says. “But the secret ingredient is time. You cannot rush the yeast.”

He pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil and draws a graph. “X is quality,” he explains. “Y is time.” He draws a curve that peaks at about 40 hours. “Anywhere between 36 and 48 hours of slow rising in the cooler, the dough makes perfect pizza.”

Rosario del Nero enjoys a slice of Bertucci's pizzaA native of the Valtellina valley in Lombardy, Del Nero was the original chef of Bertucci’s when the chain began expanding beyond the original pizzeria with bocce court in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. After more than a decade away from the group, he returned to Bertucci’s last August as executive chef and culinary vice president. Ever since, he has been infusing the 85-restaurant group with his passion and his discipline to make a superb and consistent product. He invited us to the Medford, Massachusetts, location for a lesson in his philosophy and practice of pizza.

The wrong way


Del Nero certainly turned around our perceptions of pizza crust. Given that we use a home gas oven that works hard to reach 550°F, we thought we had experimented sufficiently to make a pretty good home crust. It used 210 grams of mixed white and whole wheat flour, a teaspoon of sugar, a quarter teaspoon of instant dry yeast, and 150 grams of ice water. We would whirl it up in a food processor and let it sit at least 10 minutes before adding three-quarters teaspoon of sea salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. We’d whirl it up again, then let it rise in an oiled quart container all day, pressing it down when it threatened to spill out.

Listening to Del Nero, we quickly learned that we were doing a few things right and a couple of critical things wrong. Using very little yeast was a plus, but oiling the dough was a no-no.

“You have plants at home? Trying oiling their leaves and see how fast they die,” he said. “Dough is the same way. It has to breathe.”

The right way


Rosario Del Nero inspects pizza dough at Bertucci's Our biggest mistake was rushing the dough. “It has to rise very slowly so it forms tiny air bubbles. The flavor won’t be as good if the dough is rushed,” he said. “You don’t want to punch it down. That’s fine for bread, but you want pizza to be soft and pliable. Punching it makes it tough.”

We felt as if we’d been beating our kids. At home the next Friday, we made dough and let it rise in the vegetable crisper drawer of our refrigerator until after lunch on Sunday. We left it covered on the counter—because “the dough hates air,” as Del Nero told us. It warmed to room temperature in time for us to shape it into pizza for dinner.

The resulting pizza was a revelation. The same recipe was easier to shape and cooked up with a crisp but not crunchy texture. It also tasted much better.

So we went back the next week for more instruction.

06

02 2017

Cradle of Mexican cuisine, Oaxaca relishes mole negro

Onion seller at Oaxaca market
No one escapes untouched by Oaxaca. This lyrical, magical city has been a powerful cultural and trade center for millennia. It is also arguably the cradle of Mexican cuisine. You can always eat well in Veracruz, Mexico City, and Puebla. But in Oaxaca, you feast. Every dish is a taste revelation.

Tomatoes and chile peppers were domesticated in northern Oaxaca around 4500 BC—presumably to spice up all those meals based on beans and corn, which the ancient Oaxacans had domesticated 3,000 years earlier. And Oaxaca continued to expand its larder.

ruins of Monte Alban outside OaxacaBy the time the high culture of Monte Alban (right) arose around 500 BC, the Oaxaca Valley was a crossroads of trade between South and North America. Foodstuffs poured in from as far north as Mexico’s Central Valley and from as far south as the Andes. A millennium later–nearly a thousand years before the rise of either the Aztecs or the Incas–the Zapotec people of Oaxaca were processing peanuts and cacao. They had all the ingredients to make mole, the chile-nut-spice sauce that distinguishes the Oaxacan mother cuisine.

Oaxaca cathedralThe Spanish also influenced the complex cuisine of Oaxaca. Monte Alban had been abandoned for at least seven centuries when Hernán Cortes took the Oaxaca Valley by force in 1521. He soon built a city where he would live out his life as the self-styled Marquéz de Valle de Oaxaca. Despite their cathedral (above), the Spaniards never fully succeeded in conquering the native Zapotec and Mixtec cultures of the surrounding countryside. As a result, Oaxaca is really native Mexico.

But it’s native Mexico with sesame seeds, saffron, pigs, cows, and chickens—thanks to the Spaniards.

Timeless Oaxaca comes to the market


selling tomatoes and fruits at Oaxaca market The ancient face of Oaxaca persists in the Mercado de Benito Juarez, the fresh food market named for the local son who was president of Mexico when Lincoln was president of the U.S. The market occupies two entire city blocks south of the zócalo. (One block farther south is the 20 de Noviembre market, which has amazing food stalls, including a section devoted to grilled meat.)

People start arriving from the countryside before dawn. Some come by truck, some by pack animal, and some on foot. They bring the food they have grown and lay it out for all to see. One seller might have big bunches of onions and herbs, like the woman at the top of this post. Others might display tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers and little limes. Another vendor might lay out rows of delicate squash blossoms, fleshy and yellow. It’s hard to speak with anyone, since most of the country people have Zapotec or Mixtec as their first language. But the beaming pride in their wares really needs no translation.

apple seller in OaxacaA few might even walk in with baskets on their heads, like the woman at right, who was selling the apples she had picked from her trees. To an American or a European foodie, the market looks like a cornucopia of plenty. The Oaxaca Valley is a fruitful land.

The corner of the market where dried chiles, cacao, and nuts are sold also has several mills. Shoppers who know what they are doing will bring a mixture of chiles, cacao, nuts, and spices to be milled into a paste. You can also buy pre-ground pastes to serve as the basis for making mole. In most cases, you simply dilute the paste with some meat broth and simmer long enough to smooth out the raw flavors. Mexican chocolate available in the U.S. replicates the chocolate of the market. It consists of ground cacao nibs, sugar, ground nuts, cinnamon, and often some other spices.

Most people prefer to make their moles from scratch. We’ve written previously about mole amarillo, which is traditional for the Day of the Dead. But one of the deepest flavored moles of all is mole negro, or black mole. There are many recipes for the dish, including some that deliberately burn the chile seeds and then steep them in water for some of the liquid. Traditionally, the dish is made with chilhuacles negros, a black chile grown in the Oaxaca region but not widely exported. Even cooks in other parts of Mexico use a combination of guajillo and mulato chiles to get a similar flavor.

Like many moles, the sauce is fried because water boils at 200° F in Oaxaca due to the altitude. The sauce needs to get up to about 240° F to cook through. Note that our recipe below calls for lard, which is traditional. Peanut or corn oil will work, but the flavor is less authentic. Bacon drippings are a better substitute.

MOLE NEGRO OF OAXACA


Oaxaca style mole negro with pumpkin risottoThis mole is often eaten plain over tortillas that have been dipped in the sauce and then rolled. A sprinkling of queso fresco or crumbled feta complements the flavors.

Ingredients

3 ounces dried mulato chiles (about 5), stems and tops removed
3 ounces dried guajillo chiles (about 8), stems and tops removed
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/3 cup sesame seeds
6 whole cloves
3-inch stick of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole anise seeds
1/2 cup lard
1/2 cup whole, unblanched almonds
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup coarsely chopped white onion
6 cloves garlic
6-ounce can tomato paste
4 teaspoons salt or bouillon powder
6 ounces Mexican chocolate (two tablets Ibarra or La Abuelita), grated
up to 2 cups chicken stock

Directions

Toast chiles in hot frying pan or griddle until softened. Remove seeds, stems, and at least some of the veins. (The veins and seeds contain most of the heat.) Place in medium bowl with boiling water and soak one hour.

Toast sesame seeds in dry skillet over medium heat until golden—about two minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool. Combine cloves, cinnamon, coriander, and anise seeds in skillet. Toast until fragrant (20-30 seconds) and remove to cool.

Heat lard in large cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Add almonds and cook and stir until brown. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add raisins to pan and cook and stir until they puff up—about 30 seconds. Remove with slotted spoon.

Process raisins in blender until finely ground. Coarsely chop almonds and add to blender and process until finely ground. Add raw onion and raw garlic and process until finely ground.

Grind sesame seeds in spice grinder. Add to blender. Grind clove and spice blend in spice grinder and add to blender.

Add chiles, about a cup of soaking water, tomato paste, and salt to blender. Process until smooth.

Reheat lard in deep, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Add mole mixture. Stir to cook through and sweeten the raw flavor of onion and garlic. Add chocolate to melt. Stir in chicken stock to reach desired consistency. Cover pan and place in 325° oven for one hour. Remove, stir sauce, and place back in oven for an additional hour. This allows thorough cooking without burning the mole onto the bottom of the pan.

Roll soft corn tortillas in mole and serve with sprinkling of crumbled queso fresco or feta cheese. Pumpkin risotto makes a nice side dish. If drinking wine, choose an assertive and somewhat acidic white, like a young Chilean sauvignon blanc.

03

02 2017

Valpolicella Classico matches chocolate-spiked ragù

Valpolicella with chocolate-spiked ragù
We discovered a Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2013 nestled among bigger reds in our limited wine storage. Not having a lot of room to hold wine means drinking bottles when they’re ready. With the 2014 already in the market, we figured this welterweight red was ready to go.

Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2013But what dish would do it justice? The Marchesi Fumanelli family (www.squarano.com) has been making top-flight Valpolicella wines since 1470 at their estate just outside Verona. Perhaps the age of the vineyards (up to 40 years) accounts for the clean flavor and deep fruit expression. The blend has a backbone of 40 percent each of Corvina and the bigger clusters of Corvinone. The rest is Rondinella, which deepens the color and gives the wine more body. The finished wine is aged 8-10 months in French barrique—most of it second and third passage.

We prefer this approach to Valpolicella Classico over the increasingly common practice of adding the pomace from an Amarone pressing to the fermentation of the Valpolicella grapes. (Both wines use the same grapes, but those destined for Amarone are partially dried to concentrate the sugars.) We think the lingering toasted, caramelized Amarone flavor in what is properly called Valpolicella Ripasso often masks shortcomings in the Valpolicella itself. The Classico Superiore approach at Fumanelli lets the grapes speak for themselves.

Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore is a fine red for sipping, though the hint of ash in the finish (typical of Corvina) cries out for food. A brilliant ruby red, it presents a nose of black cherries and blackberries. Those flavors carry through on the palate—along with the bitter almond or ashen note. It’s velvety in the mouth with a long, satisfying finish.

Finding a dinner dish


Maybe it’s the season, but it seemed a good companion to dark chocolate. But we wanted a savory dinner dish to accompany the wine, so we did a little digging. Savory chocolate often means Mexican mole poblano or mole negro, but both dishes would overwhelm the Valpolicella. Then we stumbled on a recipe that’s been kicking around in magazines and online for the last few decades. It’s a ragù of browned pork, onion, red wine, and tomato, slow cooked and finished with just a little dark chocolate and cinnamon. Said to have originated in Abruzzo, it’s usually served with fresh egg pasta called chitarrina. The pasta is rolled out in sheets and cut on a box frame strung with fine wires like guitar strings.

We’ve made some adjustments to the basic recipe given by Michele Scicolone on page 173 of her masterpiece 1,000 Italian Recipes (Wiley, 2004). Michele calls for using a pound of fresh tagliarini. We made our own fresh pasta (1 1/3 cups flour, pinch of salt, tablespoon of olive oil, 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk), and cut it with the tagliatelle rollers. It weighed about 10 ounces and made two generous dinner entree servings. If you use a pound of pasta, you could serve a less saucy pasta course to four diners. Just don’t forget the Valpolicella Classico.

ABRUZZESE BITTER CHOCOLATE RAGÙ


Ingredients

1 onion, chopped fine
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 pound ground pork
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup red wine
1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1/2 teaspoon sugar
pinch of cinnamon

Directions

In heavy saucepan, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat until onion begins to turn golden. Crumble in the pork and continue cooking. Break up meat with spatula. Cook until pork begins to brown. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Don’t skimp on the pepper. You need the flavor to round out the dish.)

Add wine and bring to a simmer for three minutes to burn off the alcohol. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and water. Bring to a simmer and cook slowly for about an hour, stirring now and then. Sauce should thicken.

Stir in chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon until chocolate melts. Keep sauce warm while cooking pasta. Add cooked, drained pasta to sauce all at once and toss to coat. Add extra cooking water if necessary to achieve a saucy texture. Serve immediately.

31

01 2017

Cheese-loving Americans in good company

Jean-François Marmier with his herd of 60 Montbèliarde cows
Here in the United States, January 20 is National Cheese Lover’s Day. We’re not really certain how this designation originated but there’s no doubt that we Americans have a genuine affection for the food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each American consumed about 35 pounds of cheese in 2015. (That’s the most recent year for which statistics are available.) And that figure is way up from a little over 14 pounds per person in 1975.

That’s certainly a lot of cheese love. But Americans still have a long way to go to catch up with the French. They consumed more than 59 pounds of cheese per person in 2015, according to the Canadian Dairy Information Centre, which tracks global cheese consumption. That’s the world record, by the way. Denmark, Finland, and Iceland were close behind.

cheese course at Bon Accueil Cheese plays a big role in the French diet and economy, but it’s almost impossible to actually come up with a definitive number of cheeses produced in the country. (Charles de Gaulle once famously lamented the impossibility of governing a country with 246 varieties of cheese. All agree that the number has only grown since the general’s day.) In any case, the number-one selling cheese in France is Comté, the staple of the croque monsieur and a natural for cheese fondue.

Tasty travel in Franche-Comté

Pat had the chance to visit the Comté region where brown-and-white Montbèliarde cows graze in grassy meadows and their milk is transformed into cheese in small cooperatives. (That’s Jean-François Marmier in the photo at the top of the post. The girls are his herd of 60 Montbèliardes.) We could use our stash of Comté just to make croque monsieurs, but Pat discovered that the cheese also adapts well to other recipes. Please see this post for her full account.

20

01 2017

Wishing all our readers peace and joy in 2017

Derry Peace Wall
If Derry, Northern Ireland, can find its way to peace, perhaps so can the rest of the world. When we break bread together, we can embrace all who sit at our table.

31

12 2016

Château La Nerthe delivers warmth, finesse, and power

Turkey lentil cassoulet with 2012 Château La Nerthe from Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape might be the ultimate late autumn comfort wine. At its best, it’s rich, nuanced, and warm. It has a gentle power that responds to those hormones that surge when the days get shorter. It also plays very well with food.

Château La Nerthe from Châteauneuf-du-Pape on tableThe 2012 Château La Nerthe is the very model of what Hugh Johnson once called “a glowing, roast-chestnut warmth” characteristic of good Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Admittedly, good wines from this southernmost portion of the Rhone cost enough to be out of our league for everyday drinking. But this bottle comes in at a reasonable $65 suggested retail price—closer to $55 at discount wine shops. Just entering its drinking years (now through 2023, we’re told), it blossoms when double-decanted and served at around 60° F. We opened the bottle two hours ahead of dinner and found it tannic and tart. Placed back in the bottle after decanting and rested on a cool windowsill, it was spectacular with a classic cool-weather cassoulet.

Great Châteauneuf-du-Pape in tough year

Châteauneuf-du-Pape had a difficult year in 2012. A severe winter froze a lot of buds and some entire vines. Grenache was afflicted with coulure (a tendency not to develop grapes after flowering). Plus the region had a very dry summer. The 225 acres of vineyards at Château La Nerthe weathered these vicissitudes better than most.

Château La Nerthe vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape Certified organic since 1998, the vineyards depend on a thick layer of glacial cobbles (galettes) that seal in moisture and radiate heat up to the vines at night (see photo at right, courtesy of Château La Nerthe). The vineyards were harvested on schedule in late August. The vintage ended up with a blend of 44% Grenache Noir, 37% Syrah, 14% Mourvedre, and 5% Cinsault. That’s about a quarter less Grenache than usual for Château La Nerthe, but Grenache still dominates the finished wine. The nose is rich with blackberries, dark cherries, and aromatic spices. Hints of oak remain on the palate, and just a hint of leathery Syrah comes through.

It was the ideal wine for the dank weather that followed Thanksgiving in New England. Low turkey prices inspired the following cassoulet using Puy lentils, roasted garlic, and charcoal-roasted turkey thighs in place of duck confit.

POST-THANKSGIVING SMOKED TURKEY CASSOULET

cassoulet-for-recipeTurkey is ridiculously cheap in the weeks running up to Thanksgiving. We butcher the birds, saving the breasts to brine and roast separately. The backs and wings go into stock. We slow-roast the thighs and legs in a charcoal grill to produce the next best thing to duck confit without the fat. Rub the legs with 2 teaspoons ras al hanout and 1 teaspoon sea salt and refrigerate in a plastic bag overnight. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the bag and rub well to coat. Roast about 15 minutes per side in closed but vented Weber grill with fire built on the other side of the grill. This produces smoky, overcooked turkey. Let cool and strip the meat. It should yield 12-14 oz. of stringy, smoky pulled turkey.

8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces smoky thick sliced bacon, cut in 1-inch strips
12 ounces chicken garlic sausage
1 head of garlic
white wine to deglaze pan
meat from charcoal-roasted turkey legs

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh thyme

1 bay leaf
2 cups French green lentils (lentilles du Puy)
8 cups chicken or turkey broth, preferably homemade
3 cups breadcrumbs made from day-old white bread (or panko, if necessary)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted, or equal amount of olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Directions

Set oven at 350ºF. Place half the bacon strips, sausages, and whole head of garlic in heavy-bottomed roasting pan or 12-inch cast iron skillet. Roast 25-30 minutes, turning sausages at least once, until sausages are browned, bacon has rendered its fat, and garlic is roasted through. Remove sausages and bacon to a plate to cool. Place garlic on separate plate to cool. When garlic is cool, cut head in half horizontally and squeeze out roasted garlic for use later with vegetables.

Drain fat from roasting pan into a Dutch oven. Deglaze pan with wine and reserve liquid.

Add remaining bacon to Dutch oven and heat over medium-low until bacon begins to color but is not yet crisp. Remove bacon to plate with sausages and other bacon.

Turn up heat in Dutch oven and add turkey meat. Cook, stirring often, to crisp up edges. Remove from pan and reserve.

Add olive oil to Dutch oven and add onion, carrots, and celery. Reduce heat to medium low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to become translucent and vegetables are al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add cayenne, fresh herbs, and the mushy garlic squeezed from roasted head. Cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Remove from pot and reserve.

Turn oven up to 375ºF.

Deglaze Dutch oven with a little chicken stock. Then add lentils and bay leaf. Add remaining stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook about 15 minutes, until lentils are tender but not mushy. Remove bay leaf. Stir in vegetable mixture and turkey. Cut cooked sausages into 1/2 inch slices and stir in. Add reserved deglazing liquid.

Assemble and finish

At this point you can transfer everything into a 4 quart casserole, if desired, but the Dutch oven will work fine as well. Mix bread crumbs with melted butter and spread evenly over surface. Place lid on Dutch oven or casserole (or use aluminum foil) and bake in oven about 30 minutes. Remove lid or foil and continue cooking another 20 minutes until breadcrumb topping has turned dark gold.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Let rest about 15 minutes before serving with a green salad topped with pear slices and dressed with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette.

15

12 2016

Jawbox Gin embodies the spirit of Belfast

Gerry White and his Jawbox Gin
Gerry White has spent his career in the bar trade and has been manager of the John Hewitt (thejohnhewitt.com) for the last 12 years. He has pulled many a pint of Guinness and poured countless shots of Black Bush. “But the only spirit I’ve ever enjoyed,” he says, “is gin.”

He is, in fact, passionate about gin—and about his native city of Belfast. For several years he had been mulling over a project to create his own gin. He even had the taste profile he was seeking in his head. “Two and a half years ago, I told myself I’ll kick myself if I didn’t try,” he recalls, taking a seat at our table at the John Hewitt to relate the story.

“Belfast is a big industrial city. I wanted a gin with a big blast of juniper,” he says, “followed by the heat of pepper and then a clean lemon flavor.” He joined forces with Echlinville Distillery (echlinville.com) in Newtownards. Launched in 2013, Echlinville was the first new licensed distillery in Northern Ireland in more than 125 years. Moreover, the founders shared White’s passion for quality products that would reflect their place of origin.

Spirit, show thyself!

Jawbox Gin bottleOn the 15th try, the distillers finally realized the flavors White had been carrying in his head. Jawbox Gin was born. It’s distilled from malted barley grown on land owned by the distillers and other family members. Among the botanicals White added was Belfast heather, which produces an earthy, herbaceous note. White chose the stubby, rounded bottle because it reminds him of Victorian medicine bottles. The label is likewise styled to emulate a heritage marque.

He had a little fun with the name. “A communal wash area with a big sink used to be called a jawbox,” he explains. “People would stand around it and tell stories while they washed up. That’s also what people do in pubs. They meet and tell stories.”

Mixing it up

03-jawbox-and-ginger-ale Jawbox launched in February 2016 and has been well received in a fairly crowded field. It’s smooth enough to enjoy as a sipping gin. The heat and spiciness also pair well with ginger ale, a product that White says was invented in Belfast. He combines a shot of Jawbox with Fever Tree ginger ale to taste and adds a squeeze of lime. The sparks of ginger hit the palate first, followed by the complex herbal notes of the gin. The flavor finishes with a pucker of lime.

Other bartenders have been more creative. Muriel’s (see previous post) adds a small piece of molasses honeycomb candy to a glass of gin and ginger ale. Hargadons (www.hargadons.com) in Sligo goes them one better by adding a small piece of natural bee’s honeycomb. “It’s stunning,” says White.

Chefs are also putting the product to good use. Michael Deane (www.michaeldeane.co.uk) has featured citrus and gin cured trout on his various menus. Niall McKenna of James Street South (jamesstreetsouth.co.uk) has used it to cure salmon.

White hopes to find U.S. and E.U. distributors for Jawbox, but for now you will have to pick it up in Northern Ireland. It’s for sale in Belfast at all three Marks & Spencer locations (marksandspencer.com) and most good liquor shops.

14

12 2016

Steak and Guinness Pie a pub standard

Steak and Guinness pie on the table
Pretty much wherever you go in Northern Ireland, chances are good that the pub has steak and Guinness pie on the menu. In recent years, many places have taken to plopping a piece of separately cooked puff pastry on top of the beef stew. This version is deliciously retrograde. It uses a classic butter pastry crust. The dish is traditional but every cook adds a personal touch. This version is adapted from several sources. Don’t be surprised by the inclusion of sharp cheddar cheese. It makes a real difference in the flavor and the crust.

STEAK AND GUINNESS PIE


Steak and Guinness pie servedServes 4

Ingredients


For Stew

4 tablespoons butter, divided
large red onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
8 oz. button mushrooms
2 pounds chuck shoulder or round, cut in bite-sized pieces
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
3 cups (1 1/2 cans) Guinness or other stout
1 teaspoon Gravymaster
6 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese, separated

For Pastry

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) very cold butter, diced
ice water
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

Directions

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

In Dutch oven or cast-iron chicken cooker, heat 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat. Add onions and garlic. Sauté until soft.

Add rest of butter, carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Stirring frequently, cook over medium heat until mushrooms darken and mixture loses its moisture.

Season beef lightly with salt and pepper, then toss with flour. Add meat and rosemary to pan and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often to keep from sticking.

Add sufficient Guinness to submerge the beef and vegetables. Cover pan and place in oven for 2 1/2 hours. Check periodically and stir. If mixture is thin at end of cooking, reduce the liquid on stove top. Fold in half the cheese.

While stew is cooking, start making pastry since it needs to chill for a few hours. Place flour, baking powder, and salt into food processor. Pulse to blend. With motor running, add diced pieces of butter slowly. Process until mixture has the texture of coarse meal. Add ice water, a splash at a time, until a firm dough forms. Remove from food processor and wrap dough in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

When stew is done, spoon into souffle dish that is 2 inches deep and 8-inches in diameter. (An 8×8 baking pan can be substituted.) Sprinkle remaining cheese on top.

Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out to circle about 2 inches broader than circumference of cooking dish. Place dough over the stew and pinch the edges to seal. Make three wide slashes in top to vent. Paint the crust with egg yolk. Place dish on baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes, or until the pastry is puffy and golden.

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12 2016

Pub crawl reveals Cathedral Quarter riches

The Guinness Creation mural in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
After falling on hard times, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has been enjoying boom years of late. The district is named for St. Anne’s, a grand structure of the Church of Ireland though not technically a cathedral since it is not a bishop’s seat. The church anchors the 18th century warehouse district north of the city center. The “cathedral” was erected 1899-1903 as an expression of Belfast’s industrial wealth and power at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Historic Guinness sign in Belfast's Cathedral QuarterThese days the Cathedral Quarter is an area more for fun than the backbreaking labor of teamsters and longshoremen. Its atmospheric warren of narrow streets, alleys, cul-de-sacs, and byways is studded with small shops and pubs. Ancient city walls are splashed with colorful murals (like the Dali-esque Guinness Creation above) and old signage (like the Guinness placard at right) has been preserved as part of Northern Ireland’s cultural heritage. As a result, the Cathedral Quarter has emerged as one of the liveliest parts of Belfast for nightlife. Here are some of the congenial gems where it’s easy to while away an evening with a pint or two.

The Dirty Onion

Peat fire at Dirty Onion in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
Belfast’s oldest timber-framed building was constructed around 1750 as a warehouse. It held bonded spirits from 1921 to 1991. Literally tens of thousands of Jameson whiskey cases passed through “Stack N.” A fair bit is still consumed at The Dirty Onion, which now occupies the old warehouse space. The bar also hosts live traditional music every night and two afternoons a week. Its upstairs sister, Yardbird, serves rotisserie chicken. But on a cold damp night, nothing beats pulling up a chair and a pint to a downstairs fireplace (above). The bar burns traditional peat turf. Its smoke is as sweet as a sip of Scotch whisky.
The Dirty Onion, 3 Hill Street, 28 9024 3712, www.thedirtyonion.com

The Duke of York

Duke of York in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
There’s been a pub at the site of the Duke of York since the mid-18th century, and the collection of antique mirrors, hotel furniture, and woodwork inside attests that the current pub has outlasted many another business in the neighborhood. It’s located on Commercial Court, which is protected by the Commissioners of Public Works under the National Monuments Act. The Duke has an impressive collection of more than 100 Irish whiskeys, many of which ceased production decades ago. For all the high spirits, it’s a bar for the well-behaved. An inscription on the half rail of the exterior sets the tone. It reads, “Come in soberly, drink moderately, depart quietly and come again.”
The Duke of York, 7-11 Commercial Court, 28 9024 1062, dukeofyorkbelfast.com

Muriel’s Cafe Bar

Muriel's Cafe and Bar in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
Located in a former millinery, Muriel’s exudes a certain feminine charm with its ironic displays of bygone women’s fashions and its ever so twee downstairs stage set. (Upstairs is more in line with the masculine, wood-paneled bars of the rest of the neighborhood.) Known as much for its coffee, pastries, afternoon tea, and Sunday brunch as for its alcoholic libations, Muriel’s injects a spritz of whimsy into the historic streets of the Cathedral Quarter.
Muriel’s Cafe Bar, 12-14 Church Lane, 28 9033 2445

Harp Bar

Muriel's Harp Bar in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
The back of the Harp shares the Commercial Court alley with the Duke of York. The pub is nearly as decorous and glamorous, with tufted red leather banquettes in one room, red velvet chairs, and Victorian antiques all about. Glass display cases behind the bar hold a stunning collection of Irish whiskeys, although the rare tipples are not for sale. The building used to be the headquarters and bonded warehouse of The Old Bushmills Distillery Company. Black Bush is the whiskey of choice.
Harp Bar, 35 Hill Street, 28 9032 9923, www.harpbarbelfast.com

John Hewitt

The John Hewitt in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
The John Hewitt has the demeanor of a pub that’s seen at least a century of Belfast imbibers. But the handsome spot only opened in December 1999. It’s a cash generator for the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre. It was named for the late poet, socialist, and community activist who founded the Centre in 1983. With such a sterling left wing pedigree, the bar is hugely popular with poets, musicians, journalists, and artists. The John Hewitt also hosts events for Belfast arts festivals and programs live music most nights. (Wednesday nights are usually devoted to charity fundraisers.)
The John Hewitt, 51 Donegall Street, 28 9023 3768, thejohnhewitt.com

Bert’s Jazz Bar

Bert's Jazz Bar at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
The Merchant Hotel spearheaded the Cathedral Quarter revival when it opened a decade ago. Its fine, polished bar off the lobby remains the model of an Edwardian whiskey bar. But much of the action has shifted in recent years to Bert’s, located downstairs with a separate street entrance. It’s Belfast’s only dedicated jazz bar, programming live music every night from 9 p.m. The bar specializes in Jazz Age cocktails and the kitchen features affordable French bistro fare.
16 Skipper Street, 28 9026 2713, themerchanthotel.com

Sunflower Public House

Exterior of The Sunflower in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
The security cage at the entrance to this disarmingly charming pub on the corner of Kent and Union streets is a remnant of the 1980s, when the Troubles kept everyone wary. Now it’s just a bit of social history that predates half the student and backpacker clientele who flock in for traditional music sessions—or for Gypsy Swing or Hot Jazz on Thursdays. On Tuesday nights, a somewhat more seasoned crowd of ukelele players gathers for a jam. Pipers come on Wednesdays.
Sunflower Public House, 65 Union Street, 028 9023 2474, www.sunflowerbelfast.com
Ukelele jam at The Sunflower in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter

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12 2016