Book review: Bourbon Empire

Those who know me well know that my go-to drink is bourbon. “Take glass, insert whiskey” is my favorite cocktail. I’m hardly a connoisseur, and I don’t consider myself particularly well-educated on the subject. When I heard about Reid Mitenbuler’s Bourbon Empire: The past and future of America’s whiskey, I  thought it sounded like a good way to catch up.

Although the book is an examination of the history of American distillation, it lacks a dispassionate tone. Mitenbuler clearly enjoys bourbon, though he presents both the highs and lows of history. The use of humor in the narrative makes the reading experience more like a conversation over a glass of whiskey than a lecture.

That’s not to say that this book couldn’t be used in a history class. Bourbon did not develop in a vacuum, and Bourbon Empire discusses the effects that law and bourbon have had on each other over the centuries. Prohibition is, of course, the obvious example, but the practices of the whiskey industry were an important part of getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed.

As a first book, Bourbon Empire is an exceptional result. My only complaint is that it ended much too quickly. The stories behind bourbon brands are rarely as interesting as the marketing department would have you believe. Nevertheless, Reid Mitenbuler weaves them together into a complex and enjoyable experience worthy of a terrific bourbon.

Bourbon Empire is published by Viking Penguin and is on sale now.

Homemade pasta sauce

I’m not a foodie. I enjoy food, but I have an unrefined palate. Even so, I do appreciate home-cooked meals. One of my favorite things is making eating homemade pasta sauce. Back in the old days, I’d make it with a can of tomato paste and two cans of tomato sauce. It’s nice, because you can make it come out exactly how you want. The spices meet your mood for that meal.

Then I started going to the Farmers’ Market. As you’d expect, the fresh vegetables are way better. So it was only a matter of time until I started making my sauce from scratch. What I’m sharing here is not a recipe, because I don’t use one. Consider this post a set of guidelines.

The first thing to know is that it takes a great deal of tomatoes. Tomatoes have a high water content, and generally pasta sauce doesn’t. From about 10 pounds of tomatoes, I was able to get about 5 1/2 pints of sauce. Fortunately, tomatoes freeze well, so you can collect them all summer and make a big batch at the end of the year (assuming you have enough space in your freezer). If freezing tomatoes, be sure to give them a chance to thaw a bit so that you don’t freeze your hands off.

The next helpful bit of information: this is a messy process. Whether the tomatoes are fresh or frozen, you will get a lot of liquid all over the counter, and the floor, and your shirt, and so on. One thing that helped when working with previously-frozen tomatoes was to squeeze them out a bit over the sink (just try not to lose any of the flesh). I found a blender is an excellent way to get the tomatoes all chopped up in a quick manner. If your particular blender makes it easy to strain away some of the water, so much the better.

Once the tomato goop goes into the pot, it’s time to boil. Depending on how much liquid you were able to strain off, this step could take a long, long while. Fortunately, this gives you time to chop up whatever you want to add. Peppers, garlic, mushrooms, whatever. Now’s the time. Once that’s done, I add my spices. What and how much I add is dependent on my mood, but brown sugar is an under-appreciated additive (and yes, I know it’s not a spice).

Finally, after what feels like forever, the kitchen is miserably warm and the sauce has finally reached a sauce-like consistency. If you’ve been tasting as you go, that’s the end of the line. If you haven’t you may have some desperate flavor balancing to do (and also you’re probably not human). Once you’re satisfied with the result, you can eat it right away or save it for later. Mason jars are your friend in this case. The sauce freezes well, or if you have a pressure canner, you can can it to save space in your freezer.

Happy eating!

Using up the turkey

My family came up for Thanksgiving this year, and like most American households, we had leftovers.  Of course, most of them were finished off pretty quickly, but what to do with that big turkey carcass?  We decided that finding a use for as much of it as we could appealed to our sense of thrift, our desire to reduce our environmental impact, and our love of homemade.  For decades people boiled turkeys, so how hard could it be, right?

We have a huge stock pot already, so we carved off all the meat we could and then dropped the turkey into a pot full of water.  Some carrots, celery, and onions were added, and then it was time to wait.  And wait.  We boiled it for a few hours, making the whole house smell like turkey.  Then it was time for the hard part.

The most important thing to do when making use of the turkey is to get all of the bones out.  This is a bit of a difficult task because the bones can be pretty small and if you boil the turkey too long, they become soft and are sometimes not immediately distinguishable from more edible parts.  It’s also important to note that you can’t feed the bones to your dog because they could splinter and cause severe injury.

Having never done this before, it took a bit of experimentation to get the process down.  What seemed to work best was to use a slotted spoon to skim off some of the floating pieces of fat.  Once that was skimmed off, I used a ladle to slowly add the stock to Ball jars.  At some point, the meat and vegetables make claiming any more stock difficult, at which point I began putting soup in the jars instead.  Using a fork to sort the bones out, I eventually got to the bottom of the pot.  From this, we got roughly 160 ounces of stock and a large coffee can full of soup, plus enough leftover meat to use in a wild rice soup recipe a few days later.

We let it all sit in the refrigerator overnight to allow the fat to float to the top and congeal.  That was skimmed off with a teaspoon and then we froze what were weren’t going to immediately use.  We may have only saved a few dollars, but we kept a lot of perfectly good meat from going to waste.  Plus, we now have plenty of turkey soup for those days when we just don’t feel like making dinner!

New recipe: veggie roll-up thingies

Since we recently spent a week being vegetarian, I had to stretch my repertoire a bit.  Vegetarian recipes are not something I have much experience with, so I had to wing it. Fortunately, my usual method of cooking involves staring at ingredients until something says “use me!” I present here the recipe that I used one night, which hasn’t received much refinement yet, so use at your own risk.

Veggie roll-up thingies

5 radishes
2-ish carrots
4oz cream cheese
6 leaves of Romaine lettuce
4 asparagus stalks
some dill

Cut the lettuce leaves in half lengthwise (you might just want to cut the …vein, spine, whatever… out so that you can roll it in a few minutes).  Chop the celery and radishes and mix them into the cream cheese. Add the dill and mix some more.  Cut the asparagus into 12 pieces.  Spread the cream cheese mixture on two-thirds of each lettuce leaf.  Place a piece of asparagus on the un-cheesed third of each leaf and roll toward the cheese.  When you’ve rolled all twelve, find three friends and have them join you in eating the roll-ups (or eat the roll-ups alone and miserable for four meals).

My wheat bread recipe

In order to provide more content (and add yet another category to my blog!), I’ve decided to start sharing some of my favorite recipes with my ones of readers when I can.  I enjoy cooking, but sometimes I just make it up as I go.  Other times, I go straight from a recipe from a cookbook or a website. In those cases, it’s not prudent to try to share the recipe.  In this first entry, I’m going to start with a recipe for wheat bread that I got from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and then modified to better suit what I wanted.

I have to admit, I cheat and use a bread maker to do the mixing, kneading and first rise.  That’s more out of laziness than anything else.  Kneading by hand isn’t too hard, and I’ve done it before.  The consistency of the bread does seem better when I use the bread maker, but with more practice I’m sure I’d be better.  The dough for this recipe also tends to be pretty thick, so if your mixer is wimpy, be careful.

Wheat Bread

  • 1¾ cups water
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 to 2½ cups all-purpose flour (divided)
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 package active dry yeast (or 2½ tsp canned yeast)
  1. Add ingredients to bread maker in the order listed. Before adding yeast, make a well in the flour.  Add the yeast into the well.
  2. Start the bread machine on the dough-only setting.  On mine, this takes about an hour and a half and includes mixing, kneading and the first rise.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and divide in half.  Cover and let rest 10 minutes.
  4. Shape dough into loaves and place into greased 8x4x2-inch loaf pans.
  5. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 30-45 minutes.
  6. Bake at 375°F for 30-40 minutes or until bread sounds hollow when lightly tapped.  Immediately remove bread from pans and cool on wire racks.

And that’s all there is to it.  In just a few hours, and with minimal mess, you’ll have your own fresh-baked bread.  If you wrap it up well in plastic and keep it in the refrigerator, a loaf can cast several weeks (a few seconds in the mircowave wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel will warm it right up).  Slice thinly for sandwiches, or use thicker slices for sopping up stews and soups.