November 23, 2015

Do Your Part...Change A Child's Life...and make it a truly thankful Thanksgiving #TeamNKH



We hear it all the time; "Our children are our future." We look down the road, thinking about what will be. Unfortunately, some children can't see past their next meal, let alone focus on hopes and dreams for their futures. They are part of some 15 million kids across America that sometimes don't know when that next meal will even be, and that is just unacceptable in a country that prides itself on helping the world, being the leader in opportunity and leads the world in wealth.

I'm excited for this wonderful organization and welcome all the new faces and helping hands to #TeamNKH. But I want more. We are a nation of 300 million, 46 million of whom are food deficient, 15 million of those, being children. These families sometimes have to choose paying the phone bill, or putting clothes on their children's backs....or food. To me, no one should have to make that choice. So I'm asking you to put your Holiday Spirit on early this year.

As we enter this Holiday Season, you can be the difference! You can be the change! You can help hungry children get the proper nutrition they deserve by getting involved with events or causes that can help feed our kids.

We all love this season, getting together with family and friends for Thanksgiving. You can help give hungry kids that same experience. With just a $49.00 donation, the price of an average Thanksgiving meal, you can provide up to 490 meals for children that may not otherwise enjoy the abundance that this holiday represents. To donate, just go to www.nokidhungry.org and make your Thanksgiving donation now.

Secondly, school breakfast can change lives. Research shows when a child eats breakfast, they do better in math, attend school more often and are more likely to graduate, powering them for a successful future.
Even though breakfast is free to all kids in New York City public schools, less than one-quarter are actually eating the meal that fuels their day. New York City is the largest school district in the country, yet when measured against the nation's other urban districts, it's in last place for feeding hungry kids breakfast. That's not good enough for my city. Click this link: NYC Breakfast, and send your message to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña & New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and be a voice for change.

Next, get baking or attend a Bake Sale for No Kid Hungry, presented by my friends at Domino® Sugar and C&H® Sugar. This is a national fundraising initiative that encourages people like you to host bake sales in your communities or attend one to help end childhood hunger.

Every year, the restaurant industry unites in an extraordinary showing of solidarity to prove we can do more than simply feed people for a living; instead we can feed them for life with September's Dine Out For No Kid Hungry. An end to childhood hunger is within our reach and it's the entire foodservice industry that is leading the way. Restaurants, suppliers, media and trade associations all have strengths to share. Since its launch in 2008, this wonderful initiative has brought together thousands of restaurants and millions of consumers to raise more than $18 million. To find participating restaurants near you, click this link:  DOFNKH and let's make 2015 the best year yet.

Have a blog? Then we want you! Join with me and become a No Kid Hungry Blogger and you can help get the word out and use your voice and words to be a beacon in the night. Just click this link; I want to be a Blogger for NKH and register today.

For the rest of you , I am asking you to step up with me, take the No Kid Hungry Pledge, join the fight against childhood hunger and do whatever it is you can to help. Whether you simply donate, or hold a bake sale, or have a barbecue, is no matter. What does matter is that you do something, because together, we can make sure that we leave No Kid Hungry!

Lou

November 15, 2015

"Making The Perfect Holiday Turkey"

Roasting a turkey during the Holidays can either make or break a successful meal. Like many at home cooks, I have a few horror stories of the days before I became the self proclaimed, "Gourmet Guy." I have also heard stories from others, both friends and family, about such things as leaving the plastic 'chitlins' bag' in the bird, raw and underdone turkeys, to piles of charcoal on a plate. In this installment, I am going to give you some fool proof rules-of-thumb and methods to insure that your Thanksgiving meal comes off as a complete success that will wow your guests. From the Menu Planning, to Proper Seasoning , to how to pick the right turkey, we'll take a look at all the basics.

How big of a turkey should I roast? 
Most importantly, we need to count the amount of guests we will be serving. A good rule of thumb to go by would be:
  • One (1) pound of raw turkey per person which includes a moderate amount for leftovers.
  • 1 1/2 pounds per person, if you have hearty eaters or want ample leftovers.
  • 3/4 pound of whole turkey per person for no leftovers.
To properly thaw the turkey (if frozen), I recommend leaving it in a refrigerator for 4-5 days to slow thaw under a cool temperature. If you are pressed for time, you may place it in a sink or a container in the sink and run cold water over it for a few hours. Once the bird is thawed, you are ready to prepare it for cooking.

Brining (optional)
Not every home cook will go the extra mile at home, but I’ve found that brining your turkey can incorporate a great level of flavor and make your turkey extremely moist. I typically brine most poultry and pork before cooking, and have made several different types of flavored brines. A brine by definition is; a strong solution of water and salt used for pickling or preserving foods. A sweetener such as sugar or molasses is sometimes added. I really enjoy molasses and brown sugar and balance it out with some savory herbs, bay leaves, peppercorns and garlic. Depending on the size of the bird, you can brine a turkey for a few hours, or even let it go overnight. But, it is very important to remember that the brining solution is high in salt and you must adjust and lessen the amount of salt you use in your seasoning when you prepare your turkey for roasting.

Seasoning & Prepping the Bird
The next step can be a lot of fun, as you get to be very creative with seasoning and preparing your turkey. Seasonings offer a great deal of flavor and can be as simple as salt and black pepper, or as elaborate as Cajun spice or a rub consisting of garlic, chilies and dried herbs. Be sure to rub the entire cavity with your seasoning blend of choice, and always lubricate the outside of the skin with oil or butter so the seasonings will adhere and cook into the bird.

*Tip For Crispier Skin
Crisp skin and a moist center is what we all desire when roasting the perfect turkey and I have learned a little trick to enhance the outer skin. Carefully lift the skin up around the bird and slide a few pats of softened butter underneath. Generously rub the outer skin with butter and your seasonings, and let them sink in for about an hour before roasting. Many family recipes include stuffing the bird with all kinds of aromatics or even a traditional bread stuffing. It is totally up to you to decide which way you want to go, but stuffing a turkey's cavity can really enhance the flavor of the meat.

Stuffing
There are two schools of thought when it comes to stuffing; In the Bird (stuffing) and & Out of the Bird (dressing). In my house we make both, or sometimes do a cornbread Oyster dressing (recipe below) as well. In some households, the turkey is stuffed with other birds; a boned chicken is stuffed into a boned duck, which is then stuffed into the turkey. Called a Tur-duck-en, this is actually not a new concept. In ancient Rome, as well as in medieval times, cooks stuffed animals with other animals.

Ten Bird Roast, but there's 12?
A 13th century Andalusian cookbook includes a recipe for a ram stuffed with small birds. A similar recipe for a camel stuffed with sheep stuffed with bustards stuffed with carp stuffed with eggs is also mentioned in T.C. Boyle's book Water Music. British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall makes an incredible ten-bird roast, calling it "one of the most spectacular and delicious roasts you can lay before your loved ones." A large turkey is stuffed with a goose, duck, mallard, guinea fowl, chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon and woodcock. The roast feeds around 30 people and also includes stuffing made from two pounds of sausage meat and half a pound of streaky bacon along with sage, port and red wine. Wow, now that truly is a mouthful!

Turkey stuffing usually consists of bread crumbs or cubes, dried bread, with onion, celery, salt, pepper, and other spices and herbs such as sage, or a mixture like poultry seasoning. In some cases, sausage or oysters are added as well. The term stuffing usually applies to the mixture when it is placed into the bird, while dressing is usually used when cooked outside. If you want to add a little sweetness to the turkey, stuff the cavity with some apples and raisins. If you are looking for something more savory and herbaceous, try adding rosemary and thyme with a little garlic and onion. For our purposes here, and since I am the Gourmet Guy, we'll just stick to a traditional Oyster Stuffing.

Recipe 
Makes 14 cups
Ingredients
1 3/4 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup salted butter
5 cups crumbled cornbread
1 pound bulk pork sausage, rendered and drained of fat (optional)
Turkey giblets, cooked and chopped (optional)
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
3 stalks celery, diced (if you do not like cooked celery, as I do not, you can substitute a teaspoon of celery salt, but adjust your salt amount accordingly)
2 eggs
1 pint shucked oysters, drained, or more if desired (reserve the oyster liquor, should be about a 1/4 of a cup)
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon paprika
Ground black pepper to taste

Method 
In a skillet, saute the celery & onions in butter until translucent. Remove. In the same pan, saute the sausage until just about done, but don't overcook. Drain.

In a large bowl combine the crumbled cornbread, cooked celery, cooked onions, cooked giblets, cooked sausage, oysters, parsley, salt, pepper, paprika, dried sage. Mix well.
Beat the 2 eggs. Add the eggs and chicken stock and oyster liquor to the stuffing mixture and thoroughly incorporate. 
In the bird:
Stuff the bird's cavity. Remove stuffing promptly once bird is cooked. 
Out of the bird:
Bake the stuffing in a large casserole dish in a preheated 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) oven approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes. 

Roasting Your Turkey
So, now that we are ready to roast, how do I know how long it should cook for, and how high the temperature should be? USDA says that a turkey should not roast under 325 degrees Fahrenheit, so that’s a fair starting point. Approximate cooking times for an unstuffed turkey are as follows: (it is around 20 to 30 minutes per pound) 
  • 10 - 18 lb bird 3 to 3 ½ hrs
  • 19 – 22 lb bird 3 ½ to 4 hrs
  • 22 – 24 lb bird 4 to 4 ½ hrs
  • 24 – 29 lb bird 4 ½ to 5 hrs
One helpful hint to achieving a nice golden skin, is to start the "searing" process by cooking it in a 400 - 425 degree oven for 10-15 minutes (depending on the size) to start the browning process (sugars begin to caramelize), then lower the temperature to 325 degrees and slow roast for the appropriate time. Basting is another way to impart even browning and to distribute some of those great flavorful juices. You may baste with the juices found in the bottom of the pan, or use some type of fat. Also popular, is to baste with another flavorful liquid, for example a brown stock fortified with apple cider vinegar and herbs. If the bird begins to brown too much, you may cover it with aluminum foil until it has reached doneness, and then finish for the last few minutes uncovered. Be careful not to cover the bird entirely, as you don’t want to steam the turkey.

How do I know if my bird is done? The USDA recommends that the turkey be cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees as measured in the innermost part of the thigh. If the thigh is 165 degrees, the breast meat is likely to be 10 degrees hotter. Many cooks would tell you that a turkey roasted to those temperatures is overdone and would taste unacceptably dry. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness, try not to rely on those "pop up timers" that come with most turkeys. You can also prick the leg joint with a fork, and if the juices run just slightly pink or clear, the turkey is done.

To test the accuracy of your instant read thermometer, insert the tip about 2 inches deep into boiling water. At sea level it should register 212 degrees F. If it does not, replace it; or if it has a calibration device, reset it for accuracy. Nobody wants an overcooked bird, so start checking your bird about 3/4's of the way through the total recommended cooking time.

Gravy
Time to make the gravy!  On the stove top, use the same pan that you roasted this delicious turkey in. The drippings and leftover fat and liquid are going to make this gravy a very tasty one. I like to use a ratio of 1 Tablespoon of fat to 1 Tablespoon of flour to create a "roux" that will thicken my gravy. You can use chicken or turkey stock, or even just deglaze with sherry or white wine and add water. Just be sure to cook out the flour so it doesn’t leave a raw taste to the gravy. Season with salt pepper to taste.

Lou's Traditional Cranberry Sauce

Ingredients
12 oz Cranberries, Fresh Frozen
1 3/4 Cups Water
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Cup Light Brown Sugar
2 Cup Orange Juice
1 Tbl Orange Zest, Chopped
1 tsp Ground Ginger
1/2 Cinnamon Stick


Method:
Place all ingredients in a sauce-pot, except the cranberries and bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, add the cranberries to the liquid. reduce heat to medium. Cook for approximately 5 minutes until all of the cranberries have "popped". Remove the cinnamon stick, and cool. The liquid will be loose and will thicken once it cools.

Turkey is done, gravy is ready and now it's time to roll out all the fix-ins. Cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie, cornbread stuffing, yams, green beans, creamed onions, apple and pecan pie are just some of my favorites! Try something new this year and let me know how it comes out! We all have a lot to be thankful for and I am very blessed with such wonderful family and friends. God Bless and Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t forget to save me some leftovers!

Bon Appetit,

Lou
Sources: http://www.originalcookware.co.uk/ mccormick.com, usda.gov

October 29, 2015

Did you know Lox & Gravlax are NOT the same? Well now you do and here's a recipe to make your own Lox.

If you have grown up in a Jewish or Scandinavian household, the tale I am about to tell is a part of your heritage. If not, fellow foodie, "just sit right back and you'll hear a tale..the tale of a fateful........salmon fillet!" Come with me on a journey to discover Lox, and, the common misconceptions that have been foisted on an unsuspecting public, even by supposed culinary luminaries. That, my friends, is why it's a good thing I am here for you; to diligently give you culinary info that is both factual and entertaining. (if I may say so myself.)
First let's start with the definitions. We have Lox, Gravlox, Nova Lox. All share one commonality but, as some of you may not be be aware, they are completely separate and different products.

Lox
Lox is salmon fillet that has been cured. In its most popular form, the one most of us are familiar with, it is thinly sliced, less than 5 millimeters (0.20 in) in thickness and typically served on a bagel with cream cheese, onion, tomato, cucumber and capers. It is traditionally made by brining in a solution of water or oil, salt, sugars and spices (the brine). This was a very important item in Ashkenazic Jewish cuisine, but most are surprised that it was actually introduced to the United States through Scandinavian immigrants, then popularized by Jewish immigrants. The term lox derives from Lachs in German and לאקס (laks) in Yiddish, meaning "salmon." It is analogous of the Icelandic and Swedish lax, the Danish and Norwegian laks, and Old English læx. It may be commonly referred to as regular lox or belly lox, though technically, with belly lox, the flesh on both sides of the stomach of the salmon has a wider graining of fat, is less salty tasting and is more desirable and accordingly, more expensive. Below is a recipe to make your own Lox, which is absolutely fabulous and worth the effort, especially if you are a lox lover.

Gravlax
Gavlax, or gravad lax is a Nordic dish consisting of salmon, cured in salt, sugar, and dill. Gravlax is usually served as an appetizer, sliced thinly and accompanied by hovmästarsås (also known as gravlaxsås), a dill and mustard sauce. It is served on either bread of some kind, or with boiled potatoes. In the Middle Ages, it was originally made by fishermen. They would salt the salmon, then bury it in the sand above the high-tide line. The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which literally means "grave" or "to dig" (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and Estonian), and lax (or laks), means "salmon." Thus, gravlax literally means "buried salmon." Today, the salmon is coated with a spice mixture, which often includes dill, sugars, salt, and spices like juniper berry. It is then weighted down, which helps to to force the moisture from the fish (see recipe below) and impart the flavorings.

Nova Lox
Nova or Nova Scotia salmon, sometimes called Nova lox (or simply "Nova"), is cured with a milder brine and then cold-smoked. The name dates from a time when much of the salmon in New York City came from Nova Scotia. Today, however, the name refers to the more mildly brined product, and the fish may come from other waters or in some cases is raised on farms.

Smoked Salmon
Finally, smoked salmon is NOT lox, though products are sold under the name lox. Smoked salmon is just... well... smoked salmon.

I hope this clears up any misconceptions.While I may be being a bit, nitpicky (if there is such a word), you all know I like my readers to be the best informed foodie at the party, or in this case, brunch. Never let it be said that The Gourmet Guy left you with a schmear on your face.

Recipe for making your own Lox
Ingredients
1~2.5 to 3lb. salmon fillet (I prefer to use a skinless fillet, but if you prefer a less salty version, leave the skin on and remove after brining.)
1 cup Kosher salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
The juice and zest of 1 lemon
The juice and zest of 1 lime

You'll need:
A 15" x 10" x .3/4" cookie sheet. Enough parchment paper to fully wrap the salmon. Tin foil. Something to weigh down the fillet. I use 3 large, 35.0z. cans of tomatoes. You can use bricks wrapped in foil or anything heavy enough to press down the fillet.

Method
~Combine salt and sugar and divide in half.
~Zest lemon, zest lime and combine with the juice from both. Set aside.
~On the parchment paper, spread out 1/2 the sugar/salt mixture and spread evenly to allow salmon to rest completely on mixture.
~Place salmon on salt/sugar mixture and completely cover with the lemon/lime mixture.
~Add the remaining salt/sugar mixture and press into salmon, covering completely.
~Wrap the salmon in the parchment paper, making sure it is sealed and covers the salmon completely.
~Wrap the entire fillet with tin foil, being careful that the foil at no time touches any part of the salmon.
~Place on the cookie sheet, place weights on top and refrigerate for 48 hours.
~Once you remove the salmon, wash under cold water thoroughly to remove brine mixture. Portion in 6-8 oz. portions, seal in freezer bag and use as needed  Slice very thin and enjoy!!

As always, Bon Appetit!

Lou

October 05, 2015

Cassoulet....a dish of the people...

It is one of the classic dishes of the Languedoc and the whole of France. One legend places the birth of cassoulet during the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1355. The townspeople gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron to nourish and bolster their defenders. The meal was so hearty and fortifying that the soldiers handily fought off the invaders, saving the city from occupation. While this is probably not the actual way it went down regrading the origin of cassoulet, one never knows and what is certain, is the importance of the dish as the symbolic defender of French culture.

But since then, several cities have laid claim to the true recipe. In an effort to quell a growing dispute and in a conciliatory gesture, chef Prosper Montagné decreed in 1929, " Le Cassoulet est le dieu de la cuisine occitane. Un Dieu en trois personnes: Dieu le père est celui de Castelnaudary, Dieu le fils est celui de Carcassonne et le Saint-Esprit qui est celui de Toulouse." ("God the father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse."), making sure all three recipe versions were recognized as equal. Now that's village pride. Over a bean stew.

Andre Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony says, “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages.” Much like chili cook-offs in Texas, cassoulet cooking competitions are held, not only in France, but now even in the United States as well.

Julia Child once quipped, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.” And finally, Anatole France claimed that the cassoulet at his favorite restaurant had been bubbling away for twenty years!

While this recipe won't take quite as long as Anatole's, this does require a good amount of time if you truly want to do it right. This is a hearty and great alternative to plain old stew and can be a great way to use up all those leftovers by simply adding some fresh ingredients and some extra TLC in the kitchen. And duck. To me, really great cassoulet has to have duck, but everyone's palate is different. Some really rustic and kicked up versions include rabbit and they are some of the best I have ever tasted as well. This dish requires a little more attention than most , but the outcome is well worth it. Especially if you have the duck.....

Elaine's Rustic Cassoulet
courtesy of Elaine Giammetta
Ingredients
1/2 lb bacon, cubed
1-15 oz can white kidney beans
1-15 oz can pinto beans
1 large Spanish onion, diced
10 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 lb ground pork
1/4 lb shredded duck confit
1 T dried parsley
2 T dried thyme leaf
1 T rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 t rubbed sage
1/4 to 1/2 c sherry (I use dry)
2-3 qts water (enough to cover all ingredients )
salt and pepper
fresh parsley

Method
In a slow cooker, or large heavy bottomed pot, spread the bacon cubes, evenly over the bottom of the pan. This will be the first layer. Drain and rinse the beans.

Mix beans, onion and garlic together and spread over the bacon creating the second layer. Crumble the ground pork and duck over the beans. This is the third layer.

Mix all the herbs together (except the bay leaf) and sprinkle over the meat. Add water and sherry making sure all the ingredients are covered. This is important, so to ensure proper cooking.

Add the bay leaf. Set temperature on very low and cook 6-8 hours or overnight if possible. If you are using a traditional pot, bring to a boil and then lower temperature and simmer on very low for 6-8 hours. After cooking is complete, gently stir in chopped parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.

Plating
Ladle into a bowl and top with a sprig of parsley. Serve with a warm baguette and a hearty glass of red wine. I chose a nice peppery Malbec. I hope you enjoy it.

Bon Appetit!

Lou
Sources:  en.wikipedia.org

August 11, 2015

Up Close & Personal with Food Network's Duff Goldman

Certain people have an inimitable style. Their uniqueness sets them apart from the pack and always calls our attention to them. Such is the case with Duff Goldman. His infectious laugh, his love of life and his cherub-like smile have captivated audiences and Food Network fans now for over a decade. He is incredibly funny and we had a blast doing this Up Close. With his first show Ace of Cakes we tagged along as he and his crew made incredible cakes, from the famed full sized Nascar car to his intricate full sized Star Wars R2D2. We fans of the show tuned in each week for not just the cakes, but the fun. Duff and his friends at Charm City Cakes took us on a sometimes hilarious ride while they created masterpieces and as we got to know them, they became part of our weekly fabric for over 9 seasons. Now with hit shows Kids Baking Championships and Holiday Baking Championships he is back on our TV sets, bringing us not only his incredible wit, but his baking expertise as well. As you know, if you are a fan and follower of these Up Close & Personals, they are just that for me as well. This series satisfies my need to
know more about those personalities that I enjoy and admire. In turn, I get to bring you in as a fly on the wall to sit with the guest of the moment and maybe get to know them a bit better, understanding the person behind the persona. I truly enjoy doing them as much as I hope you enjoy reading them. So without further ado, let's get Up Close & Personal with Geoffrey Adam "Duff" Goldman.

Goldman was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1974 to a Jewish family. He moved shortly thereafter to Missouri. Goldman's nickname Duff came about when he was a baby. His toddler brother was unable to pronounce the name and kept saying Duffy instead of Geoffrey. When he was four, his mother caught him in her kitchen wielding a meat cleaver and watching food personality Chef Tell. I asked him expand a bit about his childhood and its influence on his culinary career. "My mom was a great cook," he explained, "dinner was every night, the same time, at the dinner table. Food was an important part of our house and an important part of our religion. Growing up Jewish, every holiday surrounds itself around food. Food is a very central thing and it's not just that there is just a meal tied to each celebration, but conversely, it's the celebration that's tied to that specific meal. It never seemed though, that food was overly important in our family, it just was what it was, an intrinsic part of our lives." I mentioned that I could relate because as an Italian the heart of our house was the kitchen. He chimed in. "Yeah yeah, it's like every time the family would get together at our house, we'd all be in the kitchen while my mom was trying to cook."

Duff and his Mom
"The whole thing with the cleaver and Chef Tell, that's completely true, but when they do the 'bio of Duff Goldman,' there is not gonna be this scene where this little four year old is in the kitchen saying, 'I knew I wanted to be a chef since I was little.' There are plenty of celebrity chefs who have that story," he laughed. Folks I can relate to hearing those long winded statements like 'I was in the cradle and one day while drinking my bottle I realized that cooking would be my life.' He continued, "When I was three years old I wanted to be a fireman, like all the other 3 year olds. Sometimes I hate telling people, 'No, I didn't start baking until I was in college.'"

Duff, his Mom and Brother
After the divorce of his parents when he was ten, Goldman spent time living in both in Northern Virginia and then in the town of Sandwich on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1992, Goldman attended McLean High School in McLean, Virginia where he played for the Highlanders. In 1993, he graduated from Sandwich High School in Sandwich. At the age of fourteen, he began to work in kitchens; one of his first jobs was at a bagel store at a mall, where the story is that he was almost fired for making the sandwiches too big. He tells the true story, "This shop you could get all these different sandwiches on a bagel, tuna salad, ham and cheese, turkey etc.. You pick your bagel, you pick your sandwich, that was the concept. The way that they would do it was, they made it idiot proof." He explained, "They would pre weigh out the sandwich meat, but it was so small I would use three of them and they were not happy about that. The thing that actually almost got me fired though was this couple that came to the counter and I was there by myself. They ordered a Coke. I tried to work the register but couldn't get it open so I told them 'Here just take it.' The manager saw it and was like 'What are you doing? You just stole from the company!' Duff laughed, "I think it cost them all of $0.04 cents. So I got taken to the woodshed and they put me on mopping duty and I became a professional mopper. Actually I love mopping." Now there's something not everybody knows about Duff!

Chef Cindy Wolf
Goldman has said that when he was a sophomore in college, he went to what he considered the finest restaurant in Baltimore, named Charleston, with head chef, Cindy Wolf to apply for a job. He offered why. "There was this really cute girl in one of my archaeology classes, " he giggled. "Turns out she worked at this restaurant and she told me I should come work there and so I applied as a chef...cause you know...I had all this experience from cheffing at that bagel store, McDonald's, the sandwich shop making breakfast, etc." He smirked, "So I brought my resume in and Cindy looked at it and said, 'Um, you don't know how to cook!' I argued, 'Come on of course I do, I can make 12 Big Macs in a minute!" However, Cindy did offer him a job making cornbread and biscuits and this is what Goldman cites as the turning point in his career. He continued, "I took the job and that's what I did. Every single day.... cornbread and biscuits. Slowly but surely, the other cooks realized that I wanted to learn so they would show me how to do their grunt work. They asked, 'Can you brunoise (finely cube) a tomato?' I said, 'I don't know what that is.' So they would show me. Each day they would teach me how to do something else and what happened was, I started learning." Duff started to help out at each station, doing certain chores. I paused and asked him, "Isn't there a name for a chef that does all that in the kitchen?'' and he answered immediately, "Yea....bitch!"

"I was even the dishwasher's bitch," he laughed, "but here's the funny thing. They could prep man. The dishwashers were the ones that actually taught me knife skills. It wasn't some Japanese institute of knife skills, it was these Salvadorian dishwashers. It was exactly what I needed. I learned so much from these guys and that's where I realized what Cindy was talking about when she initially told me 'you need to go work somewhere else to learn, then come here.'"

"It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a pastry chef," he continued, "I worked with a pastry chef at Cindy's restaurant and ended up doing all the prep and he would simply come in and assemble all my prep. I liked how really ordered that baking and pastry was. I liked the exactitude. I was good in math and I could actually do geometry in my head. I love to make bread for instance. It's very exact yet very loose at the same time. You have to adapt for humidity and temperature. If I come back, I'm coming back as a bread maker.

Duff went on to work at several acclaimed culinary destinations, including the French Laundry, the Vail Cascade Hotel and Todd English's Olives before returning to Baltimore in 2000 to become a personal chef. He expanded on his French Laundry experience working under Chef Stephen Durfee. "Durfee is the man," he offered. "The thing that makes him such an amazing pastry chef is that he started out savory and he approaches pastry from a flavor aspect. Many times I've seen pastry chefs that deliver in terms of flawless execution, but they fall short when you actually taste what they've made. With Durfee, he taught me to think about all the raw ingredients before you ever assemble them into something. As an example," he continued, "one time we were making a honeydew sorbet. We pureed then strained them, to have basically honeydew water. He then had me taste it and yes, it tasted like honeydew. Next he had me add a touch of salt and a bit of lemon juice and taste it again. We had reserved a bit of the plain honeydew water and he had me taste first the plain, then the one with salt and lemon juice. The second honeydew water was like a honeydew punch in the face. That was a huge lesson for me. He is a master of technique, but he truly cooks from the heart and it changed the way I approach being a pastry chef." I asked him what is was like working there and he answered, "Very tough kitchen. You had to be perfect 100% of the time. Not in a way that is militant. You walk in and and it's just in the DNA of that place that you have to be super focused. In the moment. Once you walk in it's all about the food. It's about passion for the food in a real way, not the mundane, foodie use of the word passion."

I then switched gears and asked him to compare that to working with Todd English. He laughed, "Todd is an incredible chef. I love watching Todd cook and he's hysterical. It's like a good old boys club. In the kitchen away from the cameras, watching Todd is an amazing experience. He doesn't talk much but his facial expressions are priceless. The way he moves, like when he tastes something; he gets very quiet, there's a lot going on in there and the world disappears. He would run it through his little Todd English computer and figure out what to do. That was a fun kitchen. Clay Conley was the Sous when I worked there. Hands down Clay is the best line cook I have ever seen!"

We jumped to Charm City Cakes and Ace of Cakes. It was through Duff's love of music while a personal chef in DC, that Charm City Cakes came to be. Duff is a bass player and quit cheffing for a time to play music full time while he continued to make cakes out of his apartment to actually pay the rent. "The only reason I started baking cakes was to actually fund my music career. Then my friend from college Jeff, also an incredible musician, was working as an architectural model builder. He called me one day and said, 'I can't do this anymore, can I come and make cakes?' I was like sure. And we actually started making money. I had a few more friends call and I started hiring all my friends.

This was a nice way that we could all make a living and still play music. It finally grew so large we had to actually get a place, which became Charm City Cakes. A lot of folks don't realize but all through filming Ace of Cakes we were all still touring, gigging and playing music. That's the only reason we started this in the first place. Not to get rich, be on TV or make a lot of money. We did it to pay our bills so we could keep playing," he laughed.

He explained how Ace of Cakes came to be. "I was in a cake contest for Bon Appetit out in Colorado. Not televised or anything. But, I brought an arc welder with me. Got lots of weird looks from the judges. I made this cake, it was awesome. But I broke every rule of the competition," he laughed. "I even lit the table on fire at one point. I lost, because I lose every competition I'm in for some reason, but it was really funny watching me. Colette Peters, who was one of the judges, went back to Food Network and told them 'There's this guy, he's a complete lunatic he's crazy and he made a really cool cake but he's insane."
So Food Network called us up, this is when they were doing all those cake competition shows, and they asked if we wanted to compete. So we go to this competition in Seal Island Georgia, The Spooky Halloween Cake and Candy Competition. We go to Georgia," he continued, "and we meet all the contestants and everyone is nervous and practicing. Jeff and I, on the other hand, went and shot shotguns at a skeet range. And the film crew came with us. When the episode came out, they showed all the other contestants practicing and then me and Jeff shooting. It was hysterical. What attracted them was how relaxed we were. We weren't with the sob story like 'Oh, I need to win this money for that operation I wanted,' like you always hear contestants saying. We told them if we won I was going to take my staff to Mexico to party."

We cut to present day and his resurgence on Food Network and his new shows. Fans of Duff can find him on Holiday Baking Championship, Spring Baking Championship and with Valerie Bertinelli, he hosts and judges Kids Baking Championship. In addition to the Kids show with Bertinelli I asked him why he is attracted to working with kids. Duff is very involved with No Kid Hungry and the Make-a-Wish organizations. "I don't know," he answered, "adults have really screwed up the world. I think
it's because kids still really see the world as a beautiful, wonderful place to be. I believe they need to eat well and have art and creativity as a part of their lives. Make-a-Wish is really important, not just for the kids but for their families too. They are going through this really tough time and whenever I do a Make-a-Wish, I try to include the entire family. I've noticed it's not about the celebrity either. Most of these kids that call and say 'I want to make a cake with Duff,' simply really do want to make a cake. And that's what we we do. We bring them in and we make a cake together. I think the families really appreciate their son, daughter or brother or sister being treated just like any other kid."

Duff has a new book "Duff Bakes" coming out in November and we touched on that briefly. "It's cool," he offered, "it's everything, bread, cookies, pies, cakes, muffins. It's a comprehensive baking book, all about how I think about food and how to bake. I basically tried to demystify everything. I meet people almost everyday who tell me 'I love to cook but I just don't get baking.' People, I think, are scared of baking because a lot of bakers talk about baking in such scary terms, the science and how exacting it is. I just try to let people have fun actually baking and not worry about the science portion of it. I try to explain it in English they understand. I just want people to actually do it. I've been baking half my life now and it's still magic when you put something in the oven and it changes and comes out this whole other thing. There is something beautiful about that. I hope this just helps folks actually bake."

As a fan of Duffs since he first hit TV, this was really fun for me. He is a caring, very funny guy and you definitely get what you see. I guess the best way I could describe him: genuine. He hinted at something exciting coming up with Food Network, so you'll have to stay tuned for that and he also surprised me by mentioning that a new cookbook about soup was in the works. See, there it is right there, one of the things I love about Duff; he's always experimenting, always looking for new adventures and always bringing us new surprises. I hope you enjoyed this Up Close with Duff. I know I did.

To connect with Duff, you can follow him on his social platforms here: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and visit his websites, Charm City Cakes and Duff Goldman. Look for his new book out this fall and as always you can see him on his many appearances on Food Network.

Till next time, Bon Appetit,
Lou

August 03, 2015

Dinner in the Garden...a special moment in time.


There are moments when it truly dawns on me how lucky I am to do what I do. A while ago, I attended a 'Dinner in the Garden" and it was a smashing success. What a spectacular setting for a five star wine dinner. On tap for the evening was an intimate line up of some stellar chefs, who wowed us with fresh, hours, if not minutes before picked, produce and sustainable organic ingredients, delivering a meal that was an experience to remember.

With a backdrop of rows of fresh greens and herbs, it wasn't just the jazz trio sending out smooth cool vibes across the field, or the perfect weather the evening produced. It wasn't the sunset, bathing the greenhouse and guests with warm sunshine, or the guests dressed for an evening in the field, mingling, picking and tasting fresh herbs. It wasn't even the spectacular meal, served in fine style by a bow-tied waitstaff. Nor was it the seeing of friends and sharing a glass of bubbly. Now I realized as I stood in the midst of the garden, wine glass in hand, having stopped to take in the scene before me, that it was all those things combined together at this one place and time that had created what was almost a perfect experience. One of those unforgettable culinary moments that we foodies live for.

My gift on this evening, aside from spending quality time with good friends in such a wonderful setting, was that somehow fate had allowed me to glimpse the uniqueness of the moment and see it while I was in it. You know what I mean, one of those moments in time that we usually say to ourselves in hindsight, "I wish I was aware at the time how special that moment was." Too often we are so busy looking ahead to the next thing on our schedule that we forget to take the time to appreciate the 'moment' when it happens.

Friends, if you have been reading me for any length of time, you know that life has thrown me some curves, as I'm sure it has you as well. While I am no expert and can't tell you what to do, I can give my advice at what not to do. For all our planning, stressing and worrying about what the future may bring, I have learned one thing; no one is promised tomorrow. Don't miss the moment you are in. This very moment. You see, I'm sure all of you, like me. have too many times taken our adventures and our experiences for granted. Make sure you are cognizant of that special moment, in that special place, with someone, or a group of someones, sharing a meal and making memories.

I have concentrated my world around social cuisine because I am very fortunate to have a friend who opened my eyes to what a common denominator food truly is to human relationships. I believe it is the unifier that binds us all. Sharing a meal with friends is so much more than just eating great food and enjoying fine wine. Somehow, a shared meal is the perfect vehicle for a connection between friends, family, or even strangers. It is why I am so passionate and fortunate to share my culinary journeys with you. I'm sure all of us can remember times, when dining, that you've engaged perfect strangers in conversation. See, it seems no matter our ethnic or cultural differences, we all remember the dumplings our moms made. Or that special dessert. Or simply the act of sitting at a table with those you care about, sharing a meal. It is a truly powerful experience. Social, yet intimate all at once.

Throughout history, throughout cultures, the meal is the one constant that opens the discourse, bridges the gap, connecting rather than dividing us. The dinner table is where treaties were written, alliances made, scholarly discourse engaged in. Ideas that changed the world, in most cases, happened at a dinner table, or at a campfire, over a meal. For most now though, eating has become just a means of sustenance. Fuel. In the busy scurry of life, sometimes we forget what a meal with family and friends can do for us, both spiritually and emotionally.

Don't you love meeting a friend for coffee, or a bite for lunch, or dinner. We look forward to it. We text what time and where we are and we always feel better for it. We share pictures of our meals on twitter, facebook, and YouTube... food is the one thing we all share equally. Look around, see all those people on cell phones, trying to stay 'connected?' How connected do you feel when you share a meal with someone? For those of us that are fortunate enough to realize this, sitting at the dinner table with friends and loved ones has never been about the act of eating. Whether fine dining or casual, it is never about what we were eating. It was where and with whom. That is always first and foremost.

As a self titled gourmet, as my palette has become more sophisticated, I'll admit, I now care very much what I'm eating, especially with friends. However, I'm comfortable in the fact that my predilection for fine, or simple quality cuisine just makes the social act of sharing a meal more enjoyable and meaningful. So, the next time you want to connect, re-connect, apologize, congratulate, or just shoot the breeze, do it over a meal. Life becomes so much more civil with shared experiences. And make sure you don't miss the moment. Revel in the laughter, the camaraderie, the connection. Look around the table, realize and appreciate those you are sharing that moment with and know, this moment actually is special.

As always, Bon Appetit

Lou

July 30, 2015

Dining Out For a Cause....No Kid Hungry

Don't you love meeting a friend for coffee, or a bite for lunch, or dinner. We look forward to it. We text what time and where we are and we always feel better for it. We share pictures of our meals on twitter, facebook, and YouTube... food is the one thing we all share equally. Look around, see all those people on cell phones, trying to stay 'connected?' How connected do you feel when you share a meal with someone? For those of us that are fortunate enough to realize this, sitting at the dinner table with friends and loved ones has never been about the act of eating. Whether fine dining or casual, it is never about what we were eating. It was where and with whom. That is always first and foremost.

Well how about dining out and making it count? Throughout history, throughout cultures, the meal is the one constant that opens the discourse, bridges the gap, connecting rather than dividing us. The dinner table is where treaties were written, alliances made, scholarly discourse engaged in. Ideas that changed the world, in most cases, happened at a dinner table, or at a campfire, over a meal. For most now though, eating has become just a means of sustenance. Fuel. In the busy scurry of life, sometimes we forget what a meal with family and friends can do for us, both spiritually and emotionally. Think about the fact that there are children out there that not only can't dine out, but actually can't get a good, healthy meal at home.


Well this September, you can do something about it. No Kid Hungry is ending childhood hunger by connecting kids to effective nutrition programs like school breakfast and summer meals. This work is accomplished through the No Kid Hungry network, made up of private citizens, government officials,nonprofit organizations, business leaders, and others providing innovative hunger solutions in their communities. These partners work together, implementing solutions that break down the barriers that keep kids from healthy food. End childhood hunger in your community by dining out this September.

Every year, the restaurant industry unites in an extraordinary showing of solidarity to prove we can do more than simply feed people for a living; instead we can feed them for life. An end to childhood hunger is within our reach and it's the entire foodservice industry that is leading the way. Restaurants, suppliers, media and trade associations all have strengths to share.

To find a participating restaurant in your community, click this link; http://dineout.nokidhungry.org/, make a reservation and make sure your next meal counts for something greater than just a night out on the town. You'll be glad you did....and so will our kids. Together we can make sure that we leave No Kid Hungry.

As always, Bon Apetit

Lou

July 24, 2015

Tequila; A Comprehensive Look...

Now, those who know me are well aware of my love for tequila. I do not drink tequila often, but when out socializing, it is my drink of choice and I probably drink it more than most. That is, of course, unless you are still in Mr. or Ms. Party Mode and are the "Hey let's do shots!" type. Been there...done that. You'll get over it. Fortunately for me, I have developed a resistance to tequila's inebriation effects and seem to be able to consume it without damaging brain cells. Well, ok, that is at least a factual statement ever since I decided to start acting like a grown up in public. Look, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

At this stage in my life I have become a fan of the taste of tequila and the only true way (for me) to enjoy that aspect of tequila is to sip it, in the same way one might sip a brandy, or a cognac. Shots, on the other hand are for enjoying the effects of tequila. Far be it from me to tell you what you should or should not derive from your personal interaction with this ancient elixir. To each his own. If you see me out, please don't challenge me to a shot contest. I said, "acting like a grown up, it doesn't mean I am one.

Whatever your fascination with tequila, I will explore every angle, from the agave plant, its history, cultivation and processing, all the way through to the finished distilled product. I will even give you step by step instructions on doing your own tequila tasting. Tomas Estes suggests that a champagne flute or any wine glass that is closed ended, or fluted at the top, will work. Not a shot glass!!! So without further ado, let's begin.

Agave
Say the word agave and most people automatically think, tequila. While technically correct, there are actually three distinct types of a plant named agave. The most familiar to all is the acclaimed Agave Azul, or Blue Agave, which, yes folks, indeed makes tequila and is the variety we will be focusing on today.

Chiefly Mexican, agaves occur also in the southern and western United States and in central and tropical South America. The plants have a large rosette of thick fleshy leaves, each ending generally in a sharp point and with a spiny margin; the stout stem is usually short, the leaves apparently springing from the root. Along with plants from the related genus Yucca, various agave species are popular ornamental plants. Each rosette is monocarpic and grows slowly to flower only once. During flowering, a tall stem or "mast" grows from the center of the leaf rosette and bears a large number of short tubular flowers. After development of fruit the original plant dies, but suckers are frequently produced from the base of the stem which become new plants (pups). It is a common misconception that agaves are cacti. They are actually closely related to the lily and amaryllis families, and are not related to cacti at all.

The agave plant plays a much larger role than just being the source of an alcoholic drink. Its leaves are harvested for a hemp-like fiber that is used for mats, clothing, rope and paper. It was also the source of the nutrient and vitamin rich brew, pulque. The plant was aptly described as "el arbol de las maravillas" - the tree of marvels - in a 1596 history of the Indians of Central America. The agave plant has been part of human culture almost since the continent was first colonized and is still used for its fiber. Human remains dating back at least 9,000 years (some ethnobotanists say 11,000) show the early uses of agave. Here is a brief snapshot of three types so you can amaze your friends with your knowledge of obscure facts.

Agave Americana
One of the most familiar species is Agave Americana, a native of tropical America. Common names include Century Plant, Maguey (in Mexico), or American Aloe (it is not, however, related to the genus Aloe). The name "Century Plant" refers to the long time the plant takes to flower, although the number of years before flowering occurs depends on the vigor of the individual plant, as well as the richness of the soil and climate. During these years the plant is storing in its fleshy leaves the nourishment it will need for the effort of flowering.

Agave Attenuata
A native of central Mexico, it is uncommon in its natural habitat. Unlike most species of agave, it has a a curved flower spike from which it derives one of its numerous common names - the Foxtail Agave. It is also commonly grown as a garden plant. Unlike many agaves, it has no teeth or terminal spines making it an ideal plant for areas adjacent to footpaths. Like all agaves it is a succulent and requires little water or maintenance once established.

Agave Azul
It has a lifespan of 8-14 years, depending on soil, climate and cultivation methods, and will be harvested at between 8 and 10 years.That's about 3,000 days before the harvest, a long time to wait. A farmer who plants a one-year-old shoot (hijuelo) today, in 2012, won't even harvest it for tequila until at least 2021, and maybe as late as 2022. Then, if it's aged at all, it could take another one to five years before it appears on the shelf - 2023 to 2027. An agave is a one-time use. It's not like a grape where you can plant a vine and have grapes every year. Archeologists say agaves have been cultivated for at least 9,000 years, and used as food for even longer.

The tequila agave grows natively in Jalisco, favoring the high altitudes and sandy soil. Commercial and wild agaves

The flowers are pollinated by a native bat (Leptonycteris nivalis) and produce several thousand seeds per plant. The plant then dies. The shoots are removed when about a year old from commercial plants to allow the heart to grow larger. The plants are then reproduced by planting these shoots; this has led to a considerable loss of genetic diversity in cultivated blue agave. It is rare for one kept as a houseplant to flower; nevertheless, a fifty year old blue agave in Boston grew a 30 ft. stalk, requiring a hole in the greenhouse roof and it flowered sometime during the summer of 2006.

Tequila is produced by removing the heart of the plant in its twelfth year, normally weighing between 77–198 lb. This heart is stripped of leaves and heated to remove the sap, which is fermented and distilled. Other beverages like mezcal and pulque are also produced from blue and other agaves by different methods (though still using the sap) and are regarded as more traditional.

Over 200 million blue agave plants are grown in several regions of Mexico, but in recent years the ability of farmers to meet demand has been in question. Through poor breeding practices, blue agave has lost resistance to fusarium fungus and several other diseases which currently render 25%-30% of the plants unusable for consumption. Researchers from Mexico's University of Guadalajara believe blue agave contains compounds that may be useful in carrying drugs to the intestines to treat diseases such as Crohn's disease and colitis.

Important fact: When dealing with agave it is important to remember that the juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, even though there is no longer a visible rash. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. Dried parts of the plants can be handled with bare hands with little or no effect. If the skin is pierced deeply enough by the needle-like ends of the leaf from a vigorously growing plant, this can also cause blood vessels in the surrounding area to erupt and an area some 63-64 inches across can appear to be bruised. This may last up to two to three weeks. And you thought Agave just hurt you when you drank too much of it. Ha!

Tequila

History
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the location of the city of Tequila, although the city was not officially established until 1656. The Aztec people had previously made a fermented beverage from the agave plant, which they called octli (also called pulque), long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill this agave drink to produce North America's first indigenous distilled spirit.

Some 80 years later, around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco. By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products.The tequila that is popular today was first mass-produced in the early 1800s in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Don Cenobio Sauza, (right) founder of Sauza Tequila and Municipal President of the Village of Tequila from 1884-1885, was the first to export tequila to the United States. Don Cenobio's grandson Don Francisco Javier gained international attention for insisting that "there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!" His efforts led to the practice that real tequila can only come from the State of Jalisco.

Culture

"Tequila is Mexico," said Carmelita Roman, widow of the late tequila producer Jesus Lopez Roman. "It's the only product that identifies us as a culture."

To understand tequila, you have to first appreciate its importance to the overall culture of Mexico and tequila's place in its history. Say the word tequila and it immediately brings to mind images of Pancho Villa, Cinco de Mayo, men riding the dusty roads of the old 'west' and of brightly-dressed señoritas spinning around the fountains marking the center of most Mexican towns, whirling in traditional dance. But, it also suggests images of pop stars, margaritas and endless parties. For some, as I stated in my introduction, it also conjures up images of lampshades and nights better left conveniently forgotten.

Tequila is not simply a drink, it is a culture, an emblem, and a rallying call for Mexican identity. It is a tradition and heritage. It is about families and feuds, about land, politics, and it is an economic force. For all the marketing and the hype, the advertising and the promotion, tequila still retains its magic after its 400-plus year journey to get to this point.

The primary location for Tequila production is the Jalisco state around the towns of Tequila and Arandas, using only one species of plant, the blue agave. Tequila is an androgynous word, being written as both el tequila and la tequila in Spanish; masculine and feminine (although the masculine form is more commonly used). Technically, all tequila is a mezcal, as are all agave spirits, but like cognac is a brandy from a specific region of France, tequila is a mezcal from a specific region of Mexico.

In Tequila: Panegyric and Emblem, the Mexican poet Alvaro Mutis wrote: "Tequila has no history; there are no anecdotes confirming its birth. This is how it’s been since the beginning of time, for tequila is a gift from the gods and they don’t tend to offer fables when bestowing favors. That is the job of mortals, the children of panic and tradition." (issue 27, Artes de México Magazine.)

 Mezcal wine, tequila's grandparent, was first produced only a few decades after the conquest that brought the Spaniards to the New World in 1521. No one has ever come up with an exact date, but it was likely around 1535. It was variously called mezcal brandy, agave wine, mezcal tequila and finally, after a couple of centuries, one variety was simply called tequila.

The word tequila itself is also filled with mystery. It is said to be an ancient Nahuatl term. The Nahuatl were the original people who lived in the area. The word means (depending on the authority) "the place of harvesting plants," "the place of wild herbs," "place where they cut," "the place of work" or even "the place of tricks." According to Jose Maria, tequila comes form the Nahuatl words tequitl (work, duty, job or task) and tlan (place). Other sources say it means "the rock that cuts," most likely a reference to the volcanic obsidian that is common in the area. Obsidian was important for natives in making arrowheads, axes, cutting and scraping tools. It litters many fields and has even been incorporated into sidewalks in the town of Tequila. Cascahuin says the word is a corruption of "tetilla" because the volcano looked like a woman's small breast (somewhat dubious if you've seen the volcano)

The agave is planted, tended, and harvested by hand. The men who harvest it, the Jimadors, contain generations of knowledge about the plants and the ways in which they need to be harvested. The Jimadors must be able to work swiftly in the tight rows, pull out the pups without damaging the mother plant, clear the piñas (Spanish word for pineapple), and decide when and if each plant is ready to be harvested. Too soon and there are not enough sugars, too late and the plant will have used its sugars to grow a quiote 20-40 foot high stem or it will start to rot. The piñas, weighing 40 to 70 pounds, are cut away with a special knife called a
coa. They are then shredded, their juices pressed out and put into fermentation tanks and vats. Some tequila companies still use the traditional method (artisan tequila) in which the piñas are crushed with a stone wheel. The final process is to add a yeast to the vats to convert the sugars into alcohol. Each company keeps their own yeast a tight secret.

There is a clear difference in taste between tequila that is made from lowland or highland agave plants. Agave plants that are grown in the highlands often have more fruit tastes due to the growing process. The plants are grown on the western side of the hills, allowing the plants to receive the most amount of sunlight throughout the day. These plants are taller, wider, and juicier. Agave that are grown in the lowlands have more earth tastes, and are typically on the smaller side.

It takes at least eight years to make a bottle of tequila, sometimes as long as 20. That's because tequila is not made from the typical grains or fruits most alcoholic beverages are made from. It is distilled from the roasted center (piña) of the blue agave (maguey) plant - the agave tequilana weber azul - one of 136 species of agave that grow in Mexico. Imagine having to plan - and budget - for a product you won't see for perhaps another decade. Imagine having to care for and nurture those agaves from their planting to their harvesting, many years later, without knowing how the market will unfold in the interim, but still having to hire farm workers to weed, prune and maintain the fields.

A one-liter bottle of limited-edition premium tequila was sold for $225,000 in July 2006 in Tequila, Jalisco, by the company Tequila Ley .925. The bottle which contains the tequila is a two-kilo display of platinum and gold. The manufacturer has received the Certificate from Guinness World Records for the most expensive bottle of spirit ever sold. While the bottle is impressive, my immediate thoughts were, "How does the tequila taste?" I'll use our favorite restaurant line here and embellish, "You can't eat the decor, nor can a fancy bottle make its contents quality."


In 2008, Mexican scientists discovered a method to transform 80 proof tequila into diamonds. This process involves heating the tequila to over 1,400 degrees F to vaporize the tequila. The tequila particles are cooled, and settle upon steel or silicon trays in an even, pure layer. The results are hoped to have numerous commercial and industrial applications, but are far too small for use in jewelry.

It is also a common misconception that all tequilas contain a 'worm' in the bottle. Only certain mezcals, usually from the state of Oaxaca, are ever sold con gusano. Renown tequila expert Tomas Estes suggests that the practice may have first been practiced as a way for tequila makers to show the quality and proof of their product, in that a larvae could be sustained by the proper alcohol content. Recent use of this practice probably began, or was resumed, as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. The worm is actually the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis that lives on the agave plant. Finding one in the plant during processing indicates an infestation and, correspondingly, probably a lower quality product.

Types of Tequila

Blanco (white) or plata (silver): White spirit, un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in oak barrels;

Joven (young) or oro (gold): Un-aged "blanco" tequila, blended with rested or aged tequilas, and often with caramel coloring, sugar-based syrup, glycerin, and/or oak extract added so as to resemble aged tequila;

Reposado (rested): Aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels; Reposado may be rested in barrels or casks allowing for richer and more complex flavors. The preferred oak comes from the US, France or Canada, and while they are usually white oak, some companies choose to char the wood for a smokey flavor, or use barrels that were previously used to hold a different kind of alcohol ( i.e. whiskey, scotch, or wine in the case of Asombroso). Some reposados can also be aged in new wood barrels to achieve the same wood flavor and smoothness, but in less time.

Añejo (aged or vintage): Aged a minimum of one year, but less than 3 years, in oak barrels; Añejos are often rested in barrels that have been previously used to rest reposados. Many of the barrels used are from whiskey or bourbon distilleries in the US, France, or Canada (the most popular being Jack Daniels), resulting in the dark color and more complex flavors of the añejo tequila. Since most people agree that after 4 years of aging the tequila is at its best, the añejo can be removed from the wood barrels and placed in stainless steel tanks to reduce the amount of evaporation that can occur in the barrels.

Extra Añejo (extra aged or ultra aged): Aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels. This category was established in March 2006.

Drinking Tequila

When I drink tequila, I no longer do shots. I also do not add salt or lime. I began drinking silver (plata), but since its introduction in 2006, Extra Añejo (extra aged) has been my tequila of choice, though I still enjoy plata, as it is the most bold of all tequila types in its pure agavaceousness. If you see me drinking tequila, you will generally find me with a double snifter of chilled Don Julio 1942 or Don Julio Anejo, accompanied by an orange peel. As I have matured, my palate has changed and while many can tell stories of my days as a musician, accompanied by wild nights and yes shots, my consumption of this fine spirit has become a bit more refined.

In Mexico, tequila is drunk straight, without salt and lime. It is popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—a sweet, sour and spicy drink typically made from orange juice, grenadine (or tomato juice) and hot chilies. Equal-sized shots of tequila and sangrita are sipped alternately, without salt or lime.

Outside Mexico, a single shot of tequila is often served with salt and a slice of lime. This is called "tequila cruda" and is sometimes referred to as "training wheels," "lick-sip-suck," or "lick-shoot-suck" (referring to the way in which the combination of ingredients is imbibed). The drinker moistens the back of their hand below the index finger (usually by licking) and pours on the salt. Then the salt is licked off the hand, the tequila is then drunk and the fruit slice is quickly bitten. It is common for groups of drinkers to do this simultaneously. Drinking tequila in this way is often erroneously called a Tequila Slammer, but this is a mixed tequila and carbonated drink.

Though the traditional Mexican shot is straight tequila, lime is the fruit of choice when a chaser must be used. It is believed that the salt lessens the "burn" of the tequila and the sour fruit balances and enhances the flavor. In Germany and some other countries, tequila oro (gold) is often consumed with cinnamon before and slices of orange after, while tequila blanco (silver in Europe) is consumed with salt and lime. It should be noted that drinking higher-quality, 100% agave tequila with salt and lime is likely to remove much of the flavor.

A Tequila Tasting

Most would not realize a tasting of tequila in the same way as we taste wines, but in fact that is exactly the process and tradition I will now explain here. It is truly the only way to know if you are dealing with a quality product.

Tips for selecting a quality tequila

The first and most important rule is to analyze the label carefully to make sure that what you will taste or purchase is real tequila. This comment is meant to point out the fact that recently, store shelves have been stocked with products that can confuse consumers. Some producers have started bottling distilled beverages made of different types of agave, cultivated in areas outside the Appellation of Origin, Tequila. They normally use attractive bottles and labels that, by their shapes and tones, suggest that what they contain is tequila. For this reason, when purchasing take into account the following:
  • The word tequila should clearly stand out.
  • Make sure that the NOM (Official Mexican Standard) and CRT (Tequila Regulatory Council) are printed on the label. This guarantees the certification of these institutions.
  • For the tequilas that have been produced with only Tequilana Weber Blue Agave sugars, the description 100% Agave must be printed. When this description does not appear, assume it is a tequila that guarantees that at least 51% of its composition was processed with sugars from Tequilana Weber Blue Agave.
Select a type of Tequila according to your personal liking: silver, gold, aged or extra-aged. These descriptions should be clearly printed on the label.

Be skeptical of the products that contain descriptions such as: 100% agave distilled, 100% natural, distilled of agave, etc. With this we do not mean to insinuate that they are products of bad quality, simply that they are not pure tequilas. Once you have ensured the recommendations mentioned above and selected your preferred brand and type of tequila, it is time for the tasting, so you can enjoy it with all your senses.

Note: Try not to experiment with distilled products other than tequila when your are living this experience. For the moment, concentrate on the tequila you have selected; taste it, appreciate it, indulge in it, but above all, consider the effects of the following day. Always try to drink only the good tequila that you find on your way, but never allow tequila to drink you.

Visual Test.

Tilt the glass forward with a white tablecloth as background and observe the color of the aged and extra-aged tequilas. In most cases, silver tequilas, with some exceptions, are crystal clear. Aged tequilas have a coloring that is a hay yellow with different intensities and their sparkles or glitters are gold. Extra-aged tequilas tend to have an amber color with different intensities and with copper sparkles.

At eye level, observe the brilliance, transparency and limpidness. Now gently swirl the glass and observe how it spreads on the walls of the glass, indicating the body of the tequila. From the top of the spreaded surface, a few drops should start to slowly slide down, indicating the quality of the body.

Olfactory Test

Draw your nose to the glass and inhale deeply, to perceive the primary aromas. Then, rotate the glass and sniff again to appreciate the secondary scents that are released after the the movement.

Considering the subtleness of the sense of smell, which according to the limits of each person allows us to identify known and unknown odors, we can appreciate the harmony and balance that tequila presents in its wide array of scents. The most common aromas are:
  • Silver Tequila: Herbal, citric, agavaceous, fresh fruit and floral
  • Aged Tequila: Agavaceous, ripe fruit, wood and spices
  • Extra-aged Tequila: Dried fruit, wood, honey, vanilla, olives and spices
Taste Test

When we refer to the term taste, not just as it applies to tequila, but also with regard to anything we taste, we should consider that only four basic flavors exist and can be detected by our taste buds.

Sweet on the tip of our tongue, salty on the lower sides; acid or sour on the upper sides and bitter in the back part. Besides these four flavors, we sense stimuli on the algid or tactile, parts of the mouth, which are stimulated by sensations of heat, cold, astringent and burning (like alcohol).

What is important in this case is to sense good harmony of the components and an acceptable aftertaste with prolonged and pleasant persistence. Sip a small amount of tequila, swish and retain in your mouth for a few seconds and expel (just like wine). With your mouth closed, exhale the air through the nose and you will still sense the aromas with a few changes caused by the chemistry of the inside of your mouth.

Tequila Pairing

Maridaje: The term maridaje, may refer to two things:
  1. In production processes, it is the art of mixing or marrying tequilas of different barrels and different ages, to grant the tequila specific character which, at the same time, will appeal to consumers.
  2.  When enjoying tequila with foods, it refers to the appreciation of the different flavors that various dishes offer when combining them with different types of tequila.
Strong flavors, which are especially hot and spicy in Mexican cuisine, should be accompanied by a fine, silver 100% agave tequila. When flavors are more mellow, gold/oro, 100% agave tequilas are our suggestion.

In the case of extra-aged tequilas, these are best when accompanying fine beef cuts, or strong earthy flavors, such as lamb, boar, etc. It is especially good as a digestive, at the end of a delicious meal accompanied by an Espresso, or a fine cigar if that is your preference. The best way to match a tequila with a certain dish is to trial test, memorizing those tequila types and brands which most appeal to your senses. It is convenient to follow the recommendations of the experts, but no one knows your likes and preferences better than you do. If you fully enjoy your tequila during the tasting and the following day you wake up optimistic and willing to repeat your selection, then you can be sure it was the appropriate choice.

Do not forget that when drinking an alcoholic beverage, it is advisable to moderate the intake, so that you may better enjoy it and also have a better chance of remembering it the next day as well...!

I hope you have enjoyed this quite thorough look at Tequila. With the list of new high-end varieties, drinking tequila has grown up from an adolescent repast to get us all snockered, into a refined mature adult worthy of our attention and respect.

As always, Bon Appetit!

Lou

Sources:  Juan Gnecco / FreeDigitalPhotos.net Wikpedia; National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, Tomas Estes