Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ambrosia Salad

Every Christmas Eve, for the past 27 years that I recall, save the last two, my family would have a Christmas Eve buffet-style dinner after church. From my memory, I'm compiling a list of the dishes that were traditional to our family. With a shortage of documented family recipes in my possession, many of these foods are reverse engineered from my childhood memories and the help of Google.

Nearly all of the recipes for ambrosia salad found on the web involved canned orange slices; however, as a Floridian, oranges are readily available throughout most of the year and I've learned fairly well how to disassemble them by hand into bite-sized chunks. This was how we always had our ambrosia. I can't quite imagine it with canned oranges.

Ambrosia Salad
6 medium oranges cut into bite-sized chunks
3/4 cup of sweetened shredded coconut (available on the baking aisle)
1/2 cup of shelled walnuts (crush slightly if too large)
8oz. bottle of marashino cherries (drained)

Mix contents into a large glass serving bowl, cover and chill until ready to serve.

On The Burning Away (of Alcohol)

My favorite thing about the beginning of winter is the way that even the most moist (moistest?!) of my aromatic pipe tobaccos burn down to a powdery grey ash in the bottom of my bowl. Note that this is something I like about the BEGINNING of winter. It stays consistent throughout winter, but in my opinion, no one has a favorite phenomenon regarding any other part of winter aside from the beginning.

No one ever said, "You know what I like the most about the dead middle of winter?!"

And yes, I realize that winter doesn't start until December 21st or thereabouts, but it was too cold to stand barefoot and shirtless on my back porch this morning at 8:30am, and so it is officially "winter" to me. This is northern Florida. I have a low threshold for "cold" weather.

With the colder weather comes the desire for warm beverages and hot food. My previous entry explained the process for making whiskeyaki meatballs in the crockpot, and I thought I'd take a moment to explain some important science behind cooking with alcohol.

It has been said that alcohol "burns away" when used in cooking. This is very true when you are like me and take great pleasure in lighting things on fire in the kitchen (note to self: provide link to Lance's video of my kitchen counter on fire). If you ignite the alcohol in a dish like bananas foster, the alcohol does indeed burn. Whilst burning is a chemical reaction, unignited alcohol in cooking merely evaporates, which is simply a change of state. Alcohol and water will evaporate separately near their respective boiling points rather than boil and evaporate together at the same boiling point.

I've taken great care in researching this because I enjoy mulled wine, but I see absolutely no reason to drink wine if it has lost its inebriative effect. Alcohol, went mixed with water (remember, scotch is only 40% alcohol, wine between 8% and 20%, there must be something else in there and some amount of water) will evaporate at a point between the boiling points of alcohol and water.

I've never been one for the metric system, so forgive me if I use English measurements. Alcohol evaporates near 80 C which is roughly 170 degrees F -- water at 100 C and 212 degrees F. For the purpose of making mulled wine, I tested my crockpot earlier this week with water. On the "warm" setting, the temperature never rose about 110 degrees F; on the "low" setting it topped off around 140 or 150 after an hour or two. The optimal serving temperature for hot beverages (in my opinion) would be somewhere between 120 and 140. Since alcohol doesn't evaporate until 170, we should be safe to switch back and forth between "warm" and "low" to maintain optimal serving temperature of the mulled wine without fear of complete evaporation.

Of course, I imagine there would be some evaporation of the alcohol just as you can't leave a pot of water simmering below boiling without reducing the water somewhat, so it would be best to leave the lid on the crockpot. It's too early in the morning to extend my research too much further. These are just useful suggestions and rules of thumb.

Interestingly enough, I cooked my whiskeyaki meatballs yesterday and have left the crockpot between low and warm. Even this morning after a good 12 hours, bringing the stirring spoon to my nose yields a pleasant burning sensation in my nostrils as the remaining scotch evaporates. It is very important when cooking with alcohol to either not breath too deeply while doing so OR to have a designated driver.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Whiskeyaki Meatballs

I am a firm believer that the crockpot is the bachelor's best friend in the kitchen. Right along side a decent cutting board and sharp French knife (forged please, not stamped) and a decent omelet pan (which can double to make grilled cheese), a crock pot is indispensible for making magical concoctions to amuse, nourish and inebriate your friends.

Rescuing Christmas Eve from the fire and brimstone of psuedo-Victorian Protestantism is my goal for this year. To do this, I am throwing a massive Christmas Eve dinner and cocktail party that will precede, intersect and blow right on through every church service from pre-dinner Presbyterianism, mid-meal fundamentalism through mid-night mass. My crowd-pleasing crockpot contents are the centerpiece of this ritual -- the least of which is not my "Whiskeyaki Meatballs."

My paternal grandfather once divulged very rapidly his recipe for scratch-made croutons before unsealing a bag of store-bought ready-made croutons. That is to say, all things are well and good if made from scratch, but sometimes only for the novelty of being able to say that you did it yourself. My grandfather was the sort that could even make wonton skins from scratch -- a feat that is impressive considering that even real Chinese people get their wonton skins from the produce section of their local mega-mart.

I say all this to say: the first ingredient is frozen meatballs. Get over it. I could make them from scratch, but I can also make wine, beer and thermite from scratch as well. It's simply easier to buy all of the above ready-made. The exception being thermite, I believe.

Whiskeyaki Meatballs
2.5lbs of frozen meatballs
(2) 16oz. bottle of your favorite barbeque sauce
(2) 16oz. bottle of your favorite teriyaki sauce
2 cups (16oz.) plus 1.5oz. of decent Scotch whiskey divided

The recipe isn't so much the secret as the procedure. Set your crockpot for high, low, or whatever setting makes you comfortable and happy. Every crockpot I've ever owned has been flakey, and you know yours better than I do; besides, your meatballs are already fully cooked because you followed my instructions and bought frozen ready-made meatballs. The issue here is heating them up in sauce.

Decant, unsheath or otherwise spill the meatballs into the crock. Pour 1.5oz of Scotch over ice and top with a splash of soda. I'd tell you to drink it straight or on the rocks by itself, but you shouldn't be cooking with single-malt. Pour the entire contents of all four bottles of sauce into the crockpot and stir gently. Pour one half cup of Scotch into each of the four bottles, shake vigorously and pour the sauce-laden Scotch into the crock, cover and cook until hot and bubbling.

Meanwhile go drink your Scotch and soda.

For a nice touch, dice an onion into the whole thing.

The same procedure will be performed with cocktail sausages in a separate crockpot sans whiskey and teriyaki on Christmas Eve.

First Blog MattStache Dot Com

I've finally gotten around to registering Now I have to remember all of the things I've forgotten about web design since I quit after starting again after quitting the first time in 1998.

My blogs will be mostly related to useful information for people who are interested in the somewhat obscure things with which I absorb myself. Mustaches, mustache wax, cocktails, cooking, music and whatnot.