Monthly Archive for October, 2013

What I Know About Sriracha: An Insider’s Perspective

srirachaRed jalapeno peppers being delivered to the Sriracha factory in Irwindale, CA.

The makers of Sriracha, Huy Fong, are making international headlines  because the city of Irwindale has filed a public nuisance lawsuit. Local residents have complained about “the smell”; more specifically, the eye, nose and throat irritation caused by the capsaicin released from jalapeno peppers during processing. Sriracha lovers are generally freaking out because they fear a shortage or price hike.

I happen to be doing a ton of research on Sriracha right now, as it’s the focus of the last chapter of my upcoming book. A couple of things don’t add up for me about this stinky story:

1. I was just at the Sriracha factory in Irwindale on October 2nd. I did not notice a smell or a hot pepper burn outside the factory. When you step inside the building, the offices smell like garlic. The only place I experienced the capsaicin-induced irratation the articles mention is in the pepper grinding room, which is deep in the factory’s bowels. And even at pepper-processing-ground zero, I did not feel a need to wear a face mask or respirator. Now, it may be a different story if you have to live by the factory day after day, but I was frankly shocked at the allegations against the factory. When I was there, there simply was no smell.

2. Huy Fong Foods processes peppers Labor Day through Thanksgiving. That’s when the local red jalapenos are ripe and are trucked into the factory daily, pureed, and mixed with vinegar, salt and sugar. Then, they are stored in the enormous Irwindale warehouse to be bottled throughout the year. So, if the factory is shut down, it won’t mean the end of Sriracha–they have plenty of product stocked up.  It would, however, mean a shortage. Closing down now would mean  a month of wasted pepper, potentially left to rot in the field. Since every bottle of Sriracha produced is already purchased and accounted for by distributors, it would mean a shortage in next year’s supply.

3. Although several sources have reported that the Irwindale factory can produce up to 7,500 bottles of hot sauce each hour, the fact is the Irwindale factory is new and not entirely up and running. Although all the peppers are processed there (which will end, seasonally, at the end of November), only two bottling lines are up and running. Most of the bottling is done at their old facility in Rosemead. So bottles of Sriracha will continue to be filled from the stockpile of chili puree already holed up at Irwindale.

4. The factory at Rosemead, the site of all their processing and bottling operations for over 20 years, never received a complaint from its residential neighbors.

I feel bad for the nearby residents if the claims are factual; if you’re curious, you can take a look at the neighborhood surrounding the factory here. I also feel bad for the Tran family who runs Huy Fong; they are good, honest people who have built a business from scratch. And so far, The South Coast Air Quality Management District, who is responsible for policing companies in the area, has not detected any odors.

But I think what’s probably the most interesting part of this story is that it has made international headlines. For papers ’round the world to give a fuck about a hot sauce says a lot about a brand’s presence. And in the end, I think a run on the product, with prices skyrocketing (to what? $5 a bottle instead of $3?) can only benefit the brand’s international reputation as the king of hot sauces.  It’s certainly bringing The Rooster a lot of attention.

If you’d like to read more on both sides of the situation, this LA Times article is the best I’ve seen. I’m also going to release a video soon of my own adventures in the Sriracha factory. Lastly, I  just want to put in writing that I am not an official spokesperson/representative of Huy Fong Foods; I’m simply a writer stating my own, editorial opinions.

Update 11/04/2013: A Judge has tuled that the factory can remain in production until the end of the Jalapeno season. There will be a hearing November 22nd. Source.

Four Pounds Flour is Looking for an Intern

Hey out there– I’m looking for an intern who lives in the New York City area for Spring 2014.

I need someone who is available once a week on a weekday, but would be willing to occasionally help out on a weekend. Half the time would be spent either working from my home office or at an event, the other half doing research projects that can be done from anywhere.  General responsibilities:

-Small research projects.

-Help out recipe testing by shopping, doing kitchen prep, and cleaning.

-Running errands.

-Assisting at Four Pounds Flour classes and events.

The perks: You’ll get an inside look at what I do and how I’ve built my career. You’ll have regular exposure to primary source recipes and learn how to interpret them. You’ll learn how to research, and my process for writing. You’ll get free access to all my events, as well as a behind the scenes look at how they run.

The time commitment would be no more than 8 hours a week, with one hour spent focusing on your questions and interests. The application process should be a time when we decided how this internship will best serve your needs.

The position is “semi-paid”; meaning, if you are working an event with me where I get paid, you will also get paid. I’m also happy to fill out whatever paperwork is needed so you can get college credit. You do not have to be in college to apply for this position.

If this position sounds interesting to you, or you have some more questions, send me a letter of interest via my contact page here.

The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey

I am officially a published author!

Although my own book isn’t coming out until 2015, I’ve contributed an essay and a recipe to my buddy Colin at the Kings County Distilling.  He’s got a new book out, The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey, which includes the story of how he got started in the business, how to make your own moonshine, and a host of recipes by “the country’s hottest mixologists and chefs.” I think I probably fit into a third category of “random shut-ins with interesting jobs,” but I think you will enjoy the recipe I contributed for Martha Washington’s Cherry Bounce, a cherry infused whiskey. And I think you will enjoy this book.

Official blurby:

A new generation of urban bootleggers is distilling whiskey at home, and cocktail enthusiasts have embraced the nuances of brown liquors. Written by the founders of Kings County Distillery, New York City’s first distillery since Prohibition, this spirited illustrated book explores America’s age-old love affair with whiskey. It begins with chapters on whiskey’s history and culture from 1640 to today, when the DIY trend and the classic cocktail craze have conspired to make it the next big thing. For those thirsty for practical information, the book next provides a detailed, easy-to-follow guide to safe home distilling, complete with a list of supplies, step-by-step instructions, and helpful pictures, anecdotes, and tips. The final section focuses on the contemporary whiskey scene, featuring a list of microdistillers, cocktail and food recipes from the country’s hottest mixologists and chefs, and an opinionated guide to building your own whiskey collection.

Buy it here: The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey

The Razor Blade in the Apple: A Modern History of Trick or Treating

halloween Pine Crest School student carving a Halloween pumpkin: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1966 or 67.

Over on Etsy, I recently investigated the early origins of Halloween traditions, including Trick or Treating.  But my research turned up a 20th century twist that I had never considered: the old “razor blade in the apple,” and the fear associated with Halloween candy.

In my Etsy article, I began with my own memories as a trick-or-treator:

I was a trick-or-treat migrant. My mom would import me from my rural home to the neighborhood where she grew up in, an urban suburb with houses closely packed on postage stamp-sized lawns. These city blocks, not the country ones that stretched for miles, were prime candy-collecting territory…I’ll never forget the feeling of adventure, pressing onward into the night, my pillowcase getting heavier and heavier with my candy treasure.

The neighborhood Mom took me to was old-school, meaning in between the houses that passed out Tootsie Rolls and pennies, there were places where elderly couples passed out King Size Snickers bars–king sized! And I’ll never forget the night when a tiny, teetering old lady came to the door with a sheet of freshly baked cookies, still warm from the oven.

I took the cookie to my Mom, terrified. Every year, teachers and television had beaten into my brain to only accept store-bought, wrapped candy. Even then, the treats had to be inspected for tampering. My mom laughed at my nervousness–”If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it!” And she did. And she said it was delicious.

I’ve never forgotten that little old lady. To this day, I wish I had eaten that cookie.

That cookie was from an earlier era: through the 1950s, a trick-or-treator could receive a bevy of homemade treats, and in many cases, could expect to be invited in (to stranger’s homes!!) for punch, snacks, and games. But that all changed in 1964 when a woman in New York got fed up with kids she thought were “too old” for trick-or-treating and began passing out bags of “dog biscuits, poisonous ant buttons, and steel wool” as a trick (source). No one was injured in the incident, but it gave birth to the legend of dangerous Halloween candy. The news media ran with the story, warning parents to inspect candy for tampering, and throw away any homemade treats like apples–lest they contain a razor blade. The “razor blade” motif began emerging in the late 1960s, when the Times reported on more than 20 cases of apple tampering in New Jersey. The razor blades were found by children eagerly chomping into their apples, who then revealed their discoveries to their parents. Except, stop to ask yourself what child is wildly biting into apples on Halloween, when there is a pile of candy as an alternative? It’s ludicrous–and all the incidents were found to be hoaxes (source).

But the nail in the coffin came in 1982, during the Tylenol tampering scandal. Consumers began to fear commercial goods and homemade treats alike, and the heyday of trick-or-treating began to come to an end.

An early 20th century Halloween prank.

It’s interesting how this scenario turns the trick-or-treating tradition on its head. The practice evolved, sort of tongue in cheek, as a bribe to prevent young pranksters from wreaking a little holiday havoc on your house (common prank: remove gate from hinges and leave in street).  But in the modern situation, the person who would have been the victim is now pranking the pranksters. And it resulted in a culture of fear.

More and more, general warnings about dangerous candy have resulted in parents and community organizations throwing Halloween parties as opposed to trick or treating. These parties are a throwback to the games and treats of early 20th century Halloween celebrations and they’ve also revived many of the old Harvest celebrations like bobbing for apples. I enjoy a good Halloween party–but I still hope I can give my children the thrill of hunting through the darkened streets for the King-Sized Snickers bars.

What do you think: will your family be trick or treating this year, or throwing a party instead?

Etsy Kitchen Histories: A History of Halloween!

Halloween costumes are just not as weird as they used to be.

Over on Etsy, I’ve got a history of Halloween with a focus on eating and treating. It’s a weird holiday when you really begin to think about it, right?

When Irish immigrants came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought All Hallows Eve traditions, which blended with American “mumming” traditions. Practiced on Thanksgiving and New Year’s, mumming involved parading the streets in rags or cross-dressing, playing music or making noise, and demanding food and drink from homeowners. Additionally, Harvest Festivals were celebrated in farming communities, which brought men and women together to shuck corn and dance. Women paring apples might throw an apple peel over their shoulders; when it hit the floor, it would reveal the initials of the girl’s future husband.

Learn more about Halloween’s origins here.

Halloween party decorations from 1924.

Origin of a Dish: Candy Corn

candy_corn_blogA handmade candy corn.

I was recently charged with the task of coming up with a hands-on food activity for the New York Historical Society’s Halloween bash, so I’ve been thinking a lot on the origins of Halloween candy.  One of the first treats to spring to my mind is also the first candy to be associated with the holiday, the much maligned Candy Corn.

The celebration Halloween became popular right at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th.  Theme parties were all the rage, so you could expect to head over to a friend’s (with the kids or not) for spooky decorations and refreshments.  The Book of Hallowe’en, published in 1919, gives us a sense of what these parties were like:

For the centerpiece of the table there may be a hollowed pumpkin, filled with apples and nuts and other fruits of harvest, or a pumpkin-chariot drawn by field-mice… Jack-o’-lanterns, with which the room is lighted, are hollowed pumpkins with candles inside… Corn-stalks from the garden stand in clumps about the room. A frieze of witches on broomsticks, with cats, bats, and owls surmounts the fireplace, perhaps…The prevailing colors are yellow and black: a deep yellow is the color of most ripe grain and fruit; black stands for black magic and demoniac influence.

Having marched to the dining-room to the time of a dirge, the guests find before them plain, hearty fare; doughnuts, gingerbread, cider, popcorn, apples, and nuts honored by time. The Hallowe’en cake has held the place of honor since the beginning here in America. A ring, key, thimble, penny, and button baked in it foretell respectively speedy marriage, a journey, spinsterhood, wealth, and bachelorhood.

Along side the bowls of party nuts, you were also likely to find a dish of candy corn. Created around 1880, candy corn was not considered a seasonal sweet.  Better known at the time as “chicken feed,” which I think is a very cute name, it was  manufactured year round and was especially popular for the Fourth of July and in Easter baskets. But with its harvest-festival colors of yellow, orange and red it also seemed a natural fit for fall celebrations, and was slowly integrated into Halloween parties. From The Atlantic:

Candy-making oral tradition credits the invention of candy corn to George Renninger, a candy maker at the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia…At that time, many candy makers were producing “butter cream” candies molded into all kinds of natural or plant-inspired shapes, including chestnuts, turnips, and clover leaves. The real innovation in candy corn was the layering of three colors. This made it taxing to produce (all those colors had to be layered by hand in those days). But the bright, layered colors also made the candy novel and visually exciting.

At the turn of the century, despite the fact there was themed candy for every other holiday (including marzipan cherries for Washington’s birthday), candy companies didn’t see Halloween as a candy-oriented holiday.  Desperate for a way to boost fall candy sales, “Candy Day” was invented, a day where you…buy candy. Later to be known as “Sweetest Day,” it’s the second Saturday of October and still celebrated in some areas, like my hometown of Cleveland.

It seems ridiculous that a candy-consuming holiday was invented when Halloween is RIGHT THERE, but it wasn’t really until after WWII, when sugar rationing was lifted, that candy companies finally caught on to the appeal, and started manufacturing Halloween themed candy in appropriate Jack-o-Lantern shapes, fall colors, and fun sizes. Conversely, Brach’s, established in 1904, is now doing its best to detach candy corn from its Halloween-only image, by producing new flavors like “Milk Maid Caramel Candy Corn” and manufacturing different seasonal colors like red & green.

candy_corn_blog2Slicing up the candy corns with my Velveeta Cheese Slicer. Handy!

I’ve never liked candy corn, but I decided to give them a second chance after I stumbled across Alton Brown’s recipe for “chicken feed” from scratch. It blends butter and powdered milk (I used Bob’s Red Mill Non-Fat Dry Milk Powder; is it weird that I love the way powdered milk tastes?) with boiled sugar. There is a bit of a learning curve with this recipe: the first time I made it, the dough turned out unusable, flaky, and weird. The second time, I was more precise: I measure my ingredients by weight instead of volume and boiled the sugar at a lower temperature. Round two was much better, and although my candy corns (pictured above) turned out looking very handmade, I find them endearing. And they taste waaay better than store-bought: they have a creaminess and tartness, a sweet and saltyness, an overall complexity of flavor that can only come from handmade.

The Historic Ingredient: Verjus

verjuice2Long Island’s Wolffer Estate Verjus, a tart coking ingredient made from the juice of unripe grapes.

This is the third is a series of posts I’m doing about Medieval cooking; I’ve already eaten dishes from the earliest known English cooking manuscript; and dabbled in Martha Washington’s historic recipes; now, I want to focus on an interesting medieval ingredient: verjus, verjuice, or literally “green juice.”

The History

A byproduct of the wine industry, grape vines are thinned midway through the season, producing a haul of unripe grapes which can be pressed for their juice. Before lemons were imported into Northern Europe after the crusades, verjus added sour and acid flavors into food. Tartaric acid, better known as cream of tartar when used in baked goods, is responsible for its flavor; poured over ice and drunk straight, verjus is a refreshingly tart grape juice. I’ve read it can also be pressed from windfall apples and other unripe fruits and can be bottled and kept for up to a year.

Winemakers are trying to reintroduce verjus to a contemporary market; I found my bottle in a cheese shop, Formaggio Essex, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The New York Times wrote about verjus in 2010, suggesting it as ideal for saucing up a chicken (also a very traditional use) and replacing the lemon in “lemon bars” with verjus, for a dessert.

I scoured the internets for period-appropriate verjus recipes, and cooked up a dinner party to taste test the results!

The Recipes

I hosted my dinner on a Friday night, so I decided to a go a little Medieval-Catholic-ee and observe a “fast day,” meaning no meat. All my offerings were veg, starting with a squash soup from Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) written c. 1465 by Martino da Como.

verjuiceA Squash or Pumpkin Soup, 1465.

The translated recipe for this dish can be found in The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. I used two butternut squash, sliced and cooked in a homemade vegetable stock that was heavy on the onion. I pureed to softened squash, and blended it with egg yolks, grated asiago cheese, and saffron. I plated each serving with a tablespoon of verjuice, and topped it with two kinds of black pepper, cloves, fresh grated nutmeg, and a dash of cinnamon. My diners were pleased with the recipe: they loved that the results were lighter and less sweet than a typical, contemporary squash soup. Get the full recipe here.

On the side, I served Green Poree for Days of Abstinence, a medieval French recipe of chard cooked with verjuice and finished with butter. I had picked this recipe to round out my menu, but this simple dish ended up being the favorite of the night. The verjus made the slow-braised Swiss chard sweet and bright. Everyone agreed it was not only the best Swiss chard they had ever eaten, but it was also a pleasure to eat: even my husband cleaned his plate.

verjus4Swiss Chard with Verjuice: The Best!

Swiss Chard Braised with Verjus
Adpated from The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy

This recipe is enough for one head of swiss chard, which would feed 1-2 people. I recommend preparing one head of chard per person; it cooks down substantially.

1 head Swiss chard, washed, dried, and tough stems removed.
1/4 cup verjuice
1/2 cup vegetable stock
2 tablespoons butter (or to taste)
Salt (to taste)

In a large pot, add chard, stock, salt and verjuice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer 20-30 minutes until tender. Stir in butter and serve with toasted bread.

 verjuice3Verjuice dessert bar.

For dessert, I took the New York Times’ suggestion and baked Ina Garten’s Lemon Bar recipe, replacing the lemon juice with verjuice. I wasn’t sure if I should still add the lemon zest, however. I didn’t and I found the results to be too subtle and flavorless. Most of of diners enjoyed the slightly tart taste of the custardy bars; I took the leftovers to a party, and everyone gorged themselves. By the way, when making this recipe, I realized I didn’t own a 9×13 pan, so I dumped the batter in a much smaller pan and told myself it would be fine. As a result, the extra thick verjus bars didn’t set properly in the middle, and were a bit runny when I sliced into them. But thems the breaks, and no one seemed it mind.

The Results

Verjuice is awesome. I would buy it and try it again; I would even attempt to make it myself after I move out of New York have some outdoor work space. I think it’s a great thing to keep in the kitchen and I’m really curious to try it to deglaze pans and make sauces for meat. I’d love to use it with more cooked vegetables; I think the flavor complements greens better than lemon juice. And one of my dinner guests pointed out it would be a great mixer for drinks; she envisioned gin, which would make an excellent summer cocktail.

If you’re interested in giving verjus a try, there is an entire cookbook devoted to Cooking with Verjuice. You can also buy it online if you haven’t seen it in any nearby stores.

The possibilities are endless. The flavor is incredible (even if you hate grape juice, like I do!). Try it.