A Healthy Cocktail?

OK, I’m going to get this out of the way.  I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and I can’t legally state any of the following as fact.  I am, however, a reasonably health-conscious hedonist who wants to have his cake and eat it too.

It helps that my wife, Diana, also a hedonist, is a certified nutritionist, so she’s been able to point out what is (surprisingly) and isn’t (surprisingly) healthy. It’s nice to know that, if you’re eating something that you don’t much like because you think you’re supposed to, and then find out that it’s actually not really all that good for you, you can stop wasting your time.  Same with avoiding certain “forbidden” foods that aren’t at all as bad for you as we may think.

So, as much as anything, this story is about cutting one’s losses.  Who knows, maybe this drink is, in fact, truly good for you.  However, at very worst, it’s at least better for you than the cocktail you were about to order.

Over the past few years, I made some friends in the Crossfit community, a fitness movement that extols the virtues of both low-tech workouts and low-tech diets.  Push-ups and pull ups instead of ab-rollers and eliptical machines, free-weights instead of machines, and, sweet potatoes and coconut water instead of granola bars and Gatorade.  The results are really astounding and something anyone who wants to transform their body should really take a look at.  But that’s another story.

This is about a cocktail that I came up with that was inspired by this way of life.  The Wonder Of the Day.  The basis for the cocktail is Shochu, a Japanese version of vodka with half the alcohol and half the calories.  So, we’re off to a good start.  To that, we add premium coconut water, which has been revealed to be one of the healthiest things you can drink.  In addition to that, we add a splash of hibiscus, which is a natural source of potassium electrolytes, some low-glycemic agave nectar, and just a bit of lime.

The result is a delicious drink that just may also do you some good.

Still More Amazing Spirits

Another batch of our special order liquors has come in and I am now uniquely proud of our line-up.  We now boast an excitingly comprehensive line-up or rare Rums as well as some amazing new Gins.

Of course, perhaps the most unique of all is our new Shochu, a fine and delicate Japanese version of vodka, though with half the calories and alcohol.  I talk about it in some detail here.

Let’s get right to it.

The Rums:

El Dorado- We’ve added three aged rums from the fine Guyanese distillery, El Dorado; a 12 year, 15 year, and 21 year bottling.  The Beverage Tasting Institute ranks the 21 year about as highly as one can rate a spirit, but I think the 15 year is right up my alley.  All of these, however, have a depth and smoothness that, at least I, had never tasted in rum before.  Layers of toffee and nuts that just keep coming at you.

Neissen- From Martinique comes something entirely different.  Something more earthy and raw.  While the aged rums of El Dorado make for sipping and savoring, these add a backbone and exotic nuance to mixed drinks.  We’ve already had some fun with these, but I’m leaning towards keeping it simple and letting the flavor shine through.  Lately I’ve been enjoying a simple version of the Hemingway Daiquiri; Rhum Agricole Blanc shaken with a healthy dash of Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur and a bit of lime.  Exotic, refreshing, and completely addictive.  Of course, I think Kerry prefers the real thing, adding a bit of grapefruit and cane syrup to the mix.

The Gins:

It wasn’t that long ago that I learned about the various styles of gin.  I had no idea how many there were.  Unfortunately, we’re still waiting on arrival of examples of Old Tom and Genevere gins that we’re looking for, but we’ve added an exceptional new London Dry as well as an amazing New World style.  Check it out.

After Miller’s Gin is handcrafted in very small batches, it is transported by ship to Iceland. Here, in the small village of Borgarnes, on Iceland’s remote west coast, it is blended with water from the selyri spring, source of some of the purest water to be found on earth.  The result is an amazing clarity of taste.  This is truly a gin-drinker’s gin.

G-Vine Florasi0n is an exotically nuanced, French-made gin that uses highly aromatic grape flowers harvested from vines in Cognac along with other botanicals to make what is the most unique gin I’ve tried in some time.  Lovely sipped all by itself, but the fine Dolin dry vermouth we use should be a fine partner.  However, I’d suggest you go with a twist rather than an olive.

More to come…

Something new behind the bar

I’ve you’ve been following any of the newsletters or blog posts, you’ve undoubtedly seen me reference a new infusion of quality spirits at both Jujube and our sister restaurant, Dos Perros.

You know, maybe I should back up a bit and explain the situation.  Liquor sales in NC is a state monopoly and I’m not going to mince words, I think they do a horrible disservice to the consumer in the manner with which they take advantage of their privileged monopoly status.

Lacking any competition, they put about as little effort as possible into providing the consumer with service or choice.  In fact, if any of my other vendors was as unresponsive and hard to work with as the ABC, I’d drop them in a second.  Of course, with the ABC, I don’t have much of a choice.  If you want booze, well, you’ve got to go through them, and they know it.  Thus, getting something truly unique is bloody hard.  If you’re going to do it on your own, it means researching the product, getting the state to code it for you, putting up the cash up-front, and waiting anywhere from a month to 6 months to maybe get it in.  They’re in no hurry because they realize that you’ll just buy something else from them in the meantime.

We’re fortunate that the specific people we deal with are very friendly and as accommodating as they can be, but even they’re very much hamstrung by the system.  There, I said it.

Well, the good news is that there’s a local importer, John McCarthy, who has been brokering some amazing spirits, through the ABC of course, and is facilitating the typically arduous process of getting specialty spirits into our restaurants.  Heck, if nothing else, he’s able to actually sample these products with us, so we know what we’re buying before we lay out several hundred dollars for a special order.

It’s tough luck for you all because these all still need to be special ordered by the case and very few of these are destined to hit the retail shelves any time soon, if ever.  Us restaurant folks can at least team up with other like-minded souls in the business and split a case so our inventories are not clogged with a year’s supply of some very esoteric stuff.  None the less, I can’t over-state the importance of having a broker pushing through the red tape on our behalf.

Let me also say that having a guy like John on our side is still a far cry from the privatization that we should be moving towards.  It’s better having guys like John helping us out, but it’s still a pain in the butt and, ultimately, stands in the way of us bringing our customers the most interesting selection of spirits that we can.

And let me clarify, my dissatisfaction really has nothing to do with price and everything to do with my interest in bringing my customers the world’s most interesting spirits.  I honestly have no idea what effect privatization would have on pricing.  I really just care about accessibility to the good stuff.

At any rate, that’s the back story and why fans of unique spirits should expect to see at least some very exciting new options behind the bar.  And also why we’ve got a new addition to the back bar, one that is long overdue.

Haamonii Shochu

There is so much to like about Haamonii Shochu (Haamonii means harmony in Japanese).  It’s essentially Japanese-style vodka but different than vodka in some very cool ways.  For starters, it has about half the alcohol and calories of vodka, so you can enjoy away without worrying so much about, well, getting either drunk or fat.  And it’s just so damned smooth and pretty, you can drink it neat.  Shochu can be made from rice, rye, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato or other grains and, like vodka, is distilled.  But, distilled to about 22% alcohol.  I’ve had the good fortune of trying a number of Shochus distilled from different starches side by side and the flavors are surprisingly distinct.  Perhaps, someday, we’ll be able to share a variety with you.  For now, we’re happy to have one as delicious as Haamonii.

Of course, it also makes an enticingly subtle cocktail.  Ask Kerry, Keith, or Jarrod about the latest concoctions we’ve been working on.  They’ve found their way to a few tasties already and there are certainly more to come.  Again, given the smooth, delicate, and pretty nature of the spirit, we’re certainly not cramming these drinks full of sweet juices and the like.  I mean, if you’re going to go that route, you may as well use vodka.  No, for something like this, we just want to frame the essence, not make the poor dear fight it’s way through the din of so much sugar and complication.

One such example is that we’ve finally made a Sake-tini that we’re proud of.  I mean, the drink in general is nothing new.  Just use sake instead of vermouth in a martini.  Thing is, in our opinion, sake simply doesn’t do as good a job as vermouth of setting off the potency of gin or vodka.  Then we made one with Shochu.  Bingo!  It was perfect.  The more subtle and delicate flavors were the perfect vehicle for a sake overtone and the drink was subtle enough that even the cucumber twist garnish sang through.  Such a lovely, lovely drink.

We’ve been working on others, all delicate and delicious, all worth asking about the next time you’re in.

What we do with ducks…

I’ve recently rekindled my gustatory love affair with all things duck and just wanted to take a moment to explain all the ways you may be served duck at Jujube.

Honestly, they’re just the gift that keep giving and I really can’t say what my favorite part is.  I mean, the breast gets all the spotlight and deservedly so.  The meat is both rich and subtle, sweet and earthy, and is enormously versatile.  Pairing with sweet sauces and mashed potatoes for a sturdy entree or sliced onto a salad for a light appetizer or light, summer meal.

But that is hardly where it ends…

When the ducks come in, first we remove the legs and breasts and, after trimming and saving the fat (which I’ll come back to), they are each placed into their own containers.  Into the container that holds the legs, go the hearts and gizzards.  Into another container yet, the livers.  There’s always a lot of fat still on the body after the legs and breasts are removed and we want it all.  So that, along with what was trimmed from the legs and breasts earlier, get put into another container still.

The bones and necks get roasted and ultimately turned into stock.

Why save all the fat?  Because rendered duck fat is a glorious, glorious thing in and of itself and crucial to prepare yet another glorious thing, duck confit.  So, in order to harvest as much of this rendered fat as possible, we put the fat through a meat grinder before placing it in a 300 degree oven for several hours.  In there, the fat melts away from the skin itself and any water evaporates.  When it’s done, we strain the fat off, yielding ready-to-use duck fat as well as another handy by-product, duck cracklings.  These, toasted up a bit crispier and seasoned, can be used to garnish salads or gratins.  So those get saved as well.

So, back to the confit.  Confit specifically means anything cooked it its own juices.  The simplest version is basically jam.  Taking fruit, usually berries, and stewing it in the juice that initially renders out of the fruit once it is heated up.  Lemon confit is made by taking lemon zest and cooking it in lemon juice.  But we’re talking duck confit, and that’s made by braising duck in its own fat, a process that yields a treat rich, supple, and delicious.  But first, you need to cure the meat with a dry rub.  We use a combination of five-spice powder, orange zest, and salt.  The legs, hearts, and gizzards all get tossed in this and are left to cure in the walk-in for two days.  After which, they’re placed in a large pan of rendered duck fat and slowly cooked under low heat for about 3 hours.  The legs are done once the fat on the drumstick shrinks away, showing the bone.  The meat is carefully removed from the fat and allowed to cool on a sheet pan and the liquid is strained.

Now, here’s where another delicious and unexpected thing reveals itself.  There is moisture in the meat that renders out into the fat during the cooking process.  When strained liquid cools, the fat rises to the top and this liquid settles to the bottom.  Once refrigerated, this liquid, really a very rich duck stock sets up like gelatin (because of the natural gelatin extracted from the bones during the cooking process) and the fat solidifies.  This allows you to carefully scoop the fat off, re-melt it, and pour over the cooked legs for storage.  Technically, the legs can be stored for months packed in this fat and traditionally were.  Of course, at Jujube, we go through it too quickly and none of it ever lasts as much as week.

Heck, much of the time, the legs are either used immediately, whole for an entree or shredded and turned into spring rolls or salads or some-such.

The juice?  The beautifully clear and rich duck stock?  That typically gets used to enrich sauces or soups.

I mentioned that its use in confit was only one of the great applications for duck fat.  For starters, if you use it in place of all or half the butter, it makes the most amazing mashed potatoes you’ve ever tasted.  There’s a savory nature that is simply unparalleled.  We also like to slowly stew scallions in it and use that as a garnish for soups.  That’s actually an adaptation of a classic Chinese garnish that I had in Shaoshan.  At a little street-side stand, a vendor was serving up bowls of mustard greens-filled dumplings in broth.  On top of which, they spooned a dollop of scallions cooked this way, only in rendered chicken fat.  The duck version is just a fancier and more delicious version.

That leaves the livers.  I like foie gras as much as the next guy, and I like chicken livers as well.  But I prefer livers from a normal duck, not one over-fed as they do for foie gras, over both.  Foie gras can be too mild, and chicken livers too brutish.  Duck livers are right in between.  More luxurious and elegantly flavored than chicken (or for that matter, beef) livers, but they still taste like liver, something foie gras can forget to do.

These livers can be fried tempura-style and served with a salad, turned into pate and served either on black rice toast or to make a particularly decadent Vietnamese sandwich, or, if they must, be ground up and used in making our Bolognese (which I discussed a few posts ago).  Though I do think that is a bit of a waste of such a delicate and beautiful food, and try to make a point of always having chicken livers around for that.  But they’ll do in a pinch.

So there you have it.  The whole duck, and nothing but the duck.

Giddy about February

There’s so much cool stuff going on in February, I just had to tell someone.

First off, and this is bad news for anyone who’s not already signed up, but the Argentine Recession Wine Dinner on the 1st is essentially sold out.  So, that’s a nice way to start the month out.

Right on the heels of that, we’re launching something absolutely groovy on Tuesdays to follow.  Basically, I’m getting back behind the stoves on Tuesday night and rocking it old school.  One thing that dawned on me not long ago is how much I miss actually getting back there and making some food.  Sure, it’s nice to get dressed up nice and walk around the dining room, but a cook’s gotta cook.  And I’m a cook.  So, here’s the deal with Tuesdays starting Feb 8th.  I’m going to be concocting a selection of very exotic small plates that are only available in the kitchen bar area.  The rest of the menu, along with some specials will be available everywhere else, but to get the really funky stuff, you’ve got to come play in the kitchen.  And if you’re particularly adventurous, you can just leave it up to me and I’ll take care of the rest.

I’ve been feverishly compiling notes and dishes and think this is going to be some of the grooviest food we’ve done of yet.  Kerry and Co. behind the bar will be rising to the occasion and making some great cocktails to match, and including some of our new spirits.  While you were napping, we’ve been special ordering all kinds of amazing artisan gins, rums, sochu… all kinds of stuff.

Which means, for the sake of segue, I’ve gotta skip right past Valentine’s Day and jump all the way to the Friday following (Feb 18th), where we’ll be welcoming one of the world’s foremost authorities on rum to do a late night rum dinner and seminar.  Honestly, as cool as all the other spirits we’re bringing in, it’s not like there was a complete dearth of quality gins, vodkas, and such before this latest importer started bringing us the new stuff.  Rums?  That was another story.  Prior to this new infusion, the selection was pretty embarrassing.  That is all changing and we’re kicking that off in style.  The menu is written but there are still a few details to iron out.  Look for it soon and the event should start around 9:30 on the 18th.

So, back to Valentine’s Day.  Listen, love is not formal.  Love is exciting and sensual and (usually) fun.  We’re putting together a sumptuous array of dishes just for the night and, as we typically do on V-day, are making a point of not booking the hell out of the place so you have a little elbow room and time to enjoy with your sweetie.  I guess we’d rather do a few less people and make sure everyone feels special.

However, for the more irreverent among you.  Those who want something a bit more out of the ordinary, we will be doing a particularly swank version of the omakase in the kitchen bar.  So, if nothing says, “I love you” like tempura duck livers tossed with warm Sichuan-style celery and tree ear mushrooms, you’re going to want to party over there…

Once again, menus are basically written, just a few details to iron out.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention.  We’ll also be doing our next installment of the Recession Wine Dinners, this time with Chile, probably on the 24th.

Jujube Bolognese: A Meat Sauce with Tomato

This isn’t actually a recipe, but if you’re so inclined, you can probably figure out how to make it by reading this.  I was just working on a version of the sauce for my guest-chef gig last night at Fearrington House and was reminded how much I dig it.

Rewind:  Back when I was working at Oliveto in Oakland, CA, that was my job.  Making the Bolognese.  My recipe was an amalgamation of versions I’d learned from the chef at the time, Curt Klingman (whom I can thank for so much, professionally).  The first batch we made involved, in addition to ground pork, veal, and beef, ground sweetbreads and livers.  The second, the one that really opened my eyes, was sort of (for lack of a better description) a deconstructed version.  I’m sure Curt would be pissed to hear it called so, but that’s what it was.  We braised short ribs, cut them off the bone and then across into small rectangles and built, to order, a “light” version by searing bits of liver, adding cooked mire poix, rendered pancetta, some of the beef and braise, some cream, parm, and fresh noodles.

While I think the second version lacked the “togetherness” that the dish should have, I couldn’t get past how much I preferred the braised, as opposed to ground nature of the meat.  So, when I became the lunch guy and started making it every week, I sort of combined the two.  Of course, being prone to excess, I got a little carried away and started putting anything and everything in there.  Which, by the way, is a great way to use up bits and pieces of this or that.

Every Friday, I’d scour the walk-in for ends of salamis and other cured meats, the last lamb shanks or bits of confit, any chicken livers… all this would accent the main pork and/or beef that I was going to be braising for the sauce.  What I learned at Oliveto was that Bolognese is not a tomato sauce with meat; it’s a meat sauce with tomato.  I actually kept count of the different meat products I used, and my personal record stands at 18.

At any rate, I’d start my labor of love, braising what needed to be braised, grinding what needed to be ground, browning what needed to be browned, shredding what was already braised, and then adding aromatics and tomato and combining it all into a beautifully rich sauce.  I’d then put it up in the walk-in and allow the fat to rise to the top and seal it like a batch of confit and let it mingle there over the weekend to let the flavors truly come together.  That would be next week’s Bolognese.  It was my sauce and, on my last lunch shift, a regular who came in every week for a bowl of it actually brought me flowers to thank me.  It was one of my proudest moments as a cook.

I realize there are a number of ways to make this sauce and many authentic versions rely entirely on ground meat.  I just like the succulence of braised and shredded meats in mine.  I’ve had delicious versions both ways and feel that it is truly a matter of preference.  If there’s one thing that I feel is non-negotiable, it’s a bit of liver.  It’s one of those things.  You’d never know it was in there unless you were told, but it brings such a depth and richness, and its omission just leaves the sauce one-dimensional and tart.

So, this is sort of why I often say our Jujube Bolognese is conceptually more authentic than most of what passes for this sauce in many Italian restaurants.  Because many are just making tomato sauce with ground beef in it, or something like that.  They’re not making meat sauce, and they’re afraid to add some liver.  So, despite the inclusion of ginger, hoisin, shaoxing, soy sauce, scallion batons, and rice noodles, I think ours is more “true” than most.  Because, at least it’s actually a meat sauce.

So, how we make it:

We use a lot of pork cheek at Jujube.  It braises up to the same texture of short ribs (which before I discovered cheek meat was my favorite meat for braising) but has the bonus of being boneless and comes in handy-sized portions.  So, we always have cheeks around and they just happen to work great for this dish as well.  We brown them in the woks, transfer them to a roasting pan, and braise them in the oven under a combination of shaoxing (Chinese cooking sherry), hoisin, ginger, soy, and stock.  That takes several hours and, when it’s done; we drain the meat (reserving the braise of course) and mash the now-braised cheeks.

Meanwhile, we dice carrots, celery, and onion as well as some of our Chinese bacon (pork belly that’s been marinated for several days and then roasted in suspended state).  Of course, we add the livers.  Actually, livers and hearts, from the ducks we get.  We use duck often enough that we just save the hearts and livers and freeze them for the next batch of Bolognese we’re going to make.  These get ground up and browned with the mire poix and bacon before the meat and braise is returned to the pot.  To that we add some tomato juice and cook until the sauce comes together; usually about an hour or so.  Like the Bolognese at Oliveto, it’s best when we can make this a few days before we need it and allow it to cure in the walk-in cooler under the layer of hardened fat that has settled to the top and sealed the batch.

Because the dish is so rich, I like to bring a green levity to it by starting each order off with some big chunks of scallions in the wok.  Once they have a little color, I add wide rice noodles that have soaked overnight in cold water and then, of course, the finished sauce.  The cool thing about the rice noodles is that they end up staining yellow from the fats in the meat sauce, so they look just like fettuccini.  Of course, the Chinese aren’t exactly known for their use of cream or cheese, so I leave them out.

Taking a cue from David Chang of Momofuku, we’ve started exploring the use of country ham at Jujube and, since Josh has been working on a side project with a local hog farmer to produce cured meats, we’ve hooked up with a guy who is making some great, prosciutto-like country hams out here.  My guess is that it’s only a matter of time before the ends of these hams end up making their way into the sauce as well…

Almost Asian

Jujube is a modern restaurant rooted in the flavors of China and Vietnam, distilled and whimsically refined with western sensibilities. Part of creating an inspired cuisine is getting out of the way and allowing tradition and the beauty of nature to show through, part of it is putting your individual stamp on each dish. Jujube does both by weaving classic Asian dishes along with one-of-a-kind creations born from our hearts into one, eclectic menu.