Monday, December 31, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part III: Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale and Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness Stout

It's New Year's Eve, so what better than the next installment of my search for a great winter seasonal beer?  Well, maybe a Champagne review, but that's not happening (though I do recall picking up a bottle of this very tasty Freixenet sparkling wine on sale at Whole Foods back in Ohio a couple years ago that I'd recommend), and my plan for this evening is to open a new beer.  At least it's a corked one.

Back to the winter beers.  This time, one very Christmassy one--Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale--and a pretty standard, but still seasonal, stout--Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness.  In calling the Heart of Darkness standard, I don't mean anything negative (spoiler: I like it).  It's just that it pales in terms of seasonality, if you will, to the 2Xmas.  Just look at those label designs above.  One sings Christmas.  The Heart of Darkness?  Um, not Christmas.  But it does get bonus points for the literary reference in its title, even if I--as a former English major who was failed in his education of the classics--can't claim to have ever read the book.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Leeks and Cauliflower and Smoked Cheese, Oh My!

There are a lot of moments from Seinfeld that even now, almost 15 years after the show came to an end, I like to refer to, especially scenes from the early seasons or those surrounding George's time with the Yankees.  (The Yankees weren't bad then, but they also weren't dominant; seeing them now  losing out on free agents to the cheap Pirates, or having to turn to creaky old members of the Red Sox to patch holes, I'm personally excited at the prospect of a new era of making fun of the Yankees.)

One of the bits from the show that I never tire of referring back to is when George gets stuck bringing the same calzone to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for lunch, day after day after day.  As Steinbrenner says:
When I find something I like I stick with it. From 1973 to 1982 I ate the exact same lunch every day. Turkey chili in a bowl made out of bread. Bread bowl, George. First you eat the chili then you eat the bowl. There's nothing more satisfying than looking down after lunch and seeing nothing but a table.
I hate to admit this, but I can be a little like Steinbrenner, especially when I get into a routine.  Sometimes it's a good old PB&J sandwich for lunch, or maybe a nice smoked turkey and lite muenster one.  I can go a couple weeks like that.  And then it's on to a different sandwich.

But I live with someone who is on the complete opposite end of this spectrum.  The anti-Steinbrenner, if you will.  If one of us makes too much of a dish--even one she likes--I'll end up eating inordinate amounts of it so it doesn't go bad in the refrigerator, simply because she got tired of it. 

So when I got the request, only a couple weeks after making a pot of it, to cook more of Chef Carolina Fidanza's Cauliflower, Leek, and Gruyere Soup, which had been featured in an October issue of New York Magazine, I knew we had a really good recipe on our hands.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Very Vegetarian Holiday (from a box): Field Roast Hazelnut Cranberry Roast en Croute

We didn't set out to have a vegetarian Thanksgiving this year.  I believe it has already been well established, after all, that we're all meat eaters here.  For small gatherings during past Thanksgivings, K has made this roasted chicken recipe that I absolutely adore.  (Seriously, make that once and you'll be thanking me for the recommendation.) But this year we were hoping to celebrate with others and eat some fowl we didn't have to cook ourselves.

But as we all know, life doesn't always go according to plans.  K ended up not feeling well, so I took the reigns on Thanksgiving.  And instead of cooking the Zuni Roast Chicken, I decided to keep it simpler (read: manageable by my standards) and focus on the side dishes, including an excellent green bean recipe from The Meatball Shop Cookbook, one I really should devote another post to.

That's all well and good, but it still leaves a hole at the center of Thanksgiving dinner.  My solution to that problem?  Field Roast's Hazelnut Cranberry Roast en Croute

Yes, it comes in a box.  And it's not exactly cheap.  But I can't say I've ever eaten a meat-substitute product that is so satisfying, both in terms of its taste and its texture.  With Christmas only six days away and New Year's the following week, I know there are people out there--vegetarians and carnivores alike--looking for an easy and tasty centerpiece to their holiday meal.  This is where the Roast en Croute comes in.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part II: Southern Tier's Old Man (Winter Ale) and Goose Island's Mild Winter

I'm going to have to face the facts here: most of the winter seasonal beers I've encountered on store shelves this year do not feature the Christmassy spices of my beloved Great Lakes Christmas Ale.  I've noticed this more in 2012 than in the past several years.  Maybe it's just a coincidence.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing.  The only seasonal I've tried this year that's been all spiced up is Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale, and I need to try it one more time before I can give my take.  I like it, but I'm not sure yet how much.  The others I've tried?  They may not evoke the holidays or even winter all that much, but each one has been quite satisfying.

The two latest winter beers I tried came on tap at Bacchus, the wood-fired pizza restaurant located in the basement of Daisy Baker's in Troy.  I need to write more about Bacchus at another time, as we were very pleased with the food, atmosphere, and beer selection found there, but for now the focus is on the beer: Southern Tier's "other" winter seasonal, Old Man (Winter Ale), and Goose Island's Mild Winter.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Get This While You Can: Trader Joe's 2012 Vintage Ale (by Unibroue)

When you think about Gateway Beers--those that help kickstart a person's transition into the craft beer world--you're not likely to include Belgian strong dark ales anywhere near the top of the list.  I'm not exactly sure what my Gateway Beer was.  Maybe Newcastle Brown or Bass?  Obviously not craft beers themselves, but better than the mainstream American dreck that never held any appeal for me.

Others might give answers like Blue Moon, or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  Maybe one of the big releases from Sam Adams.  Hoegaarden, anyone?  That, just like Blue Moon, is a Belgian style--a witbier.  A witbier is usually light and crisp and not too strong in its spicing, which is often highlighted by the taste of banana or orange, or spices like coriander.  For anyone who doesn't think they like beer, ones like these can certainly start to affect some change to that mindset.

But back to the possibly ridiculous idea of a Belgian strong dark ale, like the 2012 Vintage Ale from Trader Joe's, as a Gateway Beer.  This is a strong beer in the sense that it's got a pretty high ABV--9%.  But what's that to a wine drinker?  If you're not looking to down the whole bottle (750 mL for the ridiculously good price of $4.99), but just drink a glass or two and share with someone else--as you might with a bottle of wine--it's not going to leave you passed out on a floor (unless that's your preferred destination for sleep).  And maybe most importantly, it's a very masked 9%, nice and warming but without any cloying booziness. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Diaspora of Curried Goat: Dinner at The Dutch Pot in Albany

I can't claim to be an expert in Caribbean cuisine.  I've had jerk chicken at some point, and know I liked it.  And I've got some of the jerk seasoning from Penzey's getting stale in my kitchen cabinet (could use a refresh).  But I can't recall ever eating at an authentic Jamaican restaurant until my recent visit to The Dutch Pot in downtown Albany.

Despite that, I felt relatively familiar with some of the food on the menu at The Dutch Pot.  There's the jerk chicken, of course, but beyond that many slow-cooked stews--curried goat and chicken, for instance--none of which felt foreign to me.  Of course, that's because these dishes are so closely related to those of other cuisines, those of parts of Africa and India and other parts of Asia.  Each puts its own spin on the dishes (the use of the scotch bonnet pepper and allspice seems most notable for Jamaican cuisine), but if done right, they're all pretty much phenomenally good.

Just a couple days ago, for example, I got some tasty goat curry off the buffet cart at Shalimar in Latham. And I remember trying a goat stew at a West African restaurant in Columbus, OH, a few years back that blew my mind (also home to one of the more adventurous eating experiences I've had, pulling off pieces of a ball of fufu and dipping it into a peanut butter soup).  You look at some recipes of different goat curries/stews from across the globe--Ghanaian goat curry, Indian goat curry, Jamaican curry goat--and you can see the similarities, from some of the ingredients to the slow-cooking styles.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part I: Smuttynose Winter Ale and Blue Point Winter Ale

Artist's rendering of the author.
I've talked before about my beloved winter beer of choice (an obsession, I'll readily admit), Great Lakes Brewing's Christmas Ale, which is a so-called winter warmer (7.5% ABV) spiced generously with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, with a backdrop of honey for fullness and sweetness.  Sure, some folks will automatically call a beer spiced like this (the same goes for pumpkin beers) a bastardization--and sometimes rightly say that it tastes like a scented candle--but I love the way the tastes of Christmas Ale come together; it feels like the perfect beer for cold weather and the holiday season.

Problem is, Great Lakes doesn't distribute their beer to the eastern half of New York, and even if I had a good reason to drive out to Rochester or Binghamton, Christmas Ale is traditionally snatched off the shelves with lightning speed once it appears.  If you're in Ohio, where Christmas Ale is native, that's not a problem at the start of the season.  But as I saw last year when living in North Carolina, pickings are very slim outside the Buckeye State.  I made the two-hour drive down to Charlotte last November--where Great Lakes is distributed--and visited one of the great Total Wine stores in town. When I asked the guys working there about Christmas Ale they just laughed.  "Gone in a day," they said.  "Two if you're lucky."  And guess what: no more shipments.

So until the day Great Lakes starts shipping their beer to the Capital Region, I've decided I need to find a replacement go-to winter beer.  It doesn't have to be spiced in a similar way to Christmas Ale, but of course there's a little bias in that direction (Natty Greene's Red Nose Winter Ale is the best alternative I've found--most brewers just can't get the spicing right--but they don't ship far from their Greensboro, NC, headquarters).  Still, I'm open to anything that's classified by the brewery as a winter or holiday seasonal.  Bonus points if it comes in a six pack and is reasonably priced.

Here are the first two candidates: