Bourbon 06.24.11

I believe that a day in Louisville without bourbon is a day wasted.

For the past few years, I’ve been grading the College Board AP Lit exams in Louisville and at the end of the grading day have treated myself to a nice glass of small batch bourbon.  I try to focus specifically on those brands that are hard to find outside of KY, although, at this point, it’s pretty challenging to find any bourbon at all in PR (kudos to my old friend Makers Mark for breaking into the market down here, though).

Last year, a couple sat down next to me at Proof and asked what I was drinking.  Much to their chagrin, I’m sure, I pulled out the bourbon menu and launched into an extensive overview of the available bourbons.  I asked what they normally drank and what they liked, and then made a recommendation.  They were so happy with my suggestion, that they bought my table a (very expensive) round.  And then, they asked which distillery I worked for.  It was a beautiful moment when I explained that I am actually a professor of literature!

So, what did I recommend to the lovely couple who thought I was a distiller?

I’m not so much of a scotch girl, and I’ve noted over the years that it’s the peaty or smoky quality of the scotch that I’m not wild about.  The bourbons that I’ve enjoyed the most are smooth rather than smoky, but the ones that I really love have a complexity of flavor in which they start off smooth—even hinting at sweetness—yet finish with a deeper, richer flavor.

Old Pogue visits Puerto Rico

I’ve come up with a few small batch favorites over the years that meet these taste requirements.  Number one is a little treat called Old Pogue.  It’s phenomenal, but you do wind up paying for the phenomenon.  This is the bourbon that I recommended to the couple at Proof and also the one that I smuggle back into PR with me at the end of the grading week.  Luckily, I’ve never had a smashed bottle in my checked bag, but, hey, there are worse things that my clothes could smell like!

Others that I’ve really enjoyed are Noah’s Mill, Elijah Craig, Old Rip Van Winkle, and Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve.

On this past trip, I tried Old Forester again, ordering a flight at Proof.  I was not very happy with it and only found one of the three tasters in the flight really drinkable (the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon).  The other two went into (gasp) a coke.  No need to waste.

I have to say that I make it point to avoid Four Roses distillery and bourbons (they also make Bulleit, which has become pretty popular, partially through its availability at numerous accessible locations throughout the U. S., such as Wal-Mart).  Four Roses is owned by the Kirin Company and, while I love me some Kirin Ichiban, it just doesn’t seem right to buy Kentucky bourbon from them.  Also, something called small batch has a connotation, for me at least, of something the opposite of corporate.

While I have listed Elijah Craig as a bourbon I enjoy, I can see a conflict between my accolades for the bourbon and my prior comment on being anti-corporate in terms of small-batch bourbon distillers.  Heaven Hills Distilleries, home of Elijah Craig 18, is a humungous liquor-producing machine, bringing cocktailers everywhere such treats as PAMA Pomegranate Liquor and that weird blue Hpnotiq that seems to eerily shine on bar shelves far and wide.  It’s vaguely unsettling to think of all these beverages coming out of the same place, but I do like that Elijah Craig.  A little something for me to wrestle with that will probably take many more tastings for me to sort out.

Bourbon Beer 06.25.11

My friend Kevin the bagpipe player (another ETS grader) just emailed me.  He and I were at the same table this year and we went out for a little bourbon tasting at Jockey Silks.  He writes:

Hi, Ricia, This is as much for your husband as for you.  On father’s day my wife always gets me a selection of expensive beers that I normally wouldn’t buy.  (We thought it was great, by the way, that you two could go to the rating together). Last night I drank the one in the photo.  Thanks to your training I could discern the bourbon hint imparted by the barrels.  Though 8.19 per cent, it is not overly boozy as the richer ales sometimes are.  The brewer is in Lexington: kentuckyale.com.  It’s something to look forward to, God willing, for next year. Slainte! Kevin

Thank you, Kevin!  My husband tried this one at the Makers Mark Restaurant on 4th Street while I was enjoying some bourbon.  He is not a bourbon fan–gasp!  Don’t worry, that just means that there’s more for me–and thought that it tasted too much like a boiler maker.  I tried it and thought it was nice, but I’m not a huge beer drinker and, plus, I’m not going to take time away from bourbon at the Makers Mark Restaurant.  I would get this again at another locale, though, or enjoy it if it came in a lovely gift set like the one Kevin’s wife gave him.

On a side note, the service at Makers Mark this time was abysmal.  We waited for forty-five minutes to get the server to notice us, even though he stopped and chatted at the tables on either side of us!  Despite the wretched service, most of the food was delicious and the Makers Mark consistently yummy.  Someone should write a sonnet about their shrimp with bourbon cocktail sauce and I’m just smitten with the corn fritters with bourbon sauce.  The fried green tomatoes were a bit off, though.  They’re a big favorite of mine on the side of a mint julep or a Makers Mark neat, but the tomatoes or the batter were just off.  I didn’t have the extra two hours it would have taken to track the waiter down and complain, though.  He finally swept away the uneaten green tomatoes and the un-drunk Bourbon Barrel Ale with nary a question.  Usually, Makers Mark is better than that.  We’ll have to try again in light of their previous successes.

Most people seem to prefer the Woodford Reserve bourbon balls, but I would pass by a dozen of those for one from the  Makers Mark Restaurant.  The ones you get in their bar are so delicate and creamy, fluffy even.  Be forewarned that they don’t travel well at all.  No criticism on the Woodford Reserve Mint Julep Bourbon Balls, though (swoon).

Coffee 06.22.11

The last time I was at Zabars (www.zabars.com) with my friend Katri, Jerry Stiller sat down beside us at the lunch counter and asked her to pass the sugar.  Even with that type of singular New York minute abounding by the hour, I’m not ready to trade the sandy beaches of Puerto Rico for the crowded streets of NYC.  I do, however, often wish that I could fly in some of the tastes of New York.  I would certainly start with the coffee we were all sippin’ on that day, Zabars Special Blend Kosher Coffee.  This coffee is so yummy that I had it delivered the whole time I lived in IL.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee just as much as the next gal, but there’s just something about smelling that Zabars brewing in the morning.  If you’re in New York, pull up to the lunch counter and order a cup with some homemade latkes.   I’ve modified my latke recipe to be a bit healthier, so I really like tucking into a pile of not as healthy, but certainly more traditional, potato pancakes at Zabars.

Even though the occasional pound of Dunkin’ Donuts finds its way into our kitchen (with no complaints, mind you), we typically buy local coffee grown in Puerto Rico.  Our two favorites are Café Rico (www.caferico.com) and Sandra Farms (www.sandrafarms.com).  We first tried Café Rico at The English Rose (www.larosainglesa.com) when we came down to PR on vacation and were trying to find a place to live.  The Rose is a beautiful bed and breakfast with an absolutely breathtaking view.  They also serve incredible food like homemade sausages, fresh baked bread, and tropical juices. If you’re visiting Rincón and want an amazing breakfast, drive up the crazy road to this restaurant, but, if you’re going in-season, be prepared to wait for your table.

So, Café Rico is our everyday coffee.  I’ve recently become worried about all the reports on BPA plastics and have since swapped out our drip coffeemaker (that makes wonderful coffee, but is stuffed full of unlabeled plastic parts) for an electric percolator with one tiny piece of plastic in it and an external heating element.  It’s taken a bit for me to get the measurements right.  I buy the whole beans and put ten tablespoons of coffee and one large dash of cinnamon in the grinder and grind it finer than one would normally do for a percolator.  I use this with eight cups of filtered water and it’s so good!

I went with the Hamilton Beech percolator from Target that rang in at about $35.99.  It’s very hard to buy certain products online and we don’t have quite as many options on the island.  It was very important for me to get one with an external heating element for good health, but, for some reason, most of the manufacturers did not note whether their percs had internal or external elements.  My Mom and Dad actually went into Target for us and opened the pot to make sure.  It makes great coffee, but I wish it had an automatic turnoff.  I am notorious for getting involved in things like, oh, I don’t know, blogging and forgetting that something’s cookin’.  While I would have loved to put my Grandma’s old, glass Corning Ware percolator to good use on our gas stovetop each morning, I’m just not allowed to play with fire at five in the morning.

Grandma’s coffeepot does, however, get to make an important appearance when our power goes out and the gas stovetop is our only connection to coffee.

As for Sandra Farms Coffee (which you can also order online), I like to drink it when we go out.  I’m impressed with their efforts to create a sustainable coffee plantation that uses traditional, eco-friendly methods and zero fossil fuels. Our friends over at Banana Dang (www.bananadang.com), introduced us to this coffee and the farm it’s grown on in Adjuntas, PR.  My hubby actually got to go on a tour of the plantation, which, by all accounts, was pretty neat.  The coffee is smooth and rich, and I love to drink it at Dang’s.  The house specialty at Dang, the Banana Mocha, is great, but, honestly, with the quality of love and care the baristas put into their coffee beverages and killer smoothies, you can’t go wrong.

Colorado 06.21.11

I’ve only had the pleasure of experiencing Grand Junction, CO a few times.  My sister lives in CO and did her residency at St. Mary’s in Junction, so we all trouped out there a few times.  The Colorado National Monument (http://www.nps.gov/colm/index.htm), just down the road in Fruita, is certainly a spectacular visual treat for visitors and, while my mind was certainly blown by the Devil’s Kitchen, my true religious experience in Junction came from Religious Experience hot sauces and salsas (https://thewrath.com/).

We helped my sis move to her new digs in Junction (a ridiculous number of years ago now) and stumbled upon the Religious Experience shack on (I think) the only tree-lined street in town.  A repeat visit found the grocery store shelves stacked high with Religious Experience, but my favorite salsa-related Junction interlude happened in the Grand Junction Visitor’s Center.  After several years’ absence from Junction, we were driving around looking for Salsa Heaven with no luck.  Pulling into the Visitor’s Center seemed to be the best bet, but when I asked for Religious Experience, I was told that they had a strict no solicitation policy.  Apparently not all Junctioneers are down with the hot sauce.

I like the original strength myself, but friends have filed good reports on hot and “The Wrath!”

By the by, it’s the 100th anniversary of the Colorado National Monument, so pick up some Red Hot Blues Blue Corn Chips and Religious Experience Salsa and have yourself a picnic in the park.

Food Gifts

Cabo Rojo Salt 06.30.11

One of our favorite daytrips from Rincón is down to Cabo Rojo (Red Cape).  There is a stunning Victorian-era lighthouse, Los Morillos, perched on the edge of the cliffs, which is both still in operation and open to the public.  While the color of the rocks that make up these cliffs are more reddish than red, the geological formations do resemble a cape.  Sitting on the edge of these cliffs watching the waves beat against the rocks is a singular experience; one that you’ll want to do carefully, of course, as guardrails are noticeably absent at this destination popular with visitors from both other parts of Puerto Rico and those visiting the island.

The walk to the lighthouse can get a bit warm, so I suggest leaving early in the day and bringing plenty of water with you.  The road up is only paved half of the way, so you can navigate carefully over and around the rocks andpotholes or leave your car at the makeshift parking lot and walk the whole way.  No matter how you traverse this road, you’re still going to have to walk part of the way, so pull out those sensible shoes, take a deep breath, and start hiking.  It’s worth it!  Don’t forget that there are facilities in the lighthouse itself.  I’ve taken more than one sink bath in there.

Make sure to leave plenty of time to swim in the cove sometimes known as Playa Soucia and sometimes known as la Playuela.  Seriously, this is about as close to swimming around in a giant bathtub as you can get, with warm, crystal blue waters that gently rock you as you float lazily.  There are plenty of shady spots on the beach and you can bring a cooler of food and drinks with you.  It’s wonderfully relaxing…  zzz…

On the way to the lighthouse, you’ll pass by the Salt Flats, Las Salinas, where you can stop and climb a bird-watching tower that gives you an incredible view of the salty marshes where all sorts of graceful, long-legged, and long-billed birds flit about and the stunning, green-blue bay beside it.   Sometimes we eat a pre-hike snack up there, just to savor that view a bit longer.  It’s so powerful to see the salty gray waters of the flats on one side and the clear blue waters of Playa Soucia right next to it.  They almost look as if they touch.  But for a few feet, you have an amazing sight and a fantastic experience.

freshly mined salt

If you go into the accompanying Visitor’s Center, you can buy little bags of salt mined right from the flats.  It’s a nice treat to take home and I love giving it to people as a taste of Puerto Rico.

Two of my husband’s cousins are getting married this summer and, as a part of their wedding gifts, I got them Cole & Mason salt grinders and bags of fresh-mined Puerto Rican salt.

taste of Puerto Rico gifts assembled and ready to go

We’re only able to attend one of the weddings—it can be pretty hard to get to things in the States sometimes—but I’m ridiculously excited about seeing his family (they are SO nice) and giving these fun gifts.  Who knows, maybe the salty taste of the beach will create a longing to visit Puerto Rico and we’ll have some house guests soon.  Here’s hoping!

Congratulations to the marrying Cousins!

Rice Steamers 07.02.11

In addition to worrying that my coffeemaker is filled with unsafe plastics that are trying to kill me from the inside, I also started to lose sleep over the rice steamer and its plastic-y innards.

the lovely shower invite

When we got married, my husband’s aunt organized a beautiful “card shower” for me, as I was in Puerto Rico and too far from the family to have a sit down event.  Friends and family from all around sent me sweet notes with gift cards tucked in them.  It was the first time I’d heard of anything like that and found it really touching to have all these messages pouring in.

Our favorite rice steamer, which we used approximately four times a week, was cracked and missing a handle, so we decided to use some of the lovely gift cards to treat ourselves to a new steamer.  We sent away for one from J. C. Penny and were pretty darn excited to have a shiny, new steamer.  Until, every time we made rice, there was a lingering, noxious odor of oily plastic.

This was about the time that I started freaking out about poison plastics hiding in our kitchen—I’m sure all of this had nothing to do with the stress of planning a wedding in Puerto Rico where almost all of the guests were coming from off-island (winkedy-wink).

Each plastic piece of the steamer was labeled with a number and when I looked up online which plastics are thought to leach carcinogens into your edibles, the numbers on the steamer corresponded to the plastics you’re supposed to avoid—HUH!!!  Sometimes I have trouble teaching my students the definition of irony.  I would like to suggest that making steamed rice several times per week for good health, in a rice steamer that is made of dangerous plastics that let chemicals seep into your food, is certainly an excellent example of irony!

Needless to say, we returned that steamer.  It was a Cooks Brand from Penny’s (I think that’s their store brand).  A quick check of their website shows that they no longer carry the model we bought.  Note: when we got our refund check for the steamer, we went out for a lovely dinner at the Pool Bar and toasted the many shower participants who sent us there.

After the Cooks Brand fiasco, I decided to check up on the steamer we had been using, thinking that we could just get the same one we’d used for years, an Oster.  I emailed the customer service to ask what the materials used in their steamers are and received the answer that, the harmful plastics are only harmful to children under three and, since children under three shouldn’t eat rice, I had nothing to worry about.  Muhuh?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  First of all, I can certainly imagine some parents out there feeding little children steamed rice as part of their intro to solid food.  So that’s some faulty logic right there.  Then, if these products harm children, there might be a day not too far off when the FDA revises its statements and extends its warning to those of us older than three.  Finally, I asked for the materials used, not a defense.  Give me the info and let me make up my own mind.

This was the gist of my reply and I found out that my beloved steamer was made of:  polypropylene and Amorphous polycarbonate polymer or Amorphous styrene acrylonitrile.  Because I am a huge food dork, I started a comment thread on amazon.com about this; you can read the discussion at: http://www.amazon.com/Polycarbonate-and-BPA/forum/FxYC7XBOSHZWIV/Tx27BP33F0KZBQ/1?_encoding=UTF8&asin=B00019G8IS.  It seems as though the commentators agree that the Oster steamer is BPA-free and you can steam at will.  I, however, was still uncomfortable with the first answer I received and did a little more research on steamers.

We wound up getting an Aroma Gourmet steamer with a nonstick insert for the rice and a stainless steel steaming tray for fish, meats, and veggies.  I loved my Oster steamer, but just couldn’t feel comfortable with the plastic contents after all that.  This decision, of course, opens a whole new Pandora’s Box with the new information coming out about nonstick coatings http://housewares.about.com/od/cookware/a/nonstickdebate.htm.  Apparently, Teflon coatings and anodized coatings are not thought to be harmful to consumers.  I just sent an email to Aroma and will update this post with their response.


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