Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Prison Cheese" Proves Growing Problem for Correctional Authorities

Monitoring and policing the nearly 200,000 inmates in California prisons has long been a challenge for authorities. Officials constantly struggle with controlling contraband such as drugs and weapons, but now they face a new challenge: a rise in "prison cheese." Department of Corrections Media Relations Director Byron Hadley explains:

"For years we had problems with pruno, a fermented wine-type beverage that inmates would make in their toilets with fruit from the dining halls. Gradually, some inmates switched from produce to dairy, and now we increasingly have inmates producing cheese in these same cell block toilets."

Referred to by inmates as "milk rot," this homemade cheese has led to an increase in black market activity both in cheeses and cheese making supplies. Last month, a group of guards at Pelican Bay was arrested as part of black market ring that sold rennet tablets to inmates.

The problem has become so widespread in the system that different prisons are associated with different types of cheese. Ig Jenkins, director of the Department's new Contraband Cheese Task Force (CCTF), explains, "When we recover a cache of illegal cheese, we can tell where it comes from, which gives us clues to the lines of operation between different prisons in the system. For instance, Corcoron is a big cheddar producer. Solano is only a stone's throw from all of those Sonoma County goat farms, so if we see a chevre, we know there is a 95% chance it originated there."

But California's most notorious prison is also its most notorious source of contraband. According to Jenkins, "Pelican Bay is a cesspool of illegal cheese. I've seen everything you can think of come out of there, epoisse, livarot, guryere, ricotta salata, even feta."

The CCTF is up against great odds, but Jenkins believes the Task Force's approach needs to use a carrot as well as a stick.

"We can bust hundreds of illegal milk rot mongers, but until we give inmates an option beyond USDA Loaf Cheese in the dining halls, we're going to have to deal with this problem."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Passion Play

It's rare to find passion fruit in LA farmers' markets, but last Sunday I found a great batch of them at the Hollywood market. They are at the stand with yellow crates that sells mostly avocados, on Ivar, just north of the Selma intersection on the west side of the street.

Not only did they have that trademark, deep passion fruit flavor, but they actually had some sweetness to them (passion fruit tends to be quite tart). I have no idea if they will be around this Sunday, but if they are, I'm getting more.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday; Waxing Eloquent About Maker's Mark

For many years, the only name in premium Bourbon was Maker's Mark. In fact, Maker's did much to invent the premium category. Founded in 1953 by Bill Samuels, Maker's Mark bottled its wheated recipe Bourbon in a distinct bottle with a red wax seal and spelled its product "whisky", like the Scots do. In 1981, Samuels sold his distillery to Hiram Walker, which sold it to Allied-Lyons/Allied Domecq, which subsequently sold it to Fortune Brands/Jim Beam, the current owner.

Unlike nearly every other distillery, for years, Maker's had only one standard bottling, the familiar square bottle, red wax Maker's Mark. They would sometimes change the wax color to various team colors, but the juice inside was always the same. The only exceptions were a few very limited edition versions bottled at higher proofs or using slightly older whiskeys, such as the gold wax and black wax versions made largely for export markets. For the most part, Maker's was Maker's, until now.

This year, for the first time, Maker's released an entirely new expression that will be a regular bottling. Maker's Mark 46 is made by taking regular Maker's and finishing it in barrels with seared French Oak staves. That is, it is given additional ageing with some fresh oak pieces. And the name "46" is not, as has been often assumed, the abv, though the 46 is a bit higher proof than the traditional Maker's.

Since I've never formally reviewed the traditional Maker's Mark, I'll take this opportunity to review both and compare.

Maker's Mark, 45% abv ($20)

Like many, I feel a strong connection to the standard Maker's, as it was one of the first Bourbons I really appreciated. Long before I was blogging and buying limited edition whiskeys, I was sipping Maker's (on the rocks) with fish curries at the old Broadway Thai. (Bourbon actually goes remarkably well with Thai food, which may be the subject of some future post).

The Maker's nose is...Maker's. It's rock candy. The palate is sweet but with some citrus and the typical, savory wheat notes. The finish may be the best part, a sweet Bourbon finale. It's not complex or intriguing, but it is what it is, and that is a very drinkable wheated Bourbon.

Maker's Mark 46, 47% abv ($32)

The nose is strong with maple syrup, so much so that it reminds me of a Canadian; eventually, that dissipates to a more familiar corny Bourbon nose. The palate is rich and savory with plenty of oak. The additional oak notes make it thicker, chewier and more complex than the standard Maker's, but still with noticeable wheat notes lasting into a very pleasant finish.

The new Maker's is a definite step up from the standard version, adding complexity and heft. If you are a Maker's fan, you should definitely try it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

More than Bread: Qing Dao Bread Food

In my endless quest for great dumplings, especially in the wake of Dumpling Master's closure, I have been scouring the San Gabriel Valley for great dumplings. My latest stop was the Qing Dao Bread Food, which specializes in dumplings and buns.

Overall, the buns an dumplings here were a bit uneven, though the good things were very good. Boiled lamb dumplings were fantastic, with a great well-seasoned lamb filling (indeed, better than those I used to get at Dumpling Master). The fried dumplings were a bit too doughy for me and the other bread heavy buns were pretty unexciting. There was a traditional, but well done pork bao, but for some reason, it's only on the menu in Chinese. Look for it directly under the pork with cabbage on the "Fried Stuffed Dumpling" portion of the menu.

My favorite dish, though, was the noodle soup listed as "pork chop with mustard greens." They nailed every element here, soup, meat and noodle. It was a dark, porky broth with chewy, handmade noodles. The chunks of pork chop, marinated in a sweet soy glaze, were fall off the bone tender. I slurped up all the broth I could and delighted in the varying textures of noodle and pork. Great stuff. This was definitely the best dish of the meal, and the kind of thing I will be craving for a long time.

Between the soup and the lamb dumplings, Qing Dao will be a definite return trip and I will want to try more of their boiled dumplings, but next trip, I'll stay away from the buns and fried dumplings.

Qing Dao Bread Food
301 N. Garfield Ave. #G
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 312-6978

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Taiwanese Iron Eggs

My brother, ever cognizant of my desire to try exciting new dishes, recently returned from Taiwan with something I hadn't seen before: iron eggs. Iron eggs are a Taiwanese delicacy from the Danshui area of Taipei. They are quail eggs (I think) which have been marinated in a sweet soy glaze and dried. Through the process, they turn jet-black and shrink to the size of small, black olives. They are a snack for tea, so we brewed up some of the best tea I had on hand, and gave them a whirl.

The whites (or blacks, really) of these eggs were pretty rubbery, but the yolks had the texture of deviled egg yolks, and retained a lot of good sweet-soy flavor. These salty little numbers would make an excellent bar snack, much more fun than a bowl of peanuts.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Butchering the Pig

How did I miss this?

One of Mozza2Go's classes for their "scuola di pizza" was entitled "Introduction to Pig Butchery" and included this great description:

Join Mozza Chef Chad Colby as he demonstrates how to utilize a whole pig and turn it into a meal.

Yes, for only $150, I could have learned how to butcher a whole pig. Now granted, this is not the most practical of classes for the lay-cook. I mean, the closest I ever come to a whole pig is at the LA County Fair, but it just seems so cool.

If anyone has taken the class, please chime in. I'd love to hear about it and to know what you did with the snout.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Emancipate Yourself from Kentucky Whiskey - Redemption Rye

After prohibition, when the great rye whiskey tradition of the mid-Atlantic died out, Kentucky became the de facto capital of rye whiskey, but rye always played second (or maybe third) fiddle to Bourbon. For decades, rye lovers had only a few choices, all of them afterthoughts from the big Kentucky distilleries: Jim Beam, Old Overholt, Wild Turkey. About ten years ago, rye started making a comeback, but it was still largely Kentucky-based. Brands like Sazerac (from Buffalo Trace) and Rittenhouse (from Brown-Forman) started making waves. Ryes targeting a more upscale market were released by Wild Turkey (Russel's Reserve) and Jim Beam (rī)¹.

But in the last few years, a new and somewhat unlikely state has come into the rye game with a new, kicked up, rye flavor. Suddenly, Indiana rye is all the rage, or as we might call it in LA, Kentucky-adjacent whiskey.

The only whiskey distillery in Indiana is Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), located right across the Ohio River from Kentucky. Formerly the Seagram's distillery, LDI was acquired by Pernod Ricard when Seagram's broke up and then sold to Angostura (the bitters people).

The interesting thing about LDI is that while they make Bourbon, corn whiskey and rye, as well as gin, they don't bottle any of it under their own label. All of it is sold to independent bottlers or blenders. Therefore, we don't always know when we are drinking LDI whiskey, though we have some clues. (See a list of their products and mashbills here).

Templeton Rye, bottled in Iowa, admits that it uses LDI rye. Cougar Bourbon and rye, an export brand bottled by Foster's for the Australian market, is also bottled by LDI. The speculation is that High West gets its whiskeys from Four Roses, but that the rye was originally distilled at LDI, back when both it and Four Roses were part of the Seagram's empire.

Redemption Rye is a new rye whiskey on the market bottled by Strong Spirits, a bottler located in Bardstown, Kentucky. The whiskey doesn't explicitly say who distilled it, but the bottle states that it was made in Indiana, which means LDI.

The intriguing thing about LDI's rye whiskey is that the mashbill they use is 95% rye and 5% malt, which is an extremely high rye content with no corn, which makes it quite different from the Kentucky ryes. They also make a bourbon with a 99% corn mashbill, but I don't know if it's ever been bottled on its own (as opposed to being blended with other whiskeys.)


Redemption Rye, aged over 2 years, Batch 2, 46% abv ($27).

The nose has lovely, soft, fruity spice notes followed by some herbs and grassy notes. The first thing that strikes me on the palate is that it tastes young; it has that bold, overly herbal/medicinal quality that is typical of young rye. The spice is there, but it's still in a very raw form, though more of it comes out on the finish. This one needs to spend a few more years in the barrel to round it out and take the edge off.

File this one under "has potential but needs work" or maybe, "None but ourselves can age our whiskey."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fair Fatigue in Pomona

So here we go again on my annual visit to the LA County Fair. I have to say that this year's trip was pretty ho-hum food-wise. There wasn't really any hot food item of the year, though those items usually a let down anyway.

On the deep fried front, I did check out the newest thing at Chicken Charlie's which was the deep fried Klondike Bar. Unlike some of their past menu items which have been pretty repulsive, the Klondike actually was pretty good. Fried ice cream is, of course, nothing new, so deep frying a chocolate covered ice cream bar is pretty much a no-brainer for a fried food monger like Chicken Charlie. The fried crust gave way to a molten mess of melted ice cream and chocolate, while it retained a small blob of solid ice cream in the middle. Not bad at all.

For the first time I also tried the old MacPherson's ice cream stand in the shopping pavilion. MacPherson's serves soft serve and hand-dipped ice cream bars. We sampled a couple of the bars. The ice cream in the bars is bland and sort of chemical tasting but the hand dipping is fun and the sprinkles topping (as opposed to the nuts shown here) gives a nice sweet crunch. It's sort of repulsive and good at the same time, in a junk foodie type of way. Of course, given that it's served on a stick, the ice cream bar is the perfect food to carry around the shopping pavilion where live people hawk products that I thought only existed on late night infomercials.

There was more to the fair, but not much new or exciting: a mediocre french dip, the lamented loss of my favored fried artichoke stand, the always excellent fried Snickers bar and some pretty decent fried clams served with lackluster french fries at the Fish 'n Chips place.

Another year, another fair; maybe next year they'll cook up something more exciting.

Here are all my previous fair write-ups.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shen Jian Bao at Shau May

I stopped by Shau May in Monterey Park because I heard they did a great version of one of my favorites, the Shangahineses bun, shen jian bao. The place is an impressive looking set up with a huge menu divided into northern, eastern and southern Chinese sections as well as a Taiwanese section. You order at the counter where they have a large display of Chinese charcuterie as well as a dessert bar filled with various porridges and boba accompaniments. But I was there for the shen jian bao.

These were good bao. Perfectly cooked, soft with a nice crisp bottom and topped with the traditional scallions and black sesame seeds. They explode with jucie when you bite in, like the bun equivalent of XLB, but the flavor was what excited me. Most shen jian bao I've had have a basic, seasoned pork filling, but these were different. It was like biting into a ham or bacon dumpling. The juice and the meat had a distinctively cured taste. Different and delicious.

I didn't try anything else at Shau May because, well, I'd just eaten, but I'll be back to sample the menu and have another order of shen jian bao.

Shau May (aka Kang Kang Food Court)
104 N. Garfield Ave.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 571-2727

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Budget Booze - George Dickel No. 8

A couple of years ago, when I did my Tennessee Smackdown, George Dickel No. 12 came out head and shoulders above his Tennessee cousin, Jack Daniels. At that time, Dickel No. 8 was absent from the shelves as part of a temporary shortage that lasted for a year or two. Now, Dickel 8 has returned to the shelves to stand alongside the slightly more expensive No. 12 and the slightly cheaper Cascade Hollow, so I thought I would check it out.

George Dickel Old No. 8, 40% alcohol ($15-$19)

The nose has a lot in common with the 12; it's dry with rye spice, herbs and even dry white wine notes; very intriguing. The palate starts sweet, but then you pick up some of that rye and herbaceousness, including some pine/fir notes. The rye spice is a bit more prominent here than in the 12, which has more of an aged Bourbon flavor. It doesn't have the complexity of the 12, but it's extremely drinkable.

This is another winner from Dickel which bolsters my opinion that Dickel is one of the most underrated of distilleries and certainly one of the best values in American whiskey. At this price, George's motto might be close to true: There Ain't Nothin' Better.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tales of a Fourth Grade Food Critic

I have occasionally allowed my daughter to make an appearance on the blog, so when she told me she wanted to do a review of her school lunches, I was game. So what are the food options like for a fourth grader in LAUSD? The following was written entirely by my nine year old daughter, and I promise that I did not edit it in any way except for correcting spelling and punctuation.

Cafeteria Food

Many people would think that cafeteria food is gross but it actually depends on what you try. I would normally avoid anything with cheese unless you like eating slime. White cheese is okay but I wouldn't eat it. If you think pizza sounds good, I never tasted it but it smells and looks horrid. The same goes for macaroni and cheese. Normally you shouldn't eat anything that doesn't smell good. Mystery meat (brown meat that tastes like cardboard) is bad too.

Cafeteria food isn't always bad. Spaghetti and meatballs are good. They are the second best meatballs I've ever had. Cantaloupe and honeydew are really good. Ham and cheese sandwiches are good if you scrape the cheese off. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are pretty good but they don't have enough jelly. Chocolate milk is okay but don't drink too much! Hamburgers are great; so are chicken sandwiches. They are juicy and tender. Fish nuggets are good too I like them because they are not too fishy. Cafeteria food is overall okay if you come on the right day.

Los Angeles Unified School District
Elementary Cafeterias (multiple locations)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Brandy Friday: Delamain Cognac

It's been a while since we had a Brandy Friday, but now that we are heading into fall, I thought it would be a good time to taste some Cognac.

Delamain is a Cognac firm founded by an Irishman in 1762 which is still family owned. Delamain is a negociant (what we would call in whiskey an independent bottler) which means they purchase and bottle Cognac but do not distill it themselves. They specialize in very aged Cognacs and have been dealing with some of their source distillers for over a century.

I tried three of the Delamain series, all of which are 40% alcohol and made from brandies from the Grand Champagne region. The prices listed below are for 750 ml bottles, but the sampler pictured above contains 200 ml bottles of each brandy. I don't know if the sampler is still being made, but last time I checked, it was still on the shelf at Wine & Liquor Depot for around $90, which as you can see from the prices below, is a great deal.

Delamain Pale & Dry XO ($80).

This is actually the youngest Cognac in the Delamain line. The nose is light and fruity with raisin notes. I was expecting sweetness based on the nose but the palate is surprisingly dry and a bit oaky with some sweetness on the tail.
After a promising nose, it's a bit flat.

Delamain Vesper ($135).

This one has a rich, beautiful nose with a great balance of fruit (grape and pear) and oak, comparable to a great Bourbon nose. The palate on this one starts with sweet caramel and then strong, acidic, fruity notes which continue to develop into the finish. This one is extremely drinkable.

Delamain Tres Venerable ($270)

Even richer in the nose than the Vespers, the Tres Venerable nose is sweet but less fruity with some good oak and polished wood character. The palate is delicate with a strong wine grape flavor and then sweetness; wood comes out on the finish. This one has a very nice balance of fruit, sugar and wood and keeps calling me back for more.

I wasn't thrilled with the XO but very much enjoyed the Delamain Vespers and Tres Venerable. However, on a price to quality ratio, you'd probably be better off with a Germain-Robin or Jean Fillioux. If you do want to experience the Delamains, the sampler is definitely a good way to go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Reader Discount for Scotch Whisky Extravaganza

With the coming of fall, it's whiskey festival season in Southern California. I'll start back with my Whiskey Festival Calendar soon, but I wanted to share the exciting news that readers of Sku's Recent Eats will again be eligible to get a discount at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza.

Prices for non-members of the Society are $135, but the Society is offering my readers up to two tickets per person for the member price of $120. Just go to the Society's website to sign up and enter SRE2010 in the promotion code box to get the discount or call (800) 990-1991.

Last year's Extravaganza was great fun and featured some great whiskies from a number of distillers and bottlers. In fact, the Extravaganza is one of the only ways to taste the excellent single malts bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society if you aren't a member.

This year's Extravaganza will be Thursday, November 18 at The Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica from 7:00pm-9:30pm.

Check it out and tell 'em Sku sent you.

FTC Disclaimer: Sku was invited to attend this event free of charge.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fairfax Coffee: Paper or Plastik

After an enticing photo on Mattatouille's excellent blog, I had to sample the new Paper or Plastik Cafe which recently opened on Pico, just east of Fairfax.

I really like the look of this place. Paper or Plastik has a great, industrial looking space with exposed brick and a small second floor internal balcony. It is also connected to an avant garde dance studio, and while it makes for interesting drinking, one of the nights I was there the music from the studio was pretty loud. It's hard to have a conversation over atonal braying, but it was entertaining to see the dancers through the open door connecting the two spaces.

But on to the main event: the coffee. The place is still getting going so I don't want to be too judgmental, but it shows great promise. They use Intelligentsia and Ecco coffee, with espresso drinks using Intelligentsia's Black Cat. The espresso had a good start to it; it was smoky and deep with less tannin than I get at Intelligentsia, though it had a rather salty finish, and I wished there were a stronger head of crema. The cappuccino, while good, was not as silky smooth as the originals at Intelligentsia.

The biggest problem right now is they don't have decaf, but they told me they would be getting it soon.

As I said, while they are still working out some kinks, I think this place has great potential to be the best coffee between Santa Monica and Silverlake.

Paper or Plastik Cafe
5772 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 935-0268

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Vodka Vednesday: High West Peach Vodka 7000

Okay, it's not really Wednesday, but then again, this isn't whiskey. In the three plus years that I have had this blog, I don't think I've as much as mentioned vodka, and I've certainly never reviewed one. After all, vodka is, by law, odorless and flavorless; you might as well review rubbing alcohol. And flavored vodka is a travesty of chemistry. But High West Peach Vodka 7000 is different.

If you read my whiskey reviews, you know that the High West Distillery in Utah is one of my favorite blenders of rye whiskey. I recently attended a High West sponsored tasting of their whiskeys and, after going through their fabulous collection of ryes, the brand representative brought out their new peach vodka.

High West Peach Vodka 7000 is made with real peaches grown in Northern Utah. As such, it actually has a shelf life of about 90 days (from opening). Unlike most flavored vodkas, there is simply nothing artificial about this stuff. The nose screams fresh peaches. The flavor is like biting into a slightly sweetened peach. Since I had it at a whiskey tasting, I happily drank the stuff neat out of my whiskey glass. I'm sure a mixologist could do wonders with it, but the pure peach flavor made it a great drink on its own at room temperature.

Unfortunately, Peach Vodka 7000 isn't available in California yet, but you can get it at Binny's for $40 (plus shipping, of course). Check it out!