Ingredients Matter

This weekend, I learned again that ingredients matter.  Yesterday, I decided I wanted to make some gravlax.  For those of you who don’t know what gravlax is, it is salmon cured at a minimum, with salt and sugar.  I decided to do an experiment.

I purchased two salmon sides–one farm raised and one wild caught.  I don’t usually buy farm raised salmon, due to sustainability and environmental reasons, and I’d rather go without salmon than succumb to this alternative.

But I saw farm raised salmon at an outrageously low price, so I asked the fish monger to package me one of each.  The wild caught was a beautiful dark orange, and the farm raised side was a pinkish, well, salmon color.

The wild caught was nearly three times as expensive as the one from down on the farm, and I wondered, other than the issues mentioned, if it was worth the cost.

I made my cure using kosher salt, sugar, fresh cracked black pepper, the zest of an orange, lemon and lime, and a little vodka to pull it all together.  I covered the sides with fresh dill, then packed the cure on top.  The sides were wrapped in plastic, then weighted.

Today, twenty four hours later, I removed the skin and sliced the sides thinly and wrapped them for future enjoyment, saving a tiny slice from each to try.  The results were shocking.  The wild caught salmon slice was incredibly flavorful, and if I may say so myself, worthy of being on a plate in any fine dining restaurant.  The farm raised sample, on the other hand was, to put it politely, meh.

Ingredients matter.

You won’t see gravlax on the menu at the ‘House becaue that’s not our groove.  But there is something on the menu that you know well, and proves this same point–our smoked chicken wings.

Most places get frozen wings by the case (OK, ours come in cases too) and are bruskly dropped in a deep fat fryer until crisp.  Then they’re tossed in a sauce that likely includes corn syrup and stabilization agents.  Boy, do we wish it was that easy for us.

First, we immerse our wings overnight in a brine that we developed.  The next day, we lay them out on racks in our smoker and fire up some hardwood hickory.  We smoke them until the skin a a beautiful mahogany.  The final step is done when you order them.  We put them on the char-grill to give them an additional dimension.

We then toss with our own sauces made in our kitchens (yes, we have two kitchens back there) free of corn syrup or any additives.  We have won best wings in the city numerous times, when winning those events mattered to us.  We haven’t entered a competition in years…we’d rather spend our time making it right for you.

Ingredients matter.  I’ve known this for years, and I learned it again this weekend.  Today,  I started another little personal project.  I’m making my own bitters.

I love a good Manhattan.  This winter, I tended to use OYO bourbon, distilled in the Short North by Middle West Spirits.  Yes, it’s pricier than farm raised bourbon.  Wild caught bourbon always is.  But it makes a superior Manhattan.

I’m a little different in that I make a Manhattan 50/50 with sweet Vermouth.  Most make theirs around 70/30 bourbon to Vermouth.  But I don’t want the bourbon to be the star, I want the Manhattan to be the star, so I give equal billing to both.  The quality of the Vermouth can’t be skimped on in this case, so I use a high quality (more expensive) Vermouth.

The only other ingredient, other than the red cherry garnish to make it visually old school, is the bitters.  I like seven drops in mine.  No more, no less.  Those seven drops make or break my Manhattan experience.  I found a bitter this winter called Burlesque, made by Bittermens in Brooklyn.  It includes hibiscus, acai and long peppers, along with “natural berry flavor with other natural flavors, spices.”

Those seven drops make my Manhattan sing.  Inspired, today I ordered some ingredients. Gentian root, quassin bark, dandelion root, devil’s club root, black walnut leaf, and a host of other ingredients only known to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.  I’m out to make my own bitters.

These ingredients are organic or ethically wild-craft sourced.  I will be making at least 12 different infusions, using bourbon, rum and vodka.  Channeling my inner alchemist self, I will call these infusions Potion No. 1, Potion No. 2, Potion No. 3, etc, carefully noting what I’ve done in each.  After the potions are sufficiently infused, I will start blending them to get at least one glorious bitter, hopefully two.

Then next winter, I will add seven drops into my Manhattan, and I will add seven drops into Joan’s Old Fashioned.  And I’ll smile.  Why?  Because ingredients matter.

You may never get a chance to experience the results of my alchemy.  On the other hand, someday you just might be able to order a Brewdood Manhattan at the ‘House.  But only if I get it right.

Bitters: Cinchona Bark

Cinchona Bark, the natural source of quinine


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