Tag Archives: food

RhumBoogie – Part II of my Rum Odessey

My rum explorations started out, over 25 years ago, with the basics:

  • Meyers Original Dark
  • Coke

Yep, the classic upgrade to a Bacardi and coke. I don’t even remember if I had a lime wedge handy. If I had acquired a Bacardi silver, I used that. and so on… Occasionally I would mix it up with a pineapple juice faux tropical. Very stylish!

At some point I found out about the “tiki resurgence”, probably a few years after it happened. But as a wannabee mixologist I am enchanted by weird drinks. It helps if they are tasty. I’m sure I read an article on tiki in an issue of Saveur magazine, and it no-doubt featured Jeff Berry. And it was a smart move to feature him. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is probably the foremost popularizer, with his books Sippin’ Safari, The Grog Log, Intoxica, and Potions of the Caribbean, among others. His works are essential because he has done the groundwork that many others skipped over. He names names, names ingredients, spills secrets.

One thing that is immediately apparent: If you want to make one authentic tiki drink, it might involve a lot of work and sourcing of ingredients. It might involve finding two or three rums. It might mean making a syrup or two, or three. It will mean squeezing fruits. Crushing of ice… etc… if you want to be a tiki-naut, you will be both poor and smell like nutmeg. The array of liquors, fruits, syrups, bitters, and accoutrement is staggering.

Yeesh! I wanted a drink to chill out with, not a fugazi chem lab in my kitchen. Initially I probably wanted no more than a tasty rum drink to round out my summer rotation. I probably did want a fugazi chem lab, but that is beside the point. A fully stocked tiki bar is not simple nor is it inexpensive. But… if you want a tropical and tasty experience and don’t mind a little time in the kitchen, there is a solution… make your own rum punch mix!

Here is a scalable version of Jasper’s Secret Mix:

  • 1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 1 cup turbinado/raw sugar
  • 1 oz Angostura Bitters
  • 1/2 small nutmeg, grated

Combine and stir until sugar dissolves. Bottle! Refrigerate!

Like any syrup or mix this can be stabilized with a small dose of silver rum, or better yet, Wray Overproof or another overproof/151.

Now you have an easy way to knock out an above-average tropical drink in a below-average amount of time. My personal ratio is 2:3. Two parts Jasper’s Secret Mix and three parts Plantation 5, stir with crushed ice, and you can even lengthen with seltzer, ginger beer, or ginger ale if you so desire. You can use whatever rum you have on hand, but bad rum will not help any drink.

Speaking of which, we have tripped over a deep and treacherous subject:

Bad Rum

Really, no rum is worst of all. And most rums can produce a palatable result, if not especially delicious. What I am really on about here is better rum, occasionally excellent rum. One thing that might pop up if you rev up the Google and start looking for this kind of info is that Bacardi has many detractors. Not that it is horrible, but the dry, vodka-esque character will add precious little to the taste of a tropical drink. In fact it can be downright nasty. I absolve Bacardi 8 because it is a little heavier and has a little more of the buccaneer under the hood. That is a great choice in a Bacardi product. If you want to know why “the bat” is omnipresent, ask the same question about any giant american yellow-beer brand.

Good Rum, A Sensible Approach:

The key here is to find the sweet spot between availability, affordability, versatility, and quality. This is the “sweet, sour, strong, weak” of the smart rum shopper. I could rattle off a few good rums that you might not find, or might need to go far afield for. I hate when people do that and then say that you are a horrible person if you substitute anything for their precious HeathCliff Unobtanium 18. Pay that no heed. You want to avoid straying too high or low, too strong or too weird.

If I had to stock up on a few decent rums on the cheap I would stick with Cruzan, Mount Gay, and Coruba.

  • Cruzan Aged Light Rum is a steal at under $14/750ml, even here in the expensive northeastern USA. Mount Gay Silver is a good equivalent. Meyer’s Silver is a respectable 3rd place.
  • The same logic goes for Cruzan Aged Dark Rum and Mount Gay Eclipse. Both are a good choice for a versatile gold rum. To go off that simple script for a second, If you find Plantation 5 in good supply you should go that way.
  • Now, hold on to your wallet. None of the good dark rums are cheap, but I prefer Coruba if I can find it. Coruba has the best balance of the dark rums I have tried, but it is not especially cheap, it is not always easy to find, and for some reason there is often only one bottle hanging around longingly in even the better shops. One. Not sure why. Meyers Original Dark is readily available but seems overpriced, and Goslings is the darling of the Dark and Stormy crowd, though I don’t like it in any other drink.

For somewhere in the area of $50 you will now have a light rum, a gold rum, and a dark rum and can get a general feel for what the rum-gods are offering. As always, buy the smallest bottle you can find and don’t be shy about asking the shopkeep. They know what they have.

(In a future post I plan on creating a simple style/rating grid for rums I have tasted/purchased)

If you feel an overwhelming desire to branch out, do so cautiously.


If you do not choose wisely you will either be holding your nose or giving a partial bottle away to a friend (maybe a stranger). I will hit a few highlights and you can search out more on your own:

Martinique Rhum Agricole: These are rums made from pressed cane juice, not molasses, and they can have a grassy, earthy character. I especially love this style. Rhum Barbancourt is an easy find and while the 3-star is more affordable (and good), the 5-star is worth the upcharge. These are not especially expensive or challenging, and can be mixed in place of other rums. Another distiller, Rhum JM, makes a wide range of rhums and the top of the line are very pricey. Also in this category are La Favorite and Clement. Clement VSOP is pricey but very good, and that seems to apply to all the Clement variations I have tried. Not cheep, but very good. BONUS INFOooooo… if you like a mojito or a caipirinha you should try using a white rhum agricole such as Clement Canne Bleu, or their Platinum. It is a match made in Martinique. Bonus Bonus: the mother of all applications for rhum agricole is the ‘Ti Punch: Squeeze a lime wedge into a smallish old-fashioned glass, dose with some simple syrup, and add rhum agricole to your taste. Ice cube optional. Very austere and not easy to find that good balance right away, so start small.

Overproof Rums: These are typically in the 115-160 proof range and vary wildly in character and drinkability. Wray Overproof is the rum that Jamaica runs on. I have likened it to “what if you could turn bananas into gasoline”, but it has a special charm. You will get seriously damaged on this so go lightly. As well as being the true flavor of the islands (not the cruise ships) it is also essential to making a good falernum… but I digress. Unless you are lucky enough to find the Hamilton 151 (successor to Lemon Hart 151), you are on your own. Most are suitable as a float or to flambe some bananas. The worst are a crime against humanity.

Flavored Rum: A bottomless pit of pain lies beneath the label! I am not much of a fan or consumer, and most of them taste very bad or one-note to me. Showing up at a buffet bar and finding Malibu as the only rum choice is a panic-trigger akin to my abhorrence of McDonalds coffee… it brings back nothing but memories of deep despair and broken dreams. That said, I would be very sure I was going to like a spiced rum before purchasing it. The cost of one drink at a bar is worth the effort. As I mentioned previously, I bought a bottle of Quebecois spiced rum last year, in Quebec, and it is decidedly not horrid. It is made entirely in Quebec, so go figure how they pulled that off. Original Captain Morgan is not the worst. How is that for faint praise?

Weirdo Rums:CruzanBlackstrap is probably the easiest to call “weirdo”. It is overpowering in any dose, but does make for a full-flavored experience. Still, you can live without it. Even if I am using theCruzanBlackstrap as a little kick or a float, it dominates. The flavor is like vanilla meets off-brand root beer. One bottle could last two people a good long time. I think I only paid $11 for it, so there is some price relief to buffer the regret. Stroh might be a stretch to call “rum”. Nuff said. I see Kraken in many shops and in many bars. I had a Kraken dark and stormy, and one with coke. All I could taste was vanilla. I liken it to a less-complex, less funky Cruzan Blackstrap. Not my choice.

I will end with a suggestion that you keep an eye on the bottle selection (or ask) at the bar, or seek out rum-friendly bars. You can try a new rum in a cocktail and get a feel for it without buying a whole bottle.

Next up, a quick survey of syrup technology, and a small glossary of my favorite web resources on the subject of rum and cocktail chemistry.

Lemoncello Brain Dump

After a few questions about the not-so-fine art of homemade liquors, here is a quickie brain dump on the ubiquitous and simple Lemoncello:

First, it is not rocket science. Extract citrus zest with vodka, sweeten with simple syrup. Ballgame. There are some fine points that can help with the appearance, color, and depth of flavor, but you could read that sentence and make a good Lemoncello.

I live in an area with no indigenous lemons and no indigenous neutral spirits, hence, my approach is based on the ready supply of imported lemons and commodity hooch. Good lemons should smell like a lemon. Easier said than done in New England. But never fear, look at places selling quality produce and take your chances. Even average lemons get the job done. Any mid-grade vodka will do. Nothing too cheap or too fine.

I have used grain/everclear and the results were drinkable but I found that the high proof spirits extracted too much oil. It works, and the end product is much stronger. Proceed as you wish. I have toyed with using Grappa… I will report back if I dare go down that rabbit hole.

Zest, not peel, 6-12 lemons. Zest means not taking the white pith away with the peel. Don’t stress, just use a sharp peeler and try to avoid too much pith. It is easier than it sounds. Too many lemons is waste unless you are heading towards a 2L+ extraction.

Add zest to a half-gallon widemouth jar and top with 750ml to 1.5L Vodka. The proportions are not super-critical, but you will end up with almost twice this volume of finished Limoncello (this is a good case for starting small and scaling up). Cover and allow this to extract for at least 2-3 days, and a week is a good target. A funnel with a piece of cheesecloth will help you make a clean transfer to a mixing vessel. You can also transfer to a bowl, clean the jar, and then transfer it back for mixing (my preference).

Ahead of the transfer, make a batch of simple syrup. 1:1 water and sugar heated to dissolve, short simmer is ok. Don’t boil. You are not making candy. Cool syrup.

Now comes the part that will help you zero-in on the character of the finished product: Start at 1 part syrup to 2 parts vodka extract. If you used a 750ml bottle of vodka, start with no more than 400ml of syrup. Mix well. Let it stand. Mix again (agitating the bottle us fine). Using that big widemouth jug makes this easier.

Taste and assess. You can always add more syrup if it is a little too astringent. Also, you will have a less dilute product by starting on the low end of sweetness and working up if necessary. Viola! You have a house-made liquor to amaze your friends.

Variations: Oranges and limes work very well. My kumquat experiment, not so much. Live in a climate with local citrus? Use that. This technique is applicable to a variety of flavors. I am partial to citrus, but you can experiment and find a cool variation. Pawpawcello might be good. You tell me. I will take your word for it.

Restaurant Bites Guy Fieri

As much as I despise the celebrity-chef industry, there are a few people who I have a level of tolerance for.  Alton Brown.  Anthony Bourdain.  Guy Fieri.  I have my reasons for all of them, but since Guy Fieri is currently front and center in the news, I would like to throw a few thoughts out there.

The background is that NY Times food critic Pete Wells wrote the mother of all poison-pen reviews, and it was Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar that was in the crosshairs. The review is priceless, by the way.  Written almost entirely in rhetorical interrogatives, it is the kind of review that professionals write when they feel that it is the only way to convey their extreme disappointment.  Pete Wells has nothing, and I mean nothing, to gain from slagging a restaurant that is making an honest effort.  I think “honest effort” might be the thing that is going unsaid in the current web-frenzy on this situation.

First things first [do I have to even say that this is opinion and conjecture?]: Guy Fieri does not have the personal capital to open a 500-seat, three-floor, three-bar monument to the fryolator in Times Square, Manhattan.  He is well paid, and is doing well on a personal basis, but the location in question is the apex of high-roller real estate, and even the best backed restaurant ventures are still low-odds propositions.  GFKaB is a high cost, high risk venture, and it has many people with a financial interest.  Guy was part of a deal to be involved in branding, menu design, consulting, etc… brought in by an investment group.  He is the “face guy”.  If there are any notions that this is Guy Fieri’s pet project and he had intimate involvement in the food and beverage production, disabuse yourself of those notions now.  Guy Fieri has a large stake in seeing the place succeed, because he has a lot to gain if it goes right.  It most likely isn’t make or break for him, but it could (temporarily) ankle his career in a way that only Rocco DiSpirito could empathize with (and even Rocco only had himself to blame).

It is apparent that after four separate visits to the establishment by the NYT food critic, they were all badly received.  Wells slams the bulk of the menu, the service, the bar, and the decor.  If you can, please go read the review.  It is crystalline wrath for subjecting a reviewer’s palate to overpriced swill.  For all of Fieri’s protestations, he is currently finding out that he trusted the wrong people.  Fieri made his mark by championing the food of the common man, executed with great care by good cooks, often with a strong regional sensibility, in the low-rent venues that dot this great nation.  Pete Wells knows EXACTLY what this kind of food is supposed to look, smell, and taste like, and the kind of people that make and serve it.  If the execution at GAKaB was even within horseshoe-close distance of hitting the mark, Wells would have written a very different review.   It wasn’t close.  It was offensively off the mark.

As much as I think he pushes entertainment over substance, and his chain restaurants are tweaked Applebee’s clones, Fieri deserves credit for his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show.  He gets what is cool about regional fare and does a great job of showing it the appropriate respect.  I was impressed by how he handled one of my favorite local diners: He did an awesome job of profiling O’Rourkes in Middletown, CT, and the quirky and inventive Brian O’Rourke, and he fit right in with Brian… that is hard to fake.   So I don’t have it in for Fieri, nor do I cheer this smackdown.  But, again, it looks very much like Wells couldn’t let Fieri slide with a slap on the wrist.  His experiences must have been soul-destroyingly bad.  Fieri can bitch at Wells and the NYT all he likes, but he got sold out by some guy with an MBA, not a fellow traveler in the cooking trade, and Pete Wells is just the messenger.  Don’t shoot the messenger.

[much smarter blog post from TIME… ]

Rochefort Festival Wrap Up – 4

Festival Preparation

Monday was travel day to get from the wilds of Picardie to the Atlantic coast and Rochefort.  The drive was uneventful, with the understanding that it was a groggy entourage operating on not much sleep.  Getting the vehicles packed was the first hurdle, then getting to Nicolas’ place for the meetup, and then hitting the road.  We had a little downtime while Charly looked for his vehicle reg and insurance.  Not hard to believe that official papers aren’t the primary concern of Charly 🙂  And with that we were off on a convoy, of sorts.  The trip involved heading back toward Paris in order to catch the main highway out to the west.  A few rest stops were in order, for coffee, a quick nap, and a snack.  Some of the rest stop concessions bear the name “Flunch”… which may be appetizing in French, but made me think of some euphemism for projectile vomiting.  “Dude, I totally flunched that pasta salad after I chugged all that Mountain Dew!”

The first four hours or so involved me riding shotgun in Charly’s Camaro, which is a noble ride.  Also, it is always sending heat to warm you up, which would be fine in October but not so much in August.  But we cranked some tunes and talked music… and the battery in Charly’s phone died… d’oh.  We switched up at a rest area so Owen could handle communications on his phone, and I rode with Nicolas and Napoleon in Nicolas’ BMW wagon.  Nicolas was truly spent, after all the trips to CDG on Saturday, and then a super long day on Sunday, so I drove for an hour or so while he zonked out in the back seat.  I love driving in Europe, so that was a nice surprise for me.  Nicolas handled the last hour or so once we left the highway.  After about 6 hours of driving, in the European manner, with plenty of rest stops, we rolled into Rochefort.

The festival site centered around “the Clos”, a large industrial space with a walled field facing the marina.  That was home base for the week, and a space that I took to calling “the dungeon” in reference to Zappa’s “The Torture never Stops”.  It was not the prettiest, or the best decor, but it was a great place to rehearse, practice, eat, and hang out.  Having that kind of central area was probably the thing that allowed whatever organization that did happen, to happen.  There I met the people I would be relying on for the week.  Philippe, the festival head-honcho and the guy with the most headaches at every moment of the week.  Elodie, the organizational maestro.  Benoit, the “fixer”.  Fanny, the “enforcer” (which is humorous, because every time she was thinking I was late for something I would appear, on time and ready to work).  Christian, the photographer.  Gilles, the head of the Capitanerie, and his first mate Christian.  Domenique, the driver, had been out to Louatre to drive people and gear back, and he was also the last person from the festival I would see before I left France.  Jean Francois, who was helping in some capacity but I know him mainly because he is learning accordion and I may have helped him with some timing concepts.

There was also a cast of other volunteers doing everything from cooking, driving, lugging equipment, and then the stage crew…. I only met Jan and Pierre, but the entire crew was professional and able.  More on that soon.

The first order of business was food, and the food at Rochefort en Accords was singularly the best event catering I have ever experienced.  Not that it was fancy or expensive, but it was like home-cooking at every meal.  Being lactose-intolerant can often mean having only a few choices in food, and often not good ones.  That was never an issue.  Every meal had fresh vegetables, salads, charcuterie, meats, and desserts.  I had to avoid some things like the lasagne with gruyere, or the quiche-like terrines studded with fresh cheese.  Oh, and no croissant!  That was the worst kind of “pain”…  As well, the cheese plates were amazing but I couldn’t take chances with my “availability”.  Did I mention the oysters (huitres)?  The local oyster has a deep rounded shell, a sweet and smallish meat, and an intense briny liquor.  They were brilliant!  No, not the same as anything here in the northeast, but fantastic and fresh.  I can only imagine how there are in the colder season when they would be tighter and crisper.

A quick list of what I remember (missing some things that I didn’t eat and didn’t pay enough attention to)  from the buffet: tomato-cuke salad with a variety of tomatoes that we would call “heirloom” but they just call tomato, celery root vinagrette like a fresh slaw, green salad with the sweetest greens I have had ever, cous cous, lentils with sausage, fromage de tete (possible pate de tete) in many forms and all delicious, hard boiled eggs to go with the terrine, other cured sausage products, andouilette (fresh pork sausage), boudin noir, a Choucroute de la Mare (which I am stealing and making here), lamb stew with mushroom, beef stew, several kinds of cooked beans with garlic and small amounts of meat, grilled sliced beef loin, oysters, steamed mussels, a paella type dish with chicken and seafood, terrines and quiche-like dishes with meat and vegetables, apple tarts, chocolate cake…. and always bread, always wine, always coffee, and also a local fortified sweet wine “pineau” which reminded me of vin santo but is made with cognac.  Oh, and two types of cognac: one younger and sweeter with a very fruit (apple and pear) nose, and one aged and more familiar to me.  The word is that the French export most of their cognac, the Japanese are the major consumers.  That said, the cognac that we had was very good, and if that is what stays and what is available locally, it could be a lot worse.

And as over the top as that sounds, it was just solid homestyle food.  Considering the workload and the stresses and ambition of the festival and the musicians, it was this kind of support that really made the work possible.  The constant support of the volunteers, the positive attitudes, the healthy food, the occasional glass of wine or spot of coffee at the moment when it was needed most….  those things made it easy to commit to large amounts of work over long hours, and get up and do it again each day.



On a lighter note… The mighty “Chalupa Dog” from the good folks at Lucky Taco! Can you say “hell yes”?

and sooner or later you end up hanging out with vegans…

Welcome to Part 1 of a new petebrunelli.com series on mobile food service!  As someone who formerly cooked in restaurant kitchens, cooks most of my meals at home, but works by day in an office building with no food service, I eat a lot of meals from mobile catering, food trucks, roach coaches, and various hot-dog cart looking operations.  Over the years I have been lucky enough to eat some great street food made by dedicated and talented cooks, as opposed to being poisoned by indifferent schmoes with no regard for my well being.

One of the more recent bright spots in the Hartford, Connecticut food truck scene has been GMonkey, a vegan catering truck run by Mark Schadle and Ami Beach Schadle.  You might know of Mark as chef and co-owner of It’s Only Natural in Middletown, CT. GMonkey also have a web presence at their blog, Farm2Street.  This is a new venture for Team Schadle and they are hitting the ground running.  I see lines and happy faces at their truck every time I stop by.

A few things about my diet can make street food, or any dining-out experience, a little nerve wracking.  One, I’m dairy free due to a lactose tolerance issue, so someone forgetfully slipping sour cream or butter into my food is a bit of a disaster.  Hooray for vegans who don’t use any dairy!  Most places have no problem with accommodating a dietary request, but at a truck like GMonkey I don’t even have to ask.  The other is that while I do eat meat, I eat a lot of vegetarian and vegan meals just out of routine.  I also eat a lot of whole grains and legumes, so I am on familiar ground with most of the GMonkey menu offerings.  I am also learning a few things about dairy substitutes that I am looking to steal and incorporate into my own cooking (or not-cooking as the case my be)

I was recently interviewed as I grabbed a raw food smoothie from GMonkey.  They were parked in front of the State Capitol building for a health awareness day event, instead of being parked in their usual Wednesday spot about 100 feet from the entrance to 79 Elm Street.  Yes, I used the miracle of Tweeter to find out that their scheduled location had moved, and the miracle of Facebookie to see the daily menu.  Ain’t the social interwebs amazin’?

gmonkey truck at ct state capitol

gmonkey at work

So, with that preamble laid out, here is my independent and unauthorized review of the GMonkey experience:

First, the food quality is off the charts.  Mark is at the controls and bringing his A-game to this endeavor.  The ingredients are top shelf.  The flavors are fresh and clean.  The variety is way above average.  The vibe at the truck is extremely positive.  I’ve tried a small sampling of their dishes, but between their one or two appearances in Hartford each week, and my schedule and my unpredictable daily food preferences, it has taken a while to sample their offerings.  My favorites are the black bean and brown rice (with greens and more) “downward dog burrito”, and the peanut butter and cacao raw food smoothie.  The burrito is a good sized meal, with fresh flavors and a slight chile kick.  Nothing groundbreaking, but very good.  The shake is fantastic, with a good texture and strong but not overwhelming flavors of vanilla, banana, chocolate, and peanut.  Their spicy noodles are a very strong item as well.  I wouldn’t call them traditional, but I would call them delicious.  I really do feel good after a meal from GMonkey.

I intend to work my way through more of the menu as the summer goes on.  The Schadles are doing a job worthy of patronage, if not obsession.  Ami really does bring a huge amount of energy to both taking orders and being (apparently) the social networking voice of the GMonkey team.  OK, I admit that it can sound a little cultish sometimes, and I am not sure I want to be considered a GMonk, but that is my problem.  Another facet of the GMonkey operation is that of cost.  GMonks better not be looking for a lot of change from a Gtwenty.  Not confusing price with value is hard, and the quality end of this operation screams “value”, but when a burrito and a shake run $16, and I can get three vegetarian falafels and a drink for $16 over at Alladin, or eat $16 worth of nowhere-near-vegetarian tamales at El Serape on Broad Street, etc… well, you gotta really want to “feed the monkey” as The Dude would say.  Once a week or so I can splurge, but a cheap eats experience is not what GMonkey is selling.  What they do is occupy the high end, and the specialty end, of the mobile catering spectrum.  I applaud them for it, and vote with my wallet as often as I can.