Last Fall, my buddies and I went on a camping trip to a coworkers farm in southeast Missouri. It was wonderful… a nice, crisp Fall night in late October. Leaves changing, coolness in the air, deer running and grunting around the camp site at 4AM. We prepped our site, pitched our tents, and set up our fire before dark so we wouldn’t have to fumble around the site once the sun went down. Despite waking up shivering at 2AM when my “10°-rated sleeping bag” suddenly wasn’t so warm when the temperature dropped into the lower 40′s, it was great weekend. I can’t wait to get out in the open again… maybe I’ll take the wife to a State Park this upcoming spring or Fall. Maybe not.
Even though we were out on the farm, by no means were we roughing it. We loaded up a Toyota Tundra with everything we would need… including pillows, garbage bags, a cooler with all our food and drinks, and bricks to build a firepit. That’s actually how I like to camp… car camping… get out into the controlled-wilderness with all/most of the things you’ll need to be relatively comfortable and well fed within arms reach. By no means am I planning on hiking the Appalachian Trail and living off the land like that idiot character in “Into the Wild”. But, just because I have a proclivity towards making my life as easy as possible, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand that if something really terrible were to happen, that I shouldn’t be prepared to be able to start my own fire, filter my own water, build a shelter, and generally “survive” on my own (my wife can come, too) until order can be restored or I am evacu-lifted on a helicopter or something like that (even the people stranded during Hurricane Katrina were *eventually* rescued, right?)
By no means am I some sort of ” doomsday prepper”, but I understand the value in being self-sufficient and prepared for any emergency… kind of having the knowledge and a few of the supplies to “tip” the odds of making it in my favor until reinforcements arrive. I don’t have a basement full of MREs and ammunition cans, but I do have a survival knife and a manual fire striker, a kit of emergency fishing equipment, some water, and a first aid kit at the ready, should anything happen where the conveniences of modern living are suddenly unavailable and my wife and I are left to survive on our own. Missouri experiences 45 tornadoes per year, on average, so there is a real possibility that we could be subject to power outages and storm damage. We live in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, making the possibility of a large earthquake occurring very real… which subconsciously scares me (I was in DC when the 5.8 magnitude quake struck… not very fun, and a real wake up call to get ready for an emergency). St. Louis has experienced lengthy black outs… imagine the power is out for a week, not a few days, in the middle of a 100° heat wave… think things wouldn’t get very dangerous very quickly?
So, realizing the need to be prepared, should the power go out, I’d still like to have a way to cook food and sterilize water. I’d still like to keep warm should the power go out in the middle of winter or after a tornadic cold front blows through during storm season. The answer to theses needs, obviously, is fire. Plus, a fire has an inherent comfort factor (one of the reason everyone is putting firepits in their backyards)… and if you ever find yourself roughing it in the wild (even if you’re car camping) it “keeps the Boogey Man away”, as Les Stroud always says on his Survivorman show on Discovery Channel. Like I said, I believe in tipping the balance without having to go to extremes. So to tip the balance in my favor when it comes to the essential need of making fire, I made some tinder capsules… waterproof caches of fire tinder that my fire striker can easily light… which can help you get your fire going lickety-split. Btw, I absolutely realize I’m more likely to use these things to get a camp fire going during a trip to a State Park than I am to ever have to break one open to start a fire in a survival situation… but still…
Here’s how I did it…
1. Gather your supplies… you’ll need:
- A plastic drinking straw
- Needle nose pliers
- A tea light candle
- A pencil
- A couple of wash cycles worth of dryer lint
- If you don’t have dryer lint on hand (and why wouldn’t you?), you could substitute some fluffed-up cotton ball or cotton pads, or the guts from a tampon.
2. Cut the drinking straw into 2 or 3 inch sections.Light the tea light so it can get burning for a minute or two. Use the pliers to clamp down on one of the ends of the straw section, while still leaving a millimeters worth of straw sticking out past the pliers.
3. Keep holding the straw section with the pliers, and pack it full of dryer lint. Use the pencil as a ram rod to compress and pack the lint in there.
4. Once it’s three-quarters filled with compressed lint, melt the end sticking out past the pliers by holding the plastic close to the flame (but not in the flame… we’re melting, not burning).
5. Once the plastic is melted, use the pliers to “clamp” down on the end of the straw… it should seal it, like this:
6. Repeat on the other end of the straw. It should now be sealed on both ends… and voila… fire tinder capsule!
7. Repeat until all the straw sections are turned into fire tinder capsules
8. Add the capsules to where they’ll be handy. I put all of mine into my Altoids Survival Tin, which I keep in a pocket on the sheath of my survival knife. Also included in my tin are: a small Leatherman multitool, a small bobbin of braided fishing line, a wire chain saw, a bobbin of snare wire, a small LED flashlight. It’s not complete, yet, but it’s better than not having anything.
To use the capsule, simply crack or cut it open, take out the tinder, fluff it up, and use at the core of your tinder bundle to grab your sparks or embers… like this:
The homebrewing forum I’m a member on, Mrbeerfans.com, seems to get an influx of new members after Christmas. It seems that, like me, lots of guys are unwrapping brand new Mr. Beer kits on Christmas morning, then searching the web for help making their first few batches. On the forum, we do a good job trying to help and guide the new brewers through their first few batches of Mr. Beer homebrew, but it seems like the bulk of the new members lose interest and don’t fully immerse themselves in the great hobby of homebrewing once the ingredients kits run out. Opening a can of pre-hopped extract and adding it to hot water is super easy… maybe a little too easy… and while we try to guide the new brewer to make their own recipes once their ingredient kits run out, most “I’m out of Mr. Beer cans, help me!” threads devolve into “well I don’t know what kind of beer I like, so how do I know what to make?” and inevitably their interest fades into the homebrew sunset.
The root of the problem is more than likely the fact that most of our beer journeys start in college with Bud or Miller Lite and don’t make any strides to any beers beyond those light American lagers we’ve all come to love and trust to be drinkable. Nonetheless, there are literally hundreds of beer styles in the world. And to just stick with Miller Lite because that’s what you’re comfortable with is a disservice to your taste buds… it’s like when you were five and said to your Mom , “hey, I like bologna sandwiches, so that’s all I want for dinner” That’s fine when you’re five and your Mom is looking to avoid a temperamental confrontation at dinner time, but as we grow, we expand beyond the world of bologna sandwiches. You taste different foods and expanded your tastes. Some foods you’ve tried and haven’t liked… some you’ve tried and loved… some seem a bit to exotic to tempt you to taste in the first place. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s how we grow and realize we like more than bologna sandwiches. The same is true for beer. You come to like something because it’s all you know, how do you know what you actually like? Regardless if you’re new to homebrewing, bellying up to the bar at brew pub, or window shopping at the six pack shop. The world won’t end if you try something different… what, are you afraid you’ll actually like it?
It’s important to understand that tasting beer is a process. We’re stepping beyond the realm of thinking of beer in terms of “hey, look how many of these brewskies I can pound, bro!” and actually tasting beer to for the sake of tasting of beer. We’re heading to the world where the word “light” actually describes the color of the beer, not the fact that it has fewer calories. Beer tasting is slow. It’s relaxing. It involves all of the senses… making it sort of sensual, in it’s own way. It’s social. It’s descriptive. It makes you think. It’s wonderful. So let’s get the process started…
Oh yeah, if you’re doing a sampler flight (which is a FANTASTIC way to taste different styles of beer), arrange the beers from lightest and least-hoppy to darkest and most-hoppy. If you’re at a brew pub, typically the beer menu will have a description of the beer you’re drinking… or there will be a little description of the bottle somewhere to help guide you in ordering (I typically order from lowest IBU to highest IBU… more on that later). Hops impart their bitterness in beer through hop oil, which can coat your tongue and make you taste nothing but hops. The hoppier the beer, the more hop oil, which can wreck your tasting palate. When in doubt, order the beers from “yellowest” to “darkest” when you taste.
Ok, now on to the beer!
Step 1: Appearance
The first part of the process is easy… it is literally nothing more than looking at the beer in the glass. If you’re enjoying a craft beer, some brewer somewhere has put in a lot of effort to make that beer what it is. So take a second to marvel at the goodness in front of you. Pick up the glass and ask yourself, what is the color of the beer? Is it a straw yellow? A coppery amber red? A maroonish-brown? Black? Beer color is measured in degrees of SRM… the darker color the beer, the more SRM the beer has.
Next, look at the clarity. Can you see right through it? If it’s a lighter beer, you could probably read through it if it’s clear. If it’s a stout, it can still be clear, but it’ll be so dark that you’ll only see shapes or light through the beer. Or, is it cloudy> A lot of styles, espeiclaly wheat beers, are supposed to be cloudy. Now, look at the head of the beer. Is it white? Tan? Beige? (Typically darker beers will have more tan heads) Is it pillowy? Are the bubbles large and “granular”? Or are they fine bubbles? Be descriptive and take a look.
Step 2: Swirl and sniff
Pick up the glass (or you should have it in your hands after visual inspection), and swirl the beer. You’re not spinning so hard that you’re sloshing beer everywhere, but get the beer swirled and agitated… this allows the aroma in the liquid to be lifted out by the carbonation. Now, get your nose in the glass and sniff. As you get more experienced, you’ll be able to pick up a lot of aromas and become increasingly descriptive with what you’re smelling, but for now enjoy the aroma. Is the aroma like a pine tree? A lot of hops are described as being “piney”, so you can sometimes pick that up. Some hops are citrusy, so you might pick up a hint of grapefruit peel. Maybe you’re smelling something that is sweet, like caramel. Are you smelling bread? Some dark beers will have a sort of rasty note to the smell… or a chocolate note. Get your nose in there and smell. The longer and slower you sniff, the more you’ll be able to pick out. A huge percentage of our “tasting” experience comes from what we smell, so taker a good whiff!
Step 3: Taste
Ok, now it’s time to take a sip… but resist the urge to swallow immediately. Let the beer linger on your tongue and engage all parts of your palate. And, as you swallow, note the taste difference as the beer actually goes down your throat. A lot of the flavor notes you’ll pick up were also what you smelled in the aroma, but think about how what tastes you’re picking up. Again… maybe it’s piney, or citrusy… bready… like wheat bread or crackers or a biscuit. You’re tasting the grains used to make the beer. Yes, that is actual grains, not rice or corn like the mega-brews. Herbal and earthy, maybe as well. Is it bitter? One of the main ingredients in beer is hops, which provide bitterness. Hop bitterness is measured in terms of IBU (International Bitterness Units). Some beer styles are more bitter than others by design, so they’ll have a higher IBU number than beers with less hops. So, if you don’t like hoppy beers, shoot for a beer (or a style of beers) that has a low IBU number.
Take another sip and note the way the beer actually feels in your mouth. Is it thin feeling? Creamy? Thick and syrupy? Also, pause for a moment and experience the aftertaste. Is it resiny? Are you picking up a raw alcohol aftertaste? Most high ABV beers have a slightly “boozy” taste.
Step 4: The experience
Repeat the process until the beer is gone while looking for new smells and tastes with each sip. Start over and repeat the process for each beer in your sampler flight, or for each beer you’re going to try.
Remember that beer is social, so talk about what you’re tasting with the people at your table. Talk it out with your friends. If their tasting the same beer you are, maybe their picking up a smell or taste that you’re not. And that’s ok… that’s what makes it fun. People have beer tasting parties because it’s supposed to be social and relaxing and something your enjoy. Out on a first date and want to avoid awkward silence? Go to a brew pub for dinner, taste beers, and talk about what your experiencing. Or, just have an inner monologue and enjoy the solitude of getting lost in a good beer.
You don’t have to be intimidated. You can get as in-depth as you want… some people are so geeky about tasting, they bring a little notebook with them so they can jot down a note on the smells and tastes. But, that’s an extreme case. Most importantly, you should just try different beers. Taste the beers… not just drink a beer. Figure out what you like in a beer. Have fun. Slow down and smell the roses… err, taste the beer.
When I lived in Pittsburgh and went to family functions for the holidays, or a birthday dinner, and especially during a get-together during a Steelers game, it seemed like among the plethora of Black and Gold, cheese and crackers, ham BBQ, and stuffed potato skins, was a big pan of bubbling buffalo chicken dip. If you’ve never had it, it is literally one of the most awesome football game foods in existence. Loads of cheese, ranch dressing, shredded chicken, and buffalo wing sauce all mixed together and baked until it’s golden brown, bubbly, and delicious. Dip some Frito’s, toasted bread, or tortilla chips… and let the memories of your Aunt screaming at the TV after the Steelers made a bad play come flooding back into your mind…
Here’s my twist on the classic:
1 8-oz package of cream cheese, softened.
1/4 cup of your favorite ranch dressing (or sub blue cheese dressing)
1/4 cup mayonnaise or sour cream
1/2 cup of Frank’s Red Hot original or buffalo wing sauce
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon crushed black pepper
1 2-cup package of shredded cheddar cheese, divided into 1.5 cup and 1/2 cup portions.
2 cans (12.5-oz each) of chicken, drained and shredded.
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. Combine softened cream cheese, ranch dressing, mayonnaise, Franks’ Red Hot sauce, celery seed, black pepper, and 1.5 cups of shredded cheddar cheese in a bowl and mix well. Fold in drained, shredded chicken.
3. Evenly spread ingredients into a 8 x 8 glass or ceramic pan (or a glass pie pan).
4. Sprinkle the 1/2 cup of remaining shredded cheddar cheese on top.
5. Bake 20-30 minutes until bubbly and the cheese on top is melted and golden brown.
6. Allow to slightly cool, and serve with plenty of whatever to dip… like your face.
7. Take two Tums before bed to cool the hot pipes.
The grocery store had chicken wings on sale, so the wife and I picked up a package. When it came time to cook them, I thought of the typical options… fry, grill, bake. I didn’t feel like stinking up the house with the smell of hot oil, nor did I feel like dragging the grill out (even though it was a nice evening), so bake it was. Though the wife and I still wanted the crispiness of fried wings… thankfully, I remembered a recipe someone shared on the homebrewing forum I’m a member of… crispy baked chicken wings. Pretty simple… and here’s how it works…
1. Thaw the chicken wings, if frozen. Once thawed, you can marinate the wings in your choice of liquids… buttermilk, hot sauce, whatever. Separate the wings into drumette and flat sections.
2. Preheat oven to 400 deg F.
3. Put a quarter cup of flour in a gallon zip lock baggie… season the flour with a little seasoned slat and black pepper. Put the wings in the bag of seasoned flour and shake to coat the wings.
4. Arrange the wings on a cookie rack on an aluminum foil-lined cookie sheet. Leave a little space between the wing pieces so the heat can circulate. Spray the wings with cooking spray until the flour coating is moistened. No need to overspray.
5. Bake wings 25-30 minutes. Flip. Bake for another 25-30 minutes.
6. While the wings are in the oven, make up a sauce. You can toss the wings with whatever you want… you can use hot sauce if you want, as well. Dry ranch dressing season might be good, too. I made a sauce of 2 parts Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey BBQ sauce, 1 part Frank’s Red Hot sauce, and a couple splashes of Cherry Dr. Pepper. It was great.
7. When the wings are done and still hot, toss them in your sauce. Serve with blue cheese or ranch for dipping.
In case the three or four weeks of 100+ degree days wasn’t clear enough… summer is upon us. And, while summer is my least-favorite season, I do enjoy the memories of summer barbecues and weekends at the lake from when I was a kid. I like having those connections… maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m kind of a foodie… every meal, every ingredient sparks a connection to some memory or nostalgic feeling. I like that. And I like iced tea. I remember my pap used to put out a pitcher of sun tea at the lake cottage when we were younger… put it out, let it steep, bring it in. So, in the name of resurrecting summer time memories (and because I have a taste for iced tea), I put out my own pitcher of sun tea today… only with a twist.
Making sun tea is easy… just take your one gallon glass jug (or a translucent milk jug… or some other closed, clear glass or plastic pitcher), fill it with hot water from the sink, tie five Lipton tea bags together, plop the tea bags in the water in the jug, and let it sit in direct sunlight to steep for three(ish) hours. Just for something different, I walked over to our container herb garden, grabbed about 30 mint leaves off our mint plant, crushed them in my hand and added them to the tea as I brought it outside… voila, mint sun tea. For a little added oomph, you could use loose-leaf tea… like an oolong, a nice green tea, or maybe even milk tea… but, the Lipton bags will work just fine, as well. The mint simple syrup I keep in the fridge is a great (yet potent) sweetener… orange blossom or wildflower honey would be nice, too.
And there’s another way to use the herbs we’re growing!
Spent the Fourth of July hanging out at my buddy’s dad’s and stepmom’s place… it was awesome. Some good beers, good food, good company, fun with the herd of dogs… it was perfect. Coincidentally, my buddy and his dad have been embroiled in a alittle battle of who can make the best sausage fatty. Knowing the smoker would be out for today’s festivities, they decided to continue their fatty cook-off, and invited me to make a fatty, as well.
What’s a fatty, you ask? Well… it’s basically a log of meat goodness, stuffed with whatever your little culinary heart desires. Seriously… a log of meat… then, you wrap that meat log in bacon. If your brain didn’t just explode, I’m revoking your man card.
They’re ridiculously easy to make, too… the hardest part is weaving the bacon wrap. But, once you get the hang of how to do it, it’s not that hard. I’m not going to explain how, because I think this link from the Hog Blog does a great job explaining how to weave bacon strips.
So, once you got the idea of how to weave a mat of bacon, go ahead and get one made on a double-wide sheet of plastic wrap. Once you have that, spread a thin layer of sausage meat onto of the bacon. I went with brat meat… just sliced open the casing, squeezed out the meat, and patted it down into a thin layer. Remember, this is going to get rolled onto itself, so the meat doesn’t have to be incredibly thick. You can go with sweet or spicy Italian sausage, breakfast sausage, salisccia (“sahl-see-tsa”… a St. Louis-style sausage that taste like a mix between a brat and an Italian sausage), kielbasa… whatever you want. It’s you fatty… do with it as you please.
Now, this is where the fun starts… you get to layer on the stuff you want stuffed inside. I went with cheddar cheese, chopped onion, minced garlic, fresh chive and parsley from our container herb garden, and prosciutto. My buddy used salisccia and stuffed his with red bell peppers, sliced onions, sliced baby portobello muchrooms, minced garlic, and provel cheese. My buddy’s dad went with ground turkey in place of the sausage, some pounded out chicken breasts, cilantro, basil, onions, mushrooms, and garlic. I’ve seen fatties stuffed with asparagus, ham, other types of peppers, jalapenos, any types of cheese… you can stick with a theme… like “Mediterranean”, or Italian… or Philly cheese steak… or just throw in whatever you have or whatever you think sounds like it’d be good stuffed inside a log of meat. Go for it.
Once you have it all laid out, it’s time for the hardest part of this whole process… rolling it up. It’s tough, but I’ve consumed enough burritos from Qdoba and Chipotle to have a handle on the process of rolling up something stuffed with way too much to seemingly fit in the wraper. Use the plastic wrap to help… you kind of roll it up, while pushing the meat log back on itself… like rolling a burrito.
Here’s a visual aid to help you understand the process… wrapping starts at 2:53…
That guy made the meat log separately, then wrapped it in his bacon… like a 2 step process. I went with a one step process and built my fatty on top of my bacon. Whatever floats your boat.
Anyways, roll it up using the plastic wrap (without wrapping the plastic wrap into the fatty), then use the plastic wrap to wrap up the fatty and mold it a little more. Throw it on a baking sheet and tuck in the chill box to firm up.
After a few hours (or overnight), unwrap the fatty and smoke it… 300 degrees for about 4 hours (or until the internal temp is over 145 deg F… or 180 deg F if you fatty has poultry in it). Yes, that’s a little warmer than most smoking methods… but you want the bacon to crisp up a little but. You could grill your fatty over indirect heat, as well… or maybe even bake it in the oven (with a pan underneath to catch any drippings). But, smoking it is ideal… mainly because smoked meats are way more awesome.
And that’s pretty much it… take the fatty off the smoker when it’s reached its proper internal temperature… let it rest for 10-15 minutes… slice and serve. Bacon-wrapped meat log… smoked… a little slice of heave, if you ask me.
We’ve been thinking up uses for our herbs we’re growing… one of which is lime mint. Lime? Mint? Mojito… yes, please. I don’t care that mojitos were “cool” a couple years ago. I’m more interested that they taste amazing… they’re very refreshing… they remind me of that awesome Cuban restaurant on the harbor in Baltimore… and it’s a use for the mint we’re growing.
Since we just planted the herb plants earlier this weekend, we did have to buy a pack of mint from the grocery store today… I didn’t want to rip every leaf off our little mint plant just for a few drinks. Can’t wait for the mint to grow and fill in… mojitos for everyone! Apart from the mint, you’ll also need some lime juice (I cheated and bought the ReaLime bottled lime juice), a bottle of tonic water or San Pelligrino, and some raw sugar.
The first mojito I had was at Little Havana Restaurante y Cantina in Baltimore… sitting out on their patio, right on the edge of the harbor… great food. Great friends. It was awesome. But, they used granulated sugar in the drink, and it didn’t all dissolve, and the drink was a little grainy and gritty. I didn’t like that. So… I got to thinking… why not just use a simple syrup. That way, the sugar is all dissolved and the drink’s texture will be homogeneous.
So, the first thing you’ll need to do is make a simple syrup… I infused mine with some mint leaves.
Mint Simple Syrup
2 cups raw sugar
2 cups tap water
1 handful mint leaves
Roughly chop the mint leaves and add to the water in a 4 qt pot. Stir in the sugar and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil 2 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature. Strain. Store in the fridge in an airtight container.
Making the mojito
Once you have the simple syrup done, the rest is pretty easy. I like my mojitos in a pint glass… because I like to show off my pint collection, and because it’s more drink… so, take a pint glass, drop in three mint leaves and add a pinch of raw sugar. Muddle this in the bottom of the glass… use a muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon… mash, stir, and smush the leaves into the sugar to get the mint oils and flavor out of the leaves. Don’t muddle the leaves up too much, or you’ll be sucking down bits of mint… not enjoyable to have to fish the little green bits out of your teeth.
Fill the glass with crushed ice. Add one shot glasses of the mint simple syrup, one shot of white rum, and one shot glass of lime juice. Pount into a drink shaker, shake a few times, them pour back into the pint glass.
Top off the glass with tonic water or San Pelligrino, and serve with a lime wedge (forget the mint sprig garnish… save the mint for another drink, not the decoration).
If you’re having a few folks over for a grill out or party or something and you want to mix up a pitcher ahead of time, just mix two cups of the mint simple syrup, two cups of white rum, and one cup of lime juice into a pitcher. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Muddle the mint leaves with sugar in each glass, fill with ice, stir up the pitcher of mix, pour a little less than halfway up the glass, and top off with tonic water or San Pelligrino.
What could be better on a hot ass Missouri day than a refreshingly cool minty drink. Perfection.