Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sidetracked By Homebrewing

I had planned to take time to write a blog today but I have been sidetracked by beer-making, a hobby I've had going on four years now.  I'm not a huge beer drinker these days but I do enjoy having a good, tasty brew after work.

When I was younger, especially my late teens and early twenties when I was in the Air Force and single, I had a stronger resistance to alcohol, once downing an entire case of beer in one 24 hour period, which was an admirable accomplish because it was Carling's Black Label. That was in 1969 and I don't know if it's even made anymore but that was about all we could get at the base where I was stationed at in Vietnam. That, and Hamm's. Coors if we were real lucky.

It all depended on who got dibs when the shipments were unloaded at the Qui Nhon docks by the U.S. Navy, and since we were at the lip of the central highlands our little Base Exchange got what was left after the bigger guys got their pick.

The other side of the Black Label coin was, however, that a case costs only $2.40, the same as a case of Coca-Cola. That affordability made a good case for opting for beer over something like marijuana, and we drank a lot of beer, especially on our one day off a week. It was on one of those days off that football's third Super Bowl was played. Being in an entirely different hemisphere it came on the radio sometime around one or two in the morning which meant a lot of beer drinking and it was on that night I went through a full case. As far as I can remember.

My guzzling days are mercifully over and I take joy in having the no more than one beer at a sitting.

When I started making beer back in 2010, my wife had been making her own wine for a while, and had invested a certain amount of money in the equipment - buckets, carboys, siphoning tubes, etc. - and we were talking about the quality of beer I had been buying at the supermarket or liquor stores in Socorro and Albuquerque.  One of the types of beer I had grown fond of was stout, and also porters. The darker the better.

I told her the one thing about store-bought that stout that troubled me was the price, which was usually around ten dollars for a carton of six, and since I was accustomed to having a beer after work everyday this was putting a small dent in our tight budget.

The next time we were in Albuquerque we stopped by Victor's Grape Arbor where she would sometimes pick up supplies for her wine-making. The store also carries everything needed for making beer, so on a whim I bought a kit to make Imperial English Stout, which cost about twenty dollars. The next task was to collect two cases woth of empty beer bottles, so I started saving the bottles from store-bought beer. Not the screw tops, though, just the good stuff.

That first kit worked out well, making just over two cases of very good stout, and I was surprised at how simple it was. Fermentation and conditioning takes about six weeks, but the time I spend actually doing something, including brewing and bottling, is only about six hours. The most fun comes when experimenting with different flavorings, hops and yeasts.and the cost comes to fifty or sixty cents a bottle.

Since then I have made over forty home brews, ranging from low alcohol wheat ales to more exotic chocolate stouts and coffee porters. Right now I've got a lime cerveza and a cherry stout going, conditioning in the bottle.

Anyway, I haven't had time to write anything today, so I'll make time to write and post something tomorrow. Or not.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Red or Green? Both!

August is the beginning of chile season in New Mexico.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I picked up 30 pounds of Big Jim green chiles from a local grower - Sichler's Snake Ranch Farm - here in Socorro County.
The chile was roasted for us on the spot, and we fortunately remembered to bring a big plastic bucket-thing in which to carry the dripping bag home.

The real chore came next: peeling the burnt skin off of each chile. For this one must wear rubber gloves, as chile seeds tend to burn skin, a fact which I ignored resulting in what was similar to a sunburn on my hands. That's when I remembered to put on the gloves.

After everything is peeled, the stem is remeoved and seeds are scraped out.  Next comes grinding the chile in a food processor and freezing the chopped chile in one cup portions in Zip-lock freezer bags.

We now have about a year's worth of fresh frozen locally grown green chile in the freezer! It's been said that you know someone is a New Mexican by the amount of their green chile in the freezer. This has become a yearly ritual for us ever since moving to New Mexico.

We prefer the Big Jim variety, a medium hot chile. A milder chile variety is Joe Parker, and hotter varieties include Sandia and jalapenos. There's also the X-Hot Sichler Fresh Mix. Whichever, they all are high in Vitamins C and A and phosporous.

Chile can also help with weight loss. According to one study, obese patients taking chile peppers burned an extra 80 calories a  day. The ancient Mayas used chile to treat coughs and sore throats. It stimulates gastric juices and the organs to aid in digestion and flush out illness more quickly. Creams made from chile are made to treat joint pain from arthritis and pain from shingles.

And green chile makes everything taste better!

Of course we also enjoy the red (which is a "ripened" green). The best sun dried red chile powder we've found - what we use for spicing up an untold number of dishes - is from Sichler's Produce in San Antonio (seven miles south of Socorro).

San Antonio is famous as the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, whose father owned and operated a general store in Socorro. Hilton also opened a bar in San Antonio, and the first Hilton hotel. The remnants of the hotel can still be seen, and the original bar is now inside the Owl Cafe and Bar, home of the first green chile cheeseburger. The Owl has been around since the early 1940s.

In 1944, when the first atomic bomb was tested at what is now known as White Sands Missile Range, it was not uncommon to see Robert Oppenheimer and other physicists having a beer and burger at the Owl. During the time of the Trinity test tiny San Antonio - 30 miles from the test site - had become a vitual Army camp, with tents, a mess hall, a tent movie theater and hundreds of soldiers.

Residents of San Antonio, now elderly, recall that summer with the soldiers all over the place. Many also remember seeing - or hearing - the blast on July 16, 1944.

Farmers and ranchers recollect chickens and cows being burned on one side, especially in the vicinty of Bingham, which was only 20 miles from ground zero.
Although winds that morning dispersed the mushroom cloud toward the northwest - towards Carrizozo and Corona, one wonders if the chile fields in the Rio Grande valley were affected by any radiation that day. If so, it must have been for the better since Socorro County chile is superior to the more-famous Hatch chile.

My first experience with the "green" was in 1989 when I moved to Santa Fe, and had my first taste of huevos rancheros with green chile at Maria's New Mexican Kitchen. It was love at first taste. Both sweet and hot. The best green chile balances the heat with flavor. You could say that the heat is secondary to the flavor.

Ever since then, I've learned that good green chile - from hot to mild - improved everything but deserts. But wait...there's also chile jelly. And chile cocoa. And green chile apple pie. And...and...and...

My wife Vanessa has even made wine from red chiles. We add chile to scrambled eggs, soups and stews, hamburgers, pizza toppings, and of course burritos of all types.

Whether you spell it chile (like here in New Mexico) or chili (like further east) it's all good.