Sunday, September 30, 2007

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet's Brazil concert

A few weeks ago my SO and I attended the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet's CD release party concert for their newest album: LAGQ Brazil. LAGQ is a four-man classical guitar quartet that's been around for more than 20 years, but which I just learned about this summer thanks to one of my guitar instructors.

The majority of the concert consisted of the quartet sitting in chairs playing their classical guitars. There was very little showmanship, but they didn't need any; we managed to get front-row seats, and I spent the entire two hours mesmerized by their playing. The group played a range of pieces including Bach's Bandenburg Concerto #6, the Overture to the Barber of Seville, Manuel de Falla's El Amor Brujo, and a number of tracks from their Brazil album (including Jorge Ben's Mas Que Nada). I'm no expert in classical guitar, but I was amazed by the guitarists' skill: their hands flew over the strings, and the fluidity, speed, and apparent effortlessness of their movements were awe-inspiring. I've started listening to a lot of solo classical guitar music in the past few months, and the complexity of the quartet's music was a refreshing contrast.

The quartet ended the concert by playing four songs with Katisse Buckingham and Kevin Ricard, the woodwindist and percussionist they recorded with on their CD. These two musicians made for a great end to the concert, though sadly the group implied that they wouldn't be touring with them.

LAGQ isn't going to be traveling to many cities on their tour (see their schedule here), but if you're lucky enough to be in one of the cities they're going to, and are at all interested in classical guitar, I'd highly recommend attending.

Radagast and SO's Summer Bounty Super-Hot Hot Sauce

My SO and I decided to diversify our pepper planting this summer by growing some Jamaican Hot Chocolate peppers, in addition to the jalapeños that we usually grow. Jamaican Hot Chocolates are very pretty (they ripen to a nice chocolate brown), but as they're a close relative of habaneros, they're extremely hot: they score about 100,000 to 200,000 scoville units, whereas jalapeños score around 2,000 to 10,000 scoville units. A friend of ours grew the same peppers, and reported that touching his eye after cutting one pepper in half resulted in hours of searing pain.

We, quite honestly, didn't know what to do with the peppers. So, they piled up on our counter; eventually we decided that we had to do something with them, and thus we created "Radagast and SO's Summer Bounty Super-Hot Hot Sauce." We took inspiration from a few hot sauce recipes we found online.

We've never used hot sauces regularly before, but we both love this hot sauce. While it's packed with heat (a tiny dab on a spoonful of rice is enough to make our mouths burn), it has a rich smoky flavor that goes well with many dishes, and it doesn't have the strong vinegar flavor that some hot sauces do. So far we've added it to tuna melts, mac and cheese, roasted asparagus, tomato soup, tomato pasta sauce, and had it on chips, and it's been great in everything (note: we're adding tiny amounts to each of these; often less than 1/8 of a teaspoon to a full serving). We can't wait to add it to a pot of chili.

Since we never thought we'd be adding hot sauce to our recipes, this is this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

CAUTION: See safety instructions before working with the peppers.

20 Jamaican Hot Chocolate peppers, seeded, deveined, and quartered (habaneros would probably be a fine substitution)
18 red jalapeños, seeded, deveined, and quartered
1 pound whole tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 20-oz can crushed pineapple, in juice
~20 garlic cloves, minced or pressed with a garlic press
2 1/4 cups white vinegar
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup dry mustard powder
4 tablespoons paprika (we used a mix of smoked Spanish and regular)
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground allspice

0. Get out all kitchen implements that you may require during cooking before handling any of the peppers. Prepare a vegetable oil rinse station (see below), have plates or other washable spoon rests ready near all work areas, put on your gloves and goggles, and have paper towels at the ready so you can hold non-washable items without getting capsaicin all over them.
1. Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. This may require multiple batches of blending. Ensure that the top of the blender is firmly attached (and any holes are sealed) to prevent sauce from being flung around the room.
2. Carefully transfer the blended ingredients to a pot that is large enough to have absolutely no risk of the sauce boiling over.
3. Bring the sauce to a simmer over medium-high heat, and simmer for 20 minutes on the lowest possible heat that will maintain the simmer. Be extremely careful not to bring the sauce to a full boil, as that will drastically increase the risk that sauce gets splattered all over you and your kitchen.
4. Carefully decant the sauce into prepared jars (see notes).
5. Thoroughly wash anything that you touched after handling the peppers before removing your gloves; we recommend running items through a dishwasher multiple times.
6. Remove your gloves and throughly wash your hands with vegetable oil, followed by soap and water.

Safety instructions:

The compound in peppers that causes the "heat" is capsaicin. Capsaicin is lipophilic, which means that it can diffuse straight through your skin and cause pain wherever you come into contact with it (hands, face, eyes, genitals, etc.). Capsaicin does not wash off completely with regular soap and water, and thus I would never recommend handing cut Jamaican Hot Chocolates or habaneros with anything but gloved hands (we used latex gloves). In addition, I'd strongly recommend wearing goggles, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and socks when making this hot sauce. It wouldn't be going overboard to consider a face-shield and a respirator; at the very least make sure your work area is extremely well ventilated, as even the fumes are strong.

Probably the best method to get capsaicin off of your skin is to scrub with pure vegetable oil. If you do accidentally get capsaicin on your skin (you'll know if you do), immediately wash the affected area with vegetable oil, followed by soap and water (note, however, that this will not remove all the capsaicin, and there will likely be nothing you can do to stop the pain).

Make absolutely sure that all utensils, pots, and other items you touch with capsaicin-tainted hands are washed thoroughly before handling them bare-handed. Even after wearing gloves to cook the entire dish, we wash our hands with vegetable oil first, followed by soap, and try to refrain from touching sensitive parts of our bodies for the rest of the day.


Peppers can vary widely in the amount of capsaicin they contain. We would thus suggest that you assume that you're using the hottest peppers ever grown, and taste only the tiniest dab of your final hot sauce before trying it in larger quantities. We find that, with our peppers, a dab the size of half a rice grain is plenty to flavor an entire chip (though note that we're relative wimps when it comes to spice).

This recipe makes more than six cups of hot sauce. To store the sauce, we suggest canning it. While we'll leave it up to other sources to provide full canning protocols, what we do is boil clean jars, their lids, and any implements we'll need to handle the jars and put sauce into them (including tongs and a funnel) for 10 minutes in a covered pot, then turn off the heat and leave the pot covered until we're ready to use the jars. When we're ready to decant the sauce we remove the jars from the pot with tongs, ladle the piping-hot hot sauce into the jars and immediately seal them with lids. We let the jars cool at room temperature before labeling them and moving them to the fridge.

And, as a final note, we have no idea how important the various spices are to the final flavor. Given the small quantities of sauce required to flavor items, we're probably approaching homeopathic dilutions for some of the spices; thus, it's likely that at least some of the spices could probably be left out without affecting the flavor.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Armadillo eggs (jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon)

Growing jalapeños at home is fun, but we often find that we run out of uses for them. A local friend, however, has kindly solved that problem by introducing us to armadillo eggs. Armadillo eggs are halved jalapeño peppers filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon; they can be cooked on the grill or baked, and in either case are absolutely delicious. The fire of the jalapeños is cooled by the cream cheese, and the bacon wrapper is just a dazzling treat. Since we've made a few batches of these in the past few weeks, they're this week's second end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Jalapeño peppers (we use red jalapeños, but green are fine as well)
Cream cheese (~1 tablespoon per whole pepper)
Bacon (1 strip per whole pepper)

0. Preheat your oven to 425F.
1. Remove the stem from the jalapeños and cut in half. Scrape or cut out the seeds and ribs.
2. Fill the cavities of the halved jalapeños with strips of cream cheese.
3. Wrap each halved jalapeño in a half strip of bacon, and arrange on a foil-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake in a 425F oven until the bacon is crispy, approximately 25-30 minutes. The exposed parts of the cream cheese and jalapeños will likely be starting to brown; the bottoms of our jalapeños often are blackened, but taste fine.
5. Let cool for a few minutes, and then serve immediately.


Jalapeños contain capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers hot), a lipophilic compound that easily diffuses through skin and can cause extreme pain, so handle with care. Do not touch your eyes (or other sensitive body parts) while handling peppers. Once you're done handling the peppers, wash your hands with vegetable oil prior to washing thoroughly with soap and water.

Homemade fettuccine with butter and garlic sauce

Fresh pasta is a treat; it has an eggy flavor, and a different texture than dried pasta (though describing exactly how it's different is difficult). My SO made some fresh pasta for a special dinner recently, and today we cooked up another batch for breakfast. Fresh pasta is tasty enough that it barely needs any sauce at all; today we had it with butter, garlic, and grated cheese. Since making this reminded us of how relatively easy fresh pasta is to make (just look at the ingredients list!), it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

Note: A pasta roller, such as the one below, makes rolling out and cutting the pasta much easier.

A hand-cranked pasta roller similar to the one we have; Creative Commons image by Allerina & Glen MacLarty

Update January 2011: The fresh pasta made with this recipe can be used with many different sauces; our most frequent pairing over the past few years has been to serve it with our alfredo sauce.  A half recipe of each makes enough for a filling meal for the two of us. 

Fettuccine Alfredo
Fettuccine alfredo made with fresh pasta; sauce recipe is here.

Fresh pasta (makes ~1 pound of pasta):
2 1/4 - 3 cups flour (all-purpose flour is fine)
4 large eggs
salt for the cooking water (about 1 tablespoon of salt per gallon of water)

Garlic butter sauce (enough for ~1 pound of pasta):
12 tablespoons butter
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced or pressed with a garlic press
Grated pecorino romano cheese, for serving (at least 1/2 cup, though vary to your tastes)

Making the pasta:

0. You'll need plenty of flat, towel-covered table or counter space to hold the pasta after it's been rolled out.
1. Put 2 1/4 cups of flour and the eggs into a food processor and process until the dough begins to come together (about a minute; it's probably best to do this in a number of long pulses).
2. Open the food processor and check how sticky the dough is; it should be slightly tacky to the touch.  If the dough is too sticky, add 1/4 cup more flour and continue processing, checking for stickiness again after the new flour has been incorporated.  If the dough has formed into a single large ball, you may need to manually break up the ball before continuing to process after adding additional flour. 
3. Remove the dough from the processor and press together. Knead by hand on the counter for a few times until the dough is a cohesive mass (maybe 5-10 times). If the dough is sticking to the counter, sprinkle the counter and your hands with flour.
4. Cut the dough into six even pieces, and cover them with plastic wrap (excluding the piece you'll work with first).  Carry out the following steps with each piece of dough. 
5. Roll the dough about 5-10 times through the largest-sized opening on your pasta roller, folding the dough in half between each rolling. By the end of this the dough should be smooth and satiny. If the dough sticks to the rollers or looks rumply after going through the rollers a few times, dust it with flour and continue rolling until it looks smooth and satiny.
6. Once the dough is the proper texture, you'll want to get it to the desired thickness.  To do this, roll the dough repeatedly through the rollers, reducing the width of the opening between the rollers by one notch each time, until you reach your desired thickness. We stop at the penultimate thinness on our Imperia pasta machine for fettuccine, though the thinnest setting can be good for filled pastas. If the dough sticks or tears, simply go back to a larger size, fold the dough in half, and start again.
7. Place the rolled-out dough onto a towel, and let it dry for at least 15 minutes.  This drying step helps prevent the pasta from clumping together when cut; if you're in a hurry you can skip this drying step.
8. Once the dough has dried a bit (so it's a bit less tacky, but nowhere near actually dry), roll it through the desired cutting attachment (or cut the dough by hand). Catch the pasta as it comes out of the cutting attachment, and carefully lay it flat on a towel-covered table. Ideally all the strands of pasta should be separated (so they won't stick), but we don't bother trying to separate all of it (as the pasta tastes just as good if a few strands are stuck together).

Making the sauce:

1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.
2. Add the garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the pasta is ready.

Cooking and serving the pasta:

1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
2. Add the fresh pasta and cook until it's done; we find that two minutes is sufficient. Unlike dry pasta, we cook fresh pasta by time, as the pasta cooks so quickly that there isn't sufficient time to test it.
3. Drain the pasta thoroughly, and then put into a bowl.
4. Pour the butter and garlic sauce over the pasta and toss to mix.
5. Serve immediately, with plenty of grated cheese.


You can mix the pasta by hand instead of using a food processor; in this case put the flour into a bowl, add the eggs, and mix with a fork until the dough comes together. Continue with the pasta-making steps as indicated above.

Many pasta recipes include instructions to knead the dough for 5-10 minutes after it's come together; we've found that just rolling the dough a few extra times in the pasta roller seems to suffice. Joy of Cooking reports that fresh pasta should be allowed to dry for about an hour before cooking; when we first posted this recipe we didn't do this, but now (January 2011) we are letting it dry for at least 15 minutes after rolling.

While we've seen a number of electric pasta rollers for sale, we've used a hand-cranked pasta roller for years, and are perfectly happy with it. However, if you're making pasta by yourself, a powered roller might come in handy as we find that having three hands helps when rolling out the pasta (one of us turns the crank while the other feeds the pasta into the machine and catches it as it comes out).

We've altered the flour amount from our original recipe (which called for 2 1/4 cups), as we've found that the dough consistently comes out far too moist and sticky in our kitchen.  Recently we've been adding 2 1/2 cups of flour to the original mix, and then dusting each portion of kneaded dough a few times during rolling (probably using approximately 2 3/4 cups of flour total).  The size of your eggs, moisture content of your flour, and other factors may cause you to need a different amount of flour than we use.


Medici, L. 1992. Pasta (Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library). C. Williams, ed. Time Life Books.

Rombauer, I. S., M. R. Becker, and E. Becker. 1997. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, NY.

[Revised January 16, 2011 to change flour amounts, clarify instructions, and add drying time]

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Another semester begins!

Another semester has started at Rhosgobel U. This summer was filled with fun visitors, an amazingly productive garden (we've been harvesting pounds of fresh tomatoes, peppers, and beans every week for the past month), and lots of rest and relaxation. This was a contrast to the past few summers (when I've done field work out of the country during the summers), and thus I'm feeling much more rested and relaxed than in recent years.

Regular readers will note that I've been silent for a while; I apologize for this, and should explain it. The primary culprit, as one would expect, is that other avenues have started taking up my time. First on the list is that this semester I'm creating a new online course from scratch. While I'm enjoying this (I've been planning something like this for years), it also means that all of my writing time is now dedicated to the course.

Additionally, I've found that I really enjoy playing the guitar. My summer course was a blast, and thanks to it I've improved a lot (though I'm still a complete novice). The course took a tremendous amount of time (at least 15 hours a week combined in class and practicing), and I'm still practicing for an average of half an hour a day. I'm finding that when I've got some spare time, I don't sit down at the computer (or, rather, I don't continue sitting at the computer), but instead wander over and pick up the guitar. Right now I'm focusing on classical guitar, and might even be buying a new classical guitar soon ( since I “need” a classical guitar to play classical music).

But never fear, kind reader, I'm not going to tell you I'm quitting writing. I've enjoyed this for too long to do that. Instead, I'll be reducing my frequency of posting; so, I'd expect something about weekly, though I give no guarantees.

That said, here's looking forward to an exciting semester filled with new things.