Thursday, August 26, 2010

Profile of a Sorghum Farmer

Danny R. Townsend is a rock star in the sorghum world. He is a fifth generation sorghum farmer and producer. His sorghum has been twice voted the National Champion Sweet Sorghum. His sorghum is revered in these parts and beyond.

I was introduced to him by Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods whose mission is to bring sorghum to the mainstream – to your breakfast table. We toured Danny’s endless fields of sorghum and tobacco. We tasted the cane straight from the ground. Cut with a knife at the base and split between the 4th and 5th notch from the base, that’s where the best juice comes from. And although it was still weeks before ready to harvest, the juice ran sweet and refreshing, a little milky, a touch green. It’s hard to explain – I guess it tasted like sorghum.

So what is sorghum? It’s the juice of the plant, Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench, a grass technically, that is boiled down and clarified until it reaches an amber – brown color with the viscosity of honey. It is a natural sweetener like honey but with a flavor that is deeper, think grassy caramel with notes of vanilla, coffee and leather. But it is not molasses, a by-product that is often plagued by a burnt tar aftertaste.

Sometimes, you’ll see a quaint bottle of sorghum with a mule painted on it. That’s how they used to squeeze the juice, with big rollers pushed by mules. That’s about as practical as jumping in a barrel and pressing wine grapes with your bare feet. Today it’s all mechanized and Danny is one of the pioneers of this modernization. The juice is brought in through large conveyor belts, milled through mechanized rollers and boiled in large pans that have partitions so the syrup slowly snakes its way down the chute while being clarified. Depending on the time of year and the producer, sorghum can be a light amber to a roasted brown color. It’s all a matter of preference.

Danny talks quickly with a hushed monotone that takes some getting used to. He chuckles after almost every sentence. Like most farmers, he messes with other projects ad infinitum; tomatoes, corn, potatoes; he collects old machinery, he’s working on producing ethanol, etc. And he also makes some damn good sorghum. Did I tell you he’s won the Sorghum Championships? Twice?

Originally brought over from Africa as a wonder plant to compete with sugar cane, sorghum was pretty much forgotten once refined sugar and corn syrup became the norm. It is now almost exclusively grown in Kentucky and Tennessee with probably less than a few hundred growers in the country. The ones that do grow it tend to be slightly obsessed with it. And so it is with consumers who taste it. I’d never heard of it before coming to Kentucky and now it has become a staple in my pantry. Anywhere you need sweetness with an added layer of flavor, sorghum does the trick: BBQ sauce, braising liquid, sweet syrups, glazes, soups, marinades, pickling liquid, even cocktails. Ice cream, berries and sorghum drizzle is simple but oh so complex. Slow braised brisket with sorghum glazed and baked into it until the meat shimmers with promise is sublime. Sorghum with stout beer is an incredible braising liquid for winter months. Sorghum can be thinned out with a little water and brushed on anything from scallops to foie gras for a taste of something sweet yet mysterious.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Korean BBQ: The Holy Trinity

Reprinted From Theme Magazine and The Utne Reader, Sept 2009

BBQ: the holy trinity of salt, sweet and smoke. A good BBQ involves every sensory emotion that starts with a steaming mouthful of meat and finishes ten ribs and three root beers later in the cradle of a childhood memory when you could eat to your heart’s delight without worrying about indigestion.

Mine has always been the memory of growing up with the socially unacceptable smell of garlic. All the staples of Korean BBQ require it: like Kalbi with its charcoal fired sweet soy or Pork Ribs in sweet fermented chili paste thick enough to be a meal in itself or those special evenings when relatives were in town, we’d go out and treat ourselves to tripe and shaved cow’s tongue so thin it would curl and wrinkle with blackened heat as soon as it hit the sizzling iron griddle. My mother would force me to chew Doublemint after every one of these meals. They gave them out free at Korean restaurants. We were supposed to hide the joy of our garlic breath from the rest of the world. I always spit my gum out as soon as we hit the pavement.

BBQ is supposed to linger in your mouth and a good one can stay on for hours. Far from being shameful, BBQ breath is a proclamation, a proud stance, perhaps even a bit subversive. Because a really good BBQ is not just ribs and corn, it ventures into the wild territory of mysterious cuts and farm animals that polite society will never accept. The ribs of a pig? Yes, there is respect in that but when you’re looking to get serious, try mutton. Mutton is sheep bred older than a year. Anything younger is lamb. So mutton is a bit tougher, with more character and age but less delicate, less desired. Yes, mutton is like that washed up actor doing infomercials.

But there is one place in America where mutton shines. Amidst the grain mills and rolling hills of the Ohio Valley, the town of Owensboro, KY is small, unassuming and friendly. You would never know that it would be home to one of the country’s best BBQ. Until you look up and see the sign: “If It’s Not Owensboro Barbecue, It’s Not Real Barbecue.” Here, the mutton is simply but diligently cooked: cured in salt and spices, slow smoked over hickory chips for over ten hours until it falls apart to the touch with a burnt crackle of skin. Smoky, tender, tangy, messy with a vinegary mop of BBQ sauce for dipping. The mutton has a distinctive smell that makes it stand apart from the all too familiar pork and beef. It can only be described as the smell of character, something that comes only with age.

At the Moonlite, the way to go is the buffet. You are likely to eat yourself into a coma if you aren’t careful. Alongside the mutton, there is the requisite beef and pork, not to mention the greens, mac-n-cheese, potato salad and so on. But it is the mutton that keeps everyone coming back. Ten thousand pounds of mutton a week, is what the owner told me. The week I was there, they went through ten thousand and twenty pounds. In the cavernous dining room, I sat there at a table by myself with a plate of mutton, corn and a bibb around my neck. Forty minutes later, and two more trips to the buffet, my meal was over but my emotions were just starting to stir. Sitting back with a glaze over my eyes and listening to the clamor of chairs and heavy plates and simple conversation, I could have easily been in one of those brightly lit barbeque restaurants in the Koreatown of my youth. Mutton? Tripe? How different are they really? You can taste the hard work that goes into it, and that’s all that really counts. You can sense the satisfied laughter of the diners as they head for home and that is a universal feeling. I awoke and realized that, unlike my childhood, I had to drive myself home. It was near closing time. I noticed a bowl of mints on the counter, you know, for your breath. Free. But, it had hardly been touched. I always knew this was a good place for BBQ, but I knew right then that this was simply a good place to be.

A recipe for Mutton (with a Korean kick)

Make this first:

Chili BBQ Sauce

1 cup fermented Korean Chili paste
2 tbspns strong red miso paste
1/3 cup vinegar
¼ cup orange juice fresh squeezed
¼ cup sesame oil
1 tspns cayenne pepper
4 tbspns brown sugar
2 tbspns white sugar
2 tspns garlic powder
one finely chopped scallion

Mix all ingredients together and whisk briskly until you get a nice loose sauce. If the consistency is too thick, thin it out with a little water.

For the mutton, you will need:

- A temperature control grill or smoker
(if you don’t have the above, an oven will do fine)

- about 5 lbs hickory chips
- 1 shoulder of mutton 4 – 5 lbs (substitute lamb if you can’t find mutton)
- salt
- black pepper
- ground allspice
- 20 cloves garlic peeled

First, make a salt rub by mixing the salt to pepper to allspice at a 2:1:1 ratio.

Prepare your mutton by rubbing this mixture generously all over

Now make some slits around the mutton with a paring knife about an inch deep. Slide your cloves of garlic in these slits.

Let your mutton cure now for about four hours or overnight in your refrigerator.

Set your grill, smoker or oven to 220 degrees. Add your hickory chips. If you are using an oven and you want to go the extra step, burn your hickory chips on a gas stovetop. When they start to smoke, throw then in a pan and set in the oven below your roast. (You will have to repeat this many times to mimic the smokiness you would get from a burner but I believe in you.)

Slowly roast your mutton for about 6 – 8 hours being careful to turn and baste it continuously with the rendered fat.

Your mutton is ready when the outside is nice and brown but the inside is falling apart and tender.

Now dip into your Chili BBQ sauce and enjoy.