Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Pucker up

I'm not bitter, I just like drinks that are.

These days, I've found myself dabbling more in cocktails than beer -- not just because of the ill-fated rhubarb sour ale (R.I.P.), mind you, but because there are so many elements to play with, so many variations. One recent discovery was the leftovers from the sour cherry bitters I made this past July. I mean, I was NOT about to toss the quart of not inexpensive, organic, local sour cherries from the farmers market into the compost bin once they'd done their work. Turns out the spiked cherries left at the end perfectly balance what I thought had already been the perfect cocktail: a limoncello tonic. I love this kind of kitchen kismet.

What's that? You'd like to make your own? Well, you're going to have to do some serious work to find some of these ingredients, let me tell you. Even my friend who is a professional herbalist didn't have two of them on hand, and hadn't even heard of one of the ingredients.

Well, okay, readers, I like you, so I'll tell you about the source I discovered for all things herbal. What? No, not THAT kind of herbal... though it is legal in the District. I mean my buddy at Blue Nile Botanicals, in a basement shop tucked away where you'd never expect it on Georgia Avenue, who sells every herb and spice you can think of, including those some herbalists have never heard of.

(Goodness, I'm so excited I just ended a sentence with a preposition!) Before I digress even further, possibly sliding further down a slippery poor grammatical slope, here's the recipe, adapted from a recipe on the Serious Eats blog:

Sour Cherry Bitters


1 1/2 cups sour cherries, halved and pitted
1 whole star anise, crushed
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3" stalk fresh lemongrass, cut in small pieces
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon gentian root
1 teaspoon quassia chips
1 cup Bulleit rye whiskey


Put the cherries in a glass quart jar with 1/2 cup of Everclear. Shake. This is your cherry flavoring.

Put the anise, fennel, lemongrass, vanilla, and cardamom in a glass pint jar with remaining 1/2 cup Everclear. Shake. This is your spice mix.

Put the gentian root and quassia chips in yet another glass pint jar with the rye. Shake. This is your bittering mix.

Set all jars aside in a dark place at room temperature for 10 days.

Strain the spice mix and bittering mix through a fine-mesh sieve, removing solids, and into the cherry flavoring jar. Do not remove the cherries. Shake. You now have one jar that contains the strained spice mix and bittering mix along with the steeping cherries and alcohol.

Let this steep for an additional 2 weeks.

Strain out the cherries through a fine-mesh sieve, and then strain the rest through a coffee filter into the quart jar. (Save those cherries in the fridge for months, in a tight-lidded jar, and drop a couple in your limoncello tonics or any other cocktail that could use a bitter accent.)

Store your homemade sour cherry bitters in a dark place, at room temperature, for up to one year. It just might last that long, since you only use a couple drops in a cocktail. Oh, yeah, you'll want to buy an eyedropper for that because you're on your way to becoming an amateur mixologist. You're welcome.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Local honey is the bees knees

Today marked my first ever opportunity to participate in a honey harvest! I can think of few things that would cause me to happily bike through the hellacious traffic that is DC rush hour, but local honey is one of them. Some small part of me felt bad smoking the bees earlier today and stealing their food. But just a small part.

Amazed that I hadn't been run off the road during my commute from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom in 5pm traffic, I arrived to find Toni and Kevin -- my beekeeping teacher and mentor, respectively -- just getting the smoker going and pulling on safety gear at the West End Community Garden. We got right to work, checking the frames for honey and estimating how many boxes we could safely take so that the bees would have enough remaining stores to get them through the cold months. (It was strange to be thinking of winter as I stood there sweating in my veil, long sleeved shirt, long pans, and socks in the late afternoon sun.) Each box we harvested had to be bee-free, so Toni applied her special menthol-and-almond-extract-soaked hive lid to each of the chosen hive boxes. This cleared out about 90 percent of the little buzzers, leaving us to gently brush any remaining bees off the individual frames. It's funny that bees don't like the almond odor -- I thought it smelled delicious! -- but it totally worked. I think we only had 5 or 6 hangers on by the time we got to the processing stage.

You will notice that there are no photos of us working with the hives -- I know some of you would love to see me in my orange pants tucked into grey stripey socks and my oh-so-fashionable bee veil. No time for photo ops, people, there was much to be done in the short time: we had to get four hives checked, bees evacuated, and boxes into the back of Toni's car.

Here we are set up for honey extraction at the Boys and Girls Club in Georgetown where, for the price of a few bottles of our honey, the staff kindly let us use one of their classrooms. We got right to work, using some crazy tools to upcap the honey frames: two of us worked with a "scratchers" (glorified metal picks) while the third person attempted to use the "cold knife" (which we later determined was more useful as a spatula):

Here are Toni, Kevin, and Tom trying to figure out how best to balance the 9 frames we would be spinning at a time.

I spent most of my time working with Annie at the upcapping station, using the scratchers to scrape off the outer layer of wax so the honey would be able to flow freely in the frame spinner.

Here's our team pouring our beautiful, freshly spun honey through a strainer.

Straining removes the little bits of dead bees, honeycomb, and other detritus. Not that I am a total purist -- I actually quite enjoyed chomping on some of the honey-coated comb when we sampled some from a blown out hive frame -- but a nice, clear bottle of honey is pretty special.

80 pounds of strained honey later, we were done!

Now it's time for a quick dinner and change of clothes before heading out for a night of salsa dancing. I wonder if I still smell like propolis....