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Monthly Archives: December 2011

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The Death March of the Poinsettia

For the last few years, the company that owns the building I live in has decided to have activities to celebrate their tenants. This works out pretty well. Once a year in the summer, a truck with some pretty impressive built in grills shows up and everyone gets to have burgers. It’s nice. I still don’t know anyone in the building, so there’s a lot of polite smiling and nodding. No one pretends to know anyone’s name and we all get along fine on the basis that there is nothing involved in the situation other than happily eating a meal we didn’t cook ourselves.

It’s the building management company that’s responsible for my sole annual Christmas tradition:  The Death March of the Poinsettia.

Because Christmases are a year apart, I always forget that at some point in early December one of the building’s superintendents is going to be tasked with going door to door with a cart and dropping off what is essentially a festive Mexican shrub. In years past, they would post a notice saying that you could have one if you wanted one. Recently the Poinsettia has become more or less mandatory, like a dysfunctional office holiday get-together.

Phase one is upbeat. It’s nice to come home to any kind of present. Usually, if there’s something sitting outside my door, it’s a beer delivery, but a cheerful red plant is nice too. It’s joyous and it’s attractive and it’s pleasantly wrapped in festive ephemera. It’s kind of fun, and a reminder that the Christmas season is coming down the pipe. There will be candy canes and dinner with family and evenings with friends. Everything will be pleasant, except for the fruitcake, which will be consumed out of a grim sense of obligation.

Phase one, if you’re a bachelor type person who is in the middle of commuting four hours a day to brewing school at an improbable distance, ends with setting the Poinsettia down on the kitchen counter and then proceeding to ignore it intensely for the immediate future. The form that this ignoring might take differs greatly from year to year, depending upon your obligations and interests. Maybe you’ll be playing a video game instead of enjoying the Poinsettia; maybe you’ll be learning how to use a financial calculator. All that matters is that the Poinsettia will sit untended for a good solid week. Extra points are awarded for completely failing to take it out of the protective sleeve that it came in.

Phase two might come at any point after the first week or so. Maybe you have a moment free and begin to think to yourself, “Now, I know there was something I was supposed to do.”  Typically, this happens early in the morning because the Poinsettia occupies a space next to the coffee maker. Sufficiently caffeinated to face the responsibility of owning a plant, you are finally ready to come to grips with the Poinsettia.

Because you’re caffeinated, rather than just watering the plant and putting it next to the window so it can get some sunlight, you become an expert on Poinsettias by dialing up Wikipedia. You learn that it has a latin name(Euphorbia Pulcherrima), and the reason that it’s associated with Christmas (apparently, it bloomed as a Christmas miracle for an impoverished Mexican girl), and that it was named after the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. You also learn about the care and handling of the Poinsettia. That watering it too much will lead it to wilt; that not watering it enough will lead it to wilt; that putting it in anything other than direct sunlight will lead it to wilt. You become concerned about the fact that putting it next to the window means that it will be directly above the radiator and that it will be too hot.

Finally, having carefully removed the protective sleeve and having watered the plant, you elect to place it next to the window on top of the bookshelf, where, by your estimation, it will get the light it needs, but not be too hot. Unfortunately, this is out of your eyeline on a day to day basis, and you will therefore immediately go back to ignoring the Poinsettia.

Somewhere in the week before Christmas, I hit phase three. Phase three is a good reminder of why it would be a very bad idea for me to own a pet. I get emotional about the Poinsettia, you see. I look up from playing, oh I don’t know… Skyrim, and see that the petals and bracts on the Poinsettia are starting to get tired. Maybe a leaf has wilted so completely as to fall off and the white sap that courses through the plant has dribbled out. It’s a sad looking plant at this point, not unlike that last ratty Christmas tree left on the lot at the end of the day.

I take pity on it and water it far too heavily, thinking to myself, “Well, this is no way to treat a living thing,” and I chastise myself for not taking better care of it. There’s some guilt, but also a certain amount of anger about the fact that I never asked for the Poinsettia. It just showed up outside the door one day. The death of this plant is not on me. It is not my fault that some well meaning person has completely misread my ability to care for an exceptionally hardy shrub.

And eventually, I think back to childhood. I think back to sitting on the sill of the picture window in the library at our house, next to the Poinsettia which would inevitably arrive before the Christmas tree did as a result of whichever worthy charitable appeal was hawking them that year. I remember the sense of satisfaction of knowing that some things would always be a constant. Christmas would always be magical. The presents would always be what you wanted. The turkey might be dry, but no one would care. Someone else would take care of the Poinsettia and water the Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, by this point in phase three, a level of existential doubt has crept into the proceedings. You wonder what your worth can possibly be if you can’t even water a plant. You also wonder whether man is doomed eternally to participate in endeavors that he does not choose.

Phase four is solemn. It involves the disposal of the now dead Poinsettia into the dumpster out back of the building. This calls for a gentle touch, but the walls of the dumpster are too high to deposit it lightly within. While hurling it over the side of the bin, it’s hard not to note that everyone else’s Poinsettia has survived. Depression sets in briefly, until you realize that you’re free.

You have escaped the trappings of Christmas that have been foisted on you by an extremely caring and generous corporate entity. You’ve managed to avoid a tradition that you don’t really understand. You promise yourself that in future, you’re only going to participate in the traditions that you want to participate in at Christmas: Only the things that make people happy. That’s what’s important. Good food, good conversation, time spent with loved ones. You’ll feel good about yourself, and you’ll buy people just the right presents and everything will be beautiful.

It’s a promise you make to yourself that will last until next December, when all of the above events will recur.

Shiny Happy Vegans OR We Got Beets!

I don’t really understand vegans. This should come as no real surprise to anyone who knows me, especially if they’ve seen me anywhere near a platter of appetizers at a beer event. If the beer blogger was a species and we were doing a hinterland who’s who episode, it would be something like: “The northern reticulated beer blogger is an opportunistic omnivore and we’re going to need more hot wings on the buffet table, stat.”

I mean, I appreciate many of the arguments for vegetarianism. I understand it from an intellectual position. There’s the issue of food chain biomass. You can probably feed ten people with the resources needed to feed one animal. In addition to that, cows produce methane in vast quantities and it’s ruining the environment. Also, you’ve probably seen videos of the factory farmed chickens and had terrible nightmares afterwards. Also, no one wants to eat the cute animals. Otter kebabs are out.

Clearly, vegetarianism and veganism are defensible positions taken by responsible people. It’s a reasonable choice. It’s not my choice, but I understand it.

It’s just that this is not food that I’m familiar with. I don’t know what the standard is for vegan food, so when Greg Clow from Canadian Beer News emailed me a couple of weeks ago to invite me along to a vegan beer dinner at the uber-swanky Windsor Arms, I hemmed and hawed for a bit because I knew that I would eventually be doing this write up and that there would be bits of it that I almost certainly would’t like. It’s the first in a series of beer dinners for Greg, so I didn’t really think that coming down on the dinner like a ton of bricks would help anyone.

The vegetarian food that I’m used to raises my hackles slightly because it reminds me slightly of Baudrillard’s treatise on Simulacrum. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In the past, I have purchased Yves’ Vegan Hot Dogs. Now, the entire concept should throw you because a hot dog is a meat slurry that is formed into a tube by intestinal casing; this is if you get the really good ones. The vegan ones are a soy slurry that are simply formed into a tube. I don’t understand why you would attempt to replicate the form if you were vegan. Just the concept that you are eating something that is a reproduction of what is essentially viscera should be offensive. The form speaks to an ugly truth; that being a subversion of an existing construct which is nonetheless a reminder of the thing which is being avoided. It exists alongside the item it’s mimicking.

It seems like that’s a legitimate criticism, and I’m sure I’m not the first to point it out.

I figure that if I’m really honest about it the best I’ll be able to do is to not offend anyone personally while criticizing things I don’t know about.

Doug McNish: Vegan Ubermensch

Our chef for the evening was Doug McNish, who’s a remarkably upbeat man and clearly very talented and passionate. He’s got a compelling backstory as well, having lost 100 pounds after switching to a plant based diet. This made him decide to become a professional vegan chef. He’s something of a media personality in his own right, with a cookbook due out in march and numerous TV appearances under his belt.

The beers were provided by Beau’s and the ambience was provided by the dazzlingly metropolitan Windsor Arms. I like the idea of eating at the Windsor Arms. I’m told that A-list celebrities stay there. I figure that if it’s good enough for Mick and Keith, It’s good enough for me.

This is the obligatory menu and cutlery shot.

The Hors D’oeuvres were threefold. Tempeh Crab cake with spicy chipotle aioli and baby seedlings. Crisp Polenta with a  slow cooked barbecued burdock root. Nori rolls with creamy sunflower seed lemon ginger pate, red pepper, avocado and cucumber and a sweet lemon, ginger and tamari reduction. These were paired with Lug Tread.

The polenta was an early flash of genius and paired really well with the Lug Tread. None of the flavours overpowered each other and it was a lovely mouthful with some decent depth of flavour. The Tempeh crab cake was my first experience with Tempeh (as far as I know) and it emulated the texture very nicely. I didn’t care for the Nori Rolls, mostly because the closest thing I’ve had to that is a maki roll and I found that I missed the texture of the sushi rice. It seems like an important textural element that was missing, allowing for a vaguely mushy bite. I would suggest that I was alone in this assessment, but I noticed that no one else was jumping at those trays when the servers came by.

The first course was Crispy Fries smothered in black bean chili, a vegan cheese sauce, cashew sour cream, tempeh bacon bits and green onion. It was paired with Beau’s Dr. Jekyll, which is a blend of their Marzen and Lug Tread. This worked extremely well, but I notice that the components are just different enough that it is really its own dish, rather than a simulated chili cheese fries. The cashew sour cream was, if anything, slightly tangier than a regular sour cream. The tempeh bacon bits did have a smoky flavour you’d associate with pork, but kind of more of a pork belly sort of thing. It worked well with the beer.

Chili Cheese Fries. Better than those at T.G.I.McGrizzlebee's Family Jamboree.

The second course was a Red Beet Ravioli stuffed with a creamy red pepper dill cashew ricotta cheese and served with a red pepper marinara sauce. Doug was quick to point out, after getting out attention by wailing on a skillet with a wooden spoon, that this was raw food. The assumption is that by avoiding heating anything past 105 degrees farenheit, you retain nutrients that would otherwise be cooked away.  This means, I guess, that instead of a pasta, the casing for the ravioli is raw beet. It was paired with Mr. Hyde, which is Beau’s Roggenbier/RyePA cross.

We got beets!

This was, incidentally, where I realized that I was more than slightly out of my depth. I’m not really used to the texture of raw beet. My mental map includes al dente pasta, but not the crunchy  texture evident here. It’s odd. The filling was extremely rich, which I supposed stands to reason when you consider that it was mostly cashew. I was also not familiar with a raw red pepper marinara sauce, which sort of replaces the depth of flavour you might get out of a traditional simmered marinara with a freshness. I understand the form, but I don’t understand the simulacra. This is not a criticism of the dish, really, but an explanation. If I had a criticism, I would suggest that it could have been a touch spicier in order to take advantage of the rye character of the beer.

The third course was grilled chermoula rubbed tofu with braised collard greens, sweet potato quinoa croquettes and a spiced almond butter beurre blanc. Chermoula is apparently a north African seafood seasoning. It’s an interesting dish because it incorporates a lot of disparate elements. Chermoula is distinctly old world, while the croquettes are mostly new world ingredients. It’s distinctly comfort food, though and puts me in mind of a fish fry somehow. Sort of greens and hush puppies, you know? The collard greens were excellent, by the way. Braised in vinegar with jalapenos, they had just enough heat that the beer pairing of Beau’s Bog Water (Bog Myrtle Gruit) couldn’t quite catch up with them and you ended up wanting more of both.

It was at this point that I tweeted "Wooo look at me, I'm a vegan"

The dessert was raw food as well: Warm Apple Crumble with sticky toffee caramel sauce and coconut banana puree. The beer pairing was Beau’s Dunkel Buck, which has pretty significant notes of chocolate and banana. I don’t know whether the pairing worked. I had trouble with the dessert, but mostly because of my frame of reference. The only time I encounter raw apple is when I eat an apple. It doesn’t really make sense to me in other contexts, except maybe on a cheese plate.

Dessert!

It was an interesting experience, and a bold choice for the first in a series of beer dinners. Everyone had fun, which I think was the important thing. If the remainder of the events in Greg Clow’s series are as well thought out and as well presented as this one, we’re in for a treat.

I’m finding myself conflicted by the dinner. I would not have missed it. I like the idea of vegan beer pairings intellectually. I find that beer pairings are typically pork heavy. This is the result of generations of happy Bavarians roaming the landscape with a bellyful of Weisswurst and of Britons mirthlessly choking down a Sunday pub lunch. The problem is that while I have a lifetime of pub grub under my belt, I have no basis for comparison for this food. I suspect that it was extremely good as vegan fare goes, but I don’t really know. I do know that the pairings worked about as well as they do at any beer dinner. Three out of five ain’t bad.