Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Does making cars more fuel efficient make us use more fuel?


When the price of something goes down people will buy more of it. It's one of the first laws of economics, as fundamental as gravity. 

It's best to think of the law on a national or global scale, not a personal one. It's a law that describes large effects. If the price of shrimp goes down by half you might not buy more frozen shrimp for yourself. But, on a global scale, the price of shrimp has dropped in the last couple decades—and people are buying a lot more shrimp.

The law of lower prices has interesting implications in all that we do. Some of the implications are obvious. As cars get cheaper more people can afford them so more are sold. Some implications are less obvious. As calories get cheaper to produce (more food produced per acre and so on) we buy more of them (and get fatter). 

The law of lower prices can have some perverse effects. Consider making cars more fuel efficient. Increased fuel efficiency has the same effect as making gas cheaper; we get more out of our cars for less money. And what happens when we lower the price of gas? On a global scale we use more gas. We use even more than the amount of the efficiency savings in part because second order effects come into play. We extend our commutes to suburbs where houses use more energy. We use the money we saved on gas to buy things that consume gas. In other words, making cars more fuel efficient makes us use more gas.

That and many more difficult to swallow environmental issues are in the book I just read, The Conundrum, whose painful subtitle reads How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Drank No. 12: Preserving Fruits with Liquor


Also below:
What's the difference between Apple Brandy and Bonded Apple Brandy?
A Case for Punch

Preserving Fruits with Liquor

At 2011's Manhattan Cocktail Classic I took a class on preserving fruits in alcohol. It was the most interesting class I attended. If there was one thing I took away it’s that any bar should be thinking about doing this, especially one in a fruit-growing state like Michigan.

Preserving is different than infusing. Infusing — adding fruits or aromatics to alcohol and letting them mingle at room temperature — creates a certain kind of flavor effect. When the alcohol is gone, however, the fruit is basically inedible. (Maraschino cherries are preserved, not infused. If you've ever tasted some "home made" ones that are bitter, alcoholic and nasty, chances are they were infused, not preserved.)

Preserving fruits with liquor is like canning but using alcohol instead of water. There's usually sugar and spices and some cooking involved. When you're done everything is usable. Use the alcohol in drinks. The preserved fruits go in drinks, in desserts and so on.

There are plenty of recipes for preserved fruits out there on the internets. But I also took down ten notes that seemed important and might not be covered in any recipe:
  1. Start with pint canning jars, not quarts. That way you can test lots of different recipes.
  2. Once you open a jar you need to use it up in two weeks.
  3. You will fail more than succeed in the first year.
  4.  It’s expensive so be conservative.
  5.  Use stone fruits that are slightly under ripe, that way they fall apart less.
  6.  Strawberries and plums are good, but they will get so soft they’ll only be good for muddling.
  7. Vegetables and cocktails almost never go together.
  8. Follow the latest USDA canning guidelines for temperatures and sanitation. Botulism is the main danger.
  9. If you are in a restaurant have the kitchen chef in a restaurant supervise the process, not the bartenders. (No offense, bartenders.)
  10. Jars blow up sometimes.

What's the difference between Apple Brandy and Bonded Apple Brandy?

Laird’s is the last distiller of apple brandy in America. The old name for apple brandy was applejack (or Jersey lightning). Wherever you see applejack in a recipe you can use Laird’s bonded, it’s the same thing.

Bonded Apple Brandy is Laird’s name for traditional applejack made with 100% apples. The other version, simply called Laird’s Apple Brandy, is made with only 35% apple brandy; the rest is blended neutral spirits (AKA white lightning).

A Case for Punch

Preserved fruits make a good mix with punch. In fact, the opening drink served at class was punch and, while I find most punches boring as hell, this was one of the top two drinks of my weekend. Each glass had a small slice of nectarine that had been preserved in Cointreau. The nectarine was soft, silky, perfumed, almost naughty.

The instructors made a case for punch that finally sold me on it. When you throw a party and want your guests to have a drink as soon as they take off their jackets punch does the trick. It can handle a mob of arrivals that would crush a bar making drinks to order. They recommended settling a giant hunk of ice in the middle of the punch bowl. As it melts the flavor of the punch changes, the architecture of the evening follows suit. 

There are several bars in New York and San Francisco doing punch service either at bar or table side. And one in Ann Arbor. (None are preserving their own fruits that I know of; that game is wide open.) Punch was a very popular way to drink in America until the early 20th Century. After that it faded into prom nights and kitsch. Old cocktail books often have whole sections devoted to it. It fits nicely into the flow of traditional American food. Plus the food cost is awesome.

David Wondrich wrote a book on punch that I talked about here.