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Key Ingredient: Malort

Schwa's Michael Carlson takes on (and partakes of) the bitter booze



The chef: Michael Carlson (Schwa)

The challenger: Paula Haney (Hoosier Mama Pie Company)

The ingredient: Malort

Michael Carlson is not a fan of Malort. "I'm just not happy that Paula gave us this," he told us. "I think it was a rough one. I think I'd rather her give me herpes or something."

Still, he began his demo by doing a good-size shot of the wormwood-infused spirit and promised to do two more while cooking. "It says by the third shot you're going to like it, so . . . I don't believe them," he said. "I'm so not looking forward to this." He'd had it before—at the Map Room several years ago—but he hadn't sought it out since then.

"It's kind of like bum feet and earwax mixed together, man. It's pretty rough," he said. "All it really is is wormwood and alcohol. So there's not a whole lot of depth to it, you know what I'm saying?" After his first shot, though, he said, "It's not so bad. You kind of get hints of—" "Rubbing alcohol?" his sous chef, Noah Sandoval, supplied. "Yeah, that, and . . . someone likened it to tires. That's a pretty good analogy."

Malort, a type of bitter schnapps believed to be good for digestion, was brought to Chicago by a Swedish immigrant in the late 1930s. Produced here until the '70s, it's now made in Florida for the locally based Carl Jeppson company. Carlson was familiar with its history, sort of: "I know that it, like, left to go to Florida because I don't think legally you can make it here and you can in Florida because you can do anything in Florida. You know, like make meth, one, and Malort, two. Both should be illegal. But I know that it's distributed by, like, some woman in her basement, which is equally creepy. Like, I just picture her surrounded by 82 cats and 52 cases of Malort."

Carlson says he did some research when deciding what to make with Malort, as well as asking a friend who bartends at the Map Room. "He said, you're an idiot, just give it to them as a shot. So I was gonna do that, and then I thought that you guys would be disappointed."

What he ended up making was considerably more elaborate than a shot: two composed dishes, one based around hiramasa (a type of yellowtail) and the other around boar loin. As far as flavors that go with Malort, he said, "I like grapefruit. We're going with cauliflower and chocolate on the other dish." Reconsidering, though, he added, "I don't know. I don't think anything goes with it. Urinal cakes, I think, maybe microplaned over the top, sounds great."

He seared the hiramasa and then had Sandoval put it on their smoker. "We do everything pretty ghetto," Carlson said, explaining how his primitive setup works: They put wood chips in a metal pan, cover it tightly with foil, and heat it over a burner on the stove top. When the chips start smoking they poke holes in the foil and catch the smoke being released in an upside-down cup, then put the cup over the fish and leave it for several minutes to smoke it.

The Malort itself went into an alcoholic jelly that Carlson's intern, William Small, had been working on using carrageenan, an alternative to gelatin that comes from seaweed and, unlike gelatin, doesn't melt. The team also made something they called galangal glass for the dish. Galangal is a rhizome that Carlson says tastes similar to ginger, except with more heat. "We juice it and so, like literally, a little drop of that, man, melts your face off. It's pretty great." For the glass, they add simple syrup and View Tex 3, a modified food starch and gelling agent, then dehydrate it in thin sheets.

Other components of the dish included grapefruit cells, lime juice set with agar, ramps, maple foam, and a chaser of orange-coriander soda with a lily bulb in it. Even the chefs had trouble keeping up with everything that was going into it. While plating, Carlson asked, "All right, what are we missing? Tangerine lace, what else, gentlemen?" "I think that's it, chef," Small answered. "The Malort, dude," Carlson said. "Jesus fucking Chri—I'm sorry. Criminy. Let's get that Malort gelee, chef."

Once everything had been plated, Carlson tasted it (after some protesting). "I think it's a touch smoky, I think he [Sandoval] went a little ballistic with the smoke, but I think it's pretty good. You know, the Malort is definitely bitter, no doubt about it. Chase it down with this [the orange soda], and I think we're going to be all right."

Before preparing the second dish, Carlson did his third shot. "It's actually like my fifth shot, so that works out well. And I'm going to venture to say that the bottle actually lies and I don't care for it any much more—any more now."

Next up was wild boar, cooked sous vide with Malort, house-made mole, and thyme and served with curry-roasted cauliflower and black sesame. It also came with a shot: cocoa nib consommé with Malort. Carlson used mole with the boar, he said, because the chocolate made it both bitter and sweet enough to stand up to the Malort. The cauliflower was "sort of the same concept. I think chocolate and cauliflower sort of share the same flavor profile."

Tasting it, Carlson said, "Yeah, that's pretty good. I don't know if I'd put it on my menu, but it's tasty." Between the two dishes, he preferred the first one he'd made. "The first one is I think a little more accentuated, the Malort . . . It seems to be a little cleaner flavor." And the second dish? "That's one where we just decided, hey, let's try to come up with another one, because that's what we do. You know?"

Carlson also admitted that the Malort "wasn't so bad. I'm definitely not going to buy any more bottles of it, though. That lady can sit and wallow in her cats."

Who's Next:

Shawn McClain of Green Zebra, working with fresh blood. Carlson said he's seen containers of blood in delis in the Vietnamese strip at Broadway and Argyle, but has never tried working with it. "I went to go buy it and then I got kind of creeped out. I'm like, I'm going to buy this, this is going to be great. It's nice and bright and red and it looks so fresh, and then I'm like, I bet this is loaded with disease."

He's not sure what animal the blood sold there comes from, "but I'm going to venture to say it's pig. Or people. You know, one of the two. Blood banks are easy to come by, you know." 

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Carlson had this to say about his recipe for smoked hiramasa with Malort jelly (several components are below, sans instructions): "We measured this all out in shot glass form, so good luck. If anyone really wants to make this anywhere, I'll personally come to your house to make it instead. Because you don't want it."

Maple Foam

5 shots heavy cream

2 shots maple syrup

1/8 shot salt

2½ sheets gelatin

Malort Jelly

2 shots Malort

1 shot water

1 shot sugar

1/8 shot lime juice

3.5 grams iota carrageenan

Agar Lime

7 shots lime juice

3½ shots simple syrup

8 grams agar

Galangal Glass

2 shots galangal juice

10 shots water

8 shots simple syrup

2 shots View Tex 3

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