There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.
One day in the wine aisle of the local store I had occasion to observe a striking study in contrasts.
As I drifted along in search of a couple of bottles for an upcoming dinner party, I couldn’t avoid overhearing two twenty-something guys as one told the other quite volubly that he was hoping he could fine a lawyer good enough to negotiate him out of Resisting Arrest charges if he pleaded guilty to the Driving Under the Influence charge. There were a whole slew of reasons I was horrified to hear this conversation. First of all, it was yet another example of the loss of social inhibition that saddens and frustrates me these days; how is it acceptable to discuss personal, legal, private matters in normal tones and in great detail in a public place like a grocery store?
I was privy, however unwillingly, to details like the confessor’s noting his level of drunkenness as having been so profound that three hours later when he was having blood tests in the hospital he was still unable to speak clearly, and his friend’s commiseration for apparently having had a similar experience. What I did not overhear, not once, was any indication of regret, remorse or contrition. This was all discussed pretty much in the same manner as they might have recounted a tedious everyday hassle at the office. No sense anywhere in this that the guys themselves could’ve been killed or maimed, or property been damaged or destroyed, let alone that they had opted to put everyone in their proximity at the same risks by choosing to get behind the wheel.
Talk about, no pun intended, a sobering time.
But I drink alcohol, too. It’s just that I find the idea of drinking past where it’s for taste into where the drink starts making my decisions for me repugnant. I drink specifically to taste.
So it was a startling, and rather refreshing, change of pace when the offending fools finally vacated the aisle and I was approached by a very gracious young woman who asked me politely for advice to a neophyte on choosing red wines. Her adorable toddler daughter sat cheerily and peaceably in the shopping cart throughout what turned into a fairly lengthy conversation, because of course I was suddenly acutely aware of all sorts of questions I’d not considered in a long time. It seems that this lady had a companion who was encouraging her to broaden her horizons and join him in his enjoyment of red wines, and she was accustomed only to cocktail liquor. That’s admittedly a pretty big leap for a palate, whether you’re used to straight vodka or mixed drinks with it as an ingredient.
What could I say that would be of any use to her at all?
Start, yes, with the idea that wines have enormous range in terms of flavors, intensities and affinities–there can be something for nearly every taste and occasion. This, coupled with the personality of wine being perhaps even more of an acquired taste than fruity, herbal or spicy cocktails even when those are made high-octane with something like vodka, is hugely intimidating. Wine snobs do nothing to dispel the fears, with their wacky vernacular of nose and legs, drinkable cement and tar and leather, and huffiness toward anyone drinking anything not Serious or trendy enough.
Finally I did think to tell her that the only really useful and non-terrifying way I’ve learned about red wines other than over a long, long time is to turn to that friendlier set of ‘experts’, those who have an interest in selling you wines. I rarely think of salespeople as my first choice for information resources, but in the (pun intended, this time) case of wine merchants, their vested interest in selling their wares and further, in making them appealing and accessible to a wide audience, makes them a bit more willing and artful educators on the subject than experts who have only themselves to please.
That’s what moved me to tell the nice lady not to risk her hard-earned cash on bottle by bottle experimentation but to seek out the local venues that offer wine tastings. A series of sips, and any amount of snob-sanctioned spitting that it takes to keep sanely sober and free of swallowing swill, is a far quicker way to get a hint of what one actually likes than any other.
Get thee to a wine tasting! My palate is far from sophisticated, but I’ve learned enough over time about what I do and don’t enjoy in wines that I can choose–red or white or any other color, still or bubbly, dry or sweet, or distinct in any other way–with some confidence that I’ll enjoy what I taste. One good glass at a time. Meanwhile, don’t forget to read, too. Not only can articles and even wine labels themselves tell you a lot of useful stuff you might find helpful in your search for deliciousness, as any of you reading this blog would undoubtedly know, being veteran web researchers, there are now a huge number of online resources devoted to oenophilic wisdom.
Most importantly, trust yourself and do what suits you. You might find, after all of the effort and education, that wine is simply Not Your Thing. Why on earth waste time and money (and, potentially, healthy sobriety) on something that doesn’t suit you! You may very well find, if you do like wines that the wines you enjoy most aren’t those that the critics and suave sophisticates admire and tout. If so, feel free to come slumming with me. I’m sure I have a bottle or two in my tiny collection that would make any expert swoon with horror, yet I am more than content to keep sipping at what I like because I like it. And I have been through a few wine tastings, done a bit of reading, and spent plenty of adult years getting the experience that has taught me what I do like, and that it’s perfectly okay to like what wines I like and drink them, no matter what anyone else thinks. Including having a cocktail or beer instead, if that’s my mood.
In wintertime, it’s a great and welcome thing to put one’s hands around a mug of hot tea, cocoa, coffee, cider; a great and welcome hand-warmer that, when upended at the lips, becomes heartwarming as well. The mulled drinks and toddies and steaming honey lemonade can do so much to ameliorate the harshness of the cold months that I am always grateful for the offer of a cup of such kindness.
Nonetheless, it is in the hottest parts of the year that my mind turns continually to longings for a glass, a pitcher, a fountain of something refreshing to drink. Thirst becomes more of a necessity and sometimes borders on unseemly obsession. And I find that when it’s offered to me, a good drink can be full of surprises, too.
I suppose it’s a little like whatever crossroads in my life led me to learn that many flowers were edible. That cheering revelation, coupled with the realization that this was only in keeping with recognizing how many other parts of plants I had already been eating without so much as a second thought, meant that a whole realm of unexplored flavors and methods of preparation and recipes unfurled before my hungry mind and stomach.
Safe to say that ever since that tipping (or tippling) point, I’ve been on a perpetual hunt for the next flavor, common or unique, and the next combination, easy or complicated, that will thrill my taste buds and those of my buddies, alike. Prickly Pear
To the uninitiated, it’s unappealing to think of cooling the desert air
by slurping at something named for its prickles
But after slaking fiery thirst with it, one finds the Prickly Pear
just as fine and dandy as ice cream and popsicles.
As with all of my ‘recipes’, the best way to make this in either version–or your own–is to have the ingredients on hand and then mix them, a little at a time, to your own taste.
So many meals, Latin-inflected or not, are best enjoyed with a nice cold glass or two of sangria. Particularly helpful is the knowledge that sangria has so many tasty potential variations that it can be made the perfect complement to nearly anything. Or substitute for it, if such dire need should arise. But I’ll concede that the many magnificent flavors of the Latin cultures are also, often, what make the sangria so wildly delicious.
In addition, the simplicity of combining the marvelous ingredients for either the food or drink portion of such a meal adds the appeal of quick preparation. While a number of recipes, including many for sangria, are improved by a little time spent melding their flavors together with heat or chilling, the actual labor time might not be terribly lengthy nor the effort especially challenging. Just gather the supplies, put them together in a dish or bowl, and wait for them to come to full fruition. Fruit being, of course, a hallmark of a refreshing batch of sangria.
The dish of the day is so easy it can be assembled and heated in minutes. Even the slowest portion of the prep, the cooking of quinoa, can be accomplished with little trouble, particularly if like me you have a rice cooker. I use a brand of quinoa that requires no rinsing or soaking, and it works easily to prepare it in my rice cooker by combining cooking liquid (usually my ubiquitous homemade broth) with the grain in a 2:1 ratio. I do this in larger batches, refrigerating all but the day’s portion for later meals.Nestled Eggs [one hearty serving]
In a microwave-proof bowl, put a cup of cooked quinoa and make a hollow in the center of the grain. Break two eggs into the nest and puncture the yolks a little; cover and heat the dish on High for two minutes. [A nice optional variation: stir eggs with steamed fresh spinach leaves that have had the liquid pressed out of them.] Remove the bowl from the oven and top the eggs with a handful of cheese (cotija, queso blanco or sharp cheddar, for example), re-cover, and continue to cook on High for another minute or two, until the eggs are lightly set. Spoon some nice chipotle salsa [see my semi-handmade chipotle salsa hack here] on top, add a tablespoon of cilantro-tequila pesto [just a bunch of fresh cilantro finely pureed with tequila] and some crunchy salt, and serve with a glass of cold sangria.Cherry-Peach Sangria
Combine a Jeroboam [four bottles] of Cabernet-Merlot blend wine with a magnum [two bottles] of Riesling, one 32 oz bottle of Just Black Cherry juice, 2 cups of dark pure maple syrup, one orange, thinly sliced (including peel), and one 23.5 oz jar of sliced peaches in juice; stir gently to blend, chill, and serve.
At least, it couldn’t have quenched her thirst in the same delightful ways. Because, of course, what I’m talking about is the titillating tipple. And perverse or subversive as that sounds, I mean only that I’m referring to some scintillating drink. There are a lot of versions of it out there! Many of them are ones I’m very happy to taste, test and share whenever I get the chance. There are even some standouts I’m willing to admit are probably quite fantastic even though I’d rather never drink them myself.Thing is, I think few of us are as adventuresome as we ought, perhaps, to be. We don’t put as much thought into what we drink as we do into our eating. More’s the pity, my friends. Why on earth should we be dullards about food or drink when there is so much tremendous, dreamy, splendiferous stuff for the choosing? Me, I’m rather chuffed when I manage to remember not only to pay attention to the details but to enhance the food and drink by finding a great complementary pairing of them. Good food? Good! Good drinks? Goody! Good combination? Better yet!Still and all, I must say that no amount of clever combining will save the day if the drinks aren’t magnificent right from the start. Yes, let’s just get cut to the chase: good drinks are a benison and a crowning glory and a celebration altogether. Alcoholic or not, indeed. And I adjure you, when you are serving non-alcoholic drinks at the same time as alcoholic ones, be sure to make the ‘dry’ ones as pretty or impressive as the boozy ones or someone will feel slighted. Kids, especially, but why encourage either children or sober guests to covet that which they oughtn’t have? Differentiate clearly so that those who aren’t meant to have the tipsy treats can’t mistake them for the abstemious ones. But give everyone something equally delicious and glamorous-looking, and they’ll all be happier. I know I would, anyway.
Some drinks are so lovely as-is that they require no further doctoring than to get them, one way or another, from container to mouth. Even purely good, sippable liquids, though, can be friends in combinations that make them that much more spectacular.This includes liquids that are stellar as individual drinks, from water right on up through numerous juices and nectars to the top of the drink charts. It would also, of course, include in my estimation a number of brews and elixirs and decoctions that combine those original ‘root’ ingredients aforementioned into singular teas, wines, liqueurs, beers or liquors that are magnificent drinks in their unadulterated forms. But sometimes I think people get a little too prissy, if not ossified, in their reverence for such beautiful things, thinking it sinful to even consider enjoying them in new ways or combinations. Even a modestly fine Scotch, for example, is often pretty expensive and gets people intimidated out of being imaginative with it when in a fabulous mixed drink it can actually get a little life-extension by sharing the stage with other ingredients and yet still be admirably present in the mix. And as for cocktails and any other kind of mixed drinks, I have the same attitude I was taught for food appreciation: don’t put into a recipe anything (with very few exceptions) that you wouldn’t happily eat on its own. Seriously–don’t put corn syrup based imitation stuff in front of me and expect me to choose that over pure maple syrup. (And while you’re at it, gimme Grade B–the more intense the maple flavor, the better I like it.) Don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink! Don’t make a cocktail with cheap and dirty booze! Garbage in, garbage out!
Bentley Cocktail: 1 part Calvados or apple brandy + 1 part Dubonnet Rouge
on the rocks. That’s the simple classic version. But why not play with the idea and enjoy the apple aspect further by garnishing with a sprinkling of apple pie spices? Or serving the drink with salted dried-apple crisps? Or, as with many apple-eating delights, by offering sharp cheddar crisps (did you know you can make those by simply oven-browning small heaps of grated cheese and cooling them on a rack or paper to absorb released fats?) alongside to complement the apple sweetness? You can make a fair non-alcoholic facsimile of a Bentley simply with substitutions of, respectively, strong freshly pressed apple juice (I’d use unfiltered for the fullest flavor) and cream soda or birch soda.
Gimlet [‘Vodka & Lime’, as it was introduced to me in London when I was a stripling, is my favorite version rather than the gin original]: 1 part Tito’s vodka + 1 part Rose’s lime juice on the rocks. This is essentially a grownup version of a very old-fashioned fountain drink that I loved as a kid and still love, the Green River Phosphate. So for nonalcoholic versions of it you can easily either buy Green River soda right off the grocery shelf, make a homemade version with any of the online recipes easily found, or you can even be more extravagant and make homemade lime simple syrup, simmering both juice and zest into the sugar water, and mix it with carbonated water or soda. If you’re going that far, it only makes sense to use the same lovely syrup for both the ‘hard’ version and the other drink, no? And again, why not emphasize the clean lime taste with a little complement or contrast, and consider visual impact as well as taste; classic presentation is not the law, only a set of codified cues. I’m not against even playing with frozen slices of carambola (star fruit) for the rocks in a gimlet because they have a bright citrusy taste with the added element of a surprising grassy note, they look like stars, and they keep the chill in the glass in a cheery green way without diluting the drink as they thaw. The kid in all of us, alcohol-aged drinkers or not, likes a starry surprise once in a while. I can imagine it being both entertaining and tasty to put together a simple little tribute to the tertiary color triad: a sprightly, lime-y Gimlet garnished with a bold twist of orange zest and served with a batch of sweet and salty beet crisps.
Scotch and Ginger: 1.5-2 oz. Scotch poured over ice in a tall glass, then filled with ginger ale or ginger beer (sodas, sometimes fermented). When going to have a Scotch and Ginger, I’ve seen folk shudder with horror at the very idea of adulterating decent Scotch with soda, but as you can see, my attitude toward such things is more of the [OK + OK = just more of OK] vs. [Good + Good = Better] variety. The optional iterations are so many that one could drink nothing but S&G and hardly ever have the same drink twice. I think perhaps my top choices for experimentation with this might be something like the following:
S&G 2: Laphroaig 10 year old Scotch + Vernors ginger ale (a particularly sweet and gingery soda, it’s the oldest US ginger ale still in production)These are, of course, existing and well-known mixed drinks, and among the simplest of them as well. The more numerous the ingredients, the more a drink recipe can be tweaked for fun and pleasure. It’s no wonder the new recipes never cease to, ahem, pour forth. And luckily so: I know I’ll always be thirsty for more. Here’s looking at you (through the bottom of my glass)!
Ingredients are finite. The possible ways to combine them and make them play together, not so much. I’ve found that true as a visual artist and as a cook just about equally, and in both cases it was clear from very early that I could choose between endlessly repeating myself and looking for fresh and interesting ways to play with the possibilities. If, say, I chose to choose. My friends, we have options.
Having finite resources of money and groceries complicates the cookery. Having finite tastes and interests as an eater takes the complexity further. I congratulate myself on being nearly omnivorous, but yeah, there are things I don’t want to eat. Blueberries (I can never explain this idiosyncrasy to the hordes of blueberry aficionados in the world, I guess). Organ meats (whether of organs one can or can’t live without in one’s own inventory, I generally don’t want them between my teeth). Super stinky cheeses (sorry, Francophiles). Snails (slugs are slugs, whether they’re well dressed or nude, my friends). Being married to a fella with even more limited tastes than mine, well, that’s yet another challenge thrown into the mix. So it may take a tiny bit of puzzling to decide what to prepare and how to blend the available goods into a welcome meal that we’ll both like, never mind how tasty others will find it.
But really, when we’re hungry, it’s not exactly hard to find something that will please a whole range of palates, even if the something needs to come from that aforementioned short list of potential parts. Sugar snap peas: they’re not so specific in flavor or texture or mode of preparation that they can’t be tweaked to fit a huge number of meals and dishes. Raw and plain, they’re sweet and crisp and refreshing. Steamed, they can take in a wide variety of flavors and complement yet more. They work in salads, in hot dishes, and on their own. Hard to go wrong. Meats: beef as a classic steak or roast is no worse or better, no more or less flexible in company with other ingredients or dishes than if the beef is stewed or ground, served spiced or more simply flavored, hot or cold. Bits of food from one recipe that, left over, become the heart of another: orange peel remaining from the peeled supremes used in a salad gets cooked down with stick cinnamon, crushed pods of cardamom and some whole cloves (all, in turn, saved from a baking project or two) and sugar water to make syrup for spiced wine or to be chilled for sodas. The avocado that didn’t get used alongside yesterday’s meal, that one gets put into a smoothie.
Or a tasty banana pudding. Or used as a chopped salad ingredient. Mint frosting base for brownies or a chocolate cake. Who knows. I might even make a dish of avocado with peas, beef, and whatever other readily available ingredients come to mind, because that’s the way I tend to cook. And eat. And it never really gets old.
What does it matter whether I’m an old smoothie or just desiccated with age?
There’s no time of year that’s wrong for a tasty smoothie. Since these little flavor powerhouses can be packed with vegetables, fruits, dairy or non-dairy liquid goodness, and countless herbs, spices, elixirs and sweeteners of choice, why not occasionally enjoy a few of the day’s nutrients in a deliciously sippable form? And why not, while I’m at it, sometimes enjoy them in an outright ridiculously dessert-sweet version right in the middle of the rest of the meal? Behold the Peach Pie Smoothie. It knows no season, being easy to make with canned peaches–home canned being the loveliest, if one happens to have access to them. Never having embraced the thrills of home canning myself, I’m satisfied with finding ready-made canned fruits that are preserved in fruit juices (their own or mild flavored companion ones) rather than the heavy syrups that merely mask flavor and put the fruits into suspended animation that extends beyond their shelf life.
Peach Pie Smoothie [for one]
1/2 cup canned sliced peaches in fruit juice
1/2-3/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup whole milk yogurt
1 T honey
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp Saigon cinnamon
pinch of salt
Blended together until smooth, this combination becomes a potable pie–and probably every bit as sugar and calorie laden as its forebear, so I’d better not make it a habit–that adds a happy note of variety to the meal of the day, whatever it is. I’d add a dollop of whipped cream to the top, given its rich dessert-like nature, but that would surely spell doom for my chances of minimizing the habit. When I say ‘that’s how I roll’ it begins to have a whole different meaning than I’d hope. Meanwhile, I’m too busy slurping to stop and whip the cream anyhow, luckily for me.
Besides this, there’s the sure knowledge that there are other sweet delights out there waiting for me all the time, and they’re not necessarily terrible for me either. The addition of salt–as you know, one of my favorite things on earth–to this smoothie has a specific purpose and reminds me of another grand feature of food that can be captured with little effort when one’s in the mood. Sweetness through the contrast with other types of flavor: sour, bitter, umami, or in this case salt. The enhancement of sweetness can also be relatively easily achieved by means of concentration.
No, I’m not referring to thinking-makes-it-so, though I have been known once or twice to furrow my brow in deep cogitation over whether I mightn’t be able to find more ways to bring out the sweetness of a dish or ingredient. My furrowed brow, however, hints at the other means to which I’m referring, because let’s face it (no pun intended), as I get older and my youthful juices start to dry up, my face does get more creased and crevassed. And desiccation is precisely what I’m talking about. Concentration sounds much cheerier, perhaps, but the meaning and effect are generally the same: to reduce or remove the liquids rounding out an ingredient or dish in order to enhance the detectable presence of the remaining portions. Salt, as a natural desiccant, can do this by means of leaching out juices as well as by its own salinity contrasting with other kinds of tastes. Evaporation, however, is another option and, though it’s a slower process than adding a bit of salt, depends on the ingredient itself to take the forefront, so to speak.
Let me just say that if anyone should call me a prune I would consider it highly complimentary, a tribute not only to my maturity but an indirect admission that I’m sweeter than most of those undeveloped youngsters out there.
Drying fruits in particular is a great way to pack concentrated, deeply flavorful sweetness into them. It seems only in the fads of recent years have we returned to a fuller appreciation of how marvelous that magic is, as evidenced in the skyrocketing prices and popularity of dried fruits of every sort, not to mention the pastes, candies and preserves we can make of them with little further effort. To wit:
OH, DRY UP!
Cranberry, cherry, coffee
Loquat, lemon, lime, lychee
Mango, melon, miracle fruit
Prune (plum), peach, pear, persimmon, pineapple
Raisin (grape), rambutan, rose hip
Uvilla, Ugli fruit
Valencia orange, vanilla bean
Watermelon (I’ve only heard of compression with this one, admittedly, not outright drying for concentration)
Xocolatl (okay, cacao is a berry that requires a fair amount of processing, but isn’t it highly worth the effort?!)
Zinfandel grape, zapote
SPECIAL ELECTION DAY LINK LOVE!
See my youngest sister (and her good friend Rachel Myr) on Norwegian television being interviewed about being American citizen residents in Norway who still care passionately enough about their home country to pay attention to and vote in the elections. [Both the live/filmed interview and the print one are in Norwegian, but they aren’t terribly hard to decipher, really. Plus, you get to see my beautiful sister. Bonus!]