Foodie Tuesday: A Frosty Reception can Warm the Heart

Hot weather makes us crave chilled drinks. We need to re-hydrate, but biological science says that hot drinks are the sensible approach, inviting the body to cool down in compensation for the introduction of additional heat. But that’s not nearly as satisfying, in reality. So we look for our respite in iced drinks.Photo: Mr. Frosty's Root Beer

I’m pretty much an All-American girl when it comes to my tastes in that regard: briskly icy soft drinks in a frosty mug are particularly welcome. I grew up with the benison of special-occasion A&W root beer in said frosty mug, and I’ve never outgrown that treat. Coming to north Texas, I was happy to find a comparable comfort waiting for me when the ugly reality of Texas summer heat became just a little too much for my tender Northerner sensibilities: the vintage joint Mr. Frosty.

Their in-house root beer is sweet and vanilla-kissed like the aforementioned A&W’s, and is served in freezer-chilled mugs. That it happens in a place that hasn’t changed substantially  in its long life and offers a swell menu of classic diner foods with the appropriate tinge of Texan and southern character is, well, icing on that icy deliciousness. So the frosty mugful of root beer can be accompanied by a burger or hotdog and fries, or that fine and mythic dish, Frito Pie. Chili served over corn chips of the named variety, and occasionally, topped with the usual chili toppings of onions, shredded cheese, and/or sour cream.Photo: Mr. Frosty's Frito Pie

The beauty of this combination is that the temperature and spice of the chili (preferably, without beans, if you’re a traditionalist in Texas) can perform the body-signaling duty of changing one’s internal temperature a little to better suit the weather around it, and the root beer can do its part by providing the psychological cooling that brings it all home. Meanwhile, there’s the pleasure of people-watching, seeing the widely varied crowd that can be pleased by a visit to this kind of old-school eatery. And, like some of the place’s vintage fellows, this diner is host to regular gatherings of vintage-car enthusiasts as well, so whether it’s one of those times or simply a hot afternoon when the need for an icy root beer is high, there can often be a sighting of a classic car or truck to enhance the entertainment. It all goes down so well with an order of Frito Pie and root beer, as any experienced soul can tell you.

Foodie Tuesday: Drink Me

photoShe may have had quite the colorful and sometimes even delicious adventures, but Alice never had so much good fun in Wonderland.

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.photoThing 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!photoStill 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.photoThis 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 1: The Macallan 12 year old Sherry Oak Scotch + GuS Grown-Up Soda Extra Dry Ginger Ale vs.

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)photoThese 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)!

Foodie Tuesday: Same Song, 99th Verse

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.photo

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.photo

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.photo

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.