Foodie Tuesday: Simple Sips & Snips

I do appreciate stuff that is not only easy to fix but lives on past the fixing. By that I mean the sort of kitchen trick that provides more than one episode of eating and/or drinking, and the more the merrier. It might be something that, while it can be somewhat time-consuming while in the process (I’m looking at you, lasagna!) can be portioned and frozen for multiple meals, so the subsequent preparations are ever so much easier and faster than the initial one.

Or it might be more like what I did the other day. It doesn’t take terribly long, and requires virtually no brilliance or skill on my part to do it, but when I expend the effort to chop and then puree a goodly quantity of fresh ginger root and preserve it in vodka, it keeps for ages in the refrigerator and the mash is instantly accessible for any of my myriad edible loves. If I manage to drain the puree slightly when using it I might even score a small quantity of high-octane ginger-infused vodka at the end to enhance a sauce or a party drink that will more deservedly gain the title of Punch.photo

On this particular occasion, it provided me with the reasonable excuse to do a quick side-by-side taste testing of two Texas vodkas, as I knew I had none either for drink mixing or for the ginger preservation, let alone for the second set of ‘preserves’ I intended to make that day. So I bought the two bottles, one of Tito’s (a brand I’ve mentioned here before as I had discovered it is quite smooth, mellow and even drinkable straight, which is saying some for vodka in my book) and one of Western Son (a brand I’d not tried, but since it’s produced less than half an hour from where I live I thought I ought to give it a fair shake). I found Tito’s still more to my taste and less hard-edged, but both were perfectly pleasant. It’s always interesting and informative to read others’ reviews of these or any other alcoholic drinks (see the links through their names above for just a quick example) to be reminded that everything has its fans and haters, and often the most extremely opposite opinions can be backed by the exact same characteristics.

My purpose in this was pretty uncomplicated, though: I only wanted to decide which I’d rather keep some of for making the occasional spiked drink and which I would put to use as the preservative in my day’s longterm mise en place prep. Tito’s stayed in the freezer for drinks; WS got voted into eau-de-vie duty. That title is apropos not only because it will lengthen the life of the two flavorings I was treating, but also because it may become a bit of ginger firewater if the use of the root leaves enough liquid behind, and it will certainly become some beautifully flavored stuff after a good long mingling with the other flavoring agent I paired it with this time.

That, my friends, is vanilla. Store-bought vanilla beans at the grocery are often tragically bad facsimiles of their former selves, being shriveled and dry and bland and pathetic from poor packaging and over-long sitting on grimly over-lit shelves. Real, well prepared vanilla bean pods, on the other hand, are as sleek and fat and glamorous and moist as the sweet orchids that bear such beautiful fruit. Buying in bulk, with the quick turnaround of today’s online ordering and shipping, can be a much more productive and cost-effective way to bring that beauty home. So I bought a handful of nice, heavy vanilla beans and, like Jack in the fairy tale, got instant bounty from them. All I had to do was to take the WS vodka bottle that had had some liquor removed for the blending of that ginger root (now safely tucked up in a clean jam jar in the refrigerator) and the bottle had, conveniently, just the right amount of space for me to spear all of the beans down its neck into the vodka for immersion. Now all that’s left is to wait while the vanilla steeps into its full glory.photo

I can, in the meantime, take out a bean or two to cut and scrape and otherwise use to infuse and flavor any number of kitchen wonders. I can, very shortly, use the booze as a perfectly unadulterated vanilla extract, knowing that a little proper cooking or baking will remove the alcohol and leave the voluptuous flavor in its wake. And last of all, I can look forward to using the heavily perfumed vodka to jazz up drinks of the adult variety if I should so desire.

All of this from a short stint at the chopping board with nothing more than a knife for peeling and chopping the ginger, a couple of little saucers for testing the vodkas’ smell and taste characteristics side by side, and a bag of magic beans. And so much good should come of it in the days and weeks ahead.photo

Foodie Tuesday: The Wages of Thirst is Garnish

Nobody in her right mind wants her wages garnished, but the price of making a good cocktail lies, in part, in creating the perfect trimmings for it. And making a good cocktail can be a great way to pay oneself for a hard day’s work.

photoThe usual bar staples tend to include fresh fruit, pickles and olives, candied fruits, vegetables, herbs, and rims or drink surfaces dusted with sugar, salt and/or spices. Add to that the graces of toasted nuts or seeds or coconut, perhaps a drop of edible essential oil rubbed on the glass rim or dripped on the surface of the drink, and your repertoire will increase further. Edible flowers thrown into the mix will instantly give you exponential increases in your oeuvre. It seems that there are no limits to the recombinant cocktails and mocktails possible with the changing of garnishes alone. Considering that you have all of those fluid ingredients to begin with, are there really any excuses for not drinking well?
photoSometimes, though, nothing beats being straightforward and well suited without getting tricky. Boston‘s Legal Seafoods serves a refreshing drink they call French Lemonade, and the most logical thing to do is to tell the world that this drink that looks like old-fashioned pink lemonade is indeed lemony and bright, and a slice of lemon, however trite it may seem to a cocktail snob, does the job best of all. That the drink consists mostly of actual [American style*] lemonade makes it plenty easy to lay hands on a fresh slice, and that that marvelous flavor is enhanced with a little lovely Saint Germain liqueur, a bit of Chambord, and a jot of Berkshire LSF Ethereal gin just makes it eminently drinkable. At home, of course (not being a big gin fan), I’d substitute Tito’s tasty vodka for the gin, but it’s good just as it is. Not much need for excesses of flourish when it comes to the decor.

* When ‘lemonade’ is offered, many of our overseas friends expect something more like our carbonated lemon or lemon-lime soft drinks. And frankly, this drink combination could be very enjoyable with that substitution too. I’d probably garnish that one with a largish wedge of fresh lemon rather than a mere slice, to keep the taste bright and not too sweet. As opposed to me, perhaps [sweet but not too bright]!photo

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: Beetroot & Brassica

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It is good to have a zest for one's food. That can lead to more zest for life . . .

My favorite vegetables vary just as often as all of my other preferences, but like all of them, they range most of the time from ultra-sweet to slightly edgy, making stops everywhere in between. For today’s examples, let’s head toward the two ends of that spectrum. Beets for the sweet. Brassica for the brassy.

The other day’s beets were developed enough in their sugary content that they required very little enhancement of it. So they got steamed until tender with only butter, a good dose of orange zest–because such firm traditions as that combination of orange and beets form around associations that are popular with good reason–and salt. Turns out, the beets were so very sweet that they could have done with the addition of some lemon juice as a brightener. Next time!photo

Still, a good and very simple taste treat, and speaking of brighteners, despite being dutifully punctured before cooking, the beets exploded in their steaming bowl, giving me a wonderfully vivid reminder of another thing I’ve always adored about them. Had I not had such a hankering to eat them, I’d have had to soak some fabric in them to celebrate the occasion. Beets to dye for, indeed.photo

A fine contrast to the brilliant fuchsia coloring and that mellow sweetness is to be found in any of the friendly green Brassicas. On this occasion I wasn’t necessarily looking for sharpness or boldness quite so much as a textural and color-happy change of pace, so I opted for sautéed Brussels sprouts. Slicing them fairly thinly, I sautéed them in bacon fat with chopped walnuts, thyme and alder-smoked salt. If I weren’t so lazy and well-supplied with excellent bacon fat in my fridge, I’d have fried chopped bacon and then caramelized the sprouts with that, but there you are, I am a wonderfully lazy creature. Had I had any on hand, I might also have liked to throw in a bit of crumbled Gorgonzola to melt in just slightly, but lacking that, I drizzled the saute at table with a little thin sour cream.

With the two vegetables, all that lunch required for my sense of repletion was some simple Jasmine rice cooked in my homemade broth and topped with a big spoonful of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Simple. Filling. Varied. Amen, let’s eat.photo

But since one could make a slightly fussier meal, say, by adding a nice sizzling lamb chop garnished with a relish of balsamic-caramelized onions, why not also finish with a drink. The one my sister and I sipped the other day would do nicely: muddled fresh mint and basil leaves and a shot of Limoncello, topped with a smooth quality vodka (we used Austin’s own Tito’s, a very nice sip, as opposed to the many vodkas that taste slightly reminiscent of nail varnish remover when supped plain) over ice and stirred. Light, refreshing, and a good perspective-brightener before, with, or after a meal. Or, sure, instead of one. Cheers, y’all!photo