Burning down the house

I never thought I would say this, but having the extra time to fix dinner every night is starting to get boring. Not that I don’t like cooking but I seem to get in a rut, and sometimes I just simply don’t have the energy.

So last night I was looking forward to revisiting a recipe I had made previously, a simple one: broiler chicken roasted in a cast iron pan with ramps and garlic. Sadly, it appears to still be too early for ramps here (if social distancing will permit them to be harvested at all), so I substituted some scallions.

I didn’t remember how incredibly smoky the house got as a result of the cooking method, which calls for preheating a cast iron skillet at 500° for 45 minutes, then cooking the chicken for 30 minutes before adding the ramps/scallions and some garlic. I ended up having to disconnect every smoke alarm in the house and open a few doors and windows to clear out the smoke.

But it was delicious, and it redoubled my resolve toward one goal: someday, when we renovate this kitchen, I’m getting a range hood that vents outside. Dreams…

Cocktail Weekend: Appels + Oranjes

I invented this cocktail a while ago to use some bitters. That doesn’t sound promising, but bear with me.

When visiting my parents and sister in Western North Carolina, I’m always reminded that Asheville has a lot going on. Last year, our favorite local bakery, Rhu, reinforced that with a display of cocktail paraphernalia that included bitters from Crude, based in Raleigh. Of course I bought the sampler.

And it sat in my pantry for a while, until one night, out of desperation and boredom with the usual, I started riffing off the weirder things on the liquor shelf. Curaçao, or Cointreau? Sure. 100 proof apple brandy? Definitely. Orange and fig bitters? Yes. And rounding it all out, that oft-overlooked wunderkind, Lillet Blanc.

I’m not sure of the thematic connection to the Smashing Pumpkins other than the name, but I think it’s a refreshing alternative to the usual nonetheless. Do make sure, though, to get Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy (100 proof) rather than their “applejack,” which is more like flavored neutral spirits.

As always, here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Cocktail Friday: The Fritz

I did a lot of traveling this summer and fall, and not a lot of writing. But I read—almost all the Nero Wolfe novels, in order. And I was struck by how much I liked the character Fritz, Wolfe’s patient cook.

I had Fritz in the back of my mind one weekend about a month ago as I was trying to balance Cardamaro and rye in a new cocktail. It was the 1/4 ounce of Maraschino liqueur that balanced everything, and it reminded me that while there is certainly a place for drinks that are equal parts and easy to make, there is also room for balancing carefully and just one more ingredient for something memorable.

Enjoy!

In clover

If you had told me five years ago that almost every lunch out I ate while at the office would be vegetarian, I would have asked you where you left your marbles.

It’s no secret that I love food. For many years at the office that translated to food runs for lunch that ended at delicious but fattening destinations. Among the stops in the rotation: chicken parm subs from the local pizzeria, loaded Bravo Italian sandwiches (prosciutto, sopressata, roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, olive oil and basil) from La Cascia’s, Indian takeaway from the surprisingly good stand in the mall, and lots of H-Mart Spicy Pork.

Then I stumbled on Clover. I wasn’t thrilled by the concept of a totally vegetarian menu, but some of the other aspects—no freezers ever, 100% fresh locally sourced produce, seasonal fast-service menu—had me intrigued. And then I tried their falafel (aka the famous chickpea fritter sandwich), with a side of rosemary fries. And I was completely hooked.

At this point I’ve had every sandwich on the ever changing menu, even the BBQ Seitan (not a favorite), the Pushpir (spectacular), the secret-menu Mayor Menino BLT (with soy “bacon” and garlic mayo, which became an obsession for months), etc. Now I look in advance of my week to figure out which days I don’t have noontime meetings so I can go get my Clover fix.

I’ve gotten slightly more adventurous about cooking vegetables at home as a result of all this Clover. Not crazy, because most of the family are reluctant vegetable explorers, but I’m now trying things I never dared before—cauliflower, broccoli variations, random beans, ramps—and finding real winners. Useful when one lives across from a farm.

Cocktail Weekend: the Deadly Sin

Another long delayed cocktail post, this one about a creation I’ve been enjoying for years and haven’t shared yet.

The Deadly Sin is a cocktail I first came across in a now-defunct iOS cocktail app, Cocktails+. The principle is simple: take the Manhattan formula (two parts bourbon or rye to one part vermouth, add bitters and stir), and play with the vermouth portion by replacing a portion with a fruit based liqueur. In this recipe the addition is Maraschino liqueur, that delightful cherry based elixir from northern Italy—or Croatia.

Girolamo Luxardo S.p.A. is the best known producer of Maraschino that’s available in the States. The firm apparently started on the Dalmatian coast in a town now known as Zadar before moving to Torreglia after World War II. So the history of the distillery has war, exile, and murder behind it—appropriate for this drink.

So why Maraschino in this cocktail? Maraschino (along with dry Curaçao) were among a very few liqueurs available to Gilded Age bartenders like Jerry Thomas, who famously defined “fancy” cocktails to contain a splash of Curaçao and “improved” cocktails to contain both Maraschino and absinthe. (The imported liqueurs were thought to display the higher class of the drinker.) In this spirit, the Deadly Sin may benefit from a substitution of Curaçao for Maraschino.

Despite the classic flavor of this cocktail, the Deadly Sin is a relatively recent recipe credited to Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology in my defunct app, though there is also a claim to the recipe by Rafael Ballestros. Enjoy!

Cocktail Weekend: Commander Livesey’s Gin-Blind

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted on Cocktail Friday, so to make up for it here’s a special holiday weekend cocktail post. The change in weather (however fickle) toward summer has me thinking away from my normal brown liquor based drinks and toward gin, and that’s the direction I went exploring this past weekend.

The immediate trigger for the exploration was a bottle of The Botanist, that remarkable Islay-based gin (from Bruichladdich Distillery). Far less sweet and more herbal than the Plymouth and Old Tom gins I’ve been experimenting with recently, there’s a lot going on in this bottle. I first tried it just directly with tonic and lime, but the mediocre tonic water I had in my bar just made it sweet and swamped the complexity.

Charles H. Baker Jr. to the rescue. We’ve sampled recipes from his A Gentleman’s Companion before — see the Remember the Maine — and this one does not disappoint either. The curaçao highlights the herbal flavors of the gin while the cognac and orange bitters. It’s not a mild drink, even after stirring over ice. Baker’s story says that when he and his wife, traveling in Bombay, met the good Commander of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, he noted that “We don’t prescribe this just before target practice.”

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

Virginius Dabney on mint juleps

Yesterday was Easter, which around our house means that the food is a little more Southern than usual. In addition to ham and deviled eggs, I made a pimento cheese spread for the first time, an experiment I’ll be repeating. And the best beverage with all of the above is, of course, the mint julep.

But what is a mint julep? Turns out there’s a fair amount of confusion, stemming from the original recipe using brandy. The version we know and love is really the Kentucky mint julep; others used to exist, including the Maryland version (rye) and the Georgia version (peach brandy). Such heterodoxy, however, be damned: we seek the One True Mint Julep, and fortunately Virginia historian Virginius Dabney (author of the second history of the University of Virginia) has our back. In a 1946 letter to Life Magazine, he wrote:

And Life obligingly printed Dabney’s recipe:

No discussion of mint juleps could be settled so quickly, though, as the following letter from Harold Hinton showed:

The Boston Pops files: Evening at Pops with Narration by Julia Child

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

In yesterday’s review of American Salute, we started to see the Boston Pops crossover machine in full swing as Chet Atkins joined the Pops and Arthur Fiedler for a few tracks on this album of Americana. Today’s 1972 record—a recent eBay find for me—is deep in the heart of crossover-land: it’s a document from a 1971 performance of Evening at Pops with a headliner celebrity narrator—the inimitable Julia Child, no less—and a bunch of lowercase-p pop songs, alongside the lightest of light classics.

Let’s start with Evening at Pops. Most modern audiences outside the Boston area probably trace their knowledge of the Boston Pops to this television program, which aired over PBS from 1970 to 2005 (that this is the year I joined the Tanglewood Festival Chorus can only be ironic coincidence). Wikipedia calls the program “the public television version of a variety show,” and this is a fair description, judging both from the contents of this record and the curiously wistful timeline captured on the program’s last website.

(Aside: I remember watching with my parents when I was a kid. It was one of a handful of true “hi-fi” TV experiences I had as a kid; since the program was often simulcast on both public television and public radio, my dad would turn down the TV volume and turn up the radio volume so we could get the program in full stereo accompanying the cramped visuals on our little 19″ TV. Ah, those were the days…)

In terms of programming, there are a few surprises here. The opening is a full-orchestra arrangement of John Morris’s great (second) theme song for The French Chef, Julia Child’s breakthrough PBS cooking show. I don’t know how many times the Pops performed the kids’ classic “Tubby the Tuba,” but Julia makes a hysterically sympathetic narrator in her trademark burbling tones—and adds a unique punchline all her own at the end. The Sesame Street gang also appeared in the 1971 Evening at Pops lineup, so an arrangement of the theme song follows “Tubby.” It’s in turn followed by “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” in an incredibly timely arrangement of the November 1971 hit based on a Coke jingle.

The second half of the record is more familiar Pops fare: we get two Leroy Anderson numbers (“Bugler’s Holiday” and “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby”), “Jalousie,” two Tchaikovsky movements from the Nutcracker (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Dance of the Toy Flutes”), and as a closer, “76 Trombones.” Almost all this fare could be found on earlier Pops recordings like Pops Festival.

So if you look at the overall program, it’s really a standard Pops program, with the celebrity narrator guest elevated to headliner. But by this time “standard Pops” was only about 50% light classics and was relying increasingly on pop songs and other pop-crossover fare. We’ll see that in tomorrow’s record as well.

Here’s Julia Child reading “Tubby the Tuba” from the TV broadcast. Enjoy!

Cocktail Friday: Remember the Maine

While traveling in Las Vegas last week, I had an opportunity to revisit my favorite advice about Las Vegas: whenever possible, get off the Strip. In this case, we led a pilgrimage to Herbs & Rye, likely my second favorite cocktail bar in town and one of my top 10 anywhere. It was near the end of a long week so I didn’t play my usual game of “stump the bartender” and try to find something off the menu. And I didn’t need to, because smack in the middle of the first page was this classic.

The Remember the Maine, in addition to recalling one of the earliest and most notorious episodes of yellow journalism, is a delightful cocktail. What on paper appears to be a minor variation on the rye Manhattan tastes like an entirely new drink thanks to the combination of the sweetness of the cherry liqueur (Herbs & Rye and I both use Cherry Heering) and the bracing absinthe (I used Herbsaint).

And the drink has a wonderful backstory. Coming from Charles H. Baker’s 1939 book A Gentleman’s Companion is this description of the drink:

REMEMBER the MAINE, a Hazy Memory of a Night in Havana during the Unpleasantnesses of 1933, when Each Swallow Was Punctuated with Bombs Going off on the Prado, or the Sound of 3″ Shells Being Fired at the Hotel NACIONAL, then Haven for Certain Anti-Revolutionary Officers.

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

Cocktail Sunday: The Vanderbilt

It’s back. This Cocktail Sunday post leaves the familiar world of whiskey and gin behind and weaves its way over to brandy. Which seems fitting given that this cocktail was designed for one of the wealthiest men in America, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt wouldn’t have been drinking any cut rate brandy in his cocktail; he would have used VSOP Cognac, and I recommend (following the advice of David Wondrich) that you make the same substitution in any classic cocktail calling for brandy. Life is too short to do otherwise.

The big question in this cocktail appears to be the proportions. The first written recipe I’ve found for it, 1922’s Cocktails and How to Mix Them, calls for 1:1 brandy to cherry liqueur, which seems likely to yield something way too sweet. The Savoy’s Harry Craddock in 1930 dialed it back to a 3:1 ratio, which seems just about right.

One curious note about the name: the 1922 source says it was named for Col. Cornelius Vanderbilt, “who was drowned on the Lusitania during the War.” But the Vanderbilt on the Lusitania was Alfred Vanderbilt, and there was no “Colonel Vanderbilt” alive then. So: poetic license.

It’s grilling season, and for some reason I had extra homemade pickles that wouldn’t fit in the jar. Turns out they’re wonderful with the Vanderbilt. Who’d have guessed?

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

Preparing for the weekend

It’s been a light blogging month here, as I had to take on some additional responsibilities at work. I’m definitely looking forward to Memorial Day and our customary celebration, which for the past few years has involved barbecue. And not just any barbecue, but the only time each year that I make pulled pork, which this year will be served alongside homemade bread and butter pickles. And pulled chicken. And our quasi-semiannual pilgrimage to Karl’s Sausage Kitchen for grilled bratwurst.

I have some shopping to do.

Exploring ramps

Wilson Farm ramps, photo courtesy Sista Felicia at GoodMorningGloucester.

I’ve been experimenting with ramps lately. For those initiated, ramps are a wild allium (leek/garlic type vegetable) with an unforgettably sharp flavor and aroma. They aren’t cultivated so only appear for a few weeks in the sprint, and this year I noticed that our local farm stand was carrying them (picture above shamelessly ganked from someone’s blog).

So I started looking for things to do with them, and so far my impression is the simpler the better. I started with a variation on this spring green risotto from the New York Times. I didn’t have any spring greens so I substituted some fresh English peas. It was… just OK. The flavor was subdued and, while tasty, the risotto didn’t capture the excitement of the ingredient.

On Sunday I went much, much simpler, tossing ramps (and some bok choy) in olive oil and grilling it over low heat in a basket until I started to get black edges on the greens. This was much, much better — the bulb of the ramp was sweet and the green was smoky with a little bite.

But the best recipe of all may be the family recipe that my uncle makes: fry some streaky lean bacon, fry potatoes in the bacon fat, then add the ramps at the end. Looking forward to trying this weekend if any ramps are left at the stand.

Cocktail Friday: The Astor

It’s that time again! This week we’re looking at a pre-Prohibition cocktail, the Astor, which uses one of my favorite cocktail bar ingredients, Swedish Punch (or Punsch).

Difford’s Guide points us to The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book for the origin of the recipe, which credits the old Astor House or the Astor Hotel for the original cocktail. If the first is true, the Astor is truly a pre-Prohibition cocktail, since the Astor House was in decline by the 1870s; the Hotel Astor came later, opening in 1904.

So much for the name. The only irregular ingredient in the drink is the Swedish Punsch, which is a compound of arrack, sugar and water. I’ve always thought of arrack as being roughly synonymous with rum, but that’s not quite right: Wikipedia says it may be “made from either the fermented sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain (e.g. red rice) or fruit, depending upon the country of origin.” Whatever the origin of the stuff that goes into Swedish Punsch, the resulting flavor is oddly fruity in a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it sort of way, and the Astor is a nice start-of-the-evening sort of drink as a result.

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

Cocktails roundup

A few cocktail related things that have persisted in my open tabs for a while:

A Drink With My Brother: A great blog about exploring cocktails complete with cocktail origin stories, tasting notes, personal history and more.

Aviation Gin: The Aviation Cocktail. Since the proper recipe for this isn’t found in my various apps, I’ve been keeping this tab open for a while. (I make it with Plymouth or Old Tom gin, though—shhhh.)

12 Bottle Bar: Saratoga Cocktail. Enjoy one and prepare to go horse racing. Just don’t place any bets.

Why I gave up soda

XKCD nails it, as always. But there’s more.

My addiction was to Diet Coke, of which I was drinking two cans a day during the week. While the medical evidence on aspartame is pretty unanimous, I felt like I always wanted to eat more back then. And the constant caffeine infusions weren’t great for my heart health, either. 

I quit Diet Coke cold turkey over three years ago, along with all other sodas. I rarely miss it.