Saturday, August 31, 2013

Gin Tasting

I can remember the first time I ever drank gin. I was at the home of Ferdinand and Darcy McGrath, where several us from out of town gathered that December night for an evening of feasting. After dinner, the feasting transitioned to poker. I don't remember if I actually played poker or not, but what I do remember is sitting next to David Suetterlein, who was drinking Tanqueray and tonic. I was 21, a new drinker, and at that point in my life I knew I liked beer and wine, but it never really crossed my mind to drink liquor. But I remember taking a sip of David's drink, and then another, and then another. Finally, I had to get my own.

From that night on, gin and tonic became my new drink. I loved ordering it at bars, even though some people said it was an old man drink. One night, I was out at Ceviche with my friend Katy, maybe the first time I ever went to a "cool" bar, and we both got excited when we realized that we both drank gin and tonics. It was a bonding moment. Katy ordered for us, and introduced me to Hendrick's, asking for cucumber instead of lime.

These days, I'm more likely to drink a gin martini or gin fizz than a gin and tonic. To me, making cocktails is like cooking. I think of alcohol the way I think of food--just another opportunity for exciting (and classic) flavor combinations.

Whenever I travel to different parts of the country, I'm always curious to see (and try!) what different beers are available. And now that I live in North Carolina, I went to the liquor store to see if they had any bottles I couldn't get in PA. I was pleased to see several brands of artisinal gins that I've read about but never saw in my local state store. I picked up a bottle of Death's Door gin from Washington Island, Wisconsin.

Once home, I decided to make good use of the other gins I had in stock--Hendricks and Bluecoat (from PA!)--and do a side-by-side gin tasting. The reason gin is so unique is that the liquor is infused with botanicals--juniper for sure, but then it's up to the distiller. Coriander, lavender, orris root, angelica root, licorice, fennel, caraway, cardamom, citrus peel...all of these and more make their way in various combinations into gin (The Botanist gin, from Scotland--like Hendricks--advertises the use of "22 Native Botanicals").

So, here are my tasting notes for the three different gins:
This is the gin I found most difficult to describe. I've been drinking it all summer, and a way to codify its flavors has eluded me for months. The gin is light-bodied and you can taste the juniper. There seems to be a whisper of citrus, and it tastes the most classically of gin than the other two. I like it in a gin rickey.

This gin has a lower alcohol content than others (44% compared to 47%), and you can definitely tell the difference. Hendrick's is smooth and an almost silky texture. It tastes very notably of coriander. Hendrick's is classically served with cucumber, but after noticing the strong coriander notes, I love to try it with orange.

Death's Door
When I was in Montana last summer, I found some juniper berries on a hike. I enjoyed eating them, and even brought some back with me. Death's Door tastes exactly of those wild Montana junipers. It is noticeably different from the usual juniper taste of gin--more woodsy and resinous. Death's Door advertises that they use wild Washington Island juniper berries, so maybe that makes a difference. In any case, I love this gin for the taste memory of Montana hiking.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Not My Usual

If you know anything about my cooking style, you know I love capturing traditional dishes of world cuisines. I'm talking little-known pasta shapes from rural Italy, Persian dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves), Tunisian turnip salad, or shrimp and grits from South Carolina. I don't care where in the world you're talking about, I want to make classic food from that place. I don't typically go for "fusion-food", like Korean tacos or pasta with corn (yes, I've seen a recipe). Getting even more picky, I usually don't make "American" versions of world cuisines (I never make "curry" with curry powder). Often, this applies to Italian-American food. Sure, I make pizza and pasta. But I also make polenta and risotto and porchetta and grilled zucchini and piadina and other dishes that aren't slathered with red sauce and called Italian food.

But. But. Tonight I had some eggplant that I needed to use, and wasn't in the mood for the dishes I would normally make with eggplant--green curry (Thai), tagine (Moroccan), baba ghanoush (Middle Eastern), or ratatouille (French). So I decided to make eggplant parmesan. Perhaps one of the most definitive Italian-American dishes out there.

I sliced some (skinny) eggplants lengthwise into 1/4 inch strips, salted them, and let them sweat in a colander. Meanwhile, I made an excellent red sauce by sauteing onion, a chili pepper, garlic, and oregano with crushed tomatoes. Patting the eggplant slices dry, I dredged them in flour (I added pepper and lemon zest for a fun twist--worth it), and briefly fried in olive oil, hot and fast. Then I simply layered the eggplant slices in a casserole with sauce and tons of fresh mozzerella and grated parmesan and baked on a 400 degree oven until browned. Served the classic Italian-American way with a bed of angel hair. And on a checkered tablecloth, no less.

My "normal" style be damned, this was a bloody good meal, and I encourage you to make it yourself. The eggplant gets smoky, the sauce is spicy, the cheese hugs your stomach, and the lemon brightly hums. Worth a departure from the norm.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bare Minimum

I have, in my sporadic postings over the years, written quite a bit about "cooking for one". Eating alone is a highly debate-able activity--some people think food is all about community, the bringing together of people--and this notion is certainly true. However--there is something to cooking solely for oneself that I find beautiful and important. Cooking for one allows the opportunity to make something that may not be deemed "suitable" for company, whether it's simple like noodles with Parmesan, or a composed meal of olives, cheese, and bread (a meal fit for a queen, and yet somehow, offering that, and only that, to guests feels like a cop-out). These solo meals are a chance to revel in simplicity. I know that a perfectly ripe tomato is the best food out there, but it would be a rare day that you find me serving only tomato slices to a guest.

Having recently moved (to a new town, a new state!) cooking for one is back in my repertoire. And, more than ever, I truly feel as though I'm cooking for one, given that I have no furniture, save a single folding chair. Somehow, the absence of home furnishings make me feel even more alone. My things will arrive next weekend, but until then, all I have is myself. Myself and a minimally stocked kitchen. First things first.

Today I baked a loaf of bread. It is a beautiful loaf, and it is made all the more lovely to me eating it in this sparse home. Good bread nourishes more than the body.

And to drink, I made an old-fashioned. This isn't a cocktail I usually drink, but after tonight, I am a believer. The weather here has been, I am told, unseasonable for North Carolina. Yesterday and today were grey, even a little cold. The old-fashioned fit the bill. The brightness of the orange makes it a summer drink, sunny and sweet. Yet it is still mostly bourbon, and this makes the drink boozy and warm. Perfect for a cloudy summer evening. I used Jefferson's bourbon, which is fiery yet light, making it, I think, ideal for this cocktail.

Enjoy your own kitchen.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Herb of Spring

Most people associate basil with summer, and I'd have to agree, if for no other reason than it's such a great partner for bursting ripe tomatoes. But right now it's spring, when the weather is just beginning to warm, and the days of Caprese salads and raw tomato sauce are a speck in the distance. We'll get there. And until we do, may I suggest you embrace the herb of spring: chives. Like basil, chives are a spicy herb, though in a different, more assertive way. A member of the allium family, they pack an onion-y punch. In fact, I was recently in the forest with a friend, and had absent-mindedly been munching on some chives. A few minutes later, she commented that she could smell them on my breath. So. Maybe not first date material. But I still ardently recommend chives as an assertive, yet fresh and grassy way to experience Spring cooking.

One of the most glorious things about chives, and the reason I so closely associate them with Spring, is that they literally spring up everywhere this time of year. They grow wild in the woods, but also in yards and along sidewalks. Chances are, even if you live in an urban area, a walk around the neighborhood will lead you to chives. I first noticed chives weeks ago, when we were still getting snow. These babies are relentless. So let them into your kitchen.

My favorite way to use chives is to make them into pesto. This is a labor of love; I've found the best way to make it is in a mortar and pestle, not a food processor, as the long grasses tend to not actually get chopped. What I do is snip the long strands into small pieces with scissors and then smash them up in the mortar with some salt and olive oil. I've found that using some water with the olive oil helps create a nice pesto that saves money without sacrificing flavor. A squirt of lemon juice rounds out the flavor. My favorite use for this is as a dip for French fries or roasted potatoes--salty, fresh, and divine.

Today, however, I was in pasta kind of mood, so I poured the pesto over spaghetti, adding some Parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper. The noodles were tinted green and spicy-fresh.

Simply put, chive pesto is a revelation. There is nothing quite like it. It manages to be silky and spunky at the same time. So, go for a walk. Find some chives. Eat them, and taste Spring.