Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Sours" - The Dirty Little Secret of Mixology

My friend Jeff points out that I've given equal time to wine and beer, but liquor, or liqueur if you prefer, has been given short shrift on this blog.

This post aims to even things up a bit.

There are really only two things you need to know about hard liquor.

One: Don't have a martini bar at a Sunday party, especially if your guests are used to beer and wine.

And two: If you no nothing else of drink making, learn how to make sours.

What's a sour? It's pretty self-explanatory. It's adding some kind of sour liquid, usually lemon juice, to hard liquor. Usually some sugar is also added to balance things out. Shake with ice, strain, and serve.

Fresh lemon juice is best for a sour. (What, you were expecting me to say using bottled juice is OK here? Well, you do what you feel is best.)

Instead of sugar, which can be gritty even after you've shaken it silly, you could also use a simple syrup, a mix of sugar and water heated until the sugar just dissolves. But sugar works fine, especially if you're not straining the dregs of the drink into the glass.

My advice for ratios is to make a couple sours, and find what ratio you like best. A good start is a half a lemon, and 1-2 tablespoons of sugar for each ounce of liquor.

Just make sure you taste the drink, and adjust if needed.

If you really must have a recipe, here's one that's good for an individual serving, and here's one from Ina Garten that's enough for a crowd.

Have fun, kids!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Belated Blarney - Irish Beer Tasting Highlights

Meant to get this up earlier, but here were the highlights of the Irish beer tasting I attended St. Patrick's Day weekend:

  • Mickey's Malt liquor (served tongue-in-cheek) is apparently like mother's milk to college students. Somehow I missed out on this slice of college life.

  • There are Irish cream liqueurs out there that are wine-based. Like Baileys, but wine instead of whiskey. They are extremely smooth, and worth searching for.

  • There's really no strict rules for what makes up the "Irish beer" style. Generally it's Irish grains and hop strains, and there's some kind of roasting or toasting involved.

  • The biggest thing I discovered was the huge difference between light-bodied and full-bodied. Drinking so many beers side-by-side, I really got a good concept of body, better than I've ever had before. It was much easier to tell in beer than in wine. This is something that I will carry over to the wine world..

  • Guinness is not the least-bodied stout out there. That dubious honor would go to Murphy's. It was water-thin.

  • I really like Wexford. Toasty, a little sweet, very creamy because it has the can widget.

  • Even though I enjoyed myself, and had a good time talking to the store's beer guru, I didn't feel like I got my money's worth, which was disappointing. I could have done just as well doing a tasting at home for a lot less.

  • I was able to pick up a 6-pack of some overstocked Oktoberfest for a song, so the night ended happy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shake your Top Secret Shamrock

A little past-due, but I had my first (and probably only) McDonald's Shamrock Shake of the season last night.

Now, I'll be honest. I drink Shamrock Shakes like most people eat Liver and Onions--not because it tastes good to me, but for the nostalgia value.

However, the shake I had last night was pretty darn good. Perhaps it was because it was late and I was hungry. Perhaps it was because I'd just left a sporting event where my team won. Or, perhaps it was because the shake was actually fresh and ice-cold, with the texture of ice cream rather than ice cream soup.

At any rate, it was good. So good that I would consider having another. But, I've only got till the end of the month before Shamrock Shakes, like Girl Scout Cookies, vanish into the ether for another year.

That's where Top Secret Recipes comes in. Top Secret Recipes was started by Todd Wilbur. He was a guy with not much cooking experience, who wanted to make clones of his favorite snack foods. It's grown to a brand franchise, including at least a half a dozen books, a comprehensive Web site, and frequent apperances on television. His recipes include fast food, snack food, table service recipes, and even beverages.

I've been a huge fan of Todd Wilbur ever since I was craving an Orange Julius but there weren't any stores in my state. His recipes are simple, straightforward, and taste pretty darn close to the real thing.

His Web site is pretty cool--all his recipes are listed in a searchable database, and you can buy a recipe cheaper than an itunes download. Just make sure to be nice and follow his usage guidelines--these recipes are copyrighted works.

And, he offers one recipe a week for free, which changes every week. This week it's Buca di Beppo's garlic bread, which is one of the best garlic breads ever.

The other cool thing is that many of his recipes are actually cheaper than buying the item at the store.

So, if you've got a hankering for a Shamrock Shake in July, or live in Maine and want a Carl's Jr. burger, or if you simply have an intellectual curiosity to make an OREO(TM), check it out.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

As promised - the wine reviews

I've decided to try my hat at wine reviews. Here are my impressions of some recent bottles I've been drinking--at the Big Fat Greek Dinner and at some informal get-together. If applicable, I've talked about where I got the wine, when I drank it, and if there were any food pairings.

Espiral Vinho Verde - Picked this up at Trader Joe's for less than a Starbucks Frappuchino. Very (but pleasantly) surprised when I opened it to find it was bubbly. Limes on the nose. Very acidic, fruity, maybe just a touch sweet. Served with Saganaki (flaming kasseri cheese). Was great as an aperitif. Going back to buy more of this.

Garnacha de Fuego - Medium-bodied red wine. Very smooth, mild tannins, good fruit, some nice spicy, peppery flavors. This was good on its own, and simply amazing with the lamb. A wine with broad appeal.

Boutari Retsina Wine - A white wine, from Greece! Apparently, this is a very old style of wine that was traditionally aged in containers (casks, bags) that were sealed with pine resin. As oak is to French wines, pine is to Greek wines. It's, uh, certainly piney. I'm not sure if I liked it. The pine pretty much overpowered everything else in the wine. I don't see this pairing well with food. Good wine for a sense of terroir, and an adventurous palate.

Verimonte Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Reserva - Fun and fruity. Like drinking a tropical fruit salad. Lots of grapefruit and tropical fruits on the nose. Nice and acidic. A Juicy wine, got my mouth watering while drinking it.

I don't know if it's because the weather has been so cold or if I just like the style, but I'm learning that I really enjoy dry or off-dry, tart white wines with a bunch of fruit flavors to balance them out. I'm definitely a bit tired of Chardonnay right now, especially if it's oaked.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

My Big Fat Greek Dinner

On Monday, I made dinner for my mom, in celebration of her birthday. The three-course Greek meal was a huge success, and one of the best meals I've ever made. Though there were a few things I would have done a little differently, here are the highlights of the menu.

Appetizer: Flaming kasseri chese, aka Saganaki, aka OPA! aka "Oh my God the food's on fire!" This is quite a common dish in greek restaurants. It's showy, with big, bright flames, and hey, who doesn't like melty cheese on bread. This was amazingly easy to do. I just dredged some kasseri cheese in flour, pan-fried it in some butter until it was all melty, removed from the heat, added the Grand Marnier, lit it, yelled OPA!(yes, this is a required step. It's much like yelling "FORE!" when playing golf), and doused the flames with a squeeze of lemon.

This was just as good as you get in a restaurant. The hardest part was finding the kasseri cheese. Next time, I would use only 2 tablespoons of butter, and use a non-stick pan.

Main course: Lamb rib chops marinated overnight in olive oil, lemon, oregano, and garlic. I broiled these to medium-rare. They were super-tasty, little morsels of savory goodness.

Lamb rib chops are hard to find, so I just took a rack of lamb and cut it into rib chops. I also learned not to be afraid of trimming excess fat and gristle off a piece of meat. Even though it was technically "wasteful," it made the meat much easier to eat, and much more tender. Next time, I would use a ratio of 2 parts oil to one part lemon juice--the chops were a little too tangy. I would still add at least head, if not a head and a half, of chopped garlic.

Side dishes: Brown rice with lentils, and greek salad. For the rice, I more or less improved, and it came out great. I fried up a chopped onion with some oil, oregano and cumin, then added chicken broth and a half cup of lentils. I let that cook for a while, then added some more broth and some instant brown rice. Very tasty, and the lentils were a nice texture contrast in the rice.

The greek salad used romaine lettuce as its base, then I added a chopped tomato, some thinly sliced onion, some good Kalmata olives, and a lot of feta cheese. I served a tangy greek dressing on the side.

Dessert: Walnut and pistachio baklava with vanilla ice cream. I've worked with filo dough enough to know that the super-fancy desserts are best left to the pros. Both of these items were store-bought. The baklava straight from the local greek restaurant. Greek yogurt would have been more traditional here, but it was a birthday party, after all.

Wine: Two different wines, both procured by my dad were served with dinner. A Greek white wine, and a Spanish red wine. The white was very wierd. It was very piney. Not bad, per se, but it didn't go terribly well with the cheese, and it took some getting used to. The red, on the other hand, was wonderful. Nothing too complex, but it was smooth, spicy, and meshed really well with the lamb. I promise to do a separate wine writeup sometime soon, with the names of the bottles and all.

The meal was great, not just because of the taste, but because it was easy to do, I could do much of the hard work in advance, and it was thematically consistent.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Cookbook review: AHA One-Dish Meals & Meals in Minutes

I made some goals in 2008 to eat less, eat better, and exercise more. I was looking for a cookbook that had lots of healthy meals that I could make for a weeknight dinner. They had to be quick and easy to make, they had to taste good, and they had to be filling.

I found two cookbooks that fit the bill pretty well. They are American Heart Association cookbooks: Meals in Minutes, and One Dish Meals fits the bill perfectly.

I've got about a half a dozen recipes so far that I've tried, and most of them I'll be making again (and again).

Portion sizes on each of the recipes is pretty good. For dinner, main dishes are pretty filling, so long as you also provide a side dish of some sort.

The only place where this cookbook falls a little flat is in its design and cooking tips. They seem to be a little inconsistent, and not terribly helpful for me. Also, the cookbook is written in that "working mom" style--you know, where it tries to be cutesy and clever, but just comes off sounding silly?

The other problem is a problem I have with almost all cookbooks: the meals are fast, but the times given for prep are less than the actual time it will take you. Unless you are working in ideal conditions, the recipes will probably take you a little longer than what the recipe states.

Other than that, they're great books. They're not the most fun cookbook to read, but the recipes are what count.