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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Drinks: As Easy as One…Two…Three…

"I don't know what reception I'm at, but for God's sake give me a gin and tonic."
       —Denis Thatcher

Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer, has arrived! So break out the seersucker, the white shoes, and put away the brown water. In other words, it’s time for summer drinks. Let’s start with the big three: the gin & tonic, the margarita, and the daiquiri. 

Gin & Tonic

 The gin and tonic is the ultimate summer drink. (Though I was once told by an Englishman that a gin and tonic can be consumed in the winter as long as it is done during the weekend.) When it comes to the gin & tonic, your best bet is to go with a classic London dry gin (the ones that taste like Christmas trees), like Tanqueray, Beefeater, or Boodles. But as important as a good gin is to a good G&T, the tonic is just as important, if not more so. Nothing destroys a good G&T more than bad tonic—gin is a jealous mistress. Unfortunately, most store-bought tonic is atrocious. It is nothing more than carbonated sugar water.

But what is tonic water?

British officers stationed in India invented tonic water by mixing soda water with quinine. Quinine is an anti-malarial substance derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. (During a safari in Africa, our guide told me that, based on my quotidian intake of gin and tonics during happy hour, I had obviated the need for my anti-malarial pills!) Being good Englishmen, the officers countered quinine’s bitter flavor by adding gin, sugar, and lemon or lime. Thus, in the land of the Raj, the gin and tonic was born!  Eventually, the gin and tonic made its way back to England, yet another contribution made by the Pax Britannica.

Because Britain was the home of the Industrial Revolution, there should be no surprise that Schweppes, a London-based sparkling-water company, added "Indian" tonic water to its line of products in 1870 and began the mass production of tonic water. Canada Dry stepped in and began making tonic water around 1890. Since then, these two companies have produced most of the world’s tonic water. But it is a far cry from the original. Until now.

In recent years, several companies (e.g., Fever-Tree, Q Tonic, and Stirrings) have stepped in and halted the malaise, producing tonics that will certainly take one back to the glories of the British Empire. Of these new, artisanal tonics, my favorite is Fever-Tree, made with Rwandan quinine and cold-pressed orange oil from Tanzania.

One final note. It would be helpful to us gin and tonic drinkers if restaurants and bars would take note of this trend in artisan tonics. (In all fairness, some have; there are bars that even make their own tonic.) Please stop using that Barbarella soda gun machine-thingy! This is especially true for high-end restaurants charging me $12 for a gin and tonic.

The modern, day-glo green concoction is a mere shadow of the original. Like many well-known cocktails, the origin of the Margarita is hazy. Those who have claimed the honor: a Texas socialite named Margarita Sames; the Kentucky Club in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and the Tail o' the Cock in Los Angeles. One thing is certain, it was never frozen, and it was never made from a mix.
Much like a well-made G&T should avoid “the gun,” a respectable Margarita should avoid: (1) cheap tequila, and (2) pre-made mix. Like most classic cocktails, less is more, and better ingredients mean a better drink.
Let’s start with Tequila. For most Americans, Tequila means Jose Cuervo shots in a college bar on Cinco de Mayo. But there’s so much more than that. Good Tequila, in this author’s humble opinion, rivals the best Scotch when done right. And when I say “done right,” I mean made with 100% agave. I would recommend Herradura, Patrón, or Corzo. 
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the present-day city of Tequila, Mexico, though the Aztecs had made a fermented beverage from the agave plant long before the Spanish arrived. And so when the Spanish Conquistadors ran out of booze, they did what any respectful invader would do: go local! They distilled agave to produce what is perhaps the first indigenous North America distilled spirit. It was pure; it was good; it was natural. And then America stepped in and turned it all to crap.
So, to get back to where it all started, here’s a classic, simple, and pure, recipe for a Margarita.
Recipe for the Classic Margarita
2 limes, halved and juiced, rinds reserved
4 oz. premium tequila
1/2 oz. Cointreau or triple sec
Margarita salt or kosher salt
Fill two stemmed cocktail glasses with crushed ice and allow to chill. Meanwhile, fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add lime juice, tequila, and Cointreau. Shake well. Empty the ice from glasses, rub rims of glasses with the pulp side of one of the lime rinds, then dip moistened rims into a saucer of salt. Strain margaritas into salt-rimmed glasses and garnish with a slice of lime, if you like.
This drink has always reminded me of that crazy, hot mess ex-girlfriend who just…can’t…let…go. You know what I’m talking about. Drunken, late-night calls from some bar with a “Mc” or an “O’.” in the name. She’s with her girlfriends who obviously don’t have the common decency to take her phone away. Yeah, the modern-day daiquiri is a mess. But it wasn’t always so. In the distant past, she was a 1930s movie star, elegant and graceful. Maybe Olivia de Havilland; maybe Greta Garbo; and maybe, just maybe, Marelene Dietrich. 
The origins of the daiquiri are just as delitescent as the margarita, but one theory has the Daiquiri being invented by James Cox, an American mining engineer stuck in Cuba at the time of the Spanish–American War. Few folks outside of Cuba had even heard of the drink until Rear Admiral Lucius W. Johnson, a U.S. Navy medical officer, tried Cox's drink. Johnson later brought the drink back to the the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C., and within a few decades its popularity soared. Its fame was sealed when Ernest Hemingway and President John F. Kennedy made it one of their favorite cocktails. 
If I had to pick a provenance for the daiquiri, this story would be mine because it seems so American—the child of America’s spasmodic rise to world-power status in the early 20th Century. Perhaps it should have been named the “Teddy Roosevelt” or the “Rough Rider.”
Originally the drink was made with a teaspoon of sugar and the juice of one or two limes poured over crushed ice in a tall glass, all finished off with two or three ounces of white rum. It was then stirred with a long cocktail spoon until frosted.
I suggest you break-up with the hot-mess girlfriend version and move on.
Recipe for the Classic Daiquiri
2 oz. white rum (Cruzan Light Aged, Mount Gay Eclipse, or Flor de Caña 4-Year Extra Dry)
1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 bar spoons of sugar syrup
Pour all the ingredients into an ice-filled shaker. Stir vigorously with a cocktail spoon and strain into a chilled glass.
Hemingway Daiquiri
Ernest Hemingway was diabetic, so according to legend this particular version was devised for him using maraschino liqueur in lieu of sugar. How this made the drink better suited for a diabetic escapes me. One reason I call B.S. on this story, but here it is nonetheless.
3/4 oz. white rum* (Cruzan Light Aged, Mount Gay Eclipse, or Flor de Caña 4-Year Extra Dry)
1/2 oz. maraschino liqueur
2 bar spoons of grapefruit juice
2 bar spoons of fresh lime juice. 
Pour all the ingredients into an ice-filled shaker. Stir vigorously with a cocktail spoon and strain into a chilled glass.

Well, there you have three classic drinks to get you through the hot summer months. If these don’t work for you, then grab an ice cold beer.

*I seriously doubt that Mr. Hemingway, one of the most famous professional drinkers in American literary history, would drink a daiquiri with less rum than the standard version. I would up this to 1-2 oz.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Long and Low

We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. I know I do. After all, I try to write a new post about every seven to ten days and frequently I have a hard time coming up with something new to write about. Cooking is that way too. Life gets in the way. Between work, the daily schlep to school, homework, soccer practice, and everything else in between, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the temptation to pick up the phone and order a pizza. And when one does summon up the energy to cook dinner, it is very easy to throw a piece of chicken on the grill or open a box of Kraft mac-n-cheese—not that there’s anything wrong with Kraft mac-n-cheese!

But there’s a way of cooking that has been around a long time that results in a good meal and allows for a bit of relaxing. I’m talking about braising. Braising is a cooking method that uses a little liquid and barely simmers at a low temp on the top of the stove or in the oven. In other words, long and low. The great thing about braising is that it gives you time to help the kids with homework, grab a cocktail, or if you are sans kids, play a quick game of Assassins Creed.

Braising is a very old method of cooking that has changed over time. Originally, braising was carried out directly on the hearth, cooking food slowly in hot embers. Fortunately for your local fire department, braising no longer requires an open hearth. While braising was typically used for tough pieces of beef, it also works well with tender chicken or fish, especially turbot or halibut. Braising can occur on the stovetop or in the oven. I prefer the stovetop, but either way you should use a good heavy bottom pot. A Dutch oven (Staub or Le Crueset) is a must.

Going back to life getting in the way of a good meal…

I keep a Costco-sized bag of frozen chicken breasts in the freezer for quick night dinners. Now, I know that nothing is more banal in our modern, homogenized world than skinless, chicken breasts. But they are convenient. And here’s where the braising comes in handy. With this technique, you can transform that boring chicken breast into a pretty decent meal. Of course, skin-on chicken thighs or chicken legs are the bomb when it comes to braising! But in a pinch, at 7:00PM on a Monday night with fractions and spelling practice closing in, the chicken breast will have to do.

After I’ve thawed the chicken breasts in a bath of hot water for about 15 minutes, I pat them dry and season them with salt and pepper and lightly coat them with flour. Then it’s time for a good sear in the Dutch oven using about two tablespoons of olive oil. (Maybe if no one is watching, I will use a bit of butter! Like Julia Child, I love butter!) After browning the chicken breasts on both sides, I remove them from the Dutch oven and set them aside. I then add some onion, garlic and mushrooms, and sauté until browned. I’ll then de-glaze the  Dutch oven with some white wine, vermouth, or white port. (If you’ve never cooked with vermouth, you’re missing out!) At this point, I add chicken stock, fresh thyme, parsley, and maybe a bit more white wine or vermouth. The amount of liquid should cover half or 3/4th of the chicken. I braise on the stove top at very low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half. 

When finished, I remove the chicken and add some flour to thicken the sauce. Another approach is to strain the liquid and remove the excess fat and reduce if necessary. Beurre manié (roux) can also be added, but this seems to defeat the whole purpose. 

What do I call this concoction? French chicken, of course!  But you could just as easily think of it as your easy working day meal, simpler to prepare than you think and more rewarding than another pizza delivery.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Missing in Action, Part 3: Wine Tastings

© 2016 Chris Terrell
In Burgundy, wine cannot be ignored. Its physical presence is constant—every square foot of arable land is planted with vines. Over time, the rhythm of cool, warm, hot, and back to cool has annealed wine into the psyche of the people who live there—it’s visceral; it’s emotional. You cannot understand this unless you are Burgundian. But you can come close…and that’s still pretty damn good.

I must confess that wine wasn’t the sole reason I went to Burgundy. This was not intended to be a “wine tour.” In fact, I’ve always found the “wine tour”—at the least the Napa Valley version—to be hackneyed.  Don’t get me wrong, I love wine, and I love Pinot, but not in that crazy Miles-from-Sideways kind of way. When it comes to French wine (which I do love), my go-to regions have always been the Rhône and Bordeaux.

Yeah, I was due for an attitude adjustment.

When we drove into Burgundy for the first time, it was like one’s first trip to the Louvre: “wow, there’s a Renoir!”; “look at that, a Monet!”; “that’s a Picasso!” It was a struggle to focus on the road and not gawk at so many well-known places: Volnay, Pommard, Gevry-Chambertin, and Meursault. It was like walking into a bar in 1967 and finding The Who, the Rolling Stones,and the Doors all playing at the same time. But it’s even more than that because in Burgundy you can walk up to, and sometimes into, the vineyards and talk directly with the winemakers themselves. It’s like going into that bar and playing guitar with Pete Townsend.

During an afternoon drive from Beaune to Saisy, a bit groggy from lunch, I pulled off the main road into Pommard (Remember what I said about this not being a wine tour?) and found a co-op selling local wines. I was quickly greeted by a friendly and enthusiastic young woman (who says the French are rude!), who proudly gave me a mini-education about the wines of Pommard. 

She talked about how she wanted to visit America. I talked about my love of France. We both talked about our differences as a people—gregarious and optimistic Americans vs. the reserved and cynical French, although we both agreed that Texans are big and bombastic. An entente cordiale! 

Scooping up my wines, I energetically ran back to the Renault. I pulled onto the D973, heading back to Saisy. But wait! Is that a sign for Volnay? I thought. I couldn’t resist. After all, the first Burgundy I ever tasted in my life came from Volnay. How could I not stop?

I parked the Renault so I could better explore the village on foot. Laura promptly fell asleep in the car. (My enthusiasm for wine touring was waxing, and hers was clearly waning.) I walked around the village, past an old somnolent church on this random Wednesday—Volnay is a village of barely 300.
As I made my way back to the car, I noticed a vigneron’s shop, with a sign proudly displayed that read “open; tasting.” I walked into what looked like someone’s home, and it probably was. An older, slim, bald gentleman, who looked remarkably similar to Patrick Stewart, greeted me with a warm, yet formal, “Bonjour.” In my best halting restaurant French, I inquired about tasting his wine. His eyes lit up: “Mais oui!” We went down into the cellar where he let me try several of his wines: One from Pommard and two from Volnay. I bought all three. 

After Volnay, back on the D973 to Saisy. Then I saw the sign for Meursault, a village famous for its whites. Another tasting. Another two bottles of wine. And yet still it was not the last tasting; I was determined. 

This time—from Dijon to Saisy—we visited Gevry-Chambertin, one of the more famous villages in Burgundy. Two more tastings and four more bottles of wine. Here, one vigneron was a newbie, having only been in the business since the late 18th century. The second one was a bit more of a veteran. 

We walked into a parking lot situated between two buildings and a vineyard right to our left. Wine had been made here since the 17th century. We heard barking, both human and adult, and a young child’s giggles. Otherwise, the place was quiet. Suddenly a dog bounded up the stairs from the cellar, quickly followed by a boy around six or seven. Next, came his rather stern looking mother. 

As best I could, I told her that we would like to taste some of their family’s wines. With an efficient wave of her hand, she directed us to the tasting room.  We tasted several. This was damn good wine; even the young ones were good. We obviously saved the best for last. But it wasn’t just the wine that made this tasting so enjoyable. This was where a family had lived for generations making wine.

I helped the young boy with his English, teaching him to count from one to ten. (He was quite good.) Mom began to smile. We all got a good laugh when the dog Gaston—he had a name by this point—ate the crackers. As we left, the mom was insistent that Luc—he too had a name by this point—thank us and say goodbye in English, but he would have none of it. Chocolate was clearly denied as a result of this breach of manners, and he ran off, but when we walked back, I turned and saw him scamper back to the cellar with a piece of chocolate in his hand. Good to know that the infamous French parent may on occasion be soft as an American.

We arrived back to our cottage just as the sun was setting—just in time for dinner. Thankfully, I had the foresight to buy at least one bottle of wine that we could drink that night. As the lamb chops were braising, I opened the back door and looked out at the fields we would be leaving soon. I was both content and sad at the same time—that whole “parting is such sweet sorrow” thing. 

I thought to myself, “Damn I love this place.”