Monday, January 31, 2011

Hot Cocoa for a Chilly Morning

Back when I was a cheesemonger in South Philadelphia, the walk to work in mornings was brutal in the depth of winter. Not "could be," not "sometimes." Was. The wind would find every little gap in my scarf and blow suddenly down my back. My thighs ached with the cold. Snow — invariably, there was snow — was frozen solid at 6:40am, no matter how much of it had melted the day before, and sidewalk salt and ice wormed into my boots and turned into clammy brine even before I made it the ten blocks to work.

En route, I stopped at a corner joint the cheesemongers called Chinese Coffee. I forget its real name. To us, it was, and always will be, Chinese Coffee. Most winter days I got hot tea to warm me the last few blocks to work. Occasionally, there was a donut. On the really horrible days — the days I had to walk backwards to keep out the worst of the howling wind — I got hot cocoa.

It was a reward to myself for merely existing in such weather. The biggest they had. 20 ounces. Just enough to get me to work and last through the initial setup. When one of the bakeries delivered fresh bread so hot it hurt to hold, we would break one open and savor the steam and aroma. The Italian guys would eat it plain or dip it into a bit of olive oil with sea salt.

Me? I'd pull off little chunks of hot bread and dip in my cocoa for that last little push of inspiration before we raised the blinds and let in the customers stamping their feet and rubbing their hands together, trying to find their own warm places.

San Diego mornings are nothing like that, but I keep a jar of cocoa mix in the pantry for those days when there's a definite bite in the air. Today was one of those days.
9th Street Hot Cocoa Mix

2 c/300g 10X (confectioner's) sugar
1 c/100g cocoa powder
2.5 c/300g full-fat powdered milk
1 tsp fine-grain salt
2 tsp cornstarch

Sift all of the ingredients into a bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined. Store in a cool, dark place.

To make a cup of hot cocoa, fill a mug 1/3 full with the mix, then top off with either boiling water or hot milk. Stir to combine. 

Goes well with:
  • Chartreuse Hot Chocolate — I'd actually use a higher-grade, full-on chocolate for the spiked version, but it's one more way to get through a hard morning. Or night.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Marshmallow, an Untraditional Collins

Whether christened Tom or John, the Collins family of drinks dates back to the early 19th Century. They are essentially individual servings of a cool gin punch made popular at London’s Limmer’s Hotel by headwaiter John Collins some 30 to 40 years before civil war broke out in America.

Nevermind that Collins didn't actually invent the punch (in his 2010 book Punch, historian David Wondrich gives that honor to Stephen Price, the American manager of London's Garrick Club). To this day, a concoction of gin, lemon juice, some sweetener, and cold sparkling water bears the headwaiter's name. Well, his surname, anyway.

Variations on the drink — Bootsy, Barnabas, vodka, and Michael Collinses — came later. To this august and suspect list, I add my own: the Marshmallow Collins.

Several months ago, I wrote about my experiments with marshmallow syrup using the shredded root of Althaea officinalis, that is, real marshmallow plants rather than candy marshmallows (see below for link). At the time, I wrote
The cut root I purchased was perfectly dry and felt like any other root or shredded bark. But wait. In water it became mucilaginous; a thick, colloid, almost ropy syrup formed as the infusion sat overnight. Dry, it had just the faintest musty smell. Once it got wet, the smell was, well, rooty. Seriously. Smelled like someone had been digging up the garden.
It's a difficult syrup to work with. Not because of its thickness and tendency to stick to itself — which, admittedly, is a little odd — but because of its inherently bosky taste and smell. I happen to like it, but I don't like the way it mixes with whiskey. Gin is another story.

So when one of the boys suggested a round of Marshmallow Collinses last night, I smiled and let him put together a batch. Here's how we ended up making them:
Marshmallow Collins

3 oz gin (we used Beefeater)
1.5 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz real (e.g., Althaea officinalis) marshmallow syrup
Cold soda water

Combine the gin, lemon juice, and syrup in a shaker full of ice. Shake to combine and chill. Strain into a tall glass full of ice. Stir briefly, top with soda water, and serve.

Goes well with:
  • Real Marshmallow Syrup — my original post about my syrup experiments with the odd little root. Includes French sirop de guimauve recipes and my modern update as used above.
  • David Wondrich (2010) Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl Perigee/Penguin Group, New York. Innumerable plaudits from drinking types have been written about Wondrich's book. I can only add at this point that I wish all drinks books were so well written — and researched. Wondrich's isn't the only book on punch I own, but it is the best.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bad News for Iced Tea Drinkers

The pain was so bad 
that once it felt 
like I was delivering a child 
made out of razor blades.

~ Mark Mulac, former iced tea drinker

I have said elsewhere how much I enjoy iced tea. If all the liquids I've consumed over my life were tallied, iced tea would dominate the list. More than beer, more than whiskey, more than soda (which I hardly drink anyway), and certainly more than plain water, I guzzle the stuff. Oh, I drink hot teas, too, but I can go a day without hot tea. Not iced.

Imagine my dismay when I read that plain ol' iced tea contains high concentrations of oxalate, a key chemical in the formation of kidney stones. In fact, John Milner, a urology instructor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, says "For many people, iced tea is potentially one of the worst things they can drink."

Kidney stones are crystals that form in urinary tracts. Word is they're exquisitely painful. I've never been afflicted with any, but I do recall with horror a scene in the HBO series Deadwood in which the bestial Al Swearengen (played by Ian McShane) is laid low by gleets — another name for the things — and passes them. Warning: the clip t'aint for the squeamish.

Adding lemon juice to tea supposedly helps since its citrates inhibit the formation of stones in the first place. But damn. At more than a gallon per diem on hot days, I'm going to have to re-think my drinking habits.

Who knew it'd be iced tea I'd be reconsidering?

Goes well with:
  • Tea and Whiskey, including my standard recipe for making iced tea by making a preliminary concentrate. 
  • Nasty, an encounter with iced tea in San Diego that left me skeeved for days.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Drinking Manhattans from my Great-Grandmother's Champagne Glasses

A quick note to let you know I haven't died, just been without wireless for most of the past week.

After a trip to snowy Kansas City, I'm back in San Diego where the sun has rarely felt so good. I wasn't even home from the airport before I unbuttoned my heavy chamois shirt and hoped I'd remembered to leave iced tea in the fridge.

Yeah, I complain about the snow, and I remain happy not to see it more than once every two or three years, but the truth is that Kansas City has grown a lot more interesting since I left it for college. There's cool new bars and restaurants, entire neighborhoods have been rehabbed, and — let's face it — the barbecue has never sucked in KC. It's enough to make me look a little closer at real estate.

One of the most surprising moments came, though, when I walked into my parents' house and my mother suggested that I would probably like a Manhattan. On the verge of saying "No, that's ok, I'm just happy with tea by the fire," I saw she had set up a bar on the kitchen table. Just for us. There was whiskey in a flat-bottomed antique captain's decanter, Angostura bitters, cherries, a cherry-grabber far older than I, and great old glassware. That first night, we had Manhattans in my grandmother's heavy lead crystal tumblers.

The second night, we had them in my great-grandmother's champagne glasses. Now, my great-grandmother died in 1926, so lord knows how old those glasses actually are. They only hold about three ounces, but the stems are hollow, so the whiskey goes almost all the way to the table top.

It's not my usual way to make Manhattans, but when I saw a bowl of fruit, I grabbed an orange, peeled off two wide swaths, and gave the drinks a dose of California. The syrup-laced cherry one usually finds in a Manhattan is optional. Use one or not as you see fit, but don't muddle if you do.
2 oz bourbon
1 oz sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes of bitters
orange peel (with no white pith)
cherry (optional)

Rim the glass with the orange peel, twist it into a spiral, give a squeeze over the glass, and drop it in. Add liquids to a separate ice-filled container. If using a cherry, drop it in. Stir until chilled, strain into the prepared glass. Drink it while, as some old-timers say, it's still smiling at you.
You can also swap lemon for the orange and add a dash of absinthe. But my mother is a respectable lady, and unlike me, does not keep absinthes on hand.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pity Tits, a Guatemalan Handshake, and Why the Business is Awful

A few weeks ago, I asked a friend a simple question: “Would you like some music in your ears?” He cocked his head to one side and didn’t answer. I paused. Two seconds passed. Three. I took a breath and repeated the question, “Would you like milk for your tea?”

I’ve lost count since moving to Southern California how many have mistaken me for — in the local parlance — voice talent. Those who like the sound of my voice have no idea how much work goes into maintaining it.

See, my brain doesn’t work. Hasn’t for years. Not since I was a kid, not the way it’s supposed to, anyway. Every single day, all day, the wrong words threaten to tumble forth in a cascade of nonsense, non sequiturs, and outright gibberish. At times, I cannot understand the utterances that come out of my own mouth. We’re not talking about occasional faux pas that anyone could commit or the torrents of vulgarity one experiences with Tourette’s syndrome. Instead, I am plagued by phrases and words that don’t fit the conversation. Sometimes, they wouldn’t fit any conversation. Most of the words are real; some aren’t. Some real words are strung together in meaningless phrases. Often, I couldn’t articulate the right words if my life depended on it.

Take the Quarantine, an old Charles Baker cocktail made with Filipino rum. Last Autumn, I visited Smuggler’s Cove, Martin Cate’s fantastic rum bar in San Francisco. Filipino food is some of my favorite, but I hadn’t had Filipino rum, so I leaned in to bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos and confidently asked “How about a Guatemalan Handshake?” Dionysos almost imperceptibly squinted, smiled politely, and leaned a little closer. It was the expression of someone who thought he had misheard something, maybe because it was too noisy. I knew that look well. “I’d love to try one of those Quarantines,” I repeated. Christ.

When I told Cate about this later, he confirmed my own thoughts. “I can clearly state,” he wrote “that I can't think of anything that sounds more like the name of a dirty sex act than Guatemalan Handshake."

My family has long since stopped being concerned and now laughs openly at me. What the hell, I do, too: sometimes it’s laughable. I have, for instance, called parking meters parking engines. Well, ok, that’s not so bad. I once asked guests, however, in a loud and clear voice if they were ready for pity tits. God knows what they must have thought, but I knew we had both hummus and pita bread on hand. Whatever I had intended to offer (neither breasts or little flatbreads) quickly morphed to pita. Ta da! In college, Franklin Street was rechristened Frazzlebrap — just one example of the gibberish that regularly shoots from my mouth — and, rather than telling my partner that some chicken was ready for the grill, I strode into the living room, raised my right hand, and confidently declared “The business is awful.”

There’s clearly a disorder of some kind at play, though the neurologists haven’t quite been able to pin down. There have been MRIs and x-rays. Nothing conclusive. Wernicke’s aphasia was suggested more than once, though, thank god, if that’s it, it’s a mild case. At a recent dinner of Korean BBQ when I swapped one word for a similar one, a neurologist at the table proposed paraphasia — saying television when telephone is meant, that sort of thing. But the misspeaks are more complex than that. She ruled out a brain tumor after realizing that I’ve been doing this for decades.

When my words come out wrong, I can sometimes correct them on the fly by rearranging the sentence as I speak so that listeners don’t catch on. The result isn’t the sentence I intended, but no one’s the wiser. That’s not always possible, especially when my brain slips into neutral and I’m unable to speak at all. The aching caesura that follows leaves me, mouth open, utterly silent, like an armadillo in the headlights. I can describe a thing in German, I can paraphrase it in French, I can give you the general idea in Spanish, and I can even point mutely to one sunning itself on the windowsill, but I'll be damned if I can tell you in those instances that the word I want is cat.

Those very close to me know about this Achilles tongue — one friend keeps a running lexicon of intended versus actual utterances — but most people would never suspect anything unusual. Even the neurologist at dinner (whom I’ve known for ten years) didn’t pick up on it until last week. I’ve gotten very good at passing for someone with a normal brain.

The truth is, I am forever wrestling my tongue into submission. Speaking, especially in groups, used to be a terror for me because of it. Quite literally, I would rather have died on the spot than speak in public.

I’m no longer terrified of holding forth in public and, in fact, have gone out of my way to speak on radio, on television, for journalists, and in front of audiences numbering in the hundreds. In order to pull that off, I’ve developed a few tricks.

The first trick is not to speak unless I must. The less I speak, the fewer chances I have to say the wrong thing, as, for instance, I recently asked “Do you have pickles in your shit?” I’ve no idea what I intended to ask my friends en route to the coffee shop, but I assure you, it was not that. Even I was stunned. Fortunately, my rogue utterances are rarely vulgar, but why risk a conversation-stopper like that?

The second is listening. If I’m not speaking in a public setting — say, in a staff meeting or on stage — I damn well better be doing something. From a young age, I learned to observe even minute details. When others speak, I carefully parse not just what they’re talking about, but how they’re presenting — what pronouns and verb tenses they use, the vocabulary itself, pronunciations and accents, and what they’re not saying as much as what they are. I study clothing, haircuts, makeup, and perfumes. There’s a wealth of secrets just in breathing patterns, the cut of a shirt, and how one refers to carbonated beverages.

Being quiet has made me, since I was a child, adept at reading faces and body language. When my brain and tongue go off the rails, I usually hear the wreckage, but not always. So I constantly use others as a gauge my performance. A barely raised eyebrow, a head cocked ever so slightly to one side, or lips turned down just a hair tell me as much about what’s coming out of my mouth as looks of outright bewilderment. A mental rewind of the last few seconds lets me isolate the offending words and quickly reshuffle the subsequent ones. Mostly, this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. My partner recently explained: “When I realize that you’ve misspoken, I understand what you meant to say about 85% of the time just from the context. The other 15%, though, is a complete mystery.”

Being quiet and speaking infrequently oddly makes people pay more attention when I do talk. I keep my voice low, slow, measured. In a meeting, this usually causes others to stop talking, to stop texting, to quit handling papers. It draws their attention to me like a spotlight and they, quite literally, lean in and listen. Of course, it helps that I tend not to speak unless I have something worthwhile to say. Gives me a false aura of wisdom.

That measured pace, though, is just another trick. I am fighting, always fighting, my tongue. It wants to do bad things. Always. When I want to talk about whiskey, it’s itching to prattle on about opal pits, c-car-c-car-car-carpets, finger toots, or terrible opium choices. For real. Those are the kinds of things I say. So I pause between phrases, reining in that willful muscle at every turn. In a twenty-minute talk, I’ll do this hundreds of times. To my knowledge, I’ve never let slip anything horrible or perplexing in a talk. The overall effect, I’m told, is one of calm erudition sprinkled with humor.

It helps — another trick — to have a script. If I have to memorize 30 pages of copy to get through a talk, that’s exactly what I’ll do. If I’m going on radio or television, I know the topic and practice answers and anecdotes beforehand. Seeing me prep for a public talk is a lot like seeing Colin Firth as the painfully stammering King George VI in the 2010 film The King’s Speech. My speeches are marked in green ink: when to breathe, when to pause, when to force an elision, or draw out a phrase. By the time an audience hears a new speech, I’ve delivered it as many as ten times at home. Otherwise? Well, otherwise, I sound like a lunatic.

Lastly, I write. I’ll fly anywhere in the world to talk about food and drinks, but writing is a quiet sport. It’s not necessary that I speak much. Rather, it’s necessary that I listen, that I observe, that I understand what needs to be written and why. After more than thirty years of practice, I’m good at these things.

Will I come speak if you invite me? If the schedule allows, of course I will. I will do my very best — as I do every hour of every day — to keep my brain corralled and my tongue in check.

Please understand, though, that if I propose a Guatemalan Handshake, I’m probably just thirsty.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ungarnished: Beachcomber’s Gold

I often dispense with garnish in food and drinks. In the case of a little parsley sprig on my steak, it's a matter of no significance whether it's there or not. In drinks circles, especially among the tiki crowd, some regard omitting garnish as heretical. For them, the garnish is itself part of the point of the drink. Those tropical drinks in particular can take on such decorative excess that they bring to mind birds of paradise, a Wal*Mart dressing room disaster, or Carmen Miranda's botanical headgear.

Beachcomber’s Gold with ice shell
Sometimes garnish — say, freshly spanked leaves in a mint julep — does make a real difference to the drink. When you bury your nose into a bunch of mint leaves, the aroma of mint is unmistakable. And pleasant, as long as you like mint. But so often, chunks of fruit are merely dropped in the glass with no thought of what they're supposed to do. Pineapple and maraschino cherry on a toothpick? Gives you something to munch on, but doesn't have much impact on the drink itself. Likewise, the unsqueezed lime wedges slipped into undistinguished rum-and-Cokes don't contribute to the taste of the drink. Squeezed, though, to get that lime juice and all-important lime oils in the glass, and now you've got a nice Cuba Libre. I don't drink rum-and-Coke, but I do like a Cuba Libre now and then.

To my mind, garnishes look pretty but ingredients actually contribute to the taste and smell of a drink. Consequently, visitors find very little garnish around at the Whiskey Forge; no Thai orchids, no spears of pretty but practically odorless pineapple leaves, no little fez-wearing plastic monkeys capering on the edge of their glasses.

Beachcomber's Gold sans ice shell
So when I saw the recipes for Beachcomber’s Gold in the Tiki+ app calling for re-frozen crushed ice formed into a sort of shell-like overhang, I knew I wouldn't be doing that. I'm not saying I'd never make one — just not for the first time I'm taking a new drink out for a spin. The Beachcomber’s Gold can be made a few different ways depending on which recipe you follow, but the one below is my favorite. The bitter Pernod and unmistakable almond extract with a trio of rums make it a complex mix of homey and exotic tastes. Now that we've made it once and I know it's worth adding to the Whiskey Forge drinks opus, I'll give it a shot with the ice shell.

The original 1937 Don The Beachcomber recipe from Jeff Berry's Tiki+ app follows. To make it my way, eliminate the pre-formed shell and blend it a bit longer.
Beachcomber’s Gold

1 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
¼ oz gold Jamaican rum
¼ oz dark Jamaican rum
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz sugar syrup
6 drops Pernod
4 drops almond extract
2 oz (¼ cup) crushed ice

Put everything in a blender. Blend at high speed for no more than 5 seconds. Strain through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a saucer champagne glass lined with an “ice shell” forming a hood over the glass. Serve with short straws.
ICE SHELL: Place a generous amount of finely shaved ice in the center of a chilled glass. With the back of a spoon, slowly press the ice up the sides of the glass, forming a hood that projects over the glass. Freeze glass overnight.

Did I type out that recipe? I did not: I emailed it to myself directly from the iPhone application. Nice feature. The illustration is a screen grab from the app that I cropped on the phone with Photoshop. And for the record, I actually love little fez-wearing monkeys. Just not so much in my whiskey.

Goes well with:
I talk smack about garnish, it's true, but that doesn't mean I hate it and turn my nose up at drinks that have...decorative touches. Some blogs where the writers aren't afraid to spend a little time purdying up their dranks that are definitely worth checking out:
See if any of them will do that monkey thing for you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Texas Tea, a Punch in Disguise

Texas food has been on my mind, apparently, for years. When I pulled down my accretion of Lone Star cookbooks, the stack reached to my hip. As I research something else entirely, I’m earmarking drinks recipes. Tequila, as you can imagine, looms large in the ingredients lists. Beer, too. Lots of citrus juices and occasional jolts of mezcal come into play.

It’s with no surprise that I suddenly remember my Texas cousins measuring driving distance in units of beers: “Oh, it’s about two beers east of here.” Serious? Joking? Just testing my reaction? It occurs to me that “Texas dent” may refer not just to the indentation one puts on a can of beer to mark it as one’s own, but to car and truck bodies influenced by overindulgence in barley pop.

Mary Faulk Koock’s midcentury The Texas Cookbook puts a slightly more elegant spin on Texas sips. Her method of adding water to a strong tea base is pretty close to how I make iced tea. But then notice what gets served alongside as a matter of course.
Darjeeling Tea (for 40 to 50 cups)

Save time by making a tea concentrate beforehand. Bring 1 ½ qts cold fresh water to a full rolling boil. Remove from heat and immediately add ¼ lb. loose tea. Stir to immerse leaves. Cover. Let stand 5 minutes. Strain into teapot and leave until tea time. At the table, pour about 1 oz. concentrate into each cup, and add fresh boiling water from a teakettle. Serve with a choice of lemon slices, rum, sugar, and cream.
Lemon, sugar, tea, and rum in your cup? Oh, Texas. You may call it tea, but I know punch when I see it. It’s a shame you’re 132 beers away or I’d visit more often.

Goes well with:
  • Mary Faulk Koock (1965) The Texas Cookbook: From Barbecue to Banquet — an Informal View of Dining and Entertaining the Texas Way. Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 
  • Homesick Texan, Lisa Fain's blog about the food of Texas from her digs in New York. Ms. Fain, as you can see plainly, takes better photos than I.