Saturday, January 31, 2009

Noyau Rising: The Miss Suzy Cocktail

Squirrel Sours call for a base spirit,
lemon or lime juice,
and crème de noyau or another nut-flavored liqueur.

~ Gary Regan
The Joy of Mixology

Squirrels have been scampering about the attic of my mind. Red ones, gnawing the wiring and chattering away when work should be claiming most my concentration. My savior, come to evict them, is a single bush-tailed rodent from my childhood. The apron-clad Miss Suzy, from Miriam Young’s 1964 children’s book of the same name, has inspired a stiff adult beverage laced with a seductive cordial made of sugar, brandy, and otherwise throw-away peach pits.

In Young’s book, Miss Suzy, the homey squirrel so skilled in the domestic arts, cooks and cleans in her tree house, enjoying the starry skies. Short version: A band of bad red squirrels runs her out and trashes the place. She bivouacs in a dollhouse within a nearby attic where, while cleaning, she finds a box of toy soldiers. The soldiers, smitten by her and outraged at the bastard red squirrels, muster arms and chase off the interlopers. Miss Suzy moves back to her old digs and her starry skies.

As a child, I adored the story. Like my nephew after me, I loved reenacting the part of the red squirrels (one gets to throw—if not actually break—things). I’d largely forgotten it, however, until I concocted a batch of homemade crème de noyau…and orange bitters kingpin Gary Regan lurched into the picture.

In The Joy of Mixology (2003), Regan offers a typology of alcoholic drinks, categorizing them by easy-to-remember components. Regan posits a new class based on nut liqueurs, most notably Hiram Walker’s luridly red crème de noyaux, a liqueur used most famously in a saccharine little tonsil varnish named a Pink Squirrel.

My noyau is not red. It’s a light amber that—from the looks of it—could pass for honey syrup. Ah, but smell: an immediate aroma of marzipan spiked with notes of peach and vanilla. Regan would call this a New Jersey Squirrel. I classed it up a bit by ditching the red and giving it a less industrial flavor. While the noyau tantalizingly hits sweet notes of...something the drink, it remains solidly an applejack sour.

Miss Suzy Cocktail

2 oz Laird’s 100-proof Apple Brandy
1 oz homemade crème de noyau
1 oz fresh lemon juice

Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish, if desired, with a single brandied cherry and a sink of brandied cherry syrup.

An uncomplicated cocktail going into regular rotation over at the Forge.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Given a Glut of Grapefruit

Fruit experts disagree about the origins of grapefruit,
how it was named, and even what species it is,
but there is little debate
about how delicious grapefruit are
and how they perk up tired taste buds.

~ Alice Waters
Chez Panisse Fruit

Not long ago, I was blessed with a huge bag of grapefruit. More precise, perhaps, to say that my friend Carlo called to say I could harvest as many as I liked from his side yard. Otherwise, they would just be left, untended, unloved, on the trees. The thought of hundreds of orphaned grapefruit was almost more than I could bear.

It turns out that dozens of grapefruit also were more than I could eat. At the end of a week, some peel had been candied, some dried and powdered for marinades and stews, the flesh sliced into a bowl with oranges, bananas, maraschino, and mint for a fruit salad. There was sufficient grapefruit bitters to last through the summer.

Breaking out the reamer, I juiced the remaining fruit. The dozen or so fat yellow globes yielded a liter of strained juice. Tasty enough—if tart—to drink straight up. Better to hit it with a splash of seltzer. Better still to measure it into a cocktail shaker to perk up them tired cocktail taste buds.

For sipping tequila neat, I favor more aged selections, but inocente puts out a clean blanco, a triple-distilled 100% blue agave tequila that stands up quite nicely to puckery grapefruit juice. Out it came.

Both Marleigh Riggins at Sloshed! and Chuck Taggart on The Gumbo Pages have written about Eric Alperin’s tequila-and-Campari cocktail, the sculaccione. I enjoy it as well, but bitter is sometimes a hard sell around this house. Fortunately, the Italian amaro Aperol (flavored with orange, gentian, and rhubarb among others) plays bitter roles with great success. With the switch of spirits, I dubbed this one the

2 oz blanco tequila (inocente Platinum)
¾ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz fresh grapefruit juice
½ oz Aperol
½ oz simple syrup
dash Angostura bitters

Shake with ice. Strain into an old fashioned glass filled with fresh ice.

Given the hundreds of cocktails in Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail, a casual reader might be forgiven for skimming right past the salt-and-pepper martini. Me? I’m not an unbending martini purist, but the glut of chocolate martinis, appletinis, and endless what-the-hell's-this-itinis has made me leery of deviations from the classic gin-and-vermouth formulae, so it was a while before I sampled this grapefruit-spiked version. Plymouth gin is lovely in this one. Oh, if I could only have back those misspent days.
Salt-and-Pepper Martini

1 ½ oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
¾ oz. grapefruit juice
1 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake all the ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled salt-rimmed martini glass.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stink up the New Year with Tasty Cucumber Kimchee

A dish of kimchee has all the subtlety of an Israeli foray into Gaza. Today, I’m eating some. This isn’t any sort of political stance, yet it is problematic because, as I’ve mentioned, making kimchee at home is forbidden to me.

Capital for, lowercase bidden.

Yet here it is—kimchee. Right on the table. I’ve got the house to myself for 24 hours and this is the vice that whispers most compellingly. By morning, the place should be aired out and nobody will be the wiser.

It’s the smell. That’s what gets me in trouble. Some who make it at home actually keep separate refrigerators (even outside) in which to store these aromatic Korean pickles. Pungent and penetrating, nearly every variety of kimchee—from cabbage to radish—infuses the entire place with garlic and hot peppers. My gumbo and red beans are no strangers to garlic or peppers, but there’s no restriction on them because neither stinks up the place quite the same way. Those don’t ferment, you see. And that’s when the penetrating power of Korean pickles shoulders its way in.

Southern California kimchee lovers with home-pickling injunctions are in luck. While nearly any Korean market has kimchee for those who aren’t allowed or don’t want to make it, Zion Market has dozens (hundreds?) of prepared kimchees for take-out. Every now and again I head there to load up on red pepper paste and threads, cheap sea salt…and stinky-ass contraband.

When I have more than a single day alone, I will occasionally crank out a quick cucumber kimchee nearly identical to the one I picked at Zion along with a dried radish version (in the bowl, above). If all you know is the Napa cabbage type, give this fresh and crisp one a spin.

Cucumber Kimchee (Oi Sobagi)

10 Kirby cucumbers, about 5” long
1 small bunch of green onions (about 5), chopped fine
I entire head of garlic, chopped fine
2 Tbl. fresh ginger, minced
2 Tbl. red pepper threads or 1½ Tbl. New Mexican chile powder
2-3 Tbl. kosher or sea salt (plus extra for salting)
2 tsp white sugar

Wash the cucumbers and trim the blossom end from each. Cut each cucumber down its length almost to the stem end, but not all the way through. Turn the cucumber and make an identical cut at a 90° angle to the first. The cuke should still be held together at the stem end. Rub salt into the cuts and place in a colander to drain for an hour.

Mix the spring onions, garlic, ginger, pepper, and sugar in a nonreactive bowl. Add 2-3 tablespoons of kosher or flaky sea salt to taste (remember: not subtle).

Rinse and drain the cucumbers. Stuff them lightly with the mixture. Pack the stuffed cucumbers carefully into a big glass jar or two. Let ferment at room temperature for at least one day, when they’re begin to sour slightly from the fermentation. Refrigerate once they reach a point of sourness you like, then eat them all within a week.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Opium Syrup: Babies Cry for It

A predilection for old cookery books, leather-bound pharmacopeia, and druggist circulars has stocked my shelves with recipes, formulae, and scraps of knowledge whose heyday has past. In some cases—old cocktails, bitters, moonshiner memoirs, handwritten household account books—the loss to the general public is regrettable. Other times, taking some of these compounded goodies recipes out of circulation is just as well.

Take, for instance, Professor H. Blits’ 1890 Patented and Improved Methods of Canning Fruits, Vegetables, Etc. The book itself is a gem (in addition to liquor, I’m a fiend for pickling and preserves). In it, Blits includes recipes for curing drunkenness, making candles burn all night, and…the famous soothing syrup. 19th Century babies, apparently, cried for it. Or, given its opium content, one presumes it was more accurate to say that babies cried loudest when it was withheld.

The famous soothing syrup—babies cry for it.

It is perfectly harmless, and very beneficial and good for colic. One pound granulated sugar, one pint of water; let this come to a boil; then boil down 10 minutes more, stirring as little as possible; and one ounce of McMund’s [sic: McMunn’s] elixir of opium and eight drops of annis [sic: anise] oil; when cool, bottle and cork. If you can’t get McMund’s, use one ounce of deodorized tincture of opium instead. The tincture opium in this shape is harmless, as it is very weak; it is not half as strong at the patent soothing syrup now the market. Dose—child one month old, five drops, every hour until relieved; three months old, fifteen drops every hour until relieved; six months old and over, one teaspoonful every hour until relieved.

Given the typos that sound almost right, I'm guessing either Blits or his publisher took down the recipe by ear rather than after much hands-on practice. McMunn's, after all, was a fairly well-known opium elixir.

Twenty drops of this syrup, though, and I bet the patients slept like babies. Precious little junky babies.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Proof of Too Much Booze?

As a 20-year “Friend of Bill W.’s” I am a bit embarrassed
by my fellow ex-drunks’ pious attitudes.

Sometimes I forget that I’m in the minority

and that the vast majority of people can drink

(and occasionally overindulge)

without grave consequences.

~ Bruce, voicing a minority comment
on Iain Gately’s “Besotted — Etymologically, That Is”

If you haven’t seen the blog Proof over at, go check it out. Articles approach alcohol and drinking from diverse angles as contributors “consider the charms, powers and dangers of drink.” Writers include Paul Clarke, Susan Cheever, Glenn Eichler, Iain Gately, and others. If you read AND drink (or used to drink), they may be familiar names. Particularly revealing are the comments sections of each article. It’s here where drinking and abstaining Times readers duke out their differences.

Among non-drinkers, comments typically range from tight-lipped disapproval to off-the-charts sputtering rage leveled against drinkers. One of my favorites is in response to Eichler’s list of alcohol-fueled lines from holiday parties (“None of these are real, and also they are not funny at all”—many of them are, in fact, funny: see below). But the sheer vitriol heaped upon drinkers by recovering alcoholics across all the stories was something of a shock.

It’s not that I don’t know recovering alcoholics. Of course I do. Given the role alcohol plays in my professional life and the pleasure it’s given me personally, however, I forget on a day-to-day basis that drinking can be ruinous for some, that there are those who simply cannot or should not drink, and some for whom others’ drinking has presented heart-wrenching challenges.

For those of us who can have a drink or two, then stop, the proposition that casual enjoyment of well-crafted cocktails or fine spirits—even the occasional PBR—leads to ruination and ignominious death seems preposterous. But the implacable alcoholics and their joyless flames over at Proof set me thinking about the sheer volume of alcohol we have at home.

Well over a hundred bottles of liquor are readily apparent as visitors step into our living room. The copper-topped dry sink is covered with whiskey and brandies, its cabinet stuffed with single barrel bottlings and limited releases. The wheeled, two-tiered, mid-century bar cart is so laden with rums and caçacha that moving it is difficult. Bottles are filed by type and size in two additional closets and the kitchen counter is frequently host to bottles I haven’t filed or that I’m using in research, not to mention the various infusing, pickling, and candying experiments underway. In the last five years, our bowl of limes has gone dry exactly once.

Such a collection always seemed like…well, a working collection to me, a research tool—much like having a culinary library so extensive that I rarely need to leave to find that one bit of information I want to track down. Need absinthes for some 19th century baroque cocktail? Check. What about genever for a Dutch treat? Sure. What brandies are best for sidecars? Let’s find out. Does it really matter what kind of gin goes into a bijou cocktail? Here, try four small versions and be your own judge. Once we settle on the best gin for the job, let’s see what bitters make the thing shine. Just want a Jack and Coke? I can help you there, too, though I’m likely to try steering you somewhere else.

I’m looking at this forest of bottles in a new light now, though. A casual visitor could well be appalled at this collection, to see it, in fact, as a red flag indicating certain alcoholism and impending doom. I don’t and neither to the people who know me well. But still, there’s the matter of appearances. Perhaps more of this liquid library could go behind cabinet and closet doors.

I mean, really, do I need two dozen rums at the ready each and every day? We’re not talking about hiding the stuff (now there’s a trick that suggests someone should drop by an AA meeting), but maybe three or four rums for the cart are sufficient while the remainder rests a whole two meters away in a cool, dark place behind a door. That's better for the liquor in the long run, anyway.

I’ve got to mull this one over. If I don’t play this right, it means putting books in storage to make room for booze and that is truly the last step of a desperate book addict.

~ ~ ~

Excerpts from Glenn Eichler’s “Really, It’s the Booze Talking”

“Has anyone ever told you that you have the air of a much more successful person?”

“I don’t believe we’ve met. Oh, really? Right next door? Ten years?”

“We’re not really budgeted for a vacation this year, what with the exchange rate and my gambling addiction.”

“I have to apologize for not reading your new book yet. It’s just that the last one was so awful.”

“I don’t usually drink this much, but you’re insufferable.”

“I had pants on when I came in, right?”