Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Fall is approaching. The weather is starting to become a bit cooler. Thoughts of the boardwalk and ice cream give way to those of hayrides and pumpkins. I no longer sweat out half my body weight while I wait for the subway every morning. And one of my favorite fruits happens to be in season--the apple.
I have a big, thick bartender's recipe book with thousands of drinks in it. One of the spirits that keeps popping up over and over again is Applejack--a blend of 35% apple infused brandy and 65% neutral spirits. Until recently, this was seen as a frivolous purchase. A luxury on a par with lighting an expensive cigar with a hundred dollar bill or buying a couple of endangered condors and making them fight to the death. If it were cheap, everyone would do it, but I'm not made of money.
Then I started to get bored with my everyday cocktails. (note: "everyday cocktails" is just an expression. I do not drink everyday. That should keep my parents from hosting an intervention.) I was starting to get sick of these perfectly good drink recipes just staring me in the face, taunting me with their amazing potential. Then I thought about you, the reader. I am a regular contributor to this blog. I owe it to you to carpe diem. To explore strange new pours. To seek out new drinks and new boozy libations. To boldly mix what no man has mixed before.
We picked up a bottle of Applejack in Pennsylvania because we were there and it happened to be a dollar off. It ran us a cool $13.99, much more reasonable than a bottle of Courvoisier which can cost twice as much. When we got it back home, I tried a little out of the bottle as a control sample. Regular readers know I'm a scientist, damn it. I was pleased to find that the apple flavor was subtle and didn't mask the pleasantness of the brandy. Though it has the same alcoholic content as many cognacs, it was a lot less intense. I know when I put my nose too deep into a snifter of Courvoisier, it burns my nostrils a little.
The first drink I made for Heather was an Apple Cart, involving Applejack, lemon, and Grand Marnier. It was good, though I probably went a little heavy on the lemon. Heather had no complaints though and drank it with glee. She's a fan of lemon after all. For myself, I made an Apple Swizzle--Applejack, rum, lime, sugar and a dash of bitters. I figured since we were transitioning from summer to fall, both should be represented in my drink. I get the summery vibe of a rum swizzle with the pleasant fall quality of apple.
The following night, we cracked the Applejack open again and had two more. I went the classy route and made an Applejack Manhattan. It's similar to a regular manhattan except that Applejack replaces whiskey and it calls for orange bitters. I don't have orange bitters so I just used my Angostura. This was less festive than my swizzle but still a lot of fun. Heather asked me for a Jack Rose, a drink she saw on Death & Company's website. It's very similar to the Apple Cart but it's sweetened with grenadine instead of Grand Marnier and the Applejack to lemon ratio is a bit higher. Heather enjoyed the Jack Rose more. It had a ruby color to it and tastes reminiscent of a cosmo--though none of the same ingredients are used. I used apple slices for garnish on all of these drinks. I felt that I would be remiss in not doing so.
This bottle of Applejack boasts that the company started making it way back in 1698. It then goes on to say, "Around 1760, George Washington discovered this unique beverage, asked for and received the Laird family recipe and soon introduced Applejack to the Virginia colony." I'd like to think that George Washington and I have a lot in common: Our love of Applejack for example. Because most of my knowledge of American history comes from liquor bottles, matchbooks and the movie The Patriot, I'm pretty sure we're two peas in a pod.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cause I'm a Ninja

I am a woefully untrained chef. I have always wanted to take a class or two--actually have an expert teach me some technique rather then just making it up and watching YouTube videos. Unfortunately the most visible cooking schools in NY involves words like "French Culinary" and "Institute" with the prices to match.

A few weeks ago while researching a butchering class I had read about, I learned of The Brooklyn Kitchen. A small store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they offer a rotating roster of classes every month at prices that even I can afford. Pretty much every month, it appears, they offer a few sections of a knife skills class for $25 a person. Two hours to improve my abilities and play with big knives? Sign me up! But what good would it do to improve my own skills if the sous chef, my beloved fiance Will, was still lagging behind? As I pick these crazy meals, he is usually in charge of most of the prep work. I usually have him chop my ingredients as I work on steps 6 through 32 of any given recipe. Neither of us is trained at cooking, making it up as we go along, so it can take quite a bit of time for him to get through the list of onions, tomatoes, peppers, and whatever else I line up for him. The 9pm dinners are somewhat common. Nope, it would not do to go to the class on my own. "Hey honey, guess what we're doing!" Okay, so the big knives helped sell him on the prospect as well.

The class was BYOK, or bring your own knife, specifically a chef's knife, 8" or better. To illustrate how woefully uneducated I can be in the area of cooking, I had to look up the definition of a "Chef's knife." I'm not kidding. Once we were certain of what it was, we realized we only owned one of them, and it was a kind of crappy one I had bought right out of college. It looked like we had a good use for the Bed, Bath and Beyond gift card I had received for my shower. Thanks Aunt Lorna! Once a decent knife had been acquired (and Will volunteered to use the crappier one in class) we were ready for our new lives as trained chefs. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't envisioning the chopping on Iron Chef and thinking, "That's totally going to be me." I also may or may not have been thinking about the scene in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman cuts a baseball in half in mid-air with a samurai sword. I'm pretty sure I could learn to do that in a two hour class in Brooklyn.

Last Wednesday, knives wrapped in paper towels and secured in my bag, we were off to Brooklyn. Luckily it was not one of the days they were searching bags on the subway so I was able to make it there without being wrestled to the ground by one of New York's finest. The store was cute; in addition to an impressive range of gourmet cooking tools, they buy and refurbish copper and cast iron pans and resell them. As a well seasoned cast iron pan is supposed to be the holy grail of cooking equipment, I looked on these with quiet envy. And by quiet I mean I poked Will repeatedly as I pointed them out.

Our teacher was a chef named Brendan McDermott, who was already extremely cute and his attractiveness was only increased by his deftness with sharp objects. What can I say, I like a man with steel. He started by teaching us how to reset the "teeth" of a knife with a honing steel. Apparently you have to go from an X to a triangle. Who knew. As he chatted about knife safety and tecnique, I listened attentively. Then my stomach started feeling a little funny. Then very funny. Then I broke into a sweat. Once my vision started to swim I became fairly convinced I was going to faint. I sat on the floor, which grabbed me a fair amount of attention. I've had a few fainting spells over the year, and there is just one thing about them I know for certain. Get on the floor, or fall on the floor, it's you choice, but you will end up on the floor. It's not always an easy call, because the first instinct is denial. "I'm fine, this will pass, I'm just having a dizzy spell, blurry vision is better, I like it this way." When you wake up on the floor, however, your ego's not the only thing that's bruised. And so I sat on the floor, and made my excuses from there. Will grabbed me water and helped me to the bathroom. He was very heroic, supporting me and promising not to pose me in funny positions if I lost consciousness. After slumping against the wall, breathing deeply, and splashing water on my face my constitution returned to normal.

I know what you're thinking. "And then Will hailed a cab and took you home?" Um, not exactly. See, I've had these spells before. And there's one thing that remains true about them, they never last more than fifteen minutes. Then I'm fine, like nothing ever happened. Had Will tried to drag me home, it would have been five minutes into the ride that my body would have righted itself and I would have been super pissed that we had lost out on all of the info and the $50 we paid to take the class. I splashed water on my face and headed back to class. Chef Brendan seemed surprised to see me, but with a wary look he let me pick up my knife.

The class was excellent; I got caught up chopping celery, as well as planing, julienning, and brunoising carrots. I awkwardly hacked out chunks of carrot, desperately trying to master the down and forward motion without cutting my thumb. I had a tendency to start hazardously high. Will was freakishly good at this, earning praise from the chef for his perfect tiny carrot pieces. I'm pretty sure he cheated. Cheater.

We then moved onto the fearful onion. With eight people chopping at the same time, statistically the chances were high that tears were imminent. Onions are cut by creating a grid that doesn't go through all the way, and then cutting downward to get perfect little squares. One girl lost her eyes almost immediately, but I've never been very sensitive to onions. Another girl nicked her finger, not seriously but enough to warrant a band-aid. She persevered for a few more minutes, and then in a warbaly voice she said "You're not going to believe this, but now I'm dizzy." She sank into a chair and sipped water of her own. I felt so relieved to not be the only one swooning that I put on my best Florence Nightengale and grabbed her a wet paper towel, assuring her that putting it on the back of her neck would help. Hey, I've been there. The chef shook his head at us, "Fainting, blood, you guys are a mess, we've never had this many casualties!" Well, at least we stood out.

The class concluded with a series of demos. Nimbly wielding his knife Chef Brendan took apart a pepper, a tomato, and a whole chicken with ease and speed. The chicken was pretty cool, and he explained how much more cost effective it is to butcher the chicken yourself then to pay for individual pieces. Culinary school makes for impressive skill. I tried to pay close attention, but I may have to look up an online video when I go to do these. Because I didn't have the hands-on practice, I'm sure I didn't retain as much as with the other veggies.

The store offers students 10% off purchases on the day of their class, so I bought a little salt dish that I am rather enamored with. I've heard of some other fantastic classes Brooklyn kitchen offers, including the butchering one I was initially researching. You don't get hands on experience in that one, but you watch an entire pig get butchered, and you get to take home four pounds of meat. I have a fantasy about hosting a "Pork Overload" party the next day, since there's no way Will and I can eat that much meat. Well maybe Will could...but he would probably spend the next week in the doctor's office while a skilled medical team scrapes the plaque out of his coronary arteries. I figure a class like this would be the best way to really learn about the cuts of meat you are getting from an animal, and give you a better understanding of what you are cooking. I've asked for the class for Christmas. I think Will's still wrapping his brain around the idea that his fiance wants to see a pig cut up for a present.

The only problem I had with the class is that it's actually held in the tiny store, with limited work space and people shopping around you. I've read that in November, Brooklyn Kitchen will be opening Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, a new facility with a butcher shop in the front and full teaching kitchens. As long as the prices don't skyrocket, they can count me as a loyal student. And I will do my best to stay on my feet.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Heather and I took a trip to Governors Island on Sunday for their New Island Festival. It was really a lot of fun and included a lot of art installations and Dutch themed entertainment. There was even a Dutch group called Zap Holland who performed little skits that seemed to be intended for kids aside from the occasional allusion to drugs and legal prostitution. They had a couple of stands where you could buy beer and wine but the selection was pretty limited. If you wanted beer, you could have either Amstel or Heineken and the wine was offered in varieties as distinctive as red and white. I suppose one can’t complain. It’s a festival.
After we left Governors Island, Heather and I we’re trying to decide what to do with the remainder of our evening. We could go home and I could mix drinks. We shied away from that option because I’ve been mixing drinks a lot lately. I like doing it and it’s cheaper, but occasionally I like to let someone else do the work. I enjoy the artistry and also I’m lazy. We considered Studio Square, but that’s a beer garden. After drinking a few Heinekens, I was a little tired of beer. Variety is indeed the spice of life.
At Heather’s suggestion, we finally decided on Mayahuel—a tequila bar in the East Village. Heather has been there before and was the one that tipped me off. It’s run by the same folks who run Death & Company, another bar of which we're quite fond. Like these other places, Mayahuel has a very low key facade. You’re likely to miss it unless you’re really looking for it.
The tiny bar was full, so we took a seat at a two person booth. The decor has a very dimly lit, Mexican charm. I think the booth was designed to look like a repurposed prison cell or something. (Just a theory on my part.) And the place is filled with cheap looking dollar store candles—the kind with the Virgin Mary and a crucified Jesus staring back at you. As weird as it might seem to have religious figures like Jesus staring at you while you knock back tequila, it was oddly appropriate. I wanted him to jump off that cross so I could buy him a round. But then I remembered that he died and ascended into heaven on the third day. God Damn Romans.
We both ordered cocktails off the menu. I decided to go with the Tequila Gumption—a cocktail comprising “Mezcal and Reposado Tequila with Maraschino, Orange & Angostura Bitters.” Heather opted for a Jacko’s End—a mix of “Mezcal, Bonded Applejack, Benedictine, & Peychaud bitters.” We commented to each other that they both seemed to have a very specific finish to them, almost an antiseptic quality. It reminded us both of a dentist’s office. I didn’t find it entirely unpleasant, but Heather doesn’t care to be reminded of the dentist when she’s out at the bar. We thought maybe it was the bitters but we could be wrong. If anybody has any insight, please post a comment.
Near the end of our visit, a middle aged couple came in wearing familiar outfits of unfashionable tee shirts and jeans that scream "I DON'T LIVE HERE." They asked the bartender for a take-out menu. He politely told them that they didn't have one. Thrown, the couple asked him what this place was exactly. He explained that it was a small Mexican themed bar and restaurant that specializes in tequila drinks and small plate food. The couple then stared at him blankly, thanked him for his time and left. I felt cool and in the know by comparison. I never feel cool and in the know. I constantly feel square and left out, but Mayahuel changed all that. I will be returning again soon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Epicurette Takes On the Stock Market

With the creation of my Red Pepper Soup, a feeling of panic set in. A sweep of my freezer confirmed my deepest fears, this soup would use the last of my chicken stock. In the late spring I had finally gotten tired of every cookbook, food article, and blog post scolding me about one truism of a serious cook, never use packaged chicken stock. "It's flavor is plastic" they declared, "it lacks the silky texture of a homemade stock!" To which I respond, "I'm a busy modern woman. I don't feel like doing it. Why don't YOU do it?"

The promise of silky texture wasn't what sold me. It was that it was a creation involving nothing but chicken scraps and cheap veggies, and it promised to improve every soup and sauce I made. I implemented as instructed, and Easter through Labor Day my freezer was stocked with a secret weapon. Then fall and the red pepper soup came, and my ambrosia in ziplock bags was exhausted. Action needed to be taken.

There are two major obstacles to homemade chicken stock being produced in my kitchen.

#1: The recipe I use requires the carcasses of 2 chickens, thus 2 whole chickens must be cooked and consumed. Actually, this and other recipes will tell you that a mix of "scrap" chicken can be purchased, wings and such, and just thrown in instead of the carcass. The thing is though, chicken is quite popular in this apartment. When Will and I first met, it was one of the few things I could make that he would actually eat. One of my first gifts from my mother after Will and I moved in together was a cookbook focusing solely on chicken dishes. The idea of paying money for chicken we didn't intend to eat seems wasteful, and disappointing. Especially when you throw in the fact that I have a new roasting pan to play with. As a result the carcass of the chicken I made when Stef was here was nestled in the back of the freezer as soon as dinner was over. The following week when Whole Foods advertised whole, organic chickens, which never usually go on sale, I had the poor sales help scrambling all over the meat department helping me locate them. (They were in the flyer, but not marked in the case. It took a call to the general office to figure out which chicken was on sale. And I made them do it. I felt like a brat but I wanted an organic chicken and on my non-profit salary, this was the only way I was going to get it.) Another lovely chicken dinner down, and I had my pair of carcasses ready to go.

#2: I don't actually own a stock pot. There's this annoying thing when you are getting married, you are encouraged to register for all the household items you ever set your heart on. But from that moment until the "I do" you aren't allowed to buy any of those things yourself. I'm used to being an independent chef, I might have to save to get things but generally, when I want a pot, I buy it. Now I could be ruining someone's gift giving plans, so I dream about all the things on my registry that I would have normally just purchased for myself while humming a Beyonce song. None of my pots may be big enough for the task of making stock, but I have one device that is, and it's built for the slow simmer. This was the perfect reason to drag out my Crock Pot.

The technique involved in making stock this way is nil. I pour a shit ton of water into the pot, slice up a few veggies, throw in pot, turn on, go to bed. The next morning I wake up and the whole apartment smells of chicken soup. What could be better? Actually, it's not quite that easy. As I had made pot roast on Saturday, and had gotten a late start, Will and I didn't eat dinner until 9pm. Then we watched a DVD. It wasn't until I was getting ready for bed that I even remembered my grandiose plan to replenish my stock supply. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why, at midnight on Saturday, when, I imagine, most 26 year old New Yorkers were in bars or getting laid, I was in my kitchen chopping up a carrot. Revel in my glamorous lifestyle.

Why, you might ask, didn't you put it off for a night? While the night before work is super easy, it's the following morning that takes work. Since a crock pot is based on trapped steam heat, the stock doesn't boil down more then a few cups, leaving the stock somewhat thin. Luckily it boils down just enough for the remaining liquid to fit into one of my existing pots and I boil it down from there. Once that process is accomplished, I have to wait for it to cool enough to be poured into freezer bags, label each bag, and chill. In the spring when I did this, I thought I could easily fit this project in before work. Gah. Now I know that this is undoubtably a weekend project.

One little trick did make the processes go markedly smoother this time around. This is the glorious invention of the Soup Sock. This natural cotton bag was fantastic, I packed in all the ingredients and then just submerged it into the water. Once it cooled the next morning I simply removed it. No fishing out bone, scraps of onion, bits of garlic. It all lifted right out, and was thrown away. And I got three of these things for $2.50. What a time to be alive.

This is the recipe as it appears in Gourmet for a regular stock pot. Again, all I changed when I made it was to put in in a crock pot overnight on low instead of making it in the pot, and then boiling it down the next morning. All of my ingredients are the same.

  • 2 chicken carcasses left over from roast chicken, any herbs in cavities discarded
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, chopped
  • 1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
  • Scant 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 8 parsley sprigs including long stems
  • 4 quarts water


Bring all ingredients to a boil in an 8-qt stockpot. Reduce heat and simmer, skimming foam occasionally, 2 hours.

Strain stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on and then discarding solids. If you have more than 6 cups, boil to reduce; if less, add water. If using stock right away, skim off and discard fat. If not, chill stock (covered once cool) and discard fat after it solidifies.

Bags of stock now chilled and in the freezing process, I have started to look forward to all of the delightful soups I will make this winter. I've already found a recipe for Mushroom Soup with Hazelnut Gremolata. It calls for 3 cups of.... vegetable broth. God dammit. I wonder what I'll be doing at midnight next Saturday...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Crab Cake Sandwiches

I could never live outside of a temperate zone. I adore each season with passion when it arrives, and despise it from the depths of my soul by the time it departs. By the end of winter I'm so desperate to pack away the sweaters and put on a flowing skirt that I have been known to just wear them in March in an attempt to change the seasons by sheer force of wardrobe. It hasn't worked, and has resulted in some cold ankles. For the record, I've also tried doing ritualistic tribal dances, selling my soul to Satan, and--in a fit of desperation--frowning at clouds until they go away. I'm usually completely done with summer by early August. It's hot, it's humid, and this past summer it was usually raining. About five minutes into September I was eying my fall outfits and dreaming of apple cider, pumpkin muffins, and lovely fall roasts. Unfortunately it was still 85 degrees outside.

The past few weeks have seen the thermometer bounce up and down, and as I eyed the forecast for the perfect day to bust out my cute brown knee high boots, I became vaguely aware then when we hit 80 degrees on Tuesday it would probably be the last warm day of 2009. Flowing skirt on, I went to Chelsea Market, an indoor gourmet food plaza on 16th Street and 9th Ave to hunt down the ingredients for one last summery dish. It's a Mecca of wonderful (if occasionally overpriced) ingredients, and it has a huge customer as an upstairs neighbor, namely, the Food Network.

One thing I'm not thrilled with in NY is the lack of fish places that will sell you a hard shell crab. You can find the soft ones in the late spring and early summer, but an honest to god hard shelled blue crab eludes me. I bet it could be found in Chinatown, but I've still got enough suburbanite in me to be a little wary of the fish in Chinatown. Most of my non Tilapia or Catfish seafood comes from the Lobster Place. I've gotten decent prices there, depending on what I've been shopping for, and during the lobster glut last year they were one of the most affordable. While full crabs eluded me I found some excellent hand picked crab meat and I knew what my summer send off would be. If I couldn't indulge in the carnal tradition that is ripping a crab apart with my bare hands, I would go the more classy and upscale route, crab cakes. As I exited the Lobster Place I saw Amy's Bread, and my idea developed further, a few really nice rolls and I would have crab cake sandwiches. Wandering further down the market I spotted Chelsea Wine Vault, and what's a good seafood dinner without a chilled white? My mother might disown me...and I like having a mother. A proper meal now planned, I headed home.

My recipe is adapted from one I found in an issue of Gourmet from last summer, brilliant in its simplicity and phenomenally quick to throw together. My deviations from the original recipe are as follows. The recipe originally called for only 2 tbs of beaten egg, but following the advice of the commenters on the website I modified it to include a whole egg. I always keep a loaf of Whole Foods' Organic Italian Bread in my refrigerator. In NY it's a steal at $2.50 and I slice it up all week long for toast, sandwiches, and bread alongside meals. It keeps beautifully; it's one of my kitchen staples. This was more then up to the task of filling in the cakes, as long as I removed the harder top crust. A confession, the recipe calls for Jumbo Lump Crabmeat, which I have left in as it probably is best, but it was nearly $15 to the regular Lump Crabmeat's $9. To be honest, it worked just fine. Just as I was about to throw the patties in the pan, I remembered the several packets of Old Bay I took home from a work conference in Baltimore, just sitting in my cabinet waiting for some use. A little sprinkle brought some heat to the meal, and made it more reminiscent of the full crab dinner I had initially dreamed of.

Crab Cake Sandwiches

2 slices firm white sandwich bread
1/2 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over
2 tablespoon mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
Old Bay to taste
2 Sandwich rolls
Lemon wedges

Tear bread into small pieces into a bowl with crab. Add mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, egg, and a pinch of salt. Mix together gently but thoroughly, then form into 2 patties. If you like, sprinkle patties with Old Bay.
Heat butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook crab cakes, turning once, until golden brown, about 8 minutes total.
Toast rolls, place crab cakes on, enjoy with a glass of wine!

See? Easy as pie! (Note: Pie is much more difficult than this colloquialism would have you believe. I've yet to successfully pull off a homemade pie crust.) Will, a hardliner in the fight against mayo, ate his with enthusiasm and then declared that he would like to eat about eight more. That's when I felt the need to build a napkin fort around what was left of my own sandwich. He was right though, the 2 tbs do work well in the cakes, but don't leave it tasting like a mayo burger as some crab cake recipes have been known to do. It was a great way to send off a season, that, if I had it my way, would be spent largely sitting on docks and eating seafood. Now that I'm looking at a forecast full of weather in the 60's and 70's, maybe a pork roast with apples… or mushroom soup… or a pumpkin pie. Maybe I'll even make the crust myself.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Lazy Sunday

This past Sunday marks the first time in quite a while that both Heather and I have stayed in the borough of Queens for an entire day without leaving. We had a couple of things that we could have done--we talked about going to Governor's Island and hanging out, then we talked about perhaps heading over to the High Line on the west side of Manhattan and winding up at Chelsea Market. Heather made a very involved breakfast that morning using apples she bought at our local farmer's market in Jackson Heights. I'll spare the details in case she decides to post about it, but it was very, very good.
By the time breakfast was over, it was early afternoon. Heather was a little beat from cooking breakfast and I was beat from the previous work week so we decided to bag all that stuff we talked about and keep it local. It was time for an official Lazy Sunday. We walked to Espresso 77, the really cool local coffee place and read the newspaper for a little while. She got a normal, boring coffee and I got a New Orleans iced coffee. We then hit the bakery to pick up buns for turkey burgers (turkey meat also purchased at local farmer's market) and headed home.
We could have gone out to one of the bars we like in Queens--maybe a Dutch Kills or a Studio Square--but we had kind of a pleasant home bodies thing going and we didn't want to ruin it. Heather wanted to challenge me to do something different for pre-dinner cocktails. She visited the website of a bar in Manhattan we both enjoy, Death & Company, and found that they publish some of their drink recipes. Many of them are pretty basic and a lot of them involve gin--a spirit both Heather and I find repellant--but we found a few that we both found appealing and had the ingredients for.
The first one was a drink called 8. It involved whiskey (we subbed bourbon for rye,) orange juice, lemon juice and grenadine. It seemed like a lot of citrus, but it worked out pretty well. The grenadine and orange juice did a fine job of tempering the tartness of the lemon. Heather commented that it seemed like a cocktail that the folks at Death & Company would make. I took that as high praise; those bartenders are pretty skilled.
Our second round was a sidecar. This is a pretty classic drink that you see advertised on drink menus all the time. It may seem odd that an eighty year old like me has never tried one, but for some reason I thought there was gin in it. I learn new things all the time. It has Cognac, orange liqueur (we used Grand Marnier,) and lemon juice. This one wasn't nearly as sweet as the first one. The mild sweetness that it did have came from the Grand Marnier so it was a more complex sweetness than say sugar or juice. We had a drink in mind for a third round but we decided to cap it after two. We don't drink hard; we drink smart. Also Heather doesn't like to go into work with a hangover. I'll never understand women.
As smart as we drank, I realized by the end of the day that I really didn't drink anything without either caffeine or alcohol. I don't know whether to feel shame or accomplishment. Probably a fair amount of shame. But all the drinks were prepared with care and careful consideration. I wasn't just cracking Bud Light Limes all day. That would be too classy for me.
I just finished a two month long sketch writing class that ate up a lot of my free time. This is my first week off from that and, while I love writing sketches, it feels good not to have a deadline staring me down. Every now and again you need to take a personal day to just screw around, have fun, mix drinks and spend time with the person or people you love. That and playing Mario Kart for Wii--that's what's important.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Carmel Disaster Averted, or Guest Blog #1

While I work on a secret project, a guest blogger has been brought in for this week's post. That's right, a ringer. What are you going to do about it? Ladies and gentlemen, my best friend and sometimes house guest, Stefanie.

Despite a lifelong friendship and eerily similar life experiences, my friendship with Heather looks more like two sides of a split personality than a typical sisterly bond. It's like a weird Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation but with more swear words. Heather enjoys building a stable committed life with clearly delineated short and long term goals. She is most in her element when she is cooking for people she loves and wearing vintage aprons. I, reflexively, am an eccentric book nerd, unpredictable and very much allergic to all things domestic and committed. I have been to a grocery store twice in the last year--once for work and once to look for the Michelle Obama edition of Vogue. So, while I genuinely adore that Heather cooks me food all the time, my involvement in the process of rendering the food edible is usually limited. Up until my most recent visit to her apartment in New York, the most complicated thing I did was eat the skin off some poultry at Christmas (duck or goose or some such water foul, whatever it was I remember toasting it a lot) and make sure we always finished the wine. My job was very simple and I would be remiss if I didn't tell you I was pretty fucking fabulous at it.

I planned on coming up to visit Heather for Labor Day weekend solely with the idea of reading and flipping through fashion magazines all weekend, and came prepared with a suitcase full of books and some essential travel items. My first night there Heather went into the kitchen to start this "Salted Carmel Ice Cream" concept, which she hadn't really sold me on yet and I laid down on the couch to read the selected poetry of D. H. Lawrence. In between poems I would poke my head in the kitchen to see if anything was yummy enough to start eating and provide my services as taste tester. Heather was actively engaged in the home made caramel process which involved a really big pan, medium heat and an absurd quantity of sugar. The sugar was melted, but seemed to be separated into one watery brown liquid with a molten deep brown lava center that kind of moved like old rubbery snot when you touched it. Heather kept poking at it with furrowed brow and stated "There isn't a picture with the recipe but I feel strongly that it shouldn't look like this." I agreed. We futzed with the goop for a while, trying to unstick it from the spoon she was using to stir "it." The recipe suggested shaking the pan in a swooping circular motion, but that was clearly not the answer (I think we only angered it) and stirring this substance seemed to some how defy my previous understanding of physics.

Eventually we made the executive decision to turn the heat up and hope to melt this situation into compliance, which under normal circumstances is why you don't want me anywhere near your stove. The maybe five times I have seriously cooked in my life, I turned the stove on high and burnt everything. With smoke. And fire. And the occasional explosion.

The sugar melted into a triumphant caramel and I began work on the custard which I assured Heather I wouldn't ruin because I had "seen Giada and Ina Garten do it like a million times." I think really she was just more focused on the caramel but for whatever reason I took over custard duty. Even though I knew better, I didn't really whisk while I poured the simmered milk into the egg, I was slightly more focused on talking. Heather eventually stepped in and took over the whisk operation, but it was too late. There was about four tablespoons of scrambled eggs left over in the sieve after straining. Despite a major loss in our ingredient amounts, we remained confident.

I gracefully bowed out of the cooking process and Heather moved onto a chicken while the custard chilled. While she hacked the neck off the chicken I yelled "Viva la revolution, off with their heads," painting my toenails bright iridescent fuchsia. I felt very much like a modern day Marie Antoinette, but with poultry. Heather seasoned the chicken and put it in the oven using her nifty new roasting pan that--from what she tells me--is totally awesome. If the the final product was any indicator to the pan's value, then you should all go get one, because the chicken was pretty awesome. (Ed. Note: It was the Caphalon with rack and baster, a wedding present from my lovely Aunt Donna)

Will was slightly self-deprecating about his mashed potatoes, which he claimed were lumpy. However, I thought they were fantastic, which is amazing because I think all things potato, including chips and fries, are gross. Maybe it was the lump that I needed all this time?

The ice cream turned out to be a really rich carmel soft serve. Less ice cream, more chilled syrup. I made the suggestion to Heather that it be served with lady fingers, turns out those are hard to find at 9 pm. Will obligingly went to the store for Nilla Wafers, and that turned out to be a fantastic save, because it's insanely good with cookies. So from what Heather tells me, she is now eating the Salted Caramel Ice cream as a dip with cookies and it's an arrangement she and Will are on board with.

Salted Carmel Ice Cream

Gourmet magazine, August 2009

1/4 cups sugar, divided
2 1/4 cups heavy cream, divided
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt such as Maldon
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
3 large eggs

Heat 1 cup sugar in a dry 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring with a fork to heat sugar evenly, until it starts to melt, then stop stirring and cook, swirling skillet occasionally so sugar melts evenly, until it is dark amber.

Add 1 1/4 cups cream (mixture will spatter) and cook, stirring, until all of caramel has dissolved. Transfer to a bowl and stir in sea salt and vanilla. Cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, bring milk, remaining cup cream, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar just to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally.
Lightly whisk eggs in a medium bowl, then add half of hot milk mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Pour back into saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard coats back of spoon and registers 170°F on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil). Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl, then stir in cooled caramel.

Chill custard, stirring occasionally, until very cold, 3 to 6 hours. Freeze custard in ice cream maker (it will still be quite soft), then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to firm up.

Ed note: The next day Stef and I picnicked on Governor's Island, so I leave you with a lovely picture of Stef in front of the Statue of Liberty!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Willie Joins the Bitter Brigade

Lately I’ve been incorporating bitters into my drinks. When I was first introduced to the concept of deliberately making one’s cocktails bitter, I bristled at the notion. Nay I say. Bring on the sweet, the salty, the sour, but not the bitter. However, as I matured in my mixological development, I came across more and more drink recipes that call for bitters of various kinds, particularly one called Angostura Bitters.

I might be late to the party one this one but Angostura Bitters is pretty versatile. I decided I had to pick some up. I went to the liquor store to get some. They had lots of bitters. No sign of Angostura. No dice. I checked a couple of other liquor stores too. No dice. Why is it that tons of drinks call for the stuff, but it’s so hard to find. I did some internet research and discovered it can be found on I order a bottle. It arrives. Like any good scientist, I inspect the bottle. It’s tiny with a funny looking label that sticks up over the neck of the bottle. I pour a little into a small glass and taste it. Holy crap does it pack a punch. It took a while for me to kill the taste.

In every recipe I come across, bitters is measured by the dash. The stuff is so potent, a little dash’ll do ya. When I mix drinks I like to get pretty precise. I haven’t mastered the art of the free pour. I use a shot glass with little markings on it for 1/2, 1, and 1 1/2 oz. I usually take more time than is necessary to complete a drink. I sacrifice time for precision. That’s why the whole dash thing confounds me. How do you convert a dash into milliliters? Where can I find it on a graduated cylinder? Sometimes the recipe calls for several dashes. That’s just great. Let’s combine an inexact number with an imprecise measurement. Occasionally it will say to add bitters to taste. Egad! I’m a scientist, damn it, and I can’t measure that. Sometimes I add too much and Heather makes a face. Sometimes I add too little and I wonder why I even bothered adding it.

I will say this though. I’m glad that I had the wherewithal to pursue this bitters concept because along with making me a better bartender, I believe it has expanded my palate’s horizons. Bitters can be the perfect thing to take a drink as sweet as an Old Fashioned and make it a little deeper and more complex. In my opinion, you can add it to any sweet drink to give it a little class. It’s a way to add your own little personal signature to a drink. I am glad I got the small bottle though because I haven’t even made a dent in it. A little goes a long way. I’m relatively new to the concept of bitters in the bartender’s arsenal but the idea intrigues me to no end. If any of you in the culinary or mixological community have any advise, thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. What’s a good bitters to invest in besides Angostura?

As a post script to my search for Angostura, I realized later that you can just pick it up at the grocery store. I felt like a tool for getting it on the internet. It’s got a pretty high alcohol content but the taste by itself is so unpleasant and strong, it acts as a built in disincentive. That’s my take on it anyway. There's an interesting article that appeared online recently that further whet my interest in bitters. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Red Pepper Soup

As I mentioned in the Joseph Ambler Inn's review, haute comfort food is a big recession trend right now. I have discovered my own fancy comfort food dish in a Red Pepper Soup with Orange Cream. The Red Pepper Soup has a very fancy presentation, but it has the warming soulfulness and easy construction of tomato soup making it perfect for a rainy or chilly evening at home, or as a first course at a fall or winter dinner party. As a first course it stands alone, but for a dinner it needs a little more food, so, in the spirit of a tomato soup, it pairs well with a grilled cheese sandwich.

I have recently discovered that there are cheeses being created that have ingredients mixed into them, like a cheddar with chives, which allows you to create a grilled cheese and not feel like you are five years old. Last week, with the first hint of a fall chill in the air I walked into Whole Foods and saw cheddar with smoked bacon on sale, and I knew what we were having for dinner.

I have decided to start including the recipes I use on the blog, instead of just linking to them. It makes for more one stop shopping. This is America for Pete's sake. I'd go to communist China if I wanted to spend all day clicking on links. I'm a busy modern woman. The links will still be included, however, if you would like to do further research. This one comes from Bon Appetit February 2006 issue.

Red Pepper Soup
Adapted from Bon Appetit


    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 2/3 cup sliced shallots (about 4)
    • 1 15-ounce jar roasted red peppers packed in water
    • 1 teaspoon sugar
    • 2 cups (or more) low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
    • 1/2 cup orange juice
    • 2 tablespoons whipping cream
    • 3/4 teaspoon grated orange peel
    • Thinly sliced fresh basil leaves


Heat oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and sauté 5 minutes. Add red peppers with their liquid. Stir in sugar; sauté 2 minutes. Add 2 cups broth and simmer 5 minutes. Cool soup slightly. Working in batches, puree soup in blender. Return soup to pan. Bring to simmer; stir in orange juice. Thin soup with additional broth, if desired. Season with salt and pepper.
Whisk whipping cream and orange peel in small bowl until slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls. Drizzle orange cream over. Sprinkle with basil and serve.

What sucks is that step where you have to dump a batch of hot soup from pot to blender and then back again "working in batches" which means dirtying another bowl. This could be avoided with an immersion blender, which I own. I got one for my bridal shower. The problem is that the shower was in PA, and since I take the bus back and forth, I could not bring with me my many wonderful and rather large gifts. The next time Will's saint of a father drives up for a visit, he will bring me these wonderful things. For the moment I can only dream about them as I dump pots of soup into crappy blenders, sloshing the hot liquid over the side and screaming "God Dammit!" until Will comes and takes it away from me. Sigh.

The nice thing about the soup is it bends to slight adaptions. For instance, the soup calls for an orange, since the soup needs 1/2 cup of orange juice and orange zest goes in the cream. In a pinch, if you have orange juice in the fridge you can use that and skip the zest, you will lose a little something but it certainly wont ruin the dish. In my case I found Minneola Tangellos on sale and decided to play a bit. The purpose of the citrus juice is to offset the harshness of the peppers in a delightful way. If I have to offset something, I'd prefer it to be delightful. A Minneola is like a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine, and to be honest I found the flavor of the juice to be a little bright for the soup. With so many different types of orange type citrus though, it was nice to have a little room for creativity on the soup. The other substitution I made was half a yellow onion instead of shallots. I love shallots, and they have a much more sophisticated flavor, but I had forgotten to pick them up and I had half an onion hanging out in the fridge. If you were to have it for the dinner party, I would say be sure to get the shallots, it makes you look better. You don't want to look like some sort of crazy, oniony vagrant in front of your dinner guests, do you? But lets be honest, if you made this on a rainy weeknight as I suggest, would you be running back out to the store? The onions were a bit chunky, but worked just fine.

The other appeal to making this as a weeknight dinner is that it uses jarred peppers, which you can just buy and keep on hand. I'm a huge proponent of using fresh ingredients, but again, if it's Wednesday and raining I loves me a shortcut. Commenters on Epicurious say that you can use fresh roasted peppers, however, if you just got back from the farmers market and are feeling adventurous. I also love the excuse to go into the really nice Italian food store in Chelsea Market and buy something. What can I say, I'm a sucker for a well preserved Capsicum. That's right, look it up.

The picture on the website is very pretty, but not at all how mine looks. Perhaps a more precise pour is needed then just dribbling it out of a mixing bowl. But for an impressive dish that is easy to make an unintimidating to eat, this is my new go to. Now if I can just figure out how to dress up peanut butter and marshmallow fluff for a dinner party, I'll be all set.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Rum by the Beach

About three years ago, I was working at The Rehoboth Summer Children’s Theatre in Rehoboth Beach, DE. It was a fantastic summer. It was the first time I was living in a situation where my parents weren’t supporting me. I got a place to stay and a pretty decent stipend for arcade games, pizza and booze. I lived in a tiny little condo in Lewes Beach that overlooked the harbor and there was a bar called Irish Eyes that was stumbling distance from my residence. I want to be clear; I don't mean walking distance. I mean stumbling distance. Close enough where if I had passed out from too much to drink, the bartender probably could have carried me outside the bar and hurled my to my front door. My roommate and costar Annie and I frequented this establishment after our long days of character voices, costume changes, and making faces. Heather made frequent trips down and every time she did, it was like a little beach vacation.

There was a place we went to a few times that I thought was rather unique. It was a brewery on Rehoboth Avenue (the main drag in Rehoboth that leads to the beach) called Dogfish Head. If you’re fairly beer savvy, you’ve probably seen Dogfish Head beer available at certain bars. They make a pretty popular 60 minute and 90 minute IPA. But what I didn’t know was that they distill their own liquor—on premises. I’ve been to a lot of microbreweries, but not a lot of distilleries. On the menu, they have not only a beer sampler but a liquor sampler where you can try a few of their specialties. The one that we liked the most was the brown honey rum. It was really fantastic. It’s kind of like Captain Morgan but a little bit sweeter and slightly higher alcohol content. The finish is smoother and cleaner without losing any of its sweetness or spice. It created an all around pleasant experience. It was so good that while Heather was in the bathroom, I had the waiter add a bottle to our check. We enjoyed a lot of brown honey rum that summer.

Before my employment ended that summer, I bought a couple more bottles and took them back to PA with me. The bottles are pretty cool they have the Dogfish Head logo on them and the name of the liquor in a sparkly festive font and on the side of the bottle there’s a spot where the distillers initial each bottle, write the date it was distilled, and indicate which batch it comes from. It makes the rum feel unique. And the fact that you can’t easily get it anywhere else ensures that we drink it very carefully and choose our moments wisely.

By the following summer—2007 for those of you keeping track—we had long run out. I got very bored one day and decided to take a solo road trip back to Rehoboth Beach, DE. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I was afraid someone would talk me out of it. In defense of this hypothetical person, it is a really long way to drive for booze. I drove two and a half hours down with a hundred bucks in my pocket, picked up four bottles of brown honey rum, and drove two and a half hours back. I killed the better part of a day getting this stuff. When I got back and met Heather that evening, I pulled out a bottle like it was a magic trick. She was incredibly puzzled and refused to believe that I had gone through all that effort so we could enjoy this rum we both like. I am kind of a nut job sometimes.

We are currently down to our last quarter of a bottle. I love it but I'm so scared to finish it. I don't know when I'm going to get a chance to get down there again. I’m still looking for an excuse (and the funds) to take another trip down to Rehoboth to get some more rum. Suffice it to say living in New York and not having a car are obstacles that I didn’t have two years ago. Plus I don’t know the next time I’ll have a hundred dollars that isn’t already spent. In the end, I suppose there's always room in the budget for handcrafted quality and spirits that lift the spirit.