Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blackberry-raspberry puree

I fear blenders. Okay, fear is the wrong word. I distrust blenders. Mostly because I always buy the second-cheapest blender at Target or Wal-Mart or wherever (because the cheapest one is assuredly a total piece of crap, right?), and the only thing I ever try to do with a blender is crush ice to make frozen drinks, which is inevitably a disaster. What always happens is that you end up with the finest of snows at the bottom of the blender while the cubes on the top are barely touched, or you add waaay too much liquid and get some kind of weird, icy slush. And all the while your kitchen is filled with the burning smell of overworked blender. Classic bartenders never had blenders anyway, so hardcore cocktailians frown on them, and drinks on the rocks are, er, more potent anyway. So my policy was: avoid blenders.

Until I schemed up a certain cocktail (next up) that would require a berry puree. A book I have suggested I could make my own, or order already-prepared fruit purees from France. So I went, reluctlantly, to the blender.

Blackberry-raspberry puree:
1/2 pint blackberries (from the farmers' market!)
1/2 pint raspberries
2.5 oz sugar syrup

I added the berries and syrup to the blender. With trepidation, I pushed the "puree" button. Moments later...perfectly smooth berry goodness. Even blenders deserve second chances, apparently. It was a sweet little story of redemption.*

*Although that's not quite where it ends. I still needed to strain out the seeds. This is the method I settled on: place a strainer over a bowl, like so.

Pour a little puree into the strainer at a time, and press the liquid through the strainer with a rubber spatula. (Every once in a while it helps to scrape the underside of the strainer with a clean spatula, since liquid will accumulate there.) This part was way more time-consuming than I thought it would be - pretty much the opposite of the smooth sailing with the blender. But after a while my diligence was rewarded in the form of some very lovely, seed-free puree. That I didn't have to order from France.

When finished, I transferred the puree to a mason jar in the fridge to await its cocktail fate - you can keep yours in the refrigerator for up to three days, or in the freezer for two months.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Champagne Cocktails!

Champagne cocktails are some of my favorites - they're super easy to make (they mix themselves!) and what is more, they are nearly impossible to screw up. Take the classic champagne cocktail, the mimosa. Not enough orange juice? No problem! It just tastes like champagne! And people love champagne. Add too much orange juice? No problem! Orange juice is delicious! Pretty much, the formula is fruit + champagne. One good thing + another good thing = a third good thing. Foolproof.

Allow me to present to you...the Kir Royale. Despite the unpronounceable name (I am never quite sure how to say "Kir"), it is super approachable - only two ingredients. It will impress your non-cocktailing friends, because it is not a mimosa. And it is so pretty. All champagne cocktails are beautiful (it's the glassware*), but this one especially so.

So here goes:
creme de cassis**

*Investing in some champagne glasses will make you feel so grown-up and sophisticated and like the consumate entertainer. And, as it turns out, it's not really that much of an investment - I got mine at crate and barrel for four dollars each. They are 9 oz, so keep that in mind if your champagne flutes are a different size.
**Creme de cassis is a blackcurrant-flaovred liqueuer. A blackcurrant, it would appear, is a kind of berry that only grows in France. You can find very expensive and very cheap varieties of creme de cassis, but the cheap ones will work equally well here.

Put about an ounce and a half of creme de cassis in a flute, and fill with champagne. Really, that's all. It's that easy.

An especially nice touch (okay, I got this idea from Real Simple Magazine) is to freeze some blackberries and use them as a garnish in your champange glasses. These will keep the drink cold, for your friends who like to savor, plus they look amazing.

So, so pretty.

Photos for this installment were taken by Sarah, my very talented photographer friend. Check out her website here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Backyard Bartender in the Big City

I have long had a fascination with New York, based mostly on repeated viewings of Sex and the City. That and the fact that one of my co-workers told me he had a totally normal, sane friend who moved to New York City and, a few months later, broke down crying on the sidewalk. There is something fascinating about a place so intense it eats people alive. I knew I had to experience it for myself.

Also at work, I stumbled across this video one day when I googled "bacon cocktail". I thought to myself - surely no one has tried something so insane as putting bacon in a cocktail. Ohh, I was wrong. Pretty much as soon as I saw the video of the bacon cocktail...I knew I had to experience it for myself.

Remember this for later.

I showed the video to Luke, who at the time was living in New York, and he was like, hey, this place is right around the corner from my apartment in the East Village. Sex and the City...bourbon-infused was like a magnet, drawing me in.

So the bacon cocktail bar is called PDT, and it was pretty much at the top of my list of places to visit when I went to New York (for the very first time!) this past May. Getting in, it turns out, is no easy feat. New Yorkers are apparently obsessed with faux-speakeasy type bars, and PDT (stands for Please Don't Tell) has made an art form out of it. Their phone lines open at 3 PM every day, at which point you have to call the secret number and make a reservation. (The number is actually not so secret, since a quick google search will turn it up, but I'll make you do a little work.) Once your reservation is made - and here's where it gets really trippy - you have to go to a hot dog joint called Crif Dogs in the East Village. Once inside the hot dog joint you'll see a phone booth - go in, pick up the phone, tell the hostess your name and when your reservation is, and the back wall of the phone booth will open. Suddenly you're in this low-ceilinged, wood-paneled cocktail den with animal heads on the wall and a bar with the best liquor selection of anywhere, ever. You've fallen down a rabbit hole of awesome.

Look at all those bottles. I died of jealousy.

Sarah and I got there at 7 pm, just when things were starting to pick up, so we had the distinct pleasure of sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartender as he made our drinks. Sarah ordered a Paddington, made with, among other things - muddled...bell pepper? I wasn't so sure how I felt about bell pepper in a cocktail, but Sarah gulped it down.

I got the much-anticipated bacon cocktail (called a Benton's old fashioned), and it did not disappoint. In a traditional old-fashioned, you taste orange, and then bourbon. In this one, I tasted citrus, and then bourbon, and then...bacon. Some reviewers said the bacon infusion just brought out the smoky flavors in the bourbon, but they were dead wrong. It tasted like real, honest-to-goodness, fresh off the griddle, bacon. As a flavor pairing, this was really not so terrible as you would think - it was actually pretty intriguing in a "holy cow I never would've thought of this but it kinda works" sort of way. Would I order it again? Probably not, especially considering all the other enticing offerings on the menu, but I feel like it was worth the 14 bucks just to have had the experience.

The rules of the house posted on the bathroom wall. Basically: this is not a pick-up bar.

Speaking of experiences...did I mention you can order food from the hot dog place next door? It's delivered through a little door in the back of the bar. So you can nosh on tater tots while you drink your fancy drinks. Only in New York.

Bourbon + tater tots = happy Nancy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Texas Summer Sangria

I am obsessed with this book. Seriously. Since buying it I have become such a sangria fiend that I now think of sangria as a season. In much the same way that some people welcome the coming of fall because it means the beginning of football season, I welcome spring because it means that I can make sangria again.

Hello, lover.

I've made almost every sangria recipe in the book, so it was sort of inevitable that eventually I would create my own. I wanted to do a flavor combo that I hadn't tried before, and I wanted to use fruits that are in season in Houston right now - a little taste of Texas summer in every sip. Here's what I came up with:

1 750 mL bottle red wine*
1.5 cups blackberries**
3 peaches, pitted and sliced**
1/2 cup simple syrup
1/4 cup cognac***

*I used a Messina Hof shiraz, in keeping with the whole Texas thing, but really any red wine will do as long as it's not too sweet. Good bets are shiraz/syrah, cabernet, or merlot. One of the great things about sangria is that you don't need to use expensive wine - I've made sangria with four-dollar wine and loved it.
**See the last post for info about where to get farm-fresh fruit in Houston.
***It's okay to use cheap cognac, too.

Put the berries and simple syrup in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about five minutes. The goal here is to release some of the berry flavor, so you'll know it's ready when the berries start to lighten in color just slightly and the syrup starts to thicken. Take off the heat and set aside. Pour the bottle of wine into a pitcher (I always end up tasting a little at this point because hey, wine is delcious), and add the cognac, peaches, and syrup/berry mixtures. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 8 hours) - this will let the flavors marry. (And don't flavors deserve happiness just like anyone else?)

The Verdict:
I took my first sip of my first pitcher of my first sangria, fully prepared to have to add some OJ or peach liqueur or something to get that perfect balance. I was blown away. It was like heaven in a glass. (I know I say all my drinks are good - because I wouldn't post them if they weren't - but seriously, this will blow your mind.) Sweet burst of peach, hearty red wine, nice berry finish. I took it to a party and it was a huge hit and disappeared almost immediately. I was very flattered, but also a little disappointed - because I sort of wanted to drink the whole thing myself.

Easy to make. Hard to share.

Where to get farm-fresh produce in Houston.

The first time I ever went to a farmers market* was a few months ago. Now, thanks to this little project, I am quickly becoming an expert on tracking down local produce. Here are some of my favorite sources:

Urban Harvest Farmers Market
Every Saturday, rain or shine, 8 AM-noon. Located just east of Greenway Plaza and conveniently right next door to my office (although I try not to go to work on the weekend when I can help it). You can also buy fruit trees here - check out their website.

Farmers Market at Rice University
For those who are loathe to wake up before noon on Saturday (me). Tuesdays, 3:30 to 7 PM.

Midtown Farmers Market
Saturday, 8 AM-noon. In the parking lot of T'afia, one of my favorite local restaurants. Haven't tried this one yet, but fresh fruit, hot breakfast and mimosas? Now there's a reason to wake up before noon.

If you can't make it to the farmers market, Whole Foods is also a good source for locally-grown produce - just look for the signs that say "local" or "go Texan". And you can gawk at all the hippies. No, just kidding.

*Does the lack of an apostrophe in this phrase bother anyone besides me? It's the market belonging to the farmers, right? Not a market where one buys farmers. Maybe I should change the name of this blog to "The Backyard Grammar Nazi".

Monday, June 14, 2010

Peachtree Street Mule

Named for the street Scarlett O'Hara lives on in Atlanta. I might be just a little obsessed with Gone with the Wind. (Thanks Paul for the idea.)

Inspired by the bounty of delicious peaches I got at the farmers market, I decided to try more peach drinks. There's one, the Peach Donkey (I'm guessing it's called a donkey because of the habit of calling mixed drinks with vodka and ginger ale a "mule") from this book that I'd been wanting to try. The original recipe calls for peaches, vodka, ginger liqueur, and ginger beer. Ginger beer, it turns out, is like ginger ale, but with a stronger ginger flavor, and a lot harder to find. I finally hunted down some ginger beer (thank you, Central Market), mixed up the drink, and tried it. Instead of love at first sip, my feeling was one of a I was bored. It needed something else. Something

Tried it with the mint. Warm, spicy ginger, cool mint, sweet fresh peach. Perfection.

So here you go:
One ripe, juicy peach, pitted and sliced*
6 mint leaves (fortunately the mint in my garden is undergoing a sort of explosion, so I did not need to look far for this)
1.5 oz vodka
1 oz chilled ginger beer (ginger ale will do in a pinch, but you'll need to use a little bit more.)
crushed ice

*How do you spot a ripe peach? A ripe peach may have red and orange shadings on its skin, but underneath the other colors it will be a bright yellow. Ripe peaches also have a stronger peachy smell than not-so-ripe peaches. If the peach is so juicy it falls apart as you're trying to slice it that's a good sign.

Muddle the peaches and mint together in the mixing glass of a shaker. (You may want to try muddling half the peach first, and then adding the other half. A muddler will work, but a large spoon comes in handy when trying to extract as much juice as possible from the peach.) Add 5-6 ice cubes to the shaker and add the vodka. Shake it all up and strain into a collins glass. Fill the glass about 2/3 of the way with the crushed ice, and then add the ginger beer. Pop in a straw, give it a little stir, and you're done. Yum.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Blackberry Ginger Mojito

Fresh blackberries at the farmers market + explosion of mint in the backyard + ginger ale left over from last cocktail project = this. You're welcome.

Gather together:
7 fresh, delicious Texas blackberries
6 mint leaves
1.5 oz rum (or 2, but only if you really like rum)
.5 oz lime juice (make it fresh - your mojito will thank you)
.5 oz simple syrup (I use a simple syrup made with turbinado sugar in my mojitos - I like to think it gives them that little extra something.)
crushed ice
ginger ale

In a cocktail shaker, muddle (or smoosh with the back of a spoon) the blackberries and mint until they make a delicious minty-berry mush. Add a handful of ice and then pour in the simple syrup, rum and lime juice. Shake and strain into a tall glass. Fill the glass about 2/3 of the way with crushed ice and top with ginger ale. Add a straw and give it a little stir. At this point, if you're feeling fancy, you could garnish your mojito with a half wheel of lime and a sprig of mint. Or if you're feeling impatient you could just go ahead and drink it.

The verdict: Wow. That goes down easy.

How to make your own simple syrup.

Simple syrup, sometimes called bar syrup or sugar syrup (or gomme syrup to the Britishers*), is one part sugar and one part water. You can buy it at the liquor store, but it's super easy to make your own: mix one cup of sugar and one cup of water in a saucepan over low heat. Stir until all the sugar dissolves and the syrup is clear. Bottle the syrup (a funnel will come in handy here) and keep it in the fridge for up to a month.

*I just looked this up and it turns out that, although many people use "gomme syrup" to mean just plain simple syrup, real gomme syrup has a 2:1 sugar/water ratio and contains gum arabic, an emulsifier, to keep the sugar from crystallizing. Apparently it will give your old-school, booze-heavy drinks a beyond-incredible smooth texture. Future project? Mebbe. Read about it here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Pimm's Cup

Pimm's No. 1 is a liqueur from Great Britian. It's gin-based, with lots of fruit and herb flavors up in the mix, and at 25 percent alcohol it's roughly half as boozy as say, vodka or tequila. If you did not need the above explanation you are probably a snooty mixologist type, since most people I meet have never heard of this stuff. Or you're British. Pimm's No. 1 is the essential ingredient in a cocktail called the Pimm's Cup, which is to Wimbledon what the mint julep is to the Kentucky Derby.

Pimm's is also an essential ingredient in these ridiculous hats. Crazy Brits.

One night at the Black Lab, being the cocktail adventurer that I am, I ordered a Pimm's cup. It was dark brown, came in a pint glass with cucumber spear, and tasted like...well, it tasted like Pepsi. Really, guys? All that fuss about a drink that tastes like Pepsi?

So I decided to make my own. Comprised of:
2 oz. Pimm's No. 1 Liqueur
2 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 oz sugar syrup
Ginger Ale *
2 strawberries, hulled and quartered
2 cucumber slices (I got an especially twisted one from the farmers market)
2 slices green apple **
2 sprigs of mint (harvested from the back porch!)

* The Brits make their Pimm's cups with some kind of sparkling lemonade that isn't available in the states, so we have to get creative.
** I know all this fruit is starting to seem like overkill, but it's to bring out all the great fruit flavors in the Pimm's. Trust me.

Pimm's loves fruit.

Combine all the ingredients except the ginger ale in a cocktail shaker full of ice. Shake until a frost forms on the shaker. (You don't want to shake this one too long, since the idea is for the fruit flavors to be fairly subtle.) Pour the whole thing (ice and all) into a pint glass, and top with a bit of ginger ale.

The verdict: First of all, so, so pretty. Nice and tea-colored, with all that lovely fruit floating around. I didn't know whether to drink it or photograph it. (So I did both.) As for taste: refreshing, summery, a bit unexpected, like a lemonade that's all grown up. (Cucumber definitely comes through - but in a good way, I promise.) Oh, and tastes nothing at all like Pepsi. Sorry, Black Lab.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Backyard Peach Daiquiri

I have created the drink that will boost me to greatness.

To which you say: "Surely you are exaggerating."
To which I say: "You gotta try this."

My flavor inspiration: I have a little weber grill. It is blue and I love it, and sometimes people come over on Sunday nights and everyone brings things for the grill. Once Cyndy brought peaches, and after all the burgers were finished grilling she put the peaches on the grill, each with a scoop of brown sugar in the pit. Half an hour later, they were one of the most amazing things I've ever tasted.

Anything you can eat you can drink, right? I had to give this a try. The peaches and brown sugar were obvious. I added a little lemon juice to the mix, to balance out all that sweetness. What to do for a base? How about rum? A nice aged rum, to impart a little smoky/woody flavor, like being cooked over the grill. After I had already made the first version of this cocktail, a thought popped into my head: hey, what about that peach bitters I bought a while back? I added in the bitters. It was brilliant. It was like the discovery of vulcanized rubber: accidental genius.

This is an okay time to start salivating.

You will need:
5 slices of delicous, fresh Texas peach (peach season is almost over in Houston (didn't it just start?), but if you hurry you can still get some at the farmers market.)
1 tablespoon of brown sugar
2 oz aged rum (I used Flor de Caña gold. Turns out there is light aged rum, and gold aged rum - and maybe dark aged rum? I used to think there was just rum.)
.5 oz lemon juice (love your cocktail, make it fresh)
2 dashes Fee Brothers' Peach Bitters

Muddle the peaches and brown sugar together in the mixing glass of your shaker until you have a delicious sugary peach mush. Fill the glass with ice and add the rum, lemon juice and bitters. Shake until it hurts. Strain into a cocktail glass. (Rimmed with brown sugar, if you're feeling fancy.) Enjoy the hell out of it.