Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Starchefs.com Rising Stars Gala Houston

Every year Starchefs.com, the online food gazette, hosts galas in four different cities to honor "rising stars" on the culinary scene. The locations vary; there have been events in New York, Seattle, DC, and San Francisco, to name a few. This year Starchefs finally recognized what you and I have known for a long time: Houston is a really great place to eat and drink. The recipients of Starchefs' very first Houston awards include chefs from some of the most talked-about restaurants in town, as well as Bobby Heugel, the genius behind Houston cocktail institution the Anvil. So when I was offered the opportunity to attend the gala and sample some of this marvelous grub as a guest of Highland Park Scotch Whisky, I was pretty psyched. To say the least.

Let's take a moment to dwell on how fabulous the location was. (It's okay for me to do that. I used to be an architect.) The rooftop pool deck at the four seasons was full of beautiful young people - very Gossip Girl. And there I was. I only regret that I didn't take pictures of the scene. After taking it all in, Lauren and I got down to the real business: eating and drinking. Here are some of the highlights.

First off: a sangria made with Spanish Rioja, grilled mangos, vanilla bean, and cinnamon. This delicious concoction is the brainchild of Sean Beck, the sommelier from Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's and one of the honorees for the evening. Grilling, he said, brings out new flavors in the mango. And new ideas in my sangria-loving mind. Can a smoky sangria be far away? The food: Oh sweet heavens, the food. I sampled so many wonderful dishes I can't possibly describe them all. Lauren and I both agreed that the sautéed shrimp with white cheddar polenta, from chef Jamie Zelko of Zelko Bistro, was our favorite. A close second: the roasted venison with sweet potato-brussel sprout hash, bacon confit, and pomegranate jus, from David Grossman at Branch Water Tavern. Yeah, just read that over again. It's okay to drool a little.

The best damn shrimp and grits you will ever eat.

The cocktails: There were a couple of cocktails being poured for the evening, so of course I had to have one of each. There was the Orkney Opponent, made from lemon, maple syrup, Highland Park's 12-year-old single malt, and allspice dram, and then there was my personal favorite, the Anvil Paloma, made with tequila, lime, and grapefruit beer. (Not quite sure what "grapefruit beer" is but I think I need one right now.)

The Orkney Opponent (l) and the Anvil Paloma.

For dessert: Something truly odd. And I liked a cocktail with balsamic vinegar, so for me to say that - it must have been very, very, odd. When you read about a dessert composed of carrot and grapefruit mousse, grapefruit marmalade, candied sesame seeds, hay sherbet, and clove meringue, what stands out to you? If you answered "the hay sorbet", then you win. Look, I consider it a part of my job to be open to trying unusual things. Even after seeing Lauren's face upon taking her first bite, I gamely ate this. I made sure to get a bite with a little bit of everything. And you know what? The flavors really complimented each other. I just couldn't get over the fact that it tasted like cow food.

I'm sure making this was a real culinary feat. I'm really not kidding when I say that it tasted just like hay. You know those buttered popcorn jelly beans? You bite into them, and you're thinking, no way a jelly bean could taste like popcorn. And then they do. They taste exactly like popcorn, and you respect the technology that must've gone into making that happen - but it's still kind of gross.

And after that: This post would be incomplete without a mention of Highland Park Scotch, and not just because they were my meal ticket for the event. Their 12, 15, and 18-year-old single malts flowed freely throughout the evening - the 12-year-old was quite good, but the smooth, smoky flavor of the 18-year-old was the high point of my night. And maybe my life. I've always loved scotch, ever since that one time at that one wedding - but I never dreamed it could go down this easy.*

*Highland Park also makes a 30-year single malt, available at Spec's for the modest price of four hundred thirty seven dollars a bottle. I'd like to get my hands on some of that.

Updated to add: click here to see more pictures of the event, including photos of all the featured dishes, and the totally bizarre hay sorbet.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Some of you may not know this, but the mojito is really the drink that started it all. One summer night, circa 2008 - four good girl friends, a little bit of peppermint, a bottle of rum, and my first-ever batch of simple syrup came together to make some very, very delicious mojitos. And probably the most fun I've ever had on a week night. I was hooked. On mojitos, and on mixing drinks.

So, recently, I decided to re-visit the mojito. And, just to shake things up a little, to make a mojito variation with every kind of clear liquor in my kitchen. But first, I needed to establish a base recipe for the mojito. Now, I can be a little bit of a stickler for the rules. Especially when it comes to cocktails. I mean, classic is best, right? So I first turned to the oldest known recipe for a mojito, from a 1929 Cuban cocktail book called, appropriately, El Libro de Cocktail, and helpfully re-printed in Food & Wine magazine's "cocktails '09". Also helpfully reprinted right here:

The Original Mojito
8 mint leaves
2 oz white rum
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz chilled club soda

I made a mojito, just as the 80-year-old recipe said. It was pretty, to be sure. I took many pictures of it. But I tasted it and I was...underwhelmed. I longed to return the the mojito that first captured my heart that summer night. So I made another mojito, according to my old recipe. I took a sip...delicious. Feels like the very first time.

"What is the secret of this fantastic mojito?" - you must surely be asking yourself. Two things: 1. turbinado simple syrup. Just like it sounds - simple syrup made with turbinado sugar, 1:1. 2. peppermint. Spearmint is pretty much the gold standard for mint in cocktails - every bar I've ever been to uses it for their mojitos, so that's what I used to make the classic mojito. But the drinks from the infamous Night of the Mojitos were made with peppermint, which imparts a stronger mint flavor. For the recipe printed below, I used half and half, and the result was lovely. Where can one find peppermint? I grow mine myself. You can tell the difference between the two varieties by the shape of the leaves, and, of course, by the way they smell.

peppermint vs. spearmint.

Nancy's very special mojito
8 mint leaves (4 spearmint, 4 peppermint)
1.5 oz rum
.75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
.5 oz turbinado simple syrup
1 oz soda water

Place the mint leave in the bottom of a shaker, cover with the simple syrup, and muddle. Add the lime, rum, and 5-6 ice cubes, and shake and strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice. Top with the soda water.

I'll be damned is this is not the best mojito I've ever had.

So now that we've established a basic recipe for the mojito, it's time to get crazy. First up, the mexi-jito - a mojito made with tequila. Luke, an inventive drinker and a particular fan of tequila, gave me the idea for this one.

8 mint leaves (half and half)
1.5 oz silver tequila
.75 oz lime juice
.5 oz agave nectar
1 oz soda water

Verdict: Oh, it's good. The combo of tequila and mint is wonderfully smooth, and almost, just a teeny tiny bit, reminds me of chocolate. Interesting and delicious and refrescante. Definitely worth a try.

Next: A mojito with cachaça. Since cachaça and rum are so similar, substituting cachaça for rum in a mojito seems pretty logical. Plus, the caipirinha, the most famous cachaça drink out there, is essentially just a mojito without mint, right?

Brazilian Mojito
8 mint leaves (half and half)
1.5 oz cachaça
.75 oz lime juice
.5 oz turbinado simple syrup
1 oz soda water

So...I now understand why the Brazilians don't put mint in their caipirinhas. It's because cachaça and mint is...well, kinda gross. The vegetal flavors of cachaça don't play nice with the mint like rum does. I still finished the drink -but it was my least favorite of all the alterna-mojitos. Since I played it safe with this one, next I decided to try something really unusual: a mojito with poire william eau-de-vie, a brandy made from distilled pears.

The Peppermint Pear
12 mint leaves (6 peppermint, 6 spearmint)
1.5 oz poire william eau-de-vie
1 oz lime juice
.75 oz simple syrup
1 oz soda water

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this turned out like a mojito...that tastes like pear. Actually, come to think of it, it's more like the other way around. Even with the amount of other ingredients increased, pear is the overwhelming taste sensation here, with the mint and lime as mere grace notes. I'm still not sure how I feel about that. Suffice it to say, though, that if you like pear, and you like mojitos...you will love the hell out of this. If you're not such a huge fan of pear, but you still happen to have the brandy around , try half pear brandy, half light rum.

What about...a mojito with gin? This is another Luke invention. Once, at a party, long ago, I was making mojitos when I ran out of rum. What to doooo? Luke suggested making some with gin. I remembered them being pretty good. I remembered right.

The Gin-jito
8 mint leaves (4 peppermint, 4 spearmint)
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz lime juice
.5 oz simple syrup
1 oz soda water

It's delicious and refreshing, in that very clean, juniper-y way that gin is. And lastly: an unusual combination that totally blew my mind. Alicia was the one who suggested making a mojito with mezcal - she had something like it at the Anvil once.

The Smo-jito (It's a smoky mojito. Get it?)
8 mint leaves
1.5 oz joven mezcal
.75 oz lime juice
.5 oz agave nectar
1 oz soda water

Oh. My. Gosh. Definitely my favorite of all the mojito variations. Nice strong agave flavor, delicious smoke making love to lime and mint. I don't know what I did to deserve this, but whatever it was, I must've been very good.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

MxMo LV: Some Like it Hot: The Round-Up.

So when I cooked up (cooked up - see what I did there?) the idea for this month's Mixology Monday, Houston was in the grips of something curiously akin to winter. For a couple of weeks, the temperature dipped below forty degrees, and I laid low and drank hot buttered beer and dreamed of sangria.

Winter didn't last long, however, and now that Mixology Monday has come around it's a sunny 75 degrees, the blueberries are in bloom, and I'm thinking about planting tomatoes. Normally I love Houston's bizarre, balmy weather, but I have to say that today I'm a little jealous of those of you in the frozen north. What better pick-me-up on a cold day than one of these delicious hot drinks? I might even make one to enjoy by the pool.

For Elana over at Stir and Strain, hot alcoholic drinks conjure up memories of dad giving her hot whiskey for childhood illnesses. Love it. Her Hot Buttered Warm-Up is made with a cardamom, vanilla, and muscovado sugar butter (I started drooling when I read that) melted into black tea with bourbon, lemon juice, and amaretto. An unusual flavor combo, and one that I am dying to try.

Frederic of cocktail virgin slut reaches waaay back to a cocktail book from 1867 to bring us the Locomotive. As he says, "since these early railway vehicles used heat to generate steam to propel them, having a hot drink named after them was not very surprising". The recipe, though, is pretty surprising, at least to us moderns - it's wine, sweetened with honey and orange liqueur, and thickened with egg yolk. Given my affinity for bizarre combinations and old recipes, I'm happy to hear this one was a hit.

Jordan, from Chemistry of the Cocktail, makes a hot chocolate cocktail with dark chocolate and a chocolate and spice-infused rum. I'm just starting to experiment with spicy/chocolate combinations myself, and I have to say...this sounds amazing.

Rowen over at the Fogged in Lounge tries out the somewhat salaciously-titled Vanilla Whiskey Skin. It's a toddy made with rye, vanilla syrup, and lemon peel. Yum. Vanilla in a toddy...that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Also, I like your backdrop of classic novels.

Doug of the Pegu Blog offers up a Hot Buttered Mai Tai. The first time I opened this link, my response was something like...whaaat? The Mai Tai was one of the first drinks I ever made, and it's still one of my favorites. But hot? And with butter? Then I remembered that I had a similar response to the hot buttered beer, which turned out to be delicious. Thankfully Doug gives us detailed directions for making the most of this "cosmic convergence".

Speaking of hot tiki drinks...Layne over at the Ace Saloon brings us the Heaven's on Fire, inspired by a Don the Beachcomber recipe from 1937. And the ingredients do sound heavenly. Start with butter, honey and coconut...add rum, allspice dram, velvet falernum, and milk. Drool. (P.S. Layne says that he loves mulled wine, but his friends are sort of meh about it. You should meet my friends. They drink mulled wine like it's going out of style.)

Dave of the Barman Cometh makes some Glogg, the traditional Scandinavian mulled wine, to ward off an unexpected chill in San Francisco. (Because if anybody knows how to make a warming drink, it's the Scandinavians.) I've made lots of mulled wine but never glogg, and I'm dying to try it after seeing this recipe. Did I mention that it calls for lighting a Brandy syrup on fire? That is all kinds of awesome. And is that a christmas-tree garnish?

And while we're setting things on fire, there's DJ Hawaiian Shirt's Flaming Coffee Grog. So many things about this drink blow my mind - it's a tiki drink with coffee, for one. And then there's the part where you make a mixture of rum, orange liqueur, citrus peels, and cloves and set it on FIRE. You're supposed to spoon the flaming mixture into the coffee, "where presumably the flames will soon extinguish". So, so great.

Then we have Dennis, from A Drink on the Rocks. His contribution, the Pirate's Gold, is also tiki-esque, but with...a beer syrup? And chocolate bitters? How strange. How wonderful. Make me one, please.

Fearghas lives in Scotland and has tasted the Pimms #3, two reasons I am terribly jealous of him. He and his buddies have a whole blog about gin, and this is their very first MxMo. Welcome to the party! His contribution is, appropriately, a Hot Gin Toddy.

More hot gin! (It's not too often you get to say that.) Marc of A Drinkers Peace, faced with a winter snowfall and unfortunate case of the sniffles, turns to an 1888 recipe for a hot gin sling. Genever, sugar, fresh ground nutmeg, and lemon are warming and soothing.

Elizabeth over at Mix n' Sip is another first-timer. Welcome Elizabeth! She offers up her Devonshire Clotted Cream Tea Cocktail, an alcoholic twist on the traditional English afternoon drink, along with some fascinating history of the tradition of teatime.

Tony Harion and the Mixing Bar team came to this little party all the way from Brazil. Being that it's 95 degrees in Brazil right now, the team bends the rules a little and makes a hot drink, served cold. Their submission is the Maria Carioca, which is...a spicy tomato drink made with passion fruit. That's right - passion fruit. I am in awe. Also I need to be drinking one of these like, right now.

Ed of Wordsmithing Pantagruel makes a Caramel Apple Toddy with applejack, Bénédictine, and caramel syrup. Deeelish. He also offers up some links about flash heating ale with a red-hot poker, the legit, old-fashioned way to make hot drinks. I've always wanted to try this, although I'm a little worried that my fireplace isn't all that clean.

The Alpha Cook offers up the Bull's Milk, a hot drink with an off-putting name but a very appealing photo. Dark rum, cognac, vanilla milk, and maple syrup? I feel warm just thinking about it.

And finally, there's my humble submission...a spiced pear mulled wine. I aimed to make two different kinds of mulled wine, but then decided that the second one would be better off as a sangria. Fortunately, sangria season is about ten months out of the year around here.

Thanks to everyone who participated! Please please let me know if I left out your entry - my inbox is currently a smorgasbord of wild and wonderful hot drinks, and I wouldn't want anyone to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Thanks also to Paul Clarke, our benevolent founder. See you all next time!