Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Have a Cocktail: Variations on Greta Christina's Half Century

Not long ago, I sang the praises of the Half Century cocktail Greta Christina created, as published on her most excellent blog. I think I must've mentioned that the secret sauce of this delightful libation was the cardamom simple syrup. The thing is, the Half Century recipe requires 1/2 oz of this nectar... but the recipe Greta provided makes nearly a pint. What to do, what ever to do?

Well, make more drinks, obviously, amirite? After making a second Half Century (just for research, of course, to verify the initial results), I set about experimenting with variations on the theme.

My first thought was to try replacing the rye with Connecticut's own Onyx Moonshine (made in nearby East Hartford) and the lime juice with lemon juice, producing what I call, in deference to the fact that Connecticut is much older than Greta, the Four Centuries:
  • 2 1/2 oz Onyx Moonshine
  • 1 oz cardamom simple syrup
  • 1 oz fresh lemon juice
  • Dash orange bitters.
 This is brighter and lighter than the original, partly because the Onyx doesn't have the woody, smoky notes of a barrel-aged whiskey, but it has the smoothness of a whiskey drink, as opposed to the sharp bite of vodka or gin. Very nice.

And then tonight I ate half a grapefruit, looked at the leftover juice in the bowl, and thought (as I have before), "hmm, I should make a cocktail with that." Thus was born the Eastern Half Century, which is a kind of cross between Greta's original and the Eastern cocktail I blogged about earlier, replacing the latter's maple syrup with the former's cardamom:
  • 2 1/2 oz rye whiskey
  • 1 1/2 oz cardamom simple syrup
  • 1 oz fresh ruby red grapefruil juice.
Also very nice. And the beauty part? I still have a couple cups of the cardamom syrup!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Casual Fearmongering

This story makes me grind my teeth. The front-page HuffPo¹ link that led me to it screamed “Why You Should Never, Ever Put a Lemon Wedge in Your Water Glass,” implicitly suggesting some truly dire consequences: Has lemon been found to be carcinogenic? Does some chemical in lemon peel combine with water to produce a deadly toxin?

No, of course not: It's germs. "Restaurant patrons should be aware that lemon slices added to beverages may include potentially pathogenic microbes," the story tells us, based on a study that showed swabs from "the rinds and flesh of 76 lemons from 21 restaurants collected during 43 visits" produced "microbial growth" 70 percent of the time.

Oooh, yuck! Germs! Right? And not just germs, but a dizzying array of microbes and contaminants, some associated with presumptively yucky bodily regions. The article gives us every reason to be frightened and disgusted.

You know what it doesn't give us? Any reason whatsoever to believe that lemon wedges in the water glass actually make anyone sick. To begin with, the proposed mechanisms of contamination — inadequate washing of the lemons and kitchen workers' hands — are hardly unique to lemons, and could just as easily apply to any food item that passes through the kitchen and is served raw. Why pick on lemons, which "have known antimicrobial properties," as opposed to other produce? Neither the HuffPo article nor either of the sources it links to suggests even a correlation, much less a causal relationship, between lemon wedges and increased rates of illness.

A much more likely conclusion from the facts presented here is that germs, far from being uniquely harbored by lemons, are found pretty much everywhere, and even "potentially pathogenic" organisms most often do no harm, as even the researcher, Dr. Philip Tierno, seems to admit: "The usual course will probably result in no infection, but there is a possibility.... You can't live in a bubble. Your immune system is usually pretty good." Personally, I plan to continue asking for lemon in my drink, and I encourage you to do the same.

Stories like this one aren't designed to answer legitimate questions or solve actual problems; they're designed to disgust you and scare the crap out of you for no better reason than sensationalism. Food safety is serious business, of course, but stories like this that decouple our sense of risk from any realistic evaluation of actual harm contribute to our already skewed and irrational perceptions about what is and is not worth worrying about.

It's because of casual fearmongering like this that so many of us feel like we can't have properly cooked pork or enjoy runny egg yolks or eat raw cookie dough.

Beyond the world of food, it's also why we're more afraid of vaccinations than of the measles, why some folks are terrified of their cellphones, and why we can't have shampoo or shaving lotion in our carry-on bags. It's simply easier, not to mention sexier, to present armwaving stories about scary, scary risks than it is to rationally and realistically link causes to their actual effects.

And that makes me grind my teeth

¹ HuffPo being HuffPo, I make no warranty as to what link text or headline you'll find when you click through; they seem to change somewhat capriciously

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Have a Cocktail: Greta Christina's Half Century

I don't read Greta Christina's wonderful blog for cocktail recipes any more than I follow Rachel Maddow for them... but the latter's occasional cocktail moments spurred my interest in mixology, and now the former has provided my latest favorite drink.

Taking a bit of a break from blogging to work on her forthcoming book, Greta had been reposting some older articles, and it was my (and everyone's) good luck that one of them was for the Half Century, a drink she'd devised a couple years before to celebrate her 50th birthday. The drink itself, which Greta describes as "roughly a whiskey sour made with lime juice and cardamom simple syrup," is straightforward:
  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • 1 oz cardamom simple syrup
  • 1/2 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
Regular readers (are there any) will know that she had me at "rye," but it's really the cardamom simple syrup that makes it magic (and I'm going to make you actually go read Greta's post to get that recipe¹). It's awesomely good smelling to make, and awesomely delicious. It makes this a go-to whiskey drink and I can't wait to find new ways to use it!

¹ Be sure to read the comments for clarification on exactly what kind of cardamom you need and how to source it.

Actual Cook(book)ing: Edward Lee's Lime Beef Salad

I managed to get off to a decent start on my New Year's intention to cook at least one recipe a week from one of the cookbooks I've accumulated over the last few years. I didn't count the first, partial week of the year, part of which I spent on the road (traveling home from Florida) in any case, but I managed to cook something during the first full week of the year... just barely... on Saturday.

Inspired by Top Chef alum Edward Lee's appearance as a guest judge on The Taste, I decided to cook something from his cookbook, Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories From a Southern Kitchen. Because I'm home alone for a bit while my wife is taking care of some family business, the Pulled Pork Shoulder in Black BBQ Sauce (page 116) seemed excessively massive, as did the Brined Pork Chops With Peach-Ginger Glaze (page 110). Finally I settled on the Lime Beef Salad (page 50), which seemed like a manageable amount of food, and something that would make for good leftovers.

It's essentially a cabbage and mango salad with accents of tomato, mint, jalapeno, and black sesame seeds, topped with a lime-ginger Asian vinaigrette and thin strips of sirloin lightly cooked in a simmering ginger-garlic broth.

I followed the recipe nearly exactly, except that I didn't use all of the mango — just because it started to look like an exceptionally big pile of mango as I was cutting it into matchsticks — and I substituted 1 1/8 tsp of maple syrup for the brown sugar (because all the brown sugar in the house turned out to be solid as a rock).

The process is straightforward:
  • Mix the vinaigrette ingredients in a bowl, cover, and put in the fridge to chill. 
  • Cut up the cabbage, mango, pepper, and other ingredients for the salad, toss together in a bowl, and put that, covered, in the fridge, too.
  • Bring the water, ginger knob, garlic clove, and salt to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for about 15 minutes.
  • While the water is simmering, cut the beef into strips and pound it paper thin (I thought this would trip me up, but it turned out to be dead easy. I used sheets of plastic wrap and a bit of water, as I recalled seeing on Good Eats.)
  • Get the cold vinaigrette out, lightly cook the beef strips in the simmering water (for 10 seconds or less, depending on how rare you want it), and drop them immediately into the vinaigrette.
  • Add the vinaigrette and beef to the salad and toss to combine.
  • Portion the salad and top with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

The recipe says it serves 4, and I suppose that's right as an appetizer salad; as an entree, I had a full plate and a second helping, and  had enough left over for a decent lunch.

You could serve the salad and vinaigrette — bright, sweet, spicy, and gingery — as an appetizer salad without any beef at all, or double (or more) the amount of beef for a more substantial entree. I loved this dish, and I'm sure I'll fix it again!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Crowdsourcing a "Perfect" Hack

My sister likes gadgets, so when it came time to go Christmas shopping for her, I naturally wandered into Brookstone, and she likes to entertain in her beautiful Florida home, so in Brookstone my eyes naturally wandered to the Perfect Drink app-controlled bartending set.

Actually, on my first foray into the store, I passed this gadget by, not quite getting that this wasn't just another electric shaker or some other such I-don't-really-need-a-machine-to-do-that sort of tool. But on the next trip, when I was starting to get desperate, I happened to be in the store when someone was doing a live demo (similar to this video), and I saw what a truly cool thing this was: An app-controlled smart scale that tracks the pour of each ingredient, including scaling for multiple servings and correcting for overpours by proportionally scaling the other ingredients. It even senses when you pick the shaker up from the scale and starts a timer to ensure you shake long enough!
It's just cool.
But it didn't take me long to realize that the concept would be equally useful for all recipes; not just cocktails. Alton Brown made a point, throughout the run of Good Eats, of basing his "applications" on weights, and I can imagine a Perfect Drink-like gadget/app that would work for complex, multistage dishes just as well as for a three- or four-ingredient mixed drink. The hardware — the smart scale itself — is right there; all that's needed is the app.
Surely, I thought, such an app had already been produced... but if so, my poor searching skills haven't been up to finding it. This prototype seems more focused on homebrew hardware; the Prep Pad from Orange Chef seems more focused on precision and nutritional analysis than on reecipe process management (and besides, it costs more than twice as much as the Perfect Drink hardware).
So I have to ask all my geeky, software inclined friends: How hard would it be to write a full-featured cooking app that would use the Perfect Drink smart scale hardware as approachably and effectively as the original cocktail set does?
Enquiring minds want to know!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year, New Toys

This will be brief, because it's already 11:00 pm EST as I begin, and I want to publish before the end of New Year's Day.

By now, I know better than to promise any particularly consistency of blogging in 2014: It is, in fact, my goal to write here regularly, but if past is prologue, it's likely that the new year will include, as have years past, long hiatuses (hiati?), dropped projects, and all manner of broken promises with regard to my writing in this space.

One promise I mean to keep, though, is to cook more. I have been putting cookbooks at the top of my birthday, Fathers' Day, and Christmas wish lists for several years, now, and between gifts and my own packratacquisitional nature, I've acquired quite a library of them... of cookbooks, that is, that I've hardly cooked out of at all. My resolution for the coming year is to correct that, and to that end, I didn't put any cookbooks on my wish list this holiday season.

So instead of books, I got a food processor and a deep fryer. My plan is to try to cook a new recipe from my library at least once each week, and to report on it here.

Watch this space!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I Knew It!

When this story hit the headlines and all my feminist friends (which is to say, all my friends) reacted with outrage, I saw something other than a normative, male-dependent, self-loathing woman: I saw an ambitious stunt-blogger who was looking to parlay a self-consciously provocative story into a book deal and a shot at being the next Julie Powell.

Sure 'nuff!

Mind you, the feminist critique is warranted: The tale of Stephanie Smith's 300-sandwich race to a diamond finish line with her boyfriend Eric Schulte pings every invidious stereotype of the ring-seeking "gal" trying to prove she's "wife material."

But I saw more than just "make me a sammich, bitch" misogyny in their schtick all along: Maybe Schulte really is an unreconstructed bro, and maybe Smith is every bit the husband-hungry "chick" their tale suggests... but it has seemed more calculated than that to me since I first heard of it: I think it was a deliberate book proposal from the very beginning.

I loved the Julie & Julia film, and I entirely bought Powell's story as authentic. The sheer rawness and vulnerability of her second book, Cleaving (which I loved, though critical reactions were mixed), betrays not the slightest hint of calculation or pretense. Love her or hate her, it's hard to doubt that Powell's memoirs — even the "stunt" of cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year — grew organically out of her own life.

On the other hand, I strongly suspect Smith's tale grew organically out of... watching Powell go from blog to bestseller to the big screen, and wanting to replicate that path. It needed a food-related challenge; it needed the right mix of romance and romantic tension; it needed a Hollywood finish line.

There's nothing inherently wrong with basing a book on an artificial stunt: A.J. Jacobs has practically made a career of it, and George Plimpton essentially invented the form with his participatory sports writing. But Smith's project just seems too canned, too derivative, too self-consciously media savvy to be compelling.

And that's before you even get to the project's reliance on outdated and unwanted concepts around gender roles and relationships.

If Smith had simply blogged about trying to invent 300 (or some suitably challenging number) of unique gourmet sandwiches, I'd happily have read that blog, and bought that cookbook; as it is, I think I'll make my own damn sammich!