Friday, February 22, 2013

Have a Cocktail: The Easterner

So when I finally joined the 21st century and got an iPhone, I did what I assume every new smartphone user does: I gorged on apps. Things being (as a coworker used to say) as they are, rather than as they should be, one of the apps I downloaded first was a cocktails app called Mixology.

As with most of the apps I downloaded, I haven't really scratched the surface of what it can do, but I have discovered one feature that is really cool: You can search for drink recipes by ingredient. So when you have an item and you think, "I wonder what I could do with this," the answer is no farther away than your phone.

One of the items I've had handy recently is grapefruit juice: My wife and I have gotten into the habit of splitting a fresh ruby red grapefruit as an evening snack, and I find that after I've eaten all the segments, my half will yield an ounce or two of juice. Normally, I'll just drink it off, but so many great cocktails call for fresh citrus juice, and it seems a shame to waste it.

The obvious (to me, at least) pairing for grapefruit juice is gin, and there are, in fact, any number of delicious-sounding recipes for gin and juice (including Gin and Juice), but I was in the mood for something different tonight, so I keyed in grapefruit juice and... rye. And what Mixology offered me was:

The Easterner
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

That last ingredient was a bit of serendipity for me: I happen to have some local Connecticut maple syrup (from Maple Leaf Farm in Canterbury) that I purchased in a silent auction at a Democratic fundraiser, and I'm always looking for interesting ways to use it. This turns out to be a very interesting way: The maple is a perfect sweet pairing with the smokiness of the rye, and the grapefruit juice adds just the right bit of acid brightness to keep the overall drink from being... well, syrupy.

A quick search around the web turned up (on several sites) a different version that uses 2 ounces of juice and only 1 1/2 ounces of rye, and that adds grenadine, and maybe I'll try that at some point, but I doubt I'll like it better than this version, which is distinctly a whiskey drink, smooth and sweet and bright, but always with the rye out front.

Besides, with this recipe I had enough grapefruit juice to make a second. And that was a Very Good Thing™.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dining Out: Georgie's Diner

After the afternoon of booking I wrote about last time, my wife and I were ready for a nice dinner, and so we headed off to Georgie's Diner in West Haven.

We discovered Georgie's last fall, when one of our daughter's college friends recommended it as a place to have brunch after we gave him a ride back to New Haven following a visit. An old-school diner that traces its lineage back to the mid 1950s and New Rochelle, NY, the former Elm Diner was completely restored and reinvented as Georgie's (in honor of long-time owner George Anthis) in 2009. Along with the classic old-line diner atmosphere and menu are some special touches: the option to upgrade egg dishes to cage-free organic eggs; sustainable, locally sourced milk and cream; and extensive vegan and gluten-free offerings. That last is important to my family, because my wife must avoid gluten; it's the reason our friend originally recommended the place.

On our first visit, we had breakfast items: Banana Stuffed (gluten-free!) French Toast for my wife and classic Eggs Benedict for me. Both were delicious, and the French Toast, in particular, was sumptuous, topped with caramelized bananas and pastry cream and drizzled with caramel sauce... almost as much a dessert as a breakfast dish.

We were impressed with the rest of the menu as well, and vowed to return, even though it's a fairly significant trip from home. Sunday's outing gave us the ideal chance.

As I may have mentioned once or twice, one of the main draws is the range of gluten-free offerings. Increasing numbers of restaurants are offering gluten-free menus, or at least marking gluten-free items on the regular menu, but at most, the range of items is fairly narrow: limited sandwich choices (owing to limited bread and roll options), lots of grilled and broiled meat and seafood, and usually no pasta dishes at all. At Georgie's, on the other hand, you could look at the gluten-free menu and imagine you were looking at a comprehensively complete restaurant menu. Careful study reveals some gaps -- no bagels, for instance, and no breaded fried dishes -- but really every segment of a traditional deli menu is well represented, including toast and pancakes on the breakfast menu; an unprecedentedly big range of burgers, specialty sandwiches, and classic deli-style sandwiches; and a full range of dinner entrees, including numerous pasta dishes. The menu notes that gluten-free items are prepared according to Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) standards.

I can't vouch for the quality of the gluten-free pasta (which can be variable), because neither of us ordered pasta, but it's hard to imagine pasta would be featured so prominently if they weren't confident it was tasty. Certainly the food we did sample was tasty: My wife had a classic roast beef sandwich on gluten free roll, and I had London broil with mushrooms and gravy from the regular menu. We each had a huge side of (vegan, gluten-free) fries, and my entree included a hose salad with a very tasty Greek dressing and a large chunk of roasted butternut squash. For dessert, my wife had the gluten-free cheesecake with strawberries, and I had the house made carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.

In two visits, we've only scratched the surface of the menu, of course. I'm eager to go back at lunchtime and try one of the 8 oz. Pat Lafrieda burgers, and the next time we're there for dinner, I'll try one of the gluten-free pasta dishes, just for the sake of evaluating the pasta itself. In the meantime, I have no hesitation recommending Georgie's, both to fans of the classic diner menu and ambiance and to those who must avoid gluten.

Monday, February 18, 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different

This afternoon, my wife and I went to browse the annual sale at Whitlock's Book Barn, a used and antique bookstore in a literal barn (two of them, actually) in Bethany, CT. I was introduced to Whitlock's by my daughter, who was in turn introduced to the place by a favorite professor at Yale.

But wait, you ask: Why are we talking about an afternoon of booking on a food blog? Well, it's because of my best finds, both of which are food-related books:

The first is Colonial Virginia Cookery by historian Jane Carson. Originally published in 1968 by University of Virginia Press (or perhaps distributed through UVa Press on behalf of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: my Googling left me uncertain which), this is a 1985 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation edition that returned Carson's survey of 18th century cooking manuals to print.

From what I've heard previously of antique recipes — and note that the recipes of the period are more like a narrative description of cooking the dish than they are like the procedural form we're used to today — I don't have great hope that many of these dishes will be plausibly cookable (or desirable, for that matter) in the modern kitchen, but I'm expecting them to be fascinating to read. How something as ostensibly fundamental as cooking has changed over human history is a subject that never ceases to intrigue me. And in any case, when you flip open a book at random and find a recipe for "Soup of Any Kind of Old Fowl (The only way in which they are eatable)" and on the opposite page discover instructions for turtle soup that advise you to "Kill [the turtle] at night in winter, and in the morning in summer"... well, how could you not be captivated?

The book describes menus and ingredients, the colonial kitchen itself, dishes in several chapters organized by cooking method, sauces and garnishes, and finally, food preservation. That last chapter, in particular, calls out to me. Given that neither refrigeration nor canning was known in colonial times, I'm sure the methods described will be quite terrifying to a modern, germ-aware sensibility... and yet, somehow our colonial forebears (at least some of them) managed to survive. If it seems sane to try any of the preservation methods —or if any of the recipes seem adaptable —you can count on reading about it here!

The second find is even better. I'm the first to admit I'm no expert on the classic literature of cooking, but when I pulled a volume off the shelf, I instantly recognized the name Brillat-Savarin, if only as the author of the the quote that opens (at least in its American distribution) the original Japanese version of Iron Chef: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." But even if I hadn't recognized the name Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, nobody even vaguely acquainted with the literature of food (and, as I say, I myself am no more than vaguely acquainted) could fail to know the name M.F.K. Fisher, perhaps the preeminent American food writer. What I had found was the 1949 Heritage Press edition of Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste: or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, translated "with profuse annotations" by Fisher, and illustrated by Sylvain Sauvage.

I had stumbled upon one of the most famous books ever written about food, translated by one of America's best known food writers, in a very beautiful edition. The accompanying Heritage Club Sandglass brochure describes how (punctuated by what seem to 21st century eyes an inordinate number of references to how good-looking she was) Fisher and her husband brought them the idea of translating Brillat-Savarin; how the edition was translated, edited, designed, illustrated, and published; and how, sadly, Sauvage passed away before it was on the shelves. It's a gem of a food book, and I can't wait to get "stuck in" reading it

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Half-Homemade Breakfast

I've never watched Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Cooking on Food Network (though I have heard Anthony Bourdain slam both the show's host and its concept), so I don't know for sure, but I imagine what it promotes is something like what I did for breakfast this morning.

Waking up earlier than is my wont on a Sunday morning, I was hungry for breakfast, but we didn't have on hand the things I consider essential to a proper breakfast: To wit, either bacon or sausage, if not both. So I decided to improvise.

I did have on hand frozen toaster waffles, which I normally use as a quick snack, rather than as a breakfast dish. A quick inventory also turned up packaged Black Forest ham lunch meat... and we pretty much always have eggs, butter, and milk in stock.

Remembering this recipe (from the goat-farming, Amazing Race winning Beekman Boys' website) for Lazy Scrambled Eggs, I hatched what Bourdain would no doubt consider an evil scheme: I would make a phoney-baloney, semi-homemade goof on Eggs Benedict.

The whole point of the "lazy" scrambled eggs is that it's a slow cooking method, so I got that started first: Three eggs broken straight into a "cold" pan, along with a tablespoon of butter and 2 tablespoons of milk, then put over low heat. Break the yolks, give it a quick stir (but don't worry about thoroughly mixing things), and wait.

Part of what makes this method "lazy" is that there's no whisk or mixing bowl to clean, but really, two fewer items in the dishwasher strikes me as a fairly trivial advantage. The real point of this slow-cooking method is that it prevents overcooking, and results in smooth, soft eggs with some bits of discernibly separate white and yolk... which is to say, it makes scrambled eggs that are a plausible substitute for poached or 3-minute eggs.

While the eggs were (slowly) cooking, I popped a (round) waffle into the toaster, and lightly cooked 3 or 4 slices of the ham in a separate skillet. When everything was done, I put the ham on top of the waffle, topped it with some (also store-bought) shredded cheddar cheese, covered that with the hot eggs, and sprinkled a little additional cheese on top.

No great display of culinary skill, obviously, but very yummy. I have a more-completely-homemade version of this dish in mind, for a day when I've planned ahead a bit more. Watch this space....