Sorry for the wonky formatting

I’m not sure what has gotten into my blog today, but my apologies if you see some weird formatting on the home page. If you want to navigate to the earlier posts, try scrolling to the bottom of the page to see all the navigation stuff that’s usually at the right.

Wonky formatting fixed! Thanks to Dave for pointing out the error of my ways.

Making the most of what you’ve got

Fresh from my parents' garden

I entertain so frequently that I sometimes fall into a rut. Left to my own devices, most of my parties will be some variation of one of the following:

  1. a retro cocktail party, with classic cocktails, a fire in the fireplace, Ella on the stereo
  2. a casual summer barbecue, with the CocktailHost grilling on balcony and me muddling fruit into cocktails in the kitchen
  3. a small three- or four-course dinner party for four or six

In part that’s because those are some of my favorite party styles, but each one is also tailored to some aspect of our apartment. The fireplace. The balcony with a gas grill. The dining room table that fits six (barely).

That’s one reason why I really enjoy hosting parties in other venues, or for a different crowd, or for a different sort of occasion every once in a while. Though it’s a huge help for me to rely on one of my regular party styles when I’m throwing together a shindig without much time to prep, I also want to keep things fresh.

This is all a long way of saying that I had the pleasure of co-hosting a party at my parents’ house in Houston in June. (Sorry for the long delay, Mom! I finally found my lost camera with the photos on it.)

My parents and a few of their friends are kind enough to read my blog, and when they found out I was going to be in town my mom asked me if I would throw something together. Who me? Host a party? Well, if you insist.

I knew right away that wouldn’t have access to all my fancy cocktail glassware and gadgets, and that I wouldn’t be able to stock up on obscure liqueurs or spirits at their suburban liquor store. I couldn’t even make an Aviation, since creme de violette hasn’t made it out to their neck of the woods yet.

The key, though, is to focus on what you do have. In this case, at the top of the list was my parents’ garden, which was completely overgrown with basil …

basil

as well as fresh mint …

mint

and edible marigolds, which make a beautiful drink garnish.

Marigold for garnish

After I found a few cucumbers in the fridge that had come straight from a friend’s garden,  the cocktail menu practically wrote itself.

Mom took care of the food, making her old-school “Gourmet Crab Ring” that she’s probably been making since before I was born …

Gourmet Crab Ring recipe

Of course, since we were in Houston, we served it with crackers in the shape of Texas …

Texas-shaped crackers

(Random aside: Does anyone know of any food products sold in the shape of any state other than Texas? In Houston you can find all sorts of crackers, tortilla chips, and even pasta in the shape of Texas, but methinks this is a distinctively Texan conceit. If you have a photo of food in the shape of any other state, please send it to me. I’d love to see it.)

At any rate, the party was great fun for me, and I think for the guests, too. It was a good reminder, though, of how I need to keep the temperature in mind when hosting a party.  I’m so used to our perpetually chilly San Francisco apartment that I didn’t take into full consideration the effect of the 95-degree day on our guests. Next time I’ll serve more tall drinks on ice, like the Paloma, which was the most popular drink of the evening. (The recipe I based mine on is here, though I made a few tweaks and garnished it with those pretty marigolds.)

My favorite drink of the evening, though, was the simple but subtle cucumber-basil gin gimlet, which one guest (and regular commenter to this blog, though I’m not naming names) seemed to enjoy quite a lot. In this drink, it’s particularly important that the basil be spanking fresh, and you can’t get much fresher than leaving it on the plants in the yard until you’re ready to assemble a drink, then dashing outside to pluck off a few leaves at a time. Here’s my version of the super-summery cocktail:

Cucumber-Basil Gin Gimlet

3 thin slices cucumber
5 basil leaves
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
Juice of 1 lime
2 ounces gin (preferably Hendrick’s)
Splash of simple syrup

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the cucumber slices, 4 of the basil leaves, and sugar. Add the lime juice, gin, and a splash of simple syrup. Add ice to the shake and shake until well combined. Taste and adjust, if necessary, to suit your taste (neither too sweet nor too tart). Double strain, using both a cocktail strainer and fine-mesh sieve, into a chilled cocktail glass (a cocktail strainer alone won’t remove all the bits of basil and cucumber). To garnish, place the remaining basil leaf flat on one palm and slap it with the palm of the other hand (this releases the basil’s aroma). Float the leaf on top of the drink and serve.

cucumber-basil gimlet

Cucumber-basil gin gimlet

A very special birthday celebration …

Photo by Rachel Myrow

Though most of the parties I’ve hosted this summer have been last-minute, ad hoc affairs, last week I had a great time hosting a somewhat more elaborate 40th birthday party for one of my dearest friends, whom I mention here often as the Working Cook (the name of her cookbook and her former column for the San Francisco Chronicle).

The Working Cook, photo by Rachel Myrow

Anyhoo, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I need no excuse to throw a party, but it’s radically more fun when you’re putting together a shindig for someone who is near and dear to you. In fact, I have often thought that there needs to be a word for the glee I feel when cooking a nice dinner for my honey, or organizing a surprise party for a friend, or making cocktails for a friend’s wedding or bachelorette party. The Germans are good at this. Maybe Freundglückkochen? Freund-Parteiglück? Someone who knows German better than I do—help me out here.

It was a crazy cold and cloudy evening for early July …

Photo by Rachel Myrow

Photo by Rachel Myrow

… which means that no one ventured into the backyard, but on the flip side that means we got to build a roaring fire in the fireplace and hunker down against the cold.

Mr. Manhattan and I collaborated on the cocktail menu, and then he very generously offered to shake up the cocktails all evening long, which freed me up to focus on the lavender-sugar and sea salt Marcona almonds, shrimp with Szechuan peppercorns, homemade caramel corn with toasted almonds, and chicken satay with a peanut, curry, and coconut milk dipping sauce.

With Mr. Manhattan behind the bar, the cocktails were predictably off the hook, and his Still Life with Apples, After Cezanne, a cocktail topped with “smoked cider air” made from apple cider, liquid smoke, soy lecithin, and xanthan gum, was a particularly big hit with the birthday girl. (The recipe, invented by Daniel Hyatt at San Francisco’s Alembic, appears in the book Left Coast Libations.)

The other cocktail that went like gangbusters was the blackberry-mint margarita which I think is a perfect summer cocktail, with plenty of fresh fruit and herb flavors but enough punch from the tequila to give it a little heft. Give it a shot during the brief weeks that blackberries are in season …

Photo by Rachel Myrow

Blackberry-Mint Margarita

6 fresh blackberries

8 fresh mint leaves

1 1/2 ounces Chinaco reposado tequila

1 oz fresh lime juice

3/4 to 1 oz simple syrup

Muddle 4 of the blackberries in a cocktail shaker with the mint leaves. Add the tequila, lime juice, and 3/4 ounce simple syrup, fill the shaker with ice, and shake well. Taste and add more simple syrup, if necessary (the amount required will depend on the sweetness of the blackberries). Strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Spear the remaining 2 blackberries on a cocktail pick and use to garnish the drink.

If you give this recipe a try, let me know how it turns out!