The Solstmas Party … in a Powerpoint slide

Our friend Sharona the Shutterbug, unofficial photographer of all our Liberty Lounge parties …

Sharona, wearing the finery she *almost* won in the Solstmas gift exchange

recently sent me a flock of photos she took at our 14-hour-long Solstmas open house a few weeks ago. I plan to post many of them here in the next week or so, but in the meantime, I just wanted to give you a glimpse into the mind of the Cocktail Host.

Our friend Michael and the Cocktail Host, who seems to be having some sort of epiphany. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

While I was running around on Christmas morning decorating ice rings for the punch bowl and figuring out what glassware we should use for the keg of home-brewed pumpkin porter our friend Matthew was bringing …

Matthew and his home-brewed pumpkin porter. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

… Dave decided that we needed a diagram of where all the various drinks were, so he wouldn’t have to “keep explaining to everyone where the wine glasses are.” (Click on it to see it in its full glory.) After an hour of fiddling around with his computer (while I stewed about how he wasn’t doing something useful, damnit!), he came up with this 3D graphic, which we posted in a few different places in the house. I’m not sure anyone noticed them without being prompted (at which point we could have just told them where the wine glasses were), but once they saw it they were pretty impressed.

Dave's Powerpoint diagram for Solstmas

At the time he was working on it, I confess I would have rather he were reorganizing the living room or helping me clean the kitchen. But I also think it shows how he’s the yin to my yang, the Abbott to my Costello, the peanut butter to my jelly, the wax to my wane, the mad to my sane (but who is who in this case?).

Without me, our parties would be less obsessively planned, with less homemade food and fewer fancy cocktails. Without him, however, we wouldn’t have synced wireless streaming audio in every room, firewood schlepped and stacked, and “stadium lighting” brightly illuminating the ping-pong table in the backyard at midnight. And there would certainly be no Powerpoint slides, of that I am sure.

It might be easier to plan a party with someone who has priorities similar to my own, but the I suspect the parties would also be a lot less fun.

The Cocktail Hostess and Host. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb. Silly Mrs. Claus apron courtesy of my mom.



Sometimes I love my job: A crop of new vegetable-oriented cookbooks

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been hitting the tofu and arugula pretty hard in the last few months, since butter-laden barbecue shrimp, pie shakes, and Momofuku pork buns hadn’t been doing my cholesterol any favors. (I can’t imagine why!) Despite the fact that I miss butter and cheese like mad (oh, what I wouldn’t do for a hunk of Brie!), I’m actually still feeling pretty chipper about trying to eat healthier.

For the last few months I’ve been channeling my love of good food away from pork butt and toward fish and fennel, which keeps me from feeling too deprived. Though butter and cream undoubtedly make everything taste better, I’m enjoying exploring the whole universe of food that won’t result in a coronary at age 55, and I’m having fun testing the limits of quinoa and kale. (Note: This doesn’t mean that  I’ve completely given up on the occasional decadent treat or a few fun cocktails, mind you, lest you think that from now on this blog will be about nothing but vegan lettuce wraps and flaxseed-infused smoothies. Everything in moderation—even moderation.)

I’m also super-psyched that right now I’m working on not one but two great cookbooks that are offering me lots of great ideas and inspiration. The first is a copyediting job for The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods, which will be published by Ten Speed Press later this year. The author, Sara Forte, has been blogging about healthy cooking at Sprouted Kitchen for years, and the blog is full of stunning photos taken by her husband, Hugh. I hadn’t seen it before I started working on this book, but I’ve become an instant fan, and if you love food blogs, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as beautiful as this. Based on the photos on the blog, I think it’s going to be really lovely (some early design layouts are here). Better than that, it’s in the sweet spot of how I’m cooking right now. Lots of whole grains and vegetables, but not strictly vegetarian. Salads galore. Interesting combinations of unusual ingredients. I haven’t actually cooked any of the recipes yet—I just received the manuscript about a week ago—but there are several I plan to make in the next few weeks.

The second project I’m working on that makes me really happy that I do what I do is proofreading The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, by Georgeanne Brennan and Ann Evans. I’ve barely cracked the cover on this one—I just got it today—but after a quick look  I’m already marking pages with recipes I want to try.

Sometimes the cookbooks I edit don’t have a lot to do with the way I like to eat, whether they’re about vegan desserts or instructions for making baby food. Other times the books I work on are about something I dearly love but have a blinking “danger” sign attached to them. For example, about six months ago I spent a few weeks copyediting Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, which will come out in April of this year. Since the ice cream shop where the recipes come from, Bi-Rite Creamery, is only three blocks from my house, I was well aware how dreamy their desserts were before I started working on it, and I spent last August churning out buckets of Strawberry-Balsamic Vinegar and Salted Caramel ice creams, much to the Cocktail Host’s delight. It was a great project, but right now I’m glad I don’t have those recipes for popsicles and ice cream pies staring me in the face each morning when I turn on my computer.

Finally, while I’m on the subject of healthy recipes, here’s a quick little something I’ve been making left and right for the last few weeks. (My apologies for the unappetizing photos. A few posts ago I think I warned you that photos of muddy brown lentils and hippie glop might be making an appearance here.)

Peanut-lime dressing

The Cocktail Host and I love both Thai and Vietnamese food, and we especially adore nuoc cham, the tart-salty-sweet dipping sauce that is typically made with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chiles. It’s a bit too thin to use as a salad dressing or to cling to most foods, so I played around with adding vegetable oil. It was good, but I prefer this version, with ground peanuts. I’ve been making it in double batches lately and storing it in the fridge, where it keeps well, as long as you shake it to recombine the ingredients. I couldn’t say exactly how long, because no matter how much I make, I seem to dump it all on salad greens or tofu  before the week is over. I have yet to meet a vegetable that isn’t tasty with a spoonful of this on top.

Here are the ingredients you need. I like to use Thai bird’s eye chiles, but the market was out of them, so here I’ve used Sriracha sauce instead.

peanut-lime dressing ingredients

And here’s the recipe …

Peanut-Lime Dressing

3/4 cup dry roasted peanuts
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup coarsely chopped shallots
1/2 cup agave nectar
5 tablespoons fish sauce
3 bird’s eye chiles, stemmed and seeded, or 4 teaspoons Sriracha sauce

Combine all the ingredients in food processor or blender and pulse until the peanuts are finely chopped and the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Taste and adjust the ingredients, adding more agave nectar if you prefer a less tart dressing, more chiles if you like a hotter one.

Entertaining lessons learned … for now

A Sazerac

I’ve hit the wall that I seem to smack into every January and I’m feeling the need to take a step back from entertaining for a while. And by “a while,” I mean maybe a week or so, since inevitably I’ll have the itch to organize some other celebration, or maybe just have a few folks over for dinner, in a couple of days.

This time of year is always the tail end of an entertaining marathon at our house. In the last month we’ve hosted a daylong afterparty that started at 8 am (following an all-night dance event elsewhere), a Christmas Day open house for 70, a very small surprise party for the Cocktail Host’s birthday, and a larger get-together for my birthday last weekend. A few weeks before that it was Thanksgiving dinner for 11.

The Cocktail Host and Jacob set the table

Add in hosting three bridge games, having a houseguest for five days last week, and various friends dropping by for drinks or dinner every few days, and I’m pooped.

I’m sure this burnout is mostly the result of the party I hosted last Friday, where I went a little bonkers with the menu, making homemade cheese straws, and candied spiced walnuts, and Marcona almonds with lavender and sea salt, and crudités with four (!) kinds of dip, and homemade caramel corn with almonds and pecans, and homemade hummus with za’atar and pita chips baked by yours truly, and cumin-mint chicken satay with a peanut dipping sauce … and that’s not counting the menu of five different cocktails and mocktails.

I have to admit there was a moment last Thursday when I wondered why I was spending my birthday lugging a backpack with 20 pounds of veggies, crackers, and tahini up the hill to my house instead of putting my feet up, but I knew the feeling would pass before long. And when the power went out at our house the morning of the party, I briefly wondered how I would go about canceling the party before I started inventorying my candles and firewood and figuring out which dishes I would have to strike from the menu since I couldn’t use my Cuisinart. (The power came back on an hour or two later.)

In the end, though, I enjoyed this party more than almost any other I’ve hosted, in part because the Cocktail Host insisted that I not work nonstop during my own birthday party, even though I reminded him that it would mean that he would have to spend the whole party on his feet. Though I love making food and drinks for folks at my parties, it was a revelation to have more than 90 seconds to chat with my guests in between shaking up drinks.

So the lesson I took away from this season of entertaining—other than enlisting my husband to make drinks during a party—is the virtue of simplicity. Of streamlining. The wisdom of making four types of cocktails instead of six. The sanity I would gain from serving a cheese plate alone rather than a cheese plate and homemade cheese straws, which had me ripping apart my cabinets looking for my missing rolling pin and sweeping up a flurry of flour an hour before my guests arrived.

You wouldn’t think it would take hosting so many parties to figure this out, but apparently it does. I feel like the bride-to-be who stresses about party favors and the color of the table linens and whether her niece should wear the same type of wrist corsage as the bridesmaids. You can tell her to chill the bleep out, but she’s not going to listen to you. She has to learn for herself.

Speaking of simplicity … one of the cocktails I made last Friday was the Sazerac, by some accounts the first American cocktail. Though I don’t drink a ton of Sazeracs myself at home, I wanted to put something on the menu that didn’t include citrus, as did all the other drinks on the menu, and I like the ritual of assembling a Sazerac. And though I expected this drink to be a hard sell considering the competition, it surprised me by being one of the most popular drinks of the night.

But just because it’s a “simple” drink doesn’t mean that everyone agrees about how it should be made, and many knowledgeable bartenders vehemently disagree about the technique for making it. Some serve it in an old-fashioned glass while others prefer using a cocktail glass. Traditionalists use a sugar cube, but some use simple syrup instead. Some use a combination of a few different types of bitters, while others insist a Sazerac should only be made with Peychaud’s. Some rinse the glass with absinthe, but others use Herbsaint, the New Orleanean anise-flavored liqueur that became popular when it was illegal to sell absinthe in the United States. And finally, and perhaps most contentiously, some like to drop the lemon twist into the drink, while others insist it should only be twisted over the drink and should never, ever see the inside of the glass.

I’m not at all doctrinaire about my Sazeracs and am of the opinion that as long as the drink is quite cold, it’s probably going to taste great. Cocktail nerds will already have their own firmly held opinion about how to assemble this drink, but for the rest of you, here’s the way I put them together.

You’ll need some rye (I’m very fond of Rittenhouse and Michter’s, but Bulleit is perfectly acceptable and a bargain to boot), some Peychaud’s bitters, and some Herbsaint. Even if you’re starting from zero, it shouldn’t cost you more than $50 or so to buy all the ingredients if you use Bulleit.

Sazerac ingredients

Put an ice cube in the bottom of a pint glass and shake about three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters on top. Use a muddler to mash it all up.

Adding the Peychaud's bitters

Add 2 ounces of rye to the glass, add ice, and stir to dissolve the sugar and chill the drink.

Stirring the Sazerac

Now remove a small cocktail glass from your freezer (you do keep cocktail glasses of various sizes in your freezer at all times, don’t you? Good!). Add a small amount of Herbsaint to the glass. Some people like to use an atomizer or an eyedropper, but I typically use a small squeeze bottle. Tilt the glass so the Herbsaint coats the interior of the glass, then dump out the extra liquid.

Adding the Herbsaint

Strain the rye mixture into the glass, squeeze a lemon twist over the drink, and drop the peel into the glass. Voilà! You’ve just made a classic cocktail that’s been around for about 150 years. Now don’t you feel sophisticated?

Voila! A Sazerac.

The land of Milk & Honey

Michael McIlroy's Right Hand cocktail

Last November I was thrilled to have the chance to go to New York City for some meetings with a client. I hadn’t been to the city in more than ten (!) years, since long before I became a serious cocktail geek, so I was especially excited to check out as many of the city’s famous speakeasies as my liver—and my busy work schedule—allowed.

I was only able to make it to three of places on my long list (PDT, the Raines Law Room, and Milk & Honey), but Milk & Honey was the one I was most excited about, and it didn’t disappoint.

After making reservations online, I met up with my friend AnneLise Sorensen, who took all of the pictures in this post (thanks, AnneLise!). We walked down a gritty little alleyway on the Lower East Side and knocked on the door to get into this retro cocktail fantasyland, a tiny, dimly lit speakeasy where instead of looking at a menu you tell the bartender what you’re hankering for and something ineffably delicious shows up in front of you.

We sat at the bar, of course, so we could see the bartender in action as he worked his magic.

First I asked for a cocktail using aged rum, one of my favorite spirits, and I got a Right Hand, a sort of rum variation of a Negroni, if you want to think of it that way, made from Matusalem Gran Reserva rum, Campari, Carpano Antico vermouth, and a few dashes of Bittermen’s Xocolatl Mole Bitters. If you like, you can find the exact proportions here …

Pouring the Carpano Antico vermouth

After that I asked for another spiritous cocktails—with no fresh muddled fruit or citrus to get in the way of the other ingredients—and our bartender came up with a Greenpoint, a revelation in a glass made from rye, sweet vermouth, yellow Chartreuse, and two different types of orange bitters. Again, last I checked you could find the precise ratios here.

Pouring the yellow Chartreuse

Our bartender, Michael McIlroy, could not have been more charming, patiently answering my incessant questions about all the drinks he was making and chatting with me about cocktail geekery and the best places to drink in New York and San Francisco. And, if I’m not mistaken, he actually invented the two cocktails that I drank, which proves that his palate is as well developed as his gracious sense of hospitality.

Michael McIlroy

He even called ahead to the Raines Law Room and hooked me up with one of the bartenders, there, ensuring I got in without waiting in line with the other thirsty folks hanging around outside. He tells me that Milk & Honey will be moving to another location before too long, but a speakeasy will remain at the current location, and he and another of the M&H bartenders will be behind the stick. It will be called Attaboy, he says, and undoubtedly it will be my first cocktail stop next time I’m in town.

Apropos of nothing at all …

Tonight the Cocktail Host and I were in Oakland, overlooking Lake Merritt, an area where many of our friends live. It’s about a 20-minute drive from our house (barring rush hour traffic, which tonight was dreadful). This photo, which the Cocktail Host took with his cell phone, doesn’t even begin to capture how beautiful the sunset was. I occasionally like to be reminded of why we pay exorbitant rents and deal with Bay Area traffic, because both San Francisco and Oakland are just gobsmackingly beautiful so much of the time.

Sunset over Lake Merritt

A toast to 2011

Toasting the New Year with 1990 Cristal

Now that—egads!—it’s 2012, I’ve been looking back at my 2011 blog posts, which is causing me to blush with shame at how little I’ve posted since last September. And by “little,” I mean “not at all.” I could come up with any number of excuses for my indolence, but here are the two greatest hits.

First, a few months ago my nurse practitioner informed me that I needed to watch my cholesterol and blood sugar. Though this was unwelcome news, it should surprise no one who has read my posts about my love of berry trifles …

Summer berry trifle

or my unwavering devotion to cheese …

Solstmas cheese platter

This means I’ve been concocting a lot fewer buttery desserts and lot more lentils and brown rice lately, shaking fewer cocktails and making more tofu curry. And when I might otherwise be photographing my latest efforts in the kitchen, I’m more likely to be playing tennis with my husband.

The second reason is that while the Cocktail Host is out of work, I’ve been working time and a half trying to keep up with paying the bills, which means less time for cooking and blogging, and less money for hosting big blowouts.

That said, neither of these is a great reason for not keeping up with my blog. Because hosting get-togethers is pretty much my favorite hobby, I find that I host parties or have people over for dinner no matter how limited my means.

In part I can do this because I’ve gotten pretty good at turning whatever odds and ends are in the pantry into a credible dinner or hors d’oeuvres platter, but it’s primarily because we have a phenomenal group of friends that bring the party with them whenever they visit. For example, if we were left to our own devices, we might have had to cancel our seventh annual daylong open house (with seventy or so guests) on Christmas Day, but thanks to friends who gave us a big stack of firewood, brought buckets of champagne, made outrageously decadent eggnog, and did a thousand and one other things, from washing up dinner plates during the party to bringing an expensive bottle of Chartreuse so I could make one of my favorite cocktails to pitching in some cash for all the booze we bought for the party, it went on as always. And for this I am truly, deeply grateful.

Also, because of my generous (and food- and drink-loving) friends, as well as my work in food and travel publishing, I often get have experiences that are well above my pay grade. I visited New York City a few months ago and, before having a decadent dinner with some other food writers and editors and Tim and Nina Zagat (yes, those Zagats) …

Dinner at Del Posto

I visited some of New York City’s swankiest speakeasies for some out-of-this-world cocktails …

Milk & Honey cocktails

And even when I’m at home, I have it better than I deserve. I go to bars where I know the mixologists, who often slip me some fun new spirit to taste. I go to Boxing Day parties where The Working Cook prepares local whole-grain polenta with a decadent ragù. I have sommelier friends who never show up to a party without a fine bottle of wine. And I attend New Year’s Eve parties where Mr. Manhattan opens a honey-colored  bottle of 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal that he’s been aging for 20 years …

Photo by Arlie Ausich

So even if it means that my newest food obsession is vegan cooking (oh dear!) rather than blood orange cocktails (my two posts of 2011 with the largest number of visitors), I’m hoping to keep up the blogging in 2012. And if the next photo I post is of a mess of delicious but ugly lentils with brown rice, well, I apologize in advance.