The Calabria cocktail

The Calabria

Lately the Cocktail Host and I have been doing a lot of our cocktail drinking at home, indulging my penchant for playing around with cocktail ingredients. But of course I also enjoy changing out of the yoga pants into a cocktail dress and hang out with the grownups at a restaurant or bar.

Recently, two of my favorite bartenders in the world, Mr. Manhattan and Scott Beattie, landed at Hog & Rocks, a restaurant and bar a mere five or so blocks from my house. This is either a very exciting development or a dangerous one, depending on whether you are me or my liver.

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, the Cocktail Host and I decided to pretend that we aren’t the old married couple that we are and we gussied up to pop over to Hog & Rocks for a few drinks and some nibbles at the bar. Mr. Manhattan was getting off of his shift and Scott was starting his, so we got to chat with them both while Scott made me one of Mr. Manhattan’s cocktails, the ravishing Calabria.

The Calabria

Now just imagine how gorgeous this drink was before drank a quarter of it and wiped my smudgy fingerprints all over the glass. I just couldn’t help myself.

I woke up this morning thinking that I should ask Mr. Manhattan if I could share his recipe for the drink, but then a few hours later someone forwarded me this online tutorial of Mr. Manhattan himself showing you how to make it. So there you have it. Go forth and make a Calabria.

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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.

The Main Squeeze

Main Squeeze Cocktail

Yesterday I went to the wedding celebration of my friends Kristina and John. Though, sadly, I somehow managed to come away without any pictures of the beautiful blushing bride and her handsome beau, I did come home with a camera full of pictures of cocktails and food. Go figure. Suffice it to say the event was gobsmackingly beautiful, from the bride herself in her grandmother’s necklace to the garden setting to the wildflowers on each table. And did I mention the cupcakes?? Oh, the cupcakes!

wedding cupcakes

The most gorgeous of the many fabulous cakelets, which were all baked by friends of the bride, were these, which, not surprisingly, were contributed by The Working Cook.

s'more cupcake

It doesn’t take long looking at this cupcake to realize that it’s a s’more cupcake, with brûléed marshmallow and graham cracker. Wow.

But back to the drinks … In addition to beer and wine, the bride and groom wanted to serve a signature cocktail, which I volunteered to make. So, after I made several different drinks for the bride to taste a few months ago, she settled on London Dry Sangria, a pitcher cocktail dreamed up by Duggan McDonnell, a genius of a San Francisco bartender who opened the neo-Latin speakeasy Cantina a handful of years ago. With a bright lemon flavor and bit of sparkle from the ginger beer, it seemed like the perfectly refreshing drink to serve during a cocktail hour that would immediately follow a warm-weather afternoon ceremony.

The recipe for his London Dry Sangria has been published in a few places, both in a book and online, but even after I found it I had a bit of work in front of me.

You see, most recipes are published without mentioning specific brands of food or spirits. Most of the cookbooks I edit—whether for food or for cocktails—specifically discourage mentioning brand names  of ingredients. This is generally for very good reasons. First, you don’t want to discourage a reader from making a recipe if they don’t have access to the specific brand specified in a recipe. And second, recipes that specify brands often seem as if they’re shilling for that brand. If you see a recipe that indicates, for example, Kraft grated Parmesan cheese or Grey Goose vodka, you might guess that the recipe was engineered by the corporate flacks at the respective company rather than crafted by a dispassionate foodie. This is why most recipes you’ll find in cookbooks don’t mention specific brand names except for in a few rare instances (Tabasco sauce and Campari are a few exceptions that come to mind).

I think that this is generally a good policy, but it’s less compelling when applied to cocktails. If I were just throwing together a pitcher of Duggan’s London Dry Sangria for a run-of-the-mill cocktail party, I wouldn’t have been thrown off by his ingredients list, which calls for gin, white wine (actually, he specifies a grüner veltliner), orange bitters, and ginger beer, among other ingredients, without specifying the type. But, when you think about it, there is such a huge amount of variation between those ingredients that it can result in various versions of the drink that are quite different.

Do you use Barritts Ginger Beer (which I hear is Duggan’s go-to ginger beer), which is a fairly sweet drink that contains high-fructose corn syrup? Or do you go with Bundaberg, or the intensely flavored Fever-Tree, loved by cocktail aficionados but considerably more expensive? For the gin do you use Hendrick’s, which is delicate and floral, with more cucumber than juniper, or do you go with Junipero Gin, which smacks you upside the head with its spicy juniper quality? Even the orange bitters in the original recipe are up for interpretation. I started with my go-to orange bitters, Reagan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, my favorite to use in a gin gimlet, before I decided that the drink benefitted from a dose of the beefier and spicier Angostura Orange Bitters.

Since I needed to prepare 176 servings of the drink for the wedding, I really wanted to dial in the right combo of ingredients in the recipe, but I also needed to use ingredients at a reasonable price. This, unfortunately, eliminated using Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, a delightful 90-proof gin (most gins are about 80 proof) with a strong undercurrent of juniper and citrus that I thought would marry well with the lemon juice. But if I scrimped on the gin, that meant I would have more money to spend on the ginger beer, an important ingredient since the bride had originally suggested a drink that incorporated fresh ginger.

In the end, I decided on this refreshing cocktail, which the bride charmingly called “The Main Squeeze.” So, with several tweaks to Duggan’s original ratios, and the addition of recommended brands, this is what we drank at the wedding …

Main Squeeze cocktail

The Main Squeeze, after Duggan McDonnell’s London Dry Sangria

Makes 8 servings

12 ounces gruner veltliner or other zesty dry white wine, like a sauvignon blanc
7 ounces Tanqueray gin
8 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 ounces simple syrup
10 dashes Angostura orange bitters
10 dashes Reagan’s Orange Bitters
12 ounces Cock & Bull ginger beer
16 thin lemon slices, for garnish

Combine the wine, gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and both bitters in a pitcher and stir to combine. Chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Pour into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Top each serving with 1 1/2 ounces of ginger beer and garnish with two thin lemon slices, each pressed against the side of the glass using the handle end of a barspoon or a chopstick. Serve at once.

The drink seemed supremely popular, and I’d drink it any day, but as always there are a dozen different directions you could take this drink in. Use the ingredients I’ve suggested here, or substitute what you have on hand. I’d be curious to hear your results.

Proof positive the pros are like the rest of us … only better

the bar at Orson

I’m just home from a fun press dinner at Orson, where Blackboard Eats is offering subscribers a great deal on a special “Hotel California”-themed dinner of cocktail and menu pairings.

Chef Elizabeth Falkner entertained us with some hilarious stories, like about the time she met the actress Abigail Breslin, who enthusiastically snapped on a pair of latex gloves to dig into the big box that chef had constructed out of chocolate and filled with homemade candy treats, like homemade marshmallows and toffee. Each course of the adventurous menu, which included a smoked scallop with a corn puree and an out-there dessert that included ice cream studded with black olives, was paired with a cocktail that complemented the dish.

I’m a sucker for pisco, so the drink called “Your Alibi,” made from pisco, dry vermouth, lemon, sugar, and The Bitter Truth celery bitters, was a favorite …

"Your Alibi" pisco cocktail

But the “Far Away,” a not-too-sweet drink made of bourbon, muddled peach, mint, and just a bit of maple syrup, was a nice counterpoint to the maple-glazed roast pork, a rich and decadent dish that came with lightly pickled peaches.

"Far Away" cocktail

For me, however, the most interesting drink of the evening was  this unnamed cocktail, which came with our amuse bouche of Bloody Mary gazpacho.

In this drink, gin, lemon juice, and sugar were combined with a tomato and watermelon mignonette made from pureed heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, shallot, white wine vinegar, basil, and salt. I give the bar manager, Ian Adams, mad props for successfully combining ingredients I never would have dreamt of serving together in a cocktail. But what I especially love is that it was all done using leftover ingredients that needed to be used up, which is always my best inspiration in the kitchen, and I suspect that of thrifty home cooks everywhere. According to Ian, Elizabeth had made the mignonette for a previous event, where she had frozen it with liquid nitrogen to make a granita that was served with fresh raw oysters. This ingenious repurposing of ingredients inspires me to dig down to the bottom of my fridge and see what inspiration I find there. What should I do the quart of black olives taking over the bottom shelf of my fridge? And would it be possible to do something with all that fresh marinated mozzarella that’s on the cusp of going bad? We’ll see. Whether it’s filed under “cocktail concoctions” or “kitchen misadventures” I won’t hazard to guess.

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!