Monday, March 31, 2014

Halloumi, Meet Your Best Friend, Commandaria

Our Cookbook Challenge Continues with a Provocative Pairing . . .

by Paul Zablocki

Halloumi, a semihard Cypriot cheese, with dollops of white truffle honey and fig jam, pairs so well with a St. John Sour.

We can’t believe almost an entire year has gone by since we started our Cookbook Challenge, for which we take a collection of cookbooks and use one or more recipes for inspiration to develop our own dishes or small bites. For our last challenge, we were to use two Nigella Lawson cookbooks, Feast and Nigella Bites, as our sources. Perusing her easy, homespun recipes, we noticed that Ms. Lawson seems to love the semihard, brined cheese from Cyprus called halloumi: Grilled Halloumi with Oozing Egg and Mint (what a title!); Halloumi with Chilli (the picture is enough to send you to the store searching for this Mediterranean hard cheese). A decision was made; Steve and I decided halloumi would be the focus, but we agreed to go one step further: come up with a cocktail–party food pairing and make sure the cocktail is low in alcohol. (Who doesn’t want to have a second drink at a cocktail party without getting loopy?)

But first, some words on Mediterranean cuisine.

If asked to name their favorite Mediterranean cuisine, most Americans would answer Italian. With good reason, too. How many of us have begun our evenings with some antipasti, paired with an Americano or a less bitter Aperol and soda? Italian restaurants—or Italian-American, rather—inhabit every city in this nation. You’d be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t. Even Makawao on the island of Maui boasts a bistro that serves cioppino made with fresh local fish.

But putting Italian aside, let us look into less-explored Mediterranean cuisine, that of Cyprus in particular, and its treasured cheese, halloumi.

But first some words about Cyprus.

I was fascinated by Cyprus as a child. To me, this island nation looked like a fish, with a stingray-like tail. If you gaze at a map, you’ll notice that this “fish” has just broken free from the maw of Turkey’s Gulf of İskenderun and is now swimming freely in the clear blue waters of the eastern Mediterranean. While the average Cypriot eats about forty-eight pounds of fish annually, this staple does not make an appearance in this post’s appetizer. It’s mostly just halloumi. But what we do to it . . . .

For our purpose, we will talk about halloumi that is available prepackaged from the grocery store. Briny and sometimes flavored with a hint of mint, halloumi originated on the island of Cyprus, probably over a 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. It’s rubbery and behaves like cheese curds, so that when you bite into a slice, you can hear a little squeak emanating from your maw. Because it doesn’t melt when broiled, fried, or grilled, this block of semihard succulence delivers supreme satisfaction on both taste and texture counts. How? The Maillard reaction, the one created when heat hits proteins and their ilk, and whammo, countless new flavors are born, making your mouth and brain very happy.

If you slice the halloumi into 1/4-inch-thin rectangles (on the short side of the block), you can fry them over medium-high heat in a nonstick pan, à la Nigella, about 2–3 minutes per side. They should ooze their liquid and then brown a little. Check that they don’t get too brown and flip, browning the other side as well. Remove from heat and spread with a mixture of fig name and white-truffle honey. This pairs beautifully with the St. John Sour. If you don’t have white-truffle butter (and we don’t blame you if you don’t), you can use the fig jam alone, but it would benefit the pairing if you sprinkled on some chopped chives or a few thin slices of scallion greens. You can also make your own white truffle honey by mixing some white truffle oil into some thick honey, preferably natural, and combine thoroughly.

Halloumi with Fig Jam and White Truffle Honey
(adapted from recipes culled from Nigella Bites and Feast)

1 8-ounce package halloumi
2 tablespoons fig jam
1 tablespoon white truffle honey

In a small bowl, mix the fig jam and white truffle honey thoroughly and set aside.

Heat a nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Remove halloumi from package and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rectangular slices (your rectangles should be about 1 x 2 inches, so make sure you slice along the shorter end). Add slices to frying pan, making sure not to crowd them (you may have to work in two or three batches depending on the size of your frying pan). Check your slices after 2–3 minutes. When they are golden brown in patches, flip and cook for another 2–3 minutes. remove from heat and arrange on a platter. With a spoon, add dollops of the jam mixture to the halloumi, or arrange the bowl next to the halloumi platter and allow your guests to take as much as they want. Serve with a St. John Sour or a St. John Paddy Sour, two cocktails we created using a very special Cypriot wine, commandaria.

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Commandaria is a nutty port-like dessert wine that originated on the island of Cyprus and is the oldest-named wine still in production. It’s made from two types of grapes, Mavro and Xynestri, which are picked when they have overripened on the vines so that the sugar levels are high. After fermentation and the addition of neutral spirits, commandaria’s alcohol content lies somewhere between 15–20%. That’s especially good for when you want a second drink. And it mixes beautifully with citrus and other bold flavors like ginger. The commandaria shines in these two drinks.

St. John Sour
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

1 1/2 ounces St. John Commandaria (Cypriot wine)
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce ginger syrup*

Shake first three ingredients in ice for 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda. Stir. Add a lemon twist, if you’d like.

*Ginger Syrup
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

1 piece of fresh ginger, about 8 inches
2 cups of sugar
2 cups of water

Wash then mandolin or thinly slice the ginger (no need to peel). In a medium saucepan combine sugar, water, and ginger. Bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Be careful not to bring to a roiling boil at this point as this will cause the syrup to harden. Allow to cool with ginger in syrup. Strain into jar. Press down on ginger to get all the syrup out. This keeps for about 1–2 weeks, and longer if you add a tablespoon of vodka or other spirit.

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You might not think that Irish whiskey and Cypriot wine would go hand in hand, but when mixed with some lemon juice, this drink makes for a smooth ride.

St. John Paddy Sour
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

1 1/2 ounces St. John Commandaria
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce Irish whiskey (Jameson)

Shake first three ingredients in ice for 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda. Stir. Add a lemon twist, if you’d like.

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For our next cookbook challenge, we will explore Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (we love this one) and Robert Carrier’s Entertaining, from 1978 (this one should be fun).

photos ©Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

10 Microdistillers We Love, and So Should You

Three of these craft spirits made it to Thrillist’s top ten.

Recently Thrillist asked Cocktail Buzz to participate in a panel of booze-biz writers to name our favorite microdistillers. So we gave Thrillist staff writer Dan Gentile a ranked list of ten distillers with a short blurb about why each one is special.
  1. New York Distilling. The Dorothy Parker American Gin is a favorite. Its botanical mix, which includes cinnamon and hibiscus, makes mixing easy. You can get a little more creative at the bar depending on what flavors you want to highlight in the gin. Or in a simple gin and tonic, in which you can detect the cinnamon. Fabulous in a Gibson or a Negroni with Punt e Mes vermouth.
  2. Clear Creek Distillery. What’s not to love about Clear Creek? Clear Creek’s Pear Brandy has beguiled many of our guests, especially during the holidays. We adore it in The Wink, a drink mixed with Moscato d’Asti and a little celery bitters. And if you want something that’ll blow your mind, look no further than its Douglas Fir eau de vie. It tastes exactly as you think it might.
  3. Piedmont Distillers. We love the all-natural Catdaddy Spiced Moonshine for its flavor combo of nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla. Perfect in a Kitty Carlisle. The Midnight Moon moonshine is smooth and is perfect for those who want to play with infusions—that is if you don’t already sip on one of their all-natural fruit and spice–infused moonshines.
  4. Philadelphia Distilling. Bluecoat is an exceptional London dry gin. Our first whiff and sip beguiled us in a mere second. Organic juniper and organic citrus peels create an aroma and flavor that are one-of-a-kind and very complex. You may even want to sip this one on its own. Or try it in a Vesper.
  5. Ransom Spirits. If you’ve never tasted Old Tom Gin, you’re in for a treat. Its subtle malty sweetness shines through any drink you mix it with, and it makes a righteous French 75. We love the old-timey label.
  6. Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery. This distillery’s eau de vie is delightful, but its American Fruit Bartlett Pear Liqueur and Sour Cherry cordials have kept us even more delighted when we need to add some fruit flavor to a cocktail we’re mixing up, such as in an Oh Pear and Singapore Sling, respectively.
  7. House Spirits Distillery. Those who have heard of aquavit, but haven’t taken the plunge yet, should start here if caraway is not their favorite flavor. Their Krogstad Aquavit has plenty of star anise to balance the bright bitterness of the caraway. Try it in a Fjord Cocktail, perfect for a winter night by the fire.
  8. Greenhook Ginsmiths. Besides its lovely American Dry Gin, Greenhook makes a Beach Plum Gin liqueur sure to rival any sloe gin, pacharan, or mirto. Over ice, with a splash of soda, and a lemon twist is all you need, plus a porch and some summertime weather.
  9. North Shore Distillery. We love the idea of processing unique gins every year depending on what the spirits-geek couple who produce these gins decides goes into the mix. The aquavit is exceptional too, with cumin in the fore.
  10. Haleakala Distillers. Aloha and a bottle of rum. Located on the slopes of Haleakala on one of the most beautiful places on Earth, this Maui distillery produces some amazing rums, ideal for sipping on the lanai near the beach, in a tiki drink, or just plain sipping with a splash of water if you live Upcountry.
And the winners are . . .
Here are Dan and Thrillist’s results for The Best Craft Distillers in America. Note that we did not include some of the distilleries that showed up in the final results because we did not perceive them as distillers, micro or otherwise. If we did, we definitely would have had a few of them on our list, most notably High West, Laird’s, Templeton, Death’s Door, and Whistle Pig.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Growing Up in the Presence of Spirits

When should children learn about alcohol?

by Paul Zablocki

Having been on a month-long cleanse, I am ready to start drinking again. Not that I need a drink, but I do miss two aspects of the bibulous life. The first is the way alcohol makes me feel: more social, a little braver, a little sexier; the second involves the ritual of creating a cocktail and celebrating Happy Hour with my mate, sharing tales from the livelong day, while munching on small bites of umami goodness. This usually involves watching videos on one of our countless streaming devices. Although we may not be going out to a bar every night to get our buzz on, we are experiencing a sort of community, albeit a virtual one, by viewing the lives of those whose stories are digitized on the small screen. In that respect, alcohol brings us closer to the world and its inhabitants.

Say what you will, if it wasn’t for the communal and narcotic effects of hooch, we would have destroyed one another a long, long time ago, we being people in general. But that’s not to say that all aspects of drinking are healthy. On a societal level, yes; on a personal level, not so for everyone. My friend’s father, a man loved by all, basically drank himself to death: He suffered a stroke after the unfortunate demise of his first-born child, but it took years for the effects of alcohol abuse and the stroke to send him off to an eternal slumber. My friend can attest to the horrors of a life cut short by alcohol abuse filled with interminable bouts of depression.

I am lucky. I do not possess any genes that make drinkers belligerent, or those that won’t allow the imbiber to stop until they think they’re the life of the party, a party that is unfortunately fun to no one else but the imbiber.

I got drunk twice as a pre-college teen. Very drunk. Both times I was in my parents’ house. The first time, they were away, and my brother, a senior in high school, and a star quarterback of the football team, decided we (read he) should throw a party. All I remember from that night is his loving placement of a bucket near my bed, and at one point stumbling to the bathroom and catching a glimpse of him making out on the living room couch with my best friend Donna. Whether they went all the way would remain a mystery to me until the next morning, but as you can imagine, I couldn’t care less. My head was pounding and my soul had been crushed by the spirit world, though I couldn’t tell you what spirits I even imbibed.

Of course as luck would have it, the neighbors spilled the beans. My parents must have been possessed by the soul of a new-age Catholic priest: mercifully, they proclaimed in hushed tones that I had learned my lesson. A hangover was punishment enough.

The second time, it was my parents who decided to throw a party — a New Year’s Eve soiree — and Donna and her family were invited. Bottles of gorgeously gleaming alcohol festooned the kitchen counter, and when no one was looking, Donna and I indiscriminately poured ourselves about a half dozen stiff ones throughout the night. We mixed juniper-scented gin, peaty scotch, woodsy Tennessee whiskey, and whatever else we could lay our naive little paws on. If only my parents, or my brother, had warned me about the effects of mixing sprits. I suppose I had to learn at some point; why not in front of my parents and their bemused guests. Indeed, education does begin at home.

When college rolled around, I embraced my freedom with the fervency usually displayed by religious zealots at a revival. The first thing I thought as my parents pulled away from campus in their deep red Honda Accord was, “I can do whatever I want.” So, at every kegger I attended, I let the flagon flow judiciously into my big red cup. My goal, however, was not to get blotto; I just wanted to make some new friends. So I sipped, rather than guzzled, and never drank enough to get completely blitzed. After all, my memories of my drunken nights with Donna were not so distant. The one time I do remember stumbling like a Skid Row sot occurred at the professional theatre across the street from my dorm room. Harry Hamlin, who I secretly held a torch for after seeing him prance around practically naked in Clash of the Titans, was starring in an adaptation of Doctor Faustus. I was able to snag two tickets, so I brought a female friend with me, my freshman-year beard, if you will, and this gal from Texas, before we headed arm in arm to the show, presented me a fifth of Jim Beam and said, “Time to show me what a man you are.” I figured that being so brassy, and from Texas, she would be able to handle her liquor better than I, but as time would tell, she did not. Three shots and a First Act later, she fell face first into the aisle in front of the usher. Intermission would be more challenging than the Elizabethan dialogue. (Harry, by the way, did not disappoint.)

As my time as an undergrad came to an end, and I entered the 9-to-5 “workforce” (a most soul-sucking force if ever there was one), I refined my taste for Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, then discovered rye while doing a grad-school stint in Pittsburgh. Cocktails, like Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds, gleefully washed over my taste buds and sparked a life-long devotion. Aged charred-oak flavor could have become my downfall, but I learned how to pace myself, like a runner in a long-distance race. Water rehydrates, and as I sipped my drink, I always had a glass of iced tap at the ready to prevent a nasty hangover. My goal as a drinker was to relax and be merry, not get wasted, and I would sometimes pity my friends who did not understand, or could not because of a genetic disposition, that drinking should not be a contest, but an ultimately peace-producing pursuit.

So now I ask the question, “How young is too young for kids to learn about alcohol?” One thing is for certain: Kids need first to understand the deleterious effects of drinking or else they will be doomed. And clearly no one wants a doomed child.

Both my parents were in their early twenties when I was born. As you can imagine, they were still in “party” mode, probably because there seemed to be multitudes of other young couples on the block who also shared a penchant for punch- and cocktail-filled nights, and silly parlor games that relied on the effects of inebriation. Thus, looking back, alcohol was always present in the house. When we were younger than high-school age, my brother and I just knew not to drink it,or we’d give ourselves away by becoming silly and smelling boozy. Although I have to admit, I loved the smell of alcohol, particularly cocktails. Some of my first olfactory memories are of whiskey sours being made in the rec room, as my parents mixed these delightfully citrus-redolent concoctions atop the hi-lo shag-carpeted bar they had fashioned. Overstock pantry items were stored behind the bar, and I always volunteered retrieving one of them for my mother, for behind the shaggy bar lived an array of little nips, these one-and-a-half-ounce colorful, sometimes oddly-shaped bottles of spirits and liqueurs. I would stare at them and admire the way the light shone through them, particular the brightly hued ones. My favorite was Galliano. It tapered to an almost point, like a tower, and glowed neon yellow, like one of my fluorescent crayons. These bottles became soldiers, waging wars on a battlefield of vinyl countertop, bordered by thick tan naugahyde edging. If the troops needed refreshments, a two-foot-tall pump bottle of Smirnoff that stood regally next to the fridge provided that extra jolt of bravado my little soldiers needed to blaze on. I wouldn’t fully depress the pump for fear my parents would discover some missing hooch, but I do remember at one point placing my little hand gently on the pump, pressing ever so slightly, with my other hand ready to collect any liquid that might dribble out. When a few drops landed on my palm, I sniffed it and immediately thought it was rubbing alcohol. Unconvinced that it was, I tasted it. The burn was so intense I vowed I would never press that pump again.

I never had to demystify the adult world of alcohol, and I think this has a lot to do with my respect for it. Although they were strict, and I was taught not to hang with the “bad” crowd, my parents never shielded me from it. I was even allowed to take a sip of beer every now and then (not to mention my grandmother feeding me a mixture of Southern Comfort, honey, and hot water when I was sick and left in her charge—I loathed the burn but loved the flavor). As I transitioned from tweenhood to adolescence, they always said, “If you are going to drink, we would rather have you drink at home.” I always felt that behind the invitation was a veiled threat. What I understood them to really be saying was “We don’t want you to drink.” And besides, who really wants to have a drink with one’s parents? Nevertheless, when I did take them up on their request that fateful New Year’s Eve, and tested the boundaries by drinking at home, they did not judge me, and for this I was grateful.

The French have been known to serve their children a little wine with dinner, usually starting at age twelve. Some people say that introducing children to alcohol before they are emotionally and physically mature enough to handle it might be good. But recent studies in France have shown that there is a rise in teen alcohol dependency. I suppose that when something is so engrained in one’s culture, most parents just pour wine for the kids without discussing the ramifications of tippling. (Or if they do, it may be the grandparents who undermine the parents’ warnings and are much more lax in their approach.) Remember, education begins at home, so I would proffer that when parents school their kids in the art of the tipple, they need to do much, much more than just decant and serve. Some tough love seems completely appropriate. Kids soak up all they see and hear like thirsty sponges. We must keep the dialogue open, but be strict and enforce boundaries.

When we throw a party and friends bring their kids along, we make sure we have mocktails waiting for them. After all, they are our guests. Just because they cannot yet imbibe alcohol, why shouldn’t they have a special drink, made exclusively for them. Also, we don’t want them to get too curious about what Mommy and Daddy are drinking. So, some ginger ale and mango juice, with a maraschino cherry and an orange slice, on the rocks, usually does the trick. To make it even more special, we add a fun swizzle stick. (We keep a double-shot glass filled with them just for this occasion.) Telling them it’s special has the magical properties of making it special. Figurative becomes literal in the minds of children.

Our friends Monica and Matt are the parents of two bright and creative children, Frances and Cole. When they visit, or thank us for a little gift, they draw lovely pictures of whatever’s on their minds. Frances has cottoned to the fact that Steve, my partner, and and I are in the cocktail biz. Over the years she has drawn us some hilarious pictures of cartoon characters extolling the virtues of cocktails, including Santa Claus and a buzzing bee (which is our logo/avatar). They are very telling and show a preternatural understanding of the drinking life. See for yourself and let me know what you think.

“This Is My BFF!” by Frances

“Yumm!” by Frances

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cocktail Buzz Favorite Things of 2013

Look for our Cheddar and Caramelized–Stuffed Mushrooms recipe below.

Since everyone had decided to become a foodie in 2012, we made a conscious decision at the beginning of 2013 to savor rather than blog, tweet, facebook, and instagram every waking moment of our bibulous and culinary exploits. After six years, we needed to find out if we truly enjoyed the Cocktail Buzz experience, or if we were just going through the motions. As a result of this decision, we blogged, tweeted, facebooked, and instagrammed with less frequency, but that forced us to pick and choose those occasions where our lips and gullets were most pleasantly pleased or delectably delighted.

But we still continued to question ourselves. What were our motives for making kimchee from scratch or infusing white whiskey with gentian-laced crème de violette to make a florally bitter tincture? We looked for insight from everyone, and from every shared happy hour and meal together.

The epiphany happened just a week or so ago when our friend Evangeline asked Paul point blank, “What job would you do if you could do any job in the world?” “Recipe development” was the quick response. Steve agreed. For us, there is nothing more satisfying than to be surrounded by an arsenal of utensils and gadgets, all eagerly waiting their chance to have a go at bottles and boxes of promise. And, in the battlefield that is our wee kitchen, we thank the gods that, even though the two of us barely fit only with the proper geometric skirmish, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that our appliances comprise a perfect triangulated pathway connecting our sink, range, and fridge.

Regardless of the size of your workspace, you must instill a sense of play and adventure. When you give yourself license to play freely, nothing is so precious as to become weighed down by vainglory. You tend to shrug at the losses and smile when there are victories; you learn, and that is what life is all about. You rediscover your love for shaking and stirring, simmering and sautéing.

Culling from every lip-smacking experience we shared this year was not as difficult as we had thought. We agreed that spirits, liqueurs, books, movies, and recipes we returned to more than once — those things that contained multitudes of layers — would make the cut. In no particular order, here are some of our favorite things of 2013.

1. Favorite Books

The Drunken Botanist
Critics, bartenders, and foodies praised The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, and you should too. Written in a fun and easy, approachable manner, this book celebrates and limns in great detail “The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drink,” the book’s subtitle. Filled with recipes, lore, science, and anecdotes, The Drunken Botanist will satisfy the science-loving child in those who paid attention in school, to those who want to know why allspice seeds won’t germinate from simply planting them (they “must pass through the body of a fruit-eating bat, a baldpate pigeon, or some other local bird”). It will inspire the home mixologist to start infusing spirits and sourcing unusual products, such as sorghum syrup, used in the following recipe, named after a popular sweet sorghum cultivar, which the author describes as “dessert in a glass.”

Honey Drip
(from The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart)

1/2 ounce sorghum syrup
1 1/2 ounces bourbon (or if you don’t like bourbon, try it with dark rum)
1/2 ounce amaretto

Because sorghum syrup can be too thick to easily pour or measure, try spooning it into a measuring cup and heating it in the microwave for 10 seconds with a very small amount of water, just enough to make it easy to poor. (Alternatively, drop a dollop of the syrup in the cocktail shaker and hope for the best.) Shake all the ingredients over ice and serve in a cocktail glass.

Old Mr. Boston Official Bartenders’s Guide ©1935
Paul’s Mom has a friend named Janet who happened to come across an almost 80-year-old copy of a familiar friend to many home bartenders, the Mr. Boston Guide. We were thrilled when she deemed it necessary that we have it. This is our third copy (the others are from 1988 and 1968 — the 1968 copy coming from Marie, another of Mom’s friends!!), and we just love it. Filled with period ads for Mr. Boston products, it’s set up in the format of another famous bar guide, The Savoy Cocktail Book. The measurements are mostly in proportions, instead of precise ounce measurements (cocktails were smaller back then as any Nick and Nora movie can attest to), such as 1/2 Italian Vermouth and 1/2 Old Mr. Boston Dry Gin, which is the recipe for a Gypsy Cocktail. Just substitute your favorite London dry gin.

Gypsy Cocktail
(from Old Mr. Boston Official Bartenders Guide)

1/2 Italian [sweet] Vermouth
1/2 Old Mr. Boston Dry Gin

Stir well with ice and strain into 3 oz. Cocktail glass. Serve with a Cherry.

The Way We Ate
Subtitled “100 Chefs Celebrate a Century at the American Table,” this lovingly curated cookbook from photographers Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz pairs chef’s recipes with years from the twentieth century. We represent 1969 and developed a cocktail with two side dishes using the Stonewall Riots as a jumping off point. Try our ’69 Cocktail paired with lamb chops with mint gremolata and some cheddar and caramelized–stuffed mushrooms. We served the cocktails and the mushrooms to our families on Christmas Eve. They were gone in three minutes. [Buy the book]

Cheddar and Caramelized Onion–Stuffed Mushrooms
(created by Cocktail Buzz for The Way We Ate by Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz)

The savoriness of these ingredients combined creates an explosion of umami on first bite. Pairing it with a 69 Cocktail coaxes out even more flavors.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, sliced
1 pound button mushrooms (smaller ones are better)
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons brandy or cognac
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4-inch-thick 1-inch squares
1/4 ounce Parmesan cheese
Finishing salt, such as Maldon

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cover a baking pan with parchment paper, then place a wire cooking rack atop the paper.

Heat the 2 tablespoons oil and 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the onion and slowly cook until caramelized, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Reduce the heat if the onion starts to brown too quickly.

Meanwhile, remove and discard stems from the mushrooms. Wash the mushroom caps and set aside.

When the onion has caramelized, add the Worcestershire and brandy. Simmer for a minute, making sure to deglaze the pan. Transfer the onion to a plate or bowl, and set aside. Add the mushroom caps to the skillet, top with a lid, and heat on low for 2 to 3 minutes, flipping once, until the mushrooms soften slightly. Drain any excess water from the mushrooms, and place top down on the rack. Gently press 1 square of Cheddar into each cap. (You may have to cut the cheese into smaller pieces depending on size of the caps.) Top the cheddar with a generous dollop of the onion mixture, then a little piece or two of Parmesan. Transfer to the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and transfer the mushrooms to a plate. Sprinkle with finishing salt. Serve immediately.

[Makes about 2 dozen, depending on the size of the mushrooms.]
photo © Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz

2. Cloud Atlas

Okay, officially the movie Cloud Atlas came out in 2012, but we didn’t watch it until 2013, and boy, what a movie. Spanning six different time periods ranging from the nineteenth to the twenty-fourth centuries, describes this tour de force as “[a]n exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” The six interconnected story lines suggest we are all connected, just by being. At times funny, poignant, and harrowing, this mind-fuck of a flic will keep you glued to your seat for its entire 2 hours and 51 minutes. Do watch the credits; you will see how all of the main actors played multiple roles, one in each time period, with the help of makeup, prosthetics, and of course, great acting. We loved it so much, we had to watch it twice. (We even bought the book by David Mitchell.)

3. Organic and Non-GMO Food

The following edict may seem mean, but it comes from a place of tough love: Stop eating processed food! Well, it’s nearly impossible to stop eating it altogether, but maybe start by not shoveling it down your throats all day. That’s what we have been saying for years, and it’s finally taken the courage of well-intentioned whistle-blowers to get the word out. GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, meaning scientists have fucked with the DNA in certain plants so that foodstuffs travel better, have a longer shelf life, and someone gets richer along the way.

Food that is organic is not, by law, genetically modified. The corn, soybeans, and sugar beets that are in everything are genetically modified (thanks Monsanto), and many current scientific studies think that the allergies that are pervading our lives are caused by such GMO food. Want to feel better, don’t eat the crap. Want to live longer, don’t eat the crap. Basically pay attention to what you choose to eat and make informed decisions.

Now that we got that off our chests, we will continue with our regularly scheduled program.

4. The Manhattan Cocktail and All Its Variations

Looking back on 2013, we realized that the cocktail we drank the most was indeed our fave, the Manhattan. Although the basic formula of 2:1 whiskey to sweet vermouth, with a dash of bitters, is our go-to recipe, we have made countless variations, using obscure and well-known liquors, quinquinas, tinctures, vermouths, cordials, and bitters. Besides our love for the burnished, caramelized, woody flavors inherent in American whiskeys such as rye and bourbon, perhaps it is the Manhattan’s simple elegance that beguiles us time and time again. Here’ are two variations you may enjoy.

The Boulevardier
(adapted by Toby Cecchini, the guy who made the Cosmopolitan famous)

2 ounces rye or bourbon
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
lemon twist

Stir in ice for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. Add lemon twist.

(adapted by Cocktail Buzz)

1 ounce rye
1 ounce cognac or brandy
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir in ice for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe.

5. Christmas in New York

We finally broke down and stayed in New York City this Christmas, uniting our families for an extravaganza of food, flavor, and fun. Neither of us had ever spent the Holidays in NYC, or Brooklyn to be exact, so we decided that if not now, then when? Our goal: to feed and inebriate up to twenty people on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day without stressing too much about it. How did we manage that, you ask? Two things are required: prepare most of it ahead of time, and don’t fret if you forget the cherries and onions for the cocktails.

Our main course on Christmas Eve proved to be simple and sumptuous: Martha Stewart’s recipe for Beef Tenderloin with Shallot Mustard Sauce; our Christmas day main was less formal but equally as tender and savory: Hawaiian Pulled Pork. The pulled pork was a blessing: we made it two days before and just heated it up, served with mini soft dinner rolls. Here’s the recipe.

Hawaiian Pulled Pork
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

6-pound pork shoulder (or just the Boston butt) (plus or minus a pound is fine)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoon olive oil

Dry rub:
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon li hing mui powder, also called just li hing powder (don’t know of any substitutes, so if you do not have, just eliminate)
1 tablespoon ‘alaea salt (you can substitute any sea salt)
1/2 tablespoon gochugaru powder (you can substitute any hot chile pepper powder)

Wet mix:
20-ounce can pineapple chunks in juice (not syrup)
1 mango, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2–1 tablespoon ume plum vinegar (you can substitute apple cider vinegar, or any other, since the amount is so small)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 nob fresh galangal, minced (with juice) (you can find at Kalustyan’s in NYC or substitute fresh ginger)
juice of 1 lime

Preheat oven to 350ºF, adjusted for middle rack. Trim skin and excess fat off pork shoulder, but not all the fat. Rub with dry rub, working into flaps, folds, and crevices. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a dutch oven. Sear meat, approximately 2–3 minutes each side. Brown sugar will begin to bubble and blacken on bottom, so keep a watchful eye. Add onions. Cook for a minute. Add wet mix, making sure some is on top of shoulder. Lay aluminum foil over the pot so it drapes a little over the edges, for a better seal. Cover with lid, tightly. Cook for 3 1/2 hours, flipping shoulder every hour. When done, remove from oven, remove lid, and shred with 2 forks. (Careful, it’s very hot.) Remove bone and anything gristly. Serve with dinner rolls.

❤ ❤ ❤

Remember to enjoy the experience. Sometimes tweeting that cocktail pic is part of the experience, just don’t make it the experience. Share the moment, followed perhaps by a smile.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

LEAF and Chopin Vodkas Express Themselves This Holiday Season

LEAF Vodka greets us with a stunning view of Lower Manhattan.

LEAF Vodka

Sometimes putting aside ones prejudices and saying yes to something that normally we would not give a second thought to can be a good thing. Take for instance a few weeks ago. We were invited to a vodka tasting at a location that promised a nonpareil view of the city. Being suckers for a grand view, and some sips of free booze, we decided to accept LEAF Vodka’s invitation to attend its NYC launch in the sky. We are happy to report that both the view and the vodka were breathtaking.

Since vodka is made up of mostly water, the folks at LEAF Vodka decided to focus on that one ingredient in its two expressions, and this proves to offer rewards most satisfying. LEAF’s solution is to the point: Make vodka using better water, but at an affordable price. So while the bottle will only set you back a little more that $15, you can relax and focus more on the content. Clean, pristine water can be found throughout the globe, and LEAF decided to focus its quest in the United States.

LEAF Vodka’s two expressions: green for Alaskan Glacial Water Vodka and Blue for Rocky Mountain Mineral Water Vodka.

First try the Rocky Mountain Mineral Water Vodka. This will taste most traditional to vodka aficionados; it is smooth and has a hint of natural mineral sweetness that occurs from aeons-old water trickling through layers and layers of stone. It is a true delight and will mix up well in a variety of traditional vodka cocktails. Try the Rocky Cucumber [SEE RECIPE BELOW], which is a riff on a classic Gimlet.

The other expression is distilled from the water of four glaciers that wends its way down Alaskan mountains into Blue Lake. We were floored by how different this expression tasted compared to the Rocky Mountain version. A little smoother and a little sweeter, you begin to wonder whether or not some sugar was added to the distillate, sort of the way some sugar is added to Champagne to alter its sweetness. But rest assured, there is no additive. It is pure and simple and exquisite. Try it in a Pink Glacier [SEE RECIPE BELOW], a variation of the classic Cosmopolitan. You’ll swear there’s no alcohol in the drink at all (until of course you start to feel a little giddy).

Pink Glacier
(created by LEAF Vodka)

2 ounces LEAF Vodka made from Alaskan Glacial Water
1 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce pink grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce cranberry juice
1 lime wedge

In a cocktail shaker, combine grapefruit juice, lime juice, simple syrup, vodka, and ice. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Add cranberry juice for color. Garnish with a lime.

Rocky Cucumber
(created by LEAF Vodka)

2 ounces LEAF Vodka made from Rocky Mountain Mineral Water
1 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
4 cucumber slices
3 dashes hot pepper sauce
club soda

In a cocktail shaker, muddle 3 cucumber slices, hot pepper sauce, lime juice, simple syrup, and vodka. Shake and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top off with soda. Garnish with a cucumber slice and an extra dash of hot pepper sauce.

❤ ❤ ❤

Chopin Vodka

Wheat, Potato and Rye
Chopin Vodkas
They used to say in an old commercial, “When it rains, it pours.” Well, it’s been pouring vodka recently at Cocktail Buzz. We were very curious about all the different expressions of Chopin, the famous Polish vodka named after one of the greatest composers of piano music, so we sampled all three of its expressions, each distilled from a different plant: potato, rye, and wheat.

If you ask, most people will tell you that vodka is distilled from potatoes. But really, vodka can be distilled from any plant, and the distinguishing characteristics of each distillation will taste different from one to the next.

Trying the potato vodka reminded us of being reunited with an old friend. Its taste is traditional, smooth and creamy, with a slight sweetness that plays pleasantly with your taste buds. Chopin (the distiller, not the composer) suggests you pair it with a dirty martini when eating a classic steak. Try the Chopin Extra Olives “CEO” Martini [SEE RECIPE BELOW]. You’ll notice that not a trace of dry vermouth is present. Why? Well, we’re certain the people at Chopin know full well that dry vermouth and vodka do not make a good match, and, after all, they want you to enjoy the vodka, not a vodka that tastes of dry vermouth. We couldn’t agree more.

Next up was the rye vodka. After sipping it, we immediately looked at each other in disbelief. How could this vodka taste so different from the potato one? Its flavor spicier and less sweet and smooth. Intrigued, we looked to see what Chopin suggested making with it. The Chopin Splash [SEE RECIPE BELOW] is simple enough to make year-round, and Chopin suggests pairing rye vodka cocktails with a red-sauce pasta dish. Give it a whirl and see what you think.

Following that, we tried the wheat vodka, which turned out to be the most different vodka we had ever tasted. Its taste and consistency were like water-thinned honey, so we decided that this would be the perfect vodka for those who are uninitiated in the world of mixology and spirits, and would like to dabble without the fear of alcohol-burn. Chopin suggests pairing this expression of vodka with roasted chicken. Try it with the Chopin Bohemian Luxury [SEE RECIPE BELOW].

Of course, no holiday season is complete without a spirited cocktail, so the fine folks at Chopin have created a Christmas Cosmopolitan using the potato vodka, a cocktail that is sure to make you happy, before, during, or after a few hour of caroling, or perhaps shopping for the perfect cocktail shaker set for your office Secret Santa. And despite its moniker, we’re certain you can imbibe a few during Thanksgivukkah this Thursday. L’chaim.

Christmas Cosmopolitan
(created by Chopin Vodka)

1 1/2 ounces Chopin Potato Vodka
3/4 ounce mulled cranberry juice *
1/2 ounce lemon juice
dash of Grand Marnier
a 3-clove–studded orange twist

Shake all ingredients with cubed ice

* Heat cranberry juice with 2 crushed cloves; add nutmeg, cinnamon, and almonds to taste. Allow to cool and infuse. Sieve the juice and use accordingly.

Chopin Bohemian Luxury
(created by Chopin Vodka)

1 1/2 ounces Chopin Wheat Vodka
1 ounce pineapple juice
1/2 Chambord (raspberry liqueur)
5 large ice cubes
1 ounce Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial Rosé
orchid, as garnish

Shake first three ingredients in ice. Strain into a chilled Champagne flute. Top with Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial Rosé. Garnish with orchid.

Chopin Splash
(created by Chopin Vodka)

2 ounces Chopin Rye Vodka
1/2 ounce Aperol
1 ounce fresh pink grapefruit juice
3 ounces club soda

Build in a tall glass with ice. Garnish with 1/4 slice pink grapefruit.

Chopin Extra Olives “CEO” Martini
(created by Chopin Vodka)

2 1/2 ounces Chopin Potato Vodka
3 extra large or blue cheese-stuffed olives

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Add garnish

Optional: Add olive brine to taste to make a Dirty CEO [even though the world is filled with enough of them].

top photo © Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Imbibe a ’69 Cocktail with Pride

Our cocktail and party food pairings are featured in The Way We Ate: 100 Chefs Celebrate at the American Table

Our ’69 Cocktail paired with Lamb Chops with Mint Gremolata and Cheddar and Caramelized Onion–Stuffed Mushrooms. Photo by Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz, from The Way We Ate.

Both of us were alive in 1969, albeit as toddlers. There was so much happening in the news that year—the moon landing, Woodstock, the Stonewall Riots—a lot for a young mind to even begin to comprehend. But these events greatly affected those around us and the vibes they gave off shaped the way we perceived the world, the way we matured, and even the way we ate.

As we grew up gay, we poured over books that would lend credence to our existence and provide a historical context for how we came to be. We learned about the Stonewall Riots, the angry drag queens who had enough from the police and decided to stand up for themselves and be heard. The closet door flung wide open.

So when photographers Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz, inspired by Gourmet magazine’s prolific output during the last century, asked us to come up with a chapter for their book The Way We Ate, we immediately thought 1969. In coming up with a cocktail and hors d’oeuvre pairing to commemorate the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969, we decided to look to history not only for inspiration, but for the ingredients we would use. Since the Riots erupted in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, we base the ’69 Cocktail on the seminal Manhattan Cocktail, but also the International Bartenders’ Association 1969 winning drink, which used Canadian whisky as its main spirit. Since we’re rye’s best friend, we use it in the ’69 instead of Canadian whisky. (Canadian whisky was commonly referred to as rye, and you can still hear some old-time bartenders call it such.) We then mellow it with some brandy, make it food-friendly with the addition of sweet vermouth, add a little grenadine for sweetness, and for that magic touch, Galliano, a liqueur that inexplicably transformed into a vanilla-spice syrup in the late 80s, but has returned to its original complex recipe, the one that would have been used in 1969. Once the contents of the shaker are poured into a chilled coupe, we express a little orange oil over the ’69, thus adding an aromatic layer that brings all the elements of the drink together and allows for easier pairing with food. The ’69 Cocktail will appeal to those who like their drinks a little sweet, and those who like their drinks on the drier side. It’s a happy medium.

The ’69 Cocktail is not so much a celebration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, but a meditation. One that you can sip while reflecting upon history and how we have come to be who we are today.

But as gay men, we can’t just leave it at that. We had to add a garnish that would make this drink more playful. Riffing on the iconic rainbow flag, we chose a fruit to represent each color—blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, orange peel, lime peel, and lemon peel—and fashioned it into a fabulous panoply of smell, hue, and texture. Drop it in your drink and sip with pride. The berries will soak up the booze, which makes for a happy ending to your cocktail.

Preparing a round of ’69 Cocktails. Let your rainbow imagination run wild.
Do embellish with garnish.

As far as pairing the ’69 Cocktail, we have come up with a few hors d’oeuvres that are easy to make and can be eaten before or as dinner. We’ll publish those recipes at a later date, but do buy the book. There are 100+ recipes to make so you might as well start now with the ’69 Cocktail.

’69 Cocktail (or leave out the apostrophe if you’re so inclined)
(created by Steve Schul and Paul Zablocki, Cocktail Buzz, for The Way We Ate)

Makes 1 drink, but feel free to split it with a lover, friend, or trick.

1 1/2 ounces rye
3/4 ounce brandy or cognac
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce Galliano l’Autentico
1/4 ounce quality grenadine*
orange peel, to express
blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, orange peel, lime peel, and lemon peel, or other very colorful garnish, such as Gummi bears (skewer them on a garnish pick in a rainbow pattern, as if they were part of an ursine chorus line).

Shake first five ingredients in ice for 20 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass or coupe. Pinch orange peel (peel side out) over drink, allowing the oils to express into it, rub around rim, and discard. Garnish with berries and citrus peel, in an artistic fashion, skewered through a pick.

Note: For a fruitier cocktail, you can add a berry or two of your choice, before shaking. If you do, make sure to double-strain so as not to get any seeds in the drink.

If you don’t want to buy premade grenadine, homemade grenadine is easy to make. For a smaller batch, halve the amounts.

2 cups 100% pomegranate juice*
2 cups sugar
1 ounce vodka

Bring pomegranate juice to a boil over medium–high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer and add sugar. Stir gently until sugar is dissolved. Keep heat low and simmer for up to 15 minutes, until mixture is slightly reduced. Allow to cool. Add vodka and stir. May be kept for several months in the refrigerator in a clean 750ml bottle (or 325ml bottle for half recipes).

* You can also make your own pomegranate juice. Cut up two large and heavy pomegranates (if you’re very adventurous, you can try to peel off the outer red rind), place pieces one at a time in a citrus squeezer, and squeeze the juice out of the arils into a deep bowl. (This is very messy, so make sure to wear an apron and have a damp cloth ready to wipe up any stray squirts.) Add a splash of water.

We’ll publish the recipes for the pairings soon. But for now, enjoy the ’69.

Other photos © Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Tale of Four Manhattans: A Manhattan Cocktail Taste Test

with Templeton Rye and Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon as the
main spirits
and Carpano Antica Formula and Punt e Mes as the
sweet vermouths

The Manhattan Cocktail in all its glory. To achieve perfection, read on.

The lovely Laura Baddish, from the Baddish Group PR firm, sent us a most tantalizing package of spirits that contained the makings of four different Manhattans. Among the tightly rumpled packing paper and swaddling bubble wrap lay two American whiskeys: Templeton Rye, Four Roses Single Batch Bourbon; and 2 sweet vermouths, Carpano Antica Formula and Punt e Mes. We have always been a fan of all four of these beguiling bottles of booze, but actually taking the time to make four different Manhattans with them and compare notes is something you have to set out to do before the first sips cloud your mental faculties.

We are happy to report that all four versions of the Manhattans we made left us breathless with delight. The luscious bittersweetness of the Carpano Antica Formula made for some damn smooth cocktails, while the zestier Punt e Mes brought out the oaky–spiciness of each of the whiskeys. Adjusting the ratio of whiskey to vermouth was the only detail we had to consider before we started to stir. The Templeton is 80 proof while the Four Roses Single Barrel is a whopping 100 proof. Just remember this: The higher the whiskey’s proof, the more vermouth and stirring you’ll want to apply to your cocktail crafting, in order to tame the bite. For us, we use a 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, with a dash of Angostura bitters; for the lower-proof whiskeys, such as Templeton rye, we will mix only 3/4 ounce of the vermouth to 2 ounces of whiskey (you dont want to overwhelm the whiskey with the sweetness of the vermouth, unless of course you desire a Sweet Manhattan. Then by all means add more vermouth. 

All in all, depending on your mood and what flavors you want to draw out from the apps you pair with them, you’re going to end up with one swell drink. Try each with your favorite brand of spicy potato chips, or some similar snack, and you’ll taste the difference. For example, you will taste more of the spice from Utz Maui Chips if using Punt e Mes, and more of the sweetness if using Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. They’re both worth it. Try one tonight, and another tomorrow night.

Well, we’ve already made our Manhattans. So, we raise a toast to you for your discernment, and of course to Ms. Baddish, for the hooch, and the idea for this Manhattan Project.

Bottoms up!

This Single Barrel bourbon is simply aces. That first whiff when you open the bottle beckons you like a siren. Do you resist the call, or take the plunge? We thought so. Here’s the recipe.

Whether you choose Templeton rye or Four Roses Single Barrel is up to how inebriated you want to get. Choose wisely, and you will be rewarded richly.

Four Roses Single Barrel Manhattan
(suggested by Cocktail Buzz)

2 ounces Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon
1 ounce Carpano Antica (smooth) or Punt e Mes (spicy) vermouth
1–2 dashes Angostura bitters
brandied or maraschino cherry, as garnish

Stir in ice for 30 seconds. Do not rush this process. You want a decent amount of dilution. Strain into chilled cocktail glass, or coupe. Add cherry.

❤ ❤ ❤

We’ve sung Templeton Rye’s praises before, and we continue to do so today. Smooth, yet utterly distinct, it is in a class by itself. A must.

Templeton Rye Manhattan
(suggested by Cocktail Buzz)

2 ounces Templeton rye
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica (smooth) or Punt e Mes (spicy) vermouth
1–2 dashes Angostura bitters
brandied or maraschino cherry, as garnish

Stir in ice for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass, or coupe. Add cherry.

photos © Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz