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For the past couple of years now, sherry has begun making a slow but steady comeback among wine drinkers in the know — as well as it should. Its long-suffering reputation as the cheap, cloying tipple of grandmothers notwithstanding, good sherry, made in a range of styles from dry to sweet, couldn’t be more elegantly versatile, especially when paired with food.
Just ask McLain Hedges and Mary-Allison Wright. As owners of The Proper Pour and RiNo Yacht Club, a high-end liquor shop and adjacent craft bar at celebrated Denver artisan marketplace The Source, they sing the praises of the Spanish fortified wine to anyone who will listen. And they practice what they preach; in fact, their own plans for showcasing it at Thanksgiving dinner are ones you’d do well to follow step by step if you’re looking to shake up the old Champagne-and-a-bottle-of-red routine.
Fino with appetizers
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“When your family’s arriving and you’ve got your snacks set out,” dry, chilled Fino Sherry — including the Manzanilla of Sanlucár de Barrameda — is the way to go, marked as it is by “bright acidity but also briny minerality and almond notes,” Hedges said.
In his view, Fino proper is a natural with salumi, salted nuts, crudités, even pickled vegetables, while Manzanilla “has a little more relationship with the sea” — think shrimp cocktail, oysters, smoked salmon and the like.
Two pet picks: Bodegas Grant Fino La Garrocha from the “really cool microclimate” of Spain’s El Puerto de Santa Maria Fino and La Cigarrera Manzanilla, which is “a little smokier, with a brinier effect, made so close to the ocean. And it’s fantastically approachable — about 16 bucks on the shelf.”
Amontillado and Oloroso with the main meal
“Look at Amontillado as the next step. You’re going from the flor stage, which protects oxidization, to the point where that starts to die. So you still get amazing notes of salted almond, but you’re also starting to see walnuts and hazelnuts — richer, earthier development,” Hedges explained. “It’s perfect with chestnuts, perfect with game birds — anything that flies, really: quail, duck, turkey. And mushroom soup is a super-classic pairing.”
He calls El Maestro Sierra’s 12-year bottling “phenomenal — it’s got depth, complexity and richness, but it’s also really elegant.”
Whereas Amontillado complements “anything that flies,” Oloroso is your best bet for “anything that’s walking on land.” Fully oxidized, “it’s gorgeous and luscious and almost comes off as sweet, but it’s bone dry, with enough acidity to cut through the fat of the meat and those rich sauces,” Hedges noted.
So if you’re eschewing the turkey in favor of “pork loin or rib roast or lamb or whatever it may be,” consider something like Hedges’ pet pick, Gutiérrez Colosia Sangre y Trabijadero.
Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel with sweets
“Moving into dessert, your choices are pretty obvious,” Hedges said. “First, you’ve got your PX (Pedro Ximénez). Sticky-sweet, with notes of dates and figs, it is dessert in a glass — though you could have sticky toffee pudding.” But for his money, Moscatel is a fascinating alternative. “The grapes are sun-dried for a few weeks, so it’s condensed and extracted, yet still vibrant, with honeyed and floral notes, as well as plums, pepper and a bit of citrus.”
He recommends serving it alongside poached fruit with a soft and creamy or blue cheese, again naming La Cigarrera as a producer of note.
To throw you one final curveball: How about kicking off your holiday celebration with a sherry cocktail or two? Both Hedges and Alexandra Flower — a bartender at Acorn, a nationally acclaimed contemporary restaurant in The Source — have whipped up just the things.
Acorn’s Smoked Sherry
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
3/4 ounce Laphroaig 10-year Scotch
1 ounce Lustau Pedro Ximénez San Emilio Solera Reserva
3/4 ounce grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 disk cut from the peel of a grapefruit for garnish
1. Place all ingredients but the grapefruit peel in a cocktail shaker and shake hard and long. Strain into a coupe glass. Hold the grapefruit disk skin side down over the glass and squeeze it to express the oils.
RiNo Yacht Club’s Fino & Dandy
Prep time: 4 minutes
Total time: 4 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
1 ounce Barsol Pisco
1/2 ounce Calvados
1/2 ounce Fino sherry
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
2 tablespoons spiced pear butter (available at gourmet shops, or make your own)
1 lemon wheel for garnish
1. Add all ingredients but the lemon wheel to a shaker tin; add ice. Shake and strain into an ice-filled double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with the lemon wheel.
Main photo: Sherry will complement every course at your Thanksgiving meal. Credit: Courtesy of RiNo Yacht Club/The Proper Pour
Jennifer Jasinski is a James Beard Award-winning chef with four acclaimed Denver restaurants, a cookbook and an impressive stint on “Top Chef Masters” to her name. Now she’s about to tackle a whole new challenge: cooking Thanksgiving dinner for American expats in Paris.
Jasinski knows a thing or two about the cravings that come with homesickness. The Santa Barbara, Calif., native admits to missing Mexican food mightily while training in France as a young Wolfgang Puck protégée. So the opportunity to treat the guests at Auberge Flora to a good, old-fashioned turkey feast isn’t one she’s taking lightly.
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Granted, “old-fashioned” doesn’t, in this case, mean the same thing as “down home.” Take this wonderfully rich and elegant chestnut soup, which I first sampled a few years ago at one of Jasinski’s Denver restaurants, Rioja, where it came in a tiny pumpkin “lidded” with a foie gras-topped slice of brioche. Though you can serve it in plain old bowls, squash vessels do make for an impressive flourish. In fact, having just reprised the appetizer at a charity event in New York City, Jasinski acknowledges, “I’d forgotten what a really cool dish it is, but people were freaking out about it!”
Though you’ll find the recipe in her cookbook, “The Perfect Bite,” she graciously allowed us to reprint it here as well. And she adds that gourds serve as equally lovely containers for soufflés, wild-rice salads and the like.
Savory Chestnut Soup
Prep Time: 10 to 25 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours
Total Time: 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 hours, including time for the optional step of making the bowls.
Yield: 8 servings
For the soup:
1/4 cup duck fat (preferred) or pure olive oil
1 1/4 cups sliced onion
1/4 cup garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 cups domestic mushrooms, sliced
10 sage leaves, destemmed
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
12 to 14 ounces whole, fresh, peeled chestnuts
1 1/4 cups white wine
6 cups chicken stock
1-inch cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon finely ground cardamom
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
For the assembly (optional):
8 mini pumpkins, 8 small butternut squash or 1 large pumpkin
Duck fat (preferred) or extra virgin olive oil, as needed
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
For the soup:
1. In a large stockpot over medium heat, melt the duck fat, then add the onions and garlic and sauté until translucent — do not let them color. Add the mushrooms, sage, peppercorns and bay leaf. Sauté a few minutes, until the mushrooms have softened.
2. Add the chestnuts to the pot and deglaze with the wine. Let cook until the wine has reduced completely, then add the chicken stock. Raising the heat as needed, bring the soup to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer on very low for about 45 minutes.
3. Add the cinnamon stick, cardamom and cream and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. The chestnuts should be very soft by now. Removing the cinnamon stick, take the soup off of the heat, transfer it to a blender and blend until smooth. Season with the salt, pepper and sugar, then strain the soup through a china cap. If you will not be serving it immediately, store it in the refrigerator.
For the assembly:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. If you are using mini pumpkins as serving bowls, cut off the tops, clean out the insides and then brush the hollows with the duck fat and season them with salt and pepper. Place the pumpkins on a sheet pan and roast in the oven about 20 minutes — until the flesh can be removed easily with a fork or spoon, but not so long that the skin becomes weak and fragile, as this will make it difficult to use as a serving bowl.
If you are using butternut squash as serving bowls, remove the tops so you are left only with the bulbous bases, then follow the instructions for the mini pumpkins.
If you are using a large pumpkin as a soup terrine, cut the top off and clean out the insides. Boil some water and ladle it into the pumpkin to warm the flesh, then pour it out.
3. Ladle the soup into the squash(es), or regular bowls if you prefer, and serve.
Main photo: Chestnut soup. Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Jasinski
“The worst thing to ever happen to the pork industry was the Other White Meat campaign,” Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman proclaimed at the sixth Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit, held this year in Boulder, Colo.
To that audience, he didn’t have to explain his point: Not only were the ads misleading, they heralded an industry trend toward lean, muscle-bound hogs you can likely thank (along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s old cooking-temperature guidelines) for every bland, dry piece of pork you’ve ever eaten.
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But Chefs Collaborative conference-goers who attended a breakout session titled “Eating Invasives” received a demonstration nonetheless, as Eric Skokan of Black Cat Farm-Table-Bistro and conservation biologist Joe Roman organized a comparative tasting of roasted loins from three hogs: one factory farmed, one a heritage breed called Mulefoot and one wild boar.
It may go without saying that the supermarket product paled in every sense of the word, but the starkness of its inferiority surprised even the hosts. As Roman observed later, “Since our tasting, I’ve noticed the consistency of industrial pork: lean, white, almost tasteless. There was a certain complexity of taste and color in the Mulefoot and the boar.”
Skokan agreed, viewing the meat samples along a spectrum: “At one end you have cardboard, at the other end, noticeable gaminess.”
But when it comes to both the heritage breeds and wild animals, consumer education and market availability are major sticking points. To learn more, I talked to the two gentlemen about their pet (so to speak) causes.
Once common throughout the Midwest as a prized lard pig, this black breed was “as close to extinction as you could get” less than a decade ago, Skokan said. Today, numbers are on the gradual rise through the efforts of advocates like Arie McFarlen of South Dakota’s Maveric Heritage Ranch. (Skokan calls her “one of the most important people in food you’ve never heard of in your life.”)
Chef-farmer Skokan decided to raise Mulefoots in 2007 after a lesson-filled first year on his Longmont, Colo., property. “I’d grown this huge number of turnips that were inedible — no amount of kitchen creativity could save them. I realized I could use pigs as a way of turning lemons into lemonade; they would eat up the failed experiments. But if I was going to do it, they had to be great,” he said.
That was when he learned about Mulefoots. “I literally Googled ‘what’s the best-tasting breed of pork?’ And the oracle told me that The Livestock Conservancy had done a tasting with a panel of judges, and Mulefoot won.”
Skokan wasn’t concerned only with its culinary advantages. Given Colorado’s high-desert climate, the pigs had to be able to tolerate intense sun as well as cold winters, and because he’s a father to young children, they had to have “a great disposition. Mulefoots are cuddly if anything.”
Still, as the owner of two restaurants — Black Cat and adjacent gastropub Bramble & Hare — he’s above all a fan of its “superb flavor. I like to joke that even terrible cooks can cook it well; it’s very forgiving.
“We haven’t bought pork in five or six years,” he added. “We use Mulefoots for everything but the squeak.” In his just-released cookbook, “Farm, Fork, Food” (Kyle Books, $29.95), you’ll find gorgeous examples from country pâté with turnip mostarda to plum wood-smoked shoulder.
Their upbringing has something to do with their deliciousness, of course. “They’re free range all the time. We have really big fields, and we actually require them to move, putting where they eat, sleep, drink and graze in opposite corners.” His animals also live at least twice as long as their factory-raised brethren (11 to 13 months versus about six), fattening up over time as the bone structure of their breed dictates.
Scrumptious, user-friendly, consciously raised — sign me up, right? Well, not so fast. Skokan explained that although Mulefoot breeders are beginning to sell their meat commercially, “it’s still very localized and very niche.” If you’re determined to get your hands on some, look for a farm in your area; otherwise, try different types of heritage pork from online retailers.
Feral pigs and wild boars
Given their anything-goes diet, there’s no question these omnivores pack a stronger, more savory punch than their domesticated counterparts; Roman called the meat “almost nutty.” At the same time, they’re even leaner than today’s factory-bred pigs, developing muscle naturally on the prowl. Generally, the younger the carcass is, the more tender and flavorful it is, rather than downright pungent.
Although you’ll find a swell profile on Roman’s website, Eat the Invaders, here’s his nutshell version: “Wild boar and feral hogs are both the same species, Sus scrofa, but they have different histories in the United States. Wild boar were released to provide huntable game, and feral swine were either released to forage on the open range by farmers and settlers or escaped from captivity.” Because they interbreed, however, “it is not easy to tell the three groups — wild, feral, hybrid — apart, even for experts,” he said.
It’s not easy to get ahold of them, either. “At present, there are just two practical ways,” Roman said. “If you live within their range, the best is to hunt it yourself, or get it from a neighbor who does.” If you’re OK with that, you’re probably in luck, because “many states encourage the hunting of wild boar, to reduce numbers. Florida, for example, has no size or bag limits, and hogs can be hunted during almost any season.”
If your state’s laws are more restrictive, however, or if you’re not a hunter, Roman recommends ordering the meat online through Texas outfit Broken Arrow Ranch.
Cooking the beasts may be the easiest part: You do it just as you would a domestic pig, with the important caveat that safe cooking temperatures are paramount. Yes, hitting that blasted 160 F mark is probably necessary to avoid potential illness — we’ll give the USDA this one.
Main photo: Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography
As a food writer first and foremost, I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival for the booze so much as for the grub in the booze.
Pretzel stouts, macadamia nut porters, kiwi and taro-root India Pale Ales, a kumquat-honey double wit and a Märzen made with grits — for me, the Brewers Association’s flagship event, held annually in the fall in Denver, is a multicourse banquet writ liquid.
Granted, the more experimental the adjunct is, the harder the beer generally is to make and/or sell. Take Two Roads’ Urban Funk, a zingy wild ale the Connecticut brewery made with yeast that the Sacred Heart University biology department captured during Hurricane Sandy, of all things. Most of the following, then, are one-offs or highly limited releases with little to no distribution. So consider this your inspiration for adopting the slogan “Must-Have Beer, Will Travel.”
The meat and seafood counter
Champion Clam Bake Gose and Mas Cerveza: Here’s Gose in a nutshell: a sour wheat beer originating in Germany that’s brewed with a touch of salt as well as coriander. Here’s Gose in a clamshell: delicious. Down in Charlottesville, Va., Champion head brewer Hunter Smith starts with the recipe for his Face Eater Gose but eschews the pink Himalayan sea salt he usually adds to the kettle in favor of whole Rappahannock Olde Salt clams, which lend a briny grace note to the light-bodied, gently tart base. Just for kicks, there are hemp seeds in the mash too.
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Smith has also collaborated with chef Tomas Rahal of Charlottesville’s Mas Tapas to make a beer tinged with the flavors of Spain — specifically the bones from one of the world’s great hams, jamón ibérico, and smoked pimentón (paprika) as well as smoked gray sea salt. The result: a distinctly savory and, yes, smoky but smooth ale that, at the festival’s Farm to Table Pavilion, beautifully complemented pan con tomate topped with sliced octopus, courtesy of Boulder, Colo., restaurant Basta.
Dogfish Head Choc Lobster: Its reputation for nuttiness notwithstanding, this Delaware pioneer hardly broke virgin ground when it began dropping Maine lobsters and cocoa powder into the boil for a robust porter two years ago. After all, chocolate porters and oyster stouts made with their namesake ingredients aren’t unheard of, and neither are dishes that pair shellfish with sweet elements like vanilla. That said, this summertime brewpub exclusive isn’t sweet at all. Imagine adding a splash of cocoa to some watered-down coffee and then drinking it in the proximity of sea spray. Somehow — and I’m honestly not sure how — it’s better than it sounds.
Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout: Speaking of oyster stout — this isn’t. Denver’s craft granddaddy took to brewing with roasted bull’s balls as an April Fool’s joke in 2012, and the response was such that it now produces a small batch once or twice a year. The bourbon barrel-aged version I tried at the festival had all the roasty, toasty, moderately creamy qualities you’d expect, with the bonus of a mellow yet unmistakable meaty savor.
Moody Tongue Cold-Pressed Paw Paw Belgian: What Jared Rouben, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef behind Chicago’s few-months-old “culinary brewery,” calls the “tropical fruit of the Midwest” — the indigenous, commercially scarce paw paw — rightly elicits comparisons to mango and papaya. In this ale, however, it shows as more crisp than juicy, more fragrant than downright fruity. (Better yet, Rouben’s also about to release — get this — a Shaved Black-Truffle Pilsner.)
Piney River Sweet Potato Ale: If you’ve had it up to here with pumpkin beer, this Missouri-made alternative could be your new jam. Forget candied “yam” — the palate is freshly rootsy rather than overly reliant on baking spice, while the initially creamy mouth feel finishes as crisp as the roasted skin of the real thing.
Jailbreak Made Wit Basil: Basil seemed to be the herb du jour at the festival, popping up at several booths, but this Laurel, Md., newcomer owned the stuff, loading a Belgian white with fresh, sweet, green notes without sacrificing the subtleties of wheat, citrus and coriander.
10 Barrel Cucumber Crush: Nabbing the gold medal in the Field Beer category, this Oregon- and Idaho-located brewery’s twist on a tart wheat Berliner Weisse absolutely bursts with lemon and cucumber, enhancing the effervescence characteristic of the style.
Scratch 105: The farm, the field, the forest: This Ava, Ill., outfit is leading the return to growing and foraging for ingredients, brewing one-offs that evoke their terroir as thoroughly as any wine. This year, Scratch brought only gruits — hopless, plant-based concoctions — to the table, including one that contained, yes, 105 ingredients, from several types of mushroom to wild bee balm and other flowers to various roots, yielding a gingery, savory, musky, wonderfully complex sensation.
Forbidden Root Shady Character: Like Scratch, this 3-month-old Chicago operation derives its inspiration from historical brewing practices, pledging allegiance to its botanical ingredients rather than conventional style. Take its porter, made with black walnuts and roasted chestnuts as well as licorice, star anise and black pepper — all of which express themselves in earthy, spicy harmony.
The complete dishes
Right Brain Thai Peanut: Heirloom beets, grilled asparagus, Mangalitsa pig heads. Traverse City, Mich., brewer Russell Springsteen will put just about any edible thing into his beer, but my favorite was this dead ringer for cold soba noodles. Made with peanut butter, Thai chilies, coconut oil and cilantro, it delivers a sharp kick in a velvet boot.
Short’s Bourbon Carrot Cake: I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that this Bellaire, Mich., brewery was the only one pouring three different beers made with marshmallows this year. Though its Key Lime Pie scored the gold in the experimental-beer category for its limeade-meets-lactose zest, the medal in my head went to the Bourbon Carrot Cake, with aromas of baking spice and dried fruit giving way to a mouthful of oak laced with cream — a boozy doozy.
Main photo: The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop
In the Southwest, the green chile harvest is well underway. Throughout New Mexico and my home state of Colorado, locals are ransacking the roadside stands, where roasting drums rumble incessantly, and stacking their freezers with bag upon bag of the long, blackened pods. Soon and often, they’ll be chopped and added to omelets, burgers, quesadillas, breads and countless other dishes, and even used by home brewers in beer. But above all, they’ll be reserved for batches of, well, green chile.
Though you will sometimes see the word spelled “chili,” the strong preference for the Spanish term in these parts is only natural. A majority here take “chili” to mean the spicy beef stew (with or without beans) so beloved in Texas, while green “chile” refers not only to any number of unripened strains of Capsicum annuum but also to a concoction whose versatility partly explains its significance to Southwestern cuisine.
Green chile recipes come with many variations
Other than the peppers themselves, its list of ingredients is up for fierce debate. It may be vegetarian or contain pork, though if you ask three cooks which cut is best you’ll get four answers. And while garlic, salt and pepper are virtually non-negotiable, just about every other potential component has its champions and detractors, from onions, tomatoes, tomatillos and chicken broth to herbs and spices like cilantro and cumin.
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Green chile can be thin or thick; it functions as a filling, sauce and/or stew at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if they’ve heard of it before (and many haven’t), newcomers to the Southwest are often startled by green chile’s ubiquity.
For that matter, many New Mexicans — who consider the stuff their birthright — balk at the notion that Coloradans have a century-old green-chile tradition of their own. (Case in point: the good-natured controversy that occurred between state officials after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock included green chile in his 2014 Super Bowl wager with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.) In their view, the Colorado version, based primarily on crops from Pueblo, could only be a pale imitation if not an outright theft of their richer heritage, centered on the famed Hatch pepper and extending to an appreciation for red chile — made with the dried pods — that Coloradans don’t especially share. (In New Mexico, when you order any dish “Christmas-style,” you’ll get it with both red and green chile.)
Michael Bartolo begs to differ with that assessment. According to the Colorado State University researcher, DNA testing has shown that “what’s grown in the Pueblo area is unique. It’s not really related to anything grown in New Mexico.” In fact, “its nearest relatives are from the Oaxaca region of Mexico.”
While the term “Hatch chile” is a catch-all for several varieties grown in and around the town of Hatch, N.M., “Pueblo chile” is basically synonymous with two types: the Mirasol, named for the way its root points toward the sun, and an adaptation called the Mosco, Bartolo’s own cultivar. As Bartolo explains, “Over 20 years ago, I collected some seeds from my uncle, Harry Mosco, and began making selections over about five years. I was looking to increase yield and produce a lot of big fruits with thick meat, making them more amenable to roasting.” He adds that Pueblo crops benefit from higher diurnal temperature shifts than their New Mexican counterparts, which aid in the development of sugars for fruitier flavor profiles. (And Bartolo has “new varieties in the pipeline as well,” including one called the Pueblo popper: “Imagine a large, roundish pepper that doesn’t have a huge amount of heat, to be used more for stuffing.”)
Truth be told, the likelihood that most people could taste the difference between chiles grown on either side of the state line is slim to none. So don’t worry: If roasting stands don’t exist where you live, you should still be able to find one cultivar or another that will suffice, including Anaheims (which were brought to California from New Mexico, though they tend to be milder than their Southwestern cousins).
Here is a basic recipe for green chile, one that emphasizes the flavor of the key ingredient itself. To that end, I personally prefer pork loin over fattier cuts. On this template, however, you can begin to build more complex variations as you please.
Cooking time varies, and can be up to 2.5 hours.
- 2 pounds pork loin
- 8 garlic cloves
- 2½ to 3 cups whole roasted green chiles
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons flour, divided
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place the pork loin in a good-sized pot and add water until it’s submerged by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a high simmer and cook 1 hour.
- While the pork is cooking, mince the garlic and set aside. Remove the roasted skins from the chiles. (You can wash them off, but you’ll lose essential oils in so doing, and they crumble away easily enough without rinsing.) Destem, deseed and chop the chiles crosswise; set aside.
- Once the pork is ready, set it aside to cool, reserving the cooking water. (Transfer it to a pitcher if possible.)
- In another large pot, heat the vegetable oil on a medium-low burner or flame and add the garlic. When it's golden brown, add 4 tablespoons flour and begin whisking constantly for a few minutes, until it’s a coppery color and smells nutty. It should be thickening as well; if not, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour a little at a time until it’s somewhat thick and bubbling.
- Continue to whisk vigorously as you add the reserved liquid to the pot in a thin stream. Next, add the chiles and the tomatoes. Then shred the cooled pork by hand and add it to the pot; finally, season with salt and pepper.
- Reduce the heat to low and position the lid to cover the pot loosely. Cook at least one hour, adjusting the seasoning to taste as you go.
Main photo: Green chile. Credit: Ruth Tobias
The difference between homemade and commercial tonic is startlingly obvious at a glance: The DIY variety looks almost like cola in the glass rather than club soda, and the flavor follows suit, being richer and spicier.
That was our experience with the tonic at James Lee’s craft-cocktail lounge The Bitter Bar in Boulder, Colo., anyway, and it was sufficiently eye-opening for us to get the scoop from bar manager Dustin Johnson. He explained that “the more commercial products use a quinine extract, and that’s why they can be clear. Ours is reddish-brown because we use ground cinchona bark. Some customers are surprised by the color, until they find out that it’s actually more natural for a tonic to look that way.”
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They may or may not be equally surprised that the stuff mixes just as well with brown spirits as clear ones. “We really enjoy it with rye whiskey,” Johnson said, because “the caramel and vanilla flavors of the rye lend themselves well to its own flavors. Bourbon works in a similar fashion — we used to serve a cocktail called the BLT, which stands for bourbon, lemon and tonic. The added citrus made it really crisp and refreshing.”
Johnson’s standard recipe tonic requires a 5-gallon Cornelius keg, which is easy enough to find through home-brewing supply shops. But if you’re not prepared to make that kind of investment, Johnson also has a small-batch stovetop recipe at the ready. Cinchona bark can be purchased online, for instance at Healthy Village, or you may find it at your local apothecary.
Prep Time: 1½ to 2 hours
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 8½ to 9 hours
Yield: 5 gallons
16 cups water
12 cups light agave syrup
6 ounces ground cinchona bark
9 ounces citric acid
Juice and zest of 8 lemons
Juice and zest of 8 oranges
Juice and zest of 8 limes
8 stalks lemongrass, roughly chopped
4 large pieces ginger root, roughly chopped
1½ ounces ground cinnamon
1. Put all ingredients into a very large nonreactive pot and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure everything is dissolved.
2. Strain the mixture through a colander, then filter the strained liquid through a cheesecloth into a deep hotel pan with a perforated top for about 6 hours or overnight. This will yield 2 to 2½ gallons of syrup.
3. Mix 1½ gallons of syrup (refrigerating the remainder in plastic or glass for future use) with 3½ gallons water in your Cornelius keg. Force-carbonate for 48 hours.
Prep Time: 1 to 1½ hours
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 5 to 6 hours
Yield: About 1 quart
4 cups water
3 cups light agave syrup
3 tablespoons ground cinchona bark
4 tablespoons citric acid
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
Juice and zest of 2 oranges
Juice and zest of 2 limes
2 stalks lemongrass, roughly chopped
1 ginger root, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1. Put all ingredients into a medium-sized nonreactive pot and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 40 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure everything is dissolved.
2. Strain the mixture through a colander, then filter the strained liquid through a cheesecloth into a heatproof container for 3-4 hours.
3. Funnel the resulting syrup into a large glass bottle, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to several weeks. When ready to use, mix 1 ounce of syrup with about 3 ounces of soda water.
Main photo: A cocktail made with homemade tonic. Credit: Dustin Johnson