Articles in Drinking w/recipe

Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.

Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.

In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.

The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.

AUTHOR


Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

Limoncello, anise liqueur

Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.

Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.

The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.

Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.

“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”

Go natural

The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)

Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).

The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.

Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.

Tips from the experts

Advice for creating your own liqueur:

  1.  Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
  2.  Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
  3.  Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
  4.  Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
  5.  In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.

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From left, Andrea Heinisch, Nicola Daraio and Pietro Terreni discuss the art of infusing flavor into alcohol.

Cream of Wild Fennel Liqueur

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
  • Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
  • 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
  • 1 ⅔ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
  2. Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
  3. Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

Lemon-Saffron Liqueur

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts

Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.

Ingredients

3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron

For the simple syrup:

1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water

Directions

  1. Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
  2. Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
  3. Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
  4. Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
  5. After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
  6. Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

 

Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.

Ingredients

3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the simple syrup:

3½ cups water
3 cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
  2. After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
  3. Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.

Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

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Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

Sun, Sea & Olives: The feast of St. John the Baptist, is a date laden with folklore and myth, like all those associated with equinoxes and solstices. It’s June 24, and throughout Europe it’s referred to as midsummer, even though summer officially begins only three days earlier. In many cultures it’s a tradition to celebrate with bonfires, almost always an indication of some ritual connection to the sun.

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This year, I got up very early, just at dawn on the 24th, and went to check on the great walnut tree. This sturdy specimen planted 40 years ago now lords over the front lawn and spreads over the surrounding grapevines, which annoys the grapevine master to no end, for reasons I’ll get to later. The boughs are low and heavy, so it was easy to reach the round, green fruits, still quite firm to the touch.

Within a few minutes I had 32 of them in my basket, harvested well before the dew had time to dry. That is the beginning of the prescription for nocino – the nuts must be harvested on the 24th of June before the dew is dry. Nocino is a fabled Italian digestif, pride of farmhouse kitchens in Tuscany and many other parts of the country too. Some nocino is available commercially (Padre Peppe is a famous brand from Puglia), but what most people seek out is the straight-from-the-farm, homemade, handmade miracle of bittersweet flavors — the kind, most people will swear, their grandmothers were noted for and no one has been able to duplicate since.

Actually, making nocino isn’t all that difficult, apart from the requisite early rising. Once the nuts are brought into the kitchen, they are split or cut with a knife or partially crushed in a mortar, my preferred method. The insides are pure white, but you can clearly see the milky embryo of what will become, by October, a full-fledged walnut.

In my kitchen, the lightly crushed fruits go into a glass jug along with pieces of cinnamon stick, whole cloves, crushed nutmegs and a half dozen star anise. Some cooks might add a whole vanilla bean, split down the middle to release its flavor, but I keep it pure. I add 2 liters of alcohol and 3 cups of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water and let it cool before adding to the mix. Plus the zest of a lemon and three or four thin slices of the same lemon. The jar gets sealed, set on a sunny shelf and left, according to my instructions, for a philosophical month, during which it is stirred or shaken daily.

What on earth is a philosophical month? After a lot of searching, I figured out a philosophical month is 40 days. The term comes from medieval alchemists, though why it’s called that and why it differs from a normal lunar or solar month I cannot say.

But now the jug sits on my kitchen window ledge, growing steadily darker, to be siphoned off and bottled Aug. 5.

And why is the master of the grapevines annoyed with the walnut tree? Part of the walnut’s mythology has to do with its potent effect on growing things, doubtless owing to the fact that the tree, roots, leaves and fruits are all laden with tannins; the branches that extend over the vines inhibit them from further growth. “The tree of idleness” is what they called the big, old walnut at the kafeneion – the local cafe — in the Cyprus village where we once lived, and the old gents of the village idled their time away under its branches, loath to disturb themselves for another coffee or ouzo, with just enough energy to throw the dice for another game of trictrac.

Years ago, when our walnut tree was much younger, Bruno, the neighboring contadino, warned me never to fall asleep beneath it. “You might never wake up,” he said with a dark look. The tree of witches, I’ve also heard said. The legendary witches’ tree of Benevento in southern Italy, under which they held their Sabbaths, was a walnut.

Walnuts show up in variety of Mediterranean dishes

A week after making nocino, I finally got the last traces of walnut juice out of my fingernails, which were stained first yellow and then dark brown with that tannic juice. The whole process led me to think more about how valuable walnuts are and what an important but all too often unacknowledged ingredient they are in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, where crushed walnuts add flavor and crunch to sweet, honey-drenched pastries, all the way to the Perigord region of southwest France, where walnut oil is often used in cooking, and sweet vin de noix, an aperitif rather than a digestif, is made from walnuts — also harvested on the morning of St. Jean Baptiste.

It’s not surprising they should be so prevalent. First off, their healthfulness: Walnuts are one of the few plant sources for valuable omega-3 fatty acids, so necessary for human metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans especially are well advised to add walnuts to their diets because the only other good, readily available source of this essential fat is oily fish. Moreover, walnuts, like extra virgin olive oil, have a high percentage of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and monounsaturated fat — all things that can make us live longer and more healthfully.

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Nocino on a sunny window ledge, Day 1. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

But real happiness comes from the good things walnuts do in just about anything they’re added to. Pounded walnut sauces exist in every Mediterranean cuisine: Turkish cooks make tarator, a walnut-based sauce, to go with fried seafood — a great summertime combination for al fresco dining — and in Italian Liguria, the original pesto genovese, that quintessential basil sauce so characteristic of the season, seems to have been made as often with walnuts as with pine nuts. Here are some hints to spur your imagination:

  • Add a little walnut oil to a salad dressing for extra richness.
  • Toast a handful of chopped walnuts with some breadcrumbs to make a great topping for any sort of baked cheese pasta.
  • Add a handful of chopped walnuts to bread or biscuit dough.
  • Add walnuts and little knobs of feta or soft goat cheese to a plain green salad, or combine walnuts and goat cheese to make an elegant topping for pre-dinner crostini, served with a glass of chilled rosé.
  • Make a simple, seasonal dessert: a handful of walnuts and a bowl of fresh-sliced, tree-ripened peaches.

Or do as cooks in the eastern Mediterranean do and serve a very plain cake, not too sweet, made from olive oil and yogurt, enriched with toasted chopped walnuts; it makes a fine accompaniment to seasonal berries or those same sliced peaches. And here’s a secret: It’s just as good for Sunday breakfast as it is for Saturday night’s dessert.

Walnut Cake with Yogurt and Olive Oil

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 (8-inch) cake

This is from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook”; the original was made with mastic-flavored olive oil, but because that is not easy to find, I’ve adapted it using vanilla instead.

Ingredients

  • Butter and flour for an 8-inch springform pan
  • ¾ cup walnut meats
  • ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 4 medium eggs, separated
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (full fat is best)
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter and flour the cake pan.
  2. When the oven is hot, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and set in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly toasted. Let cool, then chop finely or grind to a fine texture in a food processor, but do not let them process into a paste. The walnuts should still be a little gritty.
  3. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and toss with a fork to mix well. Add the ground nuts and mix again.
  4. Beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl, gradually beating in about half the sugar. Beat until the yolks are thick and pale. A little at a time, beat in the yogurt, olive oil and vanilla essence, beating well after each addition. Fold the flour mixture into the yolks.
  5. With clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the yolk-flour mixture, then, using a spatula to bring up the batter at the base of the bowl, continue folding the remainder, about a third at a time. When everything is well combined, turn it into the prepared cake pan.
  6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden, the center is firm and the cake pulls away a little from the sides of the pan. Remove and transfer to a cake rack. When cool, remove the cake from the pan.
  7. Serve the cake plain, or top it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream (maple walnut perhaps?). You could ice the cake if you wish, but that’s not in the Mediterranean tradition.

Main photo: Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

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Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.

No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.

As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.

This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.

As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.

Fragrant foraging in the shade

Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.

When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.

As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.

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Linden tree leaf and flower. Credit: Wendy Petty

As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.

Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.

Turn linden into teas and cocktails

With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.

Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.

If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.

Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.

Linden Honey

Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.

Cold-Infused Linden Tisane

Ingredients

1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included

20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)

½ gallon lukewarm water

Directions

1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.

2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.

Linden Sparkler

Ingredients

½ cup cold-infused linden tisane

¼ cup white grape juice

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ounce gin

½ cup seltzer water

Directions

Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.

Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

The view from the deck of the old wooden shack is a sweeping panorama of unspoiled Southern California sand and waves below a low cliff dotted with similarly ramshackle dwellings.

We are accustomed to an Orange County coastline stripped of its humble past. Yet here is a reminder of that lost world.

Founded by squatters in the 1920s, Crystal Cove was favored by Prohibition-era rumrunners who landed their illegal cargo here in the dark of night. Itinerant plein air painters immortalized this hidden beach and claimed it as their home.

By the 1980s, the state of California was on a mission to “clean up” the dangerously decrepit community.  Descendants of the founders fought back. Just when it appeared certain everything would be razed so that a massive hotel development could rise, the Laguna Beach community and other neighbors raised the funds necessary to preserve this tattered love note from California’s past.

We lifted our glasses of rum punch in honor of our friend Jennifer’s grandmother who once owned the cottage where we had gathered for cocktails. The particular privilege of growing up in such an unaffected oceanfront retreat has never been lost on our friend. She loves the fact that it remains exactly as she enjoyed it 50 years ago and now is available to everyone.

Of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove, so far 29 have been restored. Two- and three-bedroom houses with full kitchens rent for less than $250 a night.

They were built for a nickel, says Harry Helling, president of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance, which manages the California State Parks property. Renovating them without disturbing their original look costs as much as $750,000 each.

It’s “vernacular” architecture, he explains, a fancy term for using whatever is available to build a community. Most of the cottages were cobbled together from flotsam that washed ashore. A fancy teak bathroom sink was discovered in one home, a prize probably stripped from a shipwrecked sailboat.

Earthquake-proofing walls made out of 80-year-old pilfered highway billboards can be a challenge, says Helling.

Crystal Cove guests can skip the cooking and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Beachcomber Cafe. An inviting broad, wooden terrace overlooks the ocean for al fresco dining.

View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown

View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown
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View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

As the sun sinks low in the sky, families continue to play on the beach. Lovers return from strolling along the more than three miles of state park beach. No one rushes. We savor the moment with a Dark and Stormy made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum.

It is the only rum you can use if you are making a proper Dark and Stormy, Helling insists. In researching the history of the cove, the Prohibition-era cocktail culture has become a centerpiece of the Beachcomber’s bar service. Rum is the favored spirit.

He treats us to four of his concoctions. The cocktail hour ends as the sun sinks below the horizon. We amble over to the Beachcomber for a starlit dinner.

Four rum cocktail recipes, courtesy of Harry Helling.

Paradise Rum Swizzle

With a nod to the Barbados drink whisked with the stem of a native plant, Helling uses Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti. The swizzle sticks are Crystal Cove driftwood.

Ingredients

2 ounce Rhum Barbancourt

1 ounce fresh honeydew juice

1 ounce coconut water

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup (1 part water to 1 part sugar)

4 dashes of Angostura bitters

Directions

Pack a glass with crushed ice, swizzle rum, syrup and juices, top with bitters and sprig of mint.

Prohibition Punch

Helling adapted this recipe from the one served at Campbell Apartment, a 1920s apartment-turned-bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station. It is made by the pitcherful.

Ingredients

12 ounce Pusser’s British Navy Rum

3 ounces Grand Marnier

2 ounces fresh lime juice

20 ounces mango juice and water (1:1)

6 ounces cranberry juice

Champagne

Directions

Shake with ice, strain and float champagne on top with a pineapple garni.

Dark and Stormy

Invented in Bermuda just after World War I, Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a trademark-protected cocktail of rum and ginger beer. Helling adds lime juice — and so changes the spelling of the cocktail.

Ingredients

2 ounce Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Black Rum

4 ounce ginger beer

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Directions

Pour the ginger beer into a glassful of cracked ice and then add the Gosling’s topped with lime juice. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.

Barrel Aged Rum Manhattan

It is increasingly popular to age rum in an oak cask to make a sipping drink. Helling served one from Venezuela.

Ingredients

2 ounces Ron Anejo Pampero Aniversario

1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

½ ounce homemade bay leaf bitters

Directions

Pour the rum over an oversized ice cube in a short glass and stir with vermouth and bitters. Garnish with rum marinated blueberries and a flamed orange peel.

Main photo: Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

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A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

This year, the gloomy, wet, cold winter seemed to last forever. Happily all that is a dim memory now. With heat and humidity back in our lives, it’s time for ice cold beverages, with new concoctions always welcome. Increasingly, mezcal (also spelled mescal) is appearing in trendsetting bars and liquor stores and inventive mixologists are using it to make fun and refreshing cocktails, perfect for summer.

All tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequilas

The Mexican government controls how and where mezcal and tequila are produced. It is as diligent in protecting the integrity of those appellations as is the French government in its guarantee that a wine labeled Bordeaux comes from that region.

There is still a lot of confusion about mezcal, beginning with what exactly is it? To get to the heart of the matter, I talked with mixologist Marcos Tello, who consults with El Silencio, a distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Tello explained that both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave or maguey plant. Although there are dozens of agave varieties that are employed to make mezcal, for a distillate to be licensed by the government as tequila, only the blue agave may be used.

Tequila and mezcal are grown and bottled in different, designated regions but there are some overlaps. Tequila is primarily grown and distilled in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Mezcal is exclusively manufactured in Durango, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas but both mezcal and tequila are produced in the states of Guanajuato and Oaxaca.

Most mezcal is manufactured from a single type of plant, usually espadin agave. Sometimes agaves are blended to create a balanced flavor as is the case with El Silencio Mezcal, which blends espadin, tobasiche and Mexicano agaves.

Roasted, not steamed

To prepare the agave plant for fermentation, the body of the plant is trimmed of its thick leaves. What is left, the “piña,” looks like a pineapple. To make tequila, the piña is steamed and then fermented. For mezcal, the next step is crucial in creating the spirit’s distinctive flavor. Before fermentation, the piña is roasted in an underground pit. For aficionados, the resulting smoky aroma gives mezcal a quality similar to scotch and whiskey.

Like tequila, mezcal is graded. Joven (“young”), the first grade, indicates a mescal that was bottled within 60 days of being distilled. Reposado (“rested”) is aged longer, between two months and a year. If mezcal is aged in small oak barrels for at least six months and as many as four years, then it is labeled añejo (“aged”).

Among other classifications, there is also pechuga (“breast”), which denotes a small-batch mezcal that after completing two distillations is given a flavor-enhancing step in which fruits (plums, apples, pineapples and plantains), almonds, uncooked rice and a chicken breast with the skin removed are added. Yes, you read that correctly, a raw chicken breast, which is suspended over the fermenting distillate, the juices and fat helping balance the fruit flavors.

Mezcal cannot be substituted for tequila in all recipes. The deeply nuanced smoky flavor can overpower the ingredients used in many tequila cocktails. To illustrate mezcal’s distinctive qualities, Tello created a signature cocktail he calls a Saladito.

As with any cocktail that employs robust flavor components, the least expensive grade of mezcal should be used. Save the reposado, añejo and pechuga to sip and enjoy neat or on the rocks.

Saladito (courtesy of Marcos Tello)

Yield: 1 serving

Proust wrote that when he was presented with a plate of madeleines, childhood memories of an “exquisite pleasure” consumed him. Saladitos have a similar impact on Tello. The inexpensive Mexican candy originally from China is made from chile-salted, dried plums. Tello was inspired by homemade versions of the candy. On hot summer days, children would press a saladito into the middle of a lemon or lime and drink the juice as relief from the oppressive heat. That flavor memory inspired his creation of a mezcal cocktail that has sweetness lurking behind the smoky citrus notes. To add a salty-heat garnish to the cocktail, Tello uses a popular Mexican prepared seasoning called Tajin, a mixture of salt, dehydrated lime juice and pepper powder. If Tajin is not readily available, a similar effect can be created by mixing your own version as described here.

Ingredients

  • ¾ ounce honey syrup (see below)
  • 2 ounces mezcal (Tello recommends El Silencio Joven)
  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon Tajin seasoning or combine 2 parts fine granulated sea salt to 1 part cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Prepare the honey syrup by combining 3 parts honey with 1 part hot water. Mix well. Refrigerate to cool. Reserve.
  2. Fill a cocktail shaker or a large (16-ounce) glass with ice.
  3. Add the mezcal, honey syrup and lime juice.
  4. Place a lid over the top and shake vigorously.
  5. Open the shaker, cover the top with a bar strainer (also known as a Hawthorne Strainer) and pour into a cocktail glass.
  6. Dust the top of the cocktail with Tajin seasoning or the cayenne-salt mix.
  7. Serve chilled.

Main photo: A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

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Asparagus is considered a notoriously difficult food to pair with wine. Credit: Tina Caputo

When tasting certain wines, critics are often inspired to make food-pairing declarations. “This is a perfect oyster wine,” one might say about a crisp Sancerre, or “This Cabernet is crying out for a grilled steak!”

That almost never happens with asparagus. Asparagus is delicious, but it’s also laden with a sulfur-containing amino acid that can conspire with the vegetable’s grassy flavor to make wine taste vegetal, metallic and downright awful. It’s known in the wine world as one of the untouchables — a pairing best not attempted. Despite the taboo, I’ve seen asparagus on enough wine country tables to know that although the pairing may be difficult, it’s certainly not impossible. It can even be enjoyable!

Chad Hendrickson, executive chef for The Hess Collection Winery in Napa, Calif., agrees. “It’s all about the preparation and other ingredients that are used,” he said. “I’m looking for flavor components in the wine that I can use to help bring the wine and the dish together.” Plain, blanched asparagus tends to clash with wine, he noted, but grilled asparagus is another story. “Grilling adds that nice bit of char, and it also adds a cleaner asparagus flavor,” he said. The next step is to include elements in the dish that will act as a bridge to the flavor of the asparagus. “I do a salad that consists of citrus over shaved fennel, grilled asparagus and a little goat cheese,” he said. “We also make a wildflower honey vinaigrette for asparagus that works really well with the flavor of our Chardonnay.”

Hendrickson recommends white wines with asparagus, and avoids serving it with buttery, oaky styles of Chardonnay. “I’m a fan of wines with more of a mineral background,” he said, noting that Pinot Grigio is one of his favorite asparagus-friendly varieties. He also likes to pair certain asparagus dishes with richer wines, such as Viognier.

An overabundance of fruit character can also cause pairing problems, according to Lia Huber, who creates recipes for Bonterra Organic Vineyards in California’s Mendocino County. “The key is to stay away from anything too fruit-forward, because overt fruitiness in wine clashes horribly with that funky-musty undertone that asparagus has,” she said. “Instead, choose wines with mineral, citrus or grassy characteristics and high acidity, like Sauvignon Blanc. These wines come right alongside asparagus and hold hands.”

The best pairings

To find out which wines really work best with those funky green stalks, I recruited a few friendly wine professionals to join me in the Mother of All Wine-and-Asparagus Tastings: 28 white wines versus five pounds of grilled asparagus. Between bites of asparagus, we tasted the wines blind (with the labels covered to hide the brand names) and awarded each pairing a medal rating of bronze, silver or gold. Wines that clashed with the asparagus received a “no medal” rating. Once initial medals were decided, we pitted the gold medal wines against each other in a taste-off round to crown the Asparagus Champion.

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Topping grilled asparagus with a mixture of chopped eggs, pickles, capers and fresh herbs makes it a great partner for crisp Sauvignon Blanc (recipe by Lia Huber). Credit: Tina Caputo

Having judged quite a few professional wine competitions in our collective careers, we had to alter our mindsets a bit for this one. Rather than simply selecting the best wines in each round — and there were some very good ones in the running — asparagus compatibility was the most important factor in rating the contenders.

Winning wines

Of the 28 wines we tasted, five earned gold medals and 10 scored silver. I expected the Sauvignon Blanc wines to shine, and they did, but there were some surprises too. I thought the Chardonnays would surely bomb, and had doubts about the rosés, but one of each made it into our top five. Starting with the Asparagus Champion, the winning wines are:

Steelhead Vineyards 2012 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($12.99): With fresh lime and citrus aromas, this wine is crisp and clean, with plenty of citrus and grassiness on the palate.

Quivira 2012 Fig Tree Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($22): This wine has tropical aromas of guava, along with grassy notes and a pleasant muskiness. It’s lean and fresh on the palate with lemon and grapefruit flavors, and bracing acidity.

Malk 2012 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($29): A peachy, floral aroma is followed on the palate with surprising freshness and complexity. The wine shows a hint of peach flavor, along with tart citrus and mineral notes.

Casey Flat Ranch 2013 Capay Valley Rosé  ($18): Pale pink in color, this dry rosé has subtle aromas of strawberries and orange zest. It’s fresh and crisp, with lively acidity and a balanced fruitiness.

Domaine Carneros 2012 La Terre Promise Carneros Chardonnay ($44): With aromas of green apples and soft vanilla, this wine is nicely rounded, with a fine balance between fruit and subtle oak. This wine would pair best with asparagus dishes that involve some richer elements.

Now that you know which wines to serve with that gorgeous green bounty, all you need is a great recipe to celebrate the stalks of spring. This dish was created by Huber to “hold hands” with Bonterra’s Sauvignon Blanc, but it works just as well with similarly grassy, citrusy wines.

Flash-Roasted Asparagus With Springtime Gribiche

Serves 6

Ingredients

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon capers, chopped

4 gherkin pickles, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh herbs (flat leaf parsley, tarragon, chervil), finely chopped

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 475 F.

2. Toss asparagus with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper, and spread on a baking sheet. Roast for 5 to 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until just tender to the bite.

3. Meanwhile, separate 1 egg yolk from the white; place yolk in a medium bowl and the white on a cutting board. Finely chop white and remaining egg and set aside.

4. Use a fork to break up the egg yolk in the bowl and whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil, vinegar and Dijon until it’s smooth. Mix in chopped eggs, capers, pickles and herbs, and season with salt and pepper.

5. Arrange asparagus on a serving dish and top with the gribiche sauce.

Main photo: Asparagus is considered a notoriously difficult food to pair with wine. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

This crazy weather demands a two-fisted cocktail. I’m a huge fan of the Mexican bar classic, the Sangrita cocktail, even though the drink has stiff competition from its fancier tequila cousin, the margarita. I can’t figure out why the Sangrita isn’t more popular, especially for those who don’t care for sweetened drinks and prefer a cocktail to a shot.

It’s time to warm up to Sangrita’s seduction because, simply, it’s a blast to drink.

In Mexico, always ask the bartender for a Sangrita Cóctel separado (separated) and then say which tequila you prefer. He or she pours your tequila of choice into one glass and a spicy juice blend into another, rather than mixing them in the same glass. You sip from each separately, hence the two-fisted cocktail.

Good tequila the key to making a Sangrita

To make your own, start with good tequila. Then you mix into the second glass tomato and orange juices, hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. No kidding. Just try it.

Of course, I can easily get obsessive. Grab your favorite tequila reposado (100% agave, lightly aged in oak barrels for a smooth drink) and accept no substitute. Orange juice must be freshly squeezed, no discussion here. Tomato juice is from freshly squeezed summer-red-ripe beauties or as a last (winter) resort use bottled, organic, low-sodium juice. Hot sauce has to be made from red Mexican chilies and will be a Mexican import such as Cholula, Búfalo or Tapátio brand. Fresh Mexican (aka Key) lime is a must, and a variation is not open for discussion. Taste, and sprinkle in a pinch of sea salt if needed.

Put on ranchera music and bring out copitas, the tall pony shot glasses from your last trip south of the border. Now, where are those souvenir sombreros?

Sangrita Cóctel

Makes 2 drinks. You will need 4 tall pony shot glasses, small snifters or similar glasses.

Ingredients

2 shots tequila

¼ cup orange juice

¼ cup tomato juice

Bottled Mexican hot sauce

1 Mexican lime (aka Key)

Sea salt to taste

Directions

1. Pour a generous shot of tequila into each of two glasses.

2. Measure the orange and tomato juices in a clear measuring cup with a pour spout. Shake in a few squirts of hot sauce. Squeeze in the lime juice. Stir. Taste. Need salt? It should be brightly sweet, acidic and definitely spicy!

3. Pour the juice mixture into the two empty glasses. ¡Salud! Sip from the juice glass and the tequila one.

Top photo: The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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