Monday, February 28, 2011

MxMo LV: Pear Spice Mulled Wine

Whenever I have parties and I do hot drinks, I always make at least one batch of mulled wine, and it's always a big hit. Since this month's Mixology Monday theme (selected by yours truly) is Some Like it Hot, I thought I'd take a stab at an original mulled wine.

At first I thought of doing an apple mulled wine, since apple and spices go so well together, but some poking about on the internets revealed that lots of other people had already beat me to it. So why not...a pear mulled wine?

Pear Spice Mulled Wine
1 bottle red wine
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 pear, cored and sliced
1/2 cup pear nectar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 whole anise star
12 whole cloves
3 cinnamon sticks
1/2 orange, cut into slices

Combine all the ingredients in an appropriately-sized pot. Cook over medium-low, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes.

Verdict: Winner. Delicious, spicy, fruity. I found myself completely unable to stop drinking it. And after you've drunk all the wine, the pears make for a delicious and dangerously addictive snack.

And, just because I can't leave well enough alone, I decided to try something really innovative: a mulled wine with...balsamic vinegar? Yeah, you heard that right. Some cursory google searches indicated that balsamic vinegar, pears and cinnamon might be good together, so I gave it a whirl.

Balsamic Pear Mulled Wine
1 bottle red wine
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup eau-de-vie poire william
1 pear, cored and sliced
1/2 orange, cut into slices
4 cinnamon sticks

Verdict: This is really, really interesting, and not in an entirely bad way. The balsamic and pear flavors complement one another and bring out the nuances in each. I can't help thinking, though, that this would probably better as a sangria. As in, it smelled awfully good before I cooked it for half an hour. Come summer, you can bet I'll be trying this one again.

Winter White Sangria

A few weeks ago, Houston was in the sway of something resembling Winter - the temperature dropped below forty for almost two weeks, the sun did not come out, and a couple of days it even FROZE and everyone in our lovely city lost their collective shit. Of course I'm also a total wimp when it comes to cold weather, because hello, I live in Houston, so I stayed at home and drank hot tea and took long hot baths and dreamed of summer and sangria.

During which time I thought, hey, I don't think I've ever made a sangria with cucumber. It seemed like an interesting challenge - the savoriness of cucumber in a sangria. I though about the Mr. Stair, the pretty green pear sour that I had to puree a cucumber to make. With that as my inspiration, it wasn't long until...

The Winter White Sangria
A white sangria recipe with pear, cucumber, blood orange, and St. Germain elderflower liqueur.

1 bottle dry white wine (pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc)
1/2 cup eau-de-vie poire william (pear brandy)
1/2 cup St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1 pear, cored and sliced
8 cucumber slices
1/2 blood orange, cut into half-rounds

Combine all ingredients in a pitcher and chill overnight (or for at least 8 hours). (Most sangrias get better as you continue to infuse them, but you actually don't want to steep this one much longer than 8 hours or the cucumber will become too pronounced.) Serve in a glass over ice.

Verdict: I did done good. Beautiful and crisp and fresh, with a lingering sweetness. Just the thing to tide you over until spring.

Friday, February 25, 2011

5 Classic Cocktails to Order "Off the Menu" at the Anvil.

Since this is a blog about drinking in Houston, after all, and I've already reviewed bars in New York and Los Angeles, I figured it's high time I tackled the Bayou City's burgeoning cocktail scene. And where better to start than at that flagship of Houston cocktail dens, the Anvil? So, if you're from out of town, or you're one of the 5 Houstonians who haven't yet discovered the Anvil, here's what to expect.

The Ambiance: Dark but not too dark, noisy but not too loud, and not too many decorations besides the jaw-droppingly huge selection of booze lining the wall behind the bar. Just how a bar should be. I think my favorite thing, though, about the atmosphere at the Anvil is the smells. I try not to admit this too often, but...I love the way bars smell. And the Anvil has the best smell of any bar I've ever been to - like spices and bourbon and campari and maybe a hint of tobacco. (And maybe cheese? Kassie said it smelled like cheese.) Whatever it is, it's interesting and manly and delicious and I love it.

holy crap, look at all those bitters.

The Crowd: When people first told me about the Anvil, I envisioned it as a sort of exalted cocktail mecca, the kind of tucked-away place where serious booze enthusiasts would calmly but earnestly debate the relative merits of say, shaking vs. stirring, while sipping a sazerac. It was, indeed, a cocktail mecca, but I was little off base with "calm". Shortly after it opened, the Anvil was such a scene that even earlier in the week, it was a fight to get to the bar. It was also a little bit of a pick-up bar - the sort of place where a random dude and his friends would approach you and your friends, offer to buy you a drink, and ask you if you were going to Pub Fiction after this. No, I am not going to Pub Fiction. I am going home, because it is 11 PM. On a Tuesday.

Things have calmed down a little since then, but you still never know quite what you're going to get. There's still the occasional bunch of toolios who only want to drink absinthe and miller lite, but you're just as likely to run into 40-something businesspeople. (Not that I'm hating on miller lite. It's just that there's a time and a place for miller lite, and this is not the place. Now, absinthe and miller lite together...that could be interesting.)

Weekends are still pretty packed, so if you want to ensure yourself a spot at the bar so you can watch the magic, go early. Like, 7 on a Monday or Tuesday night.

The Drinks
: Ohh, the drinks. When I first started plotting to do a post about the Anvil, long, long ago, they had a section of their menu with a list of "100 Classic Cocktails to Try Before You Die". Well, the 100 cocktails are no longer a part of the menu, although you can still see the list, posted in a rather inauspicious location on the far wall of the bar. (It's the wall opposite the door as you come in. Or you can view the list here.) They've been replaced with a rotating seasonal menu of original drinks developed by the Anvil staff, which are all very delicious. The good news is, you can still order all the old cocktails, as long as you know what to ask for. So if you're yearning for a classic, or you just want to feel like an insider for ordering off the menu - here's a list of my Top 5 Classic Cocktails to Order "Off the Menu" at the Anvil.

1. The Bramble
This is the first drink I ever ordered at the Anvil. I finished it in about 45 seconds, and then bad things happened. But I don't blame the drink, I blame me. Okay, I blame the drink a little. This combo of gin, lemon, and creme de muir (blackberry liqueur) is so delicious and smooth that it's easy to forget you're drinking something very powerful.

2. The Seelbach
Kassie gets credit for discovering this delicious and very unusual cocktail. The first time she ordered one it actually came with a warning from the bartender - there's a lot of bitters in this one. Are you sure that's what you want? Of course, Kassie is never one to back down from a challenge. The Seelbach tastes like no champagne cocktail I've ever had - it's a deep, rich, complicated taste that reminds me of a nice complex Napa cabernet. Thanks to the Ted Haigh book, I now know that this is because the recipe for a Seelbach involves: champagne, bourbon, cointreau, and seven dashes each of both peychaud's and angostura bitters. For those playing along at home: that is a whole, whole lot of bitters. Yet somehow it works.

3. The Mint Julep
On the seventh day, God rested, and on the 8th day he invented the mint julep. People sometimes ask me what my favorite cocktail is, and this is always my answer. The combination of bourbon, sugar, and mint is stupidly simple and stupidly good. And the mint juleps at the Anvil are a real feat of artistry - piled high with crushed ice like a bourbon sno-cone. I mean - I just said "bourbon sno-cone". What more could you want?

4. The Blood and Sand
This cocktail, named for a 1922 Rudolph Valentino film, is a relative rarity: a mixed drink made with scotch. The combination of scotch, sweet vermouth, oj and cherry brandy might seem a little unusual, but you will only think that until you take your first sip. It's perfectly balanced, not too fruity, not too scotch-y. (Although it's difficult to imagine how something could taste too much like scotch.)

the Blood & Sand.

5. The Zombie
Probably the most famous cocktail invented by Don the Beachcomber during the post World-War II tiki explosion. (I especially enjoy the phrase "tiki explosion".) There are a lot of bad zombie variations out there, but the Anvil has got it right. (And if the original version is a little too sweet for you, I've heard you can get one made with Fernet Branca. Iiiinteresting.) At least half the fun of ordering any drink at the Anvil is watching all the artistry that goes into making it, and this one is especially enjoyable, since this delicious, rummy bit of cocktail history contains about 52 different ingredients. Of course, since so much work goes into making this drink, if you order one on a busy night your bartender will probably hate you. Save this one for a weeknight. And don't forget to leave a nice big tip.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Coming Soon - Mixology Monday!

I remember my delight and awe when I first discovered there was such a thing as Mixology Monday. Browsing through the archives was as intimidating and exhilarating as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. So many drinks. So little time.

This month, Mixology Monday is coming to the Backyard Bartender. That's right - a week from now, on February 28th, my humble little blog will be graced by the creations of elite mixologists the world over. The theme for MxMo LV will be "Some Like it Hot" - make anything you want to, as long as it's served hot. I'm sure this is tremendously seasonally appropriate in parts of the country that are not Houston, where it is currently 79 degrees. Don't pretend you're not jealous.

Here's how this thing works - if you'd like to participate, send me an email with a link to your post, or just post your link in the comments by midnight on February 28th. (Whose midnight, I always wonder? I will be generous. If you live in Hawaii - Hawaiian midnight.) Don't forget to include in your post a link to this blog, and a link to the Mixology Monday site. Don't have a booze blog? You can just email me a recipe (preferably with photos - photos are good) and I will happily guest-post it here.

Happy mixing! Can't wait to see your creations.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mezcal Made Good

Sometime last fall, I bought my first bottle of Mezcal. In the world of mixology, so I heard, Mezcal was the Next Big Thing. Elite bartenders all over the east and west coasts were going nuts for this stuff, even though it was supposed to be treacherously difficult to mix. (True story: I once asked one of the bartenders at the Yucatan Taco Stand, in Fort Worth, to make me a cocktail with mezcal, and he said the best way to do that would be to throw the mezcal in the trash and drink something else.) But still, I hoped to succeed where many before me had failed.

I experienced some serious intimidation pretty much as soon as I opened the bottle. I got a little whiff of tequila and a big ol' whiff of campfire. Which is quite appropriate, since mezcal is distilled from the fire-roasted heart of the agave plant. So what's the difference between tequila and mezcal? They're both made from the juice of the agave plant, but tequila (according to Mexican law) must be made from blue agave, and the hearts are steamed instead of being roasted.

Mezcal comes in a few different varieties, like tequila - the "joven" variety is unaged and has a very strong agave flavor. Other varieties include reposado, which is aged up to a year in oak barrels, anejo, which is aged between one and three years, and super anejo, which is aged more than three years. Aged mezcals, like aged tequilas, are more mellow and have a bit of an oaky flavor.

It's a misconception that mezcal is "the one with the worm" - according to wikipedia, this began as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. (The "worm" is actually the larvae of a moth that lives on the agave. Um...ew.) These days if you see a worm in the bottle it means it's probably not very good mezcal. The wikipedia article also says this: "Despite the similar name, mezcal does not contain mescaline or other psychedelic substances". Bummer.

Taste test time! I am tasting Sombra Joven mezcal. As you see in the picture.

Smell: Like tequila. And a campfire. And, very weirdly...a whole lot like my pediatrician's office. Really. I'm at a loss. You how smells conjure up memories? When I smell mezcal, I've five, and I'm hanging out in the waiting room, and once again I'm disappointed that all those other little bastards broke all the furniture for the little people house. Because that's what being sick is all about, when you're little: playing with someone else's toys.

I can't explain it.

Taste: A little bit like tequila. But mostly like a campfire.

Before I made a good drink with mezcal, I made a whole lot of really, really bad ones. For example: tequila makes for a wonderful peach margarita, but add mezcal and you get the entirely underwhelming experience of drinking a vaguely fruit-flavored campfire. Maybe, I thought, the peach flavor was too weak. Mezcal needed a strong partner, so I turned to our friend the mango. I could taste the mango, but it mingled with the smokiness in my mouth to form a discordant symphony of nastiness.

I don't give up easily. But it's hard not to give up when your best effort is a cocktail that tastes like a tropical fruit with the disturbing aftertaste of your pediatrician's office. I thought about throwing in the towel. I could pour the rest of the mezcal down the drain, and I wouldn't have to tell anyone. I would be the only person to know what a dismal failure I was. Two things stopped me: 1. I am really stubborn, and 2. good mezcal is really expensive.

I searched the internet, hoping for inspiration, but everything I found either contained some bitter aperitif like Campari or Cynar (not really my thing), or was stupidly complicated, or was...a margarita. With mezcal in it. Which I already knew was gross, because of course I tried that. Then one day I ran across the menu of Mayahuel, a cocktail den in New York devoted entirely to tequila and mezcal. They had a cocktail made with mezcal, tequila, and pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate molasses...brilliant. It's strong, like the mango, but not too sweet. And rich enough to hold its own with all that smoke. It was a huge breakthrough. Angel choirs sang. It was as if the heavens had parted for a split second to let the light of cocktail wisdom shine down.

To my mezcal cocktail I added ginger - another strong, not-too-sweet flavor. (Plus ginger + mezcal came recommended by the great Dale Degroff. Although he also recommended the mango and we saw how that turned out.) Ginger beer, naturally, because mezcal needs something powerful. And of course, ginger beer made me think of the Moscow Mule, a totally famous classic cocktail. Okay, a moderately famous classic cocktail.

The Moscow Mule
(recipe from Ted Haigh's excellent "Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails")
juice and peels of 1/2 lime
2 oz vodka
ginger beer

Squeeze the lime into an old-fashioned glass. (This drink is supposed to be drunk in a copper mug, but I didn't have one so I had to make do.) Fill with ice, add the vodka, and top with ginger beer. Spicy and refreshing.

So at this point I was going to talk about how the Moscow Mule was my starting point, and then maybe throw in a recipe for a Mississippi Mule (even though a Mississippi Mule has gin and cassis and lemon and no ginger beer and doesn't really have anything to do with these drinks at all), and then present my mezcal cocktail, called the "Mexico Mule", and call the post something cute like "a tale of three mules". Only, as I was writing it I realized that the word "mule" has come to have certain uh, other meanings, and calling a drink the Mexico Mule might be a little tasteless. So instead I have dubbed my creation the "whoa mama", because that's what you will think when you drink it.

The Whoa Mama
1/2 oz pomegranate molasses*
1.5 oz joven mezcal
3/4 oz fresh-sqeezed lime juice
2 oz ginger beer

*You can find this at ethnic groceries or the trusty downtown Spec's. Or you can make your own, like I did. The stuff you make at home has the advantage of being A. deliciouser and B., prettier - the homemade stuff is maroon (whoop) whereas storebought pomegranate molasses is brown, which makes for a not so pretty cocktail.
**If you don't have mezcal, this is also pretty delicious with tequila. Although you'll be missing out on all that special smoke flavor.

Add all ingredients but the ginger beer to a cocktail shaker full of ice; shake and strain into a cocktail glass, then add the ginger beer. Alternatively, you can serve this drink in a highball glass over ice: add pomegranate molasses, mezcal, and lime juice to an ice-filled glass; stir for 30 seconds. Add the ginger beer and stir once more. The over-ice version will stay colder longer (obviously), but as the ice melts the smoky flavor will be less distinct.

Verdict: Sweet jumping jehosephat, this is good. All the flavors blend together perfectly. It's like a coke, but full of BOOZE and AWESOME. (Sorry, propensity for all caps is leaking over from Bachelor Blog. Plus I am SUPER EXCITED about this drink.) Smoke and ginger and pomegranate and lime...HOLY CRAP, THIS IS SO GOOD. I'm so sorry, mezcal. Forgive me for thinking that you tasted gross and like a doctor's office. This is the cocktail that you were waiting to be mixed into all along.

Recipe for Homemade Pomegranate Molasses.

Pomegranate molasses features in a lot of Middle Eastern dishes, and also in one very tasty cocktail created by yours truly. You can find it at ethnic groceries, or the trusty downtown Spec's, here in Houston, or you can make your own.

Pomegranate Molasses

4 cups pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice

If you want the molasses to be a bit sweeter you can add sugar- between 1/4 and 1/2 cup. I like it nice and tart, so the no-sugar version is what I use in my drinks.

Combine the ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 70 minutes, until the molasses begins to thicken just slightly. Don't worry that the molasses isn't super syrupy at this point - allow it to cool for about half an hour and it will achieve the proper consistency. (I say "slightly" because if you wait to take it off the heat until it's reached molasses consistency, it will harden into a delicious pomegranate brick.) For me, by the time the mixture began to thicken it had been reduced to a little less than 1 cup. (A saucepan with measurements marked out on the side is super useful for this.) If you're adding sugar, reduce to about 1.5 cups.

Once the molasses is completely cooled, store it in the refrigerator. It will keep for up to six months.

What the Heck is Ginger Beer?

Ginger beer is like ginger ale, but not as sweet and waaay spicier. Drunk on its own, I find all that ginger to be a bit much, but ginger beer does figure in some pretty great cocktails.

Contrary to what the name might imply, ginger beer doesn't contain any alcohol. It was once possible to buy alcoholic ginger beer, and you can still get it in England, I hear, but here in the states it hasn't been available since the mid-20th century.

Some different kinds of ginger beer. Hint: the Fentiman's is the best.

Can I substitute ginger ale for ginger beer in a cocktail recipe?
No, not really. The ginger taste will be a lot weaker.

Where can I find ginger beer?
In Houston, I get mine at Central Market. Spec's also has a bunch of different varieties (at least at the downtown location.) Outside of Houston, I'd try a liquor store or Whole Foods. They have this product, which is called "ginger brew" but hey, close enough.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Buttered Beere...A Little Taste of History.

One day, while browsing liqurious, I came across something that immediately grabbed my attention...a 400-year-old recipe for hot buttered beer.

Now, if you take a look at this recipe, there are a few things you will notice right away:

1. Hot beer? Weird.
2. Beer with butter? Weirder.
3. Beer with egg? UNPOSSIBLE.

But all the same, I knew I had to try it. Because:

1. I am a sucker for weird flavor combinations.
2. As a devoted fan of Harry Potter, I was pretty psyched that there was really such a thing as butterbeer. (Sure, there are plenty of other recipes floating around the internet for butterbeer, but this one is the real thing. IT IS 400 YEARS OLD.)
3. 423 years old, to be exact. When this recipe was first published (in "The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin”), Elizabeth I ruled England, America had just recently gotten around to being discovered, and the island of Manhattan looked like this. It would be like a little flavor window into the past. A little piece of history happening in a pot in my circa 1978 kitchen.

Seeing as Houston was in the grips of an unusual cold snap (below freezing temperatures! for several days!), I saw my opportunity. Last Friday a little party gathered at my house to sample this bizarre, centuries-old concoction. I used Old Speckled Hen, a brand of "real ale" that's available here in the states.

So of course there's the big question...what did it taste like? My compatriots displayed varying degrees of enthusiasm for the hot buttered beer, ranging from "eh" to "omg". I think a few people were turned off by the fact that it was so filling - I mean, 12 tbsp of butter is...a lot of butter. Personally, I thought it tasted like hot, buttered heaven. Like liquid french toast - and also a little like beer.

Bonus: it's been two days, and my kitchen still smells like butter and spices. Mmm. Those Tudor cooks were really on to something.

This is an Abomination.

I'm always looking for unusual flavor combinations that somehow work (bourbon-infused bacon, anyone?), so when I saw these at Spec's I knew I had to buy them. Even though I was horrified. And even though the idea of ramen chocolate was only slightly less repellent to me than eating a tiny, whole octopus (which I totally did once, in the name of flavor exploration) - I tried it. For you.

Ramen: Man, when I bought a Ramen chocolate bar, I was expecting something really, really weird. It wasn't all that strange, honestly. Not too much ramen, so it just adds a little texture. Kind of like a Krackle.

Tortilla, Lime and Salt: This one was a little more interesting. I mean, there are honest-to-god tortilla chips in this chocolate bar. So when I bit into it, I was surprised to discover that it was kind of fantastic. Chocolate and lime? Delicious. Chocolate and salt? Also good. I loved the texture of the tortilla chips. The only thing I wasn't so sure about was the taste of the tortilla chips working with the chocolate. I'd be having this divine chocolate experience, but then every once in a while I'd start to feel like I was at a Mexican restaurant waiting for my enchiladas.

Want to experience these wonktacular flavor mash-ups for yourself? You can find them at the downtown Spec's, here in Houston, or purchase some on the internets.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Further Adventures in Vodkaland

As promised...even more vodka infusions! Check out part 1 if you haven't already.

This time, I made one of the Martha infusions and tried a bunch of my own. All the infusions in this post are made with 1.5 cups of (Texas!) vodka and infused in a cool, dark place in an air-tight jar for two days, shaking occasionally. After the infusing period, strain out everything but the vodka and store in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Beet + Horseradish
1/2 small beet, sliced
3 thin slices peeled fresh horseradish

This one came from Martha Stewart Living. Sounds savory and intriguing, right? Not so much. I thought this was totally gross. It also, somehow, reminded me of peanut butter. Sorry, but I don't want my booze to taste like borscht. Or a pbj.

Hibiscus + Vanilla
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
3 dried hibiscus flowers

This infusion turned bright pink, almost mauve, so I was worried that the hibiscus flavor would be too powerful. I was wrong. The vanilla is quite strong. Only vaguely floral. Verdict: try again, with lots more hibiscus.

Chocolate, Cinnamon + Chipotle
4 tablespoons cocoa nibs*
1 dried chipotle pepper
1 cinnamon stick

*Cocoa nibs are chocolate in its rawest form, straight from the cocoa bean. They look a little like tiny chocolate chips, and taste very intense and a little bit bitter. It's a deep, dark, mysterious flavor that, it turns out, works great in vodka.

The cocoa is yummy, and rather intense, but that's how I like it. I taste the chipotle, but the cinnamon is MIA. I'm gonna cheat this one by straining out all the other ingredients and then adding an extra cinnamon stick to the vodka and infusing for another couple of days. Then I might need a second opinion. Volunteers?

Vanilla, Cardamom + Cinnamon
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 cardamom pods
5 medium-sized chips of Vietnamese cinnamon

So. full. of. win.

Seriously delicious. Still vanilla/woody, but this time in a good way. No longer tastes like a candle. I still want to do one more tweak - I'm going to try this one more time with a little bit less cinnamon.

Next up: hibiscus vodka reloaded, the verdict on the chocolate/cinnamon mix, and a final go at vanilla/cardamom. Until then!