Sunday, April 21, 2013

Basil-mint limeade

My personal wine geek, Bill, gave me a great compliment the other day.  He told me that he was impressed with my mixology skills.  I knew right away that he wasn't talking about my ability to handle a muddler and a Boston shaker (because I'm still quite a klutz with the muddler and the Boston shaker always seems to come flying apart at just the moment that a guest gets close enough for a surprise baptism).
In the two years or more that we have become friends, Bill and I have had the opportunity to enjoy many wines together, either due to his suggestion, or because he just decided to bring over a great bottle of wine. 
But I've also had the chance to enjoy many delightful cocktails with Bill, mostly because of his adventurous spirit (forgive the pun, but before he was a wine geek, he was a liquor and spirits geek), and also because I love to make a new cocktail.  It happens whenever the Muse, be she creme de violette, maraschino liqueur, velvet falernum or slivovitz, catches my attention.
In addition to The Muse, my efforts are usually fueled by: a.) what's in the liquor cabinet, b.) what's growing in the garden or available at the farmers' market, or c.) what I might need to create for an upcoming dinner party or event.  I won't make a cocktail for myself because I'm almost exclusively a wine drinker.  But if you drop by for a visit, or I'm planning a dinner or appetizers for you, I'm gonna wanna make you a drink.
Bill has enjoyed many of my efforts--like the infamously lethal Bollywood Bhindi I created with saffron-infused vodka, allspice dram and Vietnamese cinnamon for an Indian dinner last summer--and the hangover-inducing Bad Monkey (a combination of Railean Texas Rum, banana liqueur and a glass rimmed with cinnamon-sugar), not mention our tireless experiments with various kinds of amaro (grapefruit juice, good; artisanal tonic water and bitters, not so much) this past winter.
I'll tell you one of my secrets: I always have infused spirits (mostly vodka-based) and plenty of flavored simple syrups in the freezer.  Infusing vodka is so easy, your two-year-old could manage to do it with your patient instructions (along with bringing you more ice for your drink and any Valium you might require to make it through the day with a toddler). 
I've always got something steeping in vodka or other alcohol.  Looking at my countertops is like being in your high school biology lab.  Remember all those jars of pickled frogs and necrotic organs?  Yup, that would be my kitchen.
Chocolate mint and cocoa nibs in vodka
Making flavored syrups is even easier.  Simple syrup is a basic 1:1 ratio of sugar to water.  You bring that to a boil and after it has boiled for one minute, you remove the pan from the heat and throw in any flavoring ingredients you'd like, let it cool, strain it (or not) and chill or freeze.  My favorites are mint, basil, cucumber, any kind of citrus peels (but not the pith), rosemary, chiles, coffee beans, black pepper and lavender.  Don't forget that the stems of mint and basil (as well as cilantro) contain a lot of flavor.  Be brave--experiment.  It's a great way to use up little odds and ends of wilted herbs and pieces that are not pretty enough to garnish with.
The picture of the cocktail above was a fusion of several such ingredients and was incredibly refreshing at a recent mid-spring dinner.  Lime-ginger infused vodka, fresh lime juice, mint syrup and basil syrup were blended together, poured over ice and topped off with lime-flavored seltzer water.  I used lime slices and frozen Muscat grapes to garnish.  Here's the recipe:
Basil-Mint Limeade
1 cup vodka infused with lime and ginger (or just lime-infused vodka)
1 cup mint syrup
1 cup basil syrup
1 cup fresh lime juice
chilled lime seltzer water
lime slices and frozen Muscat grapes, for garnish
Mix together the vodka, syrups and lime juice; taste for balance of sweet and sour and adjust as necessary.  Chill until ready to serve.  When guests arrive, fill glasses with ice, divide vodka mixture among the glasses until about 2/3 full and top with seltzer water.  Garnish with lime slices and frozen grapes.  Make 4 generous drinks.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

No ordinary cheese

It is 5 o'clock in the morning and I am straining curds and whey, making cheese out of some of the richest, creamiest milk I've seen in a long time.  My husband has just stumbled out to the kitchen to begin his morning routine, scowls at the colander lined with cheesecloth in the sink, then shakes his head. 

"What are you doing?" he asks. 

"I'm making cheese."


"Because I have almost two gallons of raw milk and I've already made yogurt."  Yes, I did!

My pride in my industrious home-making efforts is slightly bruised by my husband's tone of voice.  You know the tone I mean.  The one that prosecuting attorneys use when they have a witness on the stand they don't particularly like.

He continues his diatribe, "I mean, what's the point?  Can't you buy cheese?"  He asks me this question in a way that indicates that he thinks I have not quite caught on to the fact that there is now human genome replication and that I am still painfully unaware that very recently, we have explored Mars.

But that's not all he has to say:  "Raw milk?  Is it safe?"

Yes, in fact it is safe.  Read more here.  The Stryk Jersey Farm has a fabulous dairy.

My face is turned away from my husband so that he can't see my exasperated eye-roll.  But even though it is still dark-thirty, sarcasm is effortless.  Neurons fire best before dawn for me.  I retort,  "No, I'm sure it's not safe for you.  Raw milk is right up there with green vegetables, sushi and those little vegan carrot cakeballs I made last weekend.  Eating cheese made from raw milk would undo all that careful work you like to do with Coke, ice cream and Kit Kats."

He chortles and goes about the business of making coffee.  I continue with my cheese-making.  I don't care that my husband doesn't approve or even think it's safe to eat homemade cheese from raw milk.  I know that this cheese will be great.  It will be no ordinary cheese because I'm using no ordinary milk

Looks like butta.

This is not a complicated cheese, it's just a simple curdled-milk cheese--a basic paneer--that I will use for cooking and sharing.  It is creamy and mild and adapts well to lots of recipes.  Making it from raw milk that has about two least inches of cream on the surface will make a rich cheese that spreads and melts well. 

I've been making this kind of cheese for a long time.  My Indian friends first showed me how to do it years ago and because it is so remarkably simple, I make it frequently.  It has two ingredients: milk and acid.  You can add salt and sugar to flavor the cheese, of course, but the procedure remains the same.  You'll need a stove, a large pot, some cheesecloth or a thin tea towel or flour sack towel, and a sieve or strainer.  A thermometer is helpful, but not necessary.  Find the technique here.

My cheese and yogurt-making thermometer.

You can press as much whey out of the curds as you'd like; the less fat in the milk you use and the more you press, the firmer and less spreadable your cheese will be.  I decided to drain the whey without pressing on the curds and got a creamy, ricotta-like texture.

Drizzled with garlic and herb-infused olive oil, later on, with a little balsamic vinegar and eaten with crusty bread or my personal favorite, Ines Rosales Tortas de Aceite, it's a knock-out lunch.

And yes, those are Cerignola olives--so big they have the distinction of being the largest known olive.  They are dense, buttery and really, really good.  You can enjoy this cheese with a really lovely glass of Sancerre to pick up the olive notes, or a glass of floral, limey Albarino.  Either way, you can't go wrong.
May your tastebuds dance!