White Wine Sangria with Melon & Mint  

My guys last season. Awwwww

My guys last season. Awwwww

Nothing heralds Spring quite like baseball season in our house. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a completely shallow fan of the game. I’m not super invested in a particular team, don’t follow stats with regularity, and am an inconsistent televised viewer. But I freaking love the experience of live games. When I worked for the National Park Service based out of Boston [this is pre-kids, y’all], I traveled a shit-ton for my job as a museum consultant, and a couple of my co-workers were also big baseball fans. We’d plan our summer evenings around visiting AAA, double-A, and single-A ballparks for games. We’d get there early, buy a hot dog and some peanuts, and drink draft beers which would invariably get warm long before we’d finish them in the humid dank heat of mid-summer in say, Virginia.

Both my boys play, and my hubster, The Macallan, has been a little league coach for forever. Sure, I love watching my kids’ games, but there’s nothing quite like seeing the pros [or in the case of our town, the Salt Lake Bees, a AAA farm team for the Angels] knock out nine innings. We plan our family road trips around visiting as many MLB ballparks as we can, since we’ve made a goal of hitting every major league stadium for a game before our youngest graduates from high school.

The Colorado Rockies players were super-friendly with the kids and signed a ton of pre-game autographs. Thanks, guys!

The Colorado Rockies players were super-friendly with the kids and signed a ton of pre-game autographs. Thanks, guys!

A couple of weeks ago, we took a break from the mayhem of shoulder season [in our house, it’s the overlap of the kids still ski racing, and the beginning of little league baseball #FML – hence, taking a month off from blog-writing. Sorry!], and went to a couple of preseason games in Arizona during “Cactus League” Spring training. One of the nicer surprises of the visit was checking out the Rockies/Diamondbacks practice facility Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Those folks know how to run a badass ballpark: gracious and helpful staff, parking was efficient and easy, the practice fields gorgeous, and the Rockies players were genuinely fan-friendly and signed tons of autographs for the kids pregame. There were even complementary sunscreen dispensers located around the ballpark, with free-flow SPF 30. Nice.

32 oz. white sangria at Salt River Fields [at Talking Stick, near Scottsdale, Arizona]

32 oz. white sangria at Salt River Fields [at Talking Stick, near Scottsdale, Arizona]

As you’d imagine, I base a lot of my positive stadium experience on the adult beverage and food selection, and Salt River Fields did not disappoint. Lots of great microbrews on tap, terrific selection of ballpark standard fare as well as local nosh [fantastic street tacos and margaritas the size of your head!], and my favorite: 32 oz. sangrias. Choose red or white, mixed up with as my barely-dressed barmaid described, “wine, brandy, Sprite, and fruit juice.” Not what I’d use, but it’s an efficient and delicious vehicle for dispensing alcoholic refreshment. So, while my guys discretely ogled the halter-clad and short-short sporting drinks slingers, I appreciated the players warming up pre-game, and sipped [okay, guzzled] my humongous sangria. I find these athletes vigor, flexibility, and dedication to fitness as showcase exceptionally well in baseball pants inspiring. Very. Inspiring.

Rockies pre-game warm up. Their athleticism is inspiring. Very. Inspiring.

Rockies pre-game warm up. Their athleticism is inspiring. Very. Inspiring.

Mmmm, baseball. A little something for everyone.*

Here’s my version of white wine sangria, which is more flavor-packed than “authentic.” Mix it up on a scorching day for instant refreshment. Halter tops and tight pants optional.

White Wine Sangria with Melon & Mint  [makes about 6 cups]

1 750-ml bottle dry white wine

½  cup Melon liqueur [like Midori] OR orange liqueur [such as Cointreau]

2 Tbs. [or more, to taste] agave nectar

1 cup honeydew melon, cubed into ½” pieces

1 lemon, sliced

1 cup seedless green grapes, halved

1 10 oz. bottle club soda, chilled

6 stems fresh mint

 

White Wine Sangria with Melon  Mint

White Wine Sangria with Melon & Mint

To a large pitcher, add all ingredients. Stir gently to combine. Fill six tumblers or large wine glasses with ice, and pour sangria over ice. Smack the mint sprigs between your palms [as if clapping], to release fragrance and place a sprig of mint in each glass. Split the fruit equally between the glasses as a garnish and for yummy boozing snacking.

* Yes, I realize this is shallow and objectifying the undeniable talent that it takes to mix drinks or play major-league baseball. But this blog is about mixing drinks and enjoying all that life has to offer, not about changing the rules of society. Everybody’s got their thing.

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Corny Candy Cocktail

Corny Candy cocktail

Corny Candy cocktail

Now, this is how you make a safety cone orange cocktail, my friends.  One week left until Halloween!  I love this holiday: the weather, the ancient ties to pagan harvest festivals like Samhain, the slutty costumes, the silly-themed food, and especially the outrageous cocktails.  I started a couple of infusions last week in preparation for the festivities.  The one I’m sharing now uses a candy-corn infused vodka that is shockingly hunter-vest orange.  Fabulous!  I’ll post the other one (hint: it’s called The Poison Apple, for my gal Sazerac who is dressing as Snow White) after it premières at her party this weekend.

Corny Candy Cocktail

2 oz. candy corn-infused vodka*

2 oz. blood-orange sparkling soda

Pour both ingredients over ice and stir gently.  Garnish with a couple of candy corns threaded on a toothpick (make sure they are fresh from the bag, if they are dried out they will crack right in half).

*Candy corn vodka:  Fill any sized jar about 1/3 full with candy corns.  Fill the jar up to within ½” of the rim with vodka (use the cheap stuff for this one).  Store in a cool place out of sunlight for 3 days, shaking the jar twice a day or so to encourage the candy disintegration.  After 3 days, strain the vodka through a mesh strainer to remove candy fragments, and decant into a clean glass container.  Shelf stable for about a month, refrigerate for up to one year after that.

I’ve also been writing for SLC’s fabulous City HomeCOLLECTIVE blog recently, and what a freakin’ fun gig that’s been!  To see more on their blog about a fabulous dinner by Pago chefs at Frog Bench Farm, featuring unfiltered totally fab RUTHLewandowski wines, click here.

Jalapeño-Cucumber Gimlet

Paraphrasing my ole’ buddy Cole Porter, It’s Too Damn HOT!

Jalapeño-Cucumber Gimlet

Jalapeño-Cucumber Gimlet

I was chatting with a gal in the produce section of Trader Joe’s the other day, and we were talking about Persian (cocktail) cucumbers – namely about how delicious they are and how nice it is not to have to peel them.  But, it’s also widely know that those temperamental bastards won’t last more than a couple of days in your fridge before they get moldy spots and you’re throwing them into the compost bin.

Sure, they are delightful in salads (especially with a little feta and some melon or tomatoes this time of year).  If you think they are getting borderline funky, you can slow down the decay trajectory by making a quick refrigerator pickle:  slice or sliver your cukes, then add some chopped scallions and about 2 teaspoons vinegar—I like rice wine vinegar or white balsamic—per cucumber ratio; toss to combine and refrigerate.  Add a bit of red or black pepper before serving and a pinch of sea salt.

I also like pulling out a couple to make cocktails, a few of which I’ve talked about here before.

You’ve probably seen the studies quoted that hot foods actually make you feel cooler and have natural antimicrobial qualities.  Hence, spicy food preferences in cultures living in warmer climates.  Right now, Utah’s about as hot as I can take it—and this from a gal who lived in muggy Memphis and the ‘dry’ heat of Arizona for years.  I made this spicy-cool version of a gimlet to at least give me a modicum of gracious respite last night.  It’s cool and bracing at the same time.  I like using vodka instead of gin for this gimlet recipe; it makes the jalapeño taste cleaner and brighter in contrast.  It’s fabulous with half of the martini glass rim coated in a fragrant smoked sea salt.

Jalapeño-Cucumber Gimlet

1 Persian (small cocktail) cucumber, sliced

½ jalapeño, seeded

2 oz. vodka

1 Tbs. agave nectar

Juice of 1 lime

Smoked sea salt

 

Throw the cucumber and jalapeño in a cocktail shaker and muddle the bejesus out of them with a pestle or wooden spoon.   Meanwhile, rub ½ of the rim of a martini glass with half of a cut lime, then dip in smoked sea salt (I used a Durango smoked salt for this, but it’s also great with a black Salish smoked salt).  Add the vodka, agave, and lime juice to the shaker with a few cubes of ice.  Shake like crazy.  Add a few cubes of fresh ice to your pretty cocktail glass, then strain your cocktail over the rocks.  Garnish with cucumber and jalapeño.

For the rest of September, I’ll be featuring Bourbon cocktails and recipes for National Bourbon Heritage Month!  Email, Facebook (“A Bourbon Gal”), or Instagram (abourbongal) me your requests for the next bourbon-based H.O.A.G.Y. (Help Out a Gal/Guy, Yeah?)  You can also find abourbongal on Twitter, but I suck at it.  #sorrykinda

Ratatouille. Or, How Thomas Keller Made My Life Hell

Ratatouille: The case for Smell-o-vision

Ratatouille: The case for Smell-o-vision

Ratatouille.   Conjured in savory memories, it’s a fragrant eggplant-basil-and-tomato-y meal, served with crusty bread and a big glass of house red wine at a laid-back Montmartre bistro.  It’s 1987, and I’m with my girlfriend Woodford Reserve (on the rocks with a splash of spring water) knocking around Paris.

Me (far right) with my gal Woodford Reserve's parents (Bob & Penny Miller) and their famous friends: Paul Levy, Michael Holroyd, Margaret Drabble, and Georgia Levy. England, summer 1987

Me (far right) with my gal Woodford Reserve’s parents (Bob & Penny Miller) and their famous friends: Paul Levy, Michael Holroyd, Margaret Drabble, and Georgia Levy. England, summer 1987

We were in France and England during the summer between high school and college, and thanks to her parents’ superb restaurant picks, progressive ideas and generous wallet we travelled, and ate, and drank very well on our jaunt.  Well, better than I did for many years to follow, anyway.

Paris, 1987.

Paris, 1987.

Fast forward to 2007.  Over 20 years, I’ve finally (in my humble opinion) mastered a pretty kick-ass ratatouille in my home kitchen, a fact of which I’m inordinately proud.  I revel in finding the perfect glossy eggplant, the juiciest yet firmest plum tomatoes, and most gorgeous zucchini my garden or the market has to offer.   It’s wonderful atop a graceful swirl of pasta or buttery mound of polenta; or served as I remembered it in France, sopped up from a shallow bowl with generous crusts of bread.  For the longest time, my kids thought it was just another chunky pasta sauce; and until Sprite started eating only white food in first grade, both boys ate it all the time without question.

And then along came Thomas Fecking Keller.  Mastermind chef behind the food styling for Disney/Pixar’s 2007 film Ratatouille.

Ratatouille "All Stacked Up" in the movie.

Ratatouille “All Stacked Up” in the movie.

Don’t get me wrong.  I will eat Keller’s food whenever I get the chance.  And, I LOVE this movie.  I love the theme behind it; that “anyone can cook.”  I love the message—even preschoolers get it—that great soul-and-body nourishing food is about balance and flavor and freshness, not about how fast you can get it from a cardboard container into your mouth.  I love that drinking the occasional glass of wine by reasonable adults is neither demonized nor glorified; it’s just part of enjoying a great meal.  I love that the main female character is a culinary badass and has short hair, clogs, keeps her clothes on for the entire movie, and does NOT sing a goddamn peep.

And I loved hearing my children say as the credits rolled, “Mom, let’s make ratatouille!”

I spent all day with them making it: chopping, then individually sautéing each vegetable until just al dente.  We gently folded each perfectly cooked vegetable into an enameled Dutch oven, then covered it with parchment paper and slowly roasted it at a low temperature for most of the afternoon.  My boys took one look at the glorious results and said, “what’s THAT? ”

They were expecting Thomas Fecking Keller’s version:  as they call it “Ratatouille, all stacked up.”  Which I eventually figured out how to make, and it’s also pretty kick-ass.  But now they expect EVERY thing in our tiny kitchen to come out plated as beautifully as a goddamn Bon Appétit feature spread.  When I told this story to my buddy French 75, he said “what did you expect?  You brought this shit down on yourself.”

And I totally did.

I entirely support the notion that you eat with your eyes first, and that a beautifully composed plate should be at every meal served at our table.  It really doesn’t take that much longer to orient your vegetables attractively and put a little saucy swirl and some herbs on the plate, and I think in the long run it makes great food more attractive, accessible and approachable for more people.  Especially the shorties.

I just wish I didn’t feel backed into a corner to do so by a little rat named Remy, who’s possessed by a plating genius.  Fecking Keller.

Thomas Keller (left) constructing the ratatouille dished used for the film.

Thomas Keller (left) constructing the ratatouille dished used for the film.

Ratatouille “All Stacked Up”  (serves 4)

Keller’s version is a gorgeous layered casserole, which he then deconstructs for plating.  That’s beautiful and awesome, and is a great way to make this recipe, too.  I use 4” round mini springform pans with removable bases to bake the vegetable layers in, which the kids love to pack themselves for individual flavor preferences.   I also add mozzarella cheese and sometimes a sprinkling of Panko to this dish, even though it’s not at all authentic (hell, nothing about this is authentic, so why stop there?)   It just makes it more gooey, crunchy, and yummy.

4 Tbs olive oil (plus more for drizzling)

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 medium eggplant

1 medium zucchini

1 medium yellow squash

3-4 plum tomatoes

1 red bell pepper, cored

1 medium onion

2 medium balls fresh mozzarella (or 1 cup shredded mozzarella)

1 small bunch basil leaves (12-16 large leaves)

½ cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) – optional

Ratatouille towers, ready to go in the oven (I hadn't added the Panko yet).

Ratatouille towers, ready to go in the oven (I hadn’t added the Panko yet).

Slice the eggplant into very thin (as thin as possible) rounds.  Spread in an even layer on a rimmed cookie sheet and sprinkle generously with kosher or sea salt (about 2 tablespoons).  Let sit for about 20 minutes, then turn over the eggplant slices and sprinkle with a bit more salt.  Let rest for another after 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice all of the remaining vegetables cross-wise with a very sharp knife or mandolin, making your rounds as thin as possible.  Sprinkle all of the vegetable slices with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Slice the mozzarella balls into thin rounds (or crumble) if using fresh cheese.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the eggplant slices from the rimmed cookie sheet, and squeeze gently to remove as much liquid and salt as possible.  Don’t worry about completely removing the salt from the eggplant slices, it will add great flavor to your dish.   Wipe all the excess liquid from the cookie sheet.

In a large cast iron skillet, heat about 2 Tbs. oil over medium heat.  Add garlic slices and stir constantly to avoid burning; when the garlic starts to soften and brown (but not burn!) remove it from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside in a small bowl.   In batches of 3-4 slices of eggplant per time (so as not to crowd your skillet), add eggplant to the oil and cook gently until slightly softened on each side and just starting to brown.  Repeat with remaining eggplant slices, adding more oil if needed.

Slightly oil the rimmed cookie sheet with olive oil.  Place four 4” mini springform pans WITH THE BASES REMOVED on the sheet pan, spacing equally.   Starting with a slice of eggplant on the bottom, fill each pan (or stack) with equal parts of each vegetable type and basil leaves, alternating layers of each type of veggie, and layering about halfway through with half of the cheese.  Put more cheese near the top layer, and press down gently as you go to compress the layers as much as possible.  If using springform pans, really pack those suckers full, the veggies will cook down quite a bit.  Drizzle the top of each tower with about 1 tsp. olive oil, the reserved garlic slivers, and sprinkle on top about 1 tablespoon Panko if you like a little crispy accent.

Place on the center rack of your oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until brown on top and bubbly.  Remove from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes to let layers settle.  To plate, slide a wide spatula underneath the tower (or underneath the edge of the pan), gently wiggling to make sure the eggplant is not stuck to the cookie sheet.  Run a small sharp knife around the inside edge of the springform pan to prevent sticking, then gently slide the spatula-laden tower to your serving plate; pull the spatula free from under the tower, then pull the springform pan straight up to release that baby onto your plate.  Garnish with a drizzle of oil from the pan and a sprig of basil.

Now grab a big glass of wine – you deserve it!

A Proper (and Improper) Mint Julep

Today is National Bourbon Day! And also Flag Day. It’s your super-patriotic moral imperative to drink some bourbon- America’s native spirit. Might I suggest a julep or two?

A Bourbon Gal in Utah

Towards the end of April I start getting all nostalgic about Kentucky Derby’s of my youth, singing (well, warbling) “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the weeks of debauchery Louisville celebrates leading up to the big day.  I’m getting misty eyed just thinking about it, but my friends here in Utah don’t quite get the appeal.  There’s a lot to love about my adopted mountain state, but a tradition of extended whiskey-soaked revelry is just not one of them.  And don’t y’all EVEN tell me Pioneer Day rallies the same hedonistic enthusiasm.  Just stop it.  Now.

What’s Derby like?  Well, if you haven’t already, it’s a moral imperative you read Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 essay, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”  It’s a marvel of sports reporting and travel journalism wrapped up in complete and utter sublime bullshit that stands the test of time more than forty years later.  And…

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Butter-Mint “Meltaway” cookies

Sweet Nostalgia: Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book (1963)

This was my first cookbook: One of my favorite vintage cookbooks.  Thanks, mom!

Well, not the one photographed here.  That primordial one would still be with my mom (Grey Goose & Diet Tonic, Lime).  Egg white-warped and vanilla stained from decades of use, it’s still shelved in her tidy Louisville kitchen.  But GG&DTL did go on eBay a few years ago and find vintage editions for my brother, sister, and I as Christmas gifts a few years ago.  Yup, my mom’s pretty awesome like that.

In fact, the first recipe I remember truly and epically failing was from this cookbook:  lemon bars.  When you are 8 years old semi-confidently baking on your own and use 1 Tablespoon of salt rather than 1 teaspoon, you will never forget the resulting humbling yuck.  And the sibling smack talk.

Long ago I decided that if I’m going to bake, I’m going to go with some known results, and for that, my friends, Betty Crocker’s got your back.  Every. Damn. Time (excepting for user error).  I’ve found a handful of tried-and-true cookie recipes from this magnificent pastry compendium.  After all, it’s sub-titled “A Complete Collection – for All Occasions, for Every Taste.”

True, that.

The only things I’ve modified from the original 1963 publication are that I always use unsalted sweet cream butter (rather than the margarine/shortening, or as my grandma Beefeater &Tonic calls it, “oleo”), and I often use a pinch less sugar and a pinch more salt than the recipes call for to adapt for the butter shift.

If your mom hasn’t already sent you a copy, go and find one for yourself.  You will be the hit of the next mid-century modern cocktail party in the desert category.  Unless some talented wombat one-ups you with a Baked Alaska.  This has happened to me.  Sigh.

For the beery brunch the bev-blogger Hoss on Hops and I recently collaborated on, these Buttery Mint cookies were perfect for serving with a chocolaty stout.

Butter-Mint “Meltaway” Cookies (makes about 4 dozen)

Butter-Mint "Meltaway" cookies are great with a chocolate stout.  Thanks for the photo, Hoss!

Butter-Mint “Meltaway” cookies are great with a chocolate stout. Thanks for the photo, Hoss!

I make a triple-batch of these every time*Adapted from Betty Crocker’s 1963 edition Cooky Book

1 cup unsalted butter

½ cup powdered sugar (plus additional for dusting)

1 tsp. peppermint extract

½  tsp. (or more) green food coloring

2 ¼ cups cake flour

¼ tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar, mix until combined and fluffy.  With the beaters going, add peppermint extract and food coloring a drop or two at a time (it will splatter!).  Sift together flour and salt, and then add to the butter mixture ½ cup or so at a time.

Mold the cookie dough into walnut-sized balls (a great kid project).  Place on ungreased cookie sheets.  Bake about 8 minutes- until set but not brown.  While still warm, dip and roll in more confectioners’ sugar to coat.

*These freeze really well to keep on hand for cookie entertaining emergencies.  Like hosting an impromptu beer party on a Sunday morning, for instance.

Suddenly Summer!: Cucumber-Basil Martini with a Salish smoked black sea salt rim

Cucumber Basil Martini

Cucumber Basil Martini

Holy hot spike, Batman!  We went straight from snow-covered daffodils to wilting tulips to hopeful tomato plants all in one day here in the Wasatch Mountains.  Even broke some early spring temps records yesterday.  In celebration (and yes, respite… I’m not quite ready for the 90s yet) I broke out some of my favorite summer flavors:  cucumber, basil, and the floral melody of gin.  I’ve wanted to try out some of my lovely salt collection for use on more than finishing pan-seared meats, roasted potatoes, and salad dressing.   These salts I’ve gathered mostly at my local Tony Caputo’s Market – where they thoughtfully provide 99 cent sample cups of various and sundry goodness so those fickle souls such as I can dabble and snack before commitment.   In this case, I used a finer-grained black Salish smoked sea salt on top of a cucumber-rubbed glass rim.  Delightful.  Yay for Spring!  Or at least the 3 hours of it we got this year.

A sampling of sea salts.  In this case, I used the Salish Black Smoked Sea Salt from Caputo's Market, but I also like the coarser grained Durango smoked grey salt for this cocktail.

A sampling of sea salts. In this case, I used the Salish Black Smoked Sea Salt from Caputo’s Market, but I also like the coarser grained Durango smoked grey salt for this cocktail.

Cucumber Basil & Smoked black sea salt Martini

Freeze a martini glass, or add to the glass several cubes of ice to chill and set aside.

Just before assembling, rub ½ of the glass rim with the cut edge of a cucumber and dip into the smoked sea salt of your choice.

 To a cocktail shaker, add:

1 small cocktail cucumber, sliced thin (about 4 slices of cucumber- reserve 1 slice for garnish)

4-5 leaves fresh basil

2 oz. very floral gin (I’m a fan of Broker’s for this cocktail)

½ oz. dry vermouth

4-5 ice cubes

Shake vigorously until well-frosted and frothy (about 15 seconds)

Strain into the chilled and salty goodness of that martini glass.  Garnish with a cucumber slice and a sprig of baby basil.

Isn’t that refreshing?

Now, don’t y’all put away your parkas and gloves yet, my mountain friends.  Just having made this cocktail guarantees we’ll have a freezing spell next week.  I’ve got my towels ready to cover my ‘maters, just in case.