A cook's cocktail: "Negronis for my friends"

Last week, I went to Agata & Valentina's restaurant on the Upper East Side with some co-workers. They had a fancy, long list of wines. The bartender was great about letting us try a few sips of a couple wines, but nothing seemed right. Then I reached over for the cocktail menu. The negroni immediately called out to me: a blend equal parts Campari, vermouth and gin.

When I asked the bartender for a negroni, he immediately asked, "Have you had one before?"

"Yes," I urgently replied. I couldn't wait to get my hands on that drink, but my reply was a little bit of a fib. I'd never had a Negroni before, but Campari is a favorite of mine and in my mind, I was already tasting this cool, crisp mix of herbal and rounded fruit flavors.

"Something I like that you probably won't" is how Sushiesque describes the negroni. The flavor of Campari -- and all of "those sort of oddly flavored fortified wine/booze thingies" as fellow herby aperitif lover Ann from A Chicken in Every Grannycart wisely calls them -- can be confusing to the tongue at first. We Americanos are not used to these deep herbal flavors.

I think the Negroni is the a cocktail a cook can appreciate best: full of flavor, bracing but balanced, both juicy and strong. The gin gives an alcoholic bite and rounds out some of the bitterness of the Campari; while Campari provides fruit flavors and a rich red color; though some vermouths are clear, the vermouth my bartender used turned the Campari's red to my cocktail's mahogany sun-brewed iced-tea color and sends some sweetness to relax the Campari.

I've been known to compare drinking gin and tonics, one of R*'s favorite drinks, to "licking the stump of the Christmas tree" while R* says that my Campari and sodas "taste like medicine." Yet in this balanced blend, I begin to appreciate the flavor of gin. I can't wait to make R* one and see if he likes Negronis too.

Sushiesque also provides wallet cards with the negroni recipe on them and some excellent comments which inspired my title for this post.

My negroni was served in a martini glass. Turns out, negronis and other Campari aperitifs are usually served in a rocks glass on ice. I'll try them that way when I make them at home.


The problem with black pepper

"It is universally agreed that black pepper boiled in a soup or stock or stew for longer than ten minutes turns bitter and loses its aromatic and pungent properties. Yet few people correct and enchance old recipes by leaving out pepper until the end."
- Jeffrey Steingarten in Red Wine and Old Roosters as excerpted in Best Food Writing 2002

I must have missed the memo. I really didn't know regular, trusty old black pepper could turn stews and stock bitter.

In the beef stews I make all winter, I tend to mix the beef cubes in a flour coating with some salt and pepper. I brown the beef and then add wine and slowly stew the whole thing. Is the pepper added in this step adding off flavors?

This topic seems like just the sort of thing that Cook's Illustrated should know about, but I did a search on their paid site and didn't find anything.

Does anyone else have a tip about using black pepper turning food bitter? Is Jeffrey Steingarten about the universal agreement on this topic?

Lillet is shady

Last week, while I was in the liquor store stocking up on rose -- the "summer drink to be seen with"-- I got caught up in a fit of faux French-ness I also asked for a bottle of Lillet.

Why did I ask for Lillet? Well, I was seduced by Urban Spam.

See, all summer-long, I've been seeing noticing these deep red umbrellas lounging over the best sidewalk cafes in Chelsea and the West Village. While rushing by, I've wished I could stop and just sit under those umbrellas.

Though I worked in advertising, I usually don't like to admit I was directly pushed into buying something by an ad. I like to think I'm immune to the powers of the ad.

But the umbrella ad definitely inspired this Lillet purchase. There was no word-of-mouth from a knowing bar tender or life-changing trip to France that made me try Lillet. There is only the umbrella ad.

Now I probably wouldn't order Lil-it or Lee-lay or Lil-let in a cafe since I didn't know how to pronounce it or how to order it. Was it a wine, a cocktail, served on the rocks or in soda? I wasn't sure.

After a little Googling, I learned that Very Cold is the way to serve Lillet. Some like it straight, some mix it with soda, many like it with an orange slice garnish. After chilling my Lillet for a few days in the fridge, I tried it straight and then tried it mixed in soda.

Though he's a white wine fan, R* said he didn't like it either way. Though I didn't tell R* at the time, I didn't like it that much either. The taste seemed to manufactured or composed. But yes, the bottle was pretty and the fruity herbal flavor seemed like it had potential if I could figure out what to do with it. I was poaching salmon that night and didn't have any white wine to flavor the poaching water, so I tentatively put a few glugs of Lillet into the mix. I didn't notice much difference in the fish, maybe that's becasue salmon has such a strong flavor of its own. The Lillet site is all in Flash, but there are some recipes and commentary there that are a helpful reference.

That night I dumped the rest of my Lillet and soda down the sink, poured myself a rose and told myself I'd get back to the Lillet another day.

I'm liking Lillet again today because I just noticed this post in praise of Lillet on Domino magazines new surprisingly down-to-earth blog.


Blame the heat for the long lines at Starbucks

I think it was my time spent working at a big ad agency on 49th and Madison that got me hooked on Starbucks. There were three or four within two blocks of my office, not to mention the Starbucks in Rock Center and the one in Grand Central. When the work stress got overwhelming, there was always a Starbucks escape a block away (126 of them in Midtown East according to their store locator).

I never go for their Mochachokealateeyaya with Pomegranate Green Tea or whatever Slurpee-style stuff they were pushing, but I think the Starbucks iced coffee and iced tea are excellent.

Many times, as I stood in a long, hot line waiting for my iced coffee, I wondered if Starbucks, at least Starbucks in NYC should introduce an express line for those of us who just want the plain "pour and serve drinks": coffee, iced coffee, iced tea.

Starbucks didn't meet their earnings results this quarter and they are blaming it on the heat (or is it the humidity?) and long lines at their stores. Here's a fun post with pictures of those lines around the city and a review of their earnings report.

Maybe the dip in earnings will push Starbucks to open express lanes for those of us with plain Jane orders?

While I'm on the topic of Starbucks: why don't they offer lemons for the iced tea? It seems like they can strive to offer every customization and combination of caffeinated beverage, yet they don't offer humble lemons with their iced tea.

I assume they don't stock lemons because lemons, unlike say tangerine syrup, are a fresh product with a relatively quick shelf life.

One last question on Starbucks: while they coat the rest of mid-Manhattan like gum on a hot sidewalk, why are there no Starbucks near my new office in the East 30's? There's a Dunkin Donuts and another one opening up soon, but no Starbucks.

I never thought I would become one of "those people" who moaned about the distance between their office and Starbucks. I guess I could blame this new personality flaw on the heat.


After and before our summer dinner party

R* and I had a dinner party for five Sunday night.

I built the menu backwards. CQ wanted me to make the chocolate cake again and I thought it would go well with some home made vanilla ice cream and the cake would be a great way to belatedly celebrate 2's birthday.

With that rich cake at the end of the line where I might have put a peach sorbet or tart, how could I create the rest of the meal to celebrate the peak of the farmer's market growing season? Here's the menu . . . how do you think I did?

Prosciutto and Cantaloupe
Fresh Tomatoes with Ricotta

Cold Borscht with Dill, Cucumbers, and Hard Boiled Eggs

Mustard and Chili Rubbed Rare Roast Beef
Heirloom Tomatoes and Arugula Salad
Boiled Redskin Potatoes
Steamed Yellow Squash

Chocolate Souffle Cake
Philadelphia Style Vanilla Ice Cream

In "Growing Up Gourmet" by Barbara Haber (Best Food Writing 2002), Haber says that food is an "exquisite battleground" because it gave Lillian Hellman and other food lovers "a lot to fight about: what to cook, how to cook it, how to serve it, and with whom to share the meal." While I like this metaphor of a fight (food fight! food fight!), I'm really not much of a fighter. For me, it's a Sudoku puzzle for the plate:

** If I serve the hot potatoes with the cold borscht -- "the best a beet can hope for" -- as Bittman suggests, what will the starch be for the meal?

** The butcher at A&S Pork Store suggests I can substitute London Boil for tenderloin and save some serious money, as long as I slice it "reeeeeeeaaaaaaly thin."

** I ask R*: Should we use the everyday cereal bowls for the soup or coffee cups or do I need to buy something?

** How do you chill ice cream according to the "manufacturer's instructions," as nearly every ice cream recipe preaches, when you bought your ice cream maker last summer at a stoop sale for $5 and never got an instruction booklet?

** What about zinnias for the flowers? I hope no one mistakes them for Gerber daises. Zinnias, fuzzy bug eaten leaves and all, remind me of summers spent in upstate New York with my grandparents and aunt.

While I'll never understand why people deliberately frustrate themsevles with sudoku and word search puzzles, especially on the New York City subway which is possibly the world's most frustrating place even without puzzles, and while I hope I won't be fighting on my death bed as Lillian Hellman was in this excerpt, I love the Mrs. Dalloway-esque internal dialogue required to host a successful dinner party. I can't wait to start planning the next one. And to keep myself from thinking about our Chirstmas party too much, I made a rule a few years back: no planning the Christmas party, no menus, no guest lists, until Halloween.

These are the things I think about, before and after our parties, things to consider while setting the table with my grandmother's Fostoria American dishes and then re-consider like this morning while I was un-loading the dishwasher and putting in a third load of post-party dishes (yes! this dishwasher is fixed!) and picking half-moons of limes and a piece of water-logged ciabatta out of the drain.

Food taboos in NYC: Pink wine and granny carts

Pink wine was considered beyond the pale, a Kool Aid drink best left to Bartles and James. No serious New York City host would serve it, but this summer the prohibition on pink wine has been lifted. While the cosmo, New York's last hot pink drink, is "so over", we have a new trendy pink drink in town. Rose is the chic pink "summer drink to be seen with" according to Sunday's New York Times.

Looks like we beat the Sunday Styles trend patrol on this one. R* and I have been enjoying roses all summer. I read about roses in Martha Stewart Living on our flight to the UK . Then I heard more rose buzz on Apartment Therapy: Kitchen.

I'm never comfortable in a wine shop: I don't want to end up with a terrible wine, nor do I want to spend too much. Shopping for rose makes me especially uncomfortable because of lingering concerns that pink wine is un-cool or at least un-manly. Yesterday I ran in to our local wineshop on Flatbush Avenue. I asked for a rose that wasn't too sweet, they led me to their last bottle of Big House Pink. I thought a rose would be a good match for the mustard-and-chili rubbed rare roasted beef (recipe from Hot Night, Cold Suppers) I served for dinner.

Trying to do my part in making more people "think pink" when it comes to wine, I served little juice glasses of Big House Pink with the rare beef. I thought the Big House wine was ok, but not as great as some of the roses I've tried, though I didn't keep track of any of their names.

Most New Yorkers, especially us guys, would probably rather be caught red-handed with pink wine than be seen pushing a granny cart home from the grocery store. I'll confess to owning a granny cart. I used it from time to time -- if I knew I would be stocking up on something heavy like bottled water or canned tomatoes or a frozen turkey -- but these days, I order the heavy stuff from Fresh Direct and keep the cart in the closet.

The tables might be turning on the cart's cool factor. The cart is going "from squeak to chic" according to The New York Times. Brian Keith Jackson says, "Though carts can be stylish -- I've got my eye on the Swany Smartcart at Gracious Home, definitely a Volvo among carts -- perhaps what they symbolize most is growing up."

I might think about taking my cart out for a shopping trip soon, but I don't think it will be a regular thing. I go to the grocery store so often, I don't need to push a ton of food home all at once, but you will find me often over at A Chicken in Every Granny Cart -- one of my favorite food blogs, with a name that gives it immediate NYC street cred.