Monthly Archives: December 2008

Homemade Gin — an experiment

And no, to answer your first question: a bathtub was not involved.

Having written and spoken as much as I have about gin in recent years, it seems somewhat sacrilegious to suggest that I “made” gin. I’ve been to too many distilleries, sampled too many quality gins, and studied too much the art and science of gin-making to believe what I have in this bottle is truly gin.

But, an oft-repeated characteristic of gin is that–at its core–it is essentially gin1infused vodka. By definition, gin begins with a neutral spirit (which vodka is) into which botanicals are infused. Juniper is the only “must” on that list of flavorings, other elements include citrus, flowers, herbs, seeds, spices, roots. And techniques for melding the aromatics with the spirit vary. It’s why I think of gin as the most culinary of all spirits, the distiller has lots of room to follow creative impulses and come up with a distinctive product with a signature blend of botanicals.

What spurred this recent exercise was a posting  at Gourmet magazine’s online outlet by food editor Ian Knauer. At first I scoffed, quick to discount such a simplified version of gin’s process. But there I was at the liquor store gin2buying a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. Everything else I had on hand at home. I didn’t follow Knauer’s recipe to the letter. I used orange peel in place of lemon or lime, a generous teaspoon of dried lavender blossoms in place of fresh and omitted fresh rosemary, adding star anise instead. I also just threw everything in at once, rather than pre-infusing with juniper.

Oh, that jar of cumin you see in the photo? Mentally omit that. I thought better of adding any to this concoction, afraid it would have an overpowering effect on the balance of things. Maybe if I take up homemade aquavit one of these days; cumin seems more suited to that spice-imbued spirit.

It was interesting to see how much color the vodka took on overnight. After a good 24 hours or so of infusing, I strained the “gin” and poured it back into the bottle. I also picked out most of the juniper berries from the strainer and popped them back in the bottle as well, wishing I’d used more in the first place. All in all, it’s a pretty darn well balanced, flavorful, aromatic spirit to sip. I was surprisingly pleased with the results. It will be a fun idea to play around with more over the months. Interestingly, this bottle came to the rescue when we got snowed in last week. I’d polished off the last of the No. 209  gin I had on the gin3shelf and failed to restock before the snowflakes started falling. So my homemade version tided me over until we made the chilly 2½ mile trek as far as our nearest liquor store a few days later.

So, about that bathtub gin of yore. I do have a recipe that Seattle barman Michael Vezzoni, at the elegant Fairmont Olympic Hotel downtown, shared, which he’d come up with after a good deal of research. A few years back, the hotel celebrated its 80th anniversary, the festivities for which included an “Eight Decades of Cocktails” list created by Vezzoni, with the Harvey Wallbanger in honor of the 1960s, the Singapore Sling for the 1920s and the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan for this decade. Count back 80 years and you find yourself in the early years of prohibition. In honor of the hotel’s day-of anniversary celebration in 2004, Vezzoni went so far as to put together a big batch of bathtub gin—with over a dozen botanicals (including juniper, coriander, orange zest, cassia bark and caraway)—for the night’s martinis. It was a unique taste of history, adding perspective to the distinct story of gin.

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Dreaming of a White Vegas

This past week has served up some serious Winter Wonderland material. Not only is our West Seattle home nestled in a good foot or so of snow, but we were in Vegas for its newsworthy snowfall last week. The green glow the snow took on in the lights of MGM Grand was something to behold!

For our fourth and final trip to Vegas this year, we stayed mostly at the Palazzo, the new tower on the Venetian property. Top-notch rooms, spacious, lots of great amenities. So swellegant that when we moved a few blocks south for our last night, the rooms at Paris seemed somehow less enchanting than they’d always been before. I played in a live blackjack tournament at the Rio, which was a little intimidating but went just fine. Didn’t win anything, but my play didn’t scream “novice” either, so I was happy. Even lead in chips at my table at the check-in point five hands before the end of play. It was a nice change of pace from slot and video poker tournaments we usually frequent.

This December trip has become an annual tradition to celebrate the husband’s birthday. It’s a fun town in which to answer that old “where should we go for your birthday dinner?” question. A couple recent favorites for the occasion include Okada at the Wynn and Hugo’s Cellar in the Four Queens Casino downtown (the two could not be more polar-opposite in style, each delicious and satisfying in their own way).

Last week we chose L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon for the fête. (Had we won a big jackpot prior to the dinner, we’d have happily upgraded to the more posh, formal, refined restaurant, called simply Joël Robuchon, next door. Another trip, we hope to make that happen!) The upscale-counter-service concept created something of a stir in Paris when Robuchon opened his Atelier there in 2003. I happened to have a trip to (the real) Paris that summer, the restaurant within walking distance of my longtime favorite hotel. Looks like they’ve become a bit more accommodating about reservations, at the time I recall a strict no-reservations policy. The elite French diners dropped off by their drivers strutted in to the hostess desk, past all of us waiting patiently on the sidewalk, haughty heads held high. Then returned to their cars at a quicker pace, muttering unpleasantries in such lyrical fashion, after confronting the fact that no pedigree or social rank was going to secure them a table. The wait was to be 45 minutes-plus, just like the rest of us. I don’t recall details about the meal, but we ate very well and had a lot of fun.

But back to Vegas. They do take reservations at this Atelier, though in these slow times they were also able to take walk-ins from the Cirque de Soleil theatre adjacent, with the KÀ production. Dinner was outstanding, service polished but friendly, the theater of the kitchen an enticing show to accompany our meal. Though it was tempting, we passed on the menu découverte, a 10-course selection that included langoustine carpaccio, creamy pumpkin soup with confit chestnuts and your choice of quail or hanger steak for the sole meaty element. We ordered, instead, from the left side of the menu, which was described as a chance to craft your own tasting menu, we were recommended to each choose 3 to 4 dishes.

Our amuse bouche was same as that for the découverte, a foie gras parfait topped with a thin layer of port reduction, then a generous layer of parmesan foam. Ohhh, baby, baby, delicious and decadent. And lucky me, I got two, this wasn’t quite Bob’s speed. Next we both had the layered Mediterranean vegetables, something like an elegant, pure-and-simple take on ratatouille, large slices of the grilled vegetables layered with buffalo mozzarella and herbs, very fresh and delicious, almost tasted like summer (a fun surprise on a snowy night).

We both also chose the langoustine, described as a “fritter” with basil pesto. Wow, so wonderful. Though not much like a fritter, to my mind. One large, perfect langoustine topped with a leaf of basil, wrapped in Feuilles de Brick
and lightly fried. A tiny but perfect little microgreen salad alongside was an ideal accent.

From here, we diverged. Bob really reveled in the fresh anchovies that had been marinated and served with sliced eggplant confit. Presentation was gorgeous and simple, a perfect, generous rectangle of the anchovies atop the layer of eggplant. I, meanwhile, was moaning quietly over the veal ravioli with fried artichoke scattered over the top. The pasta was paper thin and very delicately enclosed the veal filling. A rich veal reduction served as the sauce, and those crisp fried artichokes complemented beautifully. I was in heaven.

I wrapped things up with the quail offered on the découverte menu, the boneless breast stuffed with foie gras, the roasted leg alongside, accompanied by the famous, luxuriant Robuchon mashed potatoes that were generously embellished with truffle. Wow. The classic version of the potatoes was served alongside Bob’s John Dory, which had been pan-seared and came with baby calamari and artichokes.

(When I started working for Patricia Wells back in the early 1990s, she was just wrapping up work on Simply French with Joël Robuchon, I helped a bit with some of the book’s final details. There, the secret to his purée de pommes de terre  is spelled out. A couple highlights include the proportion of 2 pounds baking potatoes to about 1 cup of butter, and the technique of both pressing the potatoes through a food mill, then passing them through a fine tamis. See? totally luxuriant and worth every penny.)

The birthday boy’s dessert of choice is always cheese. Here’s where we hit a serious jackpot. With the 3-star Michelin restaurant next door, guests at l’Atelier have a chance to sample some truly outstanding cheeses that are brought in from France regularly to stock the cheese cart next door. Granted, we had just the 4 selected choices rather than a whole cart to pick from, but that will be a joy for another day. The four we had (and here I’m kicking myself for not taking better notes…) included a Sainte-Marue de Touraine goat, a tomme de brebis, and the rest is a blur of artfully aged milk. The presentation was, to our minds, cheese plate perfection, no honey or relish-this or pickled-that. Just a tiny green salad for a bright, fresh palate contrast.

The chef saw how much we enjoyed the cheeses and offered a plate with more of the tomme de brebis, what a treat that was. Though I was maxed out by that point; Bob was happy as could be.

It was a marvelous evening, really delicious, creative, finessed food, an ideal way to celebrate a birthday. Not inexpensive, we topped $300 with tax and tip (of which just 2 glasses of wine). It can be unnerving to look at a menu with small plate prices ranging from $20 to $38. But I was pleased with the size of the portions (more than a few bites) and for the quality/flavor values, the price was right. I’d go back to l’Atelier in a heartbeat. Though still looking forward to walking into the grander sibling alongside with a fistful of hundred dollar bills on one of our next trips.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (MGM Grand) on Urbanspoon

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Dinner in a Flash: Sausages

A few days ago it was Just One Of Those Days. Never catching a break, feeling always behind the 8-ball, a sense that if I just grasp my head firmly enough alongside each ear I can hopefully keep my head from exploding. You know those days, right? Couldn’t even muster any enthusiasm for going out to dinner to get away from it all. And while I love most everything about my West Seattle neighborhood, we live in some odd dead-zone when it comes to caulisaus1delivery options. It seems Domino’s is the only one who can find us (and we’re by no means in the boonies of the neighborhood).

So boy, was I glad I had these simple things on hand: a package of good sausages (Bruce Aidell’s brand, this version spinach with feta), half an onion and a head of cauliflower (a delicious and versatile vegetable that I don’t think gets nearly the attention it deserves). To the rescue! It took  maybe 10 minutes to throw this all together and pop in the oven. A welcome brief reprieve from my desk.

caulisaus2First I browned the sausages in a big oven-going skillet (I know, they’re already cooked, but just for some added layers of flavor). While that’s going on, I cored and coarsely chopped the cauliflower and diced up some onion.

Sausages get set aside, in goes a bit more olive oil and onions brown for a few minutes over medium-high heat. Add the cauliflower and saute for another minute or two. Nestle the sausages on top, sprinkle everything with salt and pepper, and I added a generous splash of Noilly Prat dry vermouth (one of my secret weapon ingredients). Into a 350 degree oven until I make it through the next pressingly urgent bit of writing caulisaus3I need to get done (or the cauliflower is tender and lightly browned around the edges, whichever comes first).

I already can’t remember if we had anything else, I think that may have been the extent of dinner. But it was really delicious, really easy and stands up to any quick-food options on One Of Those Days.

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More Delicious Holiday Cheer

If gelato, below, isn’t quite the right gift for the culinarian on your list, perhaps briny treats from the sea will be? I just received the annual reminder from Jon Rowley that homegrown Taylor Shellfish is once again offering holiday packages of oysters fresh from their Puget Sound beds.

Each of the two options  includes Olympias, Kumamotos, Totten Inlet oysterboxPacifics and Totten Inlet Virginicas — 6 or 12 of each, your choice ($35 and $64 respectively, plus shipping). Each shipment also includes a shucking knife, shucking guide, oyster profiles and Jon’s own “Art of Eating an Oyster” essay.

My father-in-law is nuts about oysters. When they make the trip north from Berkeley each summer, they eat dozens and dozens of halfshell oysters while they’re in town (at Steelhead Diner this past summer). So of course, this makes the perfect holiday gift for the in-laws; it will be our third December shipping them this Northwest bounty for Christmas. (I doubt I’m ruining any surprises there, it’s becoming a tradition).

So deck those halls with oysters by the dozen!

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Visions of Gelato

Just got one of those press releases that makes me want to yell “stop the presses.” If only someone actually used presses any more? This news is perfectly timed to help those in need of securing the ideal holiday gift for the food-lover (more specifically gelato-lover) on their list.

Holly Smith, celebrated chef of Cafe Juanita (she won the James Beard Award poco-carretto-logo1for Best Chef Northwest in June of this year) launched a line of high-end gelati and sorbetti this summer. Poco Carretto (or, “little cart”) first appeared in a colorful European-style cart, selling scoops at Seattle area farmers markets, and pints through limited retail distribution. I made a gift of pints of Poco Carretto to supporters who donated a certain amount of money toward my fundraising for the Breast Cancer 3-Day this fall. (Hey, I just signed up for next year! Want to be the first to donate?!)

My friends have not stopped talking about that gelato, particularly the decadent, not-too-sweet burnt sugar, unlike any caramel you’ve ever tasted. Though she does offer a few classic offerings, such as gianduja and vanilla (albeit Organic Bourbon Vanilla), Holly is clearly having fun in the kitchen developing her flavors. Consider Pinenut Brittle with Marsala Currents, Toasted Rice, and Mascarpone with Honeyed Raspberries. And I have got to get my hands on some of her malt gelato.

Special orders and home delivery have been available for a while now. But what’s new is the “gelato a month” club format–which they’re calling Gelato to You–that you can now offer as a gift to family and friends. From a 1-time delivery any single month, to monthly deliveries for a full year, each shipment will include 4 pints (different flavors, pending the season and Holly’s inspirations). Including delivery, the cost is $50 per month (in 3-month increments) for Seattle area, a bit more for farther destinations.

Hopefully Santa’s listening in and may hear the whispers of gelato fans near and far who plan to add this to their Christmas list!

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Seattle-Portland Synergy

I know the whole “sister city” concept is meant to bridge different cultures and countries that share a common thread. In fact, I was pretty active in the Seattle-Nantes Sister City Association back in college. But in reality those civic relationships seem more cousin-like than sisterly. Particularly after thinking recently about the great synergy that Seattle and Portland share. The two cities exhibit a lot of those sibling characteristics: similar physical features, common history, similar wardrobe (and kitchen pantry, for that matter), but with distinct personalities and the occasional dose of sibling rivalry and jealousy. Ultimately, there’s a casual ease about exchange between the two cities, like dropping in to my sister’s house and helping myself to a glass of wine, rather than waiting to be asked!

I’ve had occasion to pop down to Portland a few times in the past year or so. And I haven’t driven in probably a decade. I’m a HUGE fan of the Amtrak Cascades service between Seattle and Portland (and Seattle and Vancouver, BC for that matter). Very relaxing, incredibly scenic, they show a current film (Wall-E last trip), serve you hot coffee and a full menu. And the station in Portland is central enough I usually toss my small bag over my shoulder and just walk into downtown to check into a hotel or meet up with a friend.

A few highlights from recent trips to Portland include lunches at Clyde Common and Park Kitchen, cocktails at Ten 01 and Teardrop Lounge, and dinners at Nostrana and Le Pigeon. I grabbed an amazing bagel with scallion cream cheese from Kenny & Zuke’s for the train trip home; still haven’t sat down for one of their celebrated pastrami sandwiches yet.

I killed some spare time one morning taking advantage of the free wi-fi at Sip & Kranz in the Pearl District. Great coffee shop, particularly since they have a nice mom-and-kids area near the entrance, so the other end of the room tends to be quiet. Needing a little snack, I ordered what I thought was going to be a simple panini with a schmear of Nutella in it; I apparently, instead, ordered the panini that has Nutella, banana and marshmallow cream. Heavens to Betsy, that was decadent, gooey and delicious. And about the worst thing to be nibbling on while trying to work on a laptop. I ended stevescheeseup asking for a few wet paper towels to keep my fingertips tidy.

I’m sorry Portland isn’t a bit closer when I get emails from Steve’s Cheese in Northwest Portland. This tiny, glorious cheese shop is tucked toward the back of the Square Deal Wine Shop— such a perfect retail marriage. I would love to have been at their Anniversary Party a few weeks ago, complete with oozy-delicious raclette.

And if I were able, I’d be at next weekend’s House Spirits Third Annual Booze Bazaar. On Saturday, December 13 from 1:00 to 5:00 (21 and over only), they’ll be sampling and selling their own products, including Aviation Gin, Medoyeff Vodka and Krogstad Aquavit (I can personally vouch for the deliciousness and finesse of housespirits2all three). On hand will also be “a gaggle of other great vendors,” as their invitation states, including cheesemakers, other spirits and even bacon caramels from Xocolatl de David (wow).

I recently returned the favor to Portlanders for sharing their top spots with me, by contributing some favorite Seattle dishes in the current issue of Mixmagazine. Mix was launched a couple years ago by my good friend Martha Holmberg, who moved with her family from Connecticut to Portland a few years ago to become food editor at the Oregonian. It’s a really hip, arty, creative publication put out quarterly. A great new addition for the culinary cognoscenti of the region.

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