Food, Wine, Good (and Evil) Spirits
Mojitos make a great summer cocktail – refreshing citrus and mint hit the spot on a hot summer day. I always have a ton of mint growing in pots (it spreads like crazy), and this is a perfect way to use it up.
The best version involves a little advance prep and there are no shortcuts for a delicious, authentic Mojito. It’s important to muddle the mint to release its full flavor, and I like to use mint infused simple syrup to further intensify the flavor.
Many recipes call for lots of mint in the glass, but I find it makes it messy to drink, just a sprig for garnish is all that’s needed.
I’m sure there are stranger routes that land you on a tour of a winery surrounded by the beauty and quirky history of Santa Clarita, but you wouldn’t think a rare breed of dog (and a college application) would be one of them. I take my dog, who is a white Portuguese water dog, to a play group (don’t judge me) in Pacific Palisades. Jill Miller, a breeder of Rottweiler’s and the lady who surrenders her back yard to be mangled by at least 9 puppies every Saturday happened to mention one day that she knew someone else who had owned my rare breed of dog. At that same time, our daughter Hannah and I recently toured Chapman University and had fallen in love with it. Turns out, that same owner of our rare breed of dog, Barry Goldfarb, also had a daughter who had gone to Chapman and he stayed very involved with the school. Jill insisted we meet.
I dragged my heels for a while, but finally, at Jill’s assurance that Barry was a ‘cool guy’, I called...
He invited Hannah and me to his house. My first thought upon seeing him was: jock. I only mention this because it’s the last thing you expect a vintner to look like, but that was his business. After we talked and he showed me and Hannah his amazing collection of antique slot machines, he was gracious enough to offer my husband Chad and me, along with Amy Ephron and her husband Alan Rader, a tour of his winery, the Agua Dulce Winery.
It was important that Chad and Amy and Alan come. I needed them to come. Not only do I know nothing about wine. I don’t drink. A lifelong teetotaler, if it didn’t taste like Delaware Punch, I was out.
Childhood fantasy: Coming home from school on a cold day and having a grilled American cheese sandwich with a bit of tomato soup. Adulthood fantasy: A prosciutto, manchego and mint pesto pear grilled cheese sandwich paired with a glass of Hirsh Pinot Noir. Who says that childhood fantasies are better?
Last Thursday, Peggy and I went to 3 Twenty Wine Lounge, our favorite wine bar, for the return of Campanile's grilled cheese night. Campanile was one of the great Los Angeles restaurants that for many years set the mark for food and style for dining in L.A. It original owners, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, were the foodie "it" couple. Reservations were impossible, food was incredible and the venue, once belonging to Charlie Chaplin, was gorgeous. Sadly, like many great restaurants, it ran its time and recently closed.
Of the many innovations that came from Chefs Peel and Silverton was the elevation of the grilled cheese sandwich to an art form. Many chefs today are making amazing grilled cheese – Celebrity Chef Eric Greenspan having twice won trophies at the international grilled cheese competition – but it was Peel and Silverton who started it all. They introduced a grilled cheese night at Campanile that was packed for years. It was the original. It still is the standard.
I love California wine and I'm not afraid to admit it. More than any other region and, through extensive wine classes, I've tasted them all. And I'm tired of people (OK, mostly other writers) bashing the wines from my adopted state for being what they mostly can't help being - big, bold and some claim overly-alcoholic. We have sun here, a lot of it, and it shows in the wines we make. That's called "terroir" people. If you don't like it, there are now hundreds of thousands of choices from almost every country in the world. Take your pick. Stop complaining and drink what you like.
Personally, I like to taste more fruit than dirt in my glass so I'm perfectly content right where I am. Can I agree that California produces a preponderance of wines that show little character and that bludgeon your taste buds with too much of everything? Sure. On the flip side, low alcohol wines can be thin, insipid and too acidic all in the cause of being opposite. Having travelled up and down the state, I know there are many, many, many winemakers out there trying to make the best wines from their land (or purchased grapes) that focus on all the right things: balance, fruit and complexity.
That's all I ask for. Depth of character. Whether light-bodied or full-throttled, taste like something other than grape juice and oak. Subtle doesn't have to mean boring and intensity isn't always overwhelming. Balance is the key. It certainly begins in the vineyard with a myriad of farming decisions, but actions in the winery also play an important role. When the right winemaker finds the right grapes, it is magic in the glass. This idea became In Pursuit of Balance, a movement created three years ago by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards and Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and Sandhi Wines to support wineries striving to craft balanced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California. I'm not sure this concept really needs a "movement", but I found a lot to love at their recent tasting in Los Angeles.
Last Sunday evening, in an apartment on the Upper West Side, I turned off the burner, dropped a knob of butter into the pan, and swirled it into the red wine, caramelized shallots, chicken stock, and filet drippings. This is my favorite moment in cooking. It’s called “mounting” (a great technique deserves a great name) and is the final thickening of a sauce by adding butter.
Everything becomes richer at that point. Every taste becomes a million times more delicious. It’s magic. I held my breath as I plated the roasted rosemary potatoes, sugar snap peas/ snow peas/ pea shoots in lemon sauté, beef tenderloin, and spooned the sauce on top. These were new clients I was cooking for and, yes, I still get nervous.
I was suddenly transported back to a client I hadn’t thought of in years. He was some bigwig but not famous producer whose name I don’t recall. It must have been a decade ago in Beverly Hills. I had just made the decision to leave the acting profession and pursue a career in the cooking industry. I had been cooking off and on for years but never really thought of myself as a chef. This was that moment of leaping and hoping a net would appear. I enrolled in a cooking school to make sure I knew what I was talking about and started working professionally about a month after class had begun. Thank you, net.
“He would like for you to come in next Tuesday to cook his dinner. This will be a test run. He’s been through a lot of chefs.” The client’s personal assistant had found my name and number through another chef, Monica, that I worked with in a busy Los Angeles catering company. Monica had tried and failed to satisfy him – a fact which terrified me, as she was much more experienced than I. She had said one thing to me, “He has a very rich appetite. Be prepared for anything.” I didn’t know if that meant he was wealthy or liked fattening things, so I assumed both were true.
A coffee farmer shared with me that the most injury prone job picking coffee involves climbing. When one hand is holding the tree and the other a machete--what are you left with to swat the bugs?
Last March I traveled to a coffee plantation in Nicaragua to help run a volunteer medical and dental clinic for the workers, their families, and the villagers. The team set up shop in an open-air church and saw 1,200 patients in a week. Babies with distended bellies from parasites, respiratory infections, decayed teeth, dehydration. Patients lined up. Machete wounds were common. One involved a bee.
I was overwhelmed by the emotion of it--watching some brave person getting teeth pulled, barely betraying their pain. I would walk out to the rainforest and indulge in a good cry. I expected the week to be hard--what surprised me was the joy. Despite the intense emotions, I also laughed harder that week than I could remember doing for a long time. (Sometimes because the very earnest nurses were so bad at Spanish. Also there was a broken toilet seat incident.) It's no secret. Volunteering feeds the soul.
A few months ago I was at a bar where the hip, mustachioed bartenders were touting their selection of superlative old-school cocktails. So I ordered a Manhattan. My husband turned to me and said, “You know a Manhattan is a guy’s drink, right?”
“No, man, that’s fine,” the bartender interrupted. “You’ve got a woman who knows what she wants.”
Yup, I do. Sure, I like a refreshing mint mojito and a champagne sparkler just like the next gal, but there are times when I crave something stronger, more muscular, like scotch or bourbon.
Since that night I've ordered many a manly drink. I've also asked many a manly man what he thinks of women who imbibe traditional men’s drinks. Everyone I spoke with was OK with it, and many thought it was sexy. But most were quick to add this caveat: “Just not on the first date. You might scare us off.”
They also agreed: Don’t go too masculine too quickly. Want to order an Old-Fashioned? Don’t. Too Don Draper. A Rusty Nail? Too Bob Villa. A Godfather? Too Michael Corleone.
If your current drink of choice is a fruity Cosmopolitan, then don't switch to a bitter Negroni. You might not recover from the shock.
Every holiday party deserves a little cocktail. Don’t you agree? Using seasonal ingredients to create both savory and sweets is a given. Drinks should share in what the season has to offer and that is exactly why this cocktail will be what we will be toasting with this season.
If you haven’t eaten one yet, you are truly missing out. It is the one apple, aside from a good Fuji, that I crave. Around 11 a.m. every day, my snack of choice is a honey crisp with a wedge of raw, white cheddar. So satisfying!
Whipping up a cocktail is an effortless task. I don’t drink all that much and when I do come up with something as simple as this I am reminded as to how much easier it is to mix up a drink, unlike a cake or a tart.
If you’ve never had a Manhattan, you may be missing out on one of the great cocktails, a truly sophisticated drink that lives up to its name. I suppose the Martini is the most popular and famous of the two, but I prefer the warm, smooth, interesting flavors of a traditional Manhattan.
Of course, not all Manhattan’s are the same - every bartender (mixologist) seems to have his/her own version. At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, it’s worth specifying a few things when ordering.
Try to request a Rye whiskey rather than Bourbon, it’s the original and frankly tastes better - a few favorites include: Russell’s Reserve, Knob Creek Rye Whiskey, Hudson Manhattan Rye, Bulleit Rye, or Rittenhouse.
The rest of the recipe is simple –sweet vermouth, a splash of bitters, and a cherry; but make sure they stir, not shake your drink, otherwise you will wind up being served a cloudy, foamy cocktail. This silky smooth libation should be a clear amber color, and perfectly chilled.
We all have those incredible sensory memories where just the slight aroma sends us back to a treasured moment. Our minds are suddenly flooded with images and a sense of time and place that once was. While I have many of those memories tucked away in my heart, there is one in particular that plays to a tea tune.
It was one of those perfect fall days in New York where the air was crisp but nowhere near close to cold. Running down the streets of SoHo to meet a dear friend, I found her waiting with a smile in front of In Pursuit of Tea’s shop (which I must sadly say is no longer open). We opened the glass door to the tiny store with exposed brick walls that seemed to glow like autumn leaves on the treeless street.
Shelves were lined with traditional cups and teapots, and a blackboard displayed what teas were being sampled that day. Within seconds, my whirlwind of joy calmed as my eyes settled on the word “oolong” written across the board. For those of you who have followed me on my tea journey, you know that oolong tea makes my heart sing. I turned to face the woman pouring tea from a gaiwan and gently approached her. She extended a delicate cup and before I brought the sip to my lips, I heard her share that it was their “high mountain oolong tea.” Even though I was grounded in fall just moments ago, my senses shifted to spring as the floral notes escaped through the steam. With just one sip I found myself lost in a field of honeysuckle flowers. It was at that very moment that I knew I had found a treasured tea, a transformative tea.