Thursday

The Muddled Limey

Cocktails. Mixed drinks. Whatever you call them—I've heard them referred to as "boat drinks"—I love them.

Which is why I almost never order them in a bar.

Isn't that odd? Isn't that where drinks live? In bars?

In theory, yes. Cocktail-makin's live in bars. Alcohol. Carbonated beverages. Fruit juices.

The problem is that cocktails need to be created quickly to satisfy demand. Few bartenders take the time mix one well. Another problem is with the ingredients.

Consider the simple gin and tonic. It has 4 ingredients: gin, tonic, ice and lime wedge. Cocktails don’t come any simpler.

Maybe the bar has a nice selection of gin.

But look at the tonic. Ninety-nine per-cent of the time the tonic will come out of a “gun.” It will consist of tonic concentrate mixed with carbonated water. The gun will also dispense cola, soda, ginger ale, lemon soda, and reconstructed fruit juices—not to mention to bane of a good margarita, “sours mix,” a syrupy lemon/lime artificial abomination. The gun is the primary reason I stick to good beer or wine in bars.

Garnishes are also problematic. Maraschino cherries? Ugh. Go to an Italian market and get real cherries preserved in alcohol. Your Old Fashioned will thank you.

Lemon twists were cut en masse before the dinner rush, drying and curling sadly in a rocks glass for the server to garnish their own drinks (because most bartenders garnish only their own customers’ drinks, not those destined for servers). All the other fruit was cut ahead of time. Fresh juices (if they have them) may have been produced a day or more in advance.

Luckily there's a cure.

A number of years ago I read in the NY Times magazine a reminiscence about a father’s gin and tonic technique which essentially changed my life. After tasting one made this way it ruined all other g/t’s for me.

Friends soon became converted, and started referring to it as a “Daryl Cross G and T” to differentiate it from the more standard recipe. However, this was cumbersome, so a new name was sought. Someone came up with “Muddled Limey”—just about perfect, given the technique and the fact that I was born in England.

The Muddled Limey

Pour a good slug of gin into a glass.

Add fresh juice from ½ a lime (I have hand-held, clamp-like juicer for this purpose).

Add squeezed lime rind to glass of gin and juice.

Muddle rind with gin and juice for one minute. This releases the oil from the rind, which has a distinct character. You cannot skip this step.

Allow this mixture to sit for at least two minutes, allowing the flavors to commingle and soften. You cannot skip this step.

Add dash of bitters (optional).

Add ice to glass

Slowly pour in tonic from a freshly opened small bottle of tonic, such as Schweppes. Discard leftover tonic to remove temptation of using flat tonic for your next round of drinks.

Add fresh squeeze of lime (optional).

Few bartenders would take the time to make a drink like this.

Just about any cocktail could be improved by this technique. Rum and coke with lime. Vodka and soda with lemon. Margaritas.

Or as I call them all, “Happiness in a glass.”

Wednesday

'Fridge Fixin'

Our 2002 stainless steel Amana refrigerator warmed up to 50 degrees over the weekend, the freezer hovering around freezing (though refusing to fully freeze some recently added chicken breasts).

When this happened once before, we removed the kick plate from the bottom of the unit and stuck the vacuum cleaner house up there to remove the startling amount of pet hair that had accumulated on the front of the condenser. Problem fixed.

However, this strategy did not solve the problem two nights ago. The unit refused to cool below 50.

Yesterday, we pulled it further out from the wall and tilted it back and did our best to vacuum the rest of the hard-to-reach condenser.

They don’t make it easy.

Earlier I’d placed a call to Sears to arrange for a service. The cost, upfront, was $250 plus tax—which would cover all parts and labor.

It felt good to cancel it for a full refund today.

Susan and I aren’t the handiest of people. I just don’t know a lot about how stuff works. When things break down, I get anxious. I either have to: a) live without it; b) fix-it; or c) pay someone to fix it. All three choices are awful. Thankfully, my hatred of paying just outweighs my anxiety about my lack of skills. This led me to find a decent resource for home repairs: http://home.howstuffworks.com/how-to-repair-a-refrigerator.htm.

It confirmed that by vacuuming the condenser we were on the right track—but just didn’t go in deep enough.

It’s good to have the ‘fridge back.

We took the opportunity to throw some things out.

I threw out two quart-sized Dannon Yogurt containers of duck fat (our default storage containers, we generate a lot of empty ones). I know, duck fat lasts forever: but I don’t do much cassoulet or fried potatoes or confit in the warmer months. Frozen pot stickers. Some cooked chicken from Sunday’s roast, which was probably still fine, but why risk it. A bag of frozen pearl onions—very handy for stews. Half a bag of frozen peas—very handy for risotto. Some miso glaze—see an earlier blog.

My frozen blueberries, for my morning smoothie, were transferred to the ‘fridge.

Susan pointed out that I should no longer use sandwich bags for storing things in the freezer.

Two weeks ago I’d made pesto from our arugula leaves and some walnuts and froze it into ice cubes, then transferred the pesto cubes to sandwich bags. It’s an old trick. It’s easy to grab one and throw in into the soup. I also used to put leftover dribbles of wine into sandwich bags and secure them with twist ties—this is handy when you need just a little wine for soups or stocks, but don’t wish to open a bottle. Handy until one spills, I mean.

Anyway, in addition to having our working ‘fridge back, we now have a clean, nearly empty one, too. Until later today, when our delivery of organic vegetables shows up.


Lunch:
Susan made me a tasty sandwich for my lunch today. It had goats cheese, chopped up red pepper, some olive tapenade, some homegrown sprouts from seeds we'd mail-ordered, and some lettuce. Probably some olive oil and black pepper too.

Breakfast smoothie:
whirl a banana with a little buttermilk, orange juice, non-fat plain yogurt and some blueberries.

Monday

Fish Dumplings

In the words of hard rocking stoner Jim Anchower, “Hola amigos, long time since I rapped at ya.”

I don’t cook a lot when it’s hot. For breakfast I’ve moved from oatmeal to smoothies (banana, yogurt, splashes of O.J. and buttermilk, handful of frozen blueberries). Lunch is the usual sandwich or leftovers; dinner is now a salad, bit of cheese, an orange—very easy now that we get a weekly delivery of produce from a local farm. Once a week I’ll throw a chicken on the grill. Eat out on the weekend. Twice last week I was the lucky recipient of free food. A friend who manages a local East End restaurant bought me dinner last week when I’d stopped in for a glass of wine—a very pleasant surprise. On Saturday, following a play in Pittsburgh's "Cultural District" (please) we visited the fine Six Penn for a drink. I struck up a conversation with the chef about some of his items, and he sent us out a plate of charcuterie and a crab sandwich.

(My brother Michael, a comic fan, referenced the X-Men when he told me that obtaining these gifts is obviously my “mutant power:” some guys have long wolf claws; some have destructive laser vision. Some take an earnest interest in chefs and are rewarded with free food.)

It wasn’t miserably humid on Sunday so I decided to cook a little. As I had some frozen sole fillets in the freezer—a reasonable $5/# at Trader Joe’s—I decided to make quenelles, or fish dumplings.

Quenelles are the sort of thing people no longer cook at home in France anymore. Like cassoulet, or foie gras, or soupe au poisson, or choucroute garni, you can buy decent pre-made quenelles in supermarkets. They’re also a readily available starter in bistros. Certainly, before food processors, they were time-consuming—if I ever see the words “mortar” or “pestle” anywhere in a recipe I flee—but they come together in seconds in a processor. I checked a couple of recipes (Julia Child and the recent large Gourmet tome) and saw the basic recipes were similar and easy: whiz together a pound of fish, an egg, salt, pepper, a little grated nutmeg and enough cream (about ½ a cup) to bind it all together. (Bread crumbs or choux paste—the basis for √©clairs—can be added to thicken, but I passed on this extra step.) Pike is the fish of choice in France, but any light white fish will do.

I prepared them as we once ate them in Paris with friends Anne and Bill ten years ago, with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of cheese, run under the broiler. (Unlike the Italians, the French do not cringe at the thought of combining fish and cheese.)

Quenelle refers to an oval shape, by the way—formed by shaping the ingredient between two soup spoons. Hence the full name for this dish:

Quenelle du Poisson

In bowl of food processor, mix one pound of chopped fish fillets with one egg, ½ teaspoon of salt, grinding of pepper, and a dash of nutmeg in one-second spurts until just combined; with motor running add up to half a cup of cream in thin line until combined. The mixture should be a little fluffy and should hold together in a light lump. Chill the mousse mixture until ready to use.

In a wide pan, bring 2” of water to a light simmer. Add 2 teaspoons of salt.

Using a spoon, scoop up about 1/3 cup of fish paste. Smooth it with a second spoon and slide this second spoon under the fish mixture, then repeat the smoothing and sliding with the original spoon. Confusing? You’re trying to shape a somewhat tight oval torpedo of mousse.

As you form each quenelle, drop it gently into the barely simmering water. They’ll cook through in less than five minutes.

Earlier, I had made tomato sauce. I reheated this, then I nestled half a dozen (of the dozen I’d made) quenelles into the (oven-proof!) pan of sauce and topped each with a sprinkling of grated Jarlsberger (wishing I had some Gruyere here), then ran that under the broiler for a couple of minutes. The cheese melted and browned and formed a delicious crispy crust.

I served these on roasted eggplant slices, with sautéed kale on the side. I chopped a couple of olives and some chives from the garden and sprinkled this on the fish, and dribbled a little olive oil over everything, and served with a couple of lemon wedges.

Great dish—lighter than it sounds. Though perhaps when it cools off I’ll make them with the mushroom cream sauce suggested by Gourmet.


(Leftover quenelle can be stored in the fridge for a day or two, or frozen. Thaw and reheat in simmering water for a couple of minutes.)