May 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
College friends of mine get together every summer for an annual birthday party. Well, not just a birthday party. The birthday party is the capper on a week-long reunion at a low-key vacation spot (think: Bend, OR or Cape Cod, MA). What started out as a lobster-and-Freixenet dinner party in a college fraternity house (more than a few) years ago has morphed into a yearly vacation tradition that includes spouses, kids, and friends joining in for a week of hanging out, cooking together, and competitive games of bridge.
The birthday party location varies every year, switching from right coast to left to accommodate East Coasters and West Coasters equally. I attended a few of the West Coast birthday parties in the decade or so after graduating university. In the early years, most of us were just fresh out of school and settling into apartments and careers. Some of us were in serious relationships. Some were not. There were no kids, no bedtimes, and probably more cocktails than cooking. (And wine. Lots of wine.) People slept on the floor. Clothing was lost. Long-running inside jokes were born. And we ate and drank well. The food was always plentiful and fresh, especially the birthday party dinner, which consisted of a spread of seafood (lobster was the star), salad, and sides, and of course: cake.
The guys handled the organization of the event, the cooking, and the beverages. My friend Jon took on bartender duties at more than one of these events. Unfortunately, my favorite cocktail — the margarita — was not his specialty (sorry Jon). Ever the excellent host, he was willing to make it right. “You know what this needs?” he asked enthusiastically, and then without waiting for me to answer: “Orange juice!” No. No, it really didn’t. But to this day it makes me laugh to think about it. One of those small, but memorable moments from a long time ago.
Flash forward to this year’s day of margaritas: Cinco de Mayo. I’ve been thinking about revamping my standard House Margarita to create an organic version using my new favorite tequila (Casa Noble Añejo). The first idea was to replace the Cointreau, which has a heavy alcohol taste, with the organic, lower-alcohol, sweeter Greenbar Distillery Organic Orange liqueur.
Important safety tip: it’s not a one-to-one replacement when it comes to orange liqueurs. Because the Greenbar liqueur is sweeter than Cointreau, I had to adjust the acidity of the cocktail. So, then how to coax out the orange flavor of the liqueur and adjust the acidity without the lime taking over, while letting the chocolate and caramel flavors of the tequila shine through? Good ol’ trial and error.
After a few rounds of testing different amounts of lime juice and adding some rich simple syrup to balance the acidity, something was still missing: more orange flavor. So there I am on Cinco de Mayo thinking how do I add some true orange flavor and sweetness plus some acidity, without making things too lime-y? And then it hit me: You know what this needs? Orange juice. No kidding. (Thanks Jon.)
Recipe: Orange Margarita
Yield: 1 cocktail
Not your classic margarita, this one brings the orange flavor forward, while downplaying the lime and letting the unique flavor of the tequila shine through on the finish. You can vary the sweetness by increasing or decreasing the amount of rich simple syrup. For an all-organic cocktail, choose organic limes and oranges, if possible.
You’ll need a double old-fashioned or highball glass, cocktail shaker, shot glass with measurement markings or measuring spoons, and ice.
2 ounces Casa Noble Añejo organic tequila
¾ ounce Fruitlab Organic Orange Liqueur
1 ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice (Tip: Zest the lime before juicing; set aside zest for Lime Salt)
¼ ounce rich simple syrup (recipe below)
For the glass:
Thin round of lime
Lime salt (recipe below)
Note that I’ve given the ingredients in ounces. If you’re using measuring spoons:
2 ounces = 4 tablespoons
1 ounce = 2 tablespoons
¾ ounce= 1½ tablespoons
½ ounce = 1 tablespoon
- Prepare the glass.
Pour the Lime Salt onto a small plate. Run a wedge of lime around the rim of the glass, then turn the glass upside down and dip into the Lime Salt. (You’re trying to get the salt mixture to adhere to the outer rim of the glass). Set aside.
- Combine tequila, orange liqueur, juices, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with four or five cubes of fresh ice.
- Shake 4 – 5 times (not vigorously) to combine and pour into a prepared glass.
- Float a thin round of lime in the glass for garnish.
Recipe: Lime Salt
Zest of one lime
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- Preheat oven to 250° F.
- Line a small baking tray with parchment paper. Spread the zest on the baking tray and place into preheated oven to dry for 5-6 minutes, stirring and tossing halfway through to ensure even drying.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool.
- When zest is cool, place in a small bowl. Break the zest into smaller pieces, approximately the same size as kosher salt grains, by rubbing it between your thumb and forefinger or crushing with a pestle.
You want to create something that looks like crushed — but not powdered — zest.
- Combine the crushed zest with the kosher salt.
- Set aside until you’re ready to make the cocktail.
Recipe: Rich Simple Syrup
Yield: About 6 ounces syrup
Rich simple syrup has twice as much sugar as water, resulting in a thicker syrup with more sweetening power than regular simple syrup. If you can, use organic, fair-trade sugar as it has a richer flavor than refined white sugar. Adding a few drops of lemon juice to the mixture will minimize crystallization during storage.
What you need:
Glass or plastic container with lid for storing the syrup
4 ounces sugar
2 ounces water
A few drops of lemon juice
- Combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a saucepan and place on the stove top.
- Give the ingredients a stir and heat just until the sugar has melted and small bubbles appear around the edge of the pan.
- Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.
- Refrigerate syrup in a closed container. Store up to three weeks.
May 2, 2014 § 3 Comments
Cinco de Mayo, your annual excuse to drink too many margaritas, is coming up on Monday — although some of you over-achievers might be getting a head start this weekend (in that case: rock on witcha bad selves). You know I love my margaritas, but this year I’m celebrating by shaking things up with another classic Mexican cocktail: the Paloma.
What is a Paloma? And Why, might you ask, am I breaking tradition from my beloved hand-made margarita? It’s a story that’s part inspiration and part economic practicality.
As the New York times informed us back in March, there is indeed a lime shortage. If you’ve started shopping for limes for your Cinco de Mayo celebration, you might have noticed that they’re teeny and pricier than usual. NYT writer David Karp broke it down to trio of problems: “[t]he culprits are weather, disease and even Mexican criminals.” The US relies on Mexico for much of its year-round lime supply, so with multiple issues reducing the availability of limes and sending prices higher, the effects have trickled down to our local markets.
During recent trips to Sigona’s and Whole Foods markets, I saw a paltry selection of Mexican limes that were the size of Key limes and almost as expensive. And yet, there’s still an abundance of other citrus varieties grown right here in California, some of it even within 100 miles of the 650 (Meyer lemons and mandarin oranges are just a couple of examples). Among this plethora of pretty citrus are California ruby grapefruits.
Although we’re nearing the end of the season, rubies are sweeter now than earlier in the season, readily available in the market, and they’re a good value (more fruit per pound and at a better price than the teeny-tiny Mexican limes.) Yes, I love my margaritas, but when life gives you not-limes, you gotta get creative.
So what about that inspiration part I mentioned? Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I had my first-ever Paloma at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. According to the bar menu, the ingredients are: Herradura Silver Tequila (as you might recall, my go-to tequila for margaritas), fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, soda, and lime juice. Grapefruit juice?! Not quite the Margarita I was craving, but eh, close enough. Never a fan of grapefruit, I was dubious, but figured why not? And this is why it’s good to try something new: the cocktail was delish — nicely balanced and refreshing! If I didn’t have to drive back to the 650 after dinner, I absolutely would have ordered another.
Flash forward a couple of weeks, and guess what turns up in my CSA box? Grapefruit — two of ’em (er, that would be grapefruits, then). As always, part of the fun of the CSA box is the “what am I going to do with that/those?!” game. But I’d been thinking about that Paloma I’d had at One Market, so the grapefruit question was easily answered: I have tequila, I have lime… hello, Paloma! All I needed was a recipe.
As it turns out, the classic Paloma recipe is basically grapefruit soda and tequila. Seriously. I prefer my cocktails sans bubbles, so this discovery was not making me happy. I was craving the fresh-juice Paloma I had at One Market, but with a few tweaks that would make it my own. The bubbles had to go — no soda, soda water, tonic or mineral water in my Paloma. A small amount of lime juice would add some tartness and balance the grapefruit, so the lime juice would be necessary, but not the star of the show. (Bonus, because, well, I didn’t want to be juicing bags of tiny limes all day long.) Finally, adding a little sweetness in the form of agave syrup would pull the whole drink together, smoothing out the tartness of the citrus. The only unknown was which tequila to use.
In my initial Paloma testing I went with a reposado because I wanted an added layer of flavor and complexity beyond a blanco tequila. But then I’d been thinking about a recent mezcal tasting at Loló Restaurant in the Mission and how that the sweet smokiness of a good mezcal might be an interesting pairing with the grapefruit.
If the word “mezcal” brings to mind something-like-tequila, but with a creepy-looking worm at the bottom, stop. There’s so much more to mezcal than a dead worm in the bottom of the bottle (and by the way, most quality mezcals do not contain a worm). I had my first taste of small-batch mezcal years ago when my friend Monica gave me an unlabelled, hand-painted bottle of the Oaxaca-produced spirit. The mezcal was smoky and sweet with herbal notes and that characteristic mezcal “burn” as it went down. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Mezcal is distilled from the cooked heart — the piña — of the maguey agave plant. It’s the cooking process, which involves fire roasting the piña for several days, that gives mezcal its characteristic smoky flavor. While a quarter of Mexico’s states are allowed to produce mezcal, most mezcal production takes place in Oaxaca. Recent years have seen a rise in the production of artisan/hyper-local versions of mezcal that focus on using agave plants from specific areas (for example, mountain vs. valley) and different methods of cooking the piña (steam roasted vs. fire roasted). Unaged mezcals are called “joven” (juvenile) and, like a blanco tequila, are clear spirits. The amount of smoky flavor in the mezcal will determine whether you want to sip it or use it for cocktails.
After what we like to call “serious research” around here (read: multiple cocktail and mezcal tastings), Mina Real Silver mezcal turned out to be the best choice for my Paloma.
Rather than the traditional in-ground fire roasting, Mina Real Silver is steam-roasted, which results in less smoke than mezcals produced by fire roasting the piña. On the nose, this mezcal is equal parts smoke, floral notes, and agave sweetness. It’s a nice pairing with the bright citrus combination of ruby grapefruit and lime. This drink is best served martini-style, rather than over ice, to fully enjoy the flavors. Give it a try!
Happy Cinco de Mayo! How are you celebrating this year?
Recipe: My Paloma
You’ll need a martini glass, cocktail shaker, shot glass with measurement markings or measuring spoons, and ice.
2 oz freshly squeezed ruby grapefruit juice
½ oz freshly squeezed lime juice
2 oz Mina Real Mezcal
½ teaspoon agave syrup
For the glass:
Wedge of grapefruit
3-4 Tbs Kosher salt
Note that I’ve given the ingredients in ounces. If you’re using measuring spoons,
2 oz = 4 tablespoons, ½ oz = 1 tablespoon
- Pour salt on to a saucer. Run a wedge of grapefruit around the rim of the glass, then turn the glass upside down and dip into the salt. (You’re trying to get the salt to adhere to the outer rim of the glass). Set aside.
- Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with four or five cubes of fresh ice.
- Shake 4-5 times (not vigorously) to combine and pour into a prepared glass.
- Garnish with half a grapefruit wheel.
Tequila version: As I mentioned in an earlier post, I happen to be a fan of San Francisco-based Tres Agaves Tequila. If you want to try a tequila-based Paloma, substitute Tres Agaves Reposado for the Mina Real Silver mezcal.
(*To the tune of “My Sharona,” by The Knack.)
February 22, 2014 § 2 Comments
Good morning campers — today is National Margarita Day! Have I mentioned how much I love margaritas? No, not those frozen, icky-sweet concoctions that come out of a blender, or some mess of bottled sweet-and-sour mix thrown together with Jose Cuervo Gold! I’m talking about the simple, delicious elegance of 100% blue agave tequila, Cointreau, and fresh-squeezed lime juice, shaken up with fresh ice and poured into a lime-and-salt-rimmed glass. *sigh* Yes, this is a day for celebrating! While you could head off to your favorite, local Mexican restaurant for today’s celebratory drink (nothin’ wrong with that, by the way), why not try making a batch at home?
First of all, contrary to what you might read on the internet, there’s no one-size-fits-all, perfect margarita recipe. While a quick search of the interwebs will turn up a variety of
religious arguments recipes for the perfect margarita, everyone’s palate is different, and the perfect margarita is the one that you like.
For me, the perfect margarita has a good balance of tartness and sweetness, while letting the flavor of the tequila shine through. Blanco (also called silver) tequilas are ideal for margaritas because they’re lightly aged, with crisper, less woody flavor profiles than resposados or anejos. Although I’ve also made some tasty margaritas with reposados, I believe that anejos are best left for sipping and enjoying with a piece of 70% cacao dark chocolate.
Knowing a bit about the tequila you’ll use — it is, after all, the star ingredient — will help you decide if you need to tart up or sweeten your recipe. So before you get started, take a sniff of your tequila. Blanco tequilas can vary from grassy or herbal to floral and fruity. Have a little taste. Some are sweeter, and some are crisper with more acidity. Once you get past the alcohol, what flavors are you noticing?
My House Margarita Recipe
My go-to margarita recipe uses Herradura Silver, which is an herbal, crisp tequila that can stand up to lots of lime; I think of it as a masculine tequila. I like the addition of Cointreau for orange flavor without the syrupy-ness of Grand Marnier or generic triple sec. If you love lime, you might go for extra lime juice. Like a sweeter cocktail? Add a splash of agave nectar. Think of this recipe as a template that you can tweak to your taste.
You’ll need a martini or old-fashioned glass, cocktail shaker, shot glass with measurement markings or measuring spoons, and ice.
2 oz Herradura Silver
1 oz Cointreau
1 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/4 oz agave syrup
For the glass:
Wedge of lime
3-4 Tbs Kosher salt
Note that I’ve given the ingredients in ounces. If you’re using measuring spoons,
2 oz = 4 tablespoons, 1 oz = 2 tablespoons, and 1/4 oz = 1.5 teaspoons.
Pour salt on to a saucer. Run a wedge of lime around the rim of the glass, then turn the glass upside down and dip into the salt. (You’re trying to get the salt to adhere to the outer rim of the glass). Set aside.
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with four or five cubes of fresh ice. Shake to combine and pour into a prepared glass. If you prefer some rocks in your margarita, add one or two fresh cubes to the glass.
I happen to be a huge fan of San Francisco-based Tres Agaves Tequila, and have used this recipe with their Blanco and Reposado tequilas as well. If you want to try a reposado version of this recipe, substitute Tres Agaves Reposado for the Herradura Silver.
Recently I stopped into K&L Wines in Redwood City to check out their tequila stock, as they usually carry high-quality, smaller-batch brands. The Campeon Silver caught my eye, and it has an interesting story behind it. Not only is the company based in Burlingame, CA, but K&L worked with Campeon to develop their own version. Go 650!
The Campeon Silver is a nice tequila, but sweeter and more floral than my usual Herradura; it’s a good example of a more feminine tequila. My House Margarita recipe was just not working with the Campeon Silver. After a few experiments, I ended up reducing the lime juice to 3/4 oz because it was overpowering the tequila. So, for a sweeter or more floral tequila, here’s my modified recipe:
2 oz Campeon Silver
1 oz Cointreau
3/4 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/4 oz agave syrup
For fun I tried out CHOW’s Blood Orange Margarita recipe (which you can find on their site). Campeon Silver is really well-suited to this recipe! The floral sweetness of the tequila is a good match for the blood orange, and the color is oh-so-pretty. CHOW’s recipe calls for 1 1/2 ounces of tequila, but with the Campeon, you could probably increase that to 1 3/4 oz. Keep in mind that early-season blood oranges might be a bit tart, so taste the juice to determine whether you want (or need) to add a drop or two of agave syrup.
So, Happy National Margarita Day! Did you celebrate with a cocktail at home, or leave the mixing to your local bar or Mexican restaurant? Do tell! Better yet: pictures! Pictures, or it didn’t happen…