WALLA WALLA TABLE - Cocktails: a meal's grace notes

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So, all this talk about food has made me a bit thirsty. So for this week I thought we'd cover some much neglected libations.

Many of you have beer and/or wine in your fridge or cellar right now. But how many of you have all of the supplies for cocktails? I am guessing that SOME of you have a few items but very few of you have a really "well stocked" bar.

Now, I am not talking about the top shelf liquors and fancy bottles of those things that look cool, but really never get used. You know that bottle of booze with the gold in it or that bottle of black stuff that could pass as cough medicine, in a blind taste test. Yeah, those.

Just like our well-stocked larder, a well-stocked liquor cabinet needs a few essentials and regular upkeep. The great thing is, some of those items for a well-stocked "cabinet" are easy to add to your regular grocery list, things like bitters, limes, lemons, caperberries and even the humble olive. And just like our larder, you want to find the BEST possible ingredients to use. Better ingredients, better results.

One of my favorite "new" items for my cabinet is vermouth. Allow me a moment to explain. I do not like vermouth. I do not put it in my martinis, or my cocktails and I SURELY would never drink it. HOWEVER, I have found a vermouth, that has changed my life forever. This I will drink. Straight. Seriously, it's that good.

Dolin is one of the last remaining independent producers of true and fine Vermouth de Chamb?©ry. The vermouth is made from the same recipe it has been since 1821. This is the same recipe that won them several Gold Medals in Paris, London, St. Louis and Philadelphia and in 1932 earned them the only Appelation d' Origine for Vermouth.

So what is vermouth? Vermouth is a type of "fortified" wine. Vermouth starts out as wine to which is added herbs and plants, grape spirits and sugar. Aromatized wines date back to the ancient Greeks, sometimes to mask inferior wine and sometimes to make something good, even better. Up until the early 20th century it was often prescribed as a medicinal remedy.

"The process chez Dolin begins with is a purchase of base wine, always white, light in alcohol (10% by volume), and as neutral as possible, both on the nose and palate. To this is added a selection of herbs and plants, which are left to macerate several months.

"The exact recipes are a closely guarded secret, but there are up to 54 different plants used, most notably wormwood but also hyssop, chamomile, genepi, chincona bark and rose petals. The aromatized wine is then lightly sugared, to less than 30 g/l for the dry and 130 g/l for the blanc and rouge. The color of the rouge does not come from red base wine, which is unsuitable for elegant Vermouth, and instead comes from the particular plants used,and from sweetening with dark, caramelized sugar. Finally, the Vermouths are fortified - up to 16¬? for the sweeter styles and 17.5¬? for the dry."(from www.alpenz.com)

What makes this vermouth stand out for me is the aroma and the taste. It smells like a great steak house (think 1950's or 1960's Chicago or Kansas City). Beefy and herbal, with NO sweetness on the nose. The flavors are instantly of wine, but with that same beefy and slightly herbal character, reminiscent of walking through a field of lavender and sage, just after a warm spring rain. To me the rouge is the sweetest of the three with the blanc being MY favorite, and the one that I first tasted. I love the rouge in a Manhattan or Rob Roy and the dry in everything else. Save the blanc for sipping on. Especially on a warm summer night or afternoon.

One of the other items I have found that can easily be used in the cabinet as well as the larder are bitters. Most of us are familiar with the Angostura bitters that languish in our cupboards unused but there because some obscure, ancient recipe called for it. The "new" bitters that are being produced (new because some of them have been around for several generations) are really something to get excited about and will make you want to find that obscure, ancient recipe again! If nothing else good old fashioned bitters can make your drinks come alive AND maybe even your sauces too. They are that little something that you can never put your finger on. They are the widget that you just cannot live without.

One of my favorite brands right now is Fee Brothers. Started in 1863 the James Fee & Brothers has been making bitters the old-school way since 1953. Originally started as a grocery and liquor business there have been many changes since their inception. During Prohibition and the Great Depression, they made Altar Wine to stay in business and it was distributed along the east coast. They also made "flavorings" to aid the "home wine maker"(read into this what you will, it WAS prohibition) in making their product taste better. The drink mixers came after the Second World War when the company had to make a decision to move out of the alcohol business and focus their attention on the mixers and flavorings.

Good news for us as their bitters are rockin'. From the old fashioned to peach, orange, lemon, grapefruit, cherry and even chocolate and chile, all are amazing and should find their way into your cabinet soon. The cherry bitters in a Manhattan are one of my favorite "winter" (isn't it always winter somewhere?) cocktails. But you must try adding the old fashioned bitters to your next "pan sauce" when you make steak. It'll change your life good. Trust me.

The other items I like to have on hand in my cabinet are citrus. It doesn't matter what kind. If you are having trouble finding good citrus, I have found that Nellie and Joe's Key West lime and lemon juice are a very good alternative. I like to have one bottle of each on hand at all times. The bonus, is that you can find it at your local grocery. Olives keep for a while in the fridge, especially if kept in brine. If you use olives, especially ones from the super market, rinse them prior to using. Olives, surprisingly, should taste olivey (you know like olive oil) and NOT like salt or brine. I know, I know, hard to believe, but true.

There are some of us who still appreciate the ultimately humble cocktail onion. Once a staple at all great bars and lounges, now relegated to the refrigerator door lost behind the giant squeeze bottle of yellow mustard. But there is hope for the hopeless. The cocktail onion has a second chance and can find its way back to its rightful place of honor. And the best way is to make it yourself. I know, crazy! Isn't it? Here are a couple of my favorite recipes for some of the above ingredients and a how-to for making your own cocktail onions. Cheers.

Manhattan

  • 2 oz bourbon - I prefer Makers Mark or Knob Creek for mixed drinks as the flavors are balanced and neither are too expensive.
  • 1 oz vermouth. - As mentioned I prefer Dolin Rouge (and yes I like my Manhattans a little bit sweet)
  • 3 dashes Fee Brothers (or equivalent) Cherry Bitters.
  • Ice or cold stones (in case you have a fear of your drinks getting watered down, I hate that)

Combine, stir and enjoy.

Basic Pan Sauce for Steak

After cooking your steak in your favorite pan you are left with the "brown stuff" at the bottom. Not much fun for the dish washer, but you can make your life better and their job easier with this. Once the meat of choice is removed return pan to a med-high flame (being careful NOT to catch yourself, the kitchen and or anything else on fire) add some wine, or even vermouth to the pan. Reduce by 1/3 to ¬?. Add a few dashes of bitters, swirl, add two TBSP of butter turn off heat. Let the heat from the pan melt the butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Voila! To this you can add green peppercorns, red peppercorns, to make steak au poive, or capers or whatever else, that is your business.

Simple Old-School Rat Pack Cocktail Onions

  • Pearl onions skins removed* (see note below)
  • White vinegar
  • Sugar
  • Kosher Salt
  • Vermouth (optional)

Into a non reactive container (i.e. plastic food grade container or glass) with a good lid add 1 cup of white vinegar, ¬? cup sugar, 2 TBSP kosher salt, and 1 cup of vermouth (preferably sweeter but good quality). Secure lid and shake vigorously until solids are dissolved into the liquids creating a "solution". Check your solution and make sure that the sweetness is good. It should be slightly sweet and a hint of salt, with a light acidic twang. Adjust as necessary. Your volume of solution should depend on how many onions you are making. These keep well so if you find you are using them up quickly, make a bigger batch.

Add onions to solution and let sit for a week. Taste. Onions should be infused with the solution and have a mild slightly sweet oniony flavour (much like a Walla Walla spring onion). Use at your discretion. Cheers.

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