Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cook in a Bar Has Moved

Dear Loyal Readers,

I am pleased to share with you that my blog, A Cook Walks Into A Bar, has a new home.  Old entries, archived recipes, funny stories, and tales to come can now be found at:

Please change your bookmarks and the like to stay in touch.  I look forward to your feedback on the new site and your continued comments on my recipes and entries.

Please come visit me soon!

All the best,
Cook in a Bar

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bar Stool Fridays - Derby Drinks

The mint julep is the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby and more than 100,000 are served at Churchill Downs over the course of the race weekend.  As part of a contract with Brown-Forman Distillers, the drinks at the Derby are made with either Early Times or Woodford Reserve.  (NOTE: Early Times is not officially a bourbon, but a Kentucky whiskey.)  You don't have a contract with Brown-Forman, though, so in making your julep you should use the bourbon that you enjoy drinking.

This ode to the mint julep by J. Soule Smith was published in the Lexington Herald in the late 1800’s.  It is a long piece of prose for a blog entry, so feel free to skim will get the idea with just a few phrases.  Reading it made me thirsty…

The Mint Julep
Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep – the mint julep. 
Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. 
The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.
The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. 
The mint dips infant leaf into the same stream that makes The Bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. 
By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, and the mint bends to salute them. 
Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. Like a woman’s heart it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. 
Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside gurgling brooks that make music in the fields, it lives and thrives. 
When the bluegrass begins to shoot its gentle sprays towards the sun, mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook. 
It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to old Bourbon. His great heart, his warmth of temperament, and that affinity which no one understands, demands the wedding.
How shall it be? 
Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar till it seems like oil. 
Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon – crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. 
Then throw the mint away – it is the sacrifice. 
Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. 
It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. 
No spoon is needed; no stirring allowed- just let it stand a moment. 
Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find the taste and odor at one draft.
Then when it is made, sip it slowly. 
August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant cold and sweet – it is seductive. No maidens kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maidens touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream-it is a dream itself. No other land can give you so much sweet solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you in melancholy days. 
Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.

Compared to this guy, I can no longer claim to be obsessed with bourbon.

Here's my interpretation of his recipe.  If you have a julep cup, this is the time to use it, but if not, use a rocks glass, like me.

Mint Julep
Makes 1 drink

2 - 3 tsps mint simple syrup, divided
fresh mint
2 - 3 ounces Kentucky bourbon
crushed ice

To make simple syrup:  Bring 1 cup water and 2 cups sugar to boil in a saucepan on stovetop.

As soon as it boils, remove from heat and let it cool slightly.  Drop in 4 to 6 mint sprigs and refrigerate in covered container.

To make drink:  In glass add 1 1/2 - 2 tsps of mint simple syrup and a couple of large mint leaves.

With your muddler or wooden spoon, very gently swirl the mint leaves in the simple syrup so they are coated with the sugary goodness.  Still being very gentle, use your muddler/spoon to drag the leaves around the inside of the glass and coat the inside of the glass with the mint essence.

Remove the leaves.

I add a splash of bourbon now, no more than 1 ounce.

Now, pack the glass full of crushed ice.  You want it to resemble a snow cone.

Pour the remaining bourbon and 1/2 - 1 tsp of simple syrup on top of the ice.

Garnish with a mint sprig.

And for guests who don't imbibe...

Mock Mint Julep
Makes 1 drink

crushed ice
1 Tbsp mint simple syrup (see above)
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
ginger ale
fresh mint

In glass add 1 1/2 - 2 tsps of mint simple syrup and a couple of large mint leaves.  

With your muddler or wooden spoon, very gently swirl the mint leaves in the simple syrup so they are coated with the sugary goodness.  Still being very gentle, use your muddler/spoon to drag the leaves around the inside of the glass and coat the inside of the glass with the mint essence.  

Remove the leaves.

Add the fresh lemon juice and a splash of ginger ale.  Muddle it a bit more.

Now, pack the glass full of crushed ice.  You want it to resemble a snow cone.

Top with ginger ale and garnish with a mint sprig.  

These are refreshing drinks that will quench your thirst as you cheer for your favorite horse in the Run for the Roses.  But, don't limit this drink to only Derby weekend, it is delicious for any warm weather occasion.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Salt of the Sea

In recent months, my brother has refused to eat iodized salt.  Given all the talk about the evils of salt, and the USDA's new nutritional guidelines for salt intake, you'd think that was a good idea, but iodized salt is important.

We've teased him about getting a goiter, which is swelling of the thyroid.  Most cases are caused by iodine deficiency and it causes a large swelling in the neck.  There was even a Seinfeld episode that made fun of a woman with a goiter.

Jerry: C’mon Elaine, it’s just a goiter…Elaine: I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t look the woman in the face. I mean I keep thinkin’ that that goiter’s gonna start talkin’ to me… You’d think they’d mention that before they send you over there: “Oh, by the way, this woman *almost* has a second head”. But no, no, I didn’t get any goiter information.Jerry: They really should mention that in the breakdown: height, weight, goiter.
(via The Old Man)

But, the reason iodized salt is so common is, in fact, no laughing matter.

In areas of the world where there is little iodine in the diet - tyically inland or mountain areas where marine foodstuffs are not consumed - the population suffers from more than just thyroid swelling.  The lack of iodine is great preventable cause of mental retardation or cretinism and is an important public-health problem.

The industrialized world has nearly eliminated this condition by lacing table salt with small amounts of iodine, and many Western cultures receive adequate iodine through drinking milk.  Recent campaigns by the United Nations and the World Health Organization have helped the developing world, too, even adding iodine to fish sauce that is preferred to white salt to give food a salty taste.

My brother and his girlfriend helped me make a salt-crusted fish for dinner this weekend, and we all felt very lucky to have been provided with enough iodine in our lives.  It is seems like a minor issue, but this element is very important to our mental and physical health.

This recipe uses kosher salt, which is not iodized, but seafood is typically rich in iodine, so you can rest easy that you won't develop that goiter anytime soon.

Salt Crusted Fish
Serves 4

3 lb red snapper (or other round-fish, a fish with eyes on both sides of head), gutted and scaled (whole or headless is okay)
6 cups of kosher salt (entire box of Morton's kosher salt)
4 egg whites
1/2 cup water
1/2 lemon, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced

I recommend that you have the fish gutted and scaled at the market, if possible.  It can be pretty messy otherwise.  My brother generously agreed to scale our fish, but it took a while to clean up all the fish scales that flew about the kitchen and back porch.  Yes, he ambitiously started cleaning the fish in the kitchen, but then realized that it was impossible to fully contain the scales as they flew about so he moved outside.  The right thing to do, absolutely, but it did create one more surface to clean.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F with rack positioned in the center.

In a large bowl, mix together salt, egg whites, and water.

Spread this salt mixture on the bottom of a large rimmed baking sheet.  You want to make a bed for your fish, about 1/4-inch thick and about the size of the fish.

Put the fish on top of this bed of salt.

Insert lemon slices and minced garlic in cavity of fish.

Then coat the top of the fish with the remaining salt mixture.  It is okay not to cover the head or tail of the fish with salt.

Roast the fish in your preheated oven for about half and hour, or until a thermometer reads between 135 and 140 degrees F.  I let the fish rest for about 10 minutes before I tried to remove the crust.

Tap the crust with the back of a large metal spoon to crack it.

Then, use the spoon and a large fork to remove the chunks of salt.  I used the spoon and my clean hands to brush any remaining salt.

Next, use the spoon or your hands to start removing the skin and push it to the side.

Start removing the top layer of flesh with the fork and/or spoon and move it directly to serving plates.

Once you've removed the entire top filet, you can remove the bones and expose the bottom filet.

Push aside the lemon slices and then use the spoon and/or fork to remove the bottom layer of flesh and move it to serving plates.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Bar Stool Fridays - Sands of Laredo Cocktail

On New Year's Day 2011, my husband and I helped my parents move their belongings and pets from Brownsville to Laredo,  Texas.  We followed the Rio Grande north on US Highway 83 past the edge of Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert and over the infamous Falcon Lake.

While I didn't grow up in South Texas, a number of significant life events for our family have occurred while my parents lived in the Brownsville area.  And we have so many close friends and loved ones that it was bittersweet to help them make the move.  I must admit, I was disappointed when they initially moved to Brownsville, even though I was already living on my own, but I grew to feel at home there.  I'm excited for my parents' new adventure, however, and my husband and I are eager to become more familiar with another part of Texas.  I'm sure we will grow to love it, too.

Driving to Laredo, as it is all along the Rio Grande corridor where Texas and Mexico meet, I could see that the border is just arbitrary.  The history, food, and culture of Texas and Mexico are so intertwined (and the river can run so low) that it is difficult to see the so-called border.  You can't really tell one side from the other or where one begins and the other ends.  Well, except for markers like this...

Or the border fence.  But, that is an entry for another day...

So close to the Chihuahuan Desert, Laredo has a semi-arid climate, and they've been suffering with unusually high temperatures this spring.  Needing a refreshing and thirst-quenching drink for their Easter celebration, my father came up with a cocktail using pomegranate wine.  When he finished composing the drink, it looked rather sandy colored, so he named it the Sands of Laredo.  But, I think the name is also fitting because you can't tell where one ingredient ends and the other begins.  Each ingredient is improved by mixing with the others.  It is a real borderland gem.  Thanks for sharing it, Dad.

Sands of Laredo
Makes 1 drink

Pomegranate wine
sparkling wine/champagne
orange juice

All ingredients should be chilled.  In a tall fluted glass pour about 1 1/2 oz of pomegranate wine.

Top the glass with equal amounts sparkling wine/champagne and orange juice.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Life Gives You Icky Sugar Cookies...Make Lemon Pie!

You know those boxes of cookies you see in the grocery store bakery?

Well, I don't like them.  I know that some people must like those cookies though, because I witness them being purchased, and I see them at potluck parties.

A box of these cookies showed up at a party that my friend Kate attended last weekend, and no one touched them.  Okay, maybe one person touched them because the box was short one cookie.  Anyway, the party ended and there sat a nearly full box of cookies.  It seemed wrong somehow to Kate, and the sweet and clever girl that she is, she brought them home.  She knew that we could see to it that those cookies served a better purpose...a higher purpose.

And, you know what?  I think we did.

Lemon Icebox Pie with Sugar Cookie Crust
Makes one 9-inch deep dish pie

box of stale grocery store sugar cookies
7 Tbsp butter

4 egg yolks
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup lemon juice

Meringue Topping:
4 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Start with the crust.  You want to reduce those not-so-great cookies into crumbs.  I used my food processor, but you could also put them in a sealed zip-top plastic bag and pound on them with a rolling pin.

You need to finish with 3 1/2 to 4 cups of cookie crumbs.  Dump those crumbs in a bowl.

Melt the butter and add it to the crumbs.

Stir to combine.

Press the buttery crumbs into a deep-dish pie pan with your fingers.  Evenly distribute the crumbs to cover the entire inside of the pan.

Now for the filling...Separate the eggs by putting the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another.  Add sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice to the bowl with egg yolks.  Blend well - I used a handheld electric mixer.

Pour the filling into the cookie crumb crust.

Finally, on to the topping.  Take the 4 egg whites you set aside, and sprinkle them with cream of tartar.  The cream of tartar helps make your egg whites more manageable.  Using clean beaters for your handheld electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff glossy peaks form.

Spread the whipped egg whites onto the lemon filling.

Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes until the meringue is lightly browned.  Cool completely before slicing.

The pie keeps for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.

VARIATION:  I made meringue, but you could top your pie with whip cream instead.  Just bake the filling and crust for about 15 minutes.  Let it cool and then spread with whipped cream.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Eggscellent Mistake

My brother requested an angel food cake for Easter, and I said, "sure, no problem."  Well, I ended up doing more than I expected on Saturday, and I scrambled to get the ingredients at the grocery store in a moment in which I was both hungry and tired.  Not such a good plan.

I thought I could save time by getting a carton of egg whites, but in my rush I didn't read the side panel.  If I had taken the time to use my literacy skills I would have seen that this particular carton of egg whites had been pasturized to a degree that made it unusable for my purposes.  And, to make it better, I elected not to read that detail until after I had the cake in the oven.  Sigh.

Much to my brother's disappointment, there was no angel food cake for Easter.  Apparently, the homemade Peeps and peanut butter cups were not enough when he had his heart set on a light white cake with fluffy white frosting.

I put a raincheck on baking another cake, but there was still half a carton of egg whites to use.  This need combined with my husband's request for a light dinner, led me to make a spinach and egg white quiche.

Spinach and Egg White Crustless Quiche
Serves 4

cooking spray
1 package frozen spinach
2 cups egg whites
1/4 cup milk (whole, low-fat or no fat okay)
1 - 1/2 cups shredded cheese (I used Monterey Jack)
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
hot sauce, optional

Lightly coat a pie plate with cooking spray and set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Thaw spinach in microwave (don't cook) and squeeze out liquid with your hands.  Combine thawed spinach with all other ingredients in a bowl and mix well.

I also threw in about a quarter cup of sauteed mushrooms and onions that were leftover from burger night.  This could be a good dish to use other leftover bits (meat and/or vegetables) and stretch them into another meal.

Pour into prepared pie pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until liquid has set in center.

Cool slightly, slice into wedges, and serve.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Helping Out the Easter Bunny

The Easter Bunny is really slammed this time of year.  His to-do list goes on for pages, his calendar is jam-packed, the battery on his smartphone won't stay charged, he's bitten his nails down to nubs, and the poor little fellow has circles under his eyes from lack of sleep.

I figured he could use a hand...or is it paw?  Anyway...I knew I could help, at least when it came to supplying the Easter baskets of some of my friends and family.  I was also pretty sure I could do better than the bagged candy I see in the store.

Now, my husband loves peanut butter and chocolate and really scarfs up the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, so I know the Easter Bunny was planning to give him some again this year.  But, what if I made them instead...And, what if I made them more suitable for adult palates and used dark chocolate? And how could I forgot the bourbon?  Hmmm...what if?

Peanut Butter Cups for Grown-Ups
Makes about 2 dozen miniature cups

1 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tsp bourbon
3 - 4 cups dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips (premium is best)

I used a miniature muffin tin lined with paper cups as my molds.  Prepare this in advance so it is ready to go when your ingredients are.

In a bowl, combine peanut butter and powdered sugar.  When you have a smooth, uniform mixture, add the vanilla extract and bourbon.  Stir to blend well - it should be a pretty thick mixture that is firm enough to form into balls.  You may need to add just a tiny bit more powdered sugar, if it is too soft.

Take about 2 to 3 teaspoons worth of peanut butter and using your hands roll into a ball.  Then, lightly press into a patty/saucer shape.  Place the formed balls onto a wax paper surface, and repeat until you have about 24 balls.  You may need to adjust the patties so they are all about the same size.

Now to melt the chocolate.  If you don't have a double boiler, then set a heat-proof bowl over a pot of boiling water.  Turn down the heat to low and add the chocolate to the bowl.

Stir gently as it melts.  It should only take a few minutes to completely melt.  Turn off the heat and now the chocolate is ready to turn into candy.

Take a muffin liner paper, and add a spoonful of chocolate.  Then, using back of your spoon, spread the chocolate around so that it completely coats the inside of the paper cup.  Once it is coated, set it back into the muffin tin.  Repeat until all the cups are completely lined with chocolate.  You need to move very quickly before the chocolate firms up again.

Now, drop in the peanut butter patties, and press down very gently.  You don't want them to push through the chocolate, but just be flattened a little bit.

Still working briskly, add another spoonful or more of chocolate to each cup in order to cover the peanut butter filling.  Use the spoon again to spread the chocolate around the top and completely cover the peanut butter.

Set the finished cups back into the muffin tin and let firm up at room temperature for about four hours.

Store up to two weeks (as if they will last that long) in an airtight container.  Don't refrigerate.