Monday, February 28, 2011

Cleveland Rocks

This is an overdue post on a recent trip my husband and I had to his hometown of Cleveland.  We had a terrific time and enjoyed some great food.

2058 East 4th Street

Owned by Top Chef and local-boy-made-good Michael Symon, this is one of the hottest spots in town.  The menu changes regularly, but his signature dish is a hanger steak and fries.  Since it was my first time, that is what I ordered.  The steak was cooked exactly to order (really) and was very tender and flavorful.  The potatoes are fried in bacon fat and sprinkled with salt and a bit of rosemary.  They were the perfect consistency.  They have a balanced wine list with a range of prices (both bottle and glass) and both traditional and edgy pairings.  The wine list is maintained electronically, which I think is great and each table is provided with an IPad to see the selections.  A cool touch, but only if it is working.  We initially had a dud, and were delayed in ordering our drinks.  One more note...I had heard a number of negative things about the service there, so I was steeled for it, but it wasn't horrible.  The hostesses needed some more training, but our waiter was friendly if not super attentive, and the water steward kept my glass filled and our food was brought to us promptly and as ordered.  You do need reservations if you want to go, so plan ahead.

Velvet Tango Room
2095 Columbus Road

This is like no place else in Cleveland.  You must go to this bar if you want to the best cocktail in town. It was not obvious from the street and looked a bit dingy, but it was a different atmosphere inside.  We were greeted at the door and asked if we wanted a table and to check our coats.  We chose to sit at the bar to watch the bartenders work.  The place has great acoustics - you can hear the live jazz/blues music, but still have a quiet conversation with your companion.  The menu is a bit overwhelming with a lot of explanations and history for each drink, don't be deterred, though.  And, you can also just tell the bartender what you like (or don't) and they will mix up something special just for you.  I had a Bourbon Daisy (bourbon, lemon juice, grenadine, sugar with orange and cherry garnish) and a Sazerac.  My husband enjoyed a Sidecar and a glass of Scotch.  We were warned in advance of the prices (plan on $16 a drink), so the bill didn't ruin our good spirits when we ready to leave, and we found the splurge worth it.

West Side Market
Corner of West 25th and Lorain

Cleveland's oldest market is sure to have what you are looking for, and for the right price.

The market is full of ethnic diversity with items I've never seen anywhere else and there are a number of counters run by families who have been there for generations.  

It can get crowded on the weekends, especially in the morning, but I find it best to go earlier in the day before some vendors sell out of the best stuff.

Seven Roses Delicatessen
6301 Fleet Avenue

In the heart of Cleveland's Slavic Village, this neighborhood grocery store is worth the trip.  It is in a beautifully restored 19th century building with floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves, a pressed tin ceiling, and even lace curtains in the windows.  I love the perogis and we always bring back several dozen.  But, they have all kinds of other delicious Polish treats to take home or you can grab a table and eat there.  Don't be concerned if you are greeted in Polish or can't read the labels, the staff is friendly and willing to help.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Happy New Year, Rabbits!

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit.  It began on February 3, 2011 and ends on January 22, 2012.  Chinese New Year starts at the second full moon after the Winter Solstice, not January 1.

The Rabbit is considered a lucky sign.  According to Chinese tradition, the Rabbit brings a year in which you can catch your breath and calm your nerves.  It is believed that to gain the greatest benefit from this time, focus on home, family, security, diplomacy, and your relationships with women and children.  So, think mellow thoughts and take advantage of this time to cook at home more.

In honor of the Chinese New Year, I made Longevity Noodles with Chicken, Garlic, and Ginger.  They are called longevity noodles because their long length represents longevity and noodles like these are typically served at all occasions that relate to long life.  I was born in the Year of the Rabbit, so I thought it was a good idea to make a simple, but lucky dinner.  

Longevity Noodles with Chicken, Garlic, and Ginger
Serves 2 to 3

12 - 16 oz thin fresh noodles (I used lo mein)
2 tsp sesame oil
12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast (or thighs) cut into bite-size pieces
1 Tbsp finely shredded ginger
1 tsp plus 1 Tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp plus 1 Tbsp soy sauce
salt, to taste
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 Tbsp peanut oil
2 tsp pepper oil, optional
2 cups thinly sliced cabbage
1 cup fresh shitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Bring a medium saucepan of water to boil over high heat and cook noodles until just done, less than 5 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking.  

Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water until cool, then shake well to remove water.  Return noodles to pot, add sesame oil, and toss.

Put diced chicken in medium bowl and add ginger, 1 tsp rice wine, cornstarch, 1 tsp soy sauce, and salt and pepper.  Mix gently to combine.

You don't want much liquid in your stir fry initially, so in a separate bowl combine remaining 1 Tbsp of rice wine and 1 Tbsp soy sauce.

Heat work over high heat until a bead of water evaporates almost on contact.  Swirl in 1 Tbsp peanut oil and 1 tsp pepper oil.  Add chicken, spreading in a single layer to maximize contact with heated surface of wok.  Let it cook undisturbed for about a minute, until chicken begins to sear.

Stir-fry chicken, tossing in the wok, for about 2 more minutes or until just done.  Remove the chicken to a clean bowl.  

Add cabbage, mushrooms, and garlic, and stir-fry just a minute or so until wilting, but not cooked.  Empty the vegetables into the bowl holding the chicken.

Reheat wok, swirl in remaining 1 Tbsp peanut oil and 1 tsp pepper oil, and add noodles.  Stir-fry only about 30 seconds, moving constantly to heat through.  

Swirl the soy sauce-rice wine mixture and add to wok along with chicken-vegetable mixture.  Sprinkle with a dash or two of salt and stir-fry another 2 minutes or until the chicken and vegetables are heated through.

Serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vote for My Cocktail

I was invited to develop a cocktail recipe for Marx Foods using the stimulating szechuan buttons.  Well, I came up with three cocktails, but one, the Buzz of the Green Fairy is in the running now.

If you like what you see, please visit the Marx Food site and vote for me.  The poll will close on Tuesday, February 15.

Thanks for your support!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sip the Light Fantastic

Last week, I was pleased to be asked by Marx Foods to participate in a cocktail recipe contest using sechuan buttons as an ingredient.  I'd never heard of this ingredient, but I was intrigued.  It turns out that sechuan buttons are flower buds that can create a tingling sensation on your tongue and lips when you eat them.  Originating in Asia and Africa, they are also known as the electric flower.

Once I received the sample package (with a warning label to eat at your own risk!), my husband and I took little tastes by pinching off just a few petals.  To me, it had a subtle herbal flavor, and I thought it felt like eating Pop Rocks candy without the physical popping sensation, just the tingling feeling on my tongue and lips.  My husband said it tasted like electricity, as though he licked an electric socket.

And then, I got to work...

First I decided to infuse some soju with the flowers.  Soju, if you recall, is an Asian style vodka.  I crumbled the petals of 2 flowers into about 8 oz of soju and let it sit about 36 hours in a sealed container.

Soju Socket
Makes 1 drink

3 oz sechuan button infused soju
1 1/2 oz ginger syrup
candied ginger

Put soju, ginger syrup, and ice in a cocktail shaker.  Shake until chilled.  Strain into glass and garnish with candied ginger.

To make ginger syrup - Take a 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peel, and cut into large chunks.  Put it in a saucepan with 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of water, stirring to combine.  Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat.  When mixture boils, reduce heat and simmer until sugar is completely dissolved and syrup is slightly thickened.  This usually takes about 3 minutes.  Remove from heat, discard ginger, and let cool.  Refrigerate until ready to use.

Tasting Note:  The sechuan buttons created a mild herbal flavor in the soju that is not detected by all, but I felt the tingle on my lips and tongue and it made a nice combination with the bite of the ginger.

Buzz of the Green Fairy
Makes 1 drink

1/4 oz absinthe
2 oz rye whiskey
1 to 2 dash bitters
petals of one sechuan button
lemon wedge

Cover a small plate with superfine sugar and sprinkle with the petals of one sechuan button.   Using the lemon wedge, moisten the rim of a glass, and then with the sugar and petal mixture.  Place in freezer to chill.

Coat the inside of your chilled glass with absinthe, discarding excess.  Add ice.  Pour in rye whiskey and a drop or two of bitters.  Serve.

Tasting Note:  This drink is best if you make sure to take a sip on sugared part of rim.  The petals will definitely give your lips a little buzz.

Manhattan Cherry Bomb
Makes 1 drink

3 oz bourbon
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
splash of maraschino cherry juice

1 sechuan button
1 maraschino cherry

In shaker, place ice, bourbon, sweet vermouth, and splash of cherry juice.  Shake well until chilled.  Pour into glass and serve straight up or on the rocks, like my husband prefers.

Pluck the bud of a sechuan button flower and push into a maraschino cherry.  Garnish glass and prepare your taste buds!

Tasting Note:  Wow!  My tongue, inside cheeks, and throat all became numb when I ate the button-stuffed cherry.  It was a striking combination of sweet and bitter flavors that lasted for quite some time.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

DIY Whiskey

Readers of this blog will recall, the trip my husband and I took to Wasmund's Copper Fox Distillery.  While there we not only took a tour of the distillery, but purchased some clear spirits (aka moonshine) and a barrel to age our own whiskey.

It made us feel a little like distillers without the chemistry knowledge or potentially explosive home still.  And, oh yeah, that whole illegal thing, whatever...

The experience really helped us understand the impact wood has on flavoring the spirit.  The smell, taste, and appearance of the whiskey changed dramatically as it aged in the barrel.  Additionally, because our barrel is so small, the aging process is accelerated.  In only months, we had something worth tasting and drinking, as opposed to the years it takes with a full-sized barrel.  Yay, homemade whiskey!

Now, you can't jump right in to aging the whiskey when you get your barrel home.  First, you need to ensure your barrel won't leak.  The easiest way to do this, is to fill the barrel with hot water and let it sit until the seepage stops.  The hot water helps the wooden barrel slats expand and fit together more snugly.  We also found it helpful to use a spray bottle to moisten the areas where it was leaking.  It took us a couple of days to get a tight barrel, but it is worth it.  I mean, you don't want to lose a bunch of precious whiskey, right?

Once you have a secure vessel, pour the spirits into the bung hole on the top of the barrel.

(Everytime the phrase "bung hole" was recited, my husband immediately followed it with a laugh from Beavis and Butthead.  Yeah, I'm proud.)

Push the bung back into its hole and then practice patience as you wait for your whiskey to be ready.

Additional ingredients can be added to your whiskey before you seal the barrel, if you'd like.  For example, Wasmund adds cheesecloth bags full of fruitwood chips to enhance the flavor of their whiskey.  We elected to play it straight this round and didn't add anything else to the barrel.  We tinkered with the spirits a little later in the process, though.

You can see from the pictures that the barrel has a spigot.  This made it easy to sample every few weeks to check our progress and gauge how the barrel changed the whiskey.  After regular samples and acquiring additional raw spirits to refill the barrel, we decided to bottle our aged whiskey at the seven month mark.  (NOTE: You don't want to leave your barrel empty because you will have to deal with big leaks again.)

It was at this point that we decided to try the chipping technique that Wasmund practices.  We created a little cheesecloth bag of toasted applewood chunks to suspend like a tea bag in a portion of the aged whiskey once we removed it from the barrel.

The whiskey we wanted to "chip", we poured into a sealable glass container.  We gave this batch an extra month before bottling, and it seems to have made a big difference.  In fact, I think the addition of wood chips seemed to "age" the whiskey to the tune of several more months, instead of just one.  It smoothed the rough edges of the alcohol and created a depth of flavor to make a unique beverage.  

The rest of the whiskey we poured back into the bottles that once contained the raw spirits.  Wasmund thoughtfully gave them labels that give room for bottling dates and tasting notes.  A great detail, in my opinion.

It is important to provide some level of filtering of your whiskey as it comes out of the barrel to keep out wood dust and any other residue that could reside in your little barrel.  As you can see, we just used a coffee filter in our funnel, but some folks use more advanced methods and purchase filters for that purpose.

The spirits are quite strong and high in alcohol in the barrel.  Wasmund provides raw spirits at around 120 proof.    For that reason, you may find it desirable to add some distilled water to your bottles once your aged whiskey is ready.  In fact, Wasmund actually designs its bottles with a subtle mark on the side to create a fill level for the whiskey at barrel strength, allowing room for water to be added and thereby reducing the alcohol level.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of Wasmund's whiskey (on right) and our home-aged whiskey (on left).  Pretty close, I think...

We definitely like this whiskey, but we've really enjoyed the applewood-chipped batch.  And, it looks lovely in a crystal decanter (wedding gift!) on the sideboard (thanks, VA!) in our dining room.  Cheers!