SUMMER REFRESHMENT, REVISITED

It’s really freaking hot, therefore refreshments are in order.

I’m revisiting two favorites from blogs past, both of which are easy to make and have become my essentials for summer survival.  Something about homemade iced coffee feels like a treat to myself, one I don’t have to feel very guilty about, and I am kind of obsessed with guava nectar.  And ginger beer.  And gin.  Opa!

If you’re interested in other summer staples, you can scroll through last year’s Summer Classics Series, with recipes for standards like coleslaw & potato salad, plus popular desserts like key lime pie & gingersnap-mascarpone tart.  It may feel like summer’s going to last forever, but when you start flipping through those calendar pages, fall isn’t so far away.

LUCKY DOGS

Guava is a little bit sweet, a little bit puckery, and pairs beautifully with spicy Mexican or Indian food.  You can read the story of how these cocktails got their strange name here.

1 can guava nectar
1 bottle Reed’s or other strong ginger beer
3 oz. gin or vodka
juice of one lime

Combine all ingredients, then pour into two glasses over ice.  Garnish with extra lime wedges.  You can easily double or triple the ingredients to make a pitcher.

COLD-BREW ICED COFFEE

This cold brewed iced coffee recipe was adapted from one I found in the New York Times.

4 cups bottled or filtered water
2/3 cup ground coffee, medium to coarse grind*

In a large liquid measuring cup or bowl with a pour spout, combine the two ingredients and stir.  Cover the mixture and let it sit at least overnight or up to 24 hours.

To remove the grounds from the concentrate, you can use a French press or pour the mixture through a wide-mouthed jar fitted with a coffee filter.  Store the concentrate in the fridge.

To make iced coffee, fill a glass with ice, then half or two-thirds of the way full with coffee concentrate.  Add milk, soymilk, or sweetened condensed milk to taste.

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GREEN LENTIL HUMMUS & HARD LEMONADE

As Jill recently announced to the whole world in a blog post, we read the Declaration of Independence aloud on the Fourth of July.  Geeky, I know, but we’re both so moved and inspired by our nation’s founding document—seriously, have you ever read it?  It’s grand and angry and beautiful.  They just don’t write ‘em like that anymore.

Of course, once you start reading the Declaration of Independence aloud on the Fourth of July, it’s not like you can quit.  These rituals take on their own weight and significance; they transform into tradition.  And me?  I’m like that dude from Fiddler on the Roof. I love me some tradition.

So share away—what are your Fourth of July traditions?  Or, for friends up north, Canada Day traditions?

GREEN LENTIL HUMMUS
barely adapted from Food & Wine

Admittedly, this play on hummus is not the most beautiful color in the whole wide world…but it tastes delicious, so try and look past that, would you?  If you’re in a chickpea hummus rut, give this one a whirl—lentils are good for you!

ingredients:

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup green lentils
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
3 garlic cloves*
¼ cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup fresh cilantro
1 tsp. ground cumin
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste

optional:

cayenne pepper, for heat
sweet or smoked paprika, for garnish

Bring the stock and lentils to a boil with the bay leaf & cinnamon stick.  Cover and simmer over low heat until the lentils are cooked through, about 45 minutes.  Uncover and turn up the heat, to cook away the excess liquid, another 2-3 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let the lentils cool.

In a food processor or blender, combine the lentils, garlic, tahini, cilantro, cumin, lemon juice, & a pinch of cayenne (if using).  Process until a paste begins to form, then drizzle in the olive oil slowly.  Mix until smooth, then add salt and taste-test.

Serve the hummus with pita chips and/or vegetables, sprinkling paprika on top and drizzling with a little extra olive oil.  Make a day ahead & keep in an airtight container in the fridge.

*I used garlic I had previously roasted and it added a wonderful flavor to the hummus.

HARD LEMONADE

A while back, the lovely Julie van Rosendaal of Dinner with Julie wrote a sweet blog post about an impromptu lemonade stand, including a recipe for this lemon syrup, promising that it made the perfect lemonade easily achievable.  My thoughts immediately turned to the possibilities of a “grownup” lemonade-leave it to my devilish mind.

I used frozen strawberries as “ice cubes” because we keep a giant bag from Costco in the freezer, but feel free to sub in frozen raspberries or blueberries, or make your own ice cubes with mint leaves suspended inside, for a color & flavor twist.

for one serving, I used 2 T lemon syrup, topped with fizzy water, a shot of vodka, & a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

for a pitcher, I’d recommend 1 cup lemon syrup & 1 ½ cups vodka, fill to the top with fizzy water & the juice of 4 lemons.

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PEACHES, THREE WAYS

I’ll take the brutal South Texas heat if it means that I get to buy a flat of these every weekend at the Farmers Market:

The smell of ripe peaches, the fuzz of their skin, the feel of peach juice running down my arm—all scream “summer” to my senses.  Peaches arrived a few weeks ago down here, just a few weeks shy of strawberries, bringing with them black & blue berries, soon to be followed by garden-ripe tomatoes and sweet, sweet corn.

Yesterday I watched my eighth graders graduate from middle school; I called their names as they walked across the stage to accept their certificates of achievement, and I got all teary as they and their parents came up in the reception to say goodbye.

While the advent of summer vacation is thrilling (and almost feels like cheating as I sheepishly silence my celebrations in the presence of friends who work, you know, all year round), I know I’m going to miss my kids.  In fact, I already do.

I had the pleasure of teaching these students twice—in their sixth grade AND their eighth grade year–and they have become part of my daily life, their mood swings, our inside jokes, and a whole bunch of good conversation.  I have witnessed them coming into themselves, becoming these funny, brave, uncertain, kind, perceptive, and hard-working people before my very eyes.

Teenagers don’t get very good publicity, and I know that parenting one is different from teaching sixty-five, but I’m here to tell you; the kids are alright.  They are better than alright, in fact, they are awesome.

That being said, I’m still pretty psyched about summer.  I’ll miss those punks, but at least I have peaches.

PEACH MARGARITAS

ingredients:

1 ½ cups fresh peach puree*
juice of 1 orange
juice of 2 lemons
½ cup tequila
shot of Cointreau or other orange liquor

Fill your blender with ice, pour in the remaining ingredients.  Blend until frothy, serve.

* Peel 3-4 ripe peaches.  Remove the pits & slice, then process in the blender until smooth, adding a wee bit of water if necessary.  Strain if you’re feeling fussy.

PEACH TART



Gingersnap crust, marscapone filling–need I say more?  A favorite make-ahead dessert from last summer.

PEACH ICE CREAM
barely adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, which you should buy immediately

ingredients:

4-5 ripe peaches
½ cup water
¾ cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup sour cream
½ tsp. vanilla
squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Cook peaches, water, & sugar in a saucepan on medium heat, stirring occasionally until soft–about 10 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool before processing it in the blender with the rest of the ingredients–I like to leave a few chunks of peaches for texture’s sake.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator before churning in your ice cream maker.  Like most homemade ice cream, this one is best served fresh.  If you store it in your freezer for more than an hour or two, it will need significant time at room temperature to thaw to a scoop-able state.

Of course, if Dolly is any indication, it won’t be hard for you to finish the batch straightaway.

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DIWALI 2009

Late Friday afternoon, we had to say goodbye to our sweet old girl.

us & our old lady

All things considered, our Lucky Dog lived up to her name.  She didn’t have to suffer through a prolonged illness or regular trips to the vet.  The two people who love her most were right there with her when she died.  LD enjoyed an incredibly high quality of life right up until the very end, something we don’t take for granted.

But I’m still walking around like a zombie in her absence.  Having an old dog, you try to prepare yourself for the inevitable.  But as with any loss, I’ve found you can’t really understand what it will be like until you are there.  Our whole family life revolved around that dog—coming home to let her out, feeding her, changing her diapers, baking her dog bones, rubbing her belly.  She was my first pet, Jill’s faithful hunting partner, and a source of much joy and comfort to both of us.

Needless to say, we came home Friday to a very hollow house.  A very hollow house that had been, up to that point, in the throes of preparation for a very large party the following night.

collage

During each of the four autumns since my father died, I’ve thrown a party to celebrate the Hindu Festival of Lights, Diwali.  My first was a small graduate school gathering in my tiny apartment in Tucson—I kept my mom on culinary consultation via cell phone and somehow managed to coax my tiny stovetop into making large pots of rice pudding (kheer) and my father’s favorite kidney bean stew (rajma).  Jill came into town and poured drinks for everyone.  My fellow writers wrapped the patio in lights, brought candles, decorated my sidewalk with chalk drawings.  We stayed up late that night, sitting on the floor of my apartment, the conversation intimate, warm.

Since then, the logistics have expanded considerably but my intentions haven’t changed.  I seek to honor my father, remember him, commemorate him, make him proud.  As with all of my cooking endeavors, I work to earn my place next to my mother and every other kitchen goddess/hostess/Southern gentlewoman I watched growing up, gracious, willful, relentless.  I like the hard work that comes with feeding forty-five people intricate food you made from scratch.  I revel in the ache and feeling that I have squared myself firmly inside my heritage (albeit with a few first-generation twists).

This year, Jill and I considered, for maybe thirty seconds, calling off the party.  But I don’t think it was ever really an option in either of our minds.  What better time to have a house-full of people we love?  Not to mention, what on EARTH would we have done with all of the food I had already made?

diwali food 2

So, the show went on, as the show must do, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the best one yet.  You know those occasions when you can feel a place hum with love and good will?  It was one of those.  We saw the smiling faces of some of our favorite people, hugged them, fed them good food, and felt grateful for our life, with everything in it.

I’m humbled by two things right now:

  • The beings I love, love, love with all my might and heart and soul and body, will die someday and I can’t control when or how.  When they are gone, it will hurt irreparably.
  • There are some truly incredible beings in my life.

Take, for example, Leslie, a friend from high school who now sells the loveliest stationery on Etsy and transformed my vague idea for an invitation into this striking card:

diwali-invite

My creative librarian colleague Heather, who manufactured the most beautiful cardstock-and-vellum labels for all of the evening’s food:

diwali-heather label

Or our dear friends Courtney and her husband John, who showed up at our house on Friday night with bags of Thai food and these votive-holders, which they crafted out of baby food jars, copper wire, and the loveliest quotes about light.  I think they’re going to become a permanent fixture in our window:

diwali-candles

My college roommate and talented artist Rebecca swathed the tables in sun colors, rose petals, flowers, and even incorporated pictures of our sweet girl at the last minute:

diwali-LD on table

I could go on and on—indomitable photographer Sonya, whose good work you see all over this post, my beloved Jill, who cleaned our house from top to bottom, wrapped the fence in lights, and set out all of the rental tables and chairs, and the kind-hearted Meg of Maker’s Table, who served as our wine consultant, recommending wonderful bottles  in my price range that would pair nicely with the evening’s spicy food.

Speaking of food, we set out quite a spread, if I may say so myself:

For appetizers, we had:

  • Indian fruit salad with mango, pineapple, pomegranate, & star fruit
  • Bhel Puri, a build-your-own Indian street food featuring spicy potatoes atop a bed of crunchy chick-pea flour snacks, onion, cilantro, & one or both of tamarind and coriander chutneys
  • grilled Halloumi cheese atop mini-pitas with mango chutney and onion relish

Dinner:

  • Lamb Koftas (spicy meatballs in a tomato/sour cream gravy)
  • Saag Paneer (greens with homemade cheese)
  • Channa Masala (North Indian-style chickpea stew)
  • Sweet potatoes & green beans with mustard seeds
  • Basmati rice pilaf
  • Achar (cauliflower, carrot, & jalapeño pickle)
  • Raita (homemade yogurt with grated cucumber & salt)
  • Naan (which I purchased and I did NOT make!)

For dessert, I made Indian-style chai and served up little bowls of Suji Halwa, a kind of porridge made with cream-of-wheat, butter, cardamom, & nuts.  Sounds a little strange, but it’s delicious.

I’m afraid I don’t have all of the recipes ready to post for you here—I cooked in enormous quantities and Sonya wasn’t always around to document the process.  I plan to re-run some of these items and measure more closely next time, so if there are any dishes you are particularly interested in having a recipe for, please let me know.

In the meantime, though I don’t have photographic evidence of it, I did concoct a cocktail which we served at the start of the party.  This drink was a HIT—we went through several pitchers of it before moving onto wine & beer with dinner.

A little bit exotic and very easy to make, this guava concoction paired well with the strong Indian food flavors that were being served; I suspect it would also work well with other Asian cuisines or Mexican food.  If you’ve never had guava nectar, try it!  It has a slightly puckery, but also sweet flavor, distinctive and likeable.

I think I’m going to christen them Lucky Dogs.

collage3

LUCKY DOGS (Guava Cocktails)

This recipe makes a pitcher’s worth, but you could easily adjust it for a smaller batch.  Find guava nectar in the International Foods aisle of your grocery store, either in the Mexican or Indian section.  Nectar can also be found in specialty stores of the same type.

4 cups guava nectar*

2 bottles ginger beer* (I love Reed’s)

1 cup vodka (want to try substituting gin—if any of ya’ll do, let me know how it goes!)

juice of 4 limes

Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher, stir with a large spoon.  Would look lovely garnished with a spring of mint and/or wedge of lime.  You know, if you weren’t serving 45 people all at once.

* Chill these ahead of time or serve the cocktail over ice.

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A FAREWELL TOAST

The food world has been loudly buzzing since Monday’s shocking announcement of the Gourmet magazine shut-down. All day yesterday and into today, foodies, bloggers, industry professionals, and (former) Gourmet employees have vented, ranted, mourned, and waxed nostalgic on Twitter and other forums. (I’m no exception.)

Really, I’m not qualified to say much about the closing of the magazine except that I’m surprised and will miss it terribly. Gourmet helped shape me (and many a budding foodie, I’m sure), shaping my aesthetic, building my culinary vocabulary, and offering me exposure to various cuisines and the cultures behind them. I’ve never been much of a magazine subscriber, since there seems to be much more fluff than substance out there, but Gourmet was one I have been happy to pay for. So, even though I had originally scheduled this simple fig salad for today’s post, I just had to tack on a little farewell toast to Gourmet, featuring a cocktail from—of course—last October’s issue. Here’s to you, Gourmet, with many thanks.

champagne toast

FRENCH 75 COCKTAIL

serves 6-8

As you may already know, my honey is rather fond of sparkling drinks; I am rather fond of gin. This drink is the marriage of our alcoholic worldviews in a glass!

I think this would make an excellent substitution for mimosas at a brunch, or pair nicely with a birthday cake/celebratory dessert. They’re also pretty tasty just on their own.

ingredients:

a third of a cup (1/3) sugar

a third of a cup (1/3 ) water

½ cup gin (I used Hendrick’s)

3 T fresh lemon juice

1 bottle well-chilled Champagne

Make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Let the syrup cool, then add the gin & lemon juice. Chill the syrup until cold.*

To assemble the cocktails, pour 2 T of gin mixture into each glass. Slowly top off with Champagne.

[I rimmed my Champagne glass with some coarse sanding sugar, but the original recipe recommends you garnish with lemon zest—a candied version would be nice, too!]

*Gin syrup can be made ahead & chilled.

FALL FIG SALAD

More of an idea than a recipe, I owe the inspiration for this salad from my Shaila Aunty, who grows beautiful green figs in her Memphis backyard. She’s not actually my aunt; she’s one of the many men and women from our close-knit Indian community who raised me as one of their own.

I can’t adequately express how much or how many ways I admire my Aunty—she’s a passionate philanthropist, wife, parent, & friend, possesses an incredible talent for painting, reads prolifically, and is an excellent cook. She has loved and supported me since before I was born, and she taught me to put figs in my salad.

Figs are almost assaultingly sensual and luscious; I love how they look atop a bed of mixed greens. Since several varieties are still in season, fig salad can be a great counterpoint to roast chicken or other fall dish. If you decide to add prosciutto, though, you could serve large bowls of the salad alongside a vegetable soup with some crusty bread.  Leftover figs?  Serve them for dessert over vanilla ice cream.

ingredients: zoomed in fig salad

mixed greens

figs, quartered

Parmesan or Pecorino Romano

chopped pecans (I used candied, but you could use plain)

optional: prosciutto

dressing: balsamic vinaigrette–you could use pre-made or make your own, like I did.  Any chance to use my fig-infused balsamic!  But you could also try this method for quickly infusing your own (just substitute “fig” for “strawberry” in the recipe).

Set the quartered figs atop a salad bowl full of greens. Scatter generous handfuls of pecans over the bowl, then top with fat shavings of cheese. If using prosciutto, snake the strips through the salad before dressing it.

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HOMEMADE GRENADINE

As you may already know, teaching is my day job.  Eighth grade English, to be precise.  And in-service started this week.  Hence this post involves cocktails.

back to school cocktails

I know; I’m very lucky to have a summer vacation at all.  My job is truly fabulous because I love my students and I’m able to have a big chunk of time off to do all kinds of other things I may be interested in doing.  But a big part of why my job works so well for me is that I was. not. made. to sit behind a desk and/or in meetings all day.  And in-service is pretty much one big meeting.

So.

Doubtless you’re familiar with grenadine—if you’re like me, from the Shirley Temples of your youth?—but it’s also used to add color and sweetness to “grownup” drinks.  Originally, grenadine was made from pomegranates, hence the signature fuschia color, but as you can see, the bottled pre-made no longer has such wholesome origins:

storebought grenadine

Therefore I suggest to you the simple, even meditative act of making your own grenadine and storing it handily in the fridge where it will be waiting for you when you come home from a long day of meetings.

Even though the summer is technically “over” now that school has started, it’s still hot as blazes and so we’re going to keep the Summer Classics Series going through Labor Day–be on the lookout for a lovely Farmer’s Market Pasta & a killer fresh-fig dessert.

HOMEMADE GRENADINE (pomegranate syrup) grenadine ingredients
adapted from Alton Brown

ingredients:

4 cups pomegranate juice
juice from half a lemon
½ -1 cup sugar (adjust according to the amount of sugar in your brand of pomegranate juice)

Combine all of the ingredients in a deep saucepan over medium heat, stirring while it heats until the sugar has dissolved.  Turn the heat down and allow the mixture to simmer until the syrup has reduced by at least half.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool at room temperature before transferring to a jar in the fridge.  This will yield between 1 ½ – 2 cups of homemade grenadine, which should keep in the fridge for up to six months.

There are a million cocktail recipes out there that involve grenadine, but here’s one classic & one that I just made up:

TEQUILA SUNRISE

These things go down like a vacation in a glass.  Ahhh…..

you will need: tequila sunrises

tequila
orange juice (freshly squeezed is extra delicious!)
homemade grenadine

The method is simple: fill a glass with ice.  Pour in some tequila, as much or as little as you’d like.  Pour in orange juice nearly to the top of the glass, leaving just enough room to drizzle a few tablespoons of grenadine over the whole thing.  Because it’s a syrup, it will ease down slowly to make a lovely pattern—like a sunrise—so don’t stir!  Just drink.

BACK-TO-SCHOOL TONIC

Because I just threw this one together, feel free to adapt it in any way you see fit.  Basically this is like a cosmopolitan, just with pomegranate flavor instead of cranberry.  And it was delicious.  Cheers!

you will need:

1 lemon
orange liquor (I used Cointreau)
vodka
homemade grenadine

If you’d like a fancy lemon garnish, I recommend peeling a curlique with a paring knife before you juice the lemon; much easier.

For two drinks, fill a cocktail strainer with ice.  Squeeze in the whole lemon, add a generous glug of orange liquor & two shots of vodka.  Pour in between ½ – ¾ cup grenadine.

Shake it all up, strain, and pour.  Garnish with lemon twists or orange slices, etc.

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FATHER’S DAY BRUNCH: EGGS BENEDICT & BLOODY MARYS

dad

There’s a self-consciousness that comes with grief, the consciousness that the people around you:

a) have never experienced anything like what you’re going through,

b) are utterly at a loss for what to do to comfort/support you,

c) wish you would just “get better” already,

d) are terrified by the thought of death and hate you reminding them that their loved ones will die.

Sometimes I feel like “that girl who talks about her dead father all the time.”

In the filing cabinet of my brain and heart, food and my father are inextricably linked. One of the great ironies of it all is that losing my father, an unabashed epicure, sent me straight into the kitchen, where I got really good at cooking all kinds of things I wish I could make for him now.

For example, Eggs Benedict and an excellently spiced Bloody Mary—robust, made with love, fit for a king. It’s the brunch I’d make for my dad if I could.

Pray tell, what are you feeding your father (or husband, partner, uncle, grandpa, etc) on Sunday? Are you cooking at home or taking him out? Does your family have a Father’s Day culinary tradition? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Wishing all Dads a very happy Father’s Day, with lots of love from BJG.

EGGS BENEDICT (BLUE JEAN GOURMET STYLE)

EB--decorated, close-up

There are lots of variations on theme of EB; this is just how I happen to like mine.  I really don’t think you can go wrong if you stick to the basic premise of  layering toothsome pork product & gooey egg on top of crusty bread and slathering the whole thing in hollandaise.

A word about hollandaise.  It’s really not as fussy as everyone makes it out to be–at least, it has not been a culinary-pain-in-the-butt for me.  I’ve heard tell that you can make hollandaise in a blender, and if you have done so with success and think it’s way easier than my method, please do share.  I’ve made mine several times the old-fashioned way with great success, so if you’ve been afraid to try the stuff, I urge you to give it a whirl.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED:

spinach (either a package of frozen, chopped or a big bunch of fresh)

English muffins (traditional) or another bread product

Canadian bacon (substitute thick-cut ham or many slices of thin-cut ham)

poached eggs*

eggs, butter, water, fresh lemon juice (for the hollandaise)

salt & pepper, hot sauce (optional)

TO MAKE HOLLANDAISE:

2 egg yolks

juice from 1/2 a lemon

6 T butter, cut into cubes

salt & pepper

Combine the egg yolks with lemon juice in a small saucepan.  Whisk to combine over low heat; the yolks should thicken quickly.  Toss in the butter cubes and continue whisking until the butter has melted.

hollandaise step 2

hollandaise step 3

hollandaise fin

The mixture will become a bit lighter in color, which is a good indication that you’ve got things well-emulsified.  Add salt & pepper to taste.

TO ASSEMBLE:

The trickiest part about making this breakfast is the timing.  You basically want to save the hollandaise for last, because it does best when served very soon after it’s made–it’s a little bit diva like that (na-na-na-a-diva-is-a-female-version…okay, yeah I’m going to have that song in my head now.)

My plan of action is usually this:

1) cook spinach, season with salt & pepper, set aside

2) brown Canadian bacon in a skillet, keep warm in a low oven

3) toast English muffins, add to the low oven

4) poach eggs* & turn out into a paper-towel-lined platter in, you guessed it!, a low oven

5) make hollandaise

6) stack ’em: English muffin half on bottom, top with Canadian bacon, then spinach, then a poached egg.  repeat.  pour on the Hollandaise with a generous hand!

* The internet is full of wisdom for how best to poach one’s eggs; I’ve done them the old-fashioned way, in a pot of vinegar-spiked water and I’ve done them the lazy way, in an egg poacher.  However you get your eggs poached is fine by me!

BEST BLOODY MARY MIX

bloody mary

ingredients:

1 large bottle spicy-hot V8

Juice of 2 limes

2 T. white vinegar

2 T. prepared horseradish

2 T. Worcestershire sauce

1 T. garlic powder

1 tsp. celery salt

1 tsp. Tabasco sauce

A generous glug of any of the following
olive juice, pickle juice, or juice from pickled jalapeños

Plenty of freshly-ground pepper

garnish: celery, spicy green olives, limes, celery salt

Combine all ingredients and store in a pitcher in the refrigerator. When you’re ready for drinks, first “salt” the rim of your glasses.  Rub the lip of each glass with a lime wedge; then, turn the glass upside down and onto a plate-full of celery salt.  Twist the glass to form a rim.

To mix a drink, combine 3 parts mix to 1 part vodka or gin over ice.  Garnish with a tall stalk of celery and a toothpick speared with an olive & lime wedge.

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STRAWBERRY-BASIL MARGARITAS

STRAWBERRY-BASIL MARGARITAS straw-basil rita

To continue our ode to the summer strawberry season, and in celebration of the upcoming long weekend, we present you with a cocktail. Naturally!

There’s a fun neighborhood bar here in Houston called The Volcano, and in addition to its rockin’ patio and we’re-not-sure-if-it’s-ironic-or-not-Polynesian décor, The Volcano features delicious cocktails like frozen screwdrivers, Mt. Lychees, and strawberry-basil margaritas.

Strawberry-basil margaritas?  Oh yes oh yes oh yes.

Perhaps you think the strawberry-basil combination sounds like a strange one for a cocktail.  Believe me, I was a skeptic at first myself.  Normally I am not a fan of super-fruity drinks, and I really didn’t know how I felt about a strong herb like basil in my cocktail.  But now, I am a convert.  The grassy, clean flavor of the basil cuts right through what could be an overly-sweet strawberry drink.  Throw in some fresh lime juice & Cointreau, then welcome to happy hour!

My interpretation of The Volcano’s drink involves a strawberry simple-syrup, which infuses strong strawberry flavor and a gorgeous pink color.  You can easily make the syrup ahead of time and store it in the fridge until you’re ready for cocktails; this is also pitcher-friendly, so it’s great for a crowd.

If you’re not crazy about tequila, go ahead and swap in vodka–viola, a strawberry-basil martini!

straw-basil rita up close

No matter what you decide to drink this Memorial Day weekend, I would like to propose a two-part toast:

One = We are headed to Dallas on Sunday for the wedding of my friend Shining.  He and I were classmates at Rice, now he’s about to be a doctor, and his future wife Tricia is an amazing pianist/engineer/foodie.  I’m so excited about their wedding not only because it’s going to be a mini-reunion with some of my favorite people, but also because the happy couple really are a happy couple.  They are so great together, bring out the best in each other, & their love is infectious.  Congratulations in advance, you two!  A toast in your honor–I’m certain there will be many more come Sunday.

shiningtricia
Two = I’ve been doing my best to remind my students and myself just *why* we are off school on Monday.  Grateful as we all are for the three-day weekend, I know it’s much more important to be grateful to the men and women whose service we memorialize and to those whose service continues still.  It’s a reminder which really resonates this year with our school community, as our beloved Middle School Dean Tony is training in D.C. for his upcoming deployment to Iraq.  We honor you, Tony, and look forward to having you back with us in the spring.  Cheers & Godspeed!

STRAWBERRY-BASIL MARGARITAS
makes 2 generous drinks
tequila macerating basil
2 oz. tequila (1 oz = a shot)

1/2 cup strawberry simple syrup*

juice of 2 limes

splash of Cointreau (substitute any other orange-flavored liquor)

2 T fresh basil, chopped roughly

extra strawberries & basil for garnish

To mix the drinks, place the basil in the bottom of a cocktail shaker (or large cup).  Pour in tequila.  Use the back of a spoon (or a fancy muddler, if you have one) to mash the basil leaves into the tequila, so as to release the flavor.  Fill the shaker with ice, then add strawberry syrup, lime juice, Cointreau.  Cover and shake, then strain out into glasses.  Garnish with sliced strawberries and a chiffonade of basil.

To make the strawberry simple syrup:

strawberry simple syrup one 1 cup sugar
1 cup water
4-5 strawberries, sliced

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then let simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the strawberries look exhausted.  Cool the syrup, then strain the liquid through a sieve, pressing the strawberries firmly to extract all liquid.  Store in a bottle or jar in the fridge–will keep for up to 2 months.

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BLUE JEAN GOURMET IS BORN: GUACAMOLE & MARGARITAS

Salud! L’Chaim! Cheers!

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Welcome, welcome, welcome—whether you are an avid foodie, beginning cook, food-blog enthusiast, or just here for the pretty pictures, I hope you’ll find Blue Jean Gourmet to be a fun, un-intimidating resource for really good food and straightforward kitchen advice.  Please make yourself at home.

We’re launching today on Cinco de Mayo–I can’t think of a better occasion!  What other holiday gives me an excuse (not like I need one) to whip up a batch of guacamole and a blender-full of margaritas?  I’m so excited to share these two recipes with you as they are the perfect encapsulation of what the Blue Jean Gourmet philosophy is all about: really good food does not have to be really fussy.  Both of these recipes are a cinch to make with quality ingredients and a little practice.  Sure, pre-prepared guacamole and bottled margarita mix are readily available, but neither can hold a candle to their homemade counterparts.   You’ll wow everyone (including yourself) and never go back to the packaged stuff.

I also love these recipes because they literally tell the story of how I ended up here in the first place.  You see, long ago my newlywed parents worked at a Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee.  My father was the manager, my mom a bartender–I really love the fact that my Indian immigrant mother used to tend bar in a Mexican restaurant in the deep South–only in America, right?

Mom’s good looks earned her many tips and opportunities to hone her margarita-making skills, and my father continued to work for Pancho’s for many years, cementing my family’s love affair with all things Tex-Mex.  When I make my own version of these recipes now, I feel I have earned my place in my family’s rich, weird culinary history.

Since Blue Jean Gourmet is just now making its way into the web-world, please check back periodically for added features and new posts.  You can also follow BJG on Twitter, become a BJG fan on Facebook, or use good-old-fashioned email to contact the Blue Jean Gourmet herself (that’s me!): bluejeangourmet (at) gmail (dot) com.  I’d love to have your thoughts and feedback: is there a food item you would like to see featured?  Cooking technique you want to master?  Let me know and I will do my best to help you out.

In the meantime, invite some friends over and give these recipes a whirl.  You can make Cinco de Mayo last all week!

MEMPHIS MARGARITAS

a well-stocked liquor cabinet

Makes 4 generous servings, doubles well!

8 oz (1 cup) fresh-squeezed lime juice (trust me, it’s worth the trouble)
juice of 1 orange
1/2 cup tequila (the better the quality, the better the margarita)
1/4 cup Cointreau or other orange liquor (Triple Sec, Grand Marnier)
2 T Minute Maid frozen limeade (more if you prefer a sweeter drink)*

Frozen margaritas–Fill a blender with 3 cups of ice.  Pour in liquid ingredients; blend, serve.
Margaritas on the rocks–Stir liquid ingredients together in a pitcher; serve over ice.
To salt glasses–Rub the rim of an empty glass with a lime wedge.  Pour 2 T kosher salt (looks pretty, but regular will do just fine) onto a small plate.  Turn glass upside down and, using a rocking motion, dip the rim in salt, rotating to coat the entire rim.

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IT’S HANDY: Leftover margarita mix keeps perfectly well in a tightly-sealed jar in the fridge.  Cocktails at a moment’s notice!

* This is my mom’s genius secret ingredient–it’s cheap, keeps forever in the fridge, & saves you from having to make simple syrup.

GUACAMOLE

guacamole-serving-bowl

3 ripe avocados*
juice of 1 lime
2 small cloves or 1 large clove garlic (less if you aren’t a fanatic like me)
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1 tsp jalapeño, finely chopped (optional)
salt
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

First, sprinkle the garlic with a generous pinch of salt.  Using a knife with a wide blade, chop the garlic with the salt at an angle, making a kind of paste–mince the garlic, then smush it with the back of the knife, go back to mincing, etc.

Transfer the garlic/salt paste to a bowl with the onion, jalapeño (if using), and lime juice.  Muddle these ingredients together with a fork.  Next, halve the avocados, removing the seeds and scooping out the flesh with a spoon.  Add the avocados to the lime juice mixture and smash the halves with the back of a fork until the desired texture is reached (I like mine a little chunky).

Unless you are one of those people who think cilantro tastes like soap (and if you are, I feel sad for you), garnish with the chopped cilantro, stirring a bit of it into the mix.   Serve with blue or white corn tortilla chips.

* Okay, avocados.  Sometimes people are intimidated by them, but there’s no need!  I can offer two tricks:
1) Only buy the little, dark, bumpy Haas avocados, if you can get them.  You want fruit that gives a bit when you give it a squeeze–no mushy spots!

2) Ripen them at home on the counter using a paper bag & an apple or a banana.  Apparently, apples and bananas naturally give off gasses which conveniently help avocados to ripen.  I promise, this trick works.  Enjoy!

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