Ah, another tax day. Regardless of your political persuasion or tax bracket, tax day tends to sting a little. But at least we are still alive to see another one. And I guess it makes sense that tax day is in spring (can you imagine it in the dead of winter? Ugh.). The day may feel a bit black, but all you need to do is look outside and you can find a few flowers to bring some welcome color back to your life. And these flowers are free. So here is a little early “refund” from all of us here at the farm. Now go find, and enjoy, some flowers of your own…..
Well, it has been a while since our last weekly cocktail post. But the weeks keep coming, so we may as well get things restarted. After all, spring is the season of renewal. And we have just the drink to re-kick things off, our own version of a true classic, the Mint Julep.
Sadly (and frankly) way too many Mint Juleps suck. Yes, we said it, and we mean it. S.U.C.K. And those are strong words here at the farm, but all too true for this drink. Most Juleps are just fussy, boozy and minty. Some use bad bourbon or even fake mint (ack!). Or worse, feature flecks of mint all over the drink…and in your teeth. And many hide a bad drink in silly frosted silver cups with crushed ice and a straw. Ugh.
But, very happily, a return to the basics is all the Julep needs to return to greatness. The key step is to look at history and realize that the Julep is simply a forerunner of the basic cocktail. The first cocktail was just spirits, bitters, sugar (unrefined, but we will get to that later) and water. A good Julep is almost the same recipe, but with mint substituting for the bitters…..Hmmm….
So let’s start with the Bourbon. We recently fell in love with Four Roses Yellow Label for cocktails (and their premium Bourbons for sipping) and suggest you use it for an excellent Julep. First, the Yellow Label has a mash bill with a good slug of rye, so you get the expected oak and toffee notes, but with some real spice and a very clean finish. Good stuff. Second, the Yellow Label is about $20, one of the best values on the shelf.
On to sugar. This is easy. When the Julep was invented there was no such thing as refined sugar. We use a rich simple syrup of turbinado or muscovado sugar. These “raw” sugars add deep, smooth molasses notes to the drink that take the heat from the alcohol. Much better than plain white sugar.
Ah, fennel. We have a special relationship with this spring veggie here at the farm. Not only do we grow it, but our Caramelized Fennel recipe somehow ended up as one of the most popular on the web and brings us plenty of visitors. Why? Dunno…but we are certainly happy about it (again, thanks to Alice Waters, we really just riffed on her recipe).
It’s funny, but as far as Google is concerned Putney Farm is a place where people mostly eat fennel and mix drinks. And while that doesn’t sound all bad, we can assure you there are other things going on than cooking fennel…
Regardless, we do love our fennel, and while caramelizing is our go-to cooking method, there are other ways to enjoy these funky anise-flavored bulbs. The key thing to remember about fennel is that it loses much of the anise flavor when cooked, and the same cooking will bring out some of the fennel’s natural sugars. In the end, you often get flavors and textures that will remind you of roasted or fried eggplant. And we think that is a good thing.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that along with caramelizing fennel, an approach like eggplant parmesan will yield very tasty results. And we found a recipe to adapt from “Vegetable Literacy” by Deborah Madison, that heads in just this direction, Fennel al Forno.
In this recipe you cook fennel and aromatics in a broth of fennel seeds, thyme, saffron, tomato paste and chicken (or vegetable) stock. Then you put the fennel in a gratin dish, add some mozzarella and parmesan cheese and bake the whole thing. Sounds good, huh?
And it is good. Very good. The rich tomato-saffron broth accents the sweet fennel, the cheese adds more richness and texture while the slight anise notes balance the flavors. This dish works very well as a side, but you can also serve it as a light lunch on toasted brown bread (this is now a household favorite).
It’s time for another Mixology Monday! Well, actually we are a week early. But it is St. Patrick’s Day, so may as well do a cocktail post. To be honest, we are not big fans of “drinking holidays” (we don’t need excuses to enjoy a fine cocktail). But when in Rome…uh…or Dublin…hmm…whatever. In any event, here is the theme from Craig at the excellent “A World of Drinks” blog (and thanks for Fred at Cocktail
VirginSlut for keeping the party going):
For this month’s challenge I would like to take us back to the humble beginnings of the cocktail bar, the days when bartenders didn’t have the luxury of daily deliveries of ingredients from around the world. In these times bartenders would have been uncertain when they would again have the privilege to work with special ingredients so would naturally try to make the most of them… Such methods of preservation such as syrups and preserves have been staple ingredients behind the bar ever since, while others such as shrubs and sherbets were relatively short lived. The aim of the challenge is to go back to the days of the preserve, pick an ingredient, seasonal or not and treat it as if you won’t be seeing it again for quite some time. Syrups, sorbets, jam, shrubs and the like are all fair game, anything that will preserve the integral character of your favourite ingredient.
Seeing as how we are here on our “farm” and we make our own jams and preserves, this is a theme right up our alley. Right now we have apricot, strawberry and fig preserves from last year to work with. All are tasty and would mix well, but it was another project that guided us.
Over the holidays, we got a small barrel for aging spirits and cocktails. The instructions said to start with “aging you own bourbon to season the barrel”, which really means aging some “white dog” (moonshine or un-aged corn whiskey) for a couple of months. So it has been a couple of months and what we have is something “bourbon-like”, with a light brown color and some vanilla and caramel notes, but lacking in any integration, sweetness or spice. Fun, but not necessarily good.
But our immediate thought was if we added some sweet fig jam to our “bourbon” we might be onto something. And we were right, the overt sweetness, spice and slightly oxidized notes of the figs really smoothed out the edges. After that we played with bitters and decided to use the “Bitter Frost” Basement Bitters from Tuthilltown, the suppliers of our aging barrel. These bitters use aged rye whiskey as a base along with sarsaparilla, maple and spices. This added some needed depth of flavor and complexity. Better. Continue reading
Well, winter never really made it here to Norcal, but there is nothing better on a foggy, rainy and/or chilly day than a bowl of polenta. And since we get plenty of fog, even in summer, polenta is a popular choice here at the farm. So popular, we didn’t think of it as something for the blog. But since Judy Rodgers passed, we think a lot about her and her polenta recipe. So we figured we would share.
The key to making polenta (cornmeal mush) is that it just isn’t all that hard. You don’t need any special technique and you don’t need to stir every second. You just need to be mindful and take your time. You will hear all sorts of polenta making
B.S.“advice” about stirring every second and how you drizzle the cornmeal, etc. Forget all that. Rodgers has you cook the polenta at low heat in a heavy-bottom pot, stir every few minutes to avoid scorching and hold in a double boiler to improve texture and allow quick service. And it works. We play frisbee and basketball with the kids while making this dish. We just duck in the kitchen every 5 minutes, give the pot a stir and then it is back to fun outside….nice.
The only real “challenge” here is how to add flavor to the polenta. Just butter and seasoning makes for a way better dish than you might expect. Parmesan and/or mascarpone cheese are common additions, and how Rodgers served it at Zuni. But we like to go a bit further and make polenta into a 1-dish meal. We like stirring in the parmesan, adding a soft-boiled egg, crumbled bacon and then topping with a bright salad of parsley or celery greens. Other good additions are braised greens, prosciutto, sautéed mushrooms, tomato jam and braised short ribs (yum).
Well, we never really got winter this year in Norcal. We did get some rain, and may get some more, but what we call “cold and wintry weather” (but really isn’t) never arrived. I guess it was sucked in by the polar vortex. Once the rains came, the plants came roaring back to life. The bees are working the wisteria, the roses are about to burst, hummingbirds are sprinting from flower to flower and the bluebirds flicker in the sun. We will take it.
Meanwhile, in the garden the greens look beautiful (taste good, too) and the blueberries are in flower. We have fennel everywhere and the artichokes are sending up canes. The herb garden seems to double in size every day (at least the mint). Excellent.
In the orchard, this is our favorite time of year. The citrus is at its best, with Meyer and Eureka lemons and Cara-cara oranges all looking and tasting lovely. Some seem to make their way into a few cocktails. And the stone fruit trees are starting to flower. Nothing prettier in the world….So much for winter. We will gladly take the spring.