27 March 2015

Gin: a Buyer's Guide

I love gin in the spring and summer (and also the fall and winter, but you know...).  Gin and tonics are like grown-up Sprite, and gin pairs so well with any fresh fruit juice.  So, this is how I justify geeking out on gin for you, my loyal readers, and helping you figure out how to stock your liquor cabinets for spring while also refreshing my own options.

Expensive gins I do not buy but think are interesting

Hendrick's Gin ($35) gives off a boutique, old-world vibe, but it was actually introduced onto the market in 1999. It's a pretty special product, though, because besides just juniper in the infusion, they thrown in Bulgarian rose and cucumber. These added flavors are subtle, but with the addition of fresh cucumber slices, they become more apparent.  It's unique and quite tasty, and it's best sipped with the aforementioned cucumber and lemon slices rather than getting buried in heavy tonic water.

Williams Chase ($60) is the most expensive on this list, but it's also pretty interesting, with juniper, apple, and elderflower, along with a little citrus.  Like Hendrick's, try it without mix-ins first. Be forewarned, this U.K. gin is hard to find in many parts of the U.S. I'm too cheap to buy this, so if anyone is thinking of sending me a birthday present in July, email me and I'll give you my street address.

Mid-priced gins you can bring to a party without embarrassing yourself:

Tanqueray 10 ($30) is described as having a varied bouquet and a subtle citrus note.  I may be drinking too much of the rough stuff, but to me it tastes like nothing. So, if you're not too into juniper flavor, this smooth, inoffensive concoction is for you. It's Tanqueray's small-batch gin, and their marketing is great (how many times have you heard people ordering a "Tanqueray and Tonic"?  Now, how many times have you heard anyone order a "Seagram's and Tonic"?) Because it's so uninteresting, I think it works best in a martini.

Beefeater Gin ($23) is old-school, heavy juniper flavor that stands up really well to tonic. It's also got a nice hint of citrus and a more complex collection of herbal notes that some of the cheaper gins lack. Tastes like a Christmas tree, but a pretty smooth Christmas tree (which I mean as a compliment, by the way).

Boodles ($23), affectionately termed "proper English gin", has been around since 1847.  It's harder to find than Beefeater in run-of-the-mill liquor stores, but it's a more interesting version of gin along a similar old-school vein.  The recipe of aromatics and botanicals includes coriander, sage, cassia bark, nutmeg, rosemary, caraway, angelica root and juniper berries. It makes a great dry martini.

I am not including Bombay Sapphire, as I do not know that the hell that is.  Gin is not blue and should not taste like a bouquet from the grocery store.

The gins I keep buying again and again:

Disclaimer: I think gin should taste like you're sucking on a Christmas tree, and I don't mind if it burns a bit going down.

New Amsterdam ($16): this is a smoother, lighter version of a very affordable gin.  It's brighter in citrus overtones with a pretty subtle juniper flavor, and it's slightly creamy.  So, actually, this one does not taste like you're sucking on a Christmas tree, but I like it, anyway. Works just fine in G&Ts and is particularly delicious with grapefruit juice.

Gilbey's ($14): Made since 1857 in England, this is another piney, citrusy gin, but the pine is lighter, the citrus a little brighter, with just a touch or burn.  This, like all of the gins in this category, makes a good G&T or other citrusy cocktail. It's also quite nice in a gimlet or Negroni, because it's not too rough.

Gordon's ($12): Yes yes, I know you think this is getting into rot-gut territory, but it's actually a winner in the Huffington Post Gin and Tonic Taste Test.  And why?  Because it tastes like gin should: a mouthful of Christmas tree with just a little paint remover thrown in.  Just kidding, though the juniper flavor is pretty simplistic compared to Boodles or Beefeater.  Your martini might be a little rough, but the aforementioned cocktails will work just fine with this Grandpa-style gin.  I love it, actually, and am trying to stage a hipster-style comeback, ala PBR.

Seagram's ($12): I've seen this on a lot of "good budget gins" lists lately, and I haven't tried it since my grad school days in its birthplace of southern Indiana, but unless it's changed quite a bit since the early 00s, I say to you: no.  Just. No.

24 March 2015

Quickest-ever Indian food: Curried Red Lentils with Greens

In keeping with my self-professed love for rice and beans, I'm posting this easy, fast recipe for curried lentils. It's comforting but also satisfies your craving for Indian take out (if you're like me and there's no place around!), and it's technically rice and beans, but these little red lentils break down into a chunky, potato-y sauce in no time.  Add whatever other vegetables you want to this; I can imagine roasted cauliflower, potato chunks, or okra would be great. Don't swap out a different kind of lentils, though, or you'll never get a sauce, just highly seasoned, intact lentils.

Curried Red Lentils with Greens

Serves 6-8

1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ to 1 whole jalapeno, minced (depending on desired spiciness)
1 quart water
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
2 cups red lentils
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro stems, plus chopped leaves for garnish
½ lb. kale or mustard greens, coarsely chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons lemon juice, plus wedges for serving
Cooked rice for serving

In a large saucepan, heat the coconut oil over medium heat.  Add the cumin, turmeric, curry powder, and onion and cook, stirring constantly, until onion just begins to soften, about 2 minutes.  Add the garlic, ginger, jalapeno, and about a teaspoon of salt and continue to cook until onion is soft and mixture is fragrant, about 6 minutes.

Add the water, coconut milk, lentils, and cilantro stems and bring to a simmer.  Reduce to medium heat, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, about 20 minutes.  Add the kale and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

Serve over cooked rice with lemon wedges and chopped cilantro.

20 March 2015

Springy links for the weekend!

It's not quite spring yet, but in most parts of the country, it really feels like it! I don't care if it snows three feet tomorrow, today I am going to make the most of this.


When is there a better time to dust off your tiki bar cocktail mixing skills than right now? Rated R Cocktails is campy, fun, and has great recipes. (Ahem...the R is rum.  Get your minds out of the gutters!)

It may not be a recipe blog, but I love a good story, and Tell the Bartender is my favorite house-cleaning companion on Saturday mornings.  Give it a listen.


Heidi Swanson's blog, 101 Cookbooks, is always delicious, beautiful, and inspiring.  But her Cali-style cooking just seems especially compelling this time of year.

Isn't this Easter bunny cake from The Cake Blog gorgeous? I am too lazy to make it, but I enjoy looking at the nice photos.


Interested in eating and drinking in the Denver area?  5280 magazine just came out with their annual "best new restaurants" issue with some great-sounding suggestions.  And if you're headed there, see what museums are free to complete the trip.

(PS--If you really want to get serious about plunging into a springy environment, check out my post on weekend getaways from earlier this month.)

17 March 2015

Ghosts of St. Patty's past

It's a blast form the past (well, 2010), but it's still my favorite St. Patty's Day post, and coddle is still my favorite St. Patty's Day food...enjoy! -- NR, 3.17.15

I have some Irish roots in my background, like so many Americans, and like most of the Americans I know, it doesn't have anything to do with how or why I celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I celebrate it because it's an excuse to drink and eat, and because it comes at the end of a rough winter, and because by the middle of March I have been so busy working that I haven't spent time with friends since December 31, and so on. And really, for me any holiday is about the food, drink, and company. (Oh, and please stop harassing me for not wearing green on March 17. Are we all still in fourth grade?!)

As I circle around my mid-30s, I also have this annoying habit of waxing nostalgic over trivial things--I blame the presence of my entire high school class on facebook. But since it's me torturing everyone within earshot, those memories are food-fueled.

As a kid growing up in the Chicago area in the 80s, St. Patty's Day meant the toxic, nuclear-green McDonald's Shamrock shake. It was thick and milky and tasted ever so slightly of mint. I loved it because you could only get it for a limited time. My husband tells me that they did not have these in Alabama McD's, so maybe Illinois was special. I hadn't had one in years when I got a craving one spring break at the University of Illinois and I dragged my roommate along. They sucked, actually. Little kids have terrible taste.

I did not have a habit of going out to the bars on this Holiest of Holy Drinking Nights as a student. I suppose I had homework. But in my late 20s, I was able to live out the college dream in Casper, Wyoming. I was a member of the Wyoming Symphony then, and we always had a concert over St. Pat's week. After a rehearsal that lasted until 10:30pm (I called this the "rude awakening" rehearsal, because it was our first in a series leading up to the concert, and we always sounded terrible), my friends and I would drive up the main street and pass the dear old Wonder Bar, filled to the brim, decorated outside with random pukers on the sidewalk and cops glaring from every corner. I'm serious--you wouldn't guess it, but those people know how to party. I'd cram my way in to enjoy a local beer from a fine plastic cup, gulping whatever I could before I got bumped and spilled it all over the belligerent, overly made-up woman nearest me. I guess it was fine that I stayed in doing homework when I was younger.

Now that I am old and cranky (with a metabolism to match), I prefer making traditional Irish foods I don't have to chew. Go here for my favorite, colcannon. But when I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I enjoyed St. Patty's meals (and many other meals, and many many other pints), at a great watering hole called the Irish Lion. It's the real deal, complete with those ridiculous yards of beer you have to put on the floor to drink from and authentic Irish grub. Being one of the few bars in southern Indiana with Guinness on tap, I visited somewhat regularly. And when it was cold outside, when it had been a rough week, and particularly when my brain was swimming in alcohol, I would feebly point in my menu to the bowl of coddle, famed Irish cure for the hangover, and look pleadingly at my server.

6 Servings

1 pound sliced bacon
2 large onions, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
4 large potatoes, thickly sliced
2 carrots, thickly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
12 oz. light beer (like Budweiser)

In a dutch oven, fry bacon until very crisp. Remove bacon but leave bacon grease, then sautee onion and garlic in the grease until soft.

Add the potatoes and carrots to the pot and pour in two cups of water. Add the salt and bay leaf, cover, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until potatoes are very soft.

With a hand masher or large spoon, smash up the potatoes so that you have some chunks and some smooth bits that help to thicken the broth. Pour in the beer and return the bacon to the pot. Stir, cover, and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf and add pepper to taste.

*Vegetarian friends can omit the bacon and cook veggies in olive oil. Cook Morningstar Breakfast Strips until crisp (I find the microwave works best) and crumble into individual bowls of soup.

Please do not add bouquets de garni, heirloom vegetables, or garnish with freshly chopped parsley. That's too fancy. It's not right.