Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Good Drinking: The Margarita

It looks like it's getting into margarita season. Tonight at work was on the slow side, and two people ordered them in a matter of fifteen minutes. At most bars that would be commonplace; when the house specialty is elaborate rum drinks, a frequency like that makes you sit up and take notice.

One of my guests said he wanted his margarita made the old-fashioned way, with agave syrup. Where oh where did people get this idea that the original margarita was made with agave syrup? It's even used by usually reliable food authority Alton Brown in his margarita recipe (the recipe is all kinds of wrong besides the agave syrup)! The only agave in a margarita should be fermented and distilled into tequila. Agave syrup is a very recent addition to the bartenders' stock; I hadn't heard of it when I first got behind the stick way back in 2007. Then out of nowhere, here's bottles of agave syrup (usually called agave nectar to make it sound more appealing), and people claiming that the original margarita uses agave syrup to sweeten in place of triple sec. What. The. Hell.

Folks, I'm going to say something that's going to pain a lot of amateur and professional mixologists: Stop using agave nectar. Its flavor profile is about as neutral as simple syrup. At $5 for a 12-ounce bottle of it, it's a hell of a lot more expensive than plain simple syrup, and more expensive by the ounce than a standard-grade triple sec! I'll let you finish what you have behind your bar since it isn't as abhorrent as bottled margarita mix or sweet and sour (you should only use these if you wish to ruin whatever cocktail you make with them), but once you've gone through your stock, just use simple syrup when you want sweetness, and use triple sec in your margaritas. It's how people have made them for decades, and it's how they should be made.

Recipe: THE Margarita

1½ ounces tequila blanco
1 ounce triple sec
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

Shake everything with ice cubes. Strain into a salt-rimmed cocktail glass, or strain over fresh ice cubes in a salt-rimmed rocks glass.

Frozen is not an option, even when it's blazing hot outside. All that ice gets in the way of tasting your drink. If you prefer a sweeter margarita, add a little simple syrup to taste; I find ¼ ounce does the trick. If you prefer your margarita more tart, just add a little more lime juice.

Oh, while I'm on this soapbox: The salt rim. Countless margaritas around the world have been ruined by those damned salt rimmer gizmos. You've seen them before: There's a plastic dish with a sponge soaked in (Rose's) lime juice, and another dish full of kosher salt. The bartender squishes the glass into the lime sponge, rubs the moistened rim of the glass around in the salt, and voilà, the glass's rim is salted. There's one problem with this, and it's a biggie: There's now a bunch of salt on the inside of the glass. As soon as the bartender puts the glass down, a bunch of the salt shakes loose and lands on the bottom of the glass. Then when they fill the glass, the rest of the salt comes off. The result is a drink that will be mostly salt with the first sip of a straw. Eeeeew. Let me show you the way I learned, the One True Way:

THE Way to Rim a Cocktail Glass with Salt or Sugar
Rub a piece of lemon or lime (e.g. the lime you had to cut in half to get the juice for your margarita) around the outside of your glass to lightly coat the rim with juice. Holding the glass sideways, dip the rim of the glass into a shallow dish of sugar or kosher salt, rotating the glass to cover the entire rim. Hold the glass upside down over the sink, and tap the glass a couple of times to knock loose any excess salt or sugar. Turn the glass right-side-up, and proceed with your recipe.

If you expect to use a great deal of rimmed glasses in an evening (such as for a cocktail party featuring margaritas), you can rim your glasses well in advance; the salt will stay put. Don't know whether someone wants salt on the glass or not? Easy, elegant solution: Rim only half of the glass. If you want to get fancy with your drinks and rim the glass with something novel such as shredded coconut on a piña colada, or graham cracker crumbs on a key lime pie cocktail, or maybe even tiny candies like Nerds or Pop Rocks? You'll use something close to the typical method. All you need is a shallow dish of honey, and another dish of the ingredient for the rim. Dip the rim of the glass in the honey, then into the rimming ingredient. There is a certain knack to this; too much honey gets messy fast, while not enough honey leaves you with an empty rim. And make sure the ingredient is in tiny pieces; for something like shredded coconut you might want to chop the shreds up finer with a knife or a couple of pulses in a food processor.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Coming (Back) Soon: Stempkowski's Own Restaurant

About three and a half years ago, local chef Robert Stempkowski opened his own restaurant after a good number of years working in Phoenix's finest kitchens. It was called Urban Campfire, and it was terrific. I yammered very enthusiastically about it to almost everyone I knew. It was a casual restaurant near ASU. Stempkowski cooked barbecue and smoked meats with a master's touch. Along with the great dishes came little fine dining touches with down-home flair, such as a deviled egg amuse-bouche, and Otter Pop mignardises. Then, he and the guy with the money behind the operation had a falling out; Stempkowski was gone. Without its driving force, the kitchen fell hard. The smoke in the meat disappeared, the meats were tougher, the macaroni and cheese's sauce broke... everything that came out of the kitchen showed they just didn't care anymore. Shortly after, the Campfire went out. Stempkowski stayed in the industry, this time working in the front of the house at notable local restaurants like noca and Rokerij.

Then today, I woke to an email from none other than Robert Stempkowski. It turns out he's getting set to open his own place again. The idea is going to be pretty similar, with a number of dishes from Urban Campfire making their return. There's also going to be some new things including smoked meats to-go and homemade sausage, a summertime snow cone bar (Is it too much to hope a liquor license will be involved?), and some Polish smokehaus-style comfort cuisine. Best of all, this time he's running the show all by himself.

Ya think I'm a little excited about all this? Oh, hell yes. Look for the new place to open in central Phoenix some time in May. And of course, look here for more details as Robert lets me know.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Event: Grow Your Own Mushrooms!

One of the interesting things about running a food blog is that you get emails from all kinds of people hawking all kinds of different events. For the most part, they aren't all that exciting (a couple of chain restaurants suggesting they're the perfect place for everything from Easter brunch to Valentine's Day), or don't have much to do with food to begin with (TV shows with a restaurant as a main setting). But every now and then, something genuinely interesting and cool comes along, and you want to tell lots of people about it. It's been a while, but this is one of those times.

On the 26th of April at 6:30 pm at SkySong (the ASU facility anchored by the Cirque du Soleil big top looking thing on Scottsdale and McDowell), the nice folks at Maker Bench will present a class about growing your own culinary mushrooms. They will show you how to culture and grow oyster mushrooms right in your kitchen. Even if you don't have a green thumb, . Once you have the hang of it with oyster mushrooms, you can grow whatever other fungi your heart desires... Shiitakes, morels, the list goes on. Even better, attending the event is FREE. They're even nice enough to provide dinner! They have kits available for sale with everything you need; they're $99 if you register by the 19th, and $129 after that.

If you're interested (I sure am!) just go to the event's webpage to sign up.