Friday, July 31, 2015

8-2-Eat: Fresh Basil

Fresh Basil

8-2-Eat is my food-focused list series. A perfect Friday distraction. Today, I feature 8 great ways to enjoy summer's marquee herb, basil.

1. Pesto. This classic Italian blend of basil, pine nuts and cheese is a great way to use up basil if you find yourself with an excess of the herb. In the summer, it's great to have on hand for pasta and sandwiches.

2. Gazpacho. The classic Spanish cold soup--so perfect for hot summer days--is heavy on tomatoes and other vegetables but needs a touch of basil for green flavor. Try this Creamy Andalusian version.

Tipsy gazpacho cocktail
3. Tipsy Gazpacho Cocktail. A summery gin cocktail inspired by the cold soup (see #2 above) and made with a roasted tomato syrup and fresh basil.

4. Ratatouille. Basil tops an assortment of sautéed summer vegetables.

5. Tomato Bruschetta. Crusty toasted bread rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes. So simple, so summery perfect, especially when finished with fresh basil.

Roasted tomato panzanella
6. Panzanella. Our favorite summer salad of toasted bread cubes, heirloom tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and fresh mozzarella, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar,  just isn't complete without a burst of fresh basil flavor.

7. Summer Vegetable Pasta Salad. A chiffonade (sliced thin strands) of fresh basil is a must for a good summer pasta, whether served hot or cold like in this salad.

Sliced fresh tomato salad
8. Sliced Fresh Tomato Salad. When summer tomatoes are at their peak, they need little enhancement, but some fresh basil is always a welcome partner.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review: The Cocktail Chronicles - By Paul Clarke

The Cocktail Chronicles By Paul Clarke

"It's just a damn drink," remarks author Paul Clarke near the beginning of his introduction to The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker & Glass. But, of course, it's so much more, as Clarke sets up how this "damn drink" has captured the attention of bartenders and drinkers all over the world. Whether you call it the "craft cocktail movement" or the "cocktail renaissance," it's the revolution in drinking that began in the mid 2000s (the decade) and continues to this day as cocktail aficionados (including me) rediscover old drinking traditions and the joy of fresh, quality ingredients applied alongside modern techniques and the ever-expanding availability of unique bottles. Indeed, it is an exciting time to imbibe.

Clarke's is the most hotly anticipated of this year's books about cocktails, the latest in a series of wonderful works charting recipes, techniques and traditions (see the "related links" below for some of my other recent favorites). He is the executive editor of Imbibe magazine, a bimonthly publication covering all things potable that I love subscribing to. In 2005 he started the blog The Cocktail Chronicles (where his book gets its name), which is still going 10 years later, although hasn't been updated much in recent years (because he was working on the book).

Manhattan cocktail
Manhattan cocktail (recipe below)
The book is grounded in the modern cocktail renaissance, but has a strong emphasis on how that contemporary movement is linked to historical cocktail eras spanning back to the late 19th century. Along with sharing a long list of great cocktail recipes, he tells the stories of these drinks and the bartenders behind them, stories that are both old and new, as well as connected. After an introductory chapter, The Cocktail Chronicles' recipes are divided into three chapters: classic recipes; contemporary recipes; and "muses & bridges," a shorter chapter on the most popular cocktails and their variations.

Twentieth Century cocktail
Twentieth Century cocktail (recipe below)
The book's cocktail entries are informative, charting the context and backstory of many of the drinks. Some of these segments are based on, but not identical to, posts from The Cocktail Chronicles blog. For example, Clarke's 2005 post on the classic Twentieth Century cocktail gets expanded context in the book as he charts how the 1930s-era drink inspired the recent Twenty-First Century and 30th Century Man cocktails by Jim Meehan (who wrote the book's foreword, as well as the popular PDT Cocktail Book) and Nathan Weber, respectively.

You might think everything has been said that needs to be about the Manhattan, but Clarke nicely posits the drink as a key bridge between spirit-dominated cocktails (like the Old Fashioned) and something softer like a Sherry Cobbler. He then goes on to provide recipes for 10 Manhattan variations, a mix of older ones like the Saratoga and newer ones from New York, Boston and San Francisco bartenders. The Manhattan is one of the "muses & bridges" cocktails, perhaps my favorite section of the book, where Clarke takes an in-depth look at the origins and variations of five prominent cocktails: the Manhattan, Martini, Negroni, Old Fashioned and Daiquiri. The Daiquiri more than any other drink deserves this excellent reminder that it is a refined classic and not a fruit slushie (Clarke includes eight Daiquiri variations without a strawberry or banana in sight).

The Graduate cocktail
The Graduate cocktail (recipe below)
A lot of the famed bars of the cocktail renaissance are in New York (PDT, Death & Co., Mayahuel, Booker & Dax, etc.), but Clarke launched his blog from Seattle, and Imbibe is headquartered in Portland. Hence, The Cocktail Chronicles' selection of newer drinks has a nice bi-coastal flavor. I found a couple of delicious examples from Portland bartenders, including the Ephemeral from Raven & Rose bartender David Shenaut, an Old Tom gin drink with floral notes of St. Germain and celery bitters, and The Graduate, a thoroughly satisfying combination of Scotch, sweet vermouth, orange curaçao and tonic from Teardrop Lounge bartender Daniel Shoemaker.

Unlike several other recent cocktail books, Clarke's recipes are written generically without specific ingredients, although he will often make suggestions either in the recipe itself or the accompanying text. I like this approach since I personally don't think cocktails need to be made so exact as require specific brands (there might be some exceptions though). In the recipes from the book below, I shared what I used to make the drinks.

The book concludes with the obligatory chapter on "bottles, tools & tips," which I found most useful for its bottles section, which Clarke packs with smart recommendations while managing to be quite concise. If you already own several of the good recent books on cocktails, the tools and tips will be familiar, but if not, Clarke covers the essentials well.

The Cocktail Chronicles would be a nice addition to any cocktail library. I would certainly include it in my recent rundown of good books for stocking your bar. Although the book lacks flashy photography, its content is solid and well organized. A cocktail book with good recipes is important, but getting the back story behind those recipes makes for an even more satisfying read. Whether you're just discovering the joy of the cocktail renaissance or are already steeped in its lore, The Cocktail Chronicles will entertain and inspire while filling your cocktail glass with not just a damn drink, but a damn fine one.

Twentieth Century
Clarke writes that "gin, lemon and chocolate is an unexpected combination, but just works. Works? Hell, it sings.." I couldn't agree more. This is a nicely balanced drink. Its gin and citrus profile with other unusual ingredients reminds me of a Last Word. Recipe adapted from Paul Clarke's recipe in The Cocktail Chronicles, originally from the 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book.

1 1/2 oz. gin (I used Fifty Pounds gin)
3/4 oz. lemon juice
3/4 oz. Lillet blanc (not having this, I substituted Dolin blanc)
3/4 oz. white crème de cacao liqueur
Lemon twist garnish

Combine gin, lemon juice, Lillet blanc and crème de cacao in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.

Clarke shares that the original Manhattan had a 1:2 ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth before settling into the more-whiskey version as we know it today. I usually employ a 3:1 whiskey-to-vermouth ratio when I make it with Bulleit rye whiskey, but his 2:1 is perfect for the higher-proof Rittenhouse rye. Recipe adapted from Paul Clarke's recipe in The Cocktail Chronicles.

2 oz. rye whiskey (I used Rittenhouse)
1 oz. sweet vermouth (I used Dolin)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Cherry garnish (I used a maraschino cherry)

Combine whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until well chilled then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Ephemeral cocktail

I was drawn to this drink because I have a bottle of Dolin blanc vermouth I want to use up before it goes bad. The drink's sweetness nicely mellows the bitter and floral flavors of the other ingredients. Recipe adapted from Paul Clarke's recipe in The Cocktail Chronicles, originally from David Shenaut of Raven & Rose in Portland, Ore.

1 1/2 Old Tom gin (I used Hayman's)
1 oz. blanc vermouth (I used Dolin)
2 tsp. elderflower liqueur (I used St. Germain)
3 dashes celery bitters (I actually used 2 dashes of Bittermens Orchard Street Celery Shrub)
Grapefruit twist garnish

The Graduate
I love the story behind this cocktail. During a visit to Teardrop Lounge, Clarke asked bartender Daniel Shoemaker to fashion an original drink from short list of ingredients. Thus, after a brief moment of "panic," the "brilliance" of The Graduate emerged--and I agree it is a brilliant drink. Recipe adapted from Paul Clarke's recipe in The Cocktail Chronicles, originally from Daniel Shoemaker of Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Ore.

1 oz. sweet vermouth (I used Dolin)
3/4 oz. blended Scotch whiskey (I used Johnny Walker Red)
1/2 oz. curaçao (I used Pierre Ferrand)
1/2 oz. tonic water (I used Fever Tree India)
Lemon twist garnish

Combine vermouth, whiskey and curaçao in a rocks glass with ice and stir to combine. Top with the tonic water, stir again and garnish with a lemon twist.

Related Links
Curious about other great recent cocktail books? Here are links to stories about some of my favorites.

The Bar Book - Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas by Brad Thomas Parsons

Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails - David Kaplan, Nick Faulchald and Alex Day

Savory Cocktails - Greg Henry

Stocking Your Bar - Books

Monday, July 27, 2015

Turkey Shepherd's Pie

Turkey Shepherd's Pie

Often when I hit my neighborhood farmers market on Saturday morning, I have a plan for what I want to get and what I'll make with it during the following week. On a recent Saturday, however, I was struggling. I couldn't decide what I wanted to make! So, I set out for the New Morning Farm Saturday market at Sheridan School with the hope that the ingredients I found there would inspire my direction.

Sure enough, after picking up corn, a sweet onion, a couple carrots and a good handful of green beans, I decided to make Shepherd's Pie, the classic Irish dish of diced or ground meat, vegetables and gravy sealed with a layer of mashed potatoes and baked until the potatoes brown a bit on top. According to The Food Lover's Companion, the dish originated as a way to use leftovers from the "Sunday roast." I think it can be just as useful as a showcase for summer vegetables.

I used Alton Brown's recipe as a template for this Shepherd's Pie, but made some key changes. I used ground turkey instead of ground lamb, upped the ratio of vegetables-to-meat in the filling by adding corn, celery and green beans and omitted the egg from the potato topping, as it just didn't seem needed. This makes my version a little lighter and more "summery" than Brown's recipe.

Turkey Shepherd's Pie
Adapted liberally from Shepherd's Pie by Alton Brown for Food Network

1 1/2 lb. russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup half-n-half
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery ribs, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz. green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb. ground turkey (dark meat recommended)
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Corn kernels cut from 1 ear of corn

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with 1-inch of water. Place on the stove and bring to boil. Cook the potatoes until tender, then drain. Transfer potatoes to a large bowl. Add the butter and mash the potatoes with a potato masher or the back of a large spoon. Warm the half-n-half in the microwave and stir it into the potatoes along with salt and freshly ground white pepper.

3. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and green beans and sauté until the ingredients have softened, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan. Add ground turkey to the pan and cook, breaking up with a spoon, until browned. Sprinkle the meat with the flour, toss to coat and cook for another minute. Add back the cooked vegetables, then add the tomato paste, chicken broth, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer covered for about 10 minutes to thicken the gravy. Stir in the corn and turn off the heat.

4. Transfer vegetable-gravy mixture to a 9 X 9 glass baking dish. Spread the mashed potatoes on top, making sure to "seal" the potatoes against the edge of the baking dish. Smooth the top with a spatula. Place the baking dish on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and bake until the potatoes begin to brown, about 25-30. Remove from oven and set on a cooling rack to cool for about 15 minutes before serving.

Friday, July 24, 2015

8-2-Eat: Summer Sweet Corn

Corn Pancake with Blackberries

8-2-Eat is my food-focused list series. A perfect Friday distraction. Today, I feature 8 great ways to enjoy fresh summer sweet corn. 

Corn on the Cob. When you get really fresh, sweet corn that's so amazing by itself (like the kind I get at the New Morning Farm farmers market), it doesn't need anything more than a quick dip in boiling water to be absolutely delicious.

Corn Pancake with Blackberries. Corn for breakfast? Why not, when it's in the form of a delicious pancake (pictured above).

Roasted Corn and Chicken Enchiladas
Roasted Corn and Chicken Enchiladas. Corn is a wonderful flavor in Tex-Mex cuisine, like these enchiladas.

Corn Soup. This simple corn soup is inspired by one of my favorite New York food memories, when a simple bowl of chilled soup satisfied our hunger on a really hot day.

Bacon Barley Kale Corn Mushroom Soup. The name of this soup is a mouthful--a mouthful of deliciousness. I came up with this recipe last year as a way to combine ingredients with a range of savory flavors with sweet summer corn.

Corn Chowder. A simple summer classic.

MaCorny & Cheese
MaCorny & Cheese. A mac & cheese + corn chowder mashup that's divine.

Sweet Corn Ice Cream with Blackberry Sauce. Corn for dessert? Why not. It's naturally quite sweet, making it the perfect flavor for a delicious summer ice cream.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cocktail: Basil Smash

I discovered this refreshing summer cocktail in Imbibe magazine's Cocktails from the Garden, an extra for subscribing to the magazine. Although there is another version of Basil Smash on Imbibe's website, I like this version better. It was created by Anu Apte of Seattle's Rob Roy. This is the kind of refreshing highball cocktail that is perfect for summer, especially if you can get your hands on some good fresh basil.

Basil Smash
Adapted from a recipe by Anu Apte of Rob Roy in Seattle from Imbibe Magazine's Cocktails from the Garden

3 large basil leaves
1 oz. vodka (I used Tito's)
1/2 oz. reposado tequila (I used Camarena)
1 whole clove
1/8 oz. agave nectar
1 dash Regans’ orange bitters
Grapefruit soda (I used Q)
Ice cubes (for shaking)
Crushed ice (for serving)
4-5 dashes Angostura bitters
Basil leaf garnish

Add the basil leaves and vodka to a cocktail shaker and muddle the basil leaves. Add the tequila, clove, agave nectar and bitters and fill the shaker with ice. Shake until cold then double-strain* into a collins glass filled with crushed ice. Top with grapefruit soda and the Angostura bitters floated on top. Garnish with a basil leaf.

*Note: To double-strain a cocktail means to use both a standard cocktail strainer--like a hawthorne strainer--and a fine-mesh sieve held between the shaker and the glass. The sieve catches any small particles, like little pieces of basil in the case of this drink.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Loaded Quinoa Bowl

If you live in Washington, D.C., I hope you've gotten to try Beefsteak, José Andrés' vegetable-focused fast-casual restaurant located on the George Washington University campus. Shortly after I visited it a few months ago, I was inspired to make a sugar snap pea salad. More recently, after seeing Andrés quinoa bowl recipe in Food & Wine magazine, I was inspired again to revisit the Beefsteak approach.

What I like about the Vegetable Quinoa Bowls with Garlic Yogurt recipe is the combination of lightly cooked and raw ingredients tossed together with a grain (or seed, in this case, since the base is quinoa). I used a similar combination of ingredients but added a few of my own and left out the lettuce and garlic yogurt--my bowl had enough going on with the honey-lemon dressing.

I also used a combination of white and red quinoa--mostly because I had just a little bit of red left in a bag I wanted to use up--but I like the resulting color contrast. Feel free to use just one color.

Loaded Quinoa Bowl
Inspired by Vegetable Quinoa Bowls with Garlic Yogurt by José Andrés, Food & Wine

Kale chips:
12 kale leaves, thin part removed from stem (stems discarded) and torn into 2-inch pieces
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Seasoned salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste

3/4 cups white or red (or a mix) quinoa, rinsed (it's okay if it's still a little damp from rinsing; it will dry out quickly in the hot pan)
1 cup water

Cooked ingredients:
1/2 lb. green beans, ends trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2-3 zucchini, cut into 1/8- to 1/4-inch slices

Raw ingredients:
1 beefsteak tomato, cut into 1/4-inch thick pieces
1 cucumber, partially peeled, seeded and sliced into 1/4-inch thick pieces
1 avocado, peeled, seed removed and sliced into 1/4-inch thick pieces
2 tbsp. unsalted toasted pumpkin seeds

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. honey (substitute agave nectar to make the recipe vegan)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Roast the kale chips: Preheat oven to 250 F. Spread kale leaves evenly across two baking sheets. Toss or spray with olive oil. Season with seasoned salt and pepper. Bake until dried and wilted, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2. Cook the quinoa: Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the quinoa and toast, stirring frequently, until the quinoa is fragrant and makes a popping sound almost continuously, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the seeds are just tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow pan to sit covered for 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Cooked ingredients: Bring a medium saucepan half-filled with water to boil. Add the green beans and cook until tender, about 3-5 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water to cool and set aside. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and zucchini, and sauté until softened and lightly browned, about 8-10 minutes.

4. Combine ingredients: In a large bowl, combine the kale chips, quinoa, green beans, onion, garlic, zucchini, tomato, cucumber, avocado in  large bowl. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and pour over the vegetable-grain mixture. Toss to combine. Serve in large bowls.


No Beef with Beefsteak

Crunchy Sugar Snap Pea Salad

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Glacier Cocktail

Glacier Cocktail

A highlight of our recent trip to Alaska was seeing glaciers. I'd never really thought about how amazing they are until I saw a few up close. We got particularly close to the Hubbard Glacier, which our ship floated up to one morning so we could all get a good view, and the Mendenhall Glacier, which Chris, my mother and I visited by helicopter and got to walk on.

Hubbard Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier
Top: Hubbard Glacier. Bottom: Mendenhall Glacier.

One of the most striking things about glaciers besides their size is their color. They really are a vivid shade of blue. And it's not a matter of sky reflecting off of them--like what often makes the ocean or a lake look blue--but rather because very dense ice without bubbles (like glacier ice) absorbs other colors of the spectrum but not blue, which shines through.

Glacier Ice
Glacier Ice
Up-close photos of glacier ice.

This cocktail was inspired by our visit to the these glaciers. I used white rye whiskey, which I realize may be hard to find (so I suggest you could use vodka), but is an interesting summer alternative to rye whiskey. The grated nutmeg on top is because glaciers are a little dirty on top. It also tastes good in the drink.

Glacier Cocktail

1 oz. white rye whiskey (may substitute vodka)
1 oz. blue curaçao
1/2 oz. green Chartreuse
2 dashes Regan orange bitters
5 oz. ice cubes
Grated nutmeg, garnish

Combine the white rye whiskey, blue curaçao, green Chartreuse, orange bitters and ice in a blender. Blend until smooth. Poor into a large round wine glass. Garnish with a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg and serve with a straw.

Alaska Cocktail

Alaska Cocktail

When The Cocktails Chronicles blogger Paul Clarke wrote about the Alaska Cocktail for Serious Eats in 2009, he had no idea how the drink originated, other than it appeared in the famed 1930 book, The Savoy Cocktail Book. The drink also appears in the Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, published 5 years later. It also offers no information on its history.

Having just been to Alaska, I really don't see how this drink evokes the state, given that it's ingredients are from Britain and France and it doesn't really taste like anything I'd associate with Alaska. It's very good though: like an herbal-sweet martini.

Perhaps the mystery of the drink is the answer to the cocktail's connection with Alaska. Alaska is a large place, far away from most Americans, with large swaths of the state unreachable by roads. Thus, it's a state with a lot of mystery, just like this drink.

Alaska Cocktail

1 1/2 oz. London dry gin, such as Beefeater
1/2 oz. yellow Chartreuse
1 dash orange bitters

Combine ingredients in a cocktail mixing glass with ice. Stir until very cold, then strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. No garnish.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Mocha Baked Alaska

Mocha Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska is one of my favorite cooking "magic tricks." It's baked ice cream. That doesn't melt. What?!

Despite "molecular gastronomy" being a fairly recent invention, Baked Alaska, is a historic dish. Its origins go back to the 1800s when desserts made of ice cream encased in a cooked layer--sometimes pastry or the meringue that is traditional of Baked Alaska today. Chef Charles Ranhofer of the famed Delmonico's in New York is credited with naming and popularizing the dish in the late 1800s as a way to celebrate the United States' acquisition of Alaska. I've read that the browned meringue is meant to evoke the snowy mountains of the state, while the dessert's frozen center gets to the heart of the state's notorious northern temperatures.

But how does it work? The layer of meringue--an egg foam--insulates the ice cream from the heat of the oven while it cooks, keeping the ice cream from melting. Food scientist Harold McGee explains the science simply in On Food and Cooking: "Egg foams are often used to cover and conceal the heart of a dish. Among the most entertaining of these constructions is the hot, browned meringue enclosing a mass of chilly ice cream: the baked Alaska, which derives from the French omelette surprise. This thermal contrast is made possible by the excellent insulating properties of cellular structures like foams. For the same reason, a cup of cappuccino cools more slowly than a cup of regular coffee."

Hence, it's important to "seal" the ice cream by spreading the meringue all over the cream and sealing it against the cake base.

This particular version is inspired by the Chocolate Baked Alaska served at the Casey Jones restaurant in La Plata, Maryland. It was a Casey Jones I first had Baked Alaska, and I absolutely loved it. The chocolate cake, espresso/chocolate chip ice cream (I used a gelato actually) and meringue are a wonderful combination. I could think of no better way to celebrate our return from Alaska than by making this dish again.

Mocha Baked Alaska
Inspired by Chocolate Baked Alaska, Casey Jones, La Plata, Md.

Single layer of chocolate cake (see recipe below)
Pint of coffee/chocolate chip or plain coffee ice cream or gelato, slightly softened
4 egg whites
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. coffee liqueur (such as Kahlúa)
1/3 cup sugar

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Using a 3-inch round cutter, cut the cake layer into four round pieces. Eat any remaining cake scraps (you know you want to). Place the cake rounds evenly spaced on the lined baking sheet. Place in the freezer until the cake is frozen, at least 2-3 hours.

3. Remove the cakes from the oven. Place a rounded scoop of ice cream (about 3/4 cup) on each cake. Return to the freezer to freeze hard, about 2-3 hours.

4. Make the meringue: Add the egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer or a large mixing bowl (if using a hand mixer). Beat on high until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating on high until soft peaks form.Beat in the coffee liqueur, then gradually beat in the sugar. Continue beating until stiff peaks form (the meringue will appear glossy, dip a spoon through it and a peak will form that does not fold back down). Be careful not to overbeat.

5. Remove the cakes from the freezer. Using a spatula, spread the meringue evenly over the ice cream, sealing the meringue against the cake. If desired, use a spoon to make decorative spikes. Put back in the freezer until well frozen, at least 3-4 hours.

6. Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 500 F. Bake desserts until meringue is set and lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Single Chocolate Cake Layer
Adapted from Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake, The New Best Recipe by America's Test Kitchen

6 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the cake pan
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring the cake pan
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. sugar
1 large egg
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp. instant espresso powder
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp. milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 F with rack in middle position.

2. Grease an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan with butter. Place a round of parchment in the bottom of the pan. Grease the parchment. Flour the cake pan, tapping out the excess flour.

3. Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a bowl using a hand mixer) on medium-high speed until creamy. Gradually add the sugar and beat the mixture until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat another minute.

4. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa powder and espresso powder. Combine the milk and vanilla in a liquid measuring cup.

5. With the mixer running on slow speed, add about half the dry mixture to the butter mixture, then add about half the milk. Repeat with the remaining dry ingredients and remaining milk. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat on low speed for another 15 seconds until the batter has an even texture.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 23-30 minutes. Set the cake on a rack to cool for about 10-15 minutes. Run a plastic knife around the edge of the cake, then invert the pan to release the cake onto the cooling rack and cool completely.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cruising Through Alaska: Food in Port

Downtown Juneau, Alaska
Yesterday, I talked about the food and drinks available on our cruise ship, the Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas, during our recent Alaskan cruise. Today, I'm talking about the food we enjoyed at our four ports-of-call as well as Anchorage, Alaska, where we went when our cruise concluded. Although the food on the ship was fine, I enjoyed the food we ate in the ports a lot more. It wasn't fancy, but it was local, fresh and really quite delicious.

Halibut fish & chips, Alava's Fish & Chowder in Ketchikan
Ketchikan: Alava's Fish-n-Chowder

Ketchikan, Alaska is a small coastal town of about 8,000 people known for its fishing. As such, getting good seafood was a priority, and my research pointed to Alava's Fish-n-Chowder as the best among the town's several restaurants offering fish and chips.

Alava's isn't much to look at. This place defines a "hole in the wall," as it is quite literally a small porch with picnic tables and a window where you can order food. That said, I was afraid it was going to be overrun with people, since it's very close to where the cruise ships dock, so we went early. Luckily, it wasn't really that busy early.

Dismiss this "shack" at your peril: Alava's fish & chips are out-of-sight good.
The fried halibut fish and chips we had were fantastic, definitely the best fish and chips I've ever eaten and quite probably my favorite meal of the trip. The restaurant boasts that it doesn't open for breakfast because they are out catching your lunch, and I believe it. The fish was incredibly fresh and delicious, coated with a light crunchy breading and served with zippy tartar sauce and seasoned fries. The clam chowder was also very good, loaded with clams and served with a creamy broth that wasn't as thickened as most chowders.

Food in general can be expensive in Alaska, but Alava's was affordable and the small crew of people that work there were very friendly. Just prior to going to Alava's we spoke to a merchant running a souvenir shop across the street and I asked her if Alava's was a good place. She told me it was the best, in fact, we saw her pick up her lunch while we eating there. Anyplace that's a favorite among locals is a good sign.

Icy Strait Point: Landing Zone Bar & Grill

As Alaskan cruise ports go, Icy Strait Point is probably the least significant. It isn't a real town (although it's a short walk from the little town of Hoonah), but rather a former fish cannery converted into a museum, restaurant and shopping center. Mostly, it exists as a cruise-ship destination, as there are a lot of "excursions" (i.e. planned outings) that you can do from here, including the world's longest zip-line.

Still, it's worth visiting, as we enjoyed walking around the museum, shops and forest trail. A short walk along the beach from the main complex will bring you to the Landing Zone Bar & Grill, a rustic wooden structure with excellent views out onto the water.

Grilled salmon from Landing Zone in Icy Strait Point.
Given the facility's past as a fish cannery, we stuck to seafood, hoping for another good meal, and we weren't disappointed. The grilled salmon was super-good: fresh, cooked just right, lightly seasoned and just a little smoky from the grill. It arrived to our table with a small side salad and garlic bread (who doesn't love garlic bread?).

At Landing Zone, we also got our first of several great tastes of Alaska's local beer. On tap are several selections from the Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau. The menu didn't specify whether the "pale ale" we ordered was Alaskan's American pale ale or its IPA, but it was pretty hoppy, so I assume it was the latter. It was also really good: bitter, a bit citrusy and balanced with a little malt. Just like I like my IPA.

As worth visiting: the ice cream counter at Misty Bay Lodge in Hoonah. If you make the walk into town from Icy Strait Point, you deserve a treat, and the they have a small but satisfying selection of flavors available in bowls, cones or waffle cones.

The Rookery Cafe is tucked away on a downtown Juneau side street but worth seeking out.
Juneau: The Rookery Cafe

Juneau was by far the largest of four ports we visited on the cruise. In a way this made it the most difficult to choose a lunch spot: there were many more choices than in the other towns. It seemed the most likely to also offer up "touristy" options, so I worked at finding something more off-the-beaten-path while still within walking distance of the ship.

That's what brought us to The Rookery Cafe. It's hidden down a side street in downtown Juneau without a lot of shops and looks like the kind of place that locals would frequent. Service at lunch is minimal: you have to find your own table and place your order at a counter, but it has a nice atmosphere and the people were friendly.

Dungeness crab salad, The Rookery Cafe in Juneau.
The food was also tasty. I chose the dungeness crab salad, an entree-size salad with butter lettuce, pickled shallots, peanuts, mint and a spicy curry dressing. Since I knew we would be getting plenty to eat on the ship for dinner, it was nice to have a lighter but satisfying lunch. The Asian flavors worked really well with the crab, which was generously portioned onto the top of the salad. Props to Rookery's chef Beau Schooler, a semifinalist this year for the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef.

Downtown Skagway.
Skagway: Skagway Brewing Co.

Skagway is a sleepy little town that doesn't look like it would have much going on if it wasn't for the cruise tourist trade. But it has a fascinating history as an important town in Alaska's Klondike gold rush of 1897. Much of Skagway's downtown has been preserved in late 19th Century style--all the better for luring passengers off their cruise ships and into the town's numerous souvenir stores.

Walk down Broadway far enough and you'll find Skagway Brewing Co., which was actually established during the gold rush in 1897. Although no longer in its original location, the pub has a nice-sized bar and dining room, a fairly typical pub menu heavy on fresh local seafood and a selection of beers made on-site that are only sold in the pub.

Fried halibut sandwich, Skagway Brewing Co.
For lunch, we enjoyed The Alaskan Sandwich, deep-fried halibut on a sesame seed bun with tartar sauce, tomato, onion and lettuce. Side salads aren't usually very notable--it's what you get when you feel like you've had too many fries--but theirs was memorable because the house-made dressing was some of the best blue cheese dressing I've ever had. It was tart and creamy with assertive but not overwhelming blue cheese flavor. We also tried the IPA, the Chilkoot Trail IPA, which was good, although a bit maltier than I like my IPA. Still, I'd definitely recommend trying it, since you won't find it anywhere else.

Anchorage: Glacier Brewhouse

After finishing our cruise in Seward, Alaska, we hopped aboard the Alaska Railroad and took the train to Anchorage. With over 300,000 people, Anchorage is Alaska's largest city by far. In fact, I believe it's the most northern city with a population of over 100,000 people in North America.

We asked several locals where we should have dinner, and Glacier Brewhouse was the answer we heard most. The handsome brewpub, accessed from a small indoor mall, features dramatic wooden vaulted ceilings and a central stone fireplace. The pleasant small of alder wood smoke permeates the dining room, enticing us to order something from the list of wood-grilled items. In addition to grilled items, the menu features pasta, sandwiches, seafood and brick-oven pizza.

Glacier Brewhouse's barbecued baby back ribs and Brewhouse blue salad.
I was tempted to get the Bering sea crab legs, which our server told us was very good but a small portion. With a hungry belly and that smoke in the air, I opted instead for the barbecued baby back ribs, a delicious platter of smoky, tender ribs glazed with the brewhouse's signature whiskey barbecue sauce and served with a mixed vegetable slaw and jalapeño cornbread with maple butter.

What is it with Alaska and excellent blue cheese salads? Glacier Brewhouse also handles the pungent cheese well, mixing dressing and crumbles together in a mixed greens salad with grapes and caramelized pecans.

Of course, we sampled their on-tap IPA, another satisfying local brew with a bitter hoppy kick. The night we stopped in, they offered the standard IPA and a cask-conditioned alternative, which had a creamier texture and is also served a little warmer. Although interesting, I prefer the colder classic version.

Anchorage: Fat Ptarmigans

Wanting another drink after our dinner at Glacier Brewhouse, we wandered into Fat Ptarmigan, a wood-fired pizzeria that opened a couple years ago. The modern, minimalist space would make Fat Ptarmigans fit in in any large city. The pizzas coming out of the kitchen looked and smelled delicious. Had we more day--or larger stomachs--I would have liked to sample them. Instead, we sat at the bar an enjoyed yet another Alaskan IPA, this time the Pleasure Town IPA from Midnight Sun Brewing Company. in Anchorage. Now we have something to look forward to if we find ourselves in Anchorage again.

Alava's Fish-n-Chowder, 420 Water Street, Ketchikan, Alaska (near the tunnel, across the from the cruise-ship docking area). (907) 617-5328.

Landing Zone Bar & Grill, 108 Cannery Road, Hoonah, Alaska (on the western edge of Icy Strait Point near the zip-line finish area). (907) 945-3141.

Misty Bay Lodge, 286 Front Street, Hoonah, Alaska (in the center of Hoonah). (907) 321-5859.

The Rookery Cafe, 111 Seward Street, Juneau, Alaska. (907) 463-3013. Reservations: Yelp.

Skagway Brewing Co., 7th & Broadway, Skagway, Alaska. (907) 983.2739.

Glacier Brewhouse, 737 West 5th Avenue, Ste. 110 (between G and H Streets), Anchorage, Alaska. (907) 274-BREW. Reservations: Open Table.

Fat Ptarmigan, 441 West 5th Avenue (at E Street), Anchorage, Alaska. (907) 777-7710 Reservations: Open Table.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Dining on the High Seas: Our Royal Caribbean Alaska Cruise Food and Drinks

Hubbard Glacier Alaska July 2015

My husband, my mother and I recently spent an amazing week in Alaska. Neither Chris nor I had been there. It was an incredible experience. You really don't grasp the vastness and natural beauty of the state until you're there. Its lack of "connectedness" with the rest of the country is quite striking. For example, Juneau, the state's capital and second largest city, cannot be reached by car from anywhere else in North America (including the rest of Alaska). That's a weird thing to think about: everything in Juneau comes in by boat or plane. During the trip, we explored a variety of towns, saw an assortment of wildlife and even took a helicopter ride up to and short hike on a glacier.

To get around these various places, we opted for a cruise--also a first for Chris and me. Because I wanted to see as much of Alaska as possible, we chose a one-way cruise that departed from Vancouver, Canada, took us up the Northwest Passage to Alaska, and visited various ports before concluding in Seward, a very small coastal town not far from Anchorage. I'll tell you about our port food later, but first, here's what we ate and drank on the cruise itself.

Having never cruised before I didn't quite know what to expect. From what I'd heard, cruise food is plentiful, which turned out to be true. We certainly were never hungry. In fact, we had to make a conscious effort to not to stuff ourselves at every turn. For the most part, the food is available at no extra charge, so it's tempting and very easy to load up.

Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas cruise ship

Our ship was the Radiance of the Seas, which was built in 2001 (and subsequently renovated) and carries about 2,100 passengers, making it one of the smaller cruise ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet, which has ships that carry as many as 5,400 people.

There are two main dining options on the ship: Cascades, the two-level main dining room with table service offering breakfast daily, lunch on cruising days (i.e. days where the ship is not in port) and a daily multi-course dinner. The other option is the Windjammer, a cafeteria-style buffet open for every meal. Dining in either location is included in the price of the cruise. Additionally, the Park Cafe offers lighter fare and snacks throughout the day (it's a great place to snag a cookie) and there's also a hot dog stand. Room service is also available as part of the included cost.

For an additional cost, there are a number of other dinner (and sometimes lunch) options throughout the ship: Izumi (Japanese), Chops Grille (steak and seafood), Samba Grill (Brazilian steakhouse), Giovanni's Table (Italian), Rita's Crab Shack and Chef's Table (a pricy multi-course dinner with wine pairing). There's also Latte-tudes, a coffee shop with espresso drinks and snacks. You can find more information on the Royal Caribbean website (although going through the site again to write this article reminded me of how poorly their website is designed--using it to find specific information is really quite a headache).

Cascades, the ship's two-level main dining room.

Main Dining Room

Dinner at Cascades was a generally enjoyable experience, although more so because of the setting and excellent service than the food, which was usually good but could be hit-and-miss. There are two ways to experience Cascades: get assigned a set dining time and group table (I believe 5:30 and 8 are the two seatings) or choose "My Time Dining" and eat whenever you like. I reserved our times in advance, which I would recommend, as the unreserved line could be rather long at peak times. Dress is usually "smart casual," with a couple of "formal" nights (suit and dress shirt are fine).

Dinner is provided as a three-course meal, with the menu featuring some of the same starters, entrees and desserts each day but also rotating selections. Entrees are fairly old-fashioned: most were dominated by large pieces of meat served with a paltry side of vegetables (like two asparagus spears against a giant steak, for example). There was little apparent effort to source food locally (I recall one night where we were offered Alaskan salmon) or seasonally (autumn-like turkey dinners were common). The local thing was particularly surprising to me. Here we are cruising through territory known for its amazing salmon, halibut and crab, and Cascades is featuring decidedly un-Alaskan fare like lobster and prime rib. All the more reason to grab a really good lunch while in port.

Perfectly medium-rare beef tenderloin.
Food-wise, we got off to a rocky start with the mojo-marinated pork chop, which was overcooked and therefore dry. The giant chop was served atop a broccoli floret and a carrot. The beef tenderloin filet with mushroom sauce was much better--it was flavorful and perfectly medium-rare as I'd asked for it. The plank salmon was also fairly good, although the piece I was served was surprisingly thin. Twice we had turkey: roasted turkey roulade stuffed with apples and sliced roasted turkey, both of which were served with a couple of roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots, potatoes, cranberry sauce (which was quite tasty) and gravy.

A foray into something a little more international--a breaded Thai-style chicken breast with red curry, edamame (which, I think may have been lima beans) and shiitake mushrooms--was decent but not as different from the standard American fare (the red curry seemed more like gravy than the spicy sauce you usually get in Thai restaurants). All of the aforementioned selections were from the rotating entrees portion of the menu. The daily "classics" entrees just didn't interest me much; they included linguini with red sauce, grilled chicken breast, cod, sirloin steak and beef sliders.

The starters offered a more interesting array of choices. My favorite starter was the one that came every night: the dinner roll. They are baked fresh on the ship daily and they were really quite good. A server brings a basket around throughout the evening with a wonderful assortment of white, wheat, cheese, sun-dried tomato and poppy seed (my mom's favorite), and pumpkin seed (Chris's and my favorite) rolls.

The starter I had the first night was one of the more interesting choices: a cold watermelon and raspberry soup with chopped pistachios was tasty although a little too sweet. The royal seafood salad, served with lobster, shrimp, jicama and a citrus dressing was fresh and delicious. Green salads tended to be pretty small but satisfying: arugula or lettuce with few other ingredients and dressing.

Chocolate Sensation, a signature dessert of the main dining room.

Desserts were generally good. If you want something simple, you can opt for just ice cream or sherbet, which we did sometimes, since we were so stuffed by the time dessert rolled around. Since we were in Alaska, I had to have the baked Alaska when it was offered. While it's meringue was nicely browned, I was disappointed it was missing its cake layer: it was just vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice creams with a torched meringue on top. The chocolate soufflé with espresso sauce was quite tasty, as was the "chocolate sensation," a thin layer of chocolate sponge cake topped with chocolate mousse and chocolate glaze. The best dessert we had in the main dining room was the honey-walnut tart, a wonderful confection filled with "roasted walnut toffee crumble" and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

On days the ship is cruising at sea and not in port, the main dining room is also open for lunch. Although service in the dining room was generally very good, our one midday meal generated a significant amount of confusion. Upon being seated, we were given a menu of lunch options and told we could also make use of the large salad station in the middle of the room. I decided to order one of the salads off the menu--the fattoush salad--then proceeded to sit and sit with no food arriving. Eventually, my server told me I had to go to the salad bar to get my salad, which he hadn't made clear earlier (nor was it stated on the menu). So I went to the salad station and asked the server there for the fattoush, but he had no idea what I was asking for. Frustrated, I returned empty-handed to my table. Eventually my server got the salad for me, but the whole thing was rather irritating. As for the salad itself, it wasn't particularly memorable.

Giovanni's Table scallop starter.

Giovanni's Table

After a few nights in the main dining room, we were ready to try something else, so we opted for an evening in Giovanni's Table, one of the premium dining choices. As I mentioned, there was an additional cost for this, but I felt like it was worth the money. The small dining room--much smaller than the grand main dining room--was only about half full the night we went, which meant we had excellent personal service.

Insalata caprese kicked the dinner off on a positive note. The traditional Italian salad of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil was beefed up with arugula large (like grape-size) and small capers. Although we hadn't ordered them, our server brought us a few of the seared scallops to try. The tender morsels arrived on scallop shells on a garlicky slick of butter.

It's hard to pass up gnocchi, since Chris and I both love it. It's a dish that's easy to get wrong. Thankfully, Royal Caribbean gets it right. The pillowy gnocchi were not too heavy and sauced with just enough lamb and root vegetable sugo.

Among our entrees, the star was the excellent grilled beef tenderloin, the best beef preparation we had on the ship. It was served with broccolini and fries. I also enjoyed my veal tenderloin stuffed with porcini mushrooms, provolone cheese and ham, and my mom's veal ossobuco was succulent and tender (I also really liked her creamy cheese polenta side). We finished this meal with classic tiramisu, and it didn't disappoint.

Windjammer provided buffet-style dining at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We ate breakfast everyday in Windjammer, the ship's buffet-style dining space that's open for all meals. It's earlier hours made it more convenient for us, since we were up early every day to work out (gotta burn off some of these calories).

The nice thing about Windjammer is its options. There are many choices here, bound to satisfy just about anyone. You can eat a light meal of fresh fruit and whole-grain cereal or splurge with pancakes, french toast and a wide variety of baked goods. You can even almost fashion a traditional English breakfast--a nod to Royal Caribbean's international clientele--with poached eggs, banger sausages, baked beans, toast and broiled tomatoes (you'll have to settle for American-style bacon though). Wanting something satisfying but healthy, we stuck mostly to the omelet bar, where you could a made-to-order omelet from popular toppings (bacon, ham, cheese and a few vegetables). The mass-production of food does have some drawbacks. The scrambled eggs on the hot food bar aren't nearly appealing as the omelets and the toast, made in batches, will probably be cold when you get it. But I still found this a very appealing way to start the day.

The Windjammer buffet lunch offers a surprising number of tasty Indian options.

Windjammer is also a great option for lunch--better, I think than the main dining room. In addition to the expected fare of salad bar, sandwiches, soups, burgers and pizza, I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice assortment of Indian dishes on the lunch buffet that were quite good, including curry chicken and Indian-style rice.

A favorite diversion in Windjammer is the self-serve ice cream machines, which dispense vanilla, chocolate or strawberry soft-serve (or combinations) into your cone or bowl. The soft-serve was very satisfying and reminded me of my college dorm cafeteria days where we got pretty proficient at building towering soft-serve ice creams.

Starquest Lounge, located at the top of the ship, was a relaxing space with the best views.


Drinks deserve their own section here, as they are treated as a separately category on the ship. Water and water-based drinks (like basic coffee and tea) were available free throughout the ship. Anything else--bottled water, soda, espresso drinks, beer, wine and cocktails--carried an additionally although not unreasonable charge. Glasses of wine and cocktails were $8 to $12, for example. I didn't feel the need to buy bottled water, as the onboard filtered water tasted fine. If you plan to buy a lot of drinks, consider a beverage package, but I felt like a pay-as-you-go approach was more fitting to our style.

There are lots of opportunities to buy alcohol on the ship: upon boarding, the first public space you enter is the Lobby Bar. There is also the Schooner Bar (a piano bar), the Champagne Bar (an atrium lounge with a great view), Pool Bar (next to the outdoor pool), Sky Bar (basically the upper level of the Pool Bar), Solarium Bar (the inside part of the Pool Bar), Quill & Compass (English Pub), Starquest (also known as the Viking Crown Lounge) and the Colony Club, a massive space at the rear of the ship with multiple separate bar spaces, including a billiards area. All of the restaurant areas also serve alcohol. Starquest ended up being our favorite place to cool our heels after dinner. This lounge, which converts to a dance club after our bedtime, was located at the top of the ship and had large windows with a stunning panoramic view of the scenery beyond the ship. It was surprised it was never very busy, as I found it a much more relaxing place than the comparatively popular bars in the lower decks.

The menu of drink options was fairly standard throughout the ship, but there were some variations. The "premium" domestic beer options found on most menus was disappointingly limited to big-names like Budweiser (is that really "premium"?) and imports like Beck's. The only venue I saw with a more extensive beer list was the English pub, where I found an IPA, albeit one that isn't particularly interesting. The wine list was not bad. There were a number of by-the-glass choices in all types of wine categories from American and foreign sources. Given the lack of interesting beers, we mostly stuck with wine while on the ship. The Oberon Napa cabernet sauvignon was our favorite, but I also enjoyed trying a variety of other wines.

The cocktails on the ship were a disappointment. Craft cocktail culture has drastically changed cocktail menus in recent years, but this trend toward fresher, better ingredients and less sugar has apparently skipped over the Royal Caribbean cocktail list. The menu featured drinks dominated by juices, sodas and "mixes," the kind of drinks that were popular maybe 15 years ago but have been replaced in many bars today by better choices. Think margaritas with "margarita mix," so-called "martinis" with all sorts of strange ingredients, and daily specials that struck me as having too many sweet ingredients. There were also head-scratchers like caipirinhas made with rum. After a poorly made Manhattan that arrived on-the-rocks despite my multiple attempts to order it "up," I decided I was done with the ship's cocktail program and stuck to the impossible-to-mess-up gin & tonic.

The food we had on the ship was never bad, there just wasn't much "wow" factor. This drinks, however, were a disappointment, but I suppose that ensured we were better behaved. I concluded this is a function of the customers: cruise-goers need to eat, and not a lot of people are that adventurous when it comes to eating and drinking. If the ship took more risks with its food and drinks, it would risk turning off its captive customers who have no other option for where to eat. Consequently, the real adventure--both for food and drink and the trip in general--wasn't on the ship, it was on the land. Tomorrow: eating and drinking in our Alaska cruise ports.