Lemon Infused Vodka

Lemon infused vodka.

Most people probably know instinctively how to make this.

I have to say, though, I didn’t. So, if you are stupid like me, here is one of the easiest recipes you will ever make. It takes a cheapo vodka and turns it into something way more palatable. The infusion takes away the burn, lessens the medicinal aftertaste, and makes any mixed drink taste more refined.

So, here goes:

Lemon Infused Vodka

Ingredients:

1 empty milk bottle/mason jar/Tupperware

1 bottle vodka

3 lemons, sliced into slices/wedges small enough to fit through the lid of your jar

1. Empty the bottle of vodka into the jar.

2. Put the lemons, seeds, skin and all, into the jar.

3. Cover the jar and put it in a cool place. Leave it alone for 48 hours.

After a 2 days, this is what the vodka will look like. A little cloudy and a very pale yellow. Taste it with your finger. It should be bright and tart, with a slow afterburn of vodka. If you can’t taste the lemon flavor, leave it in for another day. If you can taste the lemon, then…

4. Strain the mixture into a large bowl, passing it through a sieve so all the lemony bits and seeds are caught. Then, rinse out the jar to make sure pulp is removed.

5. Funnel the vodka back into the clean jar, and…

Voila. Your vodka is ready to serve.

This is a very clean, light drink, and it is amazing how putting some citrus in a bottle of cheap vodka really refines the taste. This isn’t good enough to drink alone, but it totally changes the way that a vodka soda tastes. Add some simple syrup and you have yourself a quick lemonade spritzer. Oranges would also be great in here, and I kinda have a hankering to try some tarragon in there next time. And it makes one heck of a Bloody Mary.

One of my favorite non-recipe recipes.

Goat Cheese and Truffle Honey Wrapped Grapes with Cremant d’Alsace

Who doesn’t love a cocktail party? Some mellow jazz, some innovative drinks, and delicious small bites are such an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Plus, it means the drinking can start at 5 pm, which automatically makes me a fan.

The only issues are the cost of the booze and the time it takes to prepare the food.

When I was gifted a sample of Cremant d’Alsace, I thought I would see how it could compare to champagne. Produced in the Alsace region of France, the Lucien Albrecht has delicate bubbles and a very minerally taste – clean and almost metallic, like an Olympia oyster or. The blanc de blanc is crisp and dry, and, at $20, a complete steal.

I think it tastes more like champagne than prosecco does, and it has far more complexity than most American sparkling wines, which I find too alcoholic and harsh tasting. This calls for a snack that offers sweetness and creaminess – and, of course, some elegance. Adapted from Melisse in California, these canapes are the perfect accompaniment to this sparkler:

Goat Cheese and Truffle Honey Wrapped Grapes

Ingredients:

1 bunch of grapes

4 oz. cream cheese

4 oz. goat cheese

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1/4 cup truffle infused honey

1. Mix the goat cheese and cream cheese together in a bowl.

2. Form the cheese mixture around each grape, making sure to cover the grape entirely. You don’t want too thick a layer of cheese, just enough to make it look like a tiny snowball.

3. Arrange the grapes on a platter.

4. Put a sliced almond on each grape. Then, put the grapes in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes to an hour.

6. Just before serving, drizzle each grape generously with truffle honey or salt.

The result is astonishingly delicious. Creamy, slightly tangy cheese that hides a juicy burst of sweetness. The truffle flavor is so important, adding a savory depth that really compliments not only the rest of the snack but the fantastic Cremant d’Alsace.

Just another reason to be glad that it’s 5 pm somewhere in the world.

Tabasco Taste Test – The Whole Kit and Kaboodle

The highlight of my incredible press trip to Avery Island was undoubtedly the Tabasco tasting with Paul McIlhenny himself. The CEO of the company led us through a taste test of all of Tabasco’s 7 sauces, so we could delineate the exact flavors for ourselves. I took tastes, took notes, and took away the fact that I am a hot sauce lover.

This Sweet and Spicy Tabasco sauce is Tabasco’s mildest pepper sauce, using ingredients like pear and ginger to up the sweet and tangy aspects of the sauce. Mild and thick enough to use straight as a dip, it would be sensational on rice or in a stir fry. It would also be sensational on a pork loin set for the grill. The predominant tastes here were of coconuts, mango, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This is one of my favorite sauces.

The Buffalo Style sauce is a straightforward wing sauce base. It needs some melted butter and maybe some onion powder, but that is it. This is a very straightforward wing flavor, with smoky notes of tobacco in there, tempering the mild heat level with some pleasant bitterness.

The Green Jalapeno sauce has been a favorite for many years. Known as a milder version of the classic sauce, it has its own attributes that make it special  - namely, how very vegetal it tastes. The sauce is extremely fresh tasting, with notes of celery, green peas, and tomatillos in it. Tangy and fresh, there is some white pepper heat toward the sides of your mouth, but nothing too overt or painful. This would be a fantastic addition to a salad or coleslaw dressing, and would pair well with delicate proteins like citrus.

As a side note, the sauce is more yellow than green, but the Tabasco company chose to market it in a green bottle rather that put any artificial dyes in its product.

The Garlic sauce became the favorite of several of the other Tastemakers for its robust cayenne taste and thick texture. The garlic taste is pronounced enough to temper the heat of the cayenne with its own flavor,  making this perfect for Indian or Thai cuisine, where strong flavors dominate. This would also be dynamite for the grill, where the flavor would mellow and mingle with charred and smoky meat.

Chipotle Sauce has earned itself a huge following in the short time it has been on the shelves. This smokey, back-of-the-throat spicy hot sauce lends itself well to sweet and pronounced flavors. Prunes, figs, lamb, and duck would all be delicious paired with this sauce that is really more savory than it is spicy. It is particularly well geared towards Mexican dishes – duck enchiladas made with this would be incredible.

Original Tabasco sauce. Old faithful. What would morning eggs be without it? To say nothing of freshly shucked oysters, a slice of pizza, or a plate of nachos. This is an American classic. Next to the other flavors, its vinegary qualities are pronounced, showing itself as brighter and spicier than I had originally thought.

Habanero sauce

I believe I have already waxed poetic on this sauce. Next to the other sauces, it seems particularly inclined towards Jamaican food, with its bright, fruity heat that is firecracker hot but fades quickly.

One quick note about Tabasco – the company is very close knit. The company President, Tony, knew the name of every single person we met in the factory and the field. The senior VP, Took Osborn, went out of his way to take us searching for alligators and could not have been more enthusiastic about being part of the company. This wasn’t some put-on for out-of-town visitors. This was the honest-to-goodness excitement of people who believe in their products. And their belief made me a believer, too.

I had an incredible trip to Avery Island. I learned so much, ate so much, and came back with new inspiration to cook and create. Thank you so much to the Tabasco Company and Hunter PR for making this the event of a lifetime. I am now a die-hard Tabasco head.

*Disclaimer: This was a press sponsored trip. I was not required to write a post, and all opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

Chef Alon Shaya Goes Tabasco Crazy

When I think New Orleans, I don’t often think Italian food.

Correction: I didn’t often think Italian food. Now, it might as well be called New Rome to me, after my experience eating the transcendent Italian food of Chef Alon Shaya, of Domenica.

This James Beard Award nominated chef came to Avery Island to cook for the Tabasco Tastemakers trip, and brought with him some incredible food. He also gave an hour long cooking lesson, where I learned a few very useful tips and techniques. The first thing I learned: I am using too much liquid when I make stock. You probably do the same thing. The liquid should just barely cover the veggies/shells/bones in your pot, so the flavor is incredibly concentrated by the time it is done. The second thing I learned: Tabasco is not just a condiment. It is an ingredient that can be used like other spices, herbs, and flavor enhancers. It changes as it heats and reduces, and can be used in every course from soup to nuts. As part of the trip, Chef Shaya made an entire meal featuring Tabasco sauce and the result was  superb.

Crispy Eggplant and Beet Salad with Whipped Feta, Tabasco Green Jalapeno Pepper Sauce, and Basil

This eggplant was very light and creamy, encased in an impossibly crispy crust. Topped with tangy goat’s cheese and sweet beets, this would have been great on its own, but the pesto really made the dish. Fragrant with garlic and floral with basil, the pesto managed to be nuanced and punchy all at once. There was a slight spice from the pepper sauce, but nothing lingering or burning. This was the first time that i realized that Tabasco can be a background flavor versus a pervasive taste.

Chicken Liver Pate with Grilled Bread and Tabasco Chipotle Onion Jam

The most refined chicken liver pate I have ever tasted.  It takes a lot of technique to make chicken livers taste upscale,and Shaya is up to the challenge. Incredibly light and airy, almost the texture of whipped cream, but with more heft. Just a little offal-y, mostly tasting vaguely meaty with a kick from the sweet and smoky jam. Here, the heat was really non existent – I would never guess that there was a pepper sauce in there. It was all smoke (no mirrors), counteracting the savory pate and the jammy onions.

Handmade Fusilli Pasta with Shrimp, Celery, and Tabasco Pepper Sauce

The piece de resistance of the meal. Shaya actually made this fusilli by hand in front of the Tastemakers that afternoon, deftly rolling the pasta. There is nothing like fresh pasta – chewy, swirly, catching the sauce in every nook and cranny. The sauce was on another level. Tomatoes, onions, the sweet background of fennel, and nuggets of salty shrimp were cooked until tender but still snappy. The celery added a light, herby note that echoed the fennel, and the Tabasco sauce was an inspired touch. It added the front-of-the-tongue heat that is associated with Tabasco sauce, but the vinegar taste mellowed out so it really felt Italian. I couldn’t imagine a better pasta dish anywhere in NYC or in Italy, and this approached the level of pasta at Vetri.

Slow-Roasted Porchetta with Spring Onions, Artichokes, and Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce

Again, Shaya impressed with his cooking of all things treif. The pork was robustly flavored, almost wild tasting, like boar. It stood up to the aggressively garlicky sauce and the soft, herbal onions and artichokes. The sauce was rather sweet, playing with the vegetable’s fresh qualities and the inherent taste of the pork.  The interplay between textures was phenomenal – crispy, fatty, tender, toothsome, smooth…each bite was more exciting than the last. And with a portion this big, it really says something that I cleaned my plate.

With my fingers.

Dark Chocolate Torta with Tabasco Sweet and Spicy Ganache and Brandied Cherry Gelato

Fudgy chocolate cake, dense and incredibly dark, melded with lush icing and sweet cherry ice cream. The sweet and spicy Tabasco really was the star here – combined with the cake, it tasted first like mangoes, sweet and light. Then, right at the end, there was a quick burst of heat that burned away the heavy chocolate taste and begged for a cooling bite of ice cream.

The entire meal blew me away. Not just the way that the food tasted, but the progression of flavors, the many textures, the ingenious interplay of Tabasco into classic Italian technique, and the manner of Chef Shaya himself. He brought along a sous chef for the cooking demonstration, and between seeing his gentle, calm presence with her and his sincere humility in teaching the class, he won me over completely. So many talented people, chefs included, are conceited and arrogant, often frustrated in teaching techniques to novices. Chef Shaya could not have been more patient about answering questions. When explaining dishes, he did it with such clarity and conviction that I never doubted that he tried many different versions in efforts to create the perfect dish. Though I haven’t been to New Orleans, when I do get there I am headed straight for Domenica. In the meantime, you can bet that I will be twirling fusilli pasta in a Tabasco-laced sauce.

*Disclaimer: My meal and travel expenses were paid for me. I was not required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

Legnon’s Boucherie, New Iberia

Some tales are best told in pictures, and this is one.

It’s the tale of Legnon’s butcher shop in New Iberia, LA.

Where they sell sandwich bread that is just perfect for sopping up the juices of a spicy boiled crab.

Where the crawfish and andouille sausages are all made in house, daily.

Where the boudin is made with rice, seasonings,

and fresh pork meat and liver.

Where the employees make the sausage in the back room, just before you buy it.

The spicy, salty, porky sausage is soft and succulent. Served with freshly fried pork cracklins, there couldn’t be anything more delicious…

Just don’t try talking on the phone while you order.

Chances are you won’t be able to anyway. Your mouth will be too full of boudin. Don’t miss this sensational butcher shop if you are in Southern Louisiana.

Cafe Des Amis, New Iberia

If you look up where to eat tradition Southern Louisiana fare near Avery Island, chances are that Cafe Des Amis will turn up in your Google search. This restaurant, famous in Breaux Bridge for its home cooking, has just opened up a branch in New Iberia.

The restaurant is small and casual – you get the feeling that you could walk in wearing paint splattered overalls and flip-flop,s and the waitress would still call you “ma’am” and offer to refill your drink several times.

You also get the feeling that you are going to be eating very well.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo with Rice and Potato Salad

Any place that serves not one, but two types of carbohydrates alongside its spicy stew is a winner in my book. This was my first gumbo and I am an official convert. Reminiscent of the complexity of mole and the comfort of chili, it is really something unto itself. The creamy potato salad, laced with hot Creole mustard, is delicious on the side. Adding a few dashes of Garlic Tabasco really puts this over the top for those who need some extra heat.

Oven Roasted Duck Glazed with Pepper Jelly and served with Sausage Dressing and Corn Maque Choux

Look at that slab of duck. Slow roasted until very tender, with a crispy, crackling skin loaded with sweet and slightly hot glaze. The duck taste is mild, not too gamy or intimidating to those who are shy around such birds. The corn maque choux is forgettable, but the sausage dressing is the stuff my dreams are made of. Moist and salty, with sweet crumbles of pork sausage mingled in the cornbread stuffing. It is porky, bready gluttony at its finest.

Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce

This tastes incredibly like tres leches cake. It is basically the interior of a croissant – warm, airy, buttery – drenched in a sweet, milky sauce that is scented with vanilla and sugar. It is so comforting that it is sort of the Snuggie of desserts…yeah I said that.

What of it?

This is just about the most down home place I have ever been. Nothing new, nothing out there, just really well executed home cooking that, unless you were raised in Louisiana, you would probably never get to try. Just be sure that you order that Snuggie for dessert.

*Disclaimer: My meal and travel expenses were paid for me. I was not required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

Cafe Des Amis on Urbanspoon

The French Press in Lafayette, LA

The first night of my Tabasco press trip to Avery Island was spent in Lafayette, LA. This small town in Southern Louisiana is known for its drive-through daiquiri restaurants (oh yes, drive-through restaurants that serve alcohol), and its classic Louisiana fare.

One such place offering that fare is The French Press; the chef, Justin Girouard, was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the South this year. His restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, and some dinners, is housed in a large, industrial space with high ceilings and large windows. The feel is casual but the minute you start eating, the food is serious business.

*note: though not all of the items at this dinner are featured on the regular menu, they are all worthy of description*

Escargot and Louisiana Crawfish Ragout with Garlic and Herbs on Grilled French Bread

I have never had crawfish before this meal. I was expecting something that tasted like a lobster with the snappy texture of shrimp, but to me they tend to have a rather muddy taste. This has nothing to do with the preparation, it is just that crawfish ain’t for me. Luckily, the rest of this dish was quite to my liking. The escargot are tender and mild, a perfect sponge for the garlicky, slightly spicy sauce. The sauce is thick and glossy, coating the French bread and highlighting the grassy quality of the herbs.

Blue Crab, Shrimp, Avocado, and Cherry Tomatoes, with Remoulade and Baby Greens

Absolutely the best crab I have eaten since my time in Singapore. Huge hunks of blue crab that are sweet and buttery. The shrimp, perfectly cleaned and diced, are refreshing and slightly salty next to the rich crab. The avocado mimics the seafood’s creaminess, and the tomatoes provide bursts of  acidity. The remoulade, a tangy aioli dressing, adds a bit of cayenne heat to make this an absolutely perfect salad.

Spinach and Artichoke Bisque with Fried Louisiana Oysters and Tarragon-Tabasco Creme Fraiche

My favorite course, without a doubt. The bisque is incredibly light, as if the spinach and artichokes were creamy on their own with no need to add dairy or a roux. The taste is of pure, iron-y spinach, and the vegetal taste that can really only be described as artichoke-y. The oysters are plump and crisply fried, revealing juicy salinity within. The hint of heat from the Tabasco creme fraiche was the perfect way to complete the flavor.

Pan Seared Sea Bass with Curried Roasted Cauliflower, Grilled Endive, and Chili-Garlic Beurre Blanc

This flaky, mild fish is good but is outshined by its excellent accompaniments. There is endive, tender and smoky. There is beurre blanc that is spicy, savory, and extremely rich. And there is the best cauliflower I have ever had – soft but not mushy, crisp but not burned. Salty, zesty, earthy with cumin and curry. I could have eaten an entire trough of this cauliflower.

Szechuan Shortbread with Berry Compote and Lemon Ice Cream

This is on the regular menu, and it is a must order. Lemon ice cream so smooth that it is almost like a cold custard, tart but not sour, melds with the warm, sweet berries. The shortbread is buttery, crumbly, and has the slightest prickle of the peppercorns. An interesting and invigorating way to end the meal.

The French Press does classic Louisiana fare with an upscale twist. The portions are ample, the service is as polite as you could like, and the prices are very commensurate with the experience. I would head back here without hesitation.

*Disclaimer: My meal and travel expenses were paid for me. I was not required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

The French Press on Urbanspoon

Cafe Matisse – Inspired Dining in Rutherford, NJ

What’s the last time you heard someone say “wow, you have GOT to leave the city to go to Rutherford, New Jersey for dinner?”

Never, I would imagine. Well, never until now.

Cafe Matisse is a small restaurant in the sleepy suburb of Rutherford, NJ that offers a global menu with French cooking techniques. Here, too much is never enough. Teh menu is offered in tasting flights of 3 or 4 courses, with a  few nominal charges for ingredients like foie gras or prime beef. The dining room is the first clue to the fact that the night won’t be your standard fare. Tiny and a riot of color, the dining room mixes baroque with modern with Alice in Wonderland. As you sit down and enjoy the warm bread and soft butter, the waiter will offer you a white or black napkin to match your clothing – a subtle but important touch.

Pan Seared Cajun Spiced Cubed Tuna with Crab, White Bean Pancake and Asian Slaw with Sesame Soy Vinaigrette Topped with Tempura Fried Avocado and Julienned Scallion Drizzled with Wasabi Jus

If it sounds like there is too much going on here, you are just like me. Too many ingredients just mucks up good ingredients and does nothing to disguise sub par food. However…this dish really astounded me. The tuna, heavily crusted with spicy and smoky seasonings, is seared to a crisp outside while the inside is almost blue-rare. It is obviously fresh, and buttery smooth on the inside. The crab cake, laden with sweet crab and creamy white beans is a revelation – the beans bind the cake without making it dry or bready. The avocado, melting in its tempura batter, completes the interplay of textures and flavors. The dressings are sweet, nutty, and spicy, and the whole Cajun-Asian flavor combination is one that is punchy and incredibly delicious.

Hand cut Steak Tartare with Garlic Oil and Caesar Reduction on Brioche Toast

Steak tartare is obviously up there on my list of favorite foods. This is an excellent version of it. The steak is coarsely cut, so it retains its integrity and grassy taste. The garlic oil adds a bite to the beef’s inherent sweetness and the Caesar reduction is really inspired. Lemony, salty, and a little nutty with parmesan cheese, it adds flavor to the dish without overpowering either the beef or the garlic oil. This is a playful interpretation of the classic, and it really works well.

Pan Seared Scallop with Bitter Sweet Chocolate Foie Gras Morel Mushroom Mousse Ravioli, Maple Poached Apples, Butternut Squash Pure and Dollop of Cranberry Relish Drizzled with Foie Gras Jus Topped with Fried Salted Pecans

This dish carries a $5 supplement, and if it was 3 times that much, I would still say get it. Scallops and foie are a common pairing, but not one I have tried before. Suffice to say: It now replaces peanut butter and jelly in my mind as the perfect union. The scallop, seared to a crunch while still remaining soft and tender within, is light and sweet when paired with the incredibly earthy, pleasantly iron-y mushroom and foie gras ravioli. The additional accompaniments are a bit sweet, but the dish is saved from venturing into saccharine territory with the help of the very meaty and umami foie gras jus. The salted pecans add another welcome salty, crunchy component. This dish is small, but he ingredients are so rich that it is quite filling.

Amaretto Soaked Chocolate Cake Layered with Cannoli Crème and Amerena Cherries Topped with Chocolate Mousse, Crumbled Candied Almonds, and Candied Orange Ginger Drizzled with Chocolate Espresso Sauce and Orange Honeyed Jus

Boozy. Slightly bitter. Creamy. Sweet in the way that port is sweet – rich, thick, and syrupy. Fluffy, crunchy, creamy, and sticky. This dessert is really not for someone who thinks restraint is a virtue.

In fact, if you think restraint is a virtue, make some chicken breasts at home and watch the news. If, however, you want to take a David Burke style gastronomic tour, pack the car and head out to Rutherford, NJ. The night isn’t cheap, but it is about 2/3 the price of what it would be in NYC. There is even a  wine store on site so you can buy a bottle of wine to either enjoy with dinner or take home. The service is enthusiastic and jovial, and the atmosphere is fancy without being stuffy. World class fare in New Jersey…you heard it hear first, kids.

Tabasco Deli, Avery Island

The first thing to know about when you visit Avery Island, Louisiana, is that the island is Tabasco. This is where Edmund McIlhenny first invented the sauce, where the first Tabasco peppers were grown, and where the sauce is processed and bottled to this very day. The second thing to know about visiting Avery Island is that the place is a Tabasco playland. Here, you can:

taste jalapeno ice cream (sweet and vanilla-y at first, with a lingering citrusy heat at the finish),

purchase gargantuan jugs of Tabasco sauce,

and sample as many types of Tabasco sauces, Tabasco pickles, and Tabasco seasonings as you can fit down your gullet.

When you are ready to chow down after visiting the country store, visit  Tabasco Deli, a small eatery that was built for the employees of Tabasco, and where many of Tabasco’s workers still eat lunch today.

This ain’t a fancy joint – a few oilcloth covered tables, a counter serving hot plate lunches and simple sandwiches, and some bottled sodas are all you will find here. Leave the suit and tie at home.

Roast Beef Sandwich, fully dressed
I got this sandwich Po-Boy style, with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard. It is simple, but very good. Fresh roasted beef, not as rare as I like but very tender and delightfully robust in flavor. Fresh tomatoes, a swath of tangy creole mustard, and some well toasted bread made this sandwich one that you would be happy to eat for lunch as a kid.

The addition of some garlicky and spicy Tabasco pickles and some Sweet and Spicy Tabasco sauce (tasting vaguely of curry and ginger) made this sandwich interesting and adult.

Some Fritos doused in smoky chipotle Tabasco sauce complete a plain but shockingly satisfying meal.
This isn’t a destination place. It isn’t fancy or even particularly Louisiana-cuisine-centric. It is just somewhere to grab a quality sandwich, where everything is made quickly, from scratch, and is served with a smile.

*Disclaimer: This was a sponsored press trip. I was not required to write a review, and the opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*

Creole Lady Fritos and Foie

The post today isn’t my usual rambling diatribe on steak tartare or Asian Hanukkah food. That’s because I have been otherwise occupied…

eating boudin doughnuts (a sausage made with rice and stuffed inside a savory yeast roll),

sampling homemade charcutrie from James Beard Award nominated chef Alon Shaya, of Domenica (the mangalitsa pig speck is as delicate and delightfully fatty as iberico ham),

and sucking the heads of crawfish (that’s where all the good stuff is).

Tomorrow, the chronicles of Fritos and Foie Gras in Avery Island, Louisiana, home of Tabasco!