Jackson Heights Taco Tour

oreja, pig ear, taco, mi mexico lindo, taco cart, jackson heights, queens, new york city

Oreja taco from Mi Mexico Lindo

Jackson Heights, situated in the heart of Queens, the nation’s most diverse county, is probably my favorite neighborhood in New York City. Roosevelt Avenue seethes with bustle and noise and humanity while, down any given side street, quiet families stroll past garden apartments and co-ops sitting staidly in the shade of tall, green trees. You’ll hear a dozen different languages in the space of a block; your head will turn at a hundred different aromas; and you can get the city’s best momos from a cart and, two minutes later, indulge in the tastiest arepas this side of Bogota.

With so much good food available, you could spend weeks eating exclusively in Jackson Heights and still not exhaust its culinary treasures: South Indian, North Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Tibetan, Korean, Mexican, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Uruguayan, and loads more—I’m sure I couldn’t list them all because there’s so much I haven’t yet eaten.

Systematically, I’m trying to change that, starting a couple of weeks ago with a progressive meal of Latin American delights. My friends Mu and John live in Jackson Heights, so I tapped into their local expertise about the tastiest spots. Initially, I was going to limit myself to tacos, but my resolve crumbled as soon as the empanadas came out.

empanadas, la gran uruguaya, bakery, jackson heights

Empanadas from La Gran Uruguaya

Mu, originally from Argentina, got these empanadas from a local Uruguayan bakery, La Gran Uruguaya, which she says is about the same as Argentinean and, in this ‘hood, definitely the better offering. (Argentinean cuisine seems to be curiously absent in New York; this blogger posits that one-time immigrants eventually returned to Argentina, leaving a gap in the South American culinary spectrum of Queens.) Unable to verify authenticity myself, I can certainly vouch for their tastiness, especially the tuna and spinach varieties.

Palates sufficiently whetted, we headed to Coatzingo Restaurant (an expansion of Tacqueria Coatzingo a couple blocks down the street). Oh, the glorious vertical spit of roasting pork al pastor! The tender steamed lengua! The homemade tamarindo! I gorged on tacos and a cemita filled with strata of meat, cheese, greens, and sauce and enclosed in an appropriately seedy bun–the kind of sandwich that years from now I will dream of and wake up hungry.

taco, lengua, coatzingo, jackson heights

Lengua taco, Coatzingo Restaurant

cemita, al pastor, coatzingo, jackson heights, mexican food

Cemita al pastor, Coatzingo Restaurant

On our way to the next destination, Sunjay stopped for a quick oreja taco from Mi Mexico Lindo. This was my first experience with pig’s ear and it did not disappoint–chewy and soft at the same time, and deliciously well seasoned.

mi mexico lindo, taco cart, street food, jackson heights, queens, new york city

Worth the wait

Next stop: Terraza 7. Without the guidance of two locals, I’d never have noticed this place. Other than the banner, it’s completely unremarkable from the outside, tucked away on a little side street. Inside, it’s smaller than it seems, shaped by the street into an odd triangle, although the wire loft (which usually houses a band) was surprisingly airy. Patrons can sit on kegs with custom-made cushions, sipping homemade sangria (with canned peaches!) and craft beer (including new Queens brewery Singlecut) and admiring the kitschy décor.

Terraza 7, jackson heights bar, queens, new york city

Terraza 7

downtown manhattan & brooklyn sign, 4 train, downtown 4 train, metal straps, new york city subway, subway, nyc

Just take the stairs to get to the downtown 4–err, the loft.

Our bellies full but still craving one last nosh, we stopped for arepas. Roosevelt Avenue’s famous Arepa Lady wasn’t yet out for the evening, so we had to make do with the second-best in Jackson Heights–which was still pretty flippin’ awesome.

los chuzos y algo mas, los chuzos, arepas, jackson heights, queens, colombian restaurant

“Kebabs and something more,” according to my level 1 Spanish.

arepa de choclo, arepa, los chuzos, los chuzos y algo mas, jackson heights, queens, new york city, roosevelt avenue

Arepa de choclo (maize, not chocolate)

If I’d had more room in my belly, I’d have liked to try a chorizo chuzo, which smelled amazing. The arepahowever, did me in for the night with its greasy, crunchy, cheesy fried goodness. 

I don’t take a trip to any neighborhood without running through my mental list of nearby stores selling specialty foods I can’t find closer to home. In Jackson Heights, every outing ends with a spree at Patel Brothers. No matter how much I buy, I always walk out having spent way less than I feel I should have.

patel brothers, grocery store, indian, indian food, lentils, parathas, chukree, chukli, spices, mango pulp, indian groceries

Shopping at ethnic food stores: my favorite recreational activity

It’s the ultimate satisfaction: a belly full of great food and bags of more great food to take home. Till next time, Jackson Heights.

‘Cueing Up Summer

the difibulators, a bluegrass band from nyc

Is there anything better than barbecue, bluegrass, and good booze to get you excited about summertime? Maybe ice cream. And cornhole. And great company to share in these marvelous things.

bobwhite lunch and supper counter nyc fried chicken potato salad pimento cheese sandwich

What’s better than fried chicken? Cold fried chicken. (Seriously.)

Last week, I got all that and more at Tasting Table‘s ‘Cue Up Summer party. Yes, it’s already late July. But after an intensely oppressive heat wave, I think we all needed a reason to get excited about summer again. With great food by local purveyors, twangtastic bluegrass from the Difibulators, and unlimited booze, it perfectly renewed my love of the season’s simple pleasures. (And it didn’t hurt that the day itself was unseasonably cool!)

Delaney Barbecue, brisket and ribs.

Serving up brisket and two kinds of ribs, and you still want more.

It all went down in the Elizabeth Street Garden which, under normal circumstances, is lovely enough with its antique statuary and rampant greenery. This evening, marquees strung with fairy lights sheltered tables laden with picnic pleasures—cold fried chicken, potato salad, and pimento cheese sandwiches from Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter; brisket, pork AND beef ribs, and fixins from Delaney Barbecue; some guilt-free gazpacho and veggies topped with Tabasco Buffalo Sauce; and amazing desserts—cookies by Mah-ze-Dahr Bakery; Imperial Woodpecker sno-balls; and massive ice cream sandwiches by Melt Bakery.

Melt ice cream sandwich s'most

There’s a marshmallow hiding in that ice cream sandwich.

And what would an outdoor summer party be without bottomless booze? Guests had their choice of Santa Margherita wines, Goose Island beers, and cocktails made with Monkey Shoulder and Hendrick’s Gin. I’m a big fan of both of the latter and stuck to those. The Hendrick’s lemonade suited my unusual preference for having lemon with Hendrick’s (and only with Hendrick’s—with other gins, it’s always lime), and the Summer Jam, mixing Monkey Shoulder with strawberry jam and lemon juice, was everything a July whisky cocktail should be—cool, slightly sweet, and far too easy to drink. Check out the recipe below.

Joshua Feldman, the Coopered Tot and whisky aficionado

Josh fits right in with the mood lighting.

My buddy Josh, of the Coopered Tot and Morgan Library whisky fame, along with some new friends, ensured that the company was as good as the comestibles. Thanks to Nick of Exposure USA for hosting with aplomb and Freddy of William Grant & Sons for sharing his extensive boozey knowledge. Summer might be half-gone already, but I plan to carry on with the outdoor eating, drinking, and merry-making, getting all I can out of the few weeks we have left.

Summer Jam
1 1/4 parts Monkey Shoulder Whisky
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1 dollop of strawberry jam
Dash of sugar to taste
Splash of seltzer

Add all ingredients except seltzer to a shaker. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice and top with a splash of seltzer.

Suite Three Oh Six: A Vegetable Lover’s Haven

daphne cheng suite three oh six supper club kitchen

There are a few reasons I could never become a vegan. Yogurt. Bacon. Honey. Eggs. Steak. Butter. Figs. Gelato. Buffalo wings. Sushi. You get the picture.

It doesn’t help that so many vegetarian/vegan restaurants purvey “mock meat” (e.g. heavily processed soy- or wheat-based foods shaped, dyed, and flavored to resemble meat) as their main attractions. Besides the fact that highly processed food (of any kind) isn’t very healthy and definitely not great for the environment, fake meat just tastes awful to someone accustomed to eating the real thing. And, as an omnivore, I ask myself: what’s the point? If I’m going to eat vegetarian/vegan—and I often do, with gusto—it’s because I love vegetables and grains and regular non-meat foods. (Mind you, I don’t consider tofu, seitan and tempeh to be fake meats. They are delicious in their own right, rest on centuries of established food culture, and are far less processed than the Fakin’ Bacons of the world.)

I was cautiously curious when invited to attend a wine tasting paired with vegan nibbles by chef Daphne Cheng. (The wines, supplied by Trump Winery, were utterly forgettable and, in the case of a certain apéritif, downright undrinkable.) Having been disappointed by vegan offerings in the past, I didn’t know what to expect of the food. Would it be endless faux chicken fingers and sham lamb? Never one to pass up free wine or food of any kind, I went with as open a mind as a skeptical omnivore can muster.

suite three oh six mache carrot salad

Mache with carrot, toasted buckwheat, and champagne dill vinaigrette

Cheng hosted us in her Tribeca event and teaching space, Suite Three Oh Six, an elegant loft hung with contemporary art and showcasing an efficient, glass-walled kitchen. Most of the food was passed in hors-d’oeuvre-style bites–beautifully presented, although occasionally difficult to eat while juggling a wine glass.

But even the fussiest dishes were rewarding. A pastry filled with lentilles de puy and topped with zippy bell pepper sauce was too big to eat in one bite, but so good that I gave up on my fork and just used my fingers. Zucchini bisque, a dish that could easily fall flat, got just the right amount of pep from cilantro and a drizzling of chili oil. Best of all, a crispy yuba (tofu skin) topped with something called “truffled ricotta” (made from almonds, I believe) had me actually waiting by the kitchen door for more.

The absolute standouts, though, were the sweet offerings. A simple half-hulled rambutan, the muppet of fruit, served as a bright palate cleanser. Rosewater “yogurt ice cream,” paired with apricot, slid down as easily as the “real” thing, with a refreshing lightness I’ve only found in certain gelati. And I couldn’t stop gobbling chocolate truffles, made with mezcal and topped with a thumbnail of crunchy coconut.

I kept forgetting that everything was vegan, and I think that was the idea. Cheng’s philosophy is that food should look and taste good, and just because her cuisine happens to feature vegetables in starring roles doesn’t make it any less appealing. The entire evening featured only one item I would consider faux—a cashew “cheese”—and even that wasn’t tricked out to resemble real cheese so much as it simply stood in the place cheese would normally occupy in a meal. (For the record, it was really tasty—not cheesy at all, more like a smooth, mildly nutty paste. I’d like to eat it on toasted cinnamon raisin bread.)

rambutan muppet fruit asian

Rambutan, the muppet of fruit

As an enthusiast of eating real vegetables, I enjoyed Cheng’s food very much. And as I’m constantly advocating for people to eat what tastes good, I applaud not only her culinary skill but her efforts to bring tasty veganism to the fore. Besides hosting regular supper clubs, Cheng also offers vegan cooking classes. If her educational repertoire is anything like the menu I tried, students will come away with some impressive dishes under their belts. Cheng is also seeking to open a restaurant in the near future. When she does, I look forward to returning for more tasty veggie-centric fare, confident that there will not be a pretend pork chop in sight.

Science and Whisky! Does caramel coloring make a difference?

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Adding E150a to a glass of water, one drop at a time.

Single malt Scotch whisky comes in a beautiful range of colors: warm goldenrod, deep russet, bright dandelion. Thanks to the variety of casks used to age whisky, the length of time the spirit spends in them, and the various mixtures of different casks to create the final product, the palette available to Scotch drinkers makes a lovely sight. Check out this color bar with its whimsical, somewhat confusing names (I never realized there was a difference between yellow gold and old gold).

But did you know that some Scotch whisky contains an additive coloring called E150a? Many whisky lovers believe this so-called “caramel coloring” impacts the flavor of the spirit, but producers who use it insist it does not. A few months ago, in an effort to provide some evidence one way or another, Johanne McInnis, the Whisky Lassie and one of half of The Perfect Whisky Match, planned and executed a blind tasting of a single whisky expression with and without E150a.

Photo 121

That wee tiny phial contains pure E150a.

The instructions dictated  the participants carry out the test blind—so I enlisted the help of my husband to pour and keep track of whether my guesses were right or wrong. After I put on my blindfold (really!), he poured 10 ml of each sample into a Glencairn glass and placed them in either hand. I also had a glass of plain water in the middle. I nosed each one and made my guess three times in a row with a five minute wait in between each nose. (And Sunjay mixed up—or not—the glasses between each round too.) Finally, I tasted each without water, making a guess based taste and trying not to let my impressions of the nose get in the way.

I repeated this process three more times over the next few days at different times of day. Sunjay patiently recorded my guesses and only revealed them when the final drop had been drunk. I did not open the tiny bottle of E150a until after the experiment was over, so as not to prejudice my guesses.

My first test took place in the mid-afternoon. When I initially nosed the two whiskies, I immediately smelled a difference. One whisky was distinctly sweet and sugary on the nose, while the other had more floral character. I had no idea what kind of qualities the E150a would impart: would it add something extra, or take something away? With no clue, I decided the sweeter-smelling one was more suspect. I generated some kind of reasoning in my head involving sherried whiskies being both dark and sweet, but it didn’t really make sense even to me. I honestly couldn’t decide which one was meant to have the coloring added: not knowing the smell or taste of E150a, it was a true blind guess. That the two whiskies were distinct and different, however, was obvious.

I nosed three times and detected that difference each time, selecting the sweeter-smelling one as having added color. When, after three nosings, I tasted each, I found a difference there, too. This time, however, the sweet-smelling one tasted more like whisky to me. So I chose the other whisky as the one with added color. Either way, I’m half-right, right?

I covered the glasses and left them for a couple of hours and then returned. This time the difference in smell was still there but more subtle. Slight oxidation had regulated the differences between the two so that they were closer in scent. One still stood out as smelling more like brown sugar (slightly reduced by this time), however, and I stuck by my original supposition and designated it the “colored” whisky another three times.

When it came to tasting, however, I actually became stymied. By this point the whiskies were so similar (and a bit too warm) that they were virtually indistinguishable. Each of them had a slight sweetness on the nose and on the palate, with sweetness, some spiciness, and oak at the finish. One of them did taste a bit duller than the other; or perhaps the other was just brighter and more vivid, so I chose the flatter one as the one with coloring.

The next day, I repeated the process. At this point, I began second-guessing everything I knew about how whisky smells and tastes. If I didn’t know one of the samples had coloring added, I’d never guess that either of them were altered in any way: they both smelled and tasted “like whisky” to me. But is this because my knowledge of whisky is tainted by drinking and “knowing” whiskies that use coloring? Surely that influences my perceptions of what “tastes” and “smells” like whisky. In any case, I took a truly blind guess for the third time.

A couple of days later, I did the fourth and final test. At this point I just gave up on trying to use any logic or method and just chose one. When the last drop had been swallowed, my results were revealed:

Tasting 1: Noses 1-3 WRONG; Palate CORRECT

Tasting 2: Nose 1 CORRECT, Nose 2 WRONG, Nose 3 CORRECT, Palate WRONG

Tasting 3: Noses 1-3 CORRECT, Palate CORRECT

Tasting 4: Noses 1-3 CORRECT, Palate WRONG

I was surprised. I had really convinced myself that the first-round nosing was totally correct, but no. At least the other nosings (with one exception) were consistent. My tasting was 50/50, which doesn’t surprise me as I really, truly didn’t know what to be looking for. Not knowing what the additive tasted or smelled like ahead of time, I was taking a stab in the dark, assessing each dram to decide which one “tasted more like whisky.” It’s interesting to see that this worked out for me in the initial round, when I was still forming judgments about the process and the two whiskies, as well as in the third round, when I had spent a lot of time thinking about my perceptions of whisky and whether or not they could be trusted. I’m not surprised I got the final round wrong as I’d basically thrown in the towel at that point.

The problem with making my choice based on which dram was more whisky-esque is that my tasting experience has included both colored  and additive-free whiskies. And most of the time, I haven’t known or paid attention to E150a presence. So my palate has, in some way, been “tainted” by my tasting of colored whiskies as on par with (or at least undistinguished from) non-colored whiskies. They have all been lumped into the “tastes like whisky” category.

And this impacted my ability to judge the “whisky-ness” of each dram. The truth is, they both tasted like whisky to me. Heck, they both smelled like whisky too, but it was easier to detect what I thought was a hint of something “fake” on the nose than on the tongue. The sweetness I associated with the E150a stood out like a red flag every time I smelled it (or thought I did). But the two tastes—that was much harder. One whisky (which ended up being the E150a) had a stronger spicy character and what seemed to me a more rounded finish. The other seemed less vivid with a less satisfying finish—some of the time. Both whiskies, after oxidizing a bit, tasted even more similar, further complicating my perceptions.

This whole thing turned my preconceptions about whisky on their head. What should whisky smell like? I found the nose on the E150a whisky rather pleasant, just as the nose on the non-colored whisky was, too. What should whisky taste like? There is no doubt in my mind that the additive changes the flavor of the spirit, although this seems to lessen when the spirit breathes a little. The E150a whisky provided, in my opinion, a more rounded finish albeit a less nuanced palate overall. Would it be wrong to prefer the additive whisky over the “pure” one?

If making the argument from taste, my guess is that both colored and additive-free whiskies would have their fans in a widespread blind tasting. Should consumers know when E150a has been added? Absolutely, and in many cases, folks can guess (does the bottle say no colouring added? If not, buyer beware). Since I personally have a bias against additives and things like that in all the food and drink I consume, I would be more likely to purchase non-colored whiskies, especially single malts, an effort to maintain the purity of what I consume. But if I already knew and loved a standard bottling like, say, Glenfiddich 12, and I found out it contained E150a (which it does), would I stop drinking it? No way. I drink what I like.

Of course, E150a isn’t added for taste. It’s used to ensure consistent color across all bottlings of an expression. Visual cues, like labels, impact our perceptions of quality and enjoyment, and producers know this. If your Glenfiddich 12 appeared deep gold one year and pale yellow the next, you’d wonder if they were altering the product somehow (and you might find the pale yellow one less satisfying). Keeping the product visually consistent signals that it remains consistent in nose and taste, too. Visual consistency remains an important issue in countries where there is less regulation and oversight of food and beverages, and where consumers might not feel confident about the quality of a product whose appearance varies. (Then again, it cuts both ways: producers in such countries can more easily use additives to achieve visual consistency, opening the door to some horrible realities.)

In the end, I suppose I’m still on the fence about E150a in my whisky. I’m certainly going to be inspecting all the bottles I buy from now on, and, as I wrote above, I’ll likely privilege those without any additives. But I respect the decision of producers to use E150a to create visually-consistent whiskies. Frankly, I’m more anxious that chill-filtering will affect the smell and taste of a whisky. But who can say for certain, unless we do some more research…

Today’s Bordeaux Won’t Break the Bank

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

I don’t write much about it here, but I love wine. When I lived in France for a year, it was all I drank, besides the odd demi-pêche at the pub from time to time. Because I’ve traveled there frequently and have family there, I’m particularly partial to Alsatian whites, but the truth is I never tasted a French wine I didn’t like.

Stateside, it’s not always affordable to slake my thirsts with French vintages; most for sale in my neighborhood tend towards the higher-end—good for special occasions, but not priced for my daily drink. Or at least, I thought they did. I rarely look at the French wine shelf because I just assume it will be too expensive.

I won’t be making that mistake again.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Last week, I sampled nearly 50 Bordeaux priced under $55—and the majority under $35. Bordeaux have a reputation in the US as high-quality (read: expensive) wines suitable for older drinkers, in part because their so-called “old world” characteristics have fallen out of fashion as more fruit-forward (and affordable) offerings—like those from Argentina and Chile—are in their ascendency. It hasn’t helped that Bordeaux futures have led to some producers overpricing certain vintages, creating a difficult market situation where many bottles are priced beyond what consumers are willing to pay. (See this excellent Wine Spectator article for a detailed explanation, and take a look at the comments to see the disenchantment of many US consumers.)

But let’s put those notions aside for a moment. I’m here to tell you that there are remarkable, delicious Bordeaux in reach of even budget-conscious non-profit workers. Some of my favorites from the tasting were priced well under $15. If you’re not obsessed with labels and if you can get past the “expensive=better” hangup that so many of us seem to fall for, you too can enjoy high-quality Bordeaux without breaking the bank—or even bending the budget.

The tasting, presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council, featured 100 wines representing 22 appellations as part of the Today’s Bordeaux selection, “value wines [that] can be enjoyed by wine aficionados and novices” alike. I put myself firmly in the latter category, as well as the “value wine buyer” box. (In general, most of my booze budget goes to whisky.) And while I might not drop $20 on every bottle I tasted, there were quite a few that I intend to look for in my liquor store. If you’re in New York, every bottle listed is available here, while other states may offer a selection.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

The wines were poured by professionals in the industry who were more than happy to talk about the characteristics of these Bordeaux. One of the comments I heard again and again was that wine doesn’t have to be complicated to be good—and that’s something I can agree with as a whisky-drinker. Sure, who doesn’t love to spend an hour or two rolling the liquid around in the glass, sniffing and sipping and contemplating the deeper mysteries of the bottle? I take deep pleasure in those moments. But when it comes to everyday life, they are rare. I’m much more likely to pour a glass of something familiar and comforting just to soothe my soul after a wearying day, enjoying the taste for itself and nothing more.

These Bordeaux fit that bill nicely, being fairly uncomplicated (many were young, 2011 or 2012) and well suited for food. As I was tasting, I ran through pairing possibilities in my mind, and I couldn’t think of any food without one wine or two presenting itself as a suitable accompaniment. To be fair, French wine, like most Old World wines, evolved to be drunk with food. That attitude—that wine is meant for everyday consumption—pervaded this tasting, and was well supported by the pricing.

It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. I learned this when I spent a year drinking on a student’s budget in France, and I’m happy to continue in this vein stateside. I have no doubt that $300 bottles would excite my palate and transport me to realms of ecstasy hitherto unknown—but I don’t need that. I’m just looking for what tastes good!

Check out the Bordeaux Wine Council’s website for full list of the 2013 Today’s Bordeaux, searchable by color and tasting notes, grapes, price range, and occasion. You can read more about the tasting here. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite pours of the day, all well under $20. If you see these, snatch them up! They are a delicious bargain, albeit by no means a complete list of the top affordable offerings from Bordeaux.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Whites

Château La Maroutine, 100% Sauvignon Blanc. $11.

Château Fonfroide, 76% Sémillon, 18% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Muscadelle, 2% Colombard. $13.

Château Les Clauzots, 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sémillon. $16.

Reds

Château de Ricaud, 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc. $12.

Château La Croix Saint-Pierre, 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec. $15.

Château de Paillet-Quancard, 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. $15.

Special thanks to Creative Feed and Tasting Table who graciously presented the tasting and provided the photos.

Sun Dried Tomato and Black Olive Tapenade

sun dried tomato tapenade black olive capers

I’ll admit it: I get lazy about cooking sometimes. There are nights that I get home from work and want nothing more than to change into sweatpants and crack open a beer. These are the times I turn to that old meal-substitute standby—crackers and some sort of topping (cheese, sausage, schmear, dip). As summer approaches, and the sweaty, smelly commutes increase, I’m having more and more of those nights.

Happily, crackers (or, if you have access to a good bakery, baguette) lend themselves to all sorts of low-key add-ons, from fresh sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and a basil leaf to sweet fruit compote with sharp cheddar. If you have hummus lying around, perfect. Greek yogurt, cucumbers, lemon juice, and dill make a quick and delicious tzatziki. All things that require minimal effort and no turning on the stove.

This tapenade makes another great ready-to-go spread, and keeps in the fridge for up to a week. Feel free to use green olives if you prefer them, and if you’re using oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, you may want to decrease the amount of olive oil added.

Black Olive Tapenade with Sun Dried Tomatoes

Ingredients:

1.5 cups black olives, preferably Kalamata, pitted
1 cup sun dried tomatoes, soaked 5 minutes and drained (no soaking necessary if using oil-packed tomatoes)
1 Tbs. capers, drained
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Pulse first three ingredients in food processor until roughly chopped.

2. With food processor going, add olive oil in a thin stream until well-blended.

Serve with crackers, sliced baguette, or crostini. Keeps up to one week in the refrigerator.

Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.

But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)

Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.

What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.

A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.

I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.

Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out  fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!

One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!

Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.

Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.

Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.

Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.

Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.

Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.

I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.

Canadian Whisky: Now on Twitter!

#1 #DavinTT-1st-week

 

I joined Twitter about a year ago, and the best part has been meeting all the amazingly cool, like-minded whisky lovers out there. To be honest, that was a big motivator in joining. Twitter works best when you use it to chat and connect with people you’d otherwise never get to know, because they live in other countries, or are outside your peer group, or you have nothing else in common but a shared love of the water of life.

I have made some awesome connections in 140 characters and, just as great, I’ve received incredible opportunities: free tickets to Whisky Live, a mystery whisky tweet tasting for International Women’s Day, and now, a book review and tweet tasting featuring the comprehensive, fascinating Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux. (What a great name, right?)

You can read the full press release below. Basically, every Sunday in the month of May, I and other whisky lovers from across the globe will gather on Twitter to discuss the book and then taste a mystery Canadian whisky. Having literally NO experience with Canadian whisky, I am beyond excited. First, I get to nerd out with a whisky textbook (no lie, I’ve brought my post its on the subway to make notes while I’m reading). Then, I get to nose dive into the pages with a delicious unknown dram! And, with no “standard” by which to measure the whiskies, I am most excited about experiencing something totally new, forming an educated but open first impression, and embarking on a whole new journey of delicious discovery.

If you’re on Twitter, join our sessions by searching for #DavinTT. Grab the book, read a few chapters, open a bottle of your preferred Canadian whisky, and voice your thoughts!

Canadian Whisky Book Review and Twitter Tasting

Be a part of the world’s first ever whisky book review/twitter tasting. Social media are changing the way we read and the way we taste whisky. We’ve decided to integrate the two! Each Sunday for the next four weeks we will review several chapters from the book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert and discuss them on Twitter. And we will do this while we taste a representative whisky from that chapter.

If you wish to comment on the book, interact with author, Davin de Kergommeaux, or discuss a Canadian whisky you are tasting, please join us each Sunday at 3:00 pm Eastern time, on Twitter at #DavinTT.

The twitter reviews and tastings begin this Sunday, May 5th at 3:00pm EST when we will be talking about chapters 10 – 13. Davin will join us to answer questions, and contribute to discussion among the participants, etc.

After chatting for about 30 minutes about 15 participants from around the world will open a mystery bottle that we have sent to them. You didn’t get a bottle? Feel free to join in anyway. The more the merrier. After tasting the sample and talking about it we’ll reveal which distillery it came from and which whisky we tasted. Sound like fun?

This Sunday we’ll begin with chapters 10 – 13. Then, Sunday May 12th we will discuss chapters 14 – 17; Sunday May 19th, chapters 18 – 21; and Sunday May 26th, chapters 22 – 25.

We invite the whisky bloggers among us to blog about the book, the experience, the whiskies and/or Davin. Let the fun begin!

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with me, @WhiskyLassie on twitter.

Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert is available at Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and many other fine bookstores, or on-line at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

WhiskyCast Virtual Tasting Starring Moi! *

*Okay, not starring—I’m back to my drama-queen daydreams here. “Featuring”, perhaps. Or “introducing”. Oh, I like that…

I mentioned in my post about Whisky Live that I joined in a Virtual Tasting with Mark Gillespie, creator of WhiskyCast. The tasting is now live here. If you like to listen to people discoursing on beautiful whiskies or want to know more about the character of the whisky before buying, take a listen. I didn’t sound nearly as silly as I thought!

Disclaimer: It is very hard for me to be critical of well-made whisky—I like almost every whisky I try. My enthusiasm can sometimes bubble over but in this case everything we had was absolutely in the top of its class. I recommend them all without equivocation!

Whisky Live 2013: In which my inner fangirl emerges

Photo 1.1

When I lived in Scotland, I knew how spoiled for choice I was when it came to Scotch whisky. Besides the wide array of exceptional (and affordable) drams that even the smallest bars offered, it seemed like every other week there was a tasting, festival, or other event centered around the water of life. I realized that coming back to New York would mean adjusting my expectations of variety and opportunity.

Even so, New York City is probably the best place in the country to be a whisky drinker. We have oodles of great whisky bars, from the high-end down to the cheap and cheerful, and—thanks to the largest port on the East Coast and a slew of excellent importers and distributors—pretty much any whisky available anywhere in the US is available here, too. On top of that, several national whisky festivals make stops here: WhiskyFest, the Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza, and WhiskyLive.

Walking into Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on Wednesday transported me back to happy memories of the Glasgow Whisky Festival, the Whisky Stramash, and the Whisky Fringe. Booth upon booth of delicious drams stretched before me, freely offering pours of old and new favorites. There was a healthy mix of Scottish, Irish, and American whiskies, as well as international whiskies from Japan, Australia, India, and Sweden.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the the people. I enjoyed running into friends from the NYC whisky community like Allison Patel, whose Brenne booth was mobbed the entire evening by ardent new fans, and Josh Feldman, pouring for Gordon & MacPhail and charming the whole room with his usual bonhomie. And I was elated to meet IRL Angelo (G-LO) and Max from It’s Just the Booze Dancing. Best of all, though, I got to meet two of my industry heroes. (Am I allowed to be that cheesy? This is my blog—heck yes!)

Max and G-LO

Max and G-LO

G-LO texted me while I was still on my way to say I’d been invited to join a Virtual Tasting panel by Mark Gillespie, whisky writer and the man behind the magic at WhiskyCast. If you aren’t familiar, WhiskyCast is a weekly podcast + app + website/community about—duh—whisky, and Mark is the genius/personality that makes it all go. His weekly episodes, which feature news from the whisky world and interviews with industry folks, are an audible treat that I usually save up for my Sunday morning walk to church (whisky being as reverent an experience for me as worship, dontchaknow).

I tell you what, when I read that text, I had a small panic attack on the M14 bus. I knew Mark was going to be at the event and had hoped to meet him there, even just to briefly shake his hand and tell him what a fan I am. Now I was not only meeting the man, but drinking with him—and the potential for any number of embarrassments reared its head. What if I hated the whisky? What if I couldn’t articulate what I tasted? What if I just sounded dumb (a genuine concern for me since the first time I heard my voice recorded)?

There was no reason to worry. Mark is as friendly and generous in person as he sounds like on the podcast. And the tasting was just like any other, plus microphones, so I felt relaxed and at ease throughout. Together with G-LO and Max, some friends of Mark’s, and Ian Chang, Master Distiller at Kavalan, we sampled four beautiful whiskies: the aforementioned Brenne, an Invergordon single grain from That Boutique-y Whisky Company, Balcones Fifth Anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon, and Redbreast 12 yo Cask Strength. What a delight! It was like being back in Edinburgh, except this time I could blether about my thoughts to a much wider audience than just my husband. (Anyone who knows me can tell you that speaking my mind makes for a very gleeful Susannah indeed.)

With Mark Gillespie!

With Mark Gillespie!

Mark also shared a taste of Cleveland Whiskey which he reviewed a couple weeks ago on WhiskyCast. Dear God. The only thing I can compare it to is if you mixed paint thinner with dried blood in a rusty bucket. Nothing more need be said, amirite?

The thrill of taking part in an actual WhiskyCast (sort of) infused my evening with a happy glow. And the excitement wasn’t over! The other whisky luminary I’d hoped to meet was Davin de Kergommeaux, writer of Canadian Whisky and author of the book of the same name. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a series of mystery tastings based around Davin’s book and I’ve been getting a head start on reading and boy, am I learning A LOT. I know next to nothing about Canadian whisky and what I do know is, apparently, incorrect. This book reveals the truth behind common myths about Canadian whisky plus copious other information: the history of distilling in Canada, how Canadian stills work, flavor profiles found in Canadian whiskies, and more facts about grains and yeast than I ever thought I wanted to know. It’s awesome. I’m actually pulling out post-its on the subway to mark which passages I want to re-read and where I have questions.

At the end of the evening, I still hadn’t managed to track down Davin, but I knew he was there: a tell-tale stack of his books indicated that he’d come by before the night was over to pick them up. I waited around a bit and then spotted Peter Silver, who pointed Davin out just a few steps away. I bubbled over and introduced myself and shook hands and probably acted pretty foolish…But it was just the perfect end to the evening. Davin is so nice. I mean, nearly every whisky person is nice but he is absolutely the nicest because he’s Canadian. He signed my book and didn’t mind a bit how much I gushed. In all the excitement, I forgot to take a picture with him, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was  grinning like a kid on Christmas.

I pretty much floated home, that’s how great an evening it was. Because of the time I spent doing the Virtual Tasting, I didn’t sample nearly as many whiskies as I’d have liked—but the trade-off was definitely worth it. There will be more whisky events this year (another is coming up in just a few days) but even if I don’t make it to the rest, Whisky Live 2013 has left me quite content for now.