Monday, November 26, 2007

Irrational Crush

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I’m not a gadget guy. I have a severe Luddite streak that makes me skeptical of many consumer goods that have a limited purpose or in some cases seem to be altogether unnecessary. It’s not that I’m anti-technology…there are many modern inventions (contact lenses, air conditioning, computers) that I consider to be indispensable parts of my daily life. What I’m talking about are those items that are designed not to fill a genuine need or solve a problem, but rather exist solely to separate a potential buyer from his or her money for dubious reasons. If you’ve ever flipped through a Brookstone or Sharper Image catalog, you know what I’m talking about.

However, I’m not totally immune to the “Gee whiz!” syndrome, and occasionally find myself yearning for a doodad that 98% of the world doesn’t need, but is considered vital for the other 2%.

Like a manual ice crusher.

When I began investigating how to make decent drinks, I noticed many recipes that called for crushed ice (Fellow tiki drink fans know what I’m talking about). I had readily available cubes, but crushed ice was a bit more elusive. After the usual poking around, I discovered at least 3 options:

1) Blender method: I own a blender that has a “crush ice” setting, and I thought this might be the answer…but it was pretty disappointing. My initial excitement quickly faded when I realized that on this setting the blades practically atomized the ice in the lower third of the blender while leaving the cubes at the top untouched. Bleh. On to option #2.

2) Wrap-in-cloth-and-whack-with-something method: This yielded better results than the blender, but was still far from ideal. I used several different cloths, and several different whackers, but things always turned out the same: The ice was irregularly crushed, and much of it remained stuck to the cloth. Also, the process is loud as hell, and scared the bejeezus out of my cats.

3) Manual ice crusher method: A revelation. If you don't have one, get one as soon as possible.

Here’s the deal. Fancy-schmancy kitchenware stores sell new ones for as much as fifty bucks. My advice is to hit up garage sales, thrift stores, flea markets or online auction sites for old ones. The one I have came courtesy of my father who found it at a flea market for five bucks. It’s at least 30 years old, built like a tank, and will easily fit in your liquor cabinet. And it was one of FIVE he spotted in a single afternoon, so they definitely can be found in the wild.

It’s also a great example of simplicity and elegance in design. Dump ice cubes in the top, turn the hand crank, and collect your crushed ice in the bottom. The whole process takes mere seconds. If you’re finicky about the texture, you can turn the handle one direction for coarse, and the other way for fine. And if you fill it entirely, it makes exactly enough ice to fill a double old-fashioned glass. My Mai Tais are now complete.

Did I mention the utterly gratifying tactile sensation of cranking the handle to grind your ice into a cocktail-ready consistency? This thing makes you EARN your drink, and no one who observes you operating it will doubt your commitment.

So yes, I do own a gadget. And its sole purpose is to make big pieces of ice into smaller pieces of ice. But us two-percenters are okay with that.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mixology Monday: Gin

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Del Coronado

1/2 oz. unsweetened pineapple juice
1/2 oz. passion fruit syrup
2 1/2 oz. orange juice
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/4 oz. fresh lime juice
1/2 oz. papaya nectar
1 oz. gin
1 oz. dark Jamaican rum

Shake well with ice cubes and pour into tall glass.

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When I saw that this month’s MxMo theme was gin, I almost collapsed under the combined weight of options and excitement. Gin is my favorite spirit, and I didn’t even know where to begin. There is a phenomenon known as “choice overload” and I was clearly experiencing it.

But help was on the way. By pure happenstance, this past weekend I had the good fortune to play bartender to three women who, in addition to being a hell of a lot of fun, also enjoy a good drink. And like myself, these gals appreciate gin.

Slowly, ideas began to coalesce. I needed a MxMo entry…and also had the opportunity to serve several drinks (many including gin) to fellow enthusiasts…surely something concrete would materialize and form the nucleus of my entry. Best not to overthink or try to engineer it- I was going to let the drinks appear and see where things went. I don’t know if it could properly be called Zen, but it was in the ballpark.

My approach was to simply offer up a fairly wide-ranging menu of drinks and see what the proceedings yielded. The plan was no-plan, allowing the evening to set it’s own agenda. Knowing my crowd was partial to gin, it was a safe bet at least one gin-based recipe would be selected and perhaps become the basis for my post...but the main question was: Would things develop into a bare-knuckle gin drink showdown with recipes, brands, and styles subjected to rigorous scrutiny? Or would we casually meander through the offerings, perhaps ending up with nothing more than a pleasant ramble through a pile of drinks?

As it turns out, it was a little bit of both. The drinks chosen fell into two rough groups: tiki and gin-based. On the tiki side, Mai Tais and Zombies showed up. On the gin side, Pimm’s cups and Corpse Reviver #2’s made the cut.

All were enjoyed to varying degrees, and during the aftermath, I thought, “Well, since the drinks everyone seemed to go for either involved gin or were tiki-style, why don’t I look for a recipe that somehow combines both?”

Turning to my dependable Beachbum Berry tomes Grog Log and Intoxica! (Shamefully, I haven’t yet picked up Sippin’ Safari…feel free to heap abuse on me at your leisure), I eventually settled upon the Del Coronado (Aside from containing gin, I think the other reason I chose it was the challenge of finding papaya nectar...thrill of the hunt and all that).

Anyway, the Del Coronado is fruity. 6 of the 8 ingredients are fruit-based, and it really shows in the overall taste. The orange jumps out front, forming the main flavor, with the passion fruit close behind. The pineapple, lemon, and lime are less noticeable, meshing together into an somewhat indistinct fruit blend, with the papaya doing a bit of drive-by tartness. Lastly, the rum reveals itself on the finish, giving a quick wave to remind you that there was actually some grown-up stuff amidst the juice…kind of like finding a tarantula lurking around in your fruit basket.

But what about the gin? In this drink the gin plays a supporting but crucial role. You don’t notice it’s flavor so much as it’s feel. This is a drink that is thick with flavors, and rather than compete with them, the gin snakes it’s way around the edges, sharpening things up and keeping it the other ingredients from bogging each other down.

Maybe it’d be easier (or at least more fun) to say it this way: If the Del Coronado was a piece of clothing, it’d be a Hawaiian shirt with a great floral print (the juices), real coconut-shell buttons (the rum) and silver thread (the gin) stitching it all together.

Sound weird? Have a couple Del Coronados and maybe it’ll make sense. Call it “gin Zen.”

If a metaphor falls in the forest…