Friday at five: Rob Roy

Louis & Wally

Did you know that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were contemporaries? Even If you are not a classical music buff, you may have lately noticed more and more references to Beethoven popping up around you. Well please get ready, because you will see more and more Beethoven over the next year, as December 16 2020 will be the sestercentennial, or 250th, anniversary of his birth. Or so we assume, since we don’t know definitively on what day Beethoven was born, only the day of his baptism, which was December 17 1770, in Bonn, Germany. Even Beethoven didn’t know his own birthday, and at one point he asked his pupil, friend, and later, biographer, Ferdinand Ries, to do some research to help him figure it out. Scott will have his sestercentennial a year later, in 2021, and we in the US will have our country’s five years after that.

I don’t know of any definitive connection between Beethoven and Scott, other than the fact that Scott had an interest, in his younger days, of German Romantic literature, and that Beethoven set three of Scott’s poems as part of his 25 Scottish Songs, Op. 108, first published in 1818. At that time, Beethoven was one of the world’s most famous composers, well into his “late” period, and composing some of the greatest instrumental music ever written. So why the Scottish folk songs? Well, in a word, money. Despite his fame, money was always a problem for Beethoven, and there was not a single point in his life where he could settle down and stop the hustle. The song settings paid fairly well, and were easy and enjoyable work for him. (They are worth listening to; they’re quite beautiful.)

Late in his life, Scott had money problems too, although his trajectory was entirely different from Beethoven’s. Scott was born into nobility and had a steady day job as a Writer to the Signet (a kind of solicitor) among other things. He began his professional writing career in 1796 with a translation of German ballads. Later the same year, he published his first poems. By 1805, his poems had reached international acclaim. (Beethoven at this point was four or five years into his mature “middle period.”) In 1814, Scott published, anonymously, his novel Waverley, historical fiction about the Jacobite rising of 1745. Waverley was a smash, and over the next 18 years, Scott published 20 more books which have come to be known collectively as the Waverley Novels. The novels brought Scott substantial wealth, but the money problems still came for him. In 1825, the publishing company in which he was a partner went bust. Scott took it upon himself to write his way out of his debts, publishing over the next seven years a non-stop stream of novels, plays, and non-fiction.

All-in-all, Scott’s collected works make for a very impressive leather-bound set. Judging by the number of these sets from the late 1800s that are still around in New York City, they seem to have been quite popular among the type of families who could afford to purchase them, and also to afford to keep them around in good condition for 150 years. At this moment, Argosy Books has available a set of the Waverley Novels in a centenary edition from 1871, 25 volumes and a comparative bargain at only $950. A fancier edition from 1877 in 48 volumes is currently available for $4,000. We can deduce from all these collected works sets that Scott was popular in New York City. But we also have more direct knowledge: in 1833, 6th Street in Greenwich Village was renamed Waverly Place in Scott’s honor. Pity they spelled “Waverley” wrong, but oh well, you say “whiskey,” I say “whisky.”

Succession, 1890s Style

If you were a New Yorker in the 1890s and had the cash, not to mention the shelf space, for a 50-volume leather-bound set of the works of Walter Scott, you were probably the type of clientele that William Waldorf Astor had in mind when he opened his Waldorf Hotel at Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue in 1893. On February 13 of that year, the New York Times raved: “This hotel is a palace. The new Waldorf Hotel is soon to be opened. Its cost over $3,000,000. Fortunes expended upon a single room—a thirty-five hundred dollar bed. Plans for a grand opening next month.” Browsing through the Times archive of the subsequent months, you see many stories on the Waldorf—interesting ones that probably merit a post of their own. But then on November 3, 1893, a bombshell hits. “It will tower above the Waldorf; John Jacob Astor to build a hotel adjoining that of his cousin. An eighteen-story hotel is to be built by John Jacob Astor on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, adjoining the Waldorf. If expectations are realized, it will be the largest, best equipped, and in most luxuriously appointed hotel in the world.”

The story reads:

“When William Waldorf Astor put up the Waldorf on his part of the old Astor homestead, it was rumored that the other branch of the family was not exactly pleased, and that its members would continue to live in their brick house at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, right next door. The Waldorf has prospered however, and John Jacob Astor some time ago decided to go his cousin one better in the hotel line.”

Family intrigue! Extreme wealth! Cousins making power moves just to piss each other off. Yes, this is the 1890s version of Succession. At the end of the Times story, they announce that John Jacob Astor had chosen a name for the hotel, “a capital one” at that, but he would not yet reveal it. Well, of course, he named it the Astoria Hotel. The Astoria opened in November, 1897, the Astor family having decamped from their brick house way uptown to Sixty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue. The two hotels were at first operated separately, but both under the same general manager, George Boldt. But soon thereafter, they were combined into a single hotel, with a “Peacock Alley” skyway connecting the two properties above Thirty-third Street. The combined hotel became the Waldorf-Astoria, with the hyphen symbolizing the peacock alley. When Conrad Hilton bought management rights to the new Waldorf-Astoria (the old one was razed in 1929 to make way for another folly, the Empire State Building), he changed the hyphen to an equal sign, making the reference to the old skyway that much more explicit. Hilton dropped the hyphen in 2009, which is a pity.

Oh Promise Me

Not far from the original Waldorf, the Herald Square Theatre opened at 1333 Broadway in 1883. Herald Square was, of course, the home of the New York Herald, a sort of Fox News for its age, and which would later become the Herald Tribune. The two famous squares on Broadway, are actually “bowtie” squares, each consisting of a pair of squares: Herald & Greeley, and eight blocks uptown, Times & Duffy.

Composer Reginald de Koven had his first smash hit in New York with the operetta Robin Hood, which, after debuting in his native Chicago in 1890, opened the next year in the Manhattan Theatre, just down the street across from Greeley Square. The Times gave the show a very good review, and one tune, “Oh Promise Me” has survived, becoming for a time a popular sappy song to sing at weddings. If you were a fan of All in The Family, you may recall the episode in which Edith Bunker, much to Archie’s chagrin, gives us her version of the tune.

Looking for another hit, de Koven settled upon Rob Roy for more Robin Hood-ish action. I don’t know to what extent de Koven or librettist Harry Smith were inspired by Walter Scott’s novel, but certainly the novel would lend an air of rich-mahogany-many-leatherbound-books respectability to the affair. How to describe de Koven’s music? I guess calling it second-tier Gilbert and Sullivan would get you in the ball park. The rhythms are square, the harmonies are square, the tunes are written so that you can hum along the first time you hear them. There don’t seem to be any recordings in print, but Naxos did a well-produced recording of Robin Hood in 1981, many selections from which can be found in the usual places. I’ve leafed through the score of Rob Roy, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be any better, and the Times review would indicate that it didn’t quite reach the heights of Robin Hood.  

Rob Roy score.

Nonetheless, the show was a hit, running at the Herald Square Theatre through March 1894. And so, to celebrate the hit show running around the corner, one of the bartenders at the Waldorf came up with a show-themed cocktail, and the Rob Roy was born.

The Damn Drink

If Rob Roy the operetta is the red-headed stepchild of Robin Hood the operetta, I don’t think you could quite say the same about Rob Roy the cocktail in relation to the Manhattan. True, that’s the easiest way to conceive of a Rob Roy–as a Manhattan with scotch whiskey subbed for rye. And that’s undoubtedly how the drink’s originator came up with the idea. But since the world of scotch whiskey is so vast, this drink can go in a million different directions, some of which are amazing. Mixing one up with a relatively neutral blended whiskey, like Famous Grouse for example, and you have not strayed too far from Manhattan town. Going with a single malt that is balanced but with some nice peat, say a Glen Morangie, or a Cardhu, and now you are really venturing into new territory. How about with a peat bomb from Islay like a Lagavulin or a Laphraoig? Off the Island for sure!

There is also a wide range of tuning to be made on the vermouth dial. Fin de siècle cocktails were sweeter than current tastes call for, a 1:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth would be the starting point. Personally, I prefer my whiskey cocktails much drier and would more likely aim for 3:1 or even 4:1. As I noted in my post about the Old Pal vs. the Boulevardier, the white vermouth or perfect (white and sweet vermouth) versions are worth checking out.

And lastly, there’s the dash. Angostura bitters is the standard, but there is an argument to be made for Peychaud’s. And what if you skip the bitters altogether and opt for a dash of something sweet, like Benedictine, or Drambuie? Well, you’re on to something there, but that’s a topic for next time!

One last question remains, and that is, where to drink one? The original Waldorf bar disappeared 90 years ago, the current Waldorf Astoria is closed, the Oak Bar is still closed. Well, it turns out there is still a great old place to enjoy a Rob Roy in period setting. It hails from 1885, predating with Waldorf and the operetta. And better yet, it is right around the corner from the original Waldorf and the Herald Square Theatre. I’m of course talking about Keen’s Steakhouse. It’s perfect, and in fact, I went back yesterday just to be sure of it.

At Keen’s, I tried two different Rob Roys. For the first, I was looking for a ‘straight down the middle’ blended scotch. They had just run out of Famous Grouse, so we went with Cutty Sark instead. We went 3:1 on the vermouth, and Angostura bitters. It was good, and would serve well as an evening opener. For the second, I wanted to try out a really peaty single malt. We went with Caol Ila, and this was a really good choice: it’s peaty but without the iodine, medicinal qualities of some other Islay malts. We also went sweeter with the vermouth on this one. Hugely different! I don’t think this would be my favorite way to start an evening, but I very well could see myself enjoying one of these by a fireplace as a night cap.

Friday at five: The Gibson

If you asked Doug Quinn, owner and bartender at Midtown East’s Hudson Malone, what my drink is, he’d probably say, ‘rye Manhattan.’ And it’s true, I do order a lot of those, and it’s even the drink we chose to launch this column. But I’ve always had a lot of drinks in the rotation, mostly sticking to the classics. That is, unless I’m at one of my favorite craft cocktail joints like Amor Y Amargo in New York, or Stagger Lee in Berlin. In that case, I’ll gladly let their list of in-house specialties map the way. However, if you were to ask the same question of Tom Dillon, my friend who is also the lunch service bartender at La Grenouille, he would unhesitatingly answer, ‘Oh, that’s easy—a Plymouth Gibson.’ And now that I think of it, that is almost always my first order when Tom and I are out. Increasingly, over the years, it has become my go-to cocktail.

Nora and I got seriously into cocktails in the early 90s. It all started with our love of classic film. We would be watching the Thin Man, or My Man Godfrey, and want to have ‘what they were having.’ This was well before the 21st century cocktail renaissance, and so at that time, classic, well-proportioned cocktail glasses resembling those used in the films were not easy to come by. Enter Bombay Sapphire, with a holiday season gift set consisting of a bottle of gin, and two small, nicely proportioned cocktail glasses. We kept buying these gift sets for ourselves, and eventually had enough of the glasses to throw cocktail parties at our place. Along the way, I developed a new appreciation for gin. Up until that point, gin for us had mostly meant Gordon’s, and had mostly been consumed in G&T form.

Gin martinis continued to rank high on my cocktail list through the aughts, and for some reason, when I think of NYC in the aughts, I think of Bombay Sapphire. Also in the aughts, Nora was writing a great column on food and drink in film, called The Celluloid Pantry. One of her posts was on The Gibson cocktail in the film All About Eve (1950). Throughout the pivotal party scene, Bette Davis brandishes the cocktail as a dramatic prop. Most famously, Davis downs a Gibson, skips eating the onion garnish, and delivers the line, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” (Nora also used this wonderful scene in her popular Classic Cocktails, Classic Film lecture and demonstration series.)

Earlier in that same scene, Gary Merrill hands Celeste Holme one of the cocktails delivers the line, “Karen–you’re a Gibson girl.” This is a nod to Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator whose “Gibson Girls” were featured in prominent magazines in the early 20th century. As the story goes, Gibson invented his namesake cocktail, essentially a gin martini with a pickled onion as garnish, in New York at The Player’s club. This is where Tom Dillon re-enters the story, as Tom recently explained to me that the correct number of cocktail onions in a Gibson is two, in an anatomical homage to the Gibson Girl. You get the idea.

And so, perhaps inspired by the film, The Gibson started displacing the martini as my favorite gin cocktail. Unlike Davis, I always eat the onions, which I think is a perfect way to whet the appetite for whatever is coming next. In fact, eating the onions really sets you up too well for ordering another Gibson, which for me is a no-no, so I have now taken to eating the garnish midway through the drink. Uncharacteristically, I prefer store-bought cocktail onions to artisanally house-pickled ones, mainly because of the size—craft bar house-pickled onions tend to be too large, which spoils the proportions of the drink.

The final piece in the puzzle is the matter of the gin. On the heels of the 21st century cocktail renaissance came a distilling renaissance, which we are still enjoying today, at the end of the ‘teens. Over the years, we have sampled many small production gins with flavor profiles all over the map. The problem for me was that, as interesting as these gins are when sampled solo, they tend to make for pretty monstrous martinis. In the course of sampling all these gins, we rediscovered Plymouth gin. Compared to Bombay Sapphire, it’s a little more rounded, a little less juniper-forward. And for reasons that I don’t quite understand, Plymouth is very forgiving to different levels of vermouth, whereas with Bombay, I feel the need to really dial it in to get a well-balanced drink (an under-vermouthed, or under-diluted Sapphire martini is not pleasant). And so Plymouth became the new standard for me, not to say that I dislike any of the big London Dry gins. In fact, I now regularly employ what I call the Plymouth test, with the simple rationale that if a bar doesn’t carry Plymouth, perhaps it’s not the best place to order a gin cocktail.

We would like to humbly dedicate this post in memory of inspirational educator, cocktail writer, and bartender, Gary Regan, who died last Friday.

Midtown East: La Pecora Bianca

After debuting its first location in NoMad in 2015, the Midtown East branch of La Pecora Bianca opened with some neighborhood buzz in October 2017. I recall chatting about it in expectation with the folks across the street at Somm Time just before opening. In the weeks afterward, it turned into somewhat of a hang for the somms, and it did for us too! The restaurant would feature locally-sourced produce and meat, pastas made with ancient and whole grains, and an Italian wine list. I have to admit that the first thing that caught my eye on the menu was Produttori del Barbaresco by the glass. I had a feeling right then that this could be our kind of place.

We booked a table during opening week. Dining at a restaurant during opening is always interesting, because it’s not a question of whether things will go wrong—they will!—it’s a question of how the staff will handle them. On this night, our only tribulation was a bit of a wait for our table, and for this trouble we were offered a nice cheese plate as we waited by the bar. They passed the test with flying colors!

Since then, Pecora has found its way into our regular rotation. The food here is what you might call mainstream modern Italian. This is neither fine dining, nor old-school, but it’s good, and it leans healthy. We have sampled salads, pastas, fish and seafood, and while there haven’t been any dishes that we dream about at night (hello cacio e pere at Felidia!) everything is good enough to keep us coming back, the pastas in particular. I was pleased to see a bucatini cacio e pepe, previously a special, make it to the regular menu. Arancini have been on the menu since opening. While Pecora no longer offers Produttori by the glass, there is almost always a good Produttori, sometimes a reserve, available by the bottle, along with other solid Brunellos and Super-Tuscans. Cocktail service is good, and they pass the Plymouth gin test.

The main dining area is rather large, on the bright side and with a volume level approaching high (although nowhere near the cacophony of the nearby Smith). These are not our favorite attributes for a dining room, but somehow Pecora makes it all work. This is a very solid choice for entertaining out-of-town guests. Breakfasts and brunches, during which the scene is not as lively as dinner, are also good options.

Details

La Pecora Bianca
950 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10022
https://www.lapecorabianca.com/location/midtown/
(212) 899-9996

Friday at five: Rye and Ginger

“Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby!”

And with that drink order, Greta Garbo spoke her first ever line in a talkie, 1930’s Anna Christie. “Garbo Talks!” screamed the ads! It was a big deal. So we also see that whisky and ginger ale is a classic combination. And with good reason: the burn of the ginger acts as a counter-irritant (as William Powell’s Godfrey would say) to the burn of the booze, and the sweetness of the mixer gives the whole drink a nice lift.

My own connection with the drink is, however, much more personal: it was my Dad’s drink. He would have them when company was over, but I think his favorite time to have them was on the weekend, watching hockey games on TV. I was a precocious kid, and I learned at an early age, probably nine or ten, how to make them for him. My parents had these fancy tumblers with gold trim; there was a ring around each glass near the bottom, which I figured was the right fill line for the whisky. I’d then fill it up with Canada Dry ginger ale, no ice. I remember the first time I made him one, he approached the drink with caution, took a sip and then with a somewhat surprised expression, proclaimed it good. After that, for the next few years anyway, I would mix him the odd one while he watched those hockey games. Now I know that there will be people who are perhaps appalled at the thought of a young child mixing drinks for their father. That’s fine, but I really don’t care. It’s but one of many nostalgic memories I have of my father, who left this Earth in 2002.

In Canada, up through the 90s at least, which is when I left Ontario for NYC, Rye and Ginger is a popular drink. And ‘Rye’, in that context refers to Canadian whisky, which is very different from an American straight rye. My Dad didn’t really have a preference, I remember seeing Crown Royal (with the cool bag), Canadian Club, Seagram’s VO, and Seagram’s Five Star (with the cool plastic “sheriff’s badge”). I suspect that in the years since I left, Rye and Ginger may have become somewhat of an old man drink.

For my own version today, I’m going to skip the Canadian whisky and opt instead for an excellent NY state rye, Breuckelen Distilling bottled in bond small batch. And I’m also subbing in my own house-made fermented ginger beer– recipe to follow soon! My current batch of ginger beer isn’t super carbonated yet (it’s only been going for two days), but it has a lovely yeasty, slightly funky, honey and spice flavor profile. If I were served this blind, I would not guess in a million years that this is a two-ingredient drink.

Ingredients

  • A shot of rye whiskey
  • Ginger beer
  • Serve in a tumbler, on the rocks, or neat like my Dad liked
Ginger bug in a Le Parfait jar.
Ginger bug, like a sourdough starter for ginger beer.

Variations

For a classic Rye and Ginger, use Canadian whisky and commercial ginger ale. To make a Horse’s Neck, substitute brandy (classic) or bourbon (another variation), serve on the rocks and garnish with a long lemon twist, extending outside the rim of the glass.

Here’s to you, Dad!

What’s fermenting: Easy Homemade (Vegan) Kimchi

You might say I caught the fermentation bug from kimchi.

Salty, spicy, sour, with a slightly crunchy edge, this staple of Korean cuisine makes a deliciously addictive addition to everything from fried rice to tacos to sourdough pancakes to grilled cheese sandwiches.

You can buy small jars of artisanal versions for upwards of $10. I’m here to tell you it’s easy–and satisfying–to make at home.

The active prep time is minimal. But with all the resting/fermenting required, it’ll be four days at the very least until you have kimchi that’s ready to eat. The ingredients are: Napa cabbage, daikon (Japanese radish), scallions, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, plus a Korean a hot red pepper powder called gochugaru (available at specialty stores such as Kalustyan’s here in NYC and also online). Traditional non-vegan recipes include fish sauce and dried shrimp.

Vegan kimchi ingredients: Napa cabbage, ginger root, scallions, daikon, garlic, salt, sugar, korean chile powder
Vegan kimchi ingredients: Napa cabbage, ginger root, scallions, daikon, garlic, salt, sugar, gochugaru.

Kimchi relies on the same probiotic (human-friendly) bacterium for its fermentation as sauerkraut: lactobacillus acidophilus. The bacteria are naturally present on the cabbage leaves and just need a little encouragement. That encouragement comes in the form of salt and being packed tightly in a container deprived of oxygen. Both of these things kill off the competing (human-unfriendly) bacteria, giving the lactobacillus acidophilus freedom to take over. (If you’re interested in reading more about the subject, I highly recommend books by Sandor “Sandorkraut” Katz.)

I made my very first batch of vegan kimchi three years ago. I’d never tried my hand at making any fermented foods before and, to be honest, felt a little apprehensive about adding dried shrimp to something that was going to be sitting unrefrigerated on my kitchen countertop for over 24 hours. Plus shrimp and the fish sauce were just another two ingredients I’d need to buy. I decided to try a vegan recipe instead, and found a great one from J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats. It’s possible to simply skip the seafood and leave it at that. But he substitutes miso paste to give the finished product extra tasty umami depth.

I’m a much more confident home fermenter now, but am hooked on this vegan version of kimchi (one day I’m going to try the shrimp). I make it regularly, and over the years have adjusted the ingredients and prep method slightly to my preferences. Traditional recipes call for whole Napa cabbage leaves–or, for larger batches, an intact, whole head of it, with the seasonings packed between the leaves (cool video here). But I found tearing the leaves into smaller pieces made them easier to handle every step of the way. They were easier to salt, easier to mix with the chili paste, and easier to pack in–and pull out of–jars.

I also learned the measurements don’t need to be exact. If you only have three scallions on hand instead of six, three scallions will do just fine. Same goes for garlic and ginger–and the hot pepper. You even have some leeway with the amount of salt. As for the countertop fermentation, 24 hours is a basic minimum, but in cooler weather I let it go for about 36. The kimchi will get more and more sour as the process goes on. Once it’s in the fridge, fermentation will continue but at a much slower rate. Feel free to adjust to your own tastes.

Vegan Kimchi

(adapted from J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats)

  • 1 head of Napa cabbage (1-2 lbs)
  • 2-3 tablespoons non-idodized salt (kosher or sea salt)
  • 6 scallions, trimmed, greens separated from white parts, and cut into 2-3 inch lengths
  • fist-sized piece of daikon (Japanese radish), peeled and cut into matchsticks approx. 1/4 inch thick
  • 5 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2-inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped coarsely
  • 1/2 cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder)
  • 2 tbs miso paste (I used low sodium)
  • 1 tbs sugar (I used dark brown but any kind will do)
  • water

Remove core from bottom part of Napa cabbage. Tear leaves into small pieces and place in a large bowl. Add scallion greens and daikon matchsticks. Add salt a little at a time to bowl, mixing to distribute among the leaves. Cover with a cloth and allow to wilt for 6-12 hours. Stir as needed to redistribute salt. The vegetables should release 1/4-1/2 cup water.

In a food processor, combine scallion whites, garlic, ginger, gochugaru, miso, and sugar. Whir for a few seconds to form a coarse paste.

Combine paste with the cabbage mixture in a bowl. Add 1/4 cup of water and either stir with a spoon or knead with hands until the paste is evenly distributed. Taste for desired saltiness and adjust as necessary. Pack into a large jar, pressing down with the back of a spoon to release any trapped air pockets and allow some liquid to rise to the surface until the vegetables are completely submerged. Tighten lid on jar.

Allow to sit at room temperature 24-36 hours. Open jar after 12 hours or so to release gasses. Place in fridge. Can be consumed in 48 hours and keeps for a month or two. Note: Kimchi will become softer and more sour as time goes on.

Midtown East: Tacovision

When we heard that the folks at Crave Fishbar were opening a taco joint in our hood, we were thrilled. Crave is our go-to seafood restaurant in Midtown East, and it’s got a lot going for it: great oysters, a solid wine list, healthy and delicious fish and seafood options, and a really lively dining-at-the-bar scene. So we had high hopes for Tacovision, the team’s new taco bar on East 53rd Street. With the Crave pedigree, we were expecting great fish and seafood options, as well as solid vegetarian and vegan choices. In short, we were not disappointed.

We visited TV—as the cool kids already call it, no doubt—on taco Tuesday. In addition to $6 margaritas, they were featuring a $3 brussels sprouts taco. There are plenty of options for us non-carnivores, with four vegan taco options, and four pescatarian. We went with three of each, and also opted for vegetarian nachos. The nachos were serious business, piled high with kale and cauliflower, beans, and cheese—decidedly not nachos “Flanders’ style!” All of the tacos were great, with the fried cod taking first place in our ranking. The house-made blue corn tortillas were very good. The $6 margs were good too. We ordered them up, and they came cold, an in an appropriately-sized cocktail glass.

With the departures of some good, and some not so good, Mexican and taco joints, Midtown East is currently a little underserved for tacos. Sure, there are solid upscale versions at Pampano and Rosa Mexicano (as well as Maya and Cascabel a little further uptown). So Tacovision has a sporting chance of finding a solid niche. The block of 53rd between 2nd and 3rd is already home to some of our neighborhood favorites: Doug Quinn’s saloon Hudson Malone, underground Japanese whiskey and jazz bar Tomi Jazz, as well as an outpost of the Kati Roll Company. Tacovision is a welcome addition to the block and to the hood.

Details

Tacovision
244 E 53rd St, New York, NY 10022
https://tacovisionnyc.com/
(646) 921-1990

Friday at five: Old Pal

A guy walks into a bar:
Bartender: “What’s yours?”
Guy: “Old Pal.”
Bartender: “Listen buddy, I don’t know you from Adam. So I’ll ask you again, what’ll it be?”
Guy: “I’d like an Old Pal, please.”
Bartender: “What in hell is that?”
–end scene

Some version of this scene has been playing over and again for me, minus the Capra-esque patter, for many months now. I’ve been conducting a bit of an experiment, and have found that hardly anyone, bartenders included, knows how to make an Old Pal. I think the bartender at Elixir, a truly excellent bar in San Francisco, may have been the only one who remembered it. And that’s a shame, because it’s a great drink.

I’m a big fan of Negronis–they’re my go-to when I’m looking for a gin cocktail that’s as bracing as a slap across the face. A few years ago, I fell in love with Boulevardiers, which swap out the gin for bourbon. I was in Louisville for two weeks this summer, and had one of those pretty much everywhere I went. But Nora and I both have a preference for rye whiskey over bourbon, at least in cocktails, and that’s where the Old Pal comes in. If you swap out the bourbon in a Boulevardier for rye, and also swap out the sweet vermouth for dry vermouth, now you have an Old Pal. This is exactly how I explain the drink to a bartender who doesn’t know what an Old Pal is. If they also don’t know how to make a Boulevardier, I’ll order a whiskey on the rocks.

The drink was created by Harry MacElhone, of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, in honor of his friend and frequent customer, William “Sparrow” Robertson, a sports writer for the New York Herald. Robertson would call everyone his “old pal,” and the drink was named. The associations with Harry’s and Paris in the ’20s complete the allure of the drink for me.

Ingredients

  • 1 oz Rye Whiskey
  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz Dry Vermouth
  • Lemon twist

Method

Build in a tumbler filled with ice. Serve with a lemon twist for garnish.

Given the similarities between the Old Pal and the Boulevardier, I thought it would be instructive to mix up one of each and do a side-by-side comparison. I was expecting the Old Pal to be crisper and the Boulevardier to be sweeter, and I was blown away by how much that turned out to be the case. The Boulevardier was tasting almost like sweet cough syrup in comparison to the sleeker, racier Old Pal. I think I will keep ordering them!

And speaking of old pals, our friend Kara Newman has a great book, “Shake. Stir. Sip.” which features the Old Pal, and about 50 other equal parts cocktails. It’s worth checking out, as are all her books!

Kara Newman's book Shake Stir Sip, and the Old Pal cocktail.
Kara Newman’s great book, Shake. Stir. Sip. features equal parts cocktails.

Vincent Price, Horror Actor…Cookbook Author

I’ve always loved Vincent Price’s ghoulish persona as a horror actor. He combined rarefied charm with an uncanny creepiness. But he was also clearly having fun, and he wanted us all to be in on it.

He brought that same generous sense of fun to his work as a cookbook author. In 1965, he and his British-born, costume designer wife, Mary Price, published the first of what would be several celebrity cookbooks: A Treasury of Great Recipes.

The globe-trotting couple collected house recipes from chefs at their favorite restaurants across Europe, the United States, and Mexico. There are many NYC stalwarts from years gone by (The Four Seasons (RIP), Trader Vic’s (RIP), Sardi’s, Gage and Tollner’s (RIP, but returning soon?)). Everything is adapted for the 1960s American home cook. The ingredients are simple and the recipe headnotes are encouraging (“If you can lay brick you can frost a cake”… ok, maybe not the best example). The Prices vividly describe the history and ambiance of each restaurant in before getting to the recipes. Full menus are reprinted too (can you believe sea bass at The Four Seasons used to cost $4.65?)

Vincent Price Cookbook Gage and Tollner's
The Prices visit Brooklyn’s storied restaurant, Gage and Tollner’s

I snagged a vintage copy online about 10 years ago for around $20–roughly the same as what it listed for back in 1965. It’s a lush volume: gold-embossed, padded cover (think Ottolenghi’s oh-so-huggable Plenty), with two sewn-in satin ribbon bookmarks. Very deluxe.

I was tickled to learn the book was re-issued in 2015 for its 50th anniversary. No more cushy cover, but now with a preface by the late Prices’ daughter, Victoria, plus a foreword by Wolfgang Puck. A well-deserved return from the publishing grave.

Vincent Price Cookbook Mobile Home Entertaining
The Prices entertain guests on the go in their elegant mobile home

By the way, are you getting a Halloween pumpkin this year? Chester and I got one, but haven’t carved it yet. Once we do, we’re going to put the seeds to good use. Here’s a recipe for pepitas à la curry that Emilio Gonzalez, then owner of Sobrino de Botín in Madrid, shared with with the Prices during one of their visits. The original specifies commercially hulled pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas), but we’re going to give whole seeds a try.

Pepitas à la Curry (Curried Pumpkin Seeds)

(adapted from A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price)

  • 1/4 cup curry powder
  • 1-1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 cups pumpkin seeds (original recipe specifies commercially hulled pumpkin seeds, aka pepitas)
  • a few tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 225

In a saucepan mix the curry powder, 1/4 cup of the warm water, garlic, salt, and lime juice. When smoothly blended, add the remaining water and heat, stirring constantly until liquid simmers.

Add the pumpkin seeds and simmer, but do not boil, for 5 minutes. Drain (you can save the curry mixture to use again for another batch, adding more water when you do).

Spread pumpkin seeds on a cookie sheet. Dot with butter and sprinkle with salt. Toast in a very slow oven until crisp.

Happy Halloween!

What’s fermenting: Union Square Greenmarket Sauerkraut

Friday was a gorgeous day in New York, perfect for our weekly visit to the Union Square Greenmarket. Who knows how many more days we will have like this? Traditionally, end of harvest is the last chance to ferment, can, and store food for the rough season ahead. Even though we already have plenty on hand, we stopped off at the Oak Grove Plantation stall to get another beautiful batch of chilis for this year’s fermented hot sauce production. We also picked up some green and red cabbage, and bolero carrots for our latest fermentation project, sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is not exactly a staple of ours, but Nora has been making excellent homemade kimchi for a couple of years now, and we thought this would be a good time to branch out.

I grew up in a very Polish household. Every house we lived in had either a proper root cellar, or various nooks in the basement where my mother squirreled away mass quantities of canned foods and homemade treasures: dill pickles, jams, and always a giant vat of sauerkraut. You may think that the Polish national dish is pierogi or cabbage rolls, but in fact, that honor goes to bigos. Bigos is a hunter’s stew made sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, and various meats. Growing up, it was served at pretty much every formal dinner my parents had with their various friends and relatives. I never really cared for it as a kid, and haven’t really had the opportunity to try it since becoming a pescatarian over twenty-five years ago. We will try out some vegetarian bigos recipes in coming weeks. I am also really dying to try a vegetarian Reuben sandwich recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 head green cabbage
  • 1 head red cabbage
  • 4 carrots
  • Sea salt

Method

  1. Clean cabbages and retain some of the outer leaves.
  2. Scrub and trim 4 carrots, do not peel.
  3. Shred each cabbage into a large mixing bowl.
  4. With a peeler, shred the carrots into the mixing bowl.
  5. Mix to evenly distribute the cabbages and carrots.
  6. Weigh the shredded cabbage and carrots, add 2% salt by weight.
  7. Let sit for 5-10 minutes.
  8. With both fists, take handfuls of the mixture and squeeze, to release the moisture. Keep doing this until water flows from the cabbage like wringing a wet sponge.
  9. Tightly pack mixture into Mason jars or sauerkraut crock.
  10. Take some of the outer cabbage leaves and use as a ‘lid’ inside the jar or crock. Push down to make sure all is submerged by the brine.
  11. NB: if using a lidded Mason jar, you must periodically loosen the jar or open the lids to allow gasses to escape. Fermentation will be at its most vigorous for the first few days.
  12. Periodically taste. After a few days, it will be crispy and fresh tasting, for weeks and months after that, it will develop sourness and deeper flavors. Eat it when you like it!

Notes

The main vessel we are using to ferment this is a 1.5L vintage Le Parfait Super Jar that Nora found at the Housing Works Thrift Shop. We closed the lid when we packed it, and by Saturday evening, the gas buildup was substantial, opening the lid released a violent spritz of purply brine. After that, we have mostly been keeping the lid loose. When first shredding all the cabbage, it seemed like it would be an enormous volume, but that went down after the squeezing step, and went down further after packing into the jar.

Looking at recipes, a 2% salt by weight appears to be a common target. For folks like us, who are watching our sodium intake, that may be a bit too much. Sandor Katz recommends salting to taste.

Friday at five: Sazerac

Few drinks are as evocative of a place and time as the Sazerac. The place is New Orleans, and the time is mid-century. Mid-19th-century that is, near the beginning of the cocktail story. Apothecarist Emile Amedée Peychaud was selling his namesake bitters, mixed with brandy. John Schiller was the New Orleans agent for Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac. In 1859, he opened his bar and dubbed it the Sazerac Coffee House. Schiller gave the Sazerac cocktail, made with Peychaud’s bitters and Sazerac cognac, its name. Later on, in 1870, the preferred base changed from brandy to rye whiskey. This much is established. Claims that the Sazerac was the first cocktail, and claims around the origins of the term ‘cocktail’ itself are probably apocryphal (or is that apotheracril?) These details aside, our credo is that New Orleans gave America two of its greatest inventions: cocktails and jazz.

The best Sazerac I ever had was years ago during Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Nora was at an event for the afternoon, so I was free to while away a few hours in the Napoleon House. It was a beautiful day and the way the sunlight was playing inside the bar is impossible to describe or forget. While we all enjoyed Sazeracs, I chatted for over two hours with a couple from Baton Rouge. I have no idea what we talked about, and I suspect the only thing we had in common is that we all appreciated the beauty of that moment.

Ingredients

  • Generous 2 oz pour of whiskey
  • 1 lump of sugar
  • Several dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • Several dashes of absinthe
  • Lemon twist

Notes on Ingredients

For the whiskey, we used Breukelen Distilling’s 77 Whiskey Bottled in Bond. We picked this up during New York Rye Week at the Union Square Greenmarket and have been enjoying it neat, in cocktails and on the rocks. For the Absinthe, we used St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte. There is no substitute for the Peychaud’s bitters, although some reputable establishments, including the Napoleon House, use a mix of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters.

Method

Gather two tumblers. (We are using Duralex Picardie tumblers that we just found at Housing Works for a dollar a piece!) Fill one tumbler with ice and chill. In the second tumbler, add the lump of sugar. Add dashes of Peychaud’s bitters to cover the sugar. Muddle the sugar and bitters with the back of a spoon. Add the whiskey and stir. Add ice to fill the glass. Prepare the second tumbler: discard the ice. Rinse the glass with the absinthe, and discard the absinthe. Using a Hawthorne strainer, strain the drink from the build tumbler into the chilled tumbler. Garnish with a lemon twist and serve.

Suggested film pairing: this one is a no-brainer, as featured in Nora’s Classic Cocktails, Classic Film series, it’s Live and Let Die from 1973.