Monday, September 30, 2013

OMG a Recipe: Mixing Things Up at the Hobbit Ultralounge

It's a oft-said saying that Nature abhors a vacuum, and that's true for many things, even with food and drink. If you stick with a narrow menu of items, even if they're your favorite things to eat or drink, you're missing out on a world of possibilities. I'm the most guilty of this vacuum, settling into Hobbit-like comfort zones and not always being on top of the latest and greatest things, most notably with beverages of the adult persuasion. But laziness – begone! I've been fortunate enough to take my drinking palate out on the town of late and reminding myself that one should never settle for a simple vodka soda... ever. It's long overdue I mixed things up again.

Feeling inspired by summer and blueberry cocktails - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I've been a wine drinker of late – because I enjoy it, but also because it's very easy with the instant gratification. Pop cork, pour, drink. Enjoy. I love mixed drinks, but when I think of pulling out all the implements and items that need to be hand-washed, I turn into a whiny baby and just don't wanna do it. I JUST DON'T WANNA! But much like cooking, for all the utensils and prep you have to do to make even the simplest of dishes, you understand the end result is worth the effort, so that effort eventually feels negligible after you do it enough times. Same with cocktails, as I've (re)learned.

Thrilled by Bombay's Most Imaginative Bartender event, thwarted by dead phone battery - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I got my cocktail-Hobbit tendencies righteously schooled when I attended one of the competitions for Bombay Sapphire's Most Interesting Bartender event, held in an equally interesting location, our very own Space Needle. Glorious summer day, perfect view of the Sound, the ant-like movement below of many, many Seattle tourists. And about a dozen skilled local bartenders pulling out all the stops, using fresh, unusual ingredients and mixing cocktails Like. A. Boss. I saw cocktails made with fresh-picked wild berries, toasted spices, plenty of herbs, all featuring the sponsor spirit. I really appreciated seeing this incredible array of cocktail mixing (plus some sampling as well), as it was a reminder of how drinks can be like food, in the level of complexity and the skill required to make a balanced drink. My main regret was not having photos of the gorgeous drinks being made – my phone is in dire need of replacement and the battery crapped out right as the mixing started. Boo. But that just left both my hands free to clap, cheer and holler praise for all the amazing bartenders around Seattle.

An ode to the classics (and great snacks) at Lot No. 3 - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I took some time to properly “research” some cocktails, as in sit barside, have the experts make some classics, and just savor the experience. Lot No. 3 is one of my favorite spots. They do some great innovative cocktails – I saw Brien, one of their bartenders compete a few days before at the Bombay event, making a wicked watermelon concoction called the Gallagher Sour. I met up with a friend at Lot to stick with the classics; we had some made with rye, some with absinthe, and I had one of my all-time favorites, an Aviation. Gin-based, with a mix of fresh citrus, maraschino liqueur and crème de violette, it's a drink with some mileage, as it originated in the pre-Prohibition Era. That signature wispy purple-blue-sky hue is as dreamy as it gets, and I credit this cocktail as the one that put the “craft” in craft cocktails.

Nordstrom's new Habitant cocktail bar reminds you to have your fresh fruit for the day - Photos by Wasabi Prime
With something classic, there should be something new – I was overdue to visit Habitant, the cocktail bar that's literally in the Nordstrom department store in Bellevue Square. So far, it's the first and only cocktail bar for the chain of department stores; the flagship store in Seattle doesn't even have it – apparently the Bellevue store is a hoppin' place. They've always had a small bar and grill hidden away in the men's department downstairs, but Habitant is a bright, eye-catching cocktail bar that's smack-dab in the center, as you enter from the second floor of the mall.

It's kind of brilliant – a retail paradise with cocktails within arm's reach (no, you can't walk around with your drink, but you can relax with a drink after a day of retail therapy). I sidled up to the bar and had them mix me a couple of favorites from their signature menu, a fresh blueberry lavender martini and a grapefruit Brown Derby. They can mix you a classic, but their signature drinks are twists on tradition, typically adding more fresh muddled fruit or juices to mellow the alcohol's bite. Which I guess is a great metaphor for the joys of shopping – we buy beautiful things that bring us personal joy, which helps mellow the sting of our credit card bill later. Or maybe that's just me...? Regardless, I appreciated Habitant's use of fresh herbs, fruits and fruit juices, as well as their making their own flavored simple syrups. The rosemary simple syrup in the grapefruit-muddled Brown Derby was a nice touch. And their liquor shelves are stocked with good selections; they're not filling the rows with a celebrity-endorsed spirit, they've got bottles from local distilleries as well as other interesting small-batch spiritmakers. I admit, I like being able to say, “Meet you for a drink at Nordys.”

Flavor foundations, thanks to Mark Sexauer's book Aphrodisiacs With a Twist - Photos by Wasabi Prime
And so I had all the inspiration implements – watching the best of the best mix it up in Seattle, classics from Lot No. 3, and a reminder to keep it fresh from Habitant. The last element was a good sense of directional advice, which came in the form of my friend's new book, Aphrodisiacs With a Twist. I've known Mark Sexauer for a few years; I was lucky to meet him at a cocktail dinner and our paths continue to cross. He's mixed many incredible cocktails for me and I've learned a lot from him about the art of the drink; now he can add “author” to his resume. His book is, by far, one of the best cocktail books I've seen. The photos are beautiful – and there's one for every drink, which helps visualize the final product – but the information is priceless. There's a lot of beautiful looking cocktail books on the shelves, but the recipes themselves are fairly standard; they're not introducing culinary ingredients like Mark's book, which has chapters devoted to mustard, fennel or cardamom, which makes for a rare treat. This is a fantastic book for folks like me, who have a bunch of whole spices and feel the pressure to do something with them before they just perish on the Island of Forgotten Spices. You can read more about his book-writing and bartending experiences in an interview I did with Mark on Honest Cooking.

Fresh fruits, homemade syrups, good spirits, and all the right tools - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I used Mark's recipe for a fresh ginger and peppercorn-infused simple syrup, to add an extra punch to some cocktails at home. A plain simple syrup is fine and dandy, but it's fun to play with infused syrups having a mix of sweet and savory make for a nice depth of flavor that goes beyond just sugaring a drink. I took a cue from Habitant's blueberry lavender cocktail to do a version of that at home. I was totally enamored with the way a handful of muddled blueberries could turn a drink into the most pleasant, delightful pink you'll ever see. It's almost too perfect to believe it's not some fake, Hello Kitty dye, but it's a truly natural pink that comes from such an intense, dark blue berry. My at-home version used fresh lemon, a handful of fresh blueberries, gin, and some of that ginger/peppercorn syrup. Plain simple syrup would work, but that little hit of spice was what gave that pretty pink drink a little edge

Experimenting with more summer fruit, herbs and bourbon - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Back to the palate exploration thing, it's good to work with ingredients you're not wild about. This seems like a crazy thing to say -- why would you eat something you're not fond of? But consider the notion that you're missing something you just haven't developed an appreciation for. I'm not a huge fresh apricot fan. I use the dried ones in savory dishes, but when we get the fresh apricots in our CSA delivery, I let out a little Sad Panda sigh. We used to have an apricot tree when I was growing up in California. They never got totally ripe, so my dad would just pick them early and pickle them, because we're Asian and it just makes them into more of a weird savory snack. I never developed a great appreciation for the ripe sweetness of the fruit, but reading about how fresh apricots go well with bourbon, my ears perked up. I threw together a summer concoction that used muddled apricots (the more ripe the better), fresh mint, lemon juice, simple syrup, and bourbon. The result was a refreshing fruit drink made complex with the bourbon and mint. And no longer making the Sad Panda sigh when we have fresh apricots. 

Note: on all these recipes, I recommend double-straining, which just means using a metal cocktail strainer, or Hawthorne strainer (the one with the metal coil), placed over the cocktail mixer to keep the big chunks out of the drink, and pour the drink through a smaller metal mesh strainer placed over the serving glass, which removes the fine, pulpy bits. You don't have to do this, but you get a much smoother drink consistency, especially when you muddle the hell out of fresh fruit.

You Can Be My Blueberry (makes 1 drink) 
Handful of whole blueberries – about 6-8 washed, dried berries
1.5 oz of ginger/peppercorn syrup (or plain simple syrup - get Mark's book for the recipe, it's worth it!) 
2 oz of gin – I used Aviation  gin, but any clean, not heavy juniper-flavored gin will work
.5 oz of fresh-squeezed lemon juice (about half of a small to medium-sized lemon) 

Instructions: Place blueberries, lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker and muddle until berries are crushed. Add a handful of ice on top and pour gin over the top. Seal shaker and shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Double strain into a martini glass and garnish with fresh blueberries on a cocktail pick. 

This Flower is Wilting - Let's Have an Apricot Julep (makes 1 drink)
1 ripe apricot, pitted and quartered 
2 oz bourbon whiskey - I like Bulleit, but use your favorite
1.5 oz simple syrup 
.5 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice (about half of a small to medium sized lemon)
4 fresh mint leaves 

Instructions: Place the slices of pitted, ripe apricots in a cocktail shaker and muddle vigorously until the fruit is pulpy and near-mush. Add the mint leaves and muddle gently, just enough to lightly break them up. Add the fresh lemon juice, bourbon and simple syrup. Add a handful of ice over the top before sealing shaker and shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Double strain into a martini glass, highball glass or a small mason jar for a rustic look. Garnish with fresh mint leaves or a slice of lemon rind.

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