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I am not a fan of cocktails. Give me a beer or a scotch any day. But there are certain times when a cocktail seems called for. On my birthday last October, I was treated to a lunch at Junoon, a Michelin starred Indian  restaurant in New York. It was a memorable meal from appetizers to desserts and it got off to a great start with the amazing cocktail menu. My wife had the  East India Gin Tonic ( Bombay Sapphire East gin, St.Germain, Pavan, fresh juniper berries, paan leaf and house made Junoon tonic). It was served in an outsize balloon glass with a huge paan  (betel) leaf half immersed in it . Another good choice that day was the Adraki ( ginger) punch made with fig infused vodka, lemon, grapefruit juice and honey ginger syrup. The long list of cocktails also included several named for Game of Thrones characters — Arya Stark, Lannister, Kings Landing and Jon Snow. The rest of the cocktail menu had some wonderful sounding drinks with decidedly unusual ingredients… Saffron infused maraschino liquer, jalapeno maple syrup, cinnamon orange bitters and spice smoke. They sounded interesting and, when presented at the table with a flourish, I can see how they might seem irresistible.

In the past, Indian restaurants have not been known for their drinks menu. Beer goes best with Indian food and that is what most Indians are accustomed to ordering, when they do drink alcohol. Most of the time they are content with lassi or with soft drinks. However, as Indian food has become more popular with mainstream Americans , Indian chefs have come up with ” designer” cocktails to appeal to their new clientele. Floyd Cardoz, the chef at the now defunct Tabla,was probably the first to do so. At Tabla and at his more recent ventures, Cardoz has had cross- cultural creations such as Mumbai Mule, Tamarind Margarita, Watermelon Mojito and  Kachumber Cooler. Kachumber is the name for shredded cucumber salad and the Kachumber Cooler is made by muddling cucumber with green chilly, pepper and cilantro with a gin base and straining the mix into a cocktail glass. Innovative, yes?

What started me on this subject (Exotic Indian cocktails) was something I came across when writing my last post on Blends, Single Malts and Monkey Shoulder. Specifically, it was an ad for Monkey Shoulder which claimed that the experience of drinking it was like “ Riding bare-back on the wild moors of Scotland with a flame haired maiden on Christmas morning.” WOW!

That over-the-top description reminded me of a drink that Floyd Cardoz used to serve many years ago at Tabla. I can’t remember the details but I think it involved flavored vodka,  ginger syrup, champagne and some sort of seeds ( I don’t think they were pomegranate seeds; they would have to be something lighter, perhaps subza, basil seeds). The bubbles from the freshly poured champagne would carry the seeds to the top before bursting and letting them sink to the bottom; more bubbles would then repeat the process, a mesmerizing effect.. One woman who sampled the drink wrote that it “ made her want to set her hair on fire, rip off her clothes and run stark naked down Madison Avenue.”

Now, THAT’ S what I call a real drink !

 

 

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Last week, at the monthly Men’s Club meeting in our Active Adult development, we had a Spirits Tasting. A local liquor shop made a short presentation on different types of Scotch and Bourbon and then offered tastes of six different liquors with a commentary on each. I have been to wine tastings before but this was something new to me. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event and also very educational. I learned that I do not have a discerning palate when it comes to liquor!

Like most Indian Americans who came to America in the sixties or seventies, I gravitated towards Scotch because it was the fashionable thing to do. Everyone in my circle was drinking scotch ( some with lots of club soda, a few  with ginger ale!) and I did too. At the time, all we knew was the blended variety and I quickly settled on J&B. No particular reason. It was one of the popular brands at the time. Later, I switched to Johnny Walker Red ( Black, when I could afford it). Still later, under the influence of my brother-in-law, I switched allegiance to single malts. He was (and is) a McCallan man, but I had no particular favorites. I tried a different one each time. Sometimes I chose a single malt because I liked the description on the label, or I liked the name or , very often, because it was on sale. I learnt to appreciate smoothness in a whisky and I knew that I did not like a very strong peaty flavor but beyond that I did not ( and still do not) know much about scotch. It is fun though to share a single malt with friends and listen to them expound on the merits of a particular distillery. I like hearing about the history of scotch but don’t really have the refined taste of a discerning drinker.

At the Men’s Club tasting, we were each given a glass and each table of six was supplied with little bottles with an eye dropper. The dropper was to be used to add a couple of drops of water (no more) to the liquor before we sampled it. The common wisdom is that adding a little water helps release the flavors, ice on the other hand condenses them. Ice also has the disadvantage of diluting the drink as it melts and thus impairing its consistency.

One by one, we were given a small amount of liquor to taste, six different liquors in all. We started out with a Scotch and a bourbon, then a rye, then two single malts and Monkey Shoulder. I passed on the Monkey Shoulder and one of the scotch varieties because I’d already tasted them and because I have to watch my intake of liquor ( mild medical condition). In between, we munched on potato chips and pretzels to cleanse the palate. To be frank, I couldn’t detect the hints of pecan, or cherry or apricot or whatever that distinguished one brand from another. I did detect the difference in one particular single malt that had been aged in barrels used previously to store rum. It was fun.

Which brings me to Monkey Shoulder, a blend of three different Speyside single malts, (Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kinnivie),  all of them between six and eight years old. The name derives from a condition common in distillery workers who had to constantly shovel mounds of barley to turn them over. The repetitive motions caused them to have one shoulder lower than the other, hence Monkey Shoulder. It is described in the advertising as having a zesty orange marmalade flavor with hints of mellow vanilla, honey and spiced oak. ( What is spiced oak?). It is also claimed to have a super smooth finish, ” 007 in a tuxedo wetsuit” according to the ad. I couldn’t taste any of the flavors (maybe I haven’t drunk enough Monkey Shoulder) but I will agree that this is a very smooth scotch. I can see myself buying more of it in the future. I don’t understand how Monkey Shoulder is different from blends like Johnny Walker ( after all, this too is a blend) but I love the name, I like the smoothness…. and it is half the price of Oban.

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When it comes to the division of labor between married couples, the task of cooking almost always falls to the lot of the wife. With rare exceptions, it is she who is the better cook and, besides, ” it’s in her job description”. Men, when they do cook, only do so occasionally to provide much needed relief from the daily grind of planning and preparing meals. It is only summer barbecues that are their domain.

Retirement brings big changes. After 40 or more years of cooking daily meals, women are understandably tired, and bored.  Cooking for just two seems an unnecessary burden. So much easier to eat out. Many of the couples in our Active Adult community do just that, eating out almost every day. Not my wife and me. While we do eat out more often than we used to, we still eat at home (or at friend’s homes) 90% of the time. Eating out is great, but not on a regular basis. Nothing to beat home-cooked food.

It helps that we both like to cook. My wife is an excellent cook in many different cuisines and I am not bad though my repertoire is more limited and I have to have a recipe to refer to. Since I don’t cook as much, I’ve never developed the familiarity with dishes that women cooks or housewives do. I mostly cook Chinese, Thai and other Asian dishes and always like to try out different things. In the kitchen nowadays , my wife and I have become an effective team. I do the  prepping -washing, paring, cutting and chopping; she does all the cooking. In other words, I am the garde manger, she is the chef. It works out well though there are still some problems.

The biggest is cooking for just two people. We get around that by cooking for four and freezing the leftovers for another meal. However, when it comes to cooking Chinese or Thai food, that is not an option because the food has to be eaten piping hot and immediately; it just does not taste the same when reheated. Also, when one cooks in small quantities, the specialty ingredients are used up at a very slow rate  and remain in the pantry for ever. Sauces and bottled ingredients have to be refrigerated and that too is a problem now that we have only one refrigerator. There is just not enough space to save condiments and sauces that are used only rarely. Right now,I have a bottle of fish sauce and another of shrimp paste that I will have to junk because they are well past their use-by date.

Having friends over for dinner has its own set of problems. People have all sorts of restrictions on what they can eat and the list seems to grow longer and longer. It used to be that people were either vegetarians or non -vegetarians. Now there are sub-divisions in both categories.  I have non-vegetarian friends who will eat only chicken, others who eat only shrimp and fish. Furthermore, as people age, they develop allergies to certain foods and they also give up other foods voluntarily. Some vegetarian friends are allergic to green peppers and cabbage, others do not like yoghurt and still others have to stay away from cloves. It’s difficult to keep all this in mind when putting together a guest list. Consequently, we usually have potluck dinners to cope with this problem.

Because of all these obstacles I have not been cooking much myself.  In the last three months, I think I have cooked Chinese food perhaps four times. Not nearly enough. I find myself chafing at the bit to start up again. Once in a while, I want to be the chef, not the prep cook.  I think I’ve hit upon a plan to resolve the problem of cooking cuisines with specialty ingredients. One part of the plan is to cook those cuisines which do require few such ingredients. Greek and Turkish food comes readily to mind and, with spring around the corner, they are ideal for the season. The second part of my plan is to concentrate on one cuisine at a time so that I can use up the ingredients required for it in several dishes spread over a month. Less demand on storage space and no wastage.

This has an additional benefit.Recently, our go -to Japanese restaurant closed down without warning when the owners decided to return to Japan. The other neighborhood Japanese restaurant that we like is too expensive. How great would it be to cook Japanese at home ! Not sushi or sashimi, of course but dishes like oyako- donburi, pork tonkatsu, miso chicken thighs with a side of tiger salad ( scallions& cilantro salad with  ponzu dressing) or shoyu-ramen. I can hardly wait !

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Taystee

Until four years ago, we were living in Edison NJ and making frequent pilgrimages to the Taystee Subs shop. Indeed, if it had not been at the other end of Edison we might have done so more frequently. Established in 1963, the sub shop located in what is little more than a shack has a well deserved reputation for its scrumptious subs ( or heroes, or hoagies, if you prefer). When President Obama made a short trip to Edison in the early years of his presidency, he stopped at Taystee to sample their subs. No surprise, because they ARE good.

On the face of it, there should not be that much difference between Taystee subs and the rest. After all, a sub is a very basic preparation. A variety of sliced deli meats and cheese piled on a long roll, cut in half lengthwise ( usually white bread , though wheat is available for 40 cents extra), topped with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions, sprinkled with oil and vinegar ( or slathered with mayonnaise if you prefer or both). Nothing could be simpler… and yet Taystee subs are head and shoulders above the rest.

If I had to choose the one factor that elevates them, I’d have to say it’s the bread. The fresh sliced meats are very good but the bread is what puts these subs over the top. It is just the right combination of soft and firm that is able to cushion the meats and other fixings without becoming mushy.

I was surprised to find a branch of Taystee Subs fairly close to where we  now live in Somerset. Who am I kidding? It is twenty minutes away from us, but the subs are worth the drive. There is usually a line stretching out the door when we get to the shop but I don’t mind. It’s fun to watch the assembly line of deli guys ( and gals) assembling the sub. The first in line takes your order ( whole or half?), slices the meats and cheese and layers them on the cut loaf. The next person adds the fixings and cuts the long sub into halves ( or quarters if you prefer) and passes them on to be wrapped in white paper. The last person takes your money ( 5% off for cash) and hands you your prize. It is a supremely efficient operation and it takes about 3 minutes for each sub from start to finish. The deli personnel are polite and really make you feel pampered.

I usually get the #5, the super sub with ham, salami, cappacolla and proscuittini, light on the lettuce please, tomato and onion, and both mayo and oil and vinegar. It’s the most expensive sub on the menu and costs under $ 11.  I ask for it to be cut into fourths and it’s enough for both my wife and me. What a bargain ! She has been making noises about trying the tuna salad sub next time but me I’ going to stick to the # 5. Why mess with perfection?

P.S I wonder whether President Obama also had the # 5. I must ask the guys at the counter next time.

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Last week I attended a talk on Irish Tea, Customs and Food Lore at the local library. The speaker was Judith Krall-Russo, a Food Historian and Certified Tea specialist who has been giving such talks for the past twenty years and more.

I had thought the talk would be mainly about tea but it was actually about the history of food in Ireland. Ms. Krall- Russo, though not Irish by birth, has an encyclopedic interest in Irish food lore  and had the rapt attention of her audience. In her hour long talk, she gave us an avalanche of information, all of it interesting, some of it new and startling even to those who of us in the audience who considered themselves foodies.

In olden times, Ms. Kraft Russo said, the Irish diet consisted mainly of seafood, particularly eel, herring ( which was plentiful and known as the poor man’s food) and mackerel. With the Norman invasion, food habits underwent a change and meat became more  prominent. At one time, the Irish consumed about 80 lbs. of pork each per year. Each family kept two pigs, one for their own consumption and the other ( which was known as The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent) for sale. Surprisingly, salted meat was more expensive than fresh meat. After Cromwell and his Roundheads defeated Charles I, he rewarded his soldiers by giving them land in Ireland that he expropriated from its Irish owners. The loss of grazing rights meant that cattle could not be raised as hitherto and potatoes became a mainstay of the Irish diet with 40% of the population living exclusively on potatoes, each person consuming on average fourteen pounds of spuds each day. This may seem like an unbelievable statistic but potatoes do not have much nutrition. All went relatively  well until 1845 when the potato blight devastated the potato crop and the Irish peasantry had nothing to eat. In the four years between 1846 and 1850, over a million Irish men, women and children died of starvation and disease and another million emigrated to America. In a time of such privation, food was actually being exported to England, an unconscionable act of inhumanity. Oats and barley were the chief grains grown in Ireland as wheat was unsuited to the Irish climate.

Some interesting sidelights:

Potatoes grown on one acre of land could sustain a family of 6.

With the improvement in farming techniques, the potato yield jumped from 2 tons/ acre  in 1590 to 10 tons/ acre in 1840, a five -fold increase. Over the same period, the Irish population jumped from less than a million to 8.2 million. No surprise there.

Brown bread was for the poor, white bread for the gentry. Ironically, brown bread contains much more nutrition than white; the poor got the better of that bargain.

Shepherd’s Pie , a picnic food made with left over lamb or beef, is wrongly thought to have been a poor man’s dish. The poor could not afford any meat at all.

And what about tea, you ask?

The Irish , it turns out, are #1 in the world when it comes to drinking tea, consuming on average about 7 pounds of tea per year. At one time, 20% of the household food budget was spent on tea.  The Irish like their tea strong and hot and milky, sometimes adding up to 1/3 the volume of milk. In Ireland they say,” If it doesn’t burn your tongue, its not hot enough; if it isn’t as black as Guinness, it’s not strong enough”. The Irish also like their tea sweet; sometimes, two or three different types of sugar are laid out with the tea service. Irish hospitality is well known and guests are treated royally. When a guest sits down to tea, he gets more than just a cuppa. Tea is likely to be accompanied by sandwiches, scones, cookies, bread, butter and jam. I read elsewhere that HobKnob biscuits are a tea time favorite. I just loved that name Hob Knob so I looked it up and found that they are digestive biscuits ( similar to McVities) and are available in the U.S though they are pricey. I also read that the Irish like to add a lot of milk to their tea to disguise its poor quality. Until 1960, they bought it from English importers who gave them the worst quality teas, reserving the best for their English customers. After 1960 though, the Irish bought their tea directly from the source and cut out the British middlemen. By that time though, the Irish taste for milky tea was set and it continues to this day.

Before the talk started, we were invited to pour a cup of tea for ourselves and have some biscuits ( cookies). The tea was good and strong and the biscuits went well with it though they were not Hob Knobs. A delightful afternoon.

P.S. Ms. Kraft- Russo is not merely an authority on Irish food and tea. She has also studied Japanese tea ceremony , led a tour called ” Taste the World of Tea” and lectured on sundry food topics including the food and agriculture of New Jersey. A most enterprising lady and one I’m a little jealous of; I’d love to have done  what she is doing.

 

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(Blue Apron is a home delivery service that provides meal kits for people who like to cook but don’t have the time or inclination to shop for the ingredients they need. It promises fresh, perfectly proportioned, good quality ingredients and step-by-step recipe cards delivered to your doorstep. Meals take approximately 30-40 minutes to cook and cost approximately $10 per serving. There are several such services and some of the others are Home Chef, Sun Basket, Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon.)

My wife and I became aware of Blue Apron because our son, who works long hours, sometimes uses it. We ourselves had never used it until recently, when a friend gifted us a 2 meal subscription. It was a thoughtful gift because we both like to cook. When the Styrofoam Blue Apron box arrived on our doorstep, we opened it with great anticipation. Inside, on a slab of dry ice, were the neatly packed ingredients. The meats were in tightly sealed vacuum packed pouches, the sauces in plastic bags or little bottles and the vegetables separately wrapped in a plastic bag. Our shipment was for two 2-person meals: Ginger – Marinated Steaks with Stir -fried vegetables and Jasmine Rice & Balsamic glazed Chicken w/ Roasted Vegetables. The recipes were on heavy stock paper with an enticing technicolor photograph of the completed dishes and smaller photographs illustrating the different steps in their preparation.

I have to say we enjoyed cooking the dishes and dining on them. We felt the steak dish was the better of the two but both of them were very good. The steak recipe was inspired by an episode from Top Chef Season 15 and we loved the combination of the sliced steak (marinated in an Asian style marinade of ginger, soy sauce and ponzu), sautéed bok choy, sliced red radishes and jasmine rice. I don’t have the Chicken recipe card in front of me and can’t describe it in detail but we enjoyed it too.

There are several features of Blue Apron that I liked. The ingredients are exactly proportioned and they are good quality. It’s easy to unwrap them and prep them all at once before proceeding to cook. Initially, I thought the portions were a little skimpy but I was wrong; they represent healthy servings which are what a dietitian would recommend. When we finished our meal, we were satisfied but not stuffed. The experience showed us that when we eat out, or on our own at home, we tend to over-eat because we have no real idea of how much is enough; the portions are way too large. Using meal kits means that there are no left overs or wastage; you eat everything that you’ve prepared and you don’t have unused vegetables or meats in the refrigerator that have to be used up subsequently. The recipes themselves are good and there is sufficient variety that you will not get bored , ever. They offer a wide range of dishes from a variety of cuisines. Some services also cater to special requirements such as gluten free or low carb. Since our two meals were a gift, I have no idea of the cost but am inclined to accept that they cost the advertised price of $ 10 – $11 per serving. Not sure whether that price takes into account the discount coupons that are widely available, but it probably does. At that price, they work out cheaper than eating out or even take-out. For busy young professionals short on time, they are a good alternative.

Even so, I do not see myself being a regular patron of Blue apron or its competitors.

There are a number of reasons, among them cost ( I would think we can eat for about half that price) and variety ( we eat mostly Asian food and like to experiment with exotic dishes and cuisines). The main reason is that cooking with Blue Apron is like ” painting by the numbers”. It is not a personal experience in which I get the pleasure of feeling I have done something on my own ; it is mechanical. Furthermore,I like to go food shopping, checking out unfamiliar foods and dreaming up new dishes ( which sometimes turn out horribly!). That, of course, is no longer available if I utilize Blue apron or some other meal kit.

I have a couple of $30 -off coupons and, at some point in the future, I will use them and try some Blue Apron dishes but, as for being a regular user of meal kits … it is not going to happen. I will leave them to those who are pressed for time. Me, I want to enjoy my cooking.

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Pie Five Pizza Co. is a franchise operation headquartered in Texas which recently opened a new outlet in Riya Plaza at the junction of Finnegan’s Lane and Route 27 in Franklin Park. It is different from most other pizzerias in that it offers patrons the opportunity to build their own pies. Pie Five is the first in our area to do so and it’s definitely worth a visit. Their pizzas taste fresh, light and homemade, unlike the heavy, greasy pies at many pizza chain outlets.

If you want to stick to the standard options, Pie Five has seven: Five Star, BBQ Chicken, Chicken Carbonara, Athenian, High Five, Buffalo Chicken and Farmers Market. The Five Star features Tuscan Marinara sauce, cheddar, pepperoni, beef, Italian sausage, green peppers, green olives, black olives and red onions. The Farmers Market is similarly loaded with Tuscan marinara, mushrooms, red onions, spinach, tomatoes  and red and green peppers.

If, on the other hand, you want to build your own pizza, you can specify the type of crust, the sauce, the cheese, the meats, the veggies and the finishes. For the crust you can choose between Crispy thin, Traditional Italian, Classic Pan, and (for $2 extra), Gluten Free. For the cheese you have a choice of Whole Milk Mozzarella, Cheddar, Ricotta, Shredded Parmesan and Vegan Cheese ($2 extra). All in all, there are literally thousands of different combinations you can create. An 11” pizza is $7.99 ($5.99 for a plain pie) and a 14”is $ 15.99   ($12.99, plain).

One of the things I love about Pie Five is that you can have unlimited toppings at no additional charge, a nice change from pizzerias that charge $2 for each topping. Pie Five has separate stations and ovens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian pizzas, friendly welcoming staff and a clean environment. Patrons place their orders, take their seats to wait for their orders which are completed in minutes.

In addition to Pizzas, Pie Five also offers Salads (Classic Italian, Chicken Caesar, Greek and Spinach), Bread Stix, and desserts (Chocolate Chip Cookies, Ultimate Brownies and Cinnamon Stix).

Six of us ate at Pie Five, ordering five 11- inch pizzas in a variety of toppings, sauces and crusts. Since each pizza was cut into six slices, it worked out perfectly… five slices for each of us. Just right. At the time of writing, Pie Five was applying for a permit to allow patrons to BYOB; the manager was hopeful that they would get it in a matter of weeks.

 We ate at Pie Five when it had only just opened. Understandably, the service staff were still feeling their way, and patrons, unfamiliar with the system, were taking their time with their options.I expect the glitches will soon be fixed.

Pie Five Pizza Co. 3010 Route 27, Franklin Park NJ 08824.   Phone ( 732)  305-7937

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