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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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Notice I said Souper Bowl, not Super Bowl.

Each year, in spring, the Women’s Club at our Active Adult community organizes three or four Souper Bowls to raise funds for charity.  For an eight dollar donation, members and their guests who sign up enjoy salad , bread and butter and desserts. My wife and I had heard of these events for the past four years but had never experienced one until last week, the last such event for this year.

The event was  to begin at 12:30 and we were there a few minutes earlier , only to find that almost every seat was taken. These events are [popular! Luckily, my wife and I and two of our friends found seats together in a corner of the Grand Ballroom where the Souper Bowl was being held. As first time attendees, we were entitled to receive bowls     (repeat guests bring their own), so we picked them up and got back to the table. By that time, the salad bowl at the center of the table was sadly depleted as the ‘early birds’ had been busy. We did manage to get some salad though and it was very good. Nothing fancy; just iceberg lettuce, olives, cranraisins, some slivers of onion and tomato wedges lightly bathed in a vinaigrette. The whole, however, was more than the sum of its parts as the vinaigrette had been dispensed with a master’s touch. The salad bowl was re-filled soon after but the new batch was not near as good. We barely had time to taste the salad and tear off a hunk of bread to eat with a dab of butter when the soups made their appearance. Volunteers had donated  large tureen of their specialties which were carried in and placed on the serving tables at one end of the room. The volunteer cooks then stood proudly behind their creations ready to dish them out. Their were five different soups: chicken soup ( two kinds), minestrone , bean and ( for the vegetarians) lentil soup. Since there were 10 tables with 150 diners in all, we were summoned by table number and to my surprise and delight, our table was the first one to be called. Both my wife and I had the chicken soup but hers was decidedly better. It had been made by a Puerto Rican friend of ours  and it was rich with chicken cubes, a variety of vegetables, noodles  and herbs . Full of sabor. My own was a regulation tomato based variant, thicker and heartier but not as flavorful. I should have taken the minestrone.

The soup was the main item but there were plenty of others. Some local businesses had donated their products: three kinds of pasta, cookies, pastries and bagels. As if this was not enough, one of our members was celebrating his 75th birthday and there were two huge cakes to celebrate the milestone. I had a slice of each  and they were both very good.  I really shouldn’t have but , what can I say… the flesh is weak.

As good as the food was, the most enjoyable part of the afternoon was sitting with a bunch of people whom we did not know earlier and being able to chat with them. In such situations, once the ice is broken there are plenty of things to talk about. The lady next to me had been a teacher in Queens and she was perfectly familiar with Indian names and the Indian- American community. Next to her was a lady who had taught in Edison N.J for many years and had lived there for almost 40 years as we too had done. It turned out that our houses had been within a mile of each other. A third lady, another teacher, happened to have a niece in the U.S Foreign Service and we were able to exchange experiences with each other since our daughter too is a diplomat. We were strangers when we sat down but friends by the time the Souper Bowl was over.

Next year, you can bet we will be attending the Souper Bowl again, perhaps more than once. Not only that, but we’ll be there early to get that yummy salad and, knowing what we do now, I’ll be more expert in picking my soup.

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No true cricket fan can be happy about the ball tampering incident and its effect on a series between the two top teams in Test cricket. Such meetings occur seldom and this incident has damaged the series beyond repair. On the fourth day at Newlands, a disheartened Aussie team collapsed for 107 to lose the Test by a whopping 322 runs. We can expect more of the same in the final test.

This is not to excuse the Australian team’s behavior. For years, decades even, they have bullied other teams with tactics that straddled the line and now, finally, they have crossed it. As I write, Smith and Warner have been forced to relinquish their positions as captain and vice-captain, Smith is out of the final test and Bancroft has received three demerit points. This is only the beginning and there is talk of Smith and Warner facing lifetime bans. Even otherwise, their reputations are in tatters and it is difficult to see them living this incident down.

These events have only underscored what I’ve always felt about Smith: a great batsman, perhaps the best in the world in Test cricket, but not a great captain and not a natural leader. Under pressure, he folds. I remember the incident in India when he was caught looking at the pavilion for advice on whether to protest an on-field call. It was not what I’d expect from the captain of the Baggy Green. At Newlands, it was bad to have Cameron Bancroft tamper with the ball but it was worse to pass it off as a collective decision by the team’s senior leadership. The “right” thing to do would have been to take full responsibility. Heaven knows how many more players will be tarred by this event. Smith, Warner and Bancroft are only the first casualties.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that Darren Lehmann played no part in the incident. What the TV cameras  captured seems to implicate Lehmann, no surprise considering his unsavory behavior in the past. Neither do I feel sorry for David Warner; I’m not sure what his involvement in this incident was but his past and recent history mark him as an explosion waiting to happen and a poor advertisement for Australian cricket. Whatever happens to him will be richly deserved, a result of his bad karma catching up with him. My sympathies are reserved for Bancroft, a newcomer still trying to cement his place in the team and too new to refuse his captain’s order. I even feel a little sorry for Smith for his precipitous fall from grace and likely the end of his cricketing career.

There are many aspects to this whole fiasco that are puzzling. Why did Smith and Co. try such a high risk – low reward maneuver ? Did they really think they could get away with it knowing full well that so many cameras were trained on them? Was it arrogance that led them to think so or was it a sign of their panic? Did they even stop to think of the consequences of getting caught? Even if they had succeeded in fixing the ball undetected, would the reverse swing they extracted from it been enough to skittle out the South African batsmen? And why was it so important to win this match and the series? This was not a World Cup final. Even had they lost this test and the series, it would have merely meant a drop in the world rankings… bad , yes, but not catastrophic. And , finally, as some have already commented… Was Smith’s contrition genuinely for his actions or was it for getting caught? We’ll never know. What is certain is that this series is as good as over and it is going to take a long time for Australian cricket to live this down.

P.S It will be interesting to note the behavior of Australian cricket spectators when next a visiting team plays Down Under.

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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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This past Sunday, I went to the St. Patrick’s Day party at the clubhouse in our Active Adult community and got to be an Irishman for a day. It was great fun and I had a wonderful time.

St. Paddy’s is one of the most popular parties and the Grand Ballroom was packed with one hundred and fifty celebrants seated at tables of ten people each. Most of the attendees were ” temporary” Irishmen like myself but you couldn’t tell by looking at them. Everyone was wearing green: green hats, green vests,  green dresses etc. At the table next to us was a man with a green hat with tiny green lights that blinked on and off. At the same table was a woman, probably his wife, whose earrings also had similar green lights. Green klieg lights focused on the ceiling and walls turned everything green; the Auld Sod itself could not have been any greener. After an hour of socializing, liberally greased by wine and spirits ( It was a BYOB event), dinner was announced. As our table numbers were announced, we trooped into a nearby room and partook of the sumptuous buffet. The fare consisted of corned beef and cabbage, fried chicken, roast salmon, carrots, potatoes, pasta primavera, salad, bread and soda bread. Because there were servers and because there were four lines, service was a snap and we were tucking into our food scant minutes after we had been called to the buffet. The corned beef and cabbage was very good and my wife told me the salmon was excellent. The food was hearty and fulfilling; I did not feel the need to go back for seconds. Dinner finished, we sat back to listen to the live five – man orchestra as they played a series of Irish favorites. There was ” When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”, “Abie’s Irish Rose”, ” It’s a Long Long way to Tipperary”, ” Danny Boy” , ” A Bicycle Built for Two” and others I didn’t know. There was also a whiskey drinking song of which I only caught the chorus” ….. Whisky in a Jar’. The music really livened up the party as people really got into it, singing along and keeping time. And, of course, they were dancing. What fun to see every one happy and having a good time. The piece de resistance of the evening was  a hefty blonde haired woman, who marched in playing the  bagpipes and performed several numbers that were enthusiastically received. Towards the end of her performance, partygoers were invited to march with her. As she played yet another favorite, a conga line formed up behind her and they all sashayed round the room in a miniature St. Patrick’s Day parade.  There is something plaintive yet appealing about the sound of bagpipes that makes listeners sentimental. And so it was with us as we watched and listened and sang along.  The final number , in which the band joined in and everyone stood, was America the Beautiful , a fitting end to a most enjoyable evening. BTW, before you ask” Aren’t bagpipes Scottish rather than Irish?, let me repeat what we were all told ” The Irish invented bagpipes, the Scottish perfected them”. So, there.

The Irish are my favorite ethnic group. I get along with everyone but with Irish better than the others. My feelings are no doubt highly colored that for 22 years my boss was an Irish American who took me under his wing and is one of the finest people I know. But it is more than that. I find the Irish highly sentimental, poetic, literate and emotional, less driven and more interested in the finer things of life. Yet, as each St. Patrick’s Day celebration proves, they know how to have a good time. I’ll sign up for the 2019 party as soon as the flyers are out and , next year, I’ll be wearing a green hat too. Perhaps one with blinking green lights.

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Last November, we were in Henderson, Nevada for a wedding. We stayed with a close family friend and one of the pleasures each morning was reading the newspaper, an actual printed newspaper. I get the digital version of the New York Times at home and it is great but, as I realized in Henderson, there is something to be said for the “real” thing, something you can hold in your hands and turn the pages. I love the digitized version of the Times but it has its drawbacks. One of them: you very soon fall into the habit of skimming , reading only the highlights or the headlines. Very rarely do I bother to turn to the sections and read the lesser stories.

When I started reading the Las Vegas Review Journal, I found myself reverting to my earlier habits. I skimmed it from the first page to the last and found myself reading not just the news but the columns and the restaurant reviews and doing the crossword puzzle. Almost immediately, however, I found myself puzzled. The Review Journal is a conservative paper with a conservative platform but I found the inner pages to be decidedly liberal, often taking positions contradicting those on the front pages. Then, I noticed that the inside of the newspaper was titled The Las Vegas Sun. I checked with my host and found that what I was reading was actually two newspapers in one. Back in 2005, the Review Journal and the Sun signed a joint operating agreement and the Sun became a section of ( and an insert in) the Review Journal. The two continued to have independent staffs and operated their own websites.  In doing so, they both saved a bundle in operating and distribution costs and have managed to stay afloat even in these days of declining newspaper readership.

What I find amazing is that the two newspapers have managed to preserve their independence despite being joined at the hip. They had been battering each other for over 50 years and have continued to do so, often attacking each others positions on the issues of the day. Even after the Review Journal was bought by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the Sun has been able to maintain its independence thanks to the joint operating agreement. (It must be an ironclad one!) The Review Journal meanwhile has seen increasing interference from Adelson with several news-stories pertaining to the casino industry having been killed or changed on an almost daily basis.

For readers though, this unique two in one newspaper is a boon. The Sun would definitely not been able to survive on its own and even the Review Journal would have been under financial pressure. The other advantage is that readers get to know both sides of the issue, an important benefit for all but those at the far ends of the political spectrum. Readers like myself who are closer to the middle can pick and choose what they want to read and thus obtain a more balanced viewpoint on the issues. I just wish that it were possible for those who rely on TV for news. Fox News is so far apart from almost everyone else that viewers who watch it  are in a world of their own.

To get back to the Las Vegas newspapers: In addition to the contrasting viewpoints, it was great to see a daily bridge column, an advice column by Ann Landers and two different crossword puzzles. The one in the Review Journal was more difficult than the Sun but both were doable for one with my limited skills. Too bad I can’t have those with the Times but I do have two New York Times books of Sunday puzzles which will keep me occupied until the end of the year.

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