While looking for a respite from my beloved favorite late nite cocktail, the sidecar, I have been experimenting with other mixed drinks.  I like to make mojitos at home because I get to muddle and shake my drink.  Muddling takes some frustration out of the day, and shaking makes you feel invigorated, if not somewhat scientific. Recently I ran out of light rum and substituted tequila.  Finally I settled on some leftover vodka I had in the freezer and it worked like a charm.  My latest crave is an adaptation of a recipe by Fidel Vasquez, head bartender of Barrio Chino.  This drink will transport you to a cigar plantation in Cuba even if you’ve never been there.

Vodka Ginger Mojito

2 slices fresh ginger
¼ lime, halved
8 leaves fresh mint
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce simple syrup
2 ½ ounces smooth vodka
1 tbsp light brown sugar
Seltzer or club soda

In a heavy bottomed glass, muddle ginger and mint until aromas release.

Add limes and sugar. Muddle some more.

In a shaker, add three broken ice cubes, vodka,
seltzer, lemon juice, & simple syrup.

Add muddled mixture to shaker.

Shake vigorously for ten seconds.

Serve and enjoy!

Turkey Some More

The word leftover doesn’t inspire any great enthusiasm to me. It sounds like a castaway meal. The concept of leftovers has always been foreign to me and my family, as we usually begin the Thanksgiving meal at noon, invite as many guests as possible, and continue to eat throughout the day and night. Naturally, there are no leftovers. I imagine the rationale behind leftovers is that the food may possibly improve in flavor overnight like a duck ragu, choucoutre, or cassoulet. This theory doesn’t hold well for turkey, which tends to dry out over time.

If you subscribe to leftovers, then here’s a tip to ensure that the turkey stays as moist as it should. Set aside a portion for the next day right after you carve the turkey for serving. If you leave it on the bone for several hours during the repast, the meat will dry out more quickly. Then, place the meat in a plastic container and cover with gravy. If you don’t have enough gravy, mix some with fresh stock and drippings. The turkey slices will stay moist overnight, and reheating the next day will be short and sweet. Then you can make turkey sandwiches, turkey tacos, or even recreate a shorter version of the main event.

Use the carcass for a great turkey stock.  Just simmer for a long time (at least 12 hours).  Add your mirepoix and water and behold a cure for the winter blues.

For a quick fire marinade, I whisk three cups of chicken stock with a teaspoon of achiote, a tablespoon of olive oil, four ounces of tomato paste, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add a cup of white or red wine. That should do the trick. The rest is up to the bird.

Gobble Wine

Choosing the right wines for Thanksgiving can prove elusive and difficult, especially due to the broad range of flavors, but as a general rule I try to match cuisine and wine to its region or style.  For my Haitian turkey recipe, I look to France for pairing. While Haitian rum is world renowned, there are no good Haitian wines to fit the bill.  Over the past few Thanksgivings, I have tried several different types of wines, from American zinfandels to beaujolais.  Haitian food can be savory and spicy, but also delicate and nuanced. The trick is to find a light-bodied wine that can stand up to intense flavors yet enhance other subtle ones.

Champagne is a classic starter for my family, not only because of its versatility, but after all, it is a celebration.  I tend to enjoy medium-bodied bubbly, but my family prefers light and airy.  This time I’ll serve a bottle of Larmandier-Bernier Brut Tradition 1er Cru, a great compromise for any palate.  A natural biodynamic sparkler comprised of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, a sure-fire winner from Vertus.

Depending on the appetizers, I would move to Chardonnay, one that is not too oaky or buttery.  Any white burgundy will do the trick here.  I am giving a Stony Hill 2001 Chardonnay a whirl.

Cru Beaujolais such as a Brouilly from Chateau Thivin or a Morgon from Jean Paul Thevenet have been up to the challenge in the past. But I have recently fallen in love with Eric Texier’s Brezeme 2004 Syrah which for the price ($15), and the flavor profile (simple, light bodied, yet remarkable) makes for a marriage to any turkey perfect.

Just in case there is room for a cheese course (and indeed there should be) instead of opting for a dessert wine, reach for something light and funky, such as the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon from Senorio de Sarria, a producer from Navarra, Spain who will surprise you for its style (light and earthy) and cost ($12).

Whichever wines you choose, stock plenty of it.  Running out during gobble gobble can ruin any post-turkey siesta.

Let’s Talk Turkey

If you are like me, this time of year means serious cooking. But this responsibility, however fun, can be stressful if not planned correctly. Time management is the key to a successful repast. It’s not too early to start your Thanksgiving shopping. Making a comprehensive list is important, and scheduling your cooking can prove most helpful if you want to enjoy the actual meal with your family and friends.

The centerpiece of the meal is the turkey, and this should be given the most thought. In Haiti, my grandparents used to raise turkeys in their backyard, waiting until they were plump enough for roasting. Refrigeration was a luxury and frozen birds were hard to find. If you wanted a turkey, you either had to go to the marketplace or raise it at home. My grandfather would feed lemon juice to the live turkey as a disinfectant, destroying any germs and cleansing the body. Then the turkey would bathe in a four hour brine to loosen the proteins.

Haitians are used to cooking wild turkeys, but here in America, wild turkeys can prove too tough and gamy. My grandmother gave up on going to the vivero (live poultry shop) to get a fresh turkey the day before. Despite brining, she said they were too tough, and didn’t trust what they were fed while growing up. Heirloom turkeys are great but too costly.

What type of turkey should you purchase? Over the years I have experimented with many brands. With the recipe that my grandmother has passed down to me, the quality of the turkey holds less importance, but a turkey that is brined cuts out a time consuming step.

This brings us to the kosher option, which offers a brined turkey at the right price. Empire turkey fills the number one spot, and you should make every effort to seek it out. At a distant number two, Murray’s turkeys, which are sold at Fairway markets, are quite good. After these two choices, the rest of the turkeys on the market have to do with what you are used to cooking or are most comfortable with. For example, Butterball sells a brined turkey, but the brine solution and butter injection tastes somewhat artificial and unhealthy. Again, if you feel the need for a heritage turkey, beware of the quality of the meat and the possibility of toughness or gamey flavors. In the case of the turkey, more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Whichever turkey you choose, buy a large one, put it in a bowl, and let it occupy the top rack of your refrigerator for up to one week. This way you’ll pick the turkey you want, beat the long lines, and save yourself a mad scramble in the last minute. This will also allow you enough time to plan properly for my Haitian turkey recipe, in case you missed it last year.

So Is it J-O, or C-H-U?

By Scott Coscia

I’ll never claim to have the same wine knowledge as Chef Mateo.  The man just knows way too much about fermented grapes.  Then again, Chef Mateo could never tell you the day Felix Unger was asked to leave his place of residence.  It was November 13th just in case you were wondering.  Mateo and I have different skill sets.  One thing we both do share is a passion for the fermented grain and fruit concoction known as shochu.

Neither of us had really heard of the liquor before until one night when we were out at a favorite little spot of ours, a small, below street level Japanese bar that until recently had been quite underground.  That was until a certain critic from a major metropolitan daily blew up our spot, as the kids say nowadays.

The place was a bit of an oasis where if you didn’t have the money or the time to seek out a sports bar in Tokyo or Hokkaido, you could travel to midtown for the same experience.  One night we were sitting there enjoying a couple of Sapporo drafts and eating enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon (I will pose the argument that anything tastes better when wrapped in bacon,) when the only other non-Asian person at the bar sat next to us.  We were watching the Yankee game and had switched to sake.

The mysterious stranger, (well OK he wasn’t that mysterious, but I want to enhance the mood,) sat down next to me and had a tall frosted bottle put in front of him.  He poured the clear liquid over ice and then put something that resembled a cherry into it.  I was intrigued by what he was drinking, so I inquired as to his glass’ content.

Normally strangers in a bar in New York City don’t typically converse, but the only geijin at an underground Japanese isakaya breaks all rules. It was almost as if we were three expats in the land of the rising sun.  He not only told me what the elixir was, but offered Mateo and myself a glass.  The mystery drink was shochu, a Japanese rice based vodka.  I was leery at first to drink vodka just on the rocks with some sort of red thing in it.  I’m not much of a hard liquor drinker when it’s straight up.  I like it mixed with other things that will bring out the flavor.

The man insisted that Mateo and I join him for a glass.  I’m by no means an expert on Japanese culture and traditions, but one thing I do know is that it is rude to turn down a drink. I took the man up on his offer and had my drink the same way he consumed it, on the rocks with the quarter sized red fruit, which I later found out was something called ume, a Japanese pickled plum.  I figured I could swirl the ice around enough to dilute the impending burning sensation in my throat that would accompany the liquor.

My first sip of the liquid was quite surprising.  It was crisp and clean and did not have the same bite that I was expecting.  I thought maybe I had over prepared my body for something and had found a way to turn off the pain receptors in my throat.  In an effort to confirm my mild delusion, I took another sip.  The next sip was very revealing.  It did not confirm that I had found a way to conquer the whole mind over body equation; it revealed that what I was drinking was very smooth and did not have the slightest hint of harshness to it.  I then asked the man if I could look at the bottle.  He obliged.

I studied the bottle carefully and tried to gain some insight into the liquid set in front of me.  I figured maybe it was very watered down and did not carry a high alcohol content.  The label read, “Tori Kai,” a vodka made from rice  The surprising thing about this liquor was the alcohol content.  It was forty proof, which meant that it was twenty percent alcohol.  I’ve tasted hotter California cabernets that were only thirteen percent.

Shochu tastes like somebody had created a liqueur that was based on the taste of water.  This was good stuff.  The ume gave it accents of cherries.  I wondered if all shochus were like this.  For me the only way to find out is experimentation.  The next time I was out, I ordered a shochu called Ichiko.  It was made from buckwheat and I found that I enjoyed it more than the Tori Kai.  I felt it had more body to it, and it was still smooth, yet a little rougher than the rice based versions.  It was also earthier and just a bit nuttier.

If you are at all intrigued by the stuff, then good; but please be forewarned that it’s not the easiest to find.  I have found only one place that has any kind of selection, and that is Landmark Wines on 23rd Street in Chelsea.  The proprietor Ken will be happy to answer and questions that you have on the subject and is always pleasant to talk to.  I am fortunate enough to be dating somebody who lives right across the street, so it’s not a far stumble when Ken opens a bottle to let me sample something.  I use the word sample loosely.

If you want to order it out in a restaurant, then don’t look to your neighborhood sushi joint for the stuff.  Sadly I have found that most places don’t carry it, or its Korean counterpart soju, which only differs in country of manufacture and the spelling.  If you can find a place that carries it, then you’re in luck.  You can get it many different ways, such as with your choice of fresh squeezed citrus, (one place I know of gives you the strainer and allows you to squeeze the fruit yourself,) or with green tea.  Normally places that carry shochu also carry a variety of it.  In addition to rice or barley, I have seen it made with sugar cane, sweet potatoes, limes, and even tapioca.

Whenever I see it on the menu, I make sure that I order it.  The best part is that it’s a very friendly drink.  It’s very difficult to replicate the mood that tequila induces in me when consuming shochu.  The best part of the stuff as far as I am concerned is that with its low sugar content, I don’t feel hung over the next day from partying with a few glasses.

In an interview, Japan’s Shigechiyo Izumi credited shochu as his secret to a long life.  He lived to 120, so I guess he did something right.  If the beverage native to Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu, was good enough for Mr. Izumi, then it’s good enough for me. Kampei!