I was *almost* a journalism major…

My sister-in-law is an expert bargain book hunter – it doesn’t matter if she is at Barnes & Noble or the local library book sale; Joan ALWAYS roots out the good stuff. She’s also really good at remembering what kinds of things people like and finding books for them…which is how I ended up with an excellent cocktail book for Christmas: The Cocktail Hour by Ben Reed.

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At first I thought I’d keep the book on the coffee table and just look at the pictures – the photography is lovely – but then as I got more and more interested in craft cocktails and mixing my own cocktails at home, I realized that this little book was an amazing resource.

I’ve noticed a similarity between cocktail-mixing and cooking: you start to compile a stash of “stock” ingredients that last a fairly long time and can be used across a variety of recipes. Think about the container of vanilla extract you purchase for cookies and use in almost every baked good…the curry powder you use in multiple soups and side dishes…the fish sauce in every vaguely-Asian recipe…these are your vermouths and bitters and good maraschino cherries and liqueurs. You’ll use them in many recipes, but you’ll use a small amount. You buy them for one particular drink but then find they have wide appeal. Indeed, it makes cocktail mixing affordable even when you’re buying good-quality booze: they last awhile and you don’t have to purchase every ingredient for every drink because you begin to build up a store.

My stockpile and my cocktail book are what inspired a recent discovery – the Journalist. I had been gifted a bottle of gin and was flipping through my texts for a new treatment. I stumbled upon a lovely little cocktail and realized that even though it called for five additional ingredients, I had ALL of them from other experiments.

The Journalist - from The Cocktail Hour by Ben Reed

The Journalist – from The Cocktail Hour by Ben Reed

The Journalist is a refreshing concoction of gin, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, fresh lemon juice, angostura bitters and triple sec. Citrus-y but not sweet; acidic but not overly tart; balanced by the small bit of sweet vermouth and bitters – I thought it was divine. And as a writer, I was partial to the name.

I’ll be keeping the Journalist in the rotation throughout the summer and will continue to attempt to perfect and balance the mix of ingredients – I think it is a delightful and refreshing palate-pleaser.

My middle-west: Gatsby Day in Ann Arbor

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books of all time. I can’t even remember the first time I read it, but I think it was in eighth or ninth grade. I know I never had to read it in school. I *think* Uncle Tom told me to read it (this would be around the same time he told me to read On the Road – Uncle T. has pretty great taste in books). I’m pretty sure my first copy which has long since went missing came from Gran’s basement.

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I hadn’t read the book for a few years when we moved to Connecticut in 2007. A late-night conversation in Hanafin’s Pub with several literary-minded friends (Kevin Doyle or Amanda Lester or Scott Rottinghaus) inspired me to re-read it then. To a midwesterner living on the Long Island Sound, Nick Carraway and his musings on the east coast being a different place suddenly became a little more relatable.

Gatsby infatuation reached a frenzy in our crowd that year when Kevin started throwing his annual Gatsby parties. Held on/around the solstice (“the longest day of the year”), the Gatsby party was the opportunity we all wanted to wear (in some cases extravagant) costumes, experiment with mixing prohibition-era cocktails, and play yard games such as bocce ball and croquet – Kevin’s yard was a bit small for Tom Buchanan’s beloved polo ponies; also, we weren’t actually rich enough for polo.

Gatsby 2009. New London, CT

Gatsby 2009. New London, CT

(By the end of these nights, the boys would be wearing the sequined headbands, we’d be drinking rum and cokes or vodka tonics, and the croquet contingent would have moved on to beer pong – still, we were classy up to that point.)

When we moved back to Michigan, I made two attempts to re-imagine the Gatsby party here, but it never quite translated – simply put, a Gatsby party is an East Coast garden party, not a Midwestern bar party. Not that they weren’t fun in their own ways; they just weren’t quite right.

Gatsby 2011, Ypsilanti, MI

Gatsby 2011, Ypsilanti, MI

Despite reading the book multiple times and attending/throwing multiple themed parties, I had never watched Gatsby on film. Part of this is because Mia Farrow kind of creeps me out (I can’t explain it) and partly because Robert Redford just seemed a little bland. The movie itself seemed like it would be a little bland. I just never had any desire to watch it (though when in Newport, I did visit Rosecliff, the house where several scenes were filmed). 

Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Then, a year or two ago, people started talking about a new Gatsby, this time helmed by Baz “Mouling Rouge” Luhrmann. Baz + Gatsby sounded anything BUT bland.

I kept tabs on the movie for the next year and a half or so. The main cast was announced. Leo as Gatsby! (That could work, I thought.) Tobey as Nick! (That seemed weirdly perfect, actually.) Carey Mulligan for Daisy! (This one sold me; I loved her in An Education.) I got hyped up for a Christmas 2012 release date…only to have it pushed back to May. (This was ultimately a good thing; otherwise I would have spent Christmas day holed up in a movie theater watching Leo wear the heck out of his pastel suits in two movies – Django Unchained was released the same day and I’m a huge Tarantino fan – instead of with my family.) 

Gatsby day drew closer. I re-read the book (I actually hadn’t read it since 2008). I started to get nervous. Would it be TOO cartoony? Would Tom Buchanan be too much of a buffoon-y racist? Would the Gatsby/Daisy romance be treated as something much more innocent and romantic than it actually is? Reviews were not helping (they never do, though, do they?).

Ralph also re-read the book, though he fails to see what all the fuss is about.

Ralph also re-read the book, though he fails to see what all the fuss is about.

No matter how I ultimately ended up feeling about this movie, I was determined to see it. I gathered up some girls – girls, who I might add, have been very supportive of my obsession with Gatsby/Fitzgerald/cocktail-mixing/costume-wearing/theme parties/etc. – and we headed downtown to the Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor’s beautifully-restored 1920’s movie palace and the only place in town I could fathom seeing this film (sorry, Rave Motion Pictures and your stadium seating). 

The Michigan Theater marquee

The Michigan Theater marquee

While I didn’t go full costume (I would have had we gone on opening night, no doubt), I did deck myself out a feathered hair piece, several long, tasseled necklaces and an absurd amount of makeup for 4:00 p.m. (Actually, we all showed up in a lot of makeup and blingy headbands – lingering after-effects of the previous years’ parties, I guess.)

(This next portion contains plot spoilers – if you’re not familiar and want to be surprised, I’d suggest you stop here just to be safe.)

The good parts of The Great Gatsby were indeed great: it was visually stunning; I loved the stylized depictions of Long Island and New York City and the miserable valley of ashes. One of my favorite scenes from an aesthetic standpoint was when Nick walks in to the Buchanans’ house and into the room where Daisy and Jordan are languishing on the couch: the flowing white drapes, the breeze, the laziness of the women in white dresses, the bejeweled hands draped over the couch…that was Fitzgerald’s slightly magical description somehow brought perfectly to life.

The casting was spot-on. Gastby himself has always been a hard character for me to formulate visually in my mind; I thought Leo nailed it. Young-ish, handsome but not TOO perfect-looking, capable of the occasional crazy eyes, the ability to appear extremely vulnerable AND extremely confident…loved him. (Although having recently seen Django, I did sort of expect him to invite everyone into the parlor for WHite cake.) Jordan Baker looked exactly how I wanted her to look – she even looked a little sneaky, though the movie largely avoids those small mentions of her character. Carey Mulligan was a wonderful Daisy – she has such an interesting face and expressive eyes. However, my favorite from a casting perspective was far and away Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. I think I gasped when he walked onscreen with that pervy little mustache and those fantastic riding boots. The looks were right and he nailed the character – he’s a bigot with a mixed-up moral code, but he doesn’t veer into cartoon territory.

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

The bad…well, the framing device (Nick in the nuthouse; Nick writing a novel) was totally lame. The typed words appearing on the screen were beyond cheesy. I get that we want – even need – Nick’s first-person narration; this just seemed like such a cop-out way to provide it…not that I have any better suggestions. Also, some things were a bit too literal…do we really have to show Gatsby physically reaching toward the green light?

I thought Daisy’s hard edge was softened a bit. A favorite scene of mine in the novel is when Nick describes seeing Tom and Daisy sitting at the table eating cold fried chicken and talking quietly together after the big hotel blowout. To me, that scene sums up Daisy: she loves attention and she loves drama and she probably does love Gatsby a little bit, but she can walk away from anything. The scene (sort of) appears in the movie, but it doesn’t translate the same way it does for me in the book. However, the Gatsby/Daisy romance is not simplified/overplayed the way I feared it would be, so overall I was pretty happy.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the movie’s use of modern music – it’s distracting at first, but once you settle in to the style of the film, it works. You just have to go with it. (If anyone remembers that Heath Ledger monstrosity A Knight’s Tale, this is wayyyyyy less jarring than when David Bowie starts playing at the ball.)

Overall impression? I liked it. A LOT. Maybe even loved it. I’ll probably (read: will) see it again and find more things to both swoon over and pick at. It’s over the top and a little melodramatic, but hey, so is the book.

Also, if you see this movie in Ann Arbor, go to the Raven’s Club after viewing – the lack of signage, dark room and bulbous light fixtures will make you feel like you’re in a speakeasy and the cocktail menu and glassware will only enhance that feeling. You can order the “Old Pal” (if you like whiskey, that is) and refer to it as the “Old Sport”… but just so you know, your companions/waitress will think that gets old fast.

The Old Sport - I mean, Old Pal

The Old Sport – I mean, Old Pal

Cocktails and Cat Tails

I think I’m going to start a video series. I’m going to dress up in one of my retro dresses, put on some red lipstick, get out some of my retro glassware, and go through the process of making a cocktail. Oh, and there will be cats. Why, you ask? Well, because A) I have to justify having all this retro stuff SOMEHOW and B) Ralph is very interested in cocktails.

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This may be a slight exaggeration. Ralph was not at all interested in Sidecars or in Classic Martinis (posts on those drinks forthcoming). He was, however, extremely interested in Brandy Alexanders – no surprise there, seeing as how there was cream involved – and, strangely enough, Old Fashioneds and especially Manhattans.

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Apparently Ralph loves rye whiskey. Or maybe he loves bitters. I don’t know – but if I sit down with a Manhattan, he’s on my lap immediately.

That cat has great taste. Better than some people I know. And PS – if I make “Cocktails and Cat Tails” will anyone watch? Even if it is just to laugh at me?

An old-fashioned blog post

(Hey there. Yes, it’s me…you probably don’t remember me, seeing as I haven’t blogged since October – EARLY October –  but can we just chalk it up to blogger burnout and move forward? Seriously though, I’m back, and I’ll try to be better. K, thanks!)

So, Mad Men is back – and it turns out that Don Draper going through creative withdrawal and a major midlife crisis is great for inspiration. First of all, I get to look at Don – and Roger, who has always been more my type. YUM. Second, I can revel in Peggy, my homely copywriter counterpart (though much more creative than I) finally using everything Don has taught her (“Change the conversation” – arrow to the heart, Drapes!). Third, I bought The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook for $3.99 on Amazon and Rikster and I are now spending every Sunday perfecting our retro cocktail skills.

cook book

This book is a highly entertaining read. It’s part kitschy cookbook, part obsessive-fan bible and part historical diary. Each entry, based on a dish or restaurant featured or prominently mentioned in a Mad Men episode, is meticulously documented and researched. The authors not only chronicle the episode that the dish/restaurant appeared in; they track down the menus of the time or where the recipe may have been published. If it’s a cocktail or appetizer being discussed, they find the magazine recipe driving housewives crazy or the restaurant that popularized the drink.

Anyway, I’ve been completely enamored with the book and in withdrawal from my favorite show (although The Americans has been somewhat filling my TV void…and god forbid, who knew that TNT would revive Dallas and it would be so damn enjoyable?!) so when the season six premiere came along, it seemed like the a great opportunity to prove that those who can read can DO.

No television event would be complete without the presence of the Rikster – always game for celebrity gossip (yes, we discussed the “Hammaconda“) and cocktail experiments. For the premier, we decided to go with the Don Draper fave, the Old Fashioned.

We probably should have used Canadian Club for authenticity, but I stumbled upon a bottle of Bulleit Rye at Meijer that afternoon, so Bulleit it was. Other than that, we stuck to the cookbook recipe – orange, sugar, bitters and maraschino cherry (although we  did use imported Luxardo cherries; sometimes you can’t take the Zingerman’s out of the girl) muddled with just enough soda to wet everything (thank you, SodaStream) topped with the rye and more club soda. We went old school with our glassware – I found these babies in my favorite Noblesville, IN, antique store – but modernized with large circular ice cubes.

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In short, we were pretty happy.

A few days later, I started to feel a little disloyal. After all, I professed my love for Roger Sterling for five seasons and then for the season six premiere I made DON’S drink? I felt like I owed it to Rog – especially with his mom dying and Joanie ignoring him and his daughter hitting up for cash – to at least make his favorite drink. Luckily, I was not going to climb a zillion flights of stairs, so I figured my chance of heart attack was slim to none. Therefore, I used the last of my precious Bombay Sapphire to mix a classic gin martini, once again using the cookbook’s method.

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I loved the drink, but to be honest, I loved using my vintage martini pitcher (from the Eastern Market antique store) and my coupe glasses (relics rescued from my family’s Orange Lantern bar) even more.

I acknowledge I used Mad Men as a crutch for this post – but in the end, does it really matter where inspiration actually comes from as long as one is inspired to do something? Rikster and I are mixing up cocktails every week, so look for more of these – along with the restaurant, cooking, travel and cat adventures that you used to know (and hopefully love).

A good Mani is (not) hard to find

Sometimes I annoy my friends by doing this:

That would be me, taking pictures of food in a restaurant. Luckily, most of my current group of friends is either A) used to this behavior and able to ignore it; or B) prone to doing the same thing. (Honestly, cabin girls, what did I do before you?!)

And when you are eating food as enjoyable as our recent pre-wine tasting meal at Mani Osteria and Bar, why wouldn’t you want to take pictures?

Mani is a new restaurant on Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor. While originally attracted to the idea of a good wood-fired pizza place, the small plates are what really caught my eye while looking over the menu online. The girls – my usual partners-in-crime Melissa, Riki, and Diane joined by the lovely Sandi and Sarah – were on the same wavelength, so we ordered a variety of small dishes for the table.

The first dish to arrive was a very generous portion of mussels in a white wine and garlic broth:

I swore after almost four years slinging mussels during happy hour at the Earle that I would NEVER order mussels in a restaurant again. I started down my slippery slope of mussel-ordering while dining at Dev’s in New London, CT. Candace and her crew made some mean mussels, and I realized that I really do enjoy eating them. *Sigh.* Mani’s were no disappointment, and were accompanied by some charred bread for dipping in the delicious broth.

Crispy pork belly soon followed;

We barely tapped this with a fork before it fell apart, it was so tender. It literally melted in the mouth, which was a great contrast with the crispy skin. The meat was so flavorful that the apricot relish served with it wasn’t necessary (but it was welcome).

Riki gasped in delight when she saw arancini on the menu:

The rest of us were unfamiliar, but the Rikster did not steer us wrong: these fried balls of rice, prosciutto and cheese served up with a tomato-ey sauce were a table favorite. We actually had to order more.

Fried artichokes came next. Unlike other fried artichokes I’ve had, they were not heavily battered – just lightly crisped and served with a lovely creamy lemon sauce:

Roasted olives came highly recommended by one of Melissa’s friends, so we ordered them. The presentation was adorable – they arrived in a small canning jar on a wooden serving board accompanied by more charred bread.

The olives were a revelation. First of all, they were warm – which was awesome. They were fragranced with herbs (rosemary, according to the menu) and were just rich and delicious.

Calamari seemed like a boring choice, but we like it so we ordered it anyway.

What a treat. Once again, very light batter, and instead of rings we were served a bowl of crispy tentacles (the best part). It was served with a sort of relish-like substance (tomato) which was a nice departure from a creamy sauce like you would get most places.

Almost as an afterthought, we ordered a pizza, a basic margherita.

It had a nice crispy crust and a slightly charred flavor. I could have used more basil, but the overall flavor was quite pleasant. I’d love to try more of the pizza varieties.

We enjoyed the atmosphere of Mani as well – lots of light wood, steel, and big windows in the bar area. We did note that as it filled up, the restaurant could get quite loud, but that’s a common problem.

I shouldn’t fail to mention that there is also a very creative specialty cocktail list featuring many things I am not at all familiar with. We ordered Roman Holidays, an extremely refreshing blend of an Italian sweet vermouth-type liquor (I can’t remember the name, and the drink menu isn’t on the website) mixed with fresh lemon juice and fresh mint. Like iced tea – only way better.

I’m anxious to get back to Mani and try more pizzas and pastas, but really, I am most excited to have such a nice small plates place in Ann Arbor. Good job, Mani – we can’t wait to come back.

Food, glorious food

After our wine tasting adventure on Saturday, the girls and I headed in to downtown Traverse City for a little food fun. Our first stop? American Spoon.

American Spoon, based in Petoskey, started out as a maker of artisanal jams and preserves. They’ve branched into other related products, including salsa, relishes, marinades, and more, though they probably remain best-known for their Early Glow Strawberry Preserves, made with fresh strawberries grown on the Leelanau Peninsula.

One of the best things about visiting an American Spoon store is that much like Zingerman’s, you can sample just about anything. There’s a large table in the middle of the Traverse City store with about twenty open jars and hundreds of little tasting spoons, but if you see something that you’d like to try and it’s not on the sampling table, just ask and you’ll probably receive – the women working in the store were extremely accommodating.

The ladies at American Spoon

After sampling more or less every product in the store (including the pistachio gelato, which may be the best gelato I’ve ever had), we left loaded down with bags. Standouts for me were a kiwi-lime salsa and the Portobello Mushroom Relish, an intensely savory concoction of  various mushrooms, white wine, garlic, olive oil, and herbs. YUM.

(For those not in the area: American Spoon has a mail order business – request a catalog or order online.)

After we miraculously found room in Melissa’s car for the American Spoon bags, we still had time to kill before our dinner reservation. We decided a cocktail downtown was in order. Since we were right across the street, we decided to go to Amical, where Noe and I ate dinner over labor day weekend. Melissa, Riki, and Diane went with the Le Petit Senegal, a blend of berry liqueur, ginger, lime juice, ginger ale, and soda water. I ordered a French 75, which consisted of gin, fresh lemon juice, Cointreau, and Champagne. Yum all around.

French 75, photo courtesy of Riki

Once the cocktails were finished, it was time to head to dinner. We had made a reservation at The Cooks’ House, a chef-owned restaurant specializing in local and seasonal cuisine. We were delighted to pull up and find the restaurant literally in a house.

At The Cook's House

The restaurant is very small but not crowded. We were greeted right away by a friendly server. The Cooks’ House does not serve alcohol at this time, and Traverse City does not allow patrons to BYOB, but we knew this going in. We ordered the Hummingbird iced tea (black tea with hibiscus) and sat back and waited for the food.

The four of us chose to do the seven-course tasting menu and see what the chef would put in front of us. We were not disappointed. I spent most of the evening in a food coma and NOT taking notes (bad blogger!) so you’re just going to have to take the pictures and my word for it: this food was amazing.

We started with a pork pate and fresh bread:

Our soup was a savory blend of potato and parsnip:

We moved on to gnocchi with venison Bolognese:

An intriguingly spiced, perfectly cooked piece of lake trout came next:

Then there was the beef cheek with the mashed potatoes (basic meat and potatoes, but so flavorful and perfectly cooked):

A palate-cleansing salad followed the beef, made with tender greens, dried Michigan fruits, salty pepitas, and tossed in a very light cherry vinaigrette (we think):

We were happy up to this point, but we went in to overdrive when the waitress brought out a cheese course – five different cheeses (including the famed Leelanau Raclette), dried Michigan fruits, and raw honey:

We could have stopped there and been totally satisfied, but we still had one more course – dessert. Our server brought out a cappuccino creme brulee. I think we all sighed with contentment at the sound of our spoons tapping through that caramelized crust:

Dessert was served with individual press pots of freshly ground coffee, the perfect end to the perfect meal. Needless to say, we did NOT need to dig in to our stash of Better Made licorice or Funyuns on the drive home – we were full and more than satisfied.

This was pretty much the perfect day any of us could have asked for on our up north adventure. It was great to go during the off-season and not have to deal with the crowds, and we still had great weather as a bonus. And definitely check out The Cooks’ House if you’re in that neck of the woods – I can’t wait to try it during different seasons and see what ends up on my plate.

Home on the Grange

I have yet to eat a full meal at Grange Kitchen and Bar, but it’s grown on me as a place to grab a cocktail and a snack…provided you like your snacks to contain duck fat, which, as it happens, I do.

Grange’s happy hour special is $2.00 off their artisanal cocktails, wines by the glass, and bar menu. This works for me as I am much more interested in the bar menu than in the dinner menu, which is why I have yet to eat there.

Photo: annarbor.com

The first time around, Diane and I split a charcuterie plate which included, among other things, pickled pig heart, lardons, and house-made prosciutto. Yum. The meats were salty (in that good, cured-meat kind of way), the lardons melted in your mouth, and the pickled heart had a faint briney flavor without being overpowering. Interesting texture, too – I think I expected something a little chewier, but it really wasn’t tough at all.

Charcuterie plate and fries

We also split the duck confit poutine with cheese curds and duck gravy, served over a hot and crispy order of house-cut fries. Yum. Duck has such a richness to it, and it comes across is the gravy. The cheese curds were very mild and enhanced rather than distracted from the duck flavor. This was a heavy, rich gravy – a little goes a long way, so the generous heaping of fries was definitely appreciated.

Poutine

A less-adorned plate of fries, with duck fat, smoked salt, and chili mayo also proved to be a satisfying choice on a cold afternoon.

My favorite snack at Grange by far, however, is the Scotch egg. Scotch eggs are maybe one of the best foods on the planet. Basically, what you’ve got is a hardboiled egg that has been completely encased in sausage meat and then fried. Grange’s version uses a duck egg, cooked to the point where the white is set but the yolk is still bright yellow and a little runny. Served atop a smidge of mustard-y sauce, the egg, yolk, meat, and mustard combine for the most delicious flavor explosion imaginable. I want to eat these for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Snack heaven.

Cocktails have so far been enjoyable, but truthfully we’ve been so enamored with the GGGinger (mint, ginger syrup, fresh lime, ginger beer, and gin, garnished with a big hunk of candied ginger) that we haven’t explored much of the menu.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about dinners at Grange, and it may be awhile before I get in to the main dining room to give the “real” menu a shot. However, I’d definitely recommend Grange’s bar menu – it’s comfort food with a twist.