A New Year’s Day Challenge

On Duty All Day: What with two family birthdays in December, our annual Christmas party, and Christmas Day itself, by the time the end of December rolls around Mrs. Banks has more or less had it with holiday mirth, and reserves January 1 as “her day,” by which she means that I’m the one that day who does the cooking, mixing, and champagne-fetching while she relaxes in the den binging on re-runs of Murder, She Wrote. It’s not a bad arrangement, actually. The only potential glitch comes in the evening when it’s time make dinner. I do well enough at the grill during the summertime, but the logistics of putting out an entire meal can be a challenge. The best solution—including, importantly, the production of a meal that’s actually worth eating—is roast chicken (a popular choice around here) and roasted potatoes.

I really have nothing to add to the literature of roast chicken, and am amazed that people have come up with so many ways to make it. The recipe I used last night turned out a  bird that was moist and tasty on the inside, with crispy skin on the outside. Also, it was simple to make, which can be a real plus if you find yourself at your wife’s beck and call all day. Here goes:

Peel 6 or so Yukon gold potatoes, cut in halves or thirds, and par boil for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rinse a 5-to-7-pound chicken and dry all over. Cut an onion and a lemon both in half and put ’em in bird’s cavity. Melt a stick of butter and brush some of it all over the bird. Season the chicken with salt, pepper, and tarragon and rosemary of you can find any. Place chicken (breast-side up!) in a roasting pan and arrange the boiled potatoes around it. Put chicken in oven. Baste it every 20 minutes with butter and, later on, its own pan juices. While you’re at it, baste the potatoes, too. After half an hour, turn oven down to 350 degrees. Chicken will be done in 90 minutes to two hours; check by making sure thigh juices run clear. When chicken is done, place it on a carving board and let it rest for 20 minute. While it’s resting, make the gravy in the roasting pan.

And dinner it is! We served family style with salad, dinner rolls and, much to my daughter’s horror, frozen cut-up green beans. The meal was a hit, just the same.

Finally! Something to Mix Tequila With.

Ironically Retro or Retro Irony? You Decide! Rosie Schaap notes that once-looked-down-upon 1980s-era drinks like the Long Island Iced Tea are making a comeback at hipster-ish cocktail bars in places like the East Village. Another sign, I think, we’re reaching Peak Cocktail. I don’t actually have anything against Long Island Iced Teas, but if you’re in the classy-drink business and you’re reduced to having to offer them as a novelty item to get the incremental customer in the door, you might have run out of truly worthwhile ideas. As it is, the upscale-cocktail people must already be rattled by the emerging Cider Bar threat.

LITOr I could be wrong. I was with Mrs. Banks and our daughters at a place called the Gilroy, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a few weeks back and found myself sipping a concoction I later learned was a variation on a drink called a Paloma: one-third each tequila, Aperol, and fresh lime juice, shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass. Delicious and refreshing! (I’d post a photo, but whenever I do, people e-mail to tell me to get a new camera.) If cocktail bars keep coming up with combinations like this, they have nothing to worry about. . . .

The Last Shall Be First—or Second, Anyway

A Christmas surprise: At an impromptu blind bourbon tasting at my office’s Christmas party Thursday night, the control brand we included—Early Times—came in second out of four, a surprise considering the other players in the field were no slouches: Makers Mark, Makers 46, and an artisanal brand from a distillery in Texas run by an old boyfriend of the host’s wife (long story). One would normally dismiss results like this as being the ravings of a bunch of know-nothing yahoos, but inasmuch as I was one of those yahoos, I’d rather not overly stress that angle. Rather, here’s my explanation for why things turned out the way they did:

Early Times really does taste better than many serious bourbon drinkers give it credit for.  I can confirm from experience that lot of bottom-shelf bourbons really are only semi-drinkable. That’s why they’re on the bottom shelf! But Thursday night, the Early Times we sampled was very worthwhile.

The tasting conditions might not have been ideal. I’m not sure how official bourbon tastings are run, but in this version we for some reason found ourselves sipping our whiskey, neat, out of tiny paper cups with pictures of Minnie Mouse on them. By the end of the second round, some of us might have been feeling a bit self-conscious. Perhaps we weren’t entirely on our game.Minnie

Certain small-batch bourbon distillers seem to know more about distilling than they do about bourbon. Heaven help me, but the stuff from Texas tasted like scotch. I’m sort of surprised we didn’t disqualify it entirely.

Now that I think of it, the yahoo-per-capita count on the judging panel was rather high. And, yes, some raving might have been going on.

My final verdict on the results: an extreme outlier, but not without a smidgen of pseudoscientific value. . . .

In Search of the Next Banks House Beer

I know it’s early, but I’m considering making a New Year’s resolution to change the brand of beer I stock in my bar’s refrigerator. The default there now is Heineken—a reasonable choice, when you consider my main criteria for choosing beer is that it be light enough that I can, during a day of football-watching, say, put down seven or eight bottles and still not feel too gassy by the time dinner hour arrives. (That is, it is “sessionable,” in the argot of beer snobs.)  But another reason I chose Heineken is that I liked the bottles it came in—their shade of green, in particular, and their stubby necks, which I took as sign of admirable contrarianism in a market that’s been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of longnecks. Unfortunately, Heineken has since gone the longneck route, too, and has even thrown in its lot with James Bond, so that its bottles no longer throw off that anti-chic vibe that I thought I detected. So come the new year, it may be time to make aHeineken bottles switcheroo. It is the same sort of dilemma, now that I think of it, that I hear hipsters are said to be having now that PBR is becoming semi-bourgeois.

Potential replacements (for me, not the hipsters) identified so far: Narragansett, which is as sessionable as anything you’re apt to come across this side of Coors Light. As a bonus, it also features, on the insides of its bottle caps, rebus puzzles, which I find can be highly engrossing especially if the 4:00 game turns into a blowout. Also, Stella Artois, except that that foil around the cap can be annoying. Additional suggestions welcome but, remember, I’m not made of money. . . .

P.S.: Irony alert!: Not long after Heineken switched to longneck bottles, the Miller Light people decided to bring back the steinie. Maybe Heineken is just permanently behind the curve on what counts as a stylish beer bottle. I may not have to make a switch after all. . . .

Christmas Cookies That Get The Job Done

Biscotti cookiesI enjoy looking at those glossy photos of the bright, sprinkle-laden Christmas cookies shaped like angels or whatever that are lately gracing the covers of a bunch of food magazines, and would surely enjoy eating them if the editors had the idea of shipping me a box. There’s only one problem: most of those cookies can’t possibly carry out the two traditional tasks I’ve come to expect true Christmas cookies to perform. Which are:

  1. They have to go well with beer. You’ll have your own treasured Yuletide memories; for me, an awful lot of them for some reason involve sitting up with family and friends until 2:00 a.m. or so over a long Christmas weekend, shooting the breeze, swilling beer—and eating one Christmas cookie after another until they’re just about gone. Sorry, but the traditional star-shaped sugar cookie that’s been dusted with red and green sprinkles, so favored by food-magazine photo editors, just isn’t up to the job. Too cloying. If the Christmas cookie makes the beer taste funny or vice versa, it’s an impostor, no matter how good it looks.
  1. They must be able to be consumed in large quantities at a single sitting. Rule of thumb: if a cookie is so sweet that you can’t keep eating one after another of it during an entire viewing of, say, White Christmas, it’s failed you in a very basic way. To some of us, watching old Christmas movies while endlessly stuffing our gullets with tasty, non-nutritious food is what Christmas is all about. Chocolate-covered snowflakes may look pretty, but you’ll be sick of eating ’em even before Bing and Danny’s drag duet rolls around. Trust me. I’ve tried.

Given this, not every holiday cookie recipe the Journal featured over the weekend qualifies as a True Christmas Cookie, but the biscotti-style cookies included in the list certainly do. I’m not much of a baker, but the recipe is so easy I was able to get through it with a minimum of crises and came up with a delicious result. And they go great with beer! Also, highly substitutable. I used pecans instead of walnuts and Amaretto instead of Nocino. Worked out fine. . .

For Watching Football, Truly
Authentic Chili con Queso

RoTelMy office’s football pool this year has been a disaster, having managed the neat trick of being both not fun and miserly with the payouts all at once. It’s a “survivor pool:” every week you pick a team you think will win on the coming Sunday, regardless of the spread. Then once you end up being be wrong twice, you’re out of the pool for good. The last player with fewer than two losses wins the entire pot.

Sound like fun? It’s as if the people who dreamt the scheme up didn’t realize that betting on football is supposed to be entertaining. I won’t bore you with the full list of objections I made (like, what’s the point betting on a game you’re not going to watch?) when it was somehow decided a survivor pool this year would be a good idea. Let’s just say the list was long and highly compelling.

I might’ve then simply sulked my way through the season, as is my wont when I don’t get my way, except for the occurrence of what I’ll call the “Week 2 Burn-Down.” Do you remember? That was the weekend that fully nine of 16 NFL underdogs actually won–some against double-digit favorites–with the aggregate result of all those upsets being the collapse of survivor pools from coast to coast. To an anti-survivor-ite such as myself, it was a highly gratifying moment. In our pool in particular, no one got his pick right that Sunday. Amid the general gloom in the office on Monday morning, I tried to keep my whistling to a minimum, and only reminded everyone ten or twelve times that I’d said survivor pools were a dumb idea in the first place. By week 7, enough additional losses had piled up that our pool was more or less defunct. The pool may have turned out to a disaster, but schadenfreude has never been so much fun.

Chips and Chili con Queso

Anyway, enough about the betting. Even absent it, one can still enhance one’s football-watching experience with the help of those two standbys that fans have been enjoying since the invention of the personal foul: beer and salty snacks. I’ll leave the choice of beer to you, but on the salty-snack front—perhaps because I don’t have the frisson of having any capital at risk on game day and so prefer munching on something extra-tasty—I find myself regularly having some chips and chili con queso. No, not the stuff out of a jar, or the fancied-up versions recipe developers have come up in order to avoid the indignity of having to call for Vel***ta. I mean the real thing. I’m amazed that the following recipe isn’t better-known here in the Northeast. It’s a staple especially in Texas. The people there will hopefully forgive me for sharing their little secret:

1 pound Velveeta

1 ten-ounce can Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and green chilies.

Cut up the Velveeta into cubes and put them into a sauce pan. Add the contents of the can of Ro-Tel chilies. Heat until the Velveeta is melted and contents are combined. Pour into a bowl and serve with tortilla chips.

Stop making faces. This is one dip recipe that is guaranteed to dazzle your guests, especially the men. Every chili con queso recipe you’ll ever run across aspires to taste like it. So cut out the busywork, I say, and go with what’s really authentic.

Grilled-Cheese Sandwiches: Keep ‘Em Simple

My younger daughter didn’t take kindly to the news, on the day after Thanksgiving, that there was no cranberry sauce left over for the turkey sandwiches. “What the heck happened?,” she wanted to know, in the sort of tone you might get from someone who’d just opened up her jewelry box and saw that it was empty. I told her I wasn’t sure, but said I thought—we’d hosted a higher-than-usual number of Certified Big Eaters for dinner the night before—that the sauce hadn’t even made it through the meal. Most 23-year-old women don’t react quite so abruptly to news of a leftover shortage, but my daughter is one of those people who appreciates Thanksgiving mainly for the opportunities it provides for good eating in the days that follow the actual meal. A lot of us are like that. I did my best to cobble together a stripped-down turkey sandwich for her (just mayonnaise and cold gravy), but that was scant comfort. She was only fully mollified when I suggested we forget the leftovers altogether and I make her a grilled-cheese sandwich, as well. Soon the crisis had passed, and I can’t say I was surprised.

In my experience, grilled-cheese sandwiches consistently score high on the comfort-food meter. And maybe by no coincidence, they’re one of those foods where the diligent home cook often turns out a product that’s better than what you’ll get from the pros, who seemingly can’t resist overdoing things. I watched a food show awhile back hosted by a renowned chef who provided his take on grilled-cheese. It was exhausting. Before the process was over, the chef had hauled out the Panini machine, grated two of kinds of Italian cheese, both with five-syllable names, made some Texas toast from home-baked bread, softened up a half a stick of butter, and chopped up a bunch of fresh herbs. I’m sure the resulting sandwich was outstanding (everything this guy makes looks great), but, come on, you can make a souffle with less hassle. Save yourself the bother; here’s the best way to grill a cheese sandwich:

Grilled-Cheese Sandwich

Spread mayonnaise on two slices of white bread, the thinnest you have in the house. Place the bread slices on a cutting board, mayo-side down. Put two or three slices of American cheese (yes, American; nothing else melts as well) on one bread slice, and place the other slice on the cheese, mayo side up. Transfer the sandwich to a lightly oiled griddle or fry pan that’s set  over low heat, and loosely cover with a piece of aluminum foil. With a spatula, keep checking the underside of the sandwich until it’s browned to your taste (which will happen faster than you think), then flip it and loosely cover with foil again. The second side will likely brown more quickly than first, so stay vigilant. Once the second side is done, remove the sandwich from the griddle, place on cutting board, slice it on the diagonal, and serve with your choice of mustard.

Easy, right? The objectives here are to get the right golden crispiness on the outside, keep the breadiness to a minimum, and have everything melted properly on the inside. All else is superfluous. If you spend any more time and effort than what I’ve described, you might as well be making something else.

A few caveats and observations: First, keep butter, softened or otherwise, out of the process entirely. It burns too easily. Mayo on its own will get the job done. Use whatever bread you’d like, as long as it’s white and sliced thinly. One day when the pantry was especially meager, I had to resort to hot dog rolls. The result wasn’t nearly as objectionable as you might imagine. Do not under any circumstances use dark or multi-grain bread, even if you’re on a health kick. They’re too dense, and their stronger flavor will obscure the majesty of the melted cheese. You can, if you’d like, use cheese other than American, but only if you’re on a clean-out-the-refrigerator project (the day after hosting a large cocktail party, say). Cheddar works well, as does Monterey jack. Mozzarella gets too stringy, though. I don’t much care for melted Swiss, but you’ll have your own taste. Some people prefer ketchup rather than mustard as an accompaniment. On this I will not comment. There’s only so much sin in the world one can deal with.

Surgery for Amateurs:
Carving the Thanksgiving Turkey

My Black & Decker electric carving knife arrived from Amazon last night, and I couldn’t be more excited.  I used to think electric knives were a kitchen novelty from the 1970s that had gone out with the Presto Hotdogger. Not so. Their utility became clear a few years ago when I went to carve our Thanksgiving turkey. Mrs. Banks always makes it a point of pride to roast a bird far larger than what’s strictly required to feed the family at the holiday meal (“we can have tetrazzini all next week!”), and that year’s was a bruiser extraordinaire.  So when I went to carve the bird–in particular, when I went to separate its leg from its thigh using just a chef’s knife–the joint I encountered was so large and stubborn I immediately knew I was in for an extended round of  hand-to-drumstick combat. I finally was able to get the bird fully dismembered, but by the time I did I’d done so much hacking away at it I felt like I should’ve been standing in a guest bathroom at the Bates Motel.

Since then, I’ve learned from no less an authority than Alton Brown that the electric carving knife is a Gadget in Good Standing in 21st-century American kitchens, and just the thing for cutting up a turkey. Phew. For all the Norman Rockwell-esque glow that surrounds the act of carving the holiday bird, the actual job can be a physical and logistical nightmare. The typical Thanksgiving turkey is huge, for one thing, so just finding enough space to lay out all  the carved meat can be a challenge. Then, as noted, there are those cussed leg and thigh joints to undo. The breast is a mountain of white meat, usually a tad overcooked, that’s nearly impossible to carve up without shredding. Then, once the knife has been laid down at last,  the stuffing needs to be scooped. The whole process really can be a bit of a chore. Anyway, I’ve mangled more Thanksgiving turkeys than I care to remember, and have learned from cold experience that this procedure works best:

Carving Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Place a second carving board alongside the one the turkey is resting on. If you have a pair of disposable latex gloves handy, put them on. Plug in your electric carving knife (trust me!) and use it to separate the bird’s leg from its thigh, and place the leg on the spare carving board. Then, also with the electric knife, separate the thigh from the body of the bird, and put the thigh on the carving board, as well. Repeat until you run out of legs and thighs. Pull the meat off the drumsticks and place on a serving platter.  Take a chef’s knife and cut the thigh mean away from the bone and place it on the serving platter, too. Toss the thigh and leg bones into the pot of turkey stock simmering on the range. (Turkey legs are highly overrated as actual food.) Next, with a chef’s knife, cut away the entire breast from one side of the bird and place it on carving board, then cut away the breast from the other side. Cut the breast meat, across the meat’s grain, into half-inch or so slices, and transfer them to the serving platter. Do your best to keep skin attached. Take a moment to catch your breath, then pull out a serving bowl and large spoon and scoop out the damned stuffing. Have someone else carry the platter and bowl to the table, and take a short rest.

There. Thanksgiving dinner is officially on.

How To Make A Fake Brandy Alexander

There’s a certain type of drinker who just can’t resist the offer of an after-dinner Brandy Alexander. Mrs. Banks’s sister falls into this category, for instance, and I can’t say as I blame her. The drink might be mildly out of style, but it’s delicious, just the same. And when it’s served with a garnish of cinnamon or nutmeg, can be positively elegant.

But I serve them so rarely now, I’m not always conscientious about keeping the ingredients on hand. This was less of an issue years ago, especially the times when the family would gather at Mrs. Banks’s parents’ place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My father-in-law has never been an especially adventurous drinker, and stocked his bar accordingly. The typical inventory, if I remember right, was a bottle or two of whiskey, a smattering of liqueurs, and a bottle of plum wine that had been acquired years ago during my mother-in-law’s “Japan” period.

Those pickings might have been slim, but not so slim that I couldn’t figure out a way cobble together an ersatz Brandy Alexander out of them whenever I (inevitably) asked if anyone would care for one and my sister-in-law (also inevitably) piped up that, yes, yes she would. Not having any actual brandy or crème de cacao on hand presented less of a problem than you might think. Whiskey (anything but scotch) stands in nicely for the brandy, especially if you don’t volunteer to the drinker that you’ve made the switch. As for the crème de cacao, all sorts of liqueurs will substitute well. Frangelico and Amaretto come to mind, in particular. (There’s less wiggle room on the dairy side, although, in a pinch I’ve used skim milk instead of the cream and didn’t get nearly as many complaints as I expected.)

Years later, I finally confessed that I’d been winging the ingredients all that time, and am happy to say my sister-in-law received the information more graciously than she had a right to. (She did say she’d been mildly suspicious all that time; the woman’s not an idiot, after all.) I then gave her a blind taste test that pitted four versions of my fake Brandy Alexander against the real thing, to find out which one tasted best. In the event, the real McCoy only managed to come in third.

Brandy Fauxlexander

  • 1 ounce whiskey (your pick of bourbon, rye, Canadian, or American blend)
  • 1 ounce of some liqueur or other (Amaretto, Benedictine, Frangelico, and Irish Mist all work great)
  • 1 ounce cream or milk

Pour whiskey, liqueur, and milk or cream into a mixing glass filled with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with a pinch of nutmeg or cinnamon.

Stocking the Liquor for Thanksgiving

Forget choosing the menu or deciding which stuffing to make, the most fun part of Thanksgiving planning for me is coming up with the liquor list. We’ll be nine this year: the whole family plus my son’s new fiancée, along with three of my older daughter’s friends who’ll be visiting from England. Two of those three are British and have never had a real American Thanksgiving before, so we’d like to make the day reasonably authentic. Mrs. Banks can of course be counted on to lay out a Thanksgiving  spread so traditional that we’ll be referring to each other as “thee” and “thou” by the time dessert rolls around, but I’ll try to help keep things real, too, with a few tweaks to the liquor selection. As to the beer, for example, I’ll dispense with any new-age, craft-style selections and instead go with what we grew up with: old-fashioned, watered-down, American-style pilsner. Beer cognoscenti refer to this type of beer as “sessionable,” or what, in an earlier era, the Schaefer people meant when they promised that their beer was the one to have when you’re having more than one. That’s a definite plus.  If there’s ever a day when one should pace oneself, Thanksgiving is that day.

I’ll of course lay in some bourbon—what can be more American?–both bottom-shelf (for the Manhattans) and some fancier stuff (for Mrs. Banks and the girls). Also scotch—no, not in any sort of latter-day nod to the Mother Country, but because my son likes it, having become a confirmed scotch drinker ever since a high school trip to Scotland. (Long story.) He prefers high-end, semi-obscure brands, but I’m trying, for his own sake, to wean him down to something more reasonable. That won’t go over well—it sure didn’t last year—so I’ll almost certainly end up bringing home a bottle of single-malt that has a name that’s nearly unpronounceable.

As to to the rest of my liquor list, there’s no sense stinting on the vermouth for the Manhattans. Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, and Cocchi will work fine. Also, for after dinner, port. My pals at Franco’s here in New Canaan, who are rarely wrong on these matters, pointed me towards the ten-year aged tawny port from Noval and, at the higher end, the 2003 Taylor Fladgate or 2003 Graham’s.

We already have plenty of vodka on hand, but not Bloody Mary mix–which, if recent Thanksgivings are anything to go by, can come in handy on Friday morning. If people are feeling especially stricken, we’ll switch them up to gin.

Regarding the wines we’ll be serving, the family has forbidden me from having any say in the matter whatsoever ever since I brought home some Chardonnay made in (I think) Uruguay whose most notable feature was that it came in a box. (“If you drop it by accident, it won’t break,” is how I justified my choice.) But the folks at Franco’s do know a thing or two about wine. After an inquiry by me on what will go well with Thanksgiving dinner, here’s what they suggested. Also, I’ll be getting plenty of Champagne.

Finally, late in the evening some of us (and hopefully also the visiting Brits) might decide to channel our inner Lebowskis, so I must remember to get a bottle of Kahlua.

All this, and we’ll be well prepared. Oh yes, and we’ll also have roast turkey.