House Special Fade Out & a Homey Casserole from a Guastavino’s Chef

With the turning of the new year, House Special is going into hibernation. Fortunately, we’ve salted away a pretty solid back catalog of recipes and party ideas. Over the past few months, we’ve concocted cocktails, learned how to pair wine with vegetarian meals and everything else, cribbed a spaghetti dish from Isaac Mizrahi, picked up cheese and chile educations, mixed tempeh and tequila, figured out how to make our apartments look less like urban wastelands, and infiltrated the cocktail menu of one of New York’s best bars. Oh, and we’ve made a red velvet cupcake for Megan Fox. Before we prepare our departing toasts, we’ve got a last recipe for the cold months ahead. It comes to us from Brian Di Giorgi, senior sous chef with the Rose Group (Guastavino’s and 583 Park Avenue), who sat down with Stephanie Kramer and shared some thoughts about entertaining at home. Happy New Year!

When did you know you wanted to be a chef? I was 21 years old and not really getting much done with my life. I had been working at Wholey’s, a fish market in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and that’s where I was exposed to the food industry for the first time. The fishmongers taught me how to butcher fish. One day I was making pasta and sauce for Sunday dinner at my mother’s house when she asked me, “What are you going to do with your life? Because you can do whatever you want as long as you put your mind to it. Pick something you like to do, and just do it!” All the while this conversation was going on I was stirring my sauce, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I love to cook, and I love food. Culinary school started two weeks later.

What’s it like to cook for large, high-profile events? One word: stressful. I always explain the stress factor in my job to people like this: in a restaurant setting if you have an overcooked steak, or an undercooked pasta, or a dry piece of fish, you can correct those problems by re-firing the order and comping some drinks. In my world, if you just overcooked one steak, you just overcooked 700 steaks. There is very little room for error.

When you entertain at home, what kind of food do you like to serve? I like to think that I serve simple food, but that’s never the case. What starts as a small gathering of friends with a bottle of wine usually turns into a full-on buffet with bottle service. I like to head to the greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza and pick up fresh protein and produce. I usually just buy whatever looks good that day and head home to start creating a menu. A lot of the stuff I do at work inspires me, and I try to take those ideas and put them into more of a comfort food style. Lots of beets (even though my wife despises them), and a massive amount of pork usually find their way onto my home menus. I mainly just try to serve food that inspires conversation and makes people smile.

A few months ago, you were on your honeymoon in the Yucatan. How was the food there? My experience with food there was amazing. I have always had a special place in my heart for what we in the industry call “family meal.” Family meal is usually cooked by someone who is trying to earn their chops in the kitchen. Every station will take its scraps and give it to the family meal cook. It’s then their responsibility to make it into something we can all enjoy during our break before service. A lot of the food I ate in Mexico was so reminiscent of that, what I call “Necessity Cooking,” eating and using what you have. There is no Dairyland, Baldor, or Sid Wainer to deliver what you want, you work with what you have. I did pick up a few things there, and my cooks loved it when I came back and made family meal tacos.

Do you have a favorite food or drink recipe for home entertaining that you’d like to share with us? I do actually, but it is more home-fare. This is a dish that my mother used to make for me as a kid, and I feel that every time I make it I can still sense her presence here. I have revamped it to put a chef twist on it, but it’s still nothing more than good, homestyle food done well.

Mary Grace’s Tuna Fish Casserole Revisited 1 bag Pennsylvania Dutch Egg Noodles 1 can Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom or Celery Soup 1 can Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese Sauce 2 cans Starkist tuna packed in oil 1 can sauerkraut 1 sleeve Ritz crackers Butter Shredded cheddar cheese A little hot sauce—not to taste it, just enough to enhance all the other flavors. Maybe like two shakes from a bottle. Preferably Sriracha (the red sauce with the rooster on the bottle and the green top).

Preheat oven to 350˚. Boil water, add egg noodles. Cook noodles al dente. Drain hot water and shock the pasta with cold water to stop the cooking process. Meanwhile, add the cream soup and cheese sauce to the same pot you just cooked the pasta in over medium heat. Drain the oil from the can of tuna and add the tuna to the sauce. Drain half of the juice from the sauerkraut, add sauerkraut, and hot sauce. Bring to a simmer and fold in the pasta. Check seasoning and add salt/pepper if needed. Spray a casserole dish with vegetable spray and pour the mix in. Sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese on top. Crush Ritz crackers up in a bowl, and pour melted butter over the top, and toss to coat the crackers. Sprinkle over the top of the dish. Wrap with plastic wrap and then foil, place in oven for somewhere around 35-40 minutes on 350˚. Once the casserole is on the firm side, remove the foil/plastic and put back in the oven for 5-10 minutes more to crisp the top. Eat and enjoy! This was something my mom used to make all the time, but upgraded. I hope you like it.

Bourbon: American as Apple Pie

Bourbon. The very word conjures something classic—say, a chance encounter at a dive bar in a ’40s film noir. The girl’s got moxie, so she takes it on the rocks, the same as the mysterious stranger with his brim pulled low. She matches him drink for drink as the clock ticks on toward midnight. At the witching hour, she gets up to leave and sidles past Mr. Tall/Dark/Handsome, and her satin heels are nearly out the door when he reaches out and pulls her into a long, smoky kiss. I’m not promising bourbon can do this for you. But try ordering it the next time you saddle up at your favorite watering hole. Chances are, the bartender will have a decent selection. Because bourbon’s back, baby, and with a bang.

An American classic if there ever was one, bourbon got its start in the limestone waters of Kentucky, where most bourbon is distilled to this day. The corn-based liquor gets its smooth, sweet smokiness from the charred interiors of new white oak barrels. To learn more about bourbon’s colorful history and that of its kissing cousin, Tennessee Whiskey (e.g. Jack Daniel’s), check out Fred Thompson’s new book, Bourbon. Thompson also breaks down the whole small-batch and single-barrel thing. But the real reason to pick this up? Fifty fine recipes, from the evergreen mint julep to the author’s bourbon balls.

A true southern comfort, the mint julep is due for a comeback. We’re hoping to taste-test the perfect bourbon to mix in this drink at next month’s Beer, Bourbon & BBQ festival in NYC. In the meantime, we’re ringing in a minty-fresh New Year with the book’s silver-cup classic from the famed Greenbrier; along with a festive spin, the Sparkler. Bubbles up!

The Greenbrier’s Mint Julep 12 fresh mint sprigs, plus 2 sprigs for garnish 2 oz simple syrup Crushed ice 4 oz bourbon (Thompson’s preference: Maker’s Mark)

Place two old-fashioned glasses or julep cups in the freezer for about 15 minutes. Place 6 mint sprigs and 1 oz simple syrup in the bottom of each glass. Muddle until the mint is crushed. Fill the glasses with crushed ice and divide the bourbon between the glasses. Stir until the glasses are frosted and the drink is extremely cold. Garnish with the remaining mint, and serve. Serves two.

Mint Julep Sparkler ¾ cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves 1 tbs superfine sugar 4 oz bourbon One 750-ml bottle very cold Champagne

1) In a small bowl, combine the mint leaves, sugar, and bourbon. Crush this mixture slightly to extract flavor from the mint. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least six hours; overnight is much better. The flavor continues to improve the longer the mixture is left to marry. 2) Remove the bourbon mixture from the refrigerator and strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, pressing hard on the mint leaves to extract every bit of juice you possibly can. Discard the leaves. 3) Spoon 2 tsp of the bourbon-mint syrup into each of the six Champagne flutes. (You’ll have enough syrup left over to make another batch.) Equally divide the Champagne among the flutes, and serve immediately. Serves six.

Note: the presentation and flavor of this drink are much more impressive when the Champagne flutes have been placed in the freezer for several

New Year, New Wine: Sparkling Alternatives to Champagne

It’s New Year’s again, and whether you think it’s the ultimate party or the ultimate amateur night, you’re probably drinking a sparkling beverage. Notice that I didn’t say “Champagne.” You can only use the word Champagne for sparkling wine if it comes from the Champagne region of France, and is made in the serious and complicated old-school method. With the economy still in the tank, it may be better to venture beyond this esteemed region (and its $30+ price tags) and find some bottles that are unique and affordable, while being every bit as bubbly.

If you’re already in the French section at the liquor store, you can stay put because the little-known secret is that you can get awesome sparkling wine for half the price of Champagne right there. Les Français have protected the name of Champagne, so only wines from that region carry the name, but the techniques used to make it are employed all over France, masquerading under the name “Crémant.” If you want to be really savvy, pick up a Crémant d’Alsace made from Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or Riesling, among other grapes. Or try a Crémant de la Loire for a sparkling Chenin Blanc, or a Crémant of Chardonnay from Limoux in Southern France. All completely rock and some are even better than the original Champagne, especially if you consider the value for the price.

We all know the Spanish love to party. What you may not know is that they do it with bubbly just like everyone else. Spain learned how to make their version of sparkling wine, Cava, from the French. The only difference—it’s about one third the price of Champagne. These are probably the best values in bubbles and they are pure pleasure for your mouth. If you find a rose Cava, buy it immediately. For something light and fruity, report directly to the Italian section and try Prosecco. You can pick some decent stuff up for $10, and if you spend $15 or $20 the difference is huge. Regardless of price, all these bubblies are floral, light, and fruity. They may be less serious than Champagne, but they are still a great way to get your effervescence fix. Wines from the U.S. are another option, but proceed with caution. Our sparkling wines tend to be overpriced and underwhelming. Some are just plonk. There is one producer in New Mexico, of all places, that makes some great-value sparkling wine. If you can get some from Washington State, you may have a real find. Still, my vote is to stick with Europe. You won’t regret it. No matter what you choose, be safe, and have a fabulous time toasting 2010 with your alternative bubbly.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine, Sommelier, and wine educator in Atlanta who teaches about wine in a normal, relatable way. For more of her musings please visit her blog Wine for Normal People or her Twitter @Vine75.

[Photo/ / CC BY-SA 2.0]

A Toast to a Healthy 2010 with VeeV Açaí Spirit

Sometimes I’m short on New Year’s resolutions. I mean, I’m already trying as hard as I can. Do I really need to cook up more constraints? To which a friend always suggests “Eat slower and floss more.” And at the turn of every year it still works as a resolution. I could always be healthier. Even when drinking. In that spirit, VeeV sends along a “New Year, New You” cocktail. “The Eco-Aid” keeps the calorie count under 100. The alcohol, VeeV, is infused with the antioxidant-rich açaí berry. And you’ll feel even better knowing that VeeV donates $1 to the Brazilian rainforest with every bottle sold. (VeeV is also a carbon-neutral spirit, if you want to get an early start on one of the upcoming decade’s major trends.) The lemonade in the cocktail may be a little summery, but on a bitter day like this, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

VeeV Eco-Aid 1 ½ oz VeeV Açaí Spirit Lemonade Splash of Cranberry (optional) Lemon slice, for garnish

Add ingredients to an ice-filled highball glass. Stir well. Garnish with the lemon slice.

A Cure For Wassails You: A Christmas Wine Punch

Time to throw in the candy cane, your package will most definitely not arrive by December 25. Therefore, gas station gifts for all (Ring Pops! Slim Jims! cigarette cartons!), and liquor for you. Seasonal lushes know there’s a drink for every festivity: New Year’s bubbly; red, white, and blue Jell-O shots; bobbing for bourbon apples. Christmas is eggnog, predominantly enjoyed by people with fat knees, and I refuse to participate. Luckily, there is an alternative—wassail.

I have a vague memory of tiny paper cups of hot apple cider and wandering around listlessly with my elementary school classmates singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Batman and Robin Version)” to janitors and gym teachers. Or maybe that was an Ambien fever dream; I can never tell. Anyhow, real wassailing is way better. Every year in Carhampton, Somerset, center of the wassail world, English village people form a circle around the apple tree most convenient to the pub, hang pieces of cider-soaked toast from its branches and fire off shotgun rounds. Of course, when handling firearms in the winter it is important that one’s ale is warm. Traditional wassail punch is bubbling with brown sugar, baked apples, sherry, and brandy. Toasty enough to blunt grandma’s pain over receiving a gift box of multi-hued pens once again, no singing required.

Wassail 10 small apples 10 tsp brown sugar 2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg 1 tsp ground ginger 3 cloves 3 allspice berries 1 cinnamon stick 2 cups superfine sugar 1/2 cup water 6 eggs, separated 1 cup brandy

Preheat oven to 350˚. Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water. Bake for 30 minutes or until tender. Combine sherry or Madeira, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, and water in a large saucepan and simmer on very low heat; do not allow to come to a boil. Beat egg yolks until light and lemon-colored; beat whites until stiff and fold into yolks. Strain the saucepan’s wine mixture and gradually add to the eggs, stirring constantly. Add the brandy. Pour into a punch bowl and float the apples on top. Serve in warmed mugs. Serves 10.

[Photo/ / CC BY-SA 2.0]

Rye to the World: A Whisky Alternative for a Cold Night

I’d imagine it’s been years since your last visit to a rye field. You remember….that warm September afternoon, the way the stalks waved in the wind, the abundant sunshine that brought hope to the distant hillsides, the string section that almost made you cry with its interpretation of Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.” Or maybe rye brings you back to Soviet propaganda posters, where a babushka-wearing ingénue holds the grain in one hand and a beet in the other. I forgot all of these associations during an evening spent with some Jim Beam Rye Whiskey.

On first sniff, I was surprised by the sweetness—there were a few notes of caramel and brown sugar. The taste, however, was sharp and almost spicy. By law it’s required to come from a mash of at least 51 percent rye, compared to bourbon, which is distilled from corn. Rye House near Union Square is an excellent place to enjoy this rich and complex spirit. Their long wooden tables are inviting, elegant, and will give you plenty of room to sample favorites such as Old Potrero and Pappy Van Winkle rye whiskeys. By the time you head out into the cold, you’ll be warm and wise and left with a taste that’s hard to forget. For home entertaining on a winter night, try a Sazerac, a classic rye whiskey cocktail with roots in New Orleans.

Sazerac 2 oz rye whiskey 5 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters ¼ ounce absinthe 1 sugar cube 1 lemon twist

Combine ingredients and shake with ice. Garnish with lemon twist, or a slab of peel. Enjoy!

[Photo/ / CC BY-SA 2.0]

Last-Minute Christmas Wine Shopping

Inevitably there is one person on your Christmas list who a.) you’ve procrastinated buying for because they are ridiculously picky; b.) you completely forgot you needed to get something for; c.) got you something, and now you have to reciprocate. Never fear: unless they’re a teetotaler (which should have you questioning why you’re friends with them in the first place), wine is the best gift to give. For $15 you can get someone a solid bottle that will taste delicious if it’s opened with the Christmas goose this week. If you have a little more to spend, you can get a bottle for $25-$30 that will have you looking like a wine connoisseur. Better still, if you play your cards right, the person can age the wine for 3 to 5 years, and hopefully they’ll wait to open it until you come over to their house for dinner! It’s like a present for you and for them.

But what to buy? There are amazing deals on wine right now, and if you are looking for something in the $25-$30 range, you can get bottles that are good today and will be lights-out in about 3 to 5 years. Wines that are sure to impress and age gracefully come from many places, but Europe’s got a treasure trove for age-able goodness, and it’s my pick for the best place to look. So for $25-$30…

France • For a big, complex, age-able red try a Bordeaux, specifically from the Medoc, Graves, or Pommerol. 2005 was a historically amazing vintage and 2006 was pretty great, too, so look for those years on the bottle. • Premier Cru from Burgundy will be amazing in a few years. Go for a red (Pinot Noir) with earthy, velvety flavors, or a white (Chardonnay) that has solid acidity yet creamy, tropical fruit, and butterscotch flavors as it gets older. • The Northern Rhône makes delicious Syrah that tastes like dark fruit, herbs, and meat (no joke)—look for Crozes-Hermitage, which is affordable and terrific.

Italy • Italy makes some darn fine wine. The best stuff is red and it’s expensive. Forgo the Barolo for its little, softer sister, Barbaresco—a delicious choice that will stretch your buck.

Spain • Or try Spain and go for a Rioja Reserva, which has been aged for 3 years by the time you get it, but can stand another 3 to 5 more in the bottle. This baby will be full of spice, leather, and complex earthy flavors when you pair it with tapas.

California • Napa Cabernet can be unreliable for long-term aging, but to drink in the next few years you can get great wines right now at bargain prices. Take advantage of the bad economy and get a steal from Napa’s Stags Leap District.

Dessert Wines • Finally, if your friend or family member likes sweet wines, go for a 10-year old Tawny Port from Portugal, or an Eiswein from Germany or Canada.

Think about who you have in mind and take care of that shopping now! Happy Holidays.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine, Sommelier, and wine educator in Atlanta who teaches about wine in a normal, relatable way. For more of her musings please visit her blog Wine for Normal People or her Twitter @Vine75.

[Photo / / CC BY-SA 2.0]

Thai’ing One On: A Mekhong Whisky Cocktail

Never has there been a year I wanted to be a celebrity less. Even in ‘09’s waning days, they’re still dropping like flies. Chris Henry, age 26? Brittany Murphy, 32? If I were famous, I’d lock myself in one of my estates and not come out again until 2010. And that’s to say nothing of the scandals. There’s so much going on, it’s hard to not get all caught up in the lives of strangers. It’s a long-running human tradition, after all. The ancients looked to the gods, who also squabbled and cheated and died too young. People studied those lives closely as cautionary tales, or sources of courage. This time of year, though, is the time to keep up with the people we know outside of our flickering rectangles. I just had a vegetarian friend in town and took him out to Pukk. My buddy really enjoyed being able to order freely from an entire menu. I really enjoyed the cocktails. (The food was actually delicious, too, so good that for once I didn’t miss the meat.)

Pukk doesn’t have a full liquor license, but they do an admirable job with sake and fresh Thai flavors. I spent a few weeks in Thailand a few years back, and there’s nothing like smell and taste to bring back memories. For the first time, the ubiquitous Thai whisky Mekhong is available in the U.S. “Whisky” is misleading: it’s distilled from sugar cane and rice spirits, so rum might be a better categorization. The company calls it “the spirit of Thailand,” and their website has a series of cocktails based on the liquor. I’m going to grab a bottle from Astor Wine & Spirits this week and serve a few crisp and sweet Lime and Pear Panyas. And I’ll toast the season this year with a little extra appreciation for being alive.

Lime and Pear Panya 2 shots Mekhong ½ shot elderflower cordial ¼ fresh pear cut lengthways 3 wheels of fresh ginger root ¾ shot fresh squeezed lime juice 1 bar spoon of sugar ½ Kaffir lime leaf (optional, for garnish)

In a mixing glass, muddle the pear, ginger, and sugar. Add Mekhong and the rest of the ingredients. Add ice and shake vigorously for 7-8 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. Tear Kaffir lime leaf for garnish (place pieces on top of the drink), or fit leaf into rim of glass. Enjoy.

Nigori Milk Punch: A New Cocktail from PDT

As 2009 draws to a close, the elaborate cocktail craze is still going strong. Recent additions like Raines Law Room, Rye House, and Mayahuel show that New Yorkers remain plenty into expanding their alcohol horizons. Working up an involved cocktail for home entertaining is a good way to expose your guests to something they might not otherwise know exists. Jim Meehan of PDT sends along a recipe that makes use of some intriguing obscurities.

The biggest contributor is a sake, Kamoizumi Nigori (nigori means it’s unfiltered). The grain solids left behind make it cloudy in appearance. As the sweetest of sakes, nigori tends to get shorted when it comes to respect, but Kamoizumi’s version stands out. It’s creamy, with subtle notes of fruit, and a much less sweet flavor than its brethren. The next ingredient is Hine Cognac, which has been made on the banks of the Charente River in France for centuries. After that, it’s half an ounce of Navan, a cognac made with black vanilla bean from Madagascar. The cocktail’s secret ingredient comes from BlackBook’s own Zachary Feldman. What’s cooler than having your DIY bitters sneak into a recipe at one of the city’s most OCD cocktailers? Having it happen twice. And it’s even cooler when they slap your name on the ingredient itself. The Nigori Milk Punch is tentatively scheduled to go up on the winter menu this weekend (and no worries for the lactose intolerant, that’s a figurative milk thanks to the creamy nigori). As for those smoked bourbon bitters, you’ll either have to break out the Polyscience Smoking Gun or find a suitable bourbon and apple-lemon juice stand-in.

Nigori Milk Punch 2 oz Kamoizumi Nigori 1 oz Hine Cognac 1/2 oz Navan 3 dashes Feldman Bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with grated nutmeg. Enjoy!