Wednesday, June 30, 2010

All About the Family

It's hard to believe that at the end of this week it will already be July, with the Fourth landing on Sunday. Normally we close on the holiday, but when it breached the weekend the last couple of years we decided to stay open for brunch, before the festivities begin.

Since the Fourth is the biggest grilling day of the year in our country I knew that I wanted to create something that not only reflected this truly American tradition, but what it has also come to represent: being with family (hey, freedom was last week's topic).

On our last trip to NYC my wife and I spent some much needed time with her family, starting with our ritual family dinner at Frannie and Phil's, where Uncle Phil and I collaborate on the menu. A true "foodie", Phil's taste is on par with my own, but due to a bum wing (shoulder surgery) he made a better advisory than sous chef, leading me on a Sunday hunt for the freshest ingredients that Cobble Hill, Brooklyn had to offer.

Frannie and Phil's pantry could astound even the most seasoned chef, from the best olive oil, to muscat vinegar (his AMAZING secret ingredient to a warm beet salad) and even a selection of dried chiles smuggled from Mexico. And then there's the built-in grill on top of his stove... how could I not cook in this kitchen?!?

What I ended up making was large, one pound hamburgers topped with foccacia and a grilled tomato version of salsa that was a mix of something American, Italian and Hispanic; the perfect taste of American summer to offer as the ultimate tribute to the birth of our nation.

Since I couldn't offer gigantic hamburgers, I chose to do a variation of pork cutlets by pounding thin slices of pork loin and breading them with finely ground popcorn, which not only gives them an airy crust but also allows the ever-growing gluten allergic the opportunity to enjoy a fried breading.

I made the salsa by grilling tomatoes and sweet Walla Walla onions that were then chopped and tossed with ground, dried New Mexico chiles that are mild and smokey. I finished the "salsa" by adding freshly chopped cilantro and parsley, and an added bonus of pancetta that was braised to not only tenderize it but also remove the excess salt required to cure it.

As a final note I swirled the plate with Chinese black vinegar that I had reduced with some corn syrup to replicate the common balsamic vinegar reduction that normally adorns these simple dishes but with another dimension of spice and complexity.

I thought about featuring a fancy cocktail with red, white and blue layers to honor the 4th of July but two important truths made me reconsider: 1 - Tommy, our resident bartender/server would deal me a well deserved slap in the face for forcing him to tediously pour layer after agonizing layer, even if it's in honor of freedom, and 2 - the only truly blue liqueur is Blue Curacao (which is dyed) and the only white colored ingredients are cream, and maybe even chilled Ouzo... not a great start for a tasty beverage, so I went another route.

We all go through our cocktail fazes; like for me there was one summer in college where spent tonic bottles leftover from gin and tonics were so prevalent that we started to use them to hold up windows, prop open doors, etc. It has taken me 14 years, until just now, to start appreciating gin again. I'm sure you all have your own sagas; feel free to send them to me if you want.

My older brother, Craig, naturally introduced me to many, many things, including my first drink as well as new (to me) cocktails. Once, he was on a Sloe Gin Fizz kick; another time, when we lived together in NYC, there was the Cherry Lime Rickey. It was by his account a non-alcoholic version made with an Italian cherry syrup, fresh lime and soda water, but eventually ended up with vodka added to it without knowing that the true origin lies with gin.

Now that I have come to terms with using gin's botanical aromatics (thanks to my confusing love for juniper berries) I feel that I can finally offer my own version of this cocktail that combines a little of my past with my present.

Although cherries were once my favorite fruit it's still too early to offer them, so here I went with raspberries instead. With their sweet and tart balance they made a beautiful base for this refreshing drink. After cooking them down and straining out the pulp I poured the remaining syrup over gin and ice along with a healthy squeeze of fresh lime juice and a good douse of club soda to keep it light and bubbly, a true representation on the original.

With Love,