The Ultimate Summer Quencher: Watermelon Agua Fresca

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While I ate my share of fancy food in Austin, it’s a simple food cart that has been on my mind since we left. At Veracruz All-Natural, the migas breakfast tacos were unbelievably fantastic, which makes sense since they border on legendary, but it was the watermelon agua fresca that inspired obsession.

It could have been because we had drank a good amount the night before and then walked 2 miles in 90 degree weather to the cart, but one sip of that agua fresca was enough to knock my socks off. Sadly it’s one of my biggest vacation regrets that we never made it back for a second one.

And oh, we wanted to — in fact, every other day we tried to plot a trip back to the cart. But every time something else distracted us (either in the form of brisket or beer).

To make it up to me, last weekend my husband brought me home a huge watermelon. We shared a meaningful look and then I immediately turned to google.

Happily, there’s not much to making a great agua fresca (though I still hold Veracruz’s up to level far above just ‘great’).

You need a watermelon, some sugar, water and a lime. And a blender. It’s that easy.

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Homemade Watermelon Agua Fresca

Serves 2

  • 2 cups cold, ripe watermelon, diced
  • 1/8-1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1 lime
  • Ice

Put first three ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth and slightly frothy. Taste for sweetness, adjust as needed. Add a generous squeeze of lime. Pour into glass with ice, garnish with lime and serve.

For a super refreshing, more “slushie” version, freeze the diced watermelon for an hour prior to blending.

Optional: Add booze! I have no doubts this would taste delicious with alcohol.

Now go forth and quench your summer thirst with the best thing possible. Or, if you are lucky enough to live in Austin, visit Veracruz All-Natural and drink one for me!

Watermelon Agua Fresca

Salted limes make vodka happy…

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Salted Lime Vodka Collins

I’ve been on a real Pok Pok tear lately — I’ve been cooking out of the book for the past few weeks and my daydreams have begun to feature fish sauce wings (a recipe I haven’t made yet). But even more than Ike’s famous wings, I have been craving a certain cocktail from Pok Pok — the salted plum vodka collins. Besides the odd beer here and there, this is the only thing I drink while dining there.

It is sweet, tart, tangy and intriguingly different from any other cocktail I’ve had. Once I discovered it, it was all I ever needed.

In fact I used to sit at the bar in the early days of Pok Pok (when it was less busy and you could actually just walk in and sit there) and stare down the bartender as he made it. I was determined to figure the recipe out — and after a few drinks one evening, I had it on mental lock down.

But alas, the day I was craving it the strongest, I didn’t have any salted plums on hand to get my fix. However I did have salted limes, which one of Pok Pok’s sister restaurants, The Whiskey Soda Lounge, uses in their salted lime vodka collins. Unsurprisingly, that is my go-to cocktail when I eat there.

Clearly there is a theme in my life — I like vodka drinks, I love salted things and put an Amarena cherry in there and I’m sold!

The ingredients for both cocktails are the same, except for the limes and plums, of course.

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The basics…not pictured is the soda water.

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Now the salted limes and plums are not really palatable on their own, but muddled into a drink, they are phenomenal. They add a salinity I adore and a certain mouthfeel that I can never quite describe to people. It’s still a light, quenching drink but there is just something lingering and almost weighty about the flavor.

So hard to describe — guess you’ll just have to make it some time to see what I’m talking about! Which leads me to the exact recipe which features Andy Ricker himself (chef/owner of Pok Pok) whipping up the drink in a video format.

As you can see, it’s a seriously easy cocktail. Muddle, add ice and liquids, shake and serve. The hardest part is tracking down the salted fruit (found in many Asian markets) and the Amarena cherries (upscale grocery stores or online). And once you taste a sip, hopefully you’ll agree that this drink is one of the most delicious concoctions ever.

Here it is poured right from the shaker:

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Salted Lime Vodka Collins

Finally — my favorite part — garnish with an Amarena cherry (or two).

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Salted Lime Vodka Collins

Celebrating St. Paddy’s with the Irish Holy Trinity of Booze

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Irish Car Bomb Jello Shots

In culinary school I learned the about the trinity of mire poix: onions, carrots and celery. I also learned the holy trinity used in Cajun or Creole cooking: onion, celery and green bell pepper. If one was to put together a boozy trinity for St. Paddy’s Day, it seems obvious it would include Jameson, Baileys and Guinness.

And in fact, those three boozy friends come together often (probably most often on college campuses all over the country) to form the drink known as the Irish Car Bomb. I’m not really huge on the name of the shot — which is insensitive at best — but it’s what this combination is most known as so I’m going to roll with it for this post.

To help celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and to help make my Monday less dreary, I decided to whip a batch of Irish Car Bomb Jello Shots up over the weekend. I found the recipe on Gizmodo and the reviews of it seemed like it was winner so I hightailed it to the liquor store to pick up the necessities:

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They didn’t take long to make and the recipe is very straightforward. You start with the base layer — a combination of whiskey, Guinness, sugar and gelatin. Once that has set (about an hour or so depending on the size of vessel you use), make the top layer. That one is a slightly creamy, very dreamy layer of Baileys, water and gelatin. Then let the shots set up — which will take another hour or so — and then let the good times roll!

And trust me — as one would expect from a shot made with three different types of alcohol, these are definitely potent. Gizmodo says each shot is roughly 12% and while I can’t vouch for the math, I can say the sample I tried gave me a warming whiskey burn.

The only complaint I have is that I don’t like my Jello shots really stiff. I prefer them to have more jiggle to them, more squishy than something I really need to chew. But I realize not everyone feels like that, so this consistency is probably fine for many people. Personally the next time around, I will try these with half the gelatin called for — or maybe I’ll just up the booze! — because the shots were very firm.

Lemongrass Chicken & A “Wish it was Summer” Cocktail

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Chicken thighs marinated in coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass.

I almost titled this “Mother Nature is a bitch” but I didn’t want to get on her bad side.

See, I’m a summer person; I tend to daydream about sunshine from October all way until June. So it’s no surprise that last week my mind was on white sandy beaches when Portland got buried under 7 inches of snow.

Within the first hour of “Snowmageddon,” most of Portland was in a panic. People left work in droves, restaurants closed and the roads were flooded with cars as everyone tried to make it home before the worst of the storm hit.

I, on the other hand, was simply mad.

Sure snow can be pretty, but come on — I got through all of December and January marveling at how mild the weather was only to let my guard down in February. It was just cruel, and the cruelness continued for three days, ending with a stint of freezing rain that coated the streets in a layer of ice.

And even as the days finally warmed up and the snow began to melt, I continued to give in to thoughts of tropical beaches, palm trees and fancy umbrella drinks. It was not a good mental path to go down when the city you live in is covered in dirty slush.

But it did inspire me to use some tropical ingredients in my dinner — bringing a small ray of sunshine into my life. This coconut, lemongrass and ginger chicken is a recipe from the Bon Appetit Food Lovers Cleanse — one I tried out back in January and liked so much I made again. I paired it with a gin cocktail (the Rubies & Thorns, also from the FLC 2014) simply because snow makes me want to drink.

The chicken is incredibly easy to make and with a tweak or two will end up on my menu rotation for sure. First tweak: I’m not huge on boneless skinless thighs, the texture is just a bit stringy to me. After trying this recipe twice, I’ve decided future versions will need to be made with either a bone-in skin-on thigh or just a breast, if I’m trying for a lower calorie meal.

I also think it needed a few squeezes of lime to brighten things up.

Besides that I think this dish is a winner. The lemongrass and ginger, mixed with a dash of turmeric, add plenty of spark and even just a few hours in the marinade was enough to impart good flavor into the meat.

The cocktail is also simple — and beautiful in its simplicity. Though it only calls for a half of an ounce of gin, it tasted just as good even better with a full shot poured in. The thyme simple syrup adds the depth it needs to be special.

Together this dinner certainly worked at cheering me up!

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Marinated chicken thighs

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Rubies & Thorns (Blood orange juice, lemon thyme simple and a touch of gin)

Homemade Nocino: Green walnuts & boozy infusions

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Usually when I think about infusing booze with something, it’s fruit. Take last year’s rumtopf experiment for example. But this year my husband convinced me to try something different – a green walnut infusion, known by Italians as nocino.

I’ve had nocino before (from a batch my husband made) and wasn’t too impressed. The flavor was interesting, full of spices and citrus notes, but it was served straight up it and burned like firewater. I like things boozy but I can’t handle things that are that strong. I found out later it was made from Everclear — no wonder!

This time around my husband wanted to make it with vodka instead which was much more appealing to me. He also said he wanted to play around with the finished liqueur, so instead of serving it up we could mix it into ice cream bases or cocktails. Mentioning boozy ice cream is pretty much the way to my heart so it was an easy sell.

A hundred and one green walnuts later, we got to work:

We settled on this recipe from David Lebovitz, altering it only slightly by using orange zest instead of lemon.

To begin the project we had to quarter all of the nuts:

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Green Walnuts

Next we added all of our spices to the vodka along with some sugar:

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Cinnamon, cloves, vanilla beans and lots of walnuts!

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Sugar, vodka, orange zest and spices

Then came the nuts:

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Then a good stirring:

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If you’re won over by the vibrant green color as much as I was — don’t get too attached! All it takes is 24 hours before the liquor inside becomes squid-ink black. And in the 6 months it needs to infuse, it will only get murkier.

Let’s just hope it tastes delicious!

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Homemade