Absolut Rhubarb: Rhubarb Infused Vodka

Yes, I know I’ve blogged this before.  But it is worth repeating.  I guess having two daughters makes you like pink.  Especially when it is in the form of this great concoction.  After 24 hours of infusion I have something that will help cool off a muggy summer evening.  Yes, it is pink, but it’s still vodka.  It tastes great straight, with a splash of soda and a twist of lime, or for an adult dessert, mix it with vanilla infused vodka.  It tastes like a dish of homemade vanilla ice cream topped with rhubarb sauce – in a tumbler glass.  Yum.

Sun Chips, etc.

Little NH2 had us up a good part of the night.  She wasn’t happy with something and as a result, we didn’t sleep a lot.  However, Mrs. NH is now taking a nap (I can’t sleep) and Little NH2 is dozing right next to me.  Little NH just got home from church with her Grandmother and is snacking on some chicken nuggets.

For my lunch, I fixed a turkey and swiss sandwich.  On the side, I had some Sun Chips.  I don’t get Sun Chips in Prague but have read about the loud, compostable bag.  I say it’s much ado about nothing.  I mean, I had it crinkling right next to an infant, and she didn’t even bat an eye.   Maybe if it was 3:00am it would be a different story.

Anyway, even in my slightly delirious state, I can appreciate how lame it is to blog about my lunch and a chip bag.  Sorry.

Shiner Brewery Tour – Shiner, TX

On the road between Houston and Austin and have an hour or two to spare?  Set the cruise to 74 on some back roads and hit the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas.  Any old GPS (or map) will get you there and it will be worth your visit.

I’ve visited a few breweries in my time and almost no one gets it as right as Shiner does.  It was a quick, informative, free and tasty tour.  On the beer trivia front, it was interesting to learn that Shiner has the capacity to bottle almost 500,000 bottles of beer a day.  Not to mention, it brews everything from a “Light” to a “Bohemian Black” and can switch its bottling line from style to style in about 20 minutes.  How’s that for old world beer and German engineering brought to small town Texas?

Finally, our gracious tour guide Anne, made it clear that some of the old world is still in this delicious Shiner brew.  The hops.  Yes, the hops come from “Germany and the Czech Republic”.  When we queried our hostess on pinpointing the actual home of the hops, she demurred.

All that and a secret recipe, to boot.

Fresh Penne Train Wreck

“I gotta go get the camera!”

“You’re not going to blog this, are you?”

“Sure, you can blog your failures, too.  Besides, it’s so lame it’s kinda funny.”

“Yeah, it is.”

This was the conversation Mrs. NH and I had as we were peeling apart once beautiful fresh penne (pictured above) that had become stuck together (pictured below) after we failed to separate it and put it on a floured surface.  We’re still trying to perfect the procedure with our new KitchenAid pasta attachment and last night’s attempt was an abject failure.  We salvaged what we could and what we couldn’t turned into more of a spaetzle than a penne.  The sauce was delicious as usual (alla Vodka) but we’ve got a ways to go until we take this pasta maker to prime time.

However, last night’s failure brought back memories of family failures in the kitchen when I was a young kid.  The one that is most memorable was the time the wine bottle fell off the top of the fridge and smashed into the batch of freshly made green tomatillo salsa.  And of course, our numerous attempts at frying stuff always seemed to yield greasy and soggy results.  The failures weren’t terribly numerous but were always a letdown.  But still, we laughed.

Mrs. NH and I laughed last night as well.  This wasn’t our first failure in the kitchen and it won’t be our last.  I’m just glad we didn’t do it in front of company.  Of course, by posting it here, you can laugh but you don’t have to be polite and eat it.  You’re welcome.

Cleaning with Vodka

Mrs. NH and I are expecting the 4th member of our family in February.  The lead up to that occasion has caused me to reflect on some of the ways our life changed way back when were expecting Little NH a few years ago.  I remember the biggest bummer for me was that I had to take a more active role in house cleaning.  Mopping floors was a more physical activity that Mrs. NH convinced me wasn’t advisable in late pregnancy.  That I could handle.  But I also had to switch from Mr. Clean, Ajax and 409 to vinegar, baking soda and vodka.  Well, maybe the vodka wasn’t that much of a stretch.  But I preferred it in a glass, not on a sponge.

The reason we did it didn’t have anything to do with the environment.  Instead, it’s the feeling you get on your hands after scrubbing a counter with 409.  I don’t know about you but after using that stuff I always washed my hands.  With vodka, I don’t have to.  Yeah, I may smell like a martini but some of you know that’s commonplace anyway.  I’m not as big of a fan of using vinegar but Mrs. NH uses it all the time to clean fruit and vegetables.  Finally, I’m struck by how well baking soda works on a dirty tub.  It requires no more elbow grease than Ajax and you don’t end up smelling like a pool after you use it.

Sure, I’m sure our mom’s did plenty when we were in the womb that didn’t totally deform us.  But if stuff works this well and is considerably cheaper, why shouldn’t we use it.  Not to mention, if some sort of natural catastrophe hits, you’re going to have a hard time pickling anything in Mr. Clean, much less kicking back with a tumbler of 409.

International Truffle Festival, Alba, Italy

One doesn’t need to linger long at this site to know that Mrs. NH and I have acquired a real taste for truffles while living over here in the old country.  Of course, while many of my readers see this as just another example that NH has gone all high-falutin’ euro-style, I see it as more of a matter of supply and demand.  You see, over here, they charge a premium for crappy tacos.  Brisket?  Can’t buy it.  Cheeseburger?  $15.  Oreos?  No way, José.

But truffles are relatively plentiful in some of the places we frequent.  For example, you can’t go to a restaurant in Istria without finding several truffle dishes on the menu.  So, since eating locally is in fashion these days, we’ve worked the truffle into our home menu.  We have a cabinet full of them, to be exact.  We’re truffle hoarders.

Interestingly, that came in handy last month while we were in Piedmont at the exact same day that they were having the International Truffle Festival in the quaint, rustic town of Alba – in the heart of the Italian Truffle basket.  The fact that our cupboards are already full of truffles meant that we didn’t have to fork out any dough other than the 2 Euros for entry and a few more Euros for wine tastings.  But we got to witness some of the biggest and most beautiful truffles in the world in a unique, “how did this become my life” setting.

Up until my recent trip to Moscow, this was the most fun I had ever had at a trade show.  Truffles were the main attraction to be sure but another 50% of the show was devoted to regional wines, pasta, meat, cheeses and desserts.  The best part, they were giving out samples.  Truffle cheeses, goat cheeses, truffle sausage, chocolate truffles, wines and even some cheeses that looked like things that had been scraped of the bottom of my shoe.  I tried ’em all.

Then, there were the people.  Let’s not forget, these people are Italians.  They take their food and drink very seriously.  They’re also quite engaging after you ask them a few cursory questions about their product.  Americans seemed in short supply at this show and being one might have actually helped us score an extra nibble of sausage or a little taller pour of wine.  (The myth of Americans being hated in Europe is happily just that, a myth.)  I picked up some of the best Barolo’s and Nebbiolo’s I’ve tasted for a hair over $10 a bottle.  Italian’s know how to do wine.  They make sure it’s all very good.  Then they charge a reasonable price and make their money that way.  By selling all of it.  If it is exceptional wine, they charge a little more, but generally in this part of Italy, wine snobs are the exception to the rule.  With two college education funds to contribute to, I’m thankful for that!

If you’ve ever entertained the slightest thought of visiting this festival – do it.  If you’ve entertained the thought of visiting Piedmont but aren’t a hard-core truffle head, plan your visit around the time of this culinary trade show and you will be a convert before you drive out of town.  It’s a real European curiosity and a particularly awesome part of Europe.

Penne Florentine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

We picked up a bunch of sun-dried tomatoes while in Provence and decided to use some for a quick dinner tonight.  We’re also working to replace as much regular pasta with whole grain pasta when the sauce will hold up to it.  This recipe definitely did the trick and took about 15 minutes to prepare and had a nice, bold flavor.

Here’s a rundown.  All measurements (e.g. “fist full”) are approximate:

1 lb. whole wheat penne
2 minced cloves garlic
1 small onion
2 tbsp. olive oil
15 sun-dried tomatoes chopped
1.5 cups chicken broth
pinch red pepper flakes
1 well-drained fist full of frozen spinach
1/2 cup half and half
salt and pepper to taste (doesn’t take much)

Have your penne ready to go after cooking the sauce.

Sauté onion and garlic in oil until soft.  Add sun-dried tomatoes and then broth a little bit at a time and simmer until reduced to a good sauce consistency.  Add red pepper flakes.  Add spinach and heat until warm.  In about the last two minutes, stir in your half and half.  Serve over pasta.

Easy, healthy and made with stuff you probably already have in the kitchen.

Homemade Bucatini all’Amatriciana

I have some old topics I have to clear out.  There’s been a lot of food and travel over the past few months and I haven’t gotten to cover it all.  One of the items I’ve missed is our own homemade Bucatini all’Amatriciana.  The Scampwalker family got us a gift certificate to Williams-Sonoma for our birthdays and we decided to use it on a KitchenAid pasta press.  The thought of making homemade bucatini was pretty exciting to me.  So, a few weeks ago, after receiving the package in the mail, we gave it a shot.

The end result was tasty, if different than I had imagined.  Of course, it was only our first attempt at using the gadget so I’m sure it will get perfected as we go along.  I believe I made the dough a little dense and not quite wet enough.  Running it through the auger in this machine, it’s pretty clear that softer dough is key.

That said, the flavor was great.  This simple pasta covered with the Amatriciana sauce is simple, rustic comfort food at its best.

We’re looking forward to trying this attachment to make all sorts of other pasta.  It will certainly be used at a dinner party coming soon.  We’ll keep you posted.

BBQ = World Peace

I believe the NH clan did Texas proud Thursday night.  The brisket was tender and the ribs were fall-off-the-bone moist.  Brits, Slovaks, Australians, Czechs and Canadians were gorging on slow-cooked meat saying things like, “So you can get this stuff everywhere in Texas?  Now I see why you like it so much.”  Mrs. NH’s mac ‘n cheese was devoured by the forkful as I informed many of our guests what a brisket is.   Skinny European wives were grabbing nibbles of the tender cut off of the serving tray with no utensils and no shame.

I’m proud.

I’m also glad to have such good friends to come to such a party.  In a moment outside in front of the grill, away from the cacophony of  about 8 kids and twice as many adults, I paused and marveled at just how lucky our family is.  Friends and family are two of the most precious things in life.  Getting to enjoy both while eating BBQ was a trifecta.

Meringue Ghosts and BBQ

I’m cooking ribs and brisket and Mrs. NH is in some sort of a Halloween cookie frenzy.  Pumpkin-orange icing and pointy hooded ghosts abound in the dining room.  We’re finally making good on our promise to have our local friends over for Texas BBQ tomorrow.  The beer is chilling, the ribs are resting and 8lbs. of brisket are primed and ready for the oven.  Between that Mrs. NH’s mac ‘n cheese extravaganza, it should be a helluva Thursday.

Pesto Filled Panzarotti

I totally lucked into the meal pictured above after a morning strolling around the International Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy.  It was probably one of the best tasting days of my life.  Truffles the size of your fist in the morning, Panzarotti for lunch and wine tasting all afternoon long topped off with more pasta and veal for dinner.  But I digress.

The pasta pictured was a delicate, hand-made Panzarotti with a perfectly smooth cheese and pesto mix in the center and a rich, creamy, sauce to coat.  Mrs. NH looked longingly at my plate all meal long – even with her delicious meat-stuffed ravioli in front of her.  I had ordered the best meal.  But, since she’s carrying the 4th member of the NH clan, I gave her a fair share.

Since eating this pasta I’ve been dreaming of it.  Ravioli is hard to make.  I still haven’t found a recipe that I’ve perfected.  But having eaten this dish, I feel the inspiration to try again.  Any hints or recipes to recommend?  Leave ’em in the comments.

Barolo, Italy

We’re home, the house is still not clean and bigwigs from the home office will greet me on my first day back at work tomorrow.  However, all is well.  I got to fulfill an adulthood dream and see Peidmont and as pictured above, I got to see where they grow and make Nebbiolos, Barolos, Barbarescos and Barberas.  That and the fact that I came home with a trunk full of wine makes me one happy camper.  More on the 2nd leg of the trip in the coming days.

In Provence, France

Steak tartare, moules, frites and tarte flambées have all crossed my palate in the last 48 hours.  My mood has gotten considerably better.  We’ve seen markets with cheeses that I can’t begin to pronounce and oysters larger than my hand.  The south of France appears to be up to keeping the legendary status it has acquired.  The apartment at home is still in disarray but everything here is in order.  It’s a nice change.

G’Vine Gin

The word “gin” conjures up some serious mental pictures in my head.  My Dad and Mom enjoyed a G&T at happy hour most nights when I was growing up.  Those drinks, chock full of ice and with a pudgy chunk of lime always looked so delicious and refreshing.  I’d try sips as a kid and always walked away slightly repulsed, however.

But as it does for so many things, college changed my opinion of gin.  Hot Texas nights and G&T’s went together naturally when there was actually enough money in my pocket to buy something other than cheap beer.  In the summers between school, I worked outside mowing lawns.  Inevitably, I’d steer my big riding lawn mower around the hedges of one particular church (unintentionally) and catch the branches of juniper bushes, snapping them just enough to release their otherworldly scent.  That gave me an appreciation for the process of gin.

Shortly after came a love of Bombay Sapphire, straight, with ice.  That drink will always stand in my mind as inextricably linked to my time as a double-income-no-kid husband in Washington, DC’s trendiest restaurants.  The blue bottle still beckons and it’s still one of my favorites.

So, it had been a long time since I had tried any “new” gin.  However, on my birthday, a friend saw to it that I try something new.  G’Vine is not a gin I would have bought myself.  First of all, it’s French.  I’ve long chided my Grey Goose drinking buddies that “the French do wine and cheese, not vodka.”  And frankly, I still stand by that.  But something about gin makes French dabbling a bit more acceptable – yet wholly apart from the purists idea of gin.  Of course, how pure is it if it was invented by the Dutch?

I think of G’Vine as more flavored vodka – like most gin, of course.  But this is by no means the “London Dry” in your dad’s liquor cabinet.  It’s full of heady, confusing and contradictory flavors.  So it’s fitting that it’s made in France.  (Wonder if it retreats?)

Distilled from grapes, it is nothing if not smooth.  There is absolutely no bite to this liquor.  There is no need to mix it with anything.  In fact, doing so would most likely result in a terrible outcome.  The mixture of green grape flower, juniper and licorice used to flavor this gin give it a tremendously unique flavor unlike anything I’ve had before.  But there’s an inherent floral sweetness demands the spirit be served on its own.

With G’Vine, I’m happy to comply.  Lightly stirred in a shaker with crushed ice, I strain it into one of my leaded Czech crystal martini glasses and watch the workweek melt away.  Paired with some briny rich Italian Olives, you might even forget that the French don’t do gin.