Saturday, April 25, 2009

Doo-Dah Day!

Derby Day is about more than just a horse race. It’s a celebration of a State, its cultural and especially its food. I’m not discounting the Kentucky Derby as a major sporting event that attracts worldwide attention. But for many a lot of the whoopla that has grown up around it is more captivating than the race itself (which after all, only lasts a couple of minutes).

It is unique among sport for its festivity and tradition. I suppose the Super Bowl comes closest but it’s just so much beer and guacamole by comparison. It’s Janet Jackson vs. The Queen. Cheap silly hats vs. expensive silly hats. Indoors in February vs. outdoors in May.

In most places, Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer. In Kentucky, this transition takes place on Derby Day, the first Saturday in May. It is the green light to wear white or seersucker; put on patent leather or spectator shoes. It is the safe date to plant a garden without further fear of frost.

As a child and already aspiring cook, I remember looking forward to the Sunday Courier-Journal the weekend before the Derby. In that issue complete with color rotogravure, Food Editor Cissy Gregg would wow me with what the perfect Derby Day hostess would be making that year.

Mere mention of the Kentucky Derby to most people brings to mind mint juleps. On the day of the race they flow like water at Churchill Downs—almost 120,000 mint juleps are imbibed each year. To be sure some locals serve them on this occasion as well—with a wink and a nod. Any other day of the year and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone in the Bluegrass State sipping one of these syrupy libations. Bourbon is revered in Kentucky but most often drunk neat or with a bit of branch. The popularity of mint juleps goes back to the days when river boats steamed the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Then a favorite morning eyeopener among Southern planters, today it’s more prevalent in New Orleans than Louisville. Personally I’d rather have a mojito any day.

A better use of bourbon is in bourbon balls: cream-filled chocolates flavored with whisky and pecans. First concocted in 1936 by Ruth Booe of Frankfort, today the confection is omnipresent especially at Derby time. You can order bourbon balls made from the original recipe from Rebecca Ruth Candy. (I love their candy but they have one of the worse logos I’ve ever seen.) There is another type of bourbon ball often made at home. The easy, no-cook recipe includes crushed vanilla wafers, chopped pecans, cocoa and powdered sugar.

Before the Colonel and his chicken, Kentucky’s culinary claim to fame was country hams. Similar to hams produced in Virginia and other parts of the region, they are dry-cured, aged and more akin to prosciutto than that wet pink stuff they sell at the supermarket. Unlike prosciutto, country ham is cooked: soaked, baked or boiled and glazed. Most often it is served at room temperature; sliced paper thin. In Kentucky country ham is bound to show up at most festive get-togethers from Thanksgiving until Derby Day.

Celebrating the Derby has inspired a few original culinary creations, too. Probably the first was Benedictine spread or dip, named for Louisville catering company owner Miss Jennie C. Benedict. At the turn of the last century, tea parties were more popular than buffets and Miss Benedict’s dainty little green sandwiches were all the rage. Still popular today, it more often appears as a dip (thinned with sour cream) than as a sandwich filling.

Grits are something only a true Southerner can love (or an Italian who calls them polenta). Cheese grits on the other hand, whether cooked on top the stove or baked in a casserole, are a whole lot more appealing. I can’t claim that cheese grits were first served in conjunction with the Derby but they have become a prerequisite for many Derby Day breakfasts and brunches. I first heard Phyllis George, a former Miss America and then wife of Kentucky Governor John Young Brown, tout their charm in the late 1970s. This is one of the few incidences where I can unequivocally endorse the opinion of a beauty pageant contestant.

Best known if not loved is a chocolate chip and walnut dessert called Derby-Pie®. Created in 1954 by the Kern family, “Derby Pie” became so popular that Kern’s Kitchen, the bakery that makes the pie, trademarked it in 1968. Since then they’ve sued the likes of PBS, Bon Appétit and Nestlé for the unauthorized use of the name. The result is you’ll find a whole lot of pies at Louisville restaurants that seem to be so much the same thing with a lot of different names—Run for the Roses Pie, Churchill Downs Pie, Triple Crown Pie, etc.—but if you want a Derby-Pie® you’ll have to order one from Kern’s.

Over the years, my Kentucky heritage has been the brunt of a few jokes—more than a few coming from me. Regardless, on May 2 at 4 p.m. you won’t need Twitter to know what I’m doing. As on each first Saturday in May in most of the years I can remember I’ll be in front of the TV. I’ll watch the crowd stand, the horses parade out of the paddock and hear the band play one of the few songs I know all the words to. For that moment, whatever the weather, the sun will shine bright.

Benedictine Dip

1 large cucumber, peeled
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons grated onion
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
Dash green food coloring (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Grate cucumber and drain in a fine mesh sieve. Combine cucumber, cream cheese, onion, salt, sour cream, mayonnaise and food coloring (if used) in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl and stir in chopped dill. Taste for seasoning. Serve with crudités or potato chips.

Makes about 1½ cups.

First Saturday in May Pie

1 9-inch fully baked pie shell, cooled

1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6 ounces chocolate chips
1 cup coarsely chopped or broken walnuts
2 tablespoons bourbon

Whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, melted butter, flour and
eggs, using a whisk. When the mixture is smooth, stir in the chocolate chips, walnuts and bourbon

Pour the filling into the baked pie shell and bake for 30 to 35 minutes in the preheated 350-degree oven.

Cool completely on a rack and serve at room temperature with whipped cream.

Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Strawberry Pie Duet

I have a lot of cookbooks and some are relatively old. Once, looking for strawberry pie recipes I realized all the recipes prior to the 1960s call for a filling of strawberries and sugar baked in a pastry crust. In other words, there weren’t any recipes for fresh strawberry pie or strawberry rhubarb pie. Your rarely encounter the old version of strawberry pie any more and for good reason. It’s as about as appealing as a pop tart.

Strawberries are my favorite fruit and both fresh strawberry pie and strawberry rhubarb pie best pies. One of the thinks I don’t like about living in Wisconsin is strawberry season which doesn’t come until summer. At worse the berries can be watery or hard knots, depending upon the weather. In all fairness, I will say last summer was an exception and the berries were near perfect. Unfortunately, most of the strawberries I consume any more are from California—out of necessity rather than choice. Growing up in Kentucky strawberries arrived in April. They were smaller and sweeter than the ones from California and red all the way through. Sometime I almost convince myself that this is just another case of nostalgia tainting my memory. That is until I head south and savor a locally grown spring strawberry. I has no equal.

In fairness, California strawberries seem to have improved in flavor and I will hope that this year’s Wisconsin crop is a good one. Regardless, I will keep on making strawberry pies.

Thinking back, most of the first strawberry pies I enjoyed—which were glazed fresh berries in a baked short pastry crust topped with whipped cream—were at small restaurants and coffee shops, not at home. It was a treat that I always looked forward to when dining out. I remember being on family trips and taking detours just to have strawberry pie at the Cadillac Motel Restaurant. Seemingly Big Boy had a lot to do with popularizing fresh strawberry pie. As most of us know, Big Boy began in California and was all about hamburgers but fresh strawberry pie became their signature dessert. The original restaurant, Bob’s Big Boy franchised the name regionally. Growing up in Kentucky they were known as Frisch’s Big Boy; when I moved to Wisconsin, they became Marc’s Big Boy. Some like Shoney’s Big Boy went on to became large chains.

I never remember my grandmother, who was a good cook, making strawberry pie but ironically the recipe I most often use today is basically the one she clipped from the Nashville newspaper. I’ve included it at the end (the original recipe included strawberry-flavored Jell-O instead of unflavored gelatin). I’ve also successfully made strawberry pie glazes using only cornstarch as a thickener. Unfortunately nowadays fresh strawberry pie is too often fabricated with a ready made product that is artificially flavored and colored to the max. (I’ve seen strawberry pies that I swear were radioactive.) The other travesty is to top the pie with Cool Whip. That’s too bad since it’s an easy pie to make without the neon colored glop or fake whipped cream.

I don’t remember enjoying strawberry rhubarb pie before I moved to Wisconsin. Rhubarb pie has been around seemingly forever. Whoever finally figured out the obvious to add strawberries for sweetness was a culinary genius. I can think of very few flavors that compliment other like strawberry and rhubarb. I’ve tried various ratios of fruit and different types of thickeners over the years and have included my favorite recipe. My best advice is ‘don’t use frozen fruit!’ It’s a juicy enough pie as is without exasperating the situation.

I’m pretty persnickety about pies, especially pie pastry and tend to me hypercritical of restaurant pies. However, the Norske Nook in Osseo make some very fine pies, including fresh strawberry and strawberry rhubarb—both worth the trip alone.

Fresh Strawberry Pie

1 baked 9-inch pie shell, made with short pie pastry

¼ cup water
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
2 quarts picked-over strawberries, hulled
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt

Whipped cream

Put the water in a glass measuring cup or small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin. Let soften 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, take 3 cups of the smaller and/or less attractive strawberries and purée in the food processor or blender with the sugar and cornstarch. Pour the strawberry mixture into a saucepan, add the lemon juice and salt, and set over low heat. Stirring constantly, cook the mixture until it comes to a boil. Continue to cook and stir until the purée is thick and transparent. Stir in the softened gelatin and immediately remove from the heat. Let cool.

Slice the remaining strawberries in half and add to the cooled purée. Gently fold together and pour into the baked and cooled pie shell. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the top.

Chill the pie for at least 2 hours and serve chilled with whipped cream.

Best if made the same day it is served.

Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Deep-dish Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Enough pie pastry for 3 9-inch crusts

4 tablespoons instant tapioca
1½ tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 cups rhubarb, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
3 cups hulled strawberries, sliced
1½ cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter cut in small bits
1 lightly beaten egg

Process the tapioca, flour and salt in a small food processor or spice grinder until fine. Combine with the rhubarb, strawberries and sugar. Let stand 15 minutes.

Spread filling in a 10-inch thoroughly chilled 10-inch pie shell, top with the butter and then cover with a lattice crust. Chill for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Brush the pie with the lattice (not the edge) with the beaten egg. Bake in the center of the preheated 400-degree oven for 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake 40 minutes longer.

Serve the same day as made.

Makes 1 10-inch pie.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Morel Dilemma

It’s a little early to be writing about morels, but their anticipation is no small part of their pleasure. And, it’s perhaps disingenuous to imply there is any dilemma other than will I or won’t I pay the high price they command (and I already know that I will). I could of course, go out and hunt for them myself just like I could go to France to find truffles for free. Unlikely.

I discovered this delicacy when my family moved to central Indiana. Our neighbors invited us to go with them mushroom hunting. Obviously my parents at first reacted with horror, envisioning a slow and painful death for all us and questioned the sanity of our newly made friends. After much reassurance and some ridicule we were initiated into this annual ritual.

The popular way to prepare morels in Indiana like in much of the Midwest is dip them in an egg wash, roll them in crushed crackers and pan fry until golden brown. Prepared this way they are usually eaten as an appetizer or a main dish. For breakfast, light beaten eggs are sometime added, and scrambled with the mushrooms.

Morels are very popular in France and used both in their fresh and dried state. They classically appear in sauces and soups made with cream and egg dishes. The English prize all wild mushrooms and none more than the morel, the first mushroom of the season.

Springtime in Wisconsin and warm days in May send shroomers scurrying. Just as with deer hunting in the fall, the season for morel gathering is short but nonetheless anticipated by devotes. If you have ever foraged for them or savored their grandeur, then perhaps you will appreciate why they cost so much.

Morels and wild mushrooms in general are much more popular in Europe where they are collected, commercially sold and universally consumed. As we all know by now, eating just any old fungus that pops up out of the ground can be dangerous if not deadly. Hence, many people are afraid to consume any wild mushroom. The morel has a distinctive appearance that makes it easy to identify and tastes so good that many of us are willing to throw caution to the wind.

There are three American morel species: Morchella semilibera or the half-free morel, Morchella elata or the black morel and Morchella esculenta the yellow or white morel. The black and yellow morels are the most popular and their names are misleading since they can range in color from light gray to dark gray; from light tan to dark brown. The shape of the cap can also vary from tall and slender to short and squat but should always be honeycombed and pitted.

If want to try your hand at mushroom hunting and are a novice, go with an experienced hunter who can show you what a good morel looks like. Be forewarned: Shroomers like to keep their prime harvesting grounds closely guarded secrets. Morels can grow singularly or in patches. A particular spot can be bountiful for many years and then mysteriously grow fallow. Most mushroom hunters have theories about where you will and won’t find morels and are more than eager to share their S.W.A.T.S. (Scientific Wild Ass Theories).

In fact, morels are found in a variety of habitats in almost every state in the country. Most often, they grow in moist, sandy-soil especially around dying or dead elm trees and in old fruit orchards. They usually appear in May after the first spring flowers—the flowering of trillium is supposedly a harbinger of the morel. The total growing season lasts two to three weeks, though occasionally when weather conditions are perfect, morels reappear in the fall.

Whether you decide to forage for yourself or fork out big bucks, here are some suggestions to help you enjoy your stash. If you’ve never eaten morels or wild mushrooms before, eat a small amount and wait 24 hours before eating more. Some people are allergic to all mushrooms, even cultivated mushrooms. Never eat morels raw as they are hard to digest and don’t taste good. Store unwashed morels in a paper bag in the refrigerator. For longer keeping, mushroom can be frozen but need to be cooked first. They can also be dried—most successfully using an electric dehydrator. Dried morels need to be reconstituted in liquid for about 10 minutes, drained and pressed dry before using.

Obviously, morels needed to be cleaned before cooking but there are two schools of thoughts on the best way to do this. Begin my brushing off any loose surface dirt clinging to the stems. Slit the mushroom in half from top to bottom (it is hollow inside). For some, thoroughly rinsing under cold running water is sufficient. Others prefer to soak the mushrooms in a salt water bath—the salt kills any insects that might reside in the surface cavities. Don’t use too much salt since it will affect the delicate flavor of the mushrooms. Once they are washed, they need to be drained on paper toweling before cooking.
For me the coming of spring always meant asparagus, strawberries and morels. Thanks to modern horticulture and transportation asparagus and strawberries are now available year round. Attempts to commercially cultivate morels so far haven’t been very successful. That definitely makes them and spring a little more special.

Here are my Best of Madison where to find morels (S.W.A.T.S. not included).

Several restaurants regularly feature dishes with morel mushrooms and they include Harvest, L’Etoile and La Chardonay.

Fresh morels are available at the Dane County Farmers’ Market (which begins April 18) and many local farmers’ markets, as well as Whole Foods, Willy Street Co-op and Jenifer Street Market in season. Dried morels are sold at many larger groceries and specialty markets.

Muscoda holds its Annual Morel Festival this year on May 16 - 17.

The Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda makes Great Midwest Wild Morel & Leek Jack which is sold at several stores locally or may be ordered online from the factory.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Angry Cookie Maker

Seemingly I posted a cookie picture that is the property of Marcia Flanigan ... I apologize and was not aware that it was her property. It has been removed. She contacted me on Facebook. Here is her message:

"You used my image of my cookie on your blog, you did not have my permission, remove immediately, I plan to pursue every option to have some recognition you are using images which do not belong to you. The image belongs exclusively to and you had to have gone to my site to remove. I am not familiar with Madison magazine but will be contacting them this morning." Marcia Flanigan.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Advocate for the Avocado

What makes you think you’re so holy?
You’re gonna be guacamole before too long.
--Weird Al Yankovic

Native to Central and South America, there are more than 500 varieties of avocados that grow in subtropical areas around the world. Their size varies from that of a small pear to a large coconut. The skin can be smooth or rough, and range in color when ripe from yellowish green to purplish black. The color of the flesh varies from buttery yellow to neon green. Like bananas, avocados are climacteric fruit, which means they matures on the tree but ripen after they are picked.

They got their name from the Spanish explorers who couldn't pronounce the Aztec word “ahuacatl” (which meant “testicle” due to the fruit’s shape). The Spanish renamed them “aguacate”, from which the word guacamole was derived.

The most common variety available in the U.S. is the Hass avocado and it’s the only species that is grown year-round. It has a pebbley, dark green skin that blackens as it matures. All Hass avocados descend from a single tree planted by California mail carrier Rudolph Hass in 1935. The patented tree survived until 2002.

I much prefer Hass avocado not just for their flavor and color but because you can easily tell when they’re ripe. Too often I’ve purchased smooth-skin varieties that felt ripe but when cut open were discolored and rotten.
My first encounter with the then exotic fruit was in the 1950s. My grandmother would bring them back from Florida and always referred to them as “avocado pears.” Seemingly, there was only one form of preparation: sliced on top of a lettuce leaf and doused with Kraft Catalina dressing. I didn’t like them and never gave them a second thought until after I graduated from college.

I was living in Chicago and there were many wonderful Mexican restaurants in our neighborhood, a cuisine was just learning to appreciate. It was inevitable that guacamole would end up on my plate and low and behold it did, I tasted it and it was good. I soon learned to like avocados in other ways.

In California, they like to add a little mayo to guacamole and it makes a great topping for burgers. Once in a North African restaurant I had something that that looked a lot like guacamole but was flavored with ground almonds and rose water. The most unusual preparation I’ve encountered (and like) is guacamole ice cream—it has a sublime texture and beautiful color. (Here is Alton Brown’s recipe if you want to give it a try.) I love avocados in Cobb and seafood salads. I generally don’t like them cooked though I once had a soufflé in Paris flavored with avocado and Chartreuse that was delicious.

After all is said and done, guacamole—the dip—remains the most popular use for avocados. Supposedly, over 53 million pounds of guacamole are eaten every Super Bowl Sunday, enough to cover the playing football field 20 feet deep. Personally, I like my guacamole more chopped than pureed and I’ve included a favorite recipe at the end. I don’t ever like guacamole or anything else made from avocados that aren’t ripe. Finally, one of the great kitchen myths of all time is that putting the avocado pit in the guacamole will prevent it from turning dark. Store guacamole packed (no air pockets) in a covered, air tight container just large enough to hold its contents. Second best is to lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly over the surface of the guacamole. Either way, keep refrigerated until serving.

Here is my list of Best of Madison avocados:

Best Place to Buy Ripe Avocados. It seems like when you need a ripe avocado you can never find one. I’ve had my best luck at the Willy Street Co-op and Jenifer Street Market.

Best Restaurant Guacamole. I probably like the guac at La Mestiza best because it tastes most like mine.

Best Store-Bought Guacamole. At one time, the stuff you bought was insipid but a lot of guacamole packed in plastic pouches nowadays, though not as good as homemade, isn’t half bad. I think Trader Joe's Avocado’s Number brand is the best. It also comes in a variety flavored with salsa verde.

Best Use of Avocado on a Sandwich. Marigold Kitchen makes a different and unusually tasty fish sandwich with grilled tilapia, lettuce, tomato, red onion and avocado; finished off with a little queso fresco and a drizzle of chipotle lime dressing.

Best Guac Burger. The Cabana Room at Samba Brazilian Steak House makes a traditional guacamole burger that is also topped with cheddar and salsa. Their Cabana burger comes topped with avocado slices.

Best Salad with Avocados. This beautiful and complex salad at Sardine composed of arugula, red grapefruit and avocado comes with a citrus vinaigrette and garnish of spiced pumpkin seeds.
Best Avocado Appetizer (Not Guacamole). Not that common in this neck of the woods, Causa Limena is one of Peru’s best known dishes and available at Inka Heritage. Mashed potatoes flavored with hot yellow spicy yellow peppers and lime juice are layered with avocado and your choice of shredded chicken or shrimp and served with salsa golf (mayonnaise and ketchup).

Best Exotic Use of Avocado. The mango duck roll at Restaurant Muramoto was on the menu the first time I ate there back when it had just opened on King Street. It’s still featured at their new location and for good reason. Shinji’s sushi creation is a roll of duck, mango and avocado served with a soy sauce reduction.


Half a small onion, peeled
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 fully ripe Haas avocado, cut in half and seeded
Wedge of fresh lime
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh salsa (optional)

Using a food processor. Cut the onion half in 2 pieces and place in the work bowl. Coarsely chop the onion by turning the food processor on and off. With the motor running, drop the garlic through the feed tube and process until chopped. Turn off the food processor. Without scraping down the sides of the bowl, add the flesh from the avocado. (Be sure to scrape close to the skin, including the dark green outside of the fruit to give the guacamole a nice color). Add the juice from the lime, salt and the salsa, if used.

Finely chop the guacamole by turning the food processor on and off. Don't over process; the guacamole should not be homogenized. Scrape the guacamole into a serving bowl and serve immediately.

Using a blender or making by hand. Roughly purée the avocado in the blender or mash with a fork. Scrape out into a serving dish. Finely chop by hand the onion, garlic, tomato and pepper. Stir the chopped vegetables into the avocado along with the lime juice, salt and salsa.

Makes about 1½ cups.

Variation: Guacamole for Hamburgers and Sandwiches. Substitute 1 tablespoon mayonnaise for the salsa and process until completely smooth

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Spring Into Lombardino's

Lombardino's starts their new spring menu tonight! I can't wait to go and give it a test drive. They also have a couple of special wine tastings this month:

Thursday, April 9th, During Regular Service Falesco Wine Tasting

Samantha Malsch of Winebow import company will be with us during service for a wine sampling of three delicious wines. We will be featuring the Bianco, Sangiovese & Merlot from the Umbrian producer, Falesco. Falesco was founded in 1979 by brothers Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella, two of Italy's most acclaimed winemakers. Falesco's philosophy is to strike a balance between the uniqueness and tradition of native varietals and the versatility of ‘international' grapes. The result is a complete portfolio of wines that consumers and critics alike have recognized as both extreme values and “Best of Class” offerings.

Thursday, April 23rd, During Regular Service Caldora Wine Tasting

Michael Pare of Capitol Husting will be with us during service for a wine sampling of three delicious wines. We will be featuring the Trebbiano, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo & their single vineyard selection "Yume" from the Abruzzo producer, Caldora. Caldora is one of the largest cooperative wineries in the Abruzzo. With an updated winery facility coupled to an avant-garde vineyard management system, the essence of Caldora is captured in every bottle: maximum fruit expression in a top quality, reasonably priced wine that everyone can enjoy.

Call 608 238-1922 for reservations.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Any Day

Bali Ha'i may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you'll hear it call you:
"Come away...Come away."
--Oscar Hamerstein II, South Pacific

It’s April and I’ve been thinking about spring a lot, even though it’s suppose to snow 3 to 4 inches tomorrow. Each year about the same time Daylight Savings Time rolls around I reset my food clock as well. By then I’m so tired of root vegetables, soups and stews and tasteless tomatoes that I could go on a diet. For whatever reason, this year I’m fixated on the South Pacific—not so much the musical as the place. Perhaps it’s because I first visited the most beautiful place in the world, Tahiti, this time of year. I’ve always found tropical Tahiti and Hawaii so much more appealing than the Caribbean and I’m sure the musical South Pacific and the whole culture that grew out of it did have something to do with that.

The Broadway play premiered on April 7, 1949. The story was loosely based on James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific. Both captured all that was exotic and wonderful about this part of the world, discovered by so many soldiers and sailors stationed there during World War II. An appetite for anything and everything Polynesian took off in the 1950s. The Mai Tai, crab Rangoon and Rumaki all became part of our food vocabulary. Amazingly, one man came gave us these and many more recipes that we now think of as the quintessence of Polynesian cuisine but are not.

In 1932, a San Francisco hotel waiter, Victor Bergeron, opened a bar in Oakland called Hinky Dink’s. Eventually, Bergeron became “The Trader,” and Hinky Dink’s, “Trader Vic’s” and one of the most popular restaurants in the Bay Area. The place had a South Pacific theme, featuring tropical drinks and a fanciful menu. Trader Vic never let authenticity get in the way of creativity or success. By the late 50s, Trader Vic’s operated 25 restaurants worldwide and is still going strong today.
One of Bergeron’s most successful creations was the Mai Tai. So the story goes, The Trader was in the mood to create a new drink and started with a bottle of 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew rum from Jamaica. He added fresh lime juice, Curaçao liqueur, rock candy syrup and some French orgeat—an almond-flavored syrup. After garnishing the drink with a lime shell and fresh mint, he handed the concoction to a friend who was visiting from Tahiti. As soon as she tasted it she exclaimed "Mai Tai - Roa Ae!"—Tahitian for "Out of This World” or “The Best". So the Mai Tai came to be. That is unless you believe Donn Beach.

Beach, born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt in New Orleans was a competitor of Victor Bergeron, also capitalizing on the Polynesian craze sweeping the country. A former bootlegger, Gantt opened a Hollywood bar in 1934 with a tropical decor called Don the Beachcomber. The original tiki bar soon became a popular watering hole for celebrities. A couple of years later, now legally having changed his name to Donn Beach, he opened a restaurant across the street. There appeared the first pu pu platter, and in 1939, the Zombie, a potent rum drink. Several other Beachcomber locations followed. After World War II, Beach relocated to Hawaii. Beach claimed to have invented over 80 drinks, including the Mai Tai.

Trader Vic, however, insisted to the day he died, “I originated the Mai Tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.” Regardless of who you believe, the Mai Tai made correctly is a great cocktail. The problem is, more often than not it is poorly concocted, too often from a bottled mix. A good Mai Tai needs quality rum and fresh lime juice. I prefer Cointreau to The Trader’s orange Curaçao and real grenadine to rock candy syrup.

I say “real” grenadine because most of what is sold as grenadine syrup today is artificially colored and flavored. The real thing is made from pomegranates, and if you can find it, inevitably imported from France. But it’s easy to make. Just combine two parts of sugar to one part of pomegranate juice and stir over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Store the cooled syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

A Mai Tai has to have orgeat (pronounced ohr-zha). This sweet almond syrup is available at better liquor stores. Forget the paper umbrella or flower and instead garnish you Mai Tai with fresh fruit and mint. Here is my favorite version of the Mai Tai derived from the original Trader Vic’s recipe and another allegedly from Don the Beachcomber. Since I’m sure you’ll want a pu pu to go along with your drink, also a recipe for crab Rangoon.

Any day it has to be spring … really spring.

Mai Tai

1 ounce dark Jamaican rum
1 ounce white rum
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce Cointreau
1 splash grenadine
1 splash orgeat

Shake all the ingredients with cracked ice and strain into a large old fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cherry, a fresh pineapple spear and mint.

Makes 1 drink.

Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai

1½ ounces Myer's Jamaican rum
1 ounce Havana Club Añejo Blanco Cuban rum (substitute white rum)
¾ ounces fresh lime juice
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
¼ ounce Falernum*
½ ounce Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 dash Pernod
1 cup cracked ice

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake moderately for one minute. Pour into an old fashion glass. Garnish with sprigs of fresh mint and a spear of fresh pineapple.

Make 1 drink.

*Falernum was a syrup (flavored with limes, ginger and spices) once made in this country by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans. Sazerac discontinued this product but it can now be purchased from Fee Brothers.

Crab Rangoon

8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
6 ounces crabmeat

In a bowl blend together the cream cheese, bread crumbs and Worcestershire until smooth. Stir in the lobster.

The filling can be made several hours ahead of time. Keep covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. The won ton wrapper should be filled right before frying.

2 dozen won ton wrappers (defrosted, if frozen)
Peanut oil for deep frying
Sweet-and-Sour Dipping Sauce

Preheat the oil in a deep fryer to 375 degrees.

Place heaping teaspoons of the crab meat filling in the center of each won ton wrappers. Lightly moisten the edges of the wrapper, using a pastry brush dipped in water. Fold in half diagonally to make a triangle.

Fry the Rangoon in the hot oil four at a time for about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve warm with Sweet-and-Sour Dipping Sauce.

Makes 2 dozen appetizers.