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.

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