Since Derby Day traditionally happens in the beginning of May, I always associate it with the beginning of summer. Is it because the horse race is affectionately referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sports?” No, it’s because I love so many of the traditions that come with it. I love that the winner is presented with a “blanket” of 554 roses. I love fiddling with a version of “burgoo,” a beef and pork stew traditionally served on this day. Burgoo is one of those recipes that can be left open to interpretation. It is traditionally made with whatever meats (beef or pork) and vegetables (lima beans, corn or okra) are available. My best results came from braising some cubed-up brisket and stirring in some corn, fava beans and peas to give it that touch of spring. With all this cooking, a cooling drink seems only fitting. The mint julep happens to be one of my favorites. It reminds me of a snow cone, the fruity, icy cone I used to get from ice cream trucks as a kid. This provides a fun drink for kids instead of a more traditional Shirley Temple.
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If there’s one day you deserve a cocktail this year, it’s April 17. Mail off your taxes, then unwind with a themed drink.
If you crave coolness, sometimes the best plan is to swim against the stream. Everyone eating steak? Order the shrimp scampi. Friends dressing up? Go ahead, wear your ripped jeans.
And with St. Patrick’s Day being so famously beer-soaked, your against-the-grain cred will come from drinking wine. Not any old vino, mind you, but one particularly suited to this casual, joyous occasion: Vinho Verde (VEEN-yoh VEHR-day), a light white wine from various native grapes in Portugal.
If there’s one estate in the world that can make perfect wine, it is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (“DRC” to insiders) in France’s Burgundy region. So special is its Pinot Noir that tourists make pilgrimages there just to gaze thirstily at the vineyards behind its low stone wall. It is so coveted that some careful collectors will scrawl an “X” on bottles that they have drained to prevent counterfeiters from reusing them.
This is the kind of juice that Miles from Sideways would pursue to the end of the earth, even if it meant making like Thelma & Louise and rocketing his red Saab over a canyon into the blue beyond.
Admit it — you don’t drink tequila because of that one regretful run-in in college. You remember it: Shots were slammed, the room seemed to crater, porcelain was embraced, and the next day your head endured a piñata pounding.
So I understand your hesitation. But please hear me out: Today’s high-quality, nuanced, “sipping” tequilas are a world away from the syrupy firewater that you used to hide from your RA, who, it turns out, had his own stash of the stuff.
In fact, I’m so into fine tequila that I discussed it at my seminar with Food Network’s very own Marcela Valladolid at the South Beach Food Network Wine & Food Festival today. Whether you attended the seminar, or just read on, I aim to make you a convert, too, by dispelling these tequila myths:
1. All tequila is heavy and sweet: Not so. The “blanco” or “silver” category of tequila is clear and pure tasting. Citrusy and herbal, good blancos are like a high-alcohol Sauvignon Blanc — perfect as an appetite or joy-stoker.
Some restaurants let you have your chocolate and drink it, too.
The Peninsula, Chicago
When The Peninsula needed a cocktail to complete its chocolate buffet spread, bartender Aaron Johnson developed three, and all of them ended up on the regular bar menu. This S’mores Martini (pictured above) causes the most fuss: Patrons smell the barkeeps toasting the marshmallow rim and can’t help but order one for themselves. 108 East Superior St.; peninsula.com
When you write about wine, you sometimes get to taste the really expensive stuff. I’m not talking filet mignon or even white-truffle expensive. I’m talking splurging like Diddy-in-a-diamond-hoodie-on-a-yacht expensive.
When a collector shares one of these bottles with me, friends later ask, “Does it taste like [insert obscenely expensive price]?”
The honest answer: It doesn’t, at least not to the untrained palate, and probably not even to most trained palates.
The lesson here is that while the price is often reflective of a wine’s quality, it is so only up to a point. And even when a wine is of high quality — from the best grapes handled by the most talented hands — it doesn’t mean that you are going to automatically taste its full price. In fact, some of the most-prized bottles can evoke qualities — think soy sauce or pencil lead or even a barnyard in August — that are off-putting to the uninitiated.
If anything should convince you of my position on screw caps, consider the stated location on my Twitter profile: “wherever corks pop and caps snap.”
Yes, I give equal status to corks and screw caps because both are perfectly fine bottle enclosures. Just a generation ago, the thought of packaging wine like soda pop would have prompted connoisseurs to raise their corkscrews in a vampire cross.
These days enthusiasts know that quality wine is often packaged with twist-off tops, making the wine not only easier to open but also protecting it from cork taint, which is that basement-floor, mildewy smell that experts estimate affects at least 5 percent of all cork-enclosed bottles.
This is a time of the year when my drinking rules and all “house” policies go out the window. I want something new. I will drink a cocktail through the cocktail hour and the dinner party instead of switching to wine. I sip smoky, tabacco-y scotch. I indulge in a snifter of brandy. Sometimes I mix drinks. Here are a few I’m enjoying this year for New Year’s.
I really like this flavor — it rides the perfect line between bitter and sweet. It goes well with salty snacks or with a full meal. Make sure everything (including the glasses) are as cold as possible.
There’s so much pressure to have fun on New Year’s Eve that it’s easy to find yourself overpaying at a restaurant or bar for the right to experience tepid beer, viciously thumping music and the crush of overindulging strangers. Happily, you can easily outsmart this New Year’s outcome by having the kind of home bubbly celebration described here:
Bubbles of Any Kind: Whether it’s real Champagne from France or one of the less expensive types I call “bubbly stunt doubles” — Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain — bubbles are the cornerstone of a home New Year’s celebration.
Throughout the Night: The key is not to save the bubbly for the midnight ball drop, but to drink it throughout your festive night. A lighter-style blanc de blancs Champagne (from white grapes) works perfectly as an appetite-stoking aperitif or with lighter bites, such as Ted Allen’s Crudo on the Half Shell. But a richer, people-pleasing Prosecco or American sparkler would provide a cleansing lift to entrees such as Alex Guarnaschelli’s Oven “Fried” Pizza.