Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Summer drinks

Iced Coffee? No Sweat

BEFORE I go telling everybody that the secret to great iced coffee is already in the kitchen, my friend Keller wants me to confess: I didn’t know from iced coffee until he showed me the light.

It’s important to cop to this now, because not a summer goes by that he does not painstakingly remind me, a rabid iced-coffee drinker, that he’s the one who introduced me to the wonders of cold-brewed iced coffee. The funny thing is, when the subject came up we were holed up in a summer rental with three friends off the coast of Puerto Rico, on a tiny island not exactly swimming in upmarket coffee houses.

Our first morning there I brewed a blend from the local grocery in the coffeepot, laced it with a little half-and-half and sugar, then let it cool. Classy, I thought, carrying the pitcher to the table. “I’ll just take it hot,” he mumbled, while I blinked in disbelief.

Clearly, this boy didn’t know any better. A drink has a time and place. Surely he didn’t subscribe to drinking hot coffee in summer?

“No, I only drink iced coffee if it’s cold-brewed,” he said.

For five days we watched him sullenly sip his hot coffee on a broiling Caribbean island in the dead of summer. We chided him for his pretensions, ridiculed him, tried valiantly to break him, but he patiently waited us out. Once we tried it we would understand, he explained. Like friends disputing a baseball stat in a bar with no access to Google, we had no way to settle the argument.

Two weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I saw a sign: “Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee Served Here.” Fine, then. I threw down two bucks and took a sip. Though it pains me to admit, the difference was considerable. Without the bitterness produced by hot water, the cold-brewed coffee had hints of chocolate, even caramel. I dropped my sugar packet — no need for it. The best brews hardly need cream. It really is the kind of thing a gentleman might spend five days in hot-coffee solitary confinement for.

Most days I’m too lazy to hunt down the elusive cold-brewed cup. But recently I discovered an interesting little fact. Cold-brewed coffee is actually dirt simple to make at home. Online, you’ll find a wealth of forums arguing for this bean or that, bottled water over tap, the 24-hour versus the 12-hour soak. You can even buy the Toddy cold-brew coffee system for about $30.

But you can also bang it out with a Mason jar and a sieve. You just add water to coffee, stir, cover it and leave it out on the counter overnight. A quick two-step filtering the next day (strain the grounds through a sieve, and use a coffee filter to pick up silt), a dilution of the brew one-to-one with water, and you’re done. Except for the time it sits on the kitchen counter, the whole process takes about five minutes.

I was curious to see how it would taste without all the trappings. The answer is, Fantastic. My friend Carter, something of a cold-brewing savant, turned me onto another homegrown trick: freeze some of the concentrate into cubes. Matched with regular ice cubes, they melt into the same ratio as the final blend.

Very fancy. Can’t wait to tell Keller.

Chapter 1: I Drank the Water

IN Mexico City, where I live sometimes, I have a routine. I get out of the gym at about 9:30 and walk across the park to my favorite cantina, where the waiters know to bring me a shot of Herradura blanco tequila and a Victoria beer immediately. I love tequila and I believe that Herradura blanco, fiery and peppery, those first sips going down with the combustion of a space shuttle liftoff, is the great commercial tequila. I like mezcal too. Nothing macho about it: I just like the clean cactus and earth flavors, the warm ebullient high, and that you can drink a number of shots without feeling bloated.

I don’t often drink frozen drinks. How many of those can a person actually drink in a long night? But one night in Mexico City six years ago I drank frozen daiquiris, and I will never forget it, or at least I will never forget one of those drinks, the last one.

It was at a party in the writer Mario Bellatin’s house: crowded kitchen, someone manning the blender, bags of purified ice like the ones you get at gasoline stations. Slushy daiquiris in clear plastic cups, an appealing light lime color suggesting late afternoon drinks at the beach, when the salty bracing tartness of Mexican limes is especially delicious. I had one daiquiri and then another. Then they ran out of ice. Some of us were standing there, holding out empty cups. What, no more? There was still rum, there were still limes. But the blender guy was reaching deep into the freezer, struggling to dislodge an old ice cube tray, buried in furry ice. Enough for a few more daiquiris. Half an hour after drinking mine I felt a mule kick inside my stomach. Then I felt cold.

I went home. For the next two days I shivered and thrashed around in bed, burning with fever. A mesmerizing sensation of physically dwindling away. I hallucinated a strange scene, or dreamed one with my eyes open: convent servants searching the dawn streets of 19th-century Guatemala City for just the right Indian man to bring back to their Mother Superior.

I’d been waiting all summer for book and archival research to come alive. Suddenly, it had. I got out of bed, wrote it all down, went back to bed. Another scene came to me. That’s how I finally began that novel. Thanks to a daiquiri and bad Mexico City ice.

Forbidden Pleasure in the Desert

WE’D walked together down a road lined with craters. Walked slowly, of course. Looking for wires, animal carcasses, that sort of thing. The telltale signs of hidden bombs. It was a sweltering Iraqi morning, with the mist of the Euphrates infiltrating our lungs.

Later on, the captain regaled me with stories. We were both from Florida. His best tale concerned a tactic his men had devised to search Iraqi villages. A blond woman was in the unit he led, and all she had to do upon entering an Iraqi village was stand atop a Bradley fighting vehicle and pull off her helmet, letting her golden locks tumble to her shoulders.

Within minutes — blond hair being a thing of fascination in Iraq — much of the male population would be gathered round the Bradley. The Americans would then quietly search the village for guns. Worked every time, the captain said. We had a great laugh.

The talk turned to beer. If you could just get us a couple of cans, the captain said. He looked longingly at me. The captain hadn’t had a drink since he had arrived in Iraq, he said; none of his troops had. General Order No. 1, as it is called, decrees, among other things, that no American soldier shall consume alcohol in a war zone. Alone in the Iraqi desert, cold beer is something soldiers dream about.

Traveling around Iraq was still easy in 2003; so was buying alcohol. A couple of nights later, with a case of Carlsberg in the trunk, a photographer and I drove at high speed across the black Iraqi desert and pulled into the base. The captain came out to meet us. We’d put the beer in a black garbage bag. He cradled the sack like treasure.

“Oh, you guys are great,” the captain said, hustling it away. “Anything you want. Anything.”

I never saw the captain after that. My only regret is that I didn’t share one of those beers with him.

June 27, 2007
The Cherries of Persia

THE ruby-colored iced drink came in a tall glass set on a painted tray. There were other offerings: ice water, hot tea. But the bright color beckoned.

It was the summer of 1999 and I was in Shiraz, the Iranian city of calm, good sense and mystical poetry, a place not of religious pilgrimage but of roses, nightingales, rich people who smoke opium and some of the best wine-producing grapes in the world.

I had been invited to lunch at the home of Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati, a senior Shiite cleric whose family had once wielded extraordinary power and influence.

The drink I chose — a sour cherry confection — had the taste of summer. Bitingly tart and soothingly sweet rather than sour, it blocked out the noise and heat and rules of the Islamic Republic just outside the doors of the ayatollah’s house.

The sour cherry season in Iran is short — only about three weeks from mid-June to early July. The harvest triggers a mad rush to preserve the fruit’s electric vibrancy. Sour cherries boiled in sugar and water with just a hint of vanilla produce a rich syrup called sharbat-e albalu. It is stored in bottles to be mixed with water and masses of ice to drink on special occasions throughout the year.

On the day of our lunch, the learned ayatollah looked at the glowing liquid and recited from memory a poem of Iran’s greatest epic poet, Abolqasem Ferdowsi: “Two things are my favorite, a young companion and an old wine. The young companion takes away all your sorrows, the old wine gives richness to your life.”

The ayatollah said he was speaking only metaphorically, of course. Shiraz grapes once produced the finest wine in Iran. But we were in the Islamic Republic, which bans all alcohol. Shiraz also produces some of Iran’s best sour cherries. So, blissfully, we sipped on sour cherries instead.

June 27, 2007
A Taste of Freedom

ONCE when I was about 13 years old, my best friend, Renee, and I did that thing where you each tell your parents that you are sleeping over at the other’s house, and they don’t even check. With relative ease, we found ourselves distinctly unchaperoned and hitchhiking the 20 miles to the Trenton, N.J., train station and catching a train to New York City.

With even greater ease, we found ourselves — such is the power of the teenage sense of immortality — perched on bar stools at an Upper West Side restaurant saying, “Um, I think I’ll have a Long Island iced tea, please.” It was the only drink we knew to order. We’d been getting blitzed on them for some time by siphoning off our parents’ liquor and replacing it with tap water. I remember being curled up on the orange shag rug, feeling the whole planet spin.

The bartender did not card us. The bartender did not roll his eyes to the heavens. He filled — freehand — two giant tulip-shape glasses that could have doubled as hurricane lamps with well liquors, prefab sour mix and cola from a sticky soda gun. And set them down in front of us.

We were both the youngest in our families and in so many ways by the time we were 10 we were practically 20. We blew smoke rings. We wore eye shadow. But we were, decisively, not 20. We pooled our crumpled bills and quarters, parsed out in stacks of four, and paid our bill to the penny. We did not tip. Poor service? No, we just didn’t know to. That’s how young we were.

Renee and I made it back unharmed. We caught the last train to Trenton and because we were lit and he was the only other guy in our car, we met a young comedian on the train. We fell over in our seats laughing at all his jokes. And he drove us home and let us out at the end of Renee’s silent driveway and we were safe and unmolested, and we grew up and lived our lives. And I am now in my 40’s and still drink Long Island iced tea.

In spite of having had the kind of adolescence that had orange shag and startlingly distracted parents — some of the things that have made people my age fashionably full of irony — I have never succumbed to that deadly stance. I drink Long Island iced tea sincerely. It is not part of a fashion trend that favors Peter Frampton haircuts and Tab.

To be sure, I am not drinking exactly the same Long Island iced tea. Now it is a carefully measured cocktail, made in a tall pint glass packed with ice cubes, filled with premium liquors, topped with Coke from a freshly cracked glass bottle. And I usually stick to just one, with some very delicious fried thing to eat, like fat-bellied clams or oysters with a spicy tartar sauce. The food absorbs the alcohol in just the right way so you get high but not blitzed. Which is safer when hitchhiking.

For a Future That’s Always Rosy

HIDDEN within our current tastes and penchants are the persistent and often ignoble residues of our former selves. I call it the Holly Golightly-Lula Mae Principle. Allow me to demonstrate how it works.

Of late, my summer drink of choice is a white sangria. It’s a floral concoction of white sparkling wine, Cointreau, apple juice and a splash of club soda, generously perfumed with thin slices of white nectarines, green pears and sweet navel oranges.

This is my reverse-engineered recipe for a drink that I had first at a restaurant so incandescently hip and cool that it saw no reason to cook its food. An editor at a fancy magazine was paying, so I allowed myself to be taken to a raw foods restaurant. In lieu of a proper meal, I decided to drink myself full and I did.

I don’t remember too much about the raw foods, but that nutty place really had a way with the white sangria. I serve pitchers of it now on summer evenings and nod with delight when my friends comment on its subtle beauty and intoxicating charm. I hesitate to share with them, though, why my inner Lula Mae adores this chic little quaff.

White sangria reminds me of the bottles of convenience store wine coolers that my girlfriends and I consumed in alarming quantities in the back seat of cars while stuck in Texas in the prime of our teenage years. Sweet, cheap and perversely and resolutely not beer (long necks being the patriotic drink of the Republic of Texas), wine coolers were our fast ticket out of sobriety and the confines of our suburban youth.

As we twisted off their caps and guzzled their artificial flavors, we were imagining the future. Beautiful and transporting, ambrosial with promises, and complex but never complicated: we wanted it so much we could taste it. The future for us finally arrived and, of course, wasn’t quite what we had desired, but a sip of white sangria on a summer night comes pretty close.

Dry Dock It’s Not

DAVID BERSON is a gallivanting boat captain who runs an electric launch, Glory, out of Greenport, N.Y., on the North Fork of Long Island. Captain Berson has been a deck monkey, a guitar hero and a yellow-cab hack over the years, an instructor of celestial navigation and a fair handler of canvas and rope. He smokes a pipe, is a friend of the masses and counts himself a fan of both Emma Goldman and Blind Willie Johnson. He sails cautiously and well, then pours rum with a heavy hand.

This is his recipe, a modification of that great Caribbean libation the Painkiller, which itself found birth at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. The Painkiller features dark rum over shaved ice, frothed with orange and pineapple juice along with some sweetened coconut cream, topped with a shaving of nutmeg. It is rich stuff, a little complicated, a bit much for a long Saturday night of drinking under sea grape and palms.

Captain Berson, who served under Eben Whitcomb on the great coasting schooner Harvey Gamage, used to anchor off Jost Van Dyke and has put down his fair share of Painkillers, both at the Soggy Dollar and at the more rough-and-tumble Rudy’s Mariners Inn above Great Harbour. He has, over time, whittled down the ingredients for his own version of the drink, for reasons of both thrift and flavor, to come up with a minimalist take on the classic. His friends call it the Greenport Shuffle, for its eventual effect on one’s gait.

The color should be yellow, cut with bruised brown, like a pineapple left to ripen two days too long, sprinkled with rust. It should taste of summer, and offer the feeling of night air on sunburned skin.

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