Tag Archives: mixology

8 Must-Have Items for your Home Bar

8 must-have home bar

Spare yourself the last-minute run-around – get these 8 handy home bar tools now.   

Next to food, drinks are a main hospitality ‘go-to’ especially if you plan to get serious with home entertaining. Of course, I’m talking specifically about adult mixed drinks. Whether you plan to mix something as complex as a Commonwealth (with 71 different ingredients!) or as simple as a Negroni (equal parts, 3 ingredients), you need some essential bar tools.

Before you wave me off and say, “Fran – I’ll improvise,” think about all the tools you have for preparing and serving food. As my dad always said, “You’ve got to have the right tools for the right job.” You wouldn’t forget spoons or forks, would you? Serving plates and bowls? How about cookware and a set of wooden cooking spoons?  We all have our ‘must haves’ in our kitchens.

So, why is it any different for the home bar? If all you have today is a bottle opener, one rusty cork puller, and a single shot glass, it’s time. Intimidated? Don’t be. Just about every mix recipe you find online and in books comes with careful step-by-step instructions on what to use, how, and when. You’ll be mixing like a pro in absolutely no time at all. The best part, your mixed drinks will actually taste better, they’ll look more appetizing, and you’ll have more fun mixing them!

Here’s your list of the 8 ‘must-have’ bartending tools for your home bar:

  1. A high-quality stainless steel jigger is basically two measuring cups stuck together to form a kind of hour-glass shape. Typically, the bigger end measures 1½ ounce (or “one jigger”), and the other measures ¾ ounces (or a “half jigger”) – the most common measurements for drink ingredients. Pay attention to the jigger that you buy as some of them are 1 ounce and ½ ounce. The OXO has measurements inside each cup so you can use it for ANY drink recipe.  This is an indispensable tool for mixing up perfect drinks every time. No conversion with cups or measuring spoons, and no clumsy messing around with shot glasses.
  2. Good ice cube molds are much better than the regular ice trays you have for daily use. First, you want larger cubes for your drink as they melt slower than normal or smaller cubes and keep drinks colder longer without diluting it. Secondly, there are all sorts of fun shapes and sizes – ones that will fill a standard highball glass with a big cube or a single sphere. You can find very nice “ice molds” from Tovolo, Rabbit Wine, and W&P Design.
  3. Muddlers are extremely handy for extracting the oils and flavor from mint leaves or other herbs – even fruit. With fruit, you can ‘muddle’ with gusto, but with herbs and citrus peels, I suggest a gentler touch because over-muddling can produce a bitter taste. Use muddlers for mixing mojitos, mint juleps, and caipiroska (a tasty vodka drink with lime wedges and sugar muddled together).
  4. There’s nothing more indispensable than a two-piece cocktail shaker. When you shake a drink, it not only chills it properly but also creates the proper dilution and aeration (adding air) for the beverage. Get a separate strainer if yours doesn’t come with one – you don’t want the errant bits of ice poured into your glass.
  5. You’ll need a bar spoon – for stirred cocktails – Manhattan or Martini (if you’re not James Bond) or mixes with floating layers. They’re long handled and narrow (teaspoons are too short and too wide). This one from OXO can spin while you stir, which is kinda fun!
  6. A fresh fruit juicer is important for many, many cocktails – lemons, limes, oranges or even pomegranates. Buy one large enough that can handle most citrus.
  7. Good garnishes are important for great mixed drinks, so don’t skimp. Use fresh fruit, herbs, and high-quality cherries and onions. Absolutely avoid neon colored cherries – they look bad and taste terrible. I recommend Luxardo maraschino cherries and Reese sour cocktail onions.
  8. Cocktail books are also important to have around, even if you have some experience. Don’t go crazy and get a “masters” level ‘mixology’ book unless you have master-level skills. Start easy and simple, like “The Bartender’s Black Book” – 150 easy-to-read, simple to mix recipes, along with useful mixing tips.

There are lots of places to go for bar tools. I like the selection and quality of OXO. You can also find some great tools from Crate&Barrel and Sur la Table. Happy mixing!

Summer Cocktail idea for you and your friends

Negroni is a great summer drink

La Dolce Vita with a Negroni cocktail recipe: gin, Campari, Vermouth and a twist of Orange peel.

Even if you’ve only been following me for a little while, you know that I love anything Italian and I’ve been very fortunate to travel to many different parts of that magical country.  Although, I must admit that I favor Tuscany for its food and wine. During my visits, I have met some wonderful friends and made the most incredible food memories.

Once, I spent several days with some friends in the tiny town of Savigno, Italy where I learned how to make pasta. To be a true pasta master takes enormous dedication and ‘time on task’ or practice – practice – practice.  There is no shortcut for experience. Maybe it should come as no surprise that I’ve also collected some great recipes and cooking ideas during my travels there. I love all kinds of Italian food, and I absolutely crave Italian wine, cheeses, sauces, and lately – an incredible cocktail drink called a “Negroni.”

I have had several experiences with this mixed drink – all of them in summer – all of them fabulous. The drink itself goes all the way back to the mid-1800s – reportedly a favorite of merchants and naval officers in unusual little places like the island of Menorca, once a significant naval base of the British Royal Navy.

My first memory of it was at a restaurant in Little Italy (New York City) several years ago when a friend asked me what I’d like to drink, and I said, “Surprise me.” I can’t recall the occasion, but I’ve never forgotten the drink. A year or so later, I was at the rooftop restaurant of The Hotel Danieli overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice at sunset and asked for it by the only name I knew. “Negroni, per favore,” I asked. The bartender knew exactly what I wanted!

Most recently, I ran into the recipe on Esquire.com. The Esquire writer added some cute suggestions about the “right way” to drink a Negroni: lounging in a “sun-dappled veranda” while wearing a linen suit (love that scene). I was thinking of one particular summer afternoon on the Piazza Navona in Rome. But, that’s another story for another time…

La dolce vita, indeed!

Making this gem is easier (and by far quicker) to make than it takes to explain (see my video):

1 oz dry gin (I recommend Bombay Sapphire)

1 oz Campari (there’s only one)

1 oz Vermouth (Cinzano Rosso, of course)

It’s so easy when all the ingredients are the identical amount of liquid – you only have to remember 1 oz! Pour all into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice and shake well, like a pro. Use a cocktail strainer (please – you don’t want to pour any of the crushed ice into your drink) as you pour the mix into a stylish high-ball glass with ice (the larger the cube the better). The Italian bartender in Florence used an ice cube that almost filled the glass! Garnish with a twist of orange peel.

Now all that’s left do to is for you to don your white linen suit, lounge in the sun, and sip. Saluti!!

A Sparkling ‘Welcome’ Drink for Your Guests

Fran Berger Sparkling Punch

A great recipe for a truly fruity drink: Freixenet, Cointreau, Cranberries, and Oranges!

When entertaining at home planning is everything. If it’s a themed party, you want just the right decorations for your guests to enjoy. If you’re hosting a formal dinner or a casual gathering, you’ll want to make sure that the home décor is as fabulous as it can be. And, naturally, you want the menu to be flawless – everything just so, no matter if you have it catered or cook every dish yourself. Twenty years of running restaurants – I KNOW that pressure. But it’s all for fun – not just for your guests but for you as well.

That’s why I always say that a great home entertaining event is planned – everything from the arrival of the first guest all the way to clean up after the last guest leaves. When you take time to plan your event you won’t as easily forget the small details that can make huge differences in the flow of the evening. One of those small details is a ‘welcome’ drink- a mixed cocktail that you hand each guest as they arrive. A simple drink at the very start of the party that can help jump start a successful entertaining experience for everyone.

Sometimes it can take a bit of effort to find new and exciting party drink ideas that can be made in batches. But, it can absolutely be a whole lot of fun trying out different styles of beverages and new ingredients.  When I start my research, I spend a lot of time reading recipes and talking to friends of mine who are bartenders. Sometimes I think that I might have made a good bartender, well, maybe not. But I do love to experiment with mixing drinks for my parties and get-togethers.

One thing I’ve learned is that the ‘welcome’ drink can’t be just any drink. You should match the right kind of drink for the right type of event just as you do with anything else. Think of it as though it were the opening lines of a conversation – because that’s really what it is!

For instance, if you’re hosting an all girl’s night and the weather’s cold, maybe a bloody Mary ‘soup’ will be just the thing to serve. Here is the recipe and I also made a video of what it’s like to prepare. It’s delicious and easy.  You can definitely serve it with or without the vodka shot on top and still have a great drink!

Here’s a sparkling fruit punch that I found on Chowhound that’s perfect for a fun gathering any time of year. It takes about five minutes to prepare with a little time extra to chill some of the ingredients. The beauty of this cold sparkling wine punch is that you don’t use any ice. It stays cold because all of the ingredients are either frozen or chilled prior to mixing:

  • 2 whole navel oranges, thin sliced into discs (about ¼’ thick) This will yield about 8 slices
  • 2/3 Cup cranberries (frozen is okay, but it’s better if they’re fresh).
  • 3 Cups, Ocean Spray “100% Juice” Cranberry
  • 2 (750 ml) Bottles of Freixenet Cordon Negro brut sparkling wine.
  • ¾ Cup chilled Cointreau Orange Liqueur (add to taste, see below).

Quantities for each ingredient depend on how many guests you are serving. This recipe will give you about 12 drinks.  Here are a few tips I have for preparation:

  • Thoroughly clean the oranges (before slicing) and fresh cranberries. They’re going straight into the punch unpeeled, so this is a definite must.
  • As I mentioned before, you’re not going to add any ice to this punch, so it doesn’t come out diluted. For that reason, it’s always best to prepare it just before your guests arrive.
  • If you want to aim for a genuine fruit flavor, then you want to get the bottle of Ocean Spray that says “100% Juice” on the label and not one of their ‘cranberry and—’ juices. Cranberry juice is nice and tart, so this punch won’t be too sweet.
  • Lay out the fruit (orange slices and cranberries) on sheet trays before you place them into the freezer to keep them from freezing together. You will want to freeze them for about an hour.  If you’re using frozen cranberries – keep them in the freezer until you add them to the punch.
  • Cointreau Orange Liqueur has a very distinctive taste that will really bring out the orange flavor of the punch.
  • Pour all of the ingredients into a chilled punch bowl just before guests arrive and serve. Make sure that each cup of punch has some cranberries at least!

Enjoy!

The Perfect Valentine’s Day Adult Beverage

Happy Valentine's Day - from Russia with Love

Celebrate love and friendships with this favorite cocktail recipe.

There’s more to a mixed drink than a chunk of fruit, a swizzle stick, and a little paper umbrella. Most people think of mixed drinks as “cocktails” and some mixes are so popular that they’ve become cultural standards. Practically everyone knows, for instance, that a Martini (either Gin or Vodka) can be shaken or stirred. What would tacos be without Margaritas? And, I can’t think of many adults who haven’t heard the Eagles song “Tequila Sunrise,” and then tried a glass at least once in their lifetime.

Mixed drinks can be so much fun, sweet or savory, and they have a ton of history behind them. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “cocktail” originated in the U.S., but this may have referred to any mixed drink but it didn’t have to be alcoholic. Then there are a few obscure American publications from the early 1800s that actually define cocktails as a “stimulating liquor” mixed with other spirits. But, the word ‘cocktail’ (unless you’re talking about shrimp or crab) is commonly used to refer to any generic mixed beverage that contains at least two ingredients (could be a whole lot more!) with one of those ingredients containing alcohol.

A friend of mine is a career bartender. He has a huge bookshelf dedicated to what seems like every type of mixed drink known to humankind. Some of his books even date back to the 1920s. I mean, it’s really an impressive collection. That bookshelf would be so easy to get lost in – if you’re like me and you like to read recipes!

But, what most people don’t know is that there’s more to “mixology” (the art of creating and mixing alcoholic beverages) than just preparing mixed drinks. It’s also a study of trends and style. I’ve gone to many parties where professional bartenders in black and white uniforms mixed fabulous drinks with tools like jiggers, shot glasses, stirring rods and strainers. I’ve also been to events where the bartenders dressed in t-shirts and swimsuits and poured ingredients into holes at the top of huge ice sculptures where the drinks dribbled out – already mixed – from spigots near the bottom.

Some of the best drinks I’ve had were mixed by friends – or ones that I mixed for them. The drink is always far more memorable when shared with friends for a celebration like a birthday, an anniversary, or in this case, Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day just happens to be one of those “special days” that people tend to focus on love. And, of course, since we’re talking Valentine’s Day, there are so many special cocktail recipes to choose from.
One comes from a favorite website – thekitchn.com – they always have great ideas. I searched their site and this year they have a really fabulous Valentines Champagne Cocktail recipe that caught my eye.  It was simple to create, had only a couple of ingredients (chocolate!) and was so pretty.

It combines Chambord – a raspberry liquor, Dark Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, with one of my favorite champagnes – Veuve Clicquot. Not sure if it ever gets better than raspberries, dark chocolate, and champagne for Valentine’s.  They garnished theirs with coco nibs but I love how raspberries look floating in champagne so I just changed the garnish!

This recipe makes one drink.

  • 1/2 ounce Dark Godiva Chocolate Liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce Chambord
  • Champagne, to fill
  • Fresh Raspberries, for garnish, optional

Drop a couple of raspberries into a champagne flute and pour in the Godiva and the Chambord. Then top with chilled Champagne. This is so easy you can set up a whole tray to be ready at your front door as your guests arrive if you’re having a party – OR – if it’s just you and your ‘SO’, then this special cocktail is perfect for you. When you want that second drink, it’s so fast to make.

Recipe for a Warm-up: Bloody Mary Soup

Bloody Mary Soup

A new food memory: try my friend’s recipe for this delicious Bloody Mary Soup.

A few years ago, on what in Southern California is considered a “cold” winter day, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted a Bloody Mary.

We were actually standing on her balcony watching the sunset with friends. Despite my thick coat, gloves, and my beanie, I was still freezing! Okay, the wind was also making it pretty cold, and we had just got the fire going, so give me a break.

“In this weather?” I was a little astonished.

“Soup,” she finished.

That was when I noticed she was handing me a stoneware mug with the most delicious-tasting savory soup I’ve had in years. And now that I have the recipe, whenever I cook up a batch of this marvelous soup, I think of my friend and the great time we had with our friends that cold afternoon on her patio.

I believe food is a fabulous way to bring people together. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you also know that I have a real love for delicious recipes. Put them together, and you have what I call “food memories” – it’s one of the more emotional aspects of sophisticated living.

Now, with my friend’s permission, I’d like to share this wonderful soup with you, with the hopes that you’ll make some great food memories of your own. And before we go any further – yes, it is a “Bloody Mary” in the truest sense.

Ingredients

  • 2 TBS chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • ½ cup of your favorite vodka (Chopin Vodka).
  • 2 cups V-8 juice – your choice, regular or spicy (I use spicy)
  • 2 cups chicken or beef stock (broth) (I use beef for a richer taste)
  • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce (make sure you shake it up)
  • 1 28oz or 32oz can of Fire Roasted Tomatoes or diced tomatoes (I use Fire Roasted tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup horseradish (prepare to taste – I use way less because I use the Spicy V-8), add a dash of your favorite hot sauce if you like.

Instructions

Bloody Mary Soup recipe Fran Berger

You probably already have what you need to make this recipe.

In advance of cooking, I recommend that you prepare the “liquids” in one large bowl. Combine the V-8 juice, chicken or beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, and your tomatoes (canned or freshly cut). Don’t strain the tomatoes. Mix everything up and set aside.

Coat the bottom of a stock pot with olive oil and heat (medium). Add thyme leaves, garlic, celery ribs, onion (all chopped) and sauté on medium (cook until tender and onions are golden). By the way, make sure that your stock pot is large enough to hold everything – including all of the liquid!

Add the vodka to deglaze the veggies – scrape up all those beautiful browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the alcohol has “cooked off” – shy of a minute at medium heat.

Get your bowl of liquids and pour it in!  This is where a large stock pot is really useful. I recommend Staub’s 4-quart “Cocotte” for this task, because you’re going to heat this up until it boils, then reduce heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. I’ve let this go for up to 50 minutes and it seems to cook up the tomatoes very nicely. But as I always say, watch your pots!

Stir occasionally while simmering. Add the horseradish and hot sauce GRADUALLY. Taste often to make sure that you don’t overpower the other flavors. You can always set aside the horseradish and hot sauce for guests to flavor up for themselves.

When time’s up, turn off the heat.  Use an immersion blender to carefully puree the tomatoes, and serve warm in a big mug.  This recipe will make 6-8 servings (depending on the size of your mug) and can be doubled or tripled (or more!) for your party – just be sure your pot is big enough!

Add a pickled bean stalk or pickled artichoke as a garnish to add even more flavor. See my blog post on pickling. And see my video using this recipe.

The last touch: a shot of Chopin Vodka, if you like. Either way, it’ll taste so amazing served hot. Absolutely the best “bloody mary” you’ll ever make for yourself. Watch this video to see how easy it is!

Enjoy!

The simplest Vodka cocktail that isn’t really a cocktail.

NIKOLAI-vodka-taste_sm

Another way to enjoy your favorite vodka: a Nikoli for your party.

I love to host parties of all sizes.  Sometimes it’s a small group of 6, and sometimes it feels like I sent out a mailing addressed to “current occupant”!  Almost no weekend goes by that I’m not hosting some activity, somewhere.

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a “tasting” – a party where various dishes or types of food or beverage all focused around one theme are shared.  This one was focused on caviar (I served four types) and vodka (two types) – two incredible flavors that are a classic pairing.  I added a couple of types of smoked fish and, of course, champagne.  It had a very Russian feel to it.

A close friend of mine (part of the group around the table) used to manage a vodka bar and shared a very special cocktail that her Russian clients would regularly order.  She said that this drink has quite a few different names: Russian Cocaine, Russian Rocket, Nicolaski, but the one she remembered was most asked for, and the name I’ll use from now on is “Nikoli.” It’s really quite ingenious and very delicious.

This is a very simple drink and even if you don’t normally drink vodka – this may win you over!  Use only a very smooth vodka.  For me, it’s always a potato vodka and one of two labels (I drink both). When I’m out on the town with friends, my vodka of choice is always Chopin.  If the restaurant has Luksusowa, a classic Polish vodka, I’ll order that for a change.  I keep both in my freezer at home, so I’m ready at a moment’s notice.  Both are distilled from potatoes and are very smooth and rich especially when stored in the freezer, so they stay chilled properly.

Just an aside, that’s the big secret to making vodka taste great – keep it cold enough.  People have been dropping their bottles of vodka in the snow, letting the bottles stay out in subfreezing weather for a day or so for hundreds of years. We’ve got it a whole lot easier –  just put the bottle in the freezer!

Remember that vodka will not freeze (of course, because it’s alcohol), but it will thicken up a little, and the taste will change quite a bit. At “near freezing” temperatures, the proper drinking temperature for good vodka, it releases fewer volatiles, the compound in the alcohol that quickly vaporizes. That’s why when a spirit like vodka is warm, the smell of pure alcohol can be overwhelming.

By sipping a vodka that’s properly chilled (near freezing), a balance is created between the natural volatiles and the taste of the things that you are eating with the vodka. Which brings me back to a “Nikoli.”

You need four things for a Nikoli – aforementioned near-freezing vodka, thinly sliced lemon (I use Meyer lemons – they’re sweeter), a small dish of regular white sugar, and another small dish of freshly ground coffee (the finer the ground, the darker the bean, the better).

  • Prep the Meyer lemons by pressing one side of each slice into the little dish of sugar and the other side of the lemon slice into the dish of ground coffee.
  • Then pour about one to two ounces of chilled vodka into either shot glasses or aperitif glasses.
  • Pick up one lemon slice by the rind and fold it between your fingers (like a taco) with the coffee side inside and the sugar side on the outside.
  • Bite the flesh of the lemon clean from the rind, take the shot and then chew the lemon and swallow it all together.

Absolutely delicious!

One more little recommendation: chill your glasses. Chill your shot glasses in the freezer with the vodka, but place aperitif glasses in the regular refrigerator.  I like to use my antique aperitif glasses, they’re pretty, and they make the table look more festive, but I’d never put them in the freezer – they’re way too delicate.

Try a Nikoli – it’s a great way to get a party started!!

Sparkling Tarragon Gin Lemonade

tarragon-gin-lemonade

Time to Spice Up Your Lemonade

Many of my best party food memories are from Sunday BBQs when the kids were growing up so when the weather changes and it begins to get hot outside I start thinking about those BBQs and fun get-togethers. Then I try to figure out what would be a good adult-beverage for an afternoon outside with my friends and family now that everyone’s grown up. This adult lemonade will fit the bill perfectly this summer. It’s easy to make, isn’t too sweet (even with the St. Germain) and has bubbles which automatically make anything fun. Muddling is a bar technique used to release the essential oils from herbs and fruits to deliver the maximum impact on the drink. It’s basically gently crushing (with what amounts to a wooden pestle) the items against the glass – press and give a ½ turn of your wrist. This was created by Alison Roman and published in bon appétit June 2013. This recipe serves 6.

Ingredients

  • 10 large sprigs tarragon
  • 2 lemons, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3/4 cup gin
  • 3/4 cup St-Germain (elderflower liqueur)
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • (1) 12-ounce can club soda

Directions

Muddle tarragon sprigs, lemon slices, and sugar in a large pitcher. Add gin, St-Germain, lemon juice, and club soda. Add ice and stir to combine. Serve over ice.