Whiskey and Friends

Part of the glorious thing about being married to a collector is that he frequently comes home with magical gifts.   Combine that with his crazy bourbon mojo (I have never seen anyone with a sixth sense about rare bourbon deliveries before) and you have a sweet (and extensive) collection of rare and hard to find bourbons and rye whiskeys.   

Sometimes the purchases are a standard crowd favorite (20 year old Pappy or 17 year old Eagle Rare is always a winner), but often they are rare bourbons that are not a mainstream choice, but an experiment or a special run of something from collaborations by master distillers and restaurants or chefs.  Like any collector, these are usually the bourbons I am more interested in drinking and keeping; the bourbons that may never happen again.  After the last purchase of a barrel strength 12 year old Elijah Craig (in a string of three or four truly exceptional bottles) we decided that we needed to share these amazing spirits.

I also decided that I was ready to try and fly on my own by pairing my own menu.  Every menu that we do here, I send to my sommelier friend, John, up the street at The Wine Rack.  He does a remarkable job.  I can plan the hell out of a menu, but my wine experience is pretty limited.  I know what I like, but not necessarily what should be happening with the menu.  I wanted to try my hand at the bourbons, though.  It was time and I do happen to have a pretty extensive bourbon experience.

We put together a pretty special group of friends for the evening that are all whiskey drinkers and foodies (also a riot to be with...there was much rabble rousing that evening) and a great summer dinner party happened.  The menu was as simple and local as I could manage and I employed everyone throughout the night in between each course to help make the magic happen.  They were all great sports about it and a good time was had by all.  

Design decisions about the evening were kept simple and understated.  Whiskey is not a dressed up drink.  It is slow and steady.  I wanted the table to be lush without being fussy, so I decided on ferns and green plants in silver and glass containers.  The whiskeys were the center of the show, so they were displayed on the table on glass pedestals as well.  Candles and menu cards topped off the simple white dishes and silver flatware.  There were tasting cards for each course outlining each whiskey and a place to make your own notes.

There were a couple of new recipes that were home runs on the menu that night.  The first was the Bourbon Punch that was in the appetizer course.  I found the recipe here at Food and Wine.  There were a few tweaks to that recipe.  I left out the club soda altogether and obviously substituted bourbon for the brandy.  I also took an entire additional bottle of cava and poured it into a plastic container with lemon and orange slices and froze it for a couple of days.  I substituted that for the ice cubes it calls for.  I don't want my punch watered down.

The second was a vanilla pickled fennel that was with the pork belly and scallop course.  We had vanilla pickled fennel when we were at Blackberry farms and it was to die for.  I had fennel growing in the garden and several vanilla beans.  The recipe is listed below.  It will be a staple here from this point forward.  So complex and delicious.  And easy, which is all the better.

Vanilla Pickled Fennel
adapted from Oddsandhens.com 

2 large fennel bulbs, or 3 medium ones
2 fronds from the bulbs
3 1-inch slices of lemon zest
1 1/2 cups vanilla sugar (or the same amount of white sugar with 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract added) – 
3 tablespoons salt
3 cups white vinegar
1 vanilla bean, split

Slice the fennel bulbs with a mandolin into thin strips.  Bring the sugar, salt and vinegar to a boil. Add the lemon zest and scraped vanilla beans.  Remove from heat  Add the fennel fronds into the bottom of your cleaned jars. Pack in the fennel strips on top of the fronds; you want the fennel to come up only to the base of the neck.
Pour in the vinegar mixture slowly, release any air bubbles by rotating, poking with chopstick or other methods. Pour enough to cover the fennel by at least a 1/2 inch.  Add vanilla bean to jar.
Seal the jar (finger tighten only) and process in the canner for 15 minutes or allow to cool and place in refrigerator to enjoy immediately. 

 The dinner was our last hoorah for the summer, as I return to my pay-my-bills job next week.  It's bad times here.  I am actively trying to figure out how to make a big change and still pay the mortgage.  Send some good thoughts my way?  I could use some creative thinking (and a dose of courage) to tackle the next step.

Finally, the garden has lost it's mind this season.  Raised beds have been a huge success and our tomatoes and peppers have become plentiful seemingly overnight.  I brought 2 gallons of them in just this morning and salsa and Gazpacho are certainly on the menu.  Its too hot to even be at the pool, so cold cooking and closet re-organizing seems like a good activity today.

The coming weeks bring a return to drudgery and some more birthday celebrations.  Hopefully more pool and garden time in there and porch time with friends and some cool summer cocktails.  Let me know how your garden looks and if you are canning at all this season.

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