Sunday, June 29, 2014

Automotive cheapskateness, part 2

It is an article of faith with me that being civilized is, to a colossal extent, independent budgetary constraints. Granted, being of generous means does afford some latitude, but that can be greatly mitigated by intelligence, judiciousness, and fanatical research.

Let's once again take an example of this principle from the automotive category.

Here, on the outer fringes of paradise, the sweet-spot car is a BMW convertible. It's got four seats, a very snug and climate-proof top, "cachet" (crucial, 'round these parts, FWIW), driving pleasure and performance, style to burn, decent economy and so forth.

But what if your wallet cannot be stretched to accommodate the price of admission of the above?

I bring you the Saab Viggen Convertible.

Made from 1999-2002, with the aid of British racing legend Tom Walkinshaw, the Viggen is one of those hidden gems that punches wa-a-a-a-a-y above its weight, and has collectability on its side in a way the BMW (save for some M3 drop-tops) can only dream of; especially now that Saab seems to be slowly emerging from "administration" (the Swedish equivalent to bankruptcy).

0-60 in 6.something seconds, top speed of 155mph, 30+mpg, ridiculously low prices ("Saab? Who makes that?") and the legendary safety* and durability of Saabs.

There are some caveats, as usual. The legendary durability of Saabs means that while you can drive the car eleventy squillion miles, almost all of the cars you'll find for sale will have eleventy squillion miles. Also there are some minor issues with torque steer (addressed by buying the "Viggen rescue kit" which even a complete mechanical nitwit like me can install) and sludge buildup which is also easily addressed by making sure the car you are buying also has the "PCV update" or installing it. And it's only available with a manual transmission, so the delicate needn't apply.

The leather tends to suffer if neglected, especially the driver's side bolster and armrest.

Furthermore, because of the unique-to-Saab engine system design, these cars are VERY tunable, and $299 will give you more than enough power to give concern to your typical Bimmer jockey. (For an additional $1000, you can give him neurasthenia.)
So, basically, for +/- $12,000 including improvements, you can have a gorgeous, fast, stylish, reliable**, safe, unique and delightful a quarter of the price of a BMW or Audi.

* I have no greater compliment than this for Saab safety: With a plethora of choices available to me, I bought my own 16 year old son a Saab as his first car.

** This assumes proper maintenance. Sprint, don't walk, away from any car without a full service history.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Michael Mattis, 1964-2014.

I've just gotten the horrible news my pal Michael Mattis died unexpectedly last night.

Michael was a bon vivant of whom Wodehouse would have been proud. A character, in the brightest and noblest sense of the word.

Besides all of the boulevardier-ness for which he was justifiably famous, he was also a quietly kind and generous man, on whom I could (and did) count when I had blundered. His advice, counsel and assistance to me were crucial at that time and, like the lion with the thorn in the paw, such kindness has and will not be forgotten.

I had wished to catch up with him on his recent trip here to Florida, but we never managed to square away our respective schedules. (OK, my schedule.) And now I'll have to wait until we're both on the other side.

I cannot express my sadness and shock and the depths to which I will miss him. Rest well, my friend.

Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

Monday, February 10, 2014

How Whit Stillman got me married.

Ambling around Twitter, waiting for my 1pm teleconference with Spain to arrive (late, as usual), I see this link posted by the estimable Whit Stillman.

This reminds me that I happen to be working on a tenuously similar* thing in Spain about which I cannot comment at the moment. Then I am reminded this has nothing to do with the main point of this missive, which is to explain how, unbeknownst to him, Whit Stillman landed me a wife.

One day, while I was but a mere MBA hopeful, my friend Sam, then a TV & Film Production major, scored tickets to a preview of A Certain Film, directed by A Director Who Shan't Be Named. I knew not ADWSBN, and initially demurred. But Sam was adamant that ADWSBN was the next great thing and his previous film was hilarious and this film promised to be just as funny, and c'mon, be a pal.

So I relented.

Film geeks that we were, we arrived early and positioned ourselves in the dead center of the theater. Soon enough it began to fill up. I noticed that Sam and I were, um, the cineaste equivalent of Jets amid Sharks, if you will.

So the film starts and moves along until there's a riot scene, to which the rest of the audience responds with a considerably warmer sort of enthusiasm than I thought warranted. Being, as you will recall, in the very dead center of a group of people who were (visibly and very audibly) favorably disposed to an onscreen riot -- making their assent emphatic via concession snacks being launched screenwards -- made me somewhat uncomfortable and rather tarnished the evening for me to the extent that copious beers were unable to ameliorate.

So, basically, Sam owed me one. Sam knew he owed me one. An uncomfortable silence cast a shadow, a it were, over the friendship.

There things remained for some time.

One day Same showed up and said "I got another pair of tickets." I rolled my eyes like a lesser sort of slot machine and pondered what sort of defense I might muster for a manslaughter trial. Sam, being a quick-witted lad, immediately realized why I, red-eyed and breathing fire, had carefully placed my hands around his neck.

"It's called Metropolitan," he explained. He further went on to explain how it was very highly regarded and "was right up my alley." Noting that several scenes featured "men in tuxedos and white tie," he suggested this minimized the probability of a riot erupting somewhere in the late second act, thereby heading off the possibilities the rest of the theatergoing crowd may, unexpectedly, stand on the armrests to throw Jujyfruits in approval of a protagonist setting a restaurant alight and suggesting said protagonist visit homicide upon the antagonist, as the latter is a vile Oedipalist.

I looked sideways at Sam, at whose suggestion I'd nearly tested my family history of hypertension, and decided to hear his views on the matter instead of immediately performing something invasive with the tickets.

He explained, in the most cursory of terms, the general plot of the film, and then proceeded to recount the triumphs of the film at Cannes, etc.

"Fine, let's go."


My keen sense told me something was amiss. Sam was offering tickets but bailing out? As it turned out, Sam had figured out this film was likelier to appeal to my tribe than his. Comedies of manners(less) didn't compete with whatever was on his agenda at the age of 21.

Thus, he gave me both tickets and counted the blood feud as successfully concluded.

I found the prettiest girl who considered me tolerable, and somehow giving the impression I had enviable contacts in high places, dazzled her into going to this screening. Which she and I both enjoyed immensely.

So much did she enjoy it that, less than two years later we were engaged and then, as one does, got married.


* Similar only in the sense it has to do with the same industry.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Building blocks, Martini Dept.

About four years ago, Noilly Prat began selling its European version vermouth in these here United States.

There were howls and imprecations.

Me, being the press-on-regardless type, merely adjusted and kept going.

The new-to-us vermouth is citrusier and a shade sweeter, so I just adjust my 5:1 martini ratio to 6:1 to compensate, so if that's what you have, now you know how to work it. Be advised the ensuing Martini won't be pellucidly clear.

The one thing to remember about vermouths is that they are wine. As such, they will spoil at a far quicker rate than spirits. I buy vermouths (for sweet, my choice is Martini & Rossi) in the teeniest possible bottle, and I use a Vac-U-Vin vacuum stopper system and then stash them in the fridge. Buying a giant bottle, unless you make a lot of fish fumet, is very false economy.


Noilly Prat.

The better version you want, for Martini purposes, is the "Extra Dry." You won't be far wrong with the "Original Dry" so you do whatever you want.

The "Extra Dry" is clean, with subtle woodsy notes, with hints of juniper (!) and bay leaves and other woody herbs. Its light, crisp finish make it a terrific aperitif choice (as well as a good choice for cooking seafood) and, best of all, it's a steal.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The King of Beasts, Speakeasy Monthwise.

The visual most people get when they think "cocktail" or "speakeasy" or anything along those lines is The Dry Martini.

Other blogs, bless them, get into the historical aspects of who invented this, when and where.

I, frankly, cannot be made to care. What I really wish to focus on, as re. The Dry Martini, is the proper way to mix one, along with some practical detours on this matter.

First, a proper one is made with gin. I can more-or-less live with a vodka version is the imbiber requesting same says "vodka martini" upon ordering, in recognition he (or she, for we do not discriminate on the Yuletide...or any other tide, for that matter) is asking for a variation on the accepted standard.

Here is where we get to sit down like mature-ish adults and discuss the elephant in the room: Gin.

Gin -- and for those among the assembled who may be rabid cocktailians it may be a bitter truth to recognize -- is an acquired taste, like Saabs or reggae. Most non-cocktailians simply do not like gin, probably do not own any gin (at most they'll have some ancient leftover bottle from a party where they figured someone would have gin-and-tonics), and telling them gin is vodka+aromatics is not going to help.

These folks, when you tell them there are people who have 8+ bottles of gin in their arsenal (after getting over the shock that such people as cocktailians exist) look at you as if you've described your youngest daughter majoring in arson with a minor in "doing things to rodents with a fork."

The reason telling them gin is vodka+aromatics is not going to help is because it's these very aromatics (I'm looking at you, juniper) that are the hurdle which they have not yet found an easy way to clear. Cocktailians, as a tribe, suffer the fault of wishing to naturalize new tribespersons by Throwing Them Into The Deep End. Potential tribespeople, as it turns out, vehemently wish to not Be Thrown Into The Deep End and there the impasse remains.

The lovely and gracious and suspiciously youthful Lisa Birnbach, has provided us a new, better path of initiation into the joys of The Dry Martini. One with, oh, training wheels. In her book True Prep, she details a drink called The Mixed Marriage:

Cocktail hour demands drinks with brio. Not for us a bananatini or a lollipop-flavored frozen margarita. Simple daiquiris, gimlets and cosmos are okay for some, but the basic prep cocktail is a martini. Those Who Know have discovered that traditions need shaking up (or is it stirring?) from time to time. A vodka martini can seem boring, a gin martini can taste medicinal. Conventional wisdom dictates we never mix our liquors, but now and then we have to take a leap from the commonplace. Let us propose the Mixed Marriage; the Lucy and Desi of adult beverages.
The recipe for which is as follows:
Two jiggers Plymouth Gin
Two Jiggers Smirnoff
(my choice is Finlandia, but you do whatever) Vodka
One capful Noilly Prat Vermouth (Yes, we said a capful. It's a cocktail.)
Olive or twist, for garnish

La Birnbach has done two things here. First, she provides a gateway Martini a noble and commendable and charitable deed in and of itself and, also, smashes the loathsome "over-dryness" fetish, where vermouth is applied via dropper, atomizer or other means of similar paucity. A Martini has vermouth, people, and you're meant to taste the interplay between the base spirit and the modifier. (A modifier modifies, after all.)

This, especially if your fire/candlelit wintry cocktail party features an impressive representation of the distaff side, is an ideal start people along the One True Way.

Incidentally, Plymouth Gin, as mentioned above is the ideal introduction to gin. (More on the next post, wherein I delve into the specific elements.) In fact, it's my choice for gin-and-tonic. Also right-on-the-money is Noilly Prat, ideally the Extra Dry, as the vermouth of choice. (Ibid.)

Once you have people accepting this, it's a short leap to a classic version. And, because you deserve to know, here is my recipe for the classic:

2½ oz. gin (Plymouth if you have recent converts, Bombay Sapphire otherwise)
½ oz. Noilly Prat extra dry vermouth, (It should be cold, as open vermouth should be stored with a vacuum stopper in the fridge, buy the smallest bottle available.)
Cube ice as needed
1 lemon twist (no pith)
1 FROZEN martini glass

Fill your mixing beaker/glass with the fluids and ice and stir for two full minutes and then strain the Martini into your glass, and garnish with the lemon twist.

 And there you are. Now, stop living like an animal.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Speakeasy cocktail world rests on two pillars. This is the other one.

The Manhattan.

The Manhattan is, to me, the equivalent to the navy blazer in a gentleman's wardrobe. Elegant, simple and flexible.

Let's get one thing out of the way, right off the bat. The classic Manhattan was made with rye whiskey. Bourbon has become accepted, at least in the popular culture, the way vodka is now commonplace as the base spirit in a martini.

We may be too polite to say so, but we also know what's what.

At this point in the proceedings, the Usual Cocktail Blogger would begin to tell you of the various competing narratives for the title of The Real Origins of The Manhattan. However, I can't be bothered. It was invented at the Manhattan Club in the 18somethings.

That's not the important bit.

Mixing one properly is.

Now, here's the thing.
At the time of Prohibition/speakeasies, there were three basic spirits used for cocktails. Gin, "whiskey" and rum. Rum was only used because it was, in the words of Jeff "Beachbum" Berry "The only bonded liquor you could get" during Prohibition. Gin and "whiskey" (which meant rye or bourbon depending on where in the USA you were standing...all of my vintage cocktail books have one section for "Rye/Bourbon" recipes) were what people really wanted to drink.

But here's the interesting bit. Gin is like cats and "whiskey" is like dogs, in the sense that you can have a MUCH broader spectrum of flavors in, say, bourbon than you find in gins. This is neither good or bad, just parameters to keep in mind.

For the purposes of this piece, it's important to note because as you try to wean your friends from the sort of Regal Beagle cocktails that still litter the cocktail landscape, you have a better chance of doing so with a Manhattan, because you can start with something in a spirit that is mild/sweet like Maker's Mark bourbon, which has a prominent "wheat" profile. Then you can go to a more rye-forward bourbon such as Elijah Craig and then, possibly, finally, settling on a rye like Templeton.

The real-deal classic recipe is simplicity itself. In a mixing beaker filled with ice cubes put:

2oz rye (I like Templeton, but wouldn't spurn Sazerac or Rittenhouse)
1oz sweet Italian vermouth (I prefer Martini & Rossi)
Dash or two of Angostura bitters

Stir until the beaker is well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or, if you'd prefer, an old-fashioned glass with clean, fresh ice, and garnish with a cherry. Or a sprig of curly-leaf parsley ("Central Park").

My go-to for when I have guests, comes from the glorious Poppy Buxom and it is the Perfect Bourbon Manhattan, straight up.

In a mixing beaker filled with ice cubes put:

2oz bourbon (Maker's Mark or Knob Creek)
½ oz sweet Italian vermouth (I prefer Martini & Rossi)
½ oz dry French vermouth (I prefer Noilly Prat)
Dash or two of orange bitters

Stir until the beaker is well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.

Now, my personal preference and the ne plus ultra of Manhattans, the Perfect Rye Manhattan:

2oz rye (Templeton or Sazerac/Rittenhouse)
½ oz sweet Italian vermouth (I prefer Martini & Rossi)
½ oz dry French vermouth (I prefer Noilly Prat Extra Dry)
Dash or two of orange bitters

Stir until the beaker is well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.

Now, important bits:

1- In the name of all you hold to be sacred, STIR. Do not shake.
2- Vermouth is a fortified wine. After opening the bottle, put a vacuum stopper in it and stash it in the fridge.
3- Seriously, make your own cocktail cherries.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Laying the foundation for the Manhattan. No, the other one.

One of the latest things which has taken the world by storm, or at least my corner of it, is taking the decidedly fanatically, dysfunctionally obsessive Joe-like approach to food and extrapolating it into the cocktail sphere.

The first guilty party to go up against the wall, in matters of food or beverage, is The Artificial Ingredient. So, in pondering the ideal Manhattan cocktail for Speakeasy Month, I was stymied by the fact the cocktail cherry is a concentrated repository of multisyllabic chemical evilosity. Of late, there have been some places where cherries not aswim in an ocean of something-hyde and something else-zoate are available, but at prices which betray their purveyors' wide-eyed innocence regarding purchasing power during The Great Recession.

This leaves me no alternative but to pursue the DIY approach, as I am simply not going to pony up $22.99 for a mere 8oz. Especially when I know the ingredients contained therein add up to a princely $3 at very most.
Before you start to bemoan the effort required to make your own cocktail cherries know this – setting aside the time required for cooling -- a batch takes but a mere 10 minutes.

There are, of course, eleventy gazillion different cocktail cherry recipes, but a good starter cherry recipe is this one:
6 lbs dark, sweet cherries
¾ c sugar
1 c water
¼ c fresh, strained lemon juice
2 cinnamon sticks
1¼ c cherry brandy or liqueur. For this go-around we have Cherry Heering, but the next time it could be Kirchwasser. (You can use brandy, bourbon, pisco, rum, rye, grappa, vodka...etc.)

Put sugar, water, and cinnamon in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium-low. Add the lemon juice and cherries. Simmer 5 minutes. Remove from burner, fish out the cinnamon sticks, and stir in the liqueur/liquor.

The smart thing to do is to pit the cherries, but I chose to keep the pits for a more complex flavor...and because I couldn't be bothered in my zeal. Next time, I will enlist someone whom I have offsprung to man the pitter. I also chose basic supermarket sweet (NOT SOUR) cherries.

These cherries are amazing.
You will need to make extra, because you will ingest half of them warm right from the stove. These will definitely migrate into your supply of vanilla ice cream, and banana splits will suddenly begin to materialize in your life. The ensuing cherry liqueur is also spectacular. Mind you, bereft of chemical escort, the cherries will eventually turn dark at +/-2 weeks, and they hit their peak of color/flavor excellentness at the 1 week mark.

Try this, I totally exhort you.