Tequila Time!

Summer is here and as ever, we are on the eternal quest for the ultimate summer beverage. With so many creative and fabulous cocktails out there, how can you possibly decide on just one? The drink menus at bars and restaurants today are often staggeringly long. Narrowing your choices down can be challenging. But while some drinks are infinitely more appropriate for winter, such as Irish Coffee, a White Russian, or a snifter of cognac, others just scream summertime and are equally refreshing and delicious on a hot day.

If you’re not in the mood to try the trendiest new cocktail on the block and are perhaps leaning towards something more traditional, why not sample some tequila? You may be surprised. Serious tequila drinkers can be as finicky as scotch drinkers and are generally very well informed. They each have their own favorite brand and style and if prompted will happily tell you why, in no shortage of detail.Some tequila aficionados prefer their spirit crafted into the ever-popular Margarita, either blended or on the rocks, salted rim or clean. Some like the fine, aged sipping tequilas. Others still enjoy the smoky goodness of mezcal. But hold on! Tequila is tequila, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Time to learn something new.

Not just a faceless liquor serving as the base of a margarita, tequila is an historic spirit of Mexico, steeped in history, and offering a true flavor experience to those daring to step beyond the platter of tequila shots at the local Mexican joint. Contrary to popular belief, tequila is not made from a cactus. Tequila is a spirit crafted from the Blue Weber agave plant, a bluish green succulent, which is a cousin to the lily and the amaryllis. The heart or “pina” of the blue agave is cooked in a kind of pressure cooker which forces out the juice or “agua miel”. This liquid is purified, fermented, and double distilled to a minimum of 40% alcohol.

The best tequilas are made from 100% Blue Weber agave (or just “blue agave”). Blended tequilas or “mixtos” may be made from a mixture of blue agave and other agave plants. These lesser tequilas often lack the freshness and finesse of pure blue agave.

The blue agave plant is native to our southern neighbor, Mexico, known for its hot climate, beautiful beaches, and spicy food. It makes perfect sense that the spirits crafted within Mexico’s borders would be appropriate and in fact, perfect, for warm weather sipping.

By law, tequila can only be crafted in five Mexican regions that together make up the state of Tequila. The most important of the five is the state of Jalisco, where the actual town of Tequila is found. If created outside the state of Tequila, a spirit cannot legally be called “tequila”. The two largest tequila companies, Sauza and Cuervo, are both located in the town of Tequila.

Tequila is divided into five categories: gold, blanco (or silver), reposado, anejo, and extra anejo. Gold tequila is generally the cheapest. The gold color is achieved through the addition of caramel coloring to a lower quality tequila. Gold tequila holds little intrigue and should generally be avoided.

Blanco tequila is the most pure in flavor. While pungent in nature, blanco tequila carries the true essence of the blue agave plant, unaffected by wood or age. It has a clean taste and can easily be sipped alone, shot with lime and salt, or blended into an ice cold margarita or other festive cocktail.

A reposado (“rested”) tequila is aged in barrel for three to twelve months. The extreme heat of the production region accelerates the aging process and allows the tequila to take on light notes of vanilla and wood.  A reposado tequila has a more mellow flavor than a blanco and the color is generally a pale caramel shade.

Anejo (“aged”) tequila must be aged one to three years in old Kentucky bourbon barrels. Anejo tequila has a deep golden brown color and is smooth and full-bodied with delicate essences of vanilla and oak. Cocktails are generally made with blanco tequila although mixologists are now experimenting with reposado and anejo tequilas to add extra dimension to their recipes.

Like anejo tequila, extra anejo tequila is also aged in old Kentucky bourbon barrels but must be aged for four years and is always made with a distillery’s very finest spirits. Extra anejo tequila is the most expensive tequila. Rarely made into cocktails, extra anejo tequila is served straight up and sipped.

A discussion of tequila is not complete without touching on mezcal. Mezcal aficionados already know that all mezcal is tequila, but not all tequila is mezcal. In other words, mezcal can be produced both inside and outside of Mexico’s Tequila region, while true tequila can only be produced within the borders of the state of Tequila. Also, tequila must be made with blue agave while mezcal can be made with any agave plant.

Mezcal has a strong, smoky flavor that comes from the roasting (as opposed to pressure cooking) of the agave plant. It is more artisanal than regular tequila as each producer has his own secret method of roasting the agave. Mezcal is an acquired taste and a splash of mezcal added to any cocktail gives a distinctly earthy flavor and smoky aroma.

This summer, branch out a little. Many local restaurants and bars now offer interesting tequilas and mezcals. If you’re feeling daring, order one of the many Mexican-style cocktails you may have never tried before. They just might rock your world. Try something new. Add a splash of tequila to your life and enjoy!

Cheers!

Questions or comments can be sent to 4elizabethkate@gmail.com. Follow Elizabeth Kate on Instagram at @ielizabethkate!

 

 

 

Berry Good Times

This is the month to leave no stone unturned, as tree-ripened peaches, nectarines, plums, and pluots are at the peak of perfection.

The August farmers’ market is also loaded with dozens of varieties of vine-ripened tomatoes; crunchy, bursting-with-flavor cucumbers; a color spectrum of sweet bell peppers; the best just-picked corn; mountains of tiny summer squash; and tender young green beans. Pick up a bottle of California extra-virgin olive oil, and your meals for the week will pretty much make themselves. For dessert and warm-weather snacking, you can’t beat sweet-as-candy grapes; juicy watermelon; ruby red strawberries, and so many of their multi-hued cousins.

One of my favorites is the elusive boysenberry, so seldom found fresh in supermarkets due to their fragility. Their season is also pitifully brief, so it pays to seek them out now. Eat your fill this month, and preserve a secret stash to enjoy throughout the year. Boysenberries freeze well, and make exceptional jams, pies, cobblers, crisps and such.

The boysenberry resembles the blackberry in appearance, but has a deep red-to-purple color and rich, distinctive sweet-tart flavor.

Northern Californian Rudolph Boysen created the hybrid boysenberry in 1923 by crossing a raspberry, blackberry, and loganberry—to my mind, the best of all worlds. It took years of nurturing by esteemed farmers and other horticulturists to develop the berry we know today. In fact, it was their signature boysenberry preserves that put Knotts Berry Farm on the map.

As summer winds to a close, there seem to be an inordinate number of picnics and barbecues happening. This is the perfect time to showcase the season’s bounty—from homemade salsa and veggie-centric salads, to the last of summer’s fruits. The following recipe works well as a potluck dessert, as it has all the goodness of pie without any of the last-minute mess of cutting and serving in the great outdoors. I often place each square in a paper cupcake liner before piling them into a basket or other picnic-friendly container for easy serving.

Boysenberry Crumb Bars

Buttery Pastry Dough2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 2 teaspoons)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Boysenberry Filling

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 teaspoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 Tablespoons)

4 cups farm-fresh boysenberries

Optional: Confectioners’ (powdered) sugar for serving

  1. Grease a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking pan; line the bottom and sides with parchment or foil and grease again. Position the oven rack on the lowest level and preheat to 350°.

 

  1. To make the dough: Combine the butter, sugar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on Medium speed until soft and light, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla.

 

  1. Reduce the mixer speed to Low and mix in 2 1/4 cups of the flour, occasionally scraping down the bowl and paddle with a rubber spatula. Mix just until smooth and well blended.

 

  1. Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrape about 3/4 of the dough into the prepared baking pan. Use the palm of your hand to evenly press down the dough without compressing it too much. Refrigerate the dough-lined pan until needed. Work the remaining 1/4 cup flour into the remaining dough with your fingertips, forming 1/4- to 1/8-inch crumbs. Set aside at room temperature.

 

  1. To make the filling: In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Stir in the lemon juice. Fold in the boysenberries, stirring gently to coat.

 

  1. Spoon the filling over the chilled dough, spreading into an even layer. Scatter the reserved crumb mixture over the filling. Bake until the filling is bubbly-hot and the crust is cooked through and barely browned at the edges, 30 to 35 minutes.

 

  1. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool completely. Carefully lift the slab of baked dough out of the pan and onto a cutting board. Cut off the browned edges if desired; then cut the slab into 24 (2-inch) squares. Store in an airtight container. If desired, just before serving sprinkle the squares with confectioners’ (powdered) sugar.

 

                                                     Berry Good Things to Know

 Boysenberries are drupes, meaning each berry is composed of dozens of tiny sack-like fruits called drupelets. (How’s this for idle cocktail-party chatter?)

The proper balance of sweetness and tartness occurs only when berries are left to fully ripen on the vine. Once picked, they will never taste any better.

Refrigerate unwashed berries in a shallow airtight container lined with paper towels to absorb excess moisture.

Rinse berries clean just before using; and gently pat dry between paper towels.

Berries are high in Vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad & Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.org. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well.

 

Peppers, Roses & Native Plants

Q. Can you tell me what has happened to my hot peppers? For the second year, they grow to about a foot tall no taller and the flowers that form drop off. I planted them in April and they’re in a location that gets lots of sun. What do I need to do to solve my dilemma?

A. Hot or Chili peppers fail to flourish and flowers because of temperature, poor pollination or air circulation, and excess nitrogen. Of these, temperature is the most likely cause. Chili Peppers are extremely sensitive to temperature. It’s the night time temperature that the most critical as they like warm days and nights. The plants stagnate when the temperatures dips below fifty-five degrees and the cool conditions prevent buds from forming. Once the plants stop growing, they are very slow to recover when the temperatures warm up. It’s more likely to be a problem with those plants planted in March/April than those planted in May. You avoid this problem by planting around Mother’s Day. By then, the rainy season should be over and the temperature should be on the rise. If we’re having a cool and wet early spring then delay the planting. Poor air circulation, and pollination is not usually a problem with the in ground plantings but with those in containers especially those growing next to a wall. You’ll find pepper blossoms are even more sensitive to temperature during pollination. You may need to entice pollinators to the area by adding some brightly colored flowers nearby, such as Marigolds. Excess nitrogen causes the plant to puts all of its energy into foliage growth. Low fertility and low moisture levels can also result in poor flowering, bud drop and stunted growth along with irregular watering. But I don’t believe that poor air circulation or excess nitrogen is you problem. Next year my suggestion is to stagger you’re planting to see the difference. I’d plant one plant in April, May and even June and evaluate the performance. The late season planting will be the better performers.

Q. My climbing roses have finished blooming for the year. They need to be pruned as they’re way too dense. Can I prune them way back now?

A. This is one of those yes, no, or depends on, answers. You’d do your heaviest pruning on all types of roses during the winter months. They’re also pruned after every flush of flowers to shape the plants and control their size. It’s not unusual for many varieties of roses to bloom year round although the foliage isn’t pristine. The exception is Lady Banksia and Cecil Brunner because their spring bloomers and should be sheared back after the blooming period. When their cut back during the winter, the spring flowers are not as dramatic. With older Hybrid Tea varieties such as Peace, Chrysler Imperial, or Queen Elizabeth, you need to be careful pruning them severely as they bloom on the second year wood. If you prune too heavy, you’ll get no flowers next year. If this is a variety introduced this century then these varieties for the most part bloom on both the new and old wood. So, it doesn’t matter what’s removed or left. The biggest concern with pruning all types of roses way back or severely during the summer months is sunburn. The green, exposed canes will be damaged from the mid to late afternoon sun. These canes turn black on those plants facing south, west or in the southwest direction. These damaged canes typically die. You protect the canes by leaving a fair amount of leaves. If you live inland where it gets hot, I’d wait till winter to prune while your odds for success is greater along the coast. Again, this applies to cutting them back severely. You can thin out some of the growth now as long as you don’t exposed to many of the green canes. I could be more specific if the variety was known. If it is, then I’d consult a nursery professional at your favorite garden center for his or her opinion. They’re the best resource for what would be best in your area.Q. I removed my lawn and replaced it with California Natives and other water-wise plants. They have been in for two years and are doing very well. I’m very pleased. Do you know if they have any special fertilizer requirements?

A. Native plants have no special fertilizer requirements as they’re not heavy feeders. True California Natives are best fed in November just before the rains while the rest are fed in early March before the flush of new growth. I’d take the plant list to your favorite garden center and have the nursery professional advice you as to which time period is best for each plant. I’d use a general organic fertilizer like EB Stone or Dr Earth Organic All Purpose Fertilizer. One application is all that’s necessary per year.