Hot n' Sour Soup

We first made this (or actually had this made for us) at a party with some of the UW-M Creative Writing people...

Source: blogchef.com

5 cups vegetable broth
1 1/2 Tbsp sesame seed oil
1 1/2 tsp red chili oil (or to taste)
1 1/2 c shitake mushrooms (dried)
1 10.5 oz package firm tofu
5 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp corn starch
2-3 large eggs
1-3 Tbsp minced ginger
1 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce (or more to taste)
pinch of sugar or sweetener


 Heat broth in large pot. Add oils. While its heating: Chop mushrooms and cube tofu. Combine rice vinegar and corn starch in small bowl. When pot is boiling, add eggs, tofu, ginger, soy sauce, sugar and mushrooms.
Reduce heat to med-low. Cover and simmer 5 min. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until slightly thickened - about 1 min. Continue cooking about 20 min.

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Vodka ranked!

A couple of months ago we found ourselves with two bottles of vodka in the freezer (a Smirnoff and a Tito's), at which time, it occurred to me that I should try to rank all existing brands of vodka in the world.  Brooke and I arranged a blind taste test of our two bottles, and since that day (until today {and today and today}) we haven't had a similar opportunity.

Today we do, albeit two completely different brands (Krakus and Rehorst).  Taste tests will generally consist of a chilled shot and a vodka tonic rounds.  In the situation of a tie, a vodka martini round (or whichever didn't happen first and second) will occur (at a later date, generally).

Therefore, this list*, which will eventually be the standard by which all people select their vodka, will start off a bit fragmented.  The transitive property applies (if Smirnoff is better than Barton's, and Barton's is better than Five O'clock, then Smirnoff is better than Five O'clock without needing a taste test).  That said, there will be a sub-list of taste-tested vodkas (A, B, C, etc.) which do not have a direct place on the list yet, because they haven't been 'ranked in'.  This latter list is not necessarily (though presumably) in order.  The order of this list is in terms of tasting and quality only, not value (overpriced or underpriced vodkas get no advantage): 

  1. Rehorst
  2. Green Mark
  3. Ketel One
  4. Prairie Vodka
  5. Russian Standard
  6. Stolichnaya Vodka 
  7. Tito's Handmade Vodka
  8. C. Skyy 90
  9. Smirnoff Vodka
  10. Pearl Vodka
  11. D. Pinnacle Vodka
  12. E. Skyy Vodka
  13. Krakus Polish Vodka
  14. F. Griffon Vault Vodka
  15. Golden Fields Grain Vodka

Tasting Notes / Taste Tests

27 November 2013 - Tito's vs. Smirnoff
  • Chilled Shot - Tito's is clearly the winner here.  Much smoother.  Smirnoff has the slightest assiness, but not too bad.
  • Vodka Tonic - Tito's wins by a bit, but Smirnoff is absolutely a respectable choice for mixed cocktails.
Tito's Wins!

28 January 2014 - Krakus vs. Rehorst
  • Chilled Shot - The Rehorst vodka wins this by a nose (that's a nod to Krakus, which is our favorite "home rail" vodka and features a horse and rider on the bottle).
  • In an upset, the Krakus and Tonic won for both Brooke and my blind tasting.  I think it was the fact that both are very smooth and Krakus is a potato vodka (I think - these reviews are clearly not well researched at this point), which maybe makes for a better cocktail.
  • Rehorst wins the well-deserved victory in a clear Martini win!  Clear victor in the clear cocktail contest.  Rehorst is nearly unparalleled.
Rehorst Wins!

22 February 2014 - Smirnoff vs. Pinnacle
  • Our first split decision, Brooke preferred the chilled Pinnacle shot and the Smirnoff and tonic, whereas I chose it the exact opposite.  Both vodkas seem adequate, though nothing special.
Winner TBD!  (Whoops!**)

26 February 2014 - Smirnoff vs. Krakus
  • This was a real shocker for me.  After blind tasting both a martini and a chilled shot, I was surprised that both Brooke and I preferred the Smirnoff.  Both were adequate and enjoyable, but the Smirnoff is just smoother. 
Smirnoff Wins!

5 March 2014 - Krakus vs. Golden Fields
  • This was a landslide: tonic cocktail and chilled shot was clearly superior with the Krakus.
Krakus Wins!

18 April 2014 - Krakus vs. Skyy
  • A split decision with Skyy winning on both the chilled shot and the tonic drink for Brooke, and me selecting the Krakus on both counts. 
Winner TBD

20 July 2015 - Russian Standard vs. Pearl
  • Clear winner with Russian Standard - an almost unimpeachable win.  Pearl Vodka is fine (that's high praise!), but Russian Standard is a real standard.  The chilled shot decision was split, though very close.  Tonic drink was clearly won by Russian Standard.
Russian Standard Wins!

29 July 2015 - Stravinsky vs. Stolichnaya
  • Unfinished competition, but Stoli won a chilled shot tasting by a nose.  At first Brooke selected the less expensive, less known Stravinsky, and Joel went with the Stoli.  After further review, though, both of us agreed on the Stoli.
Winner TBD (Stoli is in the lead...)

31 July 2015 - Stolichnaya vs. Prairie
  • A rare martini first tasting, and also a rare third taster.  Joel and Brig preferred the Prairie, and Brooke went with the Stoli...
  • Broke this tie on 22 May 2016 - a chilled shot competition, and both Brooke and I selected Prairie - in a clear win!  A real surprise to both of us.
Prairie Wins!

2 October 2015 - Green Mark vs. Russian Standard
  • In the chilled shot tasting, Green Mark won clearly for both of us.  The vodka tonic portion of the competition was a split, with Brooke selecting Green Mark (and thus crowning it a victory), and Joel standing by Russian Standard.  This holds Joel's "First Rule for General Spirits Tasting": if there are two booze which both cost approximately the same, and you've heard of one but not the other, buy the one you haven't heard of. 
Green Mark Wins! (note, at some stage we may need to revisit a martini competition as there was some doubt as to which glass was which once he came to the chilled shot selection)...

19 February 2016 - Tito's vs. Skyy 90
  • Tito's won the chilled shot tasting for both of us.  Skyy 90 is fairly high octane for just drinking cold and straight.  The tonic competition was a split with Brooke selecting Skyy 90, and Joel taking Tito's. 
Tito's Wins! (note, I think it best to revisit a martini competition as Skyy 90's high proofiness may have an advantage in a martini tasting and it could overtake Tito's with a martini sweep)...

27 March 2016 - Griffon vs. Stanislav
  • Two newcomers (so their positions are estimated, but a clear winner here)... Griffon Vault Vodka is a boxed bladder of booze.  It's got an odd sweetness to it (not in a good way... think diet cherry Nyquil).  Tonic drink was clearly won by Stanislav (which is good, but nothing special) and the chilled shot was a closer, but still unanimous.
Stanislav Wins!

5 June 2016 - Prairie vs. Russian Standard
  • Unfinished competition, but Prairie won the chilled shot tasting, though the separation was very small.  The shots were distinct, but neither of us had a strong preference. Both were quite good. In the end we both settled on Prairie. Similarly, vodka tonics for each were pretty evenly matched. Brooke selected the Russian Standard and Joel opted for the Prairie, but again, very little separation. So, a slight lead for Prairie, but I think the martini tasting will be telling. 
  • Prairie wins the tiebreaker Martini competition, this time with another appearance by third taster, Brigette!  Joel and Brig selected Prairie, with Brooke opting for Russian Standard.
  • All three of these contests were quite close - so we don't see a lot of distinction between these vodka.  Both worthy intoxicants.
Prairie Wins!

11/12 March 2017 - Prairie vs. Ketel One
  • A two-day trial - first the chilled shot was a split decision with Brooke selecting Ketel One and Joel opting for the Prairie.  In the vodka tonic competition, Ketel One was a clear superior for both of us.  Transitive property notwithstanding, I think there may be a preference in taste for Russian vodkas for Brooke and American (or Prairie!) for myself and Brig that may be mis-appropriating victories here.  If ever Ketel One and Russian Standard come up against each other (or, oy vey, Stoli!) the competition would get more complicated.  Perhaps this is an acknowledgement that none of these competitions are ever done.  If others taste these same vodkas in competition, we might overturn results.  If 1000 people assure me that Russian Standard is better than Prairie (under pre-approved conditions!), perhaps we have a new winner. 

Ketel One Wins! (for now) 

16/17 March 2017 - Smirnoff vs. Pearl
  • Pearl wins it in a (somewhat harsh) mini-martini tasting.  Pearl gets ranked into the main list of vodkas.  Smirnoff, it turns out, makes a pretty bad martini.  Pearl vodka makes a somewhat bearable vodka.  Tie-breaking tasting on 16 March 2017.
  • **(Whoops! - I mistakenly bought Pearl instead of Pinnacle Vodka, so didn't solve the earlier competition, but instead started a new one!)
  • In the martini tasting, Brooke was at first unable to make a selection.  Joel clearly chose the Pearl.  After further review of the two, Brooke agreed and chose it as well (for purposes of counting, though, Pearl is only up 1 - 0 in tasting.
  • Chilled shot contest makes this a bit muddled - Brooke and Brig both select the Pearl; Joel prefers the Smirnoff.  Now it's tied 2-2, with a pending vodka tonic rubber match. 
  • Tie finally broken on 19 April 2017 - A vodka tonic contest clears all of this up... The Smirnoff has a slight sweetness, whereas the Pearl & Tonic has more of an ass-i-ness.  Sweetness wins and so does Smirnoff!
Smirnoff Wins!

21 & 23 June 2017- Russian Standard vs. Stolichnaya
  • Russian Standard won both a chilled shot and tonic competition, unanimously.  2-0, then 3-0 respectively (Brig was around for the latter).  All tasting were quite close.  Interestingly, on the first taste of each - the shot and the cocktail - there was no discernible difference between the vodkas.  On second taste, each time, the Stoli exhibited a slight aftertaste, which sealed the win for Russian Standard.
Russian Standard Wins!

27 December 2017 - Stolichnaya vs. Ketel One
  • All three tastings done this evening, and it was very close.  All of the tastings were hard decisions for any of the three of us to decide, but Ketel One won the chilled shot 2-1 (Brig and I selected the KO, and Brooke took the Stoli). 
  • The martini tasting was a toss-up. Brig couldn't decide which was better for her, Brooke chose the Ketel One and Joel chose the Stolichnaya. 
  • Finally for the vodka tonic, it went 2-1 in favor of Stolichnaya, with Brooke again being solo, but this time on the KO!
  • Both of us choosing the Stoli in the vodka-tonic competition (and even Brooke, who went the other way) commented that the Stoli drink, which is our house vodka, was familiar. Even though this competition has officially ended in a tie, I am going to give the temporary edge to Ketel One, because of the familiarity factor that led us to select the Stoli and Tonic.

Ketel One Wins! (for now) 

*NOTE: This list will be updated into perpetuity (or until the end of the internet, or until Google goes bankrupt).

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Milwaukee's Best Trudges

Source: barewalls.com
Trudging is a tradition Brooke introduced me to years ago.  Often done in winter (though not necessarily), trudging is something like going for a destination walk, and something like hiking.

Mainly, the key features of a trudge are a certain amount of remote-ness (i.e. not through your own neighborhood streets) and some amount of preparation..  Too much preparation, and any amount of gear, and suddenly you're hiking, but some pulling on of boots, bundling up (if applicable), and doing a little research on where you want to trudge are all necessary steps.  Arbitrarily, I choose a 1-hour radius from my house, near the Milwaukee airport and present some of Milwaukee's best trudges (in no particular order):

1. Richard Bong Recreation Area, Burlington - It's a little hike from Milwaukee, but well worth an exploration.  Miles of trails, good spots for a picnic and very close the the Aeppel Treow Cidery (an out of the way destination for winery frequenters).  If you're coming from Milwaukee, stop at the Mars Cheese Castle, which is at the exit you take to get there, for cheese, munchies and wine or beer for a picnic

2. Doctor's Park, Bayside - This park is generally under utilized.  There won't be big crowds and after a walk through the woods down to the beach, you may just find yourself with a place to yourself.

3. South Shore Park, Bay View - South Shore park is among my favorite places in the city to trudge, walk, or market.  With lovely views of downtown as you walk north (south of the park) and an always changing view of the lake, it's a great 2-mile or so stretch along the lake, which connects to dozens more miles of bike and walking trails…

* * * Updated 4 January 2014 * * *
3a. … which leads into Sheridan Park / Grant Park / Warnimont Park - 
This network of parks south of Bayview stretches through Cudahy, South Milwaukee and down to Oak Creek (I think). There's a dog park; you can find yourself in the middle of a golf course, skeet range, and archery target practice if you wander a bit afield. There are fantastic, somewhat hidden, lake views if you know (or find) where to look. Also, you can stumble upon old-timey exercise equipment and sometimes find yourself in a sort of field maze. 

The list is (perpetually) in progress and suggestions are welcome.

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Presto Cocktail

A wonderful new addition to our repetoir, courtesy of The Savoy Cocktail Book, which Brooke procured for me on her recent trip to LA.  The Presto Cocktail is a fruitier cousin to the Manhattan:

The Presto Cocktail
1 Dash Absinthe
1/6 Orange Juice
1/6 Italian Vermouth
2/3 Brandy
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass.
(Savoy 128)

Caution on the Absinthe.  1 Dash means 1 dash, too much and it gets a bit overpowering.

TSCB is a collection of recipes from The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London.  The recipes range from Old School to Ancient School, including ingredients like Chartreuse verte, Maraschino, Hercules, and Swedish Punch - a lot of Vermouth.  We're starting our way through a few of the drinks (today we made a bastardized version of The Royal Tribute, invented 1 year ago today in honor of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding and a Champagne Cocktail).

The Royal Tribute called for "double straining", which I was surprised to find was actually a thing.

"Above all, the cocktail is the essence of celebration, the affirmation of liveliness and life itself" (iii).  

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The Undead Saint

A brilliant gin martini recipe:

     3 parts Deaths Door Gin (substitute a good, straight-forward gin {Broker's, Beefeater})
     1 part Dry Vermouth (make sure you keep it properly)
     3/4 part St. Germain (possibly even less, 1/2 part maybe.  I do not know a substitute for this.)

add a lemon twist.

This is a delicious, unique martini.  It's the 'hi-booze' of a good martini without the 'hard-core alcoholic taste'.

An excellent birthday, or any day cocktail.  You should totally try it.

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Stillwater, MN - come for the food & drink, stay for the overpriced antiques

We were convince (or coerced) by our dear friend JP to take the 20 minute ride north from our hotel in Hudson, WI to the quaint (in the etymological sense) town of Stillwater.  The last time we'd been to town, last September, Jess had introduced us to a Pirate-themed bar (with no patience for "Talk Like a Pirate Day") but also to a ridiculously long line of late-summer traffic coming into town.

This time around Jess met us for a cocktail at the Dock Cafe, a place where his parents go for the occasional Manhattan.  I followed suit (bourbon) as did JP (brandy) and Brooke had a well-made vodka martini.  Very good cocktails, but the dinner was even better.  If you ever have opportunity to eat in Stillwater, the Black & Blue Tuna is utterly perfect.  Spicy, with some wasabi on the side if you want even a bit more, and a blue cheese sauce.  The flavors are unusual together, but really quite nice.

After dinner we explored downtown in search of an after-dinner drink and settled, luckily for us, on MarX, a modern-looking restaurant with an interesting collection of boozes.  Brooke ordered an Espresso Martini, which was serviceable.  I asked the bartender what he could make with whiskey.  He made me a Red Snapper which sounds awful, but is actually quite tasty (though it loses a lot of the flavor that makes you want to drink whiskey in the first place).  It's a concoction of Crown Royale, Amaretto and a splash of cranberry juice.

I inquired about an interesting-looking bottle tucked away behind some of the cordials and was rewarded with a splash of a Hirsch Bourbon from Kentucky.  It was delightful, smooth and sweet.

I asked the general manager about the art on the wall, some of which was local, but four framed paintings of which had come from Haiti.  They had a typical Haitian brightness and the local art matched that flavor.  We sampled one more 'experimental' cocktail that they were considering adding to the menu.  It had rye whiskey, Drambuie, some honey and Bittercube Blackstrap Bitters (from Milwaukee!).  The drink was topped with a anise floater, which hit the nose just as you were sipping, a very delightful cocktail.  All in all, I'd highly recommend MarX as a place for cocktails and if the care with which they were crafted is any indication, I'm guessing the food is excellent there too.

The next morning I had occasion to return to Stillwater for breakfast, which I took at the River Oasis Café, just south of downtown on Highway 95. The place was interestingly laid out, with two café counters running alongside four booths with a narrow walkspace in between for the waitress to get to all the serving spaces with as few steps as possible. Now, William Least Heat Moon asserts in his worthwhile travel book Blue Highways that a town diner can be judged by the number of calendars hanging on the wall (if that's so, this place was not up to snuff), but I would instead count the number of local advertisements (for shows, sales, or other notices) and take that as an indication of the place's "down-hominess".  Anyway, my egg sandwich, made-to-order, was delicious on a multi-grain toast and an adequate cup of coffee.  The clientele was old and gossiping, as it should be at any local diner. A good last stop in a town that serves as a "small town getaway" for Minneapolis burghers.

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On the Storage of Vermouth (and other things you weren't wondering)

A year and a half ago we were imbibing at Bryant's and were informed that the reason they were so liberal in their usage of vermouth*^ was that they stored it properly, that is, refrigerated it.  This revelation,
quite literally, changed the way we're drinking cocktails.  No more the 'vermouth splash' (where you set some vermouth {on the rocks} in your martini glass while you're shaking your gin or vodka, then dump it out), no more vermouth spritzer (i seriously considered buying this product when it was in the "gold box" one time), rather we were once again enjoying the vermouth in our cocktails.

Since that time, we've been enjoying martinis, old fashions, Manhattans (see right), and Rusty Nails (well, no, who drinks Rusty Nails...) with full vermouth-y-ness.

Even with this newfound appreciation for Vermouth, we've discovered an improvement (or at least a worthy variation) on the classic Manhattan (also works for an Old Fashioned).  This cocktail is pilfered, then re-imagined, from the specials board at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, San Francisco (home of absurdly small rooms, and actually quite nice service).

Port Manhattan

3 Parts Bourbon
1 Part Port
1-2 dash bitters
maraschino cherry garnish

Shake bourbon, port, and bitters together over ice.  Pour either over ice or up.  Add cherry (it's good).

What this cocktail hits on is a soft sweetening of a classic 'drunk's drink'.  Manhattan's are generally drinks for people who are serious about serious drinking, but who still want a pleasing flavor.  This variation allows a wider audience to enjoy the same basic flavor or the Manhattan, but in a (marginally) sweeter form.

* Vermouth [ver-mooth]: –noun
an aromatized white wine which sorta tastes like ass.  It may include flavors from herbs, roots, barks, bitters, and other flavorings have been steeped.  Flavor is best captured in the description "an ape hair liquor".

^ Paideia Jack once drank dry vermouth straight out of our bottle when he crashed a cast party (circa Fall 1998, methinks).  Shortly thereafter he absconded with Joel Miron's hatchet, Miron then chased him down the stairs, suggesting PJ ought to return said tool/weapon because it had been a gift from his parents.  I think there was a moment where PJ wielded the parental gift against Miron, which he then took away from PJ, somehow. 

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