Originally published Oct. 6, 1996
By Kathy Casey, former Pacific NW magazine contributor
COCKTAIL CULTURE IS TRULY upon us, from the resurgence of the martini to the exploding popularity of mood music. In his book “The Martini,” Barnaby Conrad III says, “Bartenders across the country report that the martini is once again the favorite mixed drink in America.”
It uses gin or vodka, it’s ritualistically blended and it’s all the rage.
While past generations comfortably sipped martinis in their smoking jackets and cocktail dresses — think of the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — today’s 20-, 30- and 40-somethings are just discovering the pleasures of dressing up, lighting a cigar and enjoying lounge music’s swinging ease. Granola- and brown-rice-eating yuppies have had too much self-denial, and previously shunned cocktails and steak are turning up on restaurant tables and in-home entertaining.
With all this potent sipping, some noshing is definitely important. These little tastes — whether called nibbles, bites, sipets or tidbits — must fit the mood of the occasion. It would be gauche to munch gooey nachos while elegantly sipping your perfectly chilled dry martini. But tiny bite-size savories perfectly fill the bill. When choosing accompaniments, it also is important to find flavors to complement, not compete with, the drink.
Appetizers can be as simple as spiced nuts, Parmesan crisps or smoked salmon slivers on little slices of toasted cocktail rye with capers and red onions. Or as kitschy as rumaki or Cheddar Olive Poppers. With a sip of gin, the latter — baked, cheese-pastry-wrapped green olives — are an incredible taste sensation.
One of my all-time favorites is Gin-Infused Prawns with Martini Aioli. The prawns are steamed in gin and vermouth, chilled and served with an aioli that’s flavored with juniper berries, lemon zest, minced green olives and cocktail onions. For an elegant presentation, drape a few prawns over the rim of a small martini glass, and put the aioli in the center for dipping.
Many classics can be given a ’90s twist for today’s cocktail food. Coquilles St. Jacques, for instance, can be “cocktailized” by poaching cut-up sea scallops and preparing a Gruyere-thickened white sauce using the scallop-poaching liquid for a rich flavor. The scallop pieces are then mixed with the sauce; placed in empty, clean oyster shells; topped with herbed breadcrumbs; and baked.
Deviled eggs, that old-time comforting finger food, are excellent when given a modern kick of spicy chipotle pepper purée in the yolk filling.
Little Olympia oyster shooters are fun to serve in shot glasses, especially if you have a collection of old souvenir shot glasses. Place a few tiny shucked oysters in each jigger, and drizzle with a bit of mignonette, a classic chilled sauce for raw oysters, made with red wine vinegar, shallots and cracked black pepper. I like to add a little finely minced lemon zest and a shot of Tabasco to spice up my mignonette, then freeze it ’til icy before topping the oysters.
And of course, I can’t leave out the piece de resistance — caviar-topped, tiny roasted new potatoes with shallot sour cream and chives.
The garnish of the martini itself can be a nice nibble — from the traditional pimiento-stuffed olive to pickled asparagus, hot peppers, tiny green tomatoes or tiny baby carrots with their fluffy tops still on. As Johnny Carson put it, “Happiness is finding two olives in your martini when you’re hungry.”
As a veteran judge in Seattle’s Annual Martini Classic Challenge, I also have to mention two of my favorite martini foods from the 1995 Challenge. The winning entry: little juniper-rubbed tenderloin slices on olive bread with vermouth shallot butter by Brian Lynch of the Metropolitan Grill. I also loved Kerry Sear’s (Four Seasons Olympic Hotel) lobster-filled crepe purse with a vermouth-and-gin-spiked martini sauce and a splattering of elegant sevruga caviar.
Looking at April showers, I’m reminded of actor Charles Butterworth’s famous line: “You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.”
Gin-Infused Prawns with Martini Aioli
(makes about 24 to 30 prawns, 1½ cups of aioli)
For the Prawns
½ cup dry white vermouth
¼ cup gin
1 teaspoon (about 15) juniper berries, crushed
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1½ pounds large prawns (16-20 size) in the shell, peeled and deveined
For the Martini Aioli
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 raw egg yolks*
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon juniper berries (about 7 or 8), crushed and finely chopped
1½ teaspoons finely minced lemon zest
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
¾ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/16 teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup light olive oil
½ cup salad oil
1½ teaspoons gin
1/3 cup finely minced stuffed green olives, drained well
3 tablespoons finely minced cocktail onions, drained well
1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
*Note: Raw eggs are not recommended for pregnant women, children, the elderly or anyone with immune deficiencies. If you want to make the recipe without raw eggs, use 2 tablespoons of a pasteurized egg product, such as Egg Beaters.
To cook the prawns: Place vermouth, gin, juniper berries, black pepper and salt in a medium-large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Over high heat, bring to a quick boil. Stir in the prawns. Cover and steam for 1 minute. Remove lid, and stir. Replace lid, and cook until the prawns are a little more than three-quarters cooked, about ½ to 1 minute more. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the prawns finish cooking as they cool in the mixture, stirring occasionally. Cool the prawns in liquid in the refrigerator until well-chilled before serving.
To make the aioli: In a food-processor bowl, combine the lemon juice, egg yolks, garlic, juniper berries, lemon zest, salt, pepper, Dijon and cayenne, and process to thoroughly combine. With the processor running, gradually drizzle in the oils, emulsifying the aioli. The consistency should be thickened and smooth like mayonnaise. Add the remaining ingredients, and pulse a couple of times to mix without further processing. Refrigerate at least 4 hours so the flavors mellow before serving.
Serving suggestions: Place the aioli in a small dish on a platter, and surround it with prawns. Place a bit of gourmet greens in the bottom of a small martini glass. Place a dollop of Martini Aioli in the center, and hang a few prawns off the rim of the glass. If you have a collection of shot glasses, place a prawn in a shot glass, and dollop with a little of the aioli.
— Recipe copyright 1996 by Kathy Casey
Cheddar Olive Poppers
(20 to 25 pieces)
This kitschy recipe comes from caterer Gretchen Mathers.
1 cup (4 ounces) finely grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons softened butter
½ cup sifted flour
Dash cayenne pepper
1 jar (about 20 to 25) medium-large pimento-stuffed olives, drained
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Beat cheese and butter together until smooth. Stir in flour and cayenne. Shape about 1 heaping teaspoon of dough around each olive, covering well and shaping into a ball. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven about 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Chef’s note: Anchovy- or jalapeno-stuffed olives would make a nice variation.
Makes 1 serving.
Winner, Seattle’s Best Classic Martini, 1993, 1994 and 1995; Oliver’s Bar, The Mayflower Park Hotel, Seattle.
Chilled mixing glass
¼ ounce Cinzano vermouth
1½ ounces Bombay Sapphire gin or Stolichnaya Cristall vodka
2 Italian green olives, marinated in vermouth
- Fill martini glass with ice; let chill while making the martini.
- Swish ¼ ounce vermouth in chilled shaker glass. Empty excess vermouth. Fill shaker with ice, then add gin or vodka. Shake vigorously 5 times, front to back, then let sit 20 seconds.
- Empty ice from the martini glass, and strain the martini over the “drunken” marinated olives.
● Favorite artists: Mel Torme, Esquivel and Combustible Edison.
● Two multi-CD recording series of note: Ultra-Lounge (Capitol) and Cocktail Mix (Rhino Records). The Ultra-Lounge issues include “Rhapsodesia: Music and Martinis for Lovers Only!” complete with glassware and measurements guide, and “Cocktail Capers: Mondo Space-Age Bachelor Pad A-Go-Go,” whose cover art features cocktail wieners wearing crackers and Cheez Whiz hats. The Cocktail Mix series (“Martini/Madness,” “Bachelor’s Guide to the Galaxy,” etc.) includes the continuing saga of Rex and Doris in its liner notes.
● Best read: “The Martini,” by Barnaby Conrad III (Chronicle Books, San Francisco), has lots of history, cartoons, paintings, film lore.