by John Ryan
"What is your specialty?"
That's a question I used to get asked a lot when I was a chef. I realize now that it's mostly a polite question along the lines of asking a lawyer what kind of law she practices. But at the time I found it irritating because I thought it insinuated that I made only one thing well. And I had the feeling that the person asking the question was trying to get the inside dope on my menu, as if dining out was something you could win if you played your cards right. I resented the question because I believed in everything on the menu.
I mean, asking me what was best put me in a Sophie's Choice situation. If you liked chicken, then I thought you'd love the chicken on the menu. But if you liked beef, then I felt that the steak would be right up your alley. But for me to say which is best? I couldn't do it. But I can get behind the idea of a specialty being something you love and make year after year.
For instance, I can respect someone who's passionate about hot dogs, someone who cooks them just so, serves them in the right bun, and has arrived at the right set of condiments that have to be applied in just the right order. In fact I'd much rather have a passionate cook's hot dog than a cook-by-the-numbers' osso buco.
A truly great specialty, however, is something you absolutely love AND can't get anywhere else. For instance, everyone needs a unique summer cocktail. There's nothing wrong with the classics, but it's great to have something you can't order in every restaurant or expect to get at every garden party in America. For this I give you my Italian Gin Fizz along with my best wishes for a wonderful summer.
I discovered this recipe in '94. I wrote about it in my newsletter because I'd just discovered it in a newspaper column and was enthusiastic. I write about it now because it's stood the test of time and I've tinkered with it in every way imaginable.
This tinkering has not always been by choice. For instance, last summer I was forced into trying other sodas when the bitter lemon scene dried up. I found it hard to believe that I couldn't get bitter lemon in a city as big as Chicago, but absolutely nobody carried it.
Anyway, I know this cocktail. I begin looking forward to it every year when I haul the lawn furniture out of the basement. Not only is this cocktail refreshing, but it's delicious in an adult sort of way. That is to say, it isn't a brain-bending concoction that tastes as innocent as soda pop. What you need is a soft drink called bitter lemon (Schwepps is the most famous brand, but a few other companies make it as well. San Pellegrino makes a soft drink called limonata that is good, but too expensive to make a habit of); gin (nothing fancy); limes; Aperol (an Italian liquor similar to Campari. If you can't find Aperol, use Campari); and lots of ice.
First, cut a lime into eights. That is, cut it in half along the equator, then put each half cut-side down and cut each half into quarters. This way you get nice little triangles of lime that are easy to squeeze (as opposed to wedges that twist and tend to squirt in unexpected directions). Now, with everything in front of you, fill tall iced-tea glasses with ice. Pour gin over the ice till there is about an inch worth in every glass. (Pause a moment and appreciate this. Watching the gin thicken as it splashes and tumbles over the ice is a refreshing sight in itself.)Fill the glasses almost full with bitter lemon. Squeeze a lime in each glass (and drop the lime in the glass). Top off each cocktail with a little Aperol—just enough to turn the drink rosy—and serve.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This archived page created between 1994 and 2001. Modified August 2007
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