Deep in margaritaville


Among the many joys of summer is seasonal produce hitting the stalls of the numerous farmers’ markets scattered throughout the area. These fresh fruits and veggies typically inspire both professional chefs and adventurous home cooks to try novel recipes or pull out some old family favorites. Matching wines to these occasionally exotic combinations can be a difficult but not an entirely hopeless effort. It is a testimony to the versatility of wine that a pairing can nearly always be found.

Among the trickier food-wine pairing challenges is a soup course. Rarely the central course of a meal, soup is often overlooked when selecting wines. Yet in summer, soups are often an opportunity, or even excuse, to showcase the freshness of the season. Some examples include a chunky, tangy gazpacho, a snazzy green pea soup or one made with corn and spicy peppers.

Fruit-based soups are also popular in the summer, and equally complicated to pair with wine. The underlying light sweetness of the fruit generally precludes any of the heavier wines. Reasonable choices would be a semi-sweet sparkler such as a Moscato d’Asti, a drier Napa sparkling Brut or perhaps a Riesling. Another is a Gewurztraminer with its exotic lychee, floral and spicy profile such as one produced by the Israeli Tishbi Estate Winery. Its medium-bodied 2010 Gewurztraminer is slightly sweet and expresses the characteristic lychee, rose and citrus scents with flavors of spicy apple, cherry and grapefruit along with peach and lychee notes with well-balanced acidity that allows it to show through the soup without becoming overwhelming.

The Tishbi family’s involvement in Israeli winemaking began in 1882 when Michael Chamiletzki was selected by Baron Edmond de Rothschild to grow grapes in Zichron Yaakov. In 1925, the family name was changed to Tishbi and in 1984 Jonathan Tishbi established the Tishbi Estate Winery in the foothills of the Carmel Mountains. They grow their Gewurztraminer at 1,000 meters above sea level in Gush Etzion where the cooler weather assures a long growing season.

Spirits-wise, we thought we’d consider one of the most popular hot-weather cocktails in the United States, and the single most popular tequila-based beverage in the world: the ubiquitous and much maligned margarita. For although it is now more likely to be found looking slushy and fruity and thoroughly soulless, the margarita is actually an urbane, delicious and refreshing classic cocktail that has been wooing its devotees for many decades.

Part of the reason for the margarita’s success is because it is so food friendly. The natural interaction between sweet, sour and acid in the margarita helps cut right through rich and spicy foods, while the alcohol content helps mask bland and tasteless foods. Another aspect of its popularity is that its base ingredient, tequila, is commonly thought of as particularly wild and feisty and so is therefore cool — and yet it is rendered thoroughly palatable in a margarita.

Indeed, when properly balanced, the margarita’s simple mix of tequila, Cointreau and lime juice tames the punchy, herbal, floral, mouth-puckering taste of tequila, and elevates the sweet and sour components to greater complexity. At its best, the margarita is a strong, bright, tangy and timeless elixir that achieves a magical balance of sweetness, tartness and acidity.

Like many great classic cocktails, most people do not know exactly who created the margarita, or when. No matter. The drink is essentially a variation of a time-tested cocktail formula known as “Sours” in the “Cocktailian” or “Mixologist” or “Bar Chef” trade. Sours are a family of cocktails, like the sidecar or the cosmopolitan, that are based on a simple alchemy of spirit, cordial and citrus juice (technically, for the pedants among us, this exact formula is actually a subset of the “Sours,” termed “New Orleans Sours,” for reasons of historical provenance, by cocktail guru Gary Regan).

As with all cocktails, however, the key to mixing a great margarita is to find the right proportion and balance between the tequila, orange-flavored liqueur (Triple Sec or Cointreau) and lime juice. Also, of course, you should always endeavor to use the best ingredients.

Tequila is a type of mezcal made from a fermented mash of the pinas, or hearts, of the Agave Azul Tequilana Weber species of the agave plant. Unlike other mescals, tequila can only be made from Azul (Spanish for “blue”) agave harvested in designated regions in the Mexican state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas; in Jalisco, production is centered in a few communities near Guadalajara — the original and most famous of which is the town Tequila.

In making a margarita, only use tequilas that have “100 percent blue agave” on the label, and never use regular mezcal for anything. (It is the firewater with the “gusano” or worm inside, especially those from the state of Oaxaca. One either drinks mezcal straight, or — preferably — not at all.)

Ideally, you should use a blanco or plata (white or silver) style tequila in your margaritas; the differences in tequila styles have to do with aging — except for the oro, or gold, tequilas which simply have colorants and flavorings added and which can pose kashrus issues. (Mexican regulations are neither very strict nor reliably enforced where adulteration is concerned — all blanco tequilas are considered kosher without certification, the others need certification according to many authorities.) The blanco tequila has a nice kick to it that will add much to the drink’s final character. Good brands for this are Don Julio, Patron, Herradura, El Tesoro, and Chinaco.

Here then are two classic margarita cocktail recipes to try.

The Margarita: In a cocktail shaker with hard cracked ice, combine 1½  to 2 ounces of tequila (depending on desired strength), 1 ounce of triple sec (like Cointreau), and ½ to ¾ an ounce of fresh lime juice. Shake until the outside of the shaker is frosty and beaded with condensation, then strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. We rarely bother, but traditionally, the glass should have its rim salted: Rub a lime wedge along the outside rim of the glass, and then dip the glass into a saucer of kosher salt. Just make sure the salt stays on the outside of the glass. You can use a lime wedge to garnish, if you must (we advise against anything that might throw off the balance).

Finally, for those who love this sort of thing … The Frozen Margarita: In a blender, combine 1½ ounces of tequila, 1 ounce triple sec, 1 ounce fresh lime juice and 2 ounces simple syrup or 2 heaping tablespoons of sugar, and a big handful of cracked ice. Blend until desired consistency is reached, and then pour into a large goblet or margarita glass — rimmed with salt if you like.


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