Secret Absinthe

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"Here’s your bottle, Matt. Enjoy it." said my friend as he handed me a tall nondescript bottle filled with a brilliantly olive-green liquid.

"Oh, and no blogging about it. Where it came from, who made it, the label, nothing. Keep it to yourself."

And so it began.  The only product I’ve ever been given with its own unofficial non-disclosure agreement. But hey, I listen well, even if it does pain me just a little bit not being able to disclose how the bottle came into my possession. I’d say someone brought it back for me from Europe, but it actually didn’t travel that far, and in an effort to not get myself into hot water here I’ll just say that it was a lovely, one-of-a-kind gesture on my friend’s part. Heck, even he is remaining anonymous in this story.

Ok, so what’s all the fuss about this bottle of a very famous herbal green elixir? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Absinthe is an aromatic distilled liquor made with aniseed, fennel, hyssop, angelica root and wormwood. Legend has it was first created by a French exile living in Switzerland and made commercially by Henry-Louis Pernod in 1797. Called la Fée Verte because of its coloring, the drink is typically enjoyed by adding water and sugar, turning it cloudy (a process called louching).  One of the main ingredients in Absinthe is a chemical called thujone (it is present in one of the ingredients known as wormwood) and here’s where the drama starts. It turns out that thujone is banned here in the United States because of its "harmful neurological effects."  Of course, don’t get me started on thujone as a harmful chemical when smoking is entirely legal.

Absinthe can be sold in the United States, but it’s a version made with southern wormwood, which means no thujone. That type is called Absente, and well, I wanted to real thing. Some claim it can cause madness. I’ve never tried it when traveling and I wanted to see what it was all about. That’s how this little adventure began.

After sending out a request to my trusted food contacts (a list that includes a professional wine snob of the highest order*, a master brewer, a food writer from the Los Angeles Times, a stylist, a chef and a few malcontents), the bottle miraculously appeared to me, just like a vision from heaven. Had I known my wish would have been granted so effortlessly without the need of ingratiating myself I would have asked for some cold hard cash and a six pack of abs as well, but I guess a gorgeous bottle of Absinthe isn’t half bad.

Having never indulged in the proper service of absinthe I quickly did my work. I started by calling a few friends on how to enjoy the green elixir properly.

Friend #1: "Oh holy shit I think there were some small glasses involved. It was a basement. I can’t remember. Much."

Friend #2: "Hell if I know. Did I tell you the last time I had that I woke up on the floor of a disco in Barcelona at 6:42 in the morning and all my friends ditched me? My shoes were gone."

Friend #3: "What’s wrong with my legs? My legs. I can’t feel my legs. Who are you?"

I wasn’t getting anywhere with my friends so I decided to go it alone. Being a Pastis drinker I decided to enjoy it slowly, with the requisite sugar cube and cold water but without the muffled cacophony of European house music and rank clouds of cigarette smoke.

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A quick little pour into my small glass revealed a clear, intensely aromatic liquid with the obvious scent of licorice, followed by a sweet, almost cinnamon finish. Suddenly my brain was on overload– I’ve never smelled something like this before!  Five parts of cold water were poured over a sugar cube that was placed on top of a cordial glass, and instantly my clear liquid became cloudy and milky. It was now mixed and ready for me to enjoy. But would it be true? Would I suddenly lose my brain like all the mad artists before me? Would I give in to the Green Fairy and temporarily suffer from insanity and strip off all my clothing and run down the street? No, that was last week. Would I just pass out and hallucinate, or were these just stories from friends prone to tall tales?

I took my first sip.

Incredibly delicious, with a taste just like its aroma, but lasting longer on the tongue. Overpowering flavors of anise and spice.

Another cool sip. Now my tongue was going numb.

Third sip and I could feel nothing in my mouth.

I put my small glass down, realizing I drank the entire thing. A short physical inventory of my surroundings was made: two eyes, one nose, room still upright, no dancing green goblinettes prancing around my head in midair. By golly, I think I made it through this absinthe thing with flying colors.

Then I stood up.

I’m not one of those people who claim different type of spirits can cause different types of moods when consumed. Alcohol causes a physiological process to occur in the body, plain and simple. It doesn’t pick and choose what part it plans on affecting, it just does its thing. So what could explain this heady, slightly ethereal sensation I was feeling? It was like being intoxicated but in a way I’ve never experienced. Was it the job of a dozen finely mixed herbs? Was it thujone? Why did time seem to stop? Was it solely in my head, a case of me suffering from delusions of Van Gogh and Baudelaire and thinking I was just as cool and smart? We may never know.

But we do know this: I’m going to enjoy another glass of this stuff very soon. Slowly and carefully. And next time I may even have two glasses, just as soon as I can find my pair of missing shoes.

* I mean that in the most loving of way; I’d never publicly knock the person who can singlehandedly get me reservations at El Bulli by one phone call. :)

Cisco Burger

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Have you ever been to Long Beach, California? It’s a great place to live, just close enough to the hustle and bustle and silicone body parts of Los Angeles yet a million miles away in spirit.  Technically located in Los Angeles County, Long Beach is California’s 5th largest city and a very busy port located along the Pacific ocean. It’s laid back, casual, friendly and breezy. It’s a place I now call home, and for the most part I love it.


I said for the most part.

When it comes to dining, you might as well grab your sharpie and cross out my fair hamlet. Long Beach isn’t even on the culinary map of California, and it’s a royal pain in the ass.

Yea, I said it.

Don’t get me wrong. Long Beach is rich in culture, thanks to its huge population of Latino, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai residents. I could take you to dozens upon dozens of amazing small holes in the wall for some of the best regional cooking you could imagine.  But when it comes to some fancy dining, grab the car keys and head to Los Angeles, and you can forget the wine list. I have to drive home.

I can’t help get a tiny bit excited when a new place opens in Long Beach that doesn’t require an automobile and an hour (or 2 or 3) battling the 710 to the 5 to the 101 to the… well, you get the picture.  Recently we checked out Cisco Burger, the burger joint owned by Long Beach’s favorite Jesse James. Word on the streets is that he and his crew wanted a place near West Coast Choppers where they could go to lunch, and Cisco (named after his pooch) was born.  It’s located just east of  his garage in the industrial part of Long Beach, and granted, it’s not fancy by any means – it’s a burger joint, after all. But it sure is a welcomed addition to Long Beach.

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So, a burger is a burger is a burger, right? Not quite. In typical California style, the burgers are made from Kobe beef and the produce and dairy is all organic. Did I mention Cisco gets its energy from solar panels located on the roof? Cisco is also working with the City of Long Beach on a recycling program and there are plans to convert the neighboring railroad right-of-way into a park. Not bad for a big tattooed superstar mechanic! Then again I suppose when you have your own television show and you’re married to a big box office Hollywood star then you get to do things exactly the way you want to. And the results aren’t half bad, either. Good burgers, great fries, and a pretty decent veggie burger.
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Cisco Burger is located at 620 Anaheim Street in Long Beach. 562-590-5470.

Melon Mania

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Next to insect repellent, sunscreen and sticky nights spent in front of a fan, nothing signifies summer more than melons. Melons are available year round, but if you really want to take advantage of these harbingers of summer then you should enjoy them over the next few months. Some of the season’s first melons are slowly creeping into farmer’s markets and grocery stores as we speak, and I don’t know about you, but I’m about to experience a full blown case of melon mania.

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Melons have been cultivated for thousands of years. They’ve been recorded in Ancient Egyptian history as well as early Greek and Roman writings. Not only are they significant sources of nutrients and vitamins like A and C, but due to their tremendous water content they also quench thirst in a major way.

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Melons are a part of the gourd family, which makes them related to squash and pumpkins. When it comes to melons there are then two basic categories: muskmelon and watermelon. Muskmelons include cantaloupes, honeydew,  canary and Crenshaw melons. Watermelons include, well, um, watermelons! And while I am oversimplifying just a bit, there are several types of watermelons–from red and yellow to black diamond and jubilee.

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Everyone has their own little secrets for choosing melons, from judging hollowness to thumps and taps. Overall appearance, texture and fragrance can also be criteria for selecting the right melon. Look for fresh, whole fruit, free from excessive bruising and dings. Melons should be heavy for their size, and if it’s too soft or mushy, send it back. And check the spot where the stem was attached; the fruit falls off the stem on its own when ripe. If it’s been cut there’s a good chance the melon didn’t have a chance to ripen properly before it was taken from the field. 

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Whether you’re eating a galia, sharlyn or golden dragon, it’s best to serve them slightly chilled, if solely for the refreshing summer factor. Room temperature is just fine, but I can’t think of anything better on a hot summer day than icy watermelon.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t be afraid to make a mess. Considering that a watermelon is 93% water you’re bound to get wet. Go with it. Embrace it. 

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Because of their high water content, there’s not really a heck of a lot you can do with melons. But who’s complaining? Sometimes the best ways are the easiest. Or is that sometimes the easiest way is the best?

• For the perfect summer drink add crushed ice, chopped frozen honeydew and a few drizzles of honey. Serve immediately.

• Make a simple syrup of sugar, water, ginger and mint; once cooled drizzle over cut cantaloupe and watermelon.

• Drizzle balsamic reduction over cubed yellow and red watermelon  chunks.

• Add fresh sliced fennel to watermelon  chunks and dress with fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and season with  sea salt and freshly cracked pepper.