By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
1.5 oz Plymouth Sloe Gin
0.5 oz Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
1/2 fresh Plum, roughly chopped
0.25 oz Agave Syrup (see below)
1 to 2 splashes Club Soda
1 slice fresh plum dipped in sugar, for garnish
Add sloe gin, lemon juice, plum, and agave syrup to a mixing glass
Muddle plum to release juices and flavor
Shake with ice and strain into a collins glass filled with ice
Top with club soda and garnish with plum slice
Featured Glassware: Octavie Tumbler by Villeroy & Boch
* * *
Back in the mid-80’s, when Los Angeles was just a blip on the foodie radar, I was a college kid hungry to try something other than the “continental cuisine” (heavy sauces, lots of meat and very few salads) I grew up on going to restaurants with my parents. One night, my best pal – an Angeleno from birth – took me to a new place she had heard about. It was a nondescript spot – with its metal door and lack of windows, you might not even know it was there – on the incredibly hip Melrose Avenue, and it changed my view of what food could be. Ironically, I have to admit that I don’t remember a single dish I ate, but in my defense, this was nearly 30 years ago. What I do remember is the eye-opening experience of dining somewhere that truly celebrated flavors – flavors which I had never tasted before. The restaurant was CITY, owned by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Fenniger, long before they rose to the top of the L.A. food chain with their Border Grill restaurants.
In an era when chefs were still serving rich French fare and California cuisine was just emerging, CITY irrevocably altered the Los Angeles food scene and set the bar for the city’s embrace of market-fresh, eclectic ingredients. Thank you Mary Sue and Susan for, quite literally, changing my life. Today, the Too Hot Tamales, as they appropriately bill themselves, are an unstoppable presence in L.A. and beyond with their Border Grill restaurants and food truck, their many cookbooks and their participation on Top Chef Masters and other cooking shows. More than just being chefs, though, they are lovely, lovely ladies, who enjoy talking with their restaurant patrons as much as they enjoy discovering and inventing new dishes. (If you are in L.A., don’t miss the mild-blowing Kaya Toast at Susan Feniger’s STREET.)
I find the inclusion of the Too Hot Tamales in our holiday drinks feature to be apropos, not only because of the generosity of spirit that they exhibit across every season but also because their chosen moniker is so particularly suited to Christmas. After all, a gift of tamales at Christmas is a tradition among Latin American communities, particularly in the American Southwest. (Tamales, in general, are found in places as diverse as Cuba, South America, and the Philippines.) Made of masa (hominy flour) dough, tamales are served plain, with sauce, or filled with meat, cheese, fruits and/or nuts; the time-intensive process includes steaming them in either a banana leaf or corn husk. In many ways, tamales are a quintessentially American food, dating as far back as the Aztecs and Mayans, who used them as a convenient “to-go” food for wandering tribes, soldiers, and hunters.
How tamales became a Christmas tradition is unclear. Among the theories is a connection to Conquistador Hernando Cortez meeting the Aztecs. I tend to prefer the observation of Lonely Planet writer Andy Murdock, who claims, “no one wants to go through the effort of making them more than once, so you might as well do it for the biggest meal of the year. Tamales also fulfill an important Christmas food function: they make your house smell incredible.” Plus, there’s the fact that, tightly packed into their corn husk wrappers, they look like adorable, edible presents. That’s reason enough for me. Tamales, Christmas. Too Hot Tamales, 12 Bottle Bar Holiday Drinks. Done.
But back to that “generosity of spirit” I was talking about before I was derailed by tamales proper. We recently discovered that the enthusiasm and kindness for which the Tamales are known also translates to their employees. While searching in vain for the plums needed in the Sloe Sugarplum Fizz, we resorted to calling Alexander Fazio, the Border Grill mixologist and creator of the drink. “Come on down, I’ll give you some of mine,” he offered. With apologies to those of you in colder climes, plums – and all stone fruit for that matter – are not really in season now, except for those at places like the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. (Longer growing seasons are one of the benefits of living in SoCal.) The plums are the standout flavor for Feniger, who notes:
“I love gin fizzes… reminds me of a twist on a drink that my dad used to make all the time with tons of mint from our garden, gin, lots of lemon and fizzy water. So with the plum in the Sloe Sugarplum Fizz, it adds this wonderful sweet fruitiness that only plums can give.”
If the drink sounds scrumptious, it is. We timed our plum-gathering trip to the Border Grill so that we would have plenty of time for a meal and a taste of Fazio’s creation. Those who have had sloe gin will gladly espouse its virtues. Married with the plums, the richness of agave syrup, and a bright touch of lemon, it’s a drink that will leave you dreaming happy Christmas thoughts. To make the agave syrup, simply combine equal parts agave nectar and purified water in a sauce pan. Heat over low, stir until combined, then allow to cool. Use to taste depending on how you prefer your drinks. Also, if you can’t get plums, we suggest muddling blackberries, whose deep flavor will mesh well with the sloe berries in the gin. Mary Sue Milliken says this of Alexander’s fizz:
“I have avoided sloe gin since a dark and crazy night back in high school. But Border Grill’s fabulous mixologist, Alexander Fazio’s Sloe Sugarplum Fizz makes me feel like a delicate floating fairy dancing the Nutcracker. It’s a tart and sparkly drink with an elusive fruity flavor – positively ethereal.”
Mary Sue’s comments lead me to the obvious transition – sugarplums. For me, childhood wasn’t complete without the yearly holiday performance of The Nutcracker replete with the famous fairy that Mary Sue mentioned. For all of you non-ballet watching types out there, you’re probably more familiar with the sugarplums from E. Clement Moore’s children’s poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas where “visions of sugarplums danced in their heads”.
Interestingly, real sugarplums are a bit of a mystery. Originally, the “plum” in the name related to any sort of dried, sugared fruit. Today, the sweet treat that has assumed the title “sugarplum” is easy to make and very tasty to boot. For an old-school, real sugared fruit recipe, hop on over to RecipeWISE , or for a more modern candy-like take, here’s the one that we’ve made successfully from Saveur.
No matter how you make them, sugarplums are luscious, as is the Sloe Sugarplum Fizz, in which the sloe berries infused in the gin introduce a surprising fruit component without detracting from the Plymouth gin profile. It may not seem like the usual warming or heavily spiced holiday drink, but it’s surprisingly rich and wintry in its flavors, while also being a delightful refresher in contrast to all the heavy holiday food. In fact, it would be an ideal complement to a tamale or Too Hot ones, for that matter. Thank you to Alexander Fazio for his creation and to Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, two chefs we love not only for revolutionizing the Los Angeles food scene, but also because, as we’ve mentioned, they embody everything about the holiday season – tasty food, wonderful drink, and good folks to spend it with.
Esoterica: Sloe gin is a liqueur made by infusing gin with sloe berries and adding sugar. A common process involves pricking the berries with a pin after picking and storing them in the gin for a long period. The problem is that sloe pits, like those of many stone fruits, release cyanide over time. Hugh Williams, Master Distiller Emeritus for Gordon’s/Tanqueray, recommends freezing the berries for 24 hours and then covering them with room temperature gin, which hastens the flavor extraction process, thus minimizing the possibility of extracting too many toxins.