Original Cuban Mojito: Hierbabuena or Spearmint?

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UPDATE: a considerably better American Spearmint recipe, after the Cuban Hierbabuena recipe.

My first Mojito was made with spearmint.  The drink was pretty good, but the taste seemed a little bit off.  Maybe it was the wrong rum, I thought, doesn’t mix well with mint.

Weeks later I received a surprise visitor from Cuba, who brought me a souvenir paper napkin with a Cuban bartender’s handwritten recipe from the most popular Mojito spot in Havana.

“What’s hierbabuena?” I asked, “Is that spearmint?

“No. The Cuban mint isn’t very minty,” he replied.

I made him a spearmint Mojito, and he said it was not the Cuban taste. I Googled hierbabuena, and ordered some from a Canadian nursery. The mint has a citrus-like flavor that comes from the stem, whereas spearmint has a minty flavor from oils in the leaves.

Spearmint smells like chewing gum, but hierbabuena has an herbal fragrance with just a hint of mint. The Mojitos they make are completely different, so here are recipes for the Cuban Mojito (hierbabuena) and the American Mojito (spearmint).

Cuban Mojito

  • 1½ ounces Bacardi Superior or Havana Club 3 Anos white rum
  • 1½ teaspoons white sugar (or 1 heaping teaspoon or barspoon)
  • 1/3 ounce (2 teaspoons) fresh Key (or Mexican) lime juice
  • 2 sprigs hierbabuena (preferably with dark stems)
  • 2 ounces and a splash of sparkling mineral water (Topo Chico is recommended)
  • 2 or 3 large cubes of ice

Add the sugar, lime juice, and hierbabuena with a splash of mineral water to a tall glass.  With a muddler or a wooden spoon, press lightly on the stems, rather than the leaves.  Add the 2 ounces of mineral water, then the ice cubes, then the rum.  Serve with a straw, cut off to about 2 inches above the rim of the glass.

If you put 2 teaspoons of sugar in this drink, it’s noticeably sweet. Cubans often add a dash or two of Angostura bitters to this drink, and it’s good!

What Kind of Lime?

Many Cuban and Caribbean cocktails taste better if they are made with Key lime juice. Key limes can be found in Latino markets and most Walmart stores in the United States.

Regular limes aren’t as good in this drink, but they’re good enough.  A better taste, if you don’t have Key limes, comes from mixing 2 parts of lemon juice with 3 parts regular lime juice. Use ¾ ounce of this mix, with 2 teaspoons of sugar and 3 ounces of mineral water.

The Rum

Bacardi Superior is the original rum for this drink, and it’s recommended. Havana Club 3 has a stronger sugarcane taste, and is the preferred rum in Cuba. Gold rum will make a slightly sweeter “dirty mojito”.

This hierbabuena recipe is adapted from La Bodeguita del Medio, the famous bar in Old Havana, Cuba. Click on link below to order hierbabuena from Richters herb farm in Canada.

http://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=X4025

Gently muddle the stems, not the leaves.

Spearmint Mojito Recipe

  • 1½ ounces white rum (Flor de Caña Extra Dry)
  • 8 to 10 thumb-sized spearmint leaves (removed from stems)
  • ¾ ounce regular lime juice
  • ¾ ounce simple syrup
  • 1 lime wedge
  • 2 ounces mineral water and a splash of mineral water
  • cubes of ice
  • A neatly-groomed sprig of spearmint, for garnish
  • A dash of Angostura bitters, optional

— Muddle the spearmint, lime juice, and lime wedge in a mixing glass.  Add the simple syrup, rum, and 3 large ice cubes, and shake until chilled.  Pour all of the contents of the mixing glass into a tall glass or Collins glass, and add 2 ounces of Topo Chico or other sparkling mineral water.  Garnish with an optional mint sprig, and serve with a straw.

Do not muddle spearmint stems in this drink, because, unlike hierbabuena, the stems have a bitter taste.

Flor de Cana for American Mojito

Check your local nursery, as some of them are now providing mojito mint.  Note: The Bonnie brand mint being sold as Yerba Buena at Lowe’s and Walmart is spearmint (mentha spicata).  Cuban Mojito Mint is mentha villosa.

Growing Mojito Mint

Like spearmint, hierbabuena (also called hierba buena, yerba buena, or yerbabuena) grows like a weed, and is harder to kill than to grow.  However, there’s a way to get better sprigs.

  • Plant in rich soil that drains well, but retains moisture
  • Use a 10-inch or larger pot.  If planted in a garden, confine the roots, or they will take over the garden.
  • The plants like lots of water, but don’t waterlog them.  Let plants dry out a little before watering again, to develop more flavor.
  • Fertilize every few months.
  • Keep plants cut back to 10 or 12 inches tall, or it will get spindly and ungle.  I keep most of it cut back, except the sprigs I plan on using.
  • Hierbabuena grows best in the sun or partial shade.  In hot summers, it likes morning sun or partial shade.  Planting in pots allows you to move them around.
  • After cutting sprigs, be sure to rinse them before using, or you may get a cute tiny spider in your drink.

If the leaves are chewed up, or have holes, look for little green worms on the undersides of leaves.  They’re hard to find, as they match the color of leaves and stems.

If the leaves on top are curled up, check for tiny aphids, which are tiny and black-colored.  They cluster together at the tip of a few sprigs, so pinch off the affected sprigs and stomp on them. If aphids get overwhelming, soak the entire plant with Neem Oil Spray, and then wait for new mint sprigs to pop up before cutting off the sprigs that had been soaked in Neem Oil.

When white spots or streaks appear on leaves, it’s usually tiny spider mites.  Spray plants with vodka, or 1 part alcohol to 4 parts water, during a time when the plants are in the shade.  The spray will also reveal the mite’s tiny webs. Use Neem oil to stop them from breeding.

To get rid of whiteflies without pesticides, place a bright yellow piece of cardstock or plastic coated with motor or mineral oil, and the flies will be attracted to it and get stuck on it. Use Neem Oil to stop them from breeding.

When the roots fill the container, slice down the middle of the dirt with a sharp knife. Remove 1/2 of the root ball and replant it in a separate pot (give it to a friend) or toss it out.  Fill the empty half of the pot with new soil, then water.

If the whole plant looks raggedy, cut it all back to soil level.  It will grow back. In hotter climates, the temperature will get hotter than Havana in July and August.  Keep the plant in a shady area, and cut back sprigs that look too spindly.

In freezing climates, say Chicago, the mint will grow back in the spring, if it’s planted in the ground and not in a pot. You can also keep a plant indoors, in a south-facing window. The plant will not thrive, but it will live until you put it outside in the spring.

moj

Best Cheap Margaritas for a Party

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It’s easy to make a great Margarita with expensive tequila,  Cointreau liqueur, and fresh-squeezed Key lime juice, but it’s way easier to make a remarkably good Cheap Margarita.

We asked a lot of questions of bartenders and servers at the most popular restaurants and bars for Margaritas in Houston, Texas, and also a champion of the Houston Rodeo Margarita Contest, and put together this winner.  Your guests will never guess it’s not “premium”.

Cheap Margarita Recipe

  • 1½ ounces Lunazul, Olmeca Altos, or Agavales 100% agave blanco tequila
  • ½ ounce DeKuyper O3 Orange Liqueur or other triple sec
  • ½ ounce fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ ounce Minute Maid frozen limeade concentrate, thawed
  • 1 cup of ice

— Add the tequila, orange liqueur, and lime juice mix to a shaker with ice.  Shake until chilled, and serve in a glass with ½ of the rim salted.  If you want to make the preparation even easier, mix 2 parts of fresh lemon juice with 1 part Minute Maid limeade concentrate, and use 3/4 ounce of this mix with the tequila and triple sec.

Using All Fresh Juice: If you feel like squeezing fresh juice, mix 2 part of fresh lemon juice with 1 part Persian lime juice (the limes most commonly found in grocery stores) and use ¾ ounce of this mix instead of the lemon juice/limeade combo.

For pitchers of frozen margaritas, pour 12 ounces of tequila, 4 ounces of triple sec, 4 ounces of lemon juice, and 2 ounces of Minute Maid limeade concentrate into a blender with 3 or 4 handfuls of ice, and blend on high speed.

Lunazul costs about $20 and deserves all of its prestigious awards..  Agavales mixes very well and costs under $15. DeKuyper O3 Orange will never replace Cointreau, but it’s half the price and works beautifully with these Margaritas.

Other tequilas in the $20 range we’ve tested are Campo Azul Reposado (the gold one).  Espolon makes a smooth, sweeter margarita with a milder tequila taste. Other highly-rated tequilas in this price range include El Padrino and Pueblo Viejo. Sauza Hornitos Reposado (gold) is popular in Mexico, and will give you an enjoyable burn.

For Strawberry Margaritas, add 2 fresh or frozen strawberries per drink, before mixing.

 

Cheap award-winning tequila makes cheap great margaritas
Cheap award-winning tequila makes cheap great margaritas
Fancy margarita glasses or garnishes are not always necessary.
Fancy margarita glasses or garnishes are not always necessary.

Fry Hash Browns in Olive Oil and Butter

hashbrwns

Meilin is a master of Spanish cooking, and when she was frying potato slices in olive oil and butter to put in her tortilla (the egg omelet from Spain), I snatched a slice to sample.  It blew me away how delicious it was, and I knew I had to use the same technique with American hash brown potatoes. The results were just as delicious.  Better yet, frozen hash brown potatoes taste even better than fresh ones, so it only takes about 12 minutes to make this part of a very satisfying breakfast.

Directions

1.  Preheat a skillet on medium heat with a few drops of water in it.  When the water boils, turn heat to medium-high.

2.  Add 3 Tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, then add a Tablespoon of butter to the oil.  When the butter stops foaming, swirl it around, and add 1/2 of the bag of frozen hash browns to the pan.  (Watch out, the oil may pop.)

3.  Fry for 4 to 6 minutes (uncovered), lifting the edge of the potatoes to check with a spatula, to see if they are properly browned.

4.  When they are browned, flip the potatoes, and turn down the heat to medium.  (There’s less oil left in the pan, so they would burn on the higher heat).

5.  Cook 3 to 4 minutes, turn the heat to low, the stir the potatos a little. Let them cook about 2 more minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, and serve.

potat

It’s easier to turn the potatoes if you divide them into three parts. If you don’t use butter, the potatoes will still be delicious with just olive oil, although the outside browned crust may be slightly crunchier than with an olive oil/butter mix.

A wooden mallet is good for breaking up frozen hashbrowns.
A wooden mallet is good for breaking up frozen hash browns.

Electric and glass-top stoves burn hotter than gas stoves, so you may have to use slightly lower heat on these types of stoves.  If you are frying the whole bag, increase the amount of olive oil to 4 or 5 teaspoons, and add a little more butter. Don’t overload the skillet with the shredded potatoes, or they’ll get steamed instead of fried.

breafast

Tasters for the California Olive Board determined that all olive oil tastes the same after you heat it. We don’t find this to be completely true, as it seems that Spanish has a slightly better taste when frying potatoes than Italian olive oil does. Either way, inexpensive supermarket virgin olive oil is recommended for these hash browns.

Make Hatch Green Chile Sauce

Green chile sauce doesn't look beautiful, but it's awesome.
Green chile sauce isn’t beautiful, but it’s awesome.

You may have an abuelita in Santa Fe who makes green chile sauce better than this, but to make your own requires a delicate balance of savory onion and garlic with the sweetness and pleasant burn of roasted green chiles.  A tomato adds just the right touch of acidity.  Many recipes add tart tomatillos, but that’s not New Mexican.

As a cameraman for an Albuquerque TV station, I traveled all around New Mexico, ate at a lot of cafés, and interviewed many cooks (and a few grandmothers) to develop this recipe.

If you’re ever in Santa Fe, I recommend the huevos rancheros with red and green chile at Cafe Pasqual’s (The breakfast center of the universe). The roast beef burrito smothered with green chile at Tomasita’s looks like a hot mess, but it’s amazing.

Best Hatch Green Chile Sauce Recipe

  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or crushed
  • 1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile (9 or 10 chiles)
  • 1 tomato, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon instant tapioca (best) or regular flour
  • ½ cup Swanson chicken stock
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon oregano, dried or fresh chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Black pepper

1. Add olive oil to a sauce pan, turn heat to medium, and heat oil for 2 minutes.

2. Add onion, and saute until it turns golden (about 8 minutes). Don’t worry if it turns a little brown–it’s caramelized.

3. Stir in the garlic and turn the heat down to low.  Add the tapioca or flour, and stir frequently for 4 minutes.  Add the tomato, green chile, chicken stock and water, stir, and turn heat back to medium.

4. Finally, add salt, cumin, oregano and black pepper, then stir.  Let it cook for about 5 minutes on medium. You’re done, that’s it.  Green chile sauce stays fresh for 4 days in the fridge, or you can freeze it and reheat it with no loss of flavor.

Flour is the traditional thickener for green chile sauce, but tapioca makes it look shiny and bright, and doesn’t change the taste. The chile sauce will be gluten-free.

The Desert Hurricane

Just about every weekend we make a breakfast with bacon, fried eggs, and cheddar cheese on top of a pile of Ore-Ida hashbrowns. Then we pour hot green chile sauce over the top.  It’s called a Desert Hurricane, and it’s stunning.

greenchile2

Want to know how to roast green chile? Click here.  Don’t have fresh green chiles? Forget the ones in a can–the taste is off–but check the frozen aisle for Bueno Chopped Green Chile, it works great!

If you want to make a Green Chile Cheeseburger, use chopped green chiles (not this sauce), onion, mustard, tomato, and pickles.  Ketchup is not recommended, as the tomato already provides that taste.  The preferred cheeses are Cheddar, American, or Provolone.

Eater.com has a superb guide to green chiles, and if you’re ever in Santa Fe, a great list of restaurants to visit. Green chile also won a USA Today/10Best.com poll as the best regional cuisine, and the site also included great restaurants to try in New Mexico.

How to Cook Bacon in the Oven

baconbakee

Frying bacon in a skillet usually gets uneven results, often with crispy middles and rubbery ends as the bacon starts to curl up.

Baking bacon in the oven results in evenly cooked strips at the perfect point between crispy and chewy.

Directions

1.  Preheat oven to 400° (toaster or convection ovens work well).  Line the oven tray or raised-edge cookie sheet with aluminum foil.  Lay the bacon down on the foil, without overlapping the strips, or they’ll stick to each other.

2.  Slide the bacon into the oven, and cook for 13 minutes.

3.  Remove the tray or sheet from the oven, turn the bacon strips over, and cook another 4 minutes.

4.  When the bacon is cooked, you’ll see bubbles and foam all around the bacon. If the bacon is thick-cut, it may take more time.  Remove the tray from the oven, flip the bacon, and cook it some more, checking it every minute to see if it’s to your liking.

When it bubbles, it’s almost ready.

Near the end of the baking, the side of the bacon that is touching the pan will be more cooked than the side facing up. If you cook five or less pieces of bacon, it may take 1 minute less per side.

Tommy Style:  We used to tease our brother-in-law Tommy, because he like his bacon so very well done.  Then one day we forgot to take the bacon out of the oven after turning the oven off, and Tommy was delighted with the results. Meilin and I tried it, and liked it.

Instructions:  Cook bacon as instructed, turn off the oven, and leave the bacon in the oven.  After 15 or 20 minutes the bacon will be extremely well cooked, but not burnt, and will crumble easily for bacon bits.

Best Inexpensive Non-Stick Skillet

skilt3

The truth about non-stick skillets is that the coating won’t last more than a few years under normal use.  Although we absolutely love our stainless steel All-Clad saucepans and regular skillet, we would never part with $120 or more for a non-stick 10-inch frying pan.

Knowing that we are going to buy a new skillet every year or two, depending upon the inevitable degrading and peeling of Teflon coating, we are happy to simply go to Target and pick up the impressive Calphalon Model 1390 Skillet that measures 10 inches, or 25 cm. The price is $29.99, which isn’t cheap, but the pan is certainly worth the cost.

The skillet is a solid performer that heats up evenly, and holds the heat through the cooking process without creating hot spots or burning.  The secret to this pan is a thick disk of stainless steel fused to the bottom. Steel transmits heat more consistently than aluminum. It’s kind of heavy, but not too heavy, like a cast-iron skillet, and the steel bottom can take the heat of our annoying glass top range, which can easily scorch lesser pans.

We wish the Calphalon 12-inch skillet had a stainless steel disk on the bottom, but it would be probably be too heavy.  Instead, we have to keep a watchful eye when cooking things in the lightweight aluminum pan as it balances between too hot and not hot enough.  This shortcoming often leads to cooking two batches of food in the 1390, instead of one in the larger skillet. The Calphalon 1390 does such an excellent job of cooking hashbrowns, eggs, Chinese dumplings, and everything else we fry, we don’t mind the extra time.

Check out that thick chunk of steel on the bottom.
Check out that thick chunk of steel on the bottom.

Pop Popcorn in a Pan for More Flavor

In terms of convenience, popcorn in the microwave always wins against the old way of popping corn in a covered saucepan.  Sure it’s easier, but taste is sacrificed, and there is a high risk of burnt or dried out popcorn kernels that ruin the popcorn experience.

As John and Michael will attest, the worst part of microwaved popcorn is the fake butter taste, which is acceptable with the first few handfuls, but quickly becomes a turn-off near the end of the bag.

Surprisingly, it’s almost as easy to pop popcorn on the stove, and real butter makes all the difference in the world. It’s actually a lot of fun to pop corn, with the great sounds and smells. The only real problem with this popcorn is that it’s too good. The boys want me to make popcorn at least 3 times per week.

What you will need:

  • 2 Tablespoons oil (peanut or coconut is the best)
  • 1/2 Cup popcorn kernels (Orville Redenbacher)
  • 1 to 2 Tablespoons butter
  • Salt (Morton’s Sea Salt)
  • 3 quart saucepan
  • rubber spatula

What you will do:

  1. Have a rubber spatula ready at hand.
  2. Using a 3-quart or larger saucepan, turn heat to medium-high. Put the oil and popcorn kernels together in the pan, and put the lid on tight.
  3. When the first kernel pops, shake the pan back and forth.  It doesn’t require hard shaking.  You’d think that on high heat, the popcorn would burn, but it doesn’t.
  4. Keep shaking until it the pan begins to fill up with popped corn and the popping slows down.  With a 3 quart saucepan, the popcorn will lift the lid, and a few kernels may pop and fly around the kitchen.  This is part of the fun.
  5. Turn off the heat, then dump all of the popcorn into a large bowl.  Use a spatula to scrap remaining pieces of kernels into a sink or trash can.
  6. Turn heat back on to medium, put butter in pan, and swirl it until it foams up.  When it bubbles up, it spreads onto the popcorn better.
  7. Drizzle the butter onto the popcorn from as high as you can reach with the pan.  Mix the butter into the popcorn with the spatula, sprinkle on Morton’s Sea Salt, and stir again.
  8. Serve with a Coke, and enjoy the show.

How Do I Make a Manhattan Cocktail?

The Manhattan Cocktail was originally made with rye whiskey, but rye disappeared for many years after Prohibition. While it was gone, most Manhattans were made with Kentucky bourbon. While bourbon makes for a sweet good Manhattan, rye whiskey adds a solid spicy kick. The stronger the rye, the better.

Manhattan Cocktail Recipe

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • ¾ to 1 ounce Italian sweet vermouth
  • 2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Maraschino cherry, for garnish
  • Tiny piece of lemon peel, for garnish, optional

— Combine whiskey, vermouth and bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Stir 40 times, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass with the cherry placed in the bottom.  A wisp of a lemon peel adds a subtle tang.

With 3/4 ounce of vermouth you’ll taste whiskey more, but increasing it to 1 ounce tips the taste toward vermouth.  Try it both ways.

A simpler option for preparation is to pour whiskey, vermouth and bitters over ice in an Old-Fashioned glass, and stir.

Rittenhouse 100 Rye is the preferred rye for a Manhattan, when mixed with Martini & Rossi or other Italian vermouth. High West Rye is also recommended. For an impressive Manhattan, Carpano Antica, one of the most complex Italian vermouths, is highly recommended. I’ll guarantee it’s worth the added expense.

Since bourbon is a little sweeter than rye, Dolin Rouge French Vermouth is preferred over Italian vermouth for a bourbon “Southern Manhattan”. After a vermouth bottle is opened, it should be consumed quickly, or stored in the refrigerator, where it will last a month or more. Write the date that you opened it on the label. Better yet, to keep your vermouth from slowly turning into herbed vinegar, pump out the air with a low-cost Vacu Vin, and the vermouth will stay fresh even longer.

How to Make Excellent Pancakes from Scratch Without Buttermilk

Having buttermilk in the fridge requires planning, but pancakes are often spur-of-the-moment, so here’s an easy substitute: milk and lemon juice. I always have lemons, and they last a month in the fruit crisper.  In fact, I think milk curdled with lemon juice tastes better than buttermilk in pancakes.

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice (1/2 lemon)
  • 2 Tablespoons butter, melted
  1. Melt the butter.  20 seconds at low power in the microwave works.
  2. Blend or sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together in small mixing bowl.
  3. Put lemon juice into a measuring cup, and add milk until it makes 1 full cup.  Stir it very lightly so that it all curdles.
  4. Pour milk into the flour mix, then crack the egg on top of it all.  Mix everything, but don’t overmix.  Do not mix egg in first, or you’ll get tiny chunks of pasta.
  5. Lightly mix in the melted butter.

Put a few drops of water into a non-stick skillet, and heat on medium heat. When the water droplets begin to boil, turn heat to medium-high.

  1. Add a pat of butter to hot pan, and swirl it around with a spatula.  Pour in batter with a 1/3 cup measuring cup, or eyeball it.  A big pan can hold 3 pancakes.
  2. Cook for about 2 minutes, until bubbles appear on the top.  Lift up a cake to see if it’s properly cooked, and flip them when they are.  Flip them so the outside edge now cooks on the center of the pan.
  3. Cook for 1 ½  minutes more on the other side.
  4. Remove pancakes from pan, turn off heat.
  5. Pour maple syrup in pan, with a pat of butter, and let residual heat from pan warm up the syrup.

Notes: You can use buttermilk (1 cup) if you wish.  Buttermilk used to be thicker than milk, but modern buttermilk is just regular milk with lactic acid cultures added to it, so it’s the same consistency as lemon/milk.

Recommended:  pure maple syrup, even if you buy the store brand.  The national brands of pancake syrup made with corn syrup taste like candy.

 

 

How Long to Cook Broccoli? Boil Exactly 3 Minutes. Perfect Every Time.

brocci

Little wonder why so many people hate broccoli.  John and Michael–like most kids–used to hate it too!  When we cooked it 30 seconds too little, the broccoli was still raw and crunchy. When we cooked the veggie 30 seconds too long, it got mushy and green olive colored, which is not a good look for broccoli.

This technique nails it–just right–and simply requires a timer.  John and Michael eat this broccoli 3 times a week.

1.  Bring 3 inches of water to boil on high temperature in a covered saucepan or pot.

2.  Cut the florets off the broccoli head, and if the florets are too big, cut them in half. Put the florets in a bowl so that you can dump them all into the boiling water at the same time. Set your timer for 3 minutes, but don’t start it. Have a big spoon ready.

3.  When the water boils, remove the cover, dump the broccoli into the water, and give it a quick stir so that all the broccoli gets dunked.

4.  Clamp the lid on tightly, and start the timer.  When the 3 minutes are up, turn off the heat and immediately drain the broccoli, or remove it with a slotted spoon.

5.  Put a few pats of butter on the broccoli, and leave it uncovered until the butter melts. Stir the broccoli with a large spoon or chopstick–very lightly so you don’t break off pieces of the florets.  Salt and pepper the broccoli, and serve.

If desired, sprinkle the broccoli with cheese, preferably a cheddar or other yellow cheese.  White cheeses aren’t the best for this vegetable.  Tostito’s Medium Salsa con Queso is cheesy- delicious poured over the top.