Food and Drink

How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ridiculous Cocktails

Since Valentine's Day is a whatever holiday, here's a quick guide to what to drink on this very weird day.

Taylor Simpson/Unsplash
Taylor Simpson/Unsplash
Taylor Simpson/Unsplash

John deBary is a cocktail expert and author, founder of Proteau, and co-founder of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. Youngmi Mayer is a stand-up comedian and co-host of the Feeling Asian podcast. The duo are best friends who got together to give us some advice on what to drink this Valentine’s Day.

If you ask us, Valentine’s Day is an extremely whatever holiday. No matter what your relationship status, it can feel awkward and perfunctory. Plus, it’s still a pandemic. In the spirit of taking it easy on ourselves, here’s a quick guide to what to drink on this very weird day.

John deBary: Ok so it’s Valentine’s Day, the pandemic has been going on for 500 months, what are we drinking?

Youngmi Mayer: During the pandemic, I haven’t really been drinking, I’ve been chugging. Unfortunately, I’m not great at making drinks so I’m just drinking a lot of tequila on the rocks and White Claws, which taste bad!! How about you John, what have you been fixing yourself?

JdB: Oh god. I’m so all over the place right now. Last year I didn’t drink alcohol at all and so I have been doing the opposite of a Dry January-a Wet January. Really this means a bunch of really chaotic drinking experiences and enjoying the novelty.

YM: I am also a big believer in wet January, like it doesn’t make sense to me to quit drinking during the most depressing, boring month of the year. I usually do a dry March or April.

JdB: Like the other day I drank beer for the first time in 13 months and watched Wandavision and fell asleep at 9 pm. It was amazing. Last night I had an amaro slushie from Momofuku Ko that I had saved up since Thanksgiving.

YM: I love winter cocktails and it’s the only time of year I really drink sweet syrup-y drinks. My fave is a sazerac but because of quarantine I have not been able to sit in front of a professional who could make me one. Remember when I texted you because I had an industrial-size vat of cranberry sauce and I was like ‘how do I make a cocktail with this?? Boil it??’ and you were like, ‘why would you boil it?’

JdB: I feel like a lot of people fall into this trap where they think they need to Do Something to an ingredient in order to validate its usage in a drink. It always makes me feel like an asshole to say, but when most people are like, “what should i do with X?” the most useful answer I’m able to give is: “Drink it!” A lot of people are scared to try things because they’re worried it’s going to be “bad” and it’s like, ‘bro do you know how many horrifically disgusting drinks i’ve made?’

YM: Yes I always think I have to Do Something™ to my drinks. But also the most success I’ve had is when I’ve mixed vodka with blueberry soda and added a squeeze of lemon. I think the squeeze of lemon is the layman’s magic trick, like if anyone sucks at making drinks like me you just squeeze lemon on it and it is magically amazing. Do you think that’s a good tip or like an orange rind. My dad drinks whiskey with Diet Doctor Pepper and I think if I just put a heated orange rind on that, I could charge $17 for it in Brooklyn. Is that offensive to bartenders?

JdB: The lemon trick is very legit. You’d be surprised how much of a difference fresh citrus makes in a drink. It’s basic as fuck, but when you add a lemon wedge to a drink, you’re getting acidity and flavor from the juice, plus aromatic oils that come out of the skin. Same goes for heated orange peels. Ninety five percent of good bartending is just nailing the basics. The rest is marginal. I’m sad that you haven’t had a chance to have a proper Sazerac. It’s also one of my favorite drinks and it’s pretty easy to sandbag. Maybe I’ll prep a bottle of Sazeracs for you as a Valentine’s Day present.

YM: So now that you’re drinking booze again what’s hitting? What are you into? We became close during your dry time so I never knew you when you drank so I have no idea what you drink regularly.

JdB: Honestly everything is hitting-I have no tolerance. I had my first real cocktail in over a year last week which was an Old Pal with Japanese whisky. But so much of what I find fun about drinking is the social setting, so drinking at home is not that compelling to me–even though I still do it. I’m also finding that wine gives me horrific hangovers. I drank red wine after midnight on New Years and literally felt like I had internal bleeding in my brain and I had only had a few glasses.

So Valentine’s Day is coming up. I haven’t been single since 2006 and my husband and I regularly forget our anniversary, so the day pretty much has no meaning to me. As a single person, does Valentine’s Day hit differently when you’re single in your 30s and desperately alone?

YM: When I say I’m single I mean I have 10 boyfriends who I spend .8 days with a week. so.. yes I am desperately alone.

JdB: Guys who live downstairs who DM you at 1 am asking to be let into your building because they forgot their keys do not count as boyfriends Youngmi.

YM: Yes they do and they are also the reason I drink. What is like a classic Valentine’s cocktail? Will you make me enough sazeracs that I can share with all 10 of my boyfriends (one of them has a gluten allergy)?

JdB: Actually all spirits are more or less gluten free, so you’re good.

YM: I love sparkling wine. I know that’s a big thing for V day. As a server on Valentine’s Day, I always see these like bros who’ve never had it before forcing themselves to chug it down. Once I went to Nobu and I ordered a French 75 and the bartender was like “what is that?” and then I saw Claudia Trump or whatever her name is? Valerie? Ivanka! And the maitre d’ was nice to her!! Anyway, I felt like I was way too cool for Nobu after that.

JdB: You are unquestionably too cool for Nobu, and also they should know what a French 75 is.

YM: What is a good champagne cocktail? Let’s make one called the Absolutely Fabulous because I remember watching that show as a kid and being jealous of Eddie’s glass fridge filled with champagne. Also, I am old and single like those gals in that show. What should be in it?

JdB: Really there is no ‘classic’ valentine’s day cocktail other than maybe some desperately uncreative strawberry-in-champagne monstrosity, or whatever the bar manager at Lavo made with four cases of Stoli Raspberry and sparkling rosé.

I feel like we have a lot going on here from a drinks perspective (but also psychological disorders, which we should set aside for now.)

YM: My boyfriends are real John. Just like gluten allergies.

JdB: We started with the Sazerac idea….Let’s make a sandbag-able Valentine’s Sazerac that has some elements of a French 75!

YM: Yes and let’s call it the ‘Absolutely Fabulous’!! I am very obviously addy because I have body dysmorphia and Korean and you are patsy because you’re attractive and blonde.

JdB: I have actually never seen more than like 30 seconds of Ab Fab. Anyway, here’s what I’m thinking: it’s equal parts Sazerac and French 75 and equal parts revolting and highbrow. Honestly, the connection to Ab Fab is a little tenuous but it’s month 59 of quarantine so fuck it.

YM: This is it, John. The most chaotic, anti-Valentine’s Day Valentine’s drink ever. The drink for the single woman who has 10 unemployed boyfriends (one with a gluten allergy). The drink you have alone in your apartment in your pajamas because none of your boyfriends made plans with you on Valentine’s Day. Ab-Fab 59.

Ab-Fab 59

  • 1 bottle chilled sparkling wine
  • 10 oz VSOP Cognac
  • 4 oz Rose liqueur
  • 4 oz Raspberry liqueur
  • 1 oz Absinthe
  • .25 oz Peychaud’s bitters
  • 5 oz filtered water

1. Combine the Cognac, rose liqueur, raspberry liqueur, absinthe, bitters, and water in a medium bowl, stir to combine. Transfer to a container like an empty bottle and put in the freezer for at least four hours.

2. To serve, pour 2 ounces of the bottled mixture into a chilled glass, top with 2 ounces of sparkling wine, and garnish with a lemon wedge because that is the secret weapon of all bartenders.

Food and Drink

What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland

It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour

fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it. 

“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.

The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin. 

“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.” 

Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.

As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture. 

descaling fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland. 

This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.

Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly. 

“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.” 

So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on. 

Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate. 

chef showing fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”

Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get. 

“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”

As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland. 

This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”

We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland. 

“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”

cuts of fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter. 

One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood. 

If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world. 

Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.

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