Among the many things I learned at the second annual Austin FOOD & WINE Festival, which took place at Austin's Butler Park April 27-28, here are my favorite take-aways:
1) The old adage about drinking red wine at room temperature works well in, say, Scotland, when room temperatures are considerably lower than averages in Texas. In Central Texas, especially in summer, room temperature is usually too hot. So cool your red wine in the fridge and take it out about a half hour before serving it. Interestingly, when we drink red wine that's too warm, our perception of fruit goes down, but our perception of alcohol and tannin (that bitter, inside-of-the-banana-peel taste) go up. So chill that red wine, y'all.
2) Shrubs are more than pretty plants. In the restaurant and bartending world, shrubs refer to a lively mix of fruit, sugar, and vinegar, which were used in the 1800s to make soft drinks—and lively and refreshing cocktails. Shrubs and drinking vinegars are experiencing a comeback of sorts, and Bill Norris' Saturday session on the topic was both fascinating and loads of fun.
Bill, the beverage director of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, demonstrated how to make strawberry and peach shrubs—and how to use them in tasty and refreshing cocktails. Here's how to make a strawberry shrub: Take a cup of strawberries and dice them. Put them in a bowl with a cup of sugar. Almost immediately, the sugar will start to draw the water from the berries and form syrup. Put the bowl in the fridge and stir a few times over the next two days. After about 48 hours, strain the solids from the syrup and add about a half cup of good-quality white balsamic vinegar. Taste it, and then add more vinegar (up to a cup)—you want the shrub to be taste balanced—sweet, tart, and complex. To make a delicious anytime drink, add a tablespoon or so of shrub to a glass of water, either still or sparkly. To make what Bill called a "Bitter Berry" cocktail, mix 1.5 ounces of light rum with 1 ounce of Aperol or Campari and 0.5 ounce shrub. Shake and enjoy.
I fell so in love with shrubs that I went home Saturday and made three—a strawberry shrub, a mango shrub, and a guava shrub. (That's a photo of my strawberry shrub in a bit of fizzy water.)
3) The Cult of Celebrity Chefs is alive and well. The queues to get into sessions by such of-the-moment chefs as Tim Love, Paul Qui, Marcus Samuellson, and Andrew Zimmern, started forming 45 minutes before their sessions began, which meant you had to really plan your day. Chef Tim Love, in particular—whose Woodshed Smokehouse and Love Shack restaurants in Fort Worth enjoy enthusiastic, carnivorous fans—channeled an odd mix of rock star and evangelist preacher, grilling rib-eyes and encouraging 11 a.m tequila shots while blasting a soundtrack heavy with ZZ Top. I couldn't get into any of his three hands-on grilling sessions, but I lurked on the outskirts behind the barricade at his raucous "It's Tailgaiting Time in Texas" grilling demo, and willingly accepted nibbles of steak offered by boisterous strangers. Best. Rib-eye. Ever.