A few weeks ago I ventured to downtown Chicago with a group of foodie friends for an afternoon of eating, drinking and a cooking class unlike any I have ever experienced.
Upon entering the beautiful Balsan restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel we were greeted by our instructor and resident mixologist, Michael Kennedy. Kennedy wasted no time with our instruction, leading to our seats at the bar where a large meat slicer shaving paper thin slices of salami and prosciutto. These meats were then added to a unique assortment of cheeses, cornichons, crispy flatbread, beer mustard, homemade brandied cherries and other delicious items to create Balsan's Artisan charcuterie board.
As we ate our delicious snacks Kennedy told us that Balsan serves La Quercia prosciutto, made in, of all places, Norwalk, Iowa, not Italy as I expected. I have since learned Cook's Illustrated named La Quercia Prosciutto Americana the "hands-down winner" in a prosciutto tasting in April 2008. According to the CI article tasters were impressed by the deep earthy flavor and creamy texture of this premium prosciutto.
This fine proscuitto isn't just available to fine restaurants; I was pleased to discover, via the La Quercia website, this same prosciutto can be purchased at a number of local stores. Good news since I am now determined to create my own charcuterie board at home.
Just when I thought the day couldn't get any better, Kennedy told us he would be teaching us how to make a cocktail called the Moscow Thoroughbred. I remember hearing Oprah once say she was a fan of the Moscow Mule and I soon learned the drink we were making was a distant cousin of her favorite.
The Moscow Mule traditionally combines vodka, lime juice, simple syrup and ginger beer and is often served in a traditional chilled copper mug. In contrast, our "Thoroughbred" was served in a chilled martini glass and created using homemade ginger syrup, gin, lime juice and Domaine de Canton, a ginger liqueur made from cognac and fresh baby ginger accented with vanilla, honey and ginseng.
Before we could mix our drinks, we had to make the ginger syrup by simmering water, sugar, ginger and bay leaves and then pouring the mixture over lime zest. Once cooled and strained, we all got behind the bar to measure the ingredients into an ice filled martini shaker. Here's a good cocktail tip: Shake until you hear a "slushing" sound, that indicates a thin layer of tiny ice crystals has formed and is floating on top. Once strained and in our chilled and prepared martini glass, with a lime peel rose floating inside, our Thoroughbred was complete.
In addition to learning the origin of some fantastic Midwest prosciutto and testing our skills at properly shaking a martini, Kennedy gave us a tutorial on gin, one of the key ingredients in our cocktail du jour. We learned that while gin is made primarily from juniper berries it can also include hints of lemon, almond, coriander, cinnamon and even licorice. We sampled Death's Door Gin, made on Washington Island, Wis., which had a strong juniper flavor and aroma, and other brands ranging from spicy to floral in flavor, but the perfect gin for our drink turned out to be a familiar blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire. It was very interesting to sample the different types of gin since I had never considered the wide variety of flavors available.
With our appetizers and cocktails behind us we settled in for a delicious lunch at Balsan before heading home. The afternoon proved to be an enjoyable and educational experience. The Moscow Thoroughbred turned out to be a delicious drink that would be perfect on any warm summer day.
I'm sharing Kennedy's recipe so you can mix one up at home. Or, if you happen to be near the Waldorf Astoria this summer, stop in for a Moscow Thoroughbred and some artisan cheese and meats. I can think of no better way to cool off on a hot day in the city.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge in 2011. Write her at email@example.com.