I love a good cocktail.  Trouble is, it’s not always easy to find one.  While there are now countless artisanal bars serving drinks of all varieties, both modern and old, the reality is that you can’t expect to find an outstanding cocktail at an average bar.  Take for example the classic, whiskey sour.  Order one up at your local neighborhood dive and your guaranteed to be poured  a neon yellow concoction topped with an equally garish maraschino cherry.  Odds are it will taste comparable to battery acid with a look and viscosity of Lysol – yes, I despise sours mix that much.  Having endured my fair share of hangovers at the hands of these sickly sweet spirits, I’ve come to believe that that stuff might just be worse for you than the booze in the glass.

Enter, the Rhodie.  A refreshing take on the old standby, but without a drop of sours mix in sight.  Here, quality bourbon is shaken with fresh lemonade, tart Meyer lemon juice and a splash of grade-A maple syrup for a concoction that delivers all the sweet/sour qualities of the original.  Served up and free of any of those formaldehyde cherries, the Rhodie is a pure expression of bright, refreshing lemon on a background of sweet, caramelized bourbon and maple syrup.  One sip and you’ll have a hard time going out for drinks ever again.

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To round out my week of Middle Eastern cuisine, I present to you a vehicle for all those tasty homemade recipes — the falafel sandwich.  This is the kind of sandwich that makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I could be a vegetarian.  Afterall, with a sandwich as filling and flavorful as this one, who needs meat?  With mixed baby greens, crunchy cabbage and carrots, this version is everything but authentic.

Admittedly, I don’t typically order the falafel sandwich — I prefer a loaded schawerma wrap most days — but that’s because most places serve their sandwiches with some wilted iceberg lettuce, chunks of flavorless tomatoes and the withered tennis balls they call falafel. As it turns out a good falafel sandwich is its own kind of wonderful, and as is the case with many things, all the much better when you’re the one deciding what goes into it.

I knew I wanted something a bit brighter than usual; something that included textures and flavors that would enhance the soft, savory falafel. The combination listed below promises balanced bites — the pepper and pickled turnips add a tangy kick, the cabbage and carrots the right kind of crunch and the tahini sauce and baba ganoush are creamy and bold without overwhelming the flavor of the falafels themselves — but feel free to throw in tomato, eggplant, Middle Eastern pickles or any other additions you think would be good. And if you come up with an inspired combination, don’t forget to share your secrets in the comments.

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Looking for good falafel in San Francisco can leave one feeling like Goldilocks.  In a town with so few options to choose from, compared to a city like New York, finding real, quality falafel around here can be hit or miss.  Oftentimes too dry, frequently too large and almost always too dense, my misadventures in the quest for the perfect fritter have lead me to create a recipe that produces perfectly light, moist and delicious falafel every time.  In Goldilocks’ words, these are just right.

Dehydrated chickpeas are soaked overnight and ground with onions, parsley and garlic then seasoned with aromatic spices before being fried to a rich, golden brown. Top with a drizzle of garlic and lemon spiked tahini sauce and you have a version that I’d bet rivals some of the best you’ve ever bought.

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Another day, another classic Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern dip, this time Tzatziki, or Cacik as it’s known in Turkey. (It’s certainly not Irish, but at least I’ve got some green going on!)  Whatever you want to call it, this dip stands out as one of my all-time favorites.  Cool, thick Greek-style yogurt is combined with crisp, refreshing cucumbers and laced with pungent garlic and mint for a concoction that is as good on the humble pita as it is on spicy grilled meats.

Good tzatziki is all about texture.  Yes, balance of flavor is always important, but when it comes to this specific herb-inflected spread, I like mine thick and creamy. Here, liquid is the enemy so my version calls for not one, but two ‘purges’ of moisture (once for the yogurt and once for the cucumbers) in an effort to control the final consistency of the dish.  Now, you can go out and buy thick, Greek-style yogurt at the supermarket, but if you’ve been swept up in its recent trend then you’ve probably already noticed that their not exactly giving that stuff away.  That’s why I buy plain, whole-milk yogurt and drain away the excess whey overnight in the fridge — less money, more moisture control.

This stuff is so refreshing that I’m sure once you try it you’ll be making it for dolloping and dipping throughout the spring and summer months. Plus, once you get the technique for straining the yogurt down, you  can forgo the savory addition of garlic and cucumbers and try drizzling it with honey, stirring in fruit or topping it with granola for an exceptionally delicious breakfast or snack.

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Sure, St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and while I could offer you a few variations on classic Irish dishes like corned beef and colcannon, something has me craving Middle Eastern food instead.  So, this week I’ll be posting some of my favorite recipes from Lebanon, Turkey and Israel, all culminating in a dish that will be able to take advantage of each flavorful offering in the group. How about a dip to start?

Like its cousin hummus, baba ganoush is now offered by a myriad of producers and can be found at almost any major grocery store.  While most of it is good, I’ve found that nothing quite compares with a batch of the homemade stuff.  An essential component of any good mezze platter or vegetarian plate at most restaurants, this eggplant dip is as healthy as it is flavorful. For those who’ve never tried it, imagine a smoky spread that is as at once creamy and light, tangy and sweet and as good with warm pita bread at is with crunchy crudite.

At its best, baba is always a contrast of flavors and textures, but the exact ratio of lemon juice to tahini, the consistency from rough chopped to food processor smooth, the addition of a lot or a little garlic, etc. is in the eye mouth of the beholder. And of course, there is no way quite as effective to ensure that a dish is made to your tastes than to make it yourself. So, while I’ve included a handful of measurements in the recipe, keep in mind that they are merely guidelines that can easily be adjusted to suit your own taste, and that technique is what’s most important in creating a outstanding eggplant dip.

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