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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cucumber Martini

Today marks the first official day of summer and few things feel more festive than toasting the start of the new season with a delicious and refreshing cocktail.

This martini highlights the crisp, clean, decidedly summery taste of fresh cucumber. I'm so smitten with this new drink that I just added it to the seasonal cocktail menu at the restaurant I manage. My original idea was to create a cucumber infused gin cocktail, but after a few experiments, and receiving feedback from an expert panel of taste-testers (read: the restaurant staff), I was surprised that vodka beat out the gin, hands down. When made with gin, the cucumber seemed to emphasize the gin itself (which could be a great thing, especially when you are using a gin that already has some cucumber notes in it, as Hendrick's Gin does). When made with vodka, however, the vodka provided a clean slate to highlight the subtle cucumber flavor. Even those that aren't usually into vodka loved it.

The executive chef at the restaurant, who was part of the taste-testing panel, made a very good observation. She wisely pointed out that this drink would be a great palate cleanser or aperitif. I think her exact words were, "one of these martinis would be the perfect start to a summery meal." I agree with her one hundred percent. Contrary to a lot of fun mixed drinks, the delicate, fresh flavors awaken and stimulate the taste buds, versus overpower them like so many assertively flavored cocktails and spirits tend to do.

So, when you find yourself with an extra cucumber or two lying around (which must inevitably happen to everyone at least a few times every summer), experiment with this infusion. It is surprising simple and only takes an hour to make - and that includes the infusing time! Once you're comfortable making this, start experimenting with other homemade infusions. I think you'll find the process to be much simpler than expected (unless you are my husband, that is, who is obsessed with making the perfect bacon-infused bourbon, which is a very time consuming and complex process). Once you have an infused spirit, it doesn't take much more than a few staple bar ingredients to create a lovely and inspired cocktail.

Plus, how impressed will your guests be when you whip up a few house-infused martinis at your next party? I would be, and I wrote this recipe.

Cucumber Martini

1 martini

2-1/2 ounces cucumber infused vodka (recipe below)
3 slices cucumber, 1 slice reserved for garnish
4 mint leaves, torn
1/2 ounce simple syrup (*technique noted below)
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Combine infused vodka, 2 cucumber slices and mint leaves in a cocktail shaker. Muddle with a wooden spoon or, well, a muddler. Add simple syrup, lemon juice and enough ice to fill half of the shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled martini glass. Float the reserved cucumber slice on top for garnish.

*To make simple syrup, heat 1 part sugar to 1 part water in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Allow to cool and then transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Cucumber Infused Vodka

makes enough for 6 martinis
2 cups high quality vodka (I use Titos)
1 cucumber, sliced thinly into rounds

Combine vodka and sliced cucumber in an airtight jar and let sit for 1 hour. Remove cucumber slices and discard. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Broccoli Rabe with Red Grapes and Bacon

I cook with many flavor combinations that are commonly accepted to pair well together. Strawberries and rhubarb. Goat cheese and beets. Brussels sprouts and bacon. These flavor matches are tried and true; however it's always fun and exciting to come up with new, unexpected flavor combinations. A couple of weeks ago my dear friend Angelique and I went to Black Mountain Wine House, one of our favorite local wine bars, and ordered an interesting dish that was comprised of asparagus wrapped in sopressata with a poached egg, arugula and grapes. Not an unusual pairing of ingredients, until you get to the grapes, that is. Not, surprisingly (since their menu of small plates is carefully prepared and well-executed), this dish was great. The flavors were quite balanced and the grapes added a nice contrast and sweetness to an otherwise earthy dish. Plus, I was inspired.

So the next day I picked up a big bag of organic red grapes and got to experimenting. One of the most successful dishes I came up with was broccoli rabe with bacon and red grapes. The slightly bitter broccoli rabe was perfectly, and surprisingly, balanced by the subtle sweetness of the grapes and smokiness of the bacon. It may be unconventional, but trust me, the flavor combo WORKS.

In case you're not entirely comfortable shopping for and preparing broccoli rabe, I've included a few tips so you are well prepared to do both:

Picking out broccoli rabe:
  1. Broccoli rabe is at its seasonal peak, and therefore most tender, in the spring. Look for it at farmers markets.
  2. Leaves should be fresh and vibrant, avoid those that are yellow or wilted.
  3. Stems should be thin and crisp; the thicker the stems the less tender and more bitter the rabe my be.
  4. The buds (or "flourets") should be tightly compact.
  5. If the buds are starting to sprout little yellow flowers, you may want to choose another bunch, as pretty as those little flowers are (a blooming broccoli rabe signifies a more "mature" plant that may be a little more fibrous and bitter). But, the yellow flowers are totally edible, I've eaten them and enjoyed them anyway.
Cooking broccoli rabe:
  1. Cut off the bottom 2" or so of the stems. They are tough and fibrous.
  2. Always blanch broccoli rabe in salted boiling water (the salt helps to maintain the bright green color and it seasons the vegetable) for 1 to 2 minutes, tops. The broccoli should be not be fully cooked after a blanch.
  3. Drain the broccoli rabe and run under cold water immediately to stop the cooking process.
  4. Ring out excess water from the broccoli using a paper towel. This is important. Excess water will cause the broccoli rabe to steam in the pan, rather than saute, and may result in a watery final product.
Once you have the buying and basic cooking tips down, you can do many, many fun things with broccoli rabe. One of my favorites is to simply saute the blanched broccoli rabe with olive oil, garlic and a little crushed red pepper; straightforward but so delicious. Or you can try it in a pasta dish (like in this NY Times recipe for Spaghetti with Broccoli Rabe, Toasted Garlic and Bread Crumbs), or served over polenta (as Marcus Samuelsson does in his Lemony Asparagus and Broccoli Rabe recipe).

Either way, try it out, and while you're at it, through some grapes and crispy bacon in their too.

Broccoli Rabe with Red Grapes and Bacon

1/4 lb bacon, diced
1 large bunch broccoli rabe
1 Tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 c. seedless red grapes, halved
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Slice off bottom 2" of broccoli rabe stems. Blanch broccoli rabe in boiling water for 1-2 minutes (broccoli should not be fully cooked). Drain and run under cold water immediately to stop the cooking process. Squeeze broccoli rabe to remove excess water.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and cook bacon until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Remove bacon using a slotted spot and place on a paper towel lined plate. Add garlic and crushed red pepper to pan and cook for 30 seconds, or until garlic is fragrant. Add broccoli rabe and red grapes and toss. Cook for 4 more minutes, or until grapes are heated and softened slightly. Stir in crisped bacon, a squeeze of lemon juice (a little acid brightens really up the flavors) and salt and pepper to taste.