Monday, October 16, 2006

The Old Dog Learns New Tricks

For something like 12 years now, I've been a bit of a stodge about cocktail hour. While I flirted with some others -- the Manhattan, the Rob Roy, Phil's invented drink that he named the Tammany Hall -- I always come back to the classic gin Martini. I don't like the cloyingly sweet "Martinis" that are really Kool-Aid and booze in an oversized Martini glass -- Tartinis, Chocolate Martinis, Cosmopolitans that are too heavy on the Cointreau and light on the lime juice. So imagine my surprise this weekend when I found a flavored cocktail that I believe is going to change my life.

Let me back up. This past weekend my parents drove to our house from Michigan and spent the long weekend with M & T, allowing Phil and me to see our friends Amy and Dan in New York City. Amy and Dan used to live in Brooklyn when we did (they in Carroll Gardens; we in Park Slope), and they bought a house on Staten Island a bit after we moved to Indianapolis. They're good people, and it was wonderful to see them and Sally, their five-year-old JRT. Dan is a lawyer who actually deposed Guilliani when he was just a hard-nosed mayor and not the golden hero of 9/11. Amy is a published author who often writes on food and wine. She's also one of the best home cooks I've ever met; her crab cakes of '00 are still legend in our house. To get a better feel for how restaurants function, Amy's working an unpaid internship at a restaurant that I took to be a smallish, 20-seat affair, but turned out to be the ultra-hip, New Zealand-inspired Public in Soho. She made reservations for the four of us and another couple friends for Saturday night, and I was hoping to be wowed by a carefully crafted New York meal. I wasn't disappointed.

The food was out of this world: Starters of cured wild boar and duck foie gras and grilled kangaroo (no lie) that we passed 'round the table. Entrees were equally spectacular -- for me, an amazing roast cod on edamame risotto. For dessert, we shared the sorbet sampler and a flourless chocolate cake that was too rich for even me to finish -- and I can eat a pan of brownies without batting an eye. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When we got to the restaurant, even a few minutes late with the semi-nightmare of parking a car in Soho -- nice job, Dan -- our table wasn't quite ready, so we went to the bar to wait. A woman sitting next to me was drinking a classic Martini with three olives, and I almost ordered one because it did look beautiful and I'm a creature of habit. But after looking at the drink menu -- a formality I usually shun -- I decided to get cra-ZAY and try the Lemon-Basil Martini.


I mean, just unbelievable. It was slightly sweet, but not Lik-a-Stik so. And the basil and lemon were a perfect, savory-but-sweet combination. While I've always loved lemon and basil in, say, chicken dishes, I had no idea that the combination could transfer to cocktails. But it did beautifully. Amy and I decided to share a second, and I asked the bartender if he'd mind if I watched how he made it. This is where you know you're in a classy restaurant: Not only did he let me watch him, but he pulled all the ingredients on the counter and gave me a brief tutorial on making one.

Here's how:

  1. In a shaker, do a pour (maybe a jigger?) of simple syrup and one of fresh lemon juice. The juice he used was very fresh -- thick-looking and opaque and not at all artificially colored.
  2. Now add in a smallish handful of basil and muddle the basil into the juice and syrup.
  3. Add ice, a pour of limoncello, a quick pour of vermouth (I didn't recognize his brand, but I'm sure our Noilly Prat would work), and a good-sized drink's worth of Miller's gin. This last piece the bartender seemed particularly keen on -- he said the Miller's really works well in the drink.
  4. Shake it all up and pour it into a big Martini glass; there'll be lovely little bits of basil suspended in the drink.
  5. Add a full, gorgeous basil leaf, and start sipping immediately. Pretend you're Dorothy Parker.

Seriously, I can't think of a drink I've ever had that's been this refreshing yet grown up.

When I got back to Indiana after the weekend, I looked up how to make limoncello in Frances Mayes' In Tuscany (the follow-up to her follow-up to Under the Tuscan Sun). The recipe given there, which seems pretty straightforward, has you removing the skin of eight organic lemons, leaving a bit of the white pith on the skin. Then add a quart of liquor, which I'm assuming is best as vodka. Cover this and let it sit in a coolish place for about seven days, shaking periodically. When the peels have lost their vibrant color, strain the liquor.

When the liquor is ready, make a simple syrup of 14 oz. sugar and a quart of water. To make the syrup, heat the water to not-quite boiling and simmer until the sugar crystals dissolve. Let this cool, and then add to the strained lemon liquor.

Now go get some Miller's gin and start perfecting your Lemon-Basil Martini; invite over your best friends for a night of local cheese, lovely cocktails, and great music.

I have a quart mason jar of lemon peels and vodka sitting on the counter right now, awaiting its transformation into limoncello and then just such a night.

(In other exciting news, I just got off the phone with Nikki Royer of Royer's Farm, and in a couple weeks I'll be picking up my half a lamb to tuck into this winter. Shepherd's Pie, anyone?)


Blogger amyzeats said...

I checked Nick Mautone's excellent, excellent book, Raising the Bar (can't recommend it more highly) for his take on limoncello -- here's what he says:

12 lemons
1 1/2 cups sugar
One 1 liter bottle of vodka or grappa (!!)

Juice the lemons and reserve the juice for another purpose. Cut the remaining rind into quarters. Place the lemon rind and sugar in a large pitcher with a tight-fitting lid and stir well, using a spoon to break up the lemons and help extract any remaining juice. Add the vodka or grappa and stir well (save the empty booze bottles to store the limoncello in afterward). Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours, then stir well and taste, adding more sugar if necessary. Refrigerate 6 more days, stirring each day.
Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer, pressing the lemons against the sides of the strainer to extract all of the limoncello. Pour into the reserved booze bottle and either a) make Cindy's favorite drink or b) store indefinitely in the freezer. I also highly recommend his drink the Rosmarino. Ho-ly cow. Another shocker because of its herbal base, but so surprisingly delicious...

6:15 AM  
Blogger Cindy K said...

Wow. This sound so much easier than the Frances Mayes recipe, and I love the idea of using grappa. Once I make the Frances Mayes one, I'm going to try this one and do a comparison. Thanks so much, Amy!

6:31 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

Hi Cindy,

Thanks for posting the basil martini receipe. We were at Public the same night (16 Oct) & have been dreaming about finding how to make one ever since. Just returned to New Zealand and on our first search found your blog.

PS Peter Gordon is a Kiwi not an Aussie!!

Cheers Robin

6:22 PM  
Blogger Cindy K said...

Hi, Robin: Thanks for the correx on Peter Gordon. I fixed the post. :) Those martinis were something, weren't they? Best, Cindy

4:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you thank you thank you! i have been dreaming about the Public lemon basil martini since i had one this summer. now i'm having a cocktail party this weekend and was hoping to do just as you suggest-perfect my own and serve it to my friends. now i can since you gave me the inside track info. delicious.
on another note-do you have any info on store bought limoncello? i've only had it once in italy-are there different brands, and if so, is there a prefered brand? i am clueless when it comes to liqueurs.

11:22 AM  

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