Kentucky Derby Mint Julep – Starting From Scratch

Mint Julep It has always eluded me..the Mint Julep thing. Spend all that time choosing the perfect outfit.A good deal of thought goes towards the perfect Derby hat. But the Mint Julep, which everyone respectfully carries around while laying bets on the horse, is usually not so perfect – the Mint Julep.  This year I decided to research the drink, and came up with some interesting ideas. The results? Mint Juleps are incredibly refreshing and delicious when prepared correctly.

Mint Juleps are typically done by bruising (muddling) fresh mint with sugar in the bottom of a glass, filling with ice, pouring the bourbon over that, stirring gently, then topping it with fresh mint. This recipe isn’t that.

Here’s the secret I learned from an expert that takes only a little planning. A few weeks in advance get your hands on some alright bourbon , (don’t judge my bourbon-said expert said “any” bourbon will do) and a large handful of fresh mint. Wash and dry the mint, place it in a large jar, pour the bourbon over it, and cover it tightly. Maybe it’ll snow between now and the Kentucky Derby,but that bottle of golden liquid is steeping in a cupboard, infusing the beautiful mint into it’s essence. And you’ll be busy sizing up  horses and jockeys.minted bourbon in the makingminted bourbon in jar steeping

The next secret, well it isn’t really so secret, is to make a minted simple syrup. Simple syrup is a (simple) thing to do. Take a nice bunch (large handful) of fresh mint. Add it to a cup of sugar and a cup of water. Place it all in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the sugar is dissolved, turn off the heat and let it sit for about an hour. Gently press the juices from the mint into the liquid, then throw away the mint.  Strain it into a jar and keep in the refrigerator (up to a month)This way you aren’t “bruising” the mint, which is said to give the Julep an off taste.

Now for the Mint Julep:

Use crushed ice. Finer is better. Fill the glass with it. A good tip, again from said expert, is to place the ice in a canvas bag and crush it with a carpenters mallet, which gives it a perfect consistency.   Pour about 2 Tablespoons of the minted simple syrup over the ice and top it with the minted bourbon. Stir it gently with a spoon. Top it with fresh mint leaves and enjoy. Sip it slowly. It’s a sturdy drink. As the ice melts, the blending of the mint, icy water and bourbon make it all the more refreshing.minted julip on fenceThe horse comes in for his sweet feed. He doesn’t like Mint Juleps. I know that I’ve published this too late to steep the bourbon, but you can make the simple syrup tomorrow, and remember this recipe for the next horse race.minted bourbon the horse

Violets In My Champagne

It’s February 7th, and I’m itching for Spring to have…SPRUNG!

Boston is expecting the blizzard of the century tomorrow. The Laurel Highlands is expecting balmy 45-50 degree weather; the sun is warmer than it was a month ago; a lovely bird was absolutely belting out an early morning promise – acapella – at 7am this morning.  And I started envisioning fields of violets. Yes, a gentle breeze, air pregnant with rain, gurgling brook emptying to the pond, dandilions everywhere, and patches of violets. I come from a long line of wild violet lovers.april 19 beautiful violetLast week my favorite husband and I went to a Champagne and Tapas bar in Pittsburgh. It was a fascinating experience that certainly broadened our minds to embrace Champagne and sparkling wines as we never had before. Since I consider myself to be fairly ignorant  on the subject, Jennifer, the bar manager, treated us to quite an evening. Here’s the happy girl:

champagne and bartender Her pleasant personality, breadth of knowledge, and passion for champagne took us to another world in the land of bubbles. Although most of the Champagne “drinks” disguised the subtle perfumes of Champagne, and who’d want to do THAT, there was one that was particularly fetching.  The Kir Yvette Champagne Cocktail was fascinating to drink, to look at and, maybe most important in February, to think about. The scent of crushed violet petals, mixed with a touch of blackberries and, well read this.

Excited, yes?

Here’s a nice little line up of some of the drinks we enjoyed. The Champagne Yvette Cocktail is in the middle. The famous Bellini to the left, a lovely California Rose Sparkling Wine to the right.Champagne cocktailsWe discovered that most Champagne cocktail drinks mask the beauty of the Champagne, but not the bubbles. So, depending on the “why” of sipping bubbly, there were drinks that reminded me of a daiquiri, all the way to the Yvette, which was so subtle and delicate that it has become quite the fascination for this OCD leaning gal.  🙂  Imagine being told you’re sipping on crushed berries and violet petals – and it is the dead of winter 10 degrees and gray, and the sun will never shine again – and here you are all wrapped in your mink coat (faux, if this vision rubs you the wrong way) – soft lighting and music are making your heart merry –  and you’re with your best ever boyfriend. Ladies?

I share this with you because while most of my friends who love the out doors will be playing in the soil in April, as will I. I will also be gathering violets by the baskets, washing them, destemming them, and crushing them into a bottle of good quality vodka with just the correct amount of sugar (or honey). Then I’ll place that concoction into a clay jar, cover and let set for a month.  I shall have Creme de Violette.  And shall make bubbly cocktails from it in the dead of winter, when everything is gray, and a toasty fire is in the hearth, and Spring is calling me.

Amen.violets after a rain ready for sugar coating

Mango and Watermelon Agua Fresca’s – Beautiful Colors and Flavors

So you know I’ve been pretty busy lately, right?  I mean all that cooking and blogging was to test out recipes for the wedding (which was absolutely beautiful and wonderful and of course I’m not prejudiced! Why would you think that?).  I tried things I’ve never tried before, improved things I’ve been making forever – the quiche, and learned about how to make things in advance and cook only to level where they could be perfected at the time of presentation.  But the one thing that stood out as a most delightful, simple and fun thing was the Agua Fresca.  Seen below: Mango to the left, Watermelon to the right.

Aren’t they beautiful?  Poured over ice with a twist of lime and perhaps a splash of tequila this is a great  inexpensive way to wow your family or guests.

Plus it’s a food group!  Fruit.

My friend who helped me master (dare I use that word so quickly?) the process tells me that nearly any fruit can work: strawberries, cantaloupe, papaya, kiwi, blueberries, you name it you can probably make Agua Fresca from it.  Traditionally in Mexico it’s made from some type of melon.

I didn’t pull out the camera for this. Not to worry. It’s easy. Seriously.  All you will need is ripe fruit, some kind of sweetener – be it honey, sugar or agave necter (native to MeHico). Drink it naked for all I care if you are a purist. It’s all good. By the way – a note on agave nectar- it dissolves more quickly than honey or sugar and is notably more intensely sweet. I think I’ll get my hands on some and try it.

Oh, and you need a method to puree and strain the fruit.  That can be a mechanical method or blender and then a fine sieve.  You  might want to strain it twice to get rid of the pulp.  Ripe fruit is important for getting maximum juice and flavor.

To prepare a quart jug of Watermelon Agua Fresca I used 1/4 of a watermelon.  Don’t worry about seeds, they can be ground right into it because they’ll be strained back out.  Puree the watermelon till it’s mostly water, maybe by using 1/4 of it at a time (no rind).  Once it’s that clear beautiful color pour it into a container add approx 1/4 cup sugar or a few tablespoons of honey or agave nectar. I can’t be more specific since some people like this sweeter, some not so sweet.  On top of that pour 4 cups of water.  Shake it up and taste and make more corrections if needed, such as more watermelon, more water, more sugar, etc..  Remember this isn’t supposed to be anything but ‘infused’ water, so it won’t have an intense flavor.  My friend, the Mexican cooking expert, says Agua Fresca is to people south of the border what iced tea is to those north of the border.  Iced Tea is lightly infused water, right?

For Mango Agua Fresca I used one very ripe mango and did exactly the same process.  Mango’s can be very sweet or a bit tart.  You’ll have to taste and adjust sweetener and water accordingly.  I must add that more of our guests liked the mango flavor over the watermelon.  I like both equally.  The colors are so lovely and it’s a great way to drink more water without the concern of caffeine we get from tea.

Both mango and watermelon freezes well.  Make batches of the puree in advance and keep frozen until you need it.

And it’s healthy. Awesome!!!

So there you have it.  Agua Fresca is ready in the jug to pour over some ice.  Add a twist of lime or lemon for an added refreshing zest. 

For special occasions it was suggested that placing a good quality tequila next to the Fresca’s allows guests to put a splash of tequila over their agua fresca for a festive touch. We did that.  Kelly (the bride) and I went shopping for a good tequila, but neither of us knew what a good tequila would be.  We live in Pennsylvania where we depend on state store employees to assist.  We received friendly service but they were as lost as we were.  So I called my expert friend and she said a Reposado or Anejo aged tequila would do, and that price would be somewhat of an indicator.  We opted for a reposado, mildly expensive, and our focus was on how cool the bottle is…as seen in above photo.  Girls are great decision makers! That bottle will never be thrown away. It’s part of the wedding!

I hope you enjoy trying this.  Honestly I don’t know why it’s been kept secret from this Irish/Scottish lassie for my whole life, but I’ll be making it all summer!

Raspberry Cordial~A Good Reason To Plant Berries

Imagine you are sitting in front of a cozy fire, warm and snuggled in with the cold of winter howling at the door.  In your hand is a tiny crystal glass filled with ruby red liquid, sweet and thick.  You lift it to your lips, close your eyes and are transported to a soft summer day, picking berries from a fully ripened patch that no one else has yet discovered.  That, dear reader, is what Raspberry Cordial tastes like. Really.

When my daughters were little they loved watching Anne of Green Gables.  We still laugh about the guilty Anne Shirley offering raspberry cordial to her best friend, who became “drunk” on it.  I wanted a piece of that action and went on a little discovery of how to make it.  There are as many recipes out there as types of raspberry bushes, but I wanted to go for  one that would be simple and require old fashioned labor to create. This one includes vodka so that it can be sipped or poured over vanilla icecream, but there are recipes that are alcohol free.   I started it on our anniversary, September 21, because that was when  there was a “glut” in the raspberry crop along with reason to celebrate a long happy marriage.  Everyone should experience that kind of generosity of nature at least once in a life time.  I mean the raspberries of course…. if you’re fortunate enough to have a happy marriage that’s a generosity of nature to be enjoyed as well.

This is so simple.  The harder part is getting your hands on a quart of fresh raspberries..although I suppose frozen could be used.

Raspberry Cordial

1 pound fresh red raspberries

3 cups vodka (a mid- price range)

1 1/2 cups sugar

Find a large glass or ceramic jar that will hold all of the ingredients.  Place raspberries in jar, cover with sugar, then pour vodka over the top.  Gently mix together with a spoon, cover it and set it on the counter where you won’t forget it.  Every day stir it and return cover.  Do this for a month or even two.  Strain the berries from the liquid and put the beautiful red cordial in a pretty bottle.  It will keep like any other liquor. But more about the berries:

In this part of the country it’s time to prepare the soil to plant raspberries.  Past experiences with raspberries, for me, amounted to watching my father dig manure into the sides of  raspberry rows in late winter, followed by thinning out the thorny brambles, then trying to beat the birds to the berries on a sweltering summer day, completely covered against the thorns and potentially unhappy bees.  But the ruby red juicy berries were worth the risk.  There are some things helpful to know about raspberries to succeed.  Wild brambles can interfere with your berry bush production, so you want to give them some distance. This is particularly true of blackberries.  Planting in early spring is better than in the fall. A spring feeding of manure is important and once established raspberries will be difficult to ruin. And if you have a sunny corner of the house in the suburbs or the terrace of an apartment you can grow a few of these plants. But the most valuable thing I learned is that there are berries out there that will produce amazing berries and are thorn free.  Are you smiling?   I’m about to give away the farm here, but Joan J Primocane Raspberry bushes start producing in mid June and continues all the way into late October or a hard frost.

Raspberries and roses are close relatives.  Isn’t that cool?  The next time you smell a rose think about raspberries.  They are members of the Rosa family.