My Big Fat Olive Martini

When the world shut down for COVID nearly three years ago, I had extra time for cocktail experimentation because, well, there wasn’t much else to do. I made some really fun ones, but what seems ironic to me is that the more I experimented with new and unusual spirit ingredients (not to mention bitters and simple syrup infusions), the more I eventually “came home” to the familiar pleasure of a classic gin martini.

As we have inched closer to New Year’s Eve, I reached an impasse with myself about what kind of tipple I might share with you. Would it be another twist on a Manhattan, like the Pom-Pom-Hattan I posted two years ago, featuring pomegranate liqueur and real grenadine? Or maybe a fun riff on an Old Fashioned, like the smoked maple that is my hubby’s all-time favorite? No, this year, I dismissed all the fancy ideas I had for New Year’s Eve in favor of a cocktail that I’ve enjoyed multiple times over the past year. Rather than a wild new drink with hard-to-find ingredients, I bring you this simple but fabulous elevation of the timeless martini cocktail— I call it My Big Fat Olive Martini!

Peace out, 2022!

No, it is not named for the size of the olive on the pick (but that is a plus). What makes this drink special is that it leverages a technique called “fat washing,” which is essentially the temporary blending of a spirit ingredient with some kind of fat— be it bacon grease, browned butter or even duck fat. By shaking the spirit with the fat and then chilling it to solidify and strain off the fat, you end up with the essence of that fat ingredient in the drink, but without any actual fat in it. The effect of the fat washing is a luscious, well-rounded mouthfeel in the cocktail that is distinctly different, though the spirit’s own character is still front and center. It’s exquisite!

About a year ago, I became a subscriber to Imbibe magazine, which is intended for pro bartenders (but bored home mixologists can order it, too). In this magazine, as well as its digital counterpart, I’ve learned some new tricks of the trade in a way that puts my home mixology skills a step or two ahead of most cocktail bars in our city. Imbibe presented a version of this cocktail several months ago, and though I could not find the exact gin its creator used to make the drink, I knew I had to try it anyway. Fellow martini lovers, you are going to love this.

The dry vermouth you’ll use for the martini is first “washed” with a good quality, extra virgin olive oil, and the olive variety you choose will lend its specific character to the vermouth, even after it’s strained out after the chill-down. If you like fruity or grassy olive oil, you can expect those notes to carry over into your martini accordingly. Isn’t that fun? 


The oil I like best for this is Nocellara, an Italian olive variety known more widely as Castelvetrano. This oil has a mild and creamy, almost artichoke-y flavor, and it is outstanding for washing the vermouth, though other varieties I’ve tried were perfectly acceptable. The big thing that matters here is the quality and purity of the oil. It should be 100% extra virgin and cold-pressed, and you may have to leave the supermarket to find a good one. If you have a specialty oil and vinegar shop in your area, start there.

Combine the vermouth and oil (in a 5:1 ratio) in a wide-mouthed jar and shake it for about 30 seconds. Tuck it into the coldest spot of your fridge for about 24 hours (or up to about three days—after that, it loses something).


The pure olive oil solidifies in the fridge, so it’s usually easy to separate it from the vermouth after washing; I did this by poking the solid oil with a chopstick, then lifting it out and draining the vermouth out from under it into a new jar and then into a small bottle, ready to go for mixing cocktails. If the oil doesn’t solidify, it could be that it isn’t pure extra virgin, or it could be that the alcohol in the protecting the oil a bit. It’s not a lost cause though, just stick the jar in the freezer for a couple of hours and check again.


From that point, make your martini as usual. If you want a little extra olive flavor, go dirty with a little splash of olive brine, too. And of course, garnish it with a gorgeous olive— a big fat one, if you wish. These are castelvetranos, stuffed with a chunk of feta, which pairs perfectly.


Oh, and don’t throw out that solid slab of olive oil. Let it melt and use it in a snazzy vinaigrette dressing!

My Big Fat Olive Martini

  • Servings: 1 cocktail, easy to scale up
  • Difficulty: Easy
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A pro technique called 'fat-washing' transforms dry vermouth, putting a luscious twist on a classic cocktail!


Ingredients

  • 2 oz. London dry gin (or vodka, if you prefer it for martinis)
  • 1/2 oz. olive oil-washed dry vermouth (see below)
  • A splash of briny olive brine (optional, for a “dirty” martini)

Directions

  1. Combine gin, dry vermouth and olive brine (if using) in a shaker or mixing glass.
  2. Add a cup of ice and shake or stir about 30 seconds, until outside of container is frosty. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass. Garnish with a big fat olive, or twist of lemon peel (or both).

It is essential that you choose a 100% extra virgin olive oil for the fat-washing step. Inferior oils will not solidify during chilling and are difficult to strain from the vermouth. You’ll find a plethora of good options in a specialty oil and vinegar shop.

Ingredients

  • 75 ml (2.5 oz.) dry vermouth; I like Dolin brand for this
  • 15 ml (1/2 oz.) good quality, extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Combine vermouth and olive oil in a wide-mouthed jar (it’s easier to poke through for straining later).
  2. Shake vigorously for about 30 seconds, and then place jar in a very cold spot in the fridge, undisturbed, for about 24 hours or up to three days.
  3. Remove jar from fridge. If the oil is not fully solid on top of the vermouth, place the jar in the freezer for a couple of hours to firm it up more.
  4. Use a chopstick or small spoon to loosen and lift the solid olive oil disk. Gently drain the vermouth through a fine mesh strainer to remove residual olive oil. Transfer the strained vermouth to a small bottle and keep chilled. This amount is good for five martinis. Scale up as needed.


Blackbeard’s Comeuppance – a smoked cocktail for Halloween

There are age-old tales of hauntings on the North Carolina coast, especially in the Wilmington area and along the Outer Banks. I thought it apropos to explore the legends as we inch toward Halloween.


Folks say that Wilmington, which is nestled in a triangle between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, is particularly prone to hauntings because of an old superstition that says ghosts—or haints, as the Gullah people call them—cannot cross over water. The Gullah people, in case you aren’t aware, are direct descendants of formerly enslaved people brought over from West Africa, and though they once inhabited the coastline from the Outer Banks to the north coast of Florida, only a remnant of the subculture remains today in the Sea Islands near Charleston, South Carolina. The heritage of the Gullah people is largely Creole, and superstitions abound, especially in their folklore about the dead. Whether or not the water theory is true, people all across the South still paint their porch ceilings blue, presumably to keep the ghosts at bay.

But the Cape Fear region has plenty to offer for adventurous souls who come seeking those ghostly encounters. And smart marketing teams have capitalized on the legends that persist there, with everything from ticketed ghost walks to haunted pool halls. Don’t believe in it? Suit yourself.


If you venture further north of Wilmington, especially toward the inlets along the Outer Banks, you might catch a ghostly glimpse of one Edward Teach— notoriously, the pirate Blackbeard. He is said to have made his home in those parts, probably for the cover it provided him in between his plundering of unsuspecting cargo ships headed for Port Wilmington. Some modern thrill seekers claim to have witnessed a mysterious light moving around in the waters there, or experienced a spooky wailing that sounded like someone crying out, “Where’s my head?”

They say it’s Blackbeard.

Now, if the notion of pirates conjures comical images of Johnny Depp in Hollywood garb and black eyeliner, well, you can forget that. Blackbeard was no such flamboyant, clever-tongued misfit. He was a badass—a wild, fearsome figure with a long, braided black beard. Some historians say that when he was about to attack a ship, Blackbeard would weave hemp cords into his beard and torch them to make it look like his head was smoking—a tactic to further terrify his unsuspecting victims so they would give up without a fight. Indeed, he was the bulliest of all the bullies of his time.

Image Credit: https://www.ncdcr.gov

Blackbeard’s reign of terror came to a violent end in 1718, when the governor of neighboring Virginia dispatched a military ship to take him out, and in the end, Blackbeard was shot, stabbed to death and decapitated. His gnarly head was hung from the mast of the military ship and later put on display atop a pole in Hampton Roads, Virginia—let that be a lesson to other would-be nautical thieves, I guess.

When my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary on the North Carolina coast earlier this year, we didn’t find Blackbeard—OK, we weren’t actually looking for him—but I did find inspiration in a cocktail we enjoyed at End of Days Distillery in Wilmington. The distillery produces vodka, gin and rum—I’m cool with all three and ordered a frilly gin drink, and Les gravitates toward sweeter, dark liquor. He ordered the rum old fashioned, which is pretty much the same as a classic old fashioned, but with rum rather than bourbon, and a splash of cherry syrup in place of the usual sugar. It was delicious!

If you look closely at the top of the large ice cube, you’ll see that they have branded their logo into it!

We bought a bottle of the End of Days “Castaway” barrel-aged rum, and I promised Les I would re-create the drink at home, but it took Halloween and a deeper dive into the history of Blackbeard to properly motivate me. This cocktail embodies a few points of the Blackbeard story—rum, because we all know it was a pirate’s drink of choice—cinnamon syrup and spicy Jamaican Jerk bitters for a little bite, and cherry juice to symbolize the bloodshed of Blackbeard’s last stand.


Cinnamon simple syrup is easy to make at home, and I highly recommend having a jar or bottle on hand for the upcoming holiday season because it works with so many spirits. Combine equal parts water and cane sugar and heat to a slight boil, then add cinnamon sticks to steep a warm, spicy flavor into the syrup. The longer it steeps, the more intense the flavor. The bitters are a specialty item, and I’ve linked to the company’s website if you’re interested in checking them out. For this cocktail, I turned to Woodford Reserve’s brand of bourbon cocktail cherries, rather than my usual Luxardo, because I wanted the color more than the sweetness. Look for the Woodford brand in the mixers section of Total Wine or Bevmo, or the Tillen brand would also work in a pinch.

I combined all of the above with ice in my cocktail shaker and then poured it over a spooky, skull-shaped ice, drizzling in a little more cherry juice for effect, and a cherry as a garnish. Tovolo makes the skull mold for ice, and I found it on Amazon.


Finally, the dramatic moment! This past summer, our friend, Bob, introduced us to a nifty cocktail smoking kit and I promised I’d be getting one to make a fun Halloween drink. Our kit included several varieties of wood chips—apple, pecan, hickory and oak—and I chose oak to echo the essence of that in the barrel-aged rum.


When the smoke cleared from the cocktail, it was far from spooky; the sweetness of the rum and cinnamon syrup were prominent, and the spicy bitters kind of sting the tongue. But just thinking of mean old Blackbeard as we sipped our cocktails made for a fun evening.

Blackbeard’s Comeuppance – a smoked cocktail for Halloween

  • Servings: 1 drink
  • Difficulty: Average
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A fun twist on a classic cocktail, dedicated to the memory of the infamous pirate who terrorized the North Carolina coast more than 300 years ago.


Ingredients

  • 2 oz. End of Days Castaway Barrel-Aged Rum (or another dark, aged rum)
  • 1/2 oz. cinnamon simple syrup (see recipe notes for details)
  • 2 bar spoons (about 1 teaspoon) cocktail cherry syrup (mine were Woodford Reserve bourbon cherries)
  • 3 drops Bitter End’s Jamaican Jerk bitters (or aromatic bitters)
  • Boozy cherry to garnish
  • Oak chips and cocktail smoking kit (optional, but fun!)

Directions

  1. Measure rum, simple syrup, cherry syrup and bitters into a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Add one cup of ice and shake or stir vigorously until outside of mixing container is frosty. Strain over new ice in a rocks glass. Add a cherry to garnish, and drizzle in another spoonful of the cherry syrup to mimic Blackbeard’s blood.
  2. Place smoking accessory on top of glass and light the oak chips until smoke begins to appear. Cover the accessory until the smoke fills the open space in the glass. Remove the accessory and allow smoke to dissipate before enjoying.

For cinnamon simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup filtered water and 1/2 cup cane sugar in a small saucepan. Heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Rinse 2 sticks of cinnamon (about 3-inches each) briefly under running water. Add the cinnamon sticks to the simple syrup and heat just until the syrup begins to bubble. Turn off heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer syrup to a sealed jar or bottle (it’s OK to leave cinnamon sticks in it), and refrigerate for up to 2 months.

If you’re interested in the cocktail smoking kit, Aged & Charred is the company that made ours. We didn’t receive any payment or product for my mention of them, but I wholeheartedly recommend it!



Dubonnet & Gin (a cocktail for the Queen)

If you have never given thought to a morning cocktail—well, perhaps you have never felt hungover, but I won’t go there—you might want to take it under advisement that Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed one every day. You read that correctly; each and every day, the Queen had an alcoholic drink before lunch. Oh, those wild and crazy royals!

I had read a few years ago that the prim and proper monarch was a bit of a party girl behind closed palace doors, knocking back several drinks in a day, to the point that she would even have been considered a “binge drinker” by U.K. health standards. Not that anyone would dare tell her that, mind you. Not anyone except her doctor, who advised her last year to lay off the booze in order to be strong enough to participate in all of her Platinum Jubilee activities. As the royal rumor mill spins it, she was pretty annoyed about this (I feel you, Your Majesty), but she complied with doctor’s orders.

Say what you will about her drinking habits, at least the Queen paced herself, and her taste in tipple was broad and varied. By various accounts, it is confirmed that she enjoyed a dry martini in the evening and a glass of champagne as a nightcap. At dinner, and sometimes at lunch, she sipped a glass of sweet German wine. And before lunch, this one. The Dubonnet and gin cocktail is little more than the name implies. Stir the two together with a slice of lemon and ice, and then strain it over new ice with a fresh slice of lemon. But what exactly is Dubonnet?

When my iPhone news app interrupted my workday yesterday with the announcement of Queen Elizabeth’s death, I decided for no good reason that I should do something to honor her on Comfort du Jour, and the quickest way to do so would be to whip up the Queen’s favorite cocktail—only, it proved to be a bit more complicated than that because I needed to find the proper ingredients, in particular, the Dubonnet.


First of all, Dubonnet is not a liquor, but a fortified wine. That meant I would not find it in one of our state-run “ABC” stores. My best shot would be a well-stocked wine store. The Queen would have had access to the spirit made in France by Pernod, but I could only purchase the version made here in the States, by a distillery in Kentucky.

According to Dubonnet’s website, the cat was a beloved pet of founder Joseph Dubonnet’s wife. ❤

The online inventory checker on Total Wine’s website assured me the store had several bottles of Dubonnet in stock, so I planned to hustle across town to buy it before everyone else did. Sometimes, I imagine that other people have the same fervor as me when it comes to commemorating notable occasions with food and drink. Thankfully, given that you are still reading, there aren’t that many of us. I found the Dubonnet in aisle 7, right next to the sweet and dry vermouth that I purchase all the time. I honestly don’t know how I missed this lovely bottle before; it even has a beautiful tabby cat on the label. $15.49 later, I was back in the car and headed home.

Being the responsible blogger that I am, I tasted the Dubonnet on its own in order to describe it for anyone here who has not tried it. The inclusion of quinine led me to expect a bitterness in this high-ABV wine, but I found my first sip to be on the slightly sweet side, almost Lillet-like, and when the first vapor of it rose off the glass, it reminded me of Niagara grapes, though I can’t imagine Dubonnet, which was founded in France, would be using a native U.S. grape (if you aren’t sure what Niagara grapes taste like, just open a bottle of Welch’s white grape juice). No, this aperitif is a mashup of European (mostly) red grapes, spiffed up with herbs and spices for complexity. I’m certain it’s the Muscat that strikes a familiar aroma.

Only one thing left to do; I mapped a route to the nearest ABC store in search of Gordon’s London Dry, the Queen’s preferred gin. Our local liquor stores are pitifully under-stocked, so I didn’t expect I’d find what I was looking for and indeed, initially, I didn’t. The problem was, I was looking high, not low, so I didn’t notice at first the bottles of Gordon’s on the bottom shelf. It was in a plastic bottle, and about half the price of the gin brands I usually reach for. Please don’t take this as a slight to Her Majesty, but I was sure there must have been some mistake. I knew I had a bottle of Ford’s (also London Dry) at the house, the same one I love for my favorite martini, so couldn’t I just use that? But I have learned enough about mixology to know that the essences of gin can make or break a drink, so I went home to do more research last night about what makes Gordon’s gin the world’s best-selling London Dry gin and the perfect one to pair with Dubonnet.

The upshot is that Gordon’s is extremely juniper-forward, meaning it is crisp and clean without nuances of too many of the other botanicals. My Ford’s, though I love it, is not comparable in that sense, but I found that another brand I like, called Broker’s, fit the bill of being very juniper-forward. My martini-loving friend, David, turned me onto Broker’s a few years ago and I trusted it. As a bonus, Broker’s gin comes with a cute little hat on the cap, and it doesn’t get much more London-y than that.


My discovery, unfortunately, came to me after the ABC store was closed, so I had to go back this morning—to a different store in the county just south of us, which is several miles out of the way and well worth the trip, and finally, I had what I needed to make the Queen’s cocktail.


For the love of the crown, let’s make this drink!

It’s a simple drink, which is good, I guess, if you’re having one every day!

Personally, I think this cocktail would be lovely served up, in a chilled coupe glass with an expertly designed twist of expressed lemon peel, but that is not how the Queen took hers. No, she poured it straight over ice, which reminds me of my own grandmother and the way she preferred her afternoon martini. So I paid my respects and made it the same, and also with Her Majesty’s 2:1 ratio; that is, 2 parts Dubonnet to 1 part gin.

I can taste why this drink was a favorite for Queen Elizabeth II, and also for her mom, The Queen Mother. It’s light, just sweet enough to be enjoyable, yet with a touch of bitter to spur the appetite.

There’s no question, I will not be imbibing with this drink as regularly as Her Majesty (doctor’s orders and all that jazz), and most definitely not in the morning, but I shall practice my curtsy and I’ll take it as my duty to raise a glass a few times during the next 10 days, as the world mourns the passing of the longest-serving monarch in U.K. history.

Long live the Queen!

Dubonnet & Gin Cocktail

  • Servings: 1 cocktail
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 oz. Dubonnet Rouge
  • 3/4 oz. London Dry gin (something juniper-forward)
  • 2 half moon slices fresh lemon
  • Cocktail ice

Directions

  1. Measure Dubonnet Rouge and gin into a cocktail mixing glass (or shaker) with ice. Drop in one lemon slice.
  2. Stir (or shake) vigorously until the outside of the mixing container is cold and frosty.
  3. Strain over fresh ice and garnish with the second lemon slice


As a postscript, I have since learned (thanks to my pal, David) that Gordon’s London Dry is more than acceptable—it’s his go to, actually—so that would have been a good purchase. But buying the Broker’s does allow me to add to my hat collection. I started saving the hats during the pandemic and discovered they fit perfectly on my bitters bottles. The only thing I’m unsure about now is what will I do to use up the rest of this Dubonnet? 🙂



Pompatus of Love

We have enjoyed this peachy bourbon cocktail at our house all summer, ever since I first made the peach shrub. What’s that—you say peaches don’t grow on shrubs? True. The peach “shrub” that I speak of is an old-school concoction, otherwise known as a “drinking vinegar,” and though it was a popular way of preserving seasonal fruits back in Colonial times (or as far back as the Roman Empire, depending on whom you ask), the shrub is having a new moment, especially in the world of craft cocktails.

A shrub is a mixture of fruit, sugar and vinegar, usually in equal parts. You can either cook the fruit together with the sugar before adding the vinegar, which results in a jammy, compote-type flavor, or go the fresh route with raw fruit, which takes longer to develop but presents a more vibrant flavor in the shrub. I chose the latter, with enough cut-up peaches to measure a heaping cup. I stirred in a cup of raw turbinado sugar and left it in the fridge about 24 hours.


The second day, I strained the syrupy, macerated fruit (we put the chunky remains on top of vanilla ice cream) and mixed the liquid with a cup of vinegar—half apple cider (raw, with the “mother”) and half white wine.


My peach shrub was strong, tart and a little too “in your face” for the first couple of days, but after a week in the fridge, it had mellowed to become quite enjoyable in this cocktail, and even more so as the weeks have passed. The other ingredients in this drink are bottled-in-bond bourbon (this one has a very low percentage of rye in the mash bill, so definitely choose one on the sweet side), a fresh chunk of muddled peach and a couple of shakes of bitters. I like the ginger bitters, but if you can find peach bitters, they’re nice, too.

This is a bottled-in-bond bourbon from one of our local distilleries.
It’s mostly corn, and only a slight amount of rye, so it’s nice and sweet.

There’s one more thing that makes this cocktail special, and you’d probably never guess—it’s salt. You heard me. I’ve been experimenting with the concept to further balance a cocktail, and it is a pretty amazing thing. We bought this Himalayan pink salt swizzle stick back in February when we visited Asheville Salt cave, and as it turns out, a slight touch of this special salt brings this drink together, the same way a pinch of salt makes a dessert taste better. The things we learn!


We have tried several iterations of this libation over the summer, including an infusion of thyme in the peach shrub, minted sugar on the rim of the glass, on the rocks, and up in a Nick and Nora glass, etc. My favorite is simple and straightforward—bourbon and muddled peach, shrub, ginger bitters, no sugar rim, poured over the salt swizzle stick on a giant ice cube, and keep ‘em coming.

I decided to call this cocktail “Pompatus of Love.”

Pompatus of Love.

Now, I won’t make you wrack your brain to figure out why the name sounds familiar to you—it comes from the 1970s classic rock song, “The Joker,” by the Steve Miller Band. You know, right after he sings, “some people call me Maurice.” What you might not know is that the word pompatus is not really a word at all, but something that Miller misheard from a doo-wop song released two decades earlier. I’ll let you explore that on your own time with the help of Google and Wikipedia, because it is a story in itself.

And since you’ve already heard the Steve Miller version of the song at least as many times as I have, I’d like to introduce you to one of our favorite local artists who performs a terrific rendition of this song. Please click to play, while I tell you a little bit more about this peachy bourbon drink, and about our friendship with Colin Allured, the artist featured here.

If you love this, subscribe to Colin’s YouTube channel. He has plenty more where this came from.

I first met Colin almost 8 years ago, when he debuted his one-man act at a wine bar that I frequented. He mesmerized the entire room on that December night, even drawing the kitchen staff out to the front of house to see who was this guy, covering the vocals of everyone from Steve Miller to The Beatles to Justin Timberlake to Katy Perry—as well as plenty of his own (awesome) original music. From that night, I hardly missed an appearance by Colin at the wine bar or anywhere else, and Les quickly caught on as well when we began dating. Fast forward a few years, when Les conspired with Colin to play a very special song for us on an evening we had planned to celebrate my birthday—I say they “conspired” because the night took on a whole new meaning after Colin dedicated the song to us. That’s when Les popped the question and put a ring on my finger. Since then, we have followed our friend around to many venues, including the show where he recorded that version of “The Joker,” and I have no doubt that he will always be a part of our love story, in some way or another.

So what does all of this romance nonsense have to do with this bourbon cocktail, based on a peach shrub?


I named this drink Pompatus of Love because, to me, it embodies a little bit of everything that makes a romantic love relationship great. It’s intoxicating, just sweet enough, a bit tart and sassy, and slightly salty in a way that is unexpectedly addictive. As one of our July 4th weekend guests put it, “the first sip surprised me, but it’s growing on me.”

Yep. That’s the pompatus of love.


Pompatus of Love

  • Servings: 2 cocktails
  • Difficulty: easy
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This perfect marriage of bourbon and peaches is made even better with a splash of peach shrub, an old school “drinking vinegar” that’s made with fresh peaches, sugar and vinegar. Plan to make the shrub about a week ahead for best results. I like these best on a large ice cube in a double rocks glass, but it can also be shaken and strained into a chilled coupe glass if you’re feeling fancy.

Ingredients

  • 1 small, fresh peach (for muddling)
  • 4 oz. bourbon (use a high-proof, low rye version if possible)
  • 1 oz. peach shrub* (see below)
  • 2 quick shakes ginger (or peach) bitters
  • large ice cubes for serving

Directions

  1. Place a chunk of peach (about the size of a walnut) into each rocks glass. Crush it with a cocktail muddler or the handle end of a wooden spoon. Place a large ice cube over the peach.
  2. In a cocktail mixing glass or shaker, combine bourbon, shrub and bitters. Add one cup of ice and stir or shake until the mixing vessel is frosty.
  3. Strain into glasses, garnish with slices of the peach.

For the Shrub: choose very ripe peaches, and don’t worry if they have bruises or dark spots. This is a great way to use peaches that are a little “past their prime.” The shrub will be quite intense for the first few days after making, but it mellows after about a week and is lovely in cocktails, or put an ounce in a glass with ice and top it with sparking water for a zero-proof summer treat!

Ingredients

  • 3 or 4 ripe peaches, washed
  • 1 cup raw cane turbinado sugar (white or light brown sugar works, too)
  • 1/2 cup raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (such as Bragg’s)
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Peel and pit the peaches, and cut them up into chunks.
  2. In a medium bowl (choose one that has a fitted lid), combine the peaches and sugar, stirring until it begins to get syrupy. Cover and macerate in the fridge 24 hours.
  3. Strain peaches through a mesh sieve, catching the liquid in a bowl below. Discard the peach solids, or use them right away in some other dish.
  4. Stir the vinegars into the sweet peach syrup. Transfer to a sealable glass bottle and refrigerate up to 3 months.



Summer Tomato Water Martini

The truth is, I have been fiddling with this martini since before my own garden-fresh tomatoes came to fruition. My first effort was accidental, right after my husband and I had returned from a vacation at the end of last summer. It was good, but kind of a one-off thing and I didn’t give it much thought. Months later, it popped up in my news feed—on Epicurious or Food 52 or, honestly, I don’t know where—and it sucked because it was February or March and I had to improvise because there were no garden fresh tomatoes available. So let me get this out of the way early: do not try this with grocery store tomatoes. Trust me on this.

Fast forward to mid-August, when fresh, homegrown tomatoes are available everywhere, from your own garden or the farmers’ market, and that makes a world of difference. The flavorful liquid that seeps out of those freshly sliced, vine-ripened tomatoes is absolutely begging to be part of a cocktail. If you love summer tomatoes and you are up for a fun martini experiment, this is for you!

I’ve made this cocktail with red heirloom variety tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, vodka and gin.
Try them all to find your favorite!

When the local growers started selling a few heirloom tomatoes at their market stands, I tried this idea again, and it was so much better. The red heirlooms are so juicy and sweet, and the success of this martini twist gave me even more reason to be excited about my own harvest of heirloom and yellow tomatoes. And here we are. 🙂

Regardless of the type of tomato you use, the unique sweetness and acidity will add an exceptional brightness to a martini. I have tried this with both gin and vodka, and a variety of spirit-to-vermouth ratios. It’s good many different ways, so my recommendation is to try it yourself to find the balance that is perfect for you. My personal favorite (at least this week) is made with top-shelf vodka, in a 4-to-1 ratio with dry vermouth, no bitters and at least 1 part seasoned “tomato water.” A full description with amounts is at the end of the post, in a click-to-print recipe card.

But for now, watch to learn:

Wash and slice a ripe, room-temperature tomato (or several, depending on what you need them for) and arrange the slices on a plate. Sprinkle with a fair amount of sea salt and freshly cracked pepper (don’t skip this!) and walk away for about 15 minutes. What you’ll find when you return is a plate full of beautifully seasoned tomato water underneath the slices. Use the tomatoes for whatever you wish—a tomato sandwich, perhaps—but don’t toss that tomato water! Carefully pour it off into a shot glass or small bowl, grab your martini fixins and chill down your glass with ice and water.


Measure your vodka (or gin) and vermouth into a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Add the tomato water to taste. I have discovered that you need at least a tablespoon to really savor the flavor it adds to the drink. If you see excess moisture on top of your tomato slices, drain that off into the mixing container as well. Add a generous cup of ice cubes and shake or stir to chill the cocktail.


Empty the ice water from your chilled glass, and immediately strain the martini into the glass. Garnish with a pickled cocktail onion or olive, and a small piece of tomato if you wish.

Cheers to summer!

Summer Tomato Water Martini

  • Servings: 1 cocktail
  • Difficulty: average
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This super-simple twist adds a bright, fresh, summery flair to an otherwise classic martini cocktail, and I have found myself slicing up tomatoes just so I can make another one.

Ingredients

  • 1 ripe, garden fresh tomato (any variety, but heirloom is best)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 oz. good vodka (I have used Grey Goose and Ketel One with terrific results)
  • 1/2 oz. dry vermouth (my fave here is Dolin)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 oz. seasoned tomato water
  • 1 cup ice (for mixing)
  • Pickled cocktail onion, olive and/or piece of tomato (for garnish)

Directions

  1. Slice tomato and arrange the slices on a plate or shallow bowl. Season with salt and pepper and let rest about 15 minutes. Chill martini glass with ice and cold water.
  2. Add vodka and vermouth to a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Transfer the tomato slices to another plate, or use them in a salad or sandwich. Drain the remaining tomato water into a small bowl or shot glass. Measure at least one tablespoon of it into the cocktail glass. Add ice and shake or stir until chilled.
  3. Empty ice water from the chilled glass. Strain the cocktail into the glass and garnish as desired.
  4. Repeat at least twice per week until all the tomatoes are gone.


Sunset Margarita

This weekend, I will have the privilege of introducing my husband to live music by the one and only Jimmy Buffett. Despite being an avid music lover and concertgoer, Les has somehow managed to miss seeing the Son of a Son of a Sailor on stage (not to mention the pre-show tailgating), but that will all change on Saturday.

It may be difficult for me to make these fabulous margaritas in the parking lot of the Buffett concert, and it certainly would not display its layers of color through a red plastic cup, but it will taste as wonderful, and at least we enjoyed it at home a few times in all its beautiful, grown-up-cocktail glory.

The raspberry “sinker” has a way of stealing the show.

I created this drink from memory after a getaway weekend Les and I had back in February. We had a mouthwatering Mexican meal in Asheville, North Carolina, and I was intrigued by the descriptions (and the flavors) of the restaurant’s specialty margaritas. This one was called “1800 Sunset,” and the highlight—besides the 1800 reposado tequila that is the star spirit—was the Grand Marnier float and something the menu called a “raspberry sinker.” A float, I understand, and I’ve done it before by slowly pouring a spirit over the back of a bar spoon on top of the finished drink. But a sinker? How in the world do you get an ingredient to stay put in the bottom of the glass? After much searching on Pinterest, YouTube and a few of my favorite professional cocktail sites, I finally learned two ways to achieve this feat, one of which I’ll share with you in the slideshow (hint: I was seriously overthinking it).

A little sweet, a little heat, a little tart and a whole lot of fun!

For the rest of the drink, I wanted pure tropical bliss, so added a few twists of my own. I mixed the tequila with freshly squeezed lime, a splash of pineapple juice and a bar spoonful of jalapeno-infused simple syrup to shake things up. Raspberry on the bottom, orange on the top, and no sign of any “shaker of salt” —no, this pretty drink is rimmed with pink sea salt. These are no ordinary margaritas. Jimmy Buffett, eat your heart out!

You don’t need special “margarita” glasses to make this drink, but it is prettiest in a clear glass that is wider at the top than the bottom. Even a martini glass would work, if that’s what you have. Make up to two drinks at a time in your shaker.


Ingredients, per cocktail

2.0 oz. 1800 reposado tequila

1.0 oz. pineapple juice (canned or fresh)

0.5 oz. jalapeno-infused simple syrup (recipe below)

Juice of 1/2 lime

0.5 oz. Chambord raspberry liqueur (for sinker)

0.25 oz. Grand Marnier or Cointreau liqueur (for floater)

1 tablespoon pink sea salt (for rimming the glass)


Instructions

Prepare the glasses first by swiping a lime wedge around the rim. Pour a couple of spoonfuls of Himalayan sea salt onto a paper towel. Roll only the outside of the glass on the salted towel, so that the rim is evenly salted, but the salt will not fall into the cocktail. Place the glasses in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.

Slice thin wheels of fresh lime, one for each drink. Place them on a paper towel to absorb excess juice and sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, if desired. Measure out the Grand Marnier into a shot glass or small measuring cup. This will aid in “floating” the liqueur over the drink without overdoing it.

Here comes the “sinker” part of the recipe, and you may be surprised how easy it is. Remove the glasses from the freezer and measure the Chambord into the bottom of the glass. Add several ice cubes (or one giant one) to the glass so the Chambord cools down while you shake up the rest of the cocktail.

The drink begins with a pour of Chambord, topped immediately with ice. I use my digital scale for measuring; it’s less sticky! 🙂

In a cocktail shaker, combine tequila, pineapple juice, jalapeno syrup and lime juice over one cup of ice cubes. Shake about 20 seconds to blend the ingredients. Strain the cocktail over the ice in the glass, pouring slowly to avoid disturbing the raspberry sinker underneath.

Finally, turn a bar spoon or teaspoon upside-down over the drink, resting the tip of it on one of the ice cubes. Pour the Grand Marnier slowly over the curved back of the spoon—easy does it! Garnish the drink with a lime wheel and enjoy!

I missed getting a picture of the Grand Marnier float, but it really is as easy as it sounds!

Jalapeno-infused Simple Syrup

1/2 cup filtered water

1/2 cup cane sugar

1/2 red jalapeno, thinly sliced (seeds included, if you dare)

Simple syrup can be infused with just about anything. This time, I used a red jalapeno for heat to balance the sweet pineapple and raspberry.

Bring water to a gentle boil. Turn off the heat, add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the jalapeno slices and allow the syrup to steep until completely cooled. Strain out the jalapeno slices. Transfer the syrup to a sealed jar or squeeze bottle. Keep syrup in the fridge for up to two weeks.



My Favorite Martini

One might look with suspicion at the photos on my smartphone, especially if they didn’t know my backstory or my penchant for showing, rather than telling, what is happening in my life. As I was scrolling my photo roll the other day—looking for a random image of what, I don’t remember—I noticed that I frequently snapped images of mainly three things: bread dough, cats and martinis. Alrighty, then.

Cats have been part of my world for as long as I can remember, and apparently even longer, as I even have a photograph of myself as an infant, with a black and white cat right next to me—a guardian angel, no doubt. Many cats have graced me with their presence and their trust over my lifetime, and I am fascinated by their expressions, their agility and their overall adorableness. I try in vain to capture their essence.

Bread dough has played a major role in my recent life as well, especially after the “birth” of my sourdough starter in 2016. I am fascinated by the development of dough, and humbled that I can be part of the magic that happens in it. I make a lot of bread and I take a lot of pictures of that process.

So what about martinis, and where do they fit in as a most-photographed item? I realized, upon closer inspection, that most of my martini pictures were taken right around 4:30 p.m., the time of day I would regularly wish my Aunt Joy a happy “Happy Hour” across the miles that separate us. However did we manage before texting?

An afternoon martini helped me navigate some of the madness during our kitchen remodel.
Gotta love that blue tape on the door.

In previous years, my happy hour libation would have been a simple glass of wine, and occasionally enjoyed at a wine bar with a girlfriend. But COVID changed everything, and with so much time on my hands for experimenting, the cocktail has had a real renaissance moment at my house. I have dabbled in mixology, trying out different spirits and techniques—even investing in the correct glassware—and my new favorite is definitely the martini. It is simple, but refined. It goes down easy, but not too easy.

I suppose my grandmother had a little something to do with martinis being my chosen cocktail, though I do not remember her ever making them as I do today—gin, shaken with ice and vermouth, sprinkled with bitters and poured into a chilled coupe glass with a skewered, lemon peel-stuffed olive. For her happy hour, Gram simply poured her martini ingredients over ice in a short glass. She made hers with vodka, and always “dirty” with a little bit of briny olive juice, and I don’t remember whether she added vermouth. Maybe if she found it on sale.

The first time I remember sharing a martini with Gram was in Spring 1992 in central Florida, where she and my grandpa retreated each year to escape the brutal upstate New York winters. My week there marked the first time I felt like an adult in my relationship with Gram, but that had nothing to do with the cocktail.

My grandpa had just passed away after a lengthy stay in the hospital, and though my mother had been there to say goodbye, and one of her sisters had stayed a bit longer to spend precious final moments and offer support to Gram, neither was able to stay indefinitely, and Gram was alone when her husband died. Even their snowbird “cronies,” as she called them, had already migrated back to their homes up north. I was living in North Carolina at the time, and I felt compelled, as the geographically nearest relative, to make the 10-hour drive (which is practically nothing, when you’re in your 20s) to be with her. She appreciated my presence, but for most of my visit it seemed clear she did not need it.

We traipsed around town for a few days as if all was normal, visiting the farmers’ market, where we bought fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for all the salads we ate. She taught me how to use the flat edge of a paring knife to loosen the tomato skin for easier peeling, and I still do it that way today. We chatted about my blossoming relationship with my boyfriend at the time, and she beamed with pride as I told stories about my job on the radio. We shared afternoon martinis, including on the day the funeral director dropped by the house to deliver my grandfather’s ashes, and I was astonished that she did not collapse in grief. Then, on the day before I was scheduled to drive home, Gram pulled off the main drag into a gas station lot and I realized the reason for my visit.

“Oops, you’ve stopped on the full-service side, Gram,” I told her, recalling how careful she had always been—and urged me to be—to pinch pennies by clipping coupons, canning her own pickles, stretching out leftovers and stitching handmade clothes. There was no way, I figured, that she intended to pay extra for an attendant to fill her tank. And then she shocked me by explaining that Grandpa had always taken care of gassing up the car and she supposed she’d have to get used to paying more now that he was gone. That’s when I realized that there was an important reason for me to be there. Finally, after so many years of the being the student, I had a chance to teach something new to the best teacher I ever had.

“OK, pull to the other side and step out of the car with me. Today I am going to teach you how to pump gas, Gram.” She was a grateful student.

Would she have appreciated this lesson in martini making? Of course! She’d remark with a lilted voice at how fancy and elegant my version of a martini is, as if I were making a cocktail for the Queen of England (also a martini maven). She would even pretend to hold the stem of a coupe glass very gingerly, with her pinky finger extended.

And then she’d grab a juice glass and pour her own favorite martini, the vodka version, straight over ice.


This is my favorite martini, with orange bitters and occasionally a strip of organic lemon peel.

Ingredients

  • 2 oz. Fords gin
  • 0.5 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
  • 2 quick shakes Regan’s orange bitters
  • A lemon peel-stuffed olive to garnish
  • Optional strip of organic lemon peel, if you’re feeling extra fancy (or if they’re on sale)

Instructions

First things first, chill down your cocktail glass. Some people like to keep them in the freezer, but I prefer to chill only the bowl of the glass by filling it with ice cubes and a splash of water. Give it a spin with your cocktail pick. Why? It is a law of physics that the ice-in-motion will chill the glass faster than the ice just sitting there.

Next, measure the gin and vermouth into a cocktail shaker, and give it two quick shakes of orange bitters. This may seem unusual, but the bitters play very nicely with my preferred gin and makes the drink feel complete.

Now, cap the shaker and give it a good shaking. Some people prefer to stir a martini to prevent over-diluting it, but I generally prefer to shake it and I have found that using a generous scoop of ice chills it down very quickly, also preventing over-dilution. Don’t shake it violently, just enough to mix the ingredients completely. 20 seconds should do it.

Pour the shaken martini into the chilled glass. I like chilling it with ice because the stem of the glass doesn’t get frosty or slippery from the freezer.

Dump the ice that has been chilling your glass (be sure to let all the water fall out), and strain your beautiful martini right into it. Skewer the olive and drop it into the glass.

Repeat as desired.



Zero-Proof Sangria (for Dry January)

My husband and I are 16 days into our alcohol-free pledge to start the new year. For the most part, I have not minded this experiment of Dry January. The break from alcohol has already had some positive effects on my body; most noticeably, I feel more hydrated in ways that I did not expect. My skin and hair are not as parched, despite the recent cold snap that has kept us indoors with the heat running constantly. I have found more focus and energy for tasks that need to be done around the house, so that’s a good thing. And I am astonished at how much more sleep I am getting, and that alone makes it worth the sacrifice. Still, I have caught myself counting the days, making it unlikely that this would become a permanent lifestyle change.

When my husband and I made the decision to give our bodies a break from alcohol, we guessed correctly that the biggest challenge to our lifestyle would come on Friday nights. Our ritual, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been to finish the work week with (usually bourbon) cocktails, homemade pizza and, whenever it was scheduled, Quarantunes, the Facebook Live concert featuring our pals Glenn and Oria Alexander.

Ahead of the first dry weekend, I threw all my creative effort into an attempt at zero-proof cocktails. In my mixology experimenting over the past couple of years, I have already learned how valuable infused simple syrups can be for delivering extra flavors into a drink, so that is where I started my chemistry challenge.

For Les, I whipped up a smoky, spicy cherry simple syrup—featuring smoked black peppercorn, pink peppercorn, unsweetened black cherry juice and real vanilla paste—to mimic the essence of an Old Fashioned. For myself, I made another simple syrup—steeped with white peppercorns and coriander seed—and it had a nice balance of bite and spice that I thought could be a reasonable stand-in for tequila in either a paloma- or margarita-style drink. I liked this one so much that I named it “white-hot syrup,” and I expect that I will use it in real cocktails at some point in the future.

When Friday night arrived, I pulled out all my usual tools for cocktail setup—my mixing glass, shaker, citrus juicer, bitters, rocks glasses and giant ice cubes. Only it wasn’t as easy as mixing up real drinks, which I have had plenty of practice doing. I was a novice again, and I measured, squeezed, stirred, tasted, adjusted, stirred again, tasted again and finally ended up with a couple of drinks that were enjoyable.


Les’s drink had the smoky black cherry syrup, mixed with freshly squeezed blood orange juice, a couple shakes of orange bitters and a slight splash of oak wood tonic (an interesting find that I’ll describe in a moment), and I even garnished it with a ribbon of blood orange peel and a Luxardo cherry. For my own drink, I blended the white-hot syrup in a shaker with fresh lemon, lime and orange, plus coconut water. I strained it into a salt-rimmed rocks glass, tossed in an orange peel and it called it a “mock-arita.”

Finally, our faux cocktails!

They turned out beautiful, but I spent so much time in the kitchen fiddling with these faux drinks that I missed 35 minutes of Quarantunes, which was the whole purpose of Friday night “cocktails.” And then, cleanup, which was sticky and ridiculous. This past Friday night, I decided on a better, simpler alternative—a zero-proof sangria! I appreciated that I could make it (and adjust to taste) ahead of time so that enjoying it on Friday night was only a matter of pouring it over ice and dressing it up with fresh fruit. No muss, no fuss. More time for pizza and Quarantunes. Perfect!

These were fruity, spicy and delicious. Exactly what we needed for Friday night, and no hangover or sluggish feeling on Saturday morning! 🙂

The base of my zero-proof sangria was a “de-alcoholized” Merlot wine. I have seen no-alcohol “wines” before, but for the most part, they were just unfermented, unsweetened grape juice. In other words, flat and mostly flavorless. But a de-alcoholized wine has gone through the process of fermentation, and then has the alcohol removed, either by vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis, just before bottling. It is a fascinating concept, and one that is gaining traction with a significant audience of adults who aim to reduce their booze consumption, whether short-term or for good.


So how does this de-alcoholized wine taste? I’ll be honest—it’s different. I do taste the Merlot in this bottle, but it is missing the complexity and (obviously) the bite of real wine. I chose this for its base flavor but also its lack of sweetness, as I planned to jazz up our sangria with a few sweet ingredients. If I had used any regular grape juice, the sangria would have been cloyingly sweet, not to mention that it would have smacked of Welch’s grape jelly flavor.

I enhanced the dry “wine” with some of the smoky black cherry simple syrup that I had made the first weekend (recipe is included below), plus cinnamon syrup (also below), fresh citrus, unsweetened black cherry juice, ginger-berry kombucha and (again) the oak wood tonic. This tonic, on its own, has a sharp and bitter flavor with distinctive woodsy flavor. It’s an acquired taste, and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate on its own. But blended with the other ingredients, it brings a just-right, edgy bite to make my zero-proof sangria feel more “Friday night worthy.”

Cheers!

I would absolutely make this again, for myself or for guests who prefer to abstain from alcohol. There are still plenty of ingredients in my pantry and spice cabinet to experiment with in these remaining days of Dry January, and I’m sure if I keep at it, I’ll discover the perfect formula for amazing zero-proof cocktails. Of course by then, it will be February. 😊


Ingredients for Zero-Proof Sangria

1/2 bottle de-alcoholized Merlot wine (Pinot Noir variety would also be good)

1 large blood orange, washed and sliced thin

1 good-size lime, washed and sliced thin

3 oz. smoky-spicy black cherry syrup (recipe follows)

1 oz. cinnamon syrup (recipe follows)

4 oz. unsweetened black cherry juice

2 oz. tonic water (San Pellegrino Oak Wood Tonica, if you can find it)


For each serving:

1 oz. berry flavored kombucha (adds a “fermented” flavor)

1 oz. strong ginger beer (adds bite and effervescence)

Fresh slice of citrus to garnish


Instructions

Load the citrus slices into a 1-liter carafe or pitcher. Add the simple syrups, black cherry juice, de-alcoholized wine and tonic. Stir to blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

At serving time, fill 10 oz. glasses about 2/3 with ice. Pour kombucha and ginger beer over ice. Give the sangria a good stir to blend ingredients that may have settled. Pour over the ice to the top of each glass. Garnish with fresh citrus.


Smoky-Spicy Black Cherry Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup unsweetened black cherry juice in a saucepan. Add 3/4 cup organic cane sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently, to dissolve sugar. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to lightly crush 2 tsp. smoked black peppercorns and 1 tsp. pink peppercorns. Add to the syrup and stir to blend. When syrup reaches a slight boil, remove from heat. Add 1/2 tsp. real vanilla paste. Cool completely and strain into a canning jar. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cinnamon Syrup

Combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup organic cane sugar in a saucepan. Add 3 pieces of cinnamon stick (each about 3” long) and bring syrup to a slight simmer. Continue to steep the cinnamon in the syrup until it is completely cool. Strain into a jar or bottle and refrigerate until ready to use.



Bloody Mary Shrimp Cocktail

If you are a child of the ‘70s, as I am, you have seen your fair share of shrimp cocktails. It is a classic, but I am waking it up with a fun flavor twist in the cocktail sauce. You’ll find the flavors familiar—from a brunch standard, the bloody Mary—and it’s bringing a zesty jolt of flavor to the chilled freshness of sweet juicy shrimp, which never goes out of style.

If you’re entertaining for New Year’s, this is an easy way to elevate a classic and please any palate. Begin with your favorite ketchup and dress it up with the ingredients you’d enjoy in a bloody Mary; think crunchy pickles, zippy horseradish, herbaceous celery seed, a shake or two of hot sauce or Worcestershire (or both) and, yes, a shot of vodka.

We like our flavors hot at our house, so I used a “hotter” variety of Texas Pete hot sauce, plus spicy Wickles brand pickles and “extra hot” horseradish. But if you prefer milder flavors, adjust accordingly. You could swap any flavors to suit your fancy. Pretty much anything that would work in a bloody Mary will work here. Same with your garnish.

For the shrimp, do what’s best or easy for you, whether purchasing already cooked, steaming them or perhaps trying the roasting method I’ll demonstrate below. Whichever method you choose, be sure the shrimp have plenty of time to chill. Serve them in individual cocktail glasses for an impressive presentation and garnish as you would a bloody Mary!


Ingredients (serves 6)

18 jumbo shrimp* (see notes)

6 Tbsp. ketchup

2 Tbsp. finely minced onion or shallot

2 Tbsp. finely minced sweet, spicy or dill pickle

1 Tbsp. prepared horseradish

2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. cayenne hot sauce, such as Texas Pete or Tabasco

1/2 tsp. celery seed

Splash or two of pickle juice

1 shot good quality vodka


*Notes

Take time to notice where your shrimp has been sourced, as some farming methods are bad for the environment and the seafood processing standards in some parts of the world are rife with human rights violations. Whenever possible, choose domestic (U.S. produced) shrimp that is either wild caught or sustainably farmed. Clean, peel and devein the shrimp, but keep the tails on for best presentation.

I used 16-20 count shrimp, which means there are 16-20 per pound. If you are serving the cocktail as an appetizer, three shrimp per person is a good starting point.

As a side note, it occurs to me that this zesty cocktail sauce would also be terrific with raw or steamed oysters.


Instructions

Cook the shrimp, using your preferred method. Chill it thoroughly in the refrigerator before serving.

Stir all sauce ingredients together in a bowl and chill until ready to serve. For presentation, spoon about 2 tablespoons of sauce into a shallow cocktail glass and hang the chilled shrimp on the edge of the glass. Garnish with a wedge of fresh lemon and a cocktail olive, onion, pepperoncini, etc.

Happy New Year!

Easy Roasted Shrimp

The roasting method may seem fussy, but it is actually easier than boiling or steaming, because it doesn’t move so quickly. It’s so frustrating to accidentally overcook something as delicate and expensive as shrimp.

Preheat the oven to 400° F, with oven rack in center position. Peel and de-vein shrimp and arrange them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Give them a quick spray of olive oil (or toss them lightly in olive oil) and sprinkle both sides lightly with Old Bay seasoning or (more simply) salt and pepper.

Roast for 7 minutes, until shrimp are just opaque. Immediately transfer shrimp to a bowl and chill them down quickly in the freezer for several minutes or plunge the bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice. The goal is to bring down the temperature quickly so that the shrimp don’t overcook to become tough.


Hot Artichoke-Cheddar Dip

When you make a recipe so many times, you no longer need to review the ingredients list or even bother measuring, and that is the case for me with this hot artichoke cheddar dip, which I made umpteen dozen times during my stint as a prep cook for a catering company called A Pinch of Thyme.

The holiday season was wild in the “Pinch” kitchen, as many of our regular, affluent clients planned and hosted extravagant parties and, naturally, they did not prepare the food themselves. My friend, Tammy, was the events manager for Pinch, and she often shared colorful stories about some of the luxurious homes where our food was delivered (like the one with copper pipes running hot water underneath the marble floors to keep everyone’s tootsies warm), and I often wondered if those hosts supposed the food came from an equally posh kitchen and was prepared by consummate culinary professionals donning crisp, white chef coats and hats.

If they only knew.

My day job at the radio station usually had me out the door by noon, which gave me plenty of time to change into my most worn-out jeans and a WKZL T-shirt before tackling the party menus at the kitchen. The rock music would be blaring, Chef Rodney would be barking orders to everyone, the dishwasher would start running full-steam ahead and, somehow, we’d get it all done in time for the serving crew to load the truck and shuttle our delicacies to the client. The menu for such a shindig might have included a whole roasted beef tenderloin and buttered red bliss potatoes, some exquisite pastry dessert that I probably can’t even pronounce, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese and, more often than not, this artichoke cheddar dip. Because, simple though it was, everyone loved it.

Warm and bubbly from the oven, this artichoke cheddar dip is delicious served with pita chips or crostini!

No matter how elaborate (or not) you intend your holiday get-togethers to be this year, I promise this dip will bring rave reviews. From memory, I scaled down the recipe to make it at home and, over time, I have modified it to reduce the ratio of mayonnaise in favor of smooth cream cheese; I think it endures better, especially when guests will be mingling for a while. The cream cheese keeps this dip silky, the cheddar gives a little sharpness and the artichoke hearts are satisfying and tart with their lemony zing.

If you want to go overboard, as we usually did in the Pinch kitchen, you might serve the dip in a silver chafing dish with handmade toasted herbed pita chips, which we typically made in quantity to fill up a hotel laundry cart. We would cut pita breads into wedges, split them to expose the shaggy insides, brush them with melted butter and then toss them with dried oregano, basil and garlic powder before baking them to perfect crispness. It was delicious, for sure, but at our house this year, we simply baked the dip in a pie plate, opened a bag of Stacy’s multigrain pita chips and had ourselves a party!


Ingredients

8 oz. brick of cream cheese (full fat or Neufchatel)

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt

A few shakes hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Texas Pete

2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced

8 oz. brick cheddar cheese (medium or sharp), freshly shredded* (see notes)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, finely chopped*

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

A pinch of dried thyme (of course)

1/4 cup parm-romano blend*


*Notes

I know that it’s tempting to use pre-shredded cheese from a bag, but don’t. The stuff is coated with a powdery substance that keeps it from clumping, which may be great for the purpose of packaging, but not great for cooking because it does not melt well. Break out the box grater and shred the cheese yourself. You’ll be glad you did!

I use artichoke hearts that are marinated in spices and oil, and I usually scoop them out of the jar with a slotted spoon without draining them. The herbs and oil add a pleasant layer of flavor. If you use artichoke hearts packed in water, drain them thoroughly and also drizzle them with a bit of olive oil before mixing into the dip. If they are plain, consider increasing the dried herbs slightly.

I use oil-marinated artichoke hearts. There is no need to rinse or drain them, and the herbs add flavor.

We make our own parm-romano blend, which is easy to do and super convenient, because we love the piquant flavor in so many dishes. If you don’t care to do this (or if you just don’t have the time), substitute a good quality grated parmesan from the supermarket.

Before we get into the making of this recipe, I have a confession (as you’ll see in the photos). To satisfy our shopping list on the day I made the dip, my husband had to visit four grocery stores. I decided not to wait for the new package of cream cheese, and I dipped into our fresh batch of spreadable scallion cream cheese, which we make regularly as a bagel schmear. The spread has a bit of sour cream in it, plus chopped scallions and a touch of dill. I scooped out a heaping cup of it for this recipe and it worked great. Improvisation has led me to some of my favorite flavor discoveries, and I’ve learned to not be strictly bound to a recipe.


Instructions

Using an electric mixer, blend the cream cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream together. Add garlic and hot sauce and mix until smooth. Give it a taste and adjust hot sauce to your liking. Add about 2/3 of the shredded cheddar and mix again. Season with about 15 twists of freshly ground black pepper. Blend in the chopped artichoke hearts until evenly distributed. Add oregano and, in keeping with the original recipe, a pinch of thyme.

Pile the mixture into a deep pie plate or 8 x 8 glass baking dish. Sprinkle on the parm-romano blend. Top with remaining shredded cheddar.

Bake at 375° F for about 25 minutes, until dip is heated through and cheese is bubbly. Serve warm with pita chips, sturdy crackers or crostini.