How are your garnishes? In the midst of a surge of hand-made foods, do-it-yourself pickling and preserving, locavore cured meats and such, it seems curious to me that there aren’t more custom-made garnishes in my drinks lately. Certain items like the brandied cherries, now frequently seen in bars, are increasingly gaining a foothold, and the adult-sized lemon or orange peel are the default garnish of choice these days. Other than that, not much.
I’m reminded, as the return of the season of the strong and stirred drink is upon us, of something I wrote here two years ago about a little Italian restaurant I visited where the cocktail onions and other savory garnishes were house-made and a point of pride for the restaurant’s chef. Others, I’ve noticed, have taken to pickling okra, caper berries or cherry tomatoes for inclusion in Martinis or Bloody Marys and their variants. Strong drinks undiluted with lemon or other citrus juices especially benefit from the spark of a savory garnish, but the concept hasn’t seemed to be stirring much enthusiasm among today’s smart bar folk.
Perhaps the interest in pickled, cured or otherwise-preserved fruits and vegetables is an offshoot of cocktail making that’s limited to the restaurant bars with a culinary bent such as Eastern Standard in Boston or Spoonbar at the H2Hotel in Healdsburg, Calif. Yet, I think many operations are losing the opportunity to stand out a little without much added cost. If, for instance, your chef isn’t interested in letting the kitchen staff help you out or doesn’t want you in his workspace playing around with his pickling spices, I bet there’s someone selling homemade pickles and preserves at the closest farmer’s market who would be happy to customize some garnishes for you, or at least cut you a volume deal on something they already make.
Just as Americans say they like dry but actually order wines with a certain amount of sweetness, our cocktail preferences also are on the sugary side. Even if the ingredients in a cocktail contain potent herbality, pungence or sourness, there’s also usually a significant sweetness level in most drinks served today, just as the customer prefers. Pickling and preserving aren’t antithetical to sweetness, however; bread and butter pickles are still plenty popular, and preserved fruits — apricot, kumquats, lemon peel, etc., — can give drinks both a kick of pungency and added sweetness with the correct preserving method. And don’t forget the spice component that are so important in preserving techniques — clove, mustard, coriander, bay, peppercorns, curry leaf — the list of flavor possibilities is endless.
That’s my pitch — more house-pickled onions and capers, gherkins and kumquats, baby beets and whatever you can find that fits your program. Too late for this year? Then start planning for next spring, when garlic scapes, fiddleheads and ramps appear — nothing could make your spring Martini stand out more than some freshly preserved ramps.