My Irish ancestry did not prepare me for New Orleans summers. Sometimes I can muster up enough enthusiasm to get outside before 8 a.m. to do some weeding, but I get easily demoralized by the bugs and the jungle weeds, and I start to feel like I'm melting. For the most part, this month and the next are simply too hot for me to be doing much in the garden.
I try to keep to the porch and enjoy the fruits of my efforts from the last few months. What that really means is that I like to take spring-planted herbs from my garden and make cocktails out of them. And, if the elderberry bushes hanging over the fences of vacant lots in my neighborhood just get too plentiful with fl owers, I will muster up the energy to forage for some of those to make liqueur.
Basil is ubiquitous in summer gardens in New Orleans. It is so tolerant of the summer conditions here that I saw a giant basil bush growing out of a driveway crack a few blocks from my house. It can be planted in the dead-on heat of high summer and seems to adapt quickly, so if you have any room in the garden right now, get some basil in it. I have a weakness for purple edible plants, so I generally plant some purple basil along with the classic Italian Genovese basil that is so excellent for pesto. I like the way it looks floating in my cocktail glass.
Purple Basil Gin Fizz
Not a classic gin fizz like the one served at the Roosevelt Hotel, this one is a little lighter with the omission of egg whites.
Makes 1 cocktail
- 6 leaves purple basil, torn
- Juice from 1/2 lemon
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 1/2 oz gin
- 3 oz sparkling water
In the bottom of an 8 oz. glass (Collins if you're fancy and have them), muddle together the basil leaves, lemon juice and honey, until the basil leaves release their aroma. Fill the glass with ice, then add the gin, and stir. Top with sparkling water, stir again, and garnish with a basil flower if you've been too lazy to remove them like I have!
This drink is really simple, and very versatile.
If you have rosemary or thyme, use it instead. I also like to make one with tarragon every so often just so I can keep the plant in check. I've never really figured out how to cook with tarragon, so it's just happily overrunning my herb garden.
Elderberry bushes grow like weeds on vacant lots in New Orleans. I keep a mental note in my mind about where these bushes are, thinking that I may someday make wine from the berries. But the berries usually ripen in late August, and you need pounds and pounds of them to actually make wine, so I've never been enthusiastic enough about the prospect to actually stand out in the heat foraging for tiny berries while making the neighbors think that I'm even crazier than they already suspect I am.
So I got really excited when I came across a recipe for elderflower liqueur.
St. Germain, one of my favorite things to add to champagne, is an elderflower liqueur, so making my own from foraged flowers satisfies my inner thrift. It's so simple, it's barely even a recipe, more like an infused alcohol.
1. Grab a quart mason jar and find a vacant lot with a flowering elderberry bush on it.
2. Loosely fill the jar with flowers, snipping as close to the flower heads as possible, since the leaves and stems are poisonous.
3. Head home and fill the jar with 80-proof vodka (you can use everclear too, but I stay away from that stuff after my last batch of homemade satsumacello may have shortened my life), shoving the flowers down so they stay submerged.
4. Put the jar in a dark spot for about a month, shaking it every few days.
5. After one month, strain the liquid into a clean jar and add simple syrup to taste- about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.
Enjoy plain or in a glass of champagne in the shade.