By this time of summer, herbs are going full tilt. You’ve probably already snipped sage for your garden peas, topped potatoes with chives and parsley and made several batches of pesto. And those herbs just keep on growing.
If you’re in a muddle about what to do with all those herbs, you should do exactly that: Muddle, steep or infuse them for a garden-fresh cocktail.
Make a muddle
There are lots of ways to incorporate herbal flavor into your drinks; muddling is just one method. When you muddle herbs, you bruise the leaves or lightly crush them in the bottom of the glass so that they release their volatile oils, which give your cocktails a kick. (Think mint in a mojito, basil in a Bloody Mary or lavender in a gin martini.)
For more intense flavor, infuse herbs into simple syrup that forms the basis for many libations, with or without an alcoholic component.
To make an herb-infused simple syrup, combine ½ cup of herbs with 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water. Simmer over low heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Cool, then strain the mixture. When refrigerated, the mix should last for two to three weeks.
Drink a shrub
You also could turn your herbs into a shrub. No, not the kind that grows in the ground. A shrub is an old-fashioned concoction using vinegar, and it’s gaining new popularity in drink circles. Those in the know say it adds brightness to summer drinks.
In a shrub, combinations of compatible herbs and fruit (watermelon and mint, strawberries and thyme, blueberries and lavender) are added to equal proportions of vinegar and sugar or honey. Some recipes add water, too. While shrubs are just catching on, there are some good recipes. Check out www.mamaknowshercocktails.com or www.drinks.seriouseats.com to get some good ideas.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, make an amaro, the Italian version of bitters.
Bitters are used as a bracing counterpoint to other sweet ingredients. Mixologists say you either love amaro or hate it.
Here’s how to make it: Add any number of more piquant herbs — sage, oregano, fennel, bay leaf, tarragon — along with spices to a jar of vodka, seal the jar and let sit. After a few days, taste your amaro, but leave it in the jar until you get the taste you want.
Go for garnish
If all this sounds like too much work, at least move beyond the maraschino cherry and add a handsome herb garnish to whatever you’re drinking.
Use rosemary sprigs like mini skewers and spear berries or orange slices. Twirl lemon peel around a lavender blossom. Sprinkle bright blue cucumber-flavored borage flowers into a Pimm’s cup.
When you harvest woody herbs, such as thyme, rosemary and lavender, snip off a whole sprig, cutting from the base of the plant. Then, strip the leaves from the stem by running your hand backward down the length of the stem.
With herbs such as mint and basil, you can pinch off leaves, snip out the center of the plant or cut the whole plant back by a third and it will continue to grow. (Cutting back the plant also stops it from blooming — that’s a good thing, because blooming reduces the quality of the herb.)
If you don’t have an herb garden, you may be able to pick up some plants at local garden centers. It’s not too late to pot up a container of herbs or fill an empty patch in your garden.
You won’t need a recipe to use your garden to enhance cocktail hour. Just let your taste buds be your guide. If you want to start out with some tried-and-true pairings, try these:
• Lavender and lemon with gin
• Sage and blackberry with sparkling wine
• Mint and lime with rum
• Mint and lemon with Champagne
• Thyme and raspberry with gin
• Lemon balm and lemon with vodka
• Basil and tomato with vodka
Rhonda Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer. She blogs at www.thegardenbuzz.com.