The business of fancy cocktails is booming right now and along with it the vest and pocketwatch business go as well, but it was a few years ago while dining at Schwa, here in Chicago, I saw the future. It was a Hendrick’s Gin course where they made a gelee from Hendrick’s Gin with ribbons of Cucumber and rosewater. It made me think about gin as a set of flavors and not something to drink on a hot day when I want to relax. After that night where all of the dishes wowed creatively (despite a few that did not flavor-wise), when I had a drink of Hendrick’s, I tasted the juniper, rose and cucumber instead of simply enjoying the fizz of the tonic and the buzz as I slugged the drink down.
I am not a believer that every restaurant needs to have a cocktail program. In fact, of the ones that have one already, I think that about 10% of them use it in a way that accompanies the dinner rather than distracts from it (either intentionally or not). I understand that it is a cash cow, so it is not going anywhere, but I do not understand how a cocktail program complements with a pasta/pizza joint. More recently, however, Michael Ruhlman has put his Friday classic cocktail ritual into the written form. As irascible as he is about naming and convention, it still made me think back to that boundary-pushing meal at Schwa, at the opposite end of the spectrum from conventional, and wonder how the line between the classic cocktail and food could be blurred at home.
The idea struck as soon as someone mentioned an ex-colleague by saying that “he was so gin-pickled that he could barely function.” At that point, most of my brain shifted to thinking about gin-pickling things, and only a small fraction remained in the conversation. The index cards in my mind raced through ideas: pickled liver (bad texture and too on the nose), juniper berries (still may do this, but that is a lot of juniper despite possibly being a cool riff on the ubiquitous pickled mustard seeds), and turnips (no logical connection other than those beautiful baby turnips that are my favorite are in season), but I finally settled on the simple old grocery store cucumber. After all, it was cucumber that was at the beginning of this at Schwa and when most American’s think pickles, they think cucumbers.
On top of it all, it gave me confidence that, unlike a few other ideas, the cucumber is a relatively neutral flavor and you would be more likely to taste the gin without having to load the brine with it so much that the pickle burns as you eat it. After some brainstorming about what goes well with the elements (gin & cucumber), I settled on lime and mint, but I wanted this to remain a pickle and not a gin-soaked vegetable, so bringing in shallots, chili, salt and sugar kept this firmly in the pickle, not garnish, category.
After putting the pickle together, the Weck jar stared back at me each time I went to the fridge and finally after a few days, I cracked it open. The perfume from the gin and mint was clear. When I tasted the pickle, the first thing that popped into my head was ‘this is one of the most refreshing foods I’ve eaten in awhile.’ Refreshment is not something that I typically think of with food (outside of the iced treat section), so it was an odd thought. Clearly the gin, mint and lime were forward, but, as mentioned above, I was concerned this pickle would devolve into something like eating the olive out of a martini glass. It had not. The ratio of vinegar to gin was strongly leaning to towards vinegar and the inclusion of salt, shallot, and chili made certain that you knew that you were not simply eating drink garnish, but food rather with the line blurred slightly between itself and cocktail. It took me back to that dinner at Schwa where their team chose not to play it safe and by stretching made it a meal that inspired pickles years later.
Gin Pickled Cucumbers
- 200ml white wine vinegar
- 100ml gin
- 1 large cucumber, sliced
- 1/2 shallot, sliced
- 2 sprigs mint, leaves only
- 1 serrano chili, sliced
- 1 lime, zest only
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 juniper berries
Step one: In a sterilized glass jar, layer cucumbers, shallots, mint, and chilis. Pour gin into jar.
Step two: Bring vinegar, salt, sugar, and lime zest to a boil in a saucepan. Let cool.
Step three: Once cooled, add brine to jar. Seal jar and wait for 3 days before opening.