One of the most common questions we get on a daily basis in the store is “What do I do with this?” Often a customer will buy an ingredient or a spice and after using a small amount in a recipe, they will have that jar or container in their pantry for months. Bon Appetit or Epicurious writes about a more unusual ingredient, and scant hours afterwards, we hear the requests for that item roll in. When I hear the request more than 2x in a day, I will google to see what everyone is making. Almost immediately the creative wheels start spinning in my head! For the next few hours, I’ll be in research and development mode.
I have found over the years that not knowing how to use the balance of an ingredient is a real pet peeve for a retail customer. It’s my job to solve that problem. This has led to some really creative R & D. I love this part of the job because it gets me out of the office with its number-crunching and HR paperwork, and allows me to freely create different flavor profiles using the products.
I like to begin by just thinking about the product: opening the package or the jar and smelling, tasting and actually touching the product. What does its aroma remind me of? How can the texture be used to add interest to a dish? Can the flavors be layered to create a more multidimensional flavor balance? Often ideas will arise from the area of the world that grows the item. What are the traditional uses? Can I use a similar technique in a less traditional way?
This week’s project was hibiscus. Most people use it for tea, but its slightly floral and faintly sweet flavors lend themselves to different applications. I decided to play around with a cocktail, staying within the beverage category but really shaking it up. First came a 12 hour steep in a bottle of vodka. This soak brought out the flavors, as well as produced this absolutely gorgeous magenta color. Then, I wanted to see what flavor I could pair it with. This brought to mind another beloved ingredient that people find hard to finish: rose water. The same slightly floral scent seemed like it would perfectly complement the hibiscus infusion. This is a very familiar flavor in my family because the Lebanese use it frequently in traditional dishes. I whipped up a simple syrup and added some fresh lemon juice and rose water when it cooled. I still felt it needed more depth of flavor, so I ground up some hibiscus flowers with a little granulated sugar to rim the glasses.
The final drink preparation was simple. I dipped the rim of a martini glass in lemon juice and then into the hibiscus sugar. Simple syrup and infused vodka went into the shaker along with a few ice cubes. I shook very well and then strained into the glass. I finished it with a bit of club soda (actually I only had San Pellegrino on hand, but it worked fine!).
The finished hibiscus rose cocktail was so beautiful that my daughter Cait came down to taste test! She loved it, so I decided it would be a shame not to share. I texted a photo to my brother Ron and his wife Kerry to come by for a cocktail and then my husband Pat joined us. It was a beautiful summer evening with family.