Kindred Spirits: Foraging for Flavorful Cocktail Ingredients
Incorporating found foods adds fun and flavor to your happy hour
By Laurel Miller
Photographs by Kerry Lynn Sieff
I’ve always loved foraging. My happy place is out in nature, harvesting wild plants and knowing that within hours, I’ll be incorporating them into a meal. Until recently, however, I’d never attempted using these ingredients in my home bar. This is because I’m fundamentally lazy and prefer having my drinks made for me.
There’s also never been a better reason to forage than present circumstances. Even within city limits, foraging provides us a source of free, nutrient-dense delicious foods, but more importantly is the way it connects us to nature and where food comes from, says Dr. Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen, a Houston research chemist who leads wild food workshops statewide. “It took less than one hundred years to sever us from thousands of years of foraging. With that cut, a deep understanding of nature was lost.”
Since quarantine has made imbibers reliant upon our home bars, I decided it was time to up my urban foraging game. There are a number of spring and summer ingredients right here in Austin that work well in cocktails, including loquats, prickly pear tunas (that’s the name of the plant’s fruit), mulberries, dewberries, figs, mesquite, wild plums, cassia flower, chile pequin and pecans. All are great reason to get outside and hunt-and-gather for your happy hour.
Vorderbruggen offers the suggestions below, even if your foraging is limited to your neighborhood. I would add that many homeowners are happy to have someone harvest surplus fruit – but ask first! Vorderbruggen’s book, Idiot’s Guides: Foraging, is a great resource, as is the Foraging Texas website. If you’re looking for wonderful cocktail kits made with local foods, wild and cultivated, try Hestia, Emmer & Rye, Gelateria Gemelli, Garage and Nickel City.
1. Respect the Law: You need permission from the landowner or guardian to forage legally, regardless if it’s private or public land.
2. Respect the Land: Beyond leaving no trace, you should also clean up after others.
3. Respect the Plant: Minimize damage to a plant by using a sharp knife or pruning shears. Limit how much you harvest based on the “abundance code” for the plant as listed on ForagingTexas.com.
5. Respect Yourself: Don’t eat anything poisonous, whether it be a misidentified poisonous plant or an edible plant from a poisonous environment.
Loquats are my current obsession. I love their floral, sweet-tart flavor that, depending upon the species, may also have a hint of apricots (both are members of the rose family), melon or vanilla. While the broad-leaved trees and shrubs are native to south-central China, they thrive in our sub-tropical climate.
In cocktails, loquats can be used fresh (remove the multiple seeds, first) and muddled, infused into spirits or cooked down into syrup; the fruit goes exceptionally well with rum, bourbon and floral gins like Dripping Springs’ Waterloo No. 9. Loquat leaves, which are traditionally dried and taken as tea in China and Japan, have been used for centuries as an expectorant and to soothe coughs. They also work in cocktails.
“Growing up, my mom used to make me preserved loquats and hot water if I had a sore throat or was under the weather,” says Sharon Yeung, an Austin bartender and co-founder of Daijoubu, an Asian cocktail pop-up. “This was mama’s old school Emergen-C.”
Yeung is Chinese-American and runs Daijoubu with bartender Caer Ferguson, who is half Japanese. They started Daijoubu to create greater visibility for the Asian bar professional community and provide a platform for drinks made with ingredients authentic to Asian culture. The current bumper crop of loquats inspired them to develop a riff on the Gin Fizz (recipe below), using fresh fruit and leaves; the latter of which are made into a tea syrup. Combined with egg white, Yakult – a Japanese nonfat probiotic dairy drink – lemon juice and Waterloo Old Yaupon Gin, the resulting cocktail is velvety and herbaceous, with floral and tropical notes.
Prickly pear tunas, on the other hand, taste like the love child of watermelon and bubble gum. They’re more time-consuming and problematic to harvest and process than loquats, but what good is quarantine without projects? I use tongs to pick the fruit, but heavy gloves also work. Northern California-based forager, chef and author Hank Shaw provides detailed instructions for harvesting, removing the hair-like spines and making prickly pear puree or juice on his “Honest Food” blog.
At El Alma, owner Carlos Rivero and executive chef Alma Alcocer (from La Paz, Bolivia, and Mexico City, respectively) grew up eating tunas and they love using them at their restaurants, which includes El Chile. “It’s true they’re not friendly fruit,” says Alcocer, “but they’re truly delicious. As a child, we’d find them sold at open-air markets already cleaned and bagged with lime and chile powder.”
Adds Rivero, “I used to get in trouble when I was little, because I could never wait for my mom to peel them, and I’d end up with little spines in my fingers, which is how I got busted.” El Alma is open for curbside pick-up, and a popular item is their frozen prickly pear margarita. “We only have a small menu at the moment, and we wanted to fill it with items our guests don’t have easy access to otherwise,” says Alcocer. “Hopefully, those margaritas are helping to make people a little happier.”
Loquat Gin Fizz
Loquat leaf tea has been used for centuries as a medicinal, but it also imparts an herbal quality to cocktails when used as a syrup. Note that the leaves require several days drying time before making the tea, so plan accordingly.
2 loquats, ends trimmed, halved and seeds removed
1 egg white
1-ounce Yakult (available at HEB)
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
Enough ice cubes to fill ½ cocktail shaker (do not use crushed ice, which will overly dilute drink)
Scant 3/4 ounce loquat leaf tea syrup (recipe below)
2 ounces Waterloo Old Yaupon Gin
Add the loquats to tumbler of a cocktail shaker and muddle them. Add egg white, Yakult, lemon juice, loquat leaf tea and gin to tumbler and shake for 15 seconds. Add ice and shake an additional 15 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass and top with soda water. Serve with a straw. Makes one drink.
Loquat Leaf Tea Syrup
Harvest a handful of leaves and scrape the fuzz from the bottom halves with your nail or the side of a spoon. Dry leaves for several days, fold in half and remove the central veins and stems. Steep leaves in hot water for five minutes, or until tea has developed a golden hue. Discard leaves and make a simple syrup by adding an equal amount of sugar to the tea. Heat to dissolve sugar and store in a container with tight lid in the refrigerator.
Prickly Pear Margarita
from Alma Alcocer at El Alma
To amp up their frozen margaritas, Alcocer infuses the prickly pear puree with tequila overnight, using a ratio of 1:1, but the addition is equally delicious when the cocktail is served on the rocks. “Tunas are so juicy and refreshing, so you can see how they translate into the perfect cocktail,” she says. “Combined with lime and an herbaceous tequila, it balances out the sweet fruit, especially if you use salt or chile power on the rim of the glass.”
1 1/2 ounces silver tequila; El Alma uses El Jimador
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1-ounce tequila-infused prickly pear puree
1 1/2 ounces fresh lime juice
Salt, for rimming (El Alma uses a house blend of chile, sea salt, tamarind, sugar, and spices)
Combine all ingredients in cocktail shaker half-filled with ice cubes.
Strain and shake over fresh ice into a salted Margarita or Old-Fashioned glass. Makes one drink.