A couple months ago, Rosie at 18 Reasons pinged me, asking whether I'd be interested in teaching a Bloody Mary class, accompanying a display of local illustrator Kelly Lynn Waters' delightful illustrations of Bloody Marys (Maries?) from restaurants and bars around town. The teacher they had initially lined up couldn't make it, leaving a gap. I'd taught two infusions and liqueurs classes there already, with another on the books, and so I suppose I'd acquired the ad hoc mantle of Mr. Booze. Without putting much thought into it, I replied that I would.
Of course, there was one small wrinkle: I really don't like Bloody Marys.
I do, however, like to challenge my palate from time to time and try to conquer my culinary disinclinations. (Still haven't gotten over that orange thing yet. That's a stubborn one.) So I took this as an opportunity to explore what really makes a bloody mary, and what exactly I didn't like.
On the surface, I should love them. They're savory, spicy, full of umami, and heaven knows my tomato consumption can be nothing less than epic. But in fact, it's the tomatoes that were the issue. Or, rather, tomato juice. More specifically, the thick, mealy goo that tastes like the can it's purchased in. Yes, that was surely the root of the problem.
I decided that for the class, we would explore a little of its history starting with its invention at Harry's New York Bar in Paris in 1921, peppering it with three versions of the drink. First, would be a straight-up classic version, using predictable ingredients like the aforementioned dreaded canned tomato juice. For the second, we'd juice fresh tomatoes, give it a little more spice and spike it with clam juice to make a Caesar, the official drink of Canada. Finally, I would solve the problem of the cocktail, eschewing tomato juice altogether for a thinner essence of tomato and an infused vodka, served up in a cocktail glass. This, I dubbed the Plasma Mary, since it lacked the thick redness of tomato juice and instead is a cheery, clear yellow.
While we talked, mixed and drank, Kelly spoke of her experience stalking the wily Bloody Mary around town. It was hard for her to pick a favorite, but my favorite of her illustrations was of her trip to Clock Bar, which doesn't serve Bloody Marys. Why? Because, as the bartender huffily told her, they only do drinks with fresh-squeezed juices, and you can't squeeze a tomato. Her illustration was a tall parfait glass with the words "...and you can't squeeze a tomato." filling it.
But here's the thing: They are wrong. You can squeeze a tomato. In fact, the tomato essence, or tomato water, I used was the by-product of our annual tomato canning extravaganza. We separate the seeds from the flesh by squeezing them out, and reserve the liquid from the seeds to can separately. This we keep on hand as a base for soups, braises and, now, cocktails.
You don't have to can a hundred pounds of tomatoes to get tomato water. You can simply take a few tomatoes, pulse them in the food processor just enough to break them down (not to a complete puree), and then pour that into a colander lined with a few layers of cheesecloth. Allow that to drain for 12-24 hours in the fridge, and voilà, tomato water.
I'm pleased to say that the Plasma Mary seemed to have won the hearts of all the Bloody Mary enthusiasts at the class, and it will certainly be a mainstay of our bar repertoire as well.
2 oz tomato water
1 oz cucumber-infused vodka (see below)
1/4 oz (1-1/2 tsp) lemon juice
Spicy salted rim (see below)
For the rim, combine roughly equal portions of kosher salt, chili powder and ground cumin. (If you want a finer texture, use table salt or give the kosher salt a whir in a food processor for a second or two.) Dip the rim of the glass in water or vodka, lift directly out, hold the glass (still inverted) in the air for a couple seconds, then rest it into the spice mix.
Mix the remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir aggressively to chill. (Stirring gives it a thicker consistency and doesn't introduce air bubbles into the cocktail.) Strain into the rimmed cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon wheel or cucumber round.
I've done a jillion infusions, and keep coming back to this one again and again. It's fantastic when served straight from the freezer; delicate shards of ice form in the glass that crash on the tongue, making it a sublime summer drink. It can also be combined with other spices to create a Hendrick's-like gin infusion.
1 medium cucumber
750 ml 80-proof vodka
Peel the cucumber. Cut it in half, and scoop the seeds out with a spoon. Discard the seeds and skins. Cut the cucumber into chunks, and put in a glass or other non-reactive container (about 1.5 liter). Pour the vodka over. Seal, and give it a shake. Store in a cool, dark place, shaking daily, for 3-7 days, until it reaches the flavor you want.