Gardening Green with Doug: Crafting Cocktails with the Backyard Forager
by Doug Oster
April 29, 2020
Editor’s note: Recipes for the cocktails below are highlighted with hyperlinks.
Early on the writing process for her book the “Wildcrafted Cocktail,” author Ellen Zachos, known as the Backyard Forager, was working on recipes with ingredients found around her property. The early riser was perfecting her latest creation when husband Michael stumbled into the kitchen at 8 a.m. “You need to try sassafras with bourbon, sassafras with rye, sassafras with bourbon and rye," she told him. Shaking off the night he replied calmly, “Can I please not have any booze right now, I just want coffee.”
With liquor stores opening up, but watering holes still closed, Zachos has a solution for people who are longing for an interesting, unique and tasty cocktail made with foraged ingredients. Whenever discussing the topic of harvesting and eating things from the wild, she offers this important disclaimer. “Never put anything in your mouth if you’re not 100 percent sure of what it is,” she warns. “As I always say, that’s a good lesson for life, not just foraging, I’m just saying,” she added with a laugh.
Many of Zachos’ delicious drinks are made with some of our most reviled edible weeds, she’s a big fan of using garlic mustard in recipes. “You can make a great savory martini with really interesting flavor if you have gin or vodka and the leaves of garlic mustard, she says. Some garlic mustard plants have just begun to bloom, but there are still smaller plants with no flowers and just foliage. Even leaves from younger flowering plants will work to make the drink.
It’s hubby Micheal who inspired the Savory Garlic Gibson.
“My husband does not like a sweet cocktail, says Zachos, he’s a martini man.” And since he loved garlic stuffed olives in his drink, garlic mustard came to mind for her. Back in the kitchen she combined the plant with vodka in a Vitamix until the combination was just right. A friend transformed the recipe by adding Clamato juice, “it’s really good,” Zachos added.
She’s not always reaching for the top shelf either, when looking for brands of liquor. “A lot of people think they always have to buy the best quality vodka, gin, whisky, tequila,” she says. “If you are mixing it with something that’s strongly flavored, I don’t think that’s true.”
Another noxious, invasive weed she uses is Japanese knotweed for her Samurai Sour, her take on a whiskey sour, making a sweet, but tangy syrup out of the newly sprouted stems. Zachos has long used Japanese knotweed as a rhubarb substitute even making meringue pies from the hated weed.
Mugwort is the next weed on the list and is combined with grapefruit to make a soda which is added to tequila to make a drink called a Paloma. Mugwort is so underappreciated,” she says with conviction. “I use it as a cooking herb, it’s just got this great flavor. It’s kind of sagey (like sage), but much more complex and interesting.”
For those not interested in fermenting the mugwort/grapefruit combo into soda, there’s another fun way for using the tequila. “Infusing the tequila with hot peppers, combining it with limoncello and adding blood orange soda is another great combination,” Zachos added.
When spruce trees begin to push out new tips, she will harvest them for a taste of the forest. “You can make a syrup from them or an infusion with gin or vodka and combine that with elderflower liqueur and a wild ginger syrup,” says Zachos. “I call it the Merry Woodsman, it’s like having a glass of the woods in spring.”
Anyone can create a new drink she said, it’s about discovering the right flavor profiles through trial and error. “You shouldn’t be nervous about playing around,” she says. “Every cocktail is a balance between the spirit, something sweet and something acid. The perfect balance is going to be different for you than it is for me. You need to experiment.”
When work began in earnest to produce great recipes for the book, Zachos started small, carefully finding what worked and what didn’t. “You play with the flavors and you figure it out. Sometimes you fail miserably, she said laughing, but sometimes you come up with a really wonderful combination.”
When asked what was most difficult aspect of making great cocktails from common ingredients was, Zachos didn’t miss a beat, “The hardest part is coming up with the damn name for the drink,” she said with a laugh.
For more information about Zachos, see more recipes and find her books, log onto backyardforager.com.