I was recently bit by the mixology bug.
My friend Chelsea (aka, Nosh Maven of heartbeatnosh.com) is mostly to blame for this. Perhaps entirely to blame. She recently started the Cocktail Club by Heartbeat Nosh, which I have been lucky enough to be part of, and invited me to host the September session featuring locally distilled Jack Rabbit Gin from Beehive Distilling.
It was a success, not only because the Basil Bees Knees, my local mix of honey, basil, gin, and lemon, was pretty darn tasty, but because I enjoyed researching and testing recipes so much. I loved playing with the combination of spirits and accompaniments: how a little more of this, a little less of that, a little more savory, and a little more sweet brought out the spectacular flavors of Jack Rabbit Gin – one of the tastiest gins I’ve ever laid lips upon.
When Chelsea published her write-up on this event, I was inspired by her call to action: “I suggest seeing what you have that would make a tasty and creative gin cocktail. Basil? Thyme? Rosemary? Tomatoes? Cucumbers? I can’t think of much that wouldn’t compliment this local spirit. You can also find great gin recipes on Beehive Distilling’s website. As one of my friends said “Jack Rabbit Gin tastes like the West Desert.” A beautiful description for a wonderful local product, created with a lot of love, right here in Utah.”
It was the West Desert part that really caught me. What if I could make a gin martini that paid even more tribute to the place it was created – with a special something gathered from the desert itself? More specifically, the shores of Great Salt Lake?
The idea for the Pickleweed Dirty Martini was born.
Step One: Gather.
I set out to collect a plant known to the lucky school kids who take trips with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake to Antelope Island, as an edible little salty succulent found growing anywhere you find salty soil, including the playa and marshes of Great Salt Lake. The infamous “Pickleweed,” aka Sea Beans, Sea Asparagus, or Salicornia, is little known to residents of the Wasatch Front, and even less known as a tasty addition to salads and accompaniment to seafood. Don’t believe me? Check out this tribute to the humble little halophyte on Hunter. Angler. Gardener. Cook. I’ve also heard that the chef at Salt Lake restaurant, Forage, has gathered pickleweed to feature on their unique menu of locally grown and gathered fare.
These days I don’t have the car much, so a trip out to the shores of Great Salt Lake proved difficult to plan – and with Pickleweed in prime condition for harvest, I called in extra help. Janessa Edwards, the Education Director at FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, agreed to take part in my strange experiment. “You’re speaking my language,” she said, when I suggested that our salty little plant might make the perfect dirty martini. “I’ll gather some!”
Perhaps the easiest spot to gather pickleweed is just off the parking lot right before the entrance to the Antelope Island Causeway. This is where Janessa takes school groups, and there are fields of it! She gathered and left a bag of brilliantly green pickleweed on my front porch, along with a note that she couldn’t make our planned evening. Part of me was relieved, since my previous foray into cocktails had taken weeks to perfect, and this gave me the opportunity to create something she could enjoy without the trial and error!
If you don’t have someone who visits the Lake 15 times a week like Janessa, here are some tips for foraging pickleweed from Hunter. Angler. Gardener. Cook.
Step Two: Experiment
I set to work trying out ways to bring the subtle briny flavor of pickleweed (in place of olives and olive juice) into the mix of gin and vermouth. In every attempt, I stuck with the following combination:
- 2 oz Jack Rabbit Gin
- 1 oz Martini Rossi Bianco Vermouth (this one is pretty sweet – in future attempts, I’ll find something a bit dryer)
- Plenty of ice
First, I tried muddling the pickleweed in my shaker.
Perhaps I didn’t use enough, but the gin and vermouth were also really strong in this combination – I needed the equivalent of olive juice to “water down” the martini.
Second, I decided to try boiling the pickleweed, according to recipes recommended by sea bean aficionados on several sites, who call for no more than 90 seconds.
So, I boiled the pickleweed for 90 seconds, leaning toward the longer end of recommended times in order to bring out more of the salt content. Then, I added more ice to my shaker and reconstructed my recipe, this time:
- 2 oz Jack Rabbit Gin
- 1 oz Martini Rossi Bianco Vermouth
- 1 oz water from boiled pickleweed
- Plenty of ice
No color, and not much flavor either – although my cute taste tester was just happy to be sipping Jack Rabbit again!
Third, I decided to save the boiled pickleweed and water in a mason jar and let it steep overnight. Then, just for good measure, and because I had to wait anyway, I decided to try one more thing: pickling the pickleweed!
Fourth, I found this recipe from Serious Eats (by the way, did you know pickleweed is a great choice for the gluten free?), and cut it in half for my dwindling supply of pickleweed:
- 1 pound fresh sea beans (1/2 pound for me)
- 1 1/2 cups water (3/4 cup)
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar (1/4 cup)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt (1/2 tablespoon)
- 2 teaspoons sugar (1 teaspoon sugar)
- 2 garlic cloves (1 garlic clove)
- 1 bay leaf (don’t mess with bay leaves!)
Put the sea beans in a mason jar. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil, pour it over the sea beans, and seal. And yes, I had to use tin foil because I’m a disgrace to my Mormon ancestors and have never canned anything in my life. Also, there are a lot of fun pickling combinations out there for sea beans/pickleweed – check these out from Food-a-be!
Step 3: Wait.
A long 24 hours later, I pulled the two jars out of my fridge.
The pickled sea beans looked an unappetizing brown, while the boiled ones were still a pretty bright green. I poured 1 oz of juice from each (same recipe as above) into two separate glasses.
At first glance, the boiled ones, at left, looked like they would make a much more convincing dirty martini, if only due to that lovely color! I mixed the remaining ingredients (doubled) in my cocktail shaker, and poured them out for testing.
Again, at first glance, that beautiful green boiled pickleweed on the left looked a lot more appetizing. Then, I put each one to my lips and danced up and down. For a second opinion, I took them both to Sarah and let her judge the outcome.
And the winner is…the Pickled Pickleweed Dirty Martini:
- 1 pound fresh pickleweed or sea beans
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 garlic cloves – THIS is actually the one thing I would change. The garlic is lovely, but a bit overpowering – and I want those incredible notes of sage and rose in the Gin to still shine through. When I get my hands on some more pickleweed, I’ll be trying this without the garlic!
- 1 bay leaf
Put pickleweed in a mason jar, not too tightly compacted. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil, pour over the pickleweed, seal the jar, and place in the fridge at least overnight.
- 2 oz Jack Rabbit Gin
- 1 oz dry vermouth (like I said, this is what I would do next time)
- 1 oz juice from pickled sea beans
- Plenty of ice
- Pickleweed sprigs for garnish
Fill a shaker with ice. Add gin, vermouth, and pickle juice. Shake until well chilled. Add to glass, with ice if desired, and garnish with a sprig of pickleweed. Toast the Lake!