Infusing your way from garden to glass

• The St. Petersburg (FL) Times is doing some recycling. Given the economic state of the newspaper industry and the nation's overall push for going green, that makes perfect sense. In this instance, I was particularly interested because what was being recycled was a story I wrote last year, and which was syndicated to dozens of newspapers across the nation. Since it is pretty much good every year, and they obviously liked it enough to use it again, I share it here with you.

Hacking my way through the profusion of herbs in my small but productive garden, I reveled in the fragrances of the thyme, rosemary, tarragon, cinnamon basil and other plants I was forced to cut back before they took over the adjacent patio.

What a wonderful time of year, when the upside of a wet, hot summer that plagued us in so many other outdoor pursuits is seen in such garden abundance.

Not only does it fill some inner, primal urge to grow things in rich earth, it provides inspiration for additional creativity in preparing summer food and drink.

Creating herb blends to perfume the smoke of the barbecue grill. Brightening the routine tossed salads in need of some new tastes. Finding just the right chopped leaves to blend into artisanal chevre cheeses from the local farm stands. All these are summertime givens for me, but don't forget what can be done with a deft touch to your cocktails and vodka infusions.

Not that there is any shortage of flavored vodkas on the market. Infusions are arguably the biggest thing in the world of alcoholic beverages these days. The major money is found in handling infusions at the mass-production level in factories or distilleries, not at the local bar no matter how much of a signature gimmick is created. Virtually every commercial brand of vodka, for example, offers versions infused with various fruit flavorings. Likewise with some gins, rums and even whiskies.

It is just that I prefer my own infusions, free of chemicals and trickery. Buying such concoctions may be fine for ease of use but, just as a home cooked meal can be more enjoyable than a takeout spread, doing your own infusing is a lot more fun. It certainly can lead to a more enjoyable cocktail party conversation than simply opening a bottle.

Infusions have been around for nearly as long as alcohol has been part of the human experience. Liqueurs concocted on farms, in monasteries and in laboratories give testament to the boundless imagination of amateur and professional chemists. Mead makers of the Middle Ages infused their honey liquor with herbs and spices. And, the strength of alcohol was long believed to counteract the toxic parts of certain substances favored as medicines throughout the centuries.

Alcohol can be infused with botanicals, marinated with macerated fruits, or stirred together with other potions. It can be dotted with flecks of pure gold, cloves, grains of pepper, sprinklings of cinnamon. The mixtures can be festive, imaginative, wonderful introductions to grown-up spirits. They can be used as dessert toppings, as baking ingredients or -- as many tavern owners and restaurants know -- excellent appetite-boosters and after-meal relaxers.

They can be flavored with nuts, fruits, exotic plant extracts. They can be orange, blue, black, white, red, pink, yellow, green or any other color.

If you're interested in doing some of your own infusing, the best strategy is to begin with the simplest recipes.

Get a trio of small (half-pint or so) sealable jars and run them through the dishwasher to sterilize them. Pour each about two-thirds full of a decent grade of vodka and begin the infusing process.

Use small amounts of liquid to get a better handle on the proportions of infusing material that suit your taste.

Like a particular chili pepper, such as those hot little Asian numbers? Bruise one ever-so-slightly to allow some of the oil to seep out and let it steep in a sealed jar of vodka for about 10 days. Shake it occasionally during that time, but don't unseal the jar.

Want to try a citrus style? Juices of lemons, oranges and limes are the most acidic and share their essence very well. Feel free to mix them if you're a "limon" sort of person.

If you want to try a complicated cocktail in a bottle, raise the number of ingredients to four or five, such as I do when I create my Summer Salad Vodka which I've shared with readers before. If you missed it, here it is again:

Begin with cubes of peeled, seeded fresh cucumber, add a quarter teaspoon of dried dill or a sprig of fresh thyme, a grind of fresh cracked black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to create a refreshing infusion reminiscent of a summer salad. (For an extra kick, add two drops of Tabasco hot sauce or Tabasco green pepper sauce when you serve the drink.)

If your tastes run toward the sweeter side of the scale, your vodka can be infused with virtually any fruit. Simply bruise the fruit so its sugars and acids will leach out during the incubation period. You can speed the process by pouring the liquor over fresh-cut strawberries, kiwis, mixed fruit salad or melons.

Remember to run your infused liquors through a small-screen sieve before serving. Many a nice drink has been spoiled by the residue left from stems, seeds, leaves and skins.

One last tip: The infusing materials don't always have to be tossed away. Think of how nice some of those pieces of fruit will taste after sitting in a vodka or gin bath for a few weeks.

As additional inspiration, I share some hints from Giuliano Morandin, manager of the bar at the Dorchester hotel in London, a barman for more than 25 years and a top 10 martini maker as chosen by Tanqueray No. Ten gin. In an interview with the Financial Times of London, he said:

"Use fresh mint, use rosemary, use anything! Thyme, for example, is wonderful with most things. Quickly mash, let the oil come through. Or you can put it with crushed ice and that acts like an abrasive -- rub it in, then when you take it out, the ice smells of the herb. Add bourbon, rye, rum, whatever sweetener you have -- a bit of apricot liquor, some maraschino -- just two drops will do. Keep it simple. See what happens. Let it work its magic. Be gentle with it."

If all this doesn't inspire you to experiment and enjoy, there is no hope for civilization as we know it.

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