I don't really like cucumbers. I admit the watery gourds don't have much taste, but there's an odd tang to them that tends to put me off. (Research—i.e., Google—suggests that I am probably among the minority of people overly sensitive to the presence of cucurbitacin, a bitter compound that assorted squashes apparently developed to discourage herbivores from eating them. Score one for the squashes.)
But while I tend to pick my way around the cukes in a salad, I recently discovered a way to enjoy them: with tequila. A cocktail-savvy friend—let's just call her La Fille—whipped up a highball that she adapted from Rhiannon Enlil, bartender at Cure in New Orleans. Despite my trepidations, the result was delicious: The slight, cool bitterness of the cucumber worked in tandem with the cactus heat of the tequila, both of them balanced by sweetness from a little simple syrup and the citric warmth of fresh lime juice. (See below for full recipe.)
Cucumbers are hardly alone in the produce section as contenders for cocktail consideration. The mixology renaissance of the past decade has led to both rediscovery and invention of all kinds of garden-laden libations. Whether muddled, infused, juiced, or reduced, fruits and vegetables are making their way from the food pyramid to the bar menu.
One obvious and welcome sign is in the spread of sangria as a standard seasonal menu offering. The Spanish wine punch, typically made with Rioja, is a great way to get more mileage out of table wine—and maybe lure in those still suspicious of tannins. You can find any number of recipe variants, but in general you chop up a lot of fresh fruit and put it in a pitcher with the wine, ice, orange or other fruit juice, and maybe some seltzer water or sweetened soda (I like ginger ale).
Locally, the vegetal trend has been most creatively capitalized on by the Market Square Farmers' Market. For the second year, market organizers are running cocktail contests featuring designated ingredients available from its stalls. On the third Saturday of each month, you can buy tickets at the Market that entitle you to drinks made with the featured food at a half-dozen downtown bars and restaurants.
Charlotte Tolley, the Market's director, says it started as a one-off competition in 2009, featuring that most familiar of herbaceous aperitifs, the Bloody Mary. It was so popular that last year the Market made it a regular feature. Tolley says it's a way to broaden perceptions of the Market and produce more generally. "We really want people to think about incorporating local foods all the time," she says—including at happy hour.
This year's slate of contest ingredients started last month with strawberries, and last weekend featured mixed berries. Others in upcoming months include tomatoes, herbs, honey, and dairy. And in July? You guessed it—cucumber. But why wait?
La Fille's Tequila-Cucumber Highball (modified from Rhiannon Enlil)
2-3 inch hunk of cucumber, chopped
Juice from 1/2 a lime
1/2 oz. simple syrup
1 1/2 oz. tequila
1/2 oz. soda water
Optional: 3-5 dashes angostura bitters on top
Muddle cucumber, lime juice, and simple syrup in glass. Pack with ice, top with tequila and soda.