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Originally published Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 10:30 PM

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Allowing cocktails to stir the meal

A Good Appetite: The rules for matching cocktails with food are a lot more lax than with wine. Recipes: Pomegranate-Glazed Lamb Meatballs, Poached Shrimp with Thai Basil And Peanuts, White Bean and Fennel Dip. Cocktail recipes: Golden Bowl, Emperor's Garden, Cherry Sherry Cobbler, El Presidente

The New York Times

Video

Jim Meehan, owner of Please Don't Tell, shows Melissa Clark a few tips and tricks of making cocktails in a New York Times video: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2012/06/08/dining/100000001593095/cocktails.html
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Drinking seasonal cocktails used to mean Manhattans in the winter and gin and tonics in the summer.

Then a decade ago, mixologists started infusing the likes of lemon verbena and butternut squash into spirits, taking the notion of seasonal cocktails to a more literal level. Now, you're just as likely to encounter an heirloom tomato in the glass as on the plate.

And some restaurants have been creating tasting menus with cocktail pairings that highlight the season's best, from the aperitif through dessert, seasonal dining from coupe to nuts.

This gave me the idea to try it at home, too. I spent the past weeks letting seasonal cocktails inspire the snacks that I served with them.

I found that the rules for matching cocktails with food are a lot more lax than with wine. Really, anything goes, although the more complicated and layered the ingredients are in the glass, the more involved your accompanying hors d'oeuvres can be, and vice versa. For simpler cocktails, simple foods work best.

To greet our first warm night, my husband and I sipped Emperor's Gardens, rhubarb and gin cocktails spiked with Thai basil and seasoned rice vinegar (a condiment used to make sushi rice, flavored with sugar and salt).

Alongside, I echoed the vinegar and basil in a quick shrimp salad garnished with roasted peanuts for crunch. We ate the shrimp on cucumber rounds, but mounding them on crisp lettuce leaves would have been a slightly fancier presentation.

A few nights later, to accompany a rye-and fennel-flavored cocktail called the Golden Bowl, I whipped toasted fennel seeds and fragrant dark green fennel fronds into a velvety smooth white bean dip, which we scooped up with slivers of the bulb. One large, feathery fennel sufficed for both cocktails and dip.

An icy sherry cobbler traditionally takes advantage of whatever fruit is in season or on hand; oranges, pineapple, raspberries, what have you. One night my husband made us cobblers with amontillado sherry and ripe cherries while I sauteed the cherries in butter, then plopped them on goat-cheese-smeared crostini. I can see this becoming a year-round staple, substituting whatever juicy fruit I can get.

And finally, we made El Presidente cocktails with white rum, a spirit we rarely reach for when a cocktail craving hits. But sweetened and shaded with a few drops of homemade grenadine, this sophisticated, pale pink drink is about as summery as they come. I served them with tiny lamb meatballs brushed with pomegranate molasses to highlight the grenadine.

To keep things manageable during my cocktail experiments, I opted for individual pairings, whipping up, on a given night, one cocktail and one hors d'oeuvre. It expanded my cocktail-hour repertory, a snazzy prelude to any meal.

Had I been more ambitious, or had I needed a menu for a cocktail party, all of these cocktails and snacks would have worked marvelously served together as well.

And in one instance, that night of the Emperor's Garden, our cocktail hour slid down the slippery slope straight into dinner. We found that after gorging on the tasty little shrimp, all we needed was an arugula salad and a little crusty bread and salty butter to make a meal, allowing me to shelve the pasta dish I had originally planned.

It was light, cooling and, for us, off the well-trod path of gin and tonics, which in itself is worth toasting with a nice seasonal cocktail.

POMEGRANATE-GLAZED LAMB MEATBALLS

Time: 20 minutes

Yield: About 2 dozen meatballs, or about 8 servings

1 pound ground lamb

1 small clove garlic, minced

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil, for brushing

3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

Chopped fresh mint, as needed

1. In a large bowl, knead together the lamb, garlic, salt, orange zest and pepper until combined. Form into 1-inch meatballs. Transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet and brush with oil.

2. Heat the broiler. Run meatballs under the broiler until golden and just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Brush immediately with pomegranate molasses. Spear with toothpicks, sprinkle with mint and serve.

POACHED SHRIMP WITH THAI BASIL AND PEANUTS

Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 to 2 ½ dozen, or 8 servings

Kosher salt, as needed

½ pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 teaspoon seasoned rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon peanut oil

1 teaspoon chopped Thai basil, or more as needed

1 tablespoon chopped salted, roasted peanuts

Sliced cucumber rounds, for serving

1. Bring a small pot of salted water to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook gently until just opaque, about 2 minutes. Drain well; cool.

2. Toss cooled shrimp with vinegar, oil and basil. Toss in peanuts. Serve on top of cucumber rounds, garnished with more basil.

WHITE BEAN AND FENNEL DIP

Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 ¼ cups, or about 8 servings

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 15-ounce cans white beans, drained and rinsed

1 fat clove garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 bulb fennel, with fronds

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more as needed

1. In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the fennel seeds until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Lightly crush seeds in a mortar and pestle.

2. In a food processor, combine fennel seed, beans, garlic, zest, juice and salt. Chop 3 tablespoons of the fennel fronds and add to the bowl. Process mixture until smooth; with the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil until combined. Taste and adjust seasonings.

3. Trim the fennel stalks and peel away the outer layer of the bulb; discard trims and outer layer. Cut bulb lengthwise into ½-inch-thick sticks. Serve alongside the dip.

GOLDEN BOWL

Adapted from Lot 2

Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 1 drink

1 inch-long piece fresh ginger root

1 cup superfine sugar

Tiny pinch kosher salt

1 tablespoon finely chopped fennel fronds, including stems, preferably bronze fennel, plus a sprig for garnish

2 ounces rye whiskey, preferably Old Overholt

¾ ounce fresh orange juice

½ teaspoon absinthe, preferably Kubler

½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1. Finely grate the ginger, wrap it in cheesecloth and squeeze out the juice.

2. Make simple syrup by combining the superfine sugar with 1 cup water in a jar; shake until sugar is dissolved. (This will keep in the refrigerator for weeks.)

3. In a mixing glass, muddle salt and fennel fronds. Add whiskey, orange juice, 1 teaspoon simple syrup, absinthe, lemon juice and ½ teaspoon of the ginger juice. Fill mixing glass 2/3 full of ice and shake vigorously. Taste and add more simple syrup if you like.

4. Using a fine mesh strainer, pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a sprig of fennel frond.

EMPEROR'S GARDEN

Adapted from Wong

Time: 20 minutes, plus 1 hour's infusing

Yield: 1 drink

1 cup thinly sliced rhubarb

1 cup sugar

5 Thai basil leaves; more for garnish

1 teaspoon seasoned rice wine vinegar

1 ½ ounces gin

¾ ounce lemon juice

1. Make rhubarb simple syrup: Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add rhubarb and sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, cover and let stand for 1 hour. Reserve a selection of rhubarb slices as cocktail garnishes, then strain syrup and store chilled for up to 7 days.

2. In a mixing glass, muddle the Thai basil leaves with the seasoned rice wine vinegar. Add gin, 1 ounce rhubarb simple syrup and lemon juice. Fill mixing glass 2/3 full of ice and shake vigorously. Using a fine mesh strainer, pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a Thai basil leaf and a slice of reserved rhubarb.

CHERRY SHERRY COBBLER

Adapted from the Beagle

Time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

1 cup superfine sugar

1 lemon wedge (1/6 of a medium lemon)

4 pitted cherries (or raspberries or blueberries)

3 ounces dry amontillado sherry

Orange slice, for garnish

1. Make simple syrup by combining the superfine sugar with 1 cup water in a jar; shake until sugar is dissolved. (This will keep in the refrigerator for weeks.)

2. In a highball glass, muddle lemon and 3 cherries with ¾ of an ounce of simple syrup. Add sherry, stir to combine and fill glass with crushed ice. Garnish with another cherry and an orange slice. Serve with a straw.

EL PRESIDENTE

Adapted from PDT

Time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 drink

½ cup pomegranate juice

½ cup superfine sugar

1 ½ ounces white rum

½ ounce Curacao

¾ ounce French (dry white) vermouth

Orange-peel twist, for garnish

1. Make grenadine by combining the pomegranate juice with the superfine sugar in a jar. Shake until the sugar dissolves. (This will keep in the refrigerator for about a month.)

2. In a mixing glass, combine rum, Curacao, French vermouth and a dash of grenadine. Fill mixing glass 2/3 full of ice, and stir gently. Using a fine mesh strainer, pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.

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