It’s 5 PM and 99 degrees outside. Just in case you were wondering.
Drinks at Brushstroke got me to thinking about the ways the Japanese cultivate the illusion of coolness on hot summer nights. A few years ago Amanda Mayer Stinchecum, an independent scholar of Japanese textiles, wrote about this beguiling practice for In Pursuit of Tea, an on-line purveyor of fine teas.
“Kyoto in the summer. Hot, muggy, many tropical nights, defined as night-time temperatures that don’t fall below 77 degrees. People who persist in traditional style have over the centuries devised many strategies that create an illusion of coolness. Gauzey kimono with see-through sleeves (never mind all the hot undergarments and binding sash); sliding screens made of reeds that let a breeze pass through; paper folding fans, often decorated with autumn motifs—chrysanthemums, maple leaves, bush clover, autumn grasses—turn the mind away from heat; chilled fruit served on a glass plate. Serving cooling foods and drinks in glass vessels—maybe because of their resemblance to ice—is a trope of summer in Japan…”
Stinchecum goes on to compare iced green tea to “a plunge into the cold waters of a northern pond.” And I’m sure it is. One of these days, I’ll follow her directions for an ice infusion and serve it in a “glass of cut crystal or handblown glass.”
But right now I’m craving a Japanese Cucumber.
The drink I had at Brushstroke’s granite counter was pale green, refreshing, infused with the flavor of cucumber and a whisper of anise, which I thought was shiso leaf, but later learned was fresh fennel. The cocktail was served over big square ice cubes. I drank two without even a blink of the eye.
Later the bartender gave me the broad strokes: Muddled cucumber and fennel root, a touch of simple syrup, vodka and lots of ice. Was there lime? It doesn’t really matter. The drink is great with a squeeze of citrus. Dip part of the rim of the glass in Japanese sea salt if you like. Shake it, strain it, and pour it over those giant cubes. Garnish with a slice of cucumber, a sliver of fennel root and a few of the feathery leaves.
The cubes at Brushstroke were, naturally, clear as crystal and reminded me ever so slightly of icicles—maybe an allusion to winter and its colder temperatures. If you want to know how, just Google “clear ice cubes.” Techniques range from the spurious to the obsessive. Restaurants, it seems, have special machines that do it all for them.
Being a little obsessive myself, I went as far as double-boiling some distilled water to get rid of impurities and freezing it. I can’t say that the ice is totally clear, but it is more crystalline than what clunks out of the icemaker—and I do love the chunkiness of the cubes made by Tovolo’s lime green King Cubes Ice Tray. The bigger the cubes, the slower they melt—and the more potent your cocktail remains.
Here’s a stab at Brushstroke’s recipe. Drink on the hottest summer nights and dream of glaciers.
The Japanese Cucumber
If you can get fresh, firm Kirby cucumbers, by all means use them. They tend to be sweeter and more flavorful than the usual suspects. But really, any cucumber will make a delicious drink.
For one cocktail:
¼ cup Kirby cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons fennel root, finely chopped
2 teaspoons simple syrup
Squeeze of lime juice
1-1/2 ounces vodka
Japanese or other sea salt
1 slice Kirby cucumber, unpeeled
1 sliver fennel root
A few snips of fennel leaf
Square ice cube tray, such Tovolo’s King Cube Ice Tray or the smaller square Perfect Cube Ice Tray
1. If making ice in a tray, bring a pot of distilled water to the boil twice and let it cool until it is warm. Fill the tray(s) with the water and freeze overnight.
2. Before making the cocktail, put your glass in the freezer to chill.
3. Muddle the cucumber and fennel root in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Press hard to extract all the juices and flavor. Add the simple syrup, lime juice and vodka. Fill the shaker with ice. Shake hard for 60 seconds.
4. Remove the cocktail glass from the freezer. (If you like, now is the time to dip the rim in salt spread out on a plate.) Fill the glass halfway with large or other ice cubes. (If using King Cubes, you'll likely need only one or two.) Strain the cocktail mixture into the glass. The cucumber and fennel may clog the holes of the strainer so be patient and let it drain to the last drop.
5. Garnish with a slice of unpeeled cucumber and a thin section of fennel root. Add a few snips of feathery fennel leaf. Enjoy.