Feb 022014

Blood Orange Sparkler + Sweet Chile Cashews

I’m always happy when blood oranges hit my local markets. In part because it reminds me of the first glass of blood orange juice I ever had. I was 21 and had just arrived in Rome’s Termini train station, about to discover what would turn out to be my favorite city on earth. The train ride from Paris (yes, from Paris all the way to Rome — it’s a long story…) had taken forever on a second class Eurorail pass, with not nearly enough decent food and drink for the journey and not enough money to do much about it. Somewhere in the last few hours, I started fantasizing about a tall glass of cold, sweet OJ. Juicy, refreshing, reviving — I was obsessed by the time I hauled my backpack off that train in the Rome station.

I was sure there had been some mistake — most likely in my Italian phrase book — but the man behind the counter was just so smiling and helpful (in stark contrast to Paris, by the by), that I just smiled in return and paid and stood there with my glass of glowing red liquid. It was slightly bitter, definitely exotic, and only marginally cool — but I drank it and then wandered out into the dodgy streets around Termini. A few short blocks later, I found myself in front of the Trevi fountain, and my love affair with this grand city was in full swing.

Years later, I’m still drawn to gloriously-hued blood oranges. I find them to be more complex than “regular” oranges, though this seems to vary from batch to batch — sometimes raspberry-tinged, sometimes with a bitters note. They’re a natural pick for cocktails and, for my money, make a mimosa much more interesting.

This Blood Orange Sparkler is the best cocktail I’ve concocted in ages, and I got it exactly right on the very first go. (Always happy to not have to work very hard at these things.) It’s basically an amped-up mimosa, fortified with a bit of vodka and intensified with Aperol. A dash of rosemary simple syrup adds a subtle herbaceous note that lingers in the background.

Oh, and I totally cheated on the rosemary syrup. I have made entire batches of these things in the past, which then just lingers in the fridge until I pour it all out feeling guilty for not having the gumption to invent myriad uses for it — more cocktails, a trifle perhaps, some kind of infused berry something. It has finally occurred to me to simply use a bottle of store-bought simple syrup and muddle in some rosemary (or whatever else). I love muddling; it’s quite satisfying. And this does the trick — plenty of rosemary aroma and flavor is imparted to the syrup — and you can create only as much as you need. I poured about four tablespoons of the simple syrup into a small jar, added a few rosemary leaves and muddled away. Plenty for several of these sparklers. Easy.

Recipe: Blood Orange Sparkler

1 oz. vodka
1 oz. Aperol
1/3 cup freshly-squeezed blood orange juice
1/2 teaspoon rosemary syrup (see note, above)
1/3 cup Prosecco

Fill a cocktail shaker about halfway with ice. Add vodka, Aperol, blood orange juice and rosemary syrup. Stir to combine. Add Prosecco and stir gently. Strain into flute. Makes 1.

Pairing: Sweet Chile Cashews

I just needed a little nibble to go with this sparkler. After rummaging around in the pantry and liquor cabinet, I put together these lightly sweet, chile powder-dusted cashews. What looks like burned bits in the picture above are really just clumps of toasty, caramelized seasoning and are pretty delish. You could do this same treatment to pecans or walnuts, or even macadamias.

1 cup raw cashews
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 teaspoons Kahlua
1 tablespoon red chile powder
2 teaspoons granulated cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 300F.

Toss the cashews with the oil and Kahlua. In a small bowl, stir together the chile powder, sugar and salt; sprinkle over cashews and toss to combine evenly. Spread the nuts out on a baking sheet. Bake until toasted, about 25 minutes, stirring every 5 or 10 minutes — particularly toward the end. You want them toasted, not burned. Remove from oven and allow to cool — the cashews will “crisp up” as they cool.

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