The Frenchman and I recently fled the city to visit a friend who is finishing her PhD on Long Island. For the year, she is renting an impossibly charming cottage with overgrown woods to its back. A crescent stone wall encloses a slate patio, bursting at the seams with fanning dandelion greens. There is space enough to enjoy the working fire pit.
To the front, a covered, wrap around porch gives way to a flagged path, gives way to a gravel drive, gives way to a bay strewn with boats. At low tide, they cant like children napping in the car. The air smells of wet piles, of salt-licked weeds, of secret bivalves buried in the silt.
The house is small, but windowed on all sides, so that even on the rainy day we visited, gossamer light followed us from room to room.
The kitchen, my favorite place in any home, occupies a solid third of the cottage. The sink is a deep, ceramic basin the likes of which I’m determined to one day posses myself. Beside it, a sliding glass door opens to the porch where a grill awaits usage. My friend will plant breakfast radishes in the wild yard beyond.
For as long as I’ve known her, and certainly before my own interest in food developed, my friend has approached eating with marked sophistication and clarity of purpose. She knew what it meant to eat seasonally before the term ‘locavore’ entered the national lexicon. She realized young that it was better to enjoy a pat of excellent butter than to be less satisfied with the same quantity of margarine.
At sixteen, I wasn’t ready to accept her stance that obsessing over calories was doltish, and that it was far better to focus on quality ingredients instead. Nonetheless, her views impacted me, as did her mother’s cooking. I had my first panna cotta by her hand, and in the romance of memory I think it’s still the best panna cotta I’ve ever tasted. It was so thoroughly cold, at once densely creamy and bright in its sourness. Some weekend mornings she made buckwheat pancakes and they were browned and complexly nutty. We covered them in seedy raspberry jam.
These small recollections remind me how much I had to learn from my friend’s mother. It’s one thing to purchase quality ingredients, and then another to have the skills to prepare them. But it’s a different animal entirely, a far more intricate and subtle thing, to understand contrast on the plate as much as she did. She considered the balance of color, texture, and flavor in order to heighten the pleasure of eating.
So last weekend the Frenchman and I took the train to Long Island to visit my friend. I volunteered to cook dinner and she volunteered to make cocktails. It should not have surprised me that she crafted her cocktails with at least as much thought to detail as I did to dinner.
I roasted potatoes while she froze ice cubes in a muffin tin. I mixed spices for lamb burgers, and she simmered rhubarb in water and sugar. While I was slicing radishes, she plucked herbs from the planter on her porch.
She concocted the most delicious drink for me–sweet with homemade fruit syrup, tangy at the finish from drinking vinegar. It was very pretty too, the palest blush pink against the green of suspended basil leaves. What’s more, it was a drink that exhibited a keen understanding of balance. I really need to ask for the recipe.
Fruit syrups are ridiculously easy to make, and serve endless purposes. Here’s how to do it: deposit 4 parts fruit: 2 parts sugar: 1 part water into a pot. Simmer for a good long while, until the fruit is softened almost to the point of a compote. Strain out the fruit, and keep the liquid. You can store it in the fridge and use it all week.
You can use almost any fruit you can think of. If you are baking pies, save apple or pear skins and cores for syrup-making. (The addition of a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg will yield a hot toddy to remember.) Fresh herbs are your friend. Thyme, basil, and bay leaves pair well with fruit. The same goes with spices. Be creative and customize your syrups. Citrus syrups, perhaps more that other fruits, are well suited to both sweet or savory applications.
As you’ll see from the pictures, I made a syrup with grapes and thyme, which is why it’s such a dark purple. Depending on the fruit you use, the color will vary from completely clear to quite opaque.
What to do with your fruit syrup:
- Pour it over yogurt, ice cream or cottage cheese
- Mix into hot cereal, like oatmeal or cream of wheat
- Stir into hot or cold tea
- Sweeten and flavor punch or cocktails
- Mix it with seltzer for natural soda
- Use it in a marinade
- Bottle it and give it away as gifts
- Pour it over pancakes or waffles
- Sauce desserts
- Add to salad dressing