A few years ago, I tasted a mysterious drink at the James Beard Awards, which I was covering for work. I attended the event with a photographer, and after we captured all of the shots and details I needed, we decided to loosen up and actually enjoy the bounty of fancy food and cocktails surrounding us.
I know I had a glass or two of Champagne, and some itty bitty desserts, and a taste of some sort of pork-of-the-moment, but the main thing I remember consuming that night was a tangy cocktail called The Red and the Black. It had chunks of strawberries and a good hit of tequila and was made by a bartender at Back Forty, a restaurant in the East Village run by chef Peter Hoffman, a champion of farm-to-table eating before it became the trendy thing to do. The drink tasted kind of like a cross between a margarita and a strawberry dessert, with a lingering spiciness. Weird and delicious. I drained my glass, trying to figure out what all of the ingredients were, and thought about it on the whole cab ride back to Brooklyn. And so I visited Back Forty a few times with friends and enjoyed the drink at its source.
And then I found the recipe in Food & Wine, and may never have to wait for a table there again. Although they do make very good salads...
To make the drink, you muddle strawberries into a bright red pulp, and combine them with lime juice and tequila. The secret ingredient? Black pepper simple syrup. (You know I love my flavored syrups.) A mix of black peppercorns, water, and sugar, the dark brown syrup gives the drink a surprising peppery heat. And the flavor is echoed in a salt-sugar-pepper mixture you use to rim the glasses, which adds an extra spicy kick to each sip.
Last weekend Dan and I were invited for dinner at Sarah's house. Instead of bringing my usual bottle of wine, I brought a batch of Red and Blacks, both regular and nonalcoholic (omit the tequila and add some seltzer). I did not take pictures of the rest of the menu, but here is what we ate: peaches, basil, and goat cheese on baguette slices; chilled corn soup in the prettiest tea cups; chicken salad with artichokes, tomatoes, potatoes and homemade mayo; salad; and a nectarine tart. Lovely, no? Sarah's hostessing skills are exactly how you'd imagine them: perfection. In addition to my drink, another guest brought a bourbon-prosecco-pear cocktail. Which is to say, by the end of the night we were all happily buzzed.
The red and the black cocktail
Peter Hoffman's recipe via Food & Wine.
(Makes 10 drinks)
2 1/4 cups sugar
2 cups warm water
1/2 cup coarsely cracked black pepper, plus 1 Tbsp. finely ground black pepper
2 quarts strawberries, hulled and halved
2 1/2 cups blanco tequila (20 ounces)
1 1/4 cups fresh lime juice (10 ounces)
1 tsp. salt
1 lemon or lime wedge
In a medium saucepan, combine 2 cups of the sugar with the warm water and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove the saucepan from the heat, stir in the 1/2 cup of coarsely cracked black pepper and let cool. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for 3 hours. Pour the black pepper syrup through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup.
In a large pitcher, muddle the halved strawberries. Add 2 1/4 cups of the black pepper syrup, the tequila and fresh lime juice (reserve the remaining black pepper syrup for another cocktail). Refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.
On a small plate, mix the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar with the finely ground black pepper and the salt. Moisten half of the outer rims of 10 rocks glasses with the lemon wedge and coat lightly with the pepper-and-salt mixture. Fill the rocks glasses with ice. Stir the drink well, then pour or strain into the prepared rocks glasses and serve at once.