(WASHINGTON POST) - The Day of the Nectarine was otherwise unremarkable - late August, an average Wednesday at work full of meetings and e-mails with a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I have no idea what else I bought there. Bread, trash bags? Nothing stands out, except for this: Having paid up, I crossed the parking lot and settled in the hot front seat of my car. I poked into the grocery bag, found the nectarine I had bought, wiped it down on my pants leg and took a bite.
I'm not prone to having sensual experiences in grocery store parking lots, so this was a first for me. I sat there, dipping my face into the flesh of this fruit, rivulets of juice oozing down my arm, making out with the best nectarine I've ever had the pleasure of eating. I'm grateful, in retrospect, for the illusory privacy of the car; had someone filmed me eating this thing, any future political aspirations of mine would have ended right then.
Nectarines can be woody or mealy, but this one was so toothsome, sweet and tangy that I can only call it Edenic. It made the long work day slip away. It made me want to be a better person - a person who was to People what this nectarine was to Nectarines. I went back inside to the produce section to buy more, half expecting to find a talking snake draped across the pile offering some insight into the whole good-and-evil picture. But if one had been there, I would have just hooked it out of the way to load up on more nectarines.
We're a long way from August. But we are into the sweet season, these months when much of the fruit coming out of the ground and out of the trees is so good it should be carried on a gilded litter and polished gently with silken scarves - prior to being eaten, of course. In fact, these warm months mean that it's smart to double up on fruit purchases. I would never have sacrificed the experience of eating that nectarine - it was that plush. But I wish I had more of that perfect fruit to muddle into some bourbon. Such a combination would have needed little else.
With several months ahead to read lazily under shade trees or picnic with friends at beaches and parks, it's the right time to be turning to fruit-at-its-best as a ready-made cocktail ingredient. And it's the wrong time for sweating fussily over drinks.
Whether you're in your own backyard or toting something sweet and boozy to a barbecue across town, fruit-centered punches bring the season's ripest offerings to the fore in an over-and-done-with format; as in, your work is finished for the afternoon. Pick your fruit and then think about what booze would deepen or brighten it. Stone fruits such as nectarines, cherries and peaches marry beautifully with bourbon; lime, ripe melons and mezcal can make for glorious margaritas; strawberries and Campari match up in color and complement each other's flavours perfectly. Vodka, of course, is a blank page waiting for a dozen fruity hues.
Citrus fruits' intense juiciness makes incorporation easy. The fruits require nothing more complex than a reamer to reap their bounty. Other less-liquidy fruits, or those with a lot of seeds, are more of a chore to work with. But there are so many ways to get at their flavors: Drop slices of them into your chosen alcohol overnight, using the booze to draw out their flavor. Blend them with spirits and juicier fruits, then strain out solids and seeds as needed. Cook them gently with vinegar and sugar to make a shrub, adjusting sweetness and tartness as you please. And remember that preserves can play a role, too - they need a strong shake and strain to break up the jellied pectins, but when that's done right, preserves add a nice, silky quality to a drink.
The accompanying five pitcher-friendly fruit punches will get you started. Several of these are flexible in terms of the spirit you can use, and some also can be stretched with the addition of something nonalcoholic, in case you're serving a crowd or just drinking a whole lazy afternoon away. If you're drinking a batch over time, you'll want to make sure you have a long spoon at hand, to stir it up in case any ingredients settle or separate, and if you're going to be hanging around outdoors, the more you can chill the drinks in advance, the better, so the ice doesn't melt too quickly as you and the pitcher sweat in the sun.
Here's hoping the upcoming stretch of warm weather brings you your own Day of the Nectarine (or watermelon, or fig or honeydew), and that you have some left over for sipping.
Swamp Water Punch
12 servings. This is a delicious and intriguing fusion of sweet, summery pineapple and funky, herbal Chartreuse. Some recipes are a little more heavy with the booze-to-juice proportions; we've trimmed this one back to highlight the juice and make for a light, tart summer sip.
Fresh pineapple juice is best; even if you have to use a bottled/canned variety, you may want to run it through a fine-mesh strainer to eliminate the pulp. If you have blue curacao on hand and want a drink that looks especially tropical, consider adding an ounce or two to punch up the color; if you don't have it, skip it.
Adapted from Cocktails: The Bartender's Bible by Simon Difford (Firefly Books, 2013).
4½cups pineapple juice, preferably fresh (see headnote)
1 cup fresh lime juice (from 4 limes)
1 3/4 cups green Chartreuse
60 to 90ml blue curacao (optional; see headnote)
Large ice cubes
Mint sprigs, for garnish
Steps: Combine the pineapple juice, lime juice, Chartreuse and the curacao (to taste), if using, in a large pitcher, stirring to blend well. Add the large cubes of ice; once the punch is chilled, stir it again. Serve in ice-filled highball glasses, garnish with mint sprigs.
16 servings. Here, pink grapefruit juice pairs beautifully with multiple spirits.
Freshly squeezed juice is best, but if you use a commercial brand, choose a fresh one that hasn't been sweetened from the refrigerated section.
You can use a smoky mezcal such as Del Maguey Vida here, or take this punch in another direction with a London dry gin. (If you want to make a bubbly, lower-alcohol version, you can lengthen the punch by adding measures of tonic or Pellegrino grapefruit soda.) The aperitif wine Cocchi Rosa adds a lightly sweet, fruity note and the bitterness of quinine.
MAKE AHEAD: Make this pitcher-punch 1 hour in advance to give it time to chill in the refrigerator.
3½ cups ruby red grapefruit juice (see headnote)
2½ cups Cocchi Rosa aperitif wine (see headnote)
1¾ cups mezcal or London dry gin
22ml Angostura bitters
¼ tsp salt
6 thyme sprigs
Large ice cubes
1. Combine the juice, Cocchi Rosa, mezcal or gin, bitters and salt in a large pitcher, stirring to blend well.
2.Add the thyme sprigs; transfer to the refrigerator to chill for 1 hour.
3. Stir, then add the large ice cubes. Keep a long-handled spoon at hand to stir the punch if you're serving it over a length of time. Pour into punch cups (without sending any of the thyme sprigs into them).
This Little Figgy Went to Kashmir
12 servings. In this pitcher drink, sweet fig preserves mix with the spice of chai tea and citrus for a bright, lightly spicy punch. (Fresh summer figs are one of the joys of the season, but as a less-liquidy fruit, they can be tricky to incorporate into drinks.) You'll need a cocktail shaker and the spring from a Hawthorne strainer.
1¼ cups fig preserves, such as Bonne Maman brand
1¼ cups fresh lemon juice (from 5 or 6 lemons)
3½ cups bourbon or dark rum
2¼ cups chilled chai tea
15ml pimento bitters
Large ice cubes
Slices of fresh fig (in season) and/or lemon wheels, for garnish
1. Combine the fig preserves and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker; add the spring from a Hawthorne strainer. Seal and shake vigorously for 1 minute to break up the pectin and other solids in the preserves.
2. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher. Add the bourbon or rum, tea and bitters, stirring to combine.
3.Add the ice and fruit garnishes. Keep a long-handled spoon at hand to stir if you're serving this over a length of time. Pour into punch cups.
Bramble On Punch
16 servings. A mezcal punch mutation of Dick Bradsell's gin-based modern classic cocktail, the Bramble, this recipe uses summer blackberries for both flavor and show.
While you can make this with a good silver tequila if you choose, it's better if you go for a mezcal that has some smoke to it (something like Vida or El Silencio Espadin will work fine here).
MAKE AHEAD: The punch needs to be refrigerated for at least 30 minutes before serving.
170g fresh blackberries
3 cups mezcal
1¼ cups creme de mure
1 cup Aperol
2 cups fresh lemon juice (from 8 to 9 lemons)
15ml orange bitters
2 cups ice cubes
1. Muddle the blackberries gently at the bottom of a large pitcher.
2. Add the mezcal, creme de mure, Aperol, lemon juice and bitters, stirring to incorporate. Refrigerate for at least half an hour, allowing the berries to soak up the flavours of the drink.
3. Add the ice to the pitcher and serve, using a cocktail spoon to retrieve a blackberry or two to place in each portion.
Summer Garden Punch
16 servings. Here, turning fresh cherry tomatoes into a sweet-and-savoury shrub intensifies their flavours. You'll need cheesecloth and a fine-mesh strainer to prepare the shrub.
MAKE AHEAD: Make the tomato shrub a few hours ahead of time (and up to 2 weeks in advance) to ensure it's adequately chilled by the time you make the punch.
For the tomato shrub:
2 cups cherry tomatoes
396g can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
½ cup sherry vinegar
¼ cup sugar
2 sprigs rosemary
2 cups water
For the punch:
3 cups green chilli vodka
1 cup dry vermouth
½ to ¾ cup tonic water, or as needed
Ice cherry tomatoes, for garnish
Thin cucumber slices, for garnish
Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
1. For the tomato shrub: Cut each cherry tomato in half, placing them in a large saucepan as you work.
2. Add the canned tomatoes, pepper, salt, vinegar, sugar, rosemary and water, stirring to blend well. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, stirring regularly and pressing on the solids to break them up. Let cool.
3. Meanwhile, line the fine-mesh strainer with two layers of cheesecloth; set the strainer over a large bowl.
4. Ladle the cooled shrub mixture scoop by scoop into the strainer, pressing on the solids so the liquids are captured in the bowl below. The yield is about 3½ cups. Discard the solids, then transfer the shrub to a sealed container. Refrigerate for a few hours, until well chilled (and up to 2 weeks).
5. For the punch: Combine 3 cups of the shrub, the vodka and vermouth in a large mixing bowl, stirring to incorporate, then pour into a large pitcher. Chill until you're ready to serve.
6. To serve, add the tonic water (to taste) and stir. Fill individual glasses with ice and your desired garnishes, then pour the punch into the glasses.