I simply can not believe this is the last weekend of August. Where has the summer gone? Here in New England the weather pattern has shifted right on cue and the nights are already getting cooler. Geese are gathering on the water. Labor Day weekend and the Harvest Moon are both only a week away. Sigh. Soon it will be autumn.
But wait! Not yet, not yet! Oh Summer, please don’t go so fast. Can’t we find a way to slow it down and squeeze just a little bit more pleasure from this sweetest of seasons? Summer is a time for friends. Go on now, call them out and gather them up. Fluff up your hammock and reposition the lawn chairs. Drag the old cooler and blankets back to the beach. Fire up the grill, mix some drinks and turn up the music. Think of the things and the people that you will miss come winter, and enjoy them while you still can.
Take a favorite summertime cocktail for example. Over the past few years, I have come to associate August with barbeques on patios, visiting seasonal neighbors and the cool, refreshing taste of Cuban Mint Juleps. In fact, hot summer nights and Cuban Mint Juleps have practically become synonymous with grilling and good company around here. And you know, there is a special summer story to my favorite cocktail. Impossible though it may be for me to imagine summer without this delightfully minty drink, I haven’t always known about the Cuban Mint Julep. I owe this great pleasure, among many others, to my good friend Mel.
I met Mel late one summer a few years back, through a mutual acquaintance. This friend-in-common, a great guy named Travis, noted that Mel and I have many shared interests. He mentioned that we might just make good friends. At the time, Mel and her husband Pete had just purchased a house a few towns north of mine, and she was looking for some help with the gardens. So, I went over to check things out. I was taken with the old place immediately, and although it needed work, I thought it was really charming. But as Travis suspected, the thing I liked best was Mel herself. She was straightforward and open, relaxed but steady. She wanted someone to help renovate the old garden, saving as many of the existing plants as possible while creating a new design. I took the job and soon a friendship blossomed between the overgrown shrubs and tangled vines. We spent a lot of time working together the first couple of years. There were plants to move, decisions to make, contractors to hire, rocks to haul and shrubs to prune. And there was weeding to do. There was lots of weeding. You really get to know someone when you work side by side with them for a time. Fortunately, as it turns out, our friend Travis was right. Our personalities were a very good mix.
Late one sultry summer afternoon, after we had been working all day pulling weeds in the hot sun, Mel asked me if I would like something to drink. Then she grabbed a bunch of mint from the garden and disappeared into the kitchen. When she emerged from the vestibule a few minutes later, all rosy cheeks and curls in a 50′s style apron, my friend was holding two frosty glasses filled with ice and a greenish- gold fluid. “What could this be?”, I wondered out loud. “It’s a Cuban Mint Julep”, she replied, handing me a glass. I had never heard of such a thing. But I do love a surprise, and so I sat down beside her and I had myself a drink. Well, Hoo-Wee. That was some cocktail. I must have been muttering in disbelief, because she told me again that it was a Cuban Mint Julep, but I still couldn’t believe my ears. I thought all juleps were made with sticky-sweet syrup and gin, and I am not a fan of gin. In fact I am more of a champagne or summer-sangria kind-of-gal. But this drink was different. It’s actually a lot like a mojito, only more interesting because it’s made with golden rum instead of the traditional white, (far richer and sweeter), and much more fresh peppermint. And Mel makes the old-style Cuban Mint Julep sans the mojito’s sparkling water. I like the taste much better. Sparkling water tends to dilute the delightful flavors of this classic summer cocktail.
And so, as we sipped our drinks in the garden that afternoon, the conversation slowly turned from weeds and flowers to art and chocolate; and from scuba diving to flying; and from quirky rattle-snake shooting relatives to long-lost and better-off-without-’em loves. We laughed and watched the daylight fade to violet over those Cuban Mint Juleps as the twilight settled in. I will never forget that summer night. It was the night we really became friends. I have met some interesting characters and some really good people through my work as a gardener. But this friendship stands out. It is real. Do you know someone you can spend hours with because they are just plain easy to be around? My friend Mel is like that. She is more than fun, she is good company. She asks great questions and she really listens to your answers. Mel is smart and talented and clever. She is also a great cook – and she makes a fabulous summer cocktail. I am lucky to know her. Some friendships are just meant to be, like hot summer nights and cold drinks.
Here’s to holding on to Summer….
Mel’s Cuban Mint Julep
(Makes one cocktail)
2 good size limes, juiced, (plus saved wedges and a slice for garnish)*
2 tsp sugar
1/4 cup of fresh peppermint leaves, more sprigs for garnish
2 oz Excellent quality Puerto Rican Gold Rum
Ice, (cracked to dice size, but not crushed)
*optional: add sparkling water for a traditional mojito
Put the sugar, lime juice and mint leaves at the bottom of a heavy based 6 oz Old-fashioned glass, or 8-10 oz highball if you are adding sparkling water or want more ice.
Muddle with a wooden muddler or handle end of a wooden spoon. It is important to muddle the ingredients thoroughly, in a circular motion, to release the mint oils into the lime juice.
Add 2 oz of rum, toss in a couple of squeezed wedges and stir.
Fill glass with cracked ice and stir again thoroughly.
If using larger glass and adding sparkling water, add water and stir.
Garnish with mint and lime and serve…
* A note on limes: Look for a fresh lime with pale green skin. Limes with dark skin tend to be less juicy. You want at least 1 1/2 -2 oz of fresh, sweet lime juice. Roll the limes between your palm and the counter before slicing in half. And to get the maximum juice, use a hand-juicer.
Peppermint, (Mentha piperita)
Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE
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