A bristly, irritating stinging nettle plant might be unwelcome in most homeowners’ yards, but for Amy Zavatto, it’s a great bitter root to balance the sweet agave syrup in a “Swizzle.”
“The weed is kind of in the eye of the beholder,” said Zavatto, a part-time Greenport resident and author of the new book “Forager’s Cocktails,” which features more than 40 recipes using foraged and grown ingredients. Drinks made with fresh components like elder flower, wood sorrel and lovage are accompanied by tantalizing photos of the finished products.
A picture of a “Valentine” cocktail, infused with homemade rose petal syrup and garnished with a wild rose, is pretty enough to serve as a table centerpiece. The image of the wild mint mojito will make you long for the hot weather when “the smell of mint is almost like herby air-conditioning, cooling you off with just one whiff,” as Zavatto puts it in the book.
Zavatto, former cocktail columnist for the Staten Island Advance and author of 2013’s “Architecture of the Cocktail” (among several other titles), knows how to craft a drink. And like the restaurant industry’s farm-to-table movement, she follows the trend of using fresh and homemade ingredients, rather than the preservative- and sugar-laden mixers sold in supermarkets and used at the bars in chain restaurants.
“It’s getting away from that aisle in the supermarket where you see sour mix,” said Zavatto, who is also executive director of The Long Island Merlot Alliance and a diploma candidate at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. “What is that exactly?”
A Shelter Island native, Zavatto was familiar with the wild berries and onion grass that grew in her parents’ yard. But she moved to Manhattan in 1986 and for many years traded surroundings of wild honeysuckle for graffiti-covered concrete — that is, until she bought a home on Staten Island 12 years ago.
It was the first time she’d had her own backyard, albeit an overgrown mess that hadn’t been tended to in years.
There, among the inedible plants, Zavatto spotted some sweet-smelling sassafras, a stubborn root she had to wrangle from the ground.
“It smelled like … bubble gum! And Fruit Loops cereal. And a little like root beer soda,” she writes in the book’s foreword. “This dirty, gnarled, funny-looking root of this irksome, incredibly prolific weed turned out to be pretty awesome for cocktails.”
She suggests using it to make a root syrup for a “Sassafras Sidecar,” which includes brandy, cointreau and fresh lemon juice.
The book, released in America by Sterling Epicure in November, has garnered attention from Wine Enthusiast magazine, Wine and Spirits magazine and The Village Voice. For the aspirational Bohemian type, it is available at the retail store Urban Outfitters. For everyone else, it can be purchased on Amazon.
Zavatto aims for accessibility in the tome, which was written for the lay person rather than as a manual for professional mixologists. It features the kind of drinks Zavatto has made for friends and neighbors on summer days at her Greenport home — many of which have been tested by her “willing guinea pig” husband, Daniel Marotta. She hopes readers will challenge themselves by taking her recipes and making them their own.
“I just want to encourage people to get away from those pre-made mixers,” she said. “They are easy to pick up, but in the end they are not saving you any money and they certainly don’t taste any better.”