3.29.2016

A Margarita Picante

There is a single road in Tulum that segments about 10 kilometers of beach from the jungle.  The road is shared by tourists, taxis, cavalier bikers, and mosquitos with questionable ties to Zika. Along most of the pavement there is no sidewalk, and thus no mercy for those on foot.  Not from anything with wheels or wings.  You can walk along with the current of the road or get out of the way.

This is the mantra of Tulum, Mexico, a stunning land curated for tourists, hacked out of the wild, where the juxtaposition of grandeur and dust is both jarring and beautiful. A paradise that defies taming, despite the decoration of antique-style Marconi light bulbs and leather purses made by Mexican designers that outline the palm trees and jungle leaves.

Most of our days were spent under tiki-style straw huts, soaking in white sand and turquoise waves, which would occasionally drag a novice kite surfer down the beach and threaten to take out any surrounding bystanders.

While we were there, Brett and I went to the famed Hartwood, only to be driven out after our chaya salad with mango, smoked fish, and hibiscus-stained eggs by a very bad case of Montezuma’s you-know-what, leaving behind plumes of insect repellent and drunk bodies dressed in fedoras yelling for tequila shots and waving cigarettes.  Despite the charm of a wood-fired restaurant carved out of the jungle with a star canopy for a ceiling, lit by lanterns and flames, I fell for another restaurant.

Posada Margherita is situated near a part of the beach segmented by a cluster of jagged rocks decorated with sunning birds.  The waves and sand are easily visible from your table and the ocean breeze wafts in through the restaurant’s windowless windows and open-air entrance.  The interior features sanded wood in muted beach blues and greens and is decorated, somewhat ironically, with old doors and window frames, used for style instead of structure.  It too has its share of bobbing hipster hats, but it also has one of the best margaritas I have had.

A few things about Posada Margherita.  They are an Italian restaurant.  They make rich homemade pasta to order and feature shrimp—with their heads still attached—that are the size of small lobsters.  The also serve a generous helping of olive oil focaccia alongside a few cubes of parmesan and a curious jar of pickled cauliflower that goes largely untouched by most patrons.

They also have a very strong cocktail garnish program.  (I am not even sure this is a thing.) I could have watched the drink parade all day.  One cocktail had a dusting of citrus zest shavings that looked like a girandola firework.  Another contained a bushy sprig of rosemary alongside a fuchsia-colored flower.

But the best garnish was so simple and beautiful that it is hard to believe I had not seen it before.  A single dried lemon slice sat surrounded by a perimeter of salt submerged with the rocks of a classic margarita.  The cocktail itself could be sucked down in a couple thirst quenching swigs, I think by design, to help hydrate thirsty beachgoers without turning them into drunkards.

It was a quirky place filled with a peculiar grouping of people and an unusual cluster of cuisine set on the beach in the Yucat├ín.  It was very inspiring.

So when Brett and I got back, we got to work drying lemons and squeezing citrus. We tested, and retested, and ended up with a small collection of tequila-soiled scratch notes decorated with arrows, stars, checkmarks, and dashes and somehow, miraculously, avoided hangovers.

The result is a mutant margarita born on its fifth iteration, with borrowed inspiration from the famed grapefruit habanero version at Hartwood—that I have heard plenty about but did not get to try—and the Golden Posada margarita that we sampled a half dozen of.

It is bright and refreshing without being a pushover, and spicy without being abrasive. I am always a big proponent of a salted rim, particularly in this case as it reminds me of the beach, so that comes highly recommended.  As does the garnish, because it looks cool and smells good.

So is seven ingredients, plus water, a lot for a margarita?  Maybe. But it also creates space for a little retreat at home.

Mille grazie,” said the Mexican waiter, as he dropped the check at Posada Margherita.  Many thanks to you, Mexico.

Habanero Grapefruit Margarita with a Dried Lemon Slice
Inspired by Posada Margherita and Hartwood

Ingredients:

1 lemon (organic if possible, since you will be using the rind)
8 ounces white tequila (blanco), divided
1 habanero, quartered with the seeds intact
10 ounces fresh grapefruit juice (you’ll likely need more than one grapefruit)
2 ounces fresh lime juice (roughly 2 limes) (see note)
2 ounces demerara simple syrup (recipe follows)
Fleur de sel or fine sea salt, for the rims

Instructions:

This is a cocktail that requires some advance planning.  You will probably want to make the lemon slices and demerara syrup ahead of time (the day before will help divide up the prep). Both can be made in advance and stored until needed—the slices in an airtight container at room temperate and the syrup in the fridge.

You will also need to be around at least an hour in advance to steep the habanero for the tequila.

for the demerara simple syrup

In a small saucepan, stir together 2 cups of demerara sugar and 1 cup of water.  Cook on medium heat, swirling occasionally, until the sugar dissolves.  (This will happen before the liquid boils.) Let cool; store in fridge for cocktails (you will have extra). (Sugar in the raw would be a substitute if you cannot find demerara.)

for the dried lemon slices

Set the oven to 170 degrees. Thinly slice your lemon into rounds as close to an eighth of an inch as you can get. Set a metal cooking rack over a sheet pan and place the slices on the rack.  (This will aid in the drying process.) 

Dry in the oven for 60 minutes.  Rotate the pan and place back in the oven for another 60 minutes, or until the slices are completely dry to the touch.  (This may take anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes depending on slight variances in oven temperature and slice thickness, so you may want to start checking occasionally after the first hour and a half to prevent over caramelization.)

for the habanero tequila and remaining prep

In a small container, place 6 ounces of tequila and the quartered habanero.  Cover and let the mixture steep for 1 to 2 hours.  (If you like things on the milder side, steep for closer to 1 hour but keep in mind this is still a habanero margarita and it will be spicy.)

While the tequila is steeping, juice your citrus and place in separate containers.  Take out 2 small plates.  On one plate, place a small amount of citrus juice, lime, grapefruit, etc. (a few teaspoons).  On a second plate place a couple tablespoons of salt.  (Better to err on the side of too much than too little.)

Set the rim of your cocktail glass into the juice and twist so that the entire rim is moistened.  Place the wet rim into the salt and rotate the glass, tipping it slightly as you go around, until evenly covered.  Repeat. (Doing this a little ahead of time will help set the salt, so it doesn’t easily slough off.)

When the tequila is spiced to your liking, strain out the habanero and set aside (it can be added to dinner or discarded).  You should be left with a peppery clear liquid.

for the cocktail (per drink)

In a cocktail shaker, place 3 or 4 ice cubes.  Place another 2 or 3 ice cubes into a glass with a salted rim.  To the shaker add 1½ ounces of habanero tequila, ½ ounce white tequila, 2½ ounces grapefruit juice, ½ ounce lime juice, and ½ ounce demerara simple syrup.  Shake vigorously and then strain into your prepared glass.  Top with a dried lemon slice. Repeat with remaining cocktails.

Yields enough for 4 cocktails (plus extra garnishes)

Notes:
-Brett and I went through 5 different versions of this cocktail before settling on one—more or less.  In the end, I preferred the slightly more lime-forward version with ½ ounce of juice per drink.  Brett preferred the more grapefruit-forward (less “typical” margarita) version with ¼ ounce of lime juice per cocktail.  They both are good.

-We ended up cutting the habanero tequila with a little of standard variety because the original 2 ounce version of habanero tequila made tasting the more subtle grapefruit nearly impossible.  It was still good, mind you. It was just harder to tell there was grapefruit in there.

-We also tried pink and white grapefruit and both seemed to work fairly interchangeably.


-Why the lemon slice?  In the end, it was prettier, bigger, and had better flavor than the dried lime slices.  If storing longer than a few days you may want to keep them in the fridge—it doesn’t affect the quality and will prolong their lifespan. Halved grapefruit slices might be cool too, but I haven’t attempted to dry them.