Brown Sugar Lemonade with Cucumber and Mint

One nice thing about the immediate aftermath of having written a cookbook is throwing yourself into other people’s recipes. I finished writing mine a few months ago, but leading up to my review of what’s called “proof” or “galley” pages—the unfinal version of the book just after it’s been designed, and my last chance to see it and make any changes—I’ve still been working through those recipes. I’m the kind of person who, in the wee hours of the morning, second guesses even the minor decisions he’s made. So while it was nice to hand over a finished manuscript, it hasn’t brought much relief because I’ve been re-reading and re-testing until now so that I can make quadrup-ly sure that what gets printed is as perfect as I meant it to be.

But as I said, I reviewed the galley pages and the whole thing is almost out of my hands now. To offset my inclination towards paranoia, it’s been a huge source of pleasure to turn to other cookbooks. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Heidi Swanson’s perfect Super Natural Every Day; so far, I love the Breakfast Strata, the Green Lentil Soup, and the Black Sesame Otsu. For the cookbook club I participate in I made Amanda Hesser’s Almond Cake from Cooking for Mr. Latte (which is as good as she, and other bloggers, attest it to be). I made those brownies again when I visited my family in North Carolina. And I recently got a copy of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions by Elizabeth Andoh, a book so intensely, gorgeously comprehensive—I been reading it studiously, as if I expect to be quizzed on it later—that I don’t feel prepared to cook from it until I finish reading every word.

But then I came home from North Carolina to find August levels of mugginess here in New York, and I’ve been thirsty. Over one lunch break this week I got falafel from the Taim food truck, which happened to be parked near the office where I work part time, and with it a glass of brown sugar lemonade. As I sat in Madison Square Park and enjoyed my lunch on a perfect June day, I thought how good that lemonade would be if it were made “fancy.” My friend Lesley told me that over the weekend she’d been craving “fancy” lemonade, and by some miracle she walked right into an ice-cold glass of it at The General Greene (not much of a restaurant, FYI, for vegetarians). They served her Cucumber-Mint Lemonade; Lesley exulted. I still haven’t tried that lemonade, but between the brown sugar one and Lesley’s word, I won’t have to, because now I can make my own.

Brown sugar transforms the sweetness in lemonade from that of something one-dimensional like cotton candy to a honey caramel, giving it depth. And then the cucumber and mint, well, you probably know what that tastes like: an envelope of coolness that hits you in the nose first. This isn’t exactly a 5-minute lemonade—you have to make a syrup, and then you have to squeeze a bunch of lemon juice, and then you make cucumber water, which lends the finished lemonade a bit of pulp and texture, a welcome surprise. But it’s worthwhile, not least of all because with a shot of gin or vodka and a splash of seltzer, you’ll have cordials hour covered for the rest of the summer.

Brown Sugar Lemonade with Cucumber and Mint

Makes about 6 cups

3/4 cup brown sugar or turbinado sugar, or a combination of the two
1 cup water
1-1/2 cups packed mint leaves, divided
Zest of one lemon, removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
4 to 7 heavy, juicy lemons, to make 3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 plump, heavy cucumbers (about 1 pound)
4 cups water
Mint sprigs, cucumber rounds, and/or lemon wedges for garnish, optional

1. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring periodically, until the sugar is dissolved. Meanwhile, place 1 cup mint and the lemon zest in a large liquid measuring cup (at least 2-cup capacity) or a small mixing bowl. Pour the hot syrup over the mint and zest and let steep while you proceed with the rest of the recipe, at least 20 minutes.

2. Juice the lemons, straining out the seeds and pulp, to make 3/4 cup juice.

3. Peel the cucumbers and cut into 1- or 2-inch pieces. Place in a blender with the remaining 1/2 cup mint. Cover with the water and then blitz until liquefied. Set a sieve or fine-mesh colander over a large mixing bowl or 2-quart capacity liquid measuring cup. Strain the contents of the blender through a sieve, pressing with a rubber spatula to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the cucumber solids, then pour the cooled syrup through the sieve, again pressing to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard those solids, remove the sieve, and stir in the lemon juice. Taste for balance, adding additional water, lemon juice, or sugar to adjust.

4. Serve over ice, garnished with mint, and cucumber rounds or lemon wedges.


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