There's a sense of merriment at this time of year attached to cooking with foods such as apples, squash and corn. And that only gets better with a drink to toast the fall harvest.
From the classic caramel apple martinis served at Carmine's Atlantic City to Harry's Oyster Bar's version with pumpkin puree, casino restaurants are aligning their bars with the season. Keith Mitchell, executive chef of Caesars Atlantic City's restaurants, says he looks first at what produce is in season and locally caught or grown when planning menus such as the one at Nero's Tuscan Steakhouse.
"We use organic produce from a farm that grows it for us in Galloway (Township)," he says, explaining why he chose that restaurant to showcase his Fall Ruby-Red Beet Margarita. "It's great because when we get all that organic, handpicked produce coming in, some still warm from being picked, it gets the creativity flowing."
It was during a recent brainstorming session with Caesars' beverage manager Ryan Horner that the beet margarita and a butternut squash-infused Mexican hot chocolate were created. The chef and the mixologist were "playing with the juicer one day" and stumbled upon "two really strong cocktails that really work well."
"We had these great beets and we were talking about the depth of flavor and the mineral content of the beets, which is really high. But it was a little too sweet for the savory (side of the menu). So we made a beet ice cream as a special (with flourless chocolate cake)," Mitchell recalled. "But we still thought it would probably be cool as a frozen margarita. So we added triple sec, but it wasn't where we wanted it to be. So we added orange juice and Cointreau, and that gave us exactly what we were looking for."
Apparently, Mitchell had been seeking a fresh, sweet drink with slightly earthy overtones that would match well with Nero's beet-duck salad or similar fall dishes.
"(The hot chocolate) didn't start out that way, I was looking for a play on a pina colada when I made the base. Someone tried it and said, 'You know what would be really good just the way it is? A hot chocolate,'" he recalls. "So we grated some Mexican chocolate over the white chocolate and butternut squash, and added some heated Patron - because, why wouldn't you?"
That fun-loving attitude is exactly what Carmine's Beverage Director Erin Ward was counting on when she put a classic caramel-apple martini on the drink list for the resort location in The Quarter at Tropicana Casino and Resort, but not its New York City counterparts.
"There's definitely an element of being on vacation (in Atlantic City), so everyone is looking for fun," she says. "It's a fun, (seasonal) drink that evokes memories of candy apples."
Ward is careful to use premium alcohol as much as possible - Laird's Applejack Brandy, Sour Apple Pucker and Buttershots liquor for the caramel appletini; Absolut Orient Apple vodka and fresh cranberry juice for the Harvest Punch. And being a gin drinker herself, she also included a cocktail of rosemary-infused gin - "for a piney-basil flavor" - Plymouth gin - with "a slightly herbaceous juniper flavor" - and fresh lime juice.
At Harry's Oyster Bar at Bally's Atlantic City, General Manager Kim Brownell and Assistant Manager Maddy Vetrini worked together to choose craft beers to match their raw-bar offerings. Craft beers are kind of a big deal at Harry's, but for those who prefer a murky martini to an Angry Orchard Cider alongside their fresh-shucked oysters, there's a pumpkin pie and a candy corn version.
"We use actual pumpkin puree, which gives it that kick," Brownell said. "Obviously pumpkin (evokes) fall and thanksgiving. Pumpkin is a great flavor because it goes with cinnamon and nutmeg, which also are staples of the season."
The pumpkin margarita, with fresh lime juice, triple sec and Sauza tequila, "is more on the crisp side" even though it has a tablespoon of fresh pumpkin puree and half a teaspoon of that in-season cinnamon-nutmeg mixture.
As the days grow shorter and colder, the harvest-inspired cocktails will give way to peppermint and candy cane flavors, just in time to serve as the perfect adult treat for the holidays.
Contact Felicia Compian:
Carmine's Caramel-Apple Martini
•2 ounce Laird's Applejack brandy
•2 ounce Sour Apple pucker
•1/2 ounce Buttershots liquor
•1/2 ounce cranberry juice
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a cherry.