Monday, July 22, 2013

The Best Shepherd's Pie



I have just returned from the land of heat:  Illinois.  I am back in my own element now: the fog, the cold, the sweater in July.  Oh, it is good, good, good to be home again.


It has slowly been happening, the metamorphosing into a Californian--the ache for sea and fog, the smell of salt in the air--but it has happened, indeed.  Yesterday to get my fix of water and fog, I took the niece, who is visiting for two weeks, and the husband to the Berkeley Marina for a short walk.  The bay was littered with boats, more so than normal because the America's Cup is here this year. Someone was flying a red kite with multicolored streamers and four smaller kites (that looked like puffer fish) attached to the main line.  The wind was strong, and admittedly cold, but I linked arms with the husband and the niece, and we walked along the rocky embankment with barely a view of the city because of the fog.  Oh, the fog.  Ah, Northern California in July.  Welcome home.





But this was only a quick fix, as there was much to be done yesterday.  Grocery shopping needed to happen, the unpacking of the bags, the doing of the laundry, the catching up on the email.  But once all of the dust had settled, I sent the niece and the husband to the movies and I slowly made, what is purported by The Country Cooking of Ireland to be, the best shepherd's pie while I listened the Giants lose to the Diamondbacks.  The cooking was leisurely, the baseball was disappointing, but by then the sun had come out, the backyard had warmed up, and I was standing in my kitchen chopping mushrooms and onions, browning beef and lamb, adding a little salt here, a lot of pepper there.  It was nice to have the knife back in my hand, to rest my hip against the counter, to swing around to open the refrigerator door.  It was nice to be back in my kitchen.  As often happens on vacation, everyone wants to go out to dinner when I visited, so there has been no cooking for the past two weeks.  Puttering around the kitchen with baseball on in the background was a return home as well.


 

I asked the niece to choose a cookbook, and I then would choose the dish.  Given that she is half Irish, she gravitated to this one, The Country Cooking of Ireland.  I have cooked from this cookbook here (boxty) and here (liver in a whiskey cream sauce which was so, so much better than you might imagine it would have been).  It's a lovely cookbook, and I would like to procure another of the Country Cooking of ______ series, but I cannot decide which one to grab next.  ItalyFranceGreece?  So many options. 


Finally, I did make some adjustments, which I modified in the recipe below, but if you want to live by the original, here's what I changed:
  • Neither the niece nor I like cooked carrots, and the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 chopped carrots. Thus, I substituted 3 cups of sliced mushrooms for the carrots.  I like the way mushrooms add more of that savory flavor, but the carrots would have added a sweetness.  Turns out the niece doesn't like cooked mushrooms (it's a texture thing), but she picked them out of the meat, and the husband ate them.
  • After I made the meat mixture, I poured off the fat.  This is not a light dish--nor should it be; it is shepherd's pie, for goodness sake--but reducing some of the fat here and there does not hurt.  By reserving the drippings and skimming the fat, you still preserve some of the flavor.
  • This is not an adjustment, but a note.  The cookbook calls for steaming the potatoes rather than boiling them:  the steaming leads to a drier potato--perfect for mashing.  This was the first time I had prepared mashed potatoes this way, and I have to say it was lovely.  Not only were the potatoes moist (unlike, say, the dryness that can result from baking them) but the skins slid right off--a bonus, because then I ate the skins with a little salt as a snack.
  • To make the mashed potatoes to serve, heat the cream to a simmer--this will keep the potatoes warm.  However, since I was making the mashed potatoes to put atop meat and then to put in a 350 degree oven, I didn't worry about heating the cream ahead of time.  But if you have come here just for the mashed potato recipe--and I won't blame you at all if you just make the potatoes; they are creamy and salty and satisfying--warm the cream first.  You could also use milk to cut the fat (which I should have done).



In all, this is quite good shepherd's pie.  I will leave it to you to determine if it is, indeed, the best.  However, I know it tasted wonderful after a foggy morning and a productive day.  It's good to be home again.


One Year Ago: Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango 
Two Years Ago: Mussels Linguica
Three Years Ago: Grilled Duck Breast with Peach-Green Grape Chutney

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The Best Shepherd's Pie
Adapted from  The Country Cooking of Ireland

Yield:
Serves 6

Ingredients:  
1 3/4 lbs russet potatoes
3/4 cup heavy cream
4-6 tbsp butter, softened
salt and pepper 
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cups mushrooms, sliced
3/4 pounds ground lamb
3/4 pounds ground beef
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 cup beef, lamb, or chicken stock
2 tbsp butter
salt and pepper

Instructions:
To make the mashed potatoes:
1.  Put the potatoes in a large pot, with the larger ones on the bottom, and add water to come halfway up the potatoes.  Covert he pot and bring to a boil over high heat.  When the water begins to boil, carefully drain off about half of it, reserving 2 Tbsp of the water you pour off.  Return the pot to the hear,cover it again, reduce the hear to low, and let the potatoes steam for about 40 minutes.  Turn off the heat, cover the potatoes with a clean, damp tea towel, and let sit for 5 minutes more.

2. Remove the potatoes from the pot with a slotted spoon and carefully peel them while they are still hot.  Return them to the pot with the softened butter.  Mash them well; continue to mash while slowly pouring in the cream mixture.  Season generously with salt and pepper, and finish by whisking the potatoes vigorously.

To make the meat mixture:
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

5. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions and mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes or until the onions are soft but not browned and the mushrooms have released their juices.

6.  Raise the heat to high and add the lamb and beef, and cook until well browned, breaking up the larger chunks.

7.  In a fine mesh sieve over a bowl, drain the meet and onion mixture.  Return the meat and onion mixture to the skillet.  Reserve the drippings and place in the freezer.  Once the fat has hardened, remove the fat and return the drippings to the meat mixture (this can be done after the next step).

8.  Return the meat mixture to high , stir in the tomato paste and mustard, then add the stock.  Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for 30 minutes until the stock is mostly but not completely evaporated.  (Return the reserved drippings to the meat mixture).

To combine:
9.  Transfer the meat mixture to a round or rectangular ovenproof baking dish.  Cover the meat with mashed potatoes, flattening the top with a knife (make a wave or crosshatch pattern in the top of the potatoes, if you like).  Brush the top with melted better, then bake for 50 minutes.

Monday, July 15, 2013

American Potato Salad with Hard-Boiled Eggs and Sweet Pickles



I am here to change everything you think you know about potato salad (via the wisdom of the cookbook we call the Geek Cookbook, for it gives you everything you need to know via a scientific breakdown).  Even if you don't use this recipe (which, respectfully, I would say you are fool not to), just follow one instruction, and your potato salad days will have a clear demarcation of Before and After.

When the potatoes are cool enough to cut but still warm, cube them into 1/2-inch chunks and then pour 1/4 cup red wine vinegar over them and season with salt and pepper.  Let the potatoes cool completely.  Then do whatever else you tend to do with your potato salad, be it mayo or capers or celery or cucumber or herbs or bacon.  


Now the next step, if you're willing to take it, is to no longer use pickle relish.  Chop your own pickle, sweet or otherwise.  Now, the title of this recipe nudges you toward the sweet pickle, which I would, respectfully, tell you to ignore.  Use dill pickles instead.  People expect sweet pickle, so the dill pickle is a nice surprise.  Your potato salad should feel familiar, yes, but not so familiar that people do not notice it.  With the vinegar on the warm potatoes and the dill pickle instead of sweet pickle, you will have a side salad that wants to be a main dish.


Finally, the last thing to do to get your potato salad noticed, should that be your desired effect, is to use a variety of potatoes.  I used blue, red, and white potatoes.  Yes, yes, it was the Fourth of July when I served it, but mostly such patriotic undertones were the result of a trip to the farmer's market where a stand was selling lovely net bags of multi-colored potatoes.  Don't peel the potatoes--leave those fibrous skins intact.  It does make for a pretty little salad.

But like I said, if you want to change only one thing about your potato salad, just follow the vinegar step.  All the rest is gravy.  Er, I guess that metaphor doesn't work (that would mean an entirely different sort of potato dish), but you know what I mean...

One Year Ago: Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango
Two Years Ago: Mussels Linguica
Three Years Ago: Pilaf-Style Rice

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American Potato Salad with Hard-Boiled Eggs and Sweet Pickles
Adapted from  The New Best Recipe

Yield:
Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients:  
2 pounds waxy potatoes (red are fine, but I used a rainbow selection)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar*
salt and ground black pepper
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium celery rib, minced (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons minced red onion or shallots
1/4 cup dill pickles, minced**
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves

*    I add 1/8 cup of pickle brine to mine, but I love the pickle taste
**  Okay, the recipe calls for sweet pickles, but I like it better with the dill pickles.  You make your own call.  I trust you.

Instructions:

1.  Cover the potatoes with 1 inch water in a stockpot; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring once or twice to ensure even cooking, until the potatoes are tender, 25-30 minutes (for medium potatoes) or 15-20 minutes (for small potatoes).  (To check tenderness, insert a fork or a knife into the center of the potato; it should feel tender and come out smoothly.)

2.  Drain, and then cool the potatoes slightly (about 5 minutes) so that you can handle them.  Cut the potatoes with a serrated knife into 3/4-inch cubes (the serrated knife helps reduce the tear on the skins).  Rinse the knife occasionally in warm water to remove the starch.

3.  Place the warm potato cubes in a large bowl.  Add the vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and toss gently.  Cool for about 20-30 minutes.

4.  When the potatoes are cool, toss with the remaining ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

David Lebovitz's Peach Amaretti Crisp


Peaches.  Oh, it is peach season, my friends.  Sweet, sweet peaches that we should all dare to eat. Gobble up in fact.  Grill them, puree them, spin them into ice cream, but eat them, eat them all.


This take on the classic crisp is lovely.  First, it gives you an excuse to pick out eight of the sweetest, ripest, prettiest peaches you can find.  You need to peel them up, slice 'em up, and then coat them in a little flour and sugar.  But then comes the most important, and inspired part:  make the crisp.  But this time use amaretti cookies instead of the regular-old oats.




Amaretti, you ask.  First off, in Italian, it means "little bitter thing" (perhaps a pet name for one you love?).  These are lovely little Italian meringues that have that truly bittersweet taste of almonds and sugar.  (However, here's the trick--they are not made with almonds; instead they are made with apricot kernels.)  You know that taste, even if you haven't had one of these cookies--as you get closer to the peach pit, when you gobble that pretty fruit down, the flesh gets a little more bitter but also a little more like almonds: sweet and nutty.  That's the taste of these cookies, and that's why they are so lovely on the crisp.  If you buy your cookies, they are bound to be made the traditional way--with the stones of apricots.  However, you can make your own, and Lebovitz's recipe calls for almonds instead of the pits (which have slight traces of cyanide in them, how's that for living on the edge?).  Sweet lord, you can recreate that almondy, sweet bitterness in your own kitchen.



I, on the other hand, chose to purchase mine.  It was just simpler.  

Now the amaretti cookies is not related to Amaretto, at least on the surface.  There is no liquor in the cookie, but they do share the distinction of having the almond taste.  And Amaretto can be made from almonds or apricot pits.  (Disaronno uses only apricot pits.)  Plus, the two--the cookie and the liquor--originate in the same part of Italy, Saronno





Let's come back to the crisp.  Lebovitz suggests making double or triple the topping and freezing it so that you always have crisp makings on hand.  The topping is quite lovely, so I second his suggestion.  While perfect for pairing with any stone fruit (well, maybe not avocado), this topping would be delightful on raspberries or blueberries or strawberries or apples or any combination.  


Lebovitz suggests serving the crisp, either still warm or at room temperature, with heavy cream or with vanilla ice cream.  We went the ice cream route, which melted quite quickly, so excuse the milky photos.  But we gobbled this crisp up during an afternoon barbecue.  More sweet than bitter, indeed.
 
 
Finally, just some thoughts on how sweet this all is--not just the dessert.  We mistake this all for permanence, all too often.  The peeling of peaches, the sitting with family around an outdoor table, the watching of hummingbirds.  It's so sweet.  So we must pay attention.

I am flying today to Illinois for a while.  Those of you who know me well know I hate to fly.  Breathe.  Find what is sweet.



One Year Ago: Mexican Wedding Cookies
Two Years Ago: Mussels Linguica
Three Years Ago: Pilaf-Style Rice

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David Lebovitz's Peach-Amaretti Crisp
Adapted from  Ready for Dessert

Yield:
Serves 6

Ingredients:  
The filling: 
8 medium peaches (about 3 pounds), peeled and cut into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices (8 cups) (see below* if you're not sure how to peel a peach)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar 
1 tablespoon flour 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

The topping: 
3/4 cup flour 
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar 
3/4 cup crushed amaretti cookies (about 16 large cookies or 30 small cookies)**
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/2 cup almonds, toasted 
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled

**I bought mine, but you can make your own.  Here's David Lebovitz's recipe.

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and lay a sheet of aluminum foil on the rack below to catch drippings.

To make the filling:
2.  In a large bowl, mix the peach slices with the granulated sugar, flour, and vanilla or almond extract. Transfer the peaches to a shallow 2-quart baking dish.  Set aside.

To make the topping:
3.  In a food processor, pulse together the flour, the brown and granulated sugars, amaretti, and cinnamon until the amaretti are in very small bits. Add the almonds and pulse until the nuts are in small pieces.
4.  Add the pieces of chilled butter and pulse until the butter is finely broken up.  Continue to pulse until the topping no longer looks sandy and is just beginning to hold together.
5.  Distribute the amaretti topping evenly over the peaches.

To finish:
6.  Bake the crisp for 40 to 50 minutes, until the edges are bubbling and a knife inserted into the center pierces the fruit easily.

7.  Serve warm with cold heavy cream or with vanilla ice cream.


*Here's how to peel a peach (and a tomato, for that matter).  Cut a cross in the bottom of the peach.  Drop it into boiling water for 1 minute.  Then transfer it to ice water for 1 minute to stop the cooking process.  The skin should come right off.  If not, put it back into the boiling water for another minute and then back into the ice water.  Voila, a peeled peach.







Saturday, July 6, 2013

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Corn-Bacon Relish


For the Fourth of July, my dad came to visit with his wife, my aunt and my uncle.  After going to the Coliseum to watch the A's (and the Cubs, and I cheered on the losing Cubs, as is usual), they all came over to our place for a backyard barbecue of pork tenderloin, potato salad, and a tossed salad.  It was quite pleasant, sitting in the backyard hearing stories of their growing up.


As the husband tended the pork on the grill, my uncle and my dad told stories of my grandfather who commanded performances of delight and surprise for the home movies as his children came down the stairs at Christmas.  Should my father not seem delighted or surprised enough, my grandfather would send him back up the stairs to recreate the moment.  To be honest, my father insisted on a full family portrait on the stairs of his suburban home when my brother, sister, and I were young.  The apple did not fall far from that tree.  I do not make the cats pose on Christmas.  It's my gift to them.

For a while I had to duck inside the build the tossed the salad.  My aunt came with me and we chatted about my cousin and her children and the renovations on their home.  We carried the salad outside to find my uncle telling the story of a St. Louis syndicate coming to the doughnut shop (which was part of my great-grandfather's and grandfather's pharmacy) in the wee hours of the morning;  my uncle, not knowing who they were and thinking they were just the police officers he would often let in, opened the locked door to them.  Unaware, my uncle went back to making doughnuts.  My grandfather looked at his son askance, but waited on these men, clad in black suits in the middle of the night asking for doughnuts and coffee; they left behind five hundred dollars in tips.  My uncle says he got to pocket none of the tip money. 

The husband carved the pork into rounds, and my dad and my uncle told the story my great-great grandfather who died in the Great Chatsworth train wreck in 1887 (and my dad still has my great-great grandfather's watch, which stopped at the moment of the wreck).  As we sat down to eat, my uncle spoke of my grandfather driving with him to his second job interview in downtown Chicago and of their sitting with my grandfather's father-in-law to have sandwiches to pass the time.  It was lovely to hear them reminiscing about their Cape Cod-style house and their father who never showed any pain to his children, even up to the days before he died at only 53. 


So, there it was, a July afternoon barbecue after a baseball game with my family.

We had this pork tenderloin, which was quite wonderful (and super easy), with the excellent corn relish.  The corn relish has sage and maple syrup to give you that sweet, savory taste that is so lovely against grilled meat.  The next night, the husband and I used the leftover pork and relish to make tacos with guacamole and queso fresco.  We still have leftovers, and I think these simple tacos may be making an appearance as today's lunch as well.  I highly recommend this simple dish.  And if possible, eat it while you tell stories of growing up.



Finally, I have to share with you my favorite quotation as of late from Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, the best book I have read thus far this summer:

I hate the Fourth of July. The early middle age of summer. Everything is alive and kicking for now, but the eventual decline into fall has already set itself in motion. Some of the lesser shrubs and bushes, seared by the heat, are starting to resemble a bad peroxide job. The heat reaches a blazing peak, but summer is lying to itself, burning out like some alcoholic genius. And you start to wonder - what have I done with June?

Indeed, what have I done with June?  It always surprises me to be this far into summer already.


One Year Ago: Mexican Wedding Cookies
Two Years Ago: Spinach Souffle
Three Years Ago: Alfogotto


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Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Corn-Bacon Relish
Adapted from  The Thrill of the Grill

Yield:
Serves 4

Ingredients:  
3 ears of corn, shucked 
4 tablespoons maple syrup 
3 slices of bacon, diced small 
1 large onion, diced small 
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage 
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 
3 pork tenderloins (10 to 12 ounces each)

Instructions:

1.  Cook the corn in boiling water for 4 minutes. Remove it and allow to cool to room temperature.  Once cool, with a sharp knife, remove the kernels from the cob.

2.   Over a medium fire, grill the corn 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly brown. Brush on the maple syrup and continue to grill for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, or until the syrup begins to caramelize (it will turn golden brown). Remove the corn from the grill and cool.

3.  In a saute pan cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp. about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook an additional 4 to 5 minutes, or until the onion is clear. Add the corn and cook 2 minutes more.  Remove the corn mixture from the heat, add the sage, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir well and set aside.

4.  Remove the tenderloins from the grill, allow them to stand for 5 minutes, then carve each in 1/2-inch slices. Spoon some relish over each portion of the sliced pork and serve.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cucumber-Basil Egg Salad



It's true.  I am giving you a recipe on how to make egg salad.  But it's a really tasty egg salad, mostly because of the basil and cucumbers.  Plus, it makes a fine stuffing for sandwiches and a fabulous topping for toast.  And it's a perfect summer lunch.  What could be worse?


 Now, I will tell you that this is not light as in low calories (but it is light in terms of how you feel at the end of eating it), and I generally like to make my egg salad with a mix of yogurt and mayo if not entirely with yogurt;  however, for the sake of science and adherence to the recipe, I was happy to try it this time with straight mayo.  Admittedly, I couldn't tell the difference (maybe it was a little tangier than it would be yogurt), so the next time I make this number--and there will be a next time, trust me--I think that some fat free yogurt will do the trick.  For, you see, it's not the mayo that is the superstar in this recipe.  It is the lovely combination of basil and green onions and cucumber (and a lot of the cucumber) that makes for this good salad.


In fact, one might even think that the reason I like this little recipe is it's cucumber-ness.  You know what would be delightful with this?  A spread of little open-faced cucumber sandwiches coupled with a bunch of open-faced egg-salad sandwiches.  That seems like a plan fine game plan.  Now, who's coming over for lunch?




One Year Ago: Mexican Wedding Cookies
Two Years Ago: Spinach Souffle
Three Years Ago: Alfogotto


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Cucumber-Basil Egg Salad

Yield:
Serves 6

Ingredients:  
6 hard-cooked eggs, diced
3/4 cup seeded diced cucumber (about 1/2 cucumber)
1/4 cup minced shallots
1/2 cup sliced green onion (green part only)
3 tablespoons lightly packed chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup mayonnaise (consider yogurt?)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Instructions:

1.  Gently combine the eggs, cucumbers, shallots, green onions, and basil in a medium bowl. Stir in the mayonnaise, salt, and pepper.



Yep.  That's it.  Serve with crackers or pita pockets or really yummy, crusty bread.  I went the bread route, toasted under the broiler with a spread of olive oil and garlic, and a side salad for a late-week, light dinner.


*Finally, I am really loving this cookbook.  Consider it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Cucumber Crush


Cucumbers are delightful.  In fact, I seem to be a fan of cucumbered alcoholic drinks, as evidenced here.  And this little refresher comes just at the right time because, baby, it's hot outside.


This drink is relatively easy, given that my mother once insisted to me that I had insisted to her that I wanted a juicer.  I have no recollection of having ever wanted said juicer, but I am glad that she gifted it to me nonetheless.  Then, to boot, my cousin once insisted I needed martini glasses; I was young, I insisted that I didn't like martinis.  I looked at her aghast.  She returned the look.  Then she kindly gifted me that which I did not know I needed.  But now I am glad I have them, too.


So as I mentioned, I have been away for a week (and have been nursing a hell of a cold for two and a half weeks and counting) at Stanford studying the Great Depression and World War II as part of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.  I got a good deal out of the program, even though I am no history teacher, and am so glad I went.  


I have to say one of the best days of all was when we got to prowl around in the special collections, and we got to see some of Steinbeck's papers.  I wasn't much of a Steinbeck fan until about two years ago when I got to go to, what I affectionately refer to as, Steinbeck Camp (see here and here) (however, the NEH would prefer I refer to it as an National Endowment for Humanities Institute); there, I finally understood what all the fuss over California's Golden Boy was about.  Thus, it was great fun to paw through some of Steinbeck's lesser articles and poems, including his "Primer on the 1930s" complete with cross outs, circles, and rewritten passages.

Outside of Special Collections, I took a lot of notes, revisited some macroeconomics, got to peek in the Hoover Institute's archives (they have some weird stuff--not limited to Hitler's skull x-rays, emergency ration kits, and the first known mentioning of the New Deal by FDR on a yellow legal pad), and got to feel a little like I was back in college (those three-hour lectures make fast reminders of what it's like to be 19 again).  Bonus: I also met some lovely people.


Nonetheless, it is nice to be home.  Nice to be able sit in my own backyard. Soon, my father is coming to visit, thereafter I depart for the land of humidity, and then my niece returns for a two-week visit.  Summer is full on here.  The only thing to do is embrace it, kick back with a cucumber drink, and be grateful that someone somewhere insisted I needed a juicer and a set of martini glasses.  Good people. 

One Year Ago: Mexican Wedding Cookies
Two Years Ago: Spinach Souffle
Three Years Ago: Alfogotto

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Cucumber Crush
Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen

Yield:
Serves 4

Ingredients:  
1 cucumber
2 tablespoons tarragon leaves (although mint or basil or a combination would be grand)
Juice of 1 1/2 large limes
3/4 cup vodka
1/4 cup agave nectar
Crushed ice for serving (throw some ice cubes in a plastic bag and take a hammer to them)
1 cup sparkling water

Instructions:

1. Cut 8 thin rounds of cucumbers and set aside for serving.

2.  If you have a juicer, juice the cucumber.  If not, coarsely chop the cucumber and then it in a food processor to puree for 1 minute.  Pour into a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl and press to release as much juice as possible.  You should get about a scant cup of cucumber juice.

3.  Coarsely chop the tarragon leaves.

4.  In a small pitcher, combine the cucumber juice, tarragon, lime juice, vodka, and agave.  Stir.

5.  Serve (I used a martini glass, but an old-fashioned glass works as well) with crushed ice and topped with sparkling water.  Garnish with reserved cucumbers.