Berlin beverages inspire sodas, coolers, tea on the homefront
One thing I noticed when my husband and I were in Berlin a couple of years ago - Berliners set a consistently high bar for their beverages.
As you might guess, they drink a lot of light, fresh beer, but it surprised me to see that they also drink a lot of other interesting, delicious non-alcoholic drinks. In addition to the perfect coffee and tea, I saw a lot of delicate sodas made from herbs, ginger and odd fruits like plum or bitter gingseng.
Intoxicating in a different way, I found them to be addictively refreshing.
I remember walking around Kreutzberg, a little Indie neighborhood on the east side known for its Middle Eastern food, stalking schwarma stands.
Schwarma, is kind of like a gyro - lamb and chicken stacked on a rotisserie pole and then slowly roasted, its crusty surface finally carved off and loaded into a pita packed with vegetables, spicy pickles and tahina.
When it's good, schwarma is so amazing, but that's another story altogether. The point here is that as I struggled to eat this behemoth of a sandwich (pita splitting, pickles greased with tahina, sliding out), I was also sipping the most interesting soda, made from herbs. Which herbs, I couldn't really tell, but I did discern the licorice lilt of tarragon, and also some basil and maybe some parsley.
At any rate, the drink was wonderful and I've never forgotten it.
In fact, I started making my own herb soda at home, simply by starting with a simple syrup (equal parts sugar to water, brought to a boil) and infusing it with a handful of herbs from my herb garden.
Each one varies, according to what's blooming, but I usually rely on tarragon for the base and add basil, lemon basil, parsley, rosemary and the green seed heads of cilantro. (Cilantro goes to seed so quickly, and the seed heads are good for this.)
I chill the infused syrup, and when it turns light green it's ready. I strain out the herbs, add plain sparkling water to taste, and then I sit down to a very good copy of the Berlin soda.
The herb soda has inspired all kinds of other refreshing drinks, most of which I just whip up on a whim, according to what's lying around the kitchen, and a few of which I've documented.
Basically, you can infuse the simple syrup recipe with any kind of fruit or herb - strawberries, black currants, mint - and then add sparkling water and a bit of lemon or lime juice to taste.
But I make a watermelon drink slightly differently, because watermelon is so watery - one blender button away from a beverage already - and then season it with a little simple syrup and some lime juice.
The finished drink is the most incredible deep salmon color, much bolder tasting than a glass of white wine or a cocktail and, dare I say, even more refreshing - and kid-friendly, too. (Though if you want to turn it into a cocktail, I would think a splash of rum would fit.)
Makes 3 quarts, to serve 8
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
large handful mixed herbs such as basil, cilantro, tarragon and parsley
70 ounces (3 and one-half 20-ounce bottles) unflavored sparkling water
garnish: lime or lemon wedge.
Combine the sugar and water in a one-quart saucepot and bring to a boil. When the sugar is dissolved, add the herbs, as many as you can fit in your hand or the pot. You can't really have too many. Turn off the heat and let the herbs steep until it cools to room temperature. Pour the entire mixture, herbs and all, into a container and chill. When cold, strain out the herbs and transfer to a pitcher. Add sparkling water and serve the soda over ice with a wedge of lemon or lime.
(If you'd like to make a smaller batch at a time, pour just half of the syrup into a pitcher and use half of the sparkling water. After awhile, the sparkling water goes flat, but you can make them to-order in smaller batches.)
one-half watermelon, rind and skin trimmed, and cut into chunks
one-half cup lime or lemon juice
three-fourths cup simple syrup
In two batches, blend the watermelon, lime juice and simple syrup in a blender until smooth. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a pitcher. Chill and serve over ice.
Basic simple syrup
Makes 2 and one-fourth cups
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Bring the sugar and water to a boil; chill.
Rooibos (Red Tea) Sun Tea
3 bags red tea (red zinger or a red blend)
juice of one-half lemon
one-fourth cup sugar
Fill a 4-quart glass jar with water and add the tea bags, lemon juice and sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar and set the jar in the sun for at least 6 hours, or until the liquid turns rusty-red. Chill thoroughly before drinking.