Sunday 14 November 2010

Introducing the Plasma Mary

A Plasma Mary on the rocks

Some years ago I was in a fancy restaurant and was served a complimentary amuse bouche that consisted of a shot glass of a clear, slightly pinkish liquid. It turned out to be tomato juice, highly sieved and strained but still very recognisable on the palate.

For some reason this came back to me recently and I got it into my head to try making a Bloody Mary from just such an extract—I suppose I was feeling a bit molecular and fancied the idea of something that tricked the mind by looking like a gin and tonic but tasting like a Bloody Mary. It’s probably been done before, but I’d never seen one.

I quickly found a recipe online from a Dutch chef for clear tomato juice. She actually has you zap Marmande/San Marzano tomatoes in a blender—by chance Mrs H. had been growing just this variety in our garden and had an end-of-season glut—and flavour the tomato pulp with Worcester sauce and tabasco before straining through a double layer of tea towel, along with 100ml of “vegetable soup”. I wasn’t sure what kind of soup she meant, so I made up 100ml of vegetable stock using Marigold bouillon powder. (I also missed out the vanilla vinegar, figuring it would be safer to adjust the acidity later with the lemon juice in the cocktail.)

Sieving the tomato pulp
At first I didn’t think it was going to work—the pulp just sits there in the strainer, glowering at you. But I did as I was told and left the whole lot in the fridge overnight and forgot about it. Sure enough after about 24 hours I had a bowl of pretty clear liquid, though hardly colourless. I found it delicious, in a much more savoury way than commercial tomato juice, which is more citric by comparison—and it made an excellent, and dangerously moreish, Bloody Mary. (Mrs Schmeinck is right: you can indeed use the leftover pulp as the basis of a nice pasta sauce.)

But the pursuit of clarity brings new problems. If you want to add more Worcester sauce or Tabasco it’s going to add colour; celery salt, on the other hand, doesn’t cause any problems though (and I’m interested to try celery bitters), and one could use white pepper, though I didn’t have any to hand.* And when you add your lemon juice you are reminded that this too is anything but clear. Having made up a finished drink I tried straining it again through a coffee filter paper. This again takes a hell of a long time, but you do end up with something that looks like a pale white wine. (I say that pointedly, as I was storing the juice in an old white wine bottle in the fridge and one evening I idly reached for a bottle to pour a glass of wine to go with whatever I was eating: it was only when I tasted it that I realised my mistake.)

The initial juice is clear but far from colourless
Because of the very savoury nature of this juice, I had the idea early on of using basil in the cocktail. I tried muddling it at the bottom though I was wary of damaging my hard-won clarity with bits of green floating around. What gave the most striking result, at least at the beginning of the drink, was rubbing a basil leaf around the rim of the glass before serving—you’re hit by this amazing perfume as you raise the glass, which fits perfectly with the flavour of the drink.

One other thing I want to try is infusing bits of vine stem or tomato leaves in the juice to try and extract that fresh zingy element that is so vibrantly, recognisably tomato yet tends to be missing from the actual flesh of the fruit (and is certainly absent from commercial juice). Some people are wary of doing this, as the leaves do contain a toxin. However, no less a source that Harold McGee, the father of molecular gastronomy, assures us that this is perfectly safe.**

An alternative serve to show off the clarity of the final version
If I can bring myself to make enough of this magic juice I’m going to serve this drink—which Mrs H. christened the Plasma Mary—at one of the Candlelight Club cocktail events, see if I can mess with a few heads…

Plasma Mary
2 measures vodka
4-5 measures clear tomato juice
½ measure lemon juice
celery salt/bitters
white pepper
Worcester sauce and Tabasco (optional depending on whether you introduced these elements while making the juice)

Stir all the ingredients with ice and strain into an ice-filled glass. Rub the rim with a basil leaf and garnish with more basil.

* I had some dried jalapeƱo flakes so I tried soaking a few to extract a liquid I could use to add heat, but the elixir turned out to be quite coloured, and I’m not convinced it’s the right sort of heat.
** Harry tells us that the leaves of the tomato (which is, after all, part of the nightshade family) do contain a potentially toxic alkaloid called tomatine. However, recent research has found that in our digestive systems tomatine binds tightly to cholesterol molecules—and our bodies absorb neither. So in fact tomatine reduces the amount of cholesterol you take in. (Source: Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.)

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