Monday, December 18, 2017
Bars & Spirits

Plan a festive gathering without the alcohol

Teetotaling party guests are a lot like vegetarians, especially if the host is neither.

They end up being a bit of an afterthought in the party-planning process. The vegetarians must forage for nibbles from the crudite platter and hope that the white bean dip isn't made with chicken stock. Likewise the nondrinker, who sips uninspired soda or maybe fizzy water garnished with a tired wedge of lemon. Not so festive.

With so many interesting juices and flavored waters on the market, planning a "mocktail" party can be a delicious endeavor.

Enter a drink with a curious name: the shrub. In the temperance eras of the 18th and 19th centuries, the shrub was stripped of its alcohol, with vinegar standing in to provide the punch and pucker.

Today, matched with seasonal fresh fruit, nonalcoholic shrubs can be party ice breakers. Added bonus: No lampshades in sight.

The sourness of the vinegar shoots a zing to the taste buds, bringing tart freshness to drinks. For party nibbles, consider a cheese board with lots of nuts, and deep, dark chocolate cupcakes as the dessert. Fruit, cheese and chocolate are natural companions.

The party plan

Consider this party for a pretheater or orchestra concert gathering where you don't want to send people to a performing arts setting a little too loose. Decorum is in order at those places. Light snacks are also welcome accompaniments.

As for the drinks, notice the word "fresh" in the phrase "fresh fruit vinegar." That melange is the basis for your beverages and it should be made the day of your party, preferably within about 5 hours of serving. These are what I would call show-off drinks and it's likely people won't have more than two because they are sweet and filling.

Have other drinks on hand to quench thirst, such as bubbly waters that can be dressed up with fresh berries.

Serve them in tall Tom Collins glasses with lots of small ice cubes.

Some shrubs are sweetened with simple syrup made by simmering equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. As the mixture begins to bubble, the sugar will dissolve. Remove from heat and let cool. Simple syrup will keep in the refrigerator for two months.

In place of simple syrup, you can use agave syrup, which is sold in natural food stores and sometimes liquor and grocery stores.

The drinks

We've selected Apricot Raspberry Shrub and Sangria Shrub for their warm-weather appeal and because one features distinctively summer fruits and the other classic citrus.

The Apricot Raspberry Shrub will be more expensive than the citrus-spiked Sangria, but for a small gathering it's a novel and refreshing drink. For the former, use frozen raspberries and buy a small container of fresh raspberries for garnishing. You will be mashing the berries for the drink and then discarding the solids, so frozen is fine.

Tastewise, you won't miss the wine and brandy from the vinegar-powered Sangria Shrub. You'll be adding sugar so make sure the grape juice is unsweetened — and purple.

The bubbles are provided by seltzer, which to my mind is vile on its own but comes to life with the added fruit mixture.

The food

A selection of cheeses scattered with nuts can be served with plain crackers. Heavily flavored crackers will obscure the flavors of the cheeses.

Serve three to five cheeses, with a variety of textures and strengths. For variety, consider one soft-ripened cheese like Brie or Camembert; a hard cheese such as cheddar or Gouda; and a blue cheese. Blue cheeses, especially Stilton or Maytag, go especially nice with sweet drinks. (Sometimes they are even served with a drizzle of honey.)

If you know that you'll have a room of guests who love blue cheese, you could even do a theme tray with all blue cheeses. (Invite me to that party, please.)

Scatter the tray with roasted nuts and small clumps of seedless red grapes. Don't overdo the fruit, since that's the basis for the drinks.

Make sure you have a serving utensil for each kind of cheese so that the flavors don't mingle.

For a sweet offering, bake Dark Chocolate Cupcakes. Use the best chocolate you can afford for both baking and the chocolate chip garnish. Strong espresso in the cupcake batter deepens the flavor without imparting a strong flavor.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.

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