By Heidi Merino & Junior Merino
In a wave of post modernistic throwbacks to pre- and post- prohibition cocktail crazes, one mixologist has stood his ground when it comes to his ideology in cocktail creating- Junior Merino, The Liquid Chef.
Being raised as a farmer, the seasons where his true teachers which instilled from an early age, a true appreciation of seasonality and freshness. Merino’s day-to-day life consisted of waking before the sunrise in order to “beat the heat” when doing farm chores such as weeding, planting, harvesting, or whatever was needed to ensure a timely crop. Seasonal crops consisted of watermelon, corn, tomatoes, sorrel, peanuts, sesame seeds, pumpkins, melons, carrots, turnips, potatoes, beans, etc A quick run to school a couple miles up the road, then a brisk walk back to the fields, was Merino’s life as far back as he can remember.. The late afternoons, after all his field chores were complete, Merino could be found helping his father to make dried beef or sausages, learning to make fresh cheeses by hand from his grandmother, or making the daily meals with his mother. His mother, daily would make tortillas from grinding acidulated corn down to flour and flattening that flour into tortillas that would be cooked on “comal” a flat griddle made from clay over a fire. This was his life, not some trend or craze that swept him up in a moment.
It would come as no surprise that when it came time for Merino to choose his path, that his roots, literately and figuratively would guide his steps. Merino has and always will be the biggest advocate for fresh cocktails with fresh ingredients. He has stayed true to his belief in working with seasonality to get the best flavor out of each ingredient and stayed true to his roots of creating cocktails with produce and ingredients that are available and always advocating the support of local growers and farmers, the under appreciated heroes of today!
A Christmas tradition that Junior and I have started in our house for the last 8 years is Forage Thru December. This is a month in which I get off of all cooking duties and get to play a version of our Iron Chef two times a day. For each meal, I would forage through the refrigerator, freezer and pantry and hand off random ingredients to Junior that he has to incorporate into a 3 course meal and dessert had to be an option for dinner. Other times, I would head out to a farmers market to mix it up a bit. I have handed Junior tons of ingredients, mostly in the hope of tripping him up, but then he always pulls out some of the greatest combos…My favorite being one day I handed him watermelon (which I absolutely just do not like), pork, cinnamon, and green papaya (which I honestly HATE!) The challenge for that day was to create something that I would actually like using two fruits that I despise….and of course, not only did he create a masterpiece, I helped myself to another serving. He made cinnamon marinate pork, topped with sautéed watermelon and green papaya, a green papaya and avocado salad over arugula and a watermelon with reduced balsamic vinegar topped bacon for dessert….
Foraging is something that can turn your pantry, refrigerator, back yard or nearest farmers market into a great playground for flavors and freshness. You don’t necessarily even have to leave your home. Open your fridge, forage through your pantry and look for spices, fruits, vegetables, and jams and jellies. You can use your ingredients to infuse spirits, make syrups, or vinegar based shrubs. You can use the cocktails to create creative signature cocktails or do spins of classics.