Padma Lakshmi thinks tequila is a spirit for all seasons.
The executive producer and host of “Top Chef” gained a deeper appreciation for the alcohol while filming season 14 of Bravo’s hit reality cooking show — which dropped last night. While this season is based in Charleston, South Carolina, a later episode brings its contestants even farther south to Jalisco, Mexico, where they compete to make the best tequila cocktail at sponsor Patrón ’s Hacienda distillery.
The 46-year-old actress — and author of a new cookbook, “The Encyclopedia of Spice and Herbs”—talks us through tequila food pairings, shares her signature spicy margarita — and a bevy of other ways to enjoy the versatile liquor.
Her spicy margarita
While some might think of spices and herbs as cocktail additives, for Lakshmi, it’s the other way around: “I think a cocktail is beautifully suited as a vehicle for spices and herbs,” she says, adding that they’ve been used in alcoholic beverages for centuries.
“I don’t, generally speaking, like sweet, mixed cocktails,” she says.
Instead, her firey margarita gets its kick from fresh lime, ginger and turmeric—which, Lakshmi notes, comes from her hometown of Kerala, India—and a salt and ancho chili powder rim.
“I don’t often drink in the afternoon, but you could have this at lunch and feel like you’re being virtuous because of the ginger and turmeric in it,” she says.
Other favorite ways to enjoy the spirit?
“I think you can put tequila in anything. Anything you normally use vodka in, you can swap out for tequila,” she says.
She prefers it on the rocks with lots of lime and muddled mint leaves. “It’s the best way," she says. "You can taste the nuances of the agave."
Or, if you like sweet: she suggests Patrón' s Xo Cafe Incendio Chile Chocolate liqueur as an after dinner drink. Lakshmi prefers it in an Italian affogato: a half shot of the tequila (in place of the traditional shot of espresso) poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. “It tastes like bitter chocolate and chili,” she says.
When to use Patrón Anejo, Reposado or Silver:
For mixed cocktails, Lakshmi says go for the Silver — which she uses in her margarita.
The Anejo, which is richer and smokier, is best enjoyed by itself, she says. “I don’t know why you would want to muddy it up with other flavors.”
The Reposado should also be enjoyed on its own. Lakshmi calls it “the single malt of tequila,” and is against adding ice to it.
While many think of tequila as a poolside beverage, she says Reposado, for one, is perfect for chilly nights: “It’s meant to be sipped and savored, in a snifter, by a fireplace — tonight,” she jokes. “You wouldn’t want to chug it down. It feels warm when it hits your palette.”
If you’re having friends over and making tequila drinks, which snacks should accompany it?
“I like to serve these [margaritas] with fancy mini grilled cheeses, with different jams, like a balsamic onion jam. Or flautas,” she says, naming herrecipe of goat cheese and mushroom flautas from her 2007 cookbook “Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet.”
Lakshmi says her margs also pair well with a healthy dinner or lunch — a grilled fish, or a big, herbaceous salad — because they’re not too sweet.
You can even use tequila in your cooking; when making apork chile verde, add tequila to tenderize the meat. “Just like you would add red wine to a ragu, I did the exact same thing except with green tomatillos and a quarter cup of Patron,” she explains, adding that she wanted to use the most authentic spirit to match the dish.
“If it grows together, it goes together,” she says.
Padma’s Margarita Recipe: The Ginger Turmeric Margarita
2 oz Patrón Silver
1 oz Ginger Turmeric Simple Syrup*
1 Tablespoon Fresh Lime Juice
3-4 Fresh Mint Leaves
*Ginger Turmeric Syrup:
1 Cup Water
¾ Cup Sugar
4 Inches Fresh Ginger Root, Peeled and Sliced
1 Teaspoon Turmeric Powder
½ Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
½ Teaspoon Ancho Chili Powder
2 Teaspoon Coarse Salt
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water and sliced ginger. Place over medium heat and bring to boil. Cook until sugar dissolves. Let steep for at least 10 minutes. Add the turmeric powder and stir until incorporated. Strain syrup through a coffee filter.
Combine ancho, turmeric and salt on a small plate and mix to combine. Wet the top of a rocks glass with a wedge of orange and dip in spice mix. Tear mint leaves, and add to a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the Patrón, lime juice and ginger turmeric syrup and shake vigorously.
Pour into prepared rocks glass and garnish with an orange wedge.