DIY Mezcalcello: We Look at This Wild Moment — and Make Some Booze

Materials for mezcalcello, a project to get us through these times of crisis.
Materials for mezcalcello, a project to get us through these times of crisis. Chris Malloy
When life gives you shitty lemons, you do the best you can. Over at the Phoenix New Times food and drink section, our coverage is evolving to track the ongoing tectonic shifts in our food systems. For now, there are many things you can do to support local, including getting takeout and delivery from your favorite neighborhood restaurants. And please, please don't forget about our amazing farms.

Even supporting as much as we can, we’ve reached a point in the COVID-19 crisis where you’re going to be eating more meals at home, and have more time to prepare them.

So it may be time to think more about home cooking. About some of our favorite foods and recipes, and immersive projects that can entertain, teach, and feed. And about some moonshot improvisations, starting here and now.

For instance, this week, I began a batch of mezcalcello.

Mezcalcello is a riff that I’m basing on my past batches of limoncello.

click to enlarge Leave the white pith on those lemons. It can bring sharp bitterness. - CHRIS MALLOY
Leave the white pith on those lemons. It can bring sharp bitterness.
Chris Malloy
Limoncello is the sweet, frosty Italian liqueur made from alcohol, lemon skins, and sugar. It can chase the heat. Knocking one down at the end of a meal can put a galvanizing period to your day of eating and drinking. But there are reasons beyond its cold lushness to make a batch now. One: Arizona lemon trees are heavy these days with fruit. Two: Limoncello takes up to 100 days to make, meaning that, while you’re waiting, you have something to check on, and, better still, something bright to anticipate.

In making my recent batch, I tinkered with the standard limoncello formula, jumbling the equation to better suit the Southwest.

Instead of vodka or grain alcohol, I started with mezcal. Instead of white sugar, I’ll be using, after the 100 days, gratings from a cone of piloncillo, a Mexican brown sugar. And so instead of limoncello, we’ll be sipping a bracing novelty the first days of summer: mezcalcello cold out of the freezer.

What do you need for this mezcalcello? To start, you need 375 milliliters of mezcal (half a standard 750-milliliter bottle) and five lemons, each about the size of a tennis ball. In 100 days, you’ll need piloncillo and water.

Paying for lemons now, unless you’re supporting a local farm, isn’t wise. They’re growing everywhere. Neighbors may still be putting them on the edge of their driveways. This past weekend, I gleaned about 20 fat lemons not far from my house. If you can harvest similarly while maintaining proper social distancing (that is really weird to write), you should. The fragrance of them twisted off the tree is hypnotic, a brief dose of rocket fuel for your senses, memory, and imagination.

To begin at the beginning, you start by pouring your mezcal into a sealable jar that can hold 700 milliliters or more. A big Mason jar works.

click to enlarge Push those above-booze skins below the surface. - CHRIS MALLOY
Push those above-booze skins below the surface.
Chris Malloy
From there, with a paring knife, cut the rinds from five lemons, yellow parts only, being sure to slice away any clinging inner white pith, which creates bitterness. Drop your lemon rinds in the alcohol. Make sure they reach near or to the surface but are submerged. And then wait, as few as 20 days or as many as 100, for the slow alchemy of that dazzling fragrance to seep through your liquid spirit.

Jar stored in a cool dark place, our mezcalcello will slumber until the season has changed twice.

As we shelve these lemon rinds and alcohol, we’re also locking in a few strange days, storing them away to be revisited when we twist open the lid down the road.

And so reader, I ask you to remember this moment in time that we're preserving. Remember the closures and uncertainty, the hysteria and the toilet paper, the sharp curve and the flat curve and the news of impending respirator shortages. Retain everything about the now, especially the fracturing of our food systems.

We'll be tracking changes as they happen. But I'll be intimately revisiting this early moment in 100 days, when, hopefully, we’re well on our way to the other side of this thing.

And if we’re not, hey, at least we’ll have something good to drink.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy