Saturday, February 9, 2013

Endings and Beginnings

Let me start by saying that for all of you who were regular readers, I am so sorry for abandoning you for such a long period of time. I found myself in a precarious situation where I was out of work for five months, and I kind of fell down on posting. It was kind of a rough time, but it did allow for a new phase in my shrub making career, and I want to share it with you.

Hopefully in the not too distant future, I will be making the leap from amateur shrub enthusiast to professional shrub maker. Yes, that's right...I will be selling the very shrubs I have been gleefully sharing with you fine people.

What does that mean for Feel Like Making Shrub, you may ask. The answer is that I probably will not be continuing in quite the same manner as I was before, but we will have a new blog that is more specific to the workings of the new company, which will hopefully include a lot of the same type of behind the scenes action that you have come to love(hopefully!) here at Feel Like Making Shrub.

I hope that at the very least I've inspired you guys to buy some jars and take some risks in your own kitchens. I've learned a lot from my experiences and I'm very grateful to everyone who took an interest in this modest little project of mine. So thank you, thank you, thank you everyone.

Please keep this spot bookmarked, as I will be linking to the new company site and blog as soon as they get up and running. I am very excited and nervous to see how it all turns out, but I hope that you'll come along on this new adventure as well. If any of you make it to the Seattle area, please keep an eye out for our products, hopefully on the menus of some of our finest local establishments.

I'm not good with ending things, so I'll just say, "See you soon."

Until then, keep on shrubbin'.

Sincerely,

Alexander Kern

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Commercial Shrub Alert: Sage and Sea Farms

While this blog is generally about my DIY exploits in the world of shrub making, it's good to acknowledge what other people out there are doing, especially for those who love the idea of drinking vinegars, but don't have the time or inclination to actually make it themselves.

The world of commercially available drinking vinegars is a small one. While Tait Farms has offered shrubs for decades, there are two other young companies from Oregon that have been releasing some very tasty and interesting offering. While Pok Pok has been garnering the most media attention for their Som drinking vinegars, another company has been quietly but steadily been growing strong and earning a lot of positive attention from bartenders, foodies, and the history buffs alike.

Sage and Sea Farms embodies several of the qualities I would look for in someone who produces this stuff commercially: excellent seasonal flavors, a strong dedication to a quality handmade product, and a massive dedication to sourcing and using local ingredients in that product whenever possible.

I was lucky enough to meet one of the proprietors of Sage and Sea Farms, Deb Counts-Tabor at the Urban Craft Uprising in the Seattle Center last Saturday. Deb was kind enough to give me some samples of their shrub as well as a little background on their process, which differs a little from my own. Deb uses the more traditional white distilled vinegar in their product. Unlike my cold process, Sage and Sea Farms cooks their shrub, which is quite concentrated making it perfect for cocktail purposes, illustrated by their recent popularity in the beverage programs of several Portland area restaurants, as well as being a secret ingredient in an Iron Bartender charity event.

Deb brought several flavors with her, including ginger, grapefruit, fennel, quince, sweet cherry, and pie cherry among others. I was fortunate enough to sample the ginger, fennel, and pie cherry, all of which had a more distinct vinegar bite than other shrubs I have tried. The ginger was clean and hot, the fennel subtle, and the only difference between the cherry shrub and a piece of pie was a fork and scoop of vanilla ice cream. This was the type of cherry shrub I had always wanted to make. Full disclosure, I'm a bit jealous of that one, but my envy soon dissolved into admiration and I bought a bottle right on the spot.  

While my first instinct would generally be to make my own, Deb and her family have brought a unique and delicious drinking vinegar to the market, and for fans looking for a wide spectrum of flavors and techniques in their shrubs, this can only be a great thing for myself and other devotees to the craft.

PS- A big thanks to Deb for talking to us and giving us those delicious samples!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Shrub #19 & #20: Dale and Diabolique

Dale


Fruit: None
Sugar: Brown Sugar
Vinegar: Balsamic
Additions: Zoka Tangletown Blend Coffee Beans(coarse grind)


Diabolique


Fruit: None
Sugar: Brown Sugar
Vinegar: Balsamic
Additions: Zoka Tangletown Blend Coffee Beans(coarse grind), orange and lemon peel, cloves, cinnamon stick

"Wow, have you run out of things to make shrub with yet? What's next, coffee?" - my friend Tony.

Those of you who have been frequenting the site with any regularity are fully aware that I have made some drinking vinegars that might be generously described as...unorthodox. [We're looking at you East by Midwest!-Ed.] Strange or intriguing as some of these concoctions might have been, so far they have all at least been relatively based in some kind of tradition, utilizing fruits or vegetables as the base. My friend Tony joked about me making a shrub out of just about anything I could get my hands on, and where I would draw the line. He suggested that line may be at coffee. We had a brief chuckle until I realized that this was not as much a laughing matter as it first appeared. Given the current trend of cold brewing coffee, was steeping a shrub really that much different?

I quickly decided the answer was no, and then began planning out not only how to make it happen, but how to make it something people would find drinkable and enjoy.  At this point I knew I would be cold brewing the grounds, but the more pressing question was, how do I get it to taste good? 

First of all, there was choosing a coffee. This was a task in and of itself, since the first thing one might say in a word association game where Seattle is thrown out would be coffee. As with the other ingredients I use in my shrubs, I really wanted to go for something local if possible. Granted, Starbucks is technically a local option, but I tend to find their beans a touch on the bitter side to begin with, and besides, I thought it would be nice to go with someone smaller who deserved some time in the spotlight. For this particular batch, I decided to go with Zoka and their Tangletown Blend. I was really hoping to find a blend that was describing itself as having some caramel notes. There are clearly a lot of other amazing choices around here, and I may alternate between roasters to see if they have any distinctive differences.

Obviously, in addition to the coffee, I was going to need vinegar and sugar to make a shrub. I immediately went to balsamic for a couple of reasons. First, it has the sort of heavier, syrupy consistency that would match what people kind of expect in coffee. Secondly, it has a nice, sharp bittersweet tang that would nicely round out any of the bitter notes of the coffee as well as the sugar component.

Which brings me to the sugar component. Really, I am pretty confident that any sugar from granulated white to turbinado to brown would have worked just fine, but I felt that the darker, earthier molasses aspects of dark brown sugar would really anchor the rest of the flavors and maybe bring out those caramel notes that the Tangletown Blend claimed to possess.

 As it turns out, making shrubs without fruit is a pretty interesting and unusual process. There are probably a couple of ways to go about it. One, if you were making a purely spice based drinking vinegar, it might work best to simmer the spices in the vinegar, since that vinegar is going to be liquid component of your final product anyway, why not just get the flavor in it directly, rather than cutting it with flavored water? Vinegar seems to do an ace job of extracting flavors from herbs and spices compared to water anyway. However, in this particular instance, I want a smoother, less cooked taste if you will from the coffee, which is why I decided to go with a cold steep method.

As I just mentioned, I took a page from the book of Toddy. For those of you who aren't really coffee people, let me explain: Toddy refers to a cold brew system for coffee that was patented by a Cornell engineering student back in 1964. The idea behind it being that one uses cold water rather than very hot water to extract flavor from their ground coffee beans. As with any beverage or food niche, there are plenty of ongoing nerdfights about whether or not this actually produces a better cup of coffee than traditional methods, but one thing cold brew (supposedly)does do is to cut the amount of astringent acids in the coffee because it is the heat which contributes to extracting the more bitter compounds from your grounds. In theory, this means a smoother brew and less stomach eviscerating acid to boot. Technically speaking the Toddy is a patented system, which means more equipment to buy and mess around with. Well, to hell with that, I say. Who needs a Toddy when you've got giant, lockable jars?

Using a bit of foresight, I concluded that it would be best for future me who has to actually strain the shrub later that day to do a fairly coarse grind on the beans. I usually triple strain my shrubs anyway so that they're as free of debris as I can make them, but if materials are too fine, they can slip through even the most tightly woven strainers. Not only does it look pretty bad, if the material is strongly flavored, such as ground Vietnamese cinnamon, it will continue to steep in your final product, which could make it unpleasant at best, and undrinkable at worst. I poured the appropriate amount of balsamic vinegar in the jar and poured the ground beans in, finally fastening the lid and shaking the holy hell out of it. Into the fridge it went.

One thing to note about the cold brew method is this: due to the lack of heat, the amount of time it takes to extract the flavors from those grounds will seem eternal in comparison. Well, maybe not eternal, but it will take several hours. If I recall correctly, I left mine in somewhere between six and eight hours, though when it gets to that point, you may want to check on it hourly, or maybe even every half hour depending on how paranoid you are about oversteeping it. Chances are, you likely won't, but you are the capitan of your cocina...it's your call.

Normally, I leave additions in for the entire duration of the shrub's first week. If you're following along at home with this coffee shrub, DO NOT DO IT WITH THIS ONE!

Ahem...sorry about the outburst, but believe me, unless you like the idea of syrupy, bittered jet fuel coursing through your lovely veins, I would strain it as soon as the balsamic tastes like a really strong cup of coffee. If you followed my lead and did a fairly coarse grind, you will be patting yourself on the back for your amazing forethought as the straining will be so much easier and less time consuming. If not, well don't beat yourself up too much, and be prepared to messily strain through multiple layers of cheesecloth or something to get all those nasty grounds out.

At this point, it's time to add the sugar. My advice here is to sweeten this mixture in the same manner you would prefer to drink your coffee. For me, I usually take it black with one sugar, just to take a little edge off of the bitterness, but not so much that I feel like I'm drinking a coffee flavored confection. We're all different, so make it as sweet as you personally enjoy it. Give it a stir and leave it in the fridge for a week. When that week is up, you can skip straight to the bottling since you've done all the straining early. Give that shrub another week to mellow out, and you're ready for the most unusual shrubs I have ever made.

Well, it would have been the most unusual shrub I had ever made, if I hadn't decided to use it as the base for another wild idea I had.

In some of the finest restaurants of New Orleans, there is an after-dinner drink I have heard about consisting of coffee and brandy flamed in a chafing dish with the addition of citrus peels and warm spices such as clove and cinnamon.

Sounds delicious, no?

Well, I thought so too, which is why I took some of the finished coffee shrub and poured a small amount into a pan. In the meantime, I used a channel knife to peel some strips of citrus from some oranges and lemons. I dropped a few whole cloves and a small cinnamon stick in the pot with the citrus zest and simmered for about ten minutes on medium-low heat, after which I allowed the mixture to cool before straining and bottling it.

This leads us to the most important question which is how did they taste?

Let's begin with the Dale. While I was initially unsure of how this was going to come out, I have to say that the bitter notes of the coffee work really well with sharp acidity of the balsamic vinegar and the slight earthy sweetness of the brown sugar. The coffee flavor is still unmistakeable, and has all of the smoothness you could hope for from a regular batch of the cold brewed stuff. Rich, roasty, and slightly bittersweet, this was a really fun and tasty experiment.

In the case of the Diabolique, some really interesting things happened. I think due to the slightly higher level of heat that the shrub was subjected to, it actually reduced a bit, so the yield was decreased somewhat, and the consistency got a little thicker and syrupy, more gastrique like, really. While there was less of it to enjoy, it definitely concentrated those citrus flavors into the shrub. Taking a sip without water, was an intense experience to say the very least.When a bit of water was introduced, it certainly really opened things up and smoothed them out considerably. The depth of coffee flavor was still there, but was bolstered by the lurking addition of the warm spices and brightened by the lemon and orange peel. In my next batch of this, I might actually reduce the amount of peel, as I think it was really close to upstaging the rest of the flavors. If this is anything like what the after dinner drink is like, I really look forward to having the real thing one day.

So how should one enjoy these two strange shrubs? In this case, I like to put this stuff on vanilla ice cream. When I debuted these at a party last summer, many of our guests did just that, and they seemed very happy with the results. As a beverage, I would likely enjoy it with still water, or if you are looking for something a bit more high octane, I might consider mixing this in some kind of cocktail, perhaps something Black Russian-esque cocktail subbing the Dale or Diabolique in for Kahlua or some other coffee liqueur.

As usual, I learned a valuable lesson from this experience. Inspiration for shrubs can happen anywhere, even in what may seem like the most outrageous places. While the origin of these shrubs was a simple joke, as it turns out, the results were anything but.

Dale was inspired by black coffee drinking FBI agent Dale Cooper from the cult show Twin Peaks. the title of Diabolique, while named for the drink, was also kind of inspired by the title of the fantastic suspense film from French director  H.G Clouzot.







Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Arbustum Interruptus

Hello readers. I know I was doing quite well with a more regular posting schedule there for a bit, but unfortunately some pressing personal matters have been distracting me for the last few weeks. On the upside, we are coming up on summer which is the prime season for making shrubs, so I should hopefully have some new material coming up in addition to some of the shrubs from last year I haven't had the chance to tell you about yet.

I promise I will be back to a regular posting schedule soon, but in the meantime, are there any topics in particular that you would love to read about? Techniques, flavors, etc? Let me know in the comments, and I will do my best to work those questions in with the normal content. I really love hearing from people!

See you soon,

Alex K



Friday, April 27, 2012

Shrub # 17 and # 18: "Ernest" & "Lucrezia"

Ernest:
Fruit: White Grapefruit(Juice of grapefruits)
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Dried savory


Lucrezia:
Fruit: Lemon(Juice of lemons)
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Fresh Rosemary sprigs


Making shrubs with seasonal fruit is kind of a double edged sword. On the one hand, there is something incredibly powerful about living in the moment and appreciating ingredients that won't be around forever, and using techniques to be able to relive those moments, like a potable Polaroid. Conversely, one can only make so much shrub during the summer and autumn months. If you're really into this as a hobby, the months between November and June can be unbearable.

Fear not, fellow shrub aficionados, you can still make great shrubs in the off season. While some of them are a little unusual and decidedly not fruit based at all(some of which I will be covering here very soon), there are still some fruits that are consistently decent even out of season. One of my personal favorite sources of year round fruit? Citrus. While there are obviously any number of citrus fruit to choose from, this week we're going to focus(mostly) on the underrated but lively white grapefruit.

In some ways it kind of seems counter-intuitive to make a grapefruit based drinking vinegar. Acid on top of acid? Really?

It can work, but as you will see it takes a different approach than most of the fruit based shrubs we have done before, and it might be quite a bit more of a pain in the ass, but I think in the end, the results are pretty fantastic.

The story of  "Ernest" is actually three acts:

Act 1: Initial Success

Though this was my first citrus based shrub, I really didn't see any reason the method shouldn't be any different than any other fruit I had used to this point. I cut the peel away from the grapefruit and cut the fruit into segments and combined them with white sugar in the jar. I muddled them together until the segments were quite pulped and a sugary grapefruit juice syrup had started to form. After five hours in the fridge, I poured in some white wine vinegar as I normally would at this stage and added some dried savory. For those of you unfamiliar with savory, it's a really nice herb that comes across as mostly sage-like with some hints of thyme or rosemary. I've seen sage paired with grapefruit before and thought this would have a similar effect, but with some added herbiness to boot.

The shrub went through its normal process, and I was quite pleased to say that it was really great. It had a piquant flavor, a thoroughly lovely balance of acids from the grapefruit and the vinegar with the clean sweetness of the white sugar. The savory was a particularly delicious addition, as it did have the sage character I hoped for, but it seemed to almost melt into the flavor of the grapefruit as though they were one contiguous flavor that should just occur in nature. Yes, I was very happy with it, as were all of the people who tried it at our first tasting. Replicating this attempt should be a piece of cake, right?

Act 2: Replicating My First Attempt Is Not A Piece Of Cake

I think the mark of a shrub recipe that works is one that I make successfully at least twice if not several more times beyond that. I was perhaps overconfident when I made the second batch of Ernest using identical proportions to the first. Nothing about my second attempt felt remotely different, except for the fact that maybe I shook this one a little more. Even at that, I was surprised when I finally tasted the finished product that something was wrong. Quite wrong, actually.

For some unknown reason, there was a bitterness that pervaded the entire drink. It started out pleasant enough, but the finish was beyond the bitterness you'd accept, even for something made of white grapefruit. Considering every aspect seemed the same, I was baffled. My first thought was that maybe shaking it more the savory infused more and made it more vegetal and bitter, but in the end, this didn't seem to ring true. Sure, in the past there had been overpowering additions, but usually those were really powerful flavors like allspice berry or vanilla. No, there was something else going on here.

Then it hit me: the segments I had cut up still had a fair amount of pith and connective tissue all over them when I mashed them up with the sugar. It's still not clear to me why this didn't affect the first batch in such an adverse manner, but as I've learned, every batch of fruit can be markedly different. It is very possible that it was the first batch that benefited from a stroke of good luck. Knowing that this was going to make consistency all but impossible in the future, it was clear I was going to have to find another technique if I was to make this consistently every time.

Act 3: Redemption

Between my first attempt at making "Ernest" and my third, I had experimented with some other citrus based shrubs,but it wasn't until I took a shot at making a lemon rosemary flavor that everything came into focus. I based the flavor profile on a rosemary lemonade that I'm pretty obsessed with from a local pizza restaurant called Tutta Bella. Their rosemary lemonade is fairly tart, but there is a sort of fresh piny undercurrent that kind of ties it all together.

Since my second attempt at "Ernest" had been a dud, and I was basing this new project on a lemonade, I figured, "Why not treat this like I'm making a lemonade?" The old method of crushing fruit with sugar was out the window, and I instead bought what felt like a whole raft full of lemons and juiced the lot of them. Was this considerably more work? Yes. Did my wrists feel like I had spent an entire night typing out the complete works of Shakespeare? Pretty much. But I had a feeling that this method would give me a lot more control over the flavor since the tartness and flavor of the collected juices were now going to be a known constant, taking at least some guesswork out of the equation. I then added some sugar, making a sort of lemon simple syrup. As the syrup was already made, there wasn't any reason to wait several hours before adding the vinegar, so in it went as well. After a quick stir, it went into the fridge for a two week vacation.

When it finally came out, it was exactly what I was looking for. The lemon flavor was huge, it wasn't too sweet, and the vinegar gave it a very dry finish, which would make it a very refreshing drink, especially when lightened a touch by sparkling water. It would make a tasty beverage pairing with something rich or fried, where a sharp citrus would be helpful to cut those elements. The rosemary lent a nice little herbaceous note to it, without overpowering the lemon.

Having seen this technique work with "Lucrezia," I figured it should work with pretty much any citrus fruit that you could squeeze a reasonable amount of juice out of. Armed with this knowledge, I took a third stab at making a batch of:"Ernest," though in addition to the grapefruit juice/vinegar/sugar combination, I thought it might be nice to zest some grapefruit peel right into the jar for some extra aromatics. After two weeks of finger crossing and internal chants of "Please, please, please..." I was finally able to see how everything turned out.

After the first taste of it, my nerves settled quickly. This was a lot more like the first batch I did, though likely more easy to replicate without difficulty. I must say, the zest does make the whole thing seem a lot fresher and really seems to accentuate the actual grapefruit flavor. One caveat I might bring up is the fact that some grapefruit are really tart, but in a lot of instances I have found they are nowhere near as tart as people assume grapefruit really is. Be careful when dispensing the sugar. This one plays a little better when it retains the bite of the juice and the vinegar, and too much sugar can push it into into cordial-style territory.

What might one do with "Ernest"? Well, cocktails immediately come to mind. I think mixing this with gin would likely be an excellent choice, for starters. If you wanted to go a little more low octane it might make a nice aperitif when combined with light aromatized wines such as Lillet or Cocchi Americano.

For our non drinking friends, I have tasted it mixed with a bit of Fever Tree tonic, and it was quite delicious. If you're not into the bitterness of tonic water, just go with good old fashioned club soda, and it will make a lovely sparkler that anyone should enjoy. Except for people on heart medications and grapefruit haters. Not for them.

In the same vein, "Lucrezia" also makes a very refreshing soda, and is equally good with still water rendering it more of a sophisticated version of lemonade. I would suggest that cocktail folks might want to try it with either gin or vodka if they are so inclined.

So if there were a lesson to take away this week, it is two-fold. Number one, just because something turns out great the first time, doesn't mean you should rest on your laurels, and with a few tweaks, you can figure out solutions to maintain a good level of consistency in your results.

Have fun and I will see you next week.

This week's shrubs are named for famous author Ernest Hemingway, who liked grapefruit well enough to have a daiquiri variant named after him, and the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, part of the fabled and allegedly amoral Borgia family of the 15th Century.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Shrub #15 & #16: "Elizabeth" and "Aleister"

Elizabeth:
Fruit: Heirloom Tomatoes(various varieties)
Sugar: Brown Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Berbere

Aleister:
Fruit: None
Sugar: Turbinado Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Dried Pequin peppers, dried Aji Mirasol peppers, dried Cascabel peppers

It has often been remarked that necessity is the mother of invention, and while this is probably true, I imagine utility and versatility are not far behind in the running order. As much as enjoy trying to figure out ways to work my tasty fruit based shrubs into other realms that stray outside of their role as a refreshing stand alone beverage, this time around I have taken a different approach, reverse engineering a cocktail to see if I could make a shrub that would work in it. Since everything we seen on the blog thus far has been more sweet and/or fruity with the exception of the gingery dynamo we call "Frankie Teardrop," I picked a more savory, but well known cocktail, the tried and true classic, The Bloody Mary.

The Bloody Mary...usually made with some combination of tomato juice, vodka, and various and sundry assorted umami bombs, these ubiquitous darlings of the brunch world clearly aren't going anywhere any time soon. I find there is a certain subversive pleasure in drinking before noon, and with its illusory veneer of healthfulness(Tomatoes! Lycopene for everyone!) it mitigates a little bit of the awkward feelings one might have over slugging a few ounces of booze with their morning repast.

It is a relief that I do not personally have those kinds of awkward feelings. While I would normally favor the Ramos Gin Fizz as a bibulous part of my complete and balanced breakfast, I feel that a well done Bloody Mary certainly has its place. I also feel that sometimes even staples need a good swift kick in the ass, and this led to my first savory shrubs.

There are two elements to me that are of paramount importance in a Bloody Mary: a rich tomato flavor, and heat. The first shrub, "Elizabeth" covers the first half of that equation. Rather than using your run of the mill Roma tomatoes, I thought I would pull out all the stops and get a variety of heirloom tomatoes. This was more challenging for me than you might think, because other than the vague knowledge that heirloom plants are cultivars that were grown during earlier periods in history, my knowledge about the individual cultivars themselves could likely fill a thimble. Lucky for me, there was a friendly fellow at the produce stand I frequent on one of the corners of the Pike Place Market who quickly realized this fact and helped me pick out a few after telling him I was looking for a nice mix of sweet and sour varietals. He gathered several different shapes and sizes in varying hues and bagged them up for me.

With tomatoes in hand, it was time to get to work. Since this was to be a savory shrub, I was in a bit of a quandary about the amount of sugar to use in it, because without it, you're simply making tomato vinegar instead of shrub. My tomatoes were the exact blend of sweet, sour, and acidic I had requested at the market, so I added a fairly small amount of brown sugar to the fairly large proportions of tomato and vinegar; the amount should keep things from skidding into the realm of a tomato confection, and the type  might lend an interesting depth and/or earthiness to a flavor profile like this, as long as one were to use a lighter hand.

After mashing the tomato pieces with the sugar, I wanted to boost the flavor profile with something exotic. There were the usual suspects such as basil or oregano, but I thought I should go a little further out of the box and introduce another spice blend that really enjoy with tomato based dishes: berbere.

To those who have never experienced the joy of berbere, here's the Cliff's Notes: a spice blend comprised of ajwain seed(tastes like an pungent thyme,) cloves, fenugreek, ginger powder, Tellicherry black pepper, cassia, cardamom, coriander and pequin chilies, this East African blend is frequently used in Ethiopian dishes such as wat and certain lentil preparations. Its flavor really capitalizes on the use of warm spices, and when used in larger amounts, it can get quite spicy. While looking for random condiments to mix it with, I discovered that berbere ketchup turned out to be one of the most successful combinations I had ever stumbled upon. The sweetness of the tomato is balanced well by the spiciness of the peppers, and the other warm spices help to bridge the gap and round the whole thing out. It's quite unlike I had ever had, and I knew that given its magic with ketchup and it's historical use in East African dishes including tomatoes, this idea had some traction.

To finish things, I went with the old standby, white wine vinegar. It would lend a nice acidic tang without muddying the amazing simpatico that was happening with the tomatoes and the berbere. After that step there was nothing left to do but wait to see how everything came together.

Two weeks later, I found out that it actually came out quite well. To be perfectly honest, I would love to say that I knew that this was going to be one of the most interesting shrubs I had ever done and that it was going to taste great. That would have been patently untrue, though. I seriously had no idea what was going to come out of this little experiment once it was finished, but I was really quite amazed. First of all, it tasted bright and fresh in a way that cooked tomatoes just aren't. More surprisingly, the tomato and berbere had somehow fused their flavor DNA into a Brundlesque creation that recognizably kept both of their natures, but though the miracle of science had melded into a hulking brute made of pure umami. This shrub is one of the most savory drinks I've ever had, even fooling my palate into thinking I had added some sort of salt which I knew I hadn't. Additionally, there was a persistent but not overwhelming heat from the berbere that gave it just the right amount of gravitas. In a way, it almost felt...meaty. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it actually tastes like meat. It just has that sort of satisfactory mouthfeel and flavor. I don't even think MSG could pull off that trick as well as this shrub manages to do.

Anyway, rich tomato flavor: achieved. Now on to element number two, the heat.

This second shrub is one that whose genesis was rooted in a very smart idea which I shamelessly cribbed from the fine people at Bittermens, a company who specializes in making bitters and other special accoutrements for people pursuing the lifelong art of crafting a fine cocktail. In addition to the cocktail bitters they are well and deservedly known for, Bittermens has been branching out into new areas such as their own liqueurs, tinctures, and wouldn't you know it...shrubs.

One of their more recent products is called Hellfire Habanero shrub, presumably based on the concept of "Hellfire Bitters" and "Cayenne Wine" found in one of cocktaildom's most treasured tomes, Charles H. Baker's A Gentleman's Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around The World With Jigger, Beaker, and Flask. Bittermens web site makes the savvy observation that when you break down many a hot sauce into its constituent parts, you're likely left with peppers, salt, and vinegar which sounds suspiciously like the basis of a shrub. With this in mind, they went ahead and simply made an alcohol fortified shrub that is formulated to replace hot sauces in cocktails providing a cleaner flavor and heat.

Upon reading this I was dumbstruck. What a brilliant idea this was, and I couldn't believe this hadn't occurred to me at some point. I'm not going to lie...I was jealous I didn't think of it first. There is one benefit of being the second(or third, etc.) to do something, and that is looking for ways to branch out.

I haven't had Bittermens Hellfire Shrub, so I can't speak to its flavor, but if it's anything like their other products, it's likely stellar stuff. One thing I noticed is that it says it is a habanero shrub, which for their purposes, makes a lot of sense. As I mulled this over, it occurred to me that one thing I love about peppers that is often overlooked is that they aren't just simply instruments of delivering a payload of searing heat into your mouth, and that each variety really has its own flavor and personality. It was clear that I should make my own version of Hellfire Shrub, using the guiding principles I utilized in the apple shrub "3 Faces of Eve." Essentially, I would pick three different kinds of peppers that would compliment each other and create a deeper, multi-layered flavor profile.

This process is more complicated than it sounds. My first thought was that I would balance three heat levels: mild, medium, and hot. But with that, there was the consideration of flavors that would not only harmonize with each other, but with the acidic tang of vinegar. I decided to work my way backwards from hot to mild, as though I was building the layers of painting. The hottest peppers would be the background; these would be the full mouth heat that was omnipresent, allowing the more nuanced aspects of the milder chiles to show. For this purpose, I chose the pequin pepper. Pequins are quite interesting, as they look like small, red pebbles that are innocent enough, until you eat them. Hiding inside is a clean, full mouth heat that lingers, kind of reminiscent of a birds eye chile. For the medium level I selected a couple of aji mirasol peppers. I had used these once before in the unsatisfying cherry/chile experiment I now simply refer to as #4, and they were the one bright spot of that otherwise boring execution. What I like about these is that they have a sort of fruity taste, a bit like apricots perhaps, but they are only moderately hot at best. They are warm enough to assert themselves without getting overshadowed by the pequins, but nuanced enough to be noticed for their flavor. For the mild entry, I went with a dark horse candidate, the rarely discussed cascabel pepper. Cascabel is Spanish for "rattle," which makes sense as these squat little guys sound to be hollow on the inside save for the noise the seeds make when you shake them a bit. I don't know about you, but when my food can also double as a Latin percussion instrument, I really feel like I'm getting a good value.

But a bundle of peppers alone cannot make a shrub, which is why turbinado sugar was next on the guest list. Clearly, a shrub isn't a shrub without sugar, but why use turbinado sugar over brown when that's what was used for the tomato shrub? My gut feeling is that the molasses-y notes in the brown sugar would make the shrub more like a pepper syrup than a spicy shrub. I could have used white sugar, but I felt that these peppers would benefit from a little bit of softening, whereas white sugar might have just stepped out of the way, possibly leaving the heat completely unchecked.

As far as the vinegar went, it seemed there was really one choice for me, and that was white wine vinegar. I figured that the best way to approximate the alcohol base of the Hellfire Shrub without using alcohol was to use something that was as flavor neutral as I could get. The only thing more flavor neutral might be distilled white vinegar, but for the sake of your throats and stomachs, I would advise against using that stuff in a shrub; anything powerful enough to sanitize a kitchen sink is something I think twice about slugging a large amount of, but that's just me.

Thinking back on my previous treatment of peppers, it occurred to me that it might be best to try to extract the pepper flavors by using hot vinegar rather than the room temperature stuff right out of the bottle. I heated the vinegar in a pan on the stove until it began to barely simmer and I took it off and poured it into the jar in which I had assembled the dried chiles. I left the mixture to steep at room temperature, checking on it every half hour until I felt that it had gotten hot enough without going nuclear. I strained out the solids and discarded them, but later realized that had I been more industrious in my thinking, these reconstituted peppers could have been thrown in a blender with some hot water and some fresh peppers and onions to make a nice little salsa. Unfortunately, in my shrub induced haste, I simply discarded them.

Normally, we would have combined the sugar with whatever we were mashing up to make a syrup in the beginning, due to this shrub's unusual nature, I had to adjust my methods slightly. In this instance, I essentially had a chile flavored vinegar to which I would be adding sugar. Since I didn't want this to be very sweet, I decided to add the sugar in small increments, tasting it after each addition. Unsurprisingly, it really didn't take much sugar to get there.

So after waiting for two weeks, how well did my take on the Hellfire Shrub come out?

I'm kind of at a loss as to how to score this one. It's almost more of a specific ingredient than a standalone drinking vinegar, though I have seen some hardcore souls drink a complete shot of this stuff. Let me just say, this stuff is hot. I can't speak to the heat level of the Bittermens product, but "Aleister" is pretty damned spicy. The surprising thing, though, is that the use of different chiles worked pretty much how I had hoped. Though the shrub was really hot, it had a very pleasing depth of flavors that went much further than "Tasty Napalm." I think if one were to use this in a cocktail that would normally call for Tabasco or Crystal, they wouldn't likely be disappointed with the outcome, though due to its multi-layered pepper profile, it could also be the basis for some fascinating new cocktails as well. The one thing I might do differently is use a much smaller amount of sugar. The batch I made has had time to mellow and in some ways it now tastes almost like the spicy simple syrup I was afraid of. That being said, I mixed a bit with tequila and a lot of the sweetness fell away, so it's probably fine for its intended use in cocktails.

Speaking of cocktail applications, I would say at this point, between the two shrubs I think I have everything I might need for a novel twist on the standard Bloody Mary of yore. But why stop with the Bloody Mary?

I'm thinking that there might be something to doing a couple of types of sangritas and a michelada; for those not in the know, sangritas are delicious accompaniments that you might get with a shot of blanco tequila in places such as Jalisco, Mexico. There seems to be some confusion among folks North of the border that a sangrita is red due to tomato, but it's more likely simply due to the spices. Since we're already in the habit of breaking tradition around here, bending the normal rules and doing a tomato based one probably won't hurt anything. Same goes for the michelada, who shares traits with our beloved Bloody Mary, only substituting a pale beer of some kind as the alcoholic component.

Barring use as a beverage, these both show a lot of promise as far as savory applications are concerned. "Elizabeth" could definitely be used as a meat marinade for someone looking to incorporate some East African flavor into a dish, I'm thinking goat might be an unusual but delicious choice here. "Aleister" shows even more versatility in that it could be useful in any place you might want to add some additional spiciness.

Please stay tuned through the end of this week as I am hoping to have some very talented professionals come up with something tasty for me to share with you utilizing these two new shrubs.

This week's first shrub, "Elizabeth," was named for Elizabeth Bathory, a countess of Hungarian nobility whose alleged baths in the blood of virgin girls to extend her useful appearance earned her the nickname, "The Blood Countess." Years later, alternate theories have developed as to whether any of this was true, or if her convictions for multiple murders were in fact politically and religiously motivated. The world may never know for sure.

The second shrub this week was named for famous British occultist Aleister Crowley.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Shrub #14: "Blue Spark"

Fruit: Blueberries
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar/Apple Cider Vinegar
Additions: Vanilla Bean, Tasmanian Pepperberry aka Mountain Pepper

I have to ask, is it really possible for a person to hate blueberries?

I mean it. Even in the deepest depths of my fruit indifference, I had a sort of unspoken detente with blueberries. Perhaps it's the way that they managed to star in all of the carbohydrate forward greatest hits of my youth; you might have seen them starring in such classics as "Blueberry Muffin" or "Blueberry Pie", and my personal favorite, "Blueberry Pancakes." Later, I enjoyed them in more modern, sexed up applications such as the smoothie.

It is likely safe to say, that as there are really only a few stories told in new and interesting ways over the years, the same is true of fruits and shrubs. If there is a fruit, I have no doubt that someone has taken the initiative to make a shrub out of it. Of course I know that blueberry shrubs have been done before, in fact, probably for centuries. Shrubs, like those aforementioned stories, may be old, but what keeps them new is how one spins the tale. Unsurprisingly(I hope,) this particular story begins with blueberries.

As you may have noticed, I haven't usually made a point of singling out particular sources for the fruit I've used, but for the benefit of all my Washington state readers, I think it might be nice to start.The blueberries I used in this shrub were purchased at the Wallingford Farmers Market from Sidhu Farms, hailing from Puyallup, Washington(incidentally my wife's hometown).

As someone whose face was recently a way station for half a box of Spring themed, fake lemon flavored Twinkies, I'm clearly not mentioning this because I've suddenly metamorphosed overnight into an paragon of ethical food consumption. I would, however, feel like a huge jerk if I kept how good Sidhu Farms berries are to myself; I gave them a cursory mention in my post about the blackberries I got from them for my "Black Moses" shrub, but I shamefully did not elaborate any further as to how great Sidhu's berries are. These were some of the best blueberries I've ever had, and that isn't just me being prone to my normal bouts of hyperbole. Slightly tart, substantial, and juicy, these were the perfect berries for making a fine drinking vinegar.

One tricky aspect about blueberries is balancing the tartness without losing it completely. I initially thought that brown sugar might be nice for this, but decided to table that idea for a different blueberry shrub concept where that deep molasses sweetness could be offset by another, more acidic ingredient like lemon. I realized that for this project it would likely make the most sense to go with white sugar for its clean, unfettered flavors. If you felt like going with a turbinado for a richer, slightly earthier flavor, I say go for it. It's your shrub. Own it. 

In most instances, the shrubs I've seen usually use one type of vinegar per flavor which makes sense as the vinegar you select to use in a shrub is probably built around the fruit and sugar choices. There are times when doing a combination of two types of vinegar makes good sense. One good reason to combine two types in one shrub is that some vinegars on their own might be too heavy, such as a balsamic, for example. I learned this after my first balsamic shrub, "Sarah." It was incredibly tasty, but balsamic when combined with fruit and sugar can come across as very syrupy, and without something else there to dry it out, it could potentially be too cloying for some palates. This is exactly why I added a small amount of red wine vinegar to the strawberry/balsamic shrub "Francoise."

For the sake of argument, though, say we're strictly talking taste. As I have mentioned time and time again, I love white wine vinegar for most fruit and white sugar applications, but sometimes it's a little too understated. In the case of "Blue Spark," I decided that a little more acidity would be welcome, and so I decided to do a 50/50 split between my normal white wine vinegar and Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar. One caveat for those who might apply this logic to other shrubs: you will need to experiment with the ratios. Bragg's has a very specific flavor, and it can easily overpower milder fruits. Go slowly and be careful. It's the same principle my mom taught me regarding biscuits and gravy: you can always put more liquid in, but you can't take it out.

With our primary ingredients gathered, we could now make a traditional blueberry shrub. A tasty, run of the mill, everyday sort of blueberry shrub. We could do that...but if you're a regular reader of Feel Like Making Shrub, you already know that's not going to happen.

Instead, I began by cutting a small length of a fresh vanilla bean, and then scraping its seeds into the jar. I'm not sure why, but vanilla and blueberries have some sort of ridiculous affinity for one another, and who am I to stand in the way of a coupling this tasty? The vanilla somehow manages wrangles the tart blueberries into submission, and lends a cohesiveness to the package. This on its own would have been magic, but there was one more surprise element that really give "Blue Spark" its, um, spark.

That mystery ingredient is one that was not well known to me, and is likely still flying blissfully under the radar throughout the United States. It's a little firecracker from Australia called Tasmanian Pepper Berry, which I learned about from my friends at World Spice Merchants. Tasmanian Pepper Berry is fun to play with, because it has so many clever little facets that don't present themselves upon first glance. First off, they are about the size of a large-ish black peppercorn or an allspice berry. Simply by looking at it, the color appears to be similar to a black peppercorn. In an interesting twist, it turns out that despite its seemingly black hue, it's actually a very deep indigo! It also turns out to be soluble in any liquid, so while we're using it in shrub, it can be used in sauces, or clear liquors turning them a gorgeous, unexpected shade of purple.

But wait, there's more! While it may resemble the good old black peppercorn we know and love, it tastes nothing like it, as I found out by putting a whole one in my mouth and chewing it slowly. Turns out that it actually has more in common with a different spice entirely: Szechuan pepper. When used judiciously, there is an amusing tingling that happens in one's mouth, accompanied by a fruity, prickly heat. When not used judiciously, your mouth looks like you've eaten a handful of Smurfs and your tongue goes numb for the better part of an hour.

So after all of the experimenting was "Blue Spark" a Wild Gift or did it impart Nausea upon drinking it?

Honestly, I really like this one a lot. "Blue Spark" is great because drinking it is kind of experience in and of itself. The depth of the blueberries is enhanced even further by the vanilla bean, and the Tasmanian Pepperberry doesn't come across as overtly spicy, but does give the person drinking it an unexpected jolt, similar to eating Pop Rocks for the first time. Everything is balanced well, and the cider vinegar actually helps it all retain a bit more of that vinegary tang that might have gotten a touch lost if I had only used white wine vinegar on its own. My only observation is that I might have liked a bit more Tasmanian Pepperberry in mine, but your mileage may vary, of course. However, if you like blueberries and the idea of them paired with exotic spices, this one's for you.

So obviously we have established it's for drinking alone or with carbonated or still water, but what else might one use this for? Off the top of my head, I suppose cocktails spring to mind. Which is great, but I was also struggling to think of a way to incorporate "Blue Spark" into food, until it practically hit me square in the face. Why not come full circle and use it with pancakes?

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating dumping the shrub right on top of a short stack as is. What I would do is pour a decent amount of it on the stove with a bit of water and cook it down until it's more like a gastrique(if you want more a glaze-like consistency, make a cornstarch slurry and stir it in). For those of you unfamiliar with what that means it's pretty much a fancy pants sauce where you de-glaze a pan of cooked sugar with vinegar, and reduce it until it's got a rich, syrupy consistency. Though the methodology is a lot different, the end result will be similar: a thicker, sweet and sour syrup. Some of my shrubs contain a higher ratio of sugar to vinegar which will mean that your final product will likely be more sweet than acidic.

Once you do this, you could of course just throw it over normal buttermilk pancakes, but I might recommend doing something that plays a little more to this amazing syrup you just made. I'm thinking maybe a nice lemon ricotta pancake, since blueberries and lemon go together like Rocky and Apollo Creed(in Rocky III, anyway). On the more savory side of the spectrum, a syrup of that sort could be slightly fortified with some stock and/or liquor(brandy, red wine, vermouth) and used with a rich protein such as duck. Think outside the box. Go nuts, folks.

So as we can see, by taking a classic flavor that we think we know everything about and giving it a few interesting twists, even a staple like the tried and true blueberry can produce a shrub that feels brand spanking new and hard to put down. 

This week's shrub is named after the song "Blue Spark" by the seminal Los Angeles punk band X, taken from their album Under The Big Black Sun.