Thursday, November 3, 2011

Shrub Cocktails: La Tristeza de Lupe

As delicious as these shrubs can be as a non-alcoholic treat, there are those times when you could really use a nice slug of booze with them. As an avowed cocktail geek, I am always racking my brain trying to come up with a way to incorporate my shrubs into a cocktail. As of last night, the dream became a reality.

After a five month break, I visited one of my favorite places in the universe, the famed Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle, where the friendly and skilled barman, Mr. Ben Perri agreed to taste some shrub samples and see if he could work them into a cocktail. I was enjoying his on-the-fly concoctions including a Manhattan variant with Francoise, and a sort of mescal buck served up made with Frankie Teardrop, when I made a slight suggestion in the use of crowd favorite, Don Whoa.

I had kind of fooled around with the idea of using the pineapple based shrub in cocktails that normally might call for pineapple juice. My own home experiment with an Algonquin variant was an unholy disaster. The thing about Don Whoa that makes it tricky for cocktail use, is the earthy funkiness that the coconut vinegar lends it. If it were a straight up pineapple shrub, mixing with it would so much easier. Tasty, it might be, but its singular flavor profile makes it a fickle bastard in a drink. Clearly, this called for professional help.

I hadn't given up on doing a prohibition era update, and there was one I thought might still have a chance of working, the sweet, but tasty Mary Pickford. I mentioned to Ben that this was a direction I would be interested in traversing, and he instinctively gathered the requisite ingredients, and with a calm and deliberate demeanor nailed that sucker the first time out of the gate.

I loved it; this thing was smooth, and utilized the unique flavors of the shrub without being weird, and maintained that subtle, haunting heat that the habanero imparts in the finish. I asked Ben if I could name it, as I love naming drinks and have had one in mind in case this ever worked out. Since Mary Pickford was named after a silent film star, I felt that with the habanero component, it should be named after the lovely, but tragic Latina silent film star who once played a character named "Pepper."

[Editor's Note: Despite having years of intensive, nerdy study, it somehow escaped Kern's attention that there is already a cocktail called the Lupe Velez which contains rum, orange juice, kummel, and pimento dram. He could not be dissuaded from referencing Ms. Velez, so he instead made the title allude to the darker, more tragic aspects of her young life. Though I am loathe to admit Kern did something well, I grudgingly applaud the name change-Ed.]

So without further ado, meet La Tristeza de Lupe:

La Tristeza de Lupe

1.5 oz El Dorado 3 year rum
1 oz Don Whoa shrub
.25 oz Luxardo Maraschino
.25 oz grenadine(Please use the good stuff!)

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass or coupe. Enjoy. 

A giant thanks again to gentleman Benjamin Perri from the Zig Zag for indulging my cocktail/shrub fantasies and crafting such a brilliant tipple for us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shrub #12: "Frankie Teardrop"

Fruit: None
Sugar: Turbinado sugar(Sugar In The Raw)
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Fresh ginger root, ghost chile

As you may have guessed, there is a bit of distance between when I first made most of these shrubs and when I have finally gotten around to writing about them. In the case of this week's second shrub, "Frankie Teardrop," I actually have the benefit of having made the recipe very recently, and can actually compare the two different approaches rather than just theorizing as to what might make it better the next time. But we'll get to that in due time.

The genesis of "Frankie Teardrop" was very simple. I love ginger ale and ginger beer. Unfortunately, for the most part, companies whose job it has been for decades to produce these products assumed that the beverage sipping public somehow is frightened to death of the actual heat and flavor of ginger, leaving those of us who yearn for the crisp, fiery bite of a ginger drink with some gravitas and character completely out in the cold. In short, I want a drink that feels like Cary Grant or Jean Paul Belmondo, and they're giving us Taylor Lautner and Ashton Kutcher.

Beyond the mere pleasure of drinking ginger beer straight, many of my favorite cocktails call for ginger ale/beer and the overly sweet, bland smooth operators that are normally offered in a bar setting have no chance when standing up to a stable of ruffians such as rye, bourbon, rum, and the like. They simply find themselves to be hopelessly lost wallflowers in the drink[Much like Kern at a cocktail party-Ed.]. This will not do.

When I set out to make a ginger shrub, my goal was to think about where other ginger beers had failed me, and it largely came down to two elements. Number one, most ginger ales/beers seem to have a distinct lack of ginger flavor. When a drink has the word "ginger" in the name, the crime of not really tasting like it is pretty damned unforgivable in my opinion. Secondly, I like my ginger ale/beer hot. I mean, blazing hot. In my life there has only been one ginger ale I've tried that fulfilled that desire, and that is Blenheim's ginger ale with the red cap. When it makes you nearly sneeze just from smelling it, it's the right stuff for me.

The first problem was quite easy to address; I just used an metric asston of fresh ginger root. I won't tell you the exact amount, but I can guarantee that it is enough so there will be no mistaking what it is you are drinking. I microplaned the hell out the ginger, leaving a neat pile in my jar. The ginger itself in the amount I chose would likely be sorta spicy. However, at Feel Like Making Shrub, sorta is not acceptable. I needed a way to give the shrub a clean, full mouth heat, but one that didn't obscure the delicious, aromatic flavor of the ginger I was working hard to showcase. To finish the base of the shrub, I chose turbinado sugar which would offer both depth of flavor, and would compliment the ginger, and white wine vinegar to stay out of its way. As usual, I prepared the shrub according the my normal methods.

Addressing the second issue,  I figured that the use of a pepper would likely do the trick, but I thought habanero might be too obvious. I wanted something to strike fear into the hearts of ginger drink amateurs and awe and wonder in the ones who had felt betrayed and practically mocked by the flabby, flavorless offerings haunting the shelves at the local grocery stores.

The answer came in the form of the red, wrinkled package of the bhut jolokia pepper, better known to Western audiences as the fabled "Ghost Chile." To give you some idea of how hot this pepper is in relation to some of its also hot brethren, the bhut jolokia weighs in at an imposing 855,000 to 1,041,427 on the Scoville Scale. This means it is about 208 times hotter than a standard jalapeno, and nearly 7-8 times hotter than a normal orange habanero. More simply stated, it's hot, dammit!

Looking back at my earlier experiments, the slow steeping of a very small habanero whose seeds and membranes were removed imparted just the right amount of heat over a week in the "Don Whoa", but I had a feeling that after a week of steeping, the ghost chile could possibly become so hot, that it might render the whole shrub undrinkable. I could have done the steeping, checking everyday to see if the chile needed to be pulled, but that seemed like a pain in the ass. I knew there had to be a way to control the heat level in a way that it should stay stable once I reached a flavor I liked. I slapped my forehead. The answer was simple: tea.

I didn't literally use camellia sinensis, but I did borrow the method most people use to make tea. I boiled some water, poured it over a couple of ghost chiles in a bowl, and covered the bowl tightly with aluminum foil. I tasted the "chile tea" every half hour or so to see how hot the tea was becoming. At about the three hour mark, I thought it was ready. I then poured the "tea" into a Pyrex measuring cup, and added it in one ounce increments until I reached the desired level of chile heat. It worked like a charm. Unlike the traditional steep-in-the-shrub method, there was no guesswork involved with how hot the shrub might or might not become by the end of the week. It's so much easier when an unknown quantity(especially heat) becomes a constant. I put it back in the fridge to do its thing for the week, and didn't check on it until the next Saturday.

The resulting shrub, as of the bottling stage, was a hit. It was as spicy as the Blenheim I love so much, but much different. In addition to intense ginger flavor and all over warmth of the chile, there was just the slightest tang of acid to round everything out. Mixed with a bit of sparkling water, and you have a ginger beer substitute I would put up against any of the other small batch ginger beers I actually like and respect. After  the second week, it actually seemed that the flavors melded together even more, and the mixture tasted slightly hotter!

While I was quite happy with version 1.0, it didn't quite get as hot as I expected. Just recently, I made a new batch to make sure we had enough for our recent shrub tasting, and I slightly modified the "chile tea" a little bit to see if I could craft a more efficient solution for extracting heat into the shrub. Vinegar, as it turns out, is a superior solvent to water in extracting flavors from things like herbs, spices, and chiles. As a shrub contains vinegar as one of its major liquid components, it seemed like a great idea to imbue the vinegar I would be using in the shrub anyway with the ghost chiles. By the end of that process, there would be no question as to how much spice the chiles would contribute to the overall shrub. It worked brilliantly, and more effectively than water. I was looking for more heat, and at 2 hours, I got it in even less time.

In addition to its almost magical beverage properties, several people have suggested this would be an amazing marinade, especially when married with other Asian flavors for a chicken or beef stir-fry of some kind. I wholeheartedly approve of this line of thinking.

The name of this shrub comes from the title of one of the most eerie, mystifying, and just downright messed up songs I have ever heard by the dark, pre-No Wave duo Suicide, from their eponymous debut album. The name is a bit of a joke I thought of as I was making what I hoped would be one of the hottest ginger drinks one might try. I told people who were about to sample it that "after a having a glass of this shrub, it should be hot enough to cause the person drinking it to violently ramble and scream murderously for 10 minutes and 27 seconds." So far, no one has screamed...yet.

My initial quest was to make a ginger drink with some grit amidst a world of preening, overly smooth pretty boys, and with its smoldering heat and blatant disregard for the rules, this drink subverted even my own expectations; I may have aimed for Cary Grant, but I'm happy to say, "Frankie Teardrop" turned out to be far and away, much more Robert Mitchum.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Shrub #11: "Melville"

Fruit: Smoked Pears
Sugar: Raw Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Poudre Douce

I should have done something simple. After the "Coconut Catastrophe" as I am now calling it, a nice simple shrub would have been the way to go, but unfortunately, that idyllic thought went straight out the door the very minute that my friend and I began discussing the possibility of smoking fruit.

My friend Jeremy brought it up, and asked if I had ever entertained the thought of doing something like that. I had seen something similar done at Bushwhacker Cider in Portland, Oregon, They had enlisted the good natured folks at a German market across the street to utilize their smokers to flavor the cider. I'm not clear on whether they smoked the apples or the finished cider, but it was certainly smokey. Intriguing as this was, I don't own a smoker, and wouldn't have much of an idea how to use one even if I did. Luckily, Jeremy came to the rescue.

"I could smoke the pears for you, if you think that's a shrub you'd like to do," he said.

Yes. Yes, it was.

The plan was this: I would buy pears the week before and he would do a test run with both whole pears and sliced pears at a low temperature for varying amounts of time to see how both would react to the smoking process. Then, when we had determined what the optimum conditions were, we replicate those the next Friday night so that I could make shrub with them the following morning. But before we could get to the magic, we needed some produce.

That Friday I went to the Pike Place Market to find some pears. It took many tries, and the near drawing of a diagram to explain to the gentlemen selling their wares what I meant. I was glad to see that they were still nearly as excited when they realized my project involved actually smoking the fruit as a cooking technique as opposed to utilizing the pears as makeshift bongs. Once we'd gotten that figured out, I dropped the pears off with Jeremy, who smoked them that evening. He came by after he was done, and we checked all the various preparations. The pears that had been cut into pieces were cooked too much, taking on an almost leathery appearance, and tasting of nothing but smoke. The whole pears, however, were a different story; some of them had been done for about two hours, and others that were just a bit longer. As it turns out, whole pears at 2 hours at just under 200 degrees was the sweet spot. The skins, while brown and wrinkled looking, gave way to a mild smokiness and a nearly caramelized, ultra-juicy interior. It was like magic.

A week later, it was time for the real show. I bought more pears, but the market was out of the cultivar I had used the week before. Pears were pears, I figured. But I couldn't have been more wrong. The pears Jeremy brought me were done the exact same way, but the smoke had penetrated more deeply and strongly into the pear's flesh. They were still good, but much smokier than the week before. Then it hit me. The skins on the new pears were much thinner than the ones on the first batch. Without that thicker skin, the smoke was much more easily able to work its way into the fruit.

The pears cooled overnight, and I went through the normal shrub making process. I decided that I was going to use raw sugar, because I thought brown sugar would be too deep a flavor, but I wanted something with a little more character than refined white sugar. In addition, I needed some spices that would not only go well with pears, but would also help compliment and potentially mellow some of the smoke. For this purpose, I went with the warm spice blend known as Poudre Douce, which roughly means, "sweet powder." Poudre Douce seemed perfect as it contains cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, all things that would work nicely in say, a pear tart. I mixed them all together, and was about to put it in the fridge until...

"What would you think about putting the skins in there?"

Sarah had been helping me cut up pears and gather ingredients that morning, and had just posed a very interesting question. The skins were smoked. They were otherwise going to be thrown away, so was there a possible use for them? Ultimately, I decided to put them in. I think my reasoning was that it would mostly impart more smoke to the nose than it would contribute anything to the taste of it shrub. In went the skins, and into the fridge went the shrub.

It seemed that flavors were already getting pretty out there, so I opted for the neutrality of white wine vinegar. As usual, it gave a slight amount of tang while staying out of the way of all of the other flavors, which is exactly what I wanted.

I waited a week, and it was bottling day. Normally, these things go pretty easily. This one, not so much. I am not entirely sure how high the pectin content of these pears was, but as I attempted to strain the mixture, the tea strainer kept becoming clogged with an almost pear butter type substance. It was jammy and viscous, and I'm sure would have been delicious on biscuits, but it was really pissing me off something fierce. Not only was it taking forever, it became quickly apparent that my actual liquid yield was going to be pretty damned low. All in all, I got just under 17 oz of liquid, which was not much considering the amount of pears that went in. I waited another week until it was finally "done."

So how did "Melville" fare?

Quite well, I am happy to say. While it was a bit smokier than I was initially expecting, it the sweetness of the pears and the warm notes of the Poudre Douce really evened everything out brilliantly. Some of the initial comments I received were that the nose reminded people of a fruity barbecue sauce. I must say, I agree. I think one's interest/tolerance for this shrub depends largely on how much they enjoy smokey flavors. If you like barbecue or scotch, you'll probably be very intrigued. Everyone else, your mileage may vary.

For uses, there is always drinking it, which was the first intention, but since barbecue has been mentioned multiple times, I say we embrace it as either a marinade or sauce. My friend Paige made the astute observation that it would be particularly tasty if used as a pork marinade. To that, I say, "Yes, please!"

This week's shrub is named not for the American author, but for the French director who adopted his name, Jean-Pierre Melville, director of some of my favorite films of all time, including but not limited to, Army of Shadows, Bob Le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge, and Le Doulos.

While I wasn't initially sure how this shrub was going to turn out, the results were well worth it. The lessons I learned from this shrub were that inspiration can come from anywhere, and it's always much easier when you have friends who are willing to go the extra mile to help make your visions, no matter how esoteric or bizarre, come to life.

PS-Thanks, Jeremy!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Notes From A Shrub Tasting

After a brief absence, I am back for the forseeable future, to bring you more news from the fascinating, slow paced world of shrub making. 

A Myriad Of Shrubs 
Today I am going to refrain from writing up a description of a shrub that I've completed, so that I can tell you about my first ever shrub tasting, held in the humble confines of our apartment. The turnout was great, as were the fine folks who came to sample the wares. I believe the thing I was most proud of was continually being told that after tasting nearly every one of the 28 offerings(most of which are soon to be written up right here, so stay tuned), that it was still virtually impossible to declare a clear winner.

Despite this, it's always fun in any sort of beverage tasting to approximate the favorites. So without any real, solid scientific method, and further ado, I am going to attempt to relay what appeared to be the Best In Show, so to speak.

Based on the comments, I think first place would likely be a tie. First, we have Ernest, a grapefruit/savory shrub. For those unfamiliar with savory, it's a really nice herb that sort of comes off as a peppery sage with the hint of rosemary. As it turns out, grapefruit hearts savory in this shrub, whose clean tang is bolstered by a spicy herbaceous character. It was particularly enjoyable with a splash of seltzer. Equally beloved by partygoers was the ginger/ghost chile shrub called Frankie Teardrop. This shrub was a reaction to the common problem of weak ginger ales and ginger beers. Frankie certainly fits the bill if you're looking for a ginger drink that can actually bring the heat.

A close second was another citrus shrub, the lemon-rosemary dynamo named Lucrezia. Generally, I find that you can rarely go wrong pairing lemon with rosemary in almost anything, so it was little wonder that this shrub turned out to be one of the people's favorites. Lucrezia plays like a particularly intense rosemary lemonade, but that's a great thing in my book, and it seemed my sentiment was largely echoed by the tasters.

Third place is a bit of a hard call, but I think I'm going to have to go with 3 Faces of Eve. This was tough, as there were two apple based shrubs in the tasting, one being the 3 Faces of Eve, with its deep, apple pie flavor, as well as the newer, sweeter mulled apple shrub named Martin. Despite both being apple shrubs imbued with warm spices, I think the use of three very different cultivars of apples along with homemade brown sugar may have pushed Eve to a photo finish victory.

There were many honorable mentions that were passionately singled out by individual tasters, however. Among them were some of the more experimental offerings, such as Chakka Khan(pumpkin/kala masala), Bowery Babe(sweet potato/pumpkin pie spice), Give My Love To Rose(honey/rose/cardamom), Dale(coffee), and Elizabeth(heirloom tomato/berbere).

At some point, I'll be giving you more information on those shrubs that were mentioned, but not previously written up in the coming days and weeks.

In closing, I would like to not only thank everyone who participated, but my wife Sarah for being so patient with all those early Saturday mornings and especially for helping do nearly the entire preparation for the party. I appreciate it more than you know, and wanted to let you know(again), you're the best.

See you all soon with more shrubs!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shrub #10: "East By Midwest"

Fruit/Vegetable: Sweet Corn
Sugar: Sugar In The Raw
Vinegar: Coconut Vinegar
Additions: Coconut

Sometimes, it just won't do to continue playing it safe in one's culinary endeavors. After a string of good luck with more standard recipes, I felt it was time to go out on a limb and do a couple of more experimental shrubs. The first of these attempts was an attempt to capture the flavors of a Thai dessert salad called Khao Pod Khluk. From my understanding, this salad is normally made with cooked corn and coconut in its native land, but I came across a enthusiastic writer who extolled the virtue of a raw vegan version of the dish. Since capturing the delicious raw flavor of an ingredient is something I strive for in fruit shrubs, it seemed to me that this was a good place to start.

I bought way too many ears of sweet corn at the Pike Place Market, which if nothing else, gave my forearms a mighty workout, and brought them one step closer to the Popeye-esque physique I have been dreaming of since my childhood. While that part was easy enough, the bigger issue was finding a whole coconut. I looked around the normal spots, without much luck. Luckily, my friend Jeremy was kind enough to pick up a young coconut whose outer husk had already been removed which he graciously donated for the project. With all of the ingredients gathered, it was time to start on the shrub.

Normally, it isn't too difficult to smash fruit and sugar together to form a syrup, as the fruit in question usually surrenders more quickly than my eight year old self to bullies in elementary school. Unlike other materials, corn has other ideas. My normal muddling was quite in vain, as none of the damned kernels would break open, despite my best efforts. There was some juice, but overall this was not going quite the way I expected. Taking a page of the Alice Cooper playbook, I firmly decided that there would be no more Mr. Nice Guy. Mr. Clean, as it were, had left the building. All that stood between myself and victory over these sweet nuggets was my trusty stick blender, which I plugged in, and wielded without mercy.

This did the job. Corn juice was finally mingling with the raw sugar, and something resembling a syrup was forming, finally. The downside was this mixture was far more reminiscent of sugar creamed corn than that of a corn based syrup. Disappointing? Perhaps, but I had come this far, there was no turning back now. The only addition left at this stage was the coconut. Puzzled, Sarah and I brainstormed as to how to get the damned thing open.

"I think you should tap it all the way around with a cleaver," she said.

I had read advice very close to this on the internet, and as we all know, the internet has never steered anyone wrong. Let's do it, I thought.

Five frustrating minutes later, I had tapped out an interesting rhythm, yet accomplished little else. Sarah then suggested I use the sharp end of the cleaver. I thought this was a good idea, as maybe the first round was just to soften this tough little bastard up a little bit. When facing the business end of a cleaver, it may not be such a rough customer. As woody shards flew up around us, I could see Sarah's expression which conveyed something about how much vacuuming was going to happen after this, but she politely didn't say anything about it. Eventually, we had a mild success! We'd managed to gouge a hole just big enough to drain all of the water out. The seam, however, was impervious to my he-man styled pulling. Feeling thoroughly mocked, I had had just about enough out of this ****ing tropical delicacy.

"Sarah, please hand me a Ziploc bag," I said slowly, and calmly. Despite my icy demeanor, which I am sure she found off-putting, she handed me a gallon sized bag, which I shoved the slightly busted coconut into, doing my best to seal the thing up despite its odd shape. I opened the door and went out on our patio.

Sarah is quite used to me doing weird things. She is also used to me doing dumb things, and I am not quite sure where the following actions would fall in a Venn diagram of the two, but I was a desperate man, and these were desperate times. I was getting this bloody coconut open one way or another.

Encased in its snug plastic cocoon, I stood on the concrete and hurled the coconut into it with all my might. [For the readers at home, that's not really saying much...Kern throws like an uncoordinated child.-Ed.] Rather than bursting open in a triumphant explosion of tropical deliciousness, it languidly rolled into the dirt by our tomato plants.


I picked it up and heaved it again. Nothing. At this point, I channeled the apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey and simply picked up the coconut and began smashing it over and over against a big rock formation in our garden. Tools, shmools. Upon the twentieth or thirtieth try, it finally split open. I let out a huge cheer, which I have a feeling scared both our upstairs neighbors and random passersby. That's ok. I had finally triumphed. Over an inanimate object. Needless to say, it was a bittersweet victory.

With all of the excitement over, we went back inside where I scraped out what bit of the coconut meat I needed, and threw it in with the mash. I gave it a stir, clamped down the lid, and threw it in the fridge for several hours. To be honest, I was quite happy not to have to look at the damn thing for a while.

Of course, I eventually had to, if only to put in the vinegar. I thought for the tropical touch, I would go with the same coconut vinegar that had given a funky, yet very interesting taste to the pineapple/habanero shrub, "Don Whoa." After adding it, and sending it back to its refrigerated incarceration, I waited for the bottling.

More than any of the previous shrubs, "East By Midwest" was really messy to bottle. The thick sludge of sugary corn kept clogging my filters, which I had to keep removing and washing out. Eventually, it was done. At this stage, the vinegar was still very, very strong. I had faith, however, as I was equally worried about the "Don Whoa" at the bottling stage, which ended up being fantastic.

When all was said and done, was the melding of Thailand and Iowa worth the trip?

Resoundingly, and sadly, no. Not even close. Nuh uh. Nope.

While I can't say "East By Midwest" is undrinkable, or gross, it's not something people would find themselves reaching for on a hot summer day. I think it does taste like a dessert of sorts, which is nice, but the worst part is that one can't really taste the delicious and delicate flavors of either the sweet corn or the coconut. It sure as hell does not capture the light freshness I had envisioned in the salad that it is based upon. It's just...sweet and really funky. The coconut vinegar was a particularly bad call here, as its overwhelming flavor covers up the main stars even more. It's just too much all the way around.

Ultimately, this is the price of doing an experiment. Without daring to dream about what something might taste like, we'd all be eating vanilla everything. While ultimately I chalk this one up to being a interesting novelty, I do not really suggest anyone drink it in earnest. This isn't to say that I would give up on the idea of a sweet corn shrub entirely. I may try again, but next time with much less sugar, a milder vinegar, and perhaps more corn. In my haste to make this taste like a specific dish, I forgot the importance of letting the flavors of the star ingredients be themselves.

For those curious about the title of this shrub, it was meant to be a play on the movie "North by Northwest", indicating both the flavors of Thailand mixed with a traditionally Iowa based ingredient. I do hope you all appreciate the fact that I went with this instead of the original title, "Thai-owa," which still makes me cringe a little bit. So at least there's that...

Shrub #9: "Kim"

Fruit: Watermelon
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White wine vinegar
Additions: Aleppo pepper, torn mint leaves

As August began, so did the realization that summer as we knew it would soon be over here in the Pacific Northwest. As much as I love the imminent arrival of beautiful autumnal weather, I knew that there were just some flavors I hadn't captured that wouldn't feel quite the same after we begin donning our jackets and scarves.

One of those flavors I find most associated with summer, is watermelon. To be perfectly honest, this is one fruit I am really not a fan of. It always strikes me as being quite watery and sweet without much actual flavor to speak of. Despite this, I know a lot of people who are crazy about the stuff, and I thought it would be nice to give the people what they want.

But giving the people what they want can sometimes be a tad challenging. Sarah and I bought a melon that looked as though it had been injected with some sort of anabolic steroids, and would have threatened to kick any of the other fruits' asses up and down the produce section for looking at it wrong. Due to my general disinterest in watermelon, I had lost all perspective on how big this thing actually needed to be, and to make matters worse, we had to push it down the hill our little personal grocery cart. Every twenty feet or so, the front heaviness of the cart threatened to spill all of our delicious groceries into the sidewalk, a proposition made all the more plausible due to the proliferation of cracks in the uneven sidewalk. In an odd way, it was like being in a very low stakes community theatre version of Wages of Fear. I mean, if one were to subtract the threat of nitroglycerin blowing everything to hell and subsitute bags of chicken tenders falling into the street. On second thought, nevermind.

I had a couple of thoughts coming into this shrub. My first thought was just making a pure watermelon shrub, unadorned with spices or herbs. It seems fairly rare that I do a shrub that is just fruit, and thought it might be nice to just let the watermelon be itself. My second thought was that this seemed like a pretty boring idea, and I would hate to be stuck with a bunch of watermelon shrub, which is not a favorite flavor of mine in the first place. Apologies to thought one, but thought two just wrecked your ass.

The concept for this shrub came to me pretty easily, As it was summer, why not pattern this after some kind of watermelon salad? Obviously items such as cheese were out, but the brightness of mint might be nice. This seemed like a reasonable solution, but then as I was looking at the website for World Spice Merchants, I happened to see a suggestion regarding the Turkish flake pepper, aleppo.

"It's a winner in watermelon salad with a squeeze of lime."

I took that as a sign. Well, mostly, as it turned out I had plenty of aleppo pepper, but my limes had just turned bad. One can't win them all, but I figured that the aleppo would be bringing most of the verve to the party, anyhow.

The next big decisions were about the vinegar and and the sugar. Watermelon has such a delicate flavor to begin with, anything too deep or rich would overpower it easily. Therefore, white sugar and white wine vinegar were really the only choices in my mind. I spanked and tore the mint leaves, tossed in some aleppo along with the fruit and sugar, and muddled away. After the syrup began forming, I buckled up the works and tossed it in the fridge for five hours. At the five hour mark I popped open the jar and added the vinegar. Back it went for a week.

When the week was up, I went to do my normal bottling, and I noticed something quite interesting. I guess I didn't really think of how much of a watermelon is really liquid, and noticed that the yield was twice what I had initially calculated for, so I ended up with almost 35 oz of watermelon shrub. Yikes.

So despite my dislike of watermelon, how did it fare in shrub form?

The answer is, not too bad. As any good shrub does, it tastes, for better or worse, exactly like the fruit it is made from. For me, that obviously was not a plus, but it would be a watermelon lover's dream. The mint was there, though almost imperceptibly, and almost slightly bitter. I'm not quite sure what happened, but I am guessing it would have done better if added closer to finishing. I think sometimes overagitating mint can cause the oils to get a little harsh, and since one is supposed to frequently shake a shrub to make sure everything is integrating properly, this seems like a reasonable conclusion. The aleppo was indeed a nice touch, imbuing the mixture with a bright, subtle heat that compliments the watermelon's natural flavors without being overly hot like some other peppers might. My only issue is that I might have been a touch heavy handed with the seasoning, and though it wasn't overly hot, the delicate watermelon was being pushed out of the way a little bit. Next time, I would use a bit less than I think is actually necessary.

In addition to drinking it with sparkling water, several people who tried this suggested that this would possibly be a great base for a salad dressing, especially to reinforce the flavors of  a fruit salad. As I am not a salad guy, I will take their word for it.

For those curious as to how this week's shrub got its name, it kind of requires a couple of leaps of logic. Watermelon is a perennial favorite at summer picnics, which made me think of the 1955 film "Picnic" with William Holden and leading lady, Kim Novak. And from Kim Novak, I titled the shrub "Kim."

While this week's choice of fruit wouldn't be at the top of my list, I did gain more of an appreciation for an ingredient I have despised since childhood. If you are a watermelon fan, however, "Kim" is a rather good way to hold onto the warmth of those fleeting days of our abbreviated summer.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Shrub #8: "Françoise"

Fruit: Strawberries, hulled and quartered
Sugar: White sugar
Vinegar: Balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar
Additions: Long pepper

 "Françoise": Strawberry, long pepper, white sugar

With berries fresh on my mind and still at the Pike Place Market, I decided to grab some strawberries right after buying the blackberries. As I hadn't really gotten very deeply into this shrub project during June, I ended up missing some of the really killer stuff that usually comes out at the top of the season. This gives me an excellent incentive to try to somehow get my hands on some Shuksans next year, but for now these were definitely more than adequate.

While I had been having a lot of fun combining multiple herbs and spices with my fruit in "Black Moses", I thought a return to simplicity would be nice. I wanted to pick out one spice that would compliment, but not overtake the strawberry flavor which I was very anxious to highlight in this shrub. In this instance, I chose long pepper. For those of you who have never seen or heard of long pepper, it's quite a treat. I first read about it in the The Spice Lover's Guide to Herbs and Spices by Tony Hill. Incidentally, Mr. Hill owns the renowned herb, spice, and tea emporium World Spice Merchant here in Seattle. A cousin of sorts to the domesticated black peppercorn we all know and love, long peppers are squat, rock hard little spices that resemble little brown corn cobs, and really have more in common with another peppery wonder, Grains of Paradise. While not the most attractive spice, long peppers hide a wealth of personality once you grind, crush, or break them. While it is hard to pinpoint the taste exactly, it has a subtle floral aroma, with hints of cardamom and ginger. It is as if the black peppercorn got dressed to the nines for an evening out on the town and really went all out. In short, long pepper is like peppercorn with charm to spare.

Generally, shrubs with soft berries(blackberries, raspberries, etc,) are really pretty simple to get going. They don't have a lot of fight in them and when you even brandish a wooden spoon they almost cry uncle as quickly as a terrorized schoolboy under the thumb of Scott Farkas. Other berries, specifically strawberries, in this instance, are far more work. Luckily, Sarah was good enough to help me hull and quarter 19 ounces of strawberries, which not only made the time go by faster, but made it much more enjoyable.

Strawberry Strata
Once these were finished, it was time to decide what type of sugar to use, and how much. I picked white sugar, because it's sweet without having a lot of other depth of flavor. I know, it probably strikes some of you as counter intuitive to use an ingredient with less depth of flavor. Isn't more flavor the point, you may be asking? Not always. There are shrubs where I am trying to create a deep, blended flavor profile, and the increased character and richness of turbinado sugar or brown sugar assist with that, but in shrubs where you are really trying to highlight the main ingredient, mostly fruit, the white sugar sweetens without having other flavors of the sugar to get in the way. In this shrub, I really want the beautiful, ripe taste of these strawberries to have the spotlight, so I finally decide on about 14 ounces of white sugar.

 In the meantime, I turned my attention back to the long pepper I mentioned earlier. My first instinct is to coarsely crack it in a mortar and pestle, as I don't want the pieces to get too fine, for two reasons. First, they are a pain in the ass to strain out, and secondly, there is a possibility that the finer it is, the more strongly it might show up in the final product. I want the spice to be a session player; an item invaluable to the final product, but more or less anonymous. Unfortunately, the mortar and pestle method was not yielding the results I had hoped for. The long pepper is pretty rigid and unforgiving, and despite my repeated he-man pummelling, this stuff was just not having it. No more Mr. Nice Guy, I thought, as I pulled down the grinder to show it who was boss. I pulsed it a few times until I got the coarse grind I was after, and dumped it into the strawberry/sugar mixture already waiting in the jar. I stirred it all together, trying to smash any of the strawberries I could in the process. While I managed to bruise some of them, the rest stayed relatively whole, peeking above the red sludge, as though silently taunting me. I buckled the jar, and banished them to the fridge for a five hour time out.

After retreiving them five hours later, I opened the jar and took a taste of it. So far, I was liking what I was tasting. There was only one problem. I could not taste the long pepper at all. I'm always torn with this happens because some spices just take a long time to starting giving up some flavor in that first week of sitting. If you overadjust, you could end up with a long pepper bomb that tastes vaguely of strawberries. I rolled the dice and ground another tablespoon of the long pepper and hoped like hell that this wasn't going to ruin everything. Fingers crossed.

The final decision was what vinegar to use. Given all my earlier talk about letting the fruit be the star, I would have normally gone for the white wine vinegar without question. With only a slight tang, the relatively neutral white wine vinegar is normally the best choice for turning a spotlight onto the fruit. However...

These are strawberries, and if there is one thing that everyone loves with strawberries, it's balsamic vinegar. I had to do it. The one thing I considered, though, was that the Sarah could have used a bit of cutting so it wouldn't be so syrupy. I used 3 ounces of red wine vinegar along with 16 ounces of balsamic vinegar. While that doesn't sound like a lot, I didn't want to necessarily go half and half with it. Just a nice bit of dryness to take the edge off. I shook the container a few times until I was nearly lightheaded, and decided to put it back in the refrigerator.

A week later, Sarah was helping me bottle the shrub, and she seemed a bit more excited than usual. I couldn't figure out why until I saw all those nearly whole strawberries come out into the strainer, so full of the balsamic vinegar mixture they looked like they might explode. She put a few in her mouth and smiled.

"These," she exclaimed, "are delicious."

As advertised, the fruit was great. But did all of the ingredients in "Françoise" make beautiful music together?

Oh mais, oui.

If you love strawberries, this is the shrub for you, my friends. The red wine vinegar cuts the thick, almost unctuous balsamic just enough to spare it from cloying, the strawberries were clear and bright, with just the right amount of sweetness, and the long pepper donated a little spicy, slightly floral kick to the aftertaste. All in all it was absolutely amazing. I couldn't have been more pleased. In some ways, this was kind of the strawberry alternative to "Sarah," but with more of a spicy kick. To say I enjoyed it was an understatement, and of all of the shrubs I have tried out on unsuspecting friends and co-workers, this one has received the most unsolicited praise.

At the risk of being redundant, I feel almost as thought one should be obligated by some law that doesn't currently exist(but should) to put this on some vanilla ice cream. I know, I know. Has there been a shrub yet I haven't said that about? This is true, and "try some on ice cream" is threatening to become the "Put a bird on it!" of the blog. But this time, I am practically begging you to do it. Please. I can say with 99 percent certainty, you will thank me. Other than that, I say just drink it, but I suggest doing it with water. The balsamic, despite its sweet taste, can really do a number on your stomach, especially my fellow acid reflux sufferers.

This week's shrub is named after a very cool French singer from France in the 1960's named Françoise Hardy. She began as sort of a pop star, but went on to make more complex and sensual albums like "La Question" later in her career. Her voice is every bit as sweet, yet complex as the elixir that was named for her.

This was one of my favorite shrubs to make, as I always love that little twinge of apprehension when you take a gamble on the recipe and the result is a huge, delicious payoff in the end. If you like strawberries, I urge you to hurry and make a batch before the season ends. The results are, well, très magnifique!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Shrub #7: "Black Moses"

Fruit: Blackberries
Sugar: Raw Sugar
Vinegar: Rice Vinegar/White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Ginger, sliced, coriander(crushed), cardamom pods

Ingredients For "Black Moses"
The past couple of weeks' experiments with stone fruits were a lot of fun, but with the end of summer beginning to close in on us, I felt that I should do at least a couple more berry based shrubs before the season packs up on moves on for another year. I decided for this round to go with a berry that I have never really paid a lot of attention to: the humble blackberry.

The blackberries I got were outside of the Pike Place market sold by Sidhu Farms, just a ways south in Puyallup. They looked good; this batch had a bright, pleasant taste, were very juicy, but were definitely on the sour side. This kind of sharpness seemed like it would put the shrub more squarely in aperitif/dinner territory, and after the "Jessica" and "3 Faces of Eve" projects, this struck me as a nice change of pace from the more dessert oriented flavors I had been playing with as of late. After washing and rinsing the massive mound of berries, it was time to get to work.

This week I thought it might be fun to incorporate some flavors I would normally associate with Indian cooking, but they had to somehow compliment the blackberries. In many cases, a lemon flavor works nicely with dark berries, but I wanted to achieve that bright, sunny lift without using the actual fruit, whose acidity might be a little much. I opted for Indian coriander, which has a nice, subtle lemon creamsicle vibe to it. Rather than grinding it into a powder, I opted to crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle. Next, it occurred to me that ginger is usually quite prevalent in the world of Indian cuisine, and it might add a nice complimentary warmth to the flavor profile. And of course, nothing says Indian flavor quite like green cardamom pods, which I cracked lightly and set aside.

I started by putting the berries in the jar, followed by the coriander, the slices of ginger, the green cardamom pods, and the raw sugar. Given the tartness of the berries, I thought a deeper, richer sugar wouldn't be out of place here, but I didn't want to go all the way into the luxe richness of a brown sugar, which made the Sugar In The Raw a good choice. After everything was properly muddled together, it was time for the requisite 5 hour fridge visit.

Now that the syruping process was pretty much all but done, I decided to see how things were going. While I wouldn't say I was disappointed at this stage, I'm always a little discouraged when I can't even taste certain ingredients at all. For whatever reason, I wasn't really getting the cardamom at all, and if there was ginger in there, it was pretty faint. I wasn't overly concerned about the cardamom, I guess. I always kind of thought it might complicate the flavors, so if it was faint or didn't show up at all, it could be for the best. I was, however, concerned about the ginger. I decided I would grab another 2 inch finger of ginger and  went to work grating it right into the jar. I gave the mix another stir for good measure, and then tasted again. I supposed there was a little more ginger to it, but it was kind of hard to tell as the full flavor of the blackberries seemed to be tuning it out. I just had to cross my fingers and hope that a week of aging would help it along.

Blackberries, syruping
Finally, it was time I turned my attention to the vinegar portion of the program. I kind of wanted to branch out on this one, so I pulled down a bottle of rice vinegar. I'm not sure when the fact that I had never smelled, touched, or tasted the stuff in my life dawned on me, but rest assured it was right before I realized I was about to dump a goodly amount of this unknown quantity into a syrup that was for all intents and purposes  going well up to this point. "It's just vinegar," I thought to myself as I unscrewed the cap. "How much trouble could this possibly be?"

As I got the cap off, a tendril of the pungent tang from the rice vinegar reached out of the bottle in a scene that likely wouldn't have been out of place in animated shorts of the 1940's, and punched me squarely in the nostrils. Oh boy. It would be difficult to describe what I thought I smelled, let alone what I thought I tasted, but I do recall feeling as though I may have made a mistake. I was used to the acidity of other vinegars, but this had a strange, unfamiliar tang that made me uneasy. I was probably just overreacting, and it would be fine once it blended with the syrup. I dumped in the whole bottle.

The syrup and vinegar combination was bizarre. I can't even say it was bad, it was just downright odd. I needed to make up the rest of the volume, and I decided the mostly neutral, inoffensive flavor of white wine vinegar would do a fine job cutting the super sour concoction that was lurking within my jar. It helped, but not much. I closed the lid up and locked it down. I was apprehensive, but due to a similar experience with the "Don Whoa," I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

So in the end, was "Black Moses" a joy or should you just walk on by?

Ultimately, I would say it was the former, especially considering my apprehension about the overwhelmingly strange tang from the rice vinegar, which ended up mellowing very nicely in the second week. The flavor of the blackberries came out rich, jammy, and bright. The coriander definitely gave the shrub a sort of citrusy lift, and the ginger was prominent. If anything, it might have possibly been a bit too prominent. The main trouble with some of these shrubs is not knowing if an ingredient is going to show up until it's pretty much done, and at that point there is a good chance you might have overdone it. There are a couple of ways to remedy this I think; either I could stick to the cut, smashed pieces of ginger, or a far shorter piece of grated ginger, as I suspect that is where the nearly overwhelming ginger flavor originated. As evidenced during the syrup stage, the cardamom somehow got lost on the way to the party, and gave up. I think I've come to the conclusion that much like cinnamon sticks, cardamom is one of those spice that does not cold infuse well in its whole state. If I make this shrub again, I will try grinding a couple of the whole pods to see if it makes any discernible difference. Despite these limited missteps, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this shrub.

As I gave this shrub to people I got mixed reactions on the best way to drink it. Unlike many of the other shrubs, several people told me that the enjoyed it with fairly minimal dilution. Your mileage may vary of course, but I can see their point. The juicy richness and berry flavors in this get a bit lost if too much water is added, so if you are going to do the normal soda water method, you might want more even proportions of soda to shrub syrup. In terms of other uses, with its sweet and sour berry flavor, and sharp spicy ginger bit, I think this might also make a very interesting marinade or reduced glaze for duck or pork.

Despite my lack of experience with the primary ingredient, everything came together quite well; when I went searching for flavor, "Black Moses" really delivered.

The shrub's nickname this week was a tribute to one of my favorite Soul singers of all time, Mr. Isaac Hayes. Specifically, the name "Black Moses" is derived from his 1971 album of the same name. Mr. Hayes passed away in 2008 leaving behind an unimpeachable musical legacy and a legion of adoring fans who will never forget him.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Shrub #6: "3 Faces of Eve"

Fruit: Apples
Sugar: Brown Sugar
Vinegar: Apple Cider Vinegar/White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Kern's Pie Spice [Spice includes:Vietnamese cinnamon, nutmeg, mace blades, clove, crushed together in mortar and pestle)

Since we had already made homemade brown sugar, it made sense that the shrub to immediately follow "Jessica" should be the apple based shrub I refer to as "Three Faces Of Eve." Interestingly enough, my very first experience with drinking vinegar was with the sublime housemade apple drinking vinegar at Thai restaurant Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon last year during a visit to see my older sister. This particular version was a complete revelation. While it captured the bright, clean flavor of the apple, the acidity would sneak up behind you and remind you that lest you forget, you sir/madame, are still drinking vinegar. Unlike sugary modern sodas, this offered a level of refreshment I had not seen in a non-alcoholic drink. It was the drink that got me hooked on shrubs.

It seemed that it would be a waste of time to attempt a mere emulation of such a fantastic product, only to perhaps be disappointed if I didn't reach the high bar set by Andy Ricker and company. More importantly though, the Feel Like Making Shrub project is not about imitation, but rather innovation. It was clear that I was going to have to take apple drinking vinegar in a far different direction. That direction was simple: dessert.

I approached this shrub thinking of two concepts: one was apple pie, and the second was of music. I think that a good apple pie should be a bit like music, with bass notes, mid-range, and treble. Theoretically, when one adjusts these frequencies together, you should get a harmonious result that sounds beautiful. With this in mind, I wanted to use three different cultivars of apples that would each represent a scale of sorts. One to play the bass notes(tartness), one to be the midrange(flavorful, not too sweet), and one to be the treble(very sweet.) I have to admit, I knew the names of several apple cultivars, and while that kind of knowledge is helpful on Jeopardy!, it's kind of worthless if you don't know the differences in tastes. I knew the Granny Smith was going to be the bass apple, but I asked my friend Jeremy if he could recommend the other two. After listing off several, I settled on a Pink Lady for the mid-range, and the new-to-me Jazz apple for the sweet/high part. As it turns out, these three were perfect for each other, which was good news. But what's apple pie without the right spices?

Apples And Spices
First, let's determine what piques our imaginations when we reminisce about apple pie. Obviously, the big one is cinnamon, that's generally followed by some amount of nutmeg, and clove. That's it, right? Wrong! There is a ninja spice, stealthily hiding somewhere within many apple pies, subtlety elevating it above other pies. This unsung spice is the "aw shucks" guy who works behind the scenes but doesn't need any credit. That spice is mace. If you are asking yourself why one would want to eat a medieval weapon in their pie spice, you shall be pleased to know that your mouth is safe. Mace, for the uninitiated, is actually a leathery,orange-ish/brown colored lace that is wrapped around nutmeg when the fruit is opened. While it does share some of nutmeg's warm qualities, it has a subtle sweetness and delicacy that nutmeg doesn't. In this instance I used the blades, as they are more suited for steeping in liquids.

For my pie spice, I used a combination of Vietnamese cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg, mace blades, and a single clove. The reason I used Vietnamese cinnamon over other varieties is that in addition to being a darker, richer cinnamon, it also has an extremely high oil content which I thought might help the flavor infuse into the vinegar more effectively. I crushed them together in a mortar and pestle, until they were reasonably mixed together(mace blades being the exception, as they are tough little bastards and won't succumb to anything short of industrial grinding) and set it aside. And since we had just made some homemade brown sugar for the "Jessica" project, it seemed like the right sugar to compliment the apple pie spices.

Normally this would be the part where I would tell you to just chuck everything into the jar and start smashing away. Unlike the other ripe fruit I had used up to this point, apples have their own ideas about being bashed with sugar into a syrupy submission. Too firm for my normal run of the mill spoon crushing, I had to get hands on with the ingredients, squeezing the fruity shards through the sugar with my hands until they began to give up a little juice. I didn't get a lot, but it was enough to get the stage one going. Into the fridge went the jar, for at least the next five hours.

Five hours later I checked on the syrup; by checked on I mean ravenously straw tested. Wow. This stuff was sweet, but really good. It tasted like the inside of a very well seasoned apple pie, just as I had hoped. The big question now was which vinegar to choose. When I want the fruit to stand out, I generally use all white wine vinegar, as it's pretty mellow and doesn't overpower the rest of the shrub. In this instance, however, I thought a little more acidity would be welcome, considering that both the brown sugar and the fruit were both so naturally sweet. I ended up deciding on a 50/50 split of white wine vinegar to apple cider vinegar, hoping that a little extra apple flavor from the ACV would sneak its way into the mix. This was going to be a tough two weeks to wait, given how tasty the initial mix already was.

The two weeks passed more slowly than I would have liked, but the big day had finally arrived. Did the "3 Faces of Eve" have personality?

Apple/Brown Sugar Syrup
I have to say, from my very subjective standpoint, this may well be my favorite of all the shrubs I've made to date. For all intents and purposes, this is apple pie in a glass, folks. Though it may not be a good all around shrub for all occasions, for the right time and place, this stuff is delicious. The use of multiple types of apples allowed for layers of flavor which, with only one type of apple, could have come off as horribly one note and boring considering the sweeter direction I set out to achieve. I also loved the way the apple cider vinegar was cut by the white wine vinegar, allowing for a slight acidic twinge that ultimately brought the shrub into balance without coming off as too vinegar-y. My one caveat is that if you are going to drink this, don't just drink the syrup, because believe me, it really is syrup.

As far as its uses, I always suggest sparkling water of course, but if you're in the mood for something more else, I would say that this shrub is very similar to "Jessica," so find a nice bourbon you don't mind playing around with and see where it goes, or do as I did, and pour some over vanilla ice cream. It seems weird at first, but the brown sugar and spices go so well with vanilla ice cream, and the acidic tang keeps the whole thing from becoming cloying. Great stuff.

"3 Faces of Eve" Bottled

The name this week was derived from the 1957 film, "The Three Faces of Eve, which is based on an actual case study about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder. I thought the title worked on two levels. One, there is the name Eve, which one frequently associates with apples, but secondly, to illustrate that although this is an apple shrub, one gets the different aspects of three very different types of apples all in one.

Obviously nothing will ever replace the childlike thrill of a pie baking in the oven, or that decadent first bite after impatiently waiting for it to cool, but despite all that, I hope that this shrub has been able to put a fresh, new face on an old, delicious standard.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Shrub #5: "Jessica"

Fruit: Peaches
Sugar: Brown Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Vanilla Bean, split, allspice berries(crushed)

Peaches, Brown Sugar, Vanilla Bean, Allspice Berries

One particularly warm Friday a few weeks back, I did my usual end of week lunch trip down to the Pike Place Market looking for that week's fruit supplies and found myself smack dab in the midst of a touristy tidal wave cresting right in front of the Manzo Bros. stand yet again. I had previously had good luck with their ginger and raspberries, and it just so happened a young lady was enthusiastically extolling the virtues of that day's peaches to anyone who would listen. Tempting as this sounded, was I ready to do another stone fruit shrub right on the heels of the disappointing #4?

Why, yes. Yes, I was.

Unlike previous weeks, in which I grabbed whatever half-assed pictures I could with my phone's dinky camera, I have to thank my wife Sarah, whose generous efforts to get up at the ass crack of Saturday morning to actually do some real art direction over the shrub process made this look like an actual food blog. But without further ado, on to the shrub.

First, the peaches needed to be prepped, and that means getting them sliced open and yanking the pits out. As you can see, the peaches were rather sizeable, and it really only took two of these stone pitted gargantuans to give me the pound of fruit I was looking for.


Things were going smoothly, until Sarah asked what kind of sugar I was planning on using for these.

"Brown Sugar," I said, going to the lazy susan to pull it out.

There was a little bit of silence, puncuated by an soft, "Umm..."

I quickly realized what the "Umm" was about. I looked at the bag of brown sugar, and based on what I saw, I knew there was no way this was going to work. It was bad enough that I was likely going to come up short on brown sugar for this shrub, but also for the apple shrub I had planned to do after.

"Wait! I think we can make brown sugar, actually," Sarah said confidently.

While this sounded good in theory, short of alchemy or some sort of dark magic, I didn't see how this was going to happen, and I wasn't in the mood for ritual sacrifice; I already had enough dishes to wash as it was. 

Luckily, for me, Sarah's solution was much less draconian and messy. She confirmed by looking at the Joy The Baker blog, that one could simply make brown sugar by combining a tablespoon of unsulfured molasses to a cup of white sugar. If one was in the mood for the really dark brown sugar, they only need add another tablespoon of molasses to the mix.

No, it's not a Rorschach test.

If you feel inclined to make your own brown sugar, follow these simple instructions: just use a fork and keep scraping the mixture together, it will feel like an eternity, so feel free to use this time to multi-task by doing things like memorizing pi out to 100 places, or making a mental list of every single character in the Song of Ice and Fire saga according to House or allegiance and reciting it aloud.

Light Brown Sugar! No Dark Magic!

Eventually, your patience will be rewarded with delicious brown sugar. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Alright, that's enough...back to work. In the usual fashion, I dumped the peaches and the sugar into my jar,(or if you dont have a bowl, some kind of non-reactive container) and went to work with my additional ingredients. I was aiming for a flavor that was reminiscent of peach cobbler, perhaps. I split half of a vanilla bean, but neglected to scrape out the seeds, tossing it in with the other materials. Following that, I grabbed about a tablespoon of allspice and crushed it coarsely with a mortar and pestle. In it went, as I grabbed a large wooden spoon and began to smash the mixture together. These peaches were quite ripe, and were giving up their juiice without putting up much of a fight.

Peach Strata
I buckled the jar lid closed, and put the mixture in the fridge to began the syruping process.While I am unclear as to whether or not the word "syruping" would pass the Scrabble dictionary test, it seems most appropriate for what was going on in the refrigerator for five plus hours. After the five hours, I took out the jar to straw test the syrup. It was peachy, and really sweet, but I couldn't taste the vanilla or the allspice.

I figured that considering the vanilla was such a big flavor in my batch of Sarah, I should likely just let it do its thing for a week and I would hopefully end up with a nice supporting hint of it in the background. That being said, I couldn't really taste the allspice much at all. At this point, I was determined not to have a repeat of shrub #1, in which the black peppercorns didn't show up at all. I crushed up some more allspice berries, and unfortunately did not take proper measurements before just bunging the flavorful debris into the mix, but I estimate it was anywhere between 1-2 tsp extra.


Shrub wouldn't be shrub without vinegar, and so I had to choose what type I was going use here. I was thinking that it would be best to go with something fairly even-tempered so that one could really taste the fruit and spices clearly. White wine vinegar fits that bill nicely, and so I poured a carefully measured 16 oz into the jar and stirred fairly vigorously, and that was it. It had one week in the fridge to steep before being bottled, and then back in for one more week of aging.

I will spare you the most of the drudgery of reading about the bottling process, but let me just point out a couple of things I don't think I've touched on before. First, you might really consider doing a double strain setup of some kind if you haven't already. Not only is there going to be plenty of fruit, but depending on how fine your additions are, you'll definitely want to fine strain so that the more powdery substances stay in the strainer and don't find their way into your beautiful shrub. I bought an amazing OXO 3 part funnel, and it's quickly become one of my most treasured kitchen tools ever.

While this model does have a nice little built in strainer that does a decent job of catching bigger materials, I took it out and replaced it with a tight knit stainless steel tea strainer(like this one) that just happens to fit snugly in the mouth of the funnel. I pour through a normal mesh strainer into the funnel, which then also goes through the fine mesh of the tea strainer, thus catching nearly all but the tiniest of particulates. There is a caveat with this method, however: different fruits have differing levels of pectin which means that as you strain, some will leave a more jammy residue than others, which means you very well may have to rinse those strainers a couple of times during the bottling process. Yes, it is a pain in the ass. But isn't have a clear product without a bunch of grit in it totally worth it? Exactly. 

Ultimately, this is about the final product, so was "Jessica" a perfect lady?

Well, almost.

There was a lot to like here; "Jessica" was full of ripe, round peach flavors, if a bit on the mild side, and the flavor of allspice was undoubtedly a delicious and welcome compliment to peaches. It achieved that desired evocation of peach cobbler that I was after, and I enjoyed it.

The subtle details are where the next batch of "Jessica" could definitely be tweaked for the better. For one thing, I was a bit hasty in adding that extra bit of allspice, I think. As it sat for the first week, its strength really came on strong and illustrated that the extra couple of teaspoons may have actually moved it from, "assertive" to "aggressive" and to some, "overpowering." The use of brown sugar added a great depth of flavor, but it probably would have benefited from a lighter hand. Also, as prevalent as the allspice was, the vanilla moved in the inverse direction, hiding its subtle charms somewhere behind the allspice. Looking back, I really think I should have probably used the whole bean, scraped all of those seeds out, and shook the jar more often during that initial week long period before bottling.

Despite these minor quibbles, I found that it improved a fair amount with the addition of water, as it allowed a lot of the spice to decompress a little, as well as cutting the slightly cloying nature from the large amount of brown sugar I used. It was as if I were drinking a more complex and interesting version of Peach Nehi. If one were so inclined, they might somehow pair this with bourbon and other liqueurs, or use it as a delightful topping for vanilla ice cream. Better yet, make a vanilla/bourbon/"Jessica" milkshake. Oh yeah, now we're talking...

"Jessica" In Bottles

The name this week is derived from the famous tune called "Jessica" from the Allman Brothers Band, which is a fun listen that reminds one of the sweeter aspects of Summer. While my version of "Jessica" is perhaps a little too sweet, I hope that it achieves a similar result for all who get a chance to taste it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Superior Glass

Shrubs are immensely fun and rewarding to make, but I don't think I was quite prepared for how into this hobby I was getting until I realized how the amounts of drinking vinegar I was making was easily overmatching the amount of containers to put all of it in.

Initially, Sarah and I caught a few fun looking little 8 oz bottles on sale at Sur La Table, along with a good sized 38 oz swingtop bale jar. Perfect, I thought. Considering the previous shrub I made was in a bowl with a Tupperware lid, this was clearly a Jeffersonian leap for me(George, not Thomas). I felt like I was now taking this shrub business seriously. Then it came time to bottle.

I have some pieces of advice I'd like to give anyone who hasn't really bottled a homemade product: first, do not forget the headspace. In my inexperience, I neglected to take this into account, and poured way too much, way too fast as Sarah was holding the funnel and watching the valuable liquid gold starting to spew out of the neck of the bottle. Thinking quickly, we were able to get another container under it just in time to keep too much of the shrub out of the sink. Secondly, keep in mind that what may appear on paper as your liquid volume probably won't be by the time you are all finished. That fruit will continue to give off juice and you might just end up with more shrub than you initially figured for.

The point of this is that if you're going to do a large volume of shrub, you're going to need a lot of bottles and jars; in fact, you'll probably need way more than you think you do, so I would like to share with you where I get mine.

Specialty Bottle has a ridiculously wide array of glass products for nearly every conceivable purpose. From swingtop bottles in multiple sizes(I use these for bottling shrub) and swingtop bale jars(for making shrub), to vials, dropper bottles, and other fun items, these folks have it all. If that weren't enough, the prices are very reasonable, the customer service is fantastic, and as a bonus, they are based right here in Seattle, which means I get my gear really quickly. In fact, I just bought another swingtop bale jar bringing the total to four, and another host of 275 ml and 375 ml bottles. 

While you may be able to buy shrubbing gear at any number of places, I urge you to give Specialty Bottle a try. I'm glad I did.

[Full disclosure: I've received no special favors or incentives from Specialty Bottle. They really are just that great.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shrub #4: "#4"

Fruit: Sweetheart cherries
Sugar: Sugar in the Raw
Vinegar: Champagne Vinegar + White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Dried Aji Mirasol peppers, split

In any culinary endeavor where one is fumbling their way around trying to devise recipes when they are more used to following them, it is probably inevitable that there will be a few speed bumps on the way to success. As I found out with my fourth batch of shrub, I can now say with some degree of certainty that this is most definitely the case.

It started out innocently enough. After three pretty tasty shrubs, I figured that a cherry shrub should be a no-brainer. I had devised a combination of sweet Washington cherries and raw sugar, boosted with just a hint of the delicate, apricot tones of the mildly spicy Aji Mirasol peppers. On paper, this looks great. In the bottle, it sparkles like some variety of gorgeous ruby. In practice, however, what came out wasn't awful, but a nondescript beverage that came out as a sort of generically fruity, very faintly spicy, sweet concentrate. So what happened?
#4 Bottled

My guess is that these cherries just don't have the same kind of distinctive flavors that equate to a flavorful product. I always try to taste a sample of the fruit before I use it, and as I tasted these cherries I was struck by how little they resembled what my idea of cherries are. Blame it on a childhood of growing up with artificial cherry flavor and color, but this tasted nothing at all like what I was looking for. I hoped as the fruit macerated, some hidden flavors would have been coaxed out of the cherries, but alas, it was not to be. Ultimately, the fruit cannot take the blame for not being what I expected, and it dawned on me that perhaps I should not be so quick to scrap this idea in its entirety. I had to rethink what it is I like when I think of delicious treats like cherry pie, and Sarah caught on to the problem right away.

"Part of what you like about my cherry pie is that I use regular and sour cherries. I just think you need sour cherries."


Of course, she was absolutely right. Tart cherries would have had a lot more character and stood up so much better to all of the other flavors. Generally speaking, the star of a shrub is the primary fruit, and if it is more of a character actor who blends in, it isn't going to make for a very exciting drinking vinegar. This led me to realize that perhaps in conjunction with a bolder lead, especially one that could use a bit of sweetness to bolster it, these cherries could be useful after all.

To be fair to this effort, it wasn't all bad; I did enjoy the subtle, steady heat and tiny touch of apricot that the Aji Mirasol peppers donated to the flavor. I enjoy the sneaking surprise of a mild(or not so mild) burn in conjunction with fruit, and these peppers did a nice job of giving off a mild warmth that smoldered lightly in the background. If I were to make another shrub with peppers, I could see putting these lovelies at the top of my list, depending on what the primary fruit was going to be.

Normally, in situations like these, I find myself dispirited and deconstructing my culinary failures in a brutal blow by blow to the point where I think Sarah is ready to scream, [Isn't he just SUCH a w**g sometimes? You're a saint, madame. A saint.-Ed.] but politely restrains herself.

Not today.

For some reason, for the first time, this feels less like failure and more like an actual learning process. Despite being initially discouraged, I feel a renewed resolve to come up with solutions rather than dwelling on what went wrong.

Sorry to say, "#4" just wasn't good enough to earn a nickname yet, and may have been kind of anti-climactic despite my good intentions. Though the shrub could be classified as a disappointment, I think perhaps I gained something even more valuable and unexpected in the end: an attitude adjustment in a bottle.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shrub #3: "Don Whoa"

Fruit: Pineapple
Sugar: Sugar in The Raw [Turbinado Sugar]
Vinegar: Raw Coconut Vinegar/White wine vinegar
Additions: Habanero pepper, seeded, membranes removed

While it was fun to see how diverse the results were when experimenting with two styles of the same fruit, it was time to turn my attention in a different direction. Obviously, there is no shortage of tasty Pacific Northwest fruit coming into season right now, but I thought I would table the berries for the time being and cast my gaze in a more tropical direction.

Obviously, there are a lot of choices for tropical flavors, such as mangoes or bananas, but since I despise both of those, the clear choice here was pineapple. Though pineapple almost certainly make for a delicious final product, here at the Feel Like Making Shrub blog, there is nothing worse than making a one flavor shrub. What changes could I make to set this shrub apart from the plethora of pineapple shrubs that have probably been strewn about the internet landscape?

First things first. Like the Six Million Dollar Man, I looked at all the individual parts that could use a bit of an upgrade in the flavor department. Obviously, I bought a whole fresh pineapple, which I carefully cut into large chunks. Then, I looked at the sugar. In both of the previous efforts, I used C & H refined cane sugar, which has a very clean, sweet taste; I don't know about you, but white sugar doesn't particularly scream "Tropical!" to me. So, out with the white sugar and in with Sugar in The Raw. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sugar In the Raw, it is also known in the US as "turbinado sugar," a partially refined sugar which retains more of its color and flavor than fully refined sugar, named for the turbines in which the sugar spins. In flavor terms, it lies somewhere between the white sugar we all know and love, and brown sugar, which is actually sugar with the presence of molasses. What's important is that unlike white sugar, Sugar in the Raw should give the shrub a greater depth of flavor, with some hints of earthiness.

As usual, one of the biggest decisions to make in a shrub will be the type of vinegar used. Given that this makes up the lion's share of the actual final liquid product, it is also the element likely most responsible for the overall character of your drinking vinegar. In keeping with the theme, I opted for an entire 12.7 oz bottle of Coconut Secret Raw Coconut vinegar, supplemented with a scant amount of white wine vinegar to get the total amount of vinegar to match the weight of the fruit.

There are apparently at least two types of coconut vinegar I am aware of,  both of which are apparently raw vinegars, meaning that they have the active "Mother" bacterial cultures which cause the vinegars' fermentation process, similar to apple cider vinegar. Like ACV, raw coconut vinegar is more acidic, but with a slightly gamier, funkier flavor...kind of the rhum agricole of vinegars. From what I understand, the fundamental difference between the two is what they are derived from; one comes from the sap of the coconut tree, while the other is coconut water that has been fermented with raw cane sugar. So far, I have only used the one derived from sap, so I can't really speak to the differences between them.

With all of the new ingredients assembled, the layout looked pretty intriguing, but felt as though it was missing some sort of je ne sais quoi. Like a spicy thunderbolt from the ether, it struck me. Some sort of hot pepper might go smashingly with pineapple. Jalapeno seemed too pedestrian, and I wasn't sure if bhut jolokia would be too much for a leisurely sipper. Splitting the difference down the Scoville scale, I settled on a good ol' fashioned habanero pepper. Yes, I surmised...habaneros have a slight fruity taste, while waving their bollocks with a keen measure of insouciant attitude. Perfect.

Don Whoa Initial Mash
Per usual, I made the initial mash with pineapple chunks, Sugar In The Raw, and this time, a habanero, smashing each of them with a wooden spoon until the mass became a thick, syrupy pulp. I closed up the jar and waited the requisite five hours before coming back to check on it. I decided to straw test the mash before putting in the vinegar, and it was great. The bright, fresh sweetness of pineapple, with a creeping heat that sneaks up on you, but wasn't too much. I opened the coconut vinegar and poured it into the jar, sealed it up, and hoped for the best.

I find that there are pros and cons to tasting a work in progress. On the one hand, it's nice to be able to adjust spices or flavors that could use some help, but there is also that paralyzing fear when your shrub has been sitting for a week and is unbelievably funky from raw vinegar. The coconut vinegar is a mighty beast, and I got worried. Luckily, Sarah was there to convince me that this would probably mellow out just like the other ones had, and that I should just bottle it and wait the next week as I normally did. Of course, as with so many other things, she was absolutely right.
Mash ready for vinegar

A week later, I pulled the bottle out and straw tested it. While the sharpness of the coconut vinegar remained, it had blended nicely with the sweet, bright pineapple, and the lingering heat of the habanero had become a bit more assertive without being abusively hot. Overall, this combination was a bit of a risk that really paid off in the end. If I were to change anything about this recipe, I might opt to change the ratio of raw coconut vinegar to white wine vinegar, just to round off the gamier edges of the shrub, but then again, some people might actually appreciate that, so it's really up to your own personal tastes.

More than the first two shrubs featured on this blog, I would highly recommend drinking this one with a bit of water; the syrupy and spicy nature of it really lends itself to at least a little dilution. Some of the people who have tasted it suggested that this might also make a nice marinade for meat, or that it might work in a more spirituous application when paired with the right base spirit. My guess is that rum would likely be a safe bet, and perhaps in the right manner, gin may work as well.

As for the name, most of the ingredients here are very Hawaiian, I thought it would be good to name the shrub after a famous Hawaiian entertainer of some sort. The first famous Hawaiian that came to mind was the talented and much loved singer Don Ho. While discussing this with Sarah while we tasted the syrup, she didn't taste the habanero at first, but it quickly snuck up slowly, taking her unaware.

"With the heat of the habanero, perhaps instead of Don Ho, I should call it 'Don Whoa!'" I chuckled.

"Yes," she said, with a mischievous look crossing her face. "You're very proud of that one, aren't you?"

Yes. Yes, I am.

Don Ho's Greatest Hits
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