Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Shrub #1: Pink Flag

FRUIT: Raspberry(16 oz)
SUGAR: C & H Bakers Sugar(Ultra Fine Cane)(16 oz)
VINEGAR: Regina White Wine Vinegar(16 oz)
ADDITIONS: Fresh Lemon Verbena leaves(5 leaves), Cracked Black Tellicherry Peppercorns(12 Peppercorns)

With buzzwords like "farm to table" bouncing around our collective craniums, it is pretty easy to get jaded about someone extolling the virtues of fresh food without feeling like someone is shoving a Chez Panisse cookbook so far up your ass, your brain is going to explode into a million fragments of Slow Food confetti. I'm as appreciative of sourcing and freshness as much as the next guy, but I'm also not blindly fanatical, either. That being said, if there is one place where freshness and seasonality counts, it's shrubs.

Shrubs should ideally be a tasty photograph capturing a moment in time when the fruit that you decide to use tastes as good as it ever will. Unlike the merely ethereal connections of Proust's madelines, you can tangibly taste the seasons in your shrub because you're using fruit that is at its zenith.

There are few fruits that scream Summer in the Pacific Northwest to me quite as much as raspberries, which led me to drop a goodly amount of coin for a little over two pounds of fresh raspberries from Manzo Brothers at the Pike Place Market. Obviously, if you don't have a Pike Place Market, any seasonal raspberries would be fine, and even better if you can get them from your own local farmers' market.

Due to a lack of foresight, I don't actually have pictures of the process I used to make this shrub, but the approach is not too difficult. First, get some sort of non-reactive container. I use a really good sized canning jar with a spring loaded lid that locks closed. Unless you are Matter Eater Lad from the Legion of Superheroes, and find yourself potentially salivating at the taste of metallic tasting food, you should likely use glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or something enameled.

I got out my miniature kitchen scale and weighed out about 16 oz of rinsed and patted dry raspberries, and unceremoniously dumped them through the open mouth of the jar. Next, I weighed out an equal measure of white sugar and poured it on top.

If one were interested in a regular, run of the mill raspberry shrub, this would be all you need to start. Fortunately(or unfortunately), I didn't get into this to be ordinary. I instead picked about five leaves from our lemon verbena plant outside and chucked them into the jar. In addition, I thought this mixture could use something lively. I grabbed about 12 black Tellicherry peppercorns and cracked them gently in a mortar and pestle, dropping the shards into the jar as well. The final step of phase one is probably the most fun, and that is grabbing some sort of blunt instrument and smooshing the living hell out the fruit and sugar mixture.

I closed and locked the lid on the jar and stuck it in the fridge. Then comes the waiting. In this case, I waited about 6 hours or so and checked on the shrub. The sugar and fruit were getting on well together, and the juice and sugar had formed a reasonable syrup. I weighed out 16 oz of white wine vinegar and poured it over the fruit and syrup mixture. All that was left to do now was wait a week until Phase 1 was completely over.

When the week was up I grabbed some bottles and a brand new funnel I got from Sur La Table, and set to work straining the liquid off of the macerated solids in the jar. If you have cheesecloth or coffee filters, feel free to line your funnel with them if you would like a clear, pristine product. If you find that you like the "rustic" taste and look of fruit bits floating in shrub, have at it. Personally, I prefer the jewel-like sparkle of a clear shrub, so I strained through cheesecloth.

Congratulations, shrub artist, you're now technically done. At this point, the mixture will have the strongest vinegar tang, but if you are looking for a sharp bite in your drink, this could actually be a plus. In this instance, I put it back in the fridge to hang out for another week to see if the melange of flavors would put aside their differences and sing Kumbaya. So what happened with that extra week?

First, I tasted the shrub concentrate on its own. Despite raspberries' natural tartness, this stuff was sweeter than I expected. My guess is that between the amount of sugar used, and the use of the milder white wine vinegar, there wasn't as much acid as I was expecting to make the shrub fairly tart. That being said, I was very pleased that the brightness and freshness were front and center; for all intents and purposes this tasted as though I'd popped a ripe raspberry in my mouth.

The downside, however, were the additional herbs and spices. The lemon verbena was a no show, and there was absolutely no black peppercorn flavor to speak of. In hindsight, I think that at least one of the problems was that of amounts. My stingy use of lemon verbena leaves were never going to allow enough oils to make their way into the liquid, and the same goes for the peppercorns. I think if I were making this recipe again I would likely use at least a handful of leaves and a small handful of peppercorns. But as much as I think the amounts were underestimated,  I also fault my techniques in utilizing the materials.

The most important element of those lemon verbena leaves(or other leaves, for that matter), are their oils. I don't think that I sufficiently crushed or muddled the leaves hard enough or long enough to expel the oils necessary to extract the flavor. The peppercorns failed because they were merely cracked; in order to get more flavor out of them they probably needed more surface area to be exposed to the shrub. I imagine that if I had done at least a coarse grind, it might have helped impart more of the desired peppery flavor into the final product.

As fun as all of this is, it inevitably leads one to wonder. What the hell does one do with this stuff?

Personally, I like to spoon 3 tablespoons of shrub syrup into a tall glass full of ice and nearly fill the glass with sparkling water. You could use regular water if you like, or if you're feeling like throwing off the shackles of temperance, I advise you to use it in a cocktail of some kind.

Raspberry Shrub With Sparkling Water

I haven't come up with a cocktail to use this particular shrub in as of yet, but for those of you who wouldn't mind something a little more high octane, I have borrowed this one from the blog A Dash of Bitters, in which Michael Dietsch recalls a raspberry shrub drink by Chicago bartender Bridget Albert. Here we have the Cabana Shrub:

Cabana Shrub

1.5 oz Cabana Cachaca
1 oz raspberry shrub syrup
1/8 oz lime juice
1 oz Fever Tree Ginger Beer

 Instructions: Build in short ice filled glass, top with ginger beer, and garnish with sugar cane stick

Overall, I found this particular shrub to be pretty tasty, and a good first attempt overall. As pleased as I was, I still had another pound of raspberries left. Hmm...what to do with those, I wonder?

[Editor's Note: This shrub was initially called "#1", but in light of the new naming scheme, this one was good enough to deserve a nickname. After thoughtful deliberation, the decision was made to name this shrub after Wire's 1977 album, Pink Flag, containing one of the author's favorite tunes, Three Girl Rhumba.]

Monday, July 25, 2011

Intro To Shrubs

If the old adage is true that everything old shall be new again, then one would be hard pressed to find many emerging trends that stretch as far back into our culinary traditions as the tasty, centuries old potable vinegar concoction known to some as shrubs, but more easily described to the uninitiated as simply, "drinking vinegars."

Drinking vinegars have been around since at least America's colonial beginnings. In those days, lack of refrigeration led to the use of preservative methods such as jarring and canning. In the case of fruit, on method in particular involved the use of sugar, fresh fruit, and vinegar. Ultimately, while this preserved the fruit, Colonial settlers realized that in the dog days of summer, mixing the resulting syrup with a glass of cool water was not a half bad way to ward off the heat, and keep the appetite up. For those with a decidedly more bibulous bent, shrub offered another valuable service; the fruity little potion that could was mixed with the less than pristine American rum that was popping up all over the Eastern portion of the United States. Instead of simply choking down the nightmarish sugar based sludge alone, shrub was able to mask the taste of impurities and potentially...challenging flavors it exhibited.

Putting aside the exciting trappings of that history lesson, you are probably wanting to ask, "Why on God's green earth would I want to drinking something that hasn't been particularly popular since people in tri-corner hats were riding around in uncomfortable clothes and imbibing questionable liquor?"

The answer is actually quite simple: it's damned delicious.

Unlike some of the other popular recipes of America's past, lost to the ravages of time and indifference, shrubs deserve another shot in the spotlight because they exhibit many of the qualities that a discerning modern audience would look for in a beverage. It's fresh, natural, and above all, unusual.

Despite how amazing the shrub recipes of old taste, my purpose here is to take the shrub's humble simplicity and go nuts with its flavors. In essence, I want to make bold, exciting drinking vinegars that make those adventurous souls light up with excitement at the unusual combinations of flavors I try.

There are multiple components to making a shrub, but getting a basic one together is pretty simple. Neyah White, a well known bartender turned brand ambassador, spent a good deal of time perfecting house made shrubs for the bar program during his tenure at famed San Francisco bar NOPA. While he shared many interesting observations on the art of shrub making here, for our current purposes this is what you need to know:

A decent baseline recipe for cold process shrub is  one part fruit, one part sugar, and one part vinegar. Mash the sugar with the fruit in a non-reactive container, cover and wait 5-6 hours until a syrup forms. Hit it with the vinegar, and let the mixture sit for a week, and then strain all the solids. Bingo.

Granted, you may or may not want to drink that right away; the flavors at this stage are like three talented, but forceful singers who are all used to singing solo, and need time to learn how to harmonize. Wait another week and you've got the liquid equivalent of The Supremes.

But the above is simply a baseline. It's up to the person making the shrub to look at the components and make the necessary adjustments to get that harmony. Making the adjustment between sugar and fruit is  simple enough, but it seems that the vinegar is the biggest wild card in the process. Each vinegar has its own character and personality which can markedly alter your final product. Let's look at a few different varieties, shall we?

Wine Vinegars: As one might suspect, these vinegars are made from, well, wine. Like wine itself, there are white and red varieties of wine vinegar, some of which are made from specific wines(Champagne Vinegar, Sherry Vinegar, Ice Wine Vinegar.) These can clock in at from anywhere 5% percent to about 7% acidity, with certain styles being more acidic while others are more gentle and even. One size does not fit all; some regular white wine vinegars are great if you're looking to emphasize the fruit, others like certain champagne vinegars bring a sharper, acidic note without the overwhelming aroma you can get with apple cider vinegar.

Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple Cider Vinegar or ACV is commonly used in shrub making. Cider vinegar is made from apple must(young pressed juice containing, skins, seeds, etc.). The taste and smell of ACV is sharper and more acidic than wine vinegars, which means you'll want to be careful with how much you use. For those who like it particularly tangy, go ahead and use ACV for the entire amount. However, if you are looking for a more rounded approach, you might split it down the middle with a wine vinegar or a balsamic. Using ACV in combination with a balsamic can be a good choice as it can be quite rich on its own.

Balsamic Vinegar: Balsamic vinegar is an rich, aged vinegar which is made from the concentrated must of grapes. True balsamic vinegars are usually aged from 15-20 years, though some are aged longer. Be aware that commercial balsamic is usually just concentrated grape juice mixed with a strong vinegar. In terms of shrub making, balsamic can be an interesting weapon in your arsenal. It lends a deeper, richer flavor than other vinegars which not only pairs well with any number of fruits, such as strawberry and raspberry, but can give the resulting shrub more of a decadent after dinner feel. One of the drawbacks, however, of using balsamic, is that it may well overtake the delicate nature of the fruit if it is the sole vinegar in your batch. It may be a good idea to change the ratio and dilute it with a lighter vinegar, or a particularly sharper one to cut through the syrupy richness of the balsamic to give the final product more balance.

Coconut Vinegar: Often coconut vinegar is produced from fresh, young coconut water, but there are some brands that ferment the sap instead. Either way, this vinegar has a sharp, funky, earthy flavor. While it has a different smell and flavor than ACV, it is similar in its sharpness. It appears as the main vinegar in several of Pok Pok's commercially available Som drinking vinegars.

Fruit Vinegar: Fruit vinegars are usually wine vinegars of a different fashion, in that they are made from fruit wines. These vinegars usually retain the distinct flavor of the fruit used. Raspberry vinegar, for example, is one that I commonly see in the local grocery. This could be a good choice if you want a mild vinegar, or want to bolster or compliment the fruit flavor of the actual fruits you are using in the shrub.

Rice Vinegar: There are typically three types of rice vinegar which are mostly popular for food use in Asia: white rice vinegar, black rice vinegar, and red rice vinegar. Of the three, white is said to be mild and only slightly acidic. This could possibly be a good choice for tempering the strong flavor of another vinegar in your mix.

With a multitude of vinegars, there are plenty of ways to coax interesting flavors out of your materials. What will make each of these unique will be the various trial and error in putting together different sugars with different vinegars and fruits, which I am hoping, will also be be part of the fun.

Let me say up front that I am not claiming to be an expert. This is almost as new for me as it is for all of you. I cannot promise everything I attempt here will work. I can't even promise some of what I come up will be drinkable. What I can say, however, is that I'm ready to start sharing my work with you, the audience. I hope you'll experiment along and share your thoughts with me.

So, for those of you who are still awake and curious to try your hand at these unique and admittedly unusual potables, I urge you to grab your tools, slip into something you don't mind getting dirty, and meet me in the kitchen.

I feel like makin' shrub with you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We Want...A Shubbery!-Editor's Revision

[Hello. You may remember me as the Editor of Kern's last site, Listen, Listen, Listen, Listen, Listen! Listen!!! After years of neglect, it appears he has abandoned the bloated carcass of his last endeavor in the hopes of starting up a new website, which I am sure will garner the same level of prestige and respect as the last one. For those of you playing at home, you might realize that the needle on that scale is hovering at a few microns over zero. 

Ahem. But while discussing Kern's failures and follies ad nauseum is entertaining and amusing, I saw his first entry here and felt it had all the warmth and joy of a Puritan orgy. Being the humanitarian I am, I decided to come back and save him, and you dear reader, from suffering through a maze of this new, dispirited folksy style of his. It may take a while, but through a Rocky III style montage of running on the beach with me(as Carl Weathers), intense typing drills, and some good old fashioned whip-cracking, Kern should hopefully return to form soon. With his doughy, amorphous body type, I am not sure what that form is exactly, but I'll know it when I see it.

In any case, if you are interested in learning about making your own drinking vinegars, or what one might do with said drinking vinegars when they are finished, you are certainly in the right place. Toss in some other temperance drinks for good measure, and we might actually have something, by God! 

If on the other hand, none of these things interest you, I have a couple of suggestions. First, you may have accidentally been brought by the title hoping for information on botany. You sir or madame, are s**t out of luck. You might try this site more to your liking. If you just reached us by aimlessly wandering the internet like a purposeless t**t with no ambition or goals, there are plenty of pictures of cute kittens with ridiculous, grammatically incorrect captions(as though THAT will ever take off) or pornography.

To everyone still here, I extend my warmest welcome. If for whatever reason, you find the blog lacking in any way, I would like to make it clear right now: it's all Kern's f**ing fault.-Ed.]