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.]

No comments: