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.