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