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.

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