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.
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.