Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shrub #12: "Frankie Teardrop"

Fruit: None
Sugar: Turbinado sugar(Sugar In The Raw)
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Fresh ginger root, ghost chile

As you may have guessed, there is a bit of distance between when I first made most of these shrubs and when I have finally gotten around to writing about them. In the case of this week's second shrub, "Frankie Teardrop," I actually have the benefit of having made the recipe very recently, and can actually compare the two different approaches rather than just theorizing as to what might make it better the next time. But we'll get to that in due time.

The genesis of "Frankie Teardrop" was very simple. I love ginger ale and ginger beer. Unfortunately, for the most part, companies whose job it has been for decades to produce these products assumed that the beverage sipping public somehow is frightened to death of the actual heat and flavor of ginger, leaving those of us who yearn for the crisp, fiery bite of a ginger drink with some gravitas and character completely out in the cold. In short, I want a drink that feels like Cary Grant or Jean Paul Belmondo, and they're giving us Taylor Lautner and Ashton Kutcher.

Beyond the mere pleasure of drinking ginger beer straight, many of my favorite cocktails call for ginger ale/beer and the overly sweet, bland smooth operators that are normally offered in a bar setting have no chance when standing up to a stable of ruffians such as rye, bourbon, rum, and the like. They simply find themselves to be hopelessly lost wallflowers in the drink[Much like Kern at a cocktail party-Ed.]. This will not do.

When I set out to make a ginger shrub, my goal was to think about where other ginger beers had failed me, and it largely came down to two elements. Number one, most ginger ales/beers seem to have a distinct lack of ginger flavor. When a drink has the word "ginger" in the name, the crime of not really tasting like it is pretty damned unforgivable in my opinion. Secondly, I like my ginger ale/beer hot. I mean, blazing hot. In my life there has only been one ginger ale I've tried that fulfilled that desire, and that is Blenheim's ginger ale with the red cap. When it makes you nearly sneeze just from smelling it, it's the right stuff for me.

The first problem was quite easy to address; I just used an metric asston of fresh ginger root. I won't tell you the exact amount, but I can guarantee that it is enough so there will be no mistaking what it is you are drinking. I microplaned the hell out the ginger, leaving a neat pile in my jar. The ginger itself in the amount I chose would likely be sorta spicy. However, at Feel Like Making Shrub, sorta is not acceptable. I needed a way to give the shrub a clean, full mouth heat, but one that didn't obscure the delicious, aromatic flavor of the ginger I was working hard to showcase. To finish the base of the shrub, I chose turbinado sugar which would offer both depth of flavor, and would compliment the ginger, and white wine vinegar to stay out of its way. As usual, I prepared the shrub according the my normal methods.

Addressing the second issue,  I figured that the use of a pepper would likely do the trick, but I thought habanero might be too obvious. I wanted something to strike fear into the hearts of ginger drink amateurs and awe and wonder in the ones who had felt betrayed and practically mocked by the flabby, flavorless offerings haunting the shelves at the local grocery stores.

The answer came in the form of the red, wrinkled package of the bhut jolokia pepper, better known to Western audiences as the fabled "Ghost Chile." To give you some idea of how hot this pepper is in relation to some of its also hot brethren, the bhut jolokia weighs in at an imposing 855,000 to 1,041,427 on the Scoville Scale. This means it is about 208 times hotter than a standard jalapeno, and nearly 7-8 times hotter than a normal orange habanero. More simply stated, it's hot, dammit!

Looking back at my earlier experiments, the slow steeping of a very small habanero whose seeds and membranes were removed imparted just the right amount of heat over a week in the "Don Whoa", but I had a feeling that after a week of steeping, the ghost chile could possibly become so hot, that it might render the whole shrub undrinkable. I could have done the steeping, checking everyday to see if the chile needed to be pulled, but that seemed like a pain in the ass. I knew there had to be a way to control the heat level in a way that it should stay stable once I reached a flavor I liked. I slapped my forehead. The answer was simple: tea.

I didn't literally use camellia sinensis, but I did borrow the method most people use to make tea. I boiled some water, poured it over a couple of ghost chiles in a bowl, and covered the bowl tightly with aluminum foil. I tasted the "chile tea" every half hour or so to see how hot the tea was becoming. At about the three hour mark, I thought it was ready. I then poured the "tea" into a Pyrex measuring cup, and added it in one ounce increments until I reached the desired level of chile heat. It worked like a charm. Unlike the traditional steep-in-the-shrub method, there was no guesswork involved with how hot the shrub might or might not become by the end of the week. It's so much easier when an unknown quantity(especially heat) becomes a constant. I put it back in the fridge to do its thing for the week, and didn't check on it until the next Saturday.

The resulting shrub, as of the bottling stage, was a hit. It was as spicy as the Blenheim I love so much, but much different. In addition to intense ginger flavor and all over warmth of the chile, there was just the slightest tang of acid to round everything out. Mixed with a bit of sparkling water, and you have a ginger beer substitute I would put up against any of the other small batch ginger beers I actually like and respect. After  the second week, it actually seemed that the flavors melded together even more, and the mixture tasted slightly hotter!

While I was quite happy with version 1.0, it didn't quite get as hot as I expected. Just recently, I made a new batch to make sure we had enough for our recent shrub tasting, and I slightly modified the "chile tea" a little bit to see if I could craft a more efficient solution for extracting heat into the shrub. Vinegar, as it turns out, is a superior solvent to water in extracting flavors from things like herbs, spices, and chiles. As a shrub contains vinegar as one of its major liquid components, it seemed like a great idea to imbue the vinegar I would be using in the shrub anyway with the ghost chiles. By the end of that process, there would be no question as to how much spice the chiles would contribute to the overall shrub. It worked brilliantly, and more effectively than water. I was looking for more heat, and at 2 hours, I got it in even less time.

In addition to its almost magical beverage properties, several people have suggested this would be an amazing marinade, especially when married with other Asian flavors for a chicken or beef stir-fry of some kind. I wholeheartedly approve of this line of thinking.

The name of this shrub comes from the title of one of the most eerie, mystifying, and just downright messed up songs I have ever heard by the dark, pre-No Wave duo Suicide, from their eponymous debut album. The name is a bit of a joke I thought of as I was making what I hoped would be one of the hottest ginger drinks one might try. I told people who were about to sample it that "after a having a glass of this shrub, it should be hot enough to cause the person drinking it to violently ramble and scream murderously for 10 minutes and 27 seconds." So far, no one has screamed...yet.

My initial quest was to make a ginger drink with some grit amidst a world of preening, overly smooth pretty boys, and with its smoldering heat and blatant disregard for the rules, this drink subverted even my own expectations; I may have aimed for Cary Grant, but I'm happy to say, "Frankie Teardrop" turned out to be far and away, much more Robert Mitchum.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Shrub #11: "Melville"

Fruit: Smoked Pears
Sugar: Raw Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Poudre Douce

I should have done something simple. After the "Coconut Catastrophe" as I am now calling it, a nice simple shrub would have been the way to go, but unfortunately, that idyllic thought went straight out the door the very minute that my friend and I began discussing the possibility of smoking fruit.

My friend Jeremy brought it up, and asked if I had ever entertained the thought of doing something like that. I had seen something similar done at Bushwhacker Cider in Portland, Oregon, They had enlisted the good natured folks at a German market across the street to utilize their smokers to flavor the cider. I'm not clear on whether they smoked the apples or the finished cider, but it was certainly smokey. Intriguing as this was, I don't own a smoker, and wouldn't have much of an idea how to use one even if I did. Luckily, Jeremy came to the rescue.

"I could smoke the pears for you, if you think that's a shrub you'd like to do," he said.

Yes. Yes, it was.

The plan was this: I would buy pears the week before and he would do a test run with both whole pears and sliced pears at a low temperature for varying amounts of time to see how both would react to the smoking process. Then, when we had determined what the optimum conditions were, we replicate those the next Friday night so that I could make shrub with them the following morning. But before we could get to the magic, we needed some produce.

That Friday I went to the Pike Place Market to find some pears. It took many tries, and the near drawing of a diagram to explain to the gentlemen selling their wares what I meant. I was glad to see that they were still nearly as excited when they realized my project involved actually smoking the fruit as a cooking technique as opposed to utilizing the pears as makeshift bongs. Once we'd gotten that figured out, I dropped the pears off with Jeremy, who smoked them that evening. He came by after he was done, and we checked all the various preparations. The pears that had been cut into pieces were cooked too much, taking on an almost leathery appearance, and tasting of nothing but smoke. The whole pears, however, were a different story; some of them had been done for about two hours, and others that were just a bit longer. As it turns out, whole pears at 2 hours at just under 200 degrees was the sweet spot. The skins, while brown and wrinkled looking, gave way to a mild smokiness and a nearly caramelized, ultra-juicy interior. It was like magic.

A week later, it was time for the real show. I bought more pears, but the market was out of the cultivar I had used the week before. Pears were pears, I figured. But I couldn't have been more wrong. The pears Jeremy brought me were done the exact same way, but the smoke had penetrated more deeply and strongly into the pear's flesh. They were still good, but much smokier than the week before. Then it hit me. The skins on the new pears were much thinner than the ones on the first batch. Without that thicker skin, the smoke was much more easily able to work its way into the fruit.

The pears cooled overnight, and I went through the normal shrub making process. I decided that I was going to use raw sugar, because I thought brown sugar would be too deep a flavor, but I wanted something with a little more character than refined white sugar. In addition, I needed some spices that would not only go well with pears, but would also help compliment and potentially mellow some of the smoke. For this purpose, I went with the warm spice blend known as Poudre Douce, which roughly means, "sweet powder." Poudre Douce seemed perfect as it contains cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, all things that would work nicely in say, a pear tart. I mixed them all together, and was about to put it in the fridge until...

"What would you think about putting the skins in there?"

Sarah had been helping me cut up pears and gather ingredients that morning, and had just posed a very interesting question. The skins were smoked. They were otherwise going to be thrown away, so was there a possible use for them? Ultimately, I decided to put them in. I think my reasoning was that it would mostly impart more smoke to the nose than it would contribute anything to the taste of it shrub. In went the skins, and into the fridge went the shrub.

It seemed that flavors were already getting pretty out there, so I opted for the neutrality of white wine vinegar. As usual, it gave a slight amount of tang while staying out of the way of all of the other flavors, which is exactly what I wanted.

I waited a week, and it was bottling day. Normally, these things go pretty easily. This one, not so much. I am not entirely sure how high the pectin content of these pears was, but as I attempted to strain the mixture, the tea strainer kept becoming clogged with an almost pear butter type substance. It was jammy and viscous, and I'm sure would have been delicious on biscuits, but it was really pissing me off something fierce. Not only was it taking forever, it became quickly apparent that my actual liquid yield was going to be pretty damned low. All in all, I got just under 17 oz of liquid, which was not much considering the amount of pears that went in. I waited another week until it was finally "done."

So how did "Melville" fare?

Quite well, I am happy to say. While it was a bit smokier than I was initially expecting, it the sweetness of the pears and the warm notes of the Poudre Douce really evened everything out brilliantly. Some of the initial comments I received were that the nose reminded people of a fruity barbecue sauce. I must say, I agree. I think one's interest/tolerance for this shrub depends largely on how much they enjoy smokey flavors. If you like barbecue or scotch, you'll probably be very intrigued. Everyone else, your mileage may vary.

For uses, there is always drinking it, which was the first intention, but since barbecue has been mentioned multiple times, I say we embrace it as either a marinade or sauce. My friend Paige made the astute observation that it would be particularly tasty if used as a pork marinade. To that, I say, "Yes, please!"

This week's shrub is named not for the American author, but for the French director who adopted his name, Jean-Pierre Melville, director of some of my favorite films of all time, including but not limited to, Army of Shadows, Bob Le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge, and Le Doulos.

While I wasn't initially sure how this shrub was going to turn out, the results were well worth it. The lessons I learned from this shrub were that inspiration can come from anywhere, and it's always much easier when you have friends who are willing to go the extra mile to help make your visions, no matter how esoteric or bizarre, come to life.

PS-Thanks, Jeremy!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Notes From A Shrub Tasting

After a brief absence, I am back for the forseeable future, to bring you more news from the fascinating, slow paced world of shrub making. 

A Myriad Of Shrubs 
Today I am going to refrain from writing up a description of a shrub that I've completed, so that I can tell you about my first ever shrub tasting, held in the humble confines of our apartment. The turnout was great, as were the fine folks who came to sample the wares. I believe the thing I was most proud of was continually being told that after tasting nearly every one of the 28 offerings(most of which are soon to be written up right here, so stay tuned), that it was still virtually impossible to declare a clear winner.

Despite this, it's always fun in any sort of beverage tasting to approximate the favorites. So without any real, solid scientific method, and further ado, I am going to attempt to relay what appeared to be the Best In Show, so to speak.

Based on the comments, I think first place would likely be a tie. First, we have Ernest, a grapefruit/savory shrub. For those unfamiliar with savory, it's a really nice herb that sort of comes off as a peppery sage with the hint of rosemary. As it turns out, grapefruit hearts savory in this shrub, whose clean tang is bolstered by a spicy herbaceous character. It was particularly enjoyable with a splash of seltzer. Equally beloved by partygoers was the ginger/ghost chile shrub called Frankie Teardrop. This shrub was a reaction to the common problem of weak ginger ales and ginger beers. Frankie certainly fits the bill if you're looking for a ginger drink that can actually bring the heat.

A close second was another citrus shrub, the lemon-rosemary dynamo named Lucrezia. Generally, I find that you can rarely go wrong pairing lemon with rosemary in almost anything, so it was little wonder that this shrub turned out to be one of the people's favorites. Lucrezia plays like a particularly intense rosemary lemonade, but that's a great thing in my book, and it seemed my sentiment was largely echoed by the tasters.

Third place is a bit of a hard call, but I think I'm going to have to go with 3 Faces of Eve. This was tough, as there were two apple based shrubs in the tasting, one being the 3 Faces of Eve, with its deep, apple pie flavor, as well as the newer, sweeter mulled apple shrub named Martin. Despite both being apple shrubs imbued with warm spices, I think the use of three very different cultivars of apples along with homemade brown sugar may have pushed Eve to a photo finish victory.

There were many honorable mentions that were passionately singled out by individual tasters, however. Among them were some of the more experimental offerings, such as Chakka Khan(pumpkin/kala masala), Bowery Babe(sweet potato/pumpkin pie spice), Give My Love To Rose(honey/rose/cardamom), Dale(coffee), and Elizabeth(heirloom tomato/berbere).

At some point, I'll be giving you more information on those shrubs that were mentioned, but not previously written up in the coming days and weeks.

In closing, I would like to not only thank everyone who participated, but my wife Sarah for being so patient with all those early Saturday mornings and especially for helping do nearly the entire preparation for the party. I appreciate it more than you know, and wanted to let you know(again), you're the best.

See you all soon with more shrubs!