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!

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