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.