Friday, April 27, 2012

Shrub # 17 and # 18: "Ernest" & "Lucrezia"

Fruit: White Grapefruit(Juice of grapefruits)
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Dried savory

Fruit: Lemon(Juice of lemons)
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Fresh Rosemary sprigs

Making shrubs with seasonal fruit is kind of a double edged sword. On the one hand, there is something incredibly powerful about living in the moment and appreciating ingredients that won't be around forever, and using techniques to be able to relive those moments, like a potable Polaroid. Conversely, one can only make so much shrub during the summer and autumn months. If you're really into this as a hobby, the months between November and June can be unbearable.

Fear not, fellow shrub aficionados, you can still make great shrubs in the off season. While some of them are a little unusual and decidedly not fruit based at all(some of which I will be covering here very soon), there are still some fruits that are consistently decent even out of season. One of my personal favorite sources of year round fruit? Citrus. While there are obviously any number of citrus fruit to choose from, this week we're going to focus(mostly) on the underrated but lively white grapefruit.

In some ways it kind of seems counter-intuitive to make a grapefruit based drinking vinegar. Acid on top of acid? Really?

It can work, but as you will see it takes a different approach than most of the fruit based shrubs we have done before, and it might be quite a bit more of a pain in the ass, but I think in the end, the results are pretty fantastic.

The story of  "Ernest" is actually three acts:

Act 1: Initial Success

Though this was my first citrus based shrub, I really didn't see any reason the method shouldn't be any different than any other fruit I had used to this point. I cut the peel away from the grapefruit and cut the fruit into segments and combined them with white sugar in the jar. I muddled them together until the segments were quite pulped and a sugary grapefruit juice syrup had started to form. After five hours in the fridge, I poured in some white wine vinegar as I normally would at this stage and added some dried savory. For those of you unfamiliar with savory, it's a really nice herb that comes across as mostly sage-like with some hints of thyme or rosemary. I've seen sage paired with grapefruit before and thought this would have a similar effect, but with some added herbiness to boot.

The shrub went through its normal process, and I was quite pleased to say that it was really great. It had a piquant flavor, a thoroughly lovely balance of acids from the grapefruit and the vinegar with the clean sweetness of the white sugar. The savory was a particularly delicious addition, as it did have the sage character I hoped for, but it seemed to almost melt into the flavor of the grapefruit as though they were one contiguous flavor that should just occur in nature. Yes, I was very happy with it, as were all of the people who tried it at our first tasting. Replicating this attempt should be a piece of cake, right?

Act 2: Replicating My First Attempt Is Not A Piece Of Cake

I think the mark of a shrub recipe that works is one that I make successfully at least twice if not several more times beyond that. I was perhaps overconfident when I made the second batch of Ernest using identical proportions to the first. Nothing about my second attempt felt remotely different, except for the fact that maybe I shook this one a little more. Even at that, I was surprised when I finally tasted the finished product that something was wrong. Quite wrong, actually.

For some unknown reason, there was a bitterness that pervaded the entire drink. It started out pleasant enough, but the finish was beyond the bitterness you'd accept, even for something made of white grapefruit. Considering every aspect seemed the same, I was baffled. My first thought was that maybe shaking it more the savory infused more and made it more vegetal and bitter, but in the end, this didn't seem to ring true. Sure, in the past there had been overpowering additions, but usually those were really powerful flavors like allspice berry or vanilla. No, there was something else going on here.

Then it hit me: the segments I had cut up still had a fair amount of pith and connective tissue all over them when I mashed them up with the sugar. It's still not clear to me why this didn't affect the first batch in such an adverse manner, but as I've learned, every batch of fruit can be markedly different. It is very possible that it was the first batch that benefited from a stroke of good luck. Knowing that this was going to make consistency all but impossible in the future, it was clear I was going to have to find another technique if I was to make this consistently every time.

Act 3: Redemption

Between my first attempt at making "Ernest" and my third, I had experimented with some other citrus based shrubs,but it wasn't until I took a shot at making a lemon rosemary flavor that everything came into focus. I based the flavor profile on a rosemary lemonade that I'm pretty obsessed with from a local pizza restaurant called Tutta Bella. Their rosemary lemonade is fairly tart, but there is a sort of fresh piny undercurrent that kind of ties it all together.

Since my second attempt at "Ernest" had been a dud, and I was basing this new project on a lemonade, I figured, "Why not treat this like I'm making a lemonade?" The old method of crushing fruit with sugar was out the window, and I instead bought what felt like a whole raft full of lemons and juiced the lot of them. Was this considerably more work? Yes. Did my wrists feel like I had spent an entire night typing out the complete works of Shakespeare? Pretty much. But I had a feeling that this method would give me a lot more control over the flavor since the tartness and flavor of the collected juices were now going to be a known constant, taking at least some guesswork out of the equation. I then added some sugar, making a sort of lemon simple syrup. As the syrup was already made, there wasn't any reason to wait several hours before adding the vinegar, so in it went as well. After a quick stir, it went into the fridge for a two week vacation.

When it finally came out, it was exactly what I was looking for. The lemon flavor was huge, it wasn't too sweet, and the vinegar gave it a very dry finish, which would make it a very refreshing drink, especially when lightened a touch by sparkling water. It would make a tasty beverage pairing with something rich or fried, where a sharp citrus would be helpful to cut those elements. The rosemary lent a nice little herbaceous note to it, without overpowering the lemon.

Having seen this technique work with "Lucrezia," I figured it should work with pretty much any citrus fruit that you could squeeze a reasonable amount of juice out of. Armed with this knowledge, I took a third stab at making a batch of:"Ernest," though in addition to the grapefruit juice/vinegar/sugar combination, I thought it might be nice to zest some grapefruit peel right into the jar for some extra aromatics. After two weeks of finger crossing and internal chants of "Please, please, please..." I was finally able to see how everything turned out.

After the first taste of it, my nerves settled quickly. This was a lot more like the first batch I did, though likely more easy to replicate without difficulty. I must say, the zest does make the whole thing seem a lot fresher and really seems to accentuate the actual grapefruit flavor. One caveat I might bring up is the fact that some grapefruit are really tart, but in a lot of instances I have found they are nowhere near as tart as people assume grapefruit really is. Be careful when dispensing the sugar. This one plays a little better when it retains the bite of the juice and the vinegar, and too much sugar can push it into into cordial-style territory.

What might one do with "Ernest"? Well, cocktails immediately come to mind. I think mixing this with gin would likely be an excellent choice, for starters. If you wanted to go a little more low octane it might make a nice aperitif when combined with light aromatized wines such as Lillet or Cocchi Americano.

For our non drinking friends, I have tasted it mixed with a bit of Fever Tree tonic, and it was quite delicious. If you're not into the bitterness of tonic water, just go with good old fashioned club soda, and it will make a lovely sparkler that anyone should enjoy. Except for people on heart medications and grapefruit haters. Not for them.

In the same vein, "Lucrezia" also makes a very refreshing soda, and is equally good with still water rendering it more of a sophisticated version of lemonade. I would suggest that cocktail folks might want to try it with either gin or vodka if they are so inclined.

So if there were a lesson to take away this week, it is two-fold. Number one, just because something turns out great the first time, doesn't mean you should rest on your laurels, and with a few tweaks, you can figure out solutions to maintain a good level of consistency in your results.

Have fun and I will see you next week.

This week's shrubs are named for famous author Ernest Hemingway, who liked grapefruit well enough to have a daiquiri variant named after him, and the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, part of the fabled and allegedly amoral Borgia family of the 15th Century.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Shrub #15 & #16: "Elizabeth" and "Aleister"

Fruit: Heirloom Tomatoes(various varieties)
Sugar: Brown Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar/Apple Cider Vinegar
Additions: Berbere

Fruit: None
Sugar: Turbinado Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Dried Pequin peppers, dried Aji Mirasol peppers, dried Cascabel peppers

It has often been remarked that necessity is the mother of invention, and while this is probably true, I imagine utility and versatility are not far behind in the running order. As much as enjoy trying to figure out ways to work my tasty fruit based shrubs into other realms that stray outside of their role as a refreshing stand alone beverage, this time around I have taken a different approach, reverse engineering a cocktail to see if I could make a shrub that would work in it. Since everything we seen on the blog thus far has been more sweet and/or fruity with the exception of the gingery dynamo we call "Frankie Teardrop," I picked a more savory, but well known cocktail, the tried and true classic, The Bloody Mary.

The Bloody Mary...usually made with some combination of tomato juice, vodka, and various and sundry assorted umami bombs, these ubiquitous darlings of the brunch world clearly aren't going anywhere any time soon. I find there is a certain subversive pleasure in drinking before noon, and with its illusory veneer of healthfulness(Tomatoes! Lycopene for everyone!) it mitigates a little bit of the awkward feelings one might have over slugging a few ounces of booze with their morning repast.

It is a relief that I do not personally have those kinds of awkward feelings. While I would normally favor the Ramos Gin Fizz as a bibulous part of my complete and balanced breakfast, I feel that a well done Bloody Mary certainly has its place. I also feel that sometimes even staples need a good swift kick in the ass, and this led to my first savory shrubs.

There are two elements to me that are of paramount importance in a Bloody Mary: a rich tomato flavor, and heat. The first shrub, "Elizabeth" covers the first half of that equation. Rather than using your run of the mill Roma tomatoes, I thought I would pull out all the stops and get a variety of heirloom tomatoes. This was more challenging for me than you might think, because other than the vague knowledge that heirloom plants are cultivars that were grown during earlier periods in history, my knowledge about the individual cultivars themselves could likely fill a thimble. Lucky for me, there was a friendly fellow at the produce stand I frequent on one of the corners of the Pike Place Market who quickly realized this fact and helped me pick out a few after telling him I was looking for a nice mix of sweet and sour varietals. He gathered several different shapes and sizes in varying hues and bagged them up for me.

With tomatoes in hand, it was time to get to work. Since this was to be a savory shrub, I was in a bit of a quandary about the amount of sugar to use in it, because without it, you're simply making tomato vinegar instead of shrub. My tomatoes were the exact blend of sweet, sour, and acidic I had requested at the market, so I added a fairly small amount of brown sugar to the fairly large proportions of tomato and vinegar; the amount should keep things from skidding into the realm of a tomato confection, and the type  might lend an interesting depth and/or earthiness to a flavor profile like this, as long as one were to use a lighter hand.

After mashing the tomato pieces with the sugar, I wanted to boost the flavor profile with something exotic. There were the usual suspects such as basil or oregano, but I thought I should go a little further out of the box and introduce another spice blend that really enjoy with tomato based dishes: berbere.

To those who have never experienced the joy of berbere, here's the Cliff's Notes: a spice blend comprised of ajwain seed(tastes like an pungent thyme,) cloves, fenugreek, ginger powder, Tellicherry black pepper, cassia, cardamom, coriander and pequin chilies, this East African blend is frequently used in Ethiopian dishes such as wat and certain lentil preparations. Its flavor really capitalizes on the use of warm spices, and when used in larger amounts, it can get quite spicy. While looking for random condiments to mix it with, I discovered that berbere ketchup turned out to be one of the most successful combinations I had ever stumbled upon. The sweetness of the tomato is balanced well by the spiciness of the peppers, and the other warm spices help to bridge the gap and round the whole thing out. It's quite unlike I had ever had, and I knew that given its magic with ketchup and it's historical use in East African dishes including tomatoes, this idea had some traction.

To finish things, I went with the old standby, white wine vinegar. It would lend a nice acidic tang without muddying the amazing simpatico that was happening with the tomatoes and the berbere. After that step there was nothing left to do but wait to see how everything came together.

Two weeks later, I found out that it actually came out quite well. To be perfectly honest, I would love to say that I knew that this was going to be one of the most interesting shrubs I had ever done and that it was going to taste great. That would have been patently untrue, though. I seriously had no idea what was going to come out of this little experiment once it was finished, but I was really quite amazed. First of all, it tasted bright and fresh in a way that cooked tomatoes just aren't. More surprisingly, the tomato and berbere had somehow fused their flavor DNA into a Brundlesque creation that recognizably kept both of their natures, but though the miracle of science had melded into a hulking brute made of pure umami. This shrub is one of the most savory drinks I've ever had, even fooling my palate into thinking I had added some sort of salt which I knew I hadn't. Additionally, there was a persistent but not overwhelming heat from the berbere that gave it just the right amount of gravitas. In a way, it almost felt...meaty. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it actually tastes like meat. It just has that sort of satisfactory mouthfeel and flavor. I don't even think MSG could pull off that trick as well as this shrub manages to do.

Anyway, rich tomato flavor: achieved. Now on to element number two, the heat.

This second shrub is one that whose genesis was rooted in a very smart idea which I shamelessly cribbed from the fine people at Bittermens, a company who specializes in making bitters and other special accoutrements for people pursuing the lifelong art of crafting a fine cocktail. In addition to the cocktail bitters they are well and deservedly known for, Bittermens has been branching out into new areas such as their own liqueurs, tinctures, and wouldn't you know it...shrubs.

One of their more recent products is called Hellfire Habanero shrub, presumably based on the concept of "Hellfire Bitters" and "Cayenne Wine" found in one of cocktaildom's most treasured tomes, Charles H. Baker's A Gentleman's Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around The World With Jigger, Beaker, and Flask. Bittermens web site makes the savvy observation that when you break down many a hot sauce into its constituent parts, you're likely left with peppers, salt, and vinegar which sounds suspiciously like the basis of a shrub. With this in mind, they went ahead and simply made an alcohol fortified shrub that is formulated to replace hot sauces in cocktails providing a cleaner flavor and heat.

Upon reading this I was dumbstruck. What a brilliant idea this was, and I couldn't believe this hadn't occurred to me at some point. I'm not going to lie...I was jealous I didn't think of it first. There is one benefit of being the second(or third, etc.) to do something, and that is looking for ways to branch out.

I haven't had Bittermens Hellfire Shrub, so I can't speak to its flavor, but if it's anything like their other products, it's likely stellar stuff. One thing I noticed is that it says it is a habanero shrub, which for their purposes, makes a lot of sense. As I mulled this over, it occurred to me that one thing I love about peppers that is often overlooked is that they aren't just simply instruments of delivering a payload of searing heat into your mouth, and that each variety really has its own flavor and personality. It was clear that I should make my own version of Hellfire Shrub, using the guiding principles I utilized in the apple shrub "3 Faces of Eve." Essentially, I would pick three different kinds of peppers that would compliment each other and create a deeper, multi-layered flavor profile.

This process is more complicated than it sounds. My first thought was that I would balance three heat levels: mild, medium, and hot. But with that, there was the consideration of flavors that would not only harmonize with each other, but with the acidic tang of vinegar. I decided to work my way backwards from hot to mild, as though I was building the layers of painting. The hottest peppers would be the background; these would be the full mouth heat that was omnipresent, allowing the more nuanced aspects of the milder chiles to show. For this purpose, I chose the pequin pepper. Pequins are quite interesting, as they look like small, red pebbles that are innocent enough, until you eat them. Hiding inside is a clean, full mouth heat that lingers, kind of reminiscent of a birds eye chile. For the medium level I selected a couple of aji mirasol peppers. I had used these once before in the unsatisfying cherry/chile experiment I now simply refer to as #4, and they were the one bright spot of that otherwise boring execution. What I like about these is that they have a sort of fruity taste, a bit like apricots perhaps, but they are only moderately hot at best. They are warm enough to assert themselves without getting overshadowed by the pequins, but nuanced enough to be noticed for their flavor. For the mild entry, I went with a dark horse candidate, the rarely discussed cascabel pepper. Cascabel is Spanish for "rattle," which makes sense as these squat little guys sound to be hollow on the inside save for the noise the seeds make when you shake them a bit. I don't know about you, but when my food can also double as a Latin percussion instrument, I really feel like I'm getting a good value.

But a bundle of peppers alone cannot make a shrub, which is why turbinado sugar was next on the guest list. Clearly, a shrub isn't a shrub without sugar, but why use turbinado sugar over brown when that's what was used for the tomato shrub? My gut feeling is that the molasses-y notes in the brown sugar would make the shrub more like a pepper syrup than a spicy shrub. I could have used white sugar, but I felt that these peppers would benefit from a little bit of softening, whereas white sugar might have just stepped out of the way, possibly leaving the heat completely unchecked.

As far as the vinegar went, it seemed there was really one choice for me, and that was white wine vinegar. I figured that the best way to approximate the alcohol base of the Hellfire Shrub without using alcohol was to use something that was as flavor neutral as I could get. The only thing more flavor neutral might be distilled white vinegar, but for the sake of your throats and stomachs, I would advise against using that stuff in a shrub; anything powerful enough to sanitize a kitchen sink is something I think twice about slugging a large amount of, but that's just me.

Thinking back on my previous treatment of peppers, it occurred to me that it might be best to try to extract the pepper flavors by using hot vinegar rather than the room temperature stuff right out of the bottle. I heated the vinegar in a pan on the stove until it began to barely simmer and I took it off and poured it into the jar in which I had assembled the dried chiles. I left the mixture to steep at room temperature, checking on it every half hour until I felt that it had gotten hot enough without going nuclear. I strained out the solids and discarded them, but later realized that had I been more industrious in my thinking, these reconstituted peppers could have been thrown in a blender with some hot water and some fresh peppers and onions to make a nice little salsa. Unfortunately, in my shrub induced haste, I simply discarded them.

Normally, we would have combined the sugar with whatever we were mashing up to make a syrup in the beginning, due to this shrub's unusual nature, I had to adjust my methods slightly. In this instance, I essentially had a chile flavored vinegar to which I would be adding sugar. Since I didn't want this to be very sweet, I decided to add the sugar in small increments, tasting it after each addition. Unsurprisingly, it really didn't take much sugar to get there.

So after waiting for two weeks, how well did my take on the Hellfire Shrub come out?

I'm kind of at a loss as to how to score this one. It's almost more of a specific ingredient than a standalone drinking vinegar, though I have seen some hardcore souls drink a complete shot of this stuff. Let me just say, this stuff is hot. I can't speak to the heat level of the Bittermens product, but "Aleister" is pretty damned spicy. The surprising thing, though, is that the use of different chiles worked pretty much how I had hoped. Though the shrub was really hot, it had a very pleasing depth of flavors that went much further than "Tasty Napalm." I think if one were to use this in a cocktail that would normally call for Tabasco or Crystal, they wouldn't likely be disappointed with the outcome, though due to its multi-layered pepper profile, it could also be the basis for some fascinating new cocktails as well. The one thing I might do differently is use a much smaller amount of sugar. The batch I made has had time to mellow and in some ways it now tastes almost like the spicy simple syrup I was afraid of. That being said, I mixed a bit with tequila and a lot of the sweetness fell away, so it's probably fine for its intended use in cocktails.

Speaking of cocktail applications, I would say at this point, between the two shrubs I think I have everything I might need for a novel twist on the standard Bloody Mary of yore. But why stop with the Bloody Mary?

I'm thinking that there might be something to doing a couple of types of sangritas and a michelada; for those not in the know, sangritas are delicious accompaniments that you might get with a shot of blanco tequila in places such as Jalisco, Mexico. There seems to be some confusion among folks North of the border that a sangrita is red due to tomato, but it's more likely simply due to the spices. Since we're already in the habit of breaking tradition around here, bending the normal rules and doing a tomato based one probably won't hurt anything. Same goes for the michelada, who shares traits with our beloved Bloody Mary, only substituting a pale beer of some kind as the alcoholic component.

Barring use as a beverage, these both show a lot of promise as far as savory applications are concerned. "Elizabeth" could definitely be used as a meat marinade for someone looking to incorporate some East African flavor into a dish, I'm thinking goat might be an unusual but delicious choice here. "Aleister" shows even more versatility in that it could be useful in any place you might want to add some additional spiciness.

Please stay tuned through the end of this week as I am hoping to have some very talented professionals come up with something tasty for me to share with you utilizing these two new shrubs.

This week's first shrub, "Elizabeth," was named for Elizabeth Bathory, a countess of Hungarian nobility whose alleged baths in the blood of virgin girls to extend her useful appearance earned her the nickname, "The Blood Countess." Years later, alternate theories have developed as to whether any of this was true, or if her convictions for multiple murders were in fact politically and religiously motivated. The world may never know for sure.

The second shrub this week was named for famous British occultist Aleister Crowley.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Shrub #14: "Blue Spark"

Fruit: Blueberries
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar/Apple Cider Vinegar
Additions: Vanilla Bean, Tasmanian Pepperberry aka Mountain Pepper

I have to ask, is it really possible for a person to hate blueberries?

I mean it. Even in the deepest depths of my fruit indifference, I had a sort of unspoken detente with blueberries. Perhaps it's the way that they managed to star in all of the carbohydrate forward greatest hits of my youth; you might have seen them starring in such classics as "Blueberry Muffin" or "Blueberry Pie", and my personal favorite, "Blueberry Pancakes." Later, I enjoyed them in more modern, sexed up applications such as the smoothie.

It is likely safe to say, that as there are really only a few stories told in new and interesting ways over the years, the same is true of fruits and shrubs. If there is a fruit, I have no doubt that someone has taken the initiative to make a shrub out of it. Of course I know that blueberry shrubs have been done before, in fact, probably for centuries. Shrubs, like those aforementioned stories, may be old, but what keeps them new is how one spins the tale. Unsurprisingly(I hope,) this particular story begins with blueberries.

As you may have noticed, I haven't usually made a point of singling out particular sources for the fruit I've used, but for the benefit of all my Washington state readers, I think it might be nice to start.The blueberries I used in this shrub were purchased at the Wallingford Farmers Market from Sidhu Farms, hailing from Puyallup, Washington(incidentally my wife's hometown).

As someone whose face was recently a way station for half a box of Spring themed, fake lemon flavored Twinkies, I'm clearly not mentioning this because I've suddenly metamorphosed overnight into an paragon of ethical food consumption. I would, however, feel like a huge jerk if I kept how good Sidhu Farms berries are to myself; I gave them a cursory mention in my post about the blackberries I got from them for my "Black Moses" shrub, but I shamefully did not elaborate any further as to how great Sidhu's berries are. These were some of the best blueberries I've ever had, and that isn't just me being prone to my normal bouts of hyperbole. Slightly tart, substantial, and juicy, these were the perfect berries for making a fine drinking vinegar.

One tricky aspect about blueberries is balancing the tartness without losing it completely. I initially thought that brown sugar might be nice for this, but decided to table that idea for a different blueberry shrub concept where that deep molasses sweetness could be offset by another, more acidic ingredient like lemon. I realized that for this project it would likely make the most sense to go with white sugar for its clean, unfettered flavors. If you felt like going with a turbinado for a richer, slightly earthier flavor, I say go for it. It's your shrub. Own it. 

In most instances, the shrubs I've seen usually use one type of vinegar per flavor which makes sense as the vinegar you select to use in a shrub is probably built around the fruit and sugar choices. There are times when doing a combination of two types of vinegar makes good sense. One good reason to combine two types in one shrub is that some vinegars on their own might be too heavy, such as a balsamic, for example. I learned this after my first balsamic shrub, "Sarah." It was incredibly tasty, but balsamic when combined with fruit and sugar can come across as very syrupy, and without something else there to dry it out, it could potentially be too cloying for some palates. This is exactly why I added a small amount of red wine vinegar to the strawberry/balsamic shrub "Francoise."

For the sake of argument, though, say we're strictly talking taste. As I have mentioned time and time again, I love white wine vinegar for most fruit and white sugar applications, but sometimes it's a little too understated. In the case of "Blue Spark," I decided that a little more acidity would be welcome, and so I decided to do a 50/50 split between my normal white wine vinegar and Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar. One caveat for those who might apply this logic to other shrubs: you will need to experiment with the ratios. Bragg's has a very specific flavor, and it can easily overpower milder fruits. Go slowly and be careful. It's the same principle my mom taught me regarding biscuits and gravy: you can always put more liquid in, but you can't take it out.

With our primary ingredients gathered, we could now make a traditional blueberry shrub. A tasty, run of the mill, everyday sort of blueberry shrub. We could do that...but if you're a regular reader of Feel Like Making Shrub, you already know that's not going to happen.

Instead, I began by cutting a small length of a fresh vanilla bean, and then scraping its seeds into the jar. I'm not sure why, but vanilla and blueberries have some sort of ridiculous affinity for one another, and who am I to stand in the way of a coupling this tasty? The vanilla somehow manages wrangles the tart blueberries into submission, and lends a cohesiveness to the package. This on its own would have been magic, but there was one more surprise element that really give "Blue Spark" its, um, spark.

That mystery ingredient is one that was not well known to me, and is likely still flying blissfully under the radar throughout the United States. It's a little firecracker from Australia called Tasmanian Pepper Berry, which I learned about from my friends at World Spice Merchants. Tasmanian Pepper Berry is fun to play with, because it has so many clever little facets that don't present themselves upon first glance. First off, they are about the size of a large-ish black peppercorn or an allspice berry. Simply by looking at it, the color appears to be similar to a black peppercorn. In an interesting twist, it turns out that despite its seemingly black hue, it's actually a very deep indigo! It also turns out to be soluble in any liquid, so while we're using it in shrub, it can be used in sauces, or clear liquors turning them a gorgeous, unexpected shade of purple.

But wait, there's more! While it may resemble the good old black peppercorn we know and love, it tastes nothing like it, as I found out by putting a whole one in my mouth and chewing it slowly. Turns out that it actually has more in common with a different spice entirely: Szechuan pepper. When used judiciously, there is an amusing tingling that happens in one's mouth, accompanied by a fruity, prickly heat. When not used judiciously, your mouth looks like you've eaten a handful of Smurfs and your tongue goes numb for the better part of an hour.

So after all of the experimenting was "Blue Spark" a Wild Gift or did it impart Nausea upon drinking it?

Honestly, I really like this one a lot. "Blue Spark" is great because drinking it is kind of experience in and of itself. The depth of the blueberries is enhanced even further by the vanilla bean, and the Tasmanian Pepperberry doesn't come across as overtly spicy, but does give the person drinking it an unexpected jolt, similar to eating Pop Rocks for the first time. Everything is balanced well, and the cider vinegar actually helps it all retain a bit more of that vinegary tang that might have gotten a touch lost if I had only used white wine vinegar on its own. My only observation is that I might have liked a bit more Tasmanian Pepperberry in mine, but your mileage may vary, of course. However, if you like blueberries and the idea of them paired with exotic spices, this one's for you.

So obviously we have established it's for drinking alone or with carbonated or still water, but what else might one use this for? Off the top of my head, I suppose cocktails spring to mind. Which is great, but I was also struggling to think of a way to incorporate "Blue Spark" into food, until it practically hit me square in the face. Why not come full circle and use it with pancakes?

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating dumping the shrub right on top of a short stack as is. What I would do is pour a decent amount of it on the stove with a bit of water and cook it down until it's more like a gastrique(if you want more a glaze-like consistency, make a cornstarch slurry and stir it in). For those of you unfamiliar with what that means it's pretty much a fancy pants sauce where you de-glaze a pan of cooked sugar with vinegar, and reduce it until it's got a rich, syrupy consistency. Though the methodology is a lot different, the end result will be similar: a thicker, sweet and sour syrup. Some of my shrubs contain a higher ratio of sugar to vinegar which will mean that your final product will likely be more sweet than acidic.

Once you do this, you could of course just throw it over normal buttermilk pancakes, but I might recommend doing something that plays a little more to this amazing syrup you just made. I'm thinking maybe a nice lemon ricotta pancake, since blueberries and lemon go together like Rocky and Apollo Creed(in Rocky III, anyway). On the more savory side of the spectrum, a syrup of that sort could be slightly fortified with some stock and/or liquor(brandy, red wine, vermouth) and used with a rich protein such as duck. Think outside the box. Go nuts, folks.

So as we can see, by taking a classic flavor that we think we know everything about and giving it a few interesting twists, even a staple like the tried and true blueberry can produce a shrub that feels brand spanking new and hard to put down. 

This week's shrub is named after the song "Blue Spark" by the seminal Los Angeles punk band X, taken from their album Under The Big Black Sun.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Shrub #13: "Neko"

Fruit: Strawberries
Sugar: White Sugar
Vinegar: White Wine Vinegar
Additions: Aleppo pepper

Ironically, for a guy who makes shrub, I've had a pretty lousy relationship with fruit over the years. Unless it was baked in a pie, or perhaps safely ensconced in the fluffy layers of a pancake, I wasn't having it. I cannot say what weird childhood trigger caused this problem, but I'm slowly trying to atone for my mistakes in my attempts to transform fresh fruit into a delicious, potable treat. One of the most unfairly maligned fruits of my past was the humble strawberry, which had previously been put to very tasty use in the strawberry/balsamic number I christened Francoise. This was all well and good, but balsamic vinegar coupled with any fruit in a shrub will tend to veer into a very dessert oriented profile in my opinion. What I was after now was a way to elevate the humble strawberry and let it be the star of the show. This is where "Neko" began.

As a lot of shrubs take at least a couple of weeks to finish, and I started the entire shrub endeavor a bit late into the summer, this project was made with a lot of late summer strawberries which we bought one warm, pleasant Wednesday evening at the Wallingford Farmers Market. With the fruit situation well in hand, it was up to me to figure out which supporting roles would transform this half-flat of strawberries into a beverage worth singing about.

As usual, my first consideration was sugar. This batch of strawberries was a bit trickier than most of the fruit I had used up to this point, because the individual strawberries I sampled ranged from reasonably sweet to butt puckeringly tart. Right off the bat, it was clear that the best sugar for the job was the old workhorse, granulated white sugar. Brown would have imparted a deep molasses flavor that would have been distracting, and turbinado could have worked, but would have been a tad earthy for what I was looking for here.

Sarah was good enough to help me go through the tedious hulling and quartering process once again, and I went to work mashing the fruit and sugar together before its normal four hours and some change rest period before the final steps.

Unlike my first foray into strawberry shrub, this time I was looking to do something decidedly less heavy and dessert oriented and more refreshingly summer in nature. While a good red wine vinegar might work(I may experiment with this in future batches), I find that white wine vinegar is usually the best choice for shining the spotlight on the flavor of the fruit itself. After the strawberry mash emerged from the refrigerator, in went the white wine vinegar and after a quick shake, back to the fridge it went. Under normal circumstances, I would have been pleased and called this a great effort. However, I just couldn't leave well enough alone, and this is where things got...interesting.

As some of you may have guessed from previous efforts such as the Don Whoa, I am a fan of spicy flavors with fruit, and since I can't help experimenting, from the outset I knew I was going to incorporate some sort of heat into this shrub. My first instinct was to use a Turkish flake pepper called Urfa Biber. For those of you unfamiliar with this pepper, it's a mildly spicy, dark brown pepper that resembles the crystals in your old Make It-Bake It suncatcher kits. Flavor wise, it calls to mind several earthy flavors like tobacco, wine, raisins, and to a lesser degree, chocolate. Before going off half cocked and throwing a bunch of it in the shrub, I sprinkled a touch of it on the strawberry and gave it a try.

I don't know what it was, but I wasn't liking that combination at all. First of all, it masked all the strawberry taste, and the flavor of the strawberry somehow muddied the taste of the pepper. Alas, it was two great tastes that tasted like crap together. While I was delighted that I hadn't just ruined a gorgeous half-flat of strawberries for nothing, I was back at the drawing board. I thought that I was perhaps on the right track with this flake pepper business and turned my attention to Aleppo pepper. Aleppo pepper is named for the Syrian city where it is grown. Its mild nature is similar to Urfa Biber, but with a bright and slightly savory character. I repeated the earlier test I had performed with the Urfa, and was pleasantly surprised. It gave the strawberry a nice warmth, while balancing its sweet and sour nature with a slight saltiness.

This had promise, I thought, as I spooned a small amount into the jar. I obviously didn't want to overdo it, but I didn't want it to be too subtle, either. Now all I had to do was wait.

Over the first week, things were looking good until straining day. It appears that the one problem with flake pepper is that it is so tiny that you may not be able to keep all of the bottle, no matter how finely you strain the liquid. I hoped that the little red flecks floating about in the bottle weren't going to be visually off-putting, but more importantly that they wouldn't adversely affect the flavor over time.

So how did this elixir fare after all was said and done?

In this case of this shrub, I'm very torn on how to answer this. There are many things I love about this shrub, but as it is, I wouldn't call it 100 percent successful. Let's start with what went right.

First of all, the combination of the main ingredients was spot on. The white sugar was the right type of sweetness, clean but not cloying, and a nice compliment to the gently acidic white wine vinegar. When combined with the gorgeous strawberries, it was like biting into a handful of strawberries at once. There was a decided juiciness to it, and as I had hoped, a very summery taste.


For whatever reason, the Aleppo pepper that had been so decent in the berry tests, was doing something kind of odd in the aftertaste.While the pepper did lend a nice warmth to the shrub, for some reason it was slightly off, giving the impression of a strangely acrid bitterness at the end. To its credit, no one seemed to notice it(or they were too polite to say so) during a tasting, but once I tasted it, I couldn't not taste it. It was like breathlessly watching someone play a note perfect concerto on the piano only to accidentally miss the intended keys and the end, and instead letting the skronky sustain stretch over the audience before finally dissipating into a sad, unsatisfying spectre of what could have been. Interestingly enough, though it was pretty good in the watermelon/Aleppo/mint shrub, "Kim", I got the hint of some bitter notes in it which I originally blamed on the over handling of the mint leaves. After using it twice in shrubs, it could be the Aleppo pepper just doesn't work so well in the mysterious eco-system that a shrub is.

Ultimately, I am going to give this particular drinking vinegar a split decision. I give the finished product a C-, but without the Aleppo pepper it would have been a solid A. I don't often do the traditional strict formula "fruit/sugar/vinegar" variety of shrubs, but there was a fairly valuable lesson to be gleaned from this experience; sometimes it's simply better to let ingredients dictate how they are to be used rather than trying to force them into conforming to flavor profile that you really want to work.

"Neko" will definitely be getting a repeat performance in my kitchen, but without any additional herbs or spices to distract from the original flavor which is bold and beautiful enough to sing all by itself.

This week's shrub is named after a lovely and intriguing singer, Miss Neko Case. I've been a huge fan of hers since 2003 or so, when an alt-country show of WFMU played "Deep Red Bells" and I was immediately in thrall and have been ever since. So much so, in fact, that after seeing her tour for Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, I wrote an embarrassing review of the show which somehow devolved into feverish fanboy confessions and a half serious offer to take her out for whiskey and pancakes, but I digress. [If they only knew the half of it...-Ed.]

If you don't know who she is, I urge you to put down the vinegar for a moment and go buy all of her albums.

Seriously, go do it. Right now.