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.

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