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.

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