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.

1 comment:

anne said...

silly question: did you peel and seed your tomatoes for the elizabeth?