Monday, July 28, 2014

The Hard Stuff: Amalthea


First of all, my apologies for the lack of posts last week, things have been a bit crazier around here for some reason, and my day job has distracted me from my blogging duties, but I am back and I have what I hope will be some fun content for you this week.

I can't think of anything more fun that starting the week with a cocktail, so I would like to introduce you to a new segment/column on the blog that is tentatively being called "The Hard Stuff," in which the shrubs that we make are incorporated in decidedly non-temperance friendly ways.

As some of you may know, the use of our delicious drinking vinegars began quite a while ago in this country, notably to mask the flavor of the rotgut rum that was being pumped out up and down the Eastern seaboard. Times, as well as the quality of distillation methods, have changed; rather than quell the more distasteful elements of our liquor in an attempt to stomach it in our collective attempts at inebriation, we now look to shrub as a shelf stable modifier that can add not only interesting flavors both in and out of season, but a pleasant acidity that could potentially take the place of a lemon or lime balancing the equation in your tin.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was looking for a new name for the plain raspberry shrub that I make, and I got some great suggestions. Ultimately, I went in a more mythological direction, naming the shrub Ida.

While this may seem like an unusual name, there is connection in the Greek myths in which a woman named Ida was picking berries for the infant Zeus(who was being hidden from his jerk of of a dad Cronus, who would have eaten him if given half a chance, but I digress...) when she pricked her finger staining white raspberries red, which is why raspberries have been that color ever since. If you're more of an astronomy buff, it's also the name of Jupiter's third moon. Either way, I dig it.

Keeping with this theme, I found that the cave Zeus was being hidden in was in a mountain called Mt. Ida, and it's next to a place called the Amari Valley, and it started me thinking about bitter liqueurs that would go well with raspberry; I knew that whatever I picked, there would need to be a flavorful, but fairly unobtrusive set of ingredients to slot in with these ingredients.

First things first: base spirit: Gin.

First and foremost, gin is one of my favorite base spirits and if you use a milder, more citrus forward gin like Plymouth, it can act as a really broad canvas to display a lot of other interesting flavors without clashing. Additionally, gin and raspberry have proven to have historically teamed up with excellent effects in drinks such as the Clover Club and the Albermarle Fizz. So gin was in.

My second pick was Aperol. To those who aren't familiar with it, Aperol is mild bitter liqueur; it's slightly bitter, only 11 percent alcohol by volume, and is a very exciting, but to some, slightly disturbing, hazard cone orange color. It's a little bitter, but not overly so and it seemed like a good balance to the jammy, sweet raspberry shrub.

Since it's summer, my mind turns to modifiers such as fortified and aromatized wines to sort of pad out the bolder flavors of the base and in this case, the slightly bitter liqueur. Nothing says summer gin to me in this regard quite as well as Lillet Blanc. Lillet is an aperitif wine that is a summer classic that can be enjoyed alone, but whose bright, slightly fruity nature works as a fantastic lengthening buffer here.

Finally, what would a shrub cocktail be without shrub? In this case, we are using the Ida from a couple of weeks ago. While this shrub is a bit sweeter and thicker due to the natural pectin in raspberries, it still has slight hints of sharpness from the naturally tart nature of raspberries and the white wine vinegar. This very mild acid takes the place of what one might have used citrus juice for.

I personally think this cocktail worked out best when it was stirred. Shaking was fine, but it did tend to make it seem a little cloudier to me. Stirring kept the lovely jewel tones and with a minimum of dilution, finally finished with an orange twist, which I dropped right into the glass.

But how does it taste?

Amalthea is kind of tricky to describe; the overall flavor is slightly fruity, with hints of mild bitterness, but due to the use of the Plymouth gin and the slightly bumped up amount of it, it makes the whole thing relatively dry and quite bracing without turning your tongue to sandpaper.

All in all, I would say it is an enjoyable little tipple, and one I hope you'll enjoy in these waning days of summer.


1.75 oz Plymouth gin
.75 oz Aperol
.5 oz Lillet Blanc
.5 oz Ida(raspberry shrub)

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker, and add ice.

Stir until glass or tin frosts, strain into cocktail glass. Cut strip of orange peel and twist over the drink, rubbing peel over rim. Drop peel into the glass.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Raspberries Revisited and Renamed

In 2012, when I began the blog, one of the first shrubs that made its way on here was a raspberry number, I named Pink Flag, after the album by seminal post-punk band Wire. At the time, I thought this was a great idea, but in retrospect, it seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Originally, the original raspberry shrub was supposed to have lemon verbena and black peppercorn in it, neither of which really came out in the shrub at all. As time went along, I started to have two versions of a lot of the fruit based shrubs, one that was basically just for the fruit alone, and one that was a little more experimental with different spices, herbs, or vinegars, or in some cases, a combination of any of those things.

I came to the conclusion recently that I am going to try to revisit some of the spirit of that very first shrub that didn't work out, but rather than using the very potent and unmistakeable black Tellicherry peppercorn, I will give the fruitier, more delicate pink peppercorn a shot in its stead. It seems like a no-brainer to me to reappropriate the Pink Flag moniker for this new raspberry pink peppercorn concoction.

I'll hopefully be doing that one and sharing the results soon, but that left me with a bit of a naming conundrum; what shall I name the plain raspberry one since Pink Flag is out of the running?

I have some ideas, but I would love to hear from you, the readers. Take a look at the picture of the finished shrub below and let me know what you think it should be called in the comments. I'll look at the suggestions and make a decision next week.

Extra points for interesting references and/or puns.

While we're waiting for a name, I think this is a good time to share the updated recipe for whatever this raspberry shrub will be called as it has changed a little bit from the last time I posted a recipe for it.

For Shrub:
16 oz raspberries
12-13 oz white sugar
16 oz white wine vinegar
Large, sealable non-reactive container
Muddler, blender, or immersion blender
Sealable glass bottles with non-reactive lids
Metal Mesh Strainers of decreasing fineness
Funnel, preferably a canning funnel
Large Measuring cup
Making Raspberry Shrub:
In a large, sealable non-reactive container such as a bale jar, place 16 oz raspberries. Cover with 12-13 ounces of white sugar and muddle raspberries and sugar until a thick syrup forms. Close container and place in refrigerator for 3-6 hours.
Alternatively, you may blend 16 oz of raspberries and 12-13 ounces of sugar with an immersion blender in an immersion blender safe container, or in a standard blender, pouring the sugar and raspberry mixture into your non-reactive container. Refrigerate for 3-6 hours.
After 3-6 hours have passed, open container and add vinegar. Shake or agitate vigorously until combined. Close jar and add to refrigerator once again.
Hold in refrigerator for one week, agitating occasionally.
After one week's time, remove the container from the refrigerator and place strainers over measuring cup. Carefully pour contents of the jar into the strainers, pushing on solids to express as much liquid from the mash as possible. Set aside strainers.
Place funnel in glass bottle. If using a tea strainer, place inside the funnel. Slowly pour shrub from measuring cup through tea strainer, pausing to scrape the bottom or rinse the tea strainer if the pectin causes it to become blocked.
Continue, leaving a small amount of space in the neck of the bottle and close bottle.
Place in refrigerator for one more week.
Shrub should stay good for at least a year, but likely longer when refrigerated.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Cookin' With Shrub: Enchiladas Al Pastor-ish

I've always felt that one of the hidden talents of shrub is its ability to stealthily slide out of its supposed restraints of beverage bondage. If you want to get creative, there are a lot of ways to sneak some of this fantastic drink into any number of dishes, savory and sweet alike.

I've done some minor experiments with this notion in the past, but it was always kind of a quick affair, reducing some shrub here for a glaze, or straight as a topping for ice cream or such, but I had never concocted a recipe from the ground up that wasn't adapted from somewhere else specifically.

Until now.

Don Whoa!, the pineapple shrub we've talked about before, has long haunted me with its gustatory potential. Pineapple and vinegar are both well known tenderizers of meat, with their acids and enzymes and what have you. It's probably no wonder to most people, when I say that when I start gathering a mental picture of meat and pineapple my mind immediately goes to the South of the Border favorite, tacos al pastor.

For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to try this Mexican marvel, the short version is that "Al pastor" is essentially a style in which pork is loaded up on a vertical spit device called a trompo, which is very similar to Middle Eastern schwarma. The pork, having been marinated in spices, dried chile, and pineapple, becomes juicy and tender as the gentle heat crisps the outside of this pig mountain as it turns. Pieces are shaved off with a sharp knife, and the meat with onion and other accompaniments(including pineapple pieces) are either served in tacos or a few other manners.

Delightful, no? Despite the amazingly tasty nature of a dinner involving the al Pastor style of meat management, this method posed a few problems for an apartment dwelling gent who would love to have his own trompo, but who unfortunately used up the entirety of his half of the kitchen space allotment by buying 900 different coffee devices and commandeering his very patient wife's lid drawer for spices.

There are other ways to get closer to an authentic reproduction, such as this brilliant method by the ultra-brilliant J. Kenji Alt-Lopez(one of my culinary heroes), but I didn't want to borrow a recipe and just shoehorn the shrub in. Since there was no possible way I could compete on grounds of authenticity, I decided I would have to strive to be aces in flavor to make up for it.

So I guess rather than me inaccurately calling this creation Enchiladas Al Pastor, we could think of this as an homage to its vibrantly spicy, tangy pineapple flavors; perhaps a sort of fanciful tangent if you will.

I give unto you Enchiladas Al Pastor.

Er, I mean I will...let's take a look at how we got there.

As it turns out, my first attempt to pair Don Whoa! and pork was far, far less successful. My first thought years ago was that the magical enzymatic beatdown that takes place when pineapple and/or its juice comes into contact with meat made me think that using it by itself as a marinade would a great idea. After all we have the sharp tang of vinegar, the sweetness of both pineapple and raw sugar, and the gentle citrusy heat of habaneros rounding out the package.

On paper, this sounds like a real ass-kicking roundup of flavor. As it turns out, however, the result proved to be slightly tangy, not hot, and pretty damned sweet. Decidedly not tasty.

The reality was that despite all of those elements being present in the shrub, the marinade itself was quite thin and watery, as vinegar does have a pretty sizable amount of water along with our old sharp pal, acetic acid. After thinking long and hard about the Epic Marinade Failure of '12, I finally realized a couple of the key components that a good marinade has that shrub alone is missing.

First, salt. You can season the pork all you want, but if you don't put any in the liquid it's going to be bland and lacking in a general savoriness. The other glaring hole in this equation was a medium that would carry flavor, preferably one that had some fat to better absorb the flavors.

Armed with this new way of thinking I assembled a very simple marinade involving salt, oil, our pineapple shrub, and the additions of the potent, resinous Mexican Oregano and the earthy, pungent funk of toasted cumin. In the interim, I cubed the pork shoulder and put the chunks in a bowl, finally pouring the marinade over them and sealing the bowl with a lid. It would then rest there for at least a couple of hours. 

With the pork presumably taking on some real flavor in the fridge, it was on to the big show piece of the dish, the enchilada sauce. This was going to be tricky; not only was the sauce going to go over the tortillas before their final triumph bronzing in the oven, but this was also going to be the liquid that the pork shoulder would be simmered in.

I have always heard that the basis of a good enchilada sauce was the use of whole dried chiles and spices, and who am I to argue with conventional wisdom?

One benefit of making things up as you go along is the ability to use whatever chiles you damn well please. I have seen a lot of red sauces that are very ancho heavy, but I was curious to do something different; ancho still had a solid place in my mix, but guajillos were going to be the leaders of this pack. Backing them up was a ragtag band of misfits such as Aji Mirasol, for mild heat and fruitiness, ancho for earthiness and depth, and pequin for clean, bracing heat. 

With my pepper selections complete, I halved and seeded the chiles and dry toasted each type of pepper individually over medium heat. There is a delicate balance in toasting these things; take them out too early and they haven't become aromatic or begun to tap into their full flavor, but if left too long, your final results will be bitter and acrid. You should just be able to smell the aromas before pulling them. I advise being particularly careful with tiny peppers such as the pequins as they take practically no time at all. tossed the into some warm stock so they would soak up some liquid and become soft and pliable. 

While peppers make up the bulk of the sauce, we'd be nowhere without the aid of aromatics. An onion was divided, and half of it was blistered in the pan the chiles were toasted in. This slightly caramelized the onion and gave it a little bit of that rich, smoky element that comes with that process. To balance that out, the raw half was also used along with some raw garlic cloves, and more of the cumin and Mexican oregano that we used in the marinade to echo those flavors that should have been making their way into the pork at that very moment. 

To the aforementioned items, more pineapple shrub was added for an extra bit of vinegary acidity, pineapple sweetness, and to help thin the mixture a little. This mixture was transferred to the Vita-Mix and blended into a thick paste. The mixture was strained to get rid of lumps and/or any excess seeds through a metal strainer, until the paste was about the consistency of a Kansas City BBQ sauce.

I am not sure if it was the use of pork shoulder in this dish, or the use of vinegar, but I took a page from Indian cooking and decided to stew the pork cubes much in the same manner I make vindaloo. The pork was browned in batches, and the sauce mixture was poured over the meat. After bringing the mixture to a boil, and a tight fitting lid was placed over the pot, and the heat was reduced to a simmer.

This went on for nearly an hour, and by the time I checked on it, the meat had become fork tender.

At this point, the finish line was in sight. Sarah helped me fill the tortillas and get them situated in our glass baking dish. 

After being nestled snugly together, the sauce that the pork was cooked in was then ladled over the enchiladas, and blanketed in a generous layer of shredded cheese. 

After a brief stint in the oven we were greeted with the following results:

Now I give unto you, Enchiladas Al Pastor-ish.

So after five hours of working at this, what did I learn?

First, authentic or not(in this case, clearly not), these things are damned delicious. 

The shrub, while subtle, does lend flavors of fruit, sweetness, and acidity in both the pieces of pork from the marinade and the sauce. It brings a really great sharpness that balances the rich chile sauce and keeps it from feeling too heavy. The pork shoulder falls apart when stewed in this manner, but also has a more substantial feel than shredded pork sometimes does. With a healthy dose of gooey cheese, there is not much to dislike, barring dietary or religious restrictions. 

That said, even when something is pretty great, it would be disingenuous to say there was no room for improvement, so there are a couple of small items I might consider tweaking in the future.

I might add a few more ingredients to the marinade; perhaps some garlic in there would be nice, and I am toying with the addition of a few drops of Maggi sauce or Tamari to boost the umami factor a little bit. 

In regard to the sauce, I love this blend of chiles, but I could see it as a basis to rotate in and out some different chiles, such as cascabels, or for some smoky undertones, use a little bit of Pasilla Oaxaca to anchor it, though a little goes a long way, unless you're hankering to eat a bacon-y campfire, in which case, go nuts.

I think I would also reserve some of the sauce and not use the whole amount to simmer the pork in. As it cooks the heat of the chiles dissipates a fair amount and the whole thing melds into a really deep, mellow mode that while rich in flavor, does lack some of the bite of the raw sauce. I would like to try ladling the raw sauce over the assembled enchiladas to see if it retains a little more of that bright, snappy heat when only cooked over the enchiladas.

The only other variant that I thought might be fun would be to adapt a dish that I used to enjoy at a Mexican restaurant my family went to often when I first moved to Seattle. They called it "Enchiladas Texas Style" aka "El Paso Enchiladas." I cannot say what made these enchiladas particularly aligned to that region per se, but I do know that they were stuffed with a metric ton of jalapeƱo and sour cream in addition to shredded chicken. 

Just do everything the same as above, but when assembling the actual enchiladas, add generous helpings of diced habanero and sour cream before baking. And if you really want, maybe some grilled pineapple if you're into that sort of thing.

From the ashes of disappointment to triumph on a plate, Enchiladas Al Pastor is a culinary comeback kid I think we can all get behind, authenticity be damned.

Enchiladas Al Pastor-ish

1.25 cup pineapple shrub
1 tbsp Mexican oregano
2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp salt

Enchilada sauce:
5 dried guajillo chiles
2 dried aji mirasol chile
1 dried ancho chile
3-4 pequin chiles
2 tsp salt
1 onion, halved
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup pineapple shrub
2 cups chicken stock
1 tbsp Mexican Oregano
2 tsp cumin, ground

3 pound pork shoulder, cubed
Flour Tortillas
Cheese, shredded

For Marinade:

If using whole cumin seeds,  place seeds in a small, dry skillet, toast whole cumin until fragrant. Let cumin cool, then grind in spice grinder. If using ground cumin, disregard this step and continue assembling marinade.

In a large immersion blender friendly container, combine oil, shrub, salt, and ground cumin. Crumble Mexican oregano between your fingers into marinade. Using an immersion blender, thoroughly blend the mixture until uniform. If you do not have an immersion blender, place all marinade ingredients into blender cup, and blend until uniform.

Trim pork shoulder of excess fat and cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch cubes. Place cubes in a sealable container such as a bowl with a lid or zip top bag and cover with marinade. Refrigerate for 2 to 6 hours. 

For Enchilada Sauce:

Start a medium skillet over medium heat, toast each individual type of chile separately, gently turning until chiles become aromatic and removing right away and setting aside. Overly toasted chiles will give the sauce an acrid taste, so be careful not to over toast them.

Warm chicken or vegetable stock on stove or in microwave until hot, but not boiling. Gently place dried, toasted chiles in hot stock and cover for thirty minutes. 

Meanwhile, pour 1 to 2 tbsp vegetable oil in the same skillet the chiles were toasted in and turn heat up to medium high until shimmering. While waiting for oil to heat, halve an onion. When oil has gotten to temperature, place onion half in oil, watching carefully and turning frequently until browned and lightly charred. Remove onion and set aside. 

After the chiles have soaked in stock for thirty minutes, pour chiles and stock into blender with garlic, both onion halves, shrub, salt, and ground cumin. Crumble Mexican oregano into mixture. Blend until smooth. Alternatively, you may use an immersion blender on this mixture in a large immersion blender safe container.

Strain sauce mixture through a metal strainer over large measuring cup or bowl. If mixture seems exceedingly thick, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup water to thin to desired consistency. 

Sauce can be made ahead of time and should be good refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

Stewing pork:

Remove pork in marinade from refrigerator. In a large heavy bottomed pot, heat vegetable oil on medium high heat until shimmering.

Working in batches, brown pork cubes in pot until they have taken on color, and set aside. After last batch of pork has been browned, add all other browned pork cubes back into the pot and cover with enchilada sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil, the reduce to medium-low heat and cover with tight fitting lid. Simmer, stirring, very occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour or until pork cubes are fork tender or otherwise falling apart.

Assemble enchiladas:

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.

Spoon stewed pork chunks into tortillas, with some sauce from the stewing mixture, and add generous sprinkling of shredded cheese, careful not to overstuff enchilada. Place tortilla seam side down in 9 x 13 glass dish. Repeat process until glass dish is full of completed enchiladas. Ladle sauce from stewed pork over the enchiladas, smothering in sauce. Sprinkle generous amount of cheese over the sauced enchiladas. 

Place glass dish into oven, watching carefully until cheese has become fully melted and gooey. 

Remove dish and serve immediately.