Friday, August 1, 2014

Shrub #21: Reverend Powell

Reverend Powell
After people get over the initial shock of the concept of drinking vinegar for recreational purposes, you begin to see the wheels turn as you list off all of the various flavors of shrub one can make. The fields of strawberries dancing in one's head, the cascade of crisp, sweet raspberries, or the juicy inspiration of summer at the mention of ripe peaches. The tart bracing delights of red currants...

[Insert Record Scratch Here]

So...yeah, if summer fruit had a social strata, red currants would clearly be one of the thoughtful outcasts who reads Sartre and doesn't like to talk much. They take a lot more effort to work with, but in the end, they are as bright and sharp as other berries, but with a decided air of mystery and subtlety that his more popular counterparts seem to lack ever so slightly.

Red Currants are so under the radar, I am frankly overjoyed and excited every time I run across them at all. The first time I made this particular shrub was probably in 2011 when I had a chance encounter with them wrapped up in their snug cellophane cartons in a grocery store. I had never had anything particularly currant related at the time other than perhaps some creme de cassis in something and maybe a cassis lambic years and years ago. I thought after my brief dalliance with this elusive berry that I would treasure our time together fondly and move on.

Richter's Red Currants
That was until a few weeks ago I happened to be in the same grocery and to my surprise, I stumbled across an entire display of offerings from Richters, the same farm that I had used last time. There were gooseberries and red currants both, and though the thought of experimenting with gooseberries was an exciting one, I knew I had to have another go at red currant shrub.

While making this shrub doesn't register a particularly high degree of difficulty, be warned that when I mentioned them being a lot more effort to work with, I wasn't kidding.

As you can see, red currants are tiny. I mean, really tiny. It takes, as Bertie Wooster might have said, a "goodish" amount of them to make a reasonable quantity of shrub. Paired with the amount of time it takes to remove the tiny stems that are attached to them, it seems like more trouble than its worth, but trust me, when you see the end results, you won't feel that way.

As with any fruit for shrub, grab a colander and wash it thoroughly. Red currants are the sensitive, brooding sort, so be gentle; these guys could become pulp in your fingers when too much rough pressure is applied.

Washing The Currants
The next step is to get a clean and sterilized non-reactive container. As usual, I am using one of my trusty bale jars which I put on the scale before using the scale's tare function to zero out the weight. This will make it a lot easier to portion out and get the correct weight of the currants.

With all of this in place, it's time to get the currants in the jar. Unfortunately, it's not quite as easy as that, since there are a lot of tiny stems and things you have to pull off of these tiny little berries. I find that this process is not quite as excruciating as when one is making a shrub with pie cherries, but it's still mildly irritating.

On the bright side, you don't have to pit anything, so there's that.

The Jar and the Colander(Not the title of a new children's book)
After weighing the appropriate amount of currants into the jar, it's time to gather the sugar. I chose white sugar for this one because I wanted a clean, unencumbered sweetness. I think anything earthier would overpower these guys, and given their subtle flavor, it would be extremely easy to do.

Given the fact I like using these shrubs as soda syrups, I thought juniper would bring another level of depth and interest to it as a non-alcoholic beverage. For the unfamiliar, juniper is technically a seed cone from pine trees with a potent, resinous texture even when dried, and a sharp, piney, woodsy flavor. Most recognizable as the main flavor element in gin, it is a bold and unapologetic spice that works beautifully in concert with other earthy ingredients in small quantities. 

A Little Dab Will Do Ya

As I often look to the culinary world for inspiration, it occurred to me that both red currants and juniper are frequently used in the preparation of game meats which further solidified my confidence in this pairing.One cautionary note, however: it's really important to be judicious with the amount you add, unless you enjoy drinking a delightful berry soda that has been filtered through pine cones. 

Currants and Sugar in Repose
Once the sugar and juniper are measured into the jar, I begin to muddle. Muddling is usually one of my favorite parts of this endeavor. One the one hand, I enjoy the subtle transition from two materials into one, the melding of ingredients, and the beautiful stratification of colors. On the other hand, it's really therapeutic to wield a giant piece of wood and smash fruit to bits, letting you live out those long dormant childhood fantasies of impersonating Gallagher's act in your own home.

The Beauty of Wholesome, Unsullied Ingredients

The Beauty of Wholesome, Sullied Ingredients

After that enjoyable endeavour, one should have a viscous mass of fruit and syrup. The jar is closed up and put in the refrigerator to rest for a few hours, where the sugar should continue to pull the juice of the crushed fruit. Anywhere from two to five should do it, but if you accidentally forget overnight, it certainly will not hurt the shrub in any way.

A Viscous Mass of Fruit and Syrup

After its brief respite in the chilled confines of your fridge, the vinegar goes in. I chose white wine vinegar for this as it has a mild, but very present acidity to balance the heavier dose of white sugar I used to balance the tart berries. Shrubs are always a bit of a balancing act, and it can be especially tricky in cases where you want to offset tartness in certain fruits such as this one. It's also a bit more neutral in taste than other wine vinegars, so it lets the other ingredients take control without being too present as a red wine vinegar or a balsamic would be.

After agitating the mixture, it goes back into the fridge for a week. After that, it's filtered three times, and then bottled.

After all of this, the real question is of course, "What is the shrub like?"

The unsatisfying, but brief answer is, "It's great!"

In all sincerity, unless you have currants growing on your property, this can be a slightly more expensive project as it takes a few cartons to make a reasonable amount of shrub. Putting aside price for the time being, I really love this one.

The best way I can describe it is to say that it is reminiscent of a non-alcoholic gin mixed with sweet and tart berries, with touches of mild acidity creeping around the outside. It doesn't seem to have as much natural pectin as say raspberries or strawberries, so the mouthfeel is not exceedingly syrup like despite its sugar content.

In temperance mode, this thing is an outright gem, especially when mixed with a better quality tonic water like Q or Fever Tree as it makes you feel like you're drinking a fruity G & T, but without the eventual impairment, and when the weather is warm, G & T's are one of my favorite warm weather coping mechanisms. Don't like tonic? No problem, soda water is also excellent, as it slips into more of an adult soda mode. Either way, you just can't lose.

In regard to cocktails, there are some definite possibilities across the board. Vodka and gin are no brainers, as the juniper will either come through solo against the cold, stark canvas that vodka offers, and it will reinforce the juniper notes already in most gins.

As I will demonstrate in a day or two in the next installment of The Hard Stuff, even a muscular whiskey enjoys its company when arranged in the proper context.

As for the name, this shrub's moniker was a bit of a leap through word association. As red currant and juniper are both used in dishes involving game meats, I thought of hunters, which in turn made me think of the film Night of the Hunter.

From there, it wasn't much of a hop to the foreboding and mysterious Robert Mitchum character, Reverend Powell, the creepy and effective antagonist of the film. For those who have never seen it but are familiar with "LOVE" and "HATE" tattoos on knuckles, or any pop cultural references to said knuckles, Mitchum's Powell had them first and utilized them best. As far as anti-heroes and creeps go, Robert Mitchum is tops in my book, and his Harry Powell stands tall as both a cultural icon and one evil so and so.

So while red currants and juniper are both kind of like two misunderstood loners of the fruit and spice worlds, respectively. It seems lucky, but not so surprising perhaps, that in a shrub like this they have become fast and inseparable friends.


14 oz red currants, separated from stems
13 oz white sugar
14 oz white wine vinegar
2 to 2.5 tsp juniper berries, finely ground

Food scale
Sealable non-reactive container
Muddler or heavy spoon
Strainers of increasing fineness
Large measuring cup
Tea strainer
Funnel(preferably canning funnel)
Sealable glass bottle

Gently pull red currants from their stems, placing in colander. Discard stems.

Rinse red currants thoroughly in colander. Shake colander to get rid of excess water.

Put non-reactive container on scale and use tare function to zero out the reading. Pour or spoon red currants into container until desired weight is reached. Use tare function again.

Pour or spoon white sugar into container until desired amount is reached. Add ground juniper, and using muddler, grind sugar into fruit until a thick, syrupy mixture forms. Seal container and rest mixture in refrigerator for 2-5 hours.

Remove container from refrigerator and unseal. Place on scale, once again using tare function. Add appropriate amount of white wine vinegar to container. Reseal, and place back into refrigerator. Rest jar one week.

After one week, remove container from refrigerator. Arrange strainers in levels of increasing fineness over measuring cup. Strain liquid through strainers, pressing on pulp to express any trapped shrub. 

Place funnel in bottle, and situate tea strainer in funnel opening. Pour strained shrub through tea strainer into bottle, and seal bottle. 

Refrigerated shrub should last from six months to one year.


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