Sunday, August 5, 2012

The taming of the shrub

Have you ever heard of a shrub, as in the kind you can drink? (Oh, if only the knights who say Ni had only known to ask for a shrub rather than a shrubbery, things might've turned out differently.)

My first encounter with these tart and delicious libations was at the Slow Food DC table at the Farm-to-Street Party a few weeks ago, when my friend and fellow boardmember, Rich, poured one for me. I believe the one I had was a cherry balsamic with seltzer. And there may or may not have been gin in it. As I sipped, Rich began to tell me a bit about the drink's history, and how shrubs were actually included in Slow Food International's "Ark of Taste." Hey now, I am all for preserving food (and drink) traditions, and this one was so tart and refreshing. I began to stockpile fruit....

Last weekend, my friend Carina and I got together and pooled our shrub making resources: various fruits, a medley of vinegars, and a few kinds of sugar. We decided to make the cold processed shrubs which, according to The Internet, retain more layers of the fruits' subtle flavors than hot processed shrubs, which are quicker to make. (See? I can be patient.)

Easy Cold Shrubs

Step 1: Prepare the fruit.
Wash and remove stems/pits from fruit, then put it into a large glass or porcelain bowl and crush until pulpy. If it’s a melon or papaya or something else with a thick rind, peel it. Otherwise, leave the skin on. (You may want to measure how much fruit you have. Not that we did.)

Step 2: Cover the fruit with sugar.
The main website I referenced suggested equal parts fruit, sugar, and vinegar, but Carina is as much of a meticulous measurer as I am (which is to say a graduate of the school of eyeballing things), and I think her teeth also hurt thinking about that much sugar, so we kind of guessed at the amount of fruit – “what would you say that looks like, a cup and a half of melon?” – and lowballed the sugar proportion.

Step 3: Let it sit.
Put your fruit/sugar mixture in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. We were a little antsy, so I think ours were in the fridge for 2-3 hours. The fruit-sugar mixture should create a kind of syrup around the fruit bits.

Step 4: Strain it.
Use a fine sieve to strain the solids out of the syrup and into another clean bowl. You’ll want to use a spoon to press the fruit solids against the inside of the sieve to get as much of the juice as you can. If any sugar is clinging to the bowl, scrape it into the syrup.

Step 5: Add the vinegar.
Again, our proportions were not what one would call precise, but for the roughly estimated cup and a half of melon that we had added a cup of sugar to, I think we added two-thirds of a cup of apple cider vinegar. Whisk until sugar dissolves.

Step 6: Pour your science experiment into a clean bottle.
Cap, shake well, and refrigerate for a few days. Here's Carina showing off our inaugural shrub attempt:

Step 7: Taste and enjoy!
Check the shrub periodically. This is not just my advice, really! According to the various shrub experts, the cocktail base mellows with time: “The tartness and sweetness both remain, but they start to harmonize after just a few weeks in the fridge. So what you have is a lightly sweet and tart syrup with a rich fruit flavor." Not sure how long these delicious syrups will last, but probably not the requisite few weeks....

Carina returned this past Friday evening for a pseudo-scientific taste testing session before we brought some along to our friend Kate's apartment. The verdict: delicious. (Carina's already been talking about making savory shrubs. My kind of foodie, this one.)

So what did we make? And what, after a week of fermenting in my fridge and then mixing into cocktails with champagne and seltzer, did we think?

Blackberries with cane sugar and fig balsamic -- quite tart
Blackberries with cane sugar and blueberry balsamic -- very jammy
Papaya with brown sugar and fig balsamic -- deep and dark
Shiro plum with cane sugar and apple cider vinegar -- light and floral
Cantaloupe with cane sugar and apple cider vinegar -- the crowd favorite: like summer in a glass!

I daresay these may become a staple in my kitchen.

*Thanks to my friend Jessica for inspiring the title for this post -- I know you had a different topic in mind when you suggested it, but I think the subject does it justice. ;)

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