April 20, 2009

an ode to unusual beverages...

I'm participating in a round table discussion at my local library about the future of food in the United States, looking at how farming and raising livestock has shifted from family run endeavors to huge, vertically integrated agribusinesses. One of the discussion points is the notion of eating locally-produced foods, and one of the things I plan to bring up at our next meeting tomorrow, replete with samples (non-alcoholic, sadly. I can't imagine the library would want booze on the premises) is the notion of preserving food. Now most people think of preserving food as either salting, smoking, canning or making jellies. There is another route, however, and it's one that was tremendously popular in the American Colonies...you can preserve the bounty of summer's fruit harvest by making a fruit shrub. No, not "shrub" in the sense of a small plant...the name actually comes from Arabic, and the word "sharab," which simply means "to drink". A fruit shrub is just a liquid that's produced by boiling together water, sugar, the fruit who's essence you want to keep on hand, and vinegar. In my recipe, I use white wine vinegar, just to keep it palatable, although I'd imagine apple cider vinegar could work as well. In either case, the acidity of the vinegar plus the simple syrup base combined to keep the liquid from spoiling in the fall and winter months in the Colonies, and could then be used to add a touch of summer's color and flavor to the bone-chilling bleakness of, say, January in New Hampshire. In my experience, this works best with berries, small stone fruits like cherries, and cranberries. Tonight's drink, which will also be tomorrow's drink at my "Menu for the Future" session only without the liquor, was made with four berries; raspberries, blueberries, marionberries and strawberries. Here's how to make the shrub.
In a medium-sized pot, whisk together 1 cup of sugar and one cup of water. Once combined, add 2 pints of the fruit of your choice and reduce the heat, simmering for 10 minutes. Then add two cups of white wine vinegar and return to a boil for two minutes. Strain through a cheesecloth-lined mesh strainer, pressing on the solids to get out as much of the liquid as possible; this should result in about a liter of syrupy liquid. Bottle and chill before using.
Then for your drink, all you've got to do is add 2 to 2 1/2 ounces of rum to 1 ounce of your shrub mixture, building over ice, and top up with ginger ale.

A lot of people, on learning what's in this drink, invariably pull a face at the mention of vinegar. In truth, it adds a tang to the beverage, but it's flavor is so muted by the sweetness of the fruit (not to mention the sugar) that it's really more like the flavor a bit of lemon juice might add than anything else. It's really a fun drink to spring on people...and you can make it with a ton of different fruits. I've even heard of a ginger shrub, which must look a lot like a chutney before straining. And, of course, like so many specialty foods and beverages, if you don't feel like making your own shrub base (which means you'll lose out on half the fun and all of the feeling of accomplishment) you can buy it online, most notably, from Tait Farm Foods in Pennsylvania. One of my favorite aspects of this is the feeling that I've refined something, that I've taken these simple ingredients and rendered them down and made this beautiful, fragrant, jewel-colored liquid from them. It's a simple process, but it produces a great, and long-lasting result; that batch of shrub will make more than 30 drinks. It may be a good idea to share...
Rum Shrub


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