American Table: This summer, drink your vinegar as part of a delicious shrub
When I picked up my Community Supported Agriculture box at Amber Waves Farm a few days ago, I was invited to take a bunch of rhubarb. It was beautiful and about 3 feet long. I had never seen such pretty or long stalks of rhubarb before, so I took it but I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I usually make a pie or a crisp with rhubarb but I wanted to do something different. I thought about pickles or muffins, but neither one caught my fancy that day so I decided to ask for suggestions on Instagram. The first two people suggested a shrub. And that was exactly what I was in the mood for.
A shrub is a drinking vinegar. It is most often made from fruit, but can also be made from vegetables and herbs. If that sounds weird to you, rest assured that it doesn’t taste weird. You only use a little and top it off with sparkling water for a homemade soft drink that is refreshing and not too sweet. It also makes a nice sweet-tart fruit base for a cocktail.
There are two popular methods for making a shrub. A cold method that can take days, if not weeks, and a hot-cooked method that takes about an hour from start to finish. My preferred method is the hot-cooked method because I like the instant gratification, and in this recipe it also leaves behind the added bonus of a lovely rhubarb compote.
I am a big fan of fruit shrubs and usually make one in the fall and winter with fresh cranberries. But summer is really the time to make them because you can use any berry or stone fruit in addition to the rhubarb which is now my absolute favorite.
Because few things beat a rhubarb pie with a crumble topping, I added the spices that I use in my topping; cinnamon and ginger. As I cooked the fruit down with sugar and water, a cinnamon stick and fat round slices of crystalized ginger, my kitchen smelled delicious. Just like a pie baking! And not surprisingly, the shrub tastes like the essence of a rhubarb pie. The tart fruit mixed with the warm spices and just enough sugar to bring out the sweetness is cooked to a mash consistency. The resulting syrup extracts the most beautiful pale pink color from the rhubarb, and a delicate flavor from the fruit. And, the added bonus is the leftover fruit which tastes and looks like a rhubarb compote.
I gingerly tasted the hot fruit as I was straining the liquid from it. I didn’t know whether it was going to be delicious or totally “spent” and ready for compost. I was thrilled to find out that it was bursting with flavor, soft and perfectly balanced, tasting of vanilla even though I didn’t add any. It tasted like the primary recipe, not the leftovers. I love it when that happens, and you get two great recipes from one process. This was a happy accident resulting in zero food waste! I had to force myself to stop eating it directly from the colander. Since I made the shrub, I’ve spread the compote on toast like jam, and served it on top of grilled pound cake — it would be great simply served over vanilla ice cream as well. The compote will be gone long before the shrub!
Most of the time, I like to drink shrubs mixed with sparkling water as a festive non-alcoholic drink. But one look at the shrub and I realized that it would be perfect base for a “red” Fourth of July cocktail — and a nice change of pace from watermelon-based drinks. And it was kismet because my shrub making coincided with the new release of Booker’s 2018 bourbon collection. The new batch is titled, “Backyard BBQ,”
It is a tribute to distiller Booker Noe’s legendary cook-outs in his backyard. I poured two parts bourbon to one part shrub over ice in a shaker and added a dash of bitters. After an energetic shake, I poured it into a glass and drank it neat, but you may want to pour it over crushed ice and top it off with sparkling water for a milder cocktail. The sweet hints of maple and vanilla in the bourbon were a match made in barrel heaven for the cinnamon and gingered rhubarb shrub — making this a drink that will be welcome at any celebration all summer long.
GINGERED RHUBARB SHRUB AND A BONUS FRUIT COMPOTE
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Servings: 2 1/2 cups of shrub makes 12 drinks. Also makes 4 servings of compote or about 1 cup.
2 generous cups fresh diced rhubarb
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
1 whole cinnamon stick
5 slices of crystalized ginger
1 cup bottled water
1 cup unfiltered apple cider vinegar such as Bragg
Place the cut rhubarb, sugar, cinnamon stick, ginger and water in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat on high and place a lid on the pan. Bring the water, rhubarb and sugar mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and continue to simmer with the lid on until the fruit looks like it has dissolved. It will be completely soft and in strands instead of pieces, 8-10 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Pour the fruit and the liquid through a small colander or mesh strainer. Let the liquid drain into a bowl. You may have to do this in stages as the solids collect. Press down on the fruit to extract as much juice as possible without pressing too hard, as you don’t want to get any solids into the shrub. In fact, don’t scrap the solids that collect on the bottom of the colander or strainer because those will make the shrub cloudy.
Chef’s Note: Don’t throw the fruit away, the resulting cooked rhubarb, cinnamon stick and ginger is the most delicious fruit compote and is good on toast, pound cake or served over vanilla ice cream. It’s a pity that you only get about a cup!
Once all the juice has been drained, add the vinegar through a fine steel strainer to the rhubarb syrup. Pour into a glass jar for storage, and transfer the rhubarb solids to another jar.
Refrigerate both until ready to use.
The shrub can be kept for several months in the refrigerator and the rhubarb “compote” will last a week.
Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pit master at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and the author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”