The road to health is paved with good intentions. Take my intention, for example, to eat more fresh fruits. I bring them home, planning to grab an apple or banana for breakfast, only to end up grabbing one of those pastries that someone has the chutzpah to pass off as breakfast food. (A cheese Danish is just cheesecake that somebody sat on to disguise it.) Plus, much of the fruit I buy is organic, so it goes downhill fast. I once spoke too harshly to a co-op peach and watched bruises spontaneously form on its skin.
After so much fruit-of-good-intentions has shriveled to dust, I’ve stopped pretending. Instead, I buy fruit that’s already banged up and put it in vinegar shrubs. They take minutes to make, will keep for months and — while delicious and kid-friendly diluted with water or soda — can also be mixed into light, tart cocktails to make Washington’s sweat-stain season more tolerable.
The idea of drinking something vinegar-based wrinkles some folks’ noses; those vinegar Easter egg dyes do smell an awful lot like feet. But when you put vinegar, fruit, sugar and spices together, the results can be lovely. With Independence Day around the corner and a bounty of summer fruit at hand, shrubs take a page from our colonial ancestors, who used them to preserve fruits well past their season.
Shrubbing is an experimental process, and your preferred proportions might vary from mine. A 1:1:1 ratio of fruit to vinegar to sugar is a good starting point (the accompanying recipes for cucumber, apricot-ginger and strawberry-balsamic shrubs suggest less sugar; add more if you like). The basic process: Chop the fruit, add the sugar and vinegar and let the whole mess sit a spell. When the taste is right, strain out the solids. Use the remaining syrup in ice water or soda for a nonalcoholic refresher, or mix it with spirits or sparkling wine.
Most folks advocate for a cold process, meaning the ingredients are never heated. Instead, you allow the sugar and vinegar to draw out the flavors of the fruit. You can cook them, but you’ll get a less fresh-tasting, “jammier” result, says cocktail blogger Michael Dietsch, whose book “Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times” hits shelves in October (if books can be said to hit shelves anymore).
The cold process takes longer, but it’s worth it. “When it’s first made . . . the vinegar’s front and center, the sugar is trying to attack it, and the fruit’s just sort of hanging back trying to keep out of the way,” says Dietsch. “But if you let it go for a week . . . the tartness of the vinegar sort of lifts up the fruit and brings it forward. And the tartness also recedes a little bit because it gets softened by the sugar.”
Dietsch has been into shrubs since 2008, when — after bar-hopping around New Orleans on a blisteringly hot day — he went to a Tales of the Cocktail reception and had a shrub-based berry/lime/cachaca cocktail that, he says, was one of the most refreshing drinks he’d ever had. He started making shrubs and got a little obsessed. “We have a small, old refrigerator, kind of rickety inside, and you would open the door and a bottle would start to topple out. My wife was like, ‘Why do we have so many of these?’ ”
He persevered, and “we had them over the winter, and enjoyed our strawberries in December, and then in January . . . my wife was pregnant.”
I didn’t ask whether the shrubs had actually caused her condition. But he says pregnancy certainly made her appreciate them more. “While I was drinking bourbon old-fashioneds every night, she still had something she could drink that was sophisticated and made her feel like an adult. She wasn’t relegated to Sprite and iced tea.”
That’s one of the things Fabian Malone, bar manager at Dino’s Grotto in Shaw, likes about shrubs, too: They allow him be a better host to folks who don’t drink.
He started making them mainly because owner Dean Gold is notorious for buying fruit when it seems like a good deal, even if he has no idea what he’s going to do with it. One of Gold’s experiments led Malone to start playing with shrubs. “Dean was trying to make a risotto or something in the kitchen with grilled balsamic strawberries, and it was an epic fail. So he looked at me, like, ‘Do something with these strawberries!’ ”
Thus came about Malone’s first shrub. I stopped in recently to slurp down a glass of the Asian pear-rosemary variety, which Malone whipped up when the first Dino’s location was closing and they had two cases of pears they didn’t want to lose. Malone chopped them up and stored them with sugar, vinegar and rosemary; months later, “when we opened up, it had been macerating all that time and it was good to go.” Shrubs play well with numerous spirits, Malone says; Dino’s keeps a “shrub-tail” on the menu, letting customers pick what spirit to mix with.
Dietsch is excited about where shrubs are going. Shrubs have their roots in the Middle East — the word comes from the Arabic “sharab,” meaning a drink — and the early Middle Eastern varieties used nuts and spices and rose petals for flavor. But in colonial America, he says, “it was strictly a preservation thing.”
“Now people are starting to go back to the very earliest idea that the shrubs can have other flavors,” he said. “So you can have peppercorns alongside your strawberry, you can make a shrub out of beets.” He even saw a shrub on a menu recently that had kale in it.
Kale? And here you thought cocktails were the one safe place.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
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