It’s official. I’m in love with shrubs.
What is a shrub, you ask? Well, there are certainly others who can explain it better than I can, but the basics are this: fruit + sugar + vinegar. Sounds strange, yes, but the roots of this drink go all the way back to the Romans who used it as a way to preserve fresh fruit. It’s a really interesting combination of sweet and sour, and even if you are skeptical, worth a try.
Anyway, a friend made some pomegranate shrub and gave us a small bottle when we were in New Orleans in December. We hadn’t really done much with it until recently when the weather started getting nice.
Shrubs can be used to make both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, which makes them pretty versatile in application, and there are TONS of recipes online about how to make them (our friend referenced this one). Most of these recipes say they are “fantastic additions to cocktails” but don’t really go into the details about what cocktails, what proportions or anything really.
So we started with the most basic recipe. The pomegranate shrub we have is delicious when added to sparkling water, so why hide that amazing flavor with something fancy? This a a simple vodka soda with shrub added. Vodka is the definition of neutral, so try ANY flavor shrub with this recipe.
We love a good Negroni. It’s a classic, and it’s one of those simple recipes that uses equal parts of three ingredients; in this case gin, Campari and vermouth. Add an orange peel as garnish and you’re done. So simple.
Some die-hard Negroni fans feel like any departure from the classic proportions is sacrilege, but that hasn’t stopped an endless number of variations. I’ll be the first to admit that Campari is an acquired taste, and not everyone’s cup of tea. Equal parts of everything usually ends up leading to a Campari-forward cocktail. While many love this bitterness, there are many variations out there that tone it down by dialing back the Campari.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I love anything that has been put in a barrel, so when I started seeing barrel-aged Negronis, I had to try them. What can I say, they are also delicious.
My one criticism is that the barrel treats all of the ingredients equally, and depending on your gin, may end up muting some of the botanicals that make it unique. So we ran some tests using oak on the Campari only.
We used toasted wood chips, not a barrel (yet) and a ratio of 1g to 100ml. We tried a light toast and a heavy toast, and four days was plenty to get some of the nice oak characteristics and a hint of sweetness from the caramelized sugars in the wood.
Between the two, we preferred the light toast, but the possibilities are endless, so check your local homebrew store and experiment for yourself to find the combination you like. As a rule of thumb, the more surface area the wood has (chips vs. chunks vs. larger pieces of oak, aka “dominos”), the faster it will impart those oak flavors. It is possible to “over-oak,” so you’ll just have to taste it every day or two.
Friday Happy Hour: Oaked Negroni
- - 45 ml (1.5 oz) Corpen Gin
- - 45 ml (1.5 oz) Oaked Campari *
- - 45 ml (1.5 oz) Vermouth
- - Orange peel for garnish
- Mix all ingredients in a mixing glass full of ice.
- Pour into old-fashioned glass, over ice.
- Garnish with orange peel.
* = Use toasted oak chips of your preference in ratio of 1g:100ml for 2-4 days.
If you want to offend an Italian, refer to polenta as “Italian grits.” I’m guessing. I’ve never actually had the guts to do this, after getting burned making a similar wine faux pas a few years ago:
Me: I love Primitivo wine. I think it’s made from the same grape as Zinfandel, which we produce in my hometown in California!
Primitivo Winemaker: **look of disdain/horror** We have been making Primitivo wines for thousands of years. It is not the same as this Zinfandel.
Me: …… [nods/ hangs head in shame/ holds out empty glass for more]
But really, polenta – long a staple in Northern Italian cuisine – is just coarsely ground cornmeal. Just like grits. Depending on where I’m living and what’s available at the store, I use Italian polenta and American cornmeal interchangeably. Both are easy and affordable to prepare. Both make a rich, hearty porridge when cooked in liquid. And both absolutely benefit from generous helpings of butter, salt and cheese.
In wintertime, I love to serve polenta with braised short ribs or some other meaty sauce. But as the weather gets warmer, polenta is an ideal base for lighter vegetable-based dishes. This version combines simple roasted spring veggies with creamy, cheesy polenta. I advise making extra for leftovers.
Goat Cheese Polenta with Roasted Vegetables
Fresh vegetables*, cut into 1-inch chunks:
- 1 bunch asparagus
- 8 oz/ 226 g snap peas
- 16 oz/ 453 g button mushrooms
- 1 bell pepper
- 1 medium onion
- 2 small zucchini
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup polenta, or coarse-ground cornmeal
- 4 cups water
- 6 oz/ 170 g goat cheese
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan + extra for garnish
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt and pepper
- 16 oz./ 453 g jarred or homemade marinara sauce, heated
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F/ 204 degrees C.
- Place vegetables in 2 roasting pans: the asparagus and snap peas in one pan, and the rest of the veggies in another (the first pan might not take as long to cook as the heartier vegetables). Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 20-30 minutes, or until veggies are lightly caramelized and tender.
- Meanwhile, start the polenta. In a saucepan, bring the water to boil over medium heat. Add a dash of salt, then slowly pour in the polenta, whisking to break up lumps. Let polenta cook, stirring occasionally, until it is soft and thick and starting to pull away from the edges of the pan (around 20 minutes). Stir in butter, goat cheese and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan until combined. Season with salt and pepper.
- Spoon the polenta onto plates or shallow bowls. Top with marinara sauce, roasted veggies and grated Parmesan.
*You can vary the veggies depending on what you have, and what’s in season.