It’s been a while since I last posted, primarily because I needed a little break after the election. I originally planned on posting this right after the election, making a little joke about how this shrub is really great in cocktails while you’re waiting for election results. Then Wednesday morning came, and I couldn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to make little jokes about the election results as a segue to this recipe which seemed entirely less important. I will say this: This is a food blog, so I’ll talk about food. But it’s also a history blog, so I hope we’re writing a good one. Hugs for everyone. We’re all in this together…
Last summer, Alex and I were meandering about the Pilsen neighborhood, pointing at old buildings and saying, “That one’s pretty.” Eventually, we ended up at Dusek’s in Thalia Hall. Around the turn of the century, Pilsen was a predominately Czech neighborhood, named after the city of Plzeň. Thalia Hall was, historically, a Bohemian Public Hall, dedicated to arts and entertainment. In late 2013, the space was updated as a restaurant, cocktail bar, and music venue. It was hot out that day and, as we sidled up to the bar, I ordered one tall glass of water and a house-made soda. Not just any soda, though. It was made with strawberry, rosemary, peppercorn and balsamic shrub, with a bit of soda water. I don’t usually drink soda, but it was so good that it made me forget, for one fleeting minute, how much I enjoy gin. That’s really good. Since then, I cannot get it out of my mind, which got me thinking about how I could make my own shrub soda syrup at home. If you’ve ever made your own simple syrup, you should find it a breeze to make your own shrub. It’s as easy as chopping the fruit of your choice, tossing it with some sugar, and allowing it to sit for a few days. Then you strain it, mix in some vinegar and add soda water (and maybe a little gin) for a super-refreshing drink.
You have probably seen shrubs on cocktail menus, they are often added to drinks, but they’re not alcoholic, unlike bitters (which I often used to confuse with shrubs) which are often made with alcohol and were historically used as medicine. Shrubs are made with fruit, sugar, and vinegar. No alcohol required. You can make them with alcohol, and it’s wonderful, but it’s not necessary. Also, shrubs might be hip right now, but they’re not new. Drinking-vinegars were very popular in colonial America, but their history dates back to Babylon, where they were used to make water potable. Historically, they have also been used by sailors to incorporate Vitamin C into their water, in hopes of preventing scurvy.
Fig, Thyme, and Balsamic Shrub
1 1/2 cups figs, roughly chopped
1-1 1/2 cups sugar
3-4 large sprigs of thyme
3/4 cups balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar, optional
In a large, sterilized, mason jar, combine the chopped figs, sugar, peppercorns, and thyme sprigs. Close lid tightly and give a big shake.
Allow the jar to sit in a warm area (in the sun, on a windowsill is good), for about 3 or 4 days. Shake vigorously at least a few times a day.
At the end of several days, you will find that the fruit and sugar has created a good amount of juice.
Strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove all pieces of fruit, herb and seeds. (Using figs, I had to strain a few times to get all the seeds out.)
Pour into a 2-cup measuring cup. Begin slowly adding vinegar, about 1/4 cup at a time, stirring and tasting between each addition. When you’ve reached your preferred taste, pour back into the mason jar (or into a fresh jar with a lid).
This shrub should keep in the fridge about 2-3 months. If it starts to change color, it’s time to toss it.
The most wonderful thing about drinking shrubs is the flexibility. I know it’s getting chillier now, but sometimes it’s nice to have something refreshing, not too sweet, and fruity. The other cool thing is, when you start with a delicious syrup like this, you can add some gin/vodka/rum. It’s tangy, it’s sweet. Since making it, I’ve been enjoying it with soda water right after dinner. I’m already trying to figure out how to work it into a Negroni, my personal favorite cold-weather cocktail. Alex thinks it would be good with bourbon. It’s a winner, folks!