Foodie Firsts: Drinking Vinegars

wooden spoons-001Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try.  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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I’ve been curious about the concept of drinking vinegar since I first spotted a bottle last year.  Given that it’s nearly July, it clearly took me a while to get around to actually trying some.  If you all only knew how many random things I have in my head that I want to try at any given time (things to cook, eat, write, learn, do, read about, etc), you’d understand the delay.

Long delay aside, this week was the week for drinking vinegars.

Exciting, right??

Yeah???

Let’s get crazy.

Pok Pok - edited

Because, honestly, drinking vinegars are a bit crazy if you ask me.  I love vinegar, but the concept of sipping on the stuff, as opposed to enjoying it on my vegetables or in a sauce, seems a bit mad.

The practice of drinking vinegar goes way back.  There are many reported health benefits of vinegar, including detoxification, better digestion, and the delivery of microbial properties to ward off illness, so you can see the potential allure.  Now, many folks choose to simply drink straight apple cider vinegar as part of their regular routine, but the trend of late in the foodie and bar scene has been to experience specially made and flavored drinking vinegars, also called shrubs.  Such drinking vinegars can be tossed back on their own, added to other beverages to make both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, or used to dress a salad, for instance.

For my little foray into this food scene, I tested four distinct flavors of drinking vinegar from two different makers.

Bragg makes several varieties that are affordable and fairly easy to find.  I decided to pick up apple-cinnamon, apple cider vinegar and honey, and concord grape-acai.  Then, I splurged on a fancy, artisanal bottle of raspberry drinking vinegar made locally by (now nationally famous) chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok.

bottles on table 3 - edited

First up: a simple sampling.  I wanted to taste each one on its own accord, without influence of other flavors or ingredients.  I’ve got to say, it was more of a pleasant experience than I originally thought it might be.  I was worried the flavors would be too harsh and acidic, but enjoyed the sampling more than I had anticipated.  Here are my thoughts on each flavor:

  1. Apple-Cinnamon – I found this one to be mellow and smooth and very far from what traditional vinegar tastes like.  My instant thought with this one was:  “I don’t really want to drink this, but I totally want to bake with it.”
  2. Apple Cider & Honey – The honey flavor in this was strong and hit me from the second the vinegar touched my tongue.  If you’re a fan of honey, jump on this one.  This also wasn’t one I really wanted to drink alone, but again baking comes to mind (maybe I just really need some muffins right now).  As far as drinking though, I think this would be quite nice for a sore throat – you know the whole honey thing?  Seems appropriate to me for some reason.
  3. Concord Grape-Acai – This was tasty!  Totally reminiscent of grape juice or long lost memories of grape kool-aid (yep, I drank that as a kid).  The flavor was strong and sweet, but not overpowering.  My mind went instantly to a tumbler filled with ice, this vinegar, seltzer water and dry gin or vodka.  Maybe with a squeeze of lemon.  Modern gin and juice, anyone?
  4. Raspberry – Sharp, tart, thick on the tongue, undercut with a sweetness.  I think this is my favorite.  I could down this alone (though in small amounts – it is strong) or dress some spinach with it.  And I most definitely could turn this into a terrific mixed drink.  I bet it would not only taste fantastic, but would be a beautiful cocktail to sip on a warm night.

Next, I tried dressing my nightly salad with a few splashes of the apple cider & honey flavor.  I also drizzled a small amount of hazelnut oil on this salad, with (of course) salt and pepper.  I really loved this combination.  I was pleased by the contrast of the nuttiness from the hazelnut oil with the slight sweet, yet tart, flavor brought by the vinegar.  Not bad.  Not bad at all. I will say my dining companion used olive oil combined with the concord grape-acai vinegar and felt the vinegar got a bit lost, so you may need to play around with the ratios of these ingredients to get it right for you.

Notes & Final Thoughts:

Serving Suggestions:  I definitely think mixed drinks are a way to go here and there are infinite combinations that could be made (for some cordial glasses 3 - editedinspiration, check out this article).  I also suspect that these flavors would be great in sauces and in baking.  I’m thinking of using the apple cinnamon when making muffins or an apple spice cake, for instance.  And, the raspberry seems to be screaming to be heated into a sauce (maybe with some lemon juice or rich sweetener, like dates) for pouring over a (raw, vegan) cheesecake or (non-dairy) ice cream.  I’m totally intrigued by the possibilities.

Lessons Learned:  This is a simple one for me this week: Don’t judge a book by its cover, or more accurately, don’t judge an ingredient by its name.  Just the word vinegar sounds tart, maybe sour, definitely acidic and sharp.  But these drinking vinegars carried a whole range of complex flavors – sweet, smooth, bold, tangy.  I was surprised by this week’s food adventure and was forced to think of something so commonly understood in one way as something totally new, and isn’t that what this is all about?

Foodie Firsts: Edible Flowers

wooden spoons-001Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try.  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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You know how people say not to play with your food?

I don’t get that.

Why not?  Why not play with your food??

Salad Close Up - Edited

From my perspective, food is an ideal opportunity to have fun, to play, to experiment and to be adventurous.  I sometimes think that one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy cooking or appreciate good, real food for so long is because I didn’t see the fun in it.  It felt so serious.  Essentially, there were a few, rigid categories of food in my world.  They looked something like this:

  1. Food I ate at home daily – Due to my family dynamics and lifestyle this was most often fast food, microwaveable meals, or things easily heated up in a microwave or the stovetop.  This food was eaten quickly, for survival mostly, with little joy or variety.  Perfect examples are McDonald’s, pizza, spaghetti-o’s, meat and cheese sandwiches, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Top Ramen, and TV dinners.  (Yes, this was how I ate once upon a time!)
  2. Food I ate in my car – Once I started driving, I ate a lot of food in my car.  Taco Bell was a stalwart of this routine, as was Wendy’s, grocery store doughnuts, and Diet Pepsi.  There was no fun in this.  No play.  This was totally rushed and utilitarian.
  3. Food I ate on special occasions – This was the closest I came to fun, I guess, though it was still a stretch to call it that.  A dinner out at an actual restaurant was occasionally on the schedule.  As far as home cooked meals, though, they were few and far between.  Once in a while, on a holiday for instance, there would be a meal of standards.  A meat.  A potato.  A canned vegetable.  Store bought rolls.  Nothing unexpected.

As you can surmise, my relationship with food was mostly functional.  Eating was just something I had to do to get through all the other stuff I was doing and cooking was a chore best avoided.

Cocktail Collage

So, back to today’s point – fun, playful food.

The revelation that food could be fun was one that came slowly, incrementally, over time.  I noticed other people in my life who enjoyed cooking, baking, and eating in a way I hadn’t ever really considered as an option before.  I also credit part of this revelation to cooking shows.  Watching shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef (the original Japanese version is stellar), Barefoot Contessa, Two Fat Ladies, and so on, was an enlightening process.  Here were people who were supposed to take food seriously, right?  They were, after all, earning their living producing perfect dishes, executed with precision and meticulous detail, but threaded throughout all of it was a sense of fun.  A sense of play.

They totally played with their food!

Food was tossed into the air!  Set on fire!!  Sprinkled, frosted, crumbled.  Food was piled high, spread low and thin, and layered up for inches.  Food was frozen, whipped, baked, grilled, and decorated.  There was so much action.  There was laughter.  There was joy and pleasure.  There were moans when bites were taken, chuckles when something was unconventional, and friendly stories shared of mistakes and mishaps.

It was kind of cool and I wanted to try it.

cake 3 - edited

So, I started playing with my food, too.  True, I did so in less flamboyant ways, but I sprinkled spices and tossed things around.  I tried my hand at shaking my wok around so veggies flipped up over the edge and back into the pan.  I tried different methods of cutting things.  Julienning was fun.  My mandoline provided a thrill.  I started to use garnishes and I considered how I put things on a plate.

I played like a kid in a sandbox.  I still do and it’s changed my whole relationship to food.  All of this rambling brings me to today’s ingredient – edible flowers.  Edible flowers, like the ones I used, have no taste, really, but they are great for playing around with.  Without adding much flavor or texture to a dish, they exist primarily for making food playful, fun, and visually interesting.  They had been on my mind since seeing them stocked next to the fresh herbs in my market.  This was the week I gave them a try.

First of all, I was totally surprised at how many of them were crammed into my little clamshell container that I carried them home in.  I expected to have to use them sparingly, but once I opened them up and started pulling them out I say that there were loads of them, leaving me ample opportunity to try them in different ways.

I started by eating one straight out of the container, of course.  Even though I knew it wouldn’t really taste like much, I wanted to experience one in its pure state.  It was chewy and felt a bit tissue-like in my mouth.  Not unpleasant, but just pretty indistinct.

Then, I got to playing.

Ice cubes in glass 3 - edited final

I decided to use the flowers for fun, frivolity, and flourish in various ways.  I wanted to start by including them in my evening meal.  I had already planned on making a Mexican dish that night, so I decided to serve a side salad featuring the flowers alongside it.  Made simply of thinly sliced radishes, summer squash, and green onions, and dressed with a cilantro vinaigrette, the salad was a perfect foundation for my flowers.  As a garnish, the flowers added spunk to a simple plate.

Next came the cocktails.  Edible flowers and cocktails?  What about that isn’t fun??  This one was simple, mixing up a couple of drinks (gin, of course) and finished them off with a flower floater on top.  Beautiful.  Elegant.  Sophisticated play.  It may sound silly, but that cocktail seemed to taste a little better that night.  It also felt good held in my hand with such a distinct visual touch playing with my eyes.

As ice was being used for mixing drinks, I decided to use some of my flowers in ice cubes, reserving them for future playful food nights!  I made a tray of ice cube with flowers frozen within them.  I absolutely believe they will be a perfect way to add a bit of joy into a tired or dark day that may come down the road.  Tossing one of those into a drink of any kind, even a simple glass of water (my most common beverage of choice) will make for a lovely experience.

Finally, I made cake.  Specifically, I made my hummingbird cake.  I love this cake.  I LOVE this cake.  It tastes absolutely wonderful, but isn’t necessarily much to look at it on its own.  But, this is where I had the most fun.  Picking petals apart, I had a blast sprinkling them across the top of my finished, iced cake.  The result was wonderful.  It turned my cake into a centerpiece.  Something as beautiful to look at as it was to eat and I it made me smile to look at.

Food that can make you smile before you even eat it is a truly great thing.

Notes & Final Thoughts cake close up 2

Serving Suggestions:  See above.  I highly recommend all of the uses I described here.  I’ve also heard of using edible flowers in DIY flavored salts.  What a great gift that would make!

Lessons Learned: There is a place for serious food and a place for utilitarian food, but there is also a place (a very important one) for fun, playful food.  Life is full of utility and seriousness, and, frankly, I think most of us could use a bit more joy.  Play in your kitchen.  Splurge a bit on something that will be fun and bring you excitement in the kitchen or at the table.  It’s worth it.