Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown share their secrets of growing, cooking and using shiso and lemongrass in drinks.
After nearly 14 years of growing and harvesting our own veg, fruit, and botanicals, we are starting to learn what standard crops to grow – crops as integral to our daily routine as buying eggs and milk. But inevitably, we stray from the true faith. We love to experiment with new plants and test their limits. This year was no exception. First, one of our tried-and-true plantings.
We have been growing both green and red shiso– a form of Asian basil – for a decade, using them in cooking and drink making. We have mentioned that we make a batch of red shiso syrup every winter, but we’ve never bothered to tell you the secret of cooking this versatile ingredient that works well with either white or brown spirits. It also makes a refreshing non-alcoholic drink that will put a sparkle in your mid-winter day.
Rinse 100 red shiso (aka: perilla) leaves in cold running water. In a large saucepot, bring a litre of water to a boil. Add the shiso leaves and let them submerge into the water. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for five minutes. Don’t fret. The leaves will turn green and the water a murky purple hue. When done, strain and reserve the liquid, pressing as much out of the leaves as you can. Return the liquid to the pot and add 200g of sugar. Cook on a medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Stir in 120ml of rice vinegar and watch the colour change to a beautiful, rich berry red. Mix with gin or Scotch whisky or tequila or just sparkling water.
We usually freeze bottles of this syrup in 50cl PET bottles, which means it will keep for about a year. But if you plan to use this mixture immediately, it will keep for about a week.
Green shiso syrup is a little different. Blend six green shiso leaves with 200g of white caster sugar. Combine this mixture with 12.5cl of water in a small saucepan and simmer until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and cool the liquid. Then fine strain it before bottling. This syrup will also last about a week. (Shiso growing tip: buy seeds on eBay, soak them in water for two days and then plant them in pots for indoor growth or in small pots in spring to be planted outside in summer.)
We love cooking with lemongrass, especially when grilling fish combined with chillies, fish sauce, and plenty of lime juice. But we had never thought about growing our own until we were scanning the plug plant offerings from Rocket Gardens (rocketgardens.co.uk) because our schedules didn’t allow us much time to start the garden from seeds this year. We just couldn’t resist the challenge of growing our own in a pot left out in full sun. (We’ll bring our new baby into the kitchen when the weather gets colder.)
Now that it’s grown enough to be of use, we’ve made a simple lemongrass syrup of a couple of stalks of young lemongrass that are bruised (lay them on the cutting board, place the flat of the knife against them and pound it with your fist a few times) and chopped. In a small pan, add 250ml water and the chopped lemongrass.
Bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes or until reduced by half. Strain the liquid, measure it and return it to the pot. Then add an equal measure of golden caster sugar and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved. This syrup will last about a week in the fridge, or you can freeze it just like the shiso syrup. If you want to convert this into a liqueur, simply combine equal amounts of syrup and vodka, gin, tequila, or other spirit and bottle. (Add a sprig of fresh lemongrass to the bottle for visual effect.)
Well, that should get you thinking about what new plants you can grow and play with in the bar that will give you love throughout the autumn and winter. Next time, we’re out to discover the joys of sweet potatoes as a drink ingredient and wassailing!