Thursday, August 23, 2012

harvest 2012: rowan rubies

The Mountain Ash Fairy, by Cicely Mary Barker (from The Flower Fairies of the Autumn, 1926)

I had a collection of Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairy illustrations as a child; this one was always one of my favorites; something about her turban and the art-nouveau drape of her robe - plus that gorgeous warm orange, I think it was, that did it. I liked the word "Rowan" and I liked the thought of sacred trees called "witchenwood." I must have spent every October of my childhood daydreaming about magic - Halloween was always a favorite holiday.

There are quite a few Mountain Ash (Rowan) trees in Seattle. The picture above is from wikipedia. Once you know what to look for, they're quite easy to spot by their brilliant clusters of berries - though the berries are not palatable raw, as they're quite bitter. The raw berries contain parasorbic acid which can cause indigestion and even lead to kidney damage - so it's not a terribly good idea to eat the berries raw.
However, heat treatment (cooking) breaks down the parasorbic acid into sorbic acid (which is used, like citric acid, as a preservative in foods). The berries are very high in vitamin C - much higher than  a lemon, even - and as the tree can grow in the far north, the berries are a traditional wild food gathered in Britain and Scandinavia. I decided to give it a shot and made my first batch of Rowan jelly this year.
The process was just the same as the one I used for my salal jelly and other wild jellies. I gathered berries (easy to do - it took about 5 minutes of picking low-hanging fruit from one tree to fill two big baskets!). Then I removed the berries from the stems (this took a couple hours). I rinsed the berries well and put them in a pot with enough water to cover by at least an inch. I brought them to a boil, then reduced the heat and simmered, pressing occasionally with a potato masher until the berries had broken down. This took about 3 hours for me. You need to cook the berries about 15-20 minutes at a simmer (a shorter period will work if you are boiling them) to break down the parasorbic acid, so obviously I was well within the "safe" zone here.
I ran the berries through my food mill and then squeezed the dregs through 4 layers of cheesecloth to get all the juice out. I returned the filtered juice to the pan and started adding sugar.
Now,  full disclosure: the rowan berry's flavour is bitter! That will not ever go away. So don't sugar it to death. This is not a jam you make to serve on your toast in the morning or spread on a slice of cake. Instead, it has traditionally been used with game meats, to which it supposedly lends a wonderful piquancy (I'll let you know once I've tried it myself).
So, I started sugaring. I added pectin when the jelly had reached a stage where I could enjoy its fruity tang and not be too bothered by the bitterness that set in with the aftertaste. I can't give a recommendation here, except that it was more sugar than I normally use, and I like my jam tart. Don't bother adding lemon to this jelly. You don't need to worry about lowering the ph to safely can it, and it'll only make the jelly tart from start to finish! However, you can cook the berries with a couple of apples or crabapples when you first boil the fruit - that's pretty common. I had an old granny smith on hand that I threw in, just to use it up.
Test the jelly mass on a frozen plate: if a few drops, allowed to sit for 30 seconds on the frozen plate, form a blob that wrinkles up when you poke at it (instead of smearing across the plate), you're ready to can! At Seattle's low altitude, I only needed to process my jars (in a water bath) for 10 minutes.
And this is the result! (only there were a *lot* more of these little jars!) Isn't it beautiful? I think it may be the downright loveliest jelly I've ever made. I'm really looking forward to trying this out. I'm daydreaming about glazing a pork tenderloin with rowan jelly, and serving it with sauteed bitter greens or baby bok choy, with some chopped pickled buddha hand for some lemony brightness!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

harvest 2012: some autumnal browns

the first batch of this year's watermelon rind pickles - I added two serranos and they don't taste a bit spicey. Time to double down! Also, some madrona curls and a glossy black crow feather I found in the woods. 

and secondly today - a project that's been three weeks in the making: licorice bitters! I infused a cup or two of vodka with licorice root and a few elderflowers for 3 weeks. In a second, separate container, I infused a few ounces of vodka with sweet spices (black peppercorns, star anise, whole cloves, etc). In a third container, I infused vodka with the bittering agent - I used wormwood (there are others, of course - gentian comes to mind) because I thought its herbal licorice flavour would meld well. The jars were shaken once daily and kept out of direct sunlight for 3 weeks while they infused. Today I strained through cheesecloth and mixed the spice and licorice together and added just enough of the wormwood-infused vodka to begin to taste a lingering bitter herbal aftertaste. I've saved the remaining wormwood mixture in case Cass thinks the bitters need to be, well, more bitter. But otherwise, we're just about done here!

I found my herbs and flowers at Dandelion Botanical Company in Ballard (one of my favorite shops; it reminds me of my hippie hometown! I get so nostalgic shopping there!) and the cheap vodka we had on hand was given to us by a friend who is in the liquor business. So, all in all, I paid about $5 (plus maybe $15 toward a new bottle of vodka?). This is a really great bargain when you compare it to retail: the only licorice bitters I've seen around town are made by Bob's (and it was Bob's product which inspired me to try making my own), which cost around $30 for just over 3 ounces. I got about 10-12 ounces for $20 (and that's being generous about the cost of the vodka).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

harvest 2012: salal jelly

Behold: this year's batch of salal jelly! What is salal, you may ask? Gaultheria shallon is a shrub native to the pacific region of North America. It has leathery, dark green oval-shaped leaves, little bell-like white and pink flowers (that grow in a line along a spike), and produces dark blue-black berries near summer's end. (They're usually just a little ahead of the blackberry crop.) Here's a link to the USDA's plant profile to help you with identification, if you're curious.

Here in the Seattle area, salal is everywhere. It's in planting strips, in gardens, growing alongside parking lots and playgrounds and in the parks and woods.

Something I've learned about picking salal: wear rubber gloves (not the kind that are covered in powdered latex). Why? Well, for two reasons. For one thing, as the berries ripen, it becomes difficult to pick them neatly from their stems. Often times, the skin slips off, leaving a rather gross and slippery-slimy berry center mashed all over your fingers. (This is also why I make jelly instead of jam: any remaining stems are filtered out, along with many of the seeds!) The second reason? Well, the berries have a kind of sticky coating on them. After a while, this gunk builds up on your fingertips. After our first year picking salal, I had to scrub my fingers with pumice until they were raw to get the tacky residue off.

So - gloves! Not necessary, but recommended!

As far as process goes, I rinse the berries well, then put them in a pot with enough water to cover by 1-2 inches. I bring the berries and water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the berries are completely broken down. It can take an hour or two. I leave the lid off the pan and add more water as necessary - so that when I strain my berries, I don't end up with an excess of water in the mix, which would result in a weak-flavoured jelly. While it's cooking, put a small plate or saucer in the freezer for testing your jam later.

When the berries have broken down run them through a food mill. Save the lees and place those on four layers of cheesecloth layered over a fine metal strainer set over a dish to drain. As you gather up the corners of your cheesecloth and wring the mass of the lees tightly, the pressure will force more juice out of the mass than the food mill can get out alone. However, the cheesecloth will keep all the tiny seeds from ending up in your jelly. Combine the juice/puree that resulted from the cheesecloth squeeze and the food mill: this is the base of your jelly. Measure the juice/puree as your pour it back into your cooking pot.

Bring your fruit juice/puree back to a simmer and simmer awhile if the flavour is thin. It probably won't be. Start adding sugar. As a good rule of thumb, I measure the juice/puree before I return it to the pot, and I use the recommended amout of sugar for that much juice/puree according to the instructions on my jar of low-sugar pectin.But I like my jam tart, so I don't add all of the sugar, and I always reserve one cup that I am going to mix the pectin into before adding to the jam.

So. Start sweetening. If you're like me and you like a tart jam (in other words, you're not going to add the full recommended amount of sugar), add 1/2 cup at a time until the flavour is almost where you want it. Stop before it's attained the sweetness you want, when it seems like it is almost as sweet as you'd like  - and again, remember that this is a wild berry. There is a tannic earthiness that grounds the finish of what might otherwise be described as a blueberry-and-mint flavour. (It's quite good. Our favorite jam from last year, definitely.)  Now is the time to add a bit of fresh lemon juice if you like (I like it with salal, just as I do with huckleberries and blueberries) and taste again. This also reduces the ph of the jelly, making it even safer for home canning.

Measure out your pectin (again, I start with the amount recommended on the box of pectin - about 1 1/2 Tablespoons per 2 cups of juice/puree) and mix the pectin into another 1/2 to 1 cup sugar. Add the pectin/sugar mix to the fruit mixture and stir until dissolved.

Once the pectin is in the mix, it's time to bring the jelly to a boil. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer or a low boil, and pull your saucer or plate out of the freezer. Dribble a couple drops of the hot jelly mix onto the cold plate and wait 30 seconds. Push at the jelly blob with your fingers. If it wipes smooth, keep cooking and try again in a few minutes (and if it's not setting up any better at that point, consider adding more pectin!). If the jelly blob wrinkles over the top, it is ready.

Pour the jelly into sterilized jars and seal according to the manufacturer's instructions for the particular jars you are using. I process mine for 10 minutes, using the boiling water method. More information on the boiling water method and a chart for timing your processing according to altitude can be found here, at the National Center for Food Preservation.

Enjoy! We picked a lot more salal this year, since we did not have enough jars to give to everyone last year. I hope our friends and family are excited to try this wild flavour!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

harvest 2012: rugosa rose hip jelly

Rosa rugosa grows wild throughout Europe and the Americas - though it's not a native plant here, it does quite well. You can find them growing just as happily along a beach as in a field. They form a nice big bush, and have been traditionally used as hedge plants. The photo above is one I snapped in the djurgarden in Stockholm, Sweden - and it's nice because it gives one an idea of what the flowers and leaves of the plants look like, as well as the ripening fruits - just in case you want to go out and find some for yourself!

To make jam or jelly, gather a mass of the hips (bring along some shears and snip them off the plant) between now and October/November. I've read that they're better after a frost, because the cold will convert some of the starches to sugars, making the hips sweeter, but I often find that if you wait until October, the hips are spotted with blight, wrinkly, soft and generally not quite such fine specimens. It's up to you. You do want hips that are unblemished and firm - not wrinkly or soft.

When you get them in, wash the hips and tear off the green blossom-end. Snip any remaining stems close to the fruit.

You can make jam from these, but I prefer to make jelly, and here's why: if you make jam, you have to cut open the hips and remove the ring of seeds inside. Each seed is barbed with a little hair that itches like crazy. You must remove each of these seeds and hairs, because if they are ingested, they will irritate your digestive tract as much as they irritate the skin. So, for me, it's just easier to make jelly. There's more waste with jelly, but fewer hours spent picking through rosehips, trying to be absolutely certain that all hairs are gone.

So! To proceed with jelly, throw the hips in a pan and add enough water to cover by 1inch. Bring the hips to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook down into a thick mash. I find I have to keep adding water, and that this process takes several hours.

Once the hips are cooked down to a mash, they need to be strained for jelly. I made this batch before I had my food mill. Today, I would simply run the mash through the food mill and then strain the remaining lees through cheesecloth, but cheesecloth works. The only problem with using cheesecloth is that eventually, one's hands do tire, and there's always more liquid that could have been squeezed out. To strain through cheesecloth, set up a strainer over a large bowl. Lay 4 pieces of cheesecloth over the strainer, at different angles (so that the grids of threads in the cheesecloth overlap rather than aligning). Pour in the mash. Let stand 1- 2 hours (you can press on the mass with a spoon if you'd like, to help release liquids) to drain. Then, gather up the edges of the cheesecloth so that the mass is trapped in a ball inside. Twist the ends of the cheesecloth to tighten the cloth and add pressure to the mass, and squeeze the mass with your hands. You'll find that a lot more liquid will come out. Keep working the ball until you are tired, then compost it.

Then it's a simple matter of measuring how much fruit juice/puree resulted from the straining, putting the juice/puree back into the pan, and cooking it with sugar, a bit of lemon to taste, and pectin. I use a low-sugar pectin, so that I am not forced to make this jam too sweet, and simply follow the guidelines on the package regarding how much pectin to add to X quantity of fruit juice/puree. The rosehips are very high in vitamin C (in fact, during WWII, British factories produced rosehip syrup which was administered to British children to prevent scurvy and other diseases during the days of food rationing), so only add lemon if you like the taste. I do; I think it brightens it up a bit.

As far as processing goes, this jam is processed like any other: using the boiling water method, process for 10 minutes. For more information about canning and the boiling water method, and how long to process (it varies according to the altitude at which one cans), I recommend visiting the National Center for Home Food Preservation. It has all the official, goverment-approved information.

It's good to remember that this is a wild plant, and does not taste like a domestic plant. It tastes somewhat of apple (apples belong to the rose family) and somewhat of marmelade - Cass thinks it tastes like tomato. It definitely smells like marinara when the hips are cooking down into a mash. It's great with game, or used in thumbprint cookies at wintertime (especially if your thumbprint cookie dough has some ground nuts - almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts - ground into it). I like to pair this with French chestnut paste to fill turnovers during the autumn and winter, too.

Monday, August 6, 2012

harvest 2012: lavender wands!

I had a cute title worked up for this and in the two minutes I spent loading windows and logging in, I've forgotten. We've had a sudden heat spell here in Seattle (I think the rest of you may be more familiar with the name, "summer") and I've not slept well for the last two nights. Those of you who do not know Seattle weather, here's a detail that about sums it up: on Saturday we hit 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Here's the thing: the last time we broke 85, it was mid-September 2011. That's right. It's been almost 11 months since we have had really warm weather. Sunday it was up near 90. Throw in a hearty dose of humidity and many of us just turned into zombies. Plus, we're about as ill-equipped to handle sun as we are snow: Cass and I only own one fan. On Friday night, I'd left the drapes open and we woke to hot morning sun streaming in our windows. Uf, we were so unprepared.

So, today I am a sleep-deprived zombie, but at least the weather is cooler. And don't get me wrong - I know the rest of the nation has it much, much worse. And the garden loves it, and it was nice to go canoeing on Lake Washington on Sunday. Plus, during our heat-induced lethargy on Saturday evening, I sat down and made lavender wands while Cass put on The Rocketeer. Remember that movie? It was kind of cute to watch it again.

These wands are really easy to make - especially the second, third, fourth time through. Last year I included a link to Dharma Trading Co.'s instructions for making these - here they are again. Even though my lavender was already open (heck, some of the flowers were even starting to fade!), I decided to go ahead and make these anyway. I used some silk cord from the bead store and cinched these really tight around the open buds. As I crushed the flowers inside the wand, tons of lavender oil began to saturate the silk cords. They smell amazing.

I also have some lavender stems drying by the back door again; I'll make sachets in a few more weeks. I think both the wands and the sachets make lovely gifts. Oh, that was it! I was going to say "practical perfume" or something like that, for the title - because these are great to tuck into your drawers or hang in your closet as they not only perfume your clothes, they also keep insects (like moths) away from your nice things!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

harvest 2012: blackberry jam

it's a classic; you can't go wrong! I like to make mine a little tart - with a couple tablespoons of lemon juice, not too much sugar, and just a tiny touch of cinnamon to bring out the warmth of their sun-ripened flavour - so that it can just as easily be added to a plain coffeecake batter or roasted over chicken as it can be spread on toast. Come December, it'll be a cheery taste of what was the quintessential flavour of summer throughout my childhood and teen years. Even as I picked these with Cass on a warm Sunday evening (and the season is just getting started, really), a sudden alchemical balance of warmth, moisture and heat caused the air to fill with the smell of ripening blackberries - just here and there, just a moment and then gone ... but it was enough to open the floodgates of memory. I remembered that faint creosote-smell that tangs the early morning air when the day is going to be hot, getting up early so I wouldn't miss the sunrise and the cool freshness of morning, the giant tree that stood in our neighbours' yard across the street and filled my summer evenings (many still light out when I went to bed) with golden rushing and tossing in the wind as it captured the last of the day's light.

Ah, summer. You are the magic fairyland where childhood lives forever.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

harvest 2012: nasturtium capers

we're running about a month early this year, as far as flowers blooming (my peonies are nearly DONE) and crops ready for harvest. I've already put in some golden beets for fall (never had luck growing my own beets - once again, fingers crossed!) and have pulled out the peas. I've been harvesting our first tomatoes and tons of lettuce and I have FAVA BEANS coming on. (Oh man, I had favas for the first time last year and wondered where they'd been all my life. LOVE them.)

This is the first batch of nasturtium capers, and I've got a bowl of nasturtium pods in the fridge getting ready for the next one. I want to wait a few days and pick over the nasturtiums again and get another big jar going.

I seriously love these. They may be "poor man's capers," but I love them way more than the real deal! Find my post from last year, and a link to the recipe, here.