Along the Grapevine


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Spruce Tip Panna Cotta with Mint Rhubarb Sauce

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The season for spruce tips is quickly drawing to a close, so I wanted to present one more recipe using this not-to-be-passed-up-on ingredient while there is still time.

I’m told there are slightly different flavours on different trees and that a common favourite is blue spruce. I have been sampling tips wherever I find them, and really can’t say my taste testing has helped me come up with a favourite, but you might want to sample some for yourself. The flavour should be citrussy, sweetish and with a light resin taste.  This is the tree I picked from.

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Something that pairs extremely well with the flavour of spruce is cream, which is why I decided to make a panna cotta. Less rich and certainly less work than ice cream, it makes for a light and refreshing dessert, especially when combined with fruit. Rhubarb happens to be the only fruit I have in the garden just now, so that and a little mint which goes with just about anything is what I used to embellish this dessert I am taking to Fiesta Friday #69.

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Spruce Tip Panna Cotta with Mint Mint Rhubarb Sauce


Ingredients

2 cups cream (10%)

1 pkg gelatine

1/4 cup hot water

4 Tbsp sugar

1/4 cup spruce tips

Method

Dissolve the gelatine in hot water. Heat to just before boiling 1/2 cup of cream and mix with the gelatine until it is completely dissolved. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Mix the rest of the cream and the spruce tips in a blender or food processor until the liquid becomes a smooth green with not tips visible. Strain through a sieve and mix with the gelatine mixture. Pour into 8 ramekins or other moulds and chill until set.

For the rhubarb sauce, sprinkle 4 Tbsp sugar over 1 cup of rhubarb. Allow to rest until the sugar dissolves. Heat the rhubarb until soft. Add 6 finely chopped fresh mint leaves and 2 Tbsp white wine. Bring to a gentle boil for 1 minute, cool, pour over the panna cotta and serve.

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Petits Fours aux Fleurs

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The spring flowers are in full bloom around here – and as spectacular as I have ever seen them. The other day when I was wandering in the woods foraging for fiddleheads I was able to get some pictures of our provincial emblem – the trillium. Even here in Ontario they are a rare sight. Found mostly in wooded areas, or what’s left of them, they flower only briefly, but if you do find them you are likely to see them in masses. They are truly impressive.

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And sometimes they are red, and sometimes a cross between red and white.

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I bought one trillium last year for my garden. It survived but has not bloomed yet. It’s a start.

But I do have at the moment a great selection of wild flowers some of which I wanted to feature on this blog and share with the guests at Fiesta Friday #68.

Some of the edible flowers I have are: fruit blossoms, lilacs, wild strawberries, violets, forsythia, forget-me-nots, rose scented geraniums.

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Flowers are not a major source of food – they are often bitter and unless they are served very fresh they do not serve the purpose for which they are intended, which is to prettify the dish. They are finicky to preserve in candied form, and some lose their colour when cooked (e.g. wild violets).

I did find that drying them in the oven with just the oven light on, or in a dehydrator at the very lowest setting for about four hours does concentrate the colour and they can then be ground into a powder and used as a colouring as well as adding a distinctive flavour. They can also be mixed with sugar and saved for several months.

I used only three colours to decorate these petits fours: forsythia for yellow, violets for purple and a mixture of lemon balm and violet leaves for green. The flavours were floral enough to add a taste of spring, but for the violets I mixed in a little lavender sugar to give them a boost. As the season progresses, I will collect other edible flowers to use in a similar way, avoiding the necessity of commercial food colourings.

I made the cake with a gluten-free batter of ground almonds and cornflour, but a sponge cake recipe is also ideal. I baked it very thin in a cookie sheet, divided it into three, and spread the top of two pieces with rose geranium apple jelly. Any smooth seedless fruit preserve can be used.

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I stacked them and iced the top layer with a white icing made of coconut oil, icing sugar and cream to make it as white as possible. I then cut them into squares and covered them with a royal icing which I divided in four and added the colours to three of them. A little edible fresh wild flower and/or leaves as a garnish and voila!

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Next time I would bake it a bit thicker and just make it two layers, as the three layers makes it more difficult to slice neatly. I loved using the flowers, and was pleased to have these dainty cakes to serve guests.


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Japanese Knotweed Strata

DSC02041 Foraging for Japanese knotweed (polygonum cuspidatum) is not only worthwhile in terms of finding a delicious and nutritious food source. You will also be doing the environment a big favour, as it is arguably the most invasive of all invasives. Initially we tackled a large grove of it growing in our front garden with the lawnmower. We almost succeeded when it occurred to me this might be an interesting wild food, at which point I salvaged a few sprouts, transplanted them to an appropriate area and have just begun to harvest them. DSC02040 If you are not familiar with this plant, here are a few characteristics which should help you identify it. Where to find it: Along roadsides, riverbanks, fields where the earth has been disturbed. Originally from South East Asia it now grows in North America, Europe, Australia and Tasmania. How to identify it: It is usually grown in clumps and resembles bamboo with its hollow stems. The stems are green, spotted with red and divided by joints, or knots. The young shoots are deep red. The leaves are smooth-edged, hairless and broad oval in shape with a pointed tip and hanging from a long stem. Edible parts: The young leaves and stems before they attain a height of about a foot are commonly used. The rhizomes are usually reserved for medicinal purposes. DSC02052 As I contemplated my modest haul, I was wondering how best to prepare them. I must have had a flash from the past, because suddenly the word ‘strata’ popped into my head, a word I have not heard in decades, but am familiar with the dish. That seemed a good place to start, as it involves few ingredients and no strong flavour which might overpower it. Strata is often made to use up old bread, typically with vegetables and sausage (or ham/bacon) and cheese and cooked in a custard. I used a crusty sourdough bread, but any crusty good quality bread will do. I only used cream cheese because a stronger cheese would just be too much flavour, but a hard cheese could be grated on the top if you like. I omitted meat, and pumped up the vegetable content with lots of caramelized onion. Having tasted some raw bits, I thought it tasted like a gentle rhubarb, so used sumac and mustard to pair with the fruity flavour. DSC02049

Japanese Knotweed Strata

Ingredients 2 cups Spanish onions, sliced thin oil for frying 2 cups chopped knowtweed stems 2 cups leaves, tightly packed 4 cups bread cubes 1 cup cream cheese 4 eggs 3/4 cup cream (18%) 1/2 cup milk 1 tsp salt 1/2 tsp ground pepper 1 Tbsp sumac powder 1 tsp mustard powder Method Fry the onions in oil gently until they begin to caramelize, about 20 minutes. Add the knotweed stems and continue to fry about five minutes longer, until the stems are cooked. Add the leaves, cover the pot and cook gently until the leaves are wilted. Set aside to cool. Meanwhile, place the bread cubes in a casserole in a 325 degree oven until they are slightly toasted. Mix together the cheese, eggs, cream, milk, seasoning and spices until they are well blended. To assemble, grease a casserole dish lightly and place the bread and vegetable mixture in it, stirring gently to combine. Pour the cheese mixture evenly on top, making sure that all the bread is soaked. Place in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes until it is brown and crisp on top and cooked through.
DSC02053 This dish lends itself well to all sorts of variations, but I was very pleased with it just as it was. Perhaps if we all made use of this remarkable vegetable, it would not be such a pest.

Japanese Knotweed Strata on Punk Domestics


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Gravlax and Spring Greens Pasta

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I have been reading a lot of distressing reports lately about the over-harvesting of ramps by irresponsible or maybe just uninformed foragers. Ramps, or wild leeks as they are sometimes called, are one of those plants which have to be treated with great care, and are on the verge of extinction in some areas in the country. Until I found a privately owned area where I could pick a generous amount but which is cared for by responsible owners, I just did without. If you do find ramps to pick, please be sure to gather just a small proportion of what’s growing there. One way to do this is pick just the centre ones from a clump. They tend to spread outwards, so thinning the middle is a safe way not to over-pick. Another method is to pick just a few leaves and leave the little bulb. There is still plenty that can be done with just the greens.

The area I frequent is actually increasing in its ramp production, thanks to careful harvesting and clearing. And now that I have successfully transplanted a small sample into my own flower bed, I hope to have my own to harvest soon.

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The best way to preserve them and extend their use – a little goes a long way – is to ferment them as I describe in this post here. But for a brief period in the spring I can afford the luxury of using a few fresh ones as I did in this pasta dish. If you don’t have ramps, other spring vegetables such as asparagus, scapes, nettles, garlic mustard etc. would also work well.

I made this dish for Fiesta Friday 67 as a follow-up to my spruce tip gravlax last week. This just involved using a good quality pasta mixed with a handful of sauteed wild greens, in this case ramps, and a good amount of fresh basil, plus about five slices of gravlax per person.

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Toss it all in a bowl and add little fresh cheese crumbled on top, and there you have a super simple gourmet meal.

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Happy foraging!


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Eat Shoots and Score Part 2

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Last year at this time I experimented for the first time with lily shoots from the hemerocallis fulva, otherwise known as a ditch lily. These shoots, if picked in the spring when they are no more than 5 inches high, are similar to leeks but sweeter. I approached them with caution because they can cause digestive problems in a small percentage of the population, but having tried them and found them to be more than agreeable, I picked a lot more this year with impunity. See my original recipe here.

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At the same time last year, I also discovered that sturdy leafy plants are ideal for fermenting, resulting in a delicious, sometimes spicy pickle which are a welcome addition to just about any sandwich or snack. So why not increase my stash of ferments with these lilies which are in endless supply – at least for a few weeks each spring.

First – some words of caution.

  • Be sure you are picking the above-mentioned lily and not some other day lily, which look very similar. Some of these are edible, but some are toxic.
  • Pick them when they are 5 in. or smaller. After that they get too fibrous.
  • Try a little to make sure they do not disagree with you.

Like leeks, they need a good washing to remove any dirt after they have been separated from the tubers. Don’t worry if they break apart.

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For the ferment, I used 2 tsp of pickling salt for every four cups of chlorine free water. I also added some garlic and slices of chili peppers to give them a little kick and threw in a few of the larger white tubers scraped clean. Pack the leaves tightly into a jar with whatever spices you choose and pour the brine over them. Weigh them down so that none of the leaves are above the liquid. To do this, I covered them with cheesecloth and placed enough marbles on top to hold them down. A stone or other heavy object which fits well in the jar is recommended. After five days, taste a sample to see if they are ready. There should be a good vinegar-like flavour, but if it is not there yet leave them a few more days until they are to your liking. Cover the jars and store in a cool place.

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Remember, fermenting will still happen, so the flavour will get stronger and you should open the jars once in a while so the pressure doesn’t build up. You will  have some of the tastiest pickles for your burgers, sandwiches or salads for as long as they last or up to 6 months at least (my conservative estimate based on my other ferments).


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Spruce Tip Gravlax

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Last year at about this time I collected spruce tips, the new growth found on the end of the tree’s branches. I ground and dried some with coarse salt and some with sugar as described in this post. I have since used these ingredients in marinades, baking and even a salty caramel ice cream.

The problem with foraging is that some things are only available for a few days, and by the time I collect them, make a recipe and post it, it can be too late for anyone to use until the following year. So before the tips make their appearance, I decided to show another way to use this fleeting but worthwhile flavouring.

Having recently been treated to some gravlax (cured salmon) made with juniper berries a friend made, I thought of trying it with my preserved tips from last year. I followed my friend’s method for curing the salmon, substituting spruce for the juniper.

Spruce Tip Gravlax


Ingredients

1.5 lbs (approx.) salmon fillet with skin on

3 Tbsp spruce tip salt

3 Tbsp spruce tip sugar

1 tsp black pepper

Method

Mix together the salt, sugar and pepper. Cover the bottom of a dish with half the mixture. Place the salmon fillets on top skin side down and sprinkle the rest on top. Give it a little rub. Cover with plastic wrap and place a weight on top to press it down. A plate with something heavy on it works fine. I used a large stone. Place it in the refrigerator, and each day for five days turn the salmon. On the fifth day, uncover it and either wipe off the excess salt mixture or run it under cold water and pat dry.

Slice it very thin with a sharp knife. It will keep in the fridge for about a week and can be frozen.

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I served them on crackers with cucumbers to bring to Angie’s Fiesta Friday 66 this week, co-hosted this week by Anna @ Anna International. 

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Tandoori Pickerel and Curried Spring Vegetables

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A dear blogger pal very kindly passed on to me some of her home-made Indian spices which I have been keen to feature with some of my own local ingredients. Although I haven’t posted many Indian recipes before on this blog,  South Asian cuisine is one of my favourites. I began to learn to cook during our two-year stint in Delhi, just before the craze for spicy Asian food hit North America in the 70s, and I have been at it ever since. It was in India where I really learned to appreciate local and fresh food, including home-ground spices which made everything from soup to nuts just so much tastier.

So when Sonal offered me some of her handiwork, I was thrilled. You can find her fabulous recipes on her blog, simplyvegetarian777 where you will discover some truly original recipes with a strong South Asian influence. Do drop by and check out her fabulous fare.

I met Sonal through The Novice Gardener’s weekly event, Fiesta Friday, so it is only fitting that I share these recipes with this week’s crowd. Our co-hosts this week are Effie @ Food and Daydreaming and Jhuls @ The Not So Creative Cook who will be working hard to keep the party lively.

The spices Sonal sent me were a tandoori masala, a curry and Kasuri Methi, or dried fenugreek. This latter I intended to use as a garnish and then unfortunately forgot, but I did taste it and it would have made a wonderful accent for the two dishes I did make.

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For the tandoori spice mix I decided to make a fish dish using local wild pickerel, but you could use any firm fish.

Tandoori Pickerel

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 45 minutes
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Ingredients

1 lb pickerel filet, skinned and cut into serving portions

1 Tbsp tandoori masala

1 Tbsp sumac

1 Tbsp flour, rice, chickpea or jerusalem artichoke

1 tsp grated ginger

1 tsp grated garlic

1 tsp chili powder

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

3 Tbsp plain yogurt

juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 tsp salt

Method

Mix all the ingredients except the fish in a bowl to make a paste. Coat the fish pieces with the paste and place them on a grilling pan in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Turn the pieces over and continue to cook for another five minutes or so, depending on the thickness, until the fish is cooked through.

I managed to achieve a nice red-coloured paste thanks in part to the addition of sumac which also goes well with this mixture taste-wise.

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To accompany this fish I wanted to make a really green curry with ingredients all from  my garden. The scapes, garlic, mustard seed and green chili are left over from last year’s crop, but the young dandelion leaves, lily shoots, and some nettles were all picked just moments before cooking.

Curried Spring Vegetables

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 15 minutes
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Ingredients

oil for frying

1 tsp mustard seed

1 green chili, seeded and chopped finely

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tsp curry powder

3 packed cups of mixed greens, e.g. lily shoots, scapes, dandelion greens and nettles

salt to taste

juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)

Method

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, lower the heat to medium and add the chili and mustard. Cook for 1 minute and then add the curry powder. Cook for another two minutes, stirring continuously. Add the washed, but not dried greens starting with the sturdier ones like scapes and shoots. When they start to turn a brighter green add the dandelion and nettles, cover and cook until they are just wilted. Remove from the heat and drizzle with lemon juice.

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