Along the Grapevine



There is no rule that says foraging cannot be done indoors, so now that the ground is covered in snow and ice, I have turned my attention to some of my houseplants. It was a surprise to me that aloe vera is edible, at least the clear, jelly like innards of the thick leaves. I learned this from this site here. The pictures and the description of the plant as edible convinced me to try it.

After all those festive meals, I wanted to make something light and healthful – and you can’t get lighter or more healthful than this superfood. I have listed some sites below which list the myriad benefits of this plant. I found the taste a little bitter, until soaked in some lime juice, which removed any bitterness and left really no flavour at all. So it is used more for its decorative and nutritional value than for taste. It is considered a great detox food and can be mixed into smoothies as a thickening agent. You lose the prettiness of the gel that way, but might be worth a try anyway, especially if you don’t like anything gelatinous.


Cubes of aloe vera on a stick

To prepare it, just cut the leaves off the plant at the base. First,I cut off the spiny edges with a sharp knife, and then ran the knife under the thick exterior and filleted it like a fish. Just be sure to remove all the green parts. The flesh should be completely clear. Cut it in cubes and soak it in the juice of lemon or lime.

My first idea was to add it to a fruit salad – our Boxing Day Brunch. Having soaked the aloe in lime juice, I just threw the whole dish (contents) into some chopped apples, persimmons and pomegranate, but obviously whatever fruits you have work just as well.


Fruit salad topped with pieces of aloe vera

Essential in any special brunch is a glass of bubbly, so I mixed some with orange juice, freshly squeezed, for it was Boxing Day after all. Then I used pomegranate seeds, orange slices and cubes of aloe vera for garnish. And a new recipe for a mimosa was invented.


Mimosa garnished with fruit and aloe vera cubes

If any readers have any other ideas of what they have done with this plant, I for one would be very grateful if you could share it. I think using aloe vera as an edible plant just might catch on.



Pulled Venison with Wild Grape Ketchup

At this time of year, our hunter friends often regale us with a good supply of venison –  a real treat. I have learned how to cook it through experiment. As all game, it can be tough and needs some special care and attention, especially if it is not a young animal.  I  learned that an acidic marinade of wild fruit and berries, sometimes beer or wine is what it really needs as a tenderiser. So when I decided to try a pulled venison and found no suitable recipe on-line, I used my wild grape ketchup I made in the summer. As it is already rich in flavour, I added only some juniper berries as a spice along with garlic and onion. My own junipers are buried in snow, so for the time being cannot experiment with them. I used some commercial ones which you can find in most good shops selling spices.


If you don’t have any wild grape ketchup on hand, you can use the recipe I have given and simply use a dark grape juice.

Pulled Venison

1 venison roast (approx. 4 lbs)

1 1/2 cups wild grape ketchup

2 onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

juice of 1 lemon

2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

10 juniper berries, crushed

1 Tbsp liquid smoke (optional)

1 tsp salt

Cut the roast into four pieces. Place it in a slow cooker. Mix the remaining ingredients and pour over it. Turn the slow cooker on to high, and once it is good and hot turn to low and cook for 6-8 hours, until the meat can be pulled.

Remove the meat from the sauce, pull it with two forks. Meanwhile, continue cooking the sauce while pulling the pork. Remove about 1 cup to be used as a sauce, and put the pulled meat into the remaining sauce and heat through.

If you don’t have a slow cooker, you could do it in a heavy, covered pan in the oven 325 F to begin with and then when hot lower it to 275 F for roughly the same amount of time.

This can be used as a sandwich filling, but I served it on a bed of mashed turnip, potato and parsnip with sauteed brussel sprouts on the side. It was every bit as tender and tasty as I expected it to be.



The Edible Christmas Tree


I was recently in a restaurant in Ottawa (Union) where I was served a delectable cocktail made of some kind of evergreen (I think it was pine but my dinner partner says it was balsam). At any rate, it motivated me to try my hand at using evergreens, only ever considered an essential part of Christmas decorations, in edible form. Be cautious however, as those trees you get at supermarkets are likely doused with some sort of pesticide or other chemicals. There are still plenty of pristine greens elsewhere, so there is lots of material to experiment with.



My first experiment was with a spruce infused vodka. On its own, it is very strong, and a little too antiseptic tasting. However, in an attempt to imitate the flavour I experienced in Ottawa, I used honey, lemon and soda to make a very palatable winter cocktail.


While thinking of healthful, seasonal drinks, I cam across recipes for tea one of which I have copied below. I used white spruce which is easy to find around here and the easiest evergreen to identify. It has long, soft needles, in bunches of five. High in vitamin C, it works as an expectorant, decongestant, and can be used as  an antiseptic.


White Pine Tea

2 Tbsp fresh pine needles

1 cup boiling water

Remove the little brown bit at the base of the needles. Chop the pine needles and put in a cup. Pour boiling water over them and let sit for about five minutes. The brew is quite bland, with a gentle pine flavour. You could mix it with other green teas, or add a little lemon or lime to give it a little more oomph.


My next experiment was the most seasonal and festive. I made cookies using dried, powdered white pine needles. I dried them in the dehydrator, but you can do them in the oven at the lowest possible temperature. They are ready once they crumble when squished.

Christmas Tree Cookies

1 cup butter

1/2 cup sugar (I used coconut palm sugar)

1/4 cup agave syrup or honey

1 egg

2 1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp ground, dried pine needles

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp coarse salt

Mix them by hand, creaming the butter, sugar and egg first and then adding the dry ingredients, OR just mix them in the food processor in the same order, adding the salt at the end.

Wrap in plastic or parchment paper and leave in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours. Roll out on a floured surface to about 1/4 inch thickness and cut into shapes. Bake at 350 F for about 7 minutes (depending on thickness). Cool and decorate.


These cookies have a wonderful flavour, mellow but distinctive. They do benefit from a sweet decoration, and you can use your favourite recipe here. I made icing with lemon balm which I had minced with oil and frozen. The flavour was surprisingly lemony, and the colour was a soft, natural green which I much prefer to the stronger artificial flavours. So now I know what I will do with the masses of lemon balm I have growing outside my back door.



Sour Dough Grape Rye

In a recent post I gave a recipe for baked squash slices and used purple bread crumbs. Those breadcrumbs were the result of a failed experiment which also turned out to be one of the best breads I ever made. In that post, I promised to explain my source once I figured out to make a bread that was worthy of more than just being crushed into crumbs, even though the squash recipe doesn’t need any special type of bread. It is not a recipe you will necessarily be able or want to make yourselves, but if you are curious about bread making methods, you might appreciate what I learned, namely how to make a good sourdough without any commercial yeast, and about using wild grapes in a sourdough starter.

I should explain that this past summer I came across a title of a recipe using a small amount of fermented wild grape pulp. However, after the title, the rest of the recipe had disappeared, but the idea stayed with me. When I returned from over a week’s trip, I found in the fridge a large container of wild grape juice which had gone horribly bad. So I had to put it to good use!

The other thing that happened at about the same time was I came across a blog on bread making which had, among many others ‘must-tries’, a recipe for Borodinski bread. This is a variety of Russian black bread which I have often tried to recreate, with little success. I have also bought it an any Russian store I have come across in the US or Canada, but it is never quite right. Reading this recipe, I realized I had put yeast in it – and should have been using sourdough. Maybe the Russian shop bakers had done the same thing to make it more like North American bread. So, Borododinski it would be.

I was so unconfident that this bread made of really off juice would be any good, and could not believe that the grape mess would serve as a starter, that it was doomed from the start. Convinced the whole experiment would end up in the bin, I did not give it the attention it deserved. I barely kneaded it, nor did I grease the pan. When I took it out of the oven (and finally managed to extract it from the pan in pieces) I could hardly believe how tasty and authentic it was. So I was inspired to try again. For my second attempt, I added water, doubling the amount of liquid. I wanted to make sure I could make enough bread to last me a while. I also added the coriander, baked it at a cooler temperature, and yes, I greased the pans. And behold!


This is a very dense and moist rye bread, a close relative of pumpernickle. But there is no other bread quite like it. It should be sliced very thin, and if you don’t have caviar, sour cream, or smoked salmon around, you can serve it with cheese. In Russia I toasted it for breakfast and served it buttered with thin slices of tomatoes when they were in season. Still one of my favourite meals.

The quantities are not that important. I am sure I could have made it with less juice and more water, and the amount of flour is determined by the amount of liquid. The time to prepare the starter mixture for me was about a week, but I would leave it at least four days, depending on the temperature of your place. As long as you keep adding ‘feed’ to it, and it is still alive, it is ok.

Sour Dough Grape Rye Borodinski Style

2 cups mixture of water and fermented grape juice

1 Tbsp salt

1 tsp ground coriander

2 Tbsp molasses

rye flour

Add a heaping tablespoon of rye flour every day to the grape juice. Occasionally I added a little warm water to speed up the process, as my kitchen is pretty frigid. After 4-7 days, you should see some small bubbles forming on top of the liquid. Pour it into a bowl and add the salt, coriander and molasses. Add about 1 cup of rye flour, mix well, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap (the fruit flies love it) and let it sit – preferably in a warm place – for another day. Add gradually enough rye flour to make a firm ball. Turn it out onto a clean, floured surface and start to knead, adding a bit of flour at a time until it is not able to absorb any more. At this point, it will not be sticky. Place it in a greased bowl, cover again and leave for a few hours, or if your kitchen is warm, just a couple of hours. Punch it down (it will not have risen much at all), and knead it a few more times. Form it into loaf sizes, and place in well-greased bread tins. Bake at 325 F. until it looks done, about an hour and 15 min. To check for doneness, tap it on the top and it should sound hollow. Remove immediately from pans and place on a rack to cool.

This bread is not fluffy, and doesn’t rise, so I’m not sure if all these wait times are really necessary, but I don’t think they hurt, and it just feels right after my other bread making experience. Also, it is great not to have to do it all at once.


Now that I have made a true sourdough bread, I am inspired to try my hand at other recipes, without the grape for now. The texture and flavour of this have convinced me that I have been making bread wrong all my life.