Along the Grapevine


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Candied Squash or Kabak Tatlisi

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Kabak Tatlisi with black walnuts

This blog is about wild food, which means I have to use a little imagination to incorporate the wild edibles with recipes I am eager to share. This dessert is a recipe worth sharing, with or without the wild element, but it does highlight the black walnuts in a spectacular way. If that sounds a bit of exaggeration, I can honestly say this is my all time favourite dessert.

I first discovered it in South America where it is called ‘zapillo en almibar’, and consists of cubes of squash in a sweet syrup. The addition of pickling lime, or calcium hydroxide gives it a firm exterior while keeping the interior beautifully soft and smooth.

I later discovered that this sweet originated in Turkey and is called Kabak Tatlisi. I have been making it for years, but just now learned its name. I found many recipes on line for it, a few even in English, but they are a little different from the way my Turkish friends taught me. Most of the recipes I found added some water, and they cooked it in a pot on the stove. I am sticking with my Turkish friends’ recipe, which is simple and fail-proof – no water and poached in the oven. Instead of using cane sugar, I used maple sugar, which should appeal to anyone who likes maple, which is to say Canadians. But any sugar is good. I also used black walnuts, which are a great contrast to the sweet syrup. You can use any walnuts, or other toppings such as sesame seeds, pistachios, filberts. I even saw it with a tahini sauce on top.

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Shelled black walnuts

This same method is used for figs, green walnuts, eggplant and tomatoes. I have tried the first three but not the tomatoes. Squash is still my favourite. The traditional squash, I have read, is butternut, but any squash which is firm when cooked works well. I used a hubbard squash.

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Hubbard squash

The recipe is simply this:  Chop or slice the squash and cover it in a bowl with sugar. Let it sit until the sugar turns into a syrup, several hours. You can hasten this a bit by stirring it gently, especially if using a coarse grain sugar like maple. Put the whole lot into a baking dish. I baked it for about half an hour at 325 F, until the squash feels soft when poked with a sharp knife. Serve with walnuts sprinkled on top.

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Squash after a few hours of soaking in maple sugar

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Squash in syrup ready for the oven

My Turkish friends told me equal weight of sugar and squash. So my first recipe, pictured above, I did exactly that. The next time, pictured below, I used only half the sugar and mixed cane and maple. The important thing is to have enough syrup that it doesn’t harden before the squash it cooked. One way to ensure that does not happen is to use a pan which will not spread out the syrup too thinly. I prefer to use more rather than less sugar, since  left over syrup can always be used in baking, on pancakes, ice cream etc.

It occurred to me to serve it with whipped cream, but did not bother. I am now wondering if there might be an ice cream dessert there somewhere.

Note: You can cut it in slices or cubes. Just be sure the pieces are all the same size so that they cook evenly. Also, if in slices, it should not be too thin, no less than half an inch, because the creamy texture of the squash would be partly lost.

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Reduced sugar version


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Whiskey Walnut Butter

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What butter and whiskey won’t cure, there is no cure for.

(Irish saying)

As one of my contributions to the Robbie Burns celebration, I have prepared a Scottish-inspired spread, making use of a few more of my black walnut stash. The flavour of the walnuts is well complimented by the whiskey, and the butter is a super vehicle for it all.

6 Tbsp butter, unsalted

2 Tbsp ground or chopped black walnuts

2 Tbsp whiskey

salt to taste

Cream the lot together. Chill and serve.

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Happy Robbie Burns Day!


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Jerusalem Artichoke, Mushroom and Black Walnut Soup

I only recently considered walnuts as an ingredient for soup, so when I looked on line for some recipes was surprised by how many are out there – bouillons, thick vegetable soups, Chinese dessert soups, even a few which featured my theme of the week – black walnuts. I did try one from a blog I follow which made good use of the strong flavour of black walnuts with squash. After that first success, I made my own with ingredients I happened to have on hand, namely Jerusalem artichokes, cremini (brown) mushrooms and walnuts. The combination of these local flavours worked really well, although I would not discourage anyone from coming up with other ingredients, maybe cauliflower, turnip, cabbage or whatever. There is no need for stock in this soup, as the flavours of the nuts and vegetables are strong enough on their own.

The artichokes were the last of the ones I dug up in the fall. I intended to cover my patch with mulch, and just rake it back over the winter months for some freshly dug ‘chokes. With all the snow we have had and the super low temperature, just as well I did not bother. All  the more for spring.

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Jerusalem artichokes

Cremini are of the same family as the white button mushrooms and are often sold next to them, at a little higher price. They are simply white mushrooms which are allowed to mature, which means they are sturdier and have a stronger flavour than the ‘babies’. If allowed to grow even larger, you get the portobello. These ‘browns’ keep well covered in the fridge, and although any mushrooms will work in this recipe, I was glad to have these on hand.

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Cremini mushrooms

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Chopped mushrooms

Further to my last post on walnuts, I managed to photograph one walnut cut open. You will see the difference between it and other walnuts.

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A cracked open black walnut

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Pieces of black walnut extracted from shell

The nut is lighter in colour, with a much darker skin covering.

It is smaller, and because of the tough shell, it is difficult to remove all in one piece. But a little goes a long way, and chopping helps spread them around. By the time you extract the nut from the shell, the chopping is all done.

Jerusalem Artichoke, Mushroom and Black Walnut Soup

1 lb Jerusalem artichokes

2 Tbsp oil

1 onion, chopped

1/2 lbs mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup walnuts

1 tsp salt

3 cups water

Boil the artichokes until soft and peel them. Blend them in a blender or food processor with half the water.

Fry the onions in the oil until translucent. Add the mushrooms and continue frying until they are cooked.

Add the walnuts, Jerusalem artichokes, salt and the rest of the water. Simmer to heat through for about five minutes.

Garnish however you like, if at all. I put some sumac powder on it for a bit of colour and flavour.

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Jerusalem artichoke, mushroom and black walnut soup


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Black Walnuts

Black walnuts are another one of those local delicacies which have been largely ignored, or even avoided in the belief that they are inedible. But once I learned that they are indeed edible, and that there are lots of them growing in my own neighbourhood, I wanted some. We have none on our property, but a friend kindly offered me some of her harvest, and I eagerly accepted. Thank you Brenda.  And here they are, fresh off the tree, in October.

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And so began my black walnut project.

1. Peel. This is fairly simple. Just score the nut around the equator with a sharp knife and twist off the outer layers. It is essential to wear impermeable gloves to protect your hands from the black goo underneath which stains terribly. I found it took two weeks for the stain to wear off my one unprotected hand.

2. Wash. You can swirl them in buckets of water, a few times, still wearing the gloves, but we used a pressure washer and it did a super job in just a few seconds.

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3. Dry. Too large for my dehydrator, I put them in the oven at 175 degrees F for a few hours. Because they are so large and I wanted to do it slowly, I turned off the oven a few times, and extended the drying period to about 8 hours. When they felt lighter, I figured (hoped) they were ready. The wonderful scent peculiar to this kind of nut was my first experience with their distinctive, pungent flavour.

4. Set aside to age, for at least three months, in a cool, dry place.

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5. Shell. This is by far the most daunting of all the tasks. They are the hardest nut to crack that I have ever come came across, and I wasn’t too sure if I would be able to continue with this project. We did a few using a vise, but that required more strength than I possess, and this was my project I wanted to do on my own. So finally, I wrapped one at a time in a tea towel, and took a mallet to them on the basement floor.  A rock would also work, as you need a really hard surface beneath. I would not recommend doing it on your furniture or kitchen counter. The towel was supposedly to protect bits of shell from flying into my eyes, but with my gentle approach that was not a problem. The tea towel did help to hold the nut in place while I cajoled it open. It took only a few not very powerful taps with the mallet until I felt the shells collapse. After the first few, I was able to gage the force required to break it into a two or three pieces but not so much that the entire nut was in smithereens.

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If all this seems like a lot of effort, take note that these nuts have such a strong flavour that only a few are needed in any recipe. It is difficult to describe a flavour, but to me these walnuts are to the more common ones what pumpernickel is to white bread. I will soon be publishing some of the recipes I have come up with to make the best use I can of these precious nuts.


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What is Za’atar and How to Make it?

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Naan with za’atar

As part of my promotion of sumac, I would be remiss not to write about za’atar, a tangy Middle Eastern mix made of herbs, sesame seeds, sometimes spices, and often sumac, the latter being indispensable in my mind.

I was introduced to it as a topping on pita bread, but it is also served with plain pita, dipped first in olive oil and then in the za’atar. I have since learned to use it in dressings, with vegetables, meat, fish, sprinkled on hummus or yogurt, in short just about everything but dessert. It makes a pretty amazing addition to bread and butter too, especially a good, fresh, home-made variety.

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Hummus with za’atar sprinkled on top

It is easily found in any Middle Eastern shop, and each time I have bought it, it has been a little different from any other. That is because the mixture can have only a few ingredients or many, dried or fresh herbs, with or without spices and with or without sumac. The za’atar I have bought keeps very well for as long as most dried herbs, which means it has probably already lost a lot of its flavour by the time I buy it.

So I decided to make my own mixture with what I had on hand. The result was recognizable, but much zippier than any I had bought, and a much prettier colour. You can actually taste the different ingredients, but the overall flavour is unlike any other. If you use dried herbs, it will keep longer, but I think if you have some fresh ones, use them. Make as much as you can use in a week, and keep it in a sealed container in a cool place. This amount I was able to use easily in two days, and I look forward to my next batch soon.

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Ingredients for za’atar

Recipe for Za’atar

2 Tbsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted

2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped

2 tsp ground sumac

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp coarse salt

Mix all the ingredients together.

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Za’atar

You can also use dried or fresh marjoram or oregano as well as thyme, and in any proportion you like. This recipe just serves as a base – no need to follow it slavishly!


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It is -20 degrees C today and dropping, so I make no apologies for not foraging today. I didn’t even make it outside. What I am doing is figuring out what to do with my foraged bounty and which ingredients are worth gathering and which just don’t work that well, or do not survive storage.

One of my favourite and most useful harvests this year has been the sumac, especially in powdered form. I have noticed that it is one of those increasingly popular spices, although still under-used. And as for local sumac, there seems to be none used whatsoever, even though the red sumac we gather here is similar to the product bought in specialty spice shops. If you are not sure how to identify it, watch this clip.  Even those who are familiar with it sometimes need to know how they can use it. I usually just say ‘on anything at all’, but no doubt it would be more useful to give some actual recipes.

I have already commented on this spice in my original post, but certain points bear repeating.

  • make sure you have identified the plant correctly
  • remove the berries without any other bits of the plants and clean them well
  • make sure you are not allergic to it

If you don’t have any of your own, you can buy it in shops. The store-bought is not always organic, and sometimes salt is added to give it bulk, so the home-made is preferable, but not essential. It adds a fruity, lemony flavour to vegetables, dressings, fish, meat, in short, just about anything. I even added it my shortbread with excellent results. Today, taking refuge from the cold weather and icy roads, I made two vegetable recipes;  grilled portobello mushrooms and Brussels sprouts from the last remaining fresh sprouts from my garden.

The portobello mushrooms are inspired by a recipe I found on line from Allrecipes, and it comes with a video. I made a few changes, mostly the sumac.

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3 portobello mushrooms

1/4 cup olive oil

3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 shallot (or small onion)

1 Tbsp garlic

1 Tbsp sumac powder

1 tsp saltDSC00133

Clean the mushrooms, pat dry and remove the stems. Mix the oil, vinegar, onion garlic and salt in a bowl and pour over the turned up side of the mushrooms. Leave them to marinate for about an hour. Grill them on a lightly oiled grill gill side up until cooked through, about 10 minutes. You will see the sauce bubbling on top of the mushrooms when they are ready.

Brussels Sprouts with Sumac

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Brussels sprouts

olive oil (enough to coat)

sumac powder

salt to taste

Coat the sprouts with oil and salt. They can be roasted in the oven, but I sauteed them in a pan with the oil and salt and added the sumac just towards the end. If they are getting too browned but still too undercooked for your taste, add just a little water to barely cover the base of the pan, and continue to cook covered for a couple of minutes. Do not overcook!  DSC00131 This is a good method when the sprouts are not all the same size, even after halving the larger ones. I put the bigger pieces in first, then added the very small ones later.

This barely scratches the surface of things you can do with sumac powder, but as I work my way through my bag of red powder, I will post more of my experiments. Until then, I would be interested to know if anyone else has been using this spice in ways we have not yet thought of.

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Happy New Year

Wishing a Happy New Year to all my readers, and all the best for 2014.

And, as in any post, there must be a photo. So here is my updated centrepiece, except for the candles entirely made of foraged materials from within a few feet of our house. As it is all natural, it needs to be refreshed every few days, and changed according to the colour of the candles.  This one consists of pine, spruce, cedar, sedum and hydrangeas. The base was made from a branch of our sugar maple in the front garden, and the candle holder is a piece of birch tree next to our house that sadly had to come down.

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