Along the Grapevine


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Making Maple Syrup

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Since tapping a couple of sugar maples last week, the weather has been mostly below freezing, so until today there have just been a few hours of collecting the sap. Today, with relatively seasonal temperatures, we were able to collect two large pots worth (5 gallons each) of sap and have a go at boiling it down to make syrup. The result is 1 1/4 litre from the first pot, and about 3/4 litre from the second. The second is thicker and came dangerously close to crystalizing.

If  you are thinking of tapping your own trees, this site has good pictures and instructions on how to do it. As for the cooking down, we strained the sap through a clean, wet tea towel. For fuel we used up left over propane gas, hooked it up to the base of our turkey frier, and boiled it gently for about an hour.

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You can also do it over any open charcoal or wood fire. It needs to be done outside, as there is a lot of steam, sticky steam, released. Once it was boiled down considerably, to about 2 litres, we brought it inside, strained it again and cooked it even more gently on the stove top for another half hour.

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I then strained it again through a coffee filter into sterilized jars. It was a much faster and easier process than I had thought, although it has to be watched constantly as it can boil very hot and spill over if you are not careful.

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After all the time spent outdoors, I was not up for baking, but was up for a cocktail to celebrate our success at mastering this art. This recipe is from Serious Eats where you will find a number, 12 to be exact, of cocktails using maple syrup. I chose the one for which I had all the ingredients for today – and it turned out beautifully.

Simply measure 1/2 oz syrup, 1 1/2 oz rye, 3/4 oz lemon juice and 1 fresh egg white into a shaker and shake for about 20 seconds. Add 1 ice cube and shake another 10 seconds. Strain into a glass and add a few drops of angostura bitters on top. I am using the leftover egg yolk to make pancake batter for tomorrow morning which will be served with our own home-made maple syrup.

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Hope to try some of the others soon, and maybe even add a few of my own.


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Grape Leaves with Roasted Vegetables

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Given this seemingly endless winter, I am fortunate that I still have a few of last year’s foraged foodstuffs in my freezer while we wait for the new greens to appear. This week I am bringing to Angie’s Festive Friday a platter of a kind of pinwheel where I was able to use two of my favourite ingredients:  wild grape leaves and dandelion leaves in the form of pesto. These, some roasted vegetables, and a dough I invented on the spot which is so tasty and easy, I look forward to using it in other ways.

This recipe can be altered any way you like – you can use any bread dough, stuff them with any vegetables, or even add cheese, nuts, seeds,herbs, dried tomatoes, etc. I’m sure I will find more variations, but for my first attempt I decided on using only roasted vegetables with a little flavouring from the pesto. I made the dough gluten-free because I like the buckwheat base of this bread and wanted to share it with some who are unable to eat gluten.

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The Dough

1 tsp yeast

2 tsp honey

1 cup warm water

3 cups buckwheat flour

1 1/2 cup quinoa flakes

1 tsp salt

4 Tbsp olive oil

1 Tbsp onion flakes

Dissolve the yeast in the water mixed with honey. Add the rest of the ingredients, mix and form into a ball. Wrap it in plastic or parchment paper and leave to sit a few hours or overnight.

Fillings and Casing

2 doz. grape leaves (more or less depending on the size of the leaves)

1/2 cup dandelion or other pesto

2 cups mixed roasted vegetables (e.g. eggplant, celeriac, leek, mushrooms)

1 roasted garlic bulb

salt and pepper to taste

To Make the Rolls

Divide the dough in two, and roll each one into a 9 in. square between two layers of parchment paper.  To assemble, I used a sushi mat. If you don’t have one, use a clean towel or parchment paper to hold the leaves together and make it easy to move to the baking sheet. Lay out the grape leaves vein side up on your mat overlapping each other a bit and slightly larger that the 9 in. square. Transfer one dough square onto the leaves. Spread the dough with half the pesto. Mash the garlic bulb and distribute half of it around the square in little dabs. Lay the vegetables randomly in one layer. Season with salt and pepper. Roll up the mat firmly. Tuck leaves over the ends, and add a bit of leaf to the end if they are not covered. Repeat for the other half

Transfer to parchment covered cookie sheet seem side down and brush or spray all the surfaces with oil. Bake at 325 for about 45 min. The grape leaves will be slightly browned. Cool a little before slicing.

I apologize for not having pictures of the rolling step of this process. I took some fine pictures, but didn’t realize until it was too late the chip wasn’t in the camera. I hope my explanation is clear enough.

These can be eaten warm, or cold like a sandwich. They can be frozen before slicing, and would make a great addition to a picnic.

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Maple Sap: Our First Sign of Spring

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We have started to collect sap from our two sugar maples. This won’t give us a lot of syrup once we process it, but at least we will have the satisfaction of home-grown maple syrup – the quintessential wild food in this area. I will post more on this once we have collected enough. The varying temperatures are slowing things down considerably, but I am in no hurry. Meanwhile I have been contemplating what else I can do with all this sap.

For example, I have often wondered why we don’t save some sap for just drinking as is, as they do in Russia and neighbouring countries with birch sap. Now I find that here in Canada, B.C. and Quebec have started a maple water industry which is being touted as a health drink, and is sold in stores right next to the coconut water. I hope this trend catches on throughout the country. If you want to read more about this, check here.

For those of you who do not have either sugar maples or a place where you can boil down the many litres of sap to make syrup, you can still take advantage of the season and put your sap to good use. Besides the two sugar maples, we tapped one Norway maple, which I always considered a bit of weed in the tree world. Apparently the sap from this tree is not as sweet, but tasting it on its own, it is very much like the sap from the sugar maples.

Unfortunately, we lost our birches last year, but if anyone has experience with birch sap, I would love to hear about it.

There are lots of uses for this ‘health drink’, such as making tea, porridge, and even beer. My first experiment with it was to make white rice. Simply substitute the sap for water. It gives the rice a slightly sweet flavour, and is really delicious – even on its own. I served it with fish in a spicy curry, and the sweetness was a perfect complement to the heat of the sauce. So if you have an undistinguished maple, all you need is a clean, food-safe bucket with a lid, a spile (you can get these at most hardware stores in Canada) and a drill, or at least someone with a drill. Just be sure to keep the sap colder than 40 degrees F to prevent bacteria from growing. Then you can make your own maple sap rice, or whatever else you fancy.

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Whisky Sumac Hot Toddy

It is still winter here in SE Ontario, not much happening on the foraging front – the landscape looks like a white desert – except for the odd oasis of red staghorn sumac.

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I can’t imagine either the winter or the sumac will be around much longer, but with nothing else around I ventured across snow dunes in search of food. The berries aren’t quite as red as they were in the summer, but they are still tasty and easy to harvest. Once the rain starts, they will lose much of their flavour, and I expect finally disappear to make room for new growth. At least, I hope so.

I made another batch of dried sumac and a few cups of sumac juice – which incidentally makes a lovely hot tea on these cold afternoons, and now that I think of them as a desert fruit, the tea tastes very much like red date tea. But as a recipe for Angie’s Fiesta Friday, I wanted to turn it into a festive drink – and I had to make it hot to counter the bitter cold we are still experiencing.

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The recipe is very simple, but as tasty as any whisky cocktail I have had in a bar – just a lot less expensive. I used Canadian rye, but whatever you use, I would not mix a complex and highly flavoured whiskey. I decided on this recipe because, not only is it cold, but many people are fighting off flus and colds, and what better remedy than a hot toddy with honey and ginger!

Whisky Sumac Hot Toddy

For the syrup:

1 1/2 cup sumac juice

1 inch of fresh ginger, sliced

1 heaping Tbsp honey

Mash the ginger with a pestle in the pot. Add the sumac juice and heat. Add the honey and simmer for about five minutes. If you like it sweeter, add more honey.

For the toddy

1/2 cup sumac syrup

1 1/2 ounces whisky

1/4 tsp angostura bitters

Pour the whisky into a glass or mug. Strain the hot sumac syrup into it and add the angostura bitters. Stir and serve.

I served this with freshly popped popcorn, flavoured with oil, salt and sumac powder. The syrup is also very good on its own if you are not up for the whisky hot toddy.

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Pickerel in Grape Leaves with Mushroom Za’atar Sauce

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Pickerel, or walleye as it is often called here, is a fresh water fish common in North American lakes. It is the fish I might have caught had it been warm enough to go ice fishing, but given the small number of fishing huts in the area, I am not the only timid one. I did manage to find a good source of fresh, local fish which I’m sure is as good as any I would have caught. Besides, it came all cleaned and filleted. So this is my contribution to The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday – seasonal, easy and wild.

This fish is a close relative of the pikeperch, so that could be substituted in this recipe, as well as any white freshwater fish. The other main ingredients are grape leaves and za’atar, and those are available in most areas. If you don’t have a stock of wild grape leaves in your freezer from last year, regular leaves are sold in jars in some supermarkets. Just be sure to rinse the brine off before using. If you don’t have za’atar, or the ingredients to make it, use any recipe for za’atar and replace the sumac with grated lemon zest.

Pickerel in Grape Leaves

1 1/2 lbs fish fillets

3 Tbsp finely chopped sweet onion

2 Tbsp za’atar

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tsp salt

2 Tbsp olive oil

30 grape leaves, approximately

Remove the skin from the fillets if there is any. I used the skin to make stock which I used later in the sauce. Just cover with some water and allow to simmer until you are ready for it.

Cut the fillets into pieces – some will already be small from the skinning process, but others can be about 2 inches long. Place them in a bowl and mix in the remaining ingredients, except for the leaves.

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Lay two or three leaves on a flat service overlapping slightly. If the leaves are very small, you might need four – two if they are very large. Place a large spoonful (1/4 cup) of the fish mixture at the base of your leaf arrangement. Fold upwards once, tuck in the sides and continue to roll up. If grilling, it might be wise to secure them with toothpicks which have been soaked in water.

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If using an oven, place them in a casserole dish, brush with a little olive oil and garnish with lemon slices. Bake in a 425 degree F oven for about 1/2 hour.

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These can be eaten hot or cold. I’m thinking of making some next time I pack a picnic. Meanwhile, I served these warm with saffron rice and a mushroom sauce. No need for a sauce really, or you can make whatever kind you like. This is how the sauce was made.

Mushroom Za’atar Sauce

Fry about a cup of sliced mushrooms in butter until lightly brown. Make a roux with 1 Tbsp butter, 1 Tbsp flour (I used chestnut flour to  make it gluten-free), and 1/2 cup of fish stock. When the sauce has thickened, add the cooked mushrooms, 1 tsp of za’atar and salt and pepper to taste. Heat through and it is ready. This is a small quantity for two people, so just multiply it to get the amount you need.

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The grape leaves keep the fish from drying out or getting scorched if being grilled. They also add flavour to the delicate fish, and provide good packaging for any leftovers to be eaten cold the next day. There doesn’t seem to be any difference in flavour that I can detect between wild and other grape leaves, so just use whichever is convenient.