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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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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Wild Cocktails

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Crab apple Cordial

It’s another Fiesta Friday with The Novice Gardener, and although it has been a busy week with so many Olympic events to watch, I have managed to contribute some bar fare. After all, this is one party for which I don’t have to be the designated driver.

These recipes are, as often, not really recipes, but simply ideas of how to use the ingredients I have stored in the pantry/freezer/bar which this blog is all about – wild edibles. It is all very well to know what is edible, how to identify it, and maybe even why it is good for you, but it is just as important to know what can be done with it once you have it.

Anyone who has been reading this blog from last summer might remember that I made fruit cordials, all of them sugar and fruit in a 1:1 ratio, soaked in vodka for a few weeks, then strained and bottled. The fruits I used were grapes, crab apples and high bush cranberries. I also made some spruce infused vodka for which there is already one recipe posted. I have been enjoying all these since December, but luckily have not consumed them all yet.

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Cranberry and Grape Cordials

I am not usually one for sweet or mixed drinks, but recently have enjoyed the odd cocktail in restaurants which has inspired me to try out some of my own formulas. I have limited myself to what I already have – no special purchases. I think this helps with originality as well as cost. I encourage you to do the same, and let me know what you come up with.

If the amount consumed is any indication, then the grape cordial is my favourite. The amount of sugar is right on – it is dry, but not at all sour. It makes a great little digestif all by itself, so I offer this with no frills – just straight up grape cordial.

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The high bush cranberry has a very strong flavour on its own, and even with all that sugar is not sweet. It does benefit from mixing it with something to lighten, but not extinguish the flavour.

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Cranberry Cream Cocktail

1 oz high bush cranberry cordial

1 heaping Tbsp coconut milk

1 oz pomegranate juice

5 oz. cold water

ice cubes

a few pomegranate seeds for garnish

Mix everything in a blender and strain into a glass.

The crab apple infused vodka has a wonderful apple flavour, but is a little sweet for my taste. Next time, a little less sugar. The flavour goes a long way, so it is possible to dilute it without losing its flavour. In this one, I just added a small can of ginger ale to 1 ounce of cordial and a splash of lemon juice to help cut the sweetness. I think a little ginger would be good too.

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The spruce infused vodka has a very strong, dry flavour. Not so pleasant on its own.  I would call it an essence rather than a cordial. So I used very little and mixed it with sweet and cream, and it was perfect. Especially if like me you enjoy herbal drinks, such as Chartreuse or Fernet, this is a good one.

Spruce Cream

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1/2 oz spruce infused vodka

1 oz Triple Sec

1 oz full cream (35%)

a pinch of nutmeg

Mix or blend all the ingredients and pour into a glass.

So bottoms up to all the guests this week at The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday. I hope you are inspired by the idea of making your own wild cocktails – and I would love to hear any suggestions you may have for names for these concoctions.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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The Edible Christmas Tree

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Apples are from Kazakhstan, and so are crabapples

Thank you to Kazakhstan for giving us this delicious fruit. I had not used crabapples much until now – except in jelly – but have recently found so many uses for it, not sure how I managed without it. I promised over a month ago that I would report back on my crabapple liqueur, and in that time have been experimenting with the few crabapples I have been able to harvest from our own tree and few others. So this will be my wrap up on this subject for this season.

Among the reasons I have enjoyed cooking with these is their flavour, colour and versatility. They are substantial, not too watery, keep well, and seem resistant to pests and fungi. Besides, they are one of the prettiest fruit trees in all seasons. The fruit does not drop easily, and many varieties hold their fruit throughout the winter, providing a feeding place for birds. No need for bird feeders with these in your garden.

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Crabapple liqueur

The liqueur, which was just a mixture of fresh, whole, crabapples, sugar and vodka, left to stand for a month with frequent stirrings (and tastings). I have now bottled it, and started a similar process with wild cranberries and another with wild grapes.

From the jam, or ‘dulce de manzana silvestre” I made, I have used it in a variety of recipes, some of which I will outline here.

Dipping Sauce:  Mix about 1/2 cup of dulce with 2 Tbsp. vinegar, a teaspoon each of dried onion and chili flakes, 1 tsp of sumac powder or juice of 1/2 lemon, salt and pepper to taste. This can be used as a condiment or as a dipping sauce

Substitue for any citrus fruit in baking. Just mix a spoonful with water of the required liquid amount, for cakes etc.

Fillings for cookies, cakes or doughnuts.

Savoury sauce: The rich apple flavour goes particularly well with pork. After browning the meat, deglaze the pan with stock or wine, add seasonings and a spoonful of crabapple preserve, pour it over the meat. I did it with a pork hock, cooked in a slow cooker, but it would go with chops or roast too.

Soup:  I added a good dollop to a squash soup.

If you have any other ideas to add to these, I would welcome hearing about them. I plan to continue to experiment.


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Wild Cranberries

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The highbush cranberry (viburnum trilobum) is a fruit I only recently discovered, and happily so. It not only provides beautiful, easy pickable fruit, it is also a good landscaping plant, with white flowers in the spring, and burgundy leaves in the fall. The berries begin as orange and turn to bright translucent red when they are ripe. They are best after frost, and stay on the vine well into winter, unless animals and birds get desperate enough to eat them.

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Their survival is probably due to their bitter taste. Although they resemble cranberries in colour and flavour, they are actually a member of the honeysuckle family. They can be used much the same as cranberries, and if you like the strong flavour of cranberries, you are likely to appreciate these.

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There has recently been much written on them on the internet. I will just say that, as with any new plant, you should approach it with some caution, and make sure you don’t have any reaction to it before consuming a large amount.

Like cranberries, they make good sauces and jellies, particularly for festive occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. I have so far made three recipes with these, and frozen some for later use. After they are removed from the stems and rinsed, they can be frozen as is.

Dried Wild Cranberries

Sprinkle the berries liberally with cane sugar. Place on parchment in a pan and put them in a 200 degree F oven for three to four hours, until they are dry but still soft (like raisins). They are good on their own, or used in baking, with cereal, or wherever you like to use dried fruit.

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They have one flat, soft, heart-shaped seed in them, but they are chewy and do not interfere with the enjoyment of them.

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Wild Cranberry Liqueur

Place berries with roughly an equal weight of white sugar in a non-metal receptacle with a tight fitting lid. Pour vodka over the fruit to cover. Stir it once a day until the sugar dissolves, and allow to age for one month. Strain and bottle.

Wild Cranberry Sauce

Mix berries in a saucepan with 1/2 the same volume of sugar. I used two cups of berries and 1 cup sugar. Gently heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking until the sauce is a good consistency and the berries are well cooked. They take considerably longer than cranberries. You may add a little citrus zest or any spices you like, but no liquid, as this will only extend the cooking time and result in overcooking of the fruit.