Along the Grapevine


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Spicy Chinese Cucumber Salad

DSC03449.JPGI first wrote about prickly ash (zanthoxylum americanum) aka Szechwan pepper last year in this post and now is a good time to revisit this prolific plant and for me to give an update. As I mentioned in my previous post, the berries can be picked at any time of the year once there are leaves on the plants, while it is still green or even when the berry has fallen and only the brown husk remains. This year I started picking in August when the berries were a bright red and easy to spot. Most are still red now in mid-September, but they are beginning to fade. I found the best way to pick them was just to cut off the branches and remove the berries in the comfort of my kitchen. No worries about over harvesting these berries. They are an invasive weed and we can’t eradicate them from our property no matter what we do.DSC03451DSC03450I dried them on the countertop and within a day or so the husks turned from deep red to brown and the shiny black berries were exposed.dsc03453.jpgNow they are ready to be stored and used in so many ways. So far I have made spice mixtures, added them to fermented pickles, to sauces, dressings and even to some sweet dishes. They are not hot like black pepper or chilis but have a citrussy smokey tang to them which pairs well with so many flavours.

For today I made a simple spicy cucumber dish, a popular item on Chinese menus, and one in which the flavour of the Szechewan pepper really shines. I made it rather hot and garlicky, but you can tone down those flavours by reducing the amount you use, and by removing the seeds from the pepper. I did not have chili oil on hand but infused one chopped, dried chili pepper in 2 tablespoons of oil.

Spicy Chinese Cucumber Salad

1 medium cucumber, thinly sliced

2 Tbsp chili oil

3 garlic cloves, mashed and chopped

1 tsp Szechwan pepper

2 dried red chilis

1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar

1 tsp sesame oil

1 tsp white sugar

Roast the Szechwan pepper and the chilis in a skillet until they release their aroma, but being careful not to scorch them. Mix these with the other ingredients for the dressing and pour it over the sliced cucumbers, toss and serve.

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Linked to Fiesta Friday #188, Jhuls at The Not so Creative Cook and Nimmi at Adorable Life.


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From Lawn to Table

Even in times of drought such as we are currently experiencing in this area, the wild greens are flourishing and there for the picking. Our vegetable gardens are still struggling, and as I am not a keen shopper I am happy that our lawn is such a great provider. This recipe is another example of what you can do with some of those nutritious, albeit pesky weeds. And if you don’t have such a lawn, you can find all these in any good foraging spots such as meadows, hedgerows and abandoned areas – even in the city.

The main ingredient for this is lambsquarters. This particular weed is most prolific, and as I tidy up my vegetable plots I still have to throw out the bulk of it. I have taken to drying it for use in the winter – in the dehydrator, the oven (at a very low temperature) and even on the dashboard of any vehicle parked in the sun, the most economical method of all. But be careful – vehicles can get really hot, so I had to stir them every hour or so to prevent from burning.

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I also used young goutweed leaves (top left) to give it a herbal flavour, and some plantain (on the right). The lambsquarters are below the goutweed. At the last minute, after taking this shot, I added dandelion leaves.

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All these mixed with some seasonings and topped with eggs made for an easy, inexpensive and super nutritious meal – and yes, even delicious! You can add more spices and herbs as you choose, and mix and match whichever wild greens you have growing. This is how I did it.

Foraged Greens and Eggs

Ingredients

3 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 Tbsp chopped green chili pepper

1 tsp cumin powder

salt and pepper to taste

4 cups lambsquarters

1/2 cup goutweed leaves (only the young ones from plants which have not yet flowered)

a handful of dandelion leaves

1/2 cup plantain leaves

4 eggs

Method

If using plantain, boil it in water for four minutes, drain and set aside. It is tougher than the other greens and will blend with them better if cooked longer.

Fry the onion until translucent. Add the garlic and chili and fry another couple of minutes. Add the cumin, salt and pepper. Add enough water to the pan just to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Stir in all the greens and cook at medium heat until they have all wilted completely and the water has evaporated. Break four eggs on top of the mixture, cover the pot with a lid and allow to simmer for about 4 minutes, or until the eggs have cooked sufficiently. Remove from the heat and serve. I sprinkled a little sumac powder on top for garnish.

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Linked to Fiesta Friday #129; The Not So Creative Cook and Faith, Hope, Love and Luck.


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Fermented Wild Grape Leaves

I couldn’t let this season pass without giving a nod to my signature ingredient – wild grapes. Who knows if there will be any grape harvest with the serious drought we have been experiencing, but the leaves are as lush as ever and begging to be picked. You can read about how to identify them, where to find them and why you would want to here.

Always looking for new ideas, I decided this year to ferment them. Fermenting is arguably the most healthful way of prolonging their shelf life, provided they are stored properly. The flavour also gets a boost, – no disappointment there.DSC03139.JPG

The only consideration is they do need some acid added to them, so I decided to use a combination of fresh lemon juice and a little liquid from a previous ferment – in this case wild apples. For every two cups of water, I used a heaping tablespoon of salt, the juice of one half lemon and a tablespoon of liquid from fermented apples. If you don’t have any fermented liquid, just double the amount of lemon juice. After removing any trace of stem, I stacked the leaves in piles of five, rolled them like cigars, and placed them in a mason jar. I poured the brine over them to cover and allowed them to sit at room temperature for six days. It is important to keep the leaves completely submerged, so I used a porcelain egg cup, placed upside down on top as a weight. By the sixth day, shorter or longer depending on the room temperature, the bubbling will subside and the liquid will have a good, tart taste. At that point, put a lid on them and store in a dark, cool place. I do not recommend using a square jar like mine as round ones are safer – less likely to succumb to any pressure built up, but I intend to open mine every few days to be on the safe side and let any gas escape. Even in a cool dark place, fermentation will continue so the occasional ‘burping’ is recommended if storing over a long period.

Fermented Wild Grape Leaves on Punk Domestics

Like any pickle or fermented vegetable, they are a great addition to salads and dips. They could also be filled and rolled like dolmas, something I intend to try next. I used some as a base to a quinoa salad, made with garden herbs, cooked sweet potato and fresh red currants. DSC03164.JPGRelated posts: Grape Leaves with Roasted Vegetables;  Pickerel in Grape Leaves; Quiche in Grape Leaf Shells; Grape Leaf, Herb and Yogurt Pie; Vegetarian Dolmas; Dolmas with Meat and Rice


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Ramps Butter

DSC00645Ramps (aka wild garlic or leeks) season is here in Eastern Ontario, and the window for picking it is brief. To make things tougher for us ramps fans, care must be taken not to over harvest and deplete the crop for future years.

In order to lessen our impact from foraging, especially where growth is sparse, it is possible to just remove a leaf or two from each plant and leave the bulb in the ground so the plant will still be there next year. The leaves on their own are

A couple of years ago I transplanted a small clump into my garden where it is doing very well, but still not the acreage I am aiming for. However, a few leaves taken will do it no harm and anticipate a larger crop next year.DSC02995.JPG

To spread it as thin as possible, I decided to make a spread! Butter mixed with chopped steamed ramps leaves and a little fresh mint – other herbs or seasoning as desired. DSC03005.JPG

This is not only an excellent spread, but can also be used to add flavour to soups and sauces. Stay tuned!

Related posts: Fermented ramps; Ramps omelette


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Puffball Mushroom Flour

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I considered myself lucky this year when I found a healthy puffball behind my tool shed, and referred to it in a recent post on how to identify and use it in cooking. Now these puffballs are mushrooming all over, and by the number of posts from other blogs on the subject, it’s a good year not just in my garden. I recently found four more good sized balls, one of which I left to help ensure some spores remain for next year.

There is no point finding these gifts if you don’t know what to do with them. Their shelf life when fresh is short. Frying lightly and freezing is one option, and I have dehydrated some as well. But when faced with the quantity I had, I wanted to be able to store them in as efficient way as possible, meaning something that required little work and little space.

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I started to search to see if anyone else had dehydrated them, and if so what they do with them. Forager Chef, one of my favourite foraging blogs gave me the answers I was looking for. He dehydrated them, ground them into a flour, and made a very appetizing looking gravy.

So I set about peeling and slicing my puffballs into thin slices resembling sliced bread. He suggests drying them in an oven with the light on which I tried. I also did some in my dehydrator at a low temperature – about 107 F or 42 C. The dehydrator took only about 12 hours – the oven three times longer. However you do it, the slices should still be white when dry and crisp. If the heat is too high they will brown and will affect the colour of the flour.

A really powerful food processor is all you need to turn them into flour in just a few moments, but lacking that I used a not so powerful processor followed by a few seconds in a coffee grinder for a finer powder. This last step can be done on an as-need basis.

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I can think of several ways this flour can be used but so far have just tried Forager Chef’s mushroom gravy recipe. I adapted it for a small quantity since unlike him I am not cooking for large numbers.

I started by heating 1/2 cup mushroom flour and 1/4 cup of water. You need a good deep pan for this, as initially the flour will puff when stirred. Heat and stir until most of the water is absorbed and it resembles a roux. In another pan, mix 3 Tbsp of fat (i used a mixture of butter and olive oil) with 3 Tbsp of flour. Stir over a low heat, and gradually add 2 cups of stock. I used a vegetable stock which had good colour having prepared it with onion skins among other herbs and vegetables, but any meat, fowl or vegetable stock can be used. When the stock has thickened sufficiently, stir in the mushroom mixture and bring to just below boiling. Season with salt and white pepper.

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This gravy was smooth and flavourful. I served it over some roasted vegetables from the garden.

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Puffball Mushroom Flour on Punk Domestics

Because it is vegetarian, and could easily be vegan by omitting the butter, it is a very useful recipe to have, but good enough that there’s no need to be a vegetarian to enjoy.


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Chimichurri and Goutweed

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I hesitate to put the word ‘goutweed’ in the title of a recipe, but there’s no way around it. That’s what it’s called, and to give it a more appetizing name might just confuse everyone. So here it is, Goutweed chimichurri.

First, I should explain what goutweed (aegopodium podagraria) is, although most gardeners in this area are very familiar with it – even if not by name. Although for most considered an invasive weed, It is a plant still sold at nurseries for landscaping, especially the variegated ones which really are pretty used as a border or ground cover. But be careful because once planted it can NEVER be eradicated, and just keeps spreading and crowding out anything around it.

I happen to have inherited some in my garden, so I make the most of it, and still pull out as much as I can. At this time of year I am busy digging up bushels of weeds, so I was pleased to find that goutweed leaves and stems are edible, especially when young and tender and always before it flowers. Where it has been cut back, I get a steady supply of new growth which can be picked right into the fall. It has many medicinal uses, including traditionally the treatment of gout and arthritis, but has been used in Europe as a salad ingredient and pot herb. It has become naturalised throughout most of North America as well as Japan and New Zealand.

The variegated leafed plants are easiest to identify with their creamy white and pale green patterns. When allowed to spread uncontrollably, they will revert to a solid, darker green. The leaves grow in groups of three, and have pointed, serrated leaves. The veins on the leaves extend right to the end of the leaf, unlike the poison hemlocks of the same family (apeaceae) whose veins end between the teeth of the plant. The flowers which appear in mid-summer are small five-petalled flowers on tall stems. Another characteristic of this plant is that they grow from rhizomes – not edible.

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While the young leaves are good raw, tasting to me something like a cross between parsley and carrot with a hint of celery, the older leaves are good cooked in soups and vegetable mixtures. I decided to use it as a substitute for parsley in a chimichurri which I learned to make years ago when I lived in Argentina. Since that time, this simple condiment has made it around the world and undergone many changes. I wanted to make something as close as possible to what I remember having way back when but without the parsley.

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Goutweed Chimichurri 

1 cup young goutweed leaves and stems

1/2 cup fresh oregano

2 large cloves of garlic

1/4 cup vinegar (cider or white wine)

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup olive oil

If using a food processor, simply blend all together. Otherwise, chop the greens and the garlic very fine and stir in the vinegar, salt and oil.

Serve as an accompaniment to grilled meat and/or vegetables, or as a spread on crackers or toast.

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Chimichurri and Goutweed on Punk Domestics

Linked to Fiesta Friday #88.


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Seasoning with Prickly Ash

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I first took note of a prickly ash (zanthoxylum americanum) tree last spring when I noticed the cluster of green berries had a very enticing aroma. I had to find out what this bushy plant was before I tasted it, and when I identified it I learned it is not only edible, but a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine known as Szechwan pepper. Assuming the berries had to ripen before harvesting, I only recently got around to collecting a few and was keen to try cooking with them. What I didn’t realize was that the berries can be harvested any time there are leaves present, i.e. from mid-spring to late fall, so green, red, dark blue or black, they are all good.

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First, a little about this tree or shrub. It grows mostly in shaded woods throughout much of central and north-eastern North America. There are closely related species elsewhere, such as the zanthoxylum bungeanum which is the one used in China and which has a similar taste. The plant can grow anywhere from 9 to 18 feet in height, and is usually part of a larger thicket.

It is belongs to the rutaceae (rue), or citrus family, which explains the lemony scent of the leaves. To help identify it, watch for these characteristics:

  • a smooth grey to brown bark dotted with small mounds with a couple of spikes on each
  • alternate compound leaves (5-11 on each) with a lemon scent and oval in shape
  • clusters of berries growing close to the branches, green in the spring, red in the summer and blue then black in the fall. When the seeds drop out the open husks remain
  • one or two hard, smooth black seeds inside the berries

A few of the berries I picked were still red, most were black, and many husks had lost their seeds but can be collected all the same.

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I tasted some of the berries right off the tree. I was surprised by the flavour and the effect of eating them raw. A mixture of lemon and pepper was at first pleasant, followed by a numbing of lips and tongue – and I now understand why one of the many medicinal uses of this is for ‘dry mouth’. I found the experience slightly alarming, but hoped that roasting and/or cooking would eliminate the unpleasant effect but not the flavour.

For my first experiment, I decided to just grind one teaspoon of the berries coarsely and then roast them lightly in a skillet. I decided to pair them with nothing stronger than olive oil and crushed garlic, all of which I mixed together into a paste. I then applied a liberal coating to about one pound of chicken breast and roasted it. The flavour was as expected – citrussy and peppery and none of the anaesthetic or salivating effects were felt. I could have used a smaller amount and the flavour would still have been enough, but you will have to experiment a little yourself to find the right proportions for your palate. I believe with the addition of other spices, like cumin, ginger root, anise or chilis, a delicious ‘masala’ could be achieved.

I also roasted and ground some (a very small amount) and mixed it with ground dried garlic to season vegetables to be roasted. This method gave a very subtle flavour, a welcome alternative to black pepper (which does not grow in my backyard). With enough berries to keep me going for the winter, I will work on different spice mixtures using this newly discovered spice, and come spring I will be sure to start gathering them much earlier.

One word of caution though. These shrubs or trees are as the name suggests – very prickly. They are not difficult to pick and you can collect several in your hand at a time just be clutching a bunch, but dress to protect yourself from the thorns.

Seasoning with Prickly Ash on Punk Domestics