Along the Grapevine


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Lemon Balm and Mint Sun Tea

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June is a super busy month for all of us who garden and/or forage. I am in the midst of several ‘projects’ in the kitchen and the garden, but not wanting to miss Fiesta Friday #74, I chose to take a break and make something very simple, and yet an appropriate treat for anyone who is exposed to the heat, sun and insects which are all part of the great outdoors experience.

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Moving this plant away from my flowerbeds is just one of my projects.

Sun tea is a method of making ice tea involving mixing the tea and cold water and setting it in the sun for a few hours to infuse. I’d never made it before, as I worried a little about the effect the sun and heat would have on it and any bacterial growth. However, as I wanted to make a lemon balm tea, I figured this was the only way to do it without destroying much of the fragile flavour of the leaves.

To play it safe, I considered a few factors.

First, very clean water. Ours is well water which is filtered through a reverse osmosis system, so all good there.

Second, adding mint, which has anti-bacterial properties, might help. To be honest, I have no idea how much or in what form this is effective, but I felt somewhat reassured. And mint in any tisane is good.

Third, I used a little unpasteurized honey, another anti-bacterial ingredient as well as providing a little sweetness.

And finally, I decided to leave it in the sun no more than five hours, which worked out fine because that’s as much sun as we get anyway.

At any rate, I really find it hard to believe a sun tea can be all that risky. The more I thought about it, the more confident I felt.

To make the tea, I filled a 500 ml bottle with a handful of lemon balm leaves and a few sprigs of mint. I dissolved a Tbsp of honey into half a cup of warm water, let it cool, poured it into the jar and filled the jar with tap water. Then into a sunny spot it went and sat there for five hours.

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Five hours in the sun

I cooled it in the fridge and then served with lots of ice.

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A super refreshing treat after a morning working in the garden

This made two full 8 oz. glasses. I wished I had made a lot more, but the ingredients are there for the taking and the method is ridiculously simple, so there will be a steady supply of it from now on.

Thanks to our hostess Angie @ The Novice Gardener and to her two co-hosts, Loretta @ Safari of the Mind and Caroline @ Caroline’s Cooking who make this virtual party possible. Don’t be shy about dropping by and sampling the fabulous fare. Everyone is welcome!


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Petits Fours aux Fleurs

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The spring flowers are in full bloom around here – and as spectacular as I have ever seen them. The other day when I was wandering in the woods foraging for fiddleheads I was able to get some pictures of our provincial emblem – the trillium. Even here in Ontario they are a rare sight. Found mostly in wooded areas, or what’s left of them, they flower only briefly, but if you do find them you are likely to see them in masses. They are truly impressive.

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And sometimes they are red, and sometimes a cross between red and white.

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I bought one trillium last year for my garden. It survived but has not bloomed yet. It’s a start.

But I do have at the moment a great selection of wild flowers some of which I wanted to feature on this blog and share with the guests at Fiesta Friday #68.

Some of the edible flowers I have are: fruit blossoms, lilacs, wild strawberries, violets, forsythia, forget-me-nots, rose scented geraniums.

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Flowers are not a major source of food – they are often bitter and unless they are served very fresh they do not serve the purpose for which they are intended, which is to prettify the dish. They are finicky to preserve in candied form, and some lose their colour when cooked (e.g. wild violets).

I did find that drying them in the oven with just the oven light on, or in a dehydrator at the very lowest setting for about four hours does concentrate the colour and they can then be ground into a powder and used as a colouring as well as adding a distinctive flavour. They can also be mixed with sugar and saved for several months.

I used only three colours to decorate these petits fours: forsythia for yellow, violets for purple and a mixture of lemon balm and violet leaves for green. The flavours were floral enough to add a taste of spring, but for the violets I mixed in a little lavender sugar to give them a boost. As the season progresses, I will collect other edible flowers to use in a similar way, avoiding the necessity of commercial food colourings.

I made the cake with a gluten-free batter of ground almonds and cornflour, but a sponge cake recipe is also ideal. I baked it very thin in a cookie sheet, divided it into three, and spread the top of two pieces with rose geranium apple jelly. Any smooth seedless fruit preserve can be used.

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I stacked them and iced the top layer with a white icing made of coconut oil, icing sugar and cream to make it as white as possible. I then cut them into squares and covered them with a royal icing which I divided in four and added the colours to three of them. A little edible fresh wild flower and/or leaves as a garnish and voila!

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Next time I would bake it a bit thicker and just make it two layers, as the three layers makes it more difficult to slice neatly. I loved using the flowers, and was pleased to have these dainty cakes to serve guests.


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Clear Tomato Soup with Lemon Balm and Vodka

I’m not complaining, but I do have an awful lot of tomatoes to deal with this year. Every day I pick a pile like this, and then have to do something with them fast.

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We consume what we can fresh, and the rest I dry, roast, or make into a very thick sauce to freeze. But to-day I decided to use them in a completely different way, by straining only the colourless juice out of them and making a soup. So my contribution to Fiesta Friday this week is this unusual soup – a light broth with a zingy flavour, elegant enough for a dinner party, tasty enough to drink from a tall glass.

I will be co-hosting Fiesta Friday this week, now in its 32nd week. I look forward to meeting everyone and seeing what they bring. Even if you are not participating, I recommend checking out the contributions. Just click on the link above. You are bound to be entertained and inspired. And a big thank you to Angie, our gracious hostess, for making this event the success that it is.

For my recipe, I added some greens and garlic from the garden. As I was hunting for herbs, I had to pass through my healthy patch of lemon baln (melissa officionalis), a member of the mint family. In North America it has escaped cultivation and grows wild. If you have it in your garden, you will have to whack it back regularly or it will take over completely. However, a little is nice to have for its beautiful, lemony aroma. It is considered to have some health benefits for digestive problems and has a calming effect, usually taken in the form of oil extracted from it. As for cooking, I find heat removes the very mild flavour it has, and so it is not very useful. However, as I was using this raw, I hoped it would add a little something to my soup recipe.

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To make the soup, I filled the food processor with roughly chopped tomatoes (2 lbs), some chives, lemon balm, basil and a sliver of garlic. I repeated this four times. Then I strained it through a linen cloth, which took about three hours. If you are working in a cool place or have room in the fridge, it would be better to leave it overnight, but I was short of space. My eight pounds of tomatoes et al produced about 4 cups of clear juice. The strained tomatoes I then used as a salsa, so nothing was wasted. Just add a little salt and hot pepper.

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This soup could be heated, but since it was a summery day, I left it cold. And I added 1 tablespoon of vodka per cup of soup. This is not necessary – the soup was delicious without it – but the vodka does go well with it.  A sprig of lemon balm, and it’s ready to serve.

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The flavour of the clear tomato broth is surprisingly strong, and is a pleasant change from the usual pulpiness of the fruit. I think it might be good to make it from frozen tomatoes, where the clear juice separates so much more quickly once thawed. It would be wonderful to enjoy the flavour of fresh, uncooked tomatoes in the middle of winter.

 


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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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