Along the Grapevine


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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


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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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