I feel like a squirrel.

I started dehydrating the blueberries (gathered at the Muddy Road last weekend) yesterday. The manual and a couple of website mentioned that it’d take 12-15 hours to dry but by bed time, they still weren’t ready so I let the Excalibur run throughout the night. The dehydrator stopped at roughly the 24-hour mark.

Some of the berries were shrivelled this morning while others kept their almost perfectly round shape (though they were of course, hollow). They now have a flaky texture. A couple that I taste-tested where a bit gooey, like store-bought raisins. Maybe I left them in the dehydrator too long?

I guess I’ll find out because I’ll sure be needing a lot more if I’m hoping to save enough to last me through the winter. The photo shows the entire yield from the harvest (minus about a cup, which was used in a morning smoothie).

July 23, 2013 - Dried Blueberries

Blue and Saskatoon

I keep meaning to post an article, especially when we come back home from a weekend at Muddy Road.  There is more to tell than what I’ve been sharing, it’s just that there are plenty of other things that have been occupying my time so the stories turn out hurried or non-existent.  Today will be no different because some tussah silk on the drop spindle and season 1, episode 4 of Game of Thrones awaits me.  Sorry about that.

We had some friends out at Muddy Road last weekend.  Our first time squeezing a group into the shack.  It was messy and overrun by kids the entire time, but fun.  There were a few pleasantries in the berry department too.

First, Dad told me about a decent patch of wild strawberries that probably started a few years ago by the generator shack.  He hasn’t mowed the lawn that far down in at least that amount of time.  A couple of weekends ago, I mowed in the areas that used to be maintained when I was younger but are now left to their own devices.  In front of the log cabin, beside the greenhouse, at the horseshoe pit, and near the generator shack.  I guess Dad wanted to outshine me so he decided to clear all the way down to Claire’s property.  And so he stumbled across the strawberries.  Good for him for having cleared lawn.  And good for us for having access to strawberries for breakfast without having to drive the ATV.  I hope this patch grows far and wide!

Some of the blueberries are now ready for harvest!  If there’s one sure step I can make in transitioning to self-reliance and wild, it’s gathering enough berries to last us until next year.  We got our hands on a small chest freezer a few months ago, and it’s ready to be filled!  The berries were far and few last summer, it was so dry, but this year seems promising.  I snuck away Sunday morning to check out one of my regular spots (twenty-ish feet away from the shack) and didn’t stop picking until a couple of hours later.  One of the containers:
July 21, 2013 - Blueberries

Fortunately nobody showed much interest in eating them for breakfast (though I did show up at the table only near the end), which means I was able to overpack our 9-tray Excalibur dehydrator this morning!  It smells like blueberry pie in here!  It’s a decent start, I feel until our holiday next weekend, where I will pluck those plants dry (and collect some leaves and perhaps even roots, too).

The absolute highlight is the discovery of what I believe are two giant saskatoon berry trees!  Also known as serviceberry.  There is still plenty of research to do on the matter, so don’t quote me on this, but if it’s true, this will go down as one of the most exciting additions to Harvest 2013.  We have a few bushes of a smaller variety on the property that we’ve been nibbling from these past few years, it’s that what they actually are.  Dad only knew them as plum berries and I had never bothered to learn the proper name.  After giving the kids the grand tour of where the bushes could be found, the last one being behind the log cabin, I looked near the end of the driveway and spotted a much larger tree with the same coloured berries.  Now this is where the non-responsible harvester in me took over (we all have those sides to us, don’t we?).  With a small bowl in hand, I picked and taste-tested (I know).  Picked and taste-tested (I know, I know.).

Although the smaller bushes’ fruit have more of an oval shape, the larger variety berries are rounder (like the images shown on Google).  The veins on the leaves also differ.  The crown bottoms on both fruit varieties are the same though, and not only do they taste almost the same, but also both have the same kind of pits inside (I KNOW!).  Safety first, we didn’t end up serving them for Saturday morning breakfast.  I guess it’s a good thing, because although it’s mentioned in “Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada” that the plants were eaten fresh, there happens to also be a warning about the leaves and pits containing “poisonous cyanide compounds” that only cooking or drying can destroy.

June 20, 2013 - Saskatoon Berries

My guides aren’t very helpful and I wonder what these toxicity precautions are all about?  Not that I mind making jams, pies, and muffins if need be but I would like the added option of on-the-spot fresh.  Worse case scenario, personal experience confirms that the consumption of 50ish fresh berries is perfectly safe for me, anyway.

I SAID I KNOW!!

Rainy Day Rhubarb Harvest and Preparation (and Cantaloupe Vanilla Jam, too)

Scrolling through my Facebook wall, I see a lot of complaints about today’s weather.  Dark and gloom, ongoing rain, and a need to turn on the furnace upon waking.  It’s not that I mention them and their sentiments with judgement.  I would have felt the same if I was at the cottage and wanted to be outdoors, if I didn’t need some downtime to crochet, or if I hadn’t been waiting for all the heat to disappear so I could turn on the stove for some canning.  I took Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round by Marissa McClellan out of the book shelf and flipped through it every day this past week, waiting patiently. While I’d like to focus my efforts on either cultivating or wildcrafting the main ingredients for this year’s preserves, how can I say no to “Cantaloupe Jam with Vanilla?”  Especially, when coincidentally, Beege bought a cantaloupe at the grocery store last night.  Besides, the heavy rain prevented me from going out to collect. Cantaloupe is not the first fruit that springs to mind when a canner’s thoughts turn to jam.  However, for the melon lovers in the crowd, I beg you not to skip this one.  When you combine cantaloupe with a bit of sugar and vanilla, it ends up tasting like the best exotic Creamsicle you’ve ever had.  As a Creamsicle lover, I find this feature highly enticing.  By design, this recipe makes a fairly small batch.  I find that one smallish melon or half of an enormous one yields just the right amount. I used an entire enormous one, there was no way I’d be satisfied coming out with only 3 half-pints, and tweaked the rest of the numbers for an increased yield of two jars.  This one is going to be delicious, I can feel it.  One jar will be donated to the Harvest Moon Potluck and Auction event being held later this year and the rest are for ME! Regardless of the rain, I did go out to the garden to pluck ten pounds of rhubarb afterall.  It sometimes seems like a waste to get the water bath going for just one batch. July 7, 2013 - Rainy Day Harvest Let me tell you, it was one thing to have to hold an umbrella while harvesting and removing the leaves from the rhubarb stalks, but it was definitely more challenging to neatly stack ten pounds on a lawn chair and then carry the pile inside the house.  It really makes me wish I had a harvesting basket.  I used to consider it a luxury item.  After today, it’s turned into a need. I thought I’d make a batch of Rhubarb Syrup as an alternative to the gross pancake syrup Beege tends to buy (I always go for actual maple syrup but he doesn’t view things the same way).  It’s still loaded with sugar, but compared to Aunt Jemima’s Original ingredients (corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum, caramel color, salt, sodium benzoate and sorbic acid [preservatives], artificial and natural flavors, sodium hexametaphosphate), the rhuburb syrup will do just fine.  I hope I don’t give off the impression that my eating habits are perfect.  They’re far from perfect.  But I do make an effort and I do know the difference between natural vs Aunt Jemima.  Until I can figure out the whole sugarless jam and jelly thing, there will be some sugar overload involved. I thought I could try the Vanilla-Rhubarb Jam with Earl Grey using one of the boxes of Bernadin N0 Sugar Needed Pectin I bought last week.  Then I thought, if there’s any jam I’d rather have sugar in, it’s a rhubarb flavoured one.  I don’t know how much apple juice would do the trick.  Perhaps it would, it’s worth a shot in the future, or at least some research on the internet, I suppose. I followed the formula to almost a “tea.”  It’s sans Earl Grey.  Get it?  Hehe.  There are 8 half-pints to that batch so surely Harvest Moon will be given one or two of those as well. I’m considering dedicating one of my Etsy shops (either gatheredroots or dreadlocklove) to surplus stock.  It’s just not possible for us to consume everything that’s made.  In fact, I believe we still have some of the rhubarb-mint jam from last year.  Among others…  Not only that but there’s also the I-have-my-eye-on-a-spinning-wheel-and-need-to-raise-some-funds reason.  So is there an interest for homemade preserves? And finally, I can’t be the only one to still have Cantaloupe-Vanilla on the mind, so I almost quite literally froze my ass off outside trying to get a photo. July 7, 2013 - Cantaloupe-Vanilla Jam Take my word for it, it’s even much more stunning in person. Edited to add:  I got nothing else done today.  The dishes are piled sky-high on the counter!

Spruce Tip Harvest and Preparations

I could definitely spend more time learning about trees.  Identification, therapeutic uses and various harvesting methods…  Considering our long and cold winters, and therefore lack of general wildcrafting opportunities and (plant-based) sources in the area, it feels wise to try to be in the know.

Regarding spruce, “Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada” author (MacKinnon) writes that it is one of the top 10 trees used by First Nations.  The tips were apparently chewed to help relieve cough.  Among other preparations and uses, of course, but had this use fully occurred to me early last week, I would have harvested some tips specifically to ease my cough and cold.  I personally try to stick with teas, essential oils, and my own handmade herbal medicines for non-emergency purposes but it’s sad that most of the ingredients used are purchased online.  A focus of mine is to become more accustomed to my surroundings and know how to use them to my benefit.

I am a fan of thewildgarden.ca and followed the author since she wrote on her previous blog, Unstuffed.  She recently discussed spruce tips and shared a general dip idea (http://thewildgarden.ca/spruce-tip-dip/).  It’s both funny and disturbing that the first thought that came to me was that I wished I was at the cottage, where all the spruce trees are.  As though there couldn’t possibly be any spruce trees in town and all I have available to me is an abundance of dandelion greens and flowers, chives, and lilac.

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I was able to collect a few yogourt containers full of spruce tips because my neighbour happens to have a tree in her front yard.  A good reminder that it’s all here around me.  It may not be in the most pristine or otherwise least-polluted area (right near the street for numerous cars to drive by) we can’t always live our ideals.  The fact that it’s right there and as fresh as can be has to count for something.

I meant to pick the tips sooner when they were younger than shown in the photo, but I wasn’t feeling the greatest and also the next fews days were busy, with an even busier weekend…  There is a newfound appreciation that has set in, and confirmation that beings have their many facets.  I never held spruce tips before and they are so soft!  It’s the feeling of walking into a soft moss, but that feeling in the palm of your hands.

I didn’t really pay attention to the walker-bys reactions but my neighbour’s next-door neighbour, I believe she’s German, older though, opened the door and asked if I was going to make syrup.  This woman probably really knew her shit, and I got the impression she may still have a pantry full of homemade preserves…  A woman who really knows her shit, very inspiring!

After browsing some blogs on the internet, I came across a few recipes worth trying.  Born in the Wrong Century shared an easy one, a spruce tip and sea salt blend (http://borninthewrongcentury.com/2011/06/13/playing-with-spruce-tips-sugar-salt-vinegar-oh-my/):

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 {How To} Spruce Tip Flavored Salt or Sugar
Mix equal parts sea salt or organic sugar with finely chopped spruce tips.  Place in a dish and set in a dry area to completely dry out.  Stir every day to check progress and break of clumps, takes approximately 3 days.  Store in a sealed jar. 

I used a fine grey sea salt for mine, and opted to use 2 parts spruce tips to 1 part salt.  The blend is today still in the plate on the counter and I’ve noticed how pleasant the aroma is whenever I walk by.  I’m not necessarily a big user of salt but my partner in an Herbalism swap I participate in likes to be in the kitchen and I felt this would be a suitable gift.  (I do plan on keeping a bit for myself to try too, though!)

Also, I used Food With Legs’ idea for pickled spruce tips (http://www.foodwithlegs.com/pickled-spruce-tips/)!

I used a 50:50 mix of water and rice wine vinegar (for it’s faint sweetness but either apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar would work just as well) to pickle the spruce tips. After being pickled and spending a week in the fridge the spruce tips lost some of their vibrant green (I imagine this is difficult to fix without increasing the pH and negating the preservative effect of acid, right?) but maintained their appealing chew. The flavour is calmer and emphasises the citrus more than the resin.

The pickled spruce tips make an excellent garnish for grilled or roasted white fish, or a variety of egg dishes.

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I’m waiting patiently for this one to be ready!  One jar will be part of my dad’s belated father’s day gift and the rest will be enjoyed with the next few fish we catch.  Something tells me I’ll be adding spices to next year’s batch but that these will be good enough that I should have made more and bothered processing properly.

Finally, I have some 4oz jars of spruce tip jelly sitting on the counter.  Minus one jar, which was given to my neighbour as a thank-you.  I winged a formula for this one.

YIELDS

Approximately 10 4oz jars

INGREDIENTS

– 3 cups Spruce Tips, cleaned and finely chopped

– 3 cups (best-quality possible) water

– 1 lemon, juiced

– 4 cups white granulated sugar

– 1 pouch CERTO liquid pectin

METHOD 

1.  Prepare an infusion by combining the spruce tips and water in a medium-large saucepan and cover with a lid.  Bring the water to a boil then reduce and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to stand for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare your jars (washing and sterilizing).

2.  Strain the infusion (I use a yogourt strainer, it works like a charm!), putting the liquid back into the saucepan and composting the spruce tips.  Add more water to the saucepan if necessary, to maintain the 3 cup amount.

3.  Add the sugar and lemon juice to the liquid and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.  Stir and boil hard for 1 minute.

4.  Remove the saucepan from heat and stir in the CERTO Liquid Pectin.  Keep stirring for approximately 5 minutes, removing any foam at the surface.

5.  Pour the mixture into the prepared jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace.  Stir the contents of each jar to remove air bubbles, clean the rims, cover the jars with the lids, and screw on the rings.  Process the jars for 10 minutes.  Let your jelly stand on the counter, untouched, for a day, then inspect each jar to ensure proper sealing.  Enjoy, gift, or store (remove the rings if storing)!

Note:  The end result is a very pale yellow jelly.

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Lilac Harvest and Jelly

The lilac flower harvest didn’t go over so well last year.  Well…  I guess to be more accurate, the harvest itself went well (how can it not be convenient to have trees growing in two of three neighbours’ yards, with branches growing over the fences and into mine?) but the rust appearance that came while drying them came as both a surprise and a turn-off.  They’ve remained untouched in a jar in the herb kitchen this entire time.

Last week I wondered if jelly could be made with the flowers and how it would taste.  I’ve grown a bit more fond of the aroma since moving here 5 years ago and it would be shame to let them go to waste.  As it usually turns out, someone posted a photo of a batch she had just finished (along with what seemed to be a delicious lilac and wild blueberry cookie with lilac glaze) that afternoon on Facebook.  So it can be done, thank you Universe!

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I followed the recipe and procedure shared by The 3 Foragers (http://the3foragers.blogspot.ca/2011/05/lilac-recipe-lilac-jelly.html):

The jelly was made with lots of flowers removed from their cluster.  We packed them in a glass cup and added boiling water, and let them steep overnight.  The color of the infusion was a greenish-pink, not pretty at all.  As I added the lemon juice, the color changed to an electric pink.  After cooking the jelly and sealing it in the jar, the color faded to a light yellow, almost clear.  The flavor, however, is very floral and sweet. 

Lilac Jelly      makes 8- 4 oz jars

2 c. packed lilac flowers
2 1/2 c. boiling water

1. Pour the boiling water over the lilac flowers, cover and allow to cool.  Allow the infusion to sit 8 hours, or overnight.

2. Strain the flowers from the liquid using a coffee filter, you should have about 2 1/4 c. liquid.
 
2 c. lilac infusion
4 T lemon juice
1 box Sure-Jell powdered pectin
4 c. sugar
 
3. Place the lilac infusion, lemon juice and pectin in a large pot.  Stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a rolling boil.
4. Add all of the sugar at once, and stir to dissolve.  Bring the jelly back up to a rolling boil for 1 minute.

5. Remove the jelly from the heat, skim the foam from the top (I got a lot of foam from this recipe) and ladle into hot, sterilized jars.  Process in a water bath for 10 minutes. 

So that’s what I did!

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I took the photo of the jars and mis-written labels (it should read June 14, 2013, of course) soon after processing them and as the author noted, the colour does fade to more of a pale yellow.

The day I made the batch, I dipped my finger in the larger jar for a taste-test and was disappointed but after testing again just now, I feel that I shouldn’t have given all the 4oz jars away so quickly (ha!)…  The ingredients have synergized quite well over the past few days!  If I remember clearly, and if my sinuses aren’t confused because of a cold, I’d say there’s a hint of pink club soda in there.  A very sweet pink club soda.

Not being as well acquainted with refined sugars these days, I’d like to experiment more with sugar-free pectins, and more specifically, with Pomona’s Universal Pectin.  Is it available for purchase online within Canada, or will I have to import it?