correction: traditional uses of spicebush berries

The wife, who knows everything, of course knew a traditional use of spicebush berries that she’d told me once, but I’d clearly forgotten:

They are, apparently, dried, and used in place of allspice.

We have a pint set to drying, and will tell you how it goes.

spicebush-berry beer, autumn olive jelly

Spicebush berries—the reddest things on trees around here, at the moment—have a strong flavor—spicy, you might say—and my wife and I’ve been trying to figure out (intellectually, it ought to be said) for years how best to use them culinarily. There must be a traditional use for them, we imagine, but have never yet done the research to find it out. One reference in an old-timey Appalachian cookbook, I seem to recall, said something about using it to flavor groundhog. Fair enough, I thought, if the groundhog is gamey. Well, we’ve been making soda lately, and the wife says “how bout spicebush berry beer? (soda)” And I say, that sounds awful. I imagined it would be overly high pitched, kind of stomach turning even, and I said so, but she persisted and the stuff is gorgeous. Here is what she did:

Boil a handful or three of ripe red spicebush berries for a while in about a gallon of water, with a fair bit of sugar. Once your broth is strong enough, add some more sugar if it tastes like it wants it, remembering that some sugar will be lost in the fermentation to achieve carbonation. Strain all into a gallon jar or stockpot or crock. Next, optionally, add a small handful of raw spicebush berries—wife did this, but I think, in my opinion, she may have overdone it slightly. As always, I advise to err on the side of underdoing it. Next, put in something yeasty, ideally a cup of some other fermentation you have going. I often use my kombucha for this sort of thing. Next, cover it to keep flies out, stir it a few times a day until it gets bubbly, then put it in bottles and stick them in the refrigerator. Bottles left out in the warm for too long risk explosions.

Another wild berry ripe (just passing, really) we’ve been making much of this season is Autumn Olive. Its speckled, tannic, pink-red berries are my daughter’s favorite fruit, and they’re really very tasty. I’ve fermented them up in wine but they make it cloudy. But, they make an excellent jelly. Seems to have plenty of its own pectin. Interestingly, the juice you cook up out of the berries, rather than being that lovely pink, is grey-brown, but once you add sugar to it it goes grey-pink. Really pretty first rate. My first jelly, to be honest, and soon to be a family tradition.

making the yeast-home, and ginger beer

I’ve taken it upon myself in recent weeks to keep the air and all porous surfaces of my house saturated with diverse cultures of yeast. Without pitching anything laboratory-bred, I’ve been setting up the wild, ambient yeasts with a series of ongoing challenges—ferment this, with the vinegar bacteria already at work on it; ferment that, with the really high original gravity (lots and lots of sugar); ferment the other thing, boiled for an hour with the fine-chopped ginger-root. The result, I hope, is a native yeast-home diverse enough to effectively and creatively ferment about anything. Perhaps. For five years this is more or less what I’ve done, and it’s worked very well (though I still fear to test it on malt-based beer—soon, a one gallon batch), and the only difference now is that I’ve made it into a theory, and relating to it more like a personal relationship, or a life-long partnership, or quite-some cooking project.

That fine-chopped ginger-root, and cane sugar, and a little dark molasses, and some lemon juice (all measured without measuring, to taste and by necessity, as usual, as should you do if ye care to learn aught), is my first attempt at ginger-beer. It is a very young ferment. Once it’d cooled I pitched in it a cup of kombucha I had going as starter (yeast starter culture, more populous in active fermentations than even in the 24/7 fermentation-spewn air of my house). Maybe two days later, after stirring several times a day, a very thick, very viscous, very sharp with ginger and lemon foam formed—and I stirred it again, and tasted it, and the flavors were good, so I bottled it. I bottle such things in flip-top bottles, which I don’t bother to sanitize as these things will be refrigerator-stored and drunk within the next one-two weeks. Once in bottle, I leave at room temperature for another 6-24 hours to carbonate, then remove to refrigerator. Like my kombucha, I may do this constantly—I would for sure, except ginger is an exotic, and expensive, and just doesn’t make much sense, here. So, root beer. Birch beer. I need to find local abundant wild flavorants. Juniper berries, perhaps, which are nearing ripeness. Spice bush. Roots. Need roots.

things I haven’t posted about this spring

The fact that hop shoots, one of the very first edible greens of spring, which grow like evil weeds and demand to be thinned, and which, in late summer, you can flavor beer with, are not nearly widely enough cultivated.

The fact that those potted forget-me-nots I never got around to putting in the ground last year, which died, went to seed first, and are now growing beautifully, all over the place—not exactly the dawn of a new gardening paradigm, but certainly another proof of concept.

That arugula flowers are gorgeous. A couple overwintered in the herb garden, so we’re letting them go to seed. Also, a cabbage, living in what’s now a carrot patch.

Maple syrup, and how, if you have a wood stove, and even only one maple tree with a circumference over ten inches, you really, really, have no good reason not to be sugaring.

About the various wild greens we’ve been eating, and the various ways we’ve been eating them. And how keen I am on wild greens. Like, intellectually. For the sake of cuisine.

My budding thoughts on honest, genuine cuisine, as a local phenomenon—what gave rise to it, what gives rise to it, whether it is rising and what that might mean.

Further thoughts on cooking fats. How olive oil has become an imported luxury in my house. How I have no understanding of the subtleties of cooking with butter. How, in fact, primitive the cooking is in my house.

About the possible addition of a new category, the easiest thing in the world, detailing “recipes” for things which really ought not to need them, and are like fast food in my primitive house.

A number of primitive thoughts, I have had.

dandelion wine

Notice (4/15/10): This post contains content that the author saw fit to amend in the comments.

It’s dandelion season at my house. Dandelion wine can be really bad. Or it can stand in for a nice light rosé, on a hot day now and again. Save you some dollars, for the good stuff.

Well, here’s the basics. You make a sweet tea out of dandelion heads, being careful not to include any stem. The better the tea, the better the wine—pretty straightforward so far, yes? I think I used about 1.5 pounds of sugar per gallon last year. Anywhere around there will ferment dry, do good service.

Put your sweet tea into a crock or stock pot or something like, put it somewhere dim with good air, and stir it at least twice a day, vigorously, to incorporate air and ambient yeasts. Do this until it starts sending up a good bubbling, then strain it into a nice clean jug or carboy, set an air-lock on it, and put it away somewhere dark and cool.

Once it stops bubbling, might be a few weeks or a few months, you can bottle it. If you leave it in the jug for a long time, though, make sure the water in your air-lock doesn’t evaporate, or else you’ll have a whole lot of really nice dandelion vinegar. Which, I am sure, would be absolutely lovely on salad. In fact, I think I might set aside a half gallon this year for just that.

When you bottle it, you might want to stir in a little sugar just beforehand, to give it a little fizz. Maybe 1 or 2 eighths cup per gallon, depending. Once you get up toward an eighth, you’re probably going to want to bottle with caps, rather than corks.

That’s about it. They will improve with time for a little, if you keep them somewhere dark and cool. Try to save most of them for summer.


Last year I believe I advocated adding a dash of lemon juice, to cut the slightly cloying character of dandelions. You might try this but I’ve come to see it as a bit inelegant. I’m planning on running some experiments using dandelion leaves and roots, to balance it out with a little bitterness. But last year I used only the petals, whereas this year I’m going to try whole heads, so maybe further augmentation won’t be necessary. Judge for yourself.

peppercress, again


My yard is lousy with it. I like to eat the whole spinney, just take a bite holding by the base. Dip in salad dressing, if you like.


uses of stovetops


The tray and the yellow pot are boiling maple sap, the biscuits are warming for breakfast, as is my coffee cup, on top of the blue pot which is simmering up some beef broth. The mokapot is brewing the wife’s daily four ounces. A slightly more useful than usual winter woodstove tableau.

Categorized as foraging? Well, we’re scavenging heat, here. And maple sap, and beef bones most people throw out. I think that counts.

stinging nettle pasta, I think it was pasta

Hank Shaw’s recent post reminded me of a dish I had a couple years ago, which was, I am fairly sure, tagliatelle with nettles, garlic and olive oil. It was great. It was unique. It was unforgettable. I think we ate it kind of like this:


I don’t remember where we found the nettles, but that’s not important. What is important is that we failed to cook all the sting out of them.

There wasn’t a lot of sting—we hadn’t noticed it adjusting the seasoning—but after a few bites, we could feel the prickle on our tongues and lips. And then we became aware of the full length of our esophaguses. Which is a strange but not unpleasant thing; a thing that makes you sit up a little.

The effect was, in all, enlivening. It was a fine night. I think this year I’m going to try to do it again.

wild greens in winter


Foraging for wild greens on January 28th. It’s been a fairly mild winter here, the temperature only having dropped as low as 8 degrees Fahrenheit in a place that usually sees a seasonal low closer to -8. And we had snow cover for our cold-snap, which is probably why we still have a few patches of wild greens to pick. These are some kind of wild cress, Pepper Cress is the Appalachian name for it, I’m told. We made a pesto out of it last night and it was good, though a little stringy. Next time, we’ll chop it up before we grind it. Today we put it in salad.

maple sugar on a small scale (1857)

“928. Making Sugar on a Small Scale.—J. Herrick, of Lyndeborough, N.H., wrote to us in 1857 as follows: “My orchard consists of seventy-five trees of second growth, scattered along walls or in a pasture of fifteen acres. I tap with a three-fourth-inch auger four feet from the ground, and hang the bucket by a ring, on a hook driven into the tree so close to the spout that the wind will not waste the sap. I tap at this height that cattle can not disturb the bucket. Some might object on the ground that the lower a tree is tapped the more sap will run. This is not the fact, for the sap will flow as freely by cutting off a topmost branch as it will from a root of the same size laid bare in the ground. And again, any one may learn this fact from the red squirrel, who, by the way, is a famous sugar-maker, and knows when to tap a tree and where to do it. He performs his tapping in the highest perpendicular limbs or twigs, and leaves the sun and wind to do the evaporating, and in due season and pleasant weather you will see him come round and with great gusto gather his sirup [sic] into his stomach.”

from Facts for Farmers. (New York: A. J. Johnson, 1870.)

NYT on eating squirrels