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.

eight pounds of miscellaneous pig fat

Got a bag of pig fat the other day. About six different types of fat on a pig, to judge from my bag—I’ve written here before about the fat of different animals having different uses, well, I suppose hairs can probably be split indefinitely. I chopped it all up pretty fine for rendering on the stove, a batch of this kind of fat and a batch of that. Just to see what happens. If the skies part I’ll tell you about it.

Got sore hands, nearly a couple blisters, sore shoulders, sore feet, just cutting up that eight pounds fat. Gave me a little new respect I may have lacked for professional cooks, and for people who take down whole animals. I’ve sometimes ambitions to raise a couple pigs. And this is good to know: I can’t just throw them on a table and cut them up, not by myself and not just with a little help. Takes brains.

Next wad of fat I process, I’ll take the fatback and just salt it in steaks. Call that salt pork, people. Call that a huge saving in labor and energy: rendering takes all day on the stove. It’s a process should really be done in late fall, which is really when pigs ought to be killed anyway—then you want the heat, anyway, and the fat might taste better; older animals, finished on the mast crop, if you know where to buy them. But I needed my fat right away, and pig sellers need inventory all year round, so.

I cannot abide by a lack of animal fat. In my house we insist on good things, like in olive oil we must have extra virgin and it must be organic; even by the five-gallon bag-in-a-box pouring the stuff on feels profligate. Our commercial options, frankly, are awful. Like in many things food, there are shades here of be rich or die. Yet, the lard this year is a buck a pound, and everything I could ask for. And I’m a snot.

Sorry I’m writing so funny. Lately I have to take what I can get.



This is stock I made from the bone we cut from the meat we used for the Thanksgiving Ethiopian-style chuck roast. Yes, real stock firms up like this under refrigeration, or real good stuff still at room temperature. I don’t know what I’d do without it. Eat a lot poorer, die probably. This, I just this moment thinned up with a little water and simmered up a couple eggs in, for breakfast. Pepper. With bread and butter, ideally.

To make stock you cover bones with water and simmer them up slowly for a day or two, skimming scum and fat off as it rises. Pour it into a container and let it settle, then pour it off its sediment and you can boil it down to high concentration, keep it in the freezer—a teaspoonful will go a long way. I make this in my biggest stockpot, many batches, every winter when the local slaughter renders bones cheap and readily available, and the excess heat and moisture from the simmering is welcome in the house. It is traditional to brown the bones of red-meat animals before simmering.

I use it constantly. To fortify sauces, deglaze pans, make the base of soup, to cook rice or beans, for anything savory that wants substance, really. And there are few ingredients so… wholesome. Did I just say that? Shall I throw in “nourishing,” to boot? But honestly, really, there is nothing like it when I’m feeling weak or tired, or sick, and the only comparison I can really draw, to how a food makes me feel when I’m like that, is raw milk.

I make it every time I have a good pile of bones, actually. I hate to see people throw away bones.

tomato seeds

Most tomatoes do not cross-pollinate. This means, most tomato seed will reproduce itself perfectly, year after year. This means, if you have a tomato, and you cut it open and taste it and like it, you can set aside some of its seeds to plant next year, without cash outlay.

To be absolutely sure it will reproduce true, you should try to remember its name. Look it up: is it a “potato leaf” type or not? If not, you’re good.

The other caveat is that you shouldn’t save seed from “doubles” and “triples.” These are tomatoes which appear to be multiple tomatoes conjoined like siamese twins. These, also, may have bred out.

So now you have a mess of slimy tomato seeds. You can just dry them. Or, you can put them in a jar and let them ferment, so the goo comes loose, and you can rinse it off.

There is much ado lately about seed saving. There is a fair bit of hassle involved in a lot of seed saving. Really, there are some seeds that home gardeners have no business trying to perpetuate. Tomatoes are not one of them.

marmalade, part one, of old tangerines


I’ve been making marmalade. I’ve been reading cookbooks. One of my favorites, the Times Picayune Creole Cook Book of 1928, had the simplest recipe, and the one I figured I’d try first, with a clutch of aging grocery-store tangerines I’d been sitting on. Here is the recipe, rewritten for simplicity:

Picayune Creole Cook Book’s Marmelade d’Oranges: (p. 357)

To every 6 oranges allow 2 lemons
To every pound of fruit 1.5 cups sugar (three parts sugar to four fruit, by weight)

Chop up citrus, discard seeds. Add sugar, cook until done (as judged by plate-test). Jar.

The plate test, I should note, is when you take a cool plate and fling some droplets at it, so as to judge by their quickly-cooled viscosity whether the batch will congeal properly at room temperature yet. It is an art, apparently, because I overcooked this tangerine batch enough to wind up with something more akin to candied tangerines than marmalade. (Not that that was terribly disappointing!)

I recommend, in cutting up your citrus, to juice it first and then chop the peel after. It’s easier and it wastes less juice. Since I was using small tangerines, with a relatively high peel to juice ratio, I actually ended up discarding most of the peel. This is just something you’ve got to do by eye: how much solids do you want? And allow for some cooking down. I wouldn’t advise going without, though—I believe the peel has much of the pectin necessary for making the thing firm up. I didn’t have any lemons, but lemon juice added to taste sufficed. Without something sour or bitter to balance out your sweet oranges and sugar, marmalade can be kind of insipid. Now, cook up! Not too fast a boil—like soup, you don’t want to boil the hell out it, and all the flavor, too.

The parallel operation is to sterilize your jars and lids—you’ll need new, unused lids if you intend to use the modern, generally recommended canning-jar method. Boil them all together for ten minutes or so, when you think your marmalade is almost done cooking, and then set them out to dry. Ideally, they should still be warm, and perfectly dry, when you pour the boiling syrup into them. Fill the jars to about half an inch from the top, and gently set your lids on them, and secure them with their rings, and set them out of the way for a day. As the air in the jars cools, it will suck down the lids and with a loud pop make an air-tight seal. Still, let them be for a few hours before you start knocking them around. But then, you’re all set.

This appears to be about the simplest way to make a marmalade, and except for the overcooking I am altogether pleased with the results.

For my next batch, with the blood oranges ordered specially for the purpose, I’m going to make things a little more complex, use a few techniques designed to shorten the necessary cooking-time: an overnight soak, with the seeds; cooking in a broader-bottomed pot, to allow a greater surface to evaporate from; and cooking up the seeds with the rest, in a little baggy for easy removal. We’ll see if anything else.

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.)

fresh popcorn, hot damn.

Just popped my first ever batch of fresh, local this-year’s popcorn. It behaved very strangely.

It started popping almost as soon as it hit the pan, and popped itself out so fast there wasn’t any danger at all of scorching. The flavor was clean and fresh, though not particularly significantly moreso than the regular, and the texture was slightly more moist.

At first the texture was a little inferior to regular corn, as it sort of pan-caked down into hard flakes between your teeth, but after a few minutes that was less noticeable.

Probably this is all a function of water content and will get more like what we’re used to as it cures. I wonder how old the average shelf-bag of popping corn is.

Anyway, good stuff.

roasting red peppers


Two years ago—the first year I roasted peppers—we made a great discovery. We bought a few cases, maybe five cases of peppers from a local farmer who sells imperfect peppers cheaply. These, he said, were a little on the ripe side. He left them at the house of a mutual friend, and we would pick them up. The first day, I’m fairly sure there was a first day, something happened and we didn’t make it. The second day, we went and the friend wasn’t home, and as it wasn’t that close a friend, to go trawling through her house, we left. On the third day (I think it was), we retrieved those peppers. On the ripe side.

Getting them home, we started to process them. There were a lot of rotten parts we had to cut out, and we cut out the stems and the seeds as well. We finished about half of them, and it got late, and we got tired. The next day (it may have been the next day) we started again. A lot of the peppers we’d processed the day before had new rot on them, and we had to cut at them again. We began to roast them on a shallow-troughed grill, one that proved inadequate, as the coals burned down too fast. Didn’t finish that day, either.

The point of all this, what I’m getting at, is that these peppers, ripe past rottenness, roasted under the broiler and then their skins steamed loose in a closed stock-pot, were a lot of work, I thought, too much work. Then, hands to the elbows covered in sticky, thick, black-flecked slime, from rubbing off the blistered skins, bitching about how few roasted red peppers one couple really needs in a year, I happened to lick one of my fingers.

The way I have described it, to incredulous listeners, is better than ripe strawberries in season. I am not a roasted red pepper lover: they are too expensive, and, whatever. And yet.

Make these. Make them over-ripe. Roasting peppers is a ridiculous amount of work, so it’s not worth doing if you don’t do it right. Once they are steamed and the skins rubbed off, put them with their juices in mason jars and cover them with olive oil. They keep pretty well in the refrigerator this way, and they freeze fine, too.

The Herbwife gave her account of this event, slightly more timely, here.