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The process of canning food can seem daunting at first. There’s a long list of equipment to assemble, complex instructions to follow, and the nagging feeling that if you do it wrong you may inadvertently spoil the fruits of your labor. I’ve done my fair share of canning, but after moving four times in the past five years, I’ve been repeatedly thrust back into beginner mode. Even for an experienced food preservationist, canning food in an unfamiliar kitchen is like being a newbie again.
With each move and each misplaced box of Mason jars, I have returned to basics. And nothing is more basic to a well-stocked kitchen than canning. I enter my new kitchen like all first-time canners — open to many possibilities as I begin to work in unfamiliar territory. With these tips and strategies you’ll stay organized and ready to preserve that bushel of fragrant peaches you couldn’t resist at your local farmers market.
5 best canning tricks for beginners
1. Create a canning center somewhere in your home.
Nothing will derail your project faster than an inability to find your tools. The location for your canning center doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It doesn’t even need to be in the kitchen. For the past year, I’ve kept my canning supplies in two giant plastic storage containers. One container corrals my canner, various small tools and my favorite canning recipes. The second container is full of canning jars stacked in their original storage flats or carefully wrapped in packing paper. Choose any color you like for your system. (My containers are bright blue — unlike any other storage container I own.) Just make sure that you can identify your canning supplies at 20 paces, even in a crowded storage room or basement.
2. Be a jar hoarder and an equipment re-gifter.
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» Home canning renaissance
I hesitate to tell anyone to be a hoarder, but it is necessary to have a selection of jar sizes on hand if you want to can a variety of foods. Whether you’re new to canning or you’ve purged your home of jars before a cross-country move as I did, you’ll need to stock up on jars. Look at your favorite recipes — or recipes you want to try — and see what kind of jars (and how many) the recipe requires. I hoard every canning jar that comes my way. I also watch for sales at my local hardware store and big box stores. Canning jars start going on sale in late summer, especially in stores that consider canning a summer-only pursuit.
You can free up space for your jar stash by purging your home of unnecessary kitchen equipment. I get rid of any tool I haven’t used in two years and generously gift my friends and neighbors with tools I no longer use.
3. Test your equipment before you want to use it.
If you don’t use all the burners on your stove on a regular basis, check them to make sure they’re operational — especially the largest front burner. Check all glass canning jars for nicks and cracks. Be sure that metal rings are free of rust. It’s easy to break a thermometer or discover that the batteries have corroded inside your favorite kitchen timer since you last used it. The time to discover these problems is before you have a flat of ripe strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter. If the tools and jars look OK, wash them in hot soapy water (except electronic devices, of course) and let them dry thoroughly before starting your project.
4. Allow twice as much time as you think you need for the process.
It’s amazing how long it can take to read directions, especially for a beginner. Recipes are usually written for experienced cooks, and I’ve found that they often underestimate the time required. Read the amount of work time suggested by your recipe and double it. This will give you time to hunt down missing tools and still finish your project before you need to pick kids up from school or make dinner. If you finish early, congratulate yourself and use the time to make yourself a cup of tea after all your hard work. The dirty dishes can wait.
5. Conduct a test run.
I do a dry run of every canning project as I start to boil water in my canner. (This is yet another reason to double the time required for any recipe.) It may seem silly — especially if you’ve already read the directions once — but it’s easy to make mistakes or take the layout of your kitchen for granted while working under pressure. You won’t realize how far away your stove is from the closest available countertop until you try to unload a dozen boiling jars from a steaming canner. And potholders always seem to run away just as the timer goes off. A dry run will help you work out the kinks in your process and put the tools you need in the place you’ll need them.
Main photo: Using the best beginner canning tips yields homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes and green beans, even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz
In our house, asking for cherry pie means one thing: sour cherry pie. Just as there are “eating apples” and “cooking apples” that differ in acid level and sugar content, these same differences exist between cherries. Sweet cherries — like eating apples — are delicious raw. Sour cherries, with their higher acid level and lower sugar content, will make you pucker if you pop them into your mouth straight off the tree. While a pie made with sweet cherry varieties (such as Bing or Rainier) can be cloying, a pie made with Montmorency or North Star cherries has the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
It’s been my experience that people who say they don’t like cherry pie have never tasted a sour cherry pie. Surprisingly few folks know that sour cherries exist, partly because it’s hard to find sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) in many parts of the country. Sour cherries, also called tart cherries, are thought to have originated in the region between the Caspian and Black seas. Cherry trees still grow wild in that area, which includes part of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Greeks were cultivating sour cherries by 300 B.C. and the popularity of these tart cherries spread quickly to Italy and throughout Europe.
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French colonists brought sour cherries to North America and by the mid-1600s cherries were plentiful in Virginia, my home state. Today most sour cherries commercially grown in the U.S. are produced along the Great Lakes in western Michigan, as well as in parts of Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania.
My love of cherry pies came early courtesy of my mother. She truly is famous for her pie baking skills — at least in her Virginia town where the local paper has profiled her and her homemade pies. She has forged some deep relationships with local sour cherry growers, who reserve gallons of cherries for her each summer. Even in a bad winter – like this last one, which killed off much of the cherry crop — my mother somehow leaves a supposedly “sold out” orchard with brimming boxes of cherries unavailable to the typical customer.
The harvest season for sour cherries is short — just a few weeks at the end of June and early July. This delicate fruit doesn’t ship or store well, so the first step in making pies for the rest of the year is preserving the fruit. Sour cherries may be canned in the traditional way, but it’s even easier to freeze them.
Although my mother often gets gallons of cherries at once, she freezes them in small batches. Seeding cherries is no small effort and it’s nice to spread the work out over a longer period of time. But the biggest advantage to this method is that you can freeze the precise amount of seeded and sugared cherries you need to make one pie. My mom actually prefers making pies from frozen cherries because it’s easier to control the amount of juice that goes into the pie filling if you separate the liquid from the cherries during the thawing process.
How to preserve sour cherries
To freeze, wash and seed four cups of cherries and place them into a large bowl. Sprinkle cherries with ½ cup of sugar, stir to combine, and let rest for 30 minutes. Freeze sugared cherries in 1.5-pint freezer containers or quart-sized freezer bags. Be sure to label your containers with contents and dates. Frozen cherries can be stored for up to one year. When taking frozen cherries out to thaw, put them in a colander with a bowl underneath to collect the juice.
If dealing with fresh sour cherries seems like too much work or sourcing them is an impossibility, you can often find jarred or canned sour cherries at Trader Joe’s or Middle Eastern markets. These canned sour cherries are usually Montmorency cherries and they’ll work fine. Just be sure that you’re not buying cherry pie filling, which is usually more sugary goop than cherries.
The hardest part of making a sour cherry pie is finding the cherries, but making cherry pie does require a certain amount of practice. The following recipe comes straight from my mother. I cannot guarantee that it will make you the focus of local newspaper profiles or will make your kitchen a place where neighbors drop in simply on the off-chance they can get some pie. But it will make you a convert to sour cherries.
Recipe courtesy Linda Lutz.
- 2 quarts sour cherries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 cup and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 3 cups plus an additional 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
- 1 cup vegetable shortening
- 1 egg, beaten
- ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1½ tablespoons butter
- Wash and seed cherries.
- Place about 4 cups fresh sour cherries into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar.
- Let sit for at least an hour to allow cherries to draw juice, stirring occasionally.
- To make pie dough, place 3 cups of the flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large bowl.
- Measure 1 cup vegetable shortening and add in small pieces to flour mixture. Using the tips of your fingers, pinch the shortening into the flour mixture until the flour-covered fat balls are the size of slightly flattened peas.
- Beat one egg in a small bowl. Add water and vinegar to beaten egg and stir to combine.
- Slowly pour liquid into flour mixture, stirring gently with two fingers until all liquid is added. Have a light touch with dough to keep it flaky. Stir no more than is necessary to work dough into a ball.
- Divide dough into three parts and shape into flat rounds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you making pie filling.
- Drain cherries into a colander, reserving juice.
- In a saucepan, combine ½ cup sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt. Slowly stir in reserved juice.
- Cook mixture until it begins to thicken, then add cherries, almond extract, and 1½ tablespoons of butter. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
- Remove cherry filling from the heat and let cool while preparing pie dough.
- Take two rounds of pie dough out of refrigerator and unwrap them.
- Working with one round at a time, roll pie dough out on flour covered pastry cloth or countertop.
- When the round of dough is about half its needed size, use fingers to pinch any cracked edges back together. Continue rolling dough until it’s large enough to cover your pie pan. Dough should be no more than ¼ inch thick, but a generous 1/8-inch thick is even better.
- Place first round of dough into bottom of pie pan and roll out the top crust using the same method.
- Pour cherry filling into pastry lined 9-inch pie pan. (My mother prefers a glass pie dish so she can see how the bottom of her crust is browning.) If filling appears too thick at this point, add a bit of water before pouring filling into pie crust.
- Cover with top crust and cut approximate10 half-inch long slits in the top crust.
- Sprinkle the top of the pie with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar.
- Cover the outer edges of the pie crust with aluminum foil or a metal pie edge protector to keep the edges of the crust from burning.
- Bake at 425 F for 35 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. If top crust seems to be browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the crust for the last 10 minutes. Let pie cool before serving.
You can use up to 1½ cups sugar, but we like cherries pies tart. Extra round of pie dough can be frozen for future use. Keep dough round in plastic wrap and place in a freezer-safe plastic bag. Pie dough will keep in the freezer for several months.
Main photo: Mom’s Sour Cherry Pie is always a crowd-pleaser. Credit: Susan Lutz
My first taste of fiddlehead ferns was in a lodge overlooking Mount McKinley in Alaska, so I was shocked to hear the word “fiddlehead” mentioned on a frigid early spring evening in Washington, D.C. While scanning the menu at Vidalia Restaurant, I overheard the waiter at the next table explain that the halibut special came with fiddlehead ferns. My husband says my head whipped around “faster than a speeding bullet.”
I hadn’t tasted fiddlehead ferns in a decade. I ordered the halibut just for the ferns, and the waiter was kind enough to request extra for me. When they arrived, the steamed ferns sat on the plate like a pile of resting green snails. But one bite sent me into heaven … and took me back 17 years to a trip to Alaska where I first tasted these bitter green morsels.
I discovered Mary Carey’s Fiddlehead Fern Farm in 1997, just outside Talkeetna. Carey was a local legend, known as a fearless pioneer and author of numerous books, including her memoir “Alaska, Not For A Woman!” As I strolled through the fern farm with Carey, she regaled me and my traveling companion with stories about how she had come to Alaska in the 1960s as a new widow. She began her big adventure at 49, driving a station wagon from Houston to Anchorage. In her 50s, she began homesteading 100 miles from the nearest road.
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She encouraged us to be bold and live without fear. Then she recommended a pilot to fly us over Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America. After an amazing flight, we stayed at Mary’s McKinley View Lodge and ate pickled fiddlehead ferns in rice pilaf. My love of fiddleheads was sealed with the first crunchy and slightly bitter bite.
I never imagined I would taste fiddlehead ferns in the nation’s capital, more than 4,000 miles away from the only fiddlehead fern farm I knew. I figured if Vidalia could get fiddlehead ferns, I could too.
My first call was to Mary Carey’s McKinley View Lodge to see whether they still served fiddleheads. I talked with Mary’s daughter Jean Richardson, who sadly reported that Carey passed away in 2004 at 91. Mary had always pickled the fiddleheads herself, and Richardson said, “that talent died with her.” I was going to have to find another recipe for pickled fiddleheads, if only in memory of Mary Carey. But without a Fiddlehead Fern Farm nearby, it wasn’t easy.
I made several calls and googled my fingers raw. It turns out that it’s hard to find fiddlehead ferns in grocery stores and farmers markets. The fiddlehead is truly a foraged food, and not all fiddleheads are the same. Most fiddleheads consumed in restaurants come from fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), the only variety approved for human consumption by the USDA. While many varieties of ferns grow wild in North America, many of them are toxic, so it’s vital to know what you’re doing before foraging for fiddleheads. I realized I wasn’t experienced enough to do that.
I eventually discovered Dan Donahue of Agora Farms and stalked his stall at Washington D.C.’s Eastern Market until fiddleheads arrived. Donahue gets his fiddleheads from a group of Native Americans in Maine who harvest wild fiddleheads. But spring came late this year, so the fiddleheads took longer than usual to appear at Dan’s stall. When they did, I scored a big baggie filled with clumps of dark green curlicues that resemble mollusks even more when they’re raw.
The problem was, I wasn’t sure what to do with them.
Finding fellow fiddleheads
Luckily, fiddleheads inspire almost cult-like devotion and Donahue put me in touch with fellow fiddlehead fan Jonathan Bardzik, who demonstrates fiddlehead fern pickling at Eastern Market. Bardzik and I discussed our mutual love of fiddleheads, especially the pickled variety. Asked what he loves about this little known treat, Bardzik explained that fiddleheads are one of the last truly seasonal foods. The season for finding ostrich ferns in their edible “fiddlehead” stage is extremely brief, only a few weeks at best and a single week in Alaska.
When you find them, you have to move fast. Preparing fiddleheads requires setting all other tasks aside to take advantage of their brief period of freshness, a good reminder of what’s important in life.
Bardzik shared his recipe for pickled fiddlehead ferns. This recipe is certainly different from the pickled fiddleheads I first ate at Mary Carey’s Fiddlehead Fern Farm, but they are lovely in their own way. I used half my stash for this. I blanched and froze the rest following guidelines from the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension since I still want to try to replicate Mary Carey’s recipe for pickled fiddlehead ferns.
Then a wild thought occurred to me: Could I have my own Fiddlehead Fern Farm? Could I grow my own patch of ostrich ferns in my mid-Atlantic backyard? I asked veteran forager Matt Cohen if it were possible to grow ostrich ferns as far south as Washington D.C. Cohen was tentative: They only grow in limited areas in this region, but he had seen some scattered in small colonies along the Potomac River. He had even harvested some from his own backyard under the shade of a huge 150-year-old oak tree. So I’m planting my own patch of ostrich ferns under a grove of trees in my backyard. It may take a few seasons before new shoots appear, and I expect some trial-and-error in finding the right moment to harvest the tightly wound, snail-like nubbins. Until then I can munch on my pickled fiddleheads and think of Mary Carey. When I was under 30 and Mary was over 80, she told me to live life boldly. My fiddlehead patch will be proof, in a small way, that I can.
Recipe courtesy Jonathan Bardzik.
- 2 cups trimmed fiddlehead ferns
- 1½ cup roasted red pepper blackberry vinegar (You may substitute ¾ cup sherry vinegar and ¾ cup white balsamic vinegar.)
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon whole mustard seed
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
- 1 star anise pod
- Soak fiddleheads in water for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Place cleaned and trimmed fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam for 10 to 12 minutes.
- Remove fiddleheads from steamer and transfer to a bowl filled with half ice and half water. Let cool, then drain.
- Meanwhile, combine remaining ingredients in a small saucepan to make the pickling brine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and bring to room temperature.
- Place fiddleheads in a bowl or jar and cover with pickling brine.
- Refrigerate for at least two hours. Leave longer to intensify flavor.
Fiddlehead Safety Tips:
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that fiddleheads should be cooked thoroughly before eating. Do not eat raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads because of the risk of foodborne illness. Always buy fiddleheads from suppliers you know and trust. Most restaurant fiddleheads use fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), the only variety approved for human consumption by the USDA.
Main photo: Washing ostrich fern fiddleheads before steaming. Credit: Susan Lutz
Our family loves working in the garden, but it wasn’t easy to convince our daughters that planting vegetable seeds was a great family adventure. In fact, the combination of “work” and “vegetables” seemed guaranteed to provoke horror in our children. What did the trick was a simple question: “Do you want some pizza?”
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My husband and I have gardened with our two daughters from the day they were old enough to hold their tiny trowels. Every year we plant a garden with a theme that they choose – usually a food they are eager to eat. They each get to plant, water, and weed their very own corner of the garden. And when harvest time rolls around, they pick their edible treasures and eat them with delight, often while still standing in the garden bed. My kids know that if they put in the hard work that gardening entails, they’ll get to eat a lot more of their favorite foods when summer comes.
I usually know exactly when to start our spring crops, but this year is different because we live in new and unfamiliar gardening territory. My family and I relocated from sunny Los Angeles to Virginia — a place with real winters and plenty of snow (at least this year.) Once spring finally arrived, weren’t sure how to start gardening in this new foodshed, but we had a plan.
These top 10 tips for planting a family-friendly garden have made our gardens more productive and our kids more excited about growing their own food.
1. Ask yourself, “What do my kids like to eat?” Then name your garden after your child’s favorite food.
There’s no point in having a bumper crop of squash if your kids hate squash. My daughters love pizza, so we started a pizza garden this year, but a salsa garden or a spaghetti garden will work just as well. Don’t worry if your garden’s name isn’t entirely accurate. If you start a spaghetti garden, you will think, “tomatoes, basil, onions.” Your kids will think, “SPAGHETTI!!!” It’s a win-win.
2. Do your homework.
Unless you’re already an experienced gardener, taking a family-friendly class or doing a bit of online research can make your gardening project go much more smoothly. Nothing ruins a kid’s budding enthusiasm for gardening like a patch of brown dead plants. Local plant nurseries and Master Gardeners often teach free classes on vegetable gardening. If looking online, check out University of Illinois Extension’s fun introduction to gardening with kids.
3. Find the right spot for your garden.
Choose a location that gets sunlight throughout the day. If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of land available for planting, check the location for good drainage and accessibility to water. If you’re planting a container garden, consider using a self-watering container, which you can buy or make yourself.
4. Get to know your soil.
Whether you plant your garden in a container or in the ground, good soil quality and proper drainage can make or break a garden. Adding a soil conditioner like manure, compost, or peat moss to your resident dirt can help drainage and give your vegetable plants much-needed nutrients.
5. Start now — or as soon as the last danger of frost has passed in your area.
It’s easy to put off starting a garden, but if you want the best plant selection, you need to start early in the growing season. Many nurseries and small-scale growers have a limited amount of the most popular plant varieties, especially herbs and tomatoes.
6. Pick plants thoughtfully.
Select plants best suited to your environment and garden space. Areas with hard frosts need hearty specimens that will survive lower temperatures. Choose drought-tolerant plants in Mediterranean climates. There are even vegetable varieties made specifically for container gardens. Planting the right varieties can mean the difference between a disappointing family project and a huge harvest.
7. Visit your local farmers market.
Farmers markets have already started for the season in most parts of the country and there is usually at least one vendor selling herbs and vegetable seedlings at every market. Local farmers are an underused (and often under-valued) resource for helping you choose varieties of plants that will be heartiest — and tastiest — in your climate. Farmers and growers can also help you solve problems related to pesky bugs and plant diseases prevalent in your area.
8. Keep a gardening journal.
I’ve followed my grandfather’s tradition of keeping an old yearly diary as a lifelong gardening journal (Thomas Jefferson did the same thing). I write the date I plant and harvest each crop, noting which varieties of plants did best. I look back on this journal each spring to see when it’s time to plant. My kids enjoy comparing our plant journal with this year’s crops.
9. Water your garden regularly.
Sporadic or inadequate watering stresses plants. If you want beautiful produce, you must water plants regularly, especially during hot weather. Create a watering chart to help your kids remember to water their garden. Consider hiring a garden-sitter to water your garden if you’re away from home for more than a few days in hot summer months. (We asked a friend to water our garden for a week last summer in exchange for all the produce she could eat.)
10. Get ready to work, but take time to enjoy your garden.
Raising a garden is like raising kids in many ways. It’s a lot of work, it’s more expensive than you think it will be, and it almost never turns out the way you expect. But it will be rewarding in ways you never considered. As rewarding as seeing your vegetable-hating daughter gobble handfuls of homegrown sugar snap peas.
Main photo: Planting a pizza garden in the backyard. Credit: Susan Lutz
The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.
I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.
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“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”
I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.
Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.
Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.
Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.
Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:
- Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
- Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
- Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
- If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
- Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.
We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.
Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.
Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.
Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.
It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.
My new home is full of surprises.
Courtesy of Matt Cohen
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)
4 cups bittercress
1-2 tablespoons tamari
1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.
2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.
3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.
4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.
5. Add tamari to taste.
6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.
Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz
Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.
But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.
It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.
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The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.
I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.
Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.
Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.
“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.
“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.
Making bitters at home
I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.
Gentian Root, the star ingredient, actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.
The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.
The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.
According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.
Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.
Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.
But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about. Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!
So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.
Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting
(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)
Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies
1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.
4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.
5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.
6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.
7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.
8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.
Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz