Archive for the ‘fruit’ Category

Leaf Ales for All Seasons

I’ve had more inquiries about this post than about any other, so I’m re-upping it with a few subsequent notes:

1. The effect of fermentation on flavors is unpredictable and often wonderful. I am not at all a fan of beets, for instance, but one or two beets gives the brew a beautiful rosé color and the beet flavor is gone by the end of fermentation.

2. My blog is never about plant identification and does not contain sufficient information for that purpose. It is entirely up to you to determine what leaves are safe. I like using tree leaves, but often it is hard to find sufficient data on their safety. If uncertain, don’t use them. I would just encourage you to think a bit beyond the usual. One of the most successful batches I made was based on collards after I came into a dozen bunches of organic collards unexpectedly. Collards are not by any means my favorite vegetable, but flavored with a bit of fennel seed and star anise and fermented out, the wine was good. Another successful batch was based on parsley.

3. Some delicate flavors do not survive the initial boiling but can still be added later by the same method as dry-hopping in beer brewing. Bronze fennel is a good example. Added to the cooked brew its flavor disappeared, but when a batch was pounded a bit on the cutting board, put in a hops bag, and fermented with the liquid for the first two weeks, it gave a very good subtle flavor.

By any standards, we have been through a very strange year, and it isn’t over yet. The tragedy of the pandemic looms over everything, changing every professional, social, and financial situation. As a healthcare worker I’ve seen the distress caused as the impact of deaths ripples outward through families and communities. Anything that we can do to help and protect each other needs to be done.
More than ever, I feel that provident householders who have taken some steps toward being able to meet their own needs are relatively fortunate even when times are tough. The 2020 growing season was a strange one here, starting with an early long balmy spring that encouraged everything to start leafing out and blooming, then days of hard freeze that destroyed all the blossoms and infant fruit. Apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, all gone. I didn’t harvest a single piece of fruit. Not even grapes, because the hungry squirrels ate them. Thinking that I would not be able to do any winemaking, I wandered around disconsolate, until it occurred to me that what I had was leaves. Lots and lots of leaves. Leaves can be made into teas and liquid infusions, and therefore they can be fermented into wine.

Throughout this discussion I’ll give brief directions suited to people with some fermentation equipment and experience. If you have neither, I’d recommend the book Making Wild Wines and Meads by Rich Gulling. The book gives more complete directions but preserves the spirit of experimentation that makes fermentation so interesting. Just be aware that his directions about the amount of sweetening to add produce very high alcohol wine, suitable for the storage times that he talks about. Mine are different.

Step 1 is to prepare the yeast. Any yeast intended for white wine will work. I use champagne yeast because it’s sturdy and unstoppable and I’ve never had a problem with it. Put half a cup of warm water in a large glass, stir in 2 teaspoons of sugar until dissolved, then add a teaspoon of dry winemaking yeast. Let the yeast granules moisten for a few minutes, stir them in, and cover the glass with plastic wrap. If you forget to give the yeast a head start you can pitch it directly into the sweetened brew later, but with the prestart it is rarin’ to go when added to the brew.
Next, catch your leaves. For the most part I used tree leaves, because it was in accord with my semi-permaculture principles and because I had a lot of them. In western society we don’t make a lot of use of tree leaves, so it’s very important to find out which ones you can safely use. In my area there are a lot of mulberry trees, and I have fig trees on my property, and I knew that these leaves are used for teas in other countries and are safe and non-toxic. Some people do have allergic skin reactions to handling fig leaves, so determine your own limits. I’ll have more to say about leaf foraging further along. To make a 1.5 gallon batch of wine, I started by going out in the yard with a 2 gallon stockpot and picking it full of leaves,  packed slightly but not tightly. Then I washed the leaves carefully, and chopped them up a bit just by sticking my big kitchen shears in the pot and cutting through handfuls of leaves. The exception was the fig leaves. I rolled them up in bundles of about 10 leaves and cut them in crosswise strips. I was fairly sure that they were too thick and tough for my stick blender to chop up. Then water was added to almost fill the pot, and the heat was started. I let the water come to a boil, stirred the leaves frequently, and after about 15 minutes when the leaves started to shrink and look cooked, I started chopping with my stick blender.  Ultimately you want an almost-puréed witch’s brew looking like this.

Yech, right? But your finished wine will look quite different and will resemble the pale green-gold wine in the second photo above. At this stage start to think about how to flavor it. The leaves have little flavor, so if you add nothing else it may not taste like much. My personal favorite is about 10 stars of star anise thrown in at this point and simmered with the brew for another 15 minutes, but there are lots of other possibilities. I think that lemon verbena would be a particularly nice flavor, and next summer I plan to try that. You can also add flavoring agents to the finished wine later. After you have simmered in your flavor ingredients of choice, turn off the burner and let the brew cool to room temperature.

Next, run the brew through a mesh straining bag, which you can get through any brewing supply store. Wring and squeeze the bag to get as much fluid out as possible. You should get about 1.5 gallons back. Now you add the sweetening that the yeast will live on. The amount added determines the alcohol level of the finished wine. I use 1pound per gallon of ordinary table sugar or raw sugar, or 1lb 8oz for this quantity, which makes a very light wine of about 4% alcohol content. You can use more if you want more alcohol. You also need to add some acid at this point or your finished wine will be very bland. I make 5 gallon batches and lemon juice would be too expensive, so I use malic acid powder from the brewing store. The amount is a very individual thing. For this quantity I use about two tablespoons. Have a small clean cup handy and taste the brew, bearing in mind that the sweetness will be gone after fermentation and you are tasting only for acid content. Be cautious, because you can always add more later.

By now your glass of yeast should look foamy and bubbly. Add the yeast mixture to the cooled brew, stir in thoroughly, put the brew in a 2 gallon fermentation bucket, fit with a fermentation lock, and put it in a place that isn’t too chilly. Bubbles should start to come through the fermentation lock within 12 hours, and reach peak in 2-4 days. Let the whole rig sit undisturbed for 2 weeks, then siphon into a clean bucket, put the fermentation lock on again, and leave it for another two weeks. Be sure to watch the fermentation lock and keep it full of liquid to the fill line. It has now completed secondary fermentation, and you can siphon it into glass jugs.

A wine this low in alcohol has very little ability to keep, so you will want to use it in the near future or store it in the refrigerator. Now let’s consider how to drink it. Chill it, taste it, and think about it. The sweetening is now completely gone, and it may taste too acid. Add a little sugar, or a drop or two of artificial sweetener if you use that, and see if you like that effect better. If it seems bland, a small squeeze of lemon juice added in the glass might be just what it needs to perk it up. If the acid balance seems right to you but you don’t taste enough other flavors, it might be delicious with a little bit of one of the many herbal liqueurs added. I make my own mixed herbal liqueur and my own anisette, and often add a few drops of each to a glass. I like the leaf wines best when carbonated, and for my large batches this is done in a kegerator, but you can carbonate small amounts using the Drinkmate. Add fruit juice or whatever else takes your fancy. Play with it. It’s yours, and the rules that might apply to fine wines have no application here.

If you don’t have any tree leaves available but you do have a garden, you still have the materials to make a very personal leaf wine from your own property. I often use Swiss chard leaves from my garden in these brews, and have discovered to my great pleasure that I can use kale and outer leaves of cabbage, and although the cabbagey scent can be quite obnoxious in the original brew, it is gone after fermentation. One of my favorites was made entirely from scarlet kale, and is beautiful in the glass.


Turns into this:

If you decide to try it, be aware that in the pot the brew will be a dreadful purple-brown shade and you will curse me. Fear not, when you add the acid the magic of polyphenol redox chemistry will take place and the brew will turn a lovely bright magenta.

Other things that I have added to leaf wine brews include prickly pear juice, blood orange juice, and elderberries.

Rose hips are also good material, and the pretty tawny-rose wine at the top of this post was made with rose hips. A double handful of blackberries added a pretty tinge to another batch. This can be a good way to make use of a small amount of fruit.

We enjoy the leaf wines so much that I make 5 gallon batches in my giant 8 gallon stockpot, but don’t do this until you’ve tried some small batches to see if you like the concept. Also, just to emphasize this point again, leaf wines made according to my directions have a very low alcohol content and won’t keep well unless refrigerated. I am able to store them under refrigeration, but if you aren’t, stick to smaller amounts.

Also be aware that when I started making large batches, my home stick blender dropped dead and I had to get a commercial one from a restaurant supply house. Tree leaves are tough.

As always when foraging, use common sense and tend to your own safety. I don’t have any problem consuming mulberry leaves, fig leaves, or Siberian elm leaves, but you might. Never assume that the leaves can be used because the fruit can be used; elderberries are just one example of a plant that has edible fruit but poisonous leaves. Never trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet. Do your own research.

If you are interested in thriving on what’s around you, leaf wines can add a bit of sparkle and joy to your life.

Addendum: if you don’t have fermentation experience, please do read the recommended book or some other good book about home winemaking before getting started. It’s easy to make “informal” wine but there are some things to know in order to prevent messy overflows.

Living in Interesting Times: Radiant Moments

To sum up the pandemic news: daily life is strange and it’s going to be strange for some time to come. If you don’t have a garden, it’s even weirder and more disturbing. But if you do have a garden, there are moments of such transcendent beauty that you realize with a fresh shock how lucky you are to be alive. They make all the distancing and disinfecting seem worthwhile.

I had a moment like that this morning. My Italian plum is in full bloom, about two weeks later than all my other plums, and when I came out to feed the chickens this morning the whole tree appeared to be in motion. As I got closer, I realized that hundreds of fritillary butterflies were flapping around it, lighting briefly to drink nectar there and there. They moved so fast that I couldn’t get a very good shot, but the whole tree was covered with several butterflies per branch. The beauty and lively motion were such that I stood gaping at it for several minutes, filled with gratitude for this visitation.

There are plenty of other things to be grateful for. I have a job, and that alone makes me really lucky. I have chickens and as long as they’re fed, they lay. Giving them fresh green grass and edible weeds makes the yolks deep gold. Still exulting over the butterflies, I decided to make egg fettuccini. I have written about this before and will only add here that using all yolks in the dough adds another layer of deliciousness, and you can afford this extravagance  if you have chickens. I wanted something with a Southern Mediterranean feel and used sautéed green garlic, capers, pine nuts, a few rinsed and chopped anchovy fillets, some chopped grilled scallions left over from another meal, cherry tomatoes dried into wonderful “tomato raisins” in a slow oven, a good pinch of red pepper flakes, and floods of top-notch olive oil. Finished with shavings of good Parmesan, this makes a meal that isn’t quickly forgotten and came out of your garden, your pantry, and your freezer.

Be kind to those around you, take care of your health as well as possible, love your friends and your pets, and let gratitude flood you whenever possible. If you own a little bit of ground, put it to food production. Tend your pantry and freezer. Try to have enough to share. Survive, but survive kindly.

Fermentation III: Vinegar

I first wrote about red wine vinegar in 2009, and while I have made and consumed it steadily since then, there didn’t seem to be much more to say about it. My husband gifted me with a marvelously cool 2 gallon oak barrel to keep it in, but the vinegar was the same. But then came The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and I’m left wondering why I was so unimaginative. Their chapter on vinegars has lots of interesting ideas but the ones that excite me the most are elderberry “balsamic” and black garlic “balsamic.” I suspect that I will end up combining the two, since I have some elderberry wine fermenting and the port-like notes should be a perfect complement to the deep umami of black garlic, and for even more depth I’ll use red wine vinegar to start the acetic fermentation. Basically, if you have a good strong vinegar mother, you can ferment anything mildly alcoholic into vinegar. The acetobacter bacillus converts ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of oxygen, so if you want to use your own fruit you need to ferment it into wine first, but that’s easy enough. Once you have wine or mead or hard cider to ferment into vinegar, you can do it in quart mason jars, with a dish towel tied tightly over the top to allow oxygen in and prevent winged visitors, and make several kinds of vinegar in a square foot of counter space. Or if you have a lot of ideas and a tolerant spouse, you can occupy all available surfaces. Just make sure you have a plan for what to do with it.  You can cook with it as detailed in my 2009 post, and if you still have too much it makes a fair non-alcoholic drink stirred into sparkling water. Stir a shot into a tall glass of chilled sparkling water, with some natural or artificial sweetener. I like a shake of cinnamon on top. This isn’t a kid’s drink, and only the adults are likely to enjoy it, and not all of them by any means. Some will dislike the sharp edge, and a dash of fruit juice or a little honey may take the curse off for them. But those of us who drank the old cider-vinegar-and-honey drink growing up generally came to enjoy the sweet-sour flavor and like this use of vinegar.

This is already known to everyone, but it bears occasional repeating: you can also infuse vinegar with nearly anything that suits your fancy. Tarragon is a classic, but I prefer thyme infused in red wine vinegar, using about one big bunch of thyme per pint of vinegar. Flavorful fruits are also a possibility. Be aware that Acetobacter does one thing superbly well, and that is converting ethanol to acetic acid. If you add any source of unfermented sugar directly to your ferment, it will remain as sugar. You can use this effect deliberately to make fascinating semi-sweet or agrodolce vinegars. One that I particularly enjoyed was made by dehydrating Concord grapes from my vine until they were somewhat shriveled and approaching the raisin stage, covering them with red wine vinegar, blending with a stick blender until the grapes were roughly chopped, and then infusing the mixture for a couple of weeks. The grape bits were then strained out, and the vinegar was richly flavored, barely sweet, and carried some of the unique tang of the Concord grape. I’m looking forward to making pomegranate vinegar in the near future. Blackberry vinegar would probably be wonderful.

It may be that live vinegar contributes to your biome and general health, and definitely it contains the antioxidants of the original wine with little or none of the alcohol.

If you get interested in culinary uses for your vinegar, you will enjoy Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. The section on acid in cooking is invaluable and will lead you to analyze food that lies a bit too heavy on the tongue and realize that a bit of acid could have sparked it to deliciousness. Canal House makes and uses a lot of vinegar in their cooking, and you can find some recipes and a good article on making vinegar here.

The vinegar “mother” is a great example of a SCOBY or pellicle, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that create a matrix and keep reproducing as long as they have a food supply. They busily make vinegar, kombucha,water or milk kefir, or other things depending on the particular microorganisms. You can see the vinegar mother well in this borrowed shot:

Your mother is very versatile and can make vinegar of anything alcoholic as long as the proof isn’t too high. Be aware that a mother formed in red wine will carry red pigment for quite a while, and if you put it in white wine or hard cider you will have rose’ vinegar. The mothers look a bit like placentas:

If you have a healthy one, the question always arises of what to do with the “pups” or new layers of mother that are continually forming. Some people eat them, but then some people eat their own placentas. No judgement implied, but I wouldn’t eat either one. If your friends don’t want one, put it in the compost or bury it in the garden or whatever makes you feel okay about letting go of it.


The Last Fruit of the Year

Most of the trees in my yard are fruit trees, and many of them are coming into full maturity and bearing potential. I was looking forward to a succession of harvests this summer, when fate intervened in the form of one small, scrawny squirrel.  She showed up under my birdfeeder last winter, looking like she was near death. It was fun to see her crouched outside the kitchen door eating seeds, and I even put out a few special treats for her. She grew fat and sleek, and in late spring she reappeared after a disappearance with five baby squirrels bouncing around behind her.  They had a very high adorable factor, and when they destroyed some green fruit I did not make too big a fuss about it. Then they disappeared, and I began to see squirrels around the rest of my neighborhood. Then, predictably, mother squirrel showed up with six new babies.  The remaining fruit was ripe, and they harvested it all. I mean all of it. A large prune plum tree, strung with plums so heavily that the branches looked like blue rope, was stripped in a couple of days. I was able to eat about five peaches before they were gone. Apples gone. Cherries gone.  I was reduced to buying local fruit at the farmers market, a sad comedown for somebody who has been tending fruit trees for the last decade.

Fortunately, it turns out that squirrels don’t like quinces.  My tree was loaded, and I set out to discover what could be done with quinces. I made a ton of chutney, and made some membrillo to serve with cheese,  but my favorite use is as a base for a flourless chocolate torte.  The original idea came from one of my favorite food sites, Food 52, and was based on eggplant.  You can read it here: I made it once as written and liked it, but I felt that it could be improved upon. Quinces have an aromatic overtone and a lot of pectin, which helps this cake set.
You will need a special ingredient, black cocoa powder. I use Onyx brand. The cake is not the same without it. I keep it lower-carb with the use of special sweeteners which can only be obtained online: Sola sweetener and Truly Zero sucralose. If you choose to use other sweeteners from the grocery store, be aware that they are probably not really low carb at all, because most of them contain ingredients that can raise your blood sugar. Also, the texture and mouthfeel may be drastically affected. If you eat sugar, you can forget those two ingredients and sweeten it with sugar to taste. Otherwise, the only significant  carbohydrates present are from the chocolate and quince, and quince is not a sweet fruit.

Start with one large or two smaller quinces.  Scrub the fuzz off with a scrub brush, but don’t peel them. Most of the pectin is in the peel. Cut them in quarters, cut the core out, and steam them for about 25 minutes or until  easily penetrated with a fork. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line an 8” cake pan with parchment paper. In a double boiler or (very carefully) in a microwave at lower power, melt 2 4oz bars of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate and one full-size bar of excellent dark chocolate, 84-85% cacao content. Put the soft quince flesh in the blender and grind to a perfectly smooth paste with enough heavy cream to keep the mixture blending smoothly, usually about a cup. A Vitamix does a great job of this. Quinces are pretty fibrous, so make sure it is blended smooth. Scrape the mixture out into a mixing bowl. It will already be stiffening from all the pectin, so use a heavy wooden spoon for the rest of the mixing. Beat in eight egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 2 teaspoons vanilla,  a few scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg, 1/2 cup Sola sweetener, and 7 drops Truly Zero sweetener. Otherwise, sweeten with sugar to taste. Beat in the melted chocolate, and last, beat in half a cup of black cocoa powder. It will be really stiff by now and need a fair amount of muscle power. Taste, only if you are okay with raw egg, and adjust the sweetness if needed. This amount of sweetener gives a semisweet result.

Scrape into the parchment-lined pan, spread around neatly (it won’t spread in the oven, so get it the way you want it,) and bake at 300 until a clean knife comes out almost clean. Then-this is important-let it sit for at least 8 hours before you cut it, so it can firm up. Serve at room temp or slightly warmed, Never cold, with or without whipped cream, and enjoy. My motto is “Chocolate is food, not dessert,” and I have eaten a wedge of this cake for lunch on occasion.

I have frozen a number of one-torte portions of blended quince flesh and cream, ready to make this cake all winter.