Leaf Ales for All Seasons

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.

This:

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Books Worth Reading: Regenerative Ocean Farming

I’m not sure how I came to read Eat Like a Fish, except that I had heard of kelp farming and was vaguely curious about it. I grew up in Louisiana and tend to think that seafood is my birthright, but I’ve become uneasily aware that the shrimp, lobster, crabs, and fish that I love so much are not readily sustainable. Bren Smith was a commercial fisherman for much of his life, and the first part of his book is the series of salty stories that made up his life on the ocean. Then he goes on to dismantle any illusion that his former way of life was sustainable. Commercial fishing? Larger more desperate boats chasing smaller, fewer fish.  Read his descriptions of fish and shrimp farms and you’ll have a vivid mental picture of why they contribute to pollution. You also realize that, one way or another, all humankind’s sins on land roll into the ocean eventually. CAFOs and their manure burden, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, plastics, garbage, you name it, it’s headed for the oceans, however indirect the path.

Then Smith goes on to propose a solution, and one that he is actually living out. The farming of kelp and shellfish requires no fertilizers and actually cleans ocean water by filtration, as well as sequestering carbon in surprising amounts. The ocean around a kelp farm  is cleaner and more diverse. Greenwave, an organization that supports ocean farmers, states: “Through a mix of reforestation and regenerative ocean farming, recent studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that growing seaweed in 3.8% of federal waters off the California coast could completely neutralize California’s agricultural emissions. According to the World Bank, farming seaweeds in less than 5% of U.S. waters could absorb 10 million tons of nitrogen and 135 million tons of carbon–all with no freshwater or other inputs.” Much more and a nice little diagram of how it works can be found on their website: https://www.greenwave.org/our-model

Human uses for shellfish are obvious, and I’m all in for any solution that requires me to eat more oysters and scallops. But what about all that kelp? Well, there are a lot of industrial and scientific uses for kelp, but I won’t go into them here because my emphasis is on food. And I’m probably a good test case because I’ve always hated seaweed. Other than sushi nori, which is a rather highly processed form of kelp,  I have never tasted a seaweed product that I would willingly take a second bite of. But as it turns out, kelp is infinitely versatile in the kitchen. I’ve written before about the kelp salsas and other ocean and foraged products made by Barnacle Foods, and all I’ll add here is that the salsas are very tasty indeed, kelp is the main ingredient, and you won’t taste any beachy fishy flavors. They have a few grades of hotness, but I’ve decided that I prefer to get the mild Original and jazz  it up with some chopped chipotles in adobo. The salsa verde is a mild tomatillo-type salsa, although the main ingredient is kelp, and it’s delicious for huevos rancheros verde when liberally strewn with chopped cilantro and jalapeños.


I also have to mention their Bullwhip hot sauce, a mildly hot kelp concoction that has earned its place in my kitchen by adding meaty umami flavors as well as some heat, and I love their furikake. Just love it. It’s the nicest thing that ever happened to an egg salad sandwich, it’s great on simple rice dishes, and on evenings when I’m not very hungry, a slice of sourdough bread toasted, spread generously with homemade olive oil mayonnaise, and heavily snowed with furikake is my current favorite snack.

The most exciting part of regenerative ocean cookery is feeling that the best is yet to come. Top chefs are being exposed to ocean farming products and we don’t know yet what all they’ll come up with. We don’t know what home cooks could come up with if they had access to the product. Recently I used a piece of Pacific kombu to make broth, and then realized that the remaining piece of kelp had no fishy flavor or much taste of any kind and was tough as nails, but when cut into very fine strips it resembled the texture of tree ear fungus. I used it that way cooked into a Chinese dish, as a bouncy rubbery texture food, and it worked fine. People are experimenting with making kelp pasta, or you can buy readymade kelp penne and rotini. You can also get readymade kelp noodles, as distinguished from kelp pasta, which are 100% kelp and, in my opinion, are best used in Asian dishes because of the bouncy, crunchy texture.

Nutritionally, kelp contains lots of fiber both soluble and insoluble, and in addition to other micronutrients is an important source of iodine. The National Thyroid Association keeps warning us that 40% of the world is at least borderline deficient in iodine, and there is kelp waiting to solve the problem for us. It’s also a great fertilizer and I feed a lot of it to my soil and animals.

Currently  I’m looking for a bulk source of kitchen-grade kelp to experiment with, and if I find a good supply, I’ll be reporting on the results. Lactic fermentation seems like a natural use, and no doubt there are scads of other uses waiting to happen. After all, it was only recently that an enterprising couple looked at kelp and thought “Salsa! Hot sauce!”

I have seen articles about growing kelp at home in an aquarium with “seawater” made on the stove, and this is where I draw the line about home food production. Kelp belongs in the ocean, doing its work to keep the oceans going, and I’ll leave it there. Find ethical kelp farmers and support the hell out of them when you find them.

 

Got Milkweed?

I’ve written before about my efforts to grow milkweed, not just because it’s one of my favorite wild edibles but because I would like to be part of the chain that helps the monarch butterfly survive. Monarch larvae can only survive on milkweed, and so for years I’ve been nursing along milkweed plants as if they were orchids, never eating any myself because I needed them to grow and spread and maybe offer a home for some monarch larvae. This year, six years after this project originally began, I saw adult monarchs fluttering around my blooming milkweed. I ran for my phone but couldn’t get a good picture, so I borrowed the one above.  It remains to be seen whether larvae will make their appearance, but I’m delirious with hope. If you have naturally occurring milkweed in your area, treat it like the resource it is. If you don’t, consider planting some seeds, with the understanding that it may be years before you see blooming plants. Do it for the monarchs, and one day there may be enough for you to eat some too.

 

Using What You Have X: Double Layers of Vegetables

I’ve been yapping on for ten posts now about using what you have, and it occurs to me that today’s post shouldn’t be a recipe per se, but a series of comments about how I’m incorporating more of what I have into what I eat. So today is practical stuff about making sure you use the veggies and eggs that you grew or bought at the farmer’s market.
I have gorgeous broccoli in the garden right now:

One of the best ways to make sure that broccoli or any other fresh vegetable gets used is to prep it immediately. Cut off the florets, steam for five minutes, cool, and store in the refrigerator in a plastic bag, ready to be added to a dish on short notice. If you plan to use the broccoli stem, peel it, cut the crispy inner pith into matchsticks or other convenient shapes, toss with a bit of lemon juice, and refrigerate for up to 2-3 days. If you don’t prepare the stem ahead of time, you are unlikely actually to use it. I have a pet goat to take care of such utilization emergencies, or you can compost it, so either prep it right away or just dispose of it in an ecologically sound fashion without getting all guilt-ridden. Life is too short to worry about whether you utilized every last fragment  of your vegetable.

Right now I have a lot of eggs handy and use them wherever a protein source is called for. Often I cook the yolks and a few whites into a sort of pancake and then cut it in strips to be added to stirfries, but in this case I didn’t want to bother and just scrambled two eggs and two yolks with some soy sauce and scallions in the wok and put them in a bowl to be added back to the stirfry later. This is much like the way that eggs are added to fried rice, and you can see in the photo above that it is not pretty and uniform but tastes fine.
Next let’s consider the Permaculture Pasta that I wrote about before. If you have some in the freezer, clearly, an Italian or Asian noodle dish can come together almost instantly. But if you don’t, fresh pasta is still a possibility. Today I timed myself from beginning to end making a batch exactly as described in that post but a little bigger, and I had pasta ready to cook in less than an hour. Admittedly, I have my set-up worked out and know all my moves, which saves some time. But my point is that it did not take that long to make enough leafy noodles for four, which for two people means that you have a good meal and another meal to serve a few days later. Also, there’s no need to fool around with tree leaves if you prefer not to. Any mild flavored green leaf is good here, and chard is a wonderful ingredient for making green noodles. Just remove midribs, steam it for five minutes and proceed. If you are wondering what to do with those leafy greens that you bought at the farmers market, this is a good use for them. I often use Lambsquarters to make green pasta.
I won’t say that much about stirfrying because I think most people know how to do it already and I have written about it recently. I will just say that keeping the heat high helps keep the sauce clean in flavor. Don’t lose your nerve and retreat to a simmer. Have everything ready, and then stop for nothing and the cooking part is all over in a few minutes. Your mis en place is more important here than maybe anywhere else in cooking.

This particular stirfry uses lavish amounts of garlic, ginger, and oyster sauce along with a little chile paste as the seasonings, and the only vegetables used are a large amount of steamed broccoli florettes and a small amount of chopped scallion. The “juice” is half a cup of broth with a teaspoon of cornstarch, two teaspoons of sugar or equivalent sweetener, and a tablespoon of rice vinegar. Soy sauce is added as needed during cooking. The eggs were pre-scrambled and ready to add at the end.

A pot of salted water is brought to a boil and the noodles boiled just until barely done, less than a minute in the case of this delicate green fresh dough. Drain the noodles quickly, return to the pot, sprinkle lavishly with soy sauce and at least 2 tablespoons of Asian sesame oil, and toss around a little to keep the noodles from sticking to each other. Set aside, covered. Now quickly, heat your wok  over highest heat, put in some cooking oil of your choice, sauté the chopped garlic and ginger for several seconds until the pieces start to look opaque and the fragrance comes up, add the scallions, chile paste, and oyster sauce, throw in the steamed broccoli florettes, and stirfry for a few minutes until done to your taste. Stir the “juice” quickly because the cornstarch settles to the bottom. Toss in the scrambled eggs and the “juice“ and boil hard for another half a minute until it thickens. Divide the noodles into four bowls, or into two bowls and a container for the refrigerator, put the broccoli mixture on top, drizzle with a little more soy sauce and sesame oil, and relish your double layers of vegetables, triple layers if you count the greens that the hens ate.
For that second meal of noodles later in the week, you can cook a completely different dish to go on top or, if you are lazy or pressed for time or not too hungry, the noodles are delicious just reheated, divided into serving bowls, and drizzled generously with additional sesame oil and soy sauce and some crushed roasted peanuts on top. A generous grating of white pepper is good with this. If you want to drizzle in some chile oil, be my guest. A good grade of roasted sesame oil is essential to a good flavor, and I like the Japanese Kadoya brand best.