I could have sworn that the only variety of pea I planted this year was English—the kind you shell before eating—but instead we’ve found ourselves struggling to eat our way through a big, continuous crop of flat-podded snow peas. Although I’ll probably freeze some, I’ve found that peas in their pods, like green beans, are best preserved by pickling. So the other day I pickled some snow peas just as I often do snap peas (the kind with rounded but still edible pods), with white wine vinegar and tarragon in a quart jar that I’ve stored in the refrigerator. Today I may stand some peas in pint jars and process the pickled peas for pantry storage in the same way I do dilly beans.
You can vary the seasonings in this recipe, of course. If you shy away from the licorice-like flavor of tarragon, try thyme. Use black, green, or pink peppercorns instead of chiles, or try some mace or nutmeg. And instead of wine vinegar use cider vinegar, if you don’t mind its slight golden hue.
Once you open a jar of these sweet, tart, crisp pea pods, expect them to disappear in a wink.
Pickled Snow Peas
1 1/4 cups white wine vinegar 1 1/4 cups water 1 tablespoon pickling salt 1 tablespoon white sugar 1 pound snow (or snap) peas, stemmed and strung 4 garlic cloves, sliced 1 or 2 small dried chiles, slit lengthwise 1 or 2 sprigs of fresh tarragon
In a saucepan, bring to a boil the vinegar, water, salt and sugar, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Let the liquid cool.
Pack the peas into a quart jar along with the garlic, the hot pepper or two, and the tarragon. Cover the peas with the cooled liquid, and close the jar with a plastic cap.
Store the jar in the refrigerator for at least two weeks before eating the peas. Chilled, they will keep for months.
In jams, pies, cobblers, and other sweet treats, rhubarb routinely gets paired with strawberries, for good reasons: Rhubarb and strawberries tend to reach the peak of their seasons together, and strawberries disguise the often lackluster color of rhubarb (although all-green rhubarb can be attractive on its own; see my recipe for Green Rhubarb Jam).
But in a spring as cool the one we’re experiencing in the Pacific Northwest now, local strawberries lag behind the rhubarb. There’s hardly a spot of red in the berry patches yet, and nobody wants to substitute hard, green-centered strawberries from California for sweet, tender red fruits from the garden or farm stand. This is a good time, though, to clean out the freezer, to make room for the abundance that will come (it will, really). And amid the pork chops and pesto may lurk bags and bags of last year’s fruit. My friend Sally hauls all out all her frozen fruit this time of year to make a batch of mixed-fruit wine. I make jam.
I decided to make jam from the last of last summer’s blueberries combined with the first of this year’s rhubarb. The pairing worked: The rhubarb took on the deep-blue color of the berries, lent an interesting texture, and balanced the berries’ high pectin content so I could use minimal sugar and yet avoid a tough gel. To eliminate the unpleasant fibrousness of cooked blueberries, I first heated the berries separately and then pressed them through a food mill. The result is a lusciously soft, dark jam that seems the essence of blueberry until you notice the tart yet subtle background note of rhubarb.
Supposing no blueberries turn up in your freezer, wait a few weeks. With adequate watering, your rhubarb will still be going strong when the first blueberries ripen. Then you can mix the two deliciously in jam—or in a pie, a tart. a crisp, or a cobbler.
1 1/2 pounds blueberries 1 pound trimmed rhubarb (leaves and tough bases cut off), cut into small pieces 3 1/3 cups sugar 2 tablespoons lemon juice
If the berries are frozen, let them thaw.
In a broad, heavy-bottomed pan, simmer the blueberries, covered, for about 5 minutes. Press them though the fine disk of a food mill.
Combine the berry purée in the pan with the rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, while still stirring frequently, until the rhubarb breaks down and a bit of the jam mounds in a chilled bowl, or until the temperature of the mixture reaches 221 degrees F. This should take no more than 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
Skim the foam from the jam, and ladle the jam into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Close the jars, and process them for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Remove the jars to a rack or pad, and let them stand undisturbed for 24 hours, after which time the jam should be well set. Store the jars in a cool, dry, dark place.
Here’s an old gardener’s springtime favorite that you won’t find in an ordinary supermarket. As tender as butter lettuce, this lobed-leaf variety stands up better to heat and so can thrive into early summer without turning bitter. We’re eating it every day, sometimes twice a day, knowing that if really hot weather ever comes this year we’ll eat no more lettuce until fall.
Dress a bowl of this lettuce lightly, with a dash of vinegar, a couple of dashes of oil, and a little salt and pepper. A bit of minced fresh tarragon is nice, too.
During a long, cool spring, like the one we experienced in the Pacific Northwest last year and the one we’re grousing about now, the rare warm day is an occasion for celebration. In summer I often try to satisfy my craving for tabbouleh, the Near Eastern salad of parsley, mint, and bulgur wheat, only to find my parsley gone to seed and my mint old and tough. Spring, not summer, is the best season for tabbouleh. But as a main course, at least, tabbouleh is best on a warm day. So one day recently, when the thermometer neared 70 degrees, I set out to make tabbouleh for lunch, with tender parsley, mint, and lettuce from rain-soaked garden beds.
Tabbouleh (tabouleh, tabouli, tabooley—spell it as you will) is often served with little cupped leaves of romaine lettuce, which serve as scoops for the mixture of wheat and herbs. Although I had no romaine, my butter lettuce was at its best, so I picked some as a bed for the salad. And along with spearmint I picked some lemon balm, a citrus-scented member of the mint family that has become a weed in my garden.
Traditionally tabbouleh is made with fine bulgur (or burghul), which you can find in Lebanese and Turkish markets. Bulgur is wheat that has been parboiled, parched dry, coarsely ground, and then rubbed to remove the outer layers. Covered in water, it quickly swells to a texture perfect for eating. Medium or coarse bulgur, available in many supermarkets, will do well enough for tabbouleh, but it will need longer soaking, and you may want to use hot water rather than cold. (Bulgur is not the same as cracked wheat. If you want to substitute ordinary cracked wheat for bulgur, you’ll have to cook the wheat and then let it cool.)
In summer, tabbouleh is often served with sliced or cubed cucumber, pepper, or tomato, and with grape leaves rather than lettuce. I decorated my tabbouleh this time with home-cured olives and cubes of cotija cheese; feta would have been just as good. My husband’s homemade pinot gris wine made a fine accompaniment.
I never measure ingredients when I make tabbouleh, but here’s an approximate recipe:
2 cups bulgur 1 cup minced onion Salt to taste 1 1/2 cups minced parsley 1/2 cup minced spearmint, or a mixture of spearmint and lemon balm 1/2 cup lemon juice, or more 1/2 cup olive oil, or more
Put the bulgur into a bowl, cover it with water, and let the bulgur soak for an hour. Drain and press out any excess water. Mix the bulgur with the onions, crushing the onions with your fingers. Add salt to taste. Stir in the herbs, the half-cup lemon juice, and the half-cup olive oil. Taste the salad, and add more salt, lemon juice, or oil, if you like.
Serve the tabbouleh immediately, with lettuce or grape leaves, or chill the salad until you’re ready to eat.
Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my ‘Pineapple’ quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with a pineapple-like scent.
Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, roast them with vegetables, bake them like apples, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, paste (membrillo), and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.
Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.
But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.
Raw Quince-Honey Syrup
Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.
1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes 2 cups honey
Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.
After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.
Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.
Although I’m providing these instructions now because I promised to do so in my recent discussion of lemon juice (“Real Lemon versus ReaLemon,” April 19, 2011), I took most of the pictures you see here more than a year ago, after someone asked me for advice in using the strong cider vinegar from her boyfriend’s orchard. The vinegar had tested at 10-percent acid. I checked with an Extension agent I know: “To use 10-percent vinegar in a pickle recipe calling for 5-percent vinegar, you cut the vinegar with an equal amount of water, right?” No, said the agent. She would never tell anyone that it was okay to use any vinegar not commercially labeled as 5-percent acid. How could the woman know her boyfriend’s vinegar was 10-percent acid? I pressed, but the agent was firm. People should always get their pickling vinegar from a store. You just can’t trust regular people to know how to titrate vinegar. Well, my husband does titration, as do a lot of home winemakers. The process is simple, and the equipment and supplies—a graduated 100- or 250-milliliter cylinder, a graduated 10-millilter pipette, a 250-millimeter buret and stand, a 250-millimeter flask, distilled water, phenolphthalein indicator, and .2N or .1N sodium hydroxide—together cost only about $120, or less if you choose plastic instead of glassware. The chemicals are available at brewing- and winemaking-supply shops, and the glassware from science suppliers.
Here are the steps in titration:
1. Bring some distilled water to a boil to drive off any carbon dioxide. You’ll need a little less than ½ cup water per test. Measure 100 milliliters water in a graduated cylinder. Then pour the water into a small flask.
2. Draw 5 milliliters wine, vinegar, or juice into a pipette—a glass tube with a very narrow opening at the bottom and a wider one at the top. You can draw up the fluid either by putting the top of the tube in your mouth and sucking or by using a rubber bulb made for the purpose. Then put your finger firmly over the top opening, and check the fluid level. Do you have a little more than 5 millimeters? If so, lift your finger to drain a bit out. Because the pipette is so skinny, this is a very precise way of measuring.
3. Hold the pipette over the flask of water, and lift your finger to let the wine, vinegar, or juice drain out. Add three drops of phenolphthalein indicator solution. Phenolphathalein is the ingredient that made Ex-Lax useful for acid-base experiments when you were a child.
4. Now you’re going to use the buret. It’s a graduated glass tube, on a stand, with a small lower aperture and a stopcock. Pour .2N sodium hydroxide into the buret to near the top of the numbered scale. (Scientists read the N as “normal.” If you’re using .1N sodium hydroxide instead of .2N, see the paragraph following this. Also, keep in mind that sodium hydroxide, however normal, is very corrosive. You don’t want to suck it up with a pipette.)
5. See how the surface of the fluid in the buret curves, like a contact lens? This curve is called a meniscus. Record the number at the bottom of the meniscus.
6. Now turn the stopcock so the base solution in the buret slowly drips into the indicator solution while, with your other hand, you swirl the flask. As each drop of base solution falls into the flask, a spot of pink may briefly appear. As you continue adding the base solution, the pinkness will take a little longer to dissipate. Add the drops slowly, and keep swirling. As soon as the liquid in the flask turns a uniform pale pink, stop adding drops. If you wait for the fluid to turn hot pink you’ll have gone too far, and your results won’t be accurate.
7. Record the level of the fluid remaining in the buret. Then record the difference between this number and the one you recorded in step 5.
8. If you’re measuring acetic acid (in vinegar), divide the difference by 4.16. If you’re measuring citric acid (in lemon or other citrus juice), divide the difference by 3.90. If you’re measuring tartaric acid (in wine or verjuice), divide the difference by 3.33. The result is the percentage of acid in your sample.
I could give you formulas for figuring out the percentage of acid regardless of the size of your sample or the normality of your sodium hydroxide, but the formulas might confuse you as much as they confuse me. If you can’t find .2N sodium hydroxide, you’re likely to find .1N instead. In this case, just double the divisor in step 8. If you start with a 10-milliliter sample instead of a 5-millimeter sample, do the same: Double the divisor. If you use .1N sodium hydroxide and a 10-millimeter sample, multiply the divisor by 4.
See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, for practice and to ensure accuracy, repeat the titration, preferably twice. If you have any trouble, watch the very detailed video on titration technique at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DkB82xLvNE.
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Home preservers often wonder why USDA preserving recipes calling for lemon juice specify that the juice should come from a bottle. In most grocery stores the only such product used to be ReaLemon, which is made from concentrate and preserved with sulfites. Today a few competing brands of lemon-juice-from-concentrate are available, with similar assortments of preservatives. To most discerning cooks, ReaLemon and its imitators don’t taste quite real, and to people allergic to sulfites these products may be a health hazard. Bottled fresh lemon juice, with juice from Sicily or Peru, is available at some fancy grocery stores, but it also contains sulfites. Why shouldn’t home preservers use fresh lemons, which are inexpensive and available year-round in every supermarket? Is ReaLemon really better than real lemon?
Extension agents explain that lemons vary in their acidity, and that bottled lemon juice does not. To make sure your jam or your salsa–or, especially, your lemon curd— reaches a safe level of acidity, you should always use the bottled stuff, say the home economists. I decided to find out whether they’re right.
I first researched laws regarding bottled lemon juice. The Code of Federal Regulations (Title 21, volume 2, revised April 1, 2010), includes this FDA rule: Lemon juice prepared from concentrate, like ReaLemon, must have “a titratable acidity content of not less than 4.5 percent, by weight, calculated as anhydrous citrus acid.” Citric acid is the main acid in lemons. Lemons also contain some malic acid, but it usually isn’t measured separately. The ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, for which lemons are justly valued is destroyed by heat and so ignored in discussions of food processing. For our purpose here, we can say simply that lemon juice made from concentrate must have an acid level of at least 4.5 percent, and that the law allows this acid level to vary.
Hmmm. Even if the law allows a variable acid level, a manufacturer would settle on a standard, right? In the opinion of my husband, a chemist, that standard would be 4.5 percent. After all, water is cheap! Why would ReaLemon use more lemons than necessary?
I asked the folks at ReaLemon whether they standardized the acidity of their lemon juice and, if so, what their standard was. Here is their reply: “ReaLemon meets or exceeds the FDA standard of identity for lemon juice, which is 4.5% w/w.” This reinforced my husband’s opinion: ReaLemon had a standard acid level, and it was 4.5 percent.
We decided to test this hypothesis. I bought a bottle of ReaLemon, and we titrated the juice (I’ll explain in another post how to do this). ReaLemon tested at 4.9 percent—the “natural strength” of lemon juice, according to the label. The company rose in our estimation. They were exceeding a minimum standard!
If lemon-juice-from-concentrate is at least 4.5 percent acid, and sometimes 4.9 percent acid, what is the natural range of acidity in lemons? I posed this question to David Karp, a fruit researcher at the University of California, Riverside, who also writes for the Los Angeles Times. David referred me to Walton Sinclair’s Biochemistry and Physiology of the Lemon (University of California, 1984), a four-inch-thick summary of all scientific research on Citrus limon.
According to the research, some lemon varieties are more acidic than others. Lemons of a single variety can vary in acidity depending on the local soil and climate, the rootstock on which the tree is growing, the amount of fertilizer applied, and the season in which the lemons were picked. Lemons and other citrus fruits grown in hotter places, for example, are generally less acidic than those grown in cooler places. Both potassium and nitrogen fertilizers tend to increase acidity levels. New Zealand lemons are less acidic than California lemons, and California lemons are less acidic than Sicilian lemons.
Even a single lemon can show variations in acidity, depending on when you do the testing and from what part of the fruit you take the juice. California lemons increase their acid levels almost 25 percent during curing–that is, in the weeks of storage after harvest. One study found that juice from the stem end of a lemon is slightly more acidic than juice from the blossom end, and another study found that juice from the core area is slightly more acidic than juice from the periphery.
If all these variables make you think the home economists are right, think again. Although lemons vary in acidity, they generally don’t vary much. The least acidic lemon found among all those tested in dozens of studies, an uncured Eureka from California, had an acid level of 4.53 percent. The most acidic uncured Eureka tested at 6.50 percent, and cured Eureka lemons ranged from 5.71 to 7.42 percent. Lisbon lemons from California varied less, from 4.79 to 4.86 percent acid before curing and 5.25 to 5.32 percent afterward.
Florida lemons vary no more in their acidity than California lemons. In one Florida study, samples ranged from 5.16 to 6.41, in another from 5.24 to 5.92.
If you live outside the United States, the lemons in your market may be more or less acidic. In New Zealand lemons averaged only 4.9 percent acid, and in Italy lemons tested as high as 8.1 percent acid. But you won’t find lemons from New Zealand or Italy in Safeway or Albertsons.
Note that I’m not counting Meyer lemons as lemons. A cross between a lemon and an orange, the Meyer is relatively low in acid. Meyer lemons sampled in July averaged 2.4 percent acid in one study; those sampled in February and May averaged 4.1 percent acid.
With all this information before me, I guessed that the juice of a lemon from one of my local grocery stores would test at somewhere around 6.0 percent acid. It would almost certainly be a Eureka or a Lisbon (the fruits of these two varieties are hard to tell apart) or a clonal selection of one or the other. If it were a Eureka, it might be a little more acidic than 6.0 percent; a Lisbon might measure only about 5.0 percent.
So I bought a lemon, and my husband and I titrated the juice. It tested at 6.2 percent acid. Eureka! (Probably.) We drank some of the juice, too, and compared the taste with that of ReaLemon. The natural lemon juice was much less bitter (ReaLemon, like other varieties of bottled lemon juice, contains oil from the peel) and noticeably more sour.
Provided you start with regular lemons rather than Meyers, then, substituting fresh lemon juice for bottled in canning should be entirely safe, although the finished product might end up a little more tart than it would with bottled lemon juice.
Are you adding lemon juice to jam or jelly? This is done not for safety, generally—nearly all fruits are acidic enough for safe canning—but to ensure that the jam or jelly will jell. You can add a little less lemon juice than a recipe specifies if your fruit is quite tart, or a little more if you want a stronger gel.
If you’re canning tomatoes, the acidity of your lemons shouldn’t be a concern. Nearly all tomatoes are acidic enough to can without added acid. If yours are unusually dull in flavor, follow the USDA recommendation: Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice per pint of whole, crushed, or juiced tomatoes. Or, if you like, add more.
Recipes for canned salsa call for quite a lot of lemon juice (or lime juice, or vinegar). If you’re using several fresh lemons, their acidity will average out, and the average will almost certainly be higher than 4.5 percent. By using fresh lemons you may risk making your salsa a little too tart, but you can minimize this risk by using low-acid, paste-type tomatoes, such as Roma, which provide the additional advantage of making salsa thicker.
A particular concern of many home preservers is the safety of fresh lemon juice in canned lemon curd, a tart, buttery custard that’s used as a dessert topping and filling and as a spread for toast, pancakes, waffles, and so on. It’s essential to have a high level of acid in a protein-rich food that’s processed in a boiling-water bath. Home economists say that canned lemon curd is safe only if the lemon juice comes bottled, but remember: American store-bought lemons—the regular kind, not Meyers—are at least as acidic as bottled lemon juice. Besides, you may prefer to use more lemon juice in your curd than called for in the USDA recipe, which, I notice, contains proportionally less lemon juice than does my recipe in The Joy of Jams. You can find the USDA recipe here.
Lemon curd doesn’t need canning, of course. If you put it in a jar in the refrigerator instead, it will keep well for several weeks. You can also freeze lemon curd, and thaw it in the refrigerator for a day before you plan to serve it. If you have a lot of lemons and want to juice them right away, you might freeze the juice so you can make lemon curd as you need it. Lemon juice keeps very well in the freezer.
If you want to give your lemon curd as gifts, though, you may be set on canning it. In this case, be sure to follow the USDA processing instructions. Heat the water to no more than 180 degrees F. before adding the jars, and boil them for 15 minutes, or longer if your altitude is over 1,000 feet.
When you give a friend a jar of your homemade lemon curd or another preserve, you can feel proud that you’ve used the tastiest, freshest ingredients, and confident that your gift won’t prompt an allergic reaction to sulfites.
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The last day of March dawned clear and breezy, and the grass all around was spotted yellow. The day was perfect for picking dandelions.
Ever since I was twelve years old, when I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, I’d thought about making the mysterious brew. Dandelions barely smell, to my nose, and what aroma they have seems more grassy than floral. The flower petals fortunately lack the bitterness of the rest of the plant, but they also lack much flavor at all. Yet apparently dandelion wine was once quite popular, at least among British and North American writers on country life in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Dandelion wine—“the words were summer on the tongue,” Bradbury says. But what does the stuff taste like? One writer says sherry; another says the wine resembles whiskey, especially if you include the green parts of the flower and age the wine well. A North Dakota everything-but-grape winery says its dandelion wine is like “a cross between a light chardonnay and corn on the cob.” I could order the wine from North Dakota, but I wouldn’t know how it was made. I needed to make my own from a traditional recipe to know how dandelion wine ought to taste.
Often I’d been inspired to make dandelion wine too late in the year, when the yellow flowers spotting the grass weren’t dandelions at all but their less edible look-alikes, cat’s ear and sow thistle. One year my husband and I started picking those flowers and stopped only when our small daughter pointed out the leaves. Dandelion leaves really do look like dents de lion, or as least as you might imagine lion’s teeth to look, if lions had green teeth. And the leaves aren’t the least bit prickly or furry; they’re smooth and thin, and they look good to eat–as they are, if you like very bitter greens. In late March, though, I didn’t need to check the foliage; all the yellow flowers in the orchard and vegetable garden were dandelions.
I harvested the flowers as instructed by several old books: With one hand, snap off a head. With the other hand, pinch off the bracts along with any remains of the stem, which will be oozing bitter white sap, and as much of the base of the flower and the green calyx as come away easily. Drop the rest into a bucket. With the biggest flowers, I was sometimes able to pull away all the petals in one pinch and leave the rest of the flower behind.
Before I could pick the flower, though, I’d often have to pick off a bug. A spotted cucumber beetle, looking like a slightly elongated lady bug spotted black on yellow or yellow-green instead of red, rested on every third to fourth dandelion. Gluttons for bitterness, the beetles were enjoying dandelions as a starter course while waiting to feast on my cucumbers, melons, squash, and beans come summer. I pinched each beetle that didn’t get away—fortunately, they’re slow in cool weather–and wiped my fingers on the damp grass to avoid adding bitter beetle juice to my brew.
Despite the extra time devoted to pest control, in an hour and a half I’d harvested a gallon of dandelion blossoms. In the kitchen, I boiled a gallon of water in a stockpot and stirred in the flowers. Then I left the pot sitting on the kitchen counter for three days, and stirred the mixture once a day. It smelled mildly musty.
At this point old recipes vary somewhat. Since dandelion flowers aren’t sweet, the most important ingredient to add is sugar. Recipes often call for honey, Demerara sugar, malt sugar, raisins, or some combination of these. Reluctant to risk wasting expensive bought sugar or my home-produced honey or raisins, I added three pounds of ordinary white sugar. “To improve the flavor” (admits Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs), you next add citrus, usually ginger, and often another spice or two. I was wary of overpowering whatever flavor the dandelions might prove to possess, so I used the thinly peeled rind and the juice of just one orange and one lemon, plus an ounce of grated fresh ginger.
I stirred the mixture together, brought it to a boil, and let it boil gently for 20 minutes. Then I let it cool to lukewarm and poured it into a scalded food-grade plastic bucket. The old books say to set a piece of rye bread on top and spread yeast of an unspecified sort on top. Instead I stirred half an envelope of wine yeast into a quarter-cup of warm water and stirred the mixture into the bucket. I set a lid loosely on top and put the bucket in a warm closet.
Yesterday my husband sniffed the wine and assured me that fermentation was under way, so today I strained the bubbling liquid through a coarsely woven nylon jelly bag, poured the wine into a gallon glass jug, and plugged the jug with a waterlock. Squeezing the bag turned the liquid yellow, though the color may settle out along with the fine solids. I had about a pint left over after I filled the jug, so I put it into the fridge for later, but first I had a little taste. The new wine isn’t bitter or medicinal at all, but pleasantly sweet, citrusy, and a little gingery.
When the wine in the jug has finished fermenting, I’ll bottle it. After that, Euell Gibbons tells me in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I mustn’t touch it until Christmas. Then I’ll tell you what I think of dandelion wine. Will it uphold the dandelion’s reputation as a diuretic, as revealed by its modern French name, pissenlit (“piss in the bed”)? Will it fortify my blood, as dandelions are also supposed to do? Maybe one taste will make me exclaim, like the boy in Bradbury’s book, “I’m a fire-eater! Whoosh!”
When you buy a big load of soil for raised beds or another use, you usually don’t know where the soil has been or what’s been growing in it. It probably won’t have as many weed seeds as the soil in your yard, but you can’t assume that the soil you’ve bought is sterile.
I filled three large raised beds early last summer with a mixture of silty loam and compost from a local nursery. When what I guessed were Swiss chard seedlings appeared in the beds, I was delighted. I’d been depending on chard to self-sow in my garden, but none had come up after the extreme cold of the past winter. Now I wouldn’t have to plant chard from seed.
I transplanted a few of the chard seedlings into a neat row and waited for the leaves to get big. They never grew over about two feet, though, and when I tasted them they were unpleasantly fibrous. The stalks were thin, too. By the end of the summer, I could see thick white roots protruding out of the soil. I’d never seen roots like those on Swiss chard. As fall turned to winter, the truth dawned on me: I was growing not chard but its relative the sugar beet.
Although as far as I recalled I’d never seen a sugar beet before, I knew that Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I lived, produced most of the country’s sugar beet seed. Beta vulgaris is biennial, but the climate here allows the production of seed in just a year. Farmers plant sugar-beet seed in late summer or early fall, and the cool winter causes the plant to “vernalize,” or switch from vegetative to reproductive mode. When warm weather returns, the plant bolts, and the seeds are harvested. Some of them naturally end up on the ground. I suspected that the soil I’d bought had come from a former sugar-beet field. A Web search for photos of sugar beets confirmed my suspicion.
While still in the earth, the sugar beet plant looks much like chard, and also like a growing table beet, because these three are all variants of the same species, Beta vulgaris. (That chard and beets of all sorts are the same species, and that this species prefers to reproduce through cross- rather than self-pollination, explains why organic chard and regular beet farmers feel so seriously threatened by the effort to introduce Roundup Ready sugar-beet production.) Native to Europe, Betavulgaris has been cultivated since prehistoric times as food for humans and livestock. The ancient Romans were apparently the first to use the roots, which were small, narrow, and either white or black, in addition to the greens. By 1596, when the horticulturalist John Gerard grew beetroots in England, anonymous gardeners had developed red “Roman” beets as big as carrots; apparently none were yet round.
The mangelwurzel, or fodder beet, developed later than the table beet, apparently in the Rhineland in the eighteenth century. A variety of Beta vulgaris with a large, yellow, white, or red root that kept well over the winter, the mangel was valued as a supplement for milk cows but came to be seen as poverty food for people, partially because of its corrupted name; mangelwurzel, “scarcity root,” devolved from mangold wurzel, “chard root,” the name by which it is still known in Germany. Mangels were being cultivated in America by 1796, when Amelia Simmons wrote of beets that “the white has a sickish sweetness, which is disliked by many.” You can still get mangel seed from old-fashioned garden-seed companies like R. H. Shumway, and in England mangels are still fed to cows and pigs, carved into jack o’ lanterns, fermented and distilled into liquor, and competitively hurled as a rural amusement.
From the fodder beet developed the sugar beet. A German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, reported in 1747 that crystals from the syrup of mangelwurzel were identical to crystals from cane syrup. His student Franz Carl Achard experimented with mangel varieties and growing methods to maximize the beet’s sugar content. In 1801, soon after the Haitian Revolution threatened the world supply of cane sugar, the king of Prussia granted Achard funds to begin commercial production of beet sugar in Silesia (now part of Poland). Through selective breeding to increase the sugar content of the beets, Achard developed them into a viable commercial crop. A few years later, during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain blocked supplies of West Indian cane sugar to France, and Napoleon ordered the establishment of large-scale sugar-beet farming and refining. Europe was soon producing most of its own sugar.
Across the Atlantic, abolitionists eager to undermine the demand for slave labor promoted the use of sugar beets from the 1830s on. But the first successful U.S. beet refineries weren’t established until the 1870s, by Claus Spreckels in California. Today beets account for 30 percent of the world’s sugar production and 55 to 60 percent of U.S. sugar consumption.
So, what was I to do with my sugar beets? I came across a mention of something called Zucherrüben Sirup, sugar-beet syrup. It’s a specialty of Germany, especially the Rhineland, where, as one German manufacturer advertises, it’s “an old favorite as a sandwich spread special for breakfast!” Also used to sweeten sauces, cakes, and other desserts, Zucherrüben Sirup is made by cooking shredded sugar beets, pressing the mash, and concentrating the juice to the consistency of honey. Having experimented in the past with making no-sugar-added syrup from apples, grapes, and watermelons, I had to try sugar-beet syrup.
In early January, I got around to digging up my sugar beets. Cleaning them was a chore. The skin comes off easily with a vegetable peeler, but I had to excavate a lot of crevices to get the beets fully clean. For the shredding step, I found that a cheap box grater worked better than my fancy mandoline.
I put 4 pounds of the shredded sugar beets into a large, heavy pot, covered them with 3 quarts water, brought the water to a simmer, and covered the pot. After the beets had simmered 15 minutes, I pressed them in a small fruit press placed in a large stockpot, and then propped the press over the pot to finish draining.
Left in the press was a hard cake of shredded beet the size of a dessert cake layer. The chickens loved it.
In the stockpot was a little more than 3 quarts of almost colorless liquid. I strained it to remove any remnants of beet solids, and then I boiled the liquid, uncovered, in a wide, heavy pan for about an hour and a half, until I had 1 cup dark amber liquid about as thick as honey syrup.
I let the syrup sit in a jar on the kitchen counter for a couple of weeks. By then some of the solids had settled out, and the syrup had lost its slight cloudiness. I poured off the clear syrup. The residue had a slightly bitter aftertaste. The syrup had an earthy aroma reminiscent of table beets and an odd bite on the tongue.
In retrospect, I think I could have extracted more sugar from the beets if I’d cooked them longer, stirred them more, or both. But will I try again? Probably not. Frankly, the experiment renewed my appreciation for more flavorful liquid sweeteners—cider syrup, maple syrup, and most of all honey.
Zuckerrüben Sirup isn’t bad, though. If you’d like to try some and can’t find any sugar beets in your neighborhood, you can order the syrup through online stores such as the German Grocery Store.
UPDATE 2022: At the time I wrote this article sugar beets were controversial in Oregon and elsewhere, because many farmers had begun planting GMO sugar-beet seed. This allowed them to spray glyphosate (Roundup) all over their fields, on their crops as well as the weeds. Doing so saved them from hiring workers to weed the fields. Besides, they argued, the GMOs couldn’t be found in the refined sugar. But the unintentional overspray of glyphosate was damaging neighbor’s crops, weeds were becoming resistant to the herbicide, and Roundup Ready plants were crossing with non-GMO plants, even on organic farms.
Some farmers found they couldn’t plant non-GMO seed even if they wanted to. Suddenly, non-GMO sugar-beet seed was practically unavailable. The industry warned of a likely sugar shortage.
Many farmers carried on growing GMO sugar beets. They were allowed to harvest the beets in the spring of 2010, but a judge ruled that growers would have to plow up any GMO beets that they planted for the next harvest season. Then, in February 2011, the judge’s decision was reversed, and in 2012 the U.S. government completely deregulated GMO sugar beets. Some states passed their own regulations regarding GMO foods, but in 2016 Congress exempted beet-derived sugar from all state-imposed GMO labeling requirements. In 2018, the USDA declared that refined foods derived from GMO crops, including beet sugar, would not be considered GMO foods at all. In its latest affront against American consumers, the USDA has now banned the term GMO (too political!) and developed a pretty green and blue label, depicting a plant, for identifying “bioengineered” foods in the supermarket. If consumers want more information, they will have to scan a QR code.
European and Asian countries, meanwhile, began allowing the importation of GMO foods and even permitting their own farmers to grow them.
Glyphosate has not been vindicated. After buying Monsanto, Bayer announced a $10 million settlement to resolve lawsuits over Roundup’s role in cancer cases. Researchers have begun to question the effects of the herbicide not only on human health but on the health of the soil and its organisms and on the water into which it leaches. And glyphosate-resistant weeds are an ever-growing problem.
Undeterred, Monsanto and Dow have recently developed “Agent Orange” GMO corn and soybeans, resistant to a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D. As Vietnam veterans know too well, 2,4-D is associated with cancer, lowered sperm counts, liver disease, and Parkinson’s Disease. The chemical is believed to harm the human hormonal, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems.
Agent Orange sugar beets may be next in the queue.
It’s possible that the sugar-beet seeds in my purchased soil were of the GMO type. Although I still wonder where that soil came from and what contaminants it may have contained, the beets themselves were no threat to anyone. I didn’t let them go to seed, and my sugar syrup was almost certainly free of any trace of GMOs or Roundup.
But if you want to plant sugar beets and try your own hand at making beet-sugar syrup, I advise buying non-GMO sugar-beet seed. It is easily available via the Internet from small companies that cater to home gardeners.
“There is a saving streak of the primitive in all of us,” wrote Euell Gibbons, who introduced the art of foraging to the citified masses in the 1960s and 1970s. Hunting was as popular a sport then as now, but foraging was easier and cheaper and ought to be practiced more, Gibbons believed. You didn’t have to go to the mountains or virgin forest to gather wild foods; you could just walk out your door and take a stroll. Fence rows, stream sides, and even vacant lots could provide the raw material for tasty, nutritious, and unusual table fare. In books and magazine articles, Gibbons told how to identify and harvest dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wild species, and how best to cook them up.
The Pacific Northwest now has its own modern Euell Gibbons in Langdon Cook, author of Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Skipstone). Although Cook grew up on factory food in suburban Connecticut, he certainly has a streak of the primitive. Cook first came to the Northwest to sailboard on the Columbia River. He returned a few years later to study creative writing and then took an editorial job with Amazon, but he couldn’t stay tethered to a desk for long. Cook likes to write, and he writes well, but he most likes outdoor adventure.
In and near Seattle, where he lives, Cook gathers weeds that Gibbons also loved–watercress, fiddleheads, stinging nettle, and dandelions. He “jigs” for squid off a Seattle pier, along with Nicaraguans, Cambodians, and Ukrainians (a jig is “like a miniature cigar” with a circle of hooks at the end, meant to entangle rather than impale a squid). He casts for silver salmon from a Seattle beach, day after day until he lands one.
Cook forages farther afield, too: He drives hundreds of miles to a fire-blackened forest to gather morels, avoiding crowds of recreational mushroom hunters and dodging potentially dangerous pros. He camps on the Washington coast in winter and wanders the beach at night with hundreds of strangers, all hoping to nab a few precious razor clams with their PVC suction guns. He keeps an eye out for bears while picking huckleberries in the Blue Mountains and eastern Cascades. He catches steelhead trout on the Rogue River (mostly hatchery grown, but wild enough after months or years in the Pacific), and, early on a June morning, he gets in line at Bonneville Dam to await the starting gun for shad season.
The more daring the foraging adventure, the more fun Cook seems to have. Instead of catching crabs by dropping pots from a boat, he likes to dive into the Puget Sound, “chase them down like a seal, pin them against the bottom,” and then try to grab the crabs’ back legs without getting his hand sliced by the pincers. With his friend Dave, he deigns to use a boat to catch spot shrimp, but it’s a borrowed canoe on a windy day in the treacherous fjord known as Hood Canal, and the men must pull up hundreds of feet of rope by hand to collect their pots. Most frighteningly, Cook free-dives as deep as thirty feet in the cold water of the Sound to spear enormous lingcod, “long and snakelike, with a large mouth of teeth.”
In his pensive moments Cook writes lovely prose about nature. You can learn a lot from him about where to find and how to harvest fifteen or so edible wild species–and how to prepare them for supper, too. Having worked to live up to his name, Cook closes each chapter with a good basic recipe. But Fat of the Land is more memoir than nature guide or cookbook (because the publisher perceived the book this way, apparently, the book lacks an index). Above all, Fat of the Land is a collection of stories of Cook’s adventures in the wild with beer-drinking buddies who bear names like Trouthole and Warpo. Foraging, to Cook, is a manly sport.
Foraging Langdon Cook–style is a sport that gets ever more difficult and expensive as our swelling human population and our pollutants limit safety, seasons, and harvest allowances. Cook doesn’t gloss over the ecological questions; he is conservation-minded. But he clearly enjoys the challenge of getting his tastes of the dwindling fat of our land.
Less intrepid readers, like me, may turn from Cook back to Euell Gibbons, who caught fish and hunted game but mostly gathered weeds—weeds like mustard and winter cress and chicory, wild cherries and elderberries and crabapples. These neglected plants still line our roadsides and decorate our vacant lots. We can pick their foliage and fruits and enjoy them, thank goodness, without fearing that we may never taste such things again.
UPDATE 2022: Langston Cook has since published two more books, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America and Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table.