Foraging is an addiction of the best kind

It’s hard to remember when we were bitten by the foraging bug, but it was definitely during our early years of living in the Pacific Northwest. We were not much the outdoor types but living at the base of the Cascade Mountains was the catalyst that got us up and out exploring. I do remember our first “major” hike up the 4100′ Mt. Si. I’m sure to the regulars that travel that well-worn trail, we were dressed as if we were doing a summit trip on nearby Mount Ranier (14,410′). But we huffed and puffed our way to the top and stood there slack-jawed at the view, loving the endorphin rush of our accomplishment. Nevermind that Mt. Si is climbed by folks from 8 to 88, we felt different somehow, and our lives would never be the same.

We immediately planned for our next trip and trips beyond. Somewhere in there, we found berries on one of these trips. First just blackberries. Then thimbleberries, salmonberries, black caps (black raspberries), huckleberries and others. No Google to answer our questions, we read everything we could find on wild edibles. Then came fall and the profusion of wild fungi that filled Pike Place Market, one of the best shopping experiences in Seattle.

There were those first meals out where we ate chanterelle mushrooms and looked at each other speechless after each bite, both of us in gustatory heaven. We saw an ad in the newspaper for the annual Wild Mushroom Show where over a hundred wild mushrooms are displayed in their natural habitat. These dioramas taught us more than any ID guides could. Mid-day, and it was time to eat. Hell, we’re both part Hobbit so it didn’t take mid-day to make us aware of great aromas and anxious bellies. We ate lots of schrooms that day. Sauteed in butter, folded into crepes, stuffed in omelets, or floating in a delicate broth. It was a revelatory moment. Within weeks we started to find our own chanterelles. The years went by, and the foraging became a major player in our lives.

Yes, Maine is a great place to retire. But can we forage?

Although we will forever consider the northwest our true home, our roots are in New England and retirement saw us purchase a home in Maine. As we planned that move, Google became a key resource helping us understand the bounty that was to be found in the Maine woods and waters. We quickly realized there were some amazing foraging adventures ahead. The first wild edible we were introduced to was found on the side of the road. In the trunk of a car. The sign read Fiddleheads, $3 a bag. The guy selling them told us he boiled his for 15 minutes then sauteed them in a little butter. They’ll taste like young asparagus. They didn’t. They were mushy and a little bitter. We were less than impressed. That is until last year when we found them on our property. It was a game changer.

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Fiddleheads are young ostrich ferns capable of pushing up through the dense underbrush, with the tell-tale papery covers on the coiled tops. Just a short week or two after snow melt they will begin to appear. There is also a telltale groove in the stalk similar to celery that can be seen in the background In this example, we would only harvest two of the emerging shoots nearest to ground level and leave the rest to ensure a healthy plant in the future. Sustainable foraging is key to a healthy ecosystem.

Take only a little, leave lots behind.

I was floored last year when Kathy (a.k.a. the wife) said, “I think we have fiddleheads”. She usually doesn’t make identification mistakes, and indeed as she was clearing brush she found a nice patch of fiddleheads hidden in plain sight. That was when we started to quickly study how the top chefs prepare them. What we saw was far shorter cooking times than what was presented in the various county extension agencies. Yes, you will find numerous references to outbreaks of illnesses over the years reportedly due to eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. A number of these were from eating misidentified ferns, probably cinnamon ferns. As they emerge they have silver-white hairs and lack the classic groove on the stem. So we felt pretty comfortable when we chose Emeril Lagasse’s recipe that calls for a 3 to 5-minute blanch of the fiddleheads and then shocking them in ice water to stop cooking. It was amazing the difference in eating FRESH fiddleheads. It’s a cross between young asparagus and artichoke. As with anything you forage, make certain of your identification. The cooperative extension agencies of local universities produce excellent guides, and many others can be found on YouTube.

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Fiddleheads ready for cleaning. Fiddleheads have been a key foraged food following snowmelt across a wide swath of the country. It was frequently the first available fresh green to eat after the long winter.  Containing high amounts of vitamin C, niacin, and potassium with only 44 calories a cup. Thankfully we have a couple of recipes that remedy the uber low-calorie version.

 

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A vigorous stream of water and a couple of cold water baths is usually enough to get the papery skin to wash off. Any stubborn ones get a spray of water to complete the task. If you are buying them at the market you will need to clean them first. Look for a deep green color without brown spots or streaks that will help indicate how long it’s been since their harvest.  We are amazed to see $12 to $15 a pound prices for specimens that I wouldn’t eat. It’s doing the consumer a disservice, and it will probably ensure that buyer won’t be awaiting fiddleheads in the future. 
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These are cleaned and ready for cooking. If they are refrigerated before cooking I will retrim the stem ends as they excrete a tannin from the cut end. They can be stored for up to two weeks, or blanched for two minutes, then packed and frozen where they can be defrosted in the fridge or in cold water prior to cooking.
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A riff on an Emerille recipe of fiddlehead ferns and angel hair pasta.  Our version uses Thomas Keller’s 7-yolk pasta (the most amazing and easiest pasta you will ever make) in place of the angel hair. And we added just 4 ounces of spicey venison sausage to “kick it up a notch”. The entire plate is dusted with Emeril’s Bayou Blast and some fresh parm.

Just in case you are interested in making this dish…

  • 1/2 pound fiddlehead ferns
  • 6 ounces of fresh 7-yolk pasta
  • 4 ounces sweet or spicy Italian sausage (I use a homemade spicy venison sausage)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Grated Parmesan, for garnish
  • Emeril’s Original Essence, for garnish
  • In a large pot of boiling salted water, blanch the fiddleheads until they are crisp-tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the fiddleheads from the water and shock them in a bowl of ice water.
  • Drop angel hair pasta into the same pot of boiling water used for fiddleheads. Boil for 3 to 5 minutes or until al dente.
  • Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive oil. Saute fiddlehead ferns, green onions, and red pepper flakes for 2 minutes. Drain pasta and add to skillet. Toss with a drizzle of good fruity olive oil and salt and pepper. Divide pasta among 4 plates and garnish with grated cheese. Sprinkle with Essence and serve.

 

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Mise en place complete. Not a great picture, but it gives you a look at the ingredients.

 

To make Emeril’s Essence Creole Seasoning
(also called Bayou Blast)

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme

When so many chefs package and sell their seasonings, kudos go to Emeril for posting this recipe years ago. It is an amazing spice combination that works well on grilled fish, chicken, and pork.

Next post – National Home Brew Day. Attempting an IPA clone of a local brewery. Remember, it’s science!

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A Sugaring Season-Part 2 Niter here, nor there

Commercial maple syrup manufacturers use very expensive and complex machinery that automates nearly every part of the sugaring process. Nothing is left to chance.

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These commercial evaporators are oil or gas fired and can boil down a thousand gallons of sap in a single hour with costs running to six figures.

The hobbyist sugarer can travel down a number of paths to a finished product. Some eschew anything that speaks to the scientific method and have had great results. My friend Larry…

OK, I have to stop a moment. Every time I write those three words I can’t help but feel like Owen (Danny Devito) writing his story for his creative writing course (his adult education teacher Billy Crystal – Larry) in the movie Throw Momma From the Train. If you have never seen it, it is worth a watch.  It also describes the relationship my brother and I had with our mother, and why that movie is an all-time favorite. Except with my mother. But I think that requires a separate blog post. Probably in Psychology Today.

OK, now that I have had my “squirrel” moment I’ll refocus. My friend Larry has made syrup for a number of years. He’s not as old as dirt, but he was present for its third birthday. Anyhow, after trial and error and error and error, he learned that sap in its final stages likes to foam up. The bubbles take on a different shape, and running a spoon through the mixture can produce a near boil-over. He waits until he has the first boil up, removes the pan from the heat for 15-30 seconds. He then puts the pan back on and waits for it to happen a second time. At that point, he lifts a chicken over his head and loudly proclaims questo e finito in a little ceremony. The chicken really doesn’t do anything for the syrup but it does cut down on the number of neighbors wanting to beg some syrup. It also may explain why Larry, a handsome man, remains single. What it does reflect is how over the years he has developed an almost uncanny ability to produce syrup that tests out at a perfect 66.5 Brix (Brix is a measurement of the sugar content of a solution) and has the flavor to match. In fact, my friend with the fowl hat produced the best batch of syrup I tasted in 2018 cooking with no tools other than a turkey fryer, a propane burner, and his senses.

I have always embraced the scientific method from my early days. For me, to shoot from the hip was unlikely. It’s not that I don’t enjoy spontaneity, I just have to carefully plan for it.  It was very natural for me to get the tools to make sure I made good maple syrup. First, because I wanted people to enjoy the syrup. And second, because I don’t own any chickens. Making syrup doesn’t have to be complicated, but there is a process that needs to be followed. Cheat any part of the process and you may be disappointed in the outcome. Maple sap boils at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. I have seen hundreds of posts, blogs, websites, books, identify this as the driving number for when sap becomes syrup. Unfortunately, stop boiling at 219 degrees and you will likely have syrup that is too thin, and may spoil quickly in storage.  The thermometer is only as good as the calculations of barometric pressure and altitude at the moment of the boil. That’s why sugar houses rely on additional tools to guide them. Add to the thermometer a hydrometer to measure the density of your syrup and you are closer to success. For all commercial producers, a refractometer is what usually controls the process. When a reading of 66% – 67% sugar solution is achieved, you have maple syrup. It will be stable, and you can expect your syrup to store well. Sounds too complicated? It’s really not, and the best part is the three tools can all be purchased for less than $50. And in less than an hour and a couple YouTube videos, you’ll be a master.

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This inexpensive tool can demonstrate you sap mixture has the proper sugar density to be stable for storage, and have that mouthfeel that maple syrup lovers adore.

So I followed the advice and used the tools at my disposal to make a great batch of maple syrup. I was thrilled at how my first batch tasted. And at first look, it was clear as a bell. I’m thinking, hey, this was pretty easy (if you ignore all the work you did to get to this point). But hey, what’s that in the bottom of the bottle? That my poultry waving friend is sugar sand or niter. Skipping a scientific discussion, niter or sugar sand is a concentration of minerals that precipitate out of the sap solution as it boils. The heaviest sugar sand particles can form a layer on the boiling pans leading to scorching and causing off-flavors. It will also darken syrup.  The general consensus is that there is no harm in sugar sand. But there is also a school of thought that it does impact the long-term storage potential.

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This shows a layer of sugar sand that has settled to the bottom of the jar. Not harmful, it can impact long-term storage, and it does take away from the look of the product you worked so hard to make. Filtering at several points will help ensure your syrup stays crystal clear.

 

So filtering is key to producing perfectly clear syrup. I used layers of sterilized muslin in a chinois (a very fine strainer) and was amazed at how much was collected. I remember reading an abstract from a scientific paper in the early 1900’s where the chemist said he could produce 25 pounds of sugar sand from the sap of 1000 trees. They were looking at ways to harvest malic acid from the sugar sand. Sugar sand is about 1/3rd malic acid. If you remember the Krebs cycle from high school biology malic acid is key in turning ADP in the cell to the energy-rich ATP. I found that on average I collected 6 ounces by weight of sugar sand from every boil. As an aside, malic acid is currently used to treat the symptoms of fibromyalgia, it’s used in the food industry to make things taste tart, and it is also used in the cosmetic industry.

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This step takes the 215-degree sap from the outdoor evaporator where it is first filtered before it is taken to the final stages on a propane burner which provides better heat control. At that point, it is filtered once again before bottling at 185 degrees.
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Here you see the results of the first filtering on the left. That was collected from 75 gallons of sap boiled down to 3 gallons. The image on the right shows what filtered out of the 3 gallons when it was reduced to 1.5 gallons of finished syrup. It does not look like something I’d want to ingest.

The less than exciting reality is that EVERY TIME maple sap/syrup is heated past 190 degrees it will precipitate out additional niter. It is key, however, that you must bottle your syrup at a minimum of 180 degrees to prevent spoilage. Don’t make the mistake my pullet loving pal did. In an attempt to ensure sanitized and sterilized bottles, he placed them in a 300-degree oven until it was time to bottle. You probably see where this is going. The minute that 180 syrup went into the 300-degree jars, his syrup was flash heated to (mc(t2 – t1) can somebody out there do the math, please? Anyway, his syrup was taken to well over 190 degrees producing a nice layer of sugar sand into what is some of the best maple syrup I have ever tasted.

At the end of the day, details are important. Here at Snarky Acres we embrace the science and sweat the small stuff. It matters!

That’s it for the 2018 sugaring season. 2019 will bring some big changes.  Over the summer and fall, I’ll be building a small scale 8×12 post and beam sugarhouse out back. And with many thanks to Kathy, my wife, adding a Mason 2×3 arch and evaporator. I’ll blog that project as I go for anyone thinking of getting inside to boil. After 12 hours in 5-degree temps with 30 mph winds for my second boil of the season, it sounds like a great idea. And maybe, just maybe, get a chicken and learn a little Italian.

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A sugaring season-Part 1 The First Boil

 

How I learned to love 44 pound buckets of sap.

Growing up, sugaring was a rite of spring that I became familiar with from a distance. I fondly remember my Dad taking the boys, and Gramp, out to the sugar houses in Vermont to watch the boil, and for the treat called sugar on snow. We’d be amazed that this amazing sweet could come out of trees. Unimpressed, my grandfather would tell us how, as a boy, he would tap telephone poles for motor oil. If one of us 3 boys showed any sense of acceptance at this silly notion, he’d make the movement of casting a fishing pole, reeling us back to reality with a “gotcha”, a grin, and a puff on his pipe. There was always a story. There was always another fish to catch.

When we moved onto this property in central Maine I was certain it had lots of ash, pine, cedar, and the occasional birch tree. But, I did not think it had much in the way of sugar maples. Until fall that is. Then they started popping out of the background of pine and fir like a mummer on New Year’s. (OK,  google it if you have to, I’ll wait).

Ready? OK, get on with it.

I was on a quest to make sweet syrup from our trees. But to make certain I didn’t end up tapping ash trees, I wrapped 15 maples with flagging tape.  That takes the guesswork out when it’s time to tap 6 months down the road.

 

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Checking sap buckets. You can see the Snarky Acres ranger station through the trees.

 

My friend Ron, who frequently laments my overengineering nature, gave me a bottle of what he produced cooking maple sap over a chimera while juggling Bud Lite’s. I was amazed. First at his ability to drink that much Bud Lite, and second, it was his reminder that people have been making syrup for thousands of years over a simple wood fire. True confessions, I’m not a good follower of keeping it simple. But I’m a product of my Dad, so sweating the details on any new endeavor was baked into my DNA. Over the years, for me, doing it right became a de facto sign of respect for all those that had done it before.

After visiting a couple hundred web postings I had my plan for a block arch evaporator to make my first batch. A few trips to Lowe’s and Home Depot produced an assortment of cinder blocks, stove pipe, and a few scrounged parts allowed me to build it in an afternoon. I was happy how it looked and as I shared it with folks in the know, my confidence grew. My goal was to end with at least a gallon of syrup. Half for us, and half for friends and family. Anything else would be a gift. Anything less would force me to have a performance review with the maple trees at first bud break. For the first time since we retired to Maine, I couldn’t wait for February to arrive.

 

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My first block arch evaporator. In sugaring, the arch is where you produce the heat, the evaporator (in this case 3 steam pans) is where you boil off water in the sap.

 

By Halloween, it was wrapped tightly in a double layer of tarps, and the stack was sealed up to keep as much moisture out of the cinder blocks until it was time to sugar. Exploding cinder blocks were not in my plan.

It’s now mid- February and we have a forecast of temps in the 40’s or 50’s. Time to unwrap my handiwork and add a couple foraged upgrades. My friend Larry found me an old wood stove door and a piece of sheet metal. The stove door I would use to manage the fire’s draft or add more firewood. The sheet metal I hoped to use as a spot for me to rest my sap warming pots so I wasn’t adding cold sap to my pans. A few more cinder blocks closed up the front, and we were ready to get the first boil going.

 

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The final pieces in place. A wood stove door slides right into the cinder block groove.

 

Working through the process in my head also encouraged adding a set of handles to one of the steam pans making it easier to lift a pot of boiling sap off the arch. I wish I had done all 3 pans, but it was a test. At $10 per set per pan I wanted to be sure it worked. (It worked.)

Now it was time to consolidate sap buckets. Including the lid, these 5-gallon buckets are $5 at Tractor Supply. Make sure they are food grade. Some folks use gallon milk jugs, 2.5-gallon water jugs, metal pails, I have even seen a mason jar. Whatever it is, it needs to be wicked clean. I sanitize my buckets, tubing, and spiles in StarSan. It is a no-rinse sanitizer from the brewing industry. We’ll talk about that more in an upcoming blog on a recent brewing project, Sun Dog IPA.

While I may be getting up there, I didn’t think much about carrying the buckets from the trees. After the first 6 or 7 one hundred yard trips I was thinking about it constantly. Quickly found that two half-full buckets made it tolerable. Note to self: make a sled for next year. I early on decided that I did not want to do runs of tubing. Too much wildlife crosses behind our place. Plus I needed to get my 63-year-old butt up and out for mid-winter exercise. I spent more hours outside this past February and March that I have in the last decade. Sugaring will do that to a person.  I have never been so taken with a project as with making maple syrup. Think of it. Maple sap for all its potential looks like a bucket of water (usually with some ice in it).

 

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The sap in this bucket measured 3.2% sugar. This bucket will produce about a pint of maple syrup after boiling to 219 degrees, raising the sugar level to 66.5%.

 

It’s March 4th. Light the beacon. It’s time to boil some sap. 53 gallons were collected and buried in snow to keep them partially frozen. At the most, you have 7 days to get your sap boiled or frozen for storage.  It’s best to boil as soon as possible. But if you keep the sap packed in snow, things should be fine. Our temperatures were getting into the low twenties at night. Packing my buckets in snow kept them cold without freezing them solid.

 

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Boil #1. The barrel was kindling. My wood pile is to the left and is seasoned ash. The turkey fryer and 8-gallon pot hold sap being heated. I tried to add only boiling sap to the pans unless I was trying to cool them. No longer bright and shiny, the front shelf holds a key item. A fine mesh strainer for skimming the foam, occasional ash, or flakes of carbon where the sugars caramelized at the top of the steam pans.

 

With this type of setup, there is usually something to do. You are either skimming pans, adding sap to keep the pans full, digging out the next bucket of sap, or pulling out the next load of wood. I tried to stay on a 30 minutes routine of adding 8 to 12 pieces of wood to the fire in an attempt to get it burning steadily. Overall it went very well.

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Kudos to Kathy, my wife, who has quite the deserved reputation for splitting wood. She’s a machine with an ax. There are 4 cords of organic, free range, non-gmo, wood out back to prove it.  She made me a stack of 1/3 cord seasoned ash split small all tarped up next to the arch before the snow came. I did all 3 boils and still had a wheelbarrow full for the firepit at the end. On average this setup boiled off 6 to 7 gallons per hour.

In the end, it was a rousing success. The first boil after filtering produced 1.5 gallons of beautiful Grade A medium amber syrup. I was a happy camper on a sugar high after tasting syrup for an hour.  I can’t wait for the next boil.

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Despite the last 1325 words, the devil is in the details. While I did get some lovely syrup, I had still had two challenges to overcome. The first, a lingering hint of wood smoke in the syrup (which most folks seem to like, but it does take away from the maple flavor). And the second, the dreaded sugar sand or niter that can impact storage and how it looks. OK, I said it was easy. But it’s not always simple. More on the steps that happen once you are done the main part of the boil. Reducing, filtering, canning will be covered in the next post.