It’s Elderberry Syrup time! It’s been cold outside for many weeks now, and we’ve been indoors, mingling with family and friends, viruses and bacteria, so now is the time to boost up that immune system to ward off The Crud.
I LOVE taking those berries out of the freezer and inhaling the scent of summer when there is snow and ice outside. As I pour them into the kettle and simmer them with a bit of water, I think about the days I harvested them. One time was at a friend’s house – he had an enormous bush, heavy with berries that he wasn’t going to use this year. I picked over 10 pounds in a short while that day! And I made sure to gift him with some syrup. 😊
Another time I noticed a little shrub growing alongside theroad not far from my house….I’d never seen it there before. It was little, but there were lots of berries on it, and I actually got to them before the birds ate them all.
The fondest memory from this summer, though, is when I picked Elderflowers and then, later, Elderberries with some Good Friends. (You know who you are. 😊 ) I know that these warm memories fuel the healing energy in the syrup simmering away on my stove.
My recipe for Elderberry is SUPER simple. Equal amounts of frozen berries and water – I usually make it in batches with 2 cups of berries, 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and let it simmer for 30 minutes or so. Let it cool a bit, strain out the berries (give ‘em a squeeze so you get as much juice as you can), add honey to taste. That’s it. It’ll keep in the fridge for a few weeks…..but we use it every day, so it never lasts that long. If you wanted to keep it longer, just add some brandy.
Here are links to other Elderberry Syrup recipes you might enjoy, too.
Wintergreen is a tiny, low-growing plant which, as its name suggests, stays green all winter. This is a lovely plant to harvest in the winter, as those shiny green leaves and beautiful little red berries show up really well against a dusting of snow. I often find them under pine trees, so even if there is heavy snow cover, there tends to be less snow underneath pines, so I can still see that punch of color.
It’s tough to get enough berries to do anything with because I cannot resist eating them as I pick – they are deliciously minty! The leaves are strongly minty, too, and make a wonderful tea. I find it interesting that this plant is NOT in the mint family – it is in the same family as blueberries and cranberries. I’ve got a tincture made with the berries and leaves that I’m going to try using in some baking this winter. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Wintergreen often grows alongside and intermixed with Partridgeberry, and they are similar looking. In the picture below, you can see how the Partridgeberry leaves are smaller and rounder. The berry is more orange than red, and if you look close, you can see how the berry has two little depressions that makes it look like it has eyes. While Partridgeberries are edible, you’ll probably be disappointed like I was when I first ate them – they are tasteless. Not bitter, not sweet, not anything. Oh well, they are pretty.
In the very top left corner of this photo, you can see Wintergreen’s larger leaf photo-bombing this Partridgeberry shot. Oh, Wintergreen, I’ve got my eye on you!
Chaga is not a mushroom, though it is often included in mushroom books and referred to as Chaga Mushroom. Rather, it is a hardened mass of mycelium (the underlayer of growth that produces mushrooms). The proper term for this hardened mass is Sclerocium, and the plural is Sclerocia. See, that’s fun to say, isn’t it?
Chaga grows exclusively on Birch trees. Other trees have similar looking growths, and mostly those are Burls. Burls are an abnormal growth that is covered by bark, often caused by an injury or a virus. Chaga starts growing in the heart wood of the tree, and slowly pushes its way out through the bark.
Chaga is medicinal. It has been used medicinally for many years, and like many folk medicines, our science is slowly beginning to ‘prove’ it. It strengthens our immune system and even has some cancer fighting properties. Here are links to a couple of studies:
We don’t eat the chaga – it’s much to hard and woody. We simmer the chaga chunks or powder for a long time and then drink the ‘tea’. It tastes like coffee, but much smoother.
It can be harvested in the winter. In fact, it’s much easier to harvest in the winter-time because we can easily see the blackened outside part of Chaga against the white of the Birch without all the leaves in the way. Some people say we should ONLY harvest in the winter, but that’s just not true. There is no change in the medicinal value of the chaga in other seasons, and you won’t harm the tree by simply cutting the chaga off.
Here is a link to more detaily information about chaga by a fellow forager in Eastern Wisconsin. Enjoy!
A friend recently served me some Mushroom and Brie soup, and it was so delicious I had to try making some. The wild-foraged mushrooms in my freezer were starting to look sad, so I used them all up in this soup: Oysters, Crown Corals and Pheasant Back. I looked up a couple of recipes online, and then made up my own. That’s how it’s done, right?
1/2 cup chopped onion, 1 cup mushrooms – saute in butter, add 1T Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 Cup brandy. Pour a quart of chicken broth over the mixture, add 1 teaspoon dried thyme and a clove of crushed garlic. When the broth gets hot, stick the immersion blender in and blend until it’s as smooth as you like. Then add 8 oz of cubed Brie (I took the rind off) and 1 cup of cream. I stirred and stirred but that Brie never melted all the way through, so I ate it with soft chunks. I kinda liked it that way.
Okay, so my soup wasn’t as good as my friend’s, but I had fun making it and it wasn’t terrible. Plus I’m eating Wild Mushrooms in the winter, so it’s a good day.
This winter has been savage, even for Wisconsin. Long stretches of way-too-many-degrees below zero. Too cold to enjoy being outside, but perfect for snuggling up with a good Story. I’ve been hunting down books and movies that contain foraging, wild foods, botany and/or herbalism as part of the story line. These are not ‘how-to’ videos and books, these are just regular movies and novels in which the characters are foraging mushrooms, eating wild foods, studying plants, and making herbal medicine. These are just a few of the many Stories out there……
Now, Forager: This is a movie about a young married couple who sell wild mushrooms to high-end restaurants. The husband wants to go All In, ditch the apartment and travel the Mushroom Trail, and the wife wants to settle down, stop foraging and get a more stable job. It’s a little bit sad, but it was a good story.
A Cry in the Wild: This movie is based on the young adult book “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen. It’s about a teen boy who survives on his own in the wilderness after the small plane he was traveling on crashes. It was made in the 90’s, it’s a little cheesy, but I enjoyed it.
Against the Wild: Another movie with some kids surviving a small plane crash, this time there’s a dog, too. It’s terrible. I’m not kidding, The acting was so bad it was painful, and I couldn’t even finish watching it.
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldon. I’m not really sure how to describe these books. It is my hands-down All-Time Favorite book series. I’ve read most of the 8 books (9th one is being written) twice, and will probably read them again when the next book is finally published. The main character is a WWII nurse who accidentally time-travels to Scotland in the 1700’s. Herbalism, witch hunts, revolution, love, lust and everything else you’d want for an epic adventure.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. A scientist is in the Amazon jungle working on the next new wonder drug, and disappears. Another scientist goes looking for her, and he disappears. Another scientist goes looking for both of them, and finds a whole bunch of stuff. It’s disturbing, exciting, thought provoking and some of the characters are from Minnesota.
The Mushroom Hunters: This is the true story of foodie writer Langdon Cook, who tags along with some rough-and-tumble sort-of-outlaws who forage mushrooms full time. Super interesting, well-told, and I finished the book knowing that I’d never be tempted to live that sort of life!
Today’s Tea: Fresh White Pine needles and some dried Rose Hips. So simple, so delicious. I picked up a few wind-fallen pine twigs, pulled the needles off and cut them up into a quart jar. Threw a handful of dried Rose Hips in the jar, topped it off with almost-boiling water, capped it to keep those volatile oils in, and steeped it for a couple hours to get as much vitamin C as possible. It’s mild and smooth, and I drink it hot or cold. I noticed when it was cold I could taste more of the tartness of the Rose Hips, but either way it’s refreshing and nourishing.
You can use most Pines and Spruces for teas, with the exception of Yew, Ponderosa Pine, and Norfolk Island Pine. In addition to having lots of Vitamin C, pine needle teas help loosen congestion and are high in antioxidants. Good stuff!
The first time someone asked me about Kombucha (a sort-of-sweet fermented beverage), I thought they were talking about Kimchi (a spicy fermented vegetable mix). It took me a few beats to realize that we were having a conversation about completely different things. I stopped, mid-sentence, and said something like “Wait, what?”.
I’d never heard of it before, and the more my friend told me about it, the more intrigued I was. You put WHAT on top of the tea? SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, and it’s a slimy blob that contains, well, bacteria and yeast. The good kind. The bacteria and yeast eat the sugar in the sweetened tea and convert it to lactic acid, carbon dioxide, vinegar, and a teeny bit of alcohol. The resulting beverage is tangy, sweet and sometimes fizzy. It’s really quite delicious, and I’ve been drinking it off and on for several years now.
One of the reasons people drink this beverage, besides the fact that it tastes good, is because it contains probiotics, those beneficial bacteria like the kind in yogurt. Probiotics line the gut and are essential for our immune system. I’ve been a little suspicious about the amount of sugar in my homebrew, but a little bit of math made me feel better. I start out with 1 cup of sugar in a gallon of tea. Okay, that’s a lot, that’s 4-ish teaspoons of sugar in one cup. But….a good bit of the sugar gets eaten and converted to other, more healthy stuff. In looking at labels on store brands of kombucha, they vary from 4 to 10 grams of sugar per serving (4 grams is one teaspoon). I like mine a bit on the tangy side, so I’m guessing my homebrew is on the low end of that scale. Even so, I don’t drink it every day, and I don’t use it as a “health food”. It’s a treat for once in awhile, and a fun experiment to keep on my kitchen counter.
So, how is this very tasty, sort of healthy-ish trendy beverage made? I’m not going to go into tons of detail here, because so many others have done that pretty darn well. I’ll include some links at the end of this post. I WILL go through the basics, though, and tell you my tweaks.
It’s a pretty simple process: make tea, add sugar (1 cup per gallon), put in a glass container, put SCOBY in the container along with the liquid it came with, cover loosely, start tasting in a few days and drink it when the tangy/sweet flavor tastes good to you. It will keep getting tangier, the longer you let it sit, turning completely into vinegar eventually. You can use the vinegar, too!
If you want to keep the Kombucha going perpetually, there are a few things to keep in mind. The tea needs to be Real Tea, from the plant Camellia sinensis, and the sugar needs to be plain ol’ white sugar from cane or beets. These items give the Kombucha what it needs to keep on going. Or so I’m told. I like to use organic black tea and cane sugar, because that’s kind of the point of making my own stuff, right?
To keep it going, you’ll bottle up your Kombucha when it tastes good to you, leaving at least one cup for the ‘starter’ of the next batch. Make more sweetened tea, add your starter and SCOBY and there you go. I have used one of those beverage containers with the spigot for ease in getting the Kombucha into my cup, but after awhile the plastic spigot started to erode and it grossed me out. I wouldn’t want to use metal, either, thinking the acid in the Kombucha would leach something nasty from that, too. So I just go Old School and use a glass pickle jar. When it comes time to taste or to bottle up, I use a ladle and a funnel. It works just fine.
I usually drink my Kombucha plain, but sometimes I’ll flavor it in a second ferment. Right now I’m getting some elderberry and prickly ash berry simple syrup going, and will add them to a couple bottles to add some punch. I’ll put about a quarter cup of the simple syrup in a flip-top sealing jar, let it sit on the counter for a day or two or three, then I’ll open it up to see if it’s fizzy and check the taste. If all is good, it either goes into the fridge or into my belly. If the fizz and flavor isn’t there yet, it’ll sit on the counter another few days. Along with the crazy assortment of fermenting things already there.
Here are some really informative articles if you want to continue reading about Kombucha. I mean, who wouldn’t?
This one is on a website where you can buy stuff for fermenting. But don’t buy a SCOBY. You can get one for free just by asking around – they multiply, and if someone you know is making Kombucha they WILL have a SCOBY for you.
A great article about Kombucha by the king of fermentation himself, Sandor Katz. I love how he takes the fear out of fermenting.
And lastly, a bit on making flavored Kombucha from the Weston A. Price foundation.
This blog has been pretty quiet so far. I’ve been deep in creative and planning mode lately, because that’s what Winter in Wisconsin is all about, right?
Creating some pocket cards to help you identify wild edibles – this is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, and now I’ve finally gotten the first 10 cards ready to print. They will be available for sale sometime in January, and I’ll be adding more throughout the year.
Planning future blog posts – gosh, did you know that you can write a bunch of blogs, then schedule them to post on certain days?! I really love that, and am taking full advantage of it, even though it sort of feels like cheating.
Creating a Year-Long Wild Food and Folk Medicine Exploration. This series will include only 4 “In Person” classes. The rest of the classes will be via Skype or Zoom or something along those lines. I’m planning to start in June with a Beta version of this program with just a few participants who will be helping to create it. The cost will be half the amount of the fully-formed program. Let me know if you’d like more information about this unique opportunity.
Planning foraging (and foraging related) classes for 2018 – I’ve got 34 classes on my schedule right now, and more in the works. From Pepin to Webster, and possibly into the Twin Cities. So if you want a class, there will be one for you to take! 🙂
Creating teas and tinctures to keep my family healthy this winter. Right now I am drinking a tea that Dr Tieraona LowDog suggests for colds and congestion. It is simply thyme (the kind you grow in your garden) with a splash of lemon juice and a bit of honey. I like to steep the thyme extra long, and add a bit of mullein to it, too. It works well to loosen phlegm and break up congestion.
Planning for a great 2018. I hope to see you out there.
Play with plant fibers I’ve harvested to make jewelry cordage and other creative stuff.
Read novels with themes around botany, foraging or herbalism.
Plan next years’ Wild Food and Folk Medicine classes.
Go snowshoeing and enjoy the quiet woods.
Watch birds at my backyard feeder, which will contain some foraged seeds (yellow dock, plantain and amaranth) along with the ones I purchase at the store.
Forage! Even in a Wisconsin Winter, I can go pick some fresh pine needles for tea, or dig in the snow around those pine trees to find Wintergreen leaves and berries. I can harvest some Chaga mushrooms from Birch trees. I may be able to pick up some Black Walnuts that the squirrels left behind. I love the seasons in Wisconsin, and even though winter seems to take up most of the year, I love knowing that there are tasty treasures to hunt for in this frozen tundra.